Sunday, 20 July 2014

He couldn't possibly mean anything by it. 19.07.14

(You'll have to excuse me if this one comes out as a long, rambling anecdote.  It's a true story - cross my heart, I am not making this up.  It came up in conversation with someone recently, so I thought I'd get it down.  I think it highlights a phenomenon, but I'm still working at finding the "moral" in it.  Maybe you can help. Maybe there isn't one.)

Once upon a time, when I was eleven, I got me a brand-spanking-new supply teacher. On the face of it, this ought to have been the least of my concerns. I'd just been dragged kicking and screaming into junior high - a hellhole full of strangers, continuous testing, bullies, obscure rules, and a battery of "professors" far more interested in catching us out failing than in helping us achieve. Another unfamiliar adult in a position of power ought to have just blended in the general horror of it all. This guy, though, just wasn't right. I couldn't tell what or why, but there was something about him that was just... wrong. 

I bet you are already guessing where this story is going (panic not - nothing much happened). Unfortunately, back then I couldn't. I was a kid - I knew that life wasn't all Disney, but I was entirely innocent of that aspect of it. Not only I wasn't sexualised, but I didn't even have a concept of what the word could mean. In fact, although I was aware that babies came out of their mothers' bellies, I had no idea of how they got in there in the first place.  I was still playing with My Little Ponies, for crying out loud. All us girls, we were all in the same boat: we were all innocent, all clueless, and yet all somehow repulsed by this strange adult who kept standing too close, talking too intently, getting too cuddly, looking too hungry... but now I'm putting thoughts in my eleven-year-old's head. The truth was that my main bugbears were that he smelled nasty and his face was scratchy. I didn't want to be close to him because it felt unpleasant - none of us liked it - but he was very insistent. Most of us had told our parents that we didn't like him, but we couldn't really explain why, and kids not liking a teacher isn't precisely breaking news. It didn't feel good, it didn't feel right, but we didn't have the words to explain to ourselves what was happening, let alone raise any kind of alarm.  

This situation went on for quite some time, until the guy pushed it too far. One of the girls in my class was a bit older, having being held back a couple of years. She wasn't ahead of us on the mental development front, but she'd already started to need the services of a brassiere... And it was his excessive interest in that particular garment that caused the girl's mother to turn up at the school one afternoon, baying for blood.

A paedophilic teacher in a school full of pre-teens is no laughing matter. As a member of the school board, my mum jumped on her white charger and raced down to an emergency meeting, where she fought uncharacteristically hard until she got what she wanted: the girl silenced, the angry mother placated, no mention of the incident to be put on the teacher's official record, and for his employment to continue as normal.

Yeah, you got it right.  My mother fought for a paedophilic teacher's right to continue teaching in my school, in my class.

I must admit that I didn't quite understand how utterly screwed up the entire incident was until I had kids (nearly) of my own to mind. Although they were step rather than biological children, anyone touching a hair on their head with any malicious intent would have found himself short of a hand, if he was lucky.  Seriously, merely thinking of anyone intending to harm them in any way makes me want to rip and tear and maim and gauge and stomp and repeat until I'm entirely out of breath or they are entirely out of body. In reality, unless I caught them right at it, I probably would manage to control my impulses and seek a more socially-approved retribution. However, I sure as hell would not be aiding and abetting them in carrying on their activities unhindered. That's insane. It's as alien to me as my teacher's impulses towards us, and nearly as repulsive.

I have broached the subject with my mum a few times. A teacher herself, she still believed she did the right thing, because:
1. She's sure "he couldn't possibly mean anything by it".
2. His own kid was studying in that very school at the time.  He would have heard about a report and been upset by it.
3. "It could have ruined the poor man's career."

...and none of it makes any sense to me.  You don't bother a whole class of girls by accident - and even if you do, sorry and all that, I think you should still be called to task. Whether it's because of poor social skills, some sort of mental deficiency or evil intent, bothering kids isn't something I'm willing to excuse. The fact that his own child was at the school was not an inconvenience, but a great opportunity to ensure that there weren't any similar problems at home.  If someone is mad or bad enough to bother pre-pubescent children, I'm not comfortable with assuming that the rest of his life is exemplary. As for ruining a paedophile's career in the educational system... yeah, right, we wouldn't want to do that, would we?  

From my point of view, my mother made a dangerously insane decision.  She chose to wilfully ignore a number of warning signs and put tens of children in danger, including her own daughter, to protect a colleague. From her point of view, I am unfair and cruel. After all, nothing that bad happened... A girl was made uncomfortable, but it's not like she was hurt. People get uncomfortable all the time, often for no valid reason. Why would you punish someone so badly when nothing really happened?

