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.

“Divorce,” and Other Words I Wasn’t Allowed to Say by Jennifer Kayrouz

Jennifer moved to West Virginia just prior to starting 8th Grade. Some people thought that her family moved to West Virginia on a dare.  That was over 22 years ago and she now claims she would give her left pinky toe to be considered a West Virginian by her hillbilly peers.  She went off to college once or twice, but always happily landed right back in Charleston. She now works for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and loves most minutes of it, getting to travel and constantly learning and being challenged. She lives in Kanawha City with her husband, who, while being 7 years younger is still decades more mature and light-years ahead of her in his intellectual and emotional capacity. They are delighted to be the parents of one precocious 4-year-old girl.

Note:  Jennifer worked for a period of months to tell her story in a way that is honest, transparent, and also respectful of everyone involved.  Finding that balance in a story of a childhood where your family is coming apart at the seams is not an easy thing.  I have tremendous admiration for Jennifer and for her difficult work in this effort.  When I read the final version of the essay, I could feel it all just “click.”  As I told her, Damn, girl.  You nailed it!  Well done.

“Divorce,” and Other Words I Wasn’t Allowed to Say

Childhood memories are very polarized. It’s easy to recall that epic Christmas where you got an entire Barbie settlement and to romanticize the moments of your youth, but the bad memories are always there to keep you honest.

The memories I have of our life on 1062 Cloverbrook are certainly some of the best and definitely many of the worst in my life. There were five of us in that house and I can make a fair assumption that all five have a different take on that time in our lives. With every thimble-full of torrential screaming about a dirty bedroom or why our dog fucked up the afternoon, there was a sturdy bucket pouring over its sides with silliness watching a movie as a family and genuine joy at racing down the rapids at New Braunfels. This strange dichotomy was my norm and I began to anticipate the storms because I knew the sun was never warmer than after the rain. There was always a bit of peace that gave some reprieve from whatever caused all the commotion to begin with.

It was within this space between the bad and the after that I seem to remember the most.

My memories are painted all the more surreal because we were living in San Antonio, Texas. If you have never been to Texas, go.  Take your kids. Texas is a circus-like playground. Everyone is a character and life really is bigger and brighter in The Lone Star State. Fireworks were legal (everything was legal in 1982) and beer is as acceptable a beverage at 10 AM as juice or coffee. For the record, my dad drank Busch and Shiner beers.  The weekends in southeast Texas are even more fun. There was always something to do. Always some county festival to conquer or flea market to troll for colored glass. I learned to swim in Medina Lake and to pick strawberries in Poteet. To my childhood eyes, it seemed like it was always the 4th of July; there were just so many people around.

We were a popular family. We had a big yard and there was some type of hutch out back where my brother raised rabbits or guinea pigs.  I took ballet lessons, joined and quit the Girl Scouts before I was ever graduated up from a Brownie, and I was one of the first kids on my street with an Atari gaming system. My older brother was a great athlete and my younger sister was so cute she barely had to speak with all the people falling over themselves to get her to giggle.

My mom had cultivated a beautiful rose garden and we grew vegetables in our back yard. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could name at least fifteen different types of rose bushes and describe to you their color. I can’t underscore enough the amazing images I have of lush yellow and peach rose petals all over my yard or the way we always had fresh cut flowers on our table. It was as if Georgia O’Keefe had spent time in our yard. What I wouldn’t give now to look at a picture of our rose garden…. It is one of my deepest and happiest visual memories. I can now just barely remember the endless and escalating bickering over how much it cost, who pulled who’s back out digging the flower beds, and who was being ignored for that damned rose garden.

To be blunt, my parents did not agree on much. I am not quite certain about what brought them together in 1973, but I imagine it was because they were both very bright, attractive, and naturally drew others to themselves. In those two ways, they were perfectly matched — my dad, the funny and charming tall drink of water you start chatting with at a party and come to realize that he is brilliant and knows the entire history of everything, and my mom a stunning beauty who  gave off mystery and intellect as easily as breathing. Sadly, they differed in the basics of raising kids, growing a marriage and most everything else.

