Friday, January 06, 2006

openness, secrecy, and shame

As many of you know, I have a podcast in which I interview different people who have something about their experiences that I find interesting. My theory, though I will never have the chance to put it to a scientifically solid test, is that just about everybody has something in their life stories, experience, past or present, that is incredible, fascinating, inspiring, or otherwise unique. We just don't often hear about it, which sucks, really, when you think about it. So many little lessons of how humans can overcome great tragedies, come up with grandiose ideas, or generally experience life in a wide-open, fun-loving sort of way, and most of us are missing out on them.

For as long as I can remember, there has been a stigma attached to certain kinds of situations-- disability, adoption, abortion, child abuse, rape, sexual abuse, disability, gender and gender identification, and a million other things to which we, as people, are often exposed. Someone doesn't want to admit they were abused as a child because they love their parents and wouldn't want to embarrass them; as if we expect all people we encounter to be narrow-minded idiots who don't understand that most parents do the best they can, and that however small or large their failings may have been at different times, people change and grow. Someone doesn't want to say that they were adopted; as if that somehow makes them less of a family. Someone doesn't want to discuss the fact that they or their child was sexually abused; as if it is somehow their fault, their child's fault.

It's sad, really, the way we all censor ourselves in the name of not making anyone else uncomfortable, preserving the peace, or whatever reasons we tell ourselves we have for stuffing all of our potentially negative experiences deep down inside where they can't be of use to anyone. As if someone who has experienced a disability, adoption, physical or sexual abuse has something to be ashamed of. That's quite simply a load of crap. If there is any shame to worn, it belongs elsewhere.

Shame belongs on the person who can't seem to believe that someone with a disability has genuine human feelings and can contribute meaningfully to the world. Shame belongs on the one who refers to "real" kids and "adopted" kids, as if there could ever be a difference in a healthy parent's heart between love and love. Shame belongs on the unrepentant abuser, the rapist, the pedophile. Don't ask the victim to stay quiet to keep those around him or her comfortable in their ignorance. As long as we have that expectation of those who have been exploited or abused, there will always be an undercurrent that somehow blames the victim and shames him or her into silence.

If anyone should retreat into silence and shame, it should be the offender. As for the people who have been abused, if speaking out gives them a feeling of strength and courage, of power over the situation, then they should speak out when, if, and however they please. No place is more lonely and frightening than the silent place in your heart, where few people hear and nobody cares. Just reaching out-- it's often enough, even if those to whom you reach out never reach back. And if you happen to be one of the ones someone trusts enough to reveal a darker place in his or her experience, don't worry if you don't know what to say. Chances are they don't expect you to say much; just to acknowledge what they are dealing with, continue with the friendship, and be at least vaguely aware of the pressures they're facing in their lives.

I'm tired. Very tired. I'm tired of looking around and seeing a culture in which we really don't give a rat's rear if children are being abused and violated, if women (and men) are raped, or if people's pain is incredibly immense-- as long as that pain doesn't reach into our own lives. I'm tired of having a culture of acceptance-- "these things happen," so it must not be that big of a deal. It is a big deal. It's a really, very, incredibly big and rotten deal, and you never know what cards are coming up in your hand next. Until we have a culture that embraces a zero tolerance attitude toward innocents being violated, we will continue to see Samantha Runions, and Carlie Bruscias, and Jessica Lunsfords, and thousands of other little boys and girls whose parents, thankfully, can still hold them in their arms, but whose lives have been forever altered by someone else's selfish, destructive, disgusting, and offensive acts.

People who haven't been there have no idea how it affects a person. They don't understand the lifetime of self-doubt, fear of relationships, and emotional struggles that the abused child faces. They can't understand what it feels like for the woman who has been raped to anxiously look for well lit parking at night, or be afraid to go jogging, or be scared- really scared- on a date or at a party. They don't have any idea what it feels like to question if you fit into your family, to wonder if you're fully accepted as a person, or to live daily with common societal misconceptions and fears. They can't understand the amount of courage it took for the person who just had a stroke to speak publicly in front of one person, or a million, knowing that his recovery is not, and may never be complete. They don't understand... until they're faced with it themselves.

A few unsettling statistics:
1 in 6 American women has been raped. 67% of them were raped by someone they knew.
1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 or 7 boys will be or have been sexually abused.
8% of all Americans report a disability that interferes with work. Many of them became disabled unexpectedly during the course of their adult lives.

Long story short: If it hasn't happened to you or someone you love, it will. Unless we start working, right now, to create a culture in which the victims and survivors are encouraged to speak out until society can't stand the horror of it any more, and does something about it.

I'm tired. It's been a long week, and my patience is wearing thin. Maybe tomorrow... maybe this weekend, I'll post something fun about doing the robot, wearing silly clothes, or playing board games. Maybe, over the weekend, great silliness will ensue in the Christy household, and I'll barely be able to contain myself until Monday, when I'll tell you about it. But for now, this will have to do.

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