WHAT IS BELIEVABLE?
The answer is usually “whatever you expect to be real.” No child expects violence approaching murder to be real. No child expects his mother to sit wringing her hands while his father goes berzerk. The first time. By the second and third and fourth times, this is what they expect to be real. The problem then becomes how to persuade them to trust, to be intimate, to expect that to be returned.
If you tell about abuse and you are “low class,” a “mud person” as the Harry Potter crowd would say, then people believe it. If you are “working class” aspiring to “middle class,” then people will not believe it unless they have done emergency response or counseling or are a minister, one of those occupations that takes you through the curtain of “what you expect” to the reality of what happens. And even these people become so caught up in the immediate needs of their clients that they don’t look at the larger dynamics. Those are taken over by politicians and academics, people who presumably are never directly exposed to examples, only statistics.
There is another kind of people who try to look into the world more deeply than the categories society has defined, often because they themselves don’t fit. They are the artists, poets, actors, and writers -- the good ones are visionaries who see new worlds even as they confront the violence and selling-out of the old one. Which is worst, the wars or the constant erosion of the world caused by polluting factories? Which is worse, knowingly putting melamine in baby formula to increase profit (China) or letting melamine show up in baby formula through ignorance (USA)? Which is worse, a man like Maynard who beats up his son, drinks, and can’t quite just leave or the woman like Jean Ann who wants a family so badly that she will sacrifice its goal and essence in order to have the appearance? And what kind of salvific act of community and courage is it when the surviving son makes a new life based on love and protection, precisely by doing the most forbidden thing, being homosexual.
The people who are supposed to be looking out for children and intervening when necessary do not do their job. It is a great deal of work. When I turned in a case of suspected sexual abuse to my principal, he was enraged, because it would make a big hole in his budget, besides meaning a lot of paperwork. This boy constantly tucked himself in behind furniture, butt-down on the floor if he could. Now he had to be driven to an appointment with a shrink twice a week and the school counselor had to do it, which made hash of his schedule. The boy never spoke to me again and if he saw me coming, evaporated. His mother brought her brother in to threaten me. The principal set about firing me. It would have been much easier for me to not believe what I saw.
My own family seemed idyllic to my Chinese girl friend. She is appalled now when I tell her that it wasn’t. Our troubles were trivial compared to Tim’s family. My father didn’t take off like Maynard because he already had a job that kept him on the road, living in cheap motels. But he had a terrible temper and he was a spanker. I remember very well the morning I rebelled. I was maybe twelve, it was breakfast, and he was being a bully. I had toast with raspberry jam on it and I threw it at him. It lit jam-down on his white shirt and stuck there while I took off as fast as I could to the bathroom, the only door with a lock on it. He came after me, but my mother managed to talk him out of breaking down the door by arguing that he had to get to work and he’d have to change his shirt and he might be late. He was terrified of offending authority figures. My brothers were terrified by what I had done. My teachers would not have believed it. I never made trouble at school.
It was a milder situation than Tim’s. I didn’t have to live on a mattress in the basement, but rather had my own room. I thought about running away, but couldn’t get around the problem presented by my mother sleeping on a Hide-a-bed which opened across the bottom of the stairs. (She did that so I could have my own room.) It never occurred to me that I could run away in the daytime. My brothers would have been happy to help me pack. My rebellions were always slightly ridiculous.
The boys of Cinematheque have talked about how bossy girls are, how girls think they’re judge, jury and executor, and that does indeed seem to be the way our society sets things up. The American pattern, esp. in the West, is for the man to be as overpowering as he can manage to be (because that’s where the reckless energy for success comes from) and then for the woman to get him under control, because then if he fails, it's her fault. It’s kind of a game. (Bush is GREAT at it!) My ex- complained I just didn’t know how to play “chase,” meaning “come and get me, Big Boy!” and then pretending to enjoy being overcome. Ever seen a John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara film? Maybe “The Quiet Man?” Greatly admired in my childhood.
People don’t believe because they’re filtering for social and psychological reasons, because knowing would demand action (change), because they haven’t come to terms with their own hidden business or even admitted that there is any, and because they’re basically playing a game with an economic prize. I think the reason I like BBC’s “Cracker” so much is that he always sees through this stuff.
More than that, victims of abuse will usually hide the fact, lying and dodging anyone who tries to intervene. Sometimes there’s a kind of pride in suffering, the idea that one is Prometheus chained to a rock with an eagle tearing out one’s liver for what must have been a hugely significant crime, on the scale of bringing fire to mankind. The secretly grandiose sufferer may feel he’s compromised by disclosure, not so special anymore. Maybe has lost a part of his being based on being unique. If Jabba is just an ordinary welfare blob with a keyboard instead of a massively tragic sufferer with an Instrument of Punishment, then he won’t be able to stand it. He’s fatally diminished.
The American media seems to have invented a new version of “chase” that goes like this: “You pretend to be a big shot and I’ll come along and reveal that you’re not, and then you repent and I’ll get a second story out of how contrite you are.” It confirms to the public that the Media knows everything and never, never, no never lies. (Politicians either!) And pretends that Oprah is not really controlled by handlers, but speaking from a pure heart.
Beyond that, there is a level we all live on where we have to believe that we are sane, safe, and contained -- that we have NOT just been infected with anthrax, that terrorists are not preparing a bomb for our car, that our loved one is not turning away, and that an asteroid is not speeding toward the spot where we’ll be standing when it lands. We have to assume the ceiling will stay up and the walls will go on standing, or we won’t get a darn thing done. So we deny many possibilities to keep from obsessing about them.
I still reproach myself over a refusal to believe. The sturdy old Irish woman who lived across the street from me in Portland said that she thought the son in the family next door to me was molesting his sister. Had I heard anything? Could I supply evidence to put with hers and maybe get the girl out of there? I told her no. But I HAD heard something that might have been... No, I didn’t want to be involved. It wouldn’t have held up, just tempted them to do something to my little dog. So I said to myself.
None of us is above it. I guess in the end it comes down to fear of one sort or another. The fear in the audience, not in the actors.