Sunday, March 25, 2012

Two disappointments, many heroes

Two events have monopolized my heart and brain space this week.

First, the ridiculously-insulting sentencing of Graham James for the child sexual abuse of Theo Fleury and Todd Holt (also Greg Gilhooly, although those charges were stayed as part of James's plea bargain).  Second, the excitement of the NDP leadership race and the inspiration of one Nathan Cullen.

I'll start with the latter, for I suspect (as do my regular readers, I'm sure) the former will have me going on for a while.  :-)

Don and I had thought of signing up for the NDP so we could vote this weekend, but... between our usual procrastination, fuelled (or un-fuelled, I guess) by a lack of enthusiasm for any of the candidates (although I had been really impressed with Romeo Saganash, he dropped out of the race before the registration deadline), we never quite got around to it in time.  Wouldn't you know it, a couple of days after the deadline had flitted by, people started sending us video clips of Nathan Cullen's speeches.  Ah... if we could turn back the clock...

What a breath of fresh air this guy is!  Eschewing all the cynical politics-as-usual-these-days crapola, spreading a positive message, down to earth, open to new ideas...  I found myself getting excited about politics again for the first time in ages!  And hopeful.  Hopeful is good.  Fresh, exciting, inspirational.  Which of course made it look like he didn't have a chance.  :-)  But over the last month or so, the word was spreading, the joy was spreading, people were getting similarly engaged, and he was working his way to being one of the top contenders.  Truly remarkable.

I found myself, in the last week, hoping for big surprises.  Hoping that the slow and powerful surge which had brought him so far was enough to push him to the top.

I was, unfortunately, disappointed.

Cullen, however, showed no disappointment -- and well he shouldn't.  He got further than anyone thought he would, introduced new issues to the membership, ran a classy campaign, and earned high, high praise and admiration from some of the party's "elite" -- most notably, the CBC News panel of Olivia Chow, Stephen Lewis and Pat Martin.  As Peter Mansbridge said, he may not have won this race, but he's one to watch in the meantime, and could easily be the next leader.  And he sure has the ear of the party now!  Maybe that's the reason why he was reported to be the last candidate still on the dance floor at the after-party.  :-)

So -- thank you, Nathan Cullen, for reviving my interest in politics, and giving many of us hope for the future.  Congratulations on making it so far, and being such a huge influence and inspiration.  You are making a difference, and are a big hero.

OK, that's the latter disappointment and hero.

The former one is so much more difficult...

As Graham James's own brother stated: "[Wall Street swindler Bernie] Madoff is in jail for 150 years for stealing people's money.  Graham stole much more than that from his victims -- their childhoods, their lives, their dreams -- and just got a few years.  To me, Bernie's crimes pale in comparison."


What the $&#* was Judge Carlson thinking?

Apparently, she believes he'd "been able to manage his desires because he has not reoffended since being released from jail for previous sex offences in the late-1990s" [source: CBC]

Uh... are you freaking kidding me?!?  First of all, all the Canadian court system knows is that no new crimes have since been reported to the Canadian court system in the last decade -- which kind of makes sense, since he's been LIVING IN ANOTHER COUNTRY since he was released from his first sentence.  And, as is shown time and time again, it usually takes several years, if not decades, for victims of childhood sexual abuse to come forward.  I'm also not certain that the awareness or laws in Mexico are any better than the still-pathetic laws in Canada (I mean, seriously, if James had been growing a few pot plants, his sentence would have been longer than he got for destroying a few lives!!!)

Secondly, he's already told the Canadian court system himself that he still prefers young boys, so it doesn't really sound like he's stopped being a danger to young boys at all.  And next time he leaves the country, he'll probably go to one with even more ridiculously lax laws about child abuse.

Thirdly, if you read ANY of the literature, it becomes quite clear that by the time a man has sexually assaulted this many children, there is virtually no chance of him ever being rehabilitated.  He's not ever going to stop being a danger to society.  Giving him a longer sentence isn't about punishment, it's about harm reduction.

The 3-1/2 year sentence he previously received had him out of jail after 18 months.  This new 2-year sentence will have him back out in September.