And that's where our worldviews just can't match, because we are looking at the situation through different lenses. To me the risk of paedophilia is a terrible thing to expose a child to. To her it is just a word, a nebulous concept with no basis in reality. It's something so twisted and alien that she can't picture it in her own head; she can't fathom the mechanics nor begin to appreciate the possible consequences.

Social shaming and shunning, however, are very concrete, understandable issues to her, as are financial problems. To be made not just unemployed but also unemployable in one's own field, turned into a social pariah, shamed in front of one's family and colleagues... That's destroying a life, hurting the man more than if you'd killed him outright because his pain will keep on going, and hurting his family to boot.  That's serious, real stuff.

So far, I've managed to gleam a lesson from this story, and it isn't more of a "duh" than a "eureka".  People often make bad risk assessments when they don't fully understand a situation: they discount the seriousness of what they can't comprehend. You see it rather a lot in the comments on violent videos on the internet. (Why did the cops handle that person so harshly? Well, he was armed and acting aggressive.  But couldn't they just take the weapon off him nicely? They were so rough with him, and all he was doing was waving a sword at them... Yeah, ok.) Also, people who don't understand asocial predators often can't recognise them, and look for social solution to asocial problems. They seem to find it hard to comprehend that predators don't have horns or scales, that they look and act pretty much like us up until the point they choose to act very, very differently. They seem to be unable to change tack in their heads, holding on to the tried-and-tested social conventions in the belief or hope that they will keep everything going nicely.

When one of the risks is certain and the other is hypothetical, people are even less willing to "overreact". They value the definite risk, the damage to the stability of the group, over the hypothetical and hard-to-accept possibility that one of their own may be some sort of monster. So they ignore their gut feelings or even low-level cries for help, waiting for proof that the situation is really an issue. Unfortunately, in certain situations if you wait for something to happen then you're waiting way too long. 

It seems to be worse the tighter the relationship with the perpetrator is, whether it's personal or financial. I've seen this happen in all manners of groups: families, schools, work places and even, ironically, self-defence clubs. You tell someone that one of their relatives, friends, colleagues or valued customers is up to no good without solid evidence other than a series of not-quite-right behaviours that make you go "eeeeeek!" and they'll flap around like mad ducks looking for excuses.  "He's just being friendly."  "He's just socially awkward."  "He just doesn't understand personal space."  "He's always like that." Ultimately, the excuse underlying each of their excuses is my mother's "he could't possibly mean anything by it". You are supposed to somehow tolerate the behaviour, however uncomfortable it may make you, because there is no proof of malice underpinning it. We may look for work-arounds -  tell you we'll keep and eye on him, make sure he's not alone with anyone vulnerable, etc. - but we won't challenge the behaviour directly or seek to change it.

Regardless of legislation, regulations and loud proclamations of horror every time a nasty story comes up in the news, I have yet to report an emerging situations and not see people put the stability of their group ahead of potential future misdeeds. It is generally only after things have got bad that people suddenly change their priorities, but by then it's too late. That's in marked contrasts with how we react to any "creepy" behaviours carried out by strangers, particularly around children. I've lost count of the number of times I've been called out at work to deal with "disgusting pervs" whose only crime was doing their own stuff in the vicinity of children - you know, like having a picnic or walking in the park. Nobody would do that unless they were up to no good, right?

On the one hand, we're a society so frightened of sexual misbehaviours that we're legislating ourselves into a very lonely corner. Telling someone that their outfit looks good could be construed as sexual harassment. Touching their shoulders or arms could be classed as assault. Asking them out... seriously, would you want to risk that? And if it's bad for adults, it's infinitely worse for children. A child falls over and gets hurt, and rather than comforting them you end up having to treat them like unexploded ordnance. It skews our priorities, because a broken bone is bad but will fix, but an accusation of sexual misconduct will ruin your life. On the other hand, I've lost count of the people who have a relative, friend or co-worker who they know they can't leave alone with kids or women, yet never confront the issue until it blows up. 

I don't know where to go with this. I've seen it too often for it to be just something happening around me, though I may be wrong.  I don't know how or if it can be changed.

The corollary, though, is that don't feel able to rely on the "white knight" syndrome. I've been told repeatedly by people I regard very highly that when faced by creeps and pervs I ought to call upon the folk around me for help. Apparently they are supposed to be naturally overcome by the need to protect those smaller and/or weaker. Well, I can see that working if the bother is caused by someone outside of the group (for instance, in a bar), although I still wager that most folk these days will not want to get involved in someone else's problem. For solving problems within a group, though, I just can't believe it would work. Whilst I'm perfectly glad to cause as big a fuss as I can to keep myself safe, I fully expect to end up being the one who ends up paying for it. I will have been the one to damage the solidity of the group without an actual incident to justify my behaviour - I will have done something real, something people could see and understand, whilst the creep hadn't done anything, yet.

