The President, The Actor, My Father and Me

A little over one year ago, there was an election race in the United States of America. In this race, the nominee for the Republican Party spent more time in the news for his hateful rhetoric than he did for public policy. Most people assumed that there was a comment – some comment – that would sway the public away from him. I live in Toronto and I watched the mayoral stumblings of Rob Ford. I was less certain.

Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610),_Artemisia_Gentileschi“I moved on her like a bitch.”

“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

“I did try and fuck her. She was married.”

And that was just one conversation. One recorded conversation. One recorded conversation that was proof that a man running for president thought men could do anything to women. Then he was elected – and he was proven right.

The repercussion of his win are hard to explain, but it proved something to victims. It proved that every excuse we’d heard for why justice had not been meted out was a lie. It proved that a recorded confession was not enough. It proved that a dozen people with corroborating stories was not enough. It proved that overt and predatory lechery was not enough.

Nothing is enough.

That was it. That and Cosby and Ghomeshi and every other powerful person who hurts people without consequence. That was the moment we realized exactly how little we mattered. How little our pain mattered.

That realization was paired with a new ability to connect to each other and to count ourselves. When my first abuse happened in the 80s and 90s, there was no connective tissue like the one we have now. Our isolation was both a tool of our abusers and a symptom of our abuse. My father told me not to tell. He said things that I assumed were unique. He said I was special for being mature. He said I should never tell anyone or they would put him in jail. He said he would get me.

It lived in me. It lived there as others, spotting a pre-trained victim, repeated the abuse in new flavours and colours. Saltier tears or louder screams. Different ceilings and darker nights. Churches and workplaces and bus stations. My living room couch and a theatre and a restaurant. In each instance, I collapsed further inward. I wrote about my experience and tried to support others dealing with theirs, but the isolation persisted.

So did the hope.

I hoped that the people who were supposed to have protected me would come around. Sometimes, in a moment of sincere naivety, I even hoped my abuser would come around. He’s dying now, I’ve heard. A part of me still wants to ask him why. A part of me wants him just to admit it.

Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Mary_Magalene_as_Melancholy_1621-22

Seeing a man win an election who was so overtly cool with sexual assault killed that tender hope. It told me that a huge swath of folks didn’t actually think victims were liars – they just didn’t care. We were unimportant. And that fucking hurt. I cut off the world, the way I was trained. I didn’t read the news. I didn’t call friends. I was okay, alone. I was alone, okay? Friends let me be. Friends reached out. Friends sent me coded messages that may not have been for me.

A year later and a story comes out that an actor attacked a 14 year old kid. I know his story wasn’t the first one, but it’s the one that hit me the hardest. Maybe it was the similarity in ages or the physical similarities between our assailants. Maybe it was because that survivor’s voice, on a CD, kept me going in the group home I ended up in after I told the truth and found myself disposed of.

I don’t know him either. He was just a voice. I don’t believe in heroes. They are always too human in real life. But it shook it all up again. It’s been shaken so much I’m like a Bond martini of anxiety.

There seems to be a movement toward believing people. That’s good. It is. But it also means that survivors have to see a dozen conversations about things they hold in to get through a day. It means that I have to stop myself a hundred times over from explaining, AGAIN, why 96% of survivors who see no justice is more shocking than the 2% possibility of false accusations. It means that I have to do my job and live my life and ignore the panic and the pain in my stomach and the nightmares so bad I bruise my face in my sleep.

So here it is. Conversations I’m tired of having.

I think some people are just crying wolf.
Perhaps. But we live in a place and time where one in six have been mauled by said wolves so maybe we have a fucking problem with wolves and we should listen.

A false accusation can ruin a career.
Even a confession can’t ruin a career (see above re: President.) But let’s also consider the amazing deleted careers of folks who were assaulted when they were first starting out. Let’s consider the people who chose speaking out over their careers. Let’s value the artistic contributions that survivors make, even when they’ve been turned inside out. Let me mourn for those lost and altered voices.

If these folks had spoken out earlier, they might have saved someone else.
*BUZZER* Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. No one gets to judge folks for the way they reacted to assault, unless they chose to hurt others.

Damn – side-tracked again.

That’s why I wanted to include the actor. That’s reason number two why this story hit me so hard. He was, if you believe his brother, also a victim of an abuser. He was hurt. Then he hurt. I know that’s true of my abuser. I know it’s true of more than one of the people who didn’t keep me safe. It’s a huge, messy, fucking loop. Time is not a line.

Susanna_e_i_vecchioni_di_Artemisia_Gentileschi,_Museo_Civico_di_Bassano_del_GrappaThe person who hurt me was the boy who was hurt by a man who was a boy who was hurt by a man who was a boy who was hurt…and on it goes. I am the kid I was and the person I have grown to be. That kid isn’t gone and in my dreams, my abuser/the child he was/the dying man is young and his polyester work pants scratch my skin. And I am soft skinned and thin skinned and I still can feel it now and maybe he can still feel his abuser now.

So there it is, in all its non-linear, time-looping glory. Presidents and paupers, parents and children, actors and survivors and me.

Tending an almost extinguished hope, one breath at a time.

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Due Process

I un-followed a Canadian author who helped shape my identity as a human and as a creator. I un-followed her because of a letter she signed. To be clear (because no small statement is ever clear) I did not un-follow her forever. My feed is an ebb and flow of the things I enjoy, the things that give me hope and the things I hope to know. My feed serves me. That’s why it’s mine. I may find, in the near future, that reading her small, instant words feeds me. For now, I’m choking on it. I also did not un-follow her simply because she took a political or personal action I disagree with. She has built up enough good faith as a creator that I see no need to view the world through a lens identical to hers. I un-followed her because it hurt.

Two words she threw out like a casual sprinkling of flavour on a massive meal: Due process.

I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a multiple sexual assault survivor. In almost every case, it was a man who held cross-sections of power attempting to or succeeding at misusing my physical and emotional form because they could.

When I started to realize – well into my teens – that what had happened to me was, indeed, against our presumed social contract, I began the process of seeking my due.

Due process simply means fair treatment in the judicial system. Not only fair treatment for the person who stands accused, but for the person who stands destroyed. Too visceral? Too emotional? Probably.

Here is due process to a person who has been raped, sexually abused or sexually assaulted:

1

Tell someone. This person may be yourself. Often that’s the first person you tell. If you are young, you may tell yourself after a book or a flyer in your school or an episode of Degrassi confirms that the tearing and ripping inside you is not an anomaly, but a reaction. There’s an overt message that you are not alone in numbers, but 1000 subtle messages that you are probably alone regardless. If you are an adult, telling yourself can happen during, or just after or years later. It can happen when you do that math inside your head that says if I scream he will kill me or if I just make it to the end it will be over and she will leave. Math is a process. Math figures out how much more they have to weigh than you to hold you down. Turns out, it’s not that much. It is not fair that this is how you must talk to yourself, but neither is it judicial, so we will pass this step.

2

Tell another someone. Maybe a friend. Maybe using code words. In my case, it was a guidance counselor. She was not the first person I told, but she was the first to break the code. There is a good chance that the person you tell will not believe you. They may try to find a way to show that it was your fault. This is about you, but it’s also not about you. It’s about constructing a safe cocoon of control that says I would not have made those choices so it would not happen to me or I did something similar once and I am not a villain. Sometimes they will believe you, but since they have spent a same lifetime watching dashing men on film win women over by hands-over-ears ignoring their nos and stops and I mean stops, they will wonder if it isn’t just the way things are. This is also not fair. Now that you have told someone, we may be drifting into the judicial. After all, everyone you tell, even your diary or your mother, can be called up later to testify. That’s the process. Maybe it’s better to say nothing at all, and to smile in pictures at picnics, but then, those pictures may also be called to testify. Anyone/thing you tell is likely to come back at you. This blog could come back at me. Every time we speak, we give a piece of ourselves to that process that we cannot take back with honest words. Words are not proof.

3

Tell the police. Go to the police. We use ‘the’ with police because everyone knows what you mean. No need to give qualifiers, adjectives. They are the police. The police with candies at parades and dirty looks when you walk in groups with other people from school. The police who, perhaps, look more like your assailant than you. Here the process comes due. If you have made it to this part in the process, you are one of only 6 out of 100. 94 out of 100 people chose to stop at step 1 or step 2. You sit in a room or curl up in a ball in a room or pretend you are not in a room and try to take something that is bigger than any part of you and break it down small enough that it will fit on a piece of paper that can go in a file in a drawer or on a computer and maybe turn into fair treatment in the judicial system. If this outcome were common, there would be more than 6 of you. It is not common. Numbers show that. Stories show that. Rooms full of women secure that no one is listening show that. Our arms and our medications and our nervous ticks show that.

