Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Of Colobus Monkeys and Parking Garages

There is a legend that once, when colobus monkeys were hunted for their pelts, a troop found itself surrounded by hunters and their dogs. Realizing they were defenseless and escape was impossible, the monkeys grabbed fistfuls of their long fur, pulled it out and let it rain onto the hunters. The hunters realized their prey was now valueless, and retreated. Nature gives no frivolous gifts- by ruining those long, black-and-white coats, they surely complicated their lives, but they bought themselves the opportunity to cope with the loss.

People marvel at stories of survival, but those are people who don’t realize how deeply survival is programed into every living thing. It is our most basic default setting, the setting that over-rides all others in an instant. The body and mind both have remarkable, and deeply connected, ways of coping with massive threats to safety. What we lack is a switch to kick us out of survival mode and into living-comfortably-in-a-modern-society mode.

The legend of the clever colobus monkeys stops after the monkeys outsmarted the hunters- this story was apparently documented by someone not understanding the nature of survival instincts. It doesn’t talk about what the next day of the monkeys’ lives was like. It doesn’t say if, that next day, at the first crackling of leaves on the forest floor, the first noise resembling a dog’s bark, the monkeys froze, briefly assessed the danger, and then started pulling their remaining fur out. It worked once, it should work again. Of course, it’s possible it never worked, and the hunters departed not because the monkeys made their bodies less valuable, but rather because more desirable prey crossed their path, or because they suddenly had a change of heart. But to the monkeys, it was their own self-mutilation that saved them, and that would have made the behavior one of the first ones to come to mind when they felt their lives were threatened. It would have made them feel better, whether or not it actually worked.

All of us, throughout the animal kingdom, do what we need to do to survive. When our life or safety is deeply threatened when we are young, the behaviors that seemed useful tend to become more pronounced and entrenched. And this is part of the reason I’ve heard child sex abuse survivors say they were decades into adulthood before they realized they could say “no” to someone’s sexual advances- to them, submitting to such advances in childhood was a key to survival. And if the act of harming one’s body provides one with the belief that they will be safer, that behavior persists. For me, lying in bed and feeling, exquisitely, every rib and hip bone and vertebrae poking me against the mattress was a very comforting feeling- a feeling of being encased in my body. So I did what was necessary to cultivate a body that provided me with that feeling. Being able to lay in bed and feel completely solid, no pesky bones poking at me from the mattress, was almost as good, and was something else to cultivate. Even after the danger passed.

Colobus monkeys have their long, luxurious coats so they can glide farther and stop abruptly as they leap through the forest canopy. Without them, presumably they face-plant into tree trunks and land below their intended target with every leap they take. Perhaps, at one point, after the clever colobus monkeys who had been pulling their fur to deal with all the frights of the forest, started to tire of broken fingers and bruised faces. On some level, in some way, they realized destroying their bodies wasn’t worth it- there are other ways to cope with fear and anxiety, and perhaps even danger. Perhaps one or two trend-setters first decided to re-grow their fur. Perhaps all of the plucked monkeys decided to try it together- a simian support group.

And thus, healing happens. At some point, abuse survivors realize they’re paying much more than anemic feelings of safety and calm are worth. If they haven’t done too much damage to their bodies, they get to experience what “healthy” feels like. Feeling so alive and strong and focused and energetic and capable all day is so powerfully good it over-rides the need to feel safe while lying in bed. And when life feels so good, it’s easy to forget we do indeed live in a world full of predators. Small things can jog the memory, though. It doesn’t need to be much, it can be as simple as parking your car in a parking garage at a concert and having four guys approach you, offering you drinks, the moment your door swings open. And you say no, and they insist, and you say no again, and as you say it you can’t help but notice that the big pick -ups on each side of your little car mean no one can see what’s going on unless they’re right in front of you. You can’t help but notice how each of those guys is taller than you, and you notice their musculature. You try to figure out who the leader is. You keep insisting you don’t want a drink, and finally, you crack a joke about it and dart away, wondering if there’s any chance the garage will be better lit in a few hours, after the sun goes down. And you wonder how quickly you’ll be able to make it back to your car after the concert, and you wonder exactly what kind of mood and what state of intoxication those guys will be in should you see them again. And you can’t help but realize this never used to happen when you in your years of body-mangling mode, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened if you had the good sense not to go somewhere alone in the first place.

