International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
International Humanistic Psychology Association

Spirituality in Trauma and Trauma-Healing: An Incarcerated Person’s Narrative

1. Introduction
This article is a narrative-based paper written from the perspective of an incarcerated man who has experienced myriad and varied traumas over the course of his life. In childhood, he was subjected to physical, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, which led to repeated traumatic separations and spiritual confusion after he entered the foster care system. These experiences led to a spiritual hardening of his heart. Witnessing the subsequent deaths of his foster mother and biological father pushed him beyond his threshold of tolerance, ultimately leading to the violent act for which he was imprisoned, as well as the experience of spiritually dying. Reviewing this journey of trauma highlights the powerful impact of spirituality—positive and negative—upon the trauma-healing process.

As an incarcerated person, the author has experienced the existential spiritual struggle of finding meaning in a life of trauma, while living in an environment that creates and exacerbates suffering. This narrative-based discussion reveals: 1. child abuse qualifies as trauma; 2. trauma is a spiritual violation; 3. positive and negative spiritual coping mechanisms affect the experience of traumatic events; 4. spirituality and spiritual coping have important interpersonal aspects; 5. spirituality and mental health are directly connected; 6. forgiveness may act as a pathway to trauma-healing; and 7. service can be a form of spirituality.

The author uses the first-person pronoun “I” throughout this article as a means of taking ownership of his story and the lessons contained herein. He has developed a spiritual foundation and is actively engaged in his continued healing journey. Writing this article is part of that journey and the author is ready to use his personal narrative as an education material, to teach, educate, and inspire people who may otherwise not know the potential impact of spirituality in trauma healing. Speaking from the perspective of an incarcerated person, the lessons learned and shared herein are both revelatory and encouraging in nature. These lessons are designed to encourage professionals to engage in difficult and nuanced conversations around the need for trauma healing in the lives of perpetrators of violent crimes, as well as the deep value of spirituality in assisting that healing journey.

2. Scope and Limitations
The scope of this article is limited to addressing aspects of my personal narrative. This article is narrative-based, as opposed to research-based. As such, this article is subjective in nature and is not representative of the experiences of all incarcerated people. Instead, the information herein is unique to my experience (i.e. – geographical location, race, upbringing, gender, etc.) Further, my perspective as a follower of Christ may have led to me focusing predominantly on the positive aspects of spirituality, whereas, many people have experienced mainly negative engagements with spirituality. Included in each piece of literature reviewed herein, more negative aspects of spirituality are addressed than what is included here. Finally, my narrative is subject to the flaws inherent in trauma-affected memory, which is retrieved in fragments as perceived by a child and adolescent, only gaining clarity into adulthood.

3. Narrative

A Life of Trauma and Spiritual Confusion

Stress and trauma used to dominate my life. My first ten years were spent living in a home where my father physically abused all three of us boys, and emotionally abused and oppressed us boys, our sister, and even our mother. When I finally escaped that existence and thought I found refuge in the foster care system, I experienced the repeated traumas of forced separation from everyone to whom I grew close. Then, after watching my father die from cancer on the one-year anniversary of witnessing my foster mother’s death from a massive heart attack, I began to lose myself in mind-altering substances, parties, women, and creating a new identity as a thug. I was seventeen years old. Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I helped devise a plan to break into a home to secure funds for my foster brothers’ legal fees, hoping to help him avoid significant prison time for a crime he committed previously. The commission of this robbery-turned-violent home invasion caused me further stress and trauma that led to my receiving a 50-year prison sentence and planning to murder that same brother for whom I had once been ready to die—and to kill. After developing a relationship with Father God, through His Son Jesus, I now refuse to carry stress and trauma; I have been healed of the myriad traumas of my life and now work diligently to help others do the same.

Child Abuse as Spiritual Violation

Growing up in Maine, my early years were marred by consistently sporadic episodes of physical, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of my father, which constituted “an assault on [my] spirituality” (C.L. Park 2017). I do not remember much physicality from him before I turned eight years old, but I was witness to the culmination of my father’s physical abuse of my eldest brother, Aton. This was the legendary night when Aton defied our father by breaking his favorite instrument: a thick wooden yard stick. According to my sister, Aton realized our father was preparing to use it on us younger boys who were coming of age for such treatment, and was hoping to spare us the pain. Sadly, none of us could know that Aton would die just a few days before our father’s next birthday—the day we all learned of his passing. Rather than changing his ways and placing greater value on the sons he had left, my father blamed an ethereal “them” for killing his son and proceeded to whip the two that remained for any further disturbance of his peace. Through this arbitrary delivery of violence, I lost any trust I once had in my father, and in God. Only now am I able to look back with a greater understanding of my father’s traumatic childhood and see in his abuse a desire to toughen his sons enough to survive in a world that hated them. Like most domestic violence, this all occurred behind closed doors and my mother was so busy trying to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and her husband’s extensive medical needs cared for, that she remained largely oblivious to the depth and extent of the suffering of her surviving sons. By the time my grandmother (my last remaining grandparent) passed away when I was ten, I refused to endure any more.