I don’t want to demonize either of them. I am a parent now and I know that ‘the best I can do’ varies by 100 degrees from day to day. I truly believe that they were doing the best they could with the skills they had at the time. This was pre-Oprah, pre-Internet and pre-other people can poke around in your family’s business. Folks didn’t pour their wash water into the streets like we do now and certainly, if you caught a whiff, you smiled and pretended not to notice. Both of my parents grew up in Catholic families, went to Catholic schools, and were taught the fundamentals of life from immigrant parents who possessed a sharp focus on a narrow line of tolerable behaviors. Mom and Dad were each very intelligent, and each was exhausted emotionally from being themselves and our parents.

You aren’t supposed to see your parents as people. You are always supposed to gaze upon them in their exalted station as safe-keeper to all in their manor. They are not supposed to be the ones who scare the children. I watched my mom stab my dad in the back with a Bic pen over what seemed like folly at the time (she laughs at this now as if it were all an inside joke). I was often so afraid of what miserable disgusted venom might spew out of my dad’s mouth over the smallest of childhood indiscretions that I had almost no fear of what would happen when I really screwed up. They played hard and they fought with equal measure. As I spend time with my seven-year-old self now, I see them as I would see my own peers. The year I turned seven years old, Mom was thirty-five and Dad was thirty-three, both younger than I am as I write this. I see their flaws as people, not as my parents. It has made all of this much easier to swallow now that I know how easy it is for any of us to fall off that cliff. I don’t necessarily blame either of them; I just wish they had been better at hiding it.

For so many of my adult years, I didn’t know all this and I wished that I hadn’t been partner to their marital demise. I know it wouldn’t change the outcomes if I could process all that detail. Mostly, I just don’t want to remember the cruel words that my parents said to each other, the acts of a marriage breaking down, and the three kids who got flung into the abyss like General Zod into The Phantom Zone. I watch the three of us kids floating in space trapped in our panes of glass; none of us knowing how to escape or stop from shattering into pieces. We aren’t those kids any more and none of us ever want to be again.

If you were to ask me 15 years ago to paint my story, it would look very different from how it does now. Fifteen years ago I was angry and self-serving and most of all, self-righteous. I blamed everything on those two people and how they shaped my life. Everything from my fear of commitment all the way down to my student loan debt was because of Mom and Dad. Deep down, I harbored a grudge so fierce that my mouth tasted like metal and salt when I thought of any of it. In an ever more twisted angle, I relished this station and used it to draw my power.

Sadly, in my twenties, I was stupid and short-sighted enough to believe it was working. Thankfully as my youthful duties began to wind down, I began to gain perspective on life in general and how I came to be standing at that point. I wouldn’t characterize it as an epiphany (although it was certainly as powerful) as much as a slow and steady ascent towards understanding. Finally, I was able to look in the mirror and see my dad. When I saw this, it made me want him back in my life. So I started the wheels in motion to enter his world and make a big space in mine for him. As I got to know him as the adult I had become I realized that the best parts of me come from him. Amid many other traits, his sense of humor and silliness are painted all over me, not to mention my sense of right versus wrong and honor among men. I see it plain as the nose (also from Dad) on my face and I relish these parts.

While I had always remained close to Mom, when I looked in the mirror I thought I saw my defenses against becoming her molding my face and heart. I was wrong. Every woman eventually turns into her mother; mine is wonderfully complex and gets funnier every year. The logical and intellectual side of me is the exact same shade as hers. We are both smart enough to bend our reality and I am grateful each day for a tiny dose of her sex appeal. I am stubborn and irrational and just wise enough to get away with it. I have her to thank for that. It serves me well still. I am the perfect recipe of the two people that made me and I am delighted for it.

All in all, I think this is a story of redemption. For twenty years I thought it was my parents who needed to surrender, to apologize, and to beg forgiveness. I always expected heart-felt letters and poetic lectures about why all of that stuff happened. For a lot of it, I just needed an explanation. The daughter needed to know how certain events came to be even if I understood that I would never be able to reconcile them in my head. I thought my dad needed to make reparations to my mom for his part and she needed to mend the ties to me and my brother and sister for how she reacted and lived out the rest of her young life. It was a neat package of justice I held and I thought I should be the one to deliver us all into a full emotional recovery.