It’s easy for me to go to a zoo, look at the monkeys on exhibit and say “you poor monkeys- you live in a cage”. But if I did, I couldn’t be sure they weren’t thinking to themselves “You poor human- the cages that keep us in keep danger out.” If I didn’t fear being transported from the zoo to the psych ward, I could tell the monkeys “I know how to use keys”. And then I’d need to pause and reflect, because you never want to be proved wrong by a monkey.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Happy 23rd

In a few weeks I’ll wish my cousin a happy birthday for the 23 time. This year I’ll send the festive wishes through Facebook, the only way I can get a hold of her. This time last year, she was homeless. Not houseless, not living on the street, but homeless in the sense that she was sleeping on a series of friends’ couches. Since drug addiction limits the number of friends who will let you sleep on their couch, the line between homelessness and houselessness is thin. That’s part of the reason she moved back in with her abusive ex-boyfriend.

 This time last year, I was grateful for a year between my 22nd “happy birthday” greeting to her and my 23rd. I hoped that extra trip around the sun would give me greater wisdom, and give her greater health and better circumstances. Maybe the world would change a little.

When I was 22 years and six months old I was working a good job for a good company. And I’d come home from work and feel myself start to dissolve, explode, and sink. As I started to look at websites about recovery from child sex abuse, I learned that in NY, a survivor has until their 23rd birthday to file criminal charges against their abuser. As of your 23rd birthday in NY, you can report your abuse to the police, and at best they’ll say “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do”. Around this time I also read volumes about how important and therapeutic it is for victims to forgive their abusers. I think I’m the only survivor out there who sees forgiveness as something complicated, nuanced and not panacean. Back then there were limited on-line resources for sex abuse survivors, and since I was desperate to hide my past from my cohabitating boyfriend, the internet, and the privacy inherent to it, seemed my only information resource. But the two things no one made clear back then were that forgiving your abuser doesn’t re-write anyone’s history, and forgiveness can be granted to an abuser who’s experiencing legal consequences for their actions.

I chose not to press charges on my father. At twenty-two and a half, I was too young to legally rent a car in NY.  I knew pressing charges would completely cut me off from my mother and sister, and it’s hard to embrace living as an orphan when you’re 22. I hoped the new distance between me and my family would give me an opportunity to enjoy them on some level- from a distance, perhaps the broken glass and blood splatters would become a sort of kaleidoscope. I didn’t know exactly what pressing charges would entail, but it seemed that at some point I’d actually have to tell people what my father did to me. I simply could not do that. It also seemed like there would be appointments with police officers, DA’s, and the like… not easy to do while working full-time, and not easily hidden from a boyfriend.  As I ate my slice of birthday cake at work that fateful day, I mentally made a toast to forgiveness.

Back then, I couldn’t understand there was nothing in my past worth hiding, and that literal death isn’t the only thing that can permanently separate family from you. Nor could I wrap my mind around the idea that my father was still molesting children. Until I learned he was. Then I started paying more attention to my family. And in a convoluted and slow way, I learned he molested my cousin who turns 23 in a few weeks.

The fundamental struggle of anyone who works with youth is to decide how many of their own mistakes to let them make. Little kid mistakes with unpleasant-but-bearable consequences are easy to learn from. But as youth grow, the consequences of the mistakes become bigger, and the task of imparting wisdom from those mistakes becomes harder. At those times, the person teaching the young person is wise to remember how they saw the world when they were young. Which makes ignoring this upcoming birthday very appealing to me right now.