[As for my supply teacher, he finished that year with us without any further incidents. The following year he was hired to work at my mother's school, rather ironically. Surrounded by older kids who had a much better understanding of what was what, he didn't last a month. He was reported, investigated and kicked out. I've not heard about him since. My mother still doesn't get it.]

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Letter to a rape survivor. 03.07.14

“There are those hearts, reader, that never mend again once they are broken. Or if they do mend, they heal themselves in a crooked and lopsided way, as if sewn together by a careless craftsman.” ― Kate DiCamillo, Tale of Despereaux

I don’t know anything about you.  I don’t know your background, your personality, your hopes and dreams and fears.  I don’t even know what you went through, as the label of “rape” is now applied to a vast range of events – all horrid, all inexcusable, but all the same very different.  I don’t know you.  Maybe I never will.

I do know one thing about you, however: I know that ever since your ordeal, in many people’s mind you’ve stopped being a person. You are a statistic, a client, a warning or a symbol, but not a person. It’s not your fault. It’s theirs. 

To the police and medical staff you’re a patient, a victim, a case, but ultimately a number. Whilst the individuals may care about you, the system mostly cares about what boxes your case will tick.  Will you be one of the many cases that never get reported to the authorities (1) Will your case be reported but not prosecuted?  Will they be able to secure a conviction?  Will you pass right through the medical system, or will you be back time and time again, requiring long-term care?  What resources will you require?  How much will you cost us or gain us?  The system will eat your individuality and turn you into a statistic.

Some fanatics will try to turn you into a dire warning.  To them you are nothing but a modern-day Red Riding Hood who should be held in front of all the other girls as a cautionary tale: you see what happens when you stray off the beaten path?  You see what happens when you behave improperly, when you dress immodestly, when you are just too damn attractive for your own good?  See what happens when you’re not invisible and inaudible, when you make people notice you?  Oblivious of the harsh reality outside their front doors, these people will try to blame you for your ordeal, often without knowing anywhere near enough about the circumstances.  They don’t need any actual facts, because however loudly they may proclaim their “truth”, it is nothing but the darkness in their heart combining with the ignorance in their brain into a poisonous bile.  They are not presenting an argument you have to dispute; they are spewing forth a vomit you have to avoid getting on you.  

These people are toxic, but thankfully they are incredibly rare. They are so rare, in fact, that every time one of them opens their rotten mouths it seems to make the news.  They shock and astonish us precisely because their position, though it's claimed to be endemic, goes completely against what the vast majority of people hold true.

Most of us, regardless of what you have been told, are on your side. Many of us truly care about you, but may not be able to convert their caring into action, or even words.  Many people just don't know the right thing to do or say, and are desperately worried about doing or saying something wrong.

Some people lack that uncertainty.  Confident and vocal, guided by their mission, they demand the right to defend you.  They see you as a blameless victim of a dreadful violation, whose victimhood should be exalted and protected.  They want to slay the beast that hurt you (not the person, but the crime), to eradicate it from the world forever.  They claim to care for you, to be fighting on your behalf, but they are telling a half-truth.  You are not their priority: the priority is the cause, the epic crusade that they have embarked upon.  And in order to show how important the crusade is, it needs victims.  It needs people who were hurt, are hurting and will keep hurting.  These people need to be able to hold you up to the world as a demonstration of how terrible rape is, of the inescapability and depth of the scars it leaves behind, of the lives it destroys forever.  To them you are the living proof of the magnitude of their cause.  You are not a person: you are a martyr, a sacrifice, a bleeding symbol for their cause - and they will keep you bleeding.

These noble crusaders insist they are the only ones who can help, who can understand. They believe they have the only solution.  But their crusade is fighting Rape - helping you to cope, heal and grow is of secondary importance.  In fact, anything that detracts from their heroic goal must be crushed, even if it’s precisely what you need.  

Because of this noble cause, we cannot give you comfort or hope, because we cannot tell you anything that could be construed as minimising or normalising rape.  We cannot show you how intact you actually are, how the damage done to your body and your mind, however bad it is, is limited.  You are still here, broken and hurting, maybe hurting more than you ever thought you could bear; but you are still here.  Your experience didn’t kill you or utterly destroy you.  The worst is already over.  You can get better, you will get better. 

We cannot tell you that, in a sense, you already are better, because now you know how strong you truly are.  You know you are stronger than you ever imagined, because you have lived through this and you’re still here, still clinging on to yourself.  We cannot tell you that you will be a different person after this, but different doesn’t mean weaker, broken, or in any way worse, because you can not only heal, but guide your healing.

