Sunday, February 3, 2013

Fixing monsters

Yesterday I sacrificed half a Saturday to go to my first 9-to-5 volunteer-training session, one of three I'll attend this month with the goal of becoming a certified volunteer, or "advocate," with the Fairfax County Office for Women/Domestic & Sexual Violence Services. (Yes, there is a certificate involved -- after the third session, which concludes the 20-hour "Tier 1" training, each participant gets a li'l "certificate of completion" that allows us to move forward with more role-specific training.) 

There were about 70 people there, not including the dozen or so social workers who presented information throughout the day. Participants included a few fellow volunteers or aspiring volunteers, but there were a lot of social workers who specialize in other fields -- I met one who mainly works with people who are addicted to drugs -- or who work for county shelters. I suppose the social workers were undergoing the training to become more well-rounded, maybe to meet some work-mandated requirement. There were also some folks who work for local law enforcement, and a handful of outspoken attorneys who asked supremely logical questions ("So, I'm looking at this from a prosecutor's point of view..."). 

We sat in pews inside a church that regularly allows the county trainers to use the space, a big blue-and-yellow, IKEA-colored stained-glass cross glowing above the trainers' heads and the projection screen the whole time, donated bagels for breakfast and donated pizza for lunch (including a stack of pepperoni pizzas that the coordinator had ordered before she realized that a whole pew of aspiring volunteers would be devout Muslim girls in hijabs, and one in a burka), a frenzy of snowflakes whirling in the darkening gray sky as we left for the day, all of it adding to the invigorating my-life-isn't-like-this-every-day feeling.

All of us had undergone preliminary phone interviews, registered, and shown up at the Calvary Hill Baptist Church in Fairfax for a workday-length session of PowerPoint presentations, audience-participation exercises, and hard-to-watch videos about women who were shot and killed by their husbands and girls who were molested and raped by family members. 

It's of course a gross understatement to say that this is troubling subject matter. 

Several times while watching the true-story videos, I felt tears coming to my eyes. Several times while watching the videos, I stopped taking notes, my pen frozen and still and my eyes stuck on the screen, because the things the victims were saying, and the way they said them, the look on their faces, the tremor or resignation in their voices -- these are things I don't have to write down because they're things I can never forget.

It struck me during the training that for the professional social workers giving the half-hour or hour-long presentations, the ones who had prepared and printed out the tidy PowerPoint read-along guides and the "Power and Control Wheel" and other worksheets, the ones who were leading the training for free, on their own time and their own dime -- this is the stuff of their everyday lives. 

I began to notice characteristics shared by all of them, and I decided that they were sort of like jaded Care Bears. Most of them had the sort of personality that I associate with people who work hard to go into low-paying (and competitive, from what I hear) social work: the heart-on-their-sleeve, conspicuously empathetic, let's-talk-about-how-that-made-you-feel, look-you-in-the-eyes-and-nod-compassionately-while-you're-talking-to-them kind of personality. You know, a Care Bear. 

But at the same time, you could sense that some of the formerly raw nerves, the hypersensitive antennae, had necessarily become a tiny bit dulled over time, or that the social workers had evolved for themselves a hard protective shell to keep them from taking other people's tragic stories too much to heart. One of the presenters, a woman who runs a county shelter, even ended the session with a talk about how to avoid "vicarious trauma," something that happens to counselors and volunteers who can't just go home and shake off the sad things they've heard during their "work" days. 

And yet, even amid all the harrowing stories and statistics, the talk of how some "advocates" (paid social workers or counselors as well as volunteers) develop stress-induced immune disorders or overeat or pick up other unhealthy coping techniques; even though some of the presenters made depressing, hope-deflating pronouncements such as, "How do you escape a stalker? He finds another victim," and "I don't believe pedophiles can ever be 'cured,' " -- something about the prospect of doing this type of work, in which you're offering up your empathy just as much as you're sharing information and resources, clicked with me. 

Back when I was a senior in high school, and even a semester into my freshman year as an "Undecided" major in college, I had thought about majoring in psychology. I mean, don't all of us who are sort of "emo," who fancy ourselves to be extra-nice people and good listeners, who want to help people fix the problems in their lives? I think I even put that down as a tentative major on some official form somewhere, when taking the SAT and notifying the mysterious, shadowy test-administering entity of which colleges I might like to see my score. In the end, though, I went with majoring in journalism (or the category at Virginia Tech that journalism falls under -- the irritatingly vague-sounding "Communication Studies," which to me always makes it sound as if I'm a speech therapist, or as if I strap on a tool belt and work on satellite dishes). 

