The Path Out: Can Child Abuse Be Stopped without Revenge?

Is there a tipping point in horrific child abuse cases where we shift from rage to compassion?

I don’t know, but if there is, I came close to it today. It came from back-to-back news stories about locked up children. One story detailed the situation of a boy in North Carolina, chained to a porch with a dead animal tied around his neck. The other children in the house were living in filth and starving.

This story triggered my righteous anger reflex. When I read about such things it is nearly impossible for me not to “deal with it” by imagining horrific revenge meted out on the adults who would do something like this. I think our own rage/revenge reflex is a coping mechanism for the wash of sadness and powerlessness that comes over us when we have to confront the bad things done to children, the things from which they may never recover. For me, sometimes it’s also about my own anger at being exposed to something I will never be able to forget, no matter how much I want to forget it. This is secondary but it compounds my intense reaction.

Then I read the headline for another story, one so disturbing that I have not been able to bring myself to read it. It involved a child found locked up and so desperate that she had started doing something unimaginable to herself to survive.

I’m not sure why this was my tipping point, but it was.

I started to feel something other than rage toward the people who had done this terrible thing. I felt sadness. For the first time in my life, I felt sadness for the lost people who have made their legacy one of fear and pain and death.

Anger and revenge are glamorized. They feel good and they burn off painful emotions for a little while. They can even give you an identity if you need one; I have an acquaintance who makes it his business to make sure everyone knows that he will seek public revenge on you if he decides he doesn’t like you for some reason. I doubt I am going to show up on his list, but you never know. He’s vain enough to be convinced this is about him, not about social justice and not about compassion and not about forgiveness.

Revenge, when spun out as deserved and the only means to justice, is very attractive. You can do something. You can take all of your hurt and your disappointment and your anger and do something. You can hurt back. You can tangibly show the world you won’t stand for something.

But what if the path out is intangible?

What if the only real way out of these terrible stories is through compassion, and forgiveness, and speaking out for those who are so damaged they are capable of hurting children this way?

Part of me hopes this isn’t the answer because it’s so hard, and I’m no good at it.

But part of me hopes this is right. Because moving forward in a different light, in any light, feels better than piling on to the very bad things that brought it all up in the first place.

What’s Your Excuse?

She works out, has three young children, and wants to ask you, “What’s your excuse?”

Apparently, people are freaking out about this. There really is no reason to do that.

I think it’s just great that people who love fitness and working out have found something they enjoy and find rewarding. I confess that they make me chuckle sometimes, but only because they, like anyone who has “discovered” something that made a big impact on their lives, tend to go all ego-maniacal and think that the rest of us want what they want in a literal way.

We don’t.

But I do think most of us want something that we may be struggling to achieve but are holding out on making real. That is the way I read this photograph and this question.

What do you tell yourself you want, but are avoiding?

Most of us have something inside of us that we wish was part of our real life and not just part of our dreams. I don’t care about having a hard body. Yes, if a genie wanted to grant it to me I would accept it, but that is not the thing that I really wish were my reality.

So I think Maria can help me, and she can help you, by pushing the issue if we only will drop the take-everything-personally drama and give it some thought.

What do you really want, and what is the reason you give yourself for why you don’t yet have it in your life?

Batman is Always Beginning

Batman.

He carries the burden and responsibility of no other super hero: He is fully human.

No super powers. No space family. No radioactive accidents.

He saw his parents murdered in the street and he had a traumatic childhood interaction with a swarm of bats (I wish I could get his Essay on Childhood). He has unlimited financial resources and terrific intelligence. Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman is a personal choice. He is a super hero like no other — at his core, he’s one of us, and that means that we get a little freaky when we fear some storyteller or director might “get it wrong” when it comes to interpreting the Dark Knight.

Affleck will be fine. Keaton was fine, Clooney maybe wasn’t so fine, but Bale is very good and on and on and so forth. Someone out there thinks Clooney was the best Batman ever. Someone thinks that because Clooney showed him or her something in the character that they’d never seen before, something they needed to see and that they admire.

We need Batman to be right because we need to be assured that we are what we hope we are. The abnormal rage over Affleck-as-Batman points to our profound disappointment in the actor’s squandered potential after Good Will Hunting. Yes, he’s made up for it, and yes, apparently we’re still mad at him about it. Affleck pricks that place where we have to think about making dumb choices and appearing foolish. And we don’t want any of that mojo on us, er, I mean on Batman. Because, you know, Batman is us at our highest potential to overcome and fight and defeat evil. You don’t just hand that off as a plum to the hunk du jour without incurring some questions.

Some say they can see Affleck as Bruce Wayne but not as Batman, to which my friend Jennifer replied, “If you can imagine Ben as Bruce Wayne but not Batman, that only lends credibility to the choice. Because nobody suspects Bruce Wayne of being Batman – it’s too far fetched to consider.”

