Sunday, July 23, 2006

Psycho World

Last week I watched a show on Discovery called "Most Evil". It was basically about psychopaths, specifically serial killers. After watching the show, I am still convinced my dad is a psycho. One of the primary reasons I resisted facing the truth about my family was that I wanted to avoid this realization. My dad does not empathize with me; I am not important to him unless I am doing something for him, he did not consider my brother's feelings to be even relevant to him, and he derives satisfaction from other people's suffering. He is a liar, a manipulator- trying to destroy people who trust him without any sense of responsibility. This is my dad.

It is uncomfortable, to say the least, to be the offspring of such a person. I feel a lot of sympathy for the families of some of the serial killers in the show, especially their children. I know from experience that my dad is capable of inexplicable evil, and while I do not actually think he is as evil as a serial killer is, in the "right" circumstances I would not put anything past him. He does not have a conscience that prevents him from hurting people, and he shares a very disturbing trait with serial killers- when he sees that someone is suffering because of him, he is gratified and further motivated. Normal people, of course, will feel things like remorse and pity, and if someone, say, begs them to stop, they will usually feel bad and stop. It is hard for me to believe that people are capable of torture, because I have feelings and reactions that would prevent me from doing something like that, as most people do. My dad does not have these kinds of behavior controls. Even though I experienced, again and again, the deep satisfaction my dad felt when controlling and hurting me, actually torturing me, it is still hard to fathom that he did not feel any sympathy or remorse for his own daughter's suffering. I am only human, after all.

It is a violation. Society has certain assumptions about human behavior- people will feel guilty and avoid purposefully hurting other people, parents will feel a sense of responsibility and care for their children, adults will not do sexual things with children, people will not force sex on other people, etc. Of course, these things happen all the time, but that does not make it any easier to understand or accept. I used to worry that I would turn out like my dad, which would make a lot of sense if you think psychos are made, not born. I was afraid to be angry because of the way my dad took out his anger on me. I was afraid I would hurt other people, and not be able to control myself. I feel now that anger is not a problem. The problems are with the way anger is directed. If you address the cause of the anger, and deal with it, that is healthy. My dad never faced his feelings about his dad abusing him, or his mom not taking care of him. He takes it out on other people, and does not feel responsible for what he does to other people. He thinks he is justified because of what was done to him.

If I responded in the same way as my dad, I would be a very twisted person. I am not like that. I have feelings for other people; I do not like hurting others; I feel responsible for my actions. My experiences have emotionally damaged me, though. I struggle to trust people. It is reflexive for me to be suspicious of other people. I do not think about it; it is an emotional reaction. It is not good. It is irrational, and I have learned that if you do not trust other people they will not trust you. I certainly do not want to be a sketchy and evasive person. I am trying to deal with my distrustfulness by being open and honest. My dad deals with it by trying to control everyone around him.

Even though I still struggle with what I have experienced, and my dad and I share genetics and had similar childhoods of violence and abuse, I am in a completely different place than him. He is emotionally stunted and unable to be close to other people. It is as if there are 2 different worlds. There is the one that we acknowledge and expect, in which people have sympathy for each other, follow certain rules of behavior, do not violate other people rights to determine their own destiny, and feel a sense of responsibility for others. In that world, close relationships are possible. Trust is possible. Love is possible. Denial is also very possible. It is hard to feel comfortable and safe in this world with a full awareness that there are people living among us who are not trustworthy, not responsible. One person’s evil actions can pitch us out of this world. It is hard to hold on to that sense that most people are decent human beings. When someone is not a good person, a lot of well-meaning people will refuse to see this truth. It can do a lot of damage to our expectations of people.

Then there is that other world, the world a lot of people try not to see. It is the dog eat dog world. Children are often times ushered in by adults who do not see children as exempt from the harshest sides of life; rather, children are unsophisticated and easy victims. These people see only 2 possibilities- dominated and victimize, or be a victim. Their view is that their victims are weak, and they are strong. It is the victim's fault that they are not strong like they are. This world obliterates compassion.

If you were raised this way, you may have a deep-seeded resentment towards the people who were not exposed to this level of suffering, and shame, thinking you somehow deserved this while others do not. This is made even worse when others, trying to protect their own contentment, turn a blind eye to your painful situation. They just refuse to believe that an adult could violate the rules of compassion towards children. It is simply hard to believe what some people are capable of, and it is easier to blame the victim than to see evil for what it is. Psychos are not outwardly revolting. It is a misconception that we cling to, to protect ourselves, that evil is so different, so other, that we have nothing to do with it. We think that bad people do not inhabit our world, and if they do, we can distance ourselves from them. Psychos are actually very charming. They have to be to be effective. Not even my mom thinks my dad is a bad person. My dad is a very, very bad person, and completely arrogant about it besides. My mom has seen more evidence of that than anyone has, but she still does not believe it.

