On sexual harassment, Yemen, and growing up a bullied child
Recently a friend who works for a non-profit that seeks to reform U.S. foreign policy posted on Facebook a mild defense of comedian Louis C.K.’s “apology” to the women he had sexually harassed. I pointed out the deficits of his confession in the comments and linked to an article about the Old Boy’s network in comedy that enabled Louis C.K. to continue his harassment and which silenced his accusers. A LOT of other people offered up their opinions in the comments on my friend’s Facebook post.
In a subsequent posting, he wrote, “It’s so funny to me that if I post something about Louis C.K., some people get so exercised about it that they send me private messages about it. But if I post something about the U.S.-assisted Saudi genocide in Yemen, two or three of my closest people respond. Nobody else gives a shit. I need to figure out a way to force people to care about this.”
For that not following the famine in Yemen, and that includes the vast majority of people in the U.S., here is a recent article. U.S. policy is essentially supporting the Saudi blockade that is preventing aid from reaching millions of starving Yemeni civilians. Here is a petition you can sign to a support a current bipartisan resolution in congress: Save Yemen from famine & stop helping Al Qaeda. Use war powers to force a vote on ending U.S. participation in the unauthorized Saudi war in Yemen.
Most people would agree that genocide, military occupation, police brutality, political prisoners and other issues taking up my head space are more important that celebrity culture. But truthfully, I have never had much interest in celebrity culture. I have, however, found myself intensely engaged in the stories of victims coming forward and accusing powerful figures in the political and media communities of sexual abuse and silencing. I haven’t watched Woody Allen movies for years, nor would I watch anything by Roman Polanski.
My friend’s Yemen comment made me probe the depths of my interest. I have experienced mild sexual harassment, but I think the sore spot these stories touch don’t relate to these encounters as much as they do to my history with bullying.
I grew up socially awkward. I cried easily, and because I read several hours a day, I used a vocabulary that was not only beyond my peers but, I realized in later years, some of my teachers. In elementary school, I was always the last chosen for teams, an object of scorn and derision, the cootie girl. One of the worst insults a boy in my classes could hurl at another boy was to claim that I was his girlfriend.
In junior high and high school, the bullying stepped up a notch. It’s probably safe to say that almost every day I was the target of verbal or physical abuse. I was tripped; I had food thrown at me in the cafeteria; I was slammed into lockers and asked “Why are you even alive you ugly skank?”; I had my books ripped out my arms and thrown across the hall — always, always to the accompaniment of laughter by my fellow students. As I write these events — and my hands are trembling as I type — once again, I feel the old shame, shame more than anger, the wondering “what is there about me that is so inherently disgusting that would cause people to do this to me?”
Not once, did any adult intervene on my behalf. When I tried to tell what was going on, I was given some version of, “You need to buck up or you will always be victimized.” Kind girls who reached out to me, I repaid by becoming too attached and clingy, desperately wanting to hold onto their friendship and protection. I became depressed, withdrawn and suicidal, pleading with God to kill me during the night as I slept.
In college, I had a chance to reinvent myself. The sensitivity and passion that made me a loser in public school gained me friends and allies in college. I poured myself into Nuclear Disarmament and Central American solidarity work. Later in 1993, I joined Christian Peacemaker Teams, where I have spent the last twenty-four accompanying people in Haiti, Colombia, Palestine, Washington DC, and in Indigenous Communities who have lived far less privileged lives than I have — who, if we’re going to go for metaphors, have had to fight against state-sanctioned bullying on their entire populations.
Many of the people I know who go into human rights work have had difficult childhoods. I used to find redemption in this narrative. But I have become less enamored of the “wounded healer” trope lately. First of all, in human rights work, it has colonial overtones. Also, I have seen the damage done when the unhealed wounds end up bleeding all over tasks we need to do. But more importantly, in relationship to myself, I don’t think it sustains you for the long haul. If true healing never really happens, that bullied girl keeps getting in the way of adult Kathy, diverting focus from the acute needs of people I am supposed to be accompanying.
And currently that bullied girl, who experienced silencing and gaslighting from her peers and the adults who were supposed to protect her is celebrating that Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey (whom she liked in the film Beyond the Sea), Louis C.K. (whose TV series she enjoyed) and so many other celebrities are facing accountability for their silencing and gaslighting. She is ecstatic about the Washington Post story on Roy Moore. She wants Bill Clinton to face reckoning, finally, for rape, too.
Adult Kathy…well, I am watching as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are still living as free men, even feted, and the woman who was fourteen when Roy Moore sexually molested her is already having her divorces and bankruptcies (Donald Trump’s divorces and bankruptcies being somehow irrelevant) displayed for public scrutiny. I am thinking that even if the victimizers du jour are finally held accountable, it won’t bring back the careers of so many of the people they victimized, nor will it un-traumatize the lives of their victims. I am thinking about famine in Yemen, the Israeli military occupation of Palestine and the current futility of either the two-state or one-state solution. I want be an ally to people of color and sits wordless in front of the Twitter feed and Facebook as I bear witness to the indignities they experience, how society both targets them and renders them invisible. I think I have no right to feel this paralyzed, this hopeless, given my life of privilege. I want to be like other activists I know, who approach the work with a certain joie du vivre, who draw energy from the struggle and from their association with other activists.
But before I get over the PTSD I am experiencing now from years of working in Palestine, I am probably going have to fix the girl who picked herself off the floor, collected her books, and scuttled away to find a safe place to cry.
May healing come to all of us, who have tried, in our own muddled ways to hold people accountable and may the next generation — whatever gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or ethnicity — live free of silencing.