Cultivating Intelligent Disobedience

“Loyal dogs, unfailing tool
They do what they have been trained to
With the eidolons, the minds are full
The evil ghosts of old
The evil ghosts of old
Insanity turns back at last
As soon as their food is done
And dog will raven dog
The claws crush bones, the claws crush bones
Claws crush bones, claws crush bones
Claws crush bones, claws crush bones
The one who disobeys
He learns a cruel lesson of bones and stones
Your dissidence objected
And it’s a basic skill to earn.” –Jinjer, Sit Stay Roll Over

I was trained like a dog to be perfectly obedient. My parents had rules for every type of behavior. We had to practice sitting still and being quiet before church, someone with a spoon hovering and watching for signs of boredom or kicking toddler legs, quick to train with a swat. When our parents were talking to other adults, we were to place a hand on their shoulder and wait, even if it took several minutes, until we were acknowledged. At the call of “Jeub kids!” or “Little Jeubers!” we would line up by birth order. Once in ordered attention, we were ready to go through the first rule. Mom cupped a hand around her right ear, and said, “What does this mean?”

We were to sing out, “Listen the first time!”

I don’t remember any of the rules after that one. I would watch the procession from the ceiling, something I wouldn’t learn to recognize as dissociation for years to come. Often, when mom was training us, one child would be spanked in front of the rest of us for not obeying quickly enough. Even more frequent was mom’s habit of lining us up to medicate us with endless homeopathic remedies. Refrigerated coconut oil – a tablespoon, chewed up raw. 32,000 International Units of Vitamin A per day. A dropper of bitter oregano oil under the tongue. A spoonful of colloidal silver. Even if it was a fight to swallow, disobedience was the key crime against the family unit. I hardened my stomach to fight any reaction, and to this day have a mild aversion to the taste of coconut. I’m still investigating the long-term health effects of the anti-vaxx alternative medical treatment I received, but what evidence I have indicates that confusion and control was a goal for my mother as she chose these treatments.

Being trained in this way, regardless of what I may never fully know about my mother’s medical endeavors, has had lasting effects on my mind.

Because I was expected to suppress emotion and idealize my family, with my parents as the eidolons, I survived in a sort of shell. What happened to me was not happening to ME, but to SHE who was going through whatever this life threw at HER every day. My survival instinct made me dissociate, while my parents’ agenda gaslit me into minimizing traumatic events. Those two put together means a lot of confusing memories, and putting together a puzzle of the past.

All of that to say, I have a lot of problems with authority.

My parents were my only authorities. They were my teachers, my pastors and biblical scholars, my boss and manager, my owners in many ways for many years. Because they brought such a warped view of childrearing into parenting, and they had the power to keep my world small, I didn’t question what I thought was true. That is, I stopped questioning after it became necessary to survive in the dream house.

But there are some dogs who are taught better than I was about how to question an authority.

One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Intelligent Disobedience by Ira Chaleff. In it, the author describes how guide dogs are taught to notice what their masters may not be able to see. That is, after all, the purpose of a seeing-eye dog. If a person with blindness cannot see an oncoming danger, the dog has to know how to recognize a threat and disobey.

If the dog can see an oncoming electric car, but their owner can’t hear it, the dog will be given two conflicting signals: to obey the order to cross the street, or to fight back, saving the life of their human. Chaleff goes into depth on how the training for these dogs take place, and he notes that negative reinforcement is never used. A dog that is punished, even verbally, for making the most logical decision in a situation, may have their ability to serve compromised.

With analysis including an exhaustive chapter on the Milgram experiments, the book addresses situational ethics and power structures with insightful perspectives. For me, reading it gave me a better relationship with the age-old question of free will. I’d been a free will defendant as a Christian, but post Christianity, when I read the work of Sam Harris on the subject, I was still not convinced that the dichotomy is fair. Jumping from one extreme to the next is an old habit of mine, likely learned. The extremes were always cooperation OR competition, free will OR total predestination, choice OR life. It had never occurred to me that sometimes the authority figure is in the wrong, and sometimes they are in the right. Or perhaps “right” and “wrong” are subjective, too.

Today, I still respond to my training. I still struggle to eat enough, my mouth fighting the flavors, the toxic doses. I still wander off in my head, so my friends can hardly get my attention without calling my name loudly. I still have that Kimmy Schmidt I-was-raised-in-a-cult persona, and I hate being defined by my past, when the only thing I knew about myself for a long time was what I was told about myself.

So of course I rebelled in the smallest of ways, jittering from shock as each day passed. Forgetting what I’d been told to do, leaving things out of place, sneaking off to read, avoiding housework and office work, procrastinating on important projects, and all the while being legitimately frustrated with myself for not having a better memory. The spots missing were just my own dissociation, jumping away from the chaos, the screaming children, the sounds of the Disney movies I’d memorized, my only education most days.

Should you only read one book before the end of the year, please read this one. This concept is what tamed my anarchist heart. The author writes about how to question bosses in ways that don’t make them feel undermined, how to technically follow orders while siding with justice, and how to disagree with an authority figure that has made a life-threatening oversight. I am finally learning to let go of what I thought was my own responsibility, because I know I can control so little – and paying attention to the details of what I can control is very helpful.

Cultivating intelligent disobedience means a lot of hard work and recovery from the trauma. I may not be able to end poverty and curable illnesses the world over. But I can stand up for myself. Even if it’s hard, and I’m fighting tears and trying to suppress the bitterness that rolls beneath the surface, I can stand up for myself.