4

There are two ways this step in the process can go. You may find, like I did, like a fall from a high height that lands you square on your back, that the last step takes all the wind out of you. It is okay if your process ends here. The next step involves lawyers. Lawyers are people who went to school for a very long time to study a system created before most folks could vote or own property or avoid being property. An apple tree can grow a thousand ways, but it’s still an apple tree. Until we plant something new, this is our only apple tree. This apple tree sucks. People will tell you to have faith in it. They may point to new branches that have grown since you were considered a person. They may say that the roots are strong enough to maintain us through change. That is bullshit. Only 1 out of 65 of us will see fruit from this tree and that fruit is often small and full of worms. Have I lost you? Anyone who tells you that you should not have feelings until due process is served is choosing not to see that no matter how nobly an idea may grow, it is only by its fruit that we can truly judge it. There is no fucking fruit.

5

Some people may think that the previous step is the last one in the process, but there is another. This is a step we take when we’ve exhausted one of the previous steps and found that, no matter what the promise of fairness is, the social contract we have signed has crap clauses. It has the clause that wealthy people and famous people and popular people and really any people can still succeed, no matter what they do to us. They can be free. They can be loved. They can be president. It has a clause that says we are to stay very, very silent no matter what happens, unless the tree gives us grand, ripe fruit. They do not point out the very small text that says it rarely does – and then usually when very pretty and convincing humans with pristine pasts and no scars point at very mean looking humans and say, “it was them!” So what do we do? We hold our hand to our mouth and with a theater aside, we whisper our stories in quiet spaces. We write maudlin poetry and carve lyrics on our bellies. We cry when we masturbate and flinch at gentle touches. We sometimes throw the contract out and shout and shout and shout, only to be met, finally, by a two words that I can no longer bear:

Due process.

Trigger Warning

“There are no warnings in real life.”
He said
Sipping from a cup marked CAUTION:HOT

“You just have to deal with what comes.”
He signaled right

“There are no warnings in real life.”

Beware of dog
Slippery when wet
Hidden corner
Alarm will sound

“There are no warnings in real life.”

Watch for falling rocks
Flashing lights may cause seizure
Edges are sharp
Handle with care

“You just have to deal with what comes.”

by Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here. To read my post on trigger warnings, click here.

Stop Diagnosing Donald

Dear Discourse-loving intellectuals,

Please stop trying to diagnose Donald Trump. Now.

I understand the desire to put a name to the way he behaves, I truly do. I understand your frustration as he heaps disrespect on disrespect while maintaining his Teflon veneer. But in your efforts to dismantle his run for the presidency, please do not use a-neurotypicality as your proof that he does not deserve to run.

We saw this phenomenon with Barack Obama. When people ran out of ways to challenge his policies, they went for an easy out – they called him a Muslim. They did this because they knew, on some level, that there was a underlying and pernicious prejudice against Muslims. And while an open and fair examination of the rhetoric would show that there’s nothing at all wrong with being a Muslim, by associating him with an unpopular group, his detractors were able to tap into an existing prejudice and use it. Folks were quick to declare he wasn’t a Muslim. Fewer pointed out that it’s not okay to use Muslim as an insult or as an implication that his character is questionable.

Now we’re seeing the same song coming from the other side of the political spectrum in regards to Donald Trump. This time, without a diagnosis or his own self-inclusion in the community, people are calling Donald Trump mentally ill. Crazy. Mad. He’s been diagnosed by pretend doctors so many times, it’s like watching all of the seasons of House at once. And whether there is any fact to it (something that people are jumping in to debate) the real question is, what is wrong with being mentally ill? Why are we cool with the underlying and pernicious prejudice this shows against a-neurotypical folks?

In the end, much as the people who implied Obama was Muslim, the folks implying Trump is mentally ill are relying on the current climate of disrespect for mentally ill folks to help bolster their argument that he should not be president. And as a mentally ill human, I’m not happy being your insult. I’m hurt by the rush to use the way I am to discredit anyone, even someone whose behaviors I disdain. Call him cruel, call him privileged, call him un-presidential, but don’t call him mentally ill as though that were the end of a conversation and not the very beginning.

Pause

I want go back
To Rexdale and say
They stopped a parade for you
The noise they made for you
The way they stayed for you
Your life matters

by Heather Emme

I’m still in surgical recovery, so posts continue to be brief and scattered. This is the first time I’ve posted one of my twitter poems to #verseday. I felt this was worth repeating. To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

 

By Any Other Name: Let’s Call WBC What It Is

When I was a young pup, about 20 years ago, I wrote for a local queer magazine called Siren. It was there that I first came across stories of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church. At that time, they were protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was the victim of a vicious hate crime. Since I had grown up in a hate-filled church myself, it wasn’t hard to believe that a group espoused a doctrine this harsh. I took them at face value. Most people still do.

