Why I Reserve the Right to Be Flippant About My Abuse

Yesterday I got a very polite rejection note from a kind and good editor. The article, which I still hope to publish, tells the story of how my step-father abused me.

The editor said the same thing about this piece as she did when I wrote about turning in my youth pastor who was a serial child-molestor, “That is wild!” I never know how to handle such comments because to me they imply that each story of abuse in my personal biography is startling and unusual.

I also think that she was taken aback by the flippant tone of the piece. I called it, “How Purity Culture Turned Me Into My Step-Father’s Fluffer” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “fluffer,” it was coined by the porn industry to describe a person who gets a man erect and ready for sex with another person.  In this case, my step-father was using me to get an erection so that he could have sex with my mother.

There are unwritten rules about how we talk about abuse, even if the person doing the writing or talking was the person who suffered it. I am not sure if I know all of the rules, but I am fairly sure that irreverence is one of the no-no’s.

One of my goals in writing about abuse is to decrease the stigma and allow victims to integrate it into their lives’ stories in much the same way as they would a serious accident, a fight with cancer, or divorce. There is nothing wrong with deeply dramatic stories about abuse that help others to understand the pain we have and are enduring, but sometimes I want to write something different.

I want to write articles in which the abuse that I have survived is just one of the many things that I get to laugh at.

I didn’t develop my sense of humor yesterday or after my life got better. I developed it when I was much younger, and I was struck by the utter ridiculousness of my life. I found my mother’s paranoia about being discovered funny, since supposedly I was the one who had done something wrong. When my mother threw out her back while beating me I laughed myself silly thinking, “For once this really does hurt you more than it hurts me.”

Humor, glibness and survival are all threads of the same rope for me. While I would never make fun of someone else’s abuse, I think that I should feel free to make fun of my own, and more importantly to make fun of my abusers. I think that I have earned the right to write stories where I get to call my step-father’s sexual abuse by any term that I want to use, without worrying about what some sanctimonious officer of the Word Police demands that I call it.

Of course I do not find other victims of abuse funny, nor would I ever suggest that abuse itself should be made light of. But abusers really are a ridiculous bunch of people, strutting around with their little napoleonic complexes trying to control something as complex and unpredictable as another person. The ridiculous stuff that comes out of their mouths is often funny, once you get over your queasiness.

And I suppose that  queasiness is really why it is hard for people to read glib or humorous accounts from victims. Most people can handle it when we talk about abuse in the ways that they have come to understand it – where it is tragic and above all, rare.

People are not ready to hear stories of how abuse has been part of someone’s every day life, for it to be so common that one person can have a dozen interesting or even humorous stories about the abuse they have experienced.

And yet it is necessary for me to integrate those stories into my self-narrative, the autobiography that I tell myself and others. And integration requires that apply to those stories the same  appreciation for the ridiculous that I bring to the rest of my life. I cannot look at my abuse through one set of glasses, and the rest of the world through another. I cannot see all of humanity as ridiculous except abusers. That would give them a special power that I do not want to grant them – the power of being a monster.

So, yes, I understand why it might make other people uncomfortable. I understand where they might find my stories “wild” or even incredible. But as the survivor of some pretty epic abuse, I get to tell my stories with as much humor, pathos, irreverence and craziness as I want.

My stories, my life, my words.

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Does It Hurt Women to be Submissive?

I have been watching with great interest the recent debate engendered by Candace Cameron’s discussion of her wifely submission to spiritual authority. I am glad to see it being discussed again. It a subject that I know a good deal about from my own experiences, from academic theory and from first-hand research.

I spent over four years doing research on exactly this subject. Most of it was spent reading a selection of the hundreds of books written to women on the subject and attending their conferences, seminars and retreats. Women in these circles of faith spend a lot of time and money in mutual encouragement and enforcement of this practice. And there is an entire industry which does nothing but sell the Evangelical model of family in a very wide range of products and forms of media.

The first question that I had was based on the statements of women such as Cameron and on the academic consensus that this is a symbolic act that is given freely. It is assumed that women act with agency acting in roles that are more akin to role-playing or to a symbolic ritual than to the actual loss of freedom or personal agency.

The question that this raised for me is what if a wife does not, for one reason or another, care to submit? What are Evangelical men instructed to do if their wives will not even try to submit?  If whatever gestures of respect or symbolic submission to spiritual authority is not forthcoming, what is a man to do?

The second question that I had is why women believe that it is necessary. Of course all of them point to the Bible’s teachings. But what is it about women, about their basic nature, that makes men God’s chosen leaders and women the followers?

Third, if women are acting with agency, why do they pick religions in which they are treated as second class citizens? Why not pick religious movements in which women are given equality?

The fourth question is what do women do when they find themselves unable to submit. Actually, this question came first. It came to me in Bible College when I discovered that I was constitutionally incapable of shutting up and deferring to a person of the same educational rank as I was who was clearly not as well educated on a subject.

I became especially aware of my inability to be submissive when I was chastised multiple times my first semester in an English class because I simply refused to allow the professor (who had no degree) to misinform a group of students that an adverb modifies a noun. As anyone who is familiar with writing knows, I am dyslexic. And those living in houses constructed of that kind of especially fragile glass should not throw grammar-stones.  So why, I wondered, was I incapable of simply letting it slide?