The choice seemed obvious to me (at least, it did as soon as I had ruled out majoring in English and writing a novel as a realistic career option). My journalism teacher in high school read my articles out loud as examples for the class to emulate. I could easily see how such a degree would translate into a job working for a newspaper. And maybe most important of all, majoring in journalism seemed like a four-years, in-and-out option -- whereas I assumed that getting any decent job in the psychology field would involve my going to graduate school for at least a master's if not a PhD. At that age (and at that maturity level), I just wanted to be done with school, just wanted to go ahead and start working and living a textbook- and grades-free life. (Of course, now I wish that I had the means to go to graduate school for an MFA in creative writing, but that would be a whole 'nother blog post.) 

Recently I posted what has become known among my friends as "the pineapple post," a Facebook status update in which I told those on my friends list something to the effect of, "If any of you are ever in need of someone to talk to -- you just let me know, and I will respond and do my best to meet you somewhere. Not only do I promise that you can tell me anything and I won't judge you -- I will probably be able to tell you a similar or worse story from my life." I told them that all they had to do was send me the code word "pineapple" -- in a Facebook message, an e-mail, a text message, an Instant Message. No need to elaborate, no worry about inconveniencing me -- I would just automatically know what "pineapple" meant. And then I would respond, and we would arrange a meet-up -- at a Denny's, say, or wherever the person felt comfortable having a chat. Kind of like guerrilla counseling.

Since that post, I've received about five "pineapple" requests, all from different people, but so far only two have resulted in actual in-person meet-ups -- one at a nightclub, and one at an IHOP. My self-assessment: These meet-ups went as well as they could have, were fun if escapist fun was needed, or cathartic if confession or venting was needed, but I'm not sure how much I helped each friend in the long term. I've probably helped more people, without even directly trying to help them or realizing I was doing so at the time, just by writing this blog

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've been wanting to help people, and actively trying to help people, for a long time even if it's not my paying profession per se. 

Sometimes I wonder if that's delusional or arrogant of me -- to think that I can help people, as if I'm some wise, mystical sage with a bunch of answers. But then, I often have the same doubts about my writing -- "Who do I think I am, telling anyone anything? What do I know?" At some point I think you need to hush the part of your mind that worries about things like that, because hey, at least you're trying -- maybe you suck at giving advice or helping people in any way, but at least you're not being cold and indifferent. Hey, at least you give a shit. 

A darker worry I have about the prospect of being in a role in which I'm hearing people's tragic stories is that the writer part of my brain will mine them for fiction material. I know good and well that I really can't turn off the writer part of my brain -- that would probably require nothing short of a lobotomy. But again, so what? So I take the raw clay of human experience that I observe and am privy to, and transform it into (respectfully obfuscated) stories that are perhaps more emotionally authentic than what I would have made up otherwise -- that's a bad thing? 

Near the end of the training session, I realized that I had been fully engaged and concentrating, not bored or daydreaming at all (not even once!), taking notes furiously in my little purple notebook from Walgreen's that is technically a journal but I ripped the label off of it. I had pushed through the resistant layer of my natural shyness to raise my hand and contribute to discussions four times; the fourth time I did that, we ran out of time and I didn't get to share my thoughts out loud, but I'm counting that fourth time because I raised my damn hand and was willing to speak without being required to at all.

It reminded me of my last two and a half years of college, when I was making straight A's and doing extra credit even in classes in which my average was already higher than 100, and raising my hand to say stuff in classes, especially the English ones. (I remember dominating a discussion of the symbolism in Ernest Hemingway's every-English-class-reads-it "Hills Like White Elephants.") Speaking up has never been easy for me to do, though. I seem to have actual biological barriers that other people don't have to deal with. Hours after one of the times I had raised my hand and spoken during the volunteer training, I saw in the ladies'-room mirror that my cheeks were still flushed a hard purple from the adrenaline surge I got from speaking in front of so many people. My shyness is a real and visceral thing.

The second time I spoke during the training session, I found myself telling a church full of 70-some people about how I had been with a guy who had "manic depression and was chemically imbalanced and had a lot of problems" -- my wonderful ex-boyfriend Tim, whom I was with for nearly a decade, all of my twenties, and who did not abuse me, even if he was extraordinarily dependent and manipulative and possessively jealous (all of which were "red flags" on our worksheets). I worried afterward that this had somehow been a betrayal to Tim, or that I might have said that partly for attention, to gain some people's sympathy, to somehow "show them my badge," let them know that I belonged there and was more than just some voyeur with a happy relationship history. And truth be told, there was probably a little of that going on. 

