Painting One-Dimensional Abusers

“I’m sorry, momma!
I never meant to hurt you!
I never meant to make you cry;
But tonight, I’m cleaning out my closet.” -Eminem

Last summer, I had a dream about my mother.

In the dream, I was in my first consensual, trusting sexual relationship. My mom walked in on us and started screaming.

“How dare you not wait for marriage?” She demanded. “I told you, I tried so hard to not let you make the same mistakes I did!”

Sometimes in dreams, my emotional reactions are truer to my subconscious self than they would be in real life. If this had actually happened, I think I would have felt angry and defensive, and embarrassed for my love interest, who was standing there awkwardly. But in the dream, I saw her hurt with profound clarity. I felt nothing but compassion for my mother.

She got pregnant for the first time when she was just fourteen. She blames herself. She told us that she “made mistakes.” She told us to never have sex, to save ourselves for the one-and-only. She carries shame for her past.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that a 14-year-old girl in the year 1982, living in a trailer park of the Midwest, knew anything about consent or how to assert herself. It’s the story of many of our mothers in fundamentalist movements. They feel shame for something they probably couldn’t control. They tell their daughters to do differently.

I feel my mother’s pain. I know she was more than likely a victim. I know it wasn’t her fault, and she blames herself, and projects that guilt onto her own children. She’s just doing what she knows; she’s trying to protect us.

It was with this compassion and empathy that I started blogging about my parents’ abuse.

For the past several months, I’ve been challenging myself to examine my motivations in writing about my parents. I explained already why this has to be public, but I want to avoid the traps of venting in anger, or publicly shaming, or making my parents into purely evil human beings.

I’ve been following what Monica Lewinsky and Ron Jonson say about being publicly humiliated for mistakes. I just finished reading an article called “Abusers are people too.”

On another level, I know that the capacity to do harm is within myself. This isn’t just about parents who shame their daughters for having sex drives, or about children being paddled. It’s also about the darker things humans are capable of doing, like genocide and rape and war.

Ordinary people do bad things. These situations are complicated. I refuse to excuse what’s been done, but I also refuse to paint a one-dimensional, inhuman face onto my abusers.

To see them as human is scary. It means abusers can be anyone, anywhere. That’s why so many people don’t believe me, it’s why so many people don’t believe so many other victims who’ve spoken up.

I don’t tell my story just to be vengeful. I tell it because I know I’m not alone. I tell it because I’m trying to make sense of the complexity, to bring healing to those who haven’t dared to forsake loyalty and broadcast their truth. I do it to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

And I hope that there are some mothers out there who can realize that they’re breaking their children with shame they don’t have to carry.

You didn’t do anything wrong, mom. Sin isn’t real. Your young motherhood wasn’t your choice, mom. That matters, mom. You don’t have to blame yourself, mom. What I’m doing is by choice, mom. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, mom. I wish you knew that I understand, mom.

I know you won’t understand, mom. You were too busy making us sick to keep us close. We kids came cheaper by the proxy for your Munchausen Syndrome. My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t, that I was broken and dirty when I wasn’t. I get it. I got so used to being sheltered from the rain that always followed you, but I won’t come back to the wet, cold, sniffling comfort of your cloud.

“It seems like you’ve healed,” one of my most trusted friends, Lael, said to me a few weeks ago. “But the situation with your family hasn’t.”

“Maybe that’s just proof that I didn’t instigate it,” I replied. “Besides, if an ex-husband had done what my parents did, nobody would ask, ‘when are you going to seek reconciliation?’”

Understanding is not excusing. Explanation is not forgiveness. It’s possible to see people as complex and human, and still to acknowledge that it’s not healthy for me to be around them.

It’s also the only way to stop the cycle of abuse: acknowledge that we’re capable of doing the same, and choosing to be more self-aware with our decisions.

Children are people…and people are children

This is a re-upload from the lost archives.