I was also interested because I saw how my mother’s unsuccessful attempts at submission were destroying her health and her life. She had married a man when I was a junior in high school who was the head of the deacon board, leader of a bus ministry and generally considered “on fire for God.” Theirs was meant to have been a match of two religious powerhouses.

My mother’s spirituality, like mine, is a quiet devotion, an intellectual exercise, and an emotional calibration. Above all it is private and quiet. We do not like attending church for the same reasons that neither of us like parties; they are noisy, full of people and they are emotionally exhausting. This is an extension of our personalities. Both of us are introverts who can masquerade as extroverts.

My step-father’s extroversion and his ideas of what makes a person a good Christian are inextricably linked. He is involved in some church activity at least two nights a week and most of the weekend. He loves to be a part of churches that are noisy, where he can show off and that are demanding of his time.

As a part of this vision of what makes for a good Christian man, my step-father believes that his wife, her appearance and her participation in the church are a large part of the metric by which her husband should be judged. This is a very common beleif in Evangelical circles. In fact, the founder of the famous Promise Keepers ministry is quoted as saying that you can judge the character of a man by the countenance of his wife.

So when my mother (or my daughter, or I) appear in his church, we need to look the part. Think two parts Texas beauty queen and one part Duggard. And we must be sweet, a word that comes with a metric butt-ton of baggage but basically it means that we must remain unchallenging and exude a submissive attitude.

But more important than how my mother looks is the requirement for her to be present “every time that the church doors are open.” Part of my step-father being the spiritual leader of their marriage, and of me when I was a part of their family, was enforcing church attendance for no fewer than six two hour services per week and at least eight hours of additional volunteer work.

My step-father would never dream of being in a marriage in which he was not the spiritual leader. He thinks that this is perfectly reasonable, and both would probably tell you that the submission that she offers is simply symbolic.

While much has been made about how many men no longer extend this call to submission into the making of daily life and family decisions, we seem to forget the awesome power wielded by a spiritual leader. A spiritual leader means that although you seek input from your family, you control where the family attends church, and perhaps more importantly how often and in which church activities your family participates.

But even the symbolic power of this role is simply enormous. Being a spiritual leader means is that you have the right, nay the responsibility, to set the terms on which your wife and children will conduct their spiritual lives. They must seek your God, not theirs. You dictate what God requires and desires for them and you create the measure by which their spirituality or “rightness with God” will be measured. In other words, you are doing what is right and godly when you agree with me and you are doing what is wrong and ungodly when you do not. This supposedly symbolic power cannot be more real and more life-altering for the devout.

How my step-father has wielded this power as a spiritual leader has had devastating effects on my mother. To be spiritual according to his terms which means endless church services, at least twenty hours a week of church volunteer work and she must do it all while setting a good example which includes a clean house and looking like Baptist Barbie. This little bit of symbolic authority is actually nothing short of dictating a person’s entire way of life, her friends and her self-identity.

My mother tried mightily to be submissive, to be an outgoing religious workaholic. But she simply does not have it in her nature. She quite literally had a nervous breakdown trying. So over the years my mother has developed a way of subverting her husband’s authority without needing to confront it. She became morbidly obese, effectively destroying his desire to show her off at every church occasion. And to get an exemption from his demands for church participation she developed a host of physical illnesses. Those that were not self-inflicted in something approaching Munchhausen are things that could be fixed if she were willing to seek proper medical care.

I used to try to help my mother become healthy until my daughter, in one of her first really astute insights, pointed out to me what a high price my mother would pay if she ever achieved that health. She can stay relatively sane as an introvert, submissive and married as long as she sacrifices her health. But the day that she gets healthy and capable of living a full life, the marital crap will hit the fan. That is the day that her husband will expect her to be the wife that he always envisioned and that he believes she is required by their God to be. There is no possibility for a marital compromise when God is giving the orders.

Unfortunately recovering her health is no longer a possibility for my mother. She has gone past the point where her illnesses could be reversed. At the age of 64 she is so disabled by things that were at one time treatable that she can no longer support her own weight standing let alone walk across the room. She is needlessly bound to her bed and wheelchair.  I am saddened for her in ways that I cannot explain.

Those of us who are committed to gender equality need to understand that women like my mother are in a position of bounded choices. Yes, in theory, they have a choice in which religion they participate in and whether or not they practice submission. But what most people do not realize is that there are extreme and severe consequences for choosing liberty, consequences that those outside of these religions do not know and often cannot understand.

To say that my mother exercises agency and chooses to be submissive is like saying that my husband is exercising his agency when he does not sleep with Susan Sarandon. My husband has no realistic possibility of meeting, hitting it off with and having sex with Sarandon.  Furthermore, it would be cheating under the terms of our marital agreement. And such infidelity would have some pretty earth-shattering consequences. So while my husband is in some ways exercising his agency, his choices are greatly constrained.