The year prior, I began running away from home on occasions when I knew a lashing was coming, when I received one I did not feel I had earned, or when I thought I might actually be able to stay gone. After my grandmother died, I increased the frequency and intensity of my disappearances to the point that my mother feared for my life. I did not possess any “positive religious/spiritual coping mechanisms” through which to steady or sustain myself through the abuse (Pargament 2015). When my family now speaks of these times, there are two decisive moments that revealed to my mother the severity of what happened in her home while she was away: when I ran away from school; and when I jumped off the roof to get away. On the former occasion, my mother was in the car at an intersection when she witnessed my reckless dash across four lanes of traffic in midwinter to get away from my remaining brother, Makarhu, and the police. I performed the latter escape while the police officer who had just returned me home was still speaking with my father downstairs; this time, my brother acted as my accomplice. Being two years my senior and seeing my desperation to be rid of that home, Makarhu accepted my need to leave, even though that meant he would be the only target left for our father. He, too, thought I might die in my escape attempts if he did not help me get away. This fear led him to yell my name in a feigned attempt to prevent my escape, hoping to assist me while avoiding an inevitable lashing for doing so. I thank God for emboldening Makarhu to help me, and for protecting my young body that could easily have been broken by the leap. It was shortly after my two-story jump that I entered the foster care system.


A sympathetic neighbor found me trying to sleep on her fenced-in front porch one night, avoiding the snow-covered ground and icy winds outside. I do not know if I had made a noise, or if it was the police car’s spotlight that woke her up, but Miss Lisa came out in her bathrobe and found me curled up on the wooden floor. Rather than turning me away, she showed me grace and made up a sleeping bag on the floor of her daughter’s room for the night. In the morning, as I prepared to walk her young daughter to school, as was my custom, Miss Lisa gave me the business card of a Department of Human Services (DHS) caseworker and told me there was a nice lady on the other side of that phone number who could help me if I was not safe to go home. Though I could not see it at the time, God had once again stepped in to protect me. On a night shortly thereafter, I found myself without food, money, or shelter, having exhausted the available couches of those friends whose parents allowed me to stay with them without asking too many questions. I made the call from a payphone in a Rite Aid parking lot, and to my astonishment, a kind lady answered the phone and told me she would help me get somewhere safe. At the time, it felt like divine intervention. I was saved. Little did I know the cost of that safety.

Escape and Spiritual Confusion

The near-daily assaults on my mind, heart, and body finally came to an end. I was now entering a world where “home” changed meanings and faces with the passing of time. Not only had I left the only family I knew and loved, so too were gone all of my familiar surroundings and everyone I once called “friend”. The group homes were filled with “staff” and “residents” or “clients”, many of whom were pleasant, and none of whom were to be trusted. The other children became the focus of my search for a “sense of connection” and salvation, but they failed me on both fronts (Herman 2015). With each new connection came a painful separation when the time came for one of them to go to another “home,” some hoping for a forever-home, some returning to their parents, and some being shipped off to a mental hospital. I tried to protect one of the girls headed to a mental institution, only to find myself sitting next to her in the back seat of a police cruiser in the middle of the night of our escape—and forced to see her dragged out the front door the following morning anyway. What kind of God would allow that? Like so many, I found myself confused at the nature of a loving God who would allow such suffering (Pargament 2015).

At my next home, I found a family who grew to love me. Whom I grew to love. I turned twelve years old with them shortly after my parents took my brother with them to live in Florida (a move they had begun to plan before I left home; a plan that helped me decide to leave). The father of this family was a 35-year-old Canadian man with a beautiful wife in her mid-twenties and a 15-year-old son who treated me like I was his real little brother. We took trips to the beach in the summer and the mother would turn off the alarm on my door after the other foster children were in bed for the night so we could sneak downstairs to play Super Mario Brothers for a few hours or watch a movie the other kids were not supposed to watch (like Braveheart). Even though it was a halfway house, and I was only supposed to stay for six months, we became a family. They wanted to adopt me, and they managed to postpone my transfer to a longer-term foster home in hopes that they could obtain full citizenship and complete the process. I finally began to experience a spiritual peace and to rebuild a trust and belief in parental love and protection. However, after nine months, I was ripped away from the only family I wanted to call my own.

