July 27, 2007

Culture and Tradition Again

Posted in animal advocacy, vegan, veganism, violence at 7:16 pm by nevavegan

How many times have all of us working to help animals heard someone excuse inexcusable behavior because they feel that animal abuse is “part of their culture” or a family tradition?

I wrote about this before in Tradition Vs. Veganism, and again a couple days ago I touched on it by noting again that my family participated in cock fighting, a practice most people find abhorrent today.

Although culture and tradition provide comfort and identity to many people, they can also hold us back when we fail to ever question those traditions. Did my ancestors enjoy cock fights? Possibly, but remember this was also the era of public hangings. People would pack a picnic and go watch another human being die a slow agonizing death. This was a time when my great grandfather changed his name and purposefully covered up his origins because he thought his real name and his real ethnic identity would prevent him from running a successful business. Side shows flourished back then as people paid money to stare at and make fun of the disabled and ill. We’ve turned our backs on many of these old “traditions” so why not re-examine other traditions as well?

Most of us come from backgrounds where some traditions were beautiful and others were terrible. Though we rarely think of child abuse as “tradition” in many families it is taught, preserved, and passed down generation to generation the same as if it were a style of dress, or a way of praying. Likewise animal use and abuse can be a bad habit or a flawed belief as much as a tradition.

Would most of us go around kicking puppies simply because a family member had previously kicked puppies? Probably not. We would recognize that as a personal failing on that relative’s part. But we cling to things that are equally cruel because we attach an arbitrary meaning to them. Turkeys suffer terribly during their short lives, and are slaughtered under terrible conditions, yet we feel this is necessary so we can put the traditional turkey on the Thanksgiving Day table. We still go to the circus to watch enslaved elephants controlled through fear and pain perform for our amusement because “Dad used to take me as a kid.” What we need to recognize is that we have a lot more options and a lot more information than our ancestors had—we can still take our kids to a show, and there are lots of shows that don’t use animals; we can still eat a wonderful, delicious meal together without the turkey because we have so many other foods available now.

Another funny little note on Thanksgiving is that turkey and pumpkin are the two traditional foods that most people insist on for the holiday, citing that these were foods from the first Thanksgiving. There is some dispute about that story. But when we look at the other foods served, we see a lot of foods that would not have been present, like rolls and stuffing made with wheat flour, green bean casserole, many dishes containing sugar or cheese, and other ingredients that would not have been present at the first Thanksgiving. So the traditional foods are a little arbitrary.

So many times I’ve heard people lament the effect their traditional cooking has had on their health. A friend of mine from Jamaica said that she had gained a lot of weight and developed a pre-diabetic condition from eating her traditional “comfort foods” like meat pastries. Fearful she might lose her eyesight, she had to find ways to eat foods she had not been fed at home, like salads, for the sake of her health. But she found she could still honor her heritage with fruit, which had always been a part of her family meals, she just had to give up the breaded and fried items. She could also still enjoy traditional stews, but she decided to add veggies and leave out the fatty meat she used to enjoy. I can sympathize—my family apparently never ate a vegetable except one that was cooked in lard, so many of us had to learn new ways to look at food!

If we can give up traditional foods because our health demands it, we can also give up or adapt traditional foods because we want to be kinder to animals and the planet. After all it’s not just our own health that’s affected by what we eat. That was another reason my friend decided to change her diet. She remembered all the beautiful birds of her home in Jamaica and feared that climate change and pollution would drive them into extinction.

Another way we can view traditional cruelty and our decision to depart from it is by asking ourselves what our ancestors would have wanted. Veganism would have been an alien concept to most of them naturally, but all of them wanted a better and more peaceful life for us. In my family I’ve had an ancestor or more than one in every single US war, starting before we were even the US, with the American Revolution. My ancestor who fought in the revolution was a Quaker and thus must have had terrible reservations about going to war. But he wanted to fight that war with the hope that his children and their children could be free from war.

That’s not how it worked out sadly, but we keep in mind that our ancestors who fought wars, slaughtered animals, fought animals, or even stole for a living all wanted better for the future generations. They hardened their hearts hoping we would not have to. If we could talk to them today they probably wouldn’t totally get each and every decision we’ve made, but they would want us to live in peace and take care of the planet and each other. (We’ll forget for the moment that random ancestor who would hate you for not covering your hair in public, or the one that didn’t want you mixing with people of other religions, or the one that would say “You never been to prison? What you think you better’n’ me?” or the one who went on some murderous rampage before being shot down. We’ll just leave those disastrous chapters of family history shut for the time being.)

When we do cruel things just because our forbearers did, we are not really honoring their memories. Instead we are merely repeating their mistakes.

July 3, 2007

How do we get serious about stalking?

Posted in human issues, real life, recovery, violence, women's issues at 6:31 pm by nevavegan

Recently the Washington Post did an article in the health section about a woman who felt she was being stalked at the gym. I really felt for her situation. It’s hard for women to get out and be active and get into shape without feeling threatened. You start to appreciate the concept of someplace like Curves where men aren’t allowed, though that’s just not a good workout and if you want to use free weights or design your own fitness program, you’re back to mixing in with the opposite sex at the regular gym.

I blogged a little while ago about how often I get harassed when I’m walking my dogs or just going to the grocery store. Because I go to the gym with my husband I don’t really get bothered except very occasionally at the gym. Also sometimes if Sean sees someone talking to me for what seems to be an extended period of time he’ll come over. It’s not threatening or anything, but it’s enough to get the way too persistent males to back off.

