Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Tag: rape

For What Can We Blame Parents?

On April 20, 1999, Sue Klebold prayed “the hardest prayer of her life.”

She prayed that her son would take his own life.

Her husband had called her to tell her that their son, Dylan, was one of the shooters at his high school, Columbine High School. She knew that if he were caught, she would have to watch her son be executed.

So she prayed that her son would kill himself before they got to him.

He did.

***

Andrew Solomon describes Tim and Sue Klebold in his book, Far From the Tree, as eerily normal parents. Of all the parents that he interviewed for his book, these were the parents that he would have most likely have been friends with. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken.

Sue Klebold

 Sue Klebold, 2016: Image credit, www.radio.foxnews.com

After the Columbine massacre, the Klebolds didn’t move. They didn’t change their names. They wanted to be around people who knew them before the shootings. They wanted to retain some part of their identities that existed before they had been forced to become the “parents of a mass murderer.”

They tell of a memorial service at Columbine High School, days after the shooting. Someone had placed 15 crosses for all of those who died: 13 for the victims and 2 for the shooters. Before long, parents of the victims ripped out two of the crosses from the memorial and threw them away.

When the school planted 15 trees to remember the dead, parents of the victims cut down 2 of the trees.

Soon, the media started referring to “13” as the total number of those who died.

***

Not only does our society have little empathy for those who commit crimes, but they also have little empathy for their parents.

Here is what Andrew Solomon says on this topic:

In our household, we brought our children up differently. That kind of thing didn’t happen… The burden of that blame is terrible. And it’s counterproductive. Blaming parents for their children’s transgressions doesn’t make those transgressions go away. It just traumatizes the parents.

To those of us with young children, still so innocent and blameless, it’s hard to imagine a reality in which our children become rapists or murderers. When the Brock Turner sentence broke headlines, his parents became equal targets for the mob’s anger and frustration. What kind of parents can raise such a monster, we wondered. How could they continue to make excuses for him? How could they continue to victimize this poor woman?

We like to think that we teach our children morals like respect and compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Parents have an incredible ability to shape the lives of their children.

But we cannot also deny that our peers also shape us.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we remember what it was like to be a teenager, when the words and experience of our peers trumped what we heard from our parents. Maybe we respected our parents, but when it came time to make decisions, we often chose on the side of what was favorable among our peers.

I remember how I chose where to go to college. I told people that I chose Miami University because it had a good education program. I told them that it had a good reputation. I told my parents that it wasn’t so far away from home.

But the real reason that I chose it was because of a boy.

Big surprise, I know.

Emotions rule so many decisions in late adolescence. Combined with a false sense of invincibility (and if you’re a white man, privilege!), it’s a little easier to imagine a reality in which our kids do terrible, terrible things for stupid, stupid reasons.

It’s a little easier to imagine becoming the parents of a child who has done something terribly wrong.

***

When a three-year-old boy was attacked by a gorilla in the Cincinnati Zoo this past May, there was a small, but vocal faction of parents who spoke out in defense of the child’s mother. Many of them cited their own personal experiences when their children had fell into dangerous circumstances and they found themselves the targets of suspected child neglect.

This also happened with the two-year-old boy was killed by an alligator near a Disney Resort in June.

It happened this way because there were enough parents willing to speak out to say, Hey, terrible things happen. They happened to me. These weren’t neglectful parents. Back off.

But when it comes to cases of rape and murder, there is far less compassion. The stigma of being the parent of a rapist or murderer is so damaging that few parents are willing to speak those words. They don’t want that identity. Who would?

And in the absence of those voices, we become an echo chamber of self-righteousness. Of course it was their fault! I mean, look at all of us. None of our children did stuff like this, so we’re clearly doing something right.

The sound of our own self-righteousness becomes so loud that we drown out any compassionate voices that speak out.

And when we lose our compassion, we lose our humanity.

 

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Brock Turner: It’s Time to Call it Rape

Let me begin with the unusual statement that I have a lot of compassion in my heart for people who have been accused of doing the wrong thing.

Because it has happened to people I know–both friends and family.

Some of them did indeed do the wrong thing. Some of them didn’t.