But I shared that personal history to underscore the point of my comment, which was this: An important part of the picture, when it comes to "fixing" the domestic-violence problem, is helping the offenders (or, in Tim's case, the person with "a lot of problems"), too. If you're in a relationship with someone who's abusive -- you very well might love the person, even at the same time that you know he's bad for you, even at the same time that you want out. If you have already let yourself be involved with someone who's prone to dependency and whose jealous rages you have to soothe, someone you have to constantly reassure -- my guess is that you feel at least partly responsible for that person. And with feelings of responsibility come feelings of guilt when you think about how hard it would be for the person you want to leave. I would think, as someone who has been intimately involved with a troubled person, that I would feel a sense of relief to think that there might be services out there that are at least trying to help him get better.

The training on Saturday was necessarily victim-focused, mostly because those are the services that the county currently offers. For the offenders, I guess there's the whole criminal-justice side of things -- the cops, the courts, whatever rehabilitation programs that the decision-makers assign to the people who commit the violence. And it makes sense to focus on victims because those are the people in desperate need -- the innocent victims and their children, the people who are being harmed, the people who didn't do anything besides get tamped down or held back by a homelife or childhood in which they felt undeserving of anything better. People who didn't do anything besides make decisions that were consistent with that feeling of not deserving better treatment, that feeling of not deserving what a "healthy" person would consider real love, and not its twisted impostor. 

But after watching a couple of videos -- one that focused on a man with a drinking problem (and probably other untreated mental-health issues, I would guess) who ultimately shot and killed his wife; and one about two different stories involving sexual abuse, a father who continually molested and raped both of his daughters, one of them from the time she was 7 until she was 21, and a teenage girl who molested younger children -- two things seemed clear to me:

One: Every single offender we heard about on Saturday had been a victim of abuse. Every single one. I'm sure that can't possibly always be the case, and I'm talking here mostly about the sex-abuse offenders. ... OK, I just found something that says about 30 percent of sex-abuse offenders were previously abused, with higher rates among offenders who molest young boys -- in other words, more than two-thirds of people who molest or rape other people were not abused themselves. Hmm, apparently it's a myth that all of them were. That's a myth that, I admit, I have believed for a long time -- probably because I want to think that people who do bad things have some tragic, obscurely understandable (but not justifiable) reason for doing them. I see now that's not always the case.

But based on the stories I heard Saturday, purely anecdotal evidence, I was amazed at how much of a true cycle it can be -- and at how abused people sometimes seem to recognize it in other abused people, as if it's part of their emotional DNA. For instance, in the story about the father and his daughters, both the father and his wife (the mother of the daughters) had been victims of sexual abuse. His wife had ignored signs that her daughters were being abused because she hadn't wanted to believe it, hadn't wanted to deal with it. Somehow the father and his wife had both drifted into a sick and suppressed situation that felt normal to both of them. I was left with the impression that sexual abuse is not at all random perversion, but an almost self-perpetuating dynamic. 

And if that's only true about a minority of situations -- which seems to be the case, now that I actually Google some statistics on the topic -- then it's still a fact that abuse seems to breed more abuse. Thirty percent is still a decent-sized chunk of the pie. What that makes me wonder is if maybe those 30 percent of offenders had been born into, or raised by, different families, or hadn't come across a relative or neighbor or stranger or whoever molested or raped them -- if under different circumstances they might have been OK.

In a chilling end to the part of the video about the father and the daughter he had molested and raped from the time she was 7 until she was 21, she visited him in what appeared to be an institution in which he was receiving counseling. The girl told her father that she would never molest her kids -- and he replied, "No, but you'll probably marry a molester." I don't think he was saying that purely to be mean (although others in the training session thought that he was) -- I think he had learned that, through his counseling, and was grimly acknowledging a statistical truth.

And two: The presentations, videos, and discussions left me with the feeling that the offenders were being regarded as monsters to lock away, not as flawed human beings who had themselves once been victims and had then gone on to make the reprehensible (but perhaps predictable, or at least statistically likely) decision to do the same thing to others. Or as flawed human beings who had not once been victims of abuse, but who maybe had other problems -- alcoholism came up in many of the stories we heard; mental-health issues -- that could be treated.

