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.  

Monday, May 28, 2012

Welcome to Rabbits and Hawks

Welcome to Rabbits and Hawks, my blog. I’ve been very reluctant to set up a blog of my own, even bragging to friends about not having one, but as Eddie Vedder sings “if you hate something, don’t you do it too?”.

There are over seven billion people on this planet, and at least one billion of them have regular access to the World Wide Web. That means at least one billion are theoretically capable of expressing any opinion or thought that crosses their mind with a billion others. When I scroll through Facebook, I see banalities passed around like diseases, I see an absolute celebration of shallow thought, and I see the same kitten pictures dozens of times. I don’t mind the kittens, but still, I have no desire to contribute to the flood.

The only way someone can expect sharing opinions and experiences online to be satisfying is if they believe other people actually care what they think. In general, I don’t expect anyone to care what I think- I’d like to think I’m not egotistical. But I can’t deny that I’ve had some rather interesting, uncommon and enlightening experiences in my 34.5 years on this earth, and more and more I realize that some of what I’ve learned, seen and done is worth sharing. I’ve learned that people have benefited from what I’ve learned, and what I’ve shared with them.

I write, I’m an advocate for children, and I pay the bills generated by both those hobbies by working as a lab tech. With a few exceptions, neither advocating for children nor writing actually pays bills. My fiction is often influenced by my advocacy work, and part of my advocacy work is often writing. I blog with some frequency for Prevent Child Abuse NY, and have written intermittently for Lavender Sisters, an on-line magazine for survivors of child abuse, rape and domestic violence. I’ve had blogs appear on, promoting legislation that I advocate for, and I’ve had many editorials appear in many newspapers over the years. As an advocate, I’m most interested in the primary prevention of child abuse, which is preventing it before it happens (yes, it is possible, we’ve known how to do it for longer than I’ve been alive, and the fact that we don’t do it is fodder for many a blog), most facets of child sex abuse and its prevention, and human trafficking. As far as fiction writing goes, I have one book out, Efforts to Save the Meat Rabbits, and I’m working on a collection of short fiction/experimental novel/memoir through prose pieces called Days Chasing Hawks. I’m going to re-launch novel #1 in the foreseeable future on, after a little editing. I was making fantastic progress on book #2. Notice my use of the past-tense in that sentence.

The clever reader will have now figured out why I gave this blog its name. There have been times when I considered setting up a blog and was discouraged simply because I couldn’t come up with a good title with a matching web domain. Melanie Blow is my legal, married name. I am not the only Melanie Blow in the country, however, and the other women sharing my moniker have taken the good domain names and twitter handles (by the way, my twitter handle is @hawkfeathergal). Interestingly enough, most of the other women out there who go by Melanie Blow are in the adult film industry. This fact, or the fact that my name sounds like an uninspired alias, is not lost on the many front-desk staff at the cheap-ish hotels I often stay at. From a marketing standpoint, “Rabbits and Hawks” is probably a terrible idea, as it doesn’t promote my name and because many people will read the domain name as “rabbit sandhawks”. I have no idea what a rabbit sandhawk is, but if any reader can enlighten me, I’ll be eternally grateful.

I made the final decision to keep this title a few weeks ago, at the funeral of my 102-year-old grandmother. My grandmother was very open-minded, accepted me for who I am, and was one of the few people in my family who was proud of me for the advocacy work I do. Her funeral was on a rainy, leaden, gray day, at a little chapel in the cemetery she is now buried at. The attendees met at a parking lot near the cemetery’s entrance, and when everyone had arrived, we were lead across the cemetery to the chapel. As I was driving, I saw a red tailed hawk flying off the grass, clutching a dead rabbit in its talons. The sky was so dark and gray the bombastic green of the grass was subdued, but the brown-suffused-with-gold hawk stood out. Its tail was only a burgundy undertone away from being scarlet. The rabbit’s coat was every shade of brown imaginable, peppered with black and gray, with a blinding white tail and belly. It was a moment touched with sadness, but also something beautiful, complete and eternal. I slammed on my brakes, funeral traffic be damned. And as the hawk and rabbit disappeared, it occurred to me that this entire scene was my life in a nutshell.

Welcome to Rabbits and Hawks!