CW: keeping secrets about child abuse, descriptions of child abuse, discussions of death and systemic abuse, swearing, and standard “never go to the 9th Circle of Hell” trauma.
I’ve said before that I’m open to being challenged on even very sensitive topics on this blog, as long as basic trust and safety is maintained. One blogger I really respect, Mishka of Crafts, Chronic Illness and Adulting, challenged me with her comments on my last blog post exactly because she never doubted me when I said that, in the 9th Circle of Hell, a profoundly disabled minor child in the foster system would probably have died without a protector. If that same disabled adult nearly died from systemic abuse as an adult even with multiple guardians attempting to protect him, what hope would the same child split up from his sibling have had?
And, since that is true, what choice really did any “family” member have but to stay silent about my own abuse – the same way I did – to protect him? I was struggling with that question in the post itself, and, knowing more now about Mishka’s history, I can see why she was struggling. The stereotype of the “abused child” is that they become the abuser. But, really, that is quite rare. The vast majority of us only abuse ourselves. And, well, was that adult who warped my reality by not only staying silent really not also destroying herself? How do you “choose” between one child’s possible death and the warping of another child’s soul, sense of self and continuity of memory through denying what is true until they have to fragment their reality into a dissociative disorder to survive it without tearing off pieces of your already tattered soul too?
I struggled with that question when I wrote the post. I struggled again when I thought how to answer Mishka. I – who has written on her own Glossary of Terms that ADHD’s one upside is that it enables me to think so far outside the box that I “don’t know where the box is” – couldn’t think outside of “pick one abusive situation or another.”
Trauma keeps us in a box of our abusers’ making. We are ever so good at convincing ourselves that we are both all-powerful and powerless at the same time. We are so powerful that somehow if we’d just said the right thing, done the right thing, recognized the tells, and played the game, we could have prevented what happened to us. We are so expert at controlling others that if we fail to keep them from abusing us, we believe at heart that we are to blame. Yet, we are simultaneously so powerless that when an abusive system sets up two abusive choices, we are too powerless within our abusers’ reality to ever question the foundations upon which it was built.
My Partner, who has no ACES, has no such coercively imposed limitations, and no such moral doubt as to whether my “family” member should ever be excused. My Partner called my life the ‘Murican Red State version of the good-old philosophical “Trolley Problem.” If an out-of-control trolley is going to run over five people if it stays on the track it is on, but you could flip a switch and have it only run over one person, would you? Most people would say yes, but the vast majority of people never even consider any of the other options. Most people never think outside the box to realize that staying within two fundamentally abusive choices is victimizing to the switch-thrower as much as it is to the six people on the tracks and that perhaps the only solution is to break the rules themselves. A person could throw themselves in front of the trolley. They could daringly leap aboard the train and try to speed it up to the point where it derailed when it hit the track switch at a dizzying rate of speed. (I live in the Northeast. More than one Amtrak train has derailed by taking a track change at too high a speed. It could work!)
People tend to just accept the parameters as given without question, and that turns them into monsters no matter what choice they make. My Partner and I both independently determined long before we met that we’d attempt derailment, or if that was impossible, we’d at least throw ourselves onto the track rather than make ourselves into murderers. Hell, rather than let corporate assholes who designed a slipshod safety system, paid undertrained workers minimum wage to man overly long shifts while sick make us into murderers. I determined my solution to the Trolley Problem pretty darn young because the public school system of the 9th Circle of Hell is bizarre. On the one hand, Creationism was taught in school alongside evolution and sex ed was always optional and usually contentious. On the other hand, somehow we were handed the great philosophical problems of the twentieth century as random time-fillers in elementary school and allowed to share our answers publicly without any real guidance or sensitivity by the teacher. (This once led to a Lord of the Flies-like situation wherein the class sat around and determined who they would eat first if they were stranded on a desert island while I frantically wrote out a ten-point plan about how I’d run away and harvest water from cactus flowers to survive to dissociate from listening to where I ranked on the list. It also led to me determining I’d throw myself under the trolley and refusing to change my answer even when patronizingly told by the teacher that that option wasn’t “allowed.”)