Surviving sexual abuse as a child changes the way someone perceives the world, from the arrangement of their brain cells to their most abstract beliefs about the universe and its contents. Most sex abuse survivors I know are extremely perceptive, but learning to use those perceptions can be a lifetime’s challenge. Imagine someone who can always figure out which glass of fruit juice is laced with poison, which is laced with vitamins, but usually drinks the poison-laced juice. Especially those who are still young, with wounds un-healed and suffering not yet distilled into wisdom. Abusive relationships and drug addictions can both provide apparent benefits to survivors that other people can’t comprehend. It can take years or decades to learn that poison isn’t worth consuming. Childhood prepares us for adulthood, and when a piece of someone's childhood is taken from them, they enter the adult world unprepared in one way or another. And because of the shame and stigma they feel, they rarely ask someone for the Cliffs Notes for the lessons they missed. If they know what those lessons are. It is vastly unfair for people so young and unready to be tasked with battling the same predators who harmed them. And it is vastly unfair not to tell them what they are tasked with.    

I’ll message my cousin before her birthday this year. I’ll ask if she’s safe, and remind her that I have a guest room. If my courage holds, I’ll tell her she has a few weeks left to make a decision that is far from the forefront of her mind. A decision that will have major consequences for her and for others further down the road. Consequences that won’t be entirely pleasant, no matter what she decides. I’ll tell her it’s horrible and wrong and backwards and insane that she has to even think about this now. If I’m really brave, I’ll tell her why I made the decision I made on the eve of my 23rd birthday, and what I think about it now. I’ll tell her I love her, and that even though this won’t be a happy birthday, no matter what, there are better ones ahead.    

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Warm Fuzzies You Get From Watching “Natural Born Killers” When You’re Almost 35

When I was 13, my mother gave up on me. That was the year she was forced to end her 11-year maternity leave following the birth of my little sister. When she returned to work, her job used up most of her low quotient of mental energy and resilience. To my mother, the most important part of parenting was arbitrarily monitoring the movies and television her children watched and ridiculing or forbidding items she disapproved of.  But after I entered high school at age 13, I could watch whatever I wanted.

I grew up in a very rural town. I didn’t have many friends, and none were within hiking distance. Socializing wasn’t a big part of my “down time”, but watching movies was. I still remember the buzz surrounding the release of Natural Born Killers, and my shock that my mother didn’t keep me from watching it. I still remember staying up until the wee hours, watching it with my sister. Mostly, I remember that after I watched it, something inside me vibrated so strongly it shook everything else away. Years later I got the same feeling from seeing my favorite rock bands live- it’s a feeling I get when I consume huge doses of emotional truth.

I was 16. I knew that most of the violence, cruelty and depravity around me was perpetuated by those who withstood a heavy dose of it while young. Since I grew up in a prison town, and could see the hatred and violence common in the corrections industry reflected in correction workers’ children, I knew the movie’s statement about the monsters on both sides of the bars was correct. I was 16. Three years before, I had been sexually assaulted by my father, then by his cousin many times. After three years of it my mother found out and chose to do nothing. Yes, I completely understood Mallory’s whoops of joy as her boyfriend rescued her by killing her parents.

Mallory’s sexual abuse is a big feature of the movie- flashbacks of it haunt her throughout. But we never see her cry, we never see her collapse. Cry, collapse, and seek vengeance were the only things I had ever seen fictional child sexual abuse (CSA) survivors do. My parents made sure that crying was not something I resorted to, ever. And as far as I knew, I didn’t know any real CSA survivors besides my mother, who had collapsed decades ago without getting up.

I was 17 when I went to college. Two things I learned within my first few weeks were not to tell anyone the prison town I was from, and not to identify “Natural Born Killers” as my favorite movie. As those two lessons were absorbed, I also learned what life was like for my peers who’s lives had been easier. Their lives seemed so much smaller than mine, jewel cases containing a perfect orchid or butterfly. I wanted something like that, not all the moss and miscellaneous bugs crawling around in the crate that was my life.