The cultural, marital, family and financial consequences faced by these women often includes being shunned by their children and their friends and living in poverty. Even if they manage to dodge those consequences, these women believe in a God which will not hesitate to punish them for stepping out of line. And God does not hesitate to hold these people’s children as hostages to ensure the parents’ submission.  I was often told that my children’s health was a gift from God which could be taken away because of my insubordination.

For my mother, the choice is between health and freedom both of which seem like pipe dreams and relative financial stability, a community of sorts and escape from the punishment of God.  In other words, her choices are the devil and the deep blue sea.

For women like Cameron, who already enjoy nearly every privilege imaginable except that offered by gender, perhaps a little symbolic submission is not harmful. But I have never met a woman who practices it, and I have known thousands, who has not suffered because of it.

However, that still leaves us asking if such relationships are harmful to women. Let me answer that question this way: There are far too many stories of people who have found it harmful for us to ignore their stories. If you need to see evidence, check out the story ran on XO Jane or anything at the website No Longer Quivering.

But there is another more insidious form of harm. From what I have seen, true intimacy is not possible in a relationship of inequality. Inequality ultimately creates resentments, on both sides. (We would do well to remember that bit of wisdom as we work to end racism, sexism and other forms of inequality as it explains such nonsense as reverse racism.)  Relationships of inequality are ultimately harmful for all involved, not just women but also men and children and people who do not fit into the neat little boxes of heterosexual nuclear families. It is sad and ironic that my step-father no more has what he wants in this relationship of submission than my mother has what she needs. In fact, one could make the argument that he is the bigger loser in that no-win marriage.

So what about the other questions that I raised during my research?  Next week, I will be explaining what it is about women that requires them to be submissive according to these beliefs.  After that, we will talk about the diversity in submission commandments, those that range from women being forbidden to speak out in a Sunday school class to those who believe in mutual submission. After that we will be covering what Evangelical men are expected to do about unsubmissive wives. And we will wrap it all up with a discussion about why women chose religions requiring submission.

Please email me your questions: lynnbeisner@gmail.com or you can drop them on my facbook page or tweet me.

What Bull-Fighting and Santa Have in Common: Why Parents Lie

This week, a very old chicken came home to roost. My daughter, who is 22, did our family’s equivalent of discovering that your parents lied about Santa. She discovered that bulls are actually injured and then killed in the ring.

When Kassie was very young, she was an animal lover, anxious and empathetic to an extreme that seemed pathological. Seeing a picture of a hurt dog would keep her up all night. So when she first asked about bull-fighting, I panicked. She looked at me with horror and tears in her little eyes, seemingly pleading with me to tell her that what she heard wasn’t true. As I looked into her watery grey-blue eyes, I knew that for months she would obsess and agonize and have nightmares if I told her the truth.

So, I told her that bull fighting was just play fighting. I explained to her that the bulls were trained to act injured and play dead, just like you can train dogs to play dead. I told her that they actually loved playing in the ring with the guy with the matador and his red cape. In fact, the bulls argued over who got to go out and play. About a year later she asked me again, and from her screwed up face and anxious voice, I could tell she wasn’t ready still. So I showed her WWF wrestling and explained that like people don’t get hurt in that (slight exaggeration) no one really gets hurt in bull-fighting unless the matador trips over his cape.

And then I promptly forgot about it. So when she got older, I never told her the truth.

This week in her college Spanish class when a student delivered a report on a famous matador, she confidently explained to them that it was all faked. They showed her graphic and horrible images on their cell phones and everyone laughed so hard she ended up leaving the class sobbing. She had her first (and hopefully only) full-fledged panic attack in the car on the way home.

It was pretty devastating for her. It was like finding out that there is no Santa, at 22, in a college classroom. She had to confront two truths at once: People sometimes torture animals for sport and her mother lied to her. One of those facts is horrifying. The other is just a part of becoming an adult.

I think it would have been a lot easier on her if I hadn’t been so scrupulously honest about other things. When she asked about Santa, the Easter bunny and the Tooth Fairy, I told her the truth. I tried to be honest with my kids at every step of their lives.

But in this one instance, it felt like the truth was just too big of a burden for such an anxious, sweet little girl to carry. Frankly, I am starting to wonder if my real mistake was that I did not lie to them more. Perhaps if they had grown up believing in Santa, learning that I lied about bull-fighting wouldn’t be so painful.

This all has me wondering about honesty in our relationships with our kids. Is it ever okay to just flat out lie? Should a little lying be a healthy part of the relationship? What do you think?

“I Am Resilient” A poem by guest blogger Daphne Guyer

I’ve been broken and abused,
manipulated and used.
I’m damaged goods
a walking, talking human bruise.
Yet, I remain resilient.

I’ve wanted to die
been made to cry,
My smile is how I hide.
I’ve dealt with the sneers,
from your social veneers.
I’ve cradled my inner child,
lying, curled up on my side
to protect the good,
from your flock of sheep hooves.
But I’m still here,
and I am resilient.

