My own best friend

Helena Salazar de von Arnim is a survivor of child abuse. For her, forgiveness was the path to freedom.

I was born in 1941 in Bogotá, Colombia. My husband and I have five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

My father was a visionary who foresaw that the world was going to become smaller and smaller. He thought his children should be prepared so he sent us to schools where foreign languages were taught. My mother was a practical woman with a marvellous sense of humour. She taught us to see things as they are.

In 1980, I encountered the idea that it is possible to change the world, if you just choose to start with your own self. You didn’t need diplomas, PhDs, money, power or influence. Even children or old people could have a part at their own rhythm. All this could happen just by learning to listen to the soft voice of truth inside one’s heart.

Then I saw a film about a World War II French socialist leader and MP from Marseilles. I started crying, very softly, for I could see my life through hers, like in a mirror. She was talking about the huge hate she had had and how she had wanted Germany wiped out from the face of the earth.

I had also wanted a lot of people obliterated from the planet, starting with my cousin and my brother. In fact, all the people I blamed for the awful situation which had engulfed me since I was six. I had lived with feelings of crushing, overwhelming terror and worthlessness, of having no one to explain something I didn’t even have the correct vocabulary to express.

From when I was six, an older cousin systematically raped me, year after year. He was about 12 when it began. I was not able to defend myself. I knew that in a world made by men for men, I had no chance of being believed or understood. I already knew this from experiences with my younger brother. He always managed to have me punished for whatever he did wrong.

My cousin used to say, ‘If you dare say anything about this, remember it is your word against mine. I’m a man and you’re only a stupid, good-for-nothing, little girl!’

So I never had the courage to say anything to anybody. It was only when, at the age of 19, he went to study abroad that, at last, things changed for me. But by then I was so angry and full of hatred, I wanted to take vengeance on the whole world.

Watching the film, my hate against myself for being a woman came out. I just couldn’t live with myself, especially with this huge lie that my life had become – all the tricks, the cover-ups, the pretence so that people would never know the truth I was so ashamed of. I tried hard to appear happy and fulfilled. But inside me, a secret, disastrous tragedy was being lived out.

Then I heard the Frenchwoman say in the film, ‘You cannot forget, but you can forgive.’ It was as if she knew I was there, and she personally wanted to say those words to me. Warmth grew inside my tired, lonely heart – the sensation of a vast ray of light beaming into my mind and soul, and a huge space opening around and inside me. I felt free, as I had never felt before.

But then I had this awful feeling that I needed to forgive those I had hated for so long. It seemed like committing treason against myself. I had been so angry for such a long time, that I didn’t know how to live otherwise. It took me years to walk very slowly from darkness towards the light. I tried practising inner listening. Measuring my life against absolute standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love helped me to get to know myself better, particularly to forgive myself. The worst enemy I had was myself. I used to treat myself with harshness and contempt. Now Helena is Helena’s best and most faithful friend.

For the next five years the thoughts that came to me in my times of silence were the names of people I needed to forgive. What a big surprise it was to find out that I also needed to ask them for their forgiveness for my ill will against them and for my desire for revenge.

This experience changed my life completely. I wanted to go around the world to tell people about the possibility of a new life; that everybody could find it, and that’s what I am still doing at the age of 78!

This article is abridged from ‘Beyond Walls through Initiatives of Change’, a collection of first person experiences collected by Suresh Khatri. Available for £6.00 from our online shop.

Photo: Siegrid von Arnim Salazar

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