The book of Ecclesiastes tells us it’s better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting. Paul tells Christians to weep with those who weep. But weeping down at the house of mourning involves deliberately going toward a place of pain with someone else. Ruth Everhart’s memoir Ruined forces the reader to do just that.
In 1978, two men broke into the house Ruth rented with several friends from Calvin College, robbed them, and raped them at gunpoint. Though Ruth describes this story in detail, the majority of the book is devoted to the aftermath of the attack, including a crisis of faith. The resolution of that crisis changed her life.
Ruined made me think deeply about the role the church, family, and friends played in her story, and how important support from others is after any tragedy, but especially after a trauma the victim or others may find difficult to talk about.
I didn’t agree with all of Ruth’s theological conclusions. But her answers forced me to analyze the theology I actually live out and to identify areas where my practical beliefs don’t line up with Scriptural teaching. Are there extra-biblical messages conservative churches may be sending to girls about purity? I believe so. And why do liberal churches generally have a better track record than conservative churches in a willingness to get in the trenches alongside hurting people? I’m not sure, but it’s inexcusable. It should not be.
When we hold pain and suffering at arm’s length, we reject the clear teachings of Jesus. We drive hurting people away from the church. We can do better, and we must. I recommend reading Ruined as the beginning of a very necessary conversation toward a goal of doing better. Ruth, now a Presbyterian pastor in Maryland, graciously answered a few questions for me.
Anne: One episode in the book really stood out to me as a tipping point, and that was your description of the Sunday a few weeks after the attack when you and your housemates went to church. You grew up in an environment where your church and Christian school centered your world, but you commented that when you went to church that day, it might have been the first time in your life that you went out of need instead of duty. And then, except for a pastoral prayer that referred to “a household of women who were victims of a break-in,” nobody seemed to acknowledge your obvious pain. If you could change that Sunday, what could the pastor have said and the congregation have done to comfort you?
Ruth: This question stumped me initially. At that time, in 1978, there was so much silence about the subject of sexual violence that even naming it aloud would have seemed hugely significant. The pastors were unable to use a difficult word like “rape” or “sexual violence” or even “assault”. To begin to heal, one must first name the source of the pain. Also, if I step outside of that decades-ago experience, and put on my current hat as a pastor, I know immediately what I would do if young women in pain came into my congregation and I was aware of it. I would come down from the pulpit, and speak to each one individually. If it were a relatively small church and I was a solo pastor, the worship service could wait a few minutes. If it were a larger church and there were two pastors (as was the case in my story), then one pastor would attend to the victims while the other pastor carried on. To me, now, with my experiences behind me, this is a no-brainer.
Anne: How differently do you think your story might have unfolded if you’d had loving, ongoing support from a faith community?
This question is impossible to answer. I might have married my boyfriend at the time. I might have stayed within that faith community instead of leaving it. Which means I might not have become a pastor. Who knows what future might have unfolded?
Anne: What did you need from your family and close friends during that time?
Ruth: I needed to tell my story and be heard. I needed others to not be afraid of my story and my pain. I needed people to engage with the faith questions that were on my heart. I needed others to not only tolerate my sense of outrage, but to be outraged on my behalf. I needed someone to assure me that my life still had meaning and possibility.
Anne: In seminary you created a catechism for the theology of suffering. (Theodicy—I learned a new word!). I think most Christians have a far easier time reconciling the providence of God with cancer or a car wreck versus a violent attack. How did you come to terms with how a loving God could allow such a terrible thing to happen to you and your friends?
Ruth: Isn’t it funny that Christians talk about sin and evil all the time, but then are helpless when they encounter it wearing skin?
Anne: Rape is a topic that’s rarely addressed in conservative Christian circles. In the book you react to the embarrassment you felt from other people by building a wall of shame inside which grew until it started to separate you from others, and especially from God. Can you talk about that a little, and tell what brought it down?
Ruth: I’m sorry but you will just have to read the book. It took me 300 pages.
I hope you’ll do just that. If a book about such a difficult topic can be beautiful, this one is.