I’ve allowed you to get
the very best of me,
with your emotional sodomy.
I hold it in,
and I hold it in.
Until my emotions burst
through the pores of my skin.
Yet, here I stand,
defiant in my resilience.
And after all of this,
you no longer exist.
I claim my personal space,
and I laugh in your face,
because, I am resilient.
D. Guyer

The Problem with Comparing “Blurred Lines” with Posts on “Project Unbreakable”

Today another person sent me a picture which showed the similarities between the song “Blurred Lines” and things that rapists siad to their victims on “Project Unbreakable.”

I think that the song has some serious problems, so let me be very clear about that first.

But I also have a real problem with the logic of this picture and of the rhetoric that inspired it. I have said it before and I will say it again: Just because certain things were said by a rapist does not make those things “something a rapist says.” Rapists say lots of things that are not, in and of themselves, rapey. The things that rapists say are often hurtful and destructive only because of their context.

So I did an experiment. I wrote down everything that I could remember Pete saying the last time that we made love and I looked them up on the “what my rapist said” website.

More than half of the things that I remembered Pete saying were also things that a rapist had said to one of the women on the website. In fact, one of the things that he said was very similar to one of the cards in this picture.

But I assure you that there was absolutely no coercion of anyone. In fact, that particular time it was tender, sweet and and deeply loving, although hot as hell. In fact, it was some of the best sex that I can remember. Sorry for the digression and for the TMI. But it isn’t entirely gratuitous.

I think it illustrates my point that “things a rapist has said” cannot be the standard by which we judge if something is rapey or not. If it were, my husband would be a rapist, and for that matter I would be one as well.

Words once said by a rapist do not have to be discarded or banned. We can reclaim them if we want. Many times we can make them ours again during hot consensual sex.

Rapists don’t get to decide for us what is sexy talk and what is verboten. We decide
.

Having said all of that, I still think Blurred Lines is problematic. And I am not by any means saying that everything in the video is something that should be reclaimed.

I am talking about our methodology for deciding, not necessarily asking us to withdraw the condemnation of the video. We must exercise our good reasoning skills if we are to ask that sound logic be used in things like our governance.

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Help Me Understand This New Male Ally

This weekend I read a guest editorial on the Feminist Wire by a guy named Matt Graber. Given the brevity of the piece and the wonderful and clear open access policy has for reprinting: I am including the entire post here.  It either has a brilliance that I do not understand, or it is pretty awful.

“Please don’t call me “man” or “dude” any longer. I will not join you in friendship or partnership on a male-supremacist, patriarchal project. I will not condone the view that women are born to provide you with sexual gratification, and to do care work for you.

I will not be your wingman. I will not support your objectification of women’s bodies. Women are not accessories to you, regardless of how much money you have. In social settings such as parties, bars, or clubs, I will not accompany you when you violate the personal space of others. When they refuse to allow you to enter into their personal space, I will not ease or comfort you.

Please learn to love and care for yourself. You are incredibly beautiful, and I want you to be cared for. Learn to cook, clean, sew, and care for yourself, your body, and your personal space. If you do not know how to care for yourself and are seeking a romantic partnership on the basis of finding somebody to do that work for you, then I will remain skeptical of your capacity to love and care for others.

I hope that we can differentiate between coveting bodies and loving people.

I love you. I want a friendship with you that is based on realizing the infinite possibilities of ourselves, our love, our bodies, and our gender expressions; a friendship based on falling head over heels in love with all life and all people. It is all far too beautiful than to be used and abused by you and me for the sake of manhood and masculinity.”

I get confused right off the bat in this piece. In the first sentence he say that he does not want to be called a man or a dude anymore because he believes that is what makes a person a member of patriarchal oppressive system. Let’s pass that one by and try to puzzle out this: “I will not condone the view that women are born to provide you with sexual gratification, and to do care work for you.”  Who is the “you” in that sentence? Surely he cannot be making such a crazily sweeping indictment against all men. Surely he understands that a lot of men do not actually believe that women are just fuck-puppets, cooks, parlor maids and nothing more.

But what Matt’s piece seems to be saying is that all men except him are knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing sex fiends eager to get their predatory hands on the nearest woman. And Matthew declares quite solemnly that he will have no part in your predation, and therefore will not be your wingman.  Fair enough. I am pretty sure that his services as such were not in terribly high demand.

What bothers me is the naked contempt that  Matt shows for his fellow human men. Because of his ethic – which is so much purer than that of the normal human guy – he will not offer you any support if you are looking to meet a nice woman, nor will  offer any  “ease or comfort you” if your appropriate approach is shot down.  I also don’t understand his desire for his fellow men to fall head over heels in love with all of life and every person. Is it just me, or are there some people that are better not friended let alone loved? And there is a lot of life that I don’t feel any compunction to love, like cancer and spiders.

I am honestly trying to understand how this is not just another example of gender hatred, only from a man directed towards a man. Can someone help me understand if this guy is, in fact an ally, and if so how he is helping?

