Kevin, Charlie, Soccer Kid,
This last series of posts on this thread has been very valuable, I think, and I would like to say why here. I will try not to get up at my podium, but here goes. I apologize in advance for the ridiculous length of this post.1.
Communication isnít just information passing back and forth. It is also about perception. Kevin, that photo in your eighth-grade English class is one thing: an image on paper, something real. But how is it perceived, what does it mean? Exactly as you noted, your friend sees a child with a teddy bear. Why? Because she is a child who has her own teddy and that is important to her. The rest is just big trees. The teacher, however, sees the last of the great western redwood forests and a child in the midst of a spectacular natural experience that students in the English class will now appreciate and write about. The reality is the same, but the perceptions are different. Both are "true". Both are important.
Whatís the point? I think this entire dialogue over the ways in which the teenagers and the adults on this site see the reality of child abuse needs to be looked at in this way. It is important that teens appreciate the fact that adults have been around awhile and that life experience can provide them with valuable insights and solutions. But at the same time, adults need to appreciate that their understanding of the world has evolved over a long period of time: it didnít just spring into their heads at some point. Younger people are still on the path of sorting out what things will mean for them as adults, and the legitimacy of their journey, with all its pitfalls and fears, needs to be acknowledged and validated. Itís real, itís important, and itís different.
So yes, pain is pain, but no, what pain means to a child is not and can never be what it means to an adult. To propose that the catastrophic pain of childhood abuse is the same for the abused child as it is for an adult survivor is true only at a very abstract (and so far as I can see, not practically useful) level. This is not to argue for the greater validity of how it feels to the child over the adult abused long ago. Of course we know how it felt. Of course we recall the fear, and of course many of those emotions are still with us. Over the years we have paid a heavy price. As Healing_Inside puts it: "We are all hurting inside". No doubt about it. But what the hurt means for a child now
, and what it means for the adult survivor now
, is different. This is why the idea of the "inner child" is so important Ė for adults. It enables us to appreciate that part of us still feels the hurt and fear as we did when we were little; that part of us conflicts with the part that over the years has tried to cope (by explanation, justification, avoidance, denial, forgetting). But Charlie, does the "inner child" mean anything at all to you? My guess is absolutely not. You are 14. There is no little Charlie and an older and more mature Charlie. There is just hurt Charlie. It seems to me that adults who want to help must accept and understand this difference. I wonder if talking to a hurt child about the "inner child" may even be harmful; the child looks for his "inner child" and finds nothing there, and so feels even more empty (a word both Charlie and Kevin use) and unimportant.2.
Another thing, and sticking with Charlie: As soon as I open my mouth to say something to you, I am also asserting my right to say it and giving you a signal that you should act accordingly. "Charlie have you done your homework?" If I say that, I am at the same time claiming the right to hassle you about your studies, and if you havenít done your homework, you already know I expect you to go do it. I am asserting something (my right to make this my business) and at the same time I am waiting for you to confirm me by giving me some satisfactory answer. This pattern of assertion/confirmation is part of everything we say. I am doing it now. I am claiming a right to be heard and believed, and I am anticipating a certain response. Well, okay, I might not get it
, but that is part of the dialogue.
So again, whatís the point? Here I speak to the group as a whole. Kevin and Charlie have been hurt in what is probably the most devastating way a child can be harmed. Through whatever combination of circumstances they have landed here in a place where they are supported, empowered and validated. This is what makes them unusual.
They are in an environment where they can call upon their reserves of courage to demand a voice and act to cope with what has happened to them. As young teenagers they are thinking about the here and now and in terms of what is fair and just. This is part of their healing process. They are asserting their right to a voice and they trust the rest of us to confirm it: not to tell them yes, yes, yes, as Kevin astutely notes, but to help them in a positive and constructive way. But of course the adults will respond as adults and can do nothing else. Kevin writes:
I feel like all of a sudden were bein cornered & stared at & judged just cos of our age & Im wonderin how did that happen?
