Hope for Healing: Forgiving My Father

updated 03/28/2011 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/28/2011 01:00AM

Tracy Ross was living her dream: She had a handsome husband, two great kids, a magazine gig that allowed her to travel the world writing about the wilderness adventures she loved. Yet "I still had this sinking feeling," she says, "this depression that would not go away."

So began the extraordinary journey of anguish and redemption she chronicles in her raw new memoir, The Source of All Things. At the heart of her torment: childhood sexual abuse by a man she trusted, her stepfather, Donnie Lee. In 2007, during a trip to Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains-where Tracy had first been abused-she confronted him. Shocked by his answers, the author later did what many would find unthinkable: She forgave him. Sitting side-by-side in her mountaintop home office outside Boulder, Colo., Tracy, now 40, and Donnie, 68, recount their deeply troubled history with emotional, often visibly tense candor. "When a person does something like this, they are responsible for their actions," says Donnie. "And those actions can cause a rippling effect like I can't believe."

The first ripple began in Twin Falls, Idaho, where Tracy grew up with her mom, Doris, and older brother Chris after their dad, Peter, died of a brain aneurysm at just 29. She recalls being a joyful 4-year-old when Doris married Donnie, a salesman, in 1974: He taught her to ride a bike, fish and cherish nature. Then one night, an 8-year-old Tracy awoke to her stepfather's hands fondling her. Today Donnie calls the first molestation "accidental. It just happened." When Tracy told her mom, "I said I was tucking her in," admits Donnie.

The abuse that night was the last of it-for a while. But for how long remains a subject of contention. Addressing Donnie, Tracy says pointedly, "You've given me a variety of answers." Answers Donnie: "I don't really remember. But there was a long stretch when nothing happened."

When Tracy reached puberty, her stepfather began fondling her anew. (Both say there was never any sexual intercourse.) "I started thinking bad thoughts," says Donnie. At 14, Tracy ran away and told her story to a friend's mom. Five weeks later Donnie signed a confession; state officials ordered him to stay away from Tracy for 10 months and to go to counseling.

During the ensuing decades, Tracy says Donnie offered halfhearted apologies, but mostly there was silence. And the damage was done: She floundered, jumping in and out of colleges, and had a failed first marriage. It wasn't until her wedding to Shawn Edmondson in 1999 that she first began trying to forgive Donnie. "The other path would have been to cut my family off," she says. "That's not who I am." But forgiveness without clarity proved impossible. At Tracy's behest, Donnie agreed to return to the Sawtooth Mountains in '07 and vowed to tell her everything. "It was a death sentence for my childhood," Tracy says of the painful trip, where Donnie admitted abusing her "between 25 and 50 times maybe," as Tracy recalls in her book, and later told her he had at times drugged her with sleeping pills. Says a tearful Donnie: "I still have guilt. I will probably die with it."

Tracy acknowledges that forgiving her stepdad is "an ongoing process." Still, it is "forgiveness with boundaries," which means she won't leave her two sons, Scout, 9, and Hatcher, 8, alone with him. Even harder to absolve is Doris, 67, who is still Donnie's wife. "She failed me for sure," says Tracy. Doris claims she didn't know the extent of what happened until reading Tracy's book and was "scared" to leave Donnie: "I had no one to turn to. I so desperately wanted to keep my family together."

Reflecting on her journey, Tracy-who sees her parents several times a year-says that forgiveness "ebbs and flows." She acknowledges that it may not be right for all victims but hopes that by speaking out she can help others. Of her stepfather, she says, "He's not a monster, and I'm not an angel. We both are monsters and angels, just like everyone."

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