The Woman Beneath the Recovery Participant

About a month ago, the place I work for held a fundraising event in which we told the pieced together story of the kind of woman who might find herself sexually exploited, addicted to drugs, and in need of a recovery home.  I was in charge of pressing play for the first part of her story, in which two actresses told the story of how they were sexually abused as children, tricked, doped, raped, sold, etc, and wound up gazing out of windows wondering “Doesn’t anyone see me?”

The people who went through the experience were…overwhelmed.  I forget sometimes that the gruesome reality of the women I work with is not a common thought space for many people.  I spoke with one woman afterward who was struggling to process the fact that these sorts of things happen (and I tried not to scream SOME VERSION OF THIS IS SUPER COMMON, YOU HAVE JUST BEEN PRIVILEGED ENOUGH NOT TO KNOW IT), and I realized she was kind of mentally thinking of our women as martyrs.  Or victims.  As someone Other and Pitiable.

It made me realize that what I really want people to know is that these women are women.  They’re human!  They have personalities that delight and frustrate me.  One participant likes my Harry Potter references, and another will always say, “Oh my God, NERDS,” and then we nod and high-five each other.  That same mocking participant UTTERLY geeks out about Vampire Diaries and can imitate the voice and posture of every character on the show.

Another is incredibly organized, and when we went on a picnic outing, she was the only one who brought something to share.  That something was gorgeous plastic plates, utensils, pita bread with homemade dip and sun-dried tomatoes.  Another woman struggles with depression, but we decided to try to learn Korean together, so whenever I say “An-yong!” to her, she breaks into the cutest giggles.

Another decided she wanted to apply for a job (her first ever), so she researched the hell out of what to wear/say/do, and had me ask her questions from a list of fifty she’d printed out and answered.  She got the job despite laying down very strict time boundaries because her effort was apparent.

Another repeatedly assures us that she knows cannibalism is wrong but “I just want to eat my baby so bad.  HIS CHEEKS.”  Another wanders listlessly around until you meet her eye.  Then she smiles peacefully at you and wanders the other way.  Another is an over-achiever, the only one interested in completing my daily spelling lists because “It feels so good to be good at something.”

They all revolted when they thought someone wasn’t getting paid enough for her sewing work, and they were all going to donate some of theirs to make up for it.  Another participated in a slam poetry reading at a hipster coffee shop, and at every person before her, she got paler and paler.  She performed amazingly, but insisted we immediately leave because she thought she was going to throw up.

Another grows black flowers.  Another over-tans.  Another comments about how good someone looks “when you draw your eyebrows on.”  Another can’t process quickly in a big group.  Another has to wear our Ugly Shirt often because she runs out of the house last minute in ill-fitting shirts.  Another keeps falling in love with construction workers named Shawn.  Another, another, another…

Some of the stories they tell churn even my hardened stomach.  These are women who have been raised by abusive parents, who have had DESPICABLE things done to them over and over by multiple and varied people, who have DONE despicable things to others as well.  They are wracked by guilt and shame and worthlessness, and they cling to the tiniest hope that maybe they can change their lives into something entirely new so that their kid won’t live through what they did.  They fail and they succeed…and they tell jokes, and they welcomed me, and they’re silly and kind and vindictive and self-deprecating and smart as hell.

I really love them.  Not because of what they’ve gone through.  But because they are each of them beautifully unique humans who deserve to be known and loved and appreciated for who they are underneath all their bad decisions and awful circumstances.

Advertisements

How Black Sails Equipped Me With the Empathy Necessary for My New Job

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?

Netflix Rec | 13 REASONS WHY

I heard a lot about 13 Reasons Why before I actually sat down to watch it, both positive and negative.  I read the book when it was published in 2007, and I remember liking it and feeling impacted by it.  Ten years later, though, I couldn’t remember enough of the details to decide whether the story glorified suicide or not.  Now that I’ve binged all thirteen episodes, I feel sure that, despite those few people who will misunderstand its message, this show is incredibly necessary.

13 Reasons Why is the story of a young woman who commits suicide after years of objectification, bullying, and rape.  She leaves behind cassette tapes that are passed among thirteen people who she blames for her action.  Sensationalistic?  A little.  But the series refuses to take a simplistic viewpoint, allowing characters to argue about whether or not it was their responsibility to help Hannah Baker.  Some think she wouldn’t have killed herself if they could have done more, and others believe it was simply her bad decision.