Of course, the first world of people trusting and loving each other is so vastly superior to the ruthless, selfish world, both for others and for us. Some people choose the second, though, either because they do not believe the first exists and cannot take that leap of faith, they cannot comprehend that world and those kinds of feelings, or they prefer the sense of power they feel dominating others rather than being on equal footing. I do not know where my dad is with that (probably the later), but I know he is deep inside that dark world. I also know I do not want to be there. I want to be as far from there as possible.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The only thing different is the way I feel about you

I have more things to say about the movies I reviewed in my last post- The Celebration and The Constant Gardener. My posts tend to be a little on the long side, so I stopped writing after a couple pages. Thanks for reading these! Tonight I went to a Survivors of Suicide (SOS) meeting, and I am thinking about the strange, not often talked about relationship one negotiates with someone who has died. Having a relationship with the dead? Does that sound crazy? Actually, you do continue to have a relationship with someone you are close to after they die. How does that work, exactly?

It is common to hear about people going to the cemetery to talk to someone's grave, or writing letters they cannot send. For someone lucky enough to have never lost a loved one, or even some people who have, it may seem like this type of behavior is at best an imaginative form of therapy, or at worst a form of denial, an unhealthy inability to move on with your life. There seems to be an expectation that healthy people will get over it and move on from the death of someone they are close to.

I cannot speak for everyone, especially since grief counseling always emphasizes the fact that people have to deal with death in their own way and in their own time, but regardless, I can still say with confidence that it is wrong to expect someone to get over it. When someone is an important part of your life, means something to you, when you have feelings about them, a connection (even if you are angry at them or have mixed feelings about them), their death creates a void in your life. They may be dead, but you are still alive. You continue to feel things, think about them, and have memories of them. The dead are "no longer with us" in the living, breathing kind of way, but yet everything we shared with them is still with us, and the connection to them remains.

This connection is very frustrating. The dead are notoriously unresponsive. One can cry and scream and beg, and still the dream in which they are talking back to you, explaining why it happened, apologizing for ditching out on you, and reassuring you that they are in a better place, never comes. You ask for a sign; you get nothing, or if you do, it is confusing, cryptic, and just not enough. You took for granted the sound of their voice, the things they said, just being around them, and suddenly, you will never experience those things again. Your whole life changes in an instant. It will never be what it was. Not only is the person gone, but the life you had when they were alive is gone as well.

Then you have to deal with it. Your own life now seems unfamiliar to you. You cannot think about the world in the same way anymore.

In The Celebration, Christian deals with his sister's suicide by standing up to their father. He probably would not have confronted him if his sister had not taken her life, but exposing how his father abused both of them puts something right in his life. I can relate to that. My brother defied our dad when he killed himself, with my dad's gun. He stood up to him. I wish he would have done it in a different way, but he did do it. When I stood up to my dad, it put something right in my life and in my relationship with Jeff. It aligned us. When Jeff died, it ruptured my connection to him. He was such an important part of my life that it ruptured my connection with me as well. I felt groundless, without purpose, lost.

My life was like a big house, with lots of rooms and lots of stuff. It was comfortable and safe; I covered the windows and avoided thinking about what was outside. I hid in that house, with its comforting distractions, until a phone call came early one morning. Then the house burned to the ground. All I had left was ashes- even the land the house was on burned away to nothing, so that all I could see around me was destroyed. I felt hollow, empty, dead inside. Numb. My life felt meaningless. I did not know who I was anymore.

Eventually I had to find myself so that I did not continue to sleepwalk through my life. That meant letting my suppressed memories back into my consciousness. These memories helped me piece my life together, and my memories of Jeff, rather than explaining his death, explained the childhood that we shared. I saw that for me to make it right, I had to confront the truth about our family. There were little signs, glimpses along the way, but by in large, what transformed my life was the connection I still felt to Jeff, entirely based on the love and respect I feel for him and my memories of him when he was alive. He is physically gone, but he is still with me.

The Constant Gardener has a haunting way of showing how someone's memories can shape their present reality. Justin is driven to find the truth about his wife's murder, but not by his reason or intellect. He does not say to himself, "gee, what happened to Tessa was wrong. I should do something about that." His memories of her give him clues about what she was doing that got her on a hit list, but his memories are not specifically for informational purposes. They are emotional experiences that push him forward, motivating him. His subconscious takes over. What is hidden needs only a small opening to come rushing out.

