Is it technically abuse? Does it really matter?

A child who is told he is stupid will always believe he is stupid. A child who is told she’s a failure will always believe she’s a failure. When these insults and hostility come from the very heart of the family, they take root.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by George Hodan (Creative Commons)

Sick Pilgrim turmoil, Part 2: Donna Provencher’s story

The following is an account of recent events by Donna Provencher, who accuses Jonathan Ryan (a.k.a. Jonathan Weyer) of spiritual and emotional abuse. Ryan has been removed from his position at Sick Pilgrim, which he co-founded, and his upcoming book has been spiked by the publisher after numerous women, including cofounder Jessica Mesman Griffith, have come forward to accuse Ryan/Weyer of abuse and sexual assault.
This account comes from a conversation Donna Provencher and I had via a Facebook voice call on Saturday, November 18. At the end of Provencher’s story, I have included some pertinent screen shots and excerpts.
***
My life mantra, cribbed from Nora Ephron is: Above all else, be the hero of your life, and not the victim.
I had been a lapsed Catholic, self-identifying as an agnostic for six or seven years when I entered Sick Pilgrim.
I grew up very, very conservative. My parents were hard-line, knee jerk, republican, homeschooling Catholic conservatives. I went to Christendom College and encountered a lot of hypocrisy, spiritual abuse, and invoking the Holy Spirit as a cover for bad behavior and mistreatment of people. I didn’t like it!
I had spoken to a friend who works for the Register earlier this year. He said, “I think you’ve been fed this very specific definition of what Catholic spirituality looks like, and you’ve rejected it on those grounds. But there’s room for Oscar Romero spirituality, and Dorothy Day.” He considered me a “rebooting Catholic,” not a fallen-away Catholic.
Then one of my friends added me to Sick Pilgrim. I thought, “These are my people.” I was living between worlds, hanging out with secular humanists, theater people, journalists, but also very conservative friends. I had lost sight of the fact there’s a happy medium.
So Sick Pilgrim was this refreshing, “coming home” experience. I finally recognized my own yearning and my own thoughts and ideas in other Catholics. They’re all about being misfits, but they’re some of the most loving people you’ll ever meet. I saw something deeply good there. It was people, not doctrine, that had turned me off the Church, so it was people, not doctrine, that brought me back. Like Thomas Merton says: “It’s the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
I wasn’t there very long before Jonathan approached me. It was probably less than a week.
He posted a picture of himself making breakfast, and I made some kind of offhand comment about “I want bacon!” or something. He PM’d me and said “Come visit, I have bacon!” I kind of laughed it off, we started talking, and that’s how it began.
The first day we talked was September 20th. [It was about a month previous to this that Ryan allegedly sexually assaulted Jessica Mesman Griffith.] That was on Facebook chat, and we talked for many hours. He asked if he could call the next day, and we talked all night on the phone. It was Sunday the 24th that he told me he loved me. I had been opening up to him about my struggles with an eating disorder, giving him a vast array of detail I hadn’t given anyone else before. It was in the midst of that that he said it for the first time.
Jonathan is a tremendously charismatic individual His Myers–Briggs type is ENFP (which is mine, as well) tend to be very personable, extroverted people who rally a group together. They end up in leadership positions because they are very adept and intuitive about what makes people tick.

That set of traits is a double-edged sword. It’s like the Spiderman deal: With great power comes great responsibility. He had all these gifts and charisms, and he used them for evil. There’s no other way to say it. His personality was enormously compelling, but it enabled him to be a narcissistic predator who could tap into people’s deepest needs and yearning, and reprogram them. It’s so much more tragic because he’s someone who has such potential for good. It’s diabolical.