We cannot tell you that we know this to be a fact because countless scores of women have gone through what you’ve gone through and come out the other end changed, but not for the worse.  Whilst some were left broken and beaten out of shape, many or most didn’t.  We cannot tell you that, according to our own statistics, there are most probably women in your life who have suffered like you, and are not only functional, but truly whole, so whole in fact that you don’t even know who they are.

We cannot paint you a bright picture of yourself in the future, able to look back at this rotten, sordid event and see how far you’ve come, how much you’ve grown, how resilient you are.  We cannot tell you a story about a you who sees herself as infinitely bigger than the event that hurt her so, back then.  We cannot tell you that to get there is totally within your grasp, but it’s all up to you.  It’s up to you to make sure that you don’t grow crooked or broken or bitter.  It’s up to you to keep your eyes firmly on the goal, even during the bad days – and there will be bad days, but you will cope with them.  You know you can because you’ve already coped with this.

We cannot tell you that though coping mechanisms are different for everyone, there are some techniques that are proven to help most people.  We particularly cannot tell you that it is generally healthier to focus on the problem itself and constructive ways of managing it, rather than focusing on the feelings that the problem has engendered.  No, we must constantly encourage you to be aware of your feelings, to constantly poke yourself where you hurt the most, to obsess about your sufferings.  At the same time, we encourage you to avoid all triggers – not to see them as incredibly painful yet useful indicators of an ongoing problem you will in time overcome, but as monsters you should avoid forever.  We encourage you to turn your triggers into phobias by recoiling from all exposure, so you can make your horror permanent.

We cannot tell you how you may be able to avoid this happening again.  Hell, we are not allowed to revisit your ordeal and look for ways in which you may have avoided or reduced it at all, because that may make you feel bad, that may make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong.  You must be blameless in this!  It doesn’t matter if this also leaves you utterly powerless, because the only logical consequence of being utterly unable to protect yourself yesterday is that you will be equally unable to protect yourself today and tomorrow and for the rest of your days.  We cannot give you the reassurance that, though some horrors are random and unavoidable, many are not.  We cannot give you any extra awareness or skills.  We cannot give you any feeling of control, or the hope not to be a victim again and again.

We cannot tell you that it’s ok if you actually just don’t feel that bad.  We cannot tell you that it’s ok for some people to feel as if they did well, because they realise that it could have been much worse, because they didn’t die or lose limbs or got scarred or...  We cannot tell you that it’s ok for some people not to care too much, because it’s a hazy memory they can hardly recall, so they prefer to bury it and move right along.  We cannot tell you all sort of weird and warped and wonderful tales survivors tell themselves in order to keep themselves together, pick themselves up and start moving on, moving forward, moving away from this.  We cannot tell you that sometimes what you need today is not what you will need tomorrow, because what is good short-term may not work long-term, but that whatever makes you feel better, feel more functional, feel like yourself, is just fine. And we absolutely cannot tell that for some people the best and final strategy is to face the unvarnished, inglorious, confusing, painful truth, because you only need to accept the truth once, but you need to reinforce lies all the time.

We cannot tell you any of this, though all or some of it may help you, because that’s not what’s important. None of this is about making you feel better. It isn’t about teaching you how to cope or heal or grow. This monopoly on rape is about slaying the monster. And the fight needs all the fighters it can get, and in order to gain troops it needs victims; suffering, broken victims who, by never getting better, can be turned into martyrs. And now you’re one of them.

So we keep telling you time and time again that this event was an awful ordeal, that it has hurt you deeply, that it has scarred you forever.  We make your victimhood more important than your healing.  We rub salt in your wounds so they can stay open forever for all to see how bad rape is, as if we didn’t know that, as if anyone with half a brain would need reminding.

Rape is bad.  But healing is possible, healing is necessary, healing is natural, and healing should come first.  YOU should come first.  You should be the most important person here, our first priority.  You have earned that right.  This is your life and this is your story.  This is not a social commentary or a moral crusade: THIS IS YOUR STORY.  It belongs to you and to you only, as does the right to heal.

Don’t let yourself be used, nor for evil nor for good.  You neither need nor deserve it.  Anything that stops you getting better is nothing but another iniquity thrown at you, regardless of its intentions.

There are people out there who don’t care so much about what happened to you – not because it wasn’t awful, or significant, or life-changing, or earth-shattering, but because they care about you first and foremost.  They know you are infinitely more important than whatever tragedy may hit you.  Those are the people who will support and help you, who will put you first, who will help you grow strong again and make sure that you don’t grow crooked.  Those are the only people who matter, those who care about you as a person, not as a victim or a warning or a number.  To anyone else you’re expendable.  To them, you are you.

(1) If you don't report, don't think you won't make the numbers. You will still be used, in a very particular way, but that's a pretty complicated stand-alone subject, enough so it deserves its own blog.