 “That was childish.” My friend said.

“Not very smart, perhaps,” I replied. “But childish? To call something childish – implying inexperience, stupidity, or lack of self-control – is an insult to children. It wasn’t all that uncommon, a mere century ago, to say ‘womanish’ in the same derogatory way that we use ‘childish’ now.”

A couple of years ago, I wasn’t quite so radical about respecting children. That’s because I bought the lies. I believed that spanking was the most effective form of fabricated consequences. I thought of my siblings in terms of their progress in obedience and submission. I preached about my parents’ training techniques, inspired by Michael and Debi Pearl, enthusiastically.

I love the theme in blog posts like Libby Anne’s “Yes, I’m a Mom. I have also been a child.” And Samantha Field’s “the radical notion that children are people.” Because they’ve already said much of what I’d like to say on the subject, I want to introduce another concept: people are children.

There are many positive and neutral phrases for children in our vernacular, too. We say “inner child” when we’re talking about wonder or creativity. We say we’ll “never grow up” or “I am such a child” when we do something risky or ambitious or fun. It’s not a bad thing, and the people who seem ageless or forever young are to be admired.

I just wish we could see the children in each other. I want to look past age. I want to cut through the barrier of pretense, the one that acts like we’re not all a little scared, a little naïve and curious, a little lost, a little eager to ask “why” about everything.

There are a lot of things that kids do, and that I can do with kids, that shouldn’t go away with the isolating barrier of age.

I get on my knees and look into the eyes of a 7-year-old girl.

She’s shaking.

“You don’t have to do this,” I say.

She bites her lip and makes a little determined frown. “I want to try.”

I tell her I’ll be beside her the whole time, and we run alongside the trotting horse.

She jumps, I spot. She’s on the horse.

“Salute!” I say.

She’s still frightened, but she breathes and balances.

The horse slows down.

“You did it! You made it!” I bring her back to the moment.

She takes my hand and smiles at herself.

I’ve been in this moment many times with children.

I wish that when I’m working with a 50-year-old with PTSD, he had the freedom to be so open, so needy, so trusting. I do not see his age. I see a frightened child who’s endured too much violence, and I want to be his friend and support.

Many barriers keep that from happening, though.

Age and sex and status and wealth put him above me, and we cannot be children. It’s taboo to see him as a child without insulting his life experience.

People are children. We’ve denied our own right to be ourselves by making children unimportant and unwise. That is to say, we do to ourselves what we do to others.

Let’s admit that children are people. We might, in the process, realize that people are children. It might help us rediscover our abandon, our presence, our freedom, and our dreams.

Here in this Moment

This is part of my restored archives.

When I started blogging, I wrote about being haunted by the words in a song (I still do that all the time). The song is called “More to Life” by Stacie Orrico. It goes like this:

Here in this moment
I’m halfway out the door
On to the next thing
I’m searching for something that’s missing
…I’m always waiting on something other than this,
Why am I feeling like there’s something to miss?

So six years later, I’m happy to report that I don’t open blog posts with Bible verses anymore as often as before, I use ridiculously cringeworthy Christian clichés a bit less, and most importantly, I’ve finally resolved this conflict for myself. At the time, my answer was to pursue what’s eternal, and to realize that it’s pointless to wait around for things to change.

One huge thing has changed, though. I don’t feel the need to be seen anymore.

I feel like we writers and artists are particularly susceptible to the problem of projection, of imaginary friends, of getting caught up in an imaginary interview or improvising an acceptance speech for some award. When I’m alone, I fill my head with thoughts of things that aren’t this moment. I’m halfway out the door, I’m thinking about what’s next – whether it’s an ambition in the distant future or what’s on my to-do list for the next hour.

A few years ago, I wrote about the cutting room floor. What other people see is edited footage, and what people don’t see is the day-to-day, the boring stuff in between, the hours of film covering the floor under the editor’s desk. I came up with that analogy to motivate myself in doing those things that seemed unimportant. Those tasks didn’t feel real because nobody could see me doing them.

