The Abuse Panelists
From Chris Wayan's journal, 1997/2/6
AN ANNOYING BOOK
I'm reading THE ARMLESS MAIDEN, an anthology of stories on child abuse and recovery from it. It's full of oversexed exploitive males and victimized little girls. Bothers me that some of these authors seem to be getting off on their own fantasies but denying that and blaming their male characters. Tanith Lee for example in her version of Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose legend: Mom pimps her 10-12 year old daughters, lets men fuck them while they pretend to be asleep. It's written from a john's viewpoint--and I think Lee gets off on it. I try to convince myself this is okay, the femme equivalent of the writers in Pat Califia's FOR THE LOVE OF DADDY. It's very explicit--I feel turned on but tense. Try masturbating to the sex fantasies while reminding myself they are just fantasies and not harming anyone. But my body just doesn't like it, feels creepy, so I stop. These tales feel dishonest--because the writers won't admit they get off on these fantasies (or dressed-up memories of abuse).
My friend Mark works at an organization for adults abused as kids; he says much of the staff, not just the clients, deny all their own passions and take refuge in victimhood. Lust, rage, even simple sexual initiative--always someone else's fault, preferably male, but invariably someone else...
Califia's DADDY anthology felt healthier, even though its gay-butch-bondage theme isn't my thing at all. But Califia and friends proudly CLAIMED responsibility and they were clear what THEY liked sexually, and used the victim role to heal from abuse, not hide in it.
ARMLESS MAIDEN has exceptions--Lynda Barry's memoir GUARDIAN NEIGHBOR, and especially editor Terri Windling's SURVIVING CHILDHOOD, are strong and honest. Windling's from a poor steeltown family with drunk violent sexually abusive parents. Windling's brothers never got out. Her academic life, her art, her books still don't exist to the family, to admit them is actually harder in their world than admitting alcholism. She thinks these things pulled her out but she just can't be sure. Horrifying portrait of her mother now, still in denial after attempting suicide--and the medical system colludes to hide the abuse. Her brother trying to face the facts, half trapped in a class value system that explains away bone-breaking abuse, rape, suicidal addiction. At first I was mostly shocked at the working-class nakedness of it, but then I began to see that my relatively middle-class family, though free to show their love of art and books and education, still uses some of the same strategies to cover abuse.
KNIVES by Munro Sickafoose is a strong rendition of the part of THE LITTLE MERMAID that Disney so conveniently left out: a mermaid who gains land-legs walks pays a price in pain, walking on knives. Imagine a severely abused girl: kept locked in a room all her life, tied to a bed. Now free her, let her have an opportunity to stagger around and learn to walk at last--but what's her motivation to face the pain? Life in bed with no pain, enough food, good books, even some real people to talk to... after utter deprivation, it's tempting.
A temptation I recognize. For it's mine--to just let chronic illness win, and drift through the rest of my life.
THE ABUSE PANELISTS
I get up from the book and leave it. Get out of the house. Get on my bike and head downtown, to the Concourse Pavilion...
To the San Francisco Book Fair! Can't seem to escape books today. Wander through the maze of little publishers, the crowds of book nuts like me. After an hour I stumble on...
...a writers' panel on abuse issues! Bizarre coincidence. I sit down and listen.
A woman in the audience challenges the speakers. "You on the panel, and most speakers in anti-abuse movement, have been blaming men exclusively, when most of the men who grow up to abuse kids were raised by women who abused them or failed to protect them. And I know first-hand that mothers can be abusers on their own."
One panelist flatly denies that: "Abusive moms are either obeying abusive husbands, are victims of the patriarchy, or are psychotic."
Wow, how matronizing! Implies the questioner's too dumb to be believed. The challenger says angrily "That wasn't my experience, or that of others here." Murmurs of agreement from audience.
A man on the panel says he's worked in youth prison with boys who are supposedly sociopaths, and says they're deeply trained not to identify with their victims. It can take years to undo, but it's not innate at all. "The only ones who truly are sociopaths, and can't be helped because they truly are blind to the harm they do, are pedophiles." I'm skeptical of even that. Professional helpers get into this habit of drawing an "unsalvageability" line--they just draw it in different places. Half this panel writes men off, this guy writes off pedophiles. But the American characterization of pedophilia is pretty much just homosexuality circa 1950. "I thought people like that killed themselves." That questioner was right--these so-called experts are locked in their cultural limitations like everyone else.
Suddenly I ignore the panel and look around the room. How gray this audience is! Clothes, bodies, auras. Adult abuse victims, still carefully forgettable, avoiding others' eyes, attention, danger... opportunity. Still unhealed.
When I walk from this hall back into the main Concourse, among random book lovers, they look like movie stars! So many beautiful women, who meet my eye and smile--so open!
And what do I do? Drop my eyes and flinch of course. Even if I catch myself a second later, it's too late. I'm a fucking lighthouse, flashing "Keep away! Trouble!"
Because despite all my efforts to change, I'm as gray as the ones back in that grim room, arguing over who to write off. I stay as forgettable as I can--for if you noticed me, who knows what could happen?
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