By my senior year of college, I moved in with a male classmate kind enough to tape NBK for me. I figured if I trusted him enough to live with him, I could watch my favorite movie with him. I remember that evening, sitting in our dark little den. I felt the same vibrations going through me that I did when I was sixteen. As the movie ended, I was aware of how dark the den was, how small the room was, and how much distance there was between my boyfriend and I. We talked about it- he found it barely tolerable, not therapeutic. I loved him. I thought he was a good catch, that marrying him would be a superlative accomplishment. And that was the last time I watched Natural Born Killers with him.

For big chunks of my adulthood, renting a movie was a financial luxury and time expenditure I couldn’t justify. As I grew from being old enough to vote, to old enough to drink, to old enough that no one asked for ID when I purchased cigarettes, I became more and more certain a killing spree was as unlikely to be part of my life as a collapse or extended crying jag. I had a blogging gig when the Supreme Court voted on allowing the death penalty for child rapists, and that gave me the opportunity to think about getting revenge against my parents with a sanitized, state-sanctioned killing spree. And the thought wasn’t appealing.

By the time I was old enough to never be mistaken for I minor, I could afford to buy a DVD without skipping a meal. I was also donating platelets regularly for the Red Cross. Donating platelets is more complex than donating blood, and involves laying down for 70-120 minutes- an excellent opportunity to watch a movie. So, last summer I purchased and watched my old favorite. I’m pretty sure the vibrations I felt afterwards weren’t the shivering the donation process can cause. It was still the same movie. It was still the same me. But there was somehow more to it and to me.

The first two times I watched it, it never dawned on me how utterly bloody it was. I had even gotten into arguments about that. Yes, it’s easy to cheer and overlook the blood when Mickey and Mallory kill the bad guys, meting out justice in that visceral, Old Testament sort of way. But they kill a whole lot of people who aren’t clearly bad guys.  It was a lot harder for me to see Mickey as Mallory’s knight in shining armor when he rapes a hostage after they wed. Mallory’s whoops of joy as Mickey kills her parents… well, I still understand them, but I found them a lot more strident than I did the first two times.

So many people use the word “ruined” in connection with child sex abuse. I think a better way to view it is like this- your psyche is a house, and a sexual assault is like having a bomb explode inside it. The doors, windows and maybe an exterior wall are gone. The interior walls become rubble. Rebuilding the barriers between the self and the outside world can be a massive, but crucial, endeavor. But the rest of the rebuilding is a matter of interior design. Friends of mine think with a little more therapy I’ll trade my Alice Walker for Danielle Steel, Nine Inch Nails for The Beach Boys, and my passion for advocating for children into a passion for watching TV. That would be taking their internal blue-prints and copying it within my psyche. I’ve learned that I like not having too many interior walls- they waste so much space.  I like consuming big, loud entertainment that takes up a lot of emotional space and makes some interesting echoes.  The problem with a lot of space is it’s easy to turn it into a repository for hate and anger and rage. I won’t deny that I have some of that. I also have love, optimism, curiosity, compassion, an appreciation of beauty and a passion for justice. All of those things take up room, too, and keep the darker emotions at bay.

Until the day I die, I suspect the scene in Natural Born Killers where Mickey ties Mallory’s mom to the bed, gags her, douses her in lighter fluid, and let’s Mallory say “you didn’t do nothing” before he sets her on fire will always be meaningful to me. Knowin that my mother knew my uncle was raping me and let him continue hurts me at least as much now as it did when I was 16. I don’t expect that pain will ever go away. I know it becomes a smaller part of my life every year, every day, as my life keeps growing. I also don’t expect it will ever hijack my life and cause me to seek vengeance, cry or collapse.
Right now, my mother is 65 years old. She’s in such bad health her bones break regularly. When she’s not at work, she spends all day in a recliner, watching TV, and she plans on retiring this year. She puts less than 6000 miles on her car each year.