But I feel terrible for other women at the gym. Recently one woman had headphones on and was lifting some free weights. A man kept trying to talk to her and she kept ignoring him and lifting her weights, so then he grabbed her arm in the middle of a lift to force her to look at him and speak to him. First, that’s not safe with weights, and secondly if a woman doesn’t want to speak to a guy at the gym, that’s her right, and thirdly can you imagine the explosive reaction if a guy grabbed the arm another guy while he was lifting and interrupted his set for any other reason than that the gym was on fire… Yeah, you would never try that with a guy, so why would anyone think it’s ok to try that with a woman?

I read Hugo Schwyzer’s blog from time to time and he touched on the issue of women not wanting male attention from both sides. He said men are offended that women just won’t be friendly, but when they feel that way they aren’t really considering how the women feel and they aren’t considering how they might contribute to a world where women don’t feel safe.

Maybe it’s the rotten mood I’m in today (very tired) but I have to say it goes beyond that. I’ve had men make a lot of accusations against me when I wouldn’t stop to talk to them, and they kept persisting. I’ve been accused of being racist because I didn’t want to have a conversation with a large man (who just happened to be African American) who was standing between me and my front door after dark when I came home. I came up to the house to find this strange man inside my fenced yard peering in my front window and when I told him he had to leave he accused me of being racist (because had it been a white man peering in my windows after dark I would have given him a hug and invited him in, had some tea and scones and watched PBS..). I’ve had men follow me telling me that I don’t need to be scared of them because they’re really nice guys. Um, you just disproved that by chasing me in your truck after I told you to leave me alone and tried to walk away from you. I’ve had guys tell me I have something wrong with me to be so unfriendly…

And what’s the common theme here: I wasn’t a person to any of them. I wasn’t a human being who had a right to feel frightened and want to protect myself. I was an object and to a person like that it’s really annoying when an object tries to stick up for itself and get away from them.

I have to add that this kind of stuff doesn’t really happen when you’re in groups. These men decide to pick on you if you’re jogging by yourself. If you’re in a large group of women, or a small group that includes another male, they really don’t run up to you saying you shouldn’t be scared of them. So that just says something to me.

At the same time there probably is an aspect where a nice guy might feel like he had a moment of connection with a woman he doesn’t know, like their coffee orders got mixed up and they laughed about it or she dropped her water bottle and he handed it back, or whatever. And it probably is frustrating to the nice guy that he might want to continue the conversation but the woman is afraid of him and so won’t talk to him. Of course, in that instance, see above, if he really is a nice guy he does not leap into his truck and chase her.

It probably is true that most males have no concept of just how frightening and intimidating they can be to women. But the main emotion I see expressed isn’t empathy: “Wow, I feel terrible that she’s so scared, that must feel terrible” but merely frustration that the other person, this woman isn’t giving them what they want.

I’m not sure anyone can understand this unless they’ve been there. I was stalked when I was younger in a really terrible incident, and seemingly throughout my adult life I seem to pick up stalkers from time to time. I’m not sure why, my dad thinks I give off push-over vibes that attract bad people. I think it’s maybe that I’m short and therefore seem less intimidating. I have long-ish hair… I don’t know. I wonder if I’m just more attuned to it at this point, maybe tons of women are stalked all the time without even knowing it. The first time I had no idea until someone confronted me with details of my life he couldn’t have known except by making following me around his chief hobby. But a person who hasn’t been through this just doesn’t get the kind of terror it invokes.

In the last place I lived I was stalked by my neighbor. I was scared so much of the time, and while Sean is definitely on my side, he just didn’t get how deep my fears were. He laughed it off and said “Wow, he sure has a crush on you.” My response was “laugh it up now because one day you’ll come home and find me cut up in little pieces in the living room.” Whenever I bring up this story Sean points out that in fact this neighbor didn’t physically attack me and my dead body was not found in little bits in the living room. So maybe I misjudged the level of the threat. But does anyone deserve to spend time fearing that outcome? Is it right that I altered my schedule and my dog walking route to avoid a person who was always showing up wherever I happened to be.

Anyway, perhaps I should tell the story of the stalking so you can draw your own conclusions on how badly I misjudged.

Shortly after we moved in I went in the backyard to clean up. The yard had been taken over by vines and underbrush, and beneath those were several years of trash. Apparently at some point the trash service had stopped in that neighborhood, so the previous residents had simply dumped all their trash in the back yard. From the smell and the suspicious mounds back there I joked that I was afraid of discovering a body. Anyway, it was the middle of summer, very hot, and I was doing all this hard work. My neighbor would watch me over the fence and remarked several times that I worked very hard. Then he said he wanted to marry a woman like me who would work so hard. I told him I was married, he talked to Sean a few times. I figured that was that, but it wasn’t.

He kept talking to me, insisting that I was the perfect woman for him, asking me what I liked to do for fun. If Sean was around he’d wax very eloquent on how lucky Sean was to have a wife like me, pretty and hard-working, and the way he went on and on made me very uncomfortable.

I finished the back yard and moved on to working on the front lawn, which involved pulling out a lot of dead and dying bushes. In one single day of working on the front lawn he drove back and forth in front of our house at least ten times, each time slowing way down for a really long stare. Some of the drive-bys were only minutes apart giving me the impression he hadn’t gone anywhere except around the block.

Then he started coming over to ask about things or saying he needed to talk to Sean, but he’d grab my hands and arms when trying to talk to me. Then we adopted the first dog, Kyra. He followed me in his car while I walked her.

