Forgiveness Is Overrated: The Second Coming of Kesha
A Response to Praying in Reflection of My Own Journey through Rape Culture
I wish I was the type of rape victim who could hate her rapist. The kind that hisses in bitter defense, aggressively calling out their perpetrators by name, pushing them away with brutal energy for years after the fact, finding the strength and wherewithal to pursue every course of action in seeking justice or even pursuing revenge. Like many of my friends who have been raped have done, fortifying themselves against the machinations of their abusers — they seem like pristine white towers of resistance to me, full of spiky ramparts and loud rumbling canons that warn those who have mistreated them to a stay well-away at a sound distance.
I wish I was the type of rape victim who could easily not forgive those who have proven themselves irredeemable. But the forgiveness has been too strong in me, too wrapped up in the DNA of my devout Christian upbringing. I was inculcated in the ‘holy writ’ from a babe: To turn the other cheek; To forgive those who have ‘sinned’ against me; To pray for my abuser’s repentance. I’ve carried the burden of a lifetime of greeting abusers with a humble forgiving smile, looking to assist them in finding redemption at much cost to myself including the personal protection of both my body and psyche.
I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a culture that demanded victims’ silence against those who had abused us within the congregation as a testament to our unwavering faith and to protect those ‘weaker’ in the faith from spiritual harm. Those in my family, like my mom (who dared speak out against the sexual abuse committed over three generations of girls at the hands of a ‘brother’ in the faith — a great-uncle to me by marriage), were threatened with disfellowshipment: to be outcast from the church, exiled from the only world they knew. I am conscious that in writing this article and publicly speaking to that abuse, almost a decade after disentangling myself from my former belief system, I am now committing a great act of apostasy.
This closing of ranks against victims that speak out is not singular to Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even Christianity. The tentacles of rape culture run deep in every corner of Western society: the music and entertainment industries offer little solace and safety to the women abused and, in particular, for those who speak to that abuse perpetrated at the hands of dominant men.
Kesha’s powerful and viscerally evocative video for Praying — her first single to be released in almost four years — opens with her body laid out in a humble wooden casket before a neon cross inside a small, decrepit graffiti-filled church. Two pig-headed ‘monsters’ stand on either side of Kesha, slobbering over her ‘carcass’. Kesha, speaking in voice-over, asks:
“Am I dead…?”
One might assume Kesha is simply making reference to the so-called ‘death’ of her music career following allegations of sexual assault and battery she suffered at the hands of her former producer Dr. Luke; the subsequent notorious legal battles of which left her unable to have the “freedom to make music without being bound indefinitely to the very producer who subjected her to years of abuse.”
Being a rape victim is a zero sum game. If you speak to the abuse, often you are shunned or trounced out of your respective community/industry. If you leave in silence, as to escape the constant presence of your abusers, you are bereft of opportunities and close yourself off from those left behind. Many suffer years in silence. Some of us crack.
In the next scene in Praying, Kesha is found lying on a raft, arms stretched out like Christ on the crucifix or like one of the pitiful creatures figured on Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Here, Kesha gives words to her ongoing journey with anxiety and depression as prefaced by the letter she wrote on Lenny Letter in conjuncture with the release of the song and music video that dropped last week:
“There were so many days, months even when I didn’t want to get out of bed. I spent all day wanting to go to sleep, and then when I did fall asleep, I had horrible night terrors where I would physically cry and scream through the dark. I was never at peace, night or day.” ~ Lenny Letter
In Praying, Kesha’s voice-over continues while she drifts on the unfathomable wide sea:
“I can’t do this anymore. Please just let me die. Being alive hurts too much.”
I too understand the excruciating pain of exile. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed close ties outside of the faith, and having been raised as one, along with much of my extended family, leaving it behind meant cutting myself off from my entire world, everyone I had ever been close to. But few have so publicly been exiled from her industry as Kesha. And her comeback song speaks to a journey of reclamation of both herself and her career.
Praying is a song about personal transformation and forgiveness. In the video, Kesha is figured as a humble “trailer trash”* piano-playing Christ crowned with a white bed of thorns, addressing her ‘monsters’ with this soulful plea:
“I hope you’re somewhere praying, praying
I hope your soul is changing, changing
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, praying”.
Kesha’s letter on Lenny sheds light on this stanza:
“It’s a song about learning to be proud of the person you are even during low moments when you feel alone. It’s also about hoping everyone, even someone who hurt you, can heal.”