He started almost immediately talking about marriage, in the next day or so. He was talking about the chapel he wanted to get married in, and would send me pictures of it. We fought about whether or not he would wear a tux. It was signed, sealed, and delivered. He was so convinced and convincing that this was something predetermined by God.
It’s hard for me to talk about, as someone who was an agnostic for so many years. How did I not see this was predatory behavior? How did I not step back from the teeming religiosity, and thinking, “This is not how God works”?
This is because he is incredibly skilled at inserting himself into leadership spiritual roles.
I was raped a year ago. My mother is schizophrenic and homeless, wandering around Detroit somewhere. My divorce had just been finalized. He sold a very convincing story that not only was it God’s will I should come back to the Church, but it was my vocation to be with him and marry him.
 He has a preoccupation with St. Kateri Tekakwitha. He named his house “The St. Kateri House,” and he took a trip to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. A lot of the real manipulation started when he latched onto this tidbit that my name is Katherine with a “k.” She was my patron saint growing up. I had religious images of her in my bedroom, dressed up as her for All Saint’s Day.
He told me he pulled over sobbing on the side of the road, asking God where I had come from, since I was so intelligent, and wonderful and vibrant, and had just fallen into his lap out of a clear blue sky. He said he knew it was because St. Kateri had sent me to him. This was happening simultaneously with his exploitative behavior with other girls.
Later, when out of the blue he said, “I’m done with you” (the day after he had sex with me), I was crying in my backyard. I kept praying and thinking about a passage in Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, about someone who really devastates her, and she prays God will give her His love for this man. God will give us the more perfect way. I was praying that over and over again.
But God’s love is terrible as an army with banners, sometimes. I realize now that, when someone is exhibiting a pattern of exploitative, predatory, and cruel treatment of women, the loving thing to do is call them to amend their live — and protect other women from them.
I got this idea to pray a novena to St. Kateri. But I did not pray for Jonathan to come back. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t have all the details yet. I had this sense I needed to pray “God’s will be done, no matter what that looks like.”
I had a friend who didn’t know the St. Kateri details of the story, and he was telling me how, in some cultures, specifically in Iroquois culture, sex abuse, assault, and rape are almost unheard of, because they thought of women as god-bearers. It’s kind of a prescient thing, hearkening forward to the Theotokos. They believed women had the Creator’s gift in them, and if you defiled them, heaven would rain down justice. They would bring down destructions on themselves.

I just broke down crying, because I hadn’t told him about St. Kateri! And he was like, “St. Kateri doesn’t put up with that shit.” That was a healing realization.

 So, I had been going to Mass again for all of four weeks when I went to Indiana to visit him. He had been beating this drum about how premarital sex isn’t really wrong because we’re getting married, you’re my soul mate, it’s just a nominal thing. He’d joke about doing the marriage ceremony in front of the neighbor’s dog, for a witness.
I didn’t think God was fine with it. But Jonathan really is damnably — and I mean that in the literal sense, like infernally — persuasive when it comes to getting what he wants out of women.
He had sex with me multiple times. He was sexting with me before that. It had been sexualized from the get-go.
I had been going back to Mass, but was terrified of confession. So after having sex with me several times, he made an appointment for me with a sympathetic priest. I went to confession for the first time in seven years, an incredibly daunting confession.
I knew he wanted to have sex afterwards. I was like, “I know I’m not a very good Catholic, but I feel there is something wrong with what you’re advocating here!” I just kind of lived in that insane amount of cognitive dissonance. I was madly in love with him. He had groomed me to be in love with him.
So he had sex with me immediately afterward, and had zero problem with going to Mass the next day. He actively defended receiving Communion, and bullying me into receiving Communion, because it would make him feel guilty if I didn’t. He was sowing the seeds of chaos.
Last night, I talked to someone who had the exact same experience. Someone who wasn’t in Sick Pilgrim, but the same experience, even unto taking Communion right after having sex. Our jaws dropped. She was my alter ego in a different state. This was several months prior to what he did to me. He’s been exhibiting this pattern of behavior for many years. It breaks my heart to think of how many other people might be out there. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Spiritual abuse hinges on targeting specific types of people. Jonathan went for writers, single moms, women struggling with depression and anxiety, and some who had previous relationships with a narcissistic abuser.
And these aren’t just hearts and minds at risk. People’s lives, their sexual health, is at risk. If you’re sleeping with someone who’s been lying about their sexual history, it’s tremendously dangerous. This is protracted form of potential physical abuse.
It’s one of those moments where someone needs to stand up. This ends with me. This stops now. The next girl, who’s suicidal — and he’s had messages to that effect, and I’ve been in those shoes — next time, someone might commit suicide. It might be a girl twenty years younger, instead of eleven years younger. It would be unconscionable for someone not to stand up, once the pattern has been established.
If you Google “Catholic sexual harassment,” my name is the second one down. It’s humiliating. I did not anticipate my fifteen minutes of fame looking like this.
But Jess and I realized that we couldn’t leave it at “let’s kick him out of Sick Pilgrim.” That’s transplanting an abuser, hoping he assaults some other girl. I’m not about that. He will wound another woman the way he has wounded Jess, and other girls, and he will do that again over my bleeding, broken body. This man does not need to be in ministry, around hurting people, Catholic, protestant, or otherwise.
I was in Indiana from October 20th till the 22nd. Some of my son’s holidays have been kind of shoddy, so we went to a pumpkin patch. I carved a pumpkin with Lucy and Tumnus. He carved a pumpkin with the Sick Pilgrim logo. But he was adamant we don’t tell anyone in Sick Pilgrim I was going to see him. He wouldn’t let me post pictures of us in the group. He was very irked, and made me cry, yelling at me about how he didn’t need Sick Pilgrim people up in his business. He said they had deviated from the true faith, and said he hated them, that they were awful people. He said this was special, and just for us. Classic abuser tactics.
He introduced me to his parents and colleagues. In hindsight, I realize he always introduced me as his “friend,” even though the wedding was set. He was suggesting we should get married right away, so he could put my three-year-old on his insurance.
He had good reasons. He didn’t want his kids and ex-wife to know the details of his personal life; he didn’t want the Sick Pilgrim people to know, because they are heretics who haven’t seen the light. I trusted him. We want to believe we can trust the people we love.
The night before I left, we went on this hayride, and we had a weird conversation. We had been talking about having more kids. He even named the children: Theodore, and Eowyn Kateri. But after the hayride, we had another conversation.
He said he saw the way I looked at babies and played with kids, and he knew I desperately wanted more kids, but he didn’t want any at all. Nope, no more kids, not gonna do it.
I told him, you’re kind of a Catholic figurehead. How are you gonna manage that? He joked about getting a vasectomy. And suddenly the hammer came down: You’re young. You want more kids. I never said I wanted more kids.

