The fog has baked off already — it’s just a cottony grey rim along the coast. The birds have finally discovered the feeders I put out a couple of weeks ago, and they’re jockeying for position, seniority, the most seeds.
I watched the movie Spotlight this weekend with my sweetheart’s brother’s family. Her cousin was one of the members of the Spotlight team who investigated and finally brought the story of long-term church cover-up of abuse and pedophilia in the Boston diocese, by Cardinal Law and others. After it was over, my sweetheart said, “Do you think it’s still going on, that sort of covering-up?” Someone else asked another question immediately or made another comment and the conversation went in another direction. I’d sat there in silence for a moment after she asked anyway. I couldn’t imagine that she really believed that maybe it wasn’t just the same all over the world. My immediate answer would have been loud and definitive, maybe discomfortingly so, the way I can get: Of course it’s still going on–in the church, in private homes, in other places of worship, in just about any institution you can imagine in which adults have power over the bodies of others, adults are abusing that power and then pretending like they didn’t do anything wrong or calling the children crazy or engaging in wishful thinking when the children try to tell someone what’s been done to them, or acting like it’s their right to take whatever they want whenever they want, like, say, our troll-in-chief has a habit of doing.
But there was something else that got me thinking after the movie was over. There were people, those higher up at the Globe and those working for or still supporting the church, who were worried about interrupting the work of the church, worried about this story somehow breaking the church in the eyes of the people. But that didn’t happen. Not in Boston, where it was found that some hundreds of priests had been sexually abusing children throughout the city for decades while the church did nothing but move those priests around and try and keep the victims quiet (sometimes, like in the case of Cardinal Law, moving the offending protectors to the Vatican itself), not anywhere else around the world where the church has engaged in systematic despoiling of a community’s or parish’s children. The church survives, continues with its “work.”
Back in the early 90s, I agonized about whether or not I should go to the authorities about what my stepfather had done to my sister and me. Should I go to the police? Will they even believe me? And what about all his patients? Won’t I be harming them if he’s not allowed to practice anymore? I had the idea that maybe the good he (ostensibly) was doing elsewhere should mean more than the harm he did at home. I was a good victim, and a good woman — I was more worried about the well-being of others, had been well-groomed not just by my stepfather but by a society that trains us to put the good of the many above the good of the few. Sure, we say, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves — but does that really have to undermine his message of equality and democracy??
We’re raised with this kind of cognitive dissonance. We are trained to worry about the well-being of the abusers. We are afraid that maybe something bad will happen to them if we tell about what they did to us. A good friend wrote about this recently — we needn’t worry. The abusers almost always land on their feet, often even in the house of what used to be the president. No one has stopped watching Woody Allen movies, or Roman fucking Polanski. Feminists aplenty stood with, stand with, Bill Clinton. Plenty of people still go to the Catholic church, still listen to the music of James Brown, John Mayer, still read the books of …
I trail off here and my heart gets thick and watery and I lose track of what I want to say. Do I really mean to say that the abusers always win, so we shouldn’t feel bad for them? Even if we tell. Even if they get held “accountable.” It’s disheartening (um, to say the least) to know that, more often than not, people are going to stand with the abuser, or abusers. It’s the way we are raised as Americans, certainly.
But beyond that, maybe the message I want to hold this morning is that we ought to tell, early and often and loudly. Tell and tell and tell. The abuser is going to tell his(*) side, and plenty of people will stand with him, whether they believe in him or not.
I watch an ex of mine being lauded in a community he claims to have been participating in for nearly a decade (never mind that we were together for part of that time, and he never once went to any event or gathering of theirs during that time) – he’s being raised up as a leader, turned to for spiritual guidance, given opportunities to lead others during times of great tenderness, fear, vulnerability. In the years since we split up, and of course while we were still together, I was afraid to tell about the difficulties in our relationship. I was ashamed of being under someone’s control the way I was with him, feared his response if he found that I had talked about him or us, and believed that others wouldn’t believe me if I told them what he was like in private or that they wouldn’t care. Just last year, after we’d been apart for more than four years, I shared a tiny piece of our relationship on Facebook after I read an interview in which he claimed that we’d broken up because I couldn’t support his transition to male. I’d been astonished to read this — his transition had had exactly nothing to do with why I finally left him. But even then, all those years later, I was afraid to tell my truth about him. That interview was in the SF Bay Times because he’d been chosen as a grand marshal for the Pride parade. What if someone saw what I wrote and asked him about what I’d said. What if it embarrassed him?!? I was still more worried about him than about myself. And I needn’t have worried. No one asked him about the little bit I shared on Facebook. Nothing stood in the way of him being celebrated as a community leader at the front of our pride parade. He’s doing just fine.
Of course, worry about the well-being of the ones who hurt us isn’t the only consideration when we think about telling our stories of trauma and abuse, but often it’s one piece of our fear. What if we laid that part down?
It’s going to take many, many of us telling, over and over again, for this system that is thousands of years old to begin to change fundamentally, foundationally. And in the meantime, maybe we don’t need to worry so much about the well-being of the people who harmed us. We can tell. We can tell ourselves in private, we can tell our notebooks, we can tell our therapists. We can tell friends, community members, we can write it in poems, into songs, into stories, into memoir, we can tell our own truths, we can tell the truth about our lives. Muriel Rukeyser said the world will split open if we do. I once thought she meant that literally, wanted it to be a literal breaking open, the world coming apart at the seams when women, when all survivors of abuse and trauma and violence and oppression, came forth with the realities of their lives. But it’s a smaller breaking apart — fissures in the facade we are meant to live within, the facade of white supremacy, of male supremacy. Enough little fissures and cracks can bring a wall down. Keep telling in all the many ways that you tell. It makes a difference — in our hearts and bodies, in the bodies of those who hold the truth with us, in the bodies of those yet to be born.
* (I’m using his here in the specific and the general — specifically to mean men, to mean male, understanding that the vast majority of abusers are male-gendered, and in the old way, when he was meant to stand in for all of humankind, understanding that abusers come in all genders.)