By that he means that he feels uneasy with the recent responses to his thread. They seem dismissive, disempowering and judgmental. That is of course not how they are intended, but that is how they look to a teenager. Again, things are different. There is a thin line between candor and patronization, and perhaps more so where everyone in the discussion has been deeply hurt. Here I turn to Soccer Kid and ask you to bear with me a moment. I see from your profile that you are 24. If I were to begin to comment on that as a measure of what you have to say, I think you would feel uneasy about it. As teenagers in an environment dominated by adults, Kevin and Charlie feel it more deeply and personally when their age gets brought into the picture and hovers over the discussion; itís like playing poker when you know the other guy was handed all the aces before the cards were dealt.
It is a painful business watching these guys try to rebuild their lives from the wreckage they have been handed. It isnít fair, as Charlie put it somewhere. And doing this kind of work is more complicated than any of us think. Guys, as you two go about your rebuilding we know you need support and guidance. All you have to do is ask. But that means that if you pick up a cracked brick or lay it in the wall in a way we know wonít hold, we have to tell you, right? You donít expect less from us. On the other hand, adults need to recognize that when teenagers refer to us it is an act of great courage and faith that is easily threatened by feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. Of course this applies to all of us regardless of age. But on this sort of issue I think, again, there is a very real difference between youth and adulthood.3.
I want to offer a few thoughts on why your letter is so important guys. As I said above, it is part of your healing process, and you are using it as a concrete way to figure out and express your own emotions and reactions. The fact that you are working with a feeling of responsibility for others of your own age is a huge factor; it is helping you to develop a real and viable sense of perspective. Not one that just vents your frustration and anger, but one that can actually help others.
But there is more. A child does not have a choice unless he knows he has a choice, and choices are all about knowledge and awareness. In my own case I was taken entirely by surprise by my abuser. I was numb with fear and horror and I went into a kind of emotional paralysis. I had never heard of anything like this and I had no idea what was happening until it was too late. It genuinely did not occur to me to say no; I was the easiest mark in the world. By writing your letter, guys, you make an enormous contribution to empowering other boys of your age. I have not seen your letter yet, but I have heard it is very powerful. I can just imagine! Never mind that there is a need for such a thing at a younger age. By providing other boys with your personal insights you make them think about dangers that are real and immediate. Many of them will never have to face these perils, but in too many cases that fateful moment will arise and the question will be: Does this boy have a choice? Has he had a chance in the split-second of opportunity to think about what is happening? Does he know that the scary touching is absolutely wrong and he is being tricked and lied to? Does he recognize this as the game of a weak sick coward? As one of you said, you will never know how this works out in any particular case in the future. But abuse is unfortunately such a problem that it seems absurd (to me anyway) to imagine that unless there is major media attention your effort will have been in vain. There will be boys who will remember what they heard and call up their last reserves of courage and say no. There will be boys who have been hurt and now know that they can tell someone and get help. There will be abusers who go to jail. (What a delicious thought. Criminals in jail just love
to see perps brought in.
That you two boys are doing this is absolutely crucial. Many of the adults here will remember the ridiculous talks we got in school about alcohol. In my school we all looked forward to these talks. Why? Not because the speakers had anything to say to us. We knew it was all going to be grownup bullshit and we were switched off and joking even as we were herded through the door. BUT. Eventually the speaker would get out the jar of grain alcohol and drop the worm into it and invite us to watch the worm go nuts. We all thought that was so cool. The speaker was blathering on and on, but all of us evil boys were gloating over that worm. That is the only thing any of us ever took away from those talks.
That was a long time ago, and I do know things have changed. But on the issue of child abuse of boys, which most boys still donít know about or think canít happen to them, it just has to be a great idea to let two teen survivors lay it on the line. It isnít professional expertise that makes me think this. It just strikes me as common sense.4.
Last and very briefly: Kevin Iím sorry you were hurt again and I can understand that you donít want to talk about it. But since I have just spoken about the importance of knowledge and choice there is one last point I wish to stress. Being aware and knowing he has a choice may empower a boy, but it doesnít make him responsible. Not ever. As so many have said, abuse is about power. Itís about exploitation of a huge imbalance of power by inducement or deception or threat. There is no way that a 16-year-old boy can be seen as standing on equal terms to a predatory adult. It wasnít your fault. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
Sorry for the length of this post. If the moderators wish to condense it thatís fine by me.