That’s something to consider.

Is Scott Simon violating some societal taboo?

Elizabeth Gaucher:

I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t begrudge him his choice. Everyone deals with death in his or her own way. I hope he doesn’t regret this. It begs the question, is it best to wait to write about grief, or is the moment the truest time?

Originally posted on We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down:

Scott Simon is the host of NPR Weekend Edition. He's been tweeting his mother's dying days, garnering praise and criticism along the way. The fact that this has become such a big story reveals our society's thoughts about death and grief and what's appropriate.

Scott Simon is the host of NPR Weekend Edition. He’s been tweeting his mother’s dying days, garnering praise and criticism along the way. The fact that this has become such a big story reveals our society’s unease with thoughts about death and grief and publicly expressing those thoughts.

Perhaps you’ve heard of NPR’s Scott Simon this week—he’s getting a lot of attention for tweeting his thoughts and observations as he sits at his mother’s deathbed.

As with any public figure’s actions, Simon is getting both praise and criticism. I read through the negative comments posted to the Los Angeles Times article—here’s a sample:

  • “That is just creepy”
  • “Ratings must have been down”
  • “This guy needs to seek mental help”
  • “Can’t even someone’s dying days be afforded some dignity?”
  • “Ghoulish. Disrespectful. Selfish.”
  • “Rather he used his Mother to garner favor and a story as well as pity.”

But what Simon…

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All These Things – E. B. White and Letting Go

            In his essay, “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street,” E. B. White uses two distinct tones toward his subject matter of the problem of human acquisition and inability to shed our possessions. By initiating the essay with a wry and occasionally sarcastic tone, White creates an expectation in the reader that there will be a humorous approach to his subject throughout the essay. This continued singular tone for most of the work makes his last-minute shift to a more wistful and vulnerable approach to his subject an effective, forced reflection for the reader on how we use – often unwittingly – our physical environment to protect our emotional and psychological worlds.

            Early in the essay, White suggests that the things in his apartment have a will of their own:

For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of ones worldly goods to go out again into the world.

The reader knows right away that this will be a tongue-in-cheek narrative; naturally, the narrator is the only one with a will in this series of events, but his suggestion that he is in some kind of battle with the objects in his life is funny. The narrator is in some form of denial. He suggests that he is a victim of some sort of universal scheme.

Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up. Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ball point pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I once had a man send me a chip of wood that shows the marks of beaver teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.

This series of random acquisitions as preying on the narrator begins to raise the reader’s eyebrow. The gnawed wood chip is especially noteworthy, as one can imagine no purpose in retaining something like that; yet White did keep it. One might use a bank memo book, but what can one do with beaver-chewed wood chips? By throwing in that ridiculous item, White now creates suspicion that he is more culpable than he admits.

Another day, I found myself on a sofa between the chip of wood gnawed by the beaver and an honorary hood I had once worn in an academic procession. What I really needed at the moment was the beaver himself, to eat the hood. I shall never wear the hood again, but I have too weak a character to throw it away, and I do not doubt that it will tag along with me to the end of my days, not keeping me either warm or happy but occupying a bit of my attic space.

At this point, White decides to lock up the apartment and go to a fair, further enhancing the reader’s growing belief that the narrator is in denial. White meets that belief:

A fair, of course, is a dangerous spot if a man is hoping to avoid acquisition.

For multiple paragraphs after he locks his apartment, White writes about his experience at the fair. It is a seemingly strange shift, until he reconnects with the last lines of the essay, which open, “But that was weeks ago.”

As I sit here this afternoon in this disheveled room, surrounded by the boxes and bales that hold my undisposable treasure, I feel the onset of melancholy.

No more jokes. Now White is allowing himself to feel the pain and loss of leaving the familiar.

After a dozen years of gazing idly at the passing show, I have assembled, quite unbeknownst to them, a cast of characters that I depend on.

Visiting birds, dogs, gardens, “the cat, the vine, the sky, the willow” – now White’s loss is shifting to life. The reader understands that the possessions have only been a cover for busying the narrator with things that are not important. What is painful and held at bay in his emotions is the living elements of his home that he must abandon and cannot take with him. This revelation makes the delivery of White’s final words devastating, when the reader realizes the entire essay has been a protective cover for another reality:

In New York, a citizen is likely to keep on the move, shopping for the perfect arrangement of rooms and vistas, changing his habitation to fortune, whim, and need. And in every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable.

A True Story and the People to Go with It

. . . my father once asked me a series of questions that suddenly made me wonder whether I understood even my father whom I felt closer to than any man I have ever known. “You like to tell true stories, don’t you?” he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”

Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.

“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

– Norman  Maclean, A River Runs through It

To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

Frail Things

I keep thinking about fraility.

Frail Things

They are gentle,

the frail things that once seemed unbreakable and strong.

You start a family, you devote,

and the thing stands.