Even if you thought there was a modicum of a chance of rehabilitation, you can't undo several decades of severely abusive behaviour with only six months of attempted rehabilitation -- and, you know what?  I haven't seen any mention or evidence that he will be receiving any treatment intended for rehabilitation.  (Please correct me if I'm wrong, because I would like to see a glimmer of hope that the Canadian justice system has any concept of what it's doing when it comes to cases of childhood sexual abuse.)

OK, silver lining, Lyss, find that friggin' silver lining...

Well, at least he got sentenced to SOMETHING.  That's more than my father got (he never had to even make it into a courtroom, thanks to the mighty intimidation techniques of my Great-And-Powerful-Oz grandfather), and more than many kids' abusers have gotten.  Baby steps.

Also heartening, the public reactions to the sentencing have been loud and angry.  Even if the courts don't get it, the public is starting to wake up to the horrifying destruction of lives that childhood sexual abuse brings.  Big steps.

And a bunch of rough-tough-macho-superstar hockey players have had the strength and bravery to come forward as victims, thus making it easier for the young kids of today to admit and acknowledge their own abuse (anecdotally, my various contacts in the field have noted a surge in disclosures by males in the last few years -- likely not because more males are being abused than they were before, rather, because more males feel it's ok to seek help).  They have put a very public face on a very private crime.

I have been rather disgusted reading some of the comments below the articles (I know, I know, stop reading the comments, already!), claiming the only reason this is news is because the victims are famous.

Well, yes, it's too bad that it takes a famous person to come forward for anyone to pay attention, but GEEZ, people, don't criticize Fleury, Holt, Gilhooly, Kennedy, et al, for being famous victims.  They weren't superstars when the assaults took place -- the sexual abuse hurt them just as much as it would have hurt anyone else.  For crap's sake, read and listen to their victim impact statements!!!

Others (don't read the comments, Alyssa, don't read the damned comments!) criticize them for not speaking up earlier, insinuating it's some sort of publicity stunt now.  Uh, SERIOUSLY?!?  It's not like they decided as kids to let themselves be assaulted and raped so they could become famous for the abuse a few decades later.  Do you people even have two brain cells to spark together?  And if you aren't taking them seriously now that they've proven their credibility in court, why the hell do you think they'd have been brave enough to come forward when they were teenagers?!?

I sooo have to stop reading the comments.

These asinine comments, and the judge's ridiculous-excuse-for-a-rational-sentence are all further examples of how people's reaction to the abuse is often harder to get over than the initial abuse.  Maybe because these asinine reactions don't ever stop, and can nail you in the gut when you least expect it.

As I've said before, I've managed to get myself to a point where I've "gotten over" my father's abuse -- it wasn't easy, it wasn't quick, it certainly isn't complete, if my damned dreams are any indication, but I've been able to move past it, and get on with my life.  I've even managed to find some compassion for the man, which I have to say, I find pretty impressive.  :-)

Without making excuses for their choices or behaviours, the statistics indicate that the vast majority of pedophiles were sexually abused themselves.  It is becoming more and more apparent that the "game changer" of who goes on to be abusive as an adult depends in great part on the reactions and support network they have upon disclosure.  I do not know for sure what happened to my father.  I have a theory, cobbled together from what little evidence has been allowed to slip through the cracks of my heavily-fortified-firewall family members, but I will never know for sure.  I do know for sure that he wouldn't have had much of a support network, even if he had ever chosen to disclose (again, not a clue). Needless to say, I do know he was right-royally messed up, definitely treated abusively, though not necessarily sexually, with perhaps some mental health issues that went undiagnosed -- how many healthy people see giant coke bottles chasing them home?  I think it's safe to say that, on a messed-up scale of one to ten, he was a twelve.

Which does not make what he did to me acceptable, but it does make it understandable.  I'm still angry that he chose to continue the pattern instead of seek help, but I can also see how his parents (his father, anyhow) would have fought him every step of the way, even if he had sought help.  It sucks, and I'm still angry as hell at him and what he did to me, but I can no longer hate him, or wish him harm.  (OK, I kind of hope there's an afterlife, so that some of the good dead relatives will spend the rest of eternity kicking his ass, but... only until he gets the message and repents.)