My Partner’s answer to the “Trolley Persecutor” of my childhood was that he’d buy a shotgun, find the abuser, rough them up, point out he is only not sending that person to jail because foster care would be a likely death sentence for both me and my sibling, and that if either sibling was ever hurt from that moment forward, the next time it would go much, much worse for the abuser. As he put it, “If I already have the evidence they’ve abused a kid and threatened to kill that child if she ever spoke of the abuse, I’m pretty sure I could beat them up and they’d never dare call the cops because they’d fear the harm coming to them from my revealing their crimes enough that I’d gain leverage to stop them.” Plus, he assumed that – being my hypothetical family member – that he’d have had enough of a sense of child Lavender’s personality to realize I would be desperately seeking a solution to the impossible situation I was in and would gladly have acted as his ally in threatening that abuser – and probably in disposing of the body if it came to it – if I could only ever become truly able to believe that any adult could be trusted.
His solution – vigilante justice – might very well have worked. Because, well, I was physically threatened with death as a form of control by the abuser if I ever spoke out. I eventually decided that I didn’t believe the abuser would dare go that far, as then they’d suffer actual personal consequences. I also decided that, while I wasn’t 100% certain of my deduction, that I was willing to die if I gambled wrong. As a child, I stared them down and dared them to make good on the threat. If I died, at least I’d have the satisfaction of knowing my death took them down with me. We went through multiple permutations of the death threats: knife waving, driving cars down the wrong way of a busy street (because what would an abuser care about the lives of people in the other cars, either?) But, needless to say, the abuser never killed me, and I eventually learned that they really wouldn’t go quite that far. They would do anything they could as long as they could hide it. Eventually, they discovered that threats of institutionalizing me were the only effective way to silence me with – they believed – no possible harm coming to them. That threat worked where holding a knife to me and playing chicken with traffic never did. That was the threat I could never, as a child myself, counter. But, with even one other adult saying “I know what you are and I’m watching you?” could that threat, too, have been neutralized?
We’ll never know. But, I think my Partner’s solution of “don’t throw either child in front of the trolley to save the other, find a way to throw the abuser through any means necessary, including violence” is possibly the truly moral solution. Choosing to gaslight me instead of giving me even the comfort in Hell of knowing that my experiences were real is an unforgivable crime. Twisting my reality and making me doubt my own memories to the point it contributed to chronic dissociation is an unforgivable crime. That, to me, is abuse in and of itself. Period.
Knowing about abuse and not taking action – especially action outside the “box” – is understandable but unforgivable. It’s that simple…
And also that complex. The example from my story and the majority of the ones I have read on other blogs have all been examples of the evidence of abuse being actively known and “family” members – sometimes even entire towns – actively choosing to close their eyes. They are examples of willful self-delusion.
But what about a story from a different family? You see, my Partner didn’t just say he’d go rogue to protect me in the situation I grew up in. At this point, after all his experiences in the 9th Circle of Hell – and exposure to stats on the staggeringly high rates of abuse in foster care and mental health facilities in addition to group homes and in most states – he doesn’t view protective services as very “protective” anymore either. He’d hesitate to leave any child to the mercy of the “system.” He also specified that he’d do whatever it took for any of his young cousins who are growing up among the Evangelical, hyper-religious arseholes that make up his extended family. I’d join him.
But, how would we ever know if such abuse was happening? You see, those hyper-religious assholes started making white supremacist horseshit comments after Trump normalized them, and that was the final straw for my Partner’s immediate family. He and his parents ceased even the polite once-a-year-on-Thanksgiving type family togetherness. We haven’t spoken to them in almost a year, and probably won’t so long as Trump remains President. We might never speak to them again, period. His parents may be Republicans, and thus difficult to talk to and triggering at times, but they do have lines of decency. They broke the cycle of abuse within their extended families to gift my Partner an ACE-free upbringing.
Those hyper-religious white supremacist nationalist assholes? They have adult children who told #Metoo stories that broke my Partner’s and my hearts last Thanksgiving. Those adult children now have young children. Will those adult children who were traumatized themselves – but refuse to acknowledge it and buy into terrifying dogma – spare the rod with their young children?
