I’ve been seeing a lot of posts talking about both the recent spate of sexual harassment/abuse allegations against Hollywood/political officials and how difficult the holidays can be for people with mental health challenges.
I feel a little guilty that I’m fortunate enough to be able to opt out of half of the holiday problem. From the time I first moved out on my own, I have adopted my own way of dealing with the disconnect and pain of the holidays: I leave the country. It turns out if you are diligent, buy your ticket in September, are willing to go to literally wherever in the world is the cheapest when you put in to “anywhere” on the ticket site, are willing to travel to countries that don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas as a national holiday and are just generally privileged, you can hide from American Christmas. On the one hand, I kept that up even on a grad student stipend while readily admitting that others might have said there were better uses for my money – but I never found them and probably needed travel to keep my sanity during my improperly medicated grad school years. On the one hand, my ability to just leave the country, even in the cheapest most Airbnb-before-it-got-cool way, is still deeply privileged. I get that, and I feel a little guilty suggesting that as a solution since it truly isn’t viable for so many others. Thus, I sometimes feel a little guilty when others talk about all the triggers inherent in the holidays. I am triggered by them too – but I opt out in ways others can’t.
On the other hand, I can only opt out of half of the holidays, and the other half often makes up for what I miss on Christmas.
My partner only goes home once a year, and that once-a-year is Thanksgiving. I’m his significant other, so that means I go with him. Thanksgiving reminds me why it is worth it to me to opt out of Christmas as a person whose past holidays weren’t joyful. The reason my partner only goes home once per year is that, while he loves his family as family and he does have stable childhood memories, he no longer agrees with them on anything as an adult. They are strong Trump supporters, and he’s as progressive as they come. They ascribe to the American Evangelical Protestant myth that you can still pull yourself up by up by your bootstraps in this country, even as he has worked out from his own work and life experiences that America doesn’t often work that way anymore. He got hit in the face with what horrible things are permitted to be done to the disabled who can’t speak for themselves when he came with me in August to deal with another crisis, yet his family supports tax plans and health care bills, designed to punish mythical “welfare queens” and “drains on society,” that only end up enabling the shit I have dealt with my entire life.
Everything his family says about politics is triggering to me, and I am grateful that I have learned to be highly dissociated yet appear normal in public. I spent the entire four days in a state of emotional numb. (Fortunately, my partner gets that and helps with that – and he engages in the political debates with them that I wish I could but am too far away to really try for.) His family is highly triggering, but weirdly they never say anything directly about me. Weirdly, they like me, even though all logic should say that my own connection to one of those so-called “drains on society” should render me persona non-grata.
In a bizarre example of behavioral economics, my partner’s parents know enough of my story – about becoming a caregiver at a young age, about the earthquake of abuse that happened to the care-ee (though not about the aftershocks of additional trauma that rippled through the rest of my family) – and genuinely seem to feel bad that that happened to me without having the slightest clue that the things they say would be offensive to me. They genuinely do not seem to get how the policies they advocate enable those abusive situations, and, as a result, being around them is a pretty much constant trigger for four days even though I know they like me. If they did know I was triggered, they would probably continue to mock the word “trigger” even as they tried to make me feel better. They are the type that believe writing about being triggered on a blog is just being a special snowflake. My partner and I can neither breakthrough the depth of their bizarre rationalizations to make them understand why they are hurtful, nor can I make them just accept that I belong among the cast offs (as my broken PTSD brain often wants me to do because it feels more natural than being an exception.)
They really like me, even though I don’t get why, and they keep wanting my partner and I to come for Thanksgiving each year. They want us to come even though they know full well my partner will get into at least one three-hour argument with them over politics and that we’ll both sit there awkwardly during family prayers. They also genuinely seem to be pleased that my Partner and I have each other, and they have told me that directly. I make my Partner happy, and they’re glad that we have each other and align in our views, even as they think we’re entirely wrong in them.
I have never understood their ability to rationalize these mutually impossible contradictions, but maybe I started to understand a bit more this Thanksgiving. I think I might be absorbing a bit of their Southern lingo, because one of our Thanksgiving conversations both made me want to cry on their behalf and to say, “bless their hearts” with their Southern meaning at the same time.
Their version of #metoo – and it was #metoo, even though they vehemently denied it as the point of the entire conversation – gave me a weird, raw insight into the minds of Trumpeteers that seems crucially important to making the world a better place and ultimately stopping what is happening to our country. Warning, my summary of their discussion describes sexual harassment and abuse, even though they spent the entire conversation denying it was such. Read ahead only if you feel comfortable. I do not view it as a special snowflake thing to approach such material only when my readers feel up to it, even if they would.
The topic of Al Franken came up when three full generation of women – his grandmother, his mother and his sister-in-law – were in the room with us. If it isn’t obvious by now, my partner and I both believe Al Franken needs to resign. We are not the types of Progressives who look for reasons why it “wasn’t so bad” just because he’s on our side of the political aisle. My partner’s family hate Al Franken as a Democrat, but they feel bad for him for the accusations. They don’t believe the kinds of things he – or frankly, a lot of the men recently in the news – did count as true sexual misconduct. They seem to adhere to what I think of as the “legitimate rape” definition of trauma: it ain’t sexual misconduct unless a stranger penetrated you in an attack on the street.