I run 5k’s. I lift weights. I put over 70,000 miles on my last car in 34 months- some of that was from work, but most of it was from play. While it’s not easy to portray in a movie, living well really is the best revenge, and I’m quite sure it’s the only one I’ll exact against my parents.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Censorship Story (or, what I did with my summer vacation)

As red-blooded Americans, we instinctively recoil against censorship. But living in a world filled with small children and old ladies, we also realize that not every imaginable expression of everything needs to be everywhere. Most of us recognize censorship as a shade of gray involving who has easy access to what, not a black-and-white absolute. The only exception readily coming to mind is child pornography, because both its production and consumption have demonstrable negative effects.

Mostly, we try to censor words, images and ideas. Words and images are easy. Change the f-bomb in a song to a beep, throw a cloth, shadow or gore over otherwise exposed genitalia, and we’re good to go. If a director is trying to get a PG-13 rating, they can depict a blood-less murder.  Censoring ideas is harder, causing strange compromises- songs glorifying drug use can get air play if they don’t mention a specific drug, but songs with an anti-drug theme that name a specific drug can’t. Tremendous controversy surrounded the release of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with an R rating (as opposed to an NC-17) because it “depicted a rape”. Actually, the movie depicts three, of two different characters, plus several instances of consensual sex, and several attempted murders. The plot of the movie encompasses dozens of murders, rapes and incest. But it was the graphic-ness of one rape scene that pushed the critics’ envelopes. A combination of images and ideas, as the scenes of consensual sex were no more graphic, anatomically speaking, than two of the rape scenes. The salient detail no one mentioned is that the graphic-ness of the rapes scene does a great job at depicting how ugly and brutal rape is- it’s fiction illustrating something common but almost invisible. It depicts a victim putting herself in a situation where her re-victimization is likely. This isn’t unheard of, but such cases almost never get convictions, and if they make it to trial, the baffling headlines generally cause people to conclude that someone is “playing the system”. The scene illustrates that the power a rapist has over their victim isn’t always physical, but the graphicness of it shows how abusing that power is vastly wrong.

One little FYI- in the time it takes to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 89 people in the US will be raped, and 44 % of them will be under the age of 18.

When I read about a musician or director struggling with a censorship issue, I always breathe a small sigh of relief, as writing is among the least censored creative genres. Most parents are so happy to see their child reading anything other than text messages or Facebook updates they’ll tolerate almost any choice of reading material. There is no rating system for books, only the vague categorization of books into “young adult” (or YA, a genre encompassing 12-18 year-olds) or younger and “adult” genres. There are no prohibitions against selling books that aren’t “young adult” to minors. A teenager reading a novel that isn’t in the YA section of Barnes and Noble means-gasp- the teenager is reading at an adult level. This is something most parents celebrate.

I was recently invited to submit a story for a Halloween anthology. The anthology was being edited by an up-and-coming YA author, so she felt it was important that the anthology be acceptable for young adult audiences. The guidelines I was given were that the submission must have something to do with Halloween, although it need not be much. No swearing, no graphic depictions of sex or violence. Halloween is not my favorite holiday, and horror and suspense are not my favorite genres, but I was committed to finding something to contribute. I approached it logically- what are things people deeply fear? Spiders. Anything else? Pedophiles. Can I weave these two things together? Indeed. I came up with a story about the guilt and sorrow caused by justice a system that makes it hard to convict sex offenders, especially in NY. It’s set on Halloween, and it features a dream where a character is attacked by their pet tarantulas. It used the word “rape” once and the word “pedophile” once. And I was told it was too adult. What’s more, I was told that, according to a leading YA literary agent, discussion of child sex abuse is forbidden in the young adult marketplace.

And then I read that it’s apparently forbidden in some libraries, too. The public library in Lancaster PA decided to remove from the shelves Debi Pearl’s book “Sara Sue Learns to Yell and Tell”, a book teaching children to recognize child sex abuse and report it to adults. The library denied it was a censorship issue, and when questioned about it, a library official was quoted as saying "The goal of the library is to buy things people in the community want to read".