The same is true for his conclusion of EDD. “Children may have a greater chance of developing attachment disorders and emotional detachment if they experience difficult circumstances in early life, such as: experiencing significant loss, such as the death of a parent or separation from a caregiver; having traumatic experiences; growing up in an orphanage; experiencing emotional abuse; experiencing physical abuse…” (Dresden 2020). Furthermore, I was clearly exhibiting the warning signs that accompany EDD, which include: “changes in sleeping habits; bad moods that do not seem to go away; mysterious or vague physical ailments; angry outbursts; social withdrawal; poor performance at…school; run-ins with the authorities; substance abuse; thoughts of suicide” (Dresden 2020). By the time I was twelve, I had already been smoking cigarettes off-and-on for almost four years, in effort to soothe the spiritual ache for which I had no language or metaphysical salve. My time with the loving Canadian family was a refuge not meant to last, and the rupturing of that bond confirmed for me that, due to my “innate badness,” I did not deserve love or peace in this life (Herman 2015). For, if I did, God would have made it happen.

Being Spiritually Unmoored

I spent the next two-and-a-half years living in a home where I became what Judith Herman calls “a superb performer,” an identity I have donned at various times in my life (Herman 2015). However, this identity carries with it an inherent duality of self: on the outside, I was “a consistently happy young man with an easy smile and a kind word always at the ready”; on the inside, “I saw in the mirror an ugly, worthless half-breed who would only amount to something if the white man let me” (Hylton 2021). Maintaining this charade in my new foster home and other environs led people to feel close and connected with me, whereas (with one notable exception), I lived with a perpetual feeling of disconnection, loneliness, and isolation. Therefore, “the appreciation of others simply confirms [my] conviction that no one can truly know [me] and that, if [my] secret and true self were recognized, [I] would be shunned and reviled” (Herman 2015). Looking back, it is no wonder that my inner self could not support this façade under the extreme duress that would follow.

I still had no firm spiritual foundation upon which to build self-confidence and resilience. One month before my seventeenth birthday, I watched my foster mother of more than two years die of a massive heart attack while I was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. Having never learned how to deal with grief and trauma in a healthy manner, I repressed my emotions, cared for my younger foster brothers, and carried on life without her. It was when my biological father drew his last breath with me standing by his bedside, after supporting my mother through the last weeks of his life, that the totality of my life’s trauma caught up with me and sprang forth from my eyes in the midnight hours. His death came on the one-year anniversary of my foster mother’s death—one I had yet to grieve. I cried and cursed God for taking from me the mountainous abusive father of my youth, leaving only a husk of a man for me to forgive and care for at the end of his life.

Adding to the traumatic experience of wrestling with the love, hatred, and resentment I held toward my father were his plaintive cries for death as his cancer progressed. Seven years after my last beating, I was again at home, this time to care for him in his last days. His dutiful and forgiving son, waiting on his every need, and eager to make his passing as painless as possible. Yet, the shame of needing that care led my father to plead with me—and to beg God—to end his suffering. My father being diabetic, I knew an insulin overdose would do the job. The night before his death, I attempted to grant my father his dying wish. I loaded up the needle while the hospice nurse was in the bathroom, lifted up my father’s t-shirt to reveal the rise and fall of his round belly, and inched the needle closer. My hesitant hand caused the needle to brush his skin, making my father flinch in his sleep. I realized I could not do it. Just then, the toilet flushed and I walked away. Neither malice nor mercy could get me to take my father’s life. At that moment, though, I could not know that my father’s disease would run its course the following afternoon. After he died, those frozen moments plagued me day and night: I almost killed my father.

I drank often. I smoked cigarettes heavily and marijuana daily. I was in constant search of the next party and opportunity for meaningless sexual encounters with women I may or may not have known. Anything to run from or numb the pain I could no longer hold at bay. I was done with God. No more crying out; no more begging for forgiveness; no more seeking His comfort; no more caring about His judgment. I became selective with my “performer” identity (Herman 2015); I saved that for the people I wanted to charm. Instead, I started allowing the inner darkness, the ugly traumas of my life, to show through in my speech and actions. Wherever I went, I had a knife in my front pocket, a red bandanna protruding from my back pocket, and a hope in my heart that I would have opportunity to brandish the blade to anyone who thought they were tougher than me. This was the state of ugliness and spiritual confusion in which I chose to move in with my elder foster brother, the son of my dead foster mother. He was family; he was facing prison time for a burglary he committed the previous year; and I felt guilty for being the one who had let his victim into his apartment to find the stolen safe in my foster brother’s closet.