What I am trying to say is that death dislodges memories and feelings that are stored or stuffed into our subconscious. The person who died leaves a void, the size of their importance in our life, and our feelings and memories flow into that space. Things that were far away in our mind force their way into the forefront. They may be only tangentially related to the person, but suddenly they are very difficult to avoid. This person, this dead person, is influencing your life in ways you never imagined. You do not move on from that. You evolve.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

movie reviews (not as much of a departure as it sounds)

Okay, these movie reviews do relate to my normal blog topics. I am writing about The Celebration and The Constant Gardener. First, though, ex-pat Teacher Dude was nice enough to write about me in his blog

A while back I watched my boyfriend's favorite movie, The Celebration. Rather than launching into the plot of this movie, I should start with a description of its philosophy. The Celebration was the first movie made by a group of Danish directors who call themselves Dogme 95. Dogme 95 directors sign a "Vow of Chastity", 10 rules of moviemaking that include using only hand-held video cameras, and no props, sets, special lighting, or added sound. The group is opposed to "illusions, and dramaturgical predictability."

I thought the subject of this movie, a man confronting his abusive father at a family reunion, lent itself amazingly well to this film style. Few movies I can think of, especially from Hollywood, are able to present abuse in a way do that does not romanticize, stylize, excessively dramatize, or otherwise sugarcoat the true horror of victimization. I think most films make it too pretty, too transparent, too simplistic, and nowhere near being real. When something has happened to you, you will not see the experience as a dramatic device or a fictional piece of entertainment. I will never forget seeing the video for Aerosmith's "Janie's got a gun", a song that seems to see itself as giving voice to a teenage girl raped by her father. The video actually makes the rape look sexy. Imagine my disgust at seeing this my first day at a foster home.

My boyfriend was initially wary of showing me The Celebration because there are so many commonalities between the film and my life. Christian and his twin sister suffered sexual abuse, and his sister committed suicide. Unlike me, Christian also had another sister and brother who are both at the reunion. The film portrays the family's reaction to Christian's revelations, as well as Christian's need to tell the truth about what happened in his immediate family, both for himself and for his dead sister.

This movie would have upset me if the characters and their reactions and behavior felt inauthentic. However, I was amazed at how much the film rang true to me. It felt so real that I learned about my own abusive family from dynamics of Christian's family. When the younger sister found her sister's suicide note, instead of dramatic music rising to signify her discover, followed by an immediate dramatic revelation of the note, she quietly hid it in her luggage. When Christian accused their father of causing his sister's suicide, his other sister derided him instead of showing the family her suicide note. Their mother, instead of responding with shock or anger, calmly belittled her adult children as failures.

The mother's reaction really struck me. Her main motivation was to maintain the power dynamic in the family, in which the father was an unquestioned dictatorial ruler, and the children, even as adults, were powerless and denied any voice in the family. The extended family, while initially shocked, fought to avoid the awful truth, clinging to the status quo.

A review of The Celebration I read called the adult children "vengeful". I cannot challenge this attitude strongly enough. It is not vengeful to hold abusers responsible for their actions. There is no satisfying revenge on someone who destroyed your childhood. Telling the truth is not revenge; it is the responsible thing to do for yourself and for everyone around you. Abuse is not just some event in your life best forgotten about; it changes you. It affects your self-concept, confidence, and ability to be effective in your life and have satisfying relationships. I now believe, after years of trying to avoid it, that there are usually only 3 options for people traumatized by abuse- 1. Lead a life diminished by shame, confusion, and feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and misplaced guilt, 2. Commit suicide or otherwise escape into drugs, alcohol, or other addictions, 3. Talk about it, and find the support that you need (which will find you if you put yourself out there).

This film was very poignant for me. It portrays someone who needs to stand up and talk about what happened. He is afraid of and intimidated by his abuser but has the courage to stand up to him and ignore the forces of denial in his family. He does find support, and is able to be at peace with his sister's suicide, and go on with his life. The movie feels like a home movie, like a window into the power struggles of an abusive family, and the struggle of an adult to defend the child he was and the sister who did not survive so he can be his own person, free from his abuser's control.

I mentioned The Constant Gardner in an earlier post. I did not say what I thought of the movie, though, and a couple of people have asked. The movie is about Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya. After his wife Tessa, an activist, is brutally murdered, he goes on a dangerous quest to find the truth about her work and the people who had her killed. The bravery of Justin and Tessa encouraged me to stand up to my dad. Both stood up for what mattered to them, regardless of ridicule, threats, or people who wanted to believe they were crazy. In trying to uncover the truth about Tessa's death, Justin learns about who she was and the revelations transform him. It is a love story that takes the popular horror film premise of the person who is not who they seem to be, and turns it upside down.