While I find Kesha’s song and video powerful and transformative, it is more in recognition of my struggle with shedding the tenets of its core message on forgiveness. Kesha further explores this theme on Lenny:
“If you feel like someone has wronged you, get rid of that hate, because it will just create more negativity. One thing that has brought me great relief is praying for those people. Being angry and resentful will do nothing but increase your own stress and anxiety — and hate is the fuel that grows the viruses.”
This was my mantra my entire life, even the years following leaving my faith. I took pride in what I saw as strength: the shedding of resentment and anger and hate. I had convinced myself I was stronger because of it, that my abusers hadn’t robbed me of my softness. But I’ve since come to realize that this burden of forgiveness has led me to a lifetime of being caught defenseless in a cycle of perpetual abuse and silence. My ability to forgive all too easily, cultivated from decades of practice, has served as a neon sign that blinked: FREE ABSOLUTION HERE.
Upon reflection, I could have stood to spread a bit of the hate virus in me, and ward off abusers with the contagion of that disease.
I have struggled for decades against the burden of forgiveness women are often tasked with: whether it is in our church, or in our industry, or in our homes; carefully concealing any semblance of spite with placid smiles under the guise of ‘healing’ and ‘letting go’ and forgiveness ‘for they do not know what they do’, in which the onus is often placed back on the victim to seek and hope for her abuser’s transformation.
It’s taken myself years to shed the beguiling responsibility of being tasked as the rapist whisperer. And because I now reject this responsibility, for the first time in my forty-four years, I’m beginning to feel a safety and connection with my body I had never experienced before, leading me to reach a milestone last week in my healing from years of trauma and sexual abuse.
Seven months or so ago, a man I felt close to, one who situates himself as a feminist ally and who has shed public tears over the mistreatment of women, crossed the boundaries of consent several times in an evening. At the point when it happened, I was so worn down after being sexually assaulted several times over the course of three years, my body never feeling like my own, I shut down and didn’t speak of it. And although I had been public about past rape, this experience I chose to keep mum, choosing to block him out of my life instead. After that night, I was deeply ashamed and embarrassed I ‘had let it happen again,’ while carrying around me the nagging feeling that somehow I would be responsible for his further mistreatment of women through my inability to call him to redemption.
And although I have been open and outspoken about rape culture, and public regarding my own experiences, I have never spoken directly to my abusers without groveling for better treatment, without placing myself in the position of playing tutor on ‘how not to be a dick to me.’
So when this man messaged me last week, ironically the night before Praying dropped, to inquire why I had abruptly and silently broken off the friendship all those months ago, I was finally able to give words to the abuse that took place that night: that the liberties he took were not okay, that the burden was on him to know better (and should have known better), and not for me to have to teach him how to be a decent human being. But most importantly, for myself, I asserted there would be no forgiveness from me. I was not here for any defenses or denials. That the burden was strictly on his shoulders to do better, be better.
I am no longer here for apologies or to forgive an abuser for their own redemption. And I am not praying for him.
And much to my surprise after speaking directly to this abuse, the ground did not swallow me up, my entire world did not leave or shun me. I was still standing, confident that forgiving past abuse is an unnecessary demand to place upon myself or some lofty goal to strive for.
I still want to live in a world where redemption is possible. Where rapists and abusers can learn from past mistakes and ‘put the former things behind’. But I’ve finally moved past the need to hope their ‘soul changes’, or that their redemption is contingent on any softness towards them on my part. I want them to do better — but for others, and myself — not so that they “may heal.” And this is a huge step forward for me in my journey of reclamation. I have finally accepted that forgiveness is overrated.
It’s impossible to know what Kesha’s first comeback song would have been if the burden of forgiveness placed on women wasn’t a culturally induced requirement. And while forgiveness is a core message in Praying, I take comfort in the subversiveness of both the lyrics and the imagery of the video. In one breath, Kesha croons of hoping his soul changes and finds peace, and in another speaks to karma — “you’re gonna get what you give”. For a woman who challenged an industry, took on her abuser and named him publicly, with much cost to herself, to return triumphant and sing: “When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name” all while figured as Christ (sacrilege in some parts), Praying presents a powerful image of a woman who will not go away quietly, who wasn’t “done” or “nothing without” him, as her abuser had threatened: but is thriving with creative energy and new found strength with the best “yet to come.”
At the end of the video for Praying, it is Kesha who has risen from the dead to walk on water. This is only ‘the beginning’ of her journey of healing.
As for me, the culturally conditioned responsibility of forgiveness is still too coiled around my spine. I don’t hate the men who have sexually abused or raped me, but I’m working on it.
Note: *I am aware that the term “trailer trash” is classist and worse. Used within to convey the visual push-back of the term, that has been directed at Kesha in the past, as represented in the video for Praying.