He never came to bed that night. I was upstairs crying. He was downstairs watching Stranger Things. That’s my favorite show. Now I have a “Friends don’t lie” tattoo.

He dropped me off at the airport like a sack of potatoes. It was like something just shut off. the only way I can describe it was like he got body snatched. He was cold, angry, warping reality, attributing terrible motives to people.

On the plane, I wrote to him, so in earnest, so in love with him. I wrote this long letter on those airplane barf bags, wrote and wrote and wrote. I told him I loved him, and we could work through the issue about kids.

But look, I’m just now coming back to the Faith. To quote Julia Brideshead, “Probably I shall be bad again.” Like C.S. Lewis, I was the unhappiest convert in all of England. I had found that Catholicism was the worst way of living, except for all the others. I told him, I’m not going to go through all of that — divorce, rape, eating disorders, a suicide attempt at age nineteen — and then be a halfhearted Catholic, not in a Catholic marriage.

There are layers upon layers. I run the risk of someone reading this story and saying, “That girl is a bad Catholic, and disingenuous.” To that person, I say: Yes. We’re all bad Catholics. But Jonathan’s behavior was bad on a fundamental human level, fundamentally violating the social constructs we need to survive as a society. It goes beyond “I messed up.”
I’m not setting myself up as a bastion of Catholicism. I like to talk about Dorothy Day, but I’m no Dorothy Day. I get that. That’s why it’s so difficult to come forward, knowing people will think I’m complicit in my own sexual abuse. But these were massive, massive violations against women. How can it be informed consent if you’re not informed about someone who is not who they say they were?
When I got home, I sent him that letter, saying I want to have a truly Catholic marriage. And he dumped me the next day, in a Facebook message.

I had applied to a number of positions in Indiana, at his urging. I told him I had sent a résumé to a job there, and he said, “Are you sure you don’t want to go back east with your family?”

And then he said, “I’m done.”

I’ve had some bad breakups in my life. This was not a bad breakup. There’s a difference between the necessary evil of realizing a relationship isn’t meant to be, and someone who has deliberately misled you from the beginning. At this point, he was already with his new soulmate.