I understand parents wanting to shelter their children from every imaginable expression of everything. But, the cliché question in this case is “if you don’t talk to your children about pedophiles, who will?” One possible answer is “no one needs to talk to them about it, they can just download instructional photos on their phone”, as evidenced by this unfortunate case

The other cliché answer to the above question is "pedophiles themselves". Of course, most parents’ knee-jerk reaction is “I don’t know anyone who would do that/there’s no one like that in my neighborhood”. I’ve seen one study stating that in 90% of child sex abuse cases, there is no non-offending adult who’s aware of the abuse. That means no trafficking, no parent or bystander providing tacit consent or help. I’m sure in most of these cases, the non-offending caretaker(s) of these children had no reason to suspect anyone they knew could hurt them in such a way, but lo and behold, hurt them they did.  

All the leaders in the child-sex-abuse-prevention field believe talking to children about both healthy sexuality and sexual abuse is likely to decrease the odds of that child being victimized. The assumed benefits are two-fold- a child who can comfortably utter a sentence like “Mommy told me never to touch someone’s penis” is likely to be a less attractive target to a predator. After all, they’ve just shown they can describe the act that is being planned, that they’ve talked about this sort of thing with Mommy, and that they’re probably capable of telling the police. The other possible benefit is that a child who understands what sex abuse is better prepared to minimize the damage done to them should they be victimized. If they have the misfortune of telling someone who doesn’t believe them or take appropriate action on their behalf, they may still understand they are the victim of a crime and the abuse isn’t their fault. They may be spared some of the guilt that often plagues survivors.

When a CSA survivor is left to piece together their experience based on the media and discussions with friends, they’re likely to draw some strange conclusions. There are very few depictions of CSA survivors who do anything besides survive CSA- in other words, the crux of their story is that they were abused, and usually a struggle for justice, an intense desire for vengeance, or vast amounts of crying ensue. But that’s it- these people have no life beside their victimization, and usually their character is never seen again. Sitcom parents struggle to bring the right kid to dance class and pick the right one up from karate, but not to bring one to the weekly support group for CSA survivors at the local child advocacy center. I suspect screen writers would say there is no humor to be found there, but that both embodies and furthers the belief that the life of a CSA survivor is too damaged for humor, and the healing it can bring. Murder is commonly depicted in young adult movies and books (what percent of the good guys in Harry Potter are murdered?), rape and CSA aren’t. This implies that rape and CSA are rarer, worse, or both. It’s true that I’ve never met a CSA survivor, myself included, who hasn’t struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression at times, but I’ve also never met any who don’t grow past it and reach a place where they’re happy to have survived their trauma.

Here’s what upset me the most about hearing that CSA is forbidden for YA audiences- in a class of twenty nine-year-olds (about the youngest a kid would be who tackles a YA novel), statistically two have already been sexually abused. Another will be abused by their 14th birthday (when the official YA age bracket starts), and another will be abused before they celebrate their 18th birthday.

I was lucky with my story. I was able to do the cinematic equivalent of throwing some gore over genitals. I eliminated the words “rape” and “pedophile”, I made the spider dream a smidge less graphic, and I threw lots and lots of gloss over the whole thing. I argued a little about why it’s important that young adults be able to read about this issue. And I know that neither my story nor my arguing over it is going to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but I also know that awareness of an issue, even the smallest measure of it, is necessary to fix it.

I know what it’s like to hold a new baby and feel completely unworthy of something so pure and full of potential. I’ve watched many parents try to cast out anything that may sully this new person’s future. Voluntarily, their freedoms to smoke, to drink, to drive recklessly, to swear, to watch TV when the baby is awake, go out the window. But reality eventually sets in. Some of those self-imposed limitations prove impossible, some prove excessive, and some prove unimportant. But still, there is a desire to keep this young person’s world pure is strong. It can be very hard and unpleasant to remember that children dwell in the same flawed world we do. But a pristine corner of it may be one who’s inhabitants find themselves unarmed against well-hidden enemies.