Am I Good Enough for an Animal to Trust Me?: by guest blogger Shawna Clausen

In my lifetime so far, I have been witness to countless abused animals. One in particular is Rocky, who came to me when I was a rescuer with Pacific NW Border Collie Rescue from northern WA. He was blind and languishing in a shelter, with virtually no hope of being adopted, as the majority of people are simply ill-prepared to deal with a blind dog, let alone one with behavioral issues. My fellow rescue emailed me with Rocky’s photo and a brief blurb on him, asking if I was interested. Without any hesitation, I said ‘yes!’ and arranged transport to get Rocky from Washington to Oregon. Rocky came with plenty of baggage. It didn’t matter his age or the size of this little guy. He was as close to broken as I had ever seen. Our first evening, I made him a comfortable bed on the floor next to mine, gating him within the confines of the kitchen, so that he wouldn’t wander the house, marking everything in his path that he could smell and find. That first night was not great; he was nervous and antsy and until I allowed him to sleep next to me on my bed on the floor, he wouldn’t relax. As soon as he leaned against me, he fell asleep, along with myself.

Quite honestly, I was extremely hesitant at taking on Rocky. I hadn’t ever fostered a blind dog, so I had to quickly learn what his reactions to my own pack of dogs might be and to take a pro-active and non-punitive approach to training. Disciplining any dog with a punishment that they can’t understand (add blindness onto that and you’re simply adding to their frustrations) is a recipe for disaster. My yellow brick road with Rocky was one I won’t ever forget. It consisted of teaching him how to live in a world of darkness, showing him that there wasn’t anything to fear, that he really COULD leap over that log once he determined how high it was, that he really COULD swim with the pack and that I would be there to greet him. He could hike for miles and miles with me, through some of the most inhospitable terrain within wilderness areas in remote eastern Oregon. He never lost “sight” of me, always knew which direction to turn in order to check in with me. To “check in” meant that Rocky would find me, bump me in the back of my leg to see where I was, and then take off again, following the signs of my other dogs, running & playing in the woods. I think that in Rocky’s mind, he had found utopia.

This leads me to believe that Rocky came to me for a reason. I was broken at that time and as scared as I was to take on Rocky, telling myself that I was his only chance at life, I knew I had to do it partly for me. I was also feeling lost and abandoned and had to take a chance.

Unfortunately my time with Rocky ended up much shorter than I imagined. He started acting out within the pack. As much as a blind dog could challenge sighted dogs, he did his best. The chaos within the pack was almost instantaneous. He would bite as the dogs ran by, inciting normally easy going dogs to turn on Rocky. When he bit my leg one day, leaving me with a deep gash and three puncture wounds, while I was standing beside the dining table, after simply reaching down to pet him on his head, I knew I had to let him go.

The feelings of guilt upon even thinking of putting him down were unforgiving and immediate. But I knew that I couldn’t trust him to not attack someone else. And I knew that I had to let him go, with wishes upon a better journey than I could provide. One of the feelings that washed over me was “am I good enough for another animal to trust me? If I couldn’t make it work with Rocky, why should I do this again?”

The trust that abused animals place in the people that find them is immeasurable. They’ve been thrown away perhaps countless times, they may have no sense of belonging to a pack, no sense of who is leading them, no sense of direction. Which is exactly what some abused people feel when it comes to their attempts at figuring out their place in this world. How can they finally belong to a pack/group? Who is leading them (can’t be themselves as they have no trust in their abilities.) What direction do they go in? Life feels like one huge gerbil wheel, around and around and around the wheel, not getting anywhere, no steps backwards but no steps forward either.

So to train an abused animal, one needs to look inside themselves. It doesn’t at all mean that in order to overcome the obstacles and understand the baggage of an abused animal means that you have had to suffer abuse in your past; it simply gives you a different level of understanding.

Know that to start training means you take one step at a time. You gauge a situation differently (with all parts) before unleashing your dog within a pack of strange dogs, (think dog park). You wait a lot longer before allowing your dog to be alone for any period of time. You find patience from inside you on a level you never thought possible. And you try. And try more. And maybe try one more time. And sometimes the last time you try is what makes the relationship with that dog click. And finally, just finally, you start to forge a relationship with this creature. This creature dependent on you for everything in its life, trusts you to feed it each day and make sure it has clean water, because quite simply, they’ve stopped trusting in most people. But they really want to take a chance with you. And YOU want to take a chance with them. You want to see them grow and learn new things and be able to function within a pack environment. Each of them couldn’t progress as they have without someone believing in them.

It all comes around to trust. And believing in yourself. Dogs just do it differently; they live in a black & white world. It’s either all or nothing. Same with trust. All or nothing.

Why Loving Animals Is An Act of Trust For Abuse Survivors

Yesterday,  The Good Men Project  published a piece called “Thank You For Crying” about how my husband supported me by showing his true feelings when we lost our dog, Moo. I wrote it a while ago, but it got caught up in my stack of articles called, “Do I really want to say this?”

One of the reasons that I hesitated so much to share it is because I allude to the fact that Moo was really the first animal that I loved with all of my heart. People think of me as a great animal lover, but they don’t know how many years it took for me to be able to really give my heart to a pet.

Don’t get me wrong; I have diligently and lovingly cared for pets in our family before. I have even raised orphaned kittens, feeding them with a bottle around the clock. But the fostering was part of my moral code of doing good where I could, and our pets were always Pete’s pets. I remember one very close friend who lost all respect for me when he discovered that yes, I cared about our pets, but no, I was not besotted with them.

