The other day I was talking with a friend about the sexual abuse in my former spiritual community, and she said that she didn’t think so-and-so was doing any favors for those trying to make their voices heard because so-and-so was going on and on and, in effect, ranting. My friend said she thought people would be able to hear so-and-so better if she toned it down and spoke more selectively and in a less inflammatory way, instead of getting people’s backs up and making them feel attacked.
I said that I thought everyone has to express these horrifying things in their own ways, which may not necessarily be completely diplomatic or “nice.” I said that so-and-so had gone through periods of being suicidal, of many years of therapy, of dropping out of her Ph.D. program because she couldn’t focus, and, like most of us, losing many of her friends who feared that associating with her would be a blot on their need to appear loyal to the offending organization. I reminded my friend about how crazy-making all of this can be, when someone is finally trying to understand their own abuse.
Later on, as I thought back on this conversation, I began to wonder why so-and-so was perceived to be yelling and screaming (figuratively, through her writing), and why so many of us, no matter how we present our stories, are accused of being angry whiners, disrupters, unhappy people, aggressive “feminazis,” revenge seekers, complainers, man-haters, and on and on. And, aside from all that, I wanted to try to express why we do yell and scream and why, yes, we absolutely have the right to do so.
So here it is: We yell and scream because the person who molested, raped, or harassed us was our husband, or uncle, or priest, or guru, or boss, or neighbor, or date. They violated our bodies and our trust in humanity (to whatever degree we still had any), and we were shamed and confused by the way they made it seem as if the abuse was partly (or entirely) our fault. So we could never tell anyone, because we weren’t clear about it ourselves. No one ever told us that these things, these behaviors, are flat-out wrong, often even illegal, and that no one has the right to violate another human being in these ways, no matter what. We got the message that no one wanted to know, no one would believe us, and that telling would be worse than our long, confused silence. In our cultural paradigm, we had no context for recognizing the wrongness of these behaviors. They were minimized even in our own minds.
On top of that, our society has had very little meaningful language for these pervasive, almost normalized violations. The misogyny is so old and deep that women who dare to speak out risk vilification, or denial, or some other crazy-making response (ergo laws that say if it’s your husband it’s not rape; ergo our Sunday school teachers telling the girls never to tease a boy or touch his knee [this was my experience as a teenager] because we would be asking for it because he wouldn’t be able to control himself and it would be our fault; and on and on.) And, beyond belief, there are whole societies and sub-societies that still believe this insanity. They believe that boys are natural predators and girls are prey, and therefore girls need to be constantly watchful, never walk alone at night or in unsafe areas, never dress provocatively, never leave our drinks on the counter when we go to the restroom, never “lead a boy on,” you name it. Boys, on the other hand, can do almost anything and have it excused as being part of their bestial, predatory nature. And if something happens to us as girls in this poisonous environment, the first thing that’s examined is what we did that let it happen. (I call this the “short skirt” question.)
In other words, it’s as if we’re all raised in a cult, programmed to our roles: boys will be boys, and girls should be nice and very careful. And if boys misbehave, we have to examine what the girls did to enable this. It’s a debilitating sickness that harms all of us, girls and boys, and women and men.
How do we start to recover from this brainwashing? Like any habitual pattern, something, or a string of many things, has to happen that makes us start to question the paradigm. Somehow, despite all of our deep, lifelong programming, something gets through to us. Maybe it’s #MeToo; maybe it’s one slap too many; maybe it’s the pervasive sexist language even in our esteemed religious tradition that we’ve tried for years to rationalize. Whatever it is, something accumulates that makes us unable to swallow it whole any more. So we gather all of our strength to tell a carefully selected friend our deepest, tenderest, most confused secret: that our husband/uncle/date/priest/etc. is or was abusive to us. This is a great realization for us, to realize that there is something wrong about what happened, even if we don’t yet have words for it. This is a very painful step, and we take it at great risk to our psyche. It goes against all of our prior training and behavior, and we don’t know if we will be understood or believed because we’re not entirely sure ourselves. And we often aren’t even sure about how to express or explain it, because we don’t know the language yet.
