Thursday, July 16, 2015


When I was an animal control officer for the City of Portland, the abuse of animals was often mingled with the abuse of children. The American Humane Society explicitly serves both animals and children. (HSUS does not.) Children who are tortured often pass it on to animals. My role, after a few years on the street actually taking reports and intervening, was asking questions, research, and writing. Today I do the same thing informally in a slightly different context.

Smash Street Boys shelters boys who have been sexually abused, who have HIV, and who have lived on the street, surviving by doing sexwork. (No shortage of demand.) I never meet them — they are thousands of miles away — but the art work and poetry that is part of their re-owning themselves is online so I see a lot of it. Much of it is videos.  They read my blog.  It's a conversation.

What strikes me as different about boys instead of animals, is that people will take an interest in abused animals, understanding that they can be twisted, easily frightened, attacking, and so on — but they don’t get that with kids. In cases of abuse of children, esp. sexual abuse and trafficking, the emotion aroused in most people is intensely furious rage and a desire for punishment, all focused on the perpetrator. Not at all open to reflection.  Just berserk raving.  (The sub-set is men who want to contact the boys. Not in a good way. They’re looking for property, the criminal end of the modern acquisition obsession.)

Nice people seem to think a good scrub, a haircut and some new clothes will be enough to make a trafficked kid normal.   (Too bad about the metal and ink.) They don’t know that forms of PTSD can make kids dangerously explosive, following the strange logic of the long-term victim, the physiology of suspicion, the lack of conventional morality. I once knew a woman who adopted a Vietnam war victim toddler who had miraculously survived combat. She didn’t get any sleep for the next few years and learned not let any object precious to her lie around where it could be destroyed. She LOVED that baby. By itself, that love was her only motivation to learn what to do. Like, survive. But all her hair fell out from stress. She was in a congregation I served but didn’t want to tell me about it because she thought I might criticize or patronize her.

The Smash Street Boys are not babies. They are sometimes legal adults, emancipated, consider themselves adult, operate their own lives as adults — rather successfully — until they catch HIV. Then their health depends on careful regulation via unpleasant meds and very unpleasant regular clinic visits. This is too hard to do alone. Smash Street Boys do it together. Sometimes even their “mighty leader,” their interface with officialdom, needs them to help him. They do.

The pain and suffering of their lives is addressed by the meaning of their relationships, which — in turn — are focused on their work which is art. Meaning is the one thing that has always been able to counter suffering. But it is harder to find meaning alone than it is to stay on meds alone. Meaningfulness is not owned by religion or any secular version of it. It is emergent from staying alive. It is as physical as survival can be, something proven and lived. It’s not a t-shirt logo. It does not authorize dominion over any living beings.

The Smash Street Boys do a strange thing, which is cynicism in the service of idealism. It’s a kind of Seventies tactic but one that reappears through history when oppression and madness begin to bulge out of the culture, as many believe it is now. Then the counterwork begins. Sometimes it’s a manifesto, sometimes a demonstration, but at the extreme it can be terrorism.  For now it's a story full of jokes and sensationalism.

Besides meaning, there is another defense against suffering, which is dignity. Unfortunately this is not often recognized by professional people who work with struggling people. I’m a tubby old woman who wears old clothes, which marks me for dismissive or even abusive neglect — not so much from the docs, who recognize my academic degrees — but from office staff in some places.

On the rez I hear complaints about the young women who package up meds to hand out of the Indian Health Service pharmacy window. They are the NA versions of Prairie Princesses, who feel entitled to do a careless contemptuous job because they are “better.” This is an aberration in a Blackfeet culture that has always highly valued dignity.

Professions were once the entwined roles of theology/medicine/law. They were distinguished by their high moral and beneficent standards, necessary to justify their power. These have been lost in the 21st century. Now the standard is wealth and status. As soon as I was ordained to the ministry and admitted behind the curtain that protects privileged classes, I began to hear about the abuses and distortions. People I had highly respected turned out to be Bill Cosbys. People who knew and could have done something about it, did not in order to protect the reputation of the whole. You already know about the Catholic church, but it’s no different in other hierarchies.

A human body plasticized for display

One of the values lost has been that of respecting the human body, taking away its meaning and dignity. We see people smashed, rotting, strewn on every continent. We justify doing it ourselves by sending predator machines operated by young people in middle America — thinking that they are not at risk. Now we find out that their minds are part of their bodies and that they are cracking up with PTSD, the same as though they were trafficked children.

At animal control I walked past heaps of dead animals. In the streets in summer I gathered hundreds of cat and possom corpses. There are people who wear themselves out, but gain meaning and dignity, to be effective advocates for animals. But urban Americans are willing to let humans die on the streets of our cities, as though they were dogs. LA hospitals, eager to get rid of the costs, have been videoed dumping patients on the streets, in backless gowns with urine catheters still inserted so the collecting bottles bump along behind them on tubing tethers. This is in public, which makes one wonder what happens in seclusion.

Some people will be critical of writing such inflammatory things. Yet there seems to be no curb on ordinary behavior, often way over the top, for some small “disrespect” of them in their own eyes. Here in little old Valier, imagined to be Mayberry, USA, we’ve just witnessed an example.  Yet we're supposed to be different than the rest of the country -- a refuge, above bad behavior.  So what is making our grown men weep and berate elected leaders?

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