In the months since Moo has died, I have tried to figure out why I was able to give her my heart, often in the context of worrying that Yoda might never experience the same devotion.

Then I read an article that filled in the missing pieces for me. It was in the New York Times and it discussed the very strong link between abuse of animals and domestic violence. The article talked about how often abusers use the family’s pets as a tool to control their victims. It also talked about the fact that animals come and go through abusive homes so quickly that victims rarely have time to bond with them or do so at the peril of a broken heart. In other words, for many reasons, it is not safe for victims of domestic or child abuse to love animals.

We had pets when I was younger. But suffice it to say that my mother and later my step-father could have been jailed for their care of those animals.  It was so bad that a few years ago I took pity on one of their dogs and had her euthanized because she was suffering so badly from neglect and maltreatment.

Thanks to the NY Times article, I understood why it has taken so long. Moo is the first loving animal that we adopted after I severed my ties with my mother. (We briefly gave hospice care to a sick and very unhappy cat, but no one – not even Pete- bonded with him.) I think that as long as my mother was a part of my daily life, I was still guarded in ways that I was not even aware of.  And I could not give my heart to a pet as long as she was even on the periphery of my life.

I feel more safe at this time in my life than I have ever felt before. One part of that feeling of safety comes from my relationship withPete, but the other part is the absence of my mother.

But there is one other thing that I had to find trust in: myself. I had to know that I would never, not even in a moment of unbridled anger treat an animal the way that others have treated me and other vulnerable creatures. Having raised two children to adulthood convinced me that even in my most triggered or enraged moments, I will not harm a vulnerable and innocent creature.

So I am thankful for more than just Pete’s comfort. I am also thankful for his support as I became and learned that I am a person that I can trust. 

And I want to encourage everyone to respect people who give animals the kind of care required but are clearly not besotted with them. They may have a history that you do not know about, one that makes it hard for them to open their hearts to a pet.

And, let us be mindful that an abused animal is usually a sign of an abusive family. For those active in animal rescue, please read the NY Times article and consider calling child services when you see an abused animal. You may be saving a child’s life.

To help those who have been abused and those who are dealing with animals that have been abused, tomorrow  I will be posting a guest-post by the wonderful dog-whisperer Shawna Clausen.  She has been enormously helpful with our late dog, Moo, and with our new little bundle of fur, teeth and joy, Yoda.

The First Book That I Wrote Was Yellow

Trigger Warning

In the last couple of weeks, I have been trying to get to the bottom of why I am struggling so much with my first book. I keep starting something, deciding that it is quite dreadful and throwing it away. I fret; I get completely blocked, and sometimes I have panic attacks just seeing the file labeled “Book.”

Today I discovered why I am having difficulty. It all started with a directed writing assignment: “Write about the worst reception that your writing has ever received or about a time when someone tried to crush your dreams of being a writer.”

It wasn’t until I was half way through the assignment that I realized something pretty important: I am not writing my first book. This is my second.

*****
I wrote my first book when I was still in grade school. The year that I was in the third grade, I felt responsible when my mother had a crappy birthday. I vowed that the following year I would give her a present that would please and astound her so much that it would make up for everything. And so the very next day I began working on it.

My mother had told me that she wanted nothing more than for me to use every talent that I had to serve Jesus, even though I was still just a child. So I figured that I would write an entire book of religious poems for her, one every day that would demonstrate I was doing exactly what she wanted most.

My plan was to write a poem a day, so that at the end, I would have a small book of 365 poems all about Jesus and God and things that would make her happy. Of course, it ended up being closer to one poem every week or two. I hadn’t counted on how hard it would be to find unique ways to rhapsodize about God. By the end of the year, however, I had a respectable collection of more than thirty poems. Not bad for a little kid.

I cannot remember what a single one of those poems were even about. I just remember that the book was yellow. I had found a yellow folder, the kind that has grommets down the center for notebook paper. On it I wrote my title: “A Child’s Garden of Godly Verses” in my very best handwriting. Then I carefully drew a little garden with rows of flowers all in full and vibrant bloom. And I added an illustrated poem as often as possible.

As the time came closer to give her my little book, I became more and more anxious about it. It had not been a good year for me academically. I had reached a point in school where my ADHD and dyslexia were becoming a serious problem. Of course, they were not diagnosed and were treated as rebelliousness, refusing to do good work out of a desire to displease God and I was beaten accordingly. Those problems were also making me afraid of writing, and dreading it as an academic subject. No matter how good my report was or how creatively I wrote a story, I never got a better grade than a C. And although I was having similar struggles in math, they had limited expectations for me there. But I always got in trouble for “squandering the gifts God gave me” when it came to writing.

So by the time that my mother’s birthday rolled around and it was time to give her the yellow notebook, which I had filled at first hopefully and later dutifully, I was filled with anxiety so intense it felt like anguish. I searched around frantically, trying to find another gift so that I could just slip the notebook out of the house and hide it at the bottom of the trashcan. Though even that plan worried me because I feared someone might find it at the bottom of the trash and associate it with me.

