Subvert the Dominant Paradigm

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sympathizing with the Monster

Do Not Feed the Monster
A number of years ago, I worked at a shelter for women attempting to escape from abusive relationships—a “Battered Women’s”[i] shelter. Before starting there, I, and every staff member and volunteer, was required to go through an intensive training that took place weekends over the course of a couple of months. The point of the training was not just to introduce us to the elements of our jobs, but to rid us of some of the preconceptions we might have about “Battered Women,” and to educate us about the attitudes in our society that actually support and perpetuate the practice of Domestic Violence. We learned about the  cycle of violence and how it shows that women in abusive relationships cannot avert the abuse or control their abusers by adjusting their behavior, as many people believe. We learned about the common myths of domestic violence and thought patterns and cultural systems that continue to allow it to happen[ii] We learned that abusers have often been abused themselves,and suffer from low self-esteem and a perceived inability to control their lives. And we learned that the attitudes that lead to Domestic Violence stem from a conflict-oriented model of society, where Might equals Right and physically stronger people are encouraged to impose their will and take out their frustrations on those not as apparently strong (and are often rewarded for doing so). Abusers, we learned, are not monsters. They’re not inherently evil. They have motivations we can understand and sympathize with, even as we work to free their victims and ourselves from the conflict-oriented societal model that allows them to act with relative impunity.

In my early twenties, I was more than ready to hear all this. I had been an uneasy Feminist for a number of years—Feminist because I had first-hand experience of the way our supposedly advanced society treats women as second-class citizens, uneasy because I never quite fit in with others who adopted the label with rampant fanaticism. I also self-identified as a religious Witch, and at the time you almost couldn’t do that without getting involved in gender politics and the movement for societal change. And I’d never been a person who thought in terms of black and white. From a very young age, I looked for underlying causes and was interested in why people and cultures acted the way they did. Despite being raised in a Christian household, I never could incorporate a Good vs. Evil dichotomy in my world view. It simply didn’t make sense to me (and still doesn’t).

The Safehouse training encouraged all of us to move away from conflict-based thinking and problem solving and toward better communication and seeing all people as individuals with individual needs, and that’s a good thing to do, in general. I, as is often my pattern, took the idea somewhat too far. I made a conscious decision to start creating the world I wanted to see—one that contained less conflict—by applying the Safehouse lessons to my daily life. To see people as individuals, and realize that people with whom I disagreed and those I perceived as downright enemies or even horrible individuals in their own right had lives and problems of their own, reasons for acting the way they did. I resolved not to judge, but to listen and support as much as possible, in hopes of modeling behavior that these people would miraculously recognize as superior and adopt. (The fact that I was attending a Buddhist college at the time reinforced my decision to do this.) I also decided to carry the attitude into my work as an aspiring Fantasy writer. I would create a world without conflict, where my characters worked everything out in sensible, non-violent ways and glitter dropped from their tongues with every word (not really).
Of course, I caught on pretty quick that trying to tell a coherent story without any kind of conflict in it is a losing proposition. You don’t have to have a huge Apocalyptic war of Good vs. Evil to have a good story, but there has to be some kind of tension, some dispute to be settled or problem to be solved. Also, there’s a place for violence. Nature is raw and bloody and violent, and human beings are animals, part of nature. Sure, