Warning: Very Very Long- oh, and Full of Potential Triggers
Everyday for the last 12 days, I've written a blog, but you don't see them here, because I wrote them in my head. I've come to the conclusion that I'm probably a better writer than a blogger. It seems I don't easily take to the format of dashing off my thoughts and then making them public on a daily basis. I need to think about every word I write- are they the absolute correct word to express what I want to say? Where I put a comma changes meaning, tone, weight. Anything more spontaneous than such consideration has been a writing 'exercise', uncensored even by the self, to get the blood in the brain, the blood in the words, in the fingers flowing. I wouldn't show that stuff to my most trusted avatar. I admire journalists who must get a piece out daily, and most do so brilliantly. Most.
Nevertheless, here goes:
Sometime ago, a friend called me 'conservative'. I was appalled and had to take a good look. I knew I wasn't- couldn't possibly be- one of those liberals whose heart bleeds almost indiscriminately. I couldn't bear to be ultra-radical either. The ends of the spectrum always seemed, regardless of which end, reactionary, and dogmatic. I know about those Thatcherite gay men in England, and about the Hindus and Muslims and people of colour who voted in Trump- and I know I am not conservative. And I couldn't bear to be merely centrist- too wishy-washy, fence sitting, opportunistic. I think the problem my name-calling friend had was that I have a tendency to want to flesh out positions, learn from adversaries why they hold their positions, (listening is a long, slow process- sometimes almost impossible not to interrupt and tell the person to go to hell), speak my 'side' so that I could hear what I am saying, hear my argument's holes, hone it's strengths. I find taking sides without having engaged in discussion and deep thought simplistic, reactionary and dangerous- and leads to a Hunger Games mentality. Black or white, left or right. The grey is disturbing, but it's what I prefer to stir and stir, until it turns not black or white, but clear. It's a slow, tedious process. I couldn't ever be a lawyer or a judge.
in my thirties, I met an art collector who had come to my studio. I had two rooms of paintings, each separated by a door that wouldn't properly close, but pushed in well enough to say to someone that it was in effect a boundary. In one room were the paintings I wanted to show him, large canvasses of fruit and vegetables, painted like landscapes. In the room I intended to to keep him out of by pushing in the door as far as it would go, leaving an open space of about three inches, was a body of also very large canvasses that dealt with my own experience of childhood sexual abuse. I left the collector alone to contemplate my work long enough that he took it upon himself to venture beyond that door boundary. Turns out he was a psychiatrist for male sex offenders at a minimum security prison. He did the unthinkable today- he asked me to tell him about the paintings, and then asked if I would consider going to his prison to talk to the offenders, to show them my paintings, to tell them my experience of having been abused as a child. And I did what would be unthinkable today. Back then, I thought long and hard, wondered if I was up to standing in front of such convicted men, and baring my self to them. As a practising Buddhist at the time, I was drawn to the principal of "turning poison into medicine"-- or what the heck is the point of all of this anyway- unless I do something worthwhile with it. And I decided that everything I had been taught to that point, the horrid stuff that included such abuse- evidence of the unfairness and awfulness of life, and the great stuff I learned from my parents about social responsibility, about my strengths as a woman, and how not to remain a victim but to rise up as a survivor (tough, hard, nearly impossible work), all of this made me determined to rise up in myself and go tell the bastards what it is like in the present of my life to have been treated like that as a child.
But before I would actually speak to these men, I wanted to be driven through the grounds of the prison so that I could, as we say in Trinidad, take front before front took me. That drive-through left me almost paralysed. I saw- as if I needed to!- what the experience as a child had done to me. Something inside me rose up in defiance, and I asked to go a second time, to go eat in the canteen with the staff and prisoners,-with only guards and staff at my table, of course- before I took on the task asked of me. There, too, I almost died of anxiety and panic, and I didn't know if I could do what the psychiatrist had asked me to do. But it was those very feelings of terror that made me decide that I had to go ahead. Not because I had to beat the terror in me, but because I had to tell those men, i had to tell the psychiatrist for those men, what it was like then as a child and what it was like now- so that they would see the damage, in the hope that they would see how damaging and wrong their behaviour was. I also knew that this was not something that another person who had been abused could necessarily do, or should ever be expected to do, and therefore, it felt like a duty, like a service to/for others who had had a similar experience to that of my childhood.