I won’t detail this out here, but I’ve had been involved in a number of different situations in which people I love have been caught in the justice system for something they’ve done or something they’ve been accused of doing.

So trust me when I say that I am capable of practicing compassion for the accused and the offender.

But I have not been able to access my compassion in this case.

Because he clearly raped her.

And he has not said that he is sorry for raping her.

brock turner

***

For the last five years, stories of campus sexual assaults and the egregious cover-ups by university officials has been a hot topic, especially when they involve college athletes. Each time another university is put in the spotlight (see Baylor University for the most recent example), I have renewed hope that we are moving a little closer to finally taking violence against women seriously.

And then Brock Turner’s sentencing hearing happened.

The facts of this case are deplorable.

  • The victim was unconscious.
  • Turner took her behind a dumpster and raped her with foreign objects, his hands, and debris.
  • Two Stanford graduate students caught him in the act, pursued him when he ran away, and held him down until the police arrived.
  • The victim was covered in physical evidence of the attack.
  • The physical evidence was carefully catalogued and photographed.
  • He was there. He was caught. The crime he committed was called rape.

And then add these additional facts that trouble me.

  • Turner was sentenced to 6 months in jail (not prison–a world of difference), but can be released in 3 months.
  • The judge’s rationale for the short sentence was that he didn’t want to “severely harm” Turner.
  • Turner’s own letter to the judge expresses his remorse over getting drunk. Not over raping an unconscious woman.
  • Turner is from my hometown, Dayton, Ohio.

But I think I understand why he has not expressed remorse for raping.

His own father cannot see his son’s actions as violent or deserving of serious punishment. Turner’s father wrote this letter, in which he says that

These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways.

(The verdicts? Not the rape? Not the year-long trial?)

He then states that his son…

…has never been violent to anyone, including his action on the night of January 17th 2015.

(Raping a woman isn’t violent? Interesting…)

And that spending time behind bars…

…is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.

(Hmm… But during that 20 minutes, he raped someone. You can also commit a lot of other heinous crimes in under 20 minutes.)

If his father is articulating these thoughts on paper, it’s probably a safe assumption that these words open a window into this family’s discourse surrounding Brock’s crime. If his own family won’t call his actions “criminal,” then it makes sense that Brock won’t call his actions criminal.

If everyone around you creates a reality in which your main error was drinking too much, then you begin to believe, Yeah, that’s where I went wrong. I drank too much. I mean, a lot of people drink too much, so what’s the big deal? Anyone else could have been caught in the same situation as me if they drank too much.

And that’s how the rationalizations happen.

***

As infuriating as the father’s comments are, I understand that they are coming from a parent who is struggling to find a way to love his son and admit that his son has committed a terrible crime.

Everything in our society trains us to hate people who commit crimes. It’s seemingly incompatible with our ability to love. So I understand that it’s a kind of family preservation to downplay the severity of their son’s crimes in order to preserve their love for him.

In his landmark book Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon writes about exceptional relationships between parents and children, including parents of children who commit crimes. He says,

Families of criminals often struggle both to admit that their child has done something destructive, and to continue to love him anyway. Some give up love; some blind themselves to the bad behavior.

The ideal of doing neither of those things borrows from the idea of loving the sinner while hating the sin, but sinners and sins cannot so easily be separated; if human beings love sinners, we love them with their sin.

People who see and acknowledge the darkness in those they love, but whose love is only strengthened by that knowledge, achieve their truest love that is eagle-eyed even when the views are bleak (p. 587).

It must be difficult to come to terms with the fact that your child has done something as despicable as this. But it is possible. Sue Klebold (the mother of Columbine shooter, Dylan Klebold) was able to comes to terms with the fact that her son did a despicable thing–and she still loved him. She even wrote an amazing book about it.

As painful as it will be, that is what Brock’s parents must do in order to help Brock at this point. In order to move toward healing, everyone needs to call Brock’s actions what they really are: Rape.

They will need to find a mental space in which it’s possible that these two facts exist at the same time: their son has committed a terrible crime and they still love him.

***

Many voices on social media have raised the question, How would this judge/these parents like it if this happened to their own daughter?

Exactly.

That question should be our moral compass on this issue. This woman’s life was forever altered by Brock Turner. She says,

My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self deprecating, tired, irritable, empty.