Related: This is Abuse
And if we’re lucky our friend may listen, and say something like, “Oh, these things are wrong,” or “It’s not your fault,” or “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” or “I’m so sorry that this happened to you.” And this is the first time anyone has said this to us, and so we finally realize that this was wrong, that it wasn’t our fault, and that whatever we were doing that made the other person mad, or gave him the idea that he could do this to us, still didn’t make his behavior OK. This is a true revelation, and it often happens over time in small increments, brief encounters with another view, leading to a final eye-opening moment of truth: This wasn’t my fault! This behavior is not OK!
Then, traumatically, we realize that most of our friends/colleagues/fellow travelers don’t want to rock the boat, upset the status quo, not only in the large and smaller societies in which the abuse happened, but in their own minds! They start performing complex mental gymnastics to justify what happened, why we should stay quiet, why it’s not a big deal, how we learned something from it so best to move on, why we must have known something would happen because otherwise why were we there, and so many other nauseatingly classic gas-lighting tactics that turn the blame for the abuser’s behavior back onto the person he harmed. These non-friends are in effect telling us that they don’t believe us, really. And also, that they don’t really care.
And in so-called spiritual communities, the convoluted craziness is magnified because of the deep loyalty and gratitude we feel for the teachings and the tradition. We’ve spent years, decades, studying and practicing these things, never saying “no” to questionable behaviors because we’re in it for total ego annihilation, union with the greater wisdom, and “no” is viewed as a cop-out. Conventional critical thinking, having a moral sense of right and wrong, and god-forbid calling anyone out on their harmful behavior, is seen as disloyal, as “not getting it,” as breaking our vows to the teacher, as not being compassionate enough to the abuser (who is fundamentally good, of course), and as not caring about the harm we are causing to the harmony and reputation of the organization.
When I first tried to tell a close friend at an advanced retreat program about the abuse that was affecting me, she shut me down by saying, “Oh, you need to be careful about how you use that word.” She wasn’t curious or caring and instinctively (habitually) went for covering it over rather than expressing concern for me, her “friend.” I heard many times about how speaking out could ruin the poor fellow’s life: Be compassionate, he’s so sad, he had a hard life, you can work with the situation (“everything’s workable”).
Compassion has been conflated with being nice, when actually the Buddhist teachings on compassion list four categories. The first three are all about how to work with the situation, but after trying everything the fourth is to cut it, say no, not engage in “idiot compassion,” which only prolongs the confusion and harms everyone. Whatever happened to that Big No of compassion, the courage to call it out, or walk out, to be ethically clear, to make a boundary—to say yes or no? My former spiritual community refers to itself as a community of kindness. More accurately, and sadly, it is a community of blindness.
So we scream because we’re in shock wondering how this all could have happened: “Why didn’t anyone help me?” “Why doesn’t anyone believe me, or care?” “Why did I spend so many years tolerating this behavior?” “How can you (my so-called friend) continue to enable this with your ‘neutrality’?”
The mixture of self-blame and the abuse itself, muddied further by our cowardly friends’ and society’s shunning of us, isolates and depresses us to the point of mental illness, sometimes even to contemplating or dying by suicide. We’re not used to being perceived as angry women who rant. We’ve invested so many years in being nice.
Change doesn’t happen easily (look at suffragists, at black power and civil rights activists, at anti-war uprisings, for example), and I am grateful for those brave enough to shout and yell. Let us never forget the suffering and criticism they endured to change a flawed and harmful system. My dear friends, your voices are making a difference and someday there will be a more systemic tipping point. Meanwhile, find some kindred spirits and take good care of yourselves. And please, keep raising your beautiful, loud voices whenever you feel like it. It’s the only way (plus lawsuits) that the truth will finally prevail.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.