I was extraordinarily confused and broken. I had attempted suicide when I was nineteen, but this was hell. I didn’t know which way was up. He had gone out of his way to isolate me from the Sick Pilgrim group, saying terrible things to me about Jess from the day I joined, because he perceived her as rejecting him after he sexually assaulted her. He very intentionally engendered this profound distrust of everyone in that community. So I left.
You had this person in a position of spiritual leadership, a paragon of Catholic virtue that every girl wants to end up with, and he had positioned himself as a spiritually authoritative voice. He knew all my darkest secrets. Jess says abuse by narcissists is “soul rape.” I’ve experienced both kinds. It’s an apt analogy.
It also had a catastrophic effect on my just-burgeoning spiritual journey. That was a mine field to navigate. I had just come back. I actually did believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. I tried not to, but I do. I had just come to that point in my life. I had left the Church over spiritual abuse and hypocrisy, and this was a horrible déjà vu. It reminded me of that passage in [C. S. Lewis’] A Grief Observed: The danger is not that we will come to believe there is no God, but that this is what God is really like: deceive yourself no further.
Jonathan was so inextricably entangled with my reversion experience, it poisoned everything. He sees himself as a Christ figure. It permeates his entire interview with you.  He says, “This is how Jesus would handle it.” Actually, Jesus wouldn’t be in this position of defending Himself from abuse allegations! Baptizing his cruel behavior in the name of Jesus. So repugnant.
I’ve been rewatching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I feel like I got sucked into some weird Ryan cult. I will openly admit I haven’t been to Mass since I got back from Indiana. I feel terrible. I want to go. I just can’t. There’s this internal shattering.
I don’t blame God for any of this. God is not at fault when evil people do evil things. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out where my faith began and where Jonathan’s sticky fingers ended.
This is going to sound strange, but the last week has been one of the most painful weeks of my entire life, but also the most freeing and liberating. Jonathan underestimated this. He didn’t think he’d eventually target the wrong person.
When Jess messaged me last Sunday morning [after I left the Sick Pilgrim group], she said, “You don’t have to tell me anything, but Jonathan’s behavior has been erratic. Do you want to talk?” And I just cried. I just wept. She was the first person who reached out. She was so gentle and compassionate. That’s who Jessica is. I just told her everything.
I’m never going to play the Holy Spirit card again — never say He inspired some action or event. I’m a little squicky about that. But something prompted Jess, who had just walked out of Mass. We were not friends at all. We had briefly exchanged editorial messages about a thing I had written about Stranger Things. Jonathan had terrified me about her.
The first thing she said was, “I’m so sorry this has happened to you.” She let me talk about everything. She let me tell my story, and honored that, and listened to my heart, which was a mess. I don’t remember when she told me about her own experience, and others’.
So I thought, “Maybe these Sick Pilgrim people aren’t so bad after all. There’s a predator out there. It’s not Sick Pilgrim’s fault, and not the Church’s fault.” That was a huge healing.
She told me about Jonathan’s new girlfriends, and it was so freeing, like in Dawn Treader, with Eustace’s scales being pulled off: It hurt like billy-oh, but it was so good to see it come away. Life had been salvo after salvo, blast after blast, but it was so profoundly healing to be believed — and to have the community take immediate action.
A number of people, five or six people, signed off on his dismissal letter. But he didn’t respond to all of them. He wrote an intimidating, threatening, “lawyer up” email, and sent it only to the two who were his victims. It was very calculated. He sent me a text: “I hope you’re happy. You got your revenge.”
One of the admins, Matt Lafleur, wrote this beautiful post about how it’s part of the behest of Catholics to look out for broken things. He has his own physical disability, and this was very moving to me. Remember, I had been in the group six days before Jonathan came along. But they wholeheartedly embraced me. They gathered evidence and sent Jonathan a letter dismissing him by Tuesday afternoon. I posted my testimony to the group Tuesday evening.
This is how we are supposed to deal with predators in our midst. They do not represent the Church, or the Holy Spirt, or St. Kateri, but they are in fact blasphemers. Abuse against women is a sacrilege, an interpersonal sacrilege.
This week was empowering. I feel like myself again. Narcissistic abuse is like a drug addiction, and truth is your serum, your anti-drug, combatting it. The light of truth was jarring, but restorative to my faith.
I am planning to go back to Mass for the first time this weekend. I feel like I had fallen into a well, a very narrow well with a very long shaft, and I was sitting at the bottom in the muck. I was desperately suicidal, and nothing made sense. People were calling to me, and telling my life was bigger than this, but I couldn’t hear it. It sounded far away. I was locked in this echo chamber of pain.
I give immense credit to the Sick Pilgrim community, and to Jess, specifically, for pulling a front page-worthy rescue, drilling a parallel well, pulling me out of there fist over fist. I give them tremendous credit for such decisive action and such compassion. It made me able to identify Jonathan’s actions as diabolical, not God-ordained.