The people I have way more trouble forgiving are the ones who *didn't* see coke bottles chasing them home.  The ones who had all their wits together, saw what was going on and didn't do anything.  The ones who helped cover it up and deflect the blame to an eight-year-old.  The ones who wouldn't help me upon disclosure, but did enlist me to protect my younger sister -- yes, the grown-ups wouldn't protect either of us, but it was this child's responsibility.  The paediatrician who diagnosed me with V.D. (the same one my father had), and thought I must have caught it in the highly-chlorinated swimming pool (even though my sister and I took baths together in non-chlorinated water and she didn't have a thing) -- I can only assume it's because people in the 70s thought child abuse only happened on the wrong side of the tracks, so they weren't looking for it in fairly affluent and powerful family.  The ones who handed me self-help book after self-help book so I'd stop being "so moody."  The church leaders who had counselled me, but completely lost their memories when my grandfather started donating big-ticket items to the parish.  The people who insist that my childhood must not have been so bad, because I never ran away to become a crack whore.

OK, I don't think crack existed back then, but you get the point...

Disclosure, even as an adult, even decades later, is difficult.  You open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable to a whole new level of abuse, while having to re-live the abuse of the past.

Yes, Fleury and Holt and Gilhooly and Kennedy and the others are receiving, for the most part, praise for their bravery in coming forward.  But I'll let you in on a little secret: one abusive comment can render the other one-thousand useless.  Because those abusive comments are exactly what keeps people silent in the first place.

You don't need to blame the victim, the victim is still blaming him- or herself just fine, thank you very much.  Even those who have done as much of the grunt work as I've done will still catch ourselves thinking "oh, if only I'd thought of talking to... or saying... or doing... or..." on a regular basis.  If only we'd been super-heroes, we could have protected ourselves -- why didn't we try harder to fly or be made of teflon?

We don't need a judge to put our abusers away for a mere six months in order to get the message that the damage done to us wasn't really that big a deal.  We get and give ourselves that message every day.

It would be very easy for these men to now shuffle off and disappear behind the scenes, never to speak of this again, never to open themselves up to such abusive comments or ridicule or shame.

But they're NOT.

Each of them is continuing to speak up, to push for change -- not for themselves, not as a P.R. stunt, but to make sure that this stops happening to the kids of the future.  Some of them have started foundations, some of them are using their stature to influence politicians, some are speaking to organizations, some are just speaking.

And that's why they are heroes.

They can't change their own past, they can't undo the damage done, but they can help prevent it from happening to others.  They are putting their own stories, their own pain, their own images on the line to help others.

You don't need to fly or be made of teflon to be a superhero.  All you need is a will and a voice and a desire to make the world a better place.

Yes, this week had two disappointments for me.  But it also reminded me that there are a lot of superheroes in this world.  And for that, I am infinitely grateful.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I survived - prove it

Survived the family March Break visit.  Yay me.

Well, the family March Break visit wouldn't have been a problem (other than the fact that Don had to go in for more surgery mid-visit, oy!).  It's really the Mom visit I'm referring to.

In fact, it had all been going quite well.  Including, I must report, a very mature late-night conversation with my mother and sister (Don was in bed recovering from anaesthesia) about survival techniques and coping strategies, how nothing in life was ever just one person's fault, you could take responsibility for your own actions without taking the blame for the entire situation, etc.

As I tried to keep my mouth shut, it was actually my sister who brought up the idea that our childhood had been traumatic -- and Mom actually agreed with her.  I kept my jaw off the floor, mouth still closed, taking it all in with wide-eyed wonder, waiting for the arrows to start slinging, but the arrows never came.

Sounds pretty hearteningly impressive, doesn't it?  I was so very proud of this mother-I-raised, finally blossoming into maturity, away from her black-and-white ways, into seeing the bigger, open, compassionate picture.  It did my heart good.  I went to bed that night thinking "wow, what a turn-around", and looking forward to a new, open, honest, grown-up, compassionate relationship with the woman who gave birth to me.