I don't really know why, and maybe I don't want to know why -- but all day long, whenever someone mentioned something called the ADAPT program, a (currently defunct but probably up and running again soon) service to help "rehabilitate" offenders, I wrote it down in my notebook and underlined it and put a star next to it. I had the insistent thought: "This is what I want to do." Or, "This is what I should do."

It's of course not because I don't care as much about the victims and want to help them -- my immediate plan is to do exactly that, probably first by signing up for a shift answering calls to the county's domestic- and sexual-violence hotline (calls are routed to your cell phone; you just have to guarantee that you can set aside a few hours during which you're definitely reachable by cell and can duck into a private place to take a call), and by getting on the rotating list of volunteers willing to accompany victims going for medical examinations (to offer emotional support, plus to make sure they have all the information and resources they need to get additional help). If my current short-term contract gig ends in mid- or late March, I might also have time to accompany victims going to court (also for emotional support, and to help them with any bureaucratic crap, paperwork, help them figure out what their next steps might be, etc.). I couldn't do this now just because of my current work schedule, which surely too closely mirrors the court's work schedule.

But I wonder if there might be more of a need to help the monsters, to try and "fix" the despicable people who several social workers said on Saturday were beyond help. I mean, it's easy to get behind helping a victim -- it's clear and unambiguous. This innocent person needs help, so I should help them. With an offender, a criminal, the kind of person who does things so morally revolting that some of my fellow session attendees had trouble looking at them while watching the videos without shaking their heads at every word the offenders said -- you're wading into murky waters, if not outright black waters. This person did a terrible thing -- should I help him?

Part of me felt like a traitor for even considering asking the volunteer coordinators about getting involved with ADAPT. I have friends who have been raped. Wonderful, close friends who are fighting hard to regain their inner strength and sense of self-respect months or years afterwards. I'm aware of what they think about the people who raped them. I can feel the sputtering rage in the words my friends type about the people who violated and humiliated them. Would these friends hate me for even thinking of trying to help rapists and abusers? I don't know. They might, and this is reason enough for me not to do it.

But here's how I see it, and maybe I'm wrong: If the maddeningly repetitive pattern of abuse is ever going to stop or even decrease a tiny bit, it will take more than locking away the broken people who are committing it. For one thing, they won't get locked up forever -- the dad who molested and raped his daughter from the time she was 7 until she was 21? He got one year in prison. 

One year. For raping his own daughter, for years

So then what? He gets out, and guess what -- he's still broken. He's still fucked-up. He still has those same issues of needing and wanting power and control over somebody -- and he could still act out, do something about those needs, fuck up somebody else's life, or a bunch of other people's lives. He marries someone else and messes with their kids. Then maybe one of them grows up and molests his kids, or molests her relatives or some of the neighborhood kids. It seems to me that the only way to stop it is to fix people. Or, to put it more realistically, to help them, help them deal with underlying issues and make good decisions (or not make astoundingly bad ones).

Here is why I don't believe that everyone who abuses another person is inherently bad and beyond redemption:

On Saturday we watched two true-story videos, one hosted by Mariska Hargitay (ostensibly because she plays a cop who investigates sex crimes on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"), and an older one hosted by a 1980s-era Oprah, who looked at the camera with a brave and level gaze while stating that she was raped when she was 9 by a 19-year-old cousin. In this video, along with the story about the dad who only got a year in prison, we watched the story of a then-15-year-old girl who was going through some sort of live-in counseling program for underage people who have sexually abused other people. 

More than just about anything I saw or heard on Saturday, it was this 15-year-old girl's story that hit me hardest, that haunted me long after I'd gone home, left the training, went out for Thai food with my boyfriend, went safely to sleep with him.

In one long, almost unbearable scene, she sits in a dark room with a bunch of other young people, all of them in chairs arranged in a circle. The room is probably so dark so she doesn't have to see the others' faces too clearly while she tells her story. At several times during her confession, other teenagers call out earnest, non-judgmental questions to her from the shadows ("What did you feel like when he did that to you?" and things like that). 

She had a short Afro and was dressed in a tomboyish manner; she had the overall demeanor of an angry tomboy, a pitbull ready to lash out if provoked. She sat tense in her chair, feet apart and her torso bent forward, hands clasped and looking down fiercely at the ground. It looked like the way you'd sit if you were just trying to emotionally survive, just trying to get by. Not relaxed, not paying attention to anyone around you. 