Sean built a tall privacy fence all around our yard for Kyra. Then our neighbor decided to have a party, he kept inviting me and I kept making excuses. Then he went to Sean and said he’d be offended if we didn’t come to his party. So Sean said we’d better just stop by. We went to his party and aside from his grabbing my arms and hands, there was something else that made me uncomfortable. He’d built a raised deck, not attached to his house like a normal person, but right next to our privacy fence. When I sat down on the built in bench on his deck I realized that I was looking directly into our bedroom window. We’d built a privacy fence—he built a viewing platform.

After that I really had no peace of mind until we moved. I’d come home from work and rush around closing all the curtains and shades. Then I’d get paranoid that maybe even with the curtains shut he could still see my shadow, so I wouldn’t change in the bedroom, I’d go change in the bathroom. I started walking my dog on a long course that avoided going near his house or the places where I’d encountered him driving before.

Then we moved and that was it. Nothing happened. He never hurt me. He never kicked in my door. He never threatened me with a weapon. I just lived in constant fear of those things. That’s the insidious thing about it—it can destroy your feeling of safety without the other person doing anything really *all that bad.* If confronted they’d just claim they were friendly. “After all, I didn’t hurt her.”

What can we do to move away from a culture where this kind of stuff is allowed to continue? I went to the magistrate’s office to try to press charges in the hit and run and ahead of me was a young woman. She was crying. She explained that her ex had abused her and threatened her and she’d moved away and tried to hide her location from him. Now she was getting threatening emails where he told her he knew where she lived, he knew where she worked. She held out a sheaf of email messages to the magistrate. The magistrate said “We’ll do something if he shows up in person and threatens you.” “I want a protective order now,” she insisted. “But this is just email. Dial 911 if he comes to your house.” the magistrate replied. “But don’t you see,” she said, her voice starting to fail, he must be following me to know where I live and where I work.” No protective order. She left in tears, her face buried in her friend’s shoulder.

EDIT: Oooops I wrote all of this out from my point of view and only afterwards did I happen to think that not just women are victims of stalkers. Some men have stalkers too, and children do as well. I think it’s more women than men that experience this, but we need to stop all stalking obviously.

June 21, 2007

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Revisited

Posted in post traumatic stress disorder, recovery, violence at 1:32 pm by nevavegan

We rented and watched Munich a little while ago. It was a well-made movie and really did convey the twisted ways war, politics, and vengeance can overcome intrinsic good and compassion. The overwhelming paranoia that grew throughout the movie was palpable, becoming almost its own character, growing, changing, suffocating.

That feeling, not feeling safe wherever you happen to be, is such a real thing to me, and sadly it’s familiar to many people all around the world.

When we first learned about post traumatic stress disorder it was in relation to war veterans. These were men, many of them practically children, who were sent abroad to witness atrocities, kill fellow human beings, and watch their friends die.

My grandfather fought two official wars, World War II, Korea, and one undeclared war, the Cold War. When I say he fought the Cold War I really mean that in every sense of the word. He is very tight-lipped about most of his experiences, giving only small anecdotes here and there. For example, he never really spoke about his experiences as a pilot in WWII, but at one of his birthday parties a friend of his made some joke about the time my grandfather’s plane was shot down. I wanted to know more, but he just turned away and said it really wasn’t a very interesting story.

So after all of this, after he left the military, my grandfather was plagued with nightmares for years. According to my grandmother he insisted on continuing to sleep with his hand gun under his pillow, until they were finally able to break him of that habit. My grandmother described being terrified that my grandfather would awake from a violent nightmare and start shooting before he realized he was at home and safe. My grandfather in his waking life was a gentle person. He wasn’t prone to rage, he didn’t drive aggressively, if someone tried to provoke him he walked away rather than fighting. But in his sleep he yelled and flailed and apparently even punched and kicked at the air. The after effects of trauma following him, however deep he tried to bury them in his mind.

My father too is a veteran and bears the scars of seeing things nobody should ever see.

This topic is timely right now as well, when we wonder how to reintegrate soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan into civil society. At times it seems almost hopeless to think that we train people to turn off their compassion and to kill other people, and then we expect them to return home seamlessly, get jobs in construction, solve problems with words not violence… Of course for many veterans this might not be so hard, but for others it’s nearly impossible. My father described the court marshal proceedings against a fellow soldier that he observed. This man told my father that he simply couldn’t be kicked out of the military, in fact he felt he needed to remain in Vietnam. His chilling words were that he had found he enjoyed killing people and while this was acceptable “in country” he just couldn’t go back to the states and live among normal people.

Once we flip a certain switch, how can we unflip it?

Of course Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t just about war, it can affect anyone who has witnessed extreme violence, has survived a brutal attack, has been abused, or maybe even people who have been bullied over long periods of time.

Maybe it’s the time of the year. I, myself, have been having a lot of nightmares lately and waking up exhausted.

I wonder what happens to children growing up in violence plagued neighborhoods. What about those growing up in countries where genocide is allowed to continue unchecked for years. My area has a high murder rate. The local ice-cream man was shot for a few dollars as he tried to sell popsicles (luckily he was rushed to the hospital and survived). How can a young mind grow and bloom when their friends are gunned down senselessly, when they never feel safe?

What kind of world are we building here? Do cultures themselves acquire post traumatic stress disorder?

May 31, 2007

Burnout, Depression, and Trauma in Animal Work

Posted in animal advocacy, burnout, recovery, trauma, violence at 5:31 pm by nevavegan

I must be a really bitter person, or maybe it’s my birthday coming up, but I seem to be just full of negative posts lately. I’m so sorry.

NOTE: This post contains descriptions of violence which may be upsetting or triggering to some.

Disclaimer: The following will just be some personal observations on this topic, as I’m not really qualified to discuss this beyond my own experience.