In Truth all things are frail, and break

when we are not looking.

Some give their whole lives that you may have

a strong thing.

See that thing, and keep it safe.

Alzheimer’s Strikes by Laura J. Little

When I was in high school, my grandmother developed dementia.

Some people called it hardening of the arteries, some called it Alzheimer’s disease, and some called it senility. The name really did not matter; it was the devastating effects that were memorable.  We often remarked how merciful it was that Grandma did not know what was going on; it would have hurt her to know what was happening.  I was fourteen and was often asked to watch my grandmother for a short time so that my father could attend one of his many other responsibilities.

Alzheimer’s hurt our whole family, not just Grandma, and that was never more true than that one fall day when my grandmother slapped me.

I was not an abused child. When I was younger and Grandma was healthy, I would get an occasional swat across the bottom when I misbehaved or talked back. I got many more hugs, kisses, and thick slices of homemade bread with strawberry preserves than disciplinary smacks. I know that Grandma loved me. Grandma did not hit me.

Alzheimer’s did.

A chair belonging to the writer's grandmother

A chair belonging to the writer’s grandmother

It became obvious to my father that Grandma needed constant supervision. He hired a series of ladies to come and stay with her, but there were always gaps between when the “day lady” and the “night lady” came. Dad stopped by her house every day after work, but he had many other responsibilities, and someone needed to fill in for him when he had to be elsewhere. Often, I was the one who stayed an hour or so with Grandma so that Dad could bathe, eat dinner, or pay bills. I had one job: Make sure Grandma did not leave the house. How ironic it was that going home to her meant leaving the house that she and my grandfather built forty years before. Her mind was trapped in a much earlier time.The road that she traveled to get home was a rutted dirt road populated by horses and buggies and the occasional car that moved aside whenever the driver saw someone walking along the road. She did not recognize that it was seventy years later; by now the road was a major U.S. highway, well-traveled by cars and tractor-trailers that would not see her walking in the middle of the road until it was too late.

My usual strategy was to get her talking. I loved the stories she told about growing up. She talked about going to a now-demolished one-room schoolhouse, about her courting days, and about my Aunt Forrest, her lifelong best friend. She told of the horses they rode, the pigs they raised, and how the children hated Sundays because they had to dress up and go to church. They could not play the whole day long, but had to sit quietly and read. Sometimes they didn’t even read, they just had to sit. One day the quiet got to be too much for Grandma’s youngest sister, Edith,  so Edith mounted the brood sow, which of course headed promptly for a mud hole and dropped her off, ruining her Sunday-best clothes. My aunt got a well-deserved whipping, but Grandma laughed until the tears came. This is how we passed much of the time: Grandma insisting that she needed to go home, and me saying, “Oh, I’m having such a good time. Can’t you stay just a few more minutes?” On most days, she would agree and begin the next story. Using this kind of persuasion, I could usually keep her in the house until my father got there.

But one gloomy fall day, Grandma was more restless than usual. I was getting nervous, as she seemed so antsy, and dark was coming ever earlier; it was even more important to keep her off the road. She re-told a few stories, but every few minutes she insisted that she had to go home. By this time I knew that telling her that she was at home would do no good, so I asked her to stay a few minutes longer. She stood up and said,“No,I need to get home!” I jumped to try to get her to sit down, but she was too quick for me. As I held her arm, trying to keep her in the chair, she reached out and slapped my face with all her might. I was taller, but she had more than 80 years’ worth of hard work on the farm to build up her strength. There was nothing more I could do but call Dad to come and get her as she headed for the door. She was out the front door by the time he answered the call.

I had failed. This one simple task, keeping Grandma in her own house, and I had failed.

I hoped that Dad would get there before she got to the road. In the end, he did, but I cried that night. I cried for the hurt from the slap, but even more from the apparent victory of that hated disease. That night Alzheimer’s attacked me physically, yet I was powerless to strike back. The disease had hidden itself inside my wonderful grandmother, taking her body as a disguise. There was nothing I could attack; striking the disease that had beaten me would be striking my grandmother. If someone I thought I did not know tried to keep me against my will in a strange place when all I wanted to do was to go home, I would have fought, too. Since I could understand what her deteriorating mind must have reasoned, I could not be angry with her. I struck out at myself for failing.

That night I realized that my grandmother’s soul had died, to be replaced with this imposter.

That night I mourned my grandmother for the first time, but not for the last.

Laura Little holds a doctoral degree in Education and is the Director of Instructional Technology at Bridgemont Community and Technical College in Montgomery, West Virginia. She has over ten years of experience in higher education with public universities, private colleges, and the for-profit sector. She explores the common threads of these different settings on her blog, The Real Doctor Laura. This essay is the first to be a true Essays on Childhood submission covering adult reflections on a childhood marked by Alzheimer’s disease. Look for her poignant work in the Essays on Childhood project again in 2013.