None of that happened.

As with everything else ironic in my life, the change and redemption happened to me. I s-l-o-w-l-y released my anger, fear, guilt and contempt and it was I who ultimately was set free. My heart is the one that was pushed open and flooded with love — love for my family and forgiveness for myself. All those years I thought I needed to forgive my parents and be given an apology for my sufferings. They never owed me either.  I owe a great deal to them.

Even though I wouldn’t want to live through any of it again, I have turned out to be a complex and multi-faceted woman with lots to offer to my partner and my community. On some days, I am downright brilliant and funny. Had I been born under some other moon to some other couple, I fear the under-bloomed yeast of my white bread existence. Because I am who I am, however, I will weather life’s rains better than most. I even found my own happily ever after and started my own little messed up family. My husband is very much like my dad and we have a little girl who eerily resembles the four-year-old me.  She was lucky enough to get me as her mother.

God help her be strong – she will need all the faith and patience she can get.

Fear of the Irreparable

As I’ve meditated on what I’m really afraid of versus what I just tend to get anxious about sometimes, I think I am getting closer to some inner layers.  I am trying to increasingly think about what issues are real spiritual growth blocks, not just worries.  The idea of “the irreparable” is coming together for me as a major wall between me and God.

By the irreparable I mean a relationship or a situation that is so far damaged that it will never be the same.  I have a fairly good record of being able to “fix” things I want fixed.  I have also known situations that, even when I wanted to fix them, I could not.  Where this dials into my deepest fears is where I feel I have done something by choice that has forever severed the repair I may seek.  Something being unfixable.  Permanently broken.  All options gone.

Often I hear my perfectionist friends agonizing over making mistakes.  This fear of the irreparable is beyond that.  I make mistakes all the time.  It’s actually part of my personal philosophy that it’s straight up crazy to be neurotic about making mistakes.  We are human, it’s our nature, it’s not realistic or reasonable to truly expect that we won’t make mistakes.  My fear is about being responsible for doing something that takes away any possibility of healing or repair to a situation.

What if in carelessness I say or do the one thing my spouse can never forgive?  What if a friend is counting on me to remember something important that I completely forget about?  What if I drop the ball and colleagues don’t feel they can count on me again?

As I look at that list, however, I notice that each item hinges on someone else’s response to an event.  Yes, I did or didn’t do something, but how others respond to that is my fear.

My faith tradition tells me that God’s response to me will be consistent and reliable.  Nothing is irreparable.  Nothing when my heart and mind are focused on seeking redemption for mistakes I make.

And ay, there’s the rub……

I know myself to get quite weary with the forgiveness process.  I’m all about it until I’m not.  Sometimes it just wears me out.  I want to say I don’t care anymore, I’m tired of struggling through complex issues of right and wrong, I just don’t care.  Leave me alone, Universe.  If you don’t like what I did, tough.  I did it.  I may do it again.  Get off my case.  I’m putting my chips on the bet that I’m not alone in this.

I think we have to be willing to get back in there.  We have to do it with our human dynamics if we want peace in our lives, and we have to do it in our spiritual development for the same reason.  I almost think knowing I am forgiven by a higher power makes it harder sometimes, because there is nothing to fight about, no argument to “win” and no real opportunity to say “I’m tired of you not wanting to work on this” because the only one putting up that B.S. is me. I truly believe the choice of finding peace and forgiveness and a clean slate is right in my own hands.

And that’s what I’m afraid of.

Image credit: Indian-Designers

Fear. Less.

“Why are you fearful? O you of little faith.”
Matthew 8:26

Sooooo…….I just joined a Presbyterian women’s book study.  Group.

I have a hard time getting out the word “group” because I am not a good joiner.  I tend to like to do things on my own, and my facilitation background makes me antsy when I’m in a group setting and facilitating is not my job.  But my friend sent me an email out of the blue inviting me to the group, and something told me I should do it.