As Pattrice Jones has written, activists are particularly prone to trauma and need help in dealing with it. As animal advocates we are often in situations that are not healthy for anyone and naturally psychological stress is the result.

Pattrice states in her abolitionist-online interview that much of what we refer to as burnout in the movement is actually depression. Long years of discouragement, seeing horrible things over and over, it all adds up. That depression can be paralyzing and hold us back from action. It can also spur non-productive or even self-destructive action as well.

I don’t want to name names here, so I will be purposefully vague, but I have seen a number of leaders in the animal rights movement give small presentations on coping with burnout. In other cases the question of burnout arose in discussion periods following some other talk. While I appreciate the sincere efforts of those individuals I often found their comments rather unhelpful. Over and over I heard “We all suffer burnout and depression, but we just need to remember that the animals are suffering more, and so we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep going.”

At the time I found such a statement something that’s very easy for a person in a position of power to say. I don’t doubt that these leaders also suffered depression and stress and trauma, but as they were steering the ship, so to speak, their experience differed. Because being in a position of power gives that person a feeling of control and purpose. That can to some extent counteract the helplessness some of us in the ranks felt. I do think it’s harder in many ways to keep up the level of involvement, despite crippling depression, if your only role is to follow instructions. Especially if sometimes you doubt the wisdom of those instructions but know that you have no say in forming policy or direction.

I do also think perhaps these leaders should think twice before taking their own advice. I firmly feel that the way to deal with trauma, depression, and other mental and emotional health issues is to get help. People don’t realize when they’re in this fog how distorted their thinking might be, but I don’t think people who ignore their own mental health will make very good decisions or ultimately be terrific leaders or role models. It’s possible that people who are ignoring their own mental health and suffering crippling depression might treat others very badly without even realizing it.

I also suffered depression related to my work with animals, but my post traumatic stress disorder was something else, relating to an unconnected attack. One thing that is important to know about someone suffering trauma is that additional traumas tend to hit in different ways and can be particularly destructive.

As an example, I participated in a protest where I was asked to handcuff myself to a door. I did this, and within seconds of handcuffing myself to the door a security guard grabbed me by my neck and I blacked out. When I woke up I was in the street lying on my face, only I actually didn’t know where I was for a little while. And again, like the last time I was knocked out I was so incredibly nauseated and my head hurt so badly on coming to that I pretty much could not speak and couldn’t think about anything else. After a little while I remembered where I was and I realized that my hand had been pulled out of the handcuff a wide strip of skin was missing from the back of my hand and I had a smaller cut on my wrist. The police arrived asked the security guard if I was alive, and he said I was drunk (I was not, but he was hardly going to admit he’d knocked me out) and so the police kicked me (not hard) to try to get a response out of me, but I was still unable to respond.

This was a particularly bad experience naturally, made worse by my traumatic memories of what had happened to me the last time I’d been knocked out. When the police realized how badly I was hurt, they let me go, and I had to find my way back to the organizer of the protest so I could reclaim my purse and keys and go home. He didn’t voice any concern about my injuries and expressed no sympathy or regret, just the usual platitude that sometimes people get hurt at protests and of course the animals suffer more. Then he said he was in a big hurry to get to a party so he couldn’t speak to me further.

I naturally knew the animals suffer more, but I was not in great shape for a while. I also had no health insurance at the time so I just went home and poured alcohol over my hand and bandaged it up the best I could. I tried to use my really old, bad camera to take some photographs of the bruises on my neck, but no charges were ever brought against the security guard.

That was the last protest I did for that particular organization because I came to believe that they put their activists in dangerous situations (I was told prior to the protest that this was no big deal, it would go very quickly, and while there was a chance I MIGHT be arrested, most likely nothing was going to happen) and then couldn’t even muster a sympathetic word for them when they got hurt.

But the end result of this was that some time later I was asked to participate in another protest for a different group and ended up getting a little roughed up at this one as well, though not badly. And though I was not the only one roughed up by any measure, it just hit me really hard and I had a full blown panic attack.

Sigh, I know this is starting to sound like all I ever did with my time was get beaten up, but this was at a time when I was going to so, so many protests, often several a weekend, and so out of hundreds literally, two went bad, one of those very, very bad. So it’s not like I was getting hurt at every, or even very many protests.

After my panic attack I wanted to continue volunteering for that particular group, but I just knew I couldn’t any longer participate in protests. However, while I was expressing my desire to help in somewhat safer ways to another activist with that group, he said that probably it was not a very good idea because the leader of that group apparently was not happy with how I’d conducted myself. What I was told was that it had been said in a meeting, in front of all the “important” people with that group, that I was “a stupid fucking bitch who fucked up everything and shouldn’t be allowed to work with this group anymore.” And so I didn’t do anymore work for them.

While I was sad that my panic attack may have created difficulties for anyone, I can also look at it objectively and know that because my panic attack was internal (ie I wasn’t screaming or out of control, I just absolutely had to get out of there that very second) and because it took place outside of the public eye (no potential members, or employees of the store we were protesting, or passersby observed it) that in the larger scheme of things it was probably not that bad. Furthermore I thought I was being proactive in identifying something I shouldn’t do (protesting) and trying to find something else I could do.

Now this would simply be a sad story about how I messed things up and couldn’t work with a couple of groups any longer, except that I started hearing similar stories from other activists. They felt shunned if they mentioned that their particular emotional issues precluded them from certain actions, while they thought they were just being honest about what they could and couldn’t do. Others felt that if they asked for any kind of consideration or sympathy after bad experiences they were treated as if they were whiney or weak, and similarly felt excluded from participating further.

