Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Live to Tell: Stories of Power, Abuse and Silence

"A man can tell a thousand lies/I've learned my lesson well," Madonna, "Live to Tell"

"Try to forget this/Try to erase this," Pearl Jam, "Jeremy"

"I walked into the door again/If you ask that's what I'll say," Suzanne Vega, "Luka"

"It took a whole damn year to repair my body/It's been about five years," Mary J. Blige, "Whole Damn Year"

"Don't you push me, push me, push me/Don't you push me down," Woody Guthrie, "Don't You Push Me Down"

I'm glad to see these discussions of past abuse moving in a unifying direction. This is really about people with power and how they take advantage of people without power. Famously, my hometown witnessed years of abuse by a powerful, connected pediatrician, Dr. William H. Dougherty, who went unchecked for years. It is crucially (I might say for me in some ways life-savingly) documented in Patrick V Brown's film In A Town This Size. A friend of mine watched it last week and said that she could see and hear me repeatedly in the many stories told there. http://www.inatownthissize.com/index.html  
My abuse began around the age of six. I believe I asked some questions pretty early on, generally only of my friends, and we managed to rationalize it together. Pretty soon, I grew shy about what was happening and didn't talk much again until I was close to 10. I believe I felt complicit. I even felt somewhat protective of my abuser. At 10, I said something to my mother, and things began to change, starting with what doctor I was seeing. I don't know what other action she took, and I don't think she would know now.
Brown's film documents the fumbling ways people moved toward action. I remember a time when, among kids, it was sort of an awful secret that, if talked about at all, was talked about in quiet, half-joking ways. By the time I was in high school, hundreds of cases were coming to light, but my doctor still had a practice. At some point, he was pressured to move into an office with several other doctors.
The first time any state investigator talked with me I was in college. This would be at least 8 or 10 years after my 4 years of abuse. Dr. Dougherty would eventually lose his private practice, but he would die this past year with his beautiful contemporary home in Bartlesville and a new family (including children) and life he had created in Tulsa.
That's a big story, but it certainly wasn't my only experience with abuse growing up a male in our culture. I remember a 40- something junior high gym teacher who would hold the smallest member of my gym class up against the top of the lockers and laugh at the way he kicked his legs to get down. The point was for the entirety of the locker room to laugh along with him. I remember that same gym teacher popping a ninth grade girl's bra in the hallway between the cafeteria and the main building. The girls laughed it off. He laughed it off. I never forgot it and only ever told people in casual conversation. I certainly didn't think about reporting it. That was just the fabric of the power relationships in my junior high.
And I remember a friend (an acquaintance really, though I'd done many things side by side with him for years) in my high school gym class whom I'd known since I was a cub scout. RV was tall and awkward and shy. He couldn't speak up for himself, and he wasn't a fighter. And he got towel whipped, red-bellied and humiliated every week in gym class. His bully, a handsome teenager who most people saw as the definition of cool, was merciless. He wouldn't stop until my friend was begging and crying. I don't remember any of us saying or doing anything to stop this. I certainly don't remember us reporting the behavior to anyone else. It was something that we all treated as normal, though it haunted me.
It still haunts me. RV was not a communicative kid, and he was no doubt troubled. His awkwardness was part of why everyone stood aside and let it happen. The truth in that behavior is what made Stephen King a successful writer with the publication of Carrie. When RV's car was hit by a train and his brother killed, I think there were others like me haunted by our role in the fact that it was said he simply didn't move the car off the tracks. When he later died in an industrial accident, alone in a part of a construction site no one was supervising, I think there were others like me who felt we were in some way to blame.
This is the tip of the iceberg. To grow up in the world I grew up in, I suspect the world we all grew up in, we accepted and rationalized abuse inside and outside of our homes, in our neighbor's houses in our schools and at parties, over and over again.
Depending on where you are in the social strata in any given dynamic, it's worse. In my experience, we were trained to accept many forms of abuse of power from a very early age, and only a very few brave, bold individuals ever stood up and called it out. I had my moments. I got my collar bone broken when I thought a couple of my friends were being picked on, and I stood by friends who were suffering abuse from time to time, gave them support, stood up for them.
But most of the time, I stood by and said nothing. I think that's how we learn to get by. And it's a damn good thing we're living in a world where that group think is being challenged on a regular basis. It's a rough birthing process, to be sure, but I'm looking forward to a world where we don't allow anyone to treat another person as anything less than equal, deserving dignity and respect.