Do you see where this is going?

Because I did not see where this was going...

The next night, our last night, I made the mistake of bringing up a comment I had read on a report card many years ago.  The report card was from my nursery school days, but I didn't read the comment until years, probably decades later.

Yes, the poop hit the fan, not because I commented on something from our traumatic childhood, but because of a passing remark I made about a comment on my nursery school report card.

"Prove it!" was my mother's reply.

Now, to understand this comment, you first need to picture the force that would have been required to Heimlich a tennis ball out of my mother's throat and have it tear through my body and hit the opposite wall.  This is the force with which "Prove it!" was (and usually is) spat out.

Secondly, you have to understand my own personal history with "Prove it!"

"Prove it!" was similarly spat out over the years any time I noticed something I wasn't supposed to, or remembered something they didn't want me to remember.  It basically implied that, unless I could produce incontrovertible proof of my statement that very second, I would be reduced to the kid in the tin-foil hat who was hysterically shrieking that the sky was falling, and nothing I said from that point on would be even remotely believable.

When you're a kid whose sky IS falling, this type of rebuke is simply devastating.  You make sure you only say things that can be easily proven -- although when you live with people who claim that the sky is green and the grass is blue, there's not much that IS easily proven...

This is also the reason, or at least part of the reason, why I became such a packrat.  You never know when you'll need to "prove it".

While this tendency drives my husband nuts and makes for a very over-stuffed basement, it has also served me well over the years -- not just in "proving it" to the people who would like to declare me insane for believing and speaking my truth, but in keeping me centred and sure of my own sanity during the times when my family (and others) fought to convince me that black was white and up was down.  In more recent years, it helped keep my abusive ex-husband from coming back into the country to stalk me again in real life (as opposed to just cyber-life -- hello, asshole, hope you're enjoying the read!), and helped me fight a legal battle against my original abusers' co-conspirator (my word against yours -- really?  Here's your handwriting from 1983, sucker -- yes, I've kept everything the last 30 years, your client taught me well.).

When you've grown up with and previously married a bunch of gaslighters and crazy-makers, you learn to gather all the incontrovertible proof you can.

Sadly, on that day I read my report card from nursery school, I never considered it was something I would later need to "prove".  If I had any inkling, I would have probably found a way to sneak it out of my mother's house, or at least make a copy for myself.  But it really didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time.

Well, that's not completely true.  It did give me an "aha!" moment, but... it didn't really seem like something anybody would freak out about a few decades later.  The teacher's comment was that I was very quiet, disliked speaking up, seemed overwhelmed making decisions and in group activities, and did not mix well with other children, preferring to be by myself -- there was some concern I might be mildly autistic.  I clearly remember reading this and thinking "of course I was overwhelmed, look what was going on in my life already!"  And then wondering why nobody investigated this idea any closer -- if they had bothered looking into why I was terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing, or of being with other people, maybe they would have discovered what was really going on?  (Of course, realistic Lyssy understands that they probably wouldn't have figured it all out, especially without "proof" or even a name for it at the time, but it's a nice fantasy every once in a while...)

Of course, Thursday night, this wasn't even the context of my mentioning the report card comment.  So I still don't understand the tennis ball that got lobbed into my gut.  I had quipped about it in the context of people not understanding introverts -- no danger, no blame, no icky stuff.  At least I thought...  Apparently, it hit some sort of unforeseen nerve, though.  And I was flattened.  So much so that yesterday I dug through the boxes in the basement, on the off-chance that I had stolen the report card those many years ago... no such luck.

And so, I am now stuck with trying to convince myself I'm not crazy.  That I haven't just made this memory up.  Which, as the "prove it" lob, is ridiculous -- I've always been referred to as "the elephant" of the family, and not because of the creases under my arse, thank you very much.  I remember things.  I am the walking encyclopaedia of piddly little useless facts.  When people can't remember someone's name from our old church, or a birthday, or someone's favourite sweater from 1976 or where we used to store the sewing patterns or whatever, they ask me.  I remember things.  Perhaps it's a genetic gift, but I've also trained my brain to remember things, anything that might be needed later, for whatever stupid reason.