The statistics say that the majority of abused children do not go on to become abusers themselves. I will fight any health practitioner who is following the latest craze of having pregnant mothers and new moms – or even just women of childbearing age at their annual gyno exam – fill out an ACES questionnaire and mandating any mother who scores four or more take humiliating remedial parenting classes because they are assumed to be abusers in waiting. (Well, actually, I’ll first lie on that screener like I do on most others and say I have zero ACES like I did this last exam – a story for another blog – and then I’ll smite them with the power of a thousand research articles.) Nobody will ever be allowed to define my reality again. Not a “family member,” not a doctor, and not the richest and most powerful Jackass-o-lantern alive. The stats themselves – and Mishka and my Partner’s parents and a dozen other bloggers I can think of off the top of my head – make a mockery of that discriminatory belief. If/when I ever have a child, I’ll make a further mockery of it.
We can’t know whether those children raised among racist arseholes will also be traumatized, but there are certainly enough risk factors to fear it. Those adult children could find a kinder, gentler form of religion like many survivors of religious abuse and raise their children with religion, but a Progressive one that heals. They could be like one Evangelical family I know of that manages to simultaneously maintain horribly bigoted beliefs yet shove them into a mental box each holiday to welcome their LGBT son and his Partner. The cognitive dissonance to be able to do that astounds me, but they seem to manage. Hell, they could remain racist arseholes who raise racist arsehole children who happily tell everyone around them how they are going to Hell – but just not abuse their own children as they teach them to abuse others. We can’t predict the future.
Still, there’s enough doubt in my Partner’s mind as to whether his extended family will ever “break the cycle” like his own parents did that he specifically noted he’d go to bat for any young cousin who didn’t buy into the bullshit and was traumatized for it.
How would we know if they were traumatized, though, if we’re not speaking to that side of his family? How would we know when they were such awful people we chose to not be around them because we simply couldn’t take it? Knowing about abuse and not acting is horrible, but is removing ourselves from any contact with those hyper-religious assholes such that we aren’t even there to know or to be a safe person excusable? Do we also have the moral responsibility to talk to those assholes just often enough that their children have a safe place to go if they ever need one?
And, since we can’t know how they will choose to raise their children, if we do stay around and engage with white supremacist shitheads “just to be there as a safe alternative” and keep watch over their children, aren’t we implicitly condoning their current racist bullshit? Isn’t it also a moral imperative to call out the horrible people whose horrible beliefs actually got Trump into office in the first place? Shouldn’t we shun bad people who say and do bad things? But if “good” people shun “bad” people for being “bad”, then who is left to speak up for any innocents they are “bad” too?
I have no idea. Nothing is ever easy. Two people can’t bring down an entire set of abusive church beliefs any more than they can bring down the 9th Circle of Hell’s social services. So, our choices probably are to hold our nose and engage or not. Either way, we’ll probably be philosophically and/or morally compromised on at least one axis.
But, even if alone we can’t always see a way to break out of the seemingly impossible Trolley Perpetrator problem that is the U.S. today, let’s never forget that ultimately child abuse is wrong, religious abuse is wrong, and further systemic abuse of those already traumatized is also wrong. If we fixed the latter, then the former two wouldn’t represent impossible moral conundrums. We could just call for “help.”
My new answer to the Trolley Problem is that if we’ve gotten to the point wherein a trolley is careening out of control, we’ve already failed as a society. The only true answer was to fix the broken regulatory system that kept that trolley on the tracks, the tax loopholes that allowed the corporate fat cat to squeeze extra profits from shady business practices and the class warfare that destroyed unions and pitted low-wage workers against each other to fight to simply not be one of the trolley victims even as the trolley car owner himself reaps 4000% profits even accounting for token “bereavement” payouts to the 1 and/or 5 families. The only moral solution is to fix the broken system as a collective, or else we’ll all be left in isolation still taking on the moral stain of the choices imposed upon us by the worst among us.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.