Some Things Only God Can Forgive, but I Hope He Doesn’t
I first heard “Praying” in a Lyft home from the airport, after a particularly morbid Las Vegas trip. In Vegas, we’d spread the ashes of a dead family friend under the clown at Circus Circus. That night, we spotted a man in a motorized scooter strike a window a full speed, and drive down the length of the casino lobby with a wide streak of blood trailing him. The next day, I saw a car flipped over on the strip and ambulances blocking traffic. Death was everywhere.
But the vacation was over. It was 4 am and I was in a stranger’s car, cranky about how much money I’d spent on the trip, how exhausted I was, and all the domestic annoyances I’d be returning to as soon as I opened my door. I was as shut-down as a person can be while still conscious.
I knew Kesha had released a song about Dr. Luke’s abuse and her recovery from it, but I hadn’t sought it out yet. The volume on the car’s stereo was low. I knew immediately what I was hearing as soon as it started playing. Quiet as they were in that car, the lyrics pierced my brain: I hope you’re somewhere praying. I hope your soul is changing.
My bleary, jet-lagged mind awoke. HOLY SHIT! This is not your typical survivor’s song! I sat up and turned my head, pointing my ear at the speaker to better drink it in. Kesha was not talking about how hard she’d worked to move on and fix herself. She was not thanking her abuser for having taught her about the harshness of the world. This song was about how Dr. Luke was the one who needed to grow.
And Did she really just say there are things only God can forgive? Holy fuck! Kesha, we were all rooting for you and you did it, you brilliant glitter-coated ball of light. You made a song about recovery from abuse that doesn’t thank or forgive the abuser, that demands he reckon with who he is and what he’s done, that manages to be powerful and hopeful without sugar-coating the abuse. You did it, holy shit.
My brittle, bitter survivor’s heart was enchanted and transported utterly from the moment I heard the song. It was refreshing and arresting like a bucket of ice to the face. And yet, even then, I knew my perspective on abuse and recovery was even more hard-lined than Kesha’s was. Mine didn’t lack prayer entirely, but it shone its spiritual light on a goal considerably more bleak: Kesha wanted her abuser to recover and fall on his knees in repentance. I prayed that my abuser would die.
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Most mainstream victim narratives are about forgiveness and healing. That is doubly true for pop songs about surviving mistreatment. In “Fighter”, Christina Aguilera extols her new virtues — she has thick skin, she’s a quick learner, she works hard — and attributes all of them to the unnamed person who has mistreated her. In “Since You’ve Been Gone”, Kelly Clarkson attributes her newfound assertiveness to her recovery from an ex’s neglect.
Of course, these are songs about breakups, where both parties are likely to share guilt for a mixed-bag of moderate offenses. Nevertheless, the songs reflect back at the listener the platitudes that many survivors of abuse hear and internalize. Be thankful for what you’ve learned. Forgive the person who hurt you. Forget about them. Look at how much stronger you are now than you were then. Stop complaining. Make me feel better about what happened to you. Convince me it will never ever ever happen again. Then I can put it out of my mind.
People don’t always tell abuse victims things like that directly. It’s rude to tell someone who has been berated, stalked, raped, or struck that their misery is too ugly to share. But we abuse survivors pick up on those sentiments.
The world wants victims who don’t wallow in their grief. They want victims who can make them feel good. Maybe even victims who were improved, in some way, by their abuse. It’s a comforting fiction because it absolves us of collective responsibility. If abuse can be overcome through forgiveness and prayer, and if being abused kinda-sorta makes you a better person anyway, there’s no need to grapple with abuse’s societal causes. There’s no need to be upsetting or loud.
But Kesha’s not the type to be respectful and quiet. No wonder she blew the abuse-song genre wide open.
“Praying” dips its toes into the “forgive your abuser and find peace” cliche pool, but ultimately withdraws from it, to confront more complicated feelings in a refreshing and powerful way. It’s a song about healing and getting stronger in the wake of abuse, sure, but it doesn’t deny the brutal wrongness of what Dr. Luke did or thank him for it. It provides hope without removing responsibility. It begs for the abuser’s contrition instead of granting forgiveness.