Why, then, do they (and I) call my memories into doubt when somebody doesn't want me to have that memory?  Why do I NEED to have swiped a piece of paper from my mother's house in order to fully believe that piece of paper ever existed?  Or for others to believe that I read it?

"Prove it" has haunted me since those nursery-school days of being terrified of saying the wrong thing or making myself unbelievable.  I know this.  And yet...

To those who need me to "prove it", the proof is probably never going to be enough, anyhow.  If I had been able to produce that piece of paper the other day, I would probably then have had to prove it was original, or gotten lost in an argument over why I had taken it in the first place, thus burying the proof under a mountain of "your trust issues" (!).  And who knows, maybe I didn't actually write my diaries in the 1980s, but waited until last year to forge kid-style writing and falsely age the pages to try and prove my idiotic, faulty memory...

Part of me wants to just toss away all the boxes and be done with it all.  The other part knows, though, that as long as there is an older generation alive that will fight like gangbusters to cover up the truth, those boxes are there to remind me that *I'm* not the crazy one.

I was talking with my friend Ali (head of the York Region Abuse Program) a couple of weeks ago about this new project of mine (yes, Lisa, I'll let you know what it is soon!).  In this discussion, we came back to the idea that the sexual abuse, while horrendous, is far easier to recover from if the child gets a positive, supportive reaction upon disclosure -- if not, the neglect and abuse of those other caregivers is often more harmful than the original abuse.

I, my over-stuffed filing cabinets, cluttered basement and spider-webbed elephant-never-forgets brain seem to be "proof" of that.

I've been "over" the sexual abuse for quite some time.  I have an awesome, healthy sex life, with no strange hang-ups or fears.  There is no surface or subliminal association between my adult sexuality and my childhood sexual abuse.

Oh, how I wish my brain had the same story to tell...  It's STILL playing stupid brain tricks -- shutting me down, discrediting me, telling me I'm not important or worthy, keeping me quiet (well, trying!) and "in my place."  Decades later, this is still a constant battle -- partially with that older generation, but mostly because I've internalized all the messages I was given way-back-when, and now tell them to myself.

I can't help but fantasize: IF ONLY there had been an adult version of Ali back then, who could have said "hey, kid, those people are nuts -- what's happened to you is awful and you deserve better."

That's all a kid needs.  Someone to say "what's happened to you is awful and you deserve better."

I can't remember the statistics off the top of my head, but I'm sure Ali could quote them to you -- the kids who are told these things are (approximately) a gazillion times more likely to grow up and live minimally-neurotic, healthy lives.  They don't have to fight the "brain clouds" when their crazy-makers tell them the sky is green and the grass is blue.  They don't continuously hook up with abusive partners until their heads crash through to below rock bottom.  They don't have to do battle with and/or keep vigilant watch against addictions and other self-abusive behaviour.  They've never had to flatten themselves against the back wall of the subway platform "just in case".  They don't have to question every single thought, action and motivation to make sure they're being true to themselves and not just reverting to neurotic knee-jerk patterns.

ALL IT TAKES for abused kids to grow up and lead relatively normal lives is for ONE PERSON to say "geez kid, that sucks, you deserve better."


We all need to be that person.  If we could all be that one person, Ali would have to find a new job -- what a beautiful tragedy that would be!  (Sadly, doesn't look like that will happen any time soon -- her waiting lists are growing exponentially, because people are STILL trying to keep child abuse quiet.  See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  Thank god for the Theo Fleurys and Sheldon Kennedys of this world -- true heroes for speaking up and putting a public face to this usually-silent crime.)

Be that person.

If someone discloses abuse to you, be they child or adult -- for crap's sake, LISTEN TO THEM.  Believe them.  Help them.  Don't demand proof -- the tone of their voice, their body language, their eye language will be all the proof you need.

Listen.  Believe.  Help.  Their future partners, basements and moving crews will thank you for it.