In my travels through the world of self-help and support groups I met a lot of survivors, mostly survivors of incest. Hearing their stories was an eye-opener especially in terms of how unique each story was. And sometimes how very horrific. But today, one woman’s story stands out. She told us that her father was ideal in many ways: he made her sisters and her a great packed lunch each day, he walked them to and from school when they were little, he helped them with their homework, he provided well financially for his family and he spent every weekend taking them on interesting expeditions. In the daytime he was the perfect father. At night he visited them in their beds and sexually molested them. When she made the abuse public and demanded that the family come out of denial, her sisters had been upset with her. They felt his ‘illness’ was less important than everything else he was.
So what was he: the perfect dad or the pedophile? Does it have to be one or the other?
I was a huge fan of Woody Allen beginning with the first film I saw of his in the ‘70’s, Bananas. From then on every time a new Woody Allen film came out, I was the first in line at the cinema. And that was true until in the ‘90’s he began a relationship with Soon-Yi Previn while still living with his partner, and Soon-Yi’s adoptive mother, actress Mia Farrow . Even though Soon-Yi claimed she had never seen Woody as a father figure, this touched on a few of my own red button issues. I was disgusted with him. I stopped going to his films.
But this was a personal choice.
Can we hate the sin but love the sinner? Can we separate the person from his/her art? Do I want Woody Allen to stop making movies? No. I think he’s a cinematic genius (although a little past his prime now). But neither can we do the opposite. We can’t ignore the sin but we have to remember that people are more than the bad things they do.
On Monday, March 4th, the Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland was being discussed on my favourite CBC morning news show, with Heather Hiscox. The idea was raised of whether or not one can still be a fan of someone who has been seriously accused of sexual abuse. Some radio stations had decided to stop playing his music. The cynic in me wonders if they are doing this because of pressure from advertisers or are they truly taking an ethical stance. As for me, I do not want to tread into the delicate world of censorship. All I can do is take a personal stance: don’t go to that movie; turn off the radio.
Is Michael Jackson any less of a musical genius now that we are finally accepting something we’ve actually known about for a few decades? This is not new information: we just chose to be in denial. Does his ‘illness’, which has been suggested is a family trait, make his musical legacy any less important?
People can be many things: brilliant writer and pitiable drunk misogynist; trend setting artist and hopeless/hapless womanizer; respected world leader and mendacious adulterer; crown prince and Nazi. Does the one negate the other? I don’t have an answer. All I know is that anyone who has contact with children needs to be above suspicion. Any one who has control over a child’s welfare needs to be veted.
And I will always reserve the right to not read, not listen to, not vote for those who do not meet my personal standards. This is everyone’s right.
I struggle with news of institutional child abuse. Every time I hear a story of priests, teachers, coaches being ‘caught’ for this heinous crime, I rejoice that they have been unmasked. These public perpetrators are parental figures. All abuse of children is unforgivable. Anyone who touches a child in any inappropriate way is a criminal. It is good that the public is outraged by this, outraged that a person in a position of authority should use this power in this way. It is good that the law and the courts take this so seriously and that finally, finally, the catholic church is doing some more evident soul searching.
Those victimized are receiving public concern and compassion. I applaud this. Some, who have been institutionally victimized, have received public apologies and monetary compensation. This advances us as a humane society.
But I am also torn in the direction of ‘what about us?’
We, incest survivors, have not been abused by parental figures; we have been abused by our parents. We are legion by comparison. Our abuse statistically starts at a much earlier age and lasts longer. Our perpetrators have easier access to us.
Those of us who are incest survivors need to speak more. Yes, just the word incest makes people squirm with discomfort. Nobody wants to hear a story about incestuous abuse. The fact that incest is taboo makes talk about it uncomfortable and hearing about it impossible. Telling our own stories causes disbelief and sometimes blame. So #letstalkaboutincest.
As a society, we have still more soul-searching to do. Let’s get out from behind the denial. We need to question our patriarchal roots. We need to plumb the depths of child abuse and the depths are us. We need to start looking inward, into our smallest institution, the family.
IMAGINE THIS: up to 20% of all fathersi are removed from the family unit and placed in detention to receive the best possible therapy at state expense. But, is our society willing to give the families extra support in terms of childcare, give them free access to mental health care and financial assistance? Hasn’t it been simpler to let it be, to let it remain a family matter? Doesn’t it cost less, both financially and emotionally, to be in denial?ii
In fact the current cost is much higher: a significant segment of our population evidencing their pain with drug abuse, eating disorders, homelessness and who are also prone to suicide and prostitution. Eventually we pay the price and if we don’t stop this crime the cycle continues.
When Donald Trump was watching his 16-year-old daughter Ivanka host the 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant, he turned to the then-Miss Universe and asked: “Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?” In the almost 20 years since, Mr Trump has called his eldest daughter “voluptuous”. He’s said it’s OK to describe her as “a piece of ass”, though she is a senior executive in his business empire. And he’s said that, if she wasn’t his daughter, “perhaps [he’d] be dating her”. iii
When a man voted into such a high office can joke, ‘old boy’ style, about incest, how do we trust any of our elected officials to make the laws, make the changes, needed to end incestuous abuse?
i. For current research see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4010601/
ii See this article https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/america-has-an-incest-problem/272459/
How do we, in western society, in this era, define motherhood? If you were interviewing someone for the job…probably the hardest, most thankless job…what qualities would you be looking for? What questions would you ask? Would you administer any psychological tests? I think back to a line in the movie Parenthood, where a character (played by Keanu Reeves) says: You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog. You need a license to drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they'll let any butt-reaming a**hole to be a father.
The same for motherhood: no licence required.
We, as a society, assume a mother will love their child, hopefully unconditionally. We also assume that a mother will keep her child safe, even sacrificing her own comfort to make this so. And we presume she will teach her children some life skills and some guiding values.
So, as a mother, if you know, or even suspect your partner/husband (or any other family member) is hurting your child, what do you do? Why would you even hesitate to speak to a social worker or even a lawyer, or throw the perpetrator out, or leave with the child if that’s what you have to do? And if it is happening, if he is hurting your child why were you unable to see this? The results, the child’s behaviour changes or physical condition or attitude/mood, is likely to make the abuse very obvious to a mothers’ discerning eye.
In the movie I discussed in my previous blog, Patrick Melrose, the mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is portrayed as an alcoholic drug abuser trying to blot out reality. In my novel, Both Sides Now, Rose’s mother is focused on her own victimhood, deep into a self-preservational denial. In my own personal story, my mother hid herself inside her religious fervor.
Even condemning the denial, we must have some compassion for all three of those mothers (and even yours if it applies). It’s a hard job. It is even harder if you are dependent, financially or emotionally, on the abuser. It is even harder if you are also a victim in that family unit. Even harder if you were that child once. And in this patriarchal social structure we live in, even today it is difficult to convince most people that incest is not just a family matter. And too often the solution chosen is to remove the child from the situation. This punishes the child as much as the perpetrator. When a curfew was suggested as a solution to a high rate of rapes, Golda Meir said “But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home.”
Why punish the victim?
We as a society have done so much work to support women who must escape abusive relationships. There is much more work left to be done to protect our children from family members. Is it motherhood and apple pie to say these children are our future? Don’t leave it to those victimized by incest to break the cycle themselves. I can tell you that is a life-long struggle.
Let’s start talking about incest. This is not an extension of the #metoo movement. This is the #letstalkaboutincest movement.
Are you a mother who has seen the effects/symptoms of incestuous abuse, has believed her daughter(s),and who has removed her children from the control of the pedophile in the family? I want to hear from you. I want to write your story.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT INCEST
Malcolm and I stumbled across this great British TV series called Patrick Melrose starring Benedict Cumberbatch. We had actually been looking for another film that Cumberbatch narrated, a biography of Thich Nhat Hanh, Walk with Me (‘Yoga teacher’ is my other vocation).
Patrick Melrose is based on a series of semi-autobiographical novels about Britain's upper class by Edward St Aubyn. In the 1980s, a wealthy Englishman attempts to overcome his addictions and demons rooted in the sexual abuse at his father’s hands and the repudiating negligent mother. The script and the performances are stellar.
However, I have tended to avoid stories/movies about childhood abuse. There is the ‘disturbing’ factor, yes. But there is mostly that feeling of being overwhelmingly appalled. Even having gone through it -- even having written a novel on the topic -- I still find it incomprehensible that an adult can do this to a child.
Even more incomprehensible is how this subject of incest still hides in the dark shadows. Daddy is the real monster under the childhood bed.
Even in the #metoo age, which is about what adult men do to adult women, little is being said about what adult grandfathers/fathers/uncles/brothers do to infant/toddler/prepubescent/teen-age female relatives. Everywhere. In all countries and cultures. At every level of society.
A ‘blankie’ of silence.
So Patrick Melrose is a relevent TV series for many reasons. And while I was watching it I remembered a movie I had seen years ago.
There’s Something About Amelia is a 1984 American television movie. In the story shame and fear have kept Amelia Bennett (Roxana Zal) silent about the sexual molestation she's been suffering at the hands of her father, Steven (Ted Danson). But as Amelia starts to believe that Steven might harm her younger sibling in similar ways, she unburdens herself of her awful secret. Confronted with this horrifying piece of news, Steven's wife, Gail (Glenn Close), can't believe it's true, and he professes his innocence. But as new details emerge, the family is shaken to its core.
I recommend you watch it.
Many of you will react by asking many questions. How could he do that? Why did she keep silent? Why didn’t her mother believe her?
But I am reminded of my first public reading from my novel, Both Sides Now, at a small NDG venue. I was one of at least 8 presenters and there were only about 30 attendees, mostly strangers’ family and friends. After the event a young woman came up to me and said, “My father’s name was Sam also.” I don’t think I handled her disclosure very skillfully. It was a first for me and I was surprised more than anything. But I never stopped thinking about her and now that my book has been published, I hope she finds it.
Unfortunately, many of you will already have answers, very personal answers, to the questions above. Many of you are the living reality of that statistic of as high as 20% of father-daughter incest, which is the most commonly reported and studied form of incest.
There is Something About Amelia was the most-watched network television show in the United States for the week of January 9-15, 1984. It won many awards. But I don’t remember any of us talking about it.
Not surprising so many watched it; not surprising there was so little discussion.
There’s just something about incest.
I know…bad language. Trust me the language was appropriate to the situation! But to be fair to the word itself it does date back to the 16th century and may even go back to early Latin. An ancient if scorned word. But certainly strong in nature. And certainly apt to my feeling at that moment.
I was standing next to my car on the side of Highway 20. I had a flat tire. It was a epically cold day for early December. At least that’s what CAA had just told me. If I wanted their service I was going to have to wait for up to 3 hours. I was only one exit away from home so I decided to drive along a quiet route and just go home. I’d take care of the tire tomorrow. And my destination…a yoga class at the West Island YMCA…was going to have to wait.
My first yoga class had been just months after I had retired: September 2010. There was an introductory course offered at the Lachine community centre, so I had signed up for that. I really didn’t know what to expect but it was mostly sitting and breathing and after that, lying down and breathing. I was getting restless: I like to move. Halfway thru the semester she began to introduce some asana but then her sister died. I felt a lot of sympathy for her but then we were back to sitting and breathing and after that, lying down and breathing. In late November I completed the course with the feeling that yoga must be more than that.
I decided to check out the YMCA. I was meeting my cousin on the West Island so while I was there I went to the Y and got a membership, an inclusive one which gave me access to all Y’s in Montreal. I picked up their schedule and chose a class to start with: beginners again.
So that’s how I ended up at the side of the highway with a flat tire. Foiled on my way to a yoga class at the West Island YMCA. Dejected. Discouraged.
I had shredded the tire. I felt the cost of that was better than waiting in the cold for 3 hours! A good trade off. However I did use that ancient word again when I paid the bill.
So after I got my tire replaced I had to rethink the whole YMCA issue. The West Island Y had seemed the best choice but then I remembered the one in NDG which my brother and I had gone to as teens: swimming classes (frozen hair on the way home) and teen parties (broken hearts). It had felt too weighted with memory but now it seemed the better choice
I went on a Monday. Don’s class. More asana than breathing!! Loved it.
Waiting outside the classroom I met a number of people who are still in my life: Ellen who turned out to have been married to my cousin Steve; Delia who is a personal and family friend, as well as a student; Claudette who became a friend and is now a student; Nicole; France. It didn’t know it at the time but that Monday evening was a pivotal one in my life.
I went again on Wednesday. Malcolm’s class. And then again on Friday, Malcolm’s class. Loved it more.
When I first saw Malcolm I felt like I knew him but it didn’t seem reciprocal so I never said anything. But the feeling persisted so I began to think that maybe I was meant to know him. But Malcolm keeps a distance from his students. As a retired teacher I understood that. But even more now I understand that yoga is mostly a female-centred realm and straight, attractive men wanting to be in that space could be suspect. Are suspect.
A year and a half passed and Don suggested that I might like to teach yoga. He told me a little about the training and recommended where to go. I researched the idea.
Then six month later, June, as I was having dinner with a friend at my favourite Mexican restaurant, in Lachine, El Meson, a woman walking past stopped and exclaimed, “Julie!?” It was Margaret, someone I had been friends with in my early years teaching and living in Hudson, back in the 1980’s. It had been a while. We chatted a bit and then invited each other to connect on Facebook. When I got to her page I discovered that my yoga teacher, Malcolm, was a friend of hers.
Remember 6 degrees from Kevin Bacon? Six degrees (or less) to Malcolm McLean.
Margaret was Malcolm’s sister. So I had taught their little sister Barbara, met their Mom, one or two of her brothers and had met Malcolm. We had met at a party in the late 1980’s. It may have been a set up. But Malcolm is a ‘nice guy’ and back then I wasn’t into nice guys. Particularly nice guys who were single fathers with twins.
So now my yoga teacher, Malcolm, and I both knew we knew each other but we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t talk. I even gave him a lift home one evening after class on a particularly cold night…but still we didn’t mention this connection.
I began my teacher training in December. In January I told Malcolm about it. In March I asked him out for coffee and on March 5 we had our first date.
So here I am sitting in a meditation hall at a 3 day silent retreat in Sutton. Our teacher, Pascal, has just told us a story about his father, how a small change, one shift in direction can change everything. In his story, the result was a tragic loss. In my story, that flat tire led me to a yoga practice that was right for me, led me back to teaching, led me to Malcolm (now my husband and the editor/publisher of the book he encouraged me to write), led me to owning a yoga studio and led me to a meditation practice with serious intent.
Each decision we make, each moment we allow life to change direction, can change everything.. Call it fate. Call it karma. Call it ‘the butterfly effect’. Call it the ‘concept of dependent origination” of Buddhism
The entire trajectory of my life was changed by a flat tire. Call it the Flat Tire Effect.
“Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. but what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today.” –Barack Obama