Visit Charlotte’s blog at: www.sublimemercies.com
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr
I’m going to tell your four short stories from my own life.
1. When I was about three and my brother was about eleven, our father left us in an extremely abusive home, where I was repeatedly so brutally raped that I was rendered physically disabled. Years later, my father claimed that he hadn’t known what was happening to his children. I took him at his word. However, he later told me that, shortly after he had left us, a friend wrote to him and said, “Your son is broken. Something is terribly wrong.”
My father did nothing. Well, actually, he did do something: he moved to the other end of the continent. After that, we saw him for a few days every few years.
2.When I was about 14, I asked my father if it had ever occurred to him to stay near his children after he had left our home. “Well, if you’d wanted me to stay,” he replied, “you should have said something.” I was three.
3.When I was five, I went to the doctor with some form of sexually transmitted disease that required medication. The doctor gave Smother my medications. He did not report the incident. He did not talk to me about what was happening in my home. He did nothing to help me. He did, however, tell me to keep “cleaner down there,” something I then dutifully reported to the person who was, at the time, my primary sexual abuser.
Smother told me to tell everyone that I had a bladder infection because, “they wouldn’t understand.” I went to a birthday party at which I told the birthday girl’s mother, who had to give me one of my pills, “It’s not really a bladder infection, you know. I’m just supposed to tell people that because they wouldn’t understand.” I was naturally averse to lying, so telling her that I was supposed to lie was the best I could do. When the party ended, I hid in an empty closet in her house, hoping to never go home again. In my five year old way, I was running away. This woman did nothing. Well, not nothing. She helped Smother drag me out of the closet and laughed with her about how silly little children are.
4. When I was an adult and began telling people who had known me as a child what had happened to me, many of them said that they’d known something was wrong at the time. They all did nothing, exactly nothing at all to help me.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”– Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am telling you now that all those people who did nothing — my father, that doctor, that birthday girl’s mother, all the people who knew something was wrong — are to blame for what happened to me. And they are to blame for the sometimes fatal abuse endured by any child whose distress they ignored or wilfully didn’t see. They are not good people.
Passivity and silence are not inaction; they are the act of allowing evil to continue. Silence, passivity, and selfishness are the implicit permission abusers need. They are, indeed, forms of evil unto themselves.
When it comes to child abuse, there is more silence than speaking out, more turning a blind eye than rescue, more indifference than outrage. A child in a situation like mine is a child utterly trapped, with nowhere to turn. There are hundreds of thousands, millions, of children, in just that situation. Of course, the abusers are to blame, but so are those who do nothing to stop it, and, indeed, do everything they can to keep from admitting that it is happening at all. This too is child abuse.
This issue is increasingly upsetting to me as I hear story after story of victims who could have been saved if only someone had believed them or seen their distress and done something. But the issue has come home to me in a very personal way in the last few weeks. You can tell by my outfit. If you know me, you know I’m upset about something when I’m wearing festive attire.
When I feel defeated, I often wear my most festive clothes and jewelry, both in an effort to cheer myself up and as an act of defiance against whatever or whomever has upset me. Look at how my earrings appear not just to capture the sun, but to carry their own light within them. It’s hard not to be cheered up by such beauty. And I’ve needed cheering.
You see, my father is refusing to come to my wedding. Why? Because, he says, I don’t respect him! I guess he’s right. I don’t. Would you respect someone who abandoned his children in an abusive home? But, in his mind, my lack of respect for him is, and always has been, the fault of my own narrow-mindedness. He has done nothing wrong.
As hurt and angry as I am — and I am both — I don’t want to turn this post into a revengeful or vindictive one.
Instead, I am using this incident to write about the culpability of those who know something is wrong in a child’s life and do nothing about it. My father was one of those people but he was by no means the only one. And there are still many like him today.
Instead, I am using this incident to write about the culpability of those who know something is wrong in a child’s life and do nothing about it. My father was one of those people but he was by no means the only one. And there are still many like him today.Look at the above photo. What do you see? A great vintage shot of a beatnik on the beach? An interesting poet?
I see a man so intent on looking artfully into the middle distance that he is oblivious to the imminent danger to the baby — whom I’m assuming is his own son — who is purposefully crawling into the surf. That’s my father in a nutshell.
He is the king of the self-important, middle distance stare, but not so good with caring for others or even seeing them at all.
I have lived in fear of being like my father in this way because I know that, in many many ways, I am indeed just like him.
For one thing, we look exactly alike. I got my hair from him. He’s the one in the foreground with the red Jewfro. I’m the tiny little girl with the red Jewfro. Related much?
We also have the same small, muscular frames, same eyes, same eyebrows, same chin, same nose, same everything.
But, deeper than that, we also have many of the same interests and personality traits. We’re both deeply but unconventionally spiritual. We’re both cultural outsiders, bohemians, if you will. We’re both introverted loners. We’re both highly organized. We’re both college teachers. We both have lifelong passions for writing and the arts in general.
He does see these similarities. He does see this connection. But there is also a lot that he misses. For instance, in what little contact we’ve had over the years, he’s repeatedly urged me to write, almost as if it’s a moral imperative for anyone with the skill to do so. But, when I began this blog, he would not even read it because he saw it as nothing but a vanity project and a “cult of personality.” It was not his personal preferred venue for writing (despite the fact that his genre is also the personal essay) so it was not writing at all.