I told myself that everything people don’t see me doing is valuable because I’m preparing for what they do see. I worked quietly so people could see the results, not because I enjoyed the work itself. I distracted myself from the tedium with the end goal in mind.

It sucked. I never felt like I had enough time to get to everything I wanted to do. I needed distraction to deal with the drudgery.

Since January, I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness regularly. There are a lot of different types of meditation – there’s the kind where you sit still and gently enter the fourth state of consciousness, clearing your head of distractions (there’s an app for that – I’ve been using Headspace). There’s also Transcendental Meditation, which involves a personal secret mantra, apparently. Mindfulness is about taking the meditation-focus into each moment.

I practice mindfulness when I feel and notice everything. I practice with the boring things – I don’t read or listen to music or get on my phone or laptop anymore to distract myself from eating. I just eat, and notice the flavors and the dishes my food is in. Whenever my mind starts to drift toward what’s next, or about anything but being here in this moment, I gently refocus and taste everything.

After practicing this for a while, it occurred to me that I was alone, and that wasn’t a bad thing. All these things I did alone – eating, exercising, writing, reading, thinking, experiencing, feeling – weren’t just things I did begrudgingly, waiting for whatever I was preparing for.

Besides, if I can’t be present in the present, I won’t be present in the future, either. I’ve missed incredible victories and ecstasies because I’m distracted.

Drawing myself into a moment is what redeems the moment. What’s on the editing floor is mine, nobody will ever see it, and I’m okay with that now. I’ll be the person who sees it, and I’m somebody, and the audience of one – myself – is a worthy audience. I’m not splicing film and throwing all the boring stuff on the floor. I’m observing carefully, and cherishing each event as it passes.

My work is better now that I’m paying attention to all of it.

Rethinking Nonviolence: An Interview with Jeriah Bowser

What if the great heroes of nonviolence didn’t totally support nonviolence? What if the widely hailed “successes” of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. were not actually a step forward for oppressed people? What if their nonviolent resistance movements were only effective due to lesser-known violent resistance? What if the people in power want us to think that nonviolence is the only acceptable way to resist oppression?

Jeriah Bowser posits that if we knew the truth about the history of resistance, we’d threaten what he calls Business As Usual. We don’t know the nuanced details of effective resistance because we’ve been fed a narrative that immobilizes us. In his new book, Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, Bowser gives a brief but dense overview of oppressive power, and what it might look like to live in a society without oppressive authority or hierarchy.

After reading the book, I had some questions for Jeriah. I wanted to know about his background and credibility, and what informed his radical notions. He told me about his experiences with oppression and resistance throughout his life as an inmate, a wilderness therapist, and a staff member for a juvenile detention center, and shared his narrative of human origins. Here’s the conversation we had.

Q. Jeriah, you say in your book that we think nonviolence is effective because the State – essentially the people who are in power – want us to think that. You listed Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. and say that they were what the State needed: people who were against really threatening the system. Then you make a case for violent resistance. Can you explain in simple terms why it’s not okay for the State to be violent, but it’s okay for you to be violent?

To start with, the State is not an actual being. It’s a social construct, a legal fiction, it’s something that only exists because we all agree it exists, it’s a cultural entity. So when you say “the State,” what it looks like in reality is one person with an imaginary fictitious power over another person. So, as an example, you could say a judge has fictitious power over someone who broke a law or a policeman has fictitious power over someone who broke a law, or a soldier has fictitious power over someone from another State, etc. So why is it not okay? …My personal belief is oppressive violence of any sort used by anybody against anybody else is destructive, therefore I choose to resist it. Every person needs to, in the moment, whenever they feel like something is happening that is unjust, think, “am I okay with the terms of this relationship? Is this acceptable? Do I agree to give a third of my labor to this entity (aka taxes); do I agree with giving my life to this entity (aka military service or legal execution); do I agree with the terms of this social contract?” And if you’re not, then I would advise you to resist. This also takes place on a personal level, with abusive relationships, families or significant others; if someone is abusing you, violating your boundaries and your well-being, you have to ask, “Do I accept the terms of this?” And if you do, then keep accepting it. If one day you decide that you don’t, then you can stop accepting those terms, hopefully. That’s what I mean by resistance.