Why do they feel that way? Well, because apparently #metoo stories are a dime a dozen in their family. I watched my partner seethe as his family talked about special snowflakes and how what they describe isn’t really harassment – but then get the wind knocked out of him when all three generations started relaying how it happens to “everyone” and is no big deal. They started rattling off their own #metoo stories – all three generations – in such rapid-fire succession that it left even the two of us who thought we knew the statistics shocked into silence. My partner at one point in the conversation sent me a text that read, “I don’t know if I should say something about what’s going on because if I do I will start shouting, and if they don’t see that what has happened to them is wrong just from saying it out loud, what more would shouting do?”
They shared a litany of #metoo stories: bosses over the clerical pool who demanded physical affection and tight skirts to keep a job, bar heads who demanded to sleep with every female bartender as his due even though he was married, resorting to physically fighting back against dates to maintain the woman’s “virtue,” etc.. Even my partner’s dad chimed in with a harassment story about a female coworker – who grabbed ass and asked, “if all the men can, why can’t I?” – proving that #metoo happens to men, too.
Every single speaker denied they had experienced sexual misconduct. They primarily denied it because a) they managed to avoid having to sleep with any of those men and b) they found a way out of it. If they could, any woman could? Their ways ranged from the common “had to find another job” to the more extreme (e.g. groin hits when a bartender cornered them in a back room.) They seemed to believe that because they had kept job hoping – without falling into financial ruin – to get away from these predators and/or that they had fought back and won, that any woman could do so. They seemed to think that any woman living paycheck to paycheck who did ultimately fall prey to the same horrible situations they avoided had “asked for it.” They seemed not to comprehend the level of desperation that could ever make a low-wage woman feel compelled to give in to keep food on the table for her family. They seemed not to realize that there are three responses to assault – fight, flight, or freeze – not two. They seemed not to understand how some women might dissociate – as I was doing at that very minute – and legitimately not be able to fight back with physical means of protecting themselves.
They seemed not to get that they were blaming other women for the repeated harassment and abuse they had experienced across three generations, yet letting the true perpetrators get off scot free. I used to wonder how women could hear the “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape and still claim that Trump didn’t really do it, or rationalize that his other policies meant they should vote for him anyway. Now I realize – they know he did it. They are under no delusions about his culpability. They just think that all men do it, and they have been so indoctrinated to believe that is normal male behavior from their own life experiences that they don’t see what all the fuss is about. My partner’s female cousins married men who are as deeply religious as they are – and as on board with the harassment. It makes me sick to think of what their lives must be like when everyone has left their house and the lights are off. It makes me deeply, deeply proud to have a partner who knows better and was shaking with rage on behalf of his family members. I have never felt so lucky to have my partner.
Where do we go from that conversation, though? How do we respond? How will we ever convince them to protect others when we can’t even convince them to protect themselves? A lot of shit happened in my life that I carried guilt for – that I sometimes still carry guilt for – but I also blame the perpetrators. The bully-in-my-brain still tells me if I’d only done such and such, maybe I would have been able to change what happened. It still chastises me for not being as able to fight back as I believe I should have been to help someone else – or tells me that maybe some of the things that I experienced I deserved and shouldn’t have fought back against. I’ve felt guilty that I couldn’t protect others in my family from abuse. I’ve rationalized that I never experienced abuse myself because someone else faced much worse. I’m not perfect, but I don’t believe those things all the time.
I did believe it unquestionably when I was younger and lacked the context to understand how what happened could ultimately be laid at the feet of institutional discrimination and abuse, not at my own feet. The nature of rejection sensitivity, the ADHD/trauma nervous system and traumatic experiences before a child’s own attachment has fully formed is such that I probably will always viscerally half-believe my own culpability, but as soon as there was an intellectual explanation for it, I latched onto it. I don’t intellectually believe I deserved my experiences, even if I still somatically do. What do I do when I meet someone who doesn’t take refuge in the intellectual explanations the way I do? What do I say to someone who has heard all the research explanations in the world and still thinks they are responsible for the abusive actions of others? What do my partner and I say to family members who will never be convinced by studies of the prevalence – and lifetime impact – of ACES or the neurobiology of trauma? What do we say to absolve culpability for #metoo stories for family members who reject science in favor of the wrath of a vengeful God?
What do we say to convince the religious wronged that they have been wronged?
I don’t know, but it seems important to figure out. The #metoo movement seems predicated on the idea that those who have not experienced abuse or harassment – men, and the rare women who are very, very lucky – will be convinced to act when they realize just how common it is in our society. The opposite seems to have happened for the women in my partner’s family. They already knew how common harassment is – they’ve been living it for three generations – but since they kept their heads down and moved along, they see those who call attention to it as drama queens. They learned to live with it, so why can’t others? The #metoo movement drove them further into their beliefs, not away from them. All attempts to convince them that they have valid #metoo stories and would be welcomed into the community make them feel like they have betrayed their faith and their Southern culture, and I have no idea what to do about it.
I don’t understand it, anymore than I understand how they can talk about “drains on society” in the presence of someone who lived the ramifications of viewing the disabled through that lens. I intellectually understand that it’s another example of that human ability to hold contradictory opinions and never examine the inherent inconsistencies, but that’s all I understand. Does anyone out there understand more?
I’m genuinely asking here, or next year we might be fleeing the country for two holidays instead of just one…