When I actually went back to speak to the imprisoned abusers, with guards in full view for my peace of mind, I took the paintings that had been behind the door, I explained what they were about, I read my poems that were about that experience, about the present in which I lived the experience of that past, and fielded questions. The room in which we were could hold only 18 of the men, half of the prison population. It was a powerful thing for me to do. It was strange to hear the voice of these men when they spoke, and I shook with a mix of terror and determination that I not leave out a detail. It meant something to me that I could tell them that I had just heard that one of the men who had abused me had recently died, and that I was sorry that he had died of an illness because it ended my fantasy that I might one day be able to find him and kill him myself.
The other 18 men later sent a message via the psychiatrist to ask if I would come and speak with them. They wanted to try and find the words to express why they did what they did. They wanted to try and tell their story, but- oddly- not to their psychiatrist, to whom they had never actually opened up, but to someone who might be able to stand in for the child they abused, because they felt they couldn't lie- at least not now- to that person. I thought about it, and I decided I wanted to know why, what they were thinking, what men like that thought, why and how they dared, not so that I could know their minds, but so that I could be further released from the grip of my early experience.
They told me about the abuse they suffered as children, they revealed things they had not previously wanted to say in front of each other or to the art-collector/psychiatrist- and I understood that these men were once themselves broken little boys with no resources in a very masculine patriarchal world. There was no excusing them, not in the least, but there was now some understanding of who such people were and are. But the ultimate and most unexpected result was that I felt myself relase from the grip of the actual men who abused me when I was a child. I felt myself rise up. It took being believed and validated by many people, including the psychiatrist who invited me to go to that prison, my own therapist, friends and family, and yes, by those prisoners, to help me on the way to being able to breathe deeply. I t would take years beyond that before my own behaviours as an abused person could be managed, but I was well on the way from victim to survivor.
Why do I tell this story? I want to say that abuse stories are horrid and hard, but they are real. This visit to the prison happened some twenty five years ago. Then, the psychiatrist knew it was risky, but he took the chance and asked me, an abused person, to go. If it were now, I bet that same man would not dare- because he would not want to risk the possibility of revictimising me- as we say today-by putting me in such a situation, or the accusation that he had revicitimised me by doing so. It might have been assumed that I was damaged- as if it were an identity- and that I should be taken care of as a such. I might have, therefore, been deprived of an opportunity to face and wrestle the demons within myself and on the outside. I think, however, that the psychiatrist saw something in me that suggested to him that I could do what he was asking of me. And I, not having access then to the present-day socially prevalent rhetoric of triggers and revictimisation, was free enough to consider, to make my own decision, and then to take up the challenge. I like to think he didn't see me as someone who needed to be handled with kid gloves because she had been abused, I like to think he saw in me the possibility of strength, and that he did not want to assume and take away my power to decide if I should say yes or no to making such a potentially damaging, such a potentially healing visit.
So this is the problem, for me, with the daily quick blog-idea. I had to give this long story-as-explanation, rather than write a few lines, rather than write something short, something pithy, such as "wtf with all this stuff about needing trigger warnings? Why bring out the silencing guns instead of insisting on the harder, slower process of debate, discussion, listening? Are we truly OK with being treated with kid gloves all the time? Why the simplistic notion that because we are women we must be believed- an assertion in which holes can be poked thereby destroying that very credibility we mean to assert? Why bring out the big sticks and apply them to our abusers in the way that they have been applied to us. If it isn't wise when it's done to us, why on earth would we employ such tactics ourselves???" Btw, I understand that there are stages in our healing when the possibility of revictimization is a realty, and that this must be dealt with seriously, and that trigger warnings, etc, are necessary and useful here- but I want to suggest that they are just that- a stage, not a platform- while we are on the way to another where we will be strong and powerful enough to actually engage in the continuous battle to deal with the systems that are entrenched and that do victimise us when we appeal to them for justice.