In those ways, the song is revolutionary. It still doesn’t go far enough for me, though. This abuse victim isn’t praying for their abuser to find his peace, falling on his knees. I’ve long given up on the prospect of him healing. I stopped wishing for that as soon as one of his current victims reached out to me.
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I’ve written about my abuse before. I will probably keep writing about it for a long time. There’s so much left to discuss. Even a brief experience bleeds into so much of your life.
In some ways, I think Kesha and I are at different stages of the abuse-coping process. My abuse ended six years ago. Kesha’s only recently been able to break entirely from the man who drugged and raped her. That period of safety following years of suffering is one that encourages contemplation. When you’re finally free and safe, after years of torment, it’s nourishing to think back on your abuser and hope that they’re out there, somewhere, learning.
I had a period like that. After I broke up with the man who stalked me, threatened me, pinned me down, and forced me to have sex with him, I felt a massive heartswell of relief. He got arrested for something else. He was under house arrest. Then he moved away. The distance and consequences he was facing gave me pause, and hope. I felt euphoric actually. I thought perhaps he would go back to therapy, get on some good meds, and learn from his mistakes. As long as he was far as fuck away from me, and I was healing, it was beneficial to imagine him as a better person. It seemed plausible, even.
Then I was contacted by a woman who was currently being terrorized by him. She was panicked and brutalized, confused by the sudden change in his actions. He used to be so gentle. What had she done? Her story is not mine to share. Suffice to say, he had become more violent and controlling in the time he’d been away. His actions used to merely threaten and flirt with the level of evil he’d now actually followed through with. As she explained exactly what he’d done, I saw echoes of exactly the things he’d nearly done, or pretended to want to do, to me.
My empathy for him as a complex human soul with the capacity to change was immediately and irrevocably extinguished. I resented the time I’d spent hoping for him, time he’d spent beating and berating the men and women he dated with increasing fury.
The only thing I hoped for, after that, was that he would be stopped. I started fantasizing about travelling to where he lived and putting it to an end. I imagined myself murdering him with my own hands. Failing that, I wanted him to die. Ideally, I wanted that death to be painful. Years prior, someone else who had raped me had died of a heroin overdose. That had been pretty fucking cool. I wished for a continued pattern of karmic justice.
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I’m not a tidy, at-peace victim. I’ve been corrupted, not improved, by my experiences. And I’m fine with that. I am grateful to see the world as it is. I was wrong to have faith in him; but now the scales have dropped and I know his true nature, and I do not want peace; I want justice. His name is Nikolaus Schuetz, by the way. He lives in Philadelphia and if you ever meet him you should stab him in the stomach.
In “Praying”, Kesha sings about Dr. Luke, “When I’m done, they won’t even know your name” but I want you to know Nikolaus Schuetz’s name, and Dr. Luke’s, so you can track them both down and ruin them. Kesha wants God to forgive her rapist, even while acknowledging she cannot forgive him herself, but I want a vengeful God, one that can inflict the harm I’m too weak to.
Victims are expected to process their trauma in acceptable, feel-good ways. We’re supposed to make non-victims feel good by brushing our own pain under the rug and emphasizing the positives of the experience. If we forgive or pray for the people who mistreated us, we are “being the bigger person” and “doing the right thing”.
I deeply value the message of Kesha’s song, and I think it is challenging, unique, and important. It moves me to tears every time I play it. However, when I hear her singing that she prays at night for Dr. Luke, I can’t help but feel a resounding fuck that. We abuse victims don’t owe our abusers any prayer. We are already the “bigger person” by virtue of having not fucking raped or beaten anybody. The people who have mistreated us don’t deserve us in their spiritual corner. They don’t deserve the support of God. Instead of praying for the man who hurt me, I will be praying for my ex’s other victims, the ones who have suffered because I didn’t get the chance to kill him. I hope they find peace, not him. I know his future victims-to-be won’t know peace until he stops existing. This doesn’t make for a pretty song, which is why I wrote it as an essay. Still, it deserves to be heard.
This piece was originally published on Erica's killer blog. Check it out here.