Nor do we share the same definition of art. He does not see the value of beauty for its own sake, and the therapeutic uplift it can give to those who have suffered.
He certainly doesn’t see style as a form of art or self-expression. He sees it as nothing but vanity, materialism, and a manifestation of everything he abhors about mainstream society. Therefore, to him, without even reading my blog, he was certain that it was trite, trivial, and far far beneath him.
Still, there are all those things that we do have in common. I’ve always and against my will felt connected to him deep within my self. He and I are blood of each other’s blood, spirit of each other’s spirit. I even told him that in my letter asking him to come to my wedding.
Because of this connection, his indifference to me has always been heart-breaking. So has the fact that, in his mind, it has always been my fault.
To him, I am just a pouting, belligerent, mainstream (the worst of all insults) sell-out. He could never understand that, before any real relationship between us could develop, I needed him to feel genuine remorse for having abandoned his children in hell. He needed to see his own culpability in what happened to us, and how he could have, should have, stopped it, and chose to do nothing. This will never happen. Never.
There are many parents like him. You know the type: nothing is ever their fault. He’s this way with his many girlfriends too, all of whom dump him after a few months, through no fault of his own.
In fact, it was his constant search for and ill treatment of his girlfriends that led to our latest falling out two years ago.
I had just found out that my chronic paindisability was caused by the child abuse and that it is, therefore, permanent. My whole world fell apart. How could I live with pain for the rest of my life? Would I be able to work? What would I do for money? How would I ever make peace with the fact that I was permanently disabled because of the depraved, selfish urges of a bunch of sadistic paedophiles?
I talked to my father about this on the phone. He made an attempt at sympathy (but still no regret for having abandoned me to such abuse). But he was far more interested in talking about how sad he was that his latest girlfriend had dumped him.
Not surprisingly, I eventually lost my patience and asked him if he could think of anything he had done to cause the breakup. No, he said, he couldn’t. She, like all the other women he’s dated, was just “afraid of commitment.”
About a week later, we talked again. I spoke again about how my world was crashing down around me. He listened in impatient silence, and then he launched: in our last conversation, he said, I had attacked him while he was down, and that’s just not what supportive friends do. Wow. Just… wow.
When I said something about how I’d listened to his breakup stories enough to have a sense of the frustrations and disappointments that lead his girlfriends to break up with him, his voice rose and he asked, “Do you hear yourself?! Do you hear your unbelievable arrogance in thinking that you can possibly know what others feel?”
“Most people,” I said, “call that empathy.”
I simply could not deal with him at this crisis point in my life. I sent him an olive branch or two, but they were rebuffed.
Perhaps I’ma fool, but I did want him at my wedding: blood of my blood, and spirit of my spirit, and all that, don’t you know? Given all the abuse in my family, he was the only family member I invited. But I now have enough self-worth that I did set some parameters: I told him that my wedding and the time leading up to it were not the right time for “working things out,” as I knew that would just lead to more drama and recriminations against me.
He said, on those terms, he would not attend the wedding.
So. I’m done with him. No more.
If I’d had more pride in myself and what I deserve, I would have excised this man from my life long ago, but what did I know of love and being treated well? Nothing, that’s what. Who had ever taught me about that? Not my parents, that’s for sure!
As a step-mother, the more I understand the innocence and vulnerability of children, and my responsibility to them — not just my own children, but all children — the more I understand what my father did to me all those years ago. I understand the cruelty and selfishness not just in his initial abandonment, but in his continued absence and wilful blindness in the face of all that evidence that his children were in terrible danger.
You just don’t do that, not just to your own children, but to any children! I understand that now.
It wasn’t until I met Beau that I knew what it was to be loved and treated well, with respect and a deep concern for my well-being. Only then could I start to see the wrongs committed against me, not just by my father, but by all those who had known something was wrong and done nothing.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”– Martin Luther King, Jr.
To be a good person, you must also be a good citizen. This means looking beyond your own family and friends and knowing that the well-being of all people, especially all children, is your responsibility as well. It means opening your eyes, educating yourself, and speaking up, no matter how inconvenient, no matter how unpopular it may make you.
Imagine how different my life would have been if my father, or the doctor, or the birthday girl’s mother, or any of those people who knew that something was wrong had actually done something.
Such relief and joy those people could have brought to me! But they didn’t. Why didn’t they? They didn’t want to be bothered? They thought it was none of their business? They felt it wasn’t their responsibility? What possible excuse could anyone have for not intervening if they even think there’s even a possibility that a child might be in danger?
Fun fact: it’s the law to do so. It’s the law to report even a suspicion of child abuse. But few do.Lately, when I think on all this, when I think on the roaring danger of silence, I am enraged. Of course I am angry with those who abused me, but, as I learn my own self-worth and what it means to be a good person, I am also increasingly angry with those who do nothing, who claim they know nothing when merely opening their eyes and caring would show them where they could make a change in a child’s life.
Is a child’s life not worth the bother?
Was I not worth the bother?
I’m starting to know that I was. Every child is. And we all need to remember this, every minute of every day.
Visit Charlotte’s blog at: www.sublimemercies.com