And in regard to Brock’s continued insistence that his main error was getting drunk, she says,

If you are hoping that one of my organs will implode from anger and I will die, I’m almost there. You are very close.

This woman needs closure. She needs to hear an abject, wholehearted apology. She needs to hear Brock call his own actions by their rightful name: rape. She requires this for (at least a chance of) restoring her wholeness of mind.

***

When my daughter was about two years old, another boy in her daycare class started to hit the other kids in his class. When my husband brought her to school one day, she saw him and didn’t want to go inside. What did my husband do?

  • He asked her what was wrong.

He didn’t ignore her.

  • He listened and found out that she was scared of the little boy because he hit her.

He didn’t tell her she was exaggerating.

  • He told the teacher what was going on.

He made a report.

  • The teacher called the little boy over and asked him if he had hit my daughter.

The teacher didn’t dismiss it with the old “Boys will be boys” excuse.

  • The child lowered his head and said, “Yes.”

The boy admitted his guilt and was humbled by his mistake.

  • Then the teacher told him to apologize.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

My daughter’s face lit up. And they went on playing.

It’s a simplistic analogy, but it does say a lot about human interaction and emotion. My daughter needed to be made whole…

…and that was only going to happen if this other boy acknowledged that he had hurt her.

I want to believe that good can still come out of this story. I want to believe that in the coming years, we’ll have more and more public discourse about the effects of a hyper-masculine culture and the objectification of women. I think we can overcome the assumption that drunk women are responsible for their own rapes.

In the meantime, let’s acknowledge the courage and strength of the women like this victim, who chose to end her statement with these words:

I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.

I am with you, too.

sexual assault

 

Talking about the hard stuff: Teacher as agent of social change

**Disclaimer: This post is quite off-topic compared to my usual posts about motherhood, but, hey, I happen to think a lot about other things, too.

Every now and then, some topic comes up in my advanced speaking and listening class that causes me to put on my social-justice-superhero cape and tackle an issue head-on. Sometimes, the topic is the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s death with dignity.

This term, it was rape.

First, some background: I teach English to international students in an intensive English program. In other words, I’m teaching adults who want to earn a college degree… but don’t have strong enough English skills to do so yet.

Our students primarily come from two countries, but, trust me, we have all kinds of students. The motivated. The goofballs. The hapless wanderers. The spoiled rich kids. The budding scholars. The “I-here-for-vacation-only-Teacher”s. The lost. The dreamers. The future politicians. The victims of their own self-doubt.

We have them all.

Some days, I leave my job feeling like nothing that I do makes a difference. Some days, I feel that my students don’t care about anything besides this grand illusion that they can just extract the essence of this “academic knowledge” from the university and then infuse themselves with all of it, like a patient hooked up to an IV. (And, hey, there are days when I totally wish that I could simply transfuse all of them with a healthy dose of phonics).

It’s hard for my students to understand that all knowledge is culturally situated. No knowledge is pure of the context and culture in which it is taught, so they can’t simply absorb academic knowledge at an American university without absorbing pieces of American culture along with it.

Hell, it was hard for me to understand this when I was their age (and I was struggling with these ideas in my native language). In my freshmen English class in college, I struggled particularly with an excerpt of Paolo Freire’s Pedadgogy of the Oppressed, for two main reasons:

1) I couldn’t understand the excerpt because–even though I had been an Honors English student in high school–my reading ability wasn’t developed enough to easily parse out academic English

2) I had no personal experience to understand Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

With the help of some in-class discussions, I finally understood Freire’s “banking concept” of education.

Yes! I get it!

But why did he write about this? Everyone knows that this is how people learn. You listen to your teacher, memorize, and repeat.

Well, maybe not in English, but for math and science, that makes perfect sense.

Oh… wait. Freire thought the banking concept was bullshit?

Oops.

And even though I eventually understood that Freire was decrying the widespread belief in the banking concept of education, I still couldn’t quite understand what he meant about critical pedagogy or transformative social justice. What did any of that mean? How did empowering citizens to transform society have anything to do with getting an education?

Wasn’t an education just learning how to do your future job? Wasn’t that why we were all studying in college? To become teachers and doctors and lawyers and business people? That was why were studying, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

This is where I got stuck. And I think this is where my students get stuck, too.

