"For there to be any systemic, generational healing, we need to bring secrets out in the open."

Yesterday, when I logged on to twitter, the very first tweet to appear on my stream led me to this piece on The Broad Side written by a woman named Kim Cottrell. I read the post twice before reading the comments, pasting the link on my facebook page to share and then... I deleted it. I deleted it instead of posting it because I was afraid there would be backlash. Because there is so much to this story, to every story, to sexual abuse, surviving it, speaking publicly about one's experience knowing there will be repercussions... 

Kim's piece is worth a read in its entirely. And then it's worth a second read and a third but this paragraph in particular floored me because it is how I have always felt in quiet. 

For there to be any systemic, generational healing, we need to bring secrets out in the open. We need to stop banishing people, offenders or victims. We need to slow down enough to let the healing process take place. We need to support the healing process and let it be a normal part of life. There is clearly no evidence blaming, shaming, and shunning have anything to do with finding our way out of this crisis and the crisis our children are facing today.

When I was in high school, I watched Dead Man Walking for the first time. It changed my life. I immediately became anti-death penalty. Human beings replaced my fear of "bad guys." I recognized the complexity of the abusive, the hurtful, the murdering, raping, bullying... 

Shortly after, I became pen pals with men and boys in prison, men who had my address via my Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. Not once did a get a letter from a woman... just boys. And men. They liked my stories. They wanted to share their stories. One boy had accidentally killed another boy in a fight. One man had already been locked up for many years and sent me a photo...he was twenty three but looked much older. Forty, maybe fifty... armed robbery. These boys weren't bad guys. These men weren't monsters. They were human beings who had lived terribly difficult (and complicated) lives. They were children who were abused. Many of them were fatherless or had fathers in prison. They were lost and scared and in pain. 

And I felt so helpless because wasn't there a better way? To treat these boys? These men? Wasn't there a better way to teach them and help them and heal them than putting them in cages? 

That is not to discount or overlook the pain they caused others. But there it was: a tortured soul is usually the torturer. The culprit is also a victim. Of abuse. Of addiction. Of mental illness which is something that is SO TERRIBLY overlooked in this country. So hideously ignored. So incomprehensibly unsupported, stifled, shamed. 

I spent many years in therapy healing from what was a very abusive situation. I was so angry for so many years I even wrote an (unpublished novel) about a woman (a prostitute) who killed her pimp. I was the hooker in that story because that was how he made me feel. And when I wrote the scene when she kills him I expected to feel relief.

... aren't we supposed to feel relief? 

But I didn't. 

I felt even angrier. 

He wasn't a bad man. He wasn't  a monster. And I'm sure he justified his actions the same way I did in order to sleep at night. I'm sure he had himself convinced that what he was doing was okay. Human beings are survivalists. Even the seemingly fucked-up ones. 

This is not to excuse his behavior or anyone's behavior but in the words of Cottrell: 

When we reject and shun the offender, often a person who’s been integral to a family or church or community, we are behaving like my grandmother who held the bucket and screamed for her son to piss in the pot or like my grandfather who belittled his son until he shot the bear. We are using a remedy that will never solve our problem and will only make it worse.

I am writing this as a parent who wants my children to understand the dark parts of humanity, the dark parts of themselves so that they know how to protect themselves from the darkness of others and others from the darkness of themselves. Because SHAMING does not protect. SHAMING does not fix. SHAMING does not heal a person's spirit. Forgiveness does. 

I want my children to understand that "bad guys" are just  "guys" who have been treated poorly, who have lived a life of shame, pain, darkness...who need help in the same way anyone who is sick needs help.

Is it okay to be angry? Yes. To speak up? Always. 

But contrary to the fairytales we all grew up reading and watching and role playing heroes vs villains... it is NEVER that black and white. There was little room for gray in the television shows and fairytales and films that were popularized. The good guys would always be good guys and the bad guys would always be bad. We never knew the story behind the monsters so we assumed they were just... that way. But the wicked witch had a story, too. (If only all "villains" were given equal opportunity to share.)

The antihero is relatively new. Tony Soprano, Walter White... without knowing their back stories, they, too, would be monsters. But we loved them, didn't we? We mourned them. We cried when their stories ended because we felt something for them. Because all human beings possess lovable qualities. Even when they perform unthinkable acts. 

Child molestation isn’t rational. People who feel worthy, valued, and whole don’t molest children. Sadly, in our haste to find retribution, and in our shaming, blaming, judging, and punishing, the victim and offender are both vilified and neither adequately reintegrated or healed.

We are so quick to rally behind those with physical illness but shame the emotionally sick. Mental illness, drug addiction.. we fear and we shame and we roll our eyes and say terrible things like, "It was his own fault he OD'd on heroin. What was he thinking. He had kids."

