I am rewatching Black Sails with a coworker, and I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the show’s themes and my work with women recovering from sexual exploitation and addictions.
The overarching question of Black Sails is: which is worse, piracy or civilization? History has made pirates into monsters, but the show is determined to make us see that civilization deliberately painted them that way, because civilized people need someone to point to and say: at least I’m not like THEM. To be fair, the pirates often do monstrous things. But civilization did monstrous things as well, only they had the resources to cover them up or blame someone else.
I see a lot of similarities in how the world views women who are prostitutes and/or addicts. It’s unfortunately common to insult or dismiss them, to call them names or use them as examples of The Bad (I’m looking at you, Proverbs). Adding addiction to the mix just makes it easier to alienate people and make monsters out of them. At least we’re not like that, we think.
A while ago, I had a conversation with a friend about fostering. I had always thought the hardest part of fostering would be knowing the relationship was temporary. My friend said that the hardest part was that often you were not just saying goodbye to a child, you were sending it back into a bad situation. I agreed with her, and then on my first day at my new job, I saw the “bad situation” children are sent back to.
On that day, a woman in the program tested positive during our random drug screening. We had to call in her social worker and determine what was to be done with her child. The woman was devastated, angry at herself for letting her addiction get the better of her, furious that she had jeopardized her relationship with her child for the sake of a temporary high. An extraordinary solution was found, and since then I’ve had a lot of one-on-one time with the mother and child. The thing is, she’s a great mother 90% of the time. She’s attentive and loving and protective. And sometimes she gets high and is wholly incapable of caring for her child. I’m not at all advocating that women with addictions should keep their children no matter what. But the story became much more complicated.
Perhaps it sounds silly to equate pirates with addicts, but if you think that then I have to assume you haven’t seen Black Sails. Stories matter, and when we make addicts into monsters, they internalize that role. Both the pirates in a tv show and the women I work with on a daily basis have done some truly horrific and criminal things. But that is not all that they are, and when those are the stories we tell, we erase the goodness in them and the potential for recovery.
So we have to ask ourselves: why do we tell these stories? To hide our worst impulses? To assure ourselves that even though we lost our temper with our kid, at least we didn’t do this? To make our sexual decisions seem better because at least we didn’t do that? To minimize our own selfishness and pettiness and vindictiveness? The thing that Black Sails tells us over and over again is this: civilization and pirates are not all that different. We all have the same dark impulses when pushed into a desperate corner. And if we haven’t yet been pushed into that desperate corner, the least we can do is thank God for our privilege and practice empathy for those that made a bad decision in a bad situation.
Society spins narratives to make sense of the world and our role within it. As someone who has always fared well from those narratives, I haven’t had to question them. But there are women and men who live behind the labels “prostitute” and “addict,” and if we don’t take the time to understand their reality and see them as whole people with stories and contexts and futures, we make them into monsters. And isn’t that a monstrous thing to do?