The time has come, though, to call them what they are. They are not a Baptist church. Let’s start there. They use the word Baptist, but not one single denomination that falls under the Baptist umbrella will support them. They are autonomous. They are not Baptists. As to being a church, let us examine that as well. The Hartford Institute estimates there are around 350,000 congregations in the United States. Legally claiming to be a church is a surprisingly easy task. By definition (as set forth by the IRS) they are a church. By our social definition, though, the title is not so clear.

Most of the so-called church’s 40 members (as of 2011 paperwork) are part of the Phelps family. Led originally by violent patriarch Fred Phelps, the so-called church was more a family obligation than a community organization. According to his son (and now LGBTQ+ advocate) Nate Phelps, family members were regularly beaten with an axe handle or a barber strap. This type of violence occurred in the families of the children and grandchildren as well.

Given no choice but to comply, the children were taken along to “protests” organized by the family. At these events, they were yelled at, mocked and physically assaulted, proving the family line that there was no safe place outside of the home. WBC is not so much a church as one of the most dazzling examples of Stockholm Syndrome ever created.

After Orlando’s tragic mass shooting, and as Pride approaches, we’re seeing a lot of news that talks about WBC’s planned bad behavior. But by calling them a Baptist Church, we are lending them the legitimacy of an organization that, while certainly on the hook for its own shortcomings, is not represented here.

I propose we start calling them what they are: One Abusive Family. OAF for short. They are just one family. One family that abuses its own members, has no affiliations and reflects no legitimate doctrine. They are not a church. They are not Baptists. They are Phelps’. That is all they are. (And, thanks to the folks that keep leaving and speaking out, we can even say #notallphelps.) They are not WBC. They are One Abusive Family. Let’s call them the OAFs they are.

As you report on them, share them in your feed or express your totally legitimate heartache that people like this still exist, remember: They are a very small group that no one wants to claim. They get together to hate and yell and pretend to be important. We get together to kiss and dance and celebrate love. Love wins. And One Abusive Family will not change that. Don’t give the OAFs space in your day, or in our national discourse.

Boys on Bikes

(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

There is a habit we, as a culture, have of reframing experiences via the male perspective. When a she-identified human is assaulted by a he-identified human, we are trained to ask about her past and his future. What did she do to deserve it? What will it take from him is he’s convicted? We’ve seen this played out vividly in the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. I’ve never met the fellow, but thanks to the tone employed by some media coverage, I’m now aware of the scholarships he’s lost, the times of his most successful swims and how very, very hard it will be for him to enjoy his life after he was convicted of the crime he committed. His future is the window through which we were allowed to watch this story.

We have also been given the story of the two men who interrupted the assault and held convicted rapist Brock Turner until police arrived.

Despite the fact that, again, this means I’m seeing the story from the male perspective, I want to dwell on this for a bit.

When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted. For the most part, it was just the two of us in the room. But once.

Once someone walked in.

There was a moment. It was dark, my memory tells me. It was dark and maybe she didn’t see my nightgown up around my armpits. Maybe her brain hiccuped, swallowed the whole memory. Maybe there was shock. Shock can do that, right? Shock can make you delete the things that frighten you. I remember that she backed out of the room. She backed out and he left and it was never mentioned. It was dark. It was dark. Of course she didn’t see. She didn’t feel the fear radiating off me like heat from a fire. She didn’t ask why he was in my room late at night. It was dark.

Doing nothing is, like the male perspective, often our default. Anyone whose been on a bus when someone starts loudly and verbally attacking a stranger knows what I mean. We see heads drop. Earbuds go in. Books raised higher against the call to interfere. It’s a weird instinct, but it’s one our species clearly has.

So two men on bikes stopped and halted a crime in progress. A crime that, statistics tell us, isn’t treated like a crime. We wink it away. We rarely test rape kits. We rarely press charges. We rarely see convictions. It’s barely treated like a crime at all. But they stopped despite the overwhelming casual message that what was happening wasn’t a real crime.

There was a moment. It was in church. The head pastor – a man who had, once, in a sermon on forgiveness, talked about how he could imagine no worse crime than rape – told me that I needed to forgive the youth leader who had sexually harassed me while offering me a ride home from church. It was about forgiveness. He had repented and now it was on me to let it go. He didn’t feel the shame radiating off me like heat from a fire. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. It was about forgiveness.

So, you see, we are a bystander species. Doing nothing is our default. We strive for homeostasis and our norm is to close our eyes to sexual assault. I sometimes try to suss out why. I come up with a thousand explanations and reasons. In the end, I land back at: It happens because we let it. It happens because we back out of rooms, we offer forgiveness instead of justice, we mourn for the lost future of rapists.

Two men on bikes did not back away.

I’ll hold on to that.