My advanced copy of CHOSEN: A Memoir of Stolen Boyhood arrived on my front stoop on a recent Friday afternoon. By Sunday morning I had read all 318 pages. I’d also filled the back of the book with tightly-packed, handwritten notes in an effort to capture the thoughts and emotions that bubbled up as I read Stephen Mills’ poignant account of surviving sexual abuse as a young teenager.
Sometimes heroes turn out to be good people leading quiet lives who decide to face injustice for the benefit of us all. Dateline recently told the story of one such hero in a special 2-hour episode. My friend, Donna Palomba is a respected advocate who has worked to protect the public from sexual assault perpetrators since she was attacked in a 1993 home invasion by a man who turned out to be a dangerous repeat offender. He was also her husband’s formerly trusted friend. When the Waterbury police accused Donna of fabricating her assault, she fought to clear her name and change department protocols to prevent other survivors from being revictimized the same way.
Being stuck in the role of the scapegoat is a lonely experience. Your place in the group never really feels secure. You live with a constant sense of being blamed and shamed–even if you can’t point out exactly how, or why it happens. You have probably been told that your feelings are wrong so many times you‘re not sure which end is up or whether you can trust your own instincts. But still, in your gut you know things are not right.
That’s why you chose to speak up in the first place: to bring issues out in the open and hopefully address them together. Sadly, it’s also why you’ve been cast as the scapegoat by those who are hell-bent on denying difficult truths and maintaining the current power structure. As the scapegoat, you are subject to ostracism, victim-blaming, scolding, and shaming. And for some, a campaign of lies and half-truths weaken their perceived credibility both in and outside of the group. It is a painful way to live.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
I love Mary’s question at the end of this poem. It comforts me and haunts me, reminding me both to slow down and speed up. To drink in the beauty and wonder of the fields and sky, while also striving to reach my goals. This is my everyday dilemma, the push and pull of being alive, aware, and driven.
“What do you have to lose?”, her partner asked.
Maddie Morris had been thinking about contacting me for a while. She wanted to say she’d been comforted by the podcast and my writing about “the second wound”. She might even offer to be a guest on the podcast, Truth & Consequences. But Maddie hadn’t decided. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to take the risk. That is, until her partner posed this question.
When the newest issue of New York Magazine arrived in my mailbox last week, it didn’t take long for me to flip to the back page and peruse the “Approval Matrix,” their weekly ranking of timely facts and intriguing news tidbits. I usually find it a fun read, but not this time. In the quadrant, which assigned this high-profile story the status of “despicable,” was a photograph of Woody Allen holding a young Dylan Farrow and the words: “The crosscurrents of accusations from the Farrow-Allen households.”
It’s American Thanksgiving today. In the midst of the bustle of holiday prep, I have survivors on my mind; those, like me who are estranged from their families. Whatever the status of our family relationships, so many of us feel misunderstood by loved ones who minimize or deny the weight of our experiences. They just don’t get it. And maybe they never will.
“They would never do that.”
These are dangerous words when spoken in response to concerns about potential sexual abusers. And yet, I regularly hear stories about people answering this way when confronted with someone who might pose a danger to children.
Growing up in Second Wound families, I think many survivors learn to take what they can get. They are taught not to ask for much. And they don’t dare complain for fear of being shamed and blamed. It’s safe to say they are not allowed to have strong voices within their families.
Perfectionism is a familiar affliction for survivors.
So many of us strive to achieve top grades and performance reviews, to dress just right for every occasion, and master the social skills that help us appear naturally confident. All the while, we’re scared to death of letting the mask slip to reveal our secret: the shame we carry as a byproduct of sexual abuse or assault.
At its root, perfectionism is often an unconscious attempt to cover up shame.