The book we are reading is called “Fearless” by Max Lucado.  I’m approaching my new friend Max with caution, as he seems a little too successful by commercial standards to pass my theological smell test.  I don’t mean for a minute that he’s not a good and decent man; by all accounts he seems like a good guy with kind intentions.  My sensors go off, however, when it’s all too neat and tidy – complete with glossy workbooks and DVD lectures.

All of my skepticism locked on go, my defenses were lowered considerably in the opening chapter:

His most common command emerges from the “fear not” genre. The gospels list some 125 Christ-issued imperatives. Of these, twenty-one urge us to “not be afraid” or to “not fear” or to “have courage,” “take heart,” or “be of good cheer.” The second most common command appears on eight occasions. If quantity is any indicator, Jesus takes our fears seriously. The one statement he said more than any other was this:

Don’t be afraid.

I’ve been hanging with the church for my entire life, and I have never heard this before.  In my experience, the emphasis on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth has been love and forgiveness; yet here is statistical evidence that, at least as recorded and known to us today, the most frequent lesson was about managing fear.

I’m completely hooked now.

I’m a bit like Anne LaMott.  She says she is a Christian because God came after her and gave her no choice, and some days she’s downright pissed about it (paraphrasing here).  I can’t always give a neat and clean explanation for my faith, which may be why I am suspicious of those who seem to make it so hospital-cornered.  I accept the teachings of love and forgiveness because I have never seen any other way work.  It’s a straight-up results issue for me; but without knowing it consciously before I’ve always felt like something was missing in the practical application, at least as far as it was presented to me.

Now it’s all coming together.

Fear is an impediment to many things, not the least of which are love, healing, and wholeness.  I can draw a bright line from my own fears directly to my failures.  It makes perfect sense that if we are filled with dread and anxiety we are unable to connect and serve in a whole way.  We cannot connect to God or other people, and we cannot give our best to any situation because we are clamped down on it inside.  You don’t teach someone how to swim who won’t get in the water.  The learning to swim is what’s important, life-saving even, but you can’t get there until you get the person in the water.

God wants us in the water.  At least that’s what I’m hearing, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

The women in my group are incredible people.  Multigenerational and diverse, they have come together to trust one another as well as themselves as we dig into the issue of fear and how it affects our spiritual lives, and consequently our lives in total.  One of our discussions centered on separating apprehension from real fear.  When you’ve been punched in the gut by real fear, you know the difference.  I think sometimes we hide behind apprehension as our definition of fear.

(Side Bar: It will be interesting to see if the fear of other people knowing what we are really afraid of gets in the way of figuring out what fear is doing to us.  Oy vey!)

I will never discuss here anyone’s personal stories in our group.  I hope, though, that readers of this blog will be willing to read some of my musings on personal fear and maybe even help me understand this issue of fear better.  I don’t think one needs to be a professing Christian to learn from and analyze the words of a renowned teacher in Jesus of Nazareth; I’m confident everyone has some level of fear, so whatever your source of understanding, feel free to bring it here and share it.

Welcome, all fellow human travellers.  We all know fear, some more intimately than others.  Maybe we can help each other along.

Image credit: 30 Before 30 List

Bitten

There are things that are all but inevitable, and being bitten is one of them.

Most people begin to engage animals as young children.  Usually it’s first a family pet, and when that goes well we venture to the pets of other families, and so on.  The law of averages says that the sooner you start keeping company with wild things and the longer you live, the greater the odds it’s going to happen.

Knowing that it is part of life and nearly 100% guaranteed at some point doesn’t make it any easier when it’s your child.  A few days ago my daughter was bitten by a cat she absolutely adores, and has practically worshipped the whole two years of her life. 

I don’t blame the cat or the child.  It just is something that happens.  But that instant of pain and confusion was awful, and something I could have gone my whole life without seeing.

Thankfully, I don’t think my child associates the pain she felt with the animal she trusts.  It happened so quickly and was not connected to a specific action, and I think she has no idea the cat bit her; in fact, minutes later she was calling after the cat and acting as if nothing had happened.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch the very young just move on.  Maybe it was a misunderstanding.  Or maybe it was two living things who did just fine most of the time but are hardwired to disconnect spontaneously at random intervals forever.

What would the world be like if we could all just move on every time we are bitten?