Toward Spiritual Death

I had no idea my mind would break at the sounding of the home security alarm. Somehow, as soon as that alarm went off, I was no longer the intruder. I became a boy trying to protect his family from anyone who posed a threat to them. My foster brother was my family and the innocent family whose home I was actively violating became a threat to him. They became the enemy. Neither of us knew that, “Painful life experiences get encoded in our brains and bodies and can be reactivated with great intensity by the right kind of trigger decades later, even if we believe that we have dealt with them or have completely forgotten about them” (van den Blink, 2012). I would not understand this for another five years when my mother reminded me of the heart of my father’s violent “training”, but in that moment, my father’s voice was commanding in my subconscious: “It doesn’t matter whether they are 8 or 80, man, woman, crippled or in a wheelchair; if anyone is a threat to your family, you take them down. Kill them if necessary” (Hylton 2021). On this darkest of nights, that meant a 48-year-old man and his 10-year-old daughter. God spared their lives, but I left them for dead as I fled from their home—without a dollar in my pocket.

After spending almost two years in county jails, spiritually lost and broken, I was sentenced to 90 years in prison, all suspended but 50 years to serve, with 16 years of probation to serve upon my release. I blamed my foster brother. If he had not stolen that safe the first time, I would never have been in a position to uncover the evidence. I would never have felt guilty for him getting caught. I would never have known how to get to the house, nor had any connection to that family at all. It was all his fault. Or, so I told myself. Others affirmed this false narrative, as well. From the detectives who arrested me, to the men with whom I was incarcerated, to some of the correctional officers charged to oversee me; whoever had been subjected to the media reports or court documents assured me that my crime was purely my foster brother’s responsibility. At most, I was the “bullet” and he was the “gun”; if he had not loaded me up and pointed me in the direction of our victims, I would be a free man. It then became my duty to hate the man I once loved so dearly. According to “prison politics”, either I had to kill him or he had to kill me; we could not both live in the same prison (Haney 2001). One of us had to die. And, while I did not fear death, and many times wished for and fantasized about the act of dying, I refused to give my foster brother the satisfaction of being the one to end my life. Therefore, I spent many of those long nights in segregation plotting my foster brother’s untimely demise, while spiritually dying myself.

Spiritual Healing and Found Meaning

God had other plans. He placed in my life a decorated combat veteran who refused to allow the prison environment to lead brothers to murder one another. This “reparative leader”, Ephriam “E” Bennett, intervened and became my mentor (Yoder 2020). Over the following years, he introduced me to the olive-skinned, rough-handed Jesus Christ of the Bible, as opposed to the effeminate Europeanized version that kept me away from Him for most of my life. Pushing through my stubborn and fearful resistance, E challenged me to learn God’s Word, put it into practice and watch God prove His Word true—and Himself real and living. Through E’s enduring patience and dogged persistence, I learned to pray, fast, and seek God’s face for guidance, strength and peace, growing to truly trust God to keep His promises. Over three years, E also carried my foster brother, Dan, and me through the restorative justice mediated dialogue process (Larson n.d.), which ultimately led to mutual forgiveness, healing, and genuine reconciliation. Starting with very short, superficial, and mediated conversations, E gradually increased the time, frequency, and depth of those conversations between us. After the first several months, E was able to initiate an interaction, then step back and allow Dan and me to speak alone. With E coaching me through the biblical protocol of seeking forgiveness, at the end of those three years, I was finally able to both forgive Dan and seek his forgiveness.

After eleven years of dedicated spiritual work, I now know what it means to love, to serve, and to give of myself without expecting anything in return. Through learning that there was a man worthy of my trust, growing to forgive myself and those who have harmed me, and healing from past traumas, I no longer allow myself to carry the stress and traumas of my past, as I have come to understand how unbearably heavy they are. Rather, I cast my cares on the Lord, knowing that He cares for me, as I am guided to do in 1 Peter 5:7 (The Holy Bible, New King James Version (NKJV) 1982). I live in a state of constant self-evaluation and -reflection, remaining vigilant against any regression in my character, conduct, or conversation.

The first 23 years of my life were ruled by stress and trauma. In my childhood home, abuse was the rule and negative peace the exception. The only person I believed had the power to protect me died when I was eight years old, and his death acted as a catalyst for intensifying my father’s abuse of his two remaining sons, thus creating a spiritual violation and complete loss of parental trust. This trauma drove me away from my family into foster care and a series of forced separations, all of which led to a dual diagnosis of Emotional Detachment Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Due to the early and repeated abuse, I developed a “double self” of outer acceptance and inner disgust that sustained my perpetual feelings of isolation regardless of my environs (Herman 2015).