What complicates matters is that we get to see below the surface of every person that Hannah blames for her suicide.  The series does a phenomenal job of finding the deeper motivations for each character.  With one possible exception, we see that the bullies were also bullied, that home lives encouraged or tolerated violent behavior, that each teenager is doing their best to survive the hell that is high school in the technological age.  With this perspective, this Netflix series reveals the true villain of the story:  not Hannah or the people she blames, but the culture in which she lives.

In the end, there’s no use arguing about whether she should have been stronger or if her friends and family should have done something more to reach her.  What’s worth talking about is the cruel hierarchy of high school and how violence, assault, and looking the other way create a climate that some young women and men find impossible to endure.

This is not an easy show to watch, which, according to the “Beyond the Reasons” episode by showrunners at the end of the series, was very much intentional.  Viewers are asked to endure scenes of rape and suicide, scenes that are not gratuitous but are also almost unbearable to watch.  But by doing so, issues that are normally glossed over demand our attention, and hopefully, will inspire preventative actions so that similar scenes will never occur again.

[For more detailed reviews, I suggest you read two very well-written posts:  one positive and one negative.]

Are You a Cat or a Dog?

A roommate conversation at the dinner table:

Me:  I just read an article about how there are five cat personalities, and Hans Harrison is definitely a “human cat” because he loves snuggles and invading personal space.

Roommate #1:  A guy was telling me today about how men are dogs and women are cats.

Me:  Okay, but there are five cat personalities, so, gender binaries are restrictive.

Roommate #1:  He said that men fall in love very quickly, and women are more hesitant.  They evaluate a guy before liking him.

Me:  No, that guy is totally wrong!  It’s not a man/woman thing, it’s just a personality thing.  Think of all the girls who see a guy and fall head over heels in love with him.

Roommate #2:  I evaluate.  It takes me a long time to decide if I like a guy or not.  Don’t you?

Me:  No!  It doesn’t happen very often, but when I do fall in love with a guy, I go from meeting him to realizing we are soulmates within 24 hours.

Roommate #2:  Okay, but don’t you like it when men pursue you and convince you to give them a chance?

Me:  NO.  That is a huge turnoff.

Roommate #1:  Huh.

Me:  Oh no.  Am I the DOG in the house with three cats??  That is so unfair!

Roommate #2:  HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Me:  Or maybe it just means that I am attracted to cats!

Roommate #1:  HAHAHAHAHA.

Me:  No, not like, cats, but like you, but not like you

Roommate #2:  We are learning a lot about each other.

Self-Care During This Political Chaos

I almost always feel alone in my beliefs.  I’m too conservative for my liberal friends and too liberal for my conservative friends, but for one reason or another, I typically have more conservative friends than liberal ones.  A lot of the time, this doesn’t cause conflict, because although our politics differ, many of our goals and values are the same.  But the inauguration of the United States’s newest president is not ‘a lot of the time.’  So it is unfortunate that I currently find myself surrounded by conservative friends when all I want is to complain and cry and grieve that a racist, sexist, lying narcissist has been elected into my country’s highest office.  What’s a girl to do to take care of herself?

  • Snuggle with my cat; many faceplants into soft furry sides have occurred these past three days.
  • Watch A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, and remember that with intelligence, passion, and ingenuity, all sorts of horrible things can be endured.
  • Drink a class of wine, eat a piece of chocolate, and remember that good things exist.
  • Walk outside in the crisp air while listening to podcasts about God, feminism and/or Harry Potter.
  • Scroll through endless photos of women’s marches around the world and get excited about the fact that many a young girls’ career in politics is beginning today.
  • Talk to my female roommate and female friends about theology, about philosophy, and about psychology.
  • Write a message of gratitude to my brother, to my male friends, and to male celebrities who show support for women by joining in marches that do not benefit their exact experiences.
  • Get involved, by writing postcards to my senators so that my voice will be heard.  Too long I’ve tried to avoid being involved in politics, and look what happened.  Everyone needs to speak up, during elections and in between.  That means you too, dear readers, even if you are going to write in the exact opposite of my requests.