She talked about molesting a 7-year-old boy; I believe she was 11 at the time she did this. She had molested girls before, but this was the first time she had molested a boy. During the incident, for some reason she became angry -- and broke the boy's arm. Someone asked her why she did that. And you could sense the emotion welling up in her; her voice shook with barely contained anger and tears shot down her cheeks as she said, through tensely gritted teeth, "Because he was a boy." 

Turns out, she had been molested and raped by male relatives. A cousin had used "objects" -- a pencil, a circular deodorant container, a broom -- to rape her. The room was silent -- both the room she was in and the church room that my training was happening in -- as she cried and screamed that afterward she "was in the shower for three hours," that she "couldn't go to the bathroom," that she "walked funny," the he had "put his hands on my body when I didn't want him to do that." She had been deeply, utterly violated. This enraged her, still, years later as she was telling it. When molesting a child who happened to be a boy -- like the boys who had violated her -- she flew into a blind rage and broke the child's arm. 

This girl did something unspeakable to a little boy. He might learn how to deal with this scene in his history, might be able to put it aside and not have it rule or ruin his life, but he will never be the same. It will never have not happened to him.

She was also a victim. She is a victim. Still. She's both. 

Not all offenders are both -- but it really does seem, going by my whopping two days of being immersed in this topic, that a lot of them are. A minority, but a decent-sized minority. 

I hope it's not naive of me to think that people who do these things are not beyond help, even though that surely seemed to be the consensus among the veteran social workers who were there at the training on Saturday. 

I hope it's not some darker element in my particular psychology that draws me to wanting to help the bad guys, not some twisted fascination, some writerly interest in finding out what makes them "tick." God I hope it's not that. 

But regardless of what it is, maybe the world needs people like me who are willing to go into the darkness, where the monsters are, and try to bring them back into the light. Because you can put the monster in a cage, but he could always get out.


  1. So many thoughts.

    1. How could you help? The biggest way anyone helps is by letting someone know they matter. A lot of times people think they will only have helped someone if they help them solve their problem, but you can't do that. It takes time and internal insight to recognize and change whatever contributed to their issues. You help by being a kind, nonjudgmental part of their support network in which they can safely examine their experience, role, and plan to change. So, you matter a WHOLE LOT just by putting that post out there. I myself have felt reassured by the Pineapple post because I want to take you up on it one day. Just knowing you care enough to listen has me feeling better on darker days even if those are days where I cannot particularly reach out.

    2. Wow. I am wholly gripped by your description and analysis of the training.

    3. On helping the bad guy -- ever see Les Mis? The scene where the main dude steals the silver in the house of the man who kindly takes him in to feed and shelter him, and that man grants him further understanding, now that is amazing. Some people do bad things because they have had them done to them and have not learned to channel their intense emotions positively, but believing in them can make a huge difference. I am sure they offer training on how to help someone without enabling them because I could imagine there'd be a fine line between the two.

    3. Writing about other people's stories: I forget where I read this but one writer who described himself as a social documentarian because he concentrated on telling other people's stories said people routinely beg him to tell their story. Being heard is healing. He cannot possibly tell all the stories that need to be told, but writing about what you're seeing will bring awareness and visibility to victims, which is a huge part of empowerment. Maybe that will end up being your thing -- the natural writer in you empowering people through your writing (which you are already doing here).

    4. You're awesome. That is all.

  2. This is the second time I have visited your blog. This piece screams quite loudly to me for a few reasons. I quit my blog a long time ago because 1) I never felt as if it was being read and 2) I don't think people knew how to handle some of the things that happened in my life (and the first two rapes were the only one's I discussed). My third issue is that my thoughts tend to flood a bit so, some of this may come out wrong.

    I am glad that you went to the training. I am not surprised by your description of the events. I am not surprised by their instruction to take care of you first as well you should. I often felt this way after jury duty because many of the things that I had seen during grand jury were pretty ugly and nasty (to include child molestation cases with pictures to boot).

    The second thing that resonated was helping the abuser. There are tons of people and programs out there that help victims but very few that help offenders. It is a slippery slope. You must realize right away that the person, the individual, the offender makes the choice. You can only be there as an attempt to be a guiding light. I think many people often fear them or feel disgust. They can not get past their own visceral reaction to realize that a person is a human being.

    I did minor in psychology. I help people all the time, but only if they let me. Often helping people has gotten me into too much trouble. I am starting to veer away from it unless I am asked.

    Feel free to call pineapple to me too.