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.
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.
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.”
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.
The following is adapted from a bonus Truth & Consequences podcast episode recorded during the Covid-19 quarantine. I post it here because it addresses retraumatization and the resurfacing of past trauma and loss.
If you have a few extra minutes this week, I’d like to share a story and some thoughts with you in the hopes that you’ll find it useful. It’s a story about going to the grocery store. Something that used to be an annoyingly frequent chore, at least to me, but has now become a whole different experience for a lot of us…of course, that’s IF you’re actually still venturing out to buy food in person.
Because our world has changed.