As luck would have it, my mother’s birthday was on a Sunday that year. I handed her the book, carefully wrapped in newspaper and tied with my favorite ribbon. She accepted it with all the over-effusiveness to which mothers are prone. She oohed and awed over it in a way that told me that she was glad that I loved her enough to put so much work into it, but that she was not actually impressed by the poetry. I was relieved but still wary. Sure, her mothering instincts had kept her from pointing out all but a few mistakes, and she hadn’t made a move towards punishing me. But what if she showed it to someone else?

That night, my worst fears were realized when she passed my book around the table at a church ice cream social. As I had feared, and despite my best efforts, the book was filled with spelling mistakes and what were essentially handwritten typos. I knew it was going to be bad.

*****

The cult that I grew up in was very small, but not so small that it didn’t have a cliquish inner-circle. It met every Sunday night after the evening services for a little ice cream social at the home of the church’s queen bee.

Everyone in the Queen Bee and the pastor’s favor sat around a large table in her kitchen and gossiped. Of course, they would never call it that, and perhaps I should not either for it is too mild of a word. These were the meetings at which those absent had their characters picked apart and barbequed. This was the round table of the character assassins. It was a favorite hobby of theirs – ascribing evil motivations to benign actions. A person could go home after church on a Sunday night and everyone would still be thinking of them as an upright and God-fearing person. But if they were the subject of a Sunday night session, they would wake up the next day condemned as someone who, at best, was “not right with God.” Sometimes it was decided in these meetings that a person had demons surrounding and controlling them. The ice cream socials often ended with a “Burn the witch!” mentality.

Occasionally someone at the table would be the subject of the night’s festivities, and would leave so emotionally battered it would take months for them to recover. A mob mentality would overtake the group and even spouses would end up joining in a ritual that felt like watching a wolf-pack take down a reindeer.

Occasionally, I was the topic of conversation. This was where some of the more horrifically memorable punishments of my childhood originated. One that stands out in my mind was a punishment inflicted for forgetting what were called “baby verses.” These were passages of scriptures that I had learned when I was very young, and that I should have been able to recall and recite given nothing more than the scriptures reference (ex: John 1:12.) I frequently would panic when given a scripture reference. My mind would go completely blank. When beatings failed to improve my memory, the ice cream social posse came up with a more memorable punishment.

They reasoned that if I could not remember and recite baby verses, I must want to be treated as a baby. So they fashion a diaper for me out a dishtowel and forced me to spend the night wearing that and nothing else. The shame of being a grade school girl forced to wear a diaper was compounded by the shame of being nearly naked. They had ingrained modesty rules into me from a small child. So it was mind-shatteringly shaming to be nearly naked in front of them, to be forced to sit on their laps like a baby when I wanted nothing more than to at least be allowed to slink down into the scrap of dignity afforded by a chair. That was far worse for me than the insult they added to injury, mocking my roll of baby fat and any babyish mannerisms they could find. As I aged, each time that this punishment was inflicted was more traumatic than the last.

*****

Psychologists tell us that memory works in mysterious ways, that sometimes two memories united by the same very strong emotion can become entangled in ways that make them hard to untangle.

I think that is what must have happened for me. Because in my memory of the night that my mother showed my book around, I am naked except for a dishtowel while they rip apart my book for over an hour. I am nearly naked while they tell me how my book disappoints and dishonors God because of the mistakes and poor spelling. In my memory, I am nearly naked and intensely vulnerable when they tell me that it is a horribly shameful thing to be unable to spell correctly, when they tell me that no one will ever read my writing because I spell poorly, that I will be lucky to get a job in an office but that I will be fired just as soon as they find out that I cannot spell. And I am dressed in a tea-towel when I am convicted of not loving God enough to do my best in service for Him.

My punishment for writing my first book was that the following summer I spent six hours a day five days a week writing out every word that I had misspelled in the book correctly ten times in a row. I received one blow with a cutting board across my legs every time that I transposed the word. Transposing a word from the dictionary to my page, which I often did, got me ten blows and then I had to do it all over again the next day.

I finished paying for the mistakes of my first book two weeks before school went back into session. It was barely long enough for the bruises to heal.

*****

When I was in high school, my mother happened across the little yellow book as she was packing to move into the home of her new husband. “Do you want this old thing?” she asked me in an offhanded tone, as if she wasn’t handing me the most shameful manuscript in the world.

I thought about how ashamed I would be if someone found it and I quietly nodded. I hid it in a spot where I knew no one would look, a box of maxi-pads. I transferred it from hiding spot to hiding spot over the years. My husbands never saw it or my kids.

Two years ago we had a fire, and the restoration specialists found it where I had hidden it, between the front and backing of an old throw rug I kept stashed in the back of the linen cupboard. The guy looked at me and it oddly, but asked only if I wanted them to restore it or if it could be photographed and disposed of. I acted as if I wasn’t quite sure what it was and looked at in puzzlement until he was distracted. Then I quietly slipped out of the room. I emptied both of the cat’s litter pans, folded the book into a square and placed it in the center so no one picking up the bag could feel it. I double-bagged it, and then dropped it not into the regular trash, which could be gone through on the way to the dump, but in the one labeled toxic waste.