We curse the accused as well as the accusers because shame is a thing that bleeds. We make assumptions about stories we don't know and characters we think we do. We yell into the wrong ears. We fight each other instead of the system that fails us. 

Instead of hating (which I think of as genocide of the spirit) or locking people up, we could gather policy makers and mental health workers, legislators, and others who could insist insurance companies reimburse for family therapy as well as individual therapy. Mental health workers would create enough momentum that group work would become the new normal. Right now, the crowd inertia is to sit back in the arm chair and throw insults at the TV. Perhaps it is possible to steer that inertia toward action for the betterment of our communities.

We are human. We are flawed. We are mistake-makers with regrets who say things we don't mean. Who point fingers and pitch forks and yell at each other because we're so angry. And we have every right to be angry. We have every right to fight the good fight, to wage war on the oppressors... but abuse is not something that can be locked up in prison to rot... it is not something that disappears when publicly shamed. Neither is addiction. Or mental health. It is a much larger beast. 

In the comments of Kim's piece a brave reader shared this: 

...I was molested for many years, and grew up “like a tree in the wrong soil.” I needed to go through many a decade or so of rage and blame so that I could reset my own sense of self, my voice, and my emotional life. When I had done that and retrieved my own anger, forgiveness was easy, because I had the strength necessary to show mercy.

I did take it upon myself to understand molesters and abusers. For me, that was the next logical step, and I’m grateful that I did.

I don't know that another piece of writing has ever affected me in the way this did. I don't know that a comment or a quote every reverberated so completely, so honestly and truthfully as the post/comment/Solzhenitsyn quote did. 
And I know this is a difficult conversation to have. I know that there is the deepest kind of pain for those who have survived abuse of any kind. I know that we all have stories. We all have anger. We all want to protect our sisters, our brothers, our children... we want to cage those who destroy lives and spirits but we cannot change what has happened. And I believe it is possible to stand up for our sisters and ourselves without shaming the other side. We can acknowledge that those who abuse are sick, or worse, have experienced it themselves. 

In order to move on, in order to STOP repeating the same violence, abuse... we have to stop shaming, stop spiting, stop hating... STOP. Abuse is a hand-me-down. So is hate. We must think about the ramifications of our actions, our words, our projections... We must applaud the stories of those who come forward and discuss what can be done to heal all parties involved. 

Forgiveness seems to be a foreign concept these days but when it happens, against the odds, it becomes this palpable force of awe. It moves. It drives. It changes. And that movement, that collective unanimous gasp when we read about love and forgiveness when the offended has EVERY right to be hateful, THAT is where hope springs eternal. That is where hearts heal and change is made. 

In my friend Tracey's post about Phillip Seymour Hoffman, she wrote: "If you want to be understood you must be understanding of others."

And she's right. Across the board, she's so right. 

Because THIS is where change happens. 

THIS is a revelation. (Philomena AND Stories We Tell are companion pieces in the way of forgiveness/empathy/love as superpower. Please watch both if you haven't already.)

THIS is the message we would all be better off sending. To our friends as well as our "enemies."

THIS is called forgiveness and it's quite possibly the most powerful antidote to injustice that we have in our emotional arsenal.

Behind every one of these stories exists someone who was suffering from inexplicable pain, someone who was sick or sad or confused.. Someone who was ashamed, weak, detached, mentally disturbed, temporarily insane. And those people need love as much as anyone. And if as a society we can't do that, the least we can do is think for a moment about where that pain has come from and what we can do to help others before it's too late. To understand the mind behind the "monster"...  the sickness, the history, the childhood... Our own sickness and history and childhoods.

I cannot speak on behalf of anyone's story but my own, but I can listen. I can teach my children to listen. To speak up when they must speak up and out when they must speak out. (Even when it's unpopular. ESPECIALLY when it's unpopular.) I can teach them that forgiveness is what makes us strong. Forgiveness is what sets us free. 

Earlier today a reader named Lucy just sent me the following link to an article about Michael Morones, the 11-year old Brony who attempted suicide in North Carolina because he was being bullied by his peers for loving My Little Pony. She sent it to me (like many of you did) because several months ago I wrote this. But what struck me most about Michael's story was the ending. 

Responding to the bullying that was STILL taking place even after her 11 year old was hospitalized (and lies in critical care) Mike's mother said this:

"I've heard a lot of people say you need to go after bullies and hold them responsible... But you know, I don't think that's what Mike would want. I would rather teach people how to do right than turn around and punish, because punishment doesn't always work."



Anonymous | 2:28 PM

I love this! Thank you for posting it, this is such an important contribution to a tough conversation.