www.sbpoet.net is the url of a fine poet housebound by fibromyalgia in Missoula. One might say that she’s making lemonade from lemons, except that the product is much finer than just lemonade. Sometimes champagne and sometime strong medicine. One of her “disciplines” is subscribing to poetry prompter websites, which suggest topics. Last Thursday a prompter reminded her that Thursday was a day to address abuse, with people across the country choosing the type of abuse to confront. sbpoet at one time made her living as a group therapist for men who had been convicted of sexual abuse. Her poem is here.
http://www.sbpoet.net/2004/07/the_therapist.html I give you the url so you can go to the website because there are other excellent poems there.
This poem simply and straightforwardly reports what the therapist hears, rationalizations the perpetrators failed to understand were criminal, destructive, power-based, and painful. Put side-by-side, the claims are ridiculous as one can only hope the men realized in group. The end of the poem is the “snapper,” switching to the point of view of the victim and confessing that “I loved him.”
If you have experience with these situations, and I hope that few of you do, this truth (for some, not all) will ring true and reveal itself as -- what word will do? Ironic? Inscrutable? Infuriating?
At this Montana Festival of the Book, I spoke to Barbara Richard, whose book “Dancing on his Grave”, was a powerful reflection on her father, a man who embodies this poem, except that the abuse he doled out was not just sexual except in the way that our corrupted culture equates violence with sex with love. None of the respected writers who backed her last year (Lee Rostad, Mary Clearman Blew, Judy Blunt) were present. She was not on our panel about memoir, though her sort of memoir is a hot topic around the planet. I suspect that the Montana Festival of the Book does not seek “hot topics” but tries to be “nice” as a sort of Chamber of Commerce Event, thus risking boredom.
What Barbara said (http://barb-richard.blogspot.com/) was that those working to end sexual abuse are finding the perpetrators far too resistant and capable of denial to be changed. (This is pretty daunting considering how both the acts and the retribution seem to escalate.) Some are now going to a new strategy: addressing the victim, the person who says “I loved him.” What is it that makes a person say such a thing after being abused? Barbara said that her own mother, even after two episodes that nearly killed her and being smart enough late in life to earn college degrees with excellent grades, still insisted that she was in love with her violent husband, that they would reunite and live in bliss.
When I was young, I thought the way to cope was to face everything, to confront, to know the truth -- all that Walt Whitman stuff. But then as I grew older, I discovered some truths. One of them is that a person can prevent themselves from facing the truth -- just never think it. You can't know that you're missing something because your own head tricks you -- an outside person has to help you see things.
A therapist once asked me to tell her concrete evidence of love on the part of my ex-husband. I told her about him brushing my hair. She scoffed. I think that one of the truths is that even a therapist can take a point of view that prevents them from admitting evidence. Many people would think the only evidence of love is financial: if he gives you diamonds, he loves you, even if he blacks your eyes. What IS evidence of love? Fidelity? Support and protection? Tenderness? Seen any movies about those things lately? Does Philip Roth write about those things?
One of the responses to SBpoet’s poem was from India where women are often no better than animals, maybe not as good as cows. Financial instruments, heir producers, family slaves, the women there suffer through social consent, even though that country is the source of many ideas about compassion, nonviolent reform, and respect for all life. No matter how bad something is, there is always something worse.
No matter how easy your own life is, it doesn't always mean you can help others. It just doesn't come out even. But you can try. If you can figure out how to do it. I went to our little village clinic for a blood test. The only other person was a woman who had plainly been beaten up. She walked past my yard daily and I always spoke to her, so I said something about my daylilies. She barely responded. Now she never walks on my sidewallk -- she goes up the alley, she walks on the other side, she drives. If I went to her house, she would ignore my knocking.
Confronting things, having insights, doesn't change things. You have to do something differently than before. But to people who have been assaulted, asking for help just means losing more control -- people intervene, but they might not have the same values, they might hurt the assaulter who is loved by his victim, they might cut off the last sources of income.
The nature of bonding is mysterious. When I was little, an oldest girl followed closely by two brothers, I was “dethroned” by a mother struggling to keep track of a household growing faster than the income from a husband whose job took him on the road. At least this is what I figure, looking back from adulthood. I was often a bad girl, throwing tantrums and disobeying to the point of earning a spanking. Because that was contact. That was attention. No one figured this out at the time. At school my strategy was different: I did everything right, I curried favor, I got good grades. My teachers, older women, gave me lots of attention. (My classmates were unimpressed.)
Barbara Richard will agree with me that “blaming the victim” is no help and will not change the situation. What victims need is new strategies that are often counter-intuitive but that will build new relationships outside the abusive one, people who support, protect, listen, suggest things never thought of before in the way a good therapist or group leader will do.
We need a new society that is not based on obsessive ownership of people and objects. I looked up “abuse” in the dictionary. We tend to equate it with something like torture, pain, destruction. But at root it simply means ab - use, to not use something properly. Sexual abusers often have the idea that it’s not abuse if love is present and that sex IS love. Not so. The whole culture needs to realize “not so.” When people used to sneer at teenaged suicides in Browning, saying they were just looking for attention, Bill Haw used to say, “Oh, yes. They’re dying for attention.” And quite a few more were fucking for attention. Shocked? Good. NOW you’re paying attention, which was the whole point of writing poems about abuse in the first place.