***

As a teacher, now reflecting back on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I not only understand Freire’s argument to move education into the realm of social justice, but I also understand how limiting the definition of “education” to “technical skills for a job” keeps a population from making societal change.

It keeps us believing in the American dream, that if we just work hard enough, all of our dreams will come true. Even worse, it keeps us believing that the poor, the uneducated, and the imprisoned are in those positions for the sole reason that they chose to be. That they have earned their lot in life solely because of their lack of enterprise and effort. In this extreme sense of individualism, no other factors are strong enough to influence a person’s life as much as his/her individual ability and effort.

I believe that teachers are especially situated in society to confront these myths.

***

At the same time, I am an agent of this very narrow view of education.

I deliver language lessons.

For the purpose of increasing my student’s English language proficiency.

For the purpose of them preparing for jobs.

My job description does not include any language about the necessity of teaching for social change. Although my particular university does boast about its Marianist values–one of which is social justice–my primary job is to deliver instruction that helps my students improve their English, and (hopefully!) develop their ability to be independent learners.

***

And yet, I found myself in a classroom of international students with a teachable moment ripe in the air. One student had just said that he thought boys and girls should be taught together until they are 10 years old.

Why? Because it would decrease the instances of rape.

I did a double-take. “Did you say rape?”

He nodded.

“So this is a problem in your country?”

He nodded.

I thought for a moment. “How does putting girls and boys together in the same class decrease the number of rapes?”

He shook his head for a moment, as if processing the idea. As if figuring out how to phrase something that was so obvious that it didn’t usually require words.

“It’s just, maybe it happens more when there are a lot of girls together in one room. When there are boys and girls together, I think the rape will be less.”

Oh boy.

This is the moment that language teachers dream of–that moment to engage. That moment when language takes it rightful place as a conveyor of ideas, not this monolithic body of knowledge that my students need to acquire before they can actually communicate.

This is the moment when my students move beyond the in my country, we do this, and in my opinion, it’s very important because...

This is the moment when I have a choice–to confront age-old, culturally embedded stereotypes about gender and violence–or to move on in the language lesson because of my fear of the emotions that the discussion would summon forth.

I chose to engage. Carefully. But to engage nonetheless.

“What causes rape?” I asked.

Silence.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

“Is rape going to happen if a lot of girls or women are gathered in one place and a man is teaching them?” I asked.

Slience, and then a quiet, “…maybe.”

“Okay. Here’s a question: Why do people rape?”

Silence.

“Why do you think people rape?” I repeated.

“…maybe because the woman is dress very… not nice. Maybe too sexy.”

I didn’t laugh or roll my eyes. I just shook my head. “Nope.”

Someone else spoke. “Maybe because she walk alone at night.”

“Nope,” I said.

“But I know a story, Teacher,” one student said. “One woman, she walk alone at night, and this happened to her. It terrible.”

“I agree. It is terrible. But it’s also not her fault.”

Silence.

“Listen, rape is not the woman’s fault.” (I used “woman” because for this group of students, the concept of a woman raping a man is totally impossible–but that’s another topic).

At this point, I could see the fierce agreement in the eyes of my female students.

“People rape because they want power or control over someone else. It’s not because a woman is too sexy. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control. And rape happens over and over and over again… Why?”

Silence.

“Because we don’t talk about it,” I said. “Because rape is so shameful that we’d rather go to our graves not talking about it then to invite that shame onto our families.”

At this point, the heaviness in the room was palpable.

“Isn’t that right?” I asked.

Around the room, heads nodded. Even those of my male students.

“Rape happens because of power and shame,” I stated emphatically. “And unless we start talking about it, it’s going to continue to happen. Can you imagine if this happened to your daughter? Your sister? Can you imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t do anything about it because you didn’t want people to know about the rape? Can you imagine this?”

And at this point I could see on their faces that they could imagine this horrible reality–because some of them had lived it.

One of my students softly said, “It’s happen in schools sometimes, but also it’s happen a lot in families. Like between cousins.”

Heads nodded.

***

Some days, I leave work feeling like nothing I can do makes a difference.

Some days, I leave work feeling like this is the only thing that I can do that makes a difference.

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