Laura Davis on the Road to Reconciliation
“Risk and reconciliation go hand in hand.” —Laura Davis
By Cat Saunders
Laura Davis is world renowned for her best-selling book, The Courage to Heal. As a syndicated columnist and workshop leader, Laura has helped me and countless others overcome the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
Laura has been featured on Oprah, CNN, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Her work has also been covered in Time Magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her books, which also include Allies in Healing and Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, have been published in 11 languages. Together they have sold more than 1.8 million copies.
Her most recent book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again (HarperCollins), was released in April of 2002. I read an interview about it in a local Seattle newspaper. I was excited to see that Laura had written a book about reconciliation, so I asked The New Times if I could review it.
In that review, I called her book a masterpiece, and I meant it. After my book review was published, I sent Laura a copy and requested a personal interview. She agreed. What you see here is the result of our conversations and correspondence over a few weeks’ time.
Cat: Would you tell the story of how your newest book was born?
Laura: It was with my own family that I discovered the principles that make reconciliation possible, even in the most damaged relationships. Even though I have close, loving relationships with my family now, it wasn’t always that way.
In 1985, I remembered that my grandfather had sexually abused me. At the time, I was completely devastated. When I told my family what had happened, they felt shocked and angry. But they weren’t angry with my grandfather. They were furious with me for tarnishing the image of a man they had deeply loved.
Three years later, when I published The Courage to Heal, things went from bad to worse. From my point of view, my family had abandoned me when I needed them the most. In their opinion, I was not only spreading lies about my grandfather, I was now doing it on national TV. There things stood, at an impasse for years. I was certain we would never speak again. Then slowly, things began to change.
It didn’t happen because I forgave my grandfather, or because I was suddenly believed by my family. Nor did it happen because I stopped telling my story. It happened because I took the time to heal from the past. I decided I wanted a future with my family. In addition, I stopped expecting my relatives to give me something they couldn’t give. I accepted them as flawed human beings and I started seeing myself the same way. In doing so, I got my family back.
Most poignant for me was the healing that happened over time with my mother, Temme Davis. We had such a huge rift during my early years of sexual abuse recovery that I thought we would never speak again. The fact that we were able to mend our relationship–and become close–was powerful. It was so powerful that I realized I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of reconciliation in general. This was the impetus for me to research and write I Thought We’d Never Speak Again.
Cat: Early in the book, you mention that four different kinds of reconciliation are possible. This provides a helpful counterbalance to the idea that reconciliation is an all-or-nothing proposition.
Laura: Everyone’s reconciliation story is different, but everyone can achieve reconciliation in one of four ways. The first is where both people change and both people experience closeness and growth in the relationship. This is the type of reconciliation we covet the most. It is also the rarest. The second kind happens when one person shifts his or her expectations. This allows their perception of the relationship to open up, whether or not the other person makes significant changes.
Third, certain aspects of a particular relationship may remain unresolved, but both people “agree to disagree.” This enables them to establish “ground rules” that allow a cordial, though limited, relationship. In the fourth kind of reconciliation, a person realizes that no relationship is possible with the other person. Therefore, they seek resolution within. Although this last kind of reconciliation is not most people’s first choice, it too can bring peace.
Cat: You opened the book with a preface about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. These attacks happened just before your book went to press. Would you speak about the difficulties inherent in reconciling with strangers–in this case, terrorists–who cause horrendous suffering?
Laura: I don’t recommend that people begin reconciliation work by thinking about reconciliation with terrorists. As one woman said to me, “You don’t sit around trying to forgive Hitler. There are better things to do with a life.”
We all have plenty of people in our immediate lives with whom we have challenging relationships. We need to begin with the relationships that matter to us. Then, as our skills in communication and listening grow, we can think about bringing compassion and relationship-building abilities into the community and ultimately, into the larger world.
Cat: I came from a family that had an all-or-nothing approach to relationship. So I loved you talking about the question of “How close do I want to be?” Would you talk about how an adult child can alter the level of relationship with parents who are still abusive in present time?
Laura: We have to begin by assessing our hopes, fantasies, and desires for the relationship. Then we have to look at the reality of the situation. Reconciliation plans based on an expectation that the other person will change have little chance of succeeding.
In this case especially, the real work is within. We must work with our intentions, thoughts, feelings, and expectations for the relationship. Perhaps you are dealing with someone who is still critical, judgmental, or hostile to you in present time. If so, you have to consider whether the benefits of the relationship outweigh the cost of staying connected. Sometimes the answer will be yes and other times it will be no.
Maybe you’re willing to put up with a certain level of unpleasantness in order to stay connected to your history. Or maybe you want to stay connected to your nieces and nephews, or the aspects of your parents that you genuinely love. Other times, the price is too high and you decide to curb or curtail a relationship that continually drains you, undermines you, or drags you down.
When I was interviewing people for The Courage to Heal, there was one woman who kept visiting her mother again and again. She kept going for visits despite the fact that her mother was extremely critical of her. They’d do reasonably well together for the first 24 hours, then things would deteriorate. The daughter would end up feeling like a helpless child and it would take her weeks, if not months, to recover.
During their time apart, she and her mother would start writing letters to each other, and these letters were wonderful for them both. After a year of letters, this woman would start to think, “Oh, my mother isn’t so bad. Maybe I should go see her.” So she would, and the same pattern would repeat itself. She’d stagger home, depressed and sometimes suicidal, doubting herself and questioning her right to exist.