I’ve been sad the last couple days, but also inspired.  I feel alone, but in truth, millions of women all around the world marched to make their voices, and the voices of those who could not publicly join them, heard.  I stand with many brave, smart, sassy, angry, passionate, happy women who are going to change history.  This is going to be great.  Let’s not give up or shut up – we are blessed to live in a country that allows us freedom of speech, so for the first time in my life, I’m going to take advantage of that.  Tammy and Richard, I am so excited to write to you!

We Remember: A Ceremony to Lament and Honor Women

One of my least favorite things about the Bible are stories where women are neglected, abused, raped, and chopped into twelve pieces.  Worse than the stories themselves is the way in which God is silent about these stories.  When Abraham sacrificed his son, God saved the day by providing a ram.  When Jephthah sacrificed his daughter…she died.

One of my favorite things about the Bible is that it is full of people screaming at God, desperate to know why things happen and where we can find meaning in the midst of misery.  Although I still don’t understand why these stories are in the Bible, or why God allows so much abuse to continue today, I know that one way I can find meaning in all of this is to remember their stories and tell them again to a world that so often doesn’t want to hear.

“Those who seek to glorify biblical womanhood have forgotten the dark stories.  They have forgotten the concubine of Bethlehem, the raped princess of David’s house, the daughter of Jephthah, and the countless unnamed women who lived and died between the lines of Scripture exploited, neglected, ravaged, and crushed at the hand of patriarchy are as much a part of our shared narrative as Deborah, Esther, Rebekah, and Ruth.  We may not have a ceremony through which to grieve them, but it is our responsibility as women of faith to guard the dark stories for our own daughters, and when they are old enough, to hold their faces and make them promise to remember.”

-Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, pg 66


After reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, a friend and I decided that we wanted to recreate a ceremony she describes, a ceremony meant to lament the fates of women in the Bible and in present times so that their stories will not be forgotten.  It was an incredibly moving experience, and I encourage anyone interested to consider trying it yourself.

Based largely on the suggestions made by Evans, this is the layout of our ceremony:

Should we remember Hagar, Tamar, Jephthah’s daughter, and Lot’s?
Should we tell of their wretched lives to our daughters?
Should we speak on our lips the tales of torture, misery, abuse, and violence?
Would we do better to consign them to silence?
We will listen, however painful the hearing,
for still there are women the world over
being raped
being whipped
being sold into slavery
being shamed
being silenced
being beaten
being broken
treated as worthless
treated as refuse.
Until there is not one last woman remaining
who is a victim of violence.
We will listen and we will remember.
we will rehearse the stories and we will renounce them.
we will weep and we will work for the coming of the time
when not one baby will be abandoned because of her gender
not one girl will be used against her will for another’s pleasure
not one young woman will be denied the chance of an education
not one mother will be forced to abandon her child
not one woman will have to sell her body
not one crone will be cast off by her people to die alone.
Listen then, in sorrow.
Listen in anger, Listen to the texts of terror.
And let us commit ourselves to working for a world
in which such deeds may never happen again…

  • Read the story of Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11)
  • Light a candle: “We remember Jephthah’s daughter.”
  • Read the story of the Unnamed Concubine (Judges 19)
  • Light a candle:  “We remember the unnamed concubine.”
  • Read the story of Hagar (Genesis 21)
  • Light a candle:  “We remember Hagar.”
  • Read the story of Tamar (2 Samuel 13)
  • Light a candle:  “We remember Hagar.”
  • Light candles for any other women who you want to remember

We ended our ceremony with discussion.  I felt drained by the horror of the stories we’d read, but also furious.  The male privilege throughout was infuriating – men mourning the death of the son but not the rape of their daughter – men throwing their concubine to a crowd to be repeatedly raped and then using pieces of her body as a spiritual warning – men taking God’s will into their own hands and then discarding a woman when it is clear she is no longer necessary – it is MADDENING.

But I remember their stories.  And I let this despair and outrage fuel my work with HD, reaching out to women who have been sexually exploited and abused.  Their stories are also too often forgotten.  Their actions are explained away, their experiences become statistics, and laws never change.  But each of us can make a difference, beginning today, by giving some of your time to remember the dark stories of women who came before us.

“From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah” (Judges 11:39-40).