It used to be (and sometimes still happens) that when activists feel pushed out from another group where they volunteer or work, they try to go form their own group, so they can be in charge. But I can’t say that the proliferation of groups has done much to help activists deal with trauma or depression. Instead I’ve seen many examples of the new leader of the new group now turning to his or her new volunteers and telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop whining. So the cycle perpetuates.

I can’t really come up with any explanation for it except for this one article that says people in charge often simply can’t empathize with those working under them. But it seems largely ineffective to completely neglect the emotional health of volunteers and allow them simply to be driven out from the movement or fade away. I suppose most groups just hope for continuing new crops of fresh, young volunteers to replace those that simply can’t go on.

Additionally I have to wonder if some of these seemingly unpleasant reactions from those in charge are related to their own levels of trauma and depression. If these leaders are themselves suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or severe depression, these mental health issues can flatten their experience and distort their perceptions. They may find themselves so stretched to the breaking point that they are really unable to spare a sympathetic word or thought for anyone else. Their depression might push them to a point where they are seeing the whole world in black and white, ie you’re either with us or against us, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, you either agree with me or there’s the door. It seems terribly inefficient to me for people to ignore their own emotional wellbeing to this extent.

To go back to the comments also that we just need to get over ourselves or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps seems to me to represent a fundamental lack of understanding of post traumatic stress disorder. We’d all love to simply push it out of our minds, and I was successful in doing that much of the time. The very nature of flashbacks however is that they force themselves into the conscious mind at inopportune times. These are vivid memories of trauma that feel extremely real and like they’re happening right now. Nobody can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps to deal with that, people with PTSD need help. You wouldn’t try to fix your car by yourself with no training or experience and how much more important is your mind?

Interesting conversations and offensive posts

Posted in abuse, recovery, violence, women's issues at 12:18 pm by nevavegan

Some thoughts here might be controversial, hence the title: offensive posts. I’m trying to honestly look at issues that affect my life and probably affect the lives of many others as well.

One thing that I try to keep in mind as I wander through my life is the concept of equality. Not that all of us are the same, because that’s patently ridiculous, but the idea that the differences between us don’t automatically rank us on some kind of hierarchy. Instead we all bring different things to the table and in an ideal world our different viewpoints and different skills could fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and we’d all be able to contribute and participate.

Then the cold hard world shows her face and I know that all around me I’m surrounded by people who in one way or another are cut off from participating in our common culture. The sense of powerlessness became palpable in some communities. In other situations, people with all the trappings of being important may in fact feel very shut out. They keep their ideas to themselves, potential contributions are never made.

Clearly the “isms” can shut people out of participating in society: racism, sexism, ageism, and the not-an-ism, homophobia. Some people struggle against these forces and insist that their voices matter, others get discouraged and retreat to the quietness of family, chosen family, or small communities where they can feel accepted.

There also comes with this the strange phenomenon where people start to think that prejudice is acceptable, if it’s good prejudice. Yet in any case, to assume that we know something about someone based on external factors, like race, gender, age, or socio-economic status is always prejudice. Because quite literally we pre-judge them. We think we know who they are and their capabilities before we ever actually get to know them.

This leads me to another point. I have been thinking lately about the topic of how women hurt each other and hurt children, and yes, even hurt men. Which is a no brainer, because women are human beings, and all human beings probably hurt someone else at some time, and there are some human beings who practically make careers out of hurting other people, and then there’s the whole spectrum in between.

But when I’ve talked to some of my friends in the past about female on female abuse, or child abuse perpetuated by mothers, I often run into this wall. Many of my female friends will insist that women are natural nurturers, that we are automatically filled with compassion and love. So if a woman turns violent or abusive, it is only because she herself has been abused to the breaking point.

I rankle at this because 1) I do think most abusers were abused themselves, but this applies to men as well, and we don’t tend to excuse their behavior because of that. Instead we ask that they act like adults, get help, and take some kind of responsibility for their actions, and 2) Women can be pretty awful sometimes even in the absence of abuse (again with that being human part).

This lead me to a fascinating exchange with Angie Reed Garner, and I just have to quote her, because she said it perfectly:
“I have always thought that one of the primary ways that women are stunted and deformed by sexism is that there is a lack of literature and general awareness in the culture about the ethical issues pertaining to women’s behavior. There is more about how women go crazy, but not much about how women fight against each other and children for power, control and resources.”

How very, very true. We decry sexism and yet at the same time we allow certain damaging behavior to go totally unchecked because we are attached to the myth of the perfect mother, the madonna and child, the female angel of mercy. So we cannot accept the idea that women also fight for power and prestige, and that they may backstab, slander, or shun other women to achieve those goals. We don’t like the idea that a mother might look over the limited resources of her family, and put herself first and her children last. We give a resigned sigh when a father spends his money on alcohol and doesn’t pay child support, but we neglect the whole concept that women might make similar decisions.

I want to explore this topic more over the next couple weeks, well not just this exact topic, but aspects of sexism, aspects of abuse, and just the general lack of research and documentation on issues within female culture in this country.

I also got some information from the moderator of the Survivors forum, though I’ll leave her anonymous for the time being. As expected, she said, most members when they sign up for access report abuse or attacks perpetrated by men. But it was not so lopsided as you might expect. She told me the split is about 60/40 in favor of men as the abusers. Further she said that about 25% of the community is actually male, which was a surprise to me as most males in the forum are very, very quiet. I expect though that rates of abuse for men, especially men abused as children, are probably fairly high, but just going on anecdotal evidence from my own experience, men are less likely to seek therapy, and less likely to join support groups or forums.

I’m not sure where all of that fits into my thinking other than a kind of general “wow, our culture can be violent.” But hopefully I’ll be able to form more thoughts on the topic as time goes on.

May 16, 2007

Q&A

Posted in recovery, violence at 3:45 pm by nevavegan

After posting “Your House Is On Fire and Your Children Are Gone” I got a couple emails expressing support but also asking some questions. It seems appropriate to answer some of them here, out in the open.

Keep in mind these are just my answers and might not apply to everyone.

The first, and perhaps obvious question is: How do you get past something terrible happening and live a normal productive life?

Funny thing, I guess this all depends on your definition of productive, or normal for that matter. I’m ok, and sometimes I’m not ok, which is really just like anyone else. Everyone has something in their life that they mourn. Some might have more than others, but it’s perfectly normal to get upset, to get angry, to be sad. We hope those things don’t take over our lives naturally, but there’s no possible way to be happy every single moment of every single day. So I’m hoping the balance pushes over into the positive in the final accounting. I’m pretty sure it does.

I felt like for a long time I was waiting for some kind of revelation that was going to make everything alright. Then I realized that wasn’t going to happen. There’s no way I can twist everything around in my brain to turn it into a positive, to make it ok. But that was the revelation: I don’t need to ever be ok with this. I can go on the rest of my life and still say I wish nothing bad had ever happened. And I can be sad about what I lost as a result, but not be sad all the time. Not accepting it doesn’t have to hold me back from healing. In fact it was liberating, because knowing that it will never be ok has helped me to let it go. I don’t have to keep revisiting it because I know now that it accomplishes nothing, but I can revisit it if I want to, understanding the pain involved.

This probably doesn’t make any sense to anyone else, but it is a good thing.

I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about how important it is to forgive, and that approach seems to work for some people. Forgiveness was never my issue, since to me maybe forgiveness came too easily at first, like a reflex, something I did without thinking. I think I looked on forgiveness as a way to bury what I couldn’t deal with. So it was like “ok, I forgive” now I can shut that door forever. Not so helpful. It took me a long time to come around to the idea that forgiveness doesn’t have to be automatic and it’s never simple. Some things in life are unforgivable, and it doesn’t make anyone flawed if they don’t or can’t forgive. Things get better, with or without the forgiveness, with or without the big revelation. It’s slow going sometimes but totally possible.

Another aspect of course is getting care and appropriate therapy. Many people who are traumatized never get help because they can’t afford it and there are no reduced cost options in their area. Some people get care that does more harm than good, sadly. Some types of therapy simply aren’t appropriate for trauma. So we all need to push for more care, more affordable care, and more beneficial care.

The next question was: How do you ever get to the point that you can trust other people again?

I sort of touched on this in the post about hypervigilance, though that really provides no answers ultimately. Trust is a case by case basis. I’m not required to trust anyone I don’t want to trust. Of course all of us, not just people who have experienced trauma, sometimes misplace our trust. It’s helpful to remember that this is just something everyone goes through, not just us.

On the survivors forum someone recently made the comment that when something really bad happens you certainly learn who your friends are. This is true, you do realize who you were once close to that are just too wrapped up in their own stuff to be there for you. You come to understand who holds ugly, often demeaning views about people who have been traumatized. And you realize who can actually be there for you and who can at least try to understand these issues. But it’s so important to remember in all of this that the people who can’t get it aren’t violent people (well at least, not necessarily). They are people going through their own issues. So, we can still trust a lot of people, while at the same time understanding their limitations.

We can also trust by degrees. Like I can trust a neighbor enough to chat with them outside, but if I’m not comfortable letting them into my house with me because I don’t know them well enough to be alone with them, that’s my choice. Nobody can demand trust. It’s fine to hold trust back, even if the person later turns out to be perfectly nice, if there’s anything that makes us uncomfortable.

One thing every abuse survivor has to keep in mind though is that we’ve been conditioned to put up with things that simply aren’t ok, so we don’t always pick up on warning signs from people. It’s vital to understand the idea of boundaries, and that people who ignore or trample boundaries, even if they seem like nice people, are putting up a huge red flag.

I still regard the person who acts out violently as an aberration, the minority within the population. They seem more numerous than they are because of the wide swaths of suffering they leave in their wake. I have to believe that in order to remain sane I guess.

I read that psychologists estimate that 10% of the population lack the ability to feel empathy for others, and often lack a conscience, due to personality disorders like anti-social personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and extreme cases of borderline personality disorder. So 90% of the population does feel empathy for others. More than that, a good amount of that 10% are probably not physically violent, though their disorders no doubt cause problems with interacting with others.

Next Question: Where do we go from here?

Um, you’re asking me where we go? We go vegan of course!

Just kidding. It’s a start, but it doesn’t address the whole big mess of issues. The problems of violence are deeply rooted and intricate. It’s possible for people to understand on an intellectual level all the reasons they should not be violent, but still resort to violence when they’re under pressure, feel threatened or undermined, or when their “road maps,” their plans of how to behave and cope prove inadequate for the crisis at hand. This is why you can have parents who “know better” resorting to slapping or spanking their kids. In a moment where their intellect fails them they reach back to the earliest things they learned. And what they often learned from their own parents was that if kids won’t cooperate parents hit them until they do cooperate.

But many people find ways to avoid that trap. They realize that it might be an issue for them, so they actively seek the tools and information that will help them avoid violence.

I think it’s as important to teach kids life skills as it is to teach them other skills. Schools should be teaching ways to solve conflicts without violence, and how to let conflicts not be solved sometimes. Kids also need to learn about boundaries and how to respect other people (real respect, not the term that is tossed around that often means afraid of), so that they can understand that they don’t get to control other people and other people shouldn’t control them.

Also, as a society we need to stop tolerating violence. In so many situations you’ll find that someone who commits a really violent act has actually been violent for a long time. However, they manage to keep on being violent because people cover up for them. They get friends to lie for them, they intimidate witnesses, the courts or schools or counselors don’t really put any pressure on them to change. So they might have been enabled for years of increasing violence while most people, people who would not be violent themselves, looked the other way. So as a culture we need to stop tolerating and reinforcing violent behavior.

Beyond that, I don’t know. There are no really easy answers.

May 7, 2007

Your House Is On Fire and Your Children Are Gone

Posted in animal advocacy, environment, save the earth, vegan, violence at 3:44 pm by nevavegan

So go vegan!!
(warning graphic material—might be extremely upsetting/triggering)

In my second to last entry I said that while I really know from experience that there are very bad people in the world, I also know that there are wonderful, kind, generous people in the world. There are people that when the chips are down, they really go the extra mile. They put themselves in danger; they make sacrifices.

History shows us that sometimes the people who come through in a crisis weren’t really extraordinary prior to the crisis. Some weren’t even particularly nice, or civic minded, or caring. Sometimes people who had been criminals saved others during a disaster. Somehow the urgency of the situation can bring out the good in people. Sadly there are also stories of such situations bringing out the worst in some people, but I suppose that’s always how it goes.

I find myself a little unsure of what I should say and not say here, but maybe this story is helpful or appropriate to what I’m about to say. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was attacked. And the person who attacked me knocked me out cold with a single strong blow to the head. When I came to I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. Everything seemed pitch black and all I was aware of was that I hurt and then I was overwhelmed with nausea and all I wanted to do was turn over and get up onto my knees so I could throw up. Only I couldn’t seem to move, and then the blackness faded, though I was still dizzy, weak, and nauseated, and I realized that the reason I couldn’t get up was that someone was on top of me, continuing to attack me, holding me down. That’s when I started screaming and screaming. Someone heard my screams and came running and literally picked my attacker up off of me and threw him and when he started coming back, my rescuer fought him off. Who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t come, if he hadn’t come running, if he’d ignored my scream, or if he’d been more worried about his own safety than mine (not that I could blame him for that)? But when the chips were down someone decided to be a hero, and I’m forever grateful.

So this is how I know the immense goodness that is out there in the world. People who watch TV, eat junk food, laze around playing video games all day on their day off, in other words, normal people that you’d never look at twice, have this ability to be so much more when it’s really down to it. When it’s do or die, or even do or let someone else die.

I know that if the world goes to hell in a hand basket and the ice caps melt and people are starving to death, I know that so many people out there will put themselves on the line to help. I know that even if they’re hungry themselves they’ll share what they have. I know that if the worst of what we expect comes through, some people will be capable of things they never thought they were.

The thing is: we’re actually in the crisis right now. We need people to be heroes right now. But a lot of people are ignoring the screams, because they’re distant. They think maybe others should act. They think maybe it’s not really that bad. They are able to ignore the effects of global warming that are causing polar bears to die and inflicting famine on the human and animal residents of Africa, the droughts in Australia.

Our house is on fire right now, and ignoring it isn’t solving anything. We can all do better.

Studies show that the energy saving benefits of adopting a vegan diet outweigh the benefits of a hybrid car. I mean, by all means, get the hybrid car if you can. But going vegan means conserving all the energy that went into raising the animals to eat, and all the energy that went into raising the grain and soybeans to feed them, it means cutting all those green house gasses created by animal agriculture. It means fewer drugs and antibiotics and just waste released by run off into our water supplies. It saves all that water used in animal agriculture. I really think this is the first and primary thing. The effects of making this one change are huge.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks you’d rush in when someone is being attacked, can’t you change your diet when the planet is being attacked? Can’t you change your diet if animals, who are trusting and gentle or terrified and traumatized are being attacked?

There are of course other things to do as well. Drive less (I live very close to my work right now, happily). Drive smarter (see if your work will let you work flex time so you can commute when traffic isn’t as heavy). Drive together (carpool and ride share whenever possible). Use environmentally friendly cleaning products. When the cashier asks “Paper or plastic?” say “neither!” and bring out your re-usable shopping bags. Switch out your light bulbs for the energy conserving kind. Make sure your home is properly insulated and the windows properly sealed (to reduce the need for heat and/or AC). Use your heat and AC less (bundle up in the winter, wear less in the summer). You know the drill.

Here are some links if you want to learn more:

UN Report: Cattle worse than cars
http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=20772&Cr=global&Cr1=environment

How a vegetarian diet reduces global warming
http://www.goveg.com/environment-globalwarming.asp

Cool Article: Vegetarian Is the New Prius
http://www.commondreams.org/views07/0120-20.htm

Think leather is good for the environment, think again?
http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2007/04/30/863/

Other quick steps to conserve energy and limit waste
http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/thesustainables/ten.htm

February 22, 2007

I’m myself, not an example

Posted in stereotypes, survivors, violence at 2:43 pm by nevavegan

A discussion in the survivors forum got me thinking yesterday about both good and bad experiences I’ve had when sharing stories of my past with others.

I’ve done a lot of that sharing in a lot of settings, the scariest type of sharing is in my “real life” where people know my face and might run into me at the store and interact with me at work, or activities or social settings.

One of the main benefits of opening up about being the victim of abuse and violence has been that it helped me bounce my thoughts off others who’d had similar experiences. It helped me figure out patterns, make sense out of things. By turning to others I’ve found tremendous emotional support.

There have also been cases where the reaction has been less positive for a variety of reasons. I’ve suffered in the past from blurt-ism, which means that someone asks me a question that they probably don’t want a real answer to and I blurt out the whole truthful, ugly answer. And then the other person is just left there, not knowing what to do with this negative information. I’m trying to get that under control, although it’s such a weird balance. I need to understand that while I don’t need to be ashamed of things that have happened in the past, most people don’t need to know.

The sad truth is that though sometimes I can isolate myself to interacting with thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, liberal people, there is a whole different population set out there too. There are a lot of people who don’t get violence, domestic violence, abuse issues, sexual violence and so on. Such people can make very harsh judgments about the victims of violence.

For example, when I was living in New York, a young woman was raped on a subway platform in my neighborhood. Apparently a man with a gun grabbed her, showed her the gun, told her to be quiet, and dragged her to an isolated area away from the crowd and raped her. Many people I knew had a very negative reaction to this story, saying that there were so many people around, why didn’t she just run, why didn’t she scream, why didn’t she try to grab the gun away from him… Of course they were all missing the point of what absolute terror does to a human being. Similarly, at a job a co-worker remarked on a domestic violence news story “Well, apparently it’s not the first time he hurt her, so she must have liked it to stick around.” What can someone like me even say to something like that? The gap of experience and understanding seems huge and unbridgeable.

Given these prevailing attitudes in society it’s very difficult for those of us with past issues to open up, because most of us have played this game in our own heads for years. “Why didn’t I tell someone?” “Why didn’t I try to get help?” “Why did I always believe that it wouldn’t happen again?” And so on. We’re so full of the recriminations of ourselves that to get any such reaction from another person feels like it could totally crush us.

There’s a whole different weirdness that enters this tricky arena as well–an idealization that doesn’t fit and can be equally crushing. I’ve gone (in the past) to a lot of feminist groups and working groups to address violence. In such an environment there are still risks to sharing my story/stories, but there’s also encouragement to share. So many people there have been victimized themselves, so there’s typically a lot of support. And then there’s this: “You’re so brave.” “You’re so strong.” and so on. It’s nice to get compliments, but there’s a point for me where this crosses some line and makes me nervous.

How do I put this? I feel that I have experiences that inform my view on these issues. I feel that experiences that come from real life have a value and immediacy that needs to be present in a discussion on violence and related issues. However, it’s not just real life experience that shapes my views, I’ve also read a lot on these issues, I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve done some hard work. Also, I’m not necessarily right. I have no doubt that what I say and what I believe on these issues is the best view I can come up with for me at the moment, and it was not one easily reached, it’s not coming from a point of ignorance. But should new information become available, I’m totally willing to revise my views, because that’s what learning more is about. So it makes me uncomfortable if someone seems to be setting me up on a pedestal as if my experience gives me the final word.

And that pedestal doesn’t just make me the “resident expert,” a role I don’t think I can fill. It also objectifies me, because it implies that I’m nothing more than the sum of my experience. And because I’m articulate, in those settings, I hate to feel set aside as some kind of example of “the person we want to help.” This is so tricky, but the point is that all victims of violence are different. Some victims of violence are violent themselves actually, and then it is the culture of violence we need to address. Some victims of violence repeatedly put themselves in bad situations and tend to refuse help, but that doesn’t mean they’re less deserving. Some victims of violence are mentally disabled, physically disabled, elderly, or very young, or whatever other conditions limits their ability to help themselves. Some victims of violence don’t do well testifying in court because they aren’t very nice or likable people, but they still deserve help. Some victims of violence are men, and people feel they should be able to defend themselves, but they also don’t deserve to be mistreated.

But to go back to the idealization: I’m not here to necessarily save others. I want to help people, I care about people. But I’m still a person, with other interests and hobbies and my own beliefs. I have a different background and culture from some of the others present as well. I’m not a poster child. I’m not going to like every other survivor I ever meet–sometimes my personality and theirs just won’t mesh. I don’t represent someone else’s goals or illustrate their points.

I’m just me, navigating a difficult existence and trying to find answers and if an answer seems to work for me, I’ll pass it along. It has frightened me in the past, in such group settings, that the leaders often hold some foregone conclusions and then work backwards from those conclusions, looking in the group for examples. To me, I don’t think we have all the answers yet regarding either the roots of violence, the solutions to stopping violence, or on recovery either. I found that some of the accepted “wisdom” didn’t work for me and could actually be damaging or limiting to me. I’m interested in what works, not what tops the best seller list.

Another trap is the feeling that if I share too much information people judge all my ideas and actions subsequently on the basis of that information. I’m not sure what to say on that one. I don’t want to put myself in a position where people have a reason to think less of me and dismiss my ideas. But I also don’t want to hide a huge part of my experience because I’m afraid of ignorance. I have personally had some negative experiences in that regard, where people have claimed that I’m “single issue” because of my background, or that I’m so emotional on topics of violence that I can’t hold a rational view. But there’s a more insidious thing where someone can be very sympathetic, but the stereotype they hold in their mind of what a victim is, makes them underestimate my abilities and input in the future.

The stupidest part of this whole thing for me has actually been, after going through therapy, realizing there are a lot of people out there who don’t handle stress, emotions, conflict, etc. very well. In many cases this isn’t a result of abuse or some kind of traumatic injury; it’s more about growing up without ever being taught good cooperative skills for working with others. So when I consider that, it makes it seem all the ludicrous to me that someone could be thought less of for having had a troubled past, as opposed to being judged on ongoing performance. But it’s always a risk to those of us who open up to others.