Q. One of the most interesting things you talked about in the book is “Privileged Pacifism.” For me – especially with a lot of the issues lately in the news, I’ve seen people saying “violence is never the answer” –

Can I pause you right there? So whenever I hear that, I always insert the word “sanctioned” into that sentence. Because what people who are saying that are actually saying is “unsanctioned violence is never the answer.” Only sanctioned violence is acceptable, and by “sanctioned,” I mean “declared acceptable by the State or by power.” So when a cop murders a black teenager, that’s okay because that’s sanctioned. What’s not okay is unsanctioned violence. So whenever you hear the phrase “oh, violence is never the answer,” always insert the word: “unsanctioned violence is never the answer” in front of that, and that will help make a lot of sense in deconstructing power.

Q. Do you think power should ever exist?

There’s this concept that Noam Chomsky talks a lot about: power having to justify itself, and I’ve found that to be super helpful. What that means is that any rule or any power structure can be challenged at any time, by anybody, for any reason. So what this looks like practically is my very first wilderness therapy job that I had many years ago. My field manager told me that any rule that we had there, if a kid asked why we did it and I couldn’t explain it, then that rule didn’t need to be there. If I can’t explain why, then it’s rule just for rule’s sake. In Christianese it’s called legalism, and I created my own term for it – Hierarchal Personality Disorder: people who depend on rules and laws just because they’re rules and laws. For every rule, and I let my clients know this every week, I’ll be like, “If there’s a rule that you don’t understand, let me know. Talk to me about it. None of these rules are here just for rules.” And the kids will do that, they’ll be like, “Why do we…why does a guy have to be in front when we’re out mountain biking?” You know, I’ll explain why. For safety, for monitoring, because we have a first-aid kit on us, there’s always a reason. And they’re like, “Oh, okay, I get that, that makes sense.” They understand that I’m using my power – which I do have, I’m not going to deny – I’m using my power to enhance their experience and to help them, and at any point they can question and challenge that. There’s no rules that exist just to contain them. All the rules that I have make sense to them and they embrace, and they get.

Q. It sounds like you work with dealing with oppression on a personal level, rather than a macro approach to overthrow the government. Do you think that’s more effective in freeing people?

Yeah. All anyone has is what’s in front of them, and the people in front of them. I mean, writing and ideas and philosophy is fun, but ultimately change happens on an individual, personal level. I don’t know of any revolution that happened from a book being written. But at the same time, I see my two worlds as incredibly and intimately linked and interrelated. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book – my years spent in the mental health industry, working with people who have been severely abused. My experience working in that industry merged with my growing political awareness and social awareness. I was seeing a lot of things that connected, like how the same exact dynamics apply whether abuse is happening on an interpersonal level or a geopolitical level.

When I’m at work, I’m teaching my clients how to draw boundaries, how to keep themselves safe, how to assertively communicate, how to draw boundaries in relationships and step out of an abusive relationship. In my own life, I’m starting to do that with the State and with agents of the State, and I’m doing the same exact thing politically that I’m teaching my clients to do personally. So I try to use a lot of language from the field, language that I’ve learned in the books when talking politically, trying to merge the two worlds, because ultimately I do think it’s the same concepts, the same dynamics at play. Someone who can learn to draw boundaries and resist on a personal level is going to be better at resisting on a macro level.

Q. If I want to minimize violence in my own life, what are some keys to finding the least violent and most effective methods?