In horror films, often a character that seems good and decent turns out to be evil and scary. Horror films depend on that element of human nature that makes us resist facing the truth. We think it is easier to believe a lie, maintain the status quo, and wallow in fantasy, than open ourselves up to reality, whatever it may be.

The truth is uncomfortable. We cannot control the truth with our manipulations. We must accept the truth for what it is. In The Constant Gardener, the truth puts Tessa and Justin in danger, but it also frees them from the manipulations of powerful people and organizations. My boyfriend likes to use the phrase "speaking truth to power" and JC said "the truth shall set you free". Living a life that respects truth and integrity is risky, but supporting lies and deceptions eats away at you, and makes your life not worth living.

As Justin learns the truth about Tessa, what he did not know about her does not horrify him. His love for her intensifies, and he becomes more devoted to her and her work. I suppose it is 2 sides of a coin. When you learn the truth about someone, you may be horrified, or you may be inspired and filled with respect and compassion for their courage and strength.

Saturday, July 08, 2006


I am still struggling with acceptance. I have spent months grieving- for my brother, my childhood, over my parents betraying me. Of course, my life is much better now. I do not feel like it is out of control anymore. I understand myself better, and my understanding of my family and what happened to me is much more sophisticated. Regardless of this awareness, though, I do not think I could ever really understand how my parents could have done what they did to me and my brother, and how my brother could have abandoned me the way he did.

Lately I have just been getting used to this new awareness, this new reality. It is a change from the other phase of my recovery, when the realizations and changes were coming fast and furious. I am at a resting point- my parents are out of my life, I have made a certain peace with my brother and myself. The drama is pretty much over. Now I am just going through the not very exciting process of getting used to my new life- not talking to my mom, and not hearing from my dad. They are slipping farther and farther away from my consciousness.

I am working on getting my name changed on the seemingly thousands of things it needs to be changed on, looking for a new, bigger apartment, settling into my new job, and acclimating to a boyfriend that I can talk to, and experiencing a satisfying relationship. I do feel sad, though. I feel grief- it was a difficult life that a struggled in for so long. The lies, the deception, and the denial- I am sad that it took me so long to be able to face the truth. In my mind at the time, I would risk what little I had by talking about what happened, by dredging up a past I kept thinking I could ignore.

It was like stepping off a building to stand up to the parents who, as terrible as they were, were the only parents that I had, and the only ones left from a childhood that, as miserable as it was, was the only childhood I knew. I could not just forget about my past, because I had gone through so much, and how could I just tell myself that it did not matter anymore. How could I throw away my past and walk away, when I had been fought so hard to survive it? How could I act like none of that had happened, ignore the strength inside of me that had saved me?

After my brother died, my parents were the only people who knew what had happened, even though they would never admit to it. I knew that they knew. They knew what I had gone through, and because I would not admit it to myself, and I would not tell others about it, I could not let them go because they were the only ones who knew the truth about me. Until I let myself remember, stopped suppressing the truth, and started talking about my life, I could not move on from my parents. I clung to that thread, to the unspoken truth of what had really happened to me in that family. That is why I feel the need to talk and write about this. At first, I wanted my friends to know, but now I want other people who have been though this sort of thing to know. I want them to know that I survived, but I wish I had talked sooner. I wish I had not kept these secrets for so long, and held on to shame and guilt that was not mine.

I want to use the strength that helped me to help other people. I contacted Teen Feed - the nonprofit organization that serves meals to street kids, and told them about how much they had helped me, and how well I am doing now. It sounds like I will be in their newsletter to supporters, which makes sense, because their mission is to help kids survive and get off the streets. They helped me do that. I also contacted the Vera Project - a music and arts center for underage kids in Seattle, a population I feel close to because of that time in my life when I was on the streets and underage. It was a new and wonderful experience to tell (what were then) strangers about the difficulties I have overcome and where I am now. I was not playing the victim because I talked about how well I am doing, but I was still able to acknowledge how hard it has been for me. I do not usually have the opportunity to emphasis both my personal and professional accomplishments (including passing the CPA exam!)

In the future I hope to make my blog (all ~60 pages worth) more accessible to people who might benefit from knowing about my success. I lived through physical, emotional and sexual abuse, rape, the foster care system, dropping out of high school, the streets, the suicide of the person I loved most in this world, and all the lies and manipulations and betrayals, and I am not a broken person. People victimized me, people I loved and trusted, but I got through it, and the way I got through it was by recognizing how much strength I had to survive and fight for myself, and by talking about it. Talking about it saved me. I think telling the truth, no matter how horrible it is, can help other people too.