Seven years ago today, I began my Camino. I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2011, starting on this day in St. Jean Pied de Port in the south of France and reaching Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain on October 27. It’s a distance of 500 miles.
Every year since, I try to mark the date I began my Camino and the date I reached Santiago in one way or another, like going out for tapas or baking a tarta de Santiago or sharing my experience with a message to friends. Just minor gestures, but it’s a way for me to keep my experience alive and honor it. Also, note I don’t say “the date I finished my Camino” above — instead I say “the date I reached Santiago” because to say words like “finished” or “ended” in terms of the Camino is false. One thing you learn from walking a Camino is that your Camino never ends, no matter when or whether you reach your destination. Once a spark lights, the flame remains a fact forever, regardless if it’s “gone out.” You can’t negate or walk back what began and what happened — you can only affirm, accept, and walk on.
Which brings me to the reason I decided to walk the Camino to begin with. I decided to walk it as a recovery attempt. I had suffered a sexual assault back in 1998 and another one in 2008. The second one was more damaging than the first in many ways, not only because it compounded the emotional damage of the first assault, and not only because the second rapist inflicted more serious physical injuries on me, but also because the rapist was someone I knew, a supposed friend. Moreover, in the aftermath, as I tried to make sense of what he did to me and tried to confront him about it, he was extremely manipulative and inflicted further damage to me. One of the damaging and manipulative things he said to me (out of many, to vastly understate it) was that he would “carry [me] in [his] prayers.” It implied pity as well as some special exoneration or spiritual connection on his part, and it revolted me and added to the confusion and damage I had to work through. I struggled with a great deal of anger and anxiety and despair.
Eventually, I attempted to reach out to the rapist’s minister, who supposedly led a progressive church devoted to social justice (going by what their website advertised). The church was otherwise not a part of my own faith tradition — the church, pastor, and rapist are all Lutheran and I am Catholic. Still I thought the minister should know about what his church member had done and said and how it was affecting me. The minister however refused to see me or hear my full story, and instead sent me a rather long-winded reply that suggested my motivation was revenge and thus he, the minister, couldn’t “participate.” He also suggested I look into spiritual counseling elsewhere and gave me a list of other counselors to try — none of whom had expertise in sexual assault trauma or any connection to my particular faith tradition.
The truth is my rapist’s minister didn’t take me seriously, never mind his lengthy (and deeply unhelpful) reply. He was not only minister to my rapist after all, but a friend of his outside church, and he chose to privilege his rapist friend’s story over mine. And by hinging on some notion that I was out for revenge, he essentially used one of the ugliest, oldest stereotypes about women (“hell hath no fury…”) to give himself an out from seeing, hearing, and truly believing me. I of course had no intention of drafting the minister to “participate” in some revenge scenario — and also of course, the minister knew that deep down, but just pulled this out of his own unexamined reserve of sexist excuses, rape apologism, and gaslighting techniques. It served me and the spiritual issues I was having in no way whatsoever. It just gave him a convenient way out of confronting the truth of what his friend had done to me. His response to me was a failure and a disgrace — and the damage to me only compounded and compounded.
My response to this (along with continuing the real counseling I’d been undergoing at local rape crisis centers, by real, genuine, actually helpful counselors — unlike my rapist’s minister) was to walk the Camino. The Camino was actually one of several pilgrimage experiences I took in the aftermath of my second assault. Before the Camino, I visited pilgrimage sites in Ireland and France devoted to particular Catholic saints and Catholic rituals. I wasn’t so sure I identified as Catholic or even Christian anymore, but I guess I kept seeking out Catholic experiences in particular as a way of reclaiming my faith — or, at least, starting a conversation with my own spirituality in the kind of faith language I understood. After experiencing abuse and gaslighting by someone masquerading as especially holy or righteous or whatever, someone who showed me and my experience tremendous disrespect, I wanted to “fight my way back” to spiritual health the Catholic way, the Irish Catholic way especially. I’m still in the process of that.
All these pilgrimage experiences were some of the most beautiful experiences of my life. And the Camino was also one of the happiest. That’s not to say it was easy — physically or emotionally. There were many challenges and many times I wanted to quit. I also cried a lot in the times I was walking alone — not out of loneliness, but because I was in the process of sorting through so many crappy, horrible memories and traumas. I’d also gotten some surprising news literally days before starting my Camino that kind of threw me and added another layer to what I needed to work through — and walk over.
In the end, I realized my Camino was a way of giving up my faith, of saying goodbye to Christianity in a way that was respectful. The main issue that came up after my second assault in terms of spiritual damage was the issue of forgiveness. I couldn’t and wouldn’t forgive my second rapist and didn’t think I should. His minister suggested otherwise. And again, it’s hard for me to believe my experience and struggles were even taken seriously, considering not only did he maintain his friendship with my rapist in the years to come, he even had him stand up for him at his wedding. But I don’t forgive my rapist — I don’t forgive either of them. And walking the Camino was my way of coming to terms with rejecting forgiveness and affirming the value of unforgiveness. It was a way of affirming me. I struggled a great deal with the notion that I must be a bad person not only because of what people had done to me, but because I couldn’t forgive. I know that’s garbage though now — genuine qualified counseling did that for me and the Camino did too.
Now, seven years on, unfortunately I still struggle with memories. Especially in recent years, with all the news headlines involving Brock Turner, Trump, Julian Assange, Bill Cosby, the #MeToo movement, Brett Kavanaugh, it just goes on and on and on. It’s hard to move on. It’s hard to move past the anger and despair. I get tired of fighting. In the meantime, along with all the survivors’ voices coming up in recent years (which is a good thing), I’ve noticed many other people trying to position themselves as “allies” or some such thing. I’d be less cynical about that aspect of the movement if it weren’t for the fact that some of the very people who let me down and blamed me or dismissed me after I was assaulted are the same people suddenly jumping on social media sharing #believeher and #fightrapeculture and #dismantlethepatriarchy articles and hashtags, with no acknowledgment of their own past and present complicity. One of those hashtag warriors is my rapist’s minister, whose background photo includes my rapist, smiling away above all the posts about believing women and accusers and fighting sexism. If I didn’t know myself, I’d believe this person really was good and enlightened — if I didn’t still have his unacceptable response to me in my emails that is, and the terrible memories of what his friend did to me. When I see things like this, it feels like more than just hypocrisy, but like gaslighting as well, like being erased. What happened to me was real and traumatic and cannot be negated. It can’t be erased or healed with a few hashtags or social media posts.
The past few days I’ve been tempted to write some letters. I even started one and kept breaking down over and over writing it. It angers me that I’m still dealing with this years on, and that it’s still interrupting my life at times. Because right now, this week, today, I’m supposed to be just celebrating the anniversary of my Camino. In an ideal world, that’s all today would be about — the sunny day I arrived in the French Pyrenees, met my first fellow peregrino (a British soldier named Paul), and got my credencial.
To say it’s gotten better is a bald lie. It hasn’t, it doesn’t. The reminders and outrages and hypocrisies never seem to end lately. Just as a Camino never ends. You have to keep walking on, moving through it, working through it. So instead of finishing my letter (for now), I’m marking my Camino anniversary by writing this post, trying to make the Camino, something that was good, outlast something bad. Trying to start a conversation between the part of me that once believed forgiveness was a possibility and the part of me that knows some things are beyond forgiving and beyond any sense or redemption.
Anyway, if all that is too bleak for you, below are a couple pictures, and here is a link to an article I wrote about the Camino after I came back from Spain, originally for the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog (which has since lost connection to the pics), then picked up a year later by a little Camino blog: Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago