There is so much to say and so little coherence in me right now. Recent dredging up of past events because of current ones is not a bad thing if used as an example for how to correctly have conversations going forward about abusers in our community. Getting stuck in the quarreling over that past event is counterproductive and rarely moves that conversation forward.
That doesn’t mean everyone should shut up about it. It means finger pointing backwards in time at those you believe didn’t do enough or did too much when there was no template in place for how to speak of abuse in our community doesn’t promote the conversation we need to have. There was no template for accountability when legal authorities weren’t involved (or yet involved) and the rehashing of blame only stalls the conversation at the point of the past crisis. Stalled means we stay where we were before we started. It is not useful.
We need to find ways to allow these conversations to occur unhindered by kneejerk reactions as the abuse is happening, as the abuse is being addressed (by community and/or legal authorities), and in the aftermath. The only successful way to allow it is to actually allow it.
That sounds so simple. It is not. It means withholding judgment. Not only withholding judgment about the people who speak up about their abuse, but also withholding judgment about people who initially speak up in support of the abuser in words similar to, “But he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He’s my friend. I’ve circled with him.”
Withholding judgment is not the same as putting on blinders. Withholding judgment is allowing people to be the humans we all are. “Not in my neighborhood.” “Not in my family.” “Not in my religious community.” This is an initial, self-protective response by those who have not suffered abuse when hearing about a horrific thing. If we are going to have truly open conversations in our community about abuse we need to know going in that initial kneejerk reactions are going to happen. We cannot stop them. (How could we?) We need to move past those very common reactions with grace and put ourselves where we should be – at the side of the victims.
Part of what needs to be put in place is clear appropriate support for the victims who speak up. Part of what needs to be put in place is the acknowledgment that the first step of speaking up isn’t the hard part no matter how much it seems to be. The hard part is standing in your truth while the backlash washes toward you. The abused need to know that the community will stand with them not only when they first speak up, but as a deflection wall around them when the naysayers first cry their disbelief. They need to know we will still be there after the cries have died to whispers to silence. Sometimes the silence after being brave is the most perplexing and disheartening phase to navigate.
I don’t have the perfect template. I don’t have the answers for how to address this enormous task at the level of “all of the community.” I don’t even know that it can be addressed at that large a level or if we have to trust the individual communities to hammer out their own templates. I’m thinking the latter with support from media outlets like popular sane blogs, newsletters, and e’lists.
There is no one perfect way. There are many incorrect ways. Let’s avoid as many of the incorrect ways as we can early in the conversation.
Incorrect (not an exhaustive list):
- Shushing the victim by saying or implying they are traitors to their community
- Telling the victim they are wrong or they misunderstood the actions of the abuser
- Interrupting the abused as they tell their story to ask questions, clarify, whatever. (There is time for that after they have finished speaking.)
- Derailing the conversation with stories of how “good, kind, well-respected” you have found the accused abuser to be
- Shaming the victim by telling them what they could have done differently
- Giving advice before being asked for it
- Trying to minimize fallout by attempting to control the story and who hears it
- Diminishing victims by classifying them: “the crazy ex”, “the one always in the center of controversy”, “the mouthy/bitchy one”, “the spotlight whore”. Even if all of those things are true.
- Allowing your previous beliefs about the victim or abuser to close your ears to their story
Correct (not an exhaustive list):
- Listen more
- Listen some more
- Make eye contact
- Unfold your arms
- Straighten your face (Feel eyebrows wanting to go up? Pull them down. Feel a frown coming on? Pull the corners of your lips in line.)
- Let Love flow out through your core and your eyes
- If they start panicking about the details of the abuse event urge them to stay in the moment of what they are feeling right now. Details of the abuse do not matter in the moments of first telling. The details will come back later. Support through the enormity of emotion that full realization of abuse brings requires staying in the here and now. (Focusing on remembering details keeps them in the scenery and time of the abuse event. The telling phase needs to stay in the present because that is where you are and the only place you can provide appropriate support.)
- Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Sit in that discomfort. It is minor compared to the discomfort they are in and if you can sit in it they will feel they can, too.
- Finally, listen
Years, almost 2 decades now, I have been walking the healing path from (sexual) abuse that began in childhood which was the prevailing form of abuse with me. The above guide works with all categories of abuse. I walked with books, and workbooks, and conversations with other survivors. I walked with the grand idea of trying to initiate a child abuse education program in a religious community. I walked into face-to-face meet ups with survivors. I walked this healing path with many different tools and therapeutic relationships. The most useful, compassionate, and healing part of this path was when I walking with the telling and listening and telling and listening some more. The above partial lists are some of what I’ve learned. I offer them to you. May they be useful.