Living in this state of emotional and spiritual disconnection meant that I was ill-prepared to cope with witnessing the sequential deaths of my foster mother and biological father. Instead of mourning my losses, I further repressed and numbed my emotions with substances and external stimuli; I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually hardening my heart and developing a new identity as a thug. This, in turn, laid the foundation for my guilt-assisted decision to commit a robbery that turned into a violent home invasion when my childhood traumas rushed to the surface at the sounding of the home’s alarm system. After receiving a 50-year prison sentence, I was on the verge of murdering my foster brother/co-defendant when God intervened by providing me a mentor to guide me into forgiveness and reconciliation with my foster brother, and into a personal spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. I now live a life of deep meaning, seeking to serve God through serving my fellow man each day He gives me breath. Finally, I have developed a firm spiritual foundation.

4. Summary
I have experienced a varied multitude of traumas throughout the course of my life. My childhood was marred by physical, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of my father, thus violating parental trust through spiritual violation. Repeated forced separations while in foster care led to my dual diagnoses of Emotional Detachment Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, effectively stripping me of the ability to rely upon the interpersonal spiritual support that could have greatly assisted me in building resilience and positive spiritual coping mechanisms. Witnessing the sequential deaths of my foster mother and biological father then led to my state of spiritual confusion which resulted in me inflicting trauma on an innocent family through unrestrained violence. My inability to reconcile what I had done with who I thought myself to be, while contemplating murder and the idea of being murdered in a prison environment, was guiding me toward spiritual death. Thankfully, God intervened by providing me a mentor who facilitated the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation between my foster brother and me—ultimately leading to my spiritual healing.

Writing this article, sharing my personal narrative with the world, has also served as part of my continued healing journey. Laying bare some of the traumas I have endured required me to first revisit my past and engage with my traumatic memories on a deeper level than I had previously been able to achieve. When I now look back over the stages of my life and the suffering they contain, I am able to better see God’s loving hand guiding and protecting me every step of the way. I still struggle with the “why” of God allowing me to inflict such harm before coming to this place of understanding and healing. However, it is my prayer that this article will lead to courageous and nuanced conversations about the need for trauma healing in the lives of perpetrators of violent crimes, as well as the deep value of spirituality in assisting that healing journey.

If provided an opportunity to expand this narrative, I would like to explore potential interventions that may have prevented the cumulative effects of repetitive traumas in my life, and so engage in a conversation around trustworthy, accessible spiritual support mechanisms for children in general, and foster children in particular. I would also like to discuss the importance of utilizing people with lived experience to provide such support. Those perpetrators of crime who have engaged in spiritual trauma healing work, and who were once traumatized children and/or foster children, have great potential to serve as gentle intervenors in the lives of children currently suffering under the weight of myriad traumas.

References

C.L. Park, J.M. Currier, J.I. Harris, and J.M. Slattery. 2017. Trauma, Meaning, and Spirituality: Translating Research Into Clinical Practice. The American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/15961-003.

Clinic, Mayo. 1998-2021. “Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).” Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/oppositional-defiant-disorder/symptomscauses/ syc-20375831.

Dresden, Danielle. 2020. “What to know about emotional detachment.” Medical News Today, May 27. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/emotional-detachment#Signs-and-symptoms

Haney, Craig. 2001. “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment.” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (University of California, Santa Cruz). https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/psychological-impact-incarceration-implications-post-pr ison-adjustment.

Herman, Judith. 2015. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From
Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.

Hylton, Leo. 2021. “Staying Blind is a Choice.” Mainer, March. Accessed December 5, 2021. https://mainernews.com/shining-light-on-humanity-10/.

Larson, April Llamas and James. n.d. “Prioritizing restorative justice in United States prisons.” Journal of Criminal Justice and Legal Issues, 1-26. https://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/162504.pdf.

Pargament, Anna R. Harper and Kenneth I. 2015. “Trauma, Religion, and Spirituality: Pathways to Healing.” Chap. 19 in Traumatic Stress and Long-Term Recovery, edited by K. E. Cherry, 349-367. Springer International Publishing Switzerland. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-18866-9_19.

1982. The Holy Bible, New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Yoder, Carolyn E. 2020. The Little Book of Trauma Healing: When Violence Strikes and
Community Security is Threatened. New York: Good Books.

Zehr, Howard. 2015. Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times. Harrisonburg: Herald Press.

Scroll to Top