After months of putting herself back together, she and her mother would pick up their correspondence and the cycle would begin anew. Finally, this woman said to herself, “Why am I doing this to myself? I need to just accept the fact that I have a mother in letters.”
Each relationship has to find its right level. It’s a trial and error process, and you have to feel your way along to determine what kind of connection is appropriate at any given time.
Cat: Why do you think reconciliation is so difficult?
Laura: There are three main obstacles to reconciliation: pride, anger, and fear. Pride is a huge stumbling block. When we insist on being right, we won’t acknowledge the fact that something we did–or didn’t do–might have played a part in the estrangement.
We want to blame the other person. We expect them to make the first move. Other times, pride interferes because our sense of being wronged becomes an essential part of our identity. Then we may not be ready or willing to give it up.
When two people both insist on being right–when they each believe they have the corner on the truth–reconciliation is impossible. On the other hand, when who’s right and who’s wrong are removed from the equation, there’s room for both people to hold a part of the truth.
Anger is another obstacle to reconciliation. Anger is a natural response to the injustice of being hurt, betrayed, or otherwise wronged. Yet the very anger that initially empowers us to establish boundaries and protect ourselves can eventually consume us. There is a time when it’s appropriate to let go of the anger and move on.
The third obstacle to reconciliation is fear. When we reach out to someone we’ve been estranged from, there’s no telling what the response will be. Risk and reconciliation go hand in hand.
When you decide to call your sister for the first time in twelve years, you’re going to be shaking and sweaty and scared. But you can do it anyway. Fear doesn’t have to stop you. You’re trembling and your knees are weak, but you can still pick up the phone.
Reconciliation is only possible when we become larger than the people who have hurt us and the things that have caused us pain.
Cat: I like your book’s inclusiveness in sharing stories from people of different races, cultures, ages, and sexual orientations. You also mention some specific cross-cultural research related to conflict resolution. In this regard, you said that writing this book on reconciliation taught you something about talking versus not talking.
Laura: I’ve learned that honesty isn’t always the best policy. That’s something I had to learn the hard way. I was raised in a family where honesty was valued over kindness. In addition, I was taught to hone my arguments, confront injustice, and speak my mind. I was raised to believe that if I told the truth, that’s all that mattered.
When I became a mother, I realized that just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s always wise to say it. It took me forty years to learn to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. In that time, I’ve had lots of opportunities to hurt and alienate the people I love. It’s no accident that I wrote a book on reconciliation. It is something I’ve had many opportunities to practice.
Sometimes when you’re trying to reconcile, talking about the past is essential. At other times, talking about the past just stirs up old wounds. In some cases, it’s better to start fresh, focusing on areas of common ground you can share right now. If you’ve been estranged from your mother like I was, perhaps you can spend time together now with grandchildren (your children). Maybe you can go to sporting events or talk about a hobby you both enjoy.
When you’re faced with a decision about whether to talk about your hurt and angry feelings, or how much to talk, it’s important to look at what’s motivating your honesty. Are you trying to convince the other person that you’re right? Are you confronting the other person in hopes that you’ll get an admission of error and an apology? Or are you truly choosing honesty as a path to greater openness, vulnerability, and intimacy?
Cat: I Thought We’d Never Speak Again lists “Six Steps to Change Enemies into Allies.” Please say more about the importance of #3 on that list, which is about working with the perpetrator within.
Laura: When we’ve been hurt or violated by another human being, it’s easy to see ourselves as the victim and the other person as the perpetrator. In a particular instance, that may be true. However, at the core of deep reconciliation work is the recognition that all of us are human. That means we are all capable of the full range of human feelings and actions, including the capacity for cruelty and inhumanity.
When we get in touch with this common human core–when we acknowledge that we, too, are capable of atrocities given the right (or in this case the wrong) set of circumstances, we begin to have more compassion, even for our enemies.
Cat: You said that when you began your recent book, you believed that the opposite of estrangement was reconciliation. But you’ve come to realize that the opposite of estrangement is peace.
Laura: I realize now that the goal of working on a troubled or estranged relationship is to come to a deep place of resolution with that relationship. That sense of resolution may or may not include the other person. Sometimes when our efforts at reconciliation fail, or even when we are rebuffed, we can still achieve a sense of peace, because we know for certain that it is really time to let go.
Cat: Will you tell me about the projects you’re doing right now in your ongoing work with reconciliation?
Laura: I’m doing teleclasses where I meet with people from all over the world for an hour a week on the phone to work on reconciliation. It’s like a coaching session with an intimate, supportive group of people cheering you on. The telephone gives people a sense of privacy and comfort that enables them to open up in ways they might not risk otherwise. It’s a wonderful medium for working on reconciliation.
I’m also producing an audio series for survivors of sexual abuse called, “The Last Frontier: Is Reconciliation Possible After Sexual Abuse?” This series will feature stories from a variety of survivors. These are people who have made peace with family members and perpetrators in different ways. Some of these ways include the other person and some do not.
In addition to these projects, I’m writing a workbook to accompany I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. It will utilize material from the original text to create reconciliation exercises for people. It’s similar to what I did when I created The Courage to Heal Workbook.
Last but not least, I’m looking for ways to begin collaborating with people at a global level. I want to do reconciliation work with groups and even nations that have been estranged.
This interview was originally published by The New Times (May 2003) and updated in June 2017.
For more information about Laura Davis, please visit LauraDavis.net.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).