It’s really important we call things by their proper names. Sometimes we tiptoe around these terms, “spiritual abuse,” “emotional abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” and “psychological gaslighting.” We call it “mistreatment.” Let’s call it for what it is. J.K. Rowling says fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself. The word isn’t scary. The thing is scary. Let’s call them out properly for committing these heinous actions.

I’m not allowed the privilege, as a Catholic, of believing anyone is beyond the reach of redemption. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that someday he will be able to acknowledge the wrong he has done and the people he has hurt. So far we’ve seen complaining, how persecuted he is, and how much other people have hurt him. He’s not expressed sincere concern for the people he has harmed.
I had this conversation with him about going to confession and then having sex. I said, “When I say the act of contrition, I say I’m not gonna do it again. But I’m gonna do it three hours later.”I told him part of repentance is amending your life. He hemmed and hawed. He said God didn’t really mean it. He fought with me about it.
I loved this man. I loved who I thought he was. I hope my speaking up (even if it means coming up in a Google search for the rest of my life), and Jess and other victims coming forward, will make him take stock of what he has done, and he will change his life.
I pray for Heaven for him. I don’t hate him. I really do hope he stops posturing as the victim. He is not the victim. We are.

 ***

[end of Donna Provencher’s story.]

The image at top is composed of three messages from Jonathan Ryan.
The first is from the Sick Pilgrim admin group. This was his first response when the admins sent him a letter terminating him from work with Sick Pilgrim. Ryan says “I fully admit what happened to Donna. I’m not proud of it.”
The second image is from the first message he posted in a secret splinter group immediately after he got kicked out of Sick Pilgrim (he apparently did not realize that Donna was a member of this group). Ryan tells his friends: “I vehemently deny anything that was said.”
The third image is a message he sent to Donna. He says: “I hope you’re happy. You got your revenge. Congrats.”

More reading of interest:
On August 28, after Ryan allegedly assaulted Jessica Mesman Griffith and before he began his relationship with Donna Provencher, Jonathan Ryan posted an essay about abusive narcissists on Sick Pilgrim. The post has since been scrubbed, because it upset so many of the readers. Here are two excerpts that have been preserved:
Trump is the Incarnation of all narcs, but we don’t even have to go that far afield. There are men who seek the utter destruction of women, not their not their flourishing. Most of them don’t look like Trump or have large, obnoxious personalities. Indeed, they are charming angels of light, with cut jaws, put together appearances and neat, orderly cars. But, these angels of light seek destruction of the light and the annihilation of the Image of God in others. They do anything they can to negate the talent, the intelligence and the beauty of the women in their lives. They don’t want ‘power,’ they want destruction by being in love with concepts of themselves and in doing so, twist things that ought to be good. Their God-given maleness becomes twisted into a prison-made shiv that plunges into the heart of every woman who comes into striking distance.

[…]

In the years since my divorce, I’ve befriended a number of women who have come out of relationships with men who are narcissists of the most heinous kind. I’m horrified at how these strong, accomplished and put-together women are often sucked of their God-given personalities and talents to the point of considering suicide. Indeed, in a few cases, the women have tried and thankfully failed. But in one particular case I know of (a friend of a friend), the man talked the woman into killing herself and is reaping the narcs ultimate dream: adulation for his bravery and the sympathy of other soon-to-be victims. It is truly diabolical. And it makes me wonder how much I may have done this to women in my own life.