*****

Now I get to write my second book. I still can’t spell worth a shit and my dysgraphia still makes my work challenging. I know that trolls will sit around in a cyber ice cream social and pan it endlessly. And there is even the possibility that I might even feel punished at some point for having written it.

But the worst has already happened to me as a writer in a free society (barring a Rushdie incident.) I have been shamed beyond the place that I thought that I could bear it and I have been beaten for what I have written.

And I figure it this way: My second book has to get a better reception than my first.

Even if it doesn’t, I am no longer a little girl clothed in nothing more than a dishtowel and vulnerability. I have my dignity, my sense of purpose and the love of non-abusive people.

And despite their predictions, I am a writer. People do want to read me despite my occasional typos.

Here is the promise that I make to myself and to that little kid in the dishtowel: I will never again allow myself to become so ashamed of my writing that I hide it in cat shit. I will embrace my mistakes along with my victories. And no one will ever put me in a dishtowel again.

When You Give a Writer Affirmations…

I was given these affirmations as a part of a program for writing recovery. I was asked to repeat these twice a day and write any “blurts” or automatic talk-back that I have to these affirmation.

So, of course, the affirmations are becoming all about the blurts. They are turning into a comedy routine in my head. Feel free to add your own smart-ass comments. We can turn it into a drinking game called “How many times can you invoke Syria?”

1. My dreams come from the divine and the divine has the power to accomplish them.
a. I make it a practice not to have dreams. They never turn out particularly well.
b. And the God would do better to intervene in Syria than with me.

2. As I write and listen to the still small voice, I will be led.
a. Unless of course that still small voice is the crazy taking over.
b. Being led doesn’t mean that what I write will be good.
3. Creativity is the Great Creator’s will for me.
Can’t I just be a martyr? That has to be easier.
4. My writing heals myself and others.
a. Or what I write is a big pile of horse poop that makes my wounds and other people’s fester.
b. And what if I don’t need to heal but to grow the hell up? What if I am exactly what the Telegraph accused me of being: a self-pitying whiney looser unable to develop emotionally past the teenage angst years, and that I really do deserve to have my work called (as they did) the worst article of the year.

5. I am allowed to nurture my artist.
a. Seriously, how spoiled does my inner artist need to be? Is there a limit here? If my inner artists needs a massage, a bottle of vodka and chocolate cake, do I just chalk it up as nurturing?
b. Don’t I already get enough nurturing? My family is always nice to me, and I have good friends. That is more than most people get.
c. And really, as my writing idol said, my work is “undisciplined.” My artist needs a drill sergeant to stand over it every morning and yell: “Does da wittle sensatif awtist wanna get its fucking ass out of the fucking bed and do its goddamned job already?

6. Through the use of a few simple tools, my creativity will flourish.
a. Or I will become self-indulgent and pretentious.
b. These tools can be yours for the low, low price of $19.95 (per month, in perpetuity)

7. Through the use of my creativity I will serve the God.
a. That is rather lofty thinking there. At best, I might tickle a few people’s fancy.
b. God kicked me out of service and told me to get a life. I am under strict orders now to get my own shit together before I go meddling with other people’s lives.

8. My creativity always leads me to truth and love.
a. Yeah, right, because writers are known for being warm and loving cuddle-bugs.
b. What is truth even? I can’t write the entire truth about anything because I don’t even know the truth. To tell my own truth is to deny another person’s.

9. My creativity leads me to forgiveness and self-forgiveness.
a. And in similar news, the grass is blue, the sky is green and George W. Bush just confessed he was so drunk throughout his presidency that he just left everything in Cheney’s hands.
10. There is a divine plan of goodness for me.
a. There is a divine plan of goodness? Oh goody! Something else for me to cock up.
b. Really, where was this plan when life was kicking the ever-living shit out of me? If that was part of the plan, I am not impressed with the Divine.

11. There is a divine plan of goodness for my work.
a. That sounds an awful lot like presuming to be the mouthpiece for God. And that always works out well for everyone involved.
b. The idea that God has a special plan for my life is also called “the perfect will of God” and it has been the bane of my existence. The real problem with this affirmation is that I might believe it.

12. As I listen to the creator within, I am led.
a. Right off a cliff. Seriously, following my intuition is right about as often as a coin toss.
b. That is a fucking dangerous way to live.

c. And what of the people in Syria right now? Was their problem that they failed to listen to the creator within?
13. As I listen to my creativity I am led to my creator.
Seriously, can we throttle back a bit on the new age woo-woo crap?
14. I am willing to write.
Eh, more resigned than anything.
14. I am willing to learn to let myself write.
I had better not be a slow learner.
15. I am willing to let the God write through me.
a. Good luck with making those pitches: “I would like to write a piece telling your readers what God wants them to know.”
16. I am willing to be of service through my writing.
a. No blurts for this one other than that I hope that I am able to continue doing that and not be a flake or a Hugo. Oops, that was a blurt.
17. I am willing to experience my creative energy.
I am not exactly sure what this means. But I am dangerous when I start playing with electricity.
16. I am willing to use my writing talents.
The entire teaspoon.