There came a time when I realized my pacifism was doing more harm than actively engaging was. There were moments of cognitive dissonance where I had to deal with the fact that my pacifism was ineffective and even complicit, and my immediate desire to remain nonviolent was creating and perpetuating more violence. I have a deep desire to heal, to do no harm, and to live in the most nonviolent and best way possible, which means that I must be violent sometimes. I honestly think the biggest thing people can do is learning to connect with other people, and learn to see others as sacred beings instead of objects, whether they be oppressors or victims. I really do think the most merciful and compassionate thing you can do for an abuser is to hold them accountable for their violence. That can look like a million different things – it doesn’t necessarily mean kicking the shit out of them, but it could be. Once you see somebody, once you’re able to look at the world around you and recognize the people in your life as people; once you’re able to not connect with them and see their hurt and their pain and what’s going on for them, I think you’re naturally – I guess I can say for myself that I’m naturally driven to try to help, heal, and connect with them. That in itself is what drove me on this quest in my life to write this book and try to educate others and talk to people about this.

Q. That really resonates with me, but I think there are a lot of people who ask, “Why can’t the State do that?”

‘Cause that’s not its job. The role of the State is to enforce private property and hierarchy. The State exists to reify those two concepts. That is its primary function, that is the reason that the State exists. Both of those concepts are built on inequality and oppression.

Q. Why do you think so many people live under the impression that the State exists to promote justice and freedom?

One, because that’s all they’ve ever been taught, and two, because they need to believe that in order to validate their own existence. Not believing that is a super scary thing, and you have to question pretty much everything you’ve ever been taught, and everything you’ve ever been told. And quite honestly it’s easy to believe that, it’s simple. It’s a very simple way to view the world and it doesn’t require a lot of work or challenging or action, really. It absolves you of responsibility. As long as you pay taxes and vote, and do what you’re told, you’ll have a nice, easy life with a home and retirement and garage door opener and all that. But yeah, ultimately the State’s job is to do the exact opposite, and as long as we continue allowing the State to do its job, it will continue to do its job, and it will continue doing its job no matter what, but it’s fun to resist.

Q. Do you think that humans can exist without separating into leaders and followers?

Of course! 98% of our existence has been just that. I mean, thousands of indigenous communities today exist in that way. Our culture – and by “our culture” I mean the culture of civilization – is one out of perhaps hundreds of thousands of human cultures, and if you extend that into non-human cultures, it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions, and ours is the only culture out of these hundreds of thousands of cultures that exists in this way. And we’ve only been doing this for one to two percent of our history. This way of being is an incredibly anomaly…and this isn’t even radical anthropology, this is anthropology 101.

Q. Do you have any other thoughts to add?

Another idea I’ve been playing with lately is the difference between rhetoric and action. I have several acquaintances – I should say former acquaintances – who are pretty ignorant, straight up racist assholes who in a lot of ways are actually resisting State oppression in a lot more ways than I am due to the fact that they don’t pay taxes, and they don’t participate in any State activities. As ironic and as cringe-worthy as it is, I am actually contributing to racism more than these pretty racist people because they, for their own reasons very different from mine, choose not to participate in taxes or consumerism, and I do participate, obviously as little as I can, but I haven’t gotten to the place where I can free myself from purchasing things or paying taxes, so where’s the line? Does it really matter if you say stupid asshole-ish things if you’re actually contributing less? I remember there was this really good interview in the wake of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, where this reporter was interviewing Derek Jensen, asking about whether he supports the use of violence in furthering ideas, and Jensen responded with an incredibly brilliant retort, he said, “Actually, you’ve killed way more people than Ted Kaczynski has, because you’ve been paying taxes for the past 10 years, and he hasn’t.”

I don’t care what you call yourself, as long as you’re actually not participating. I don’t care if you’re the most radically educated person in the world, if you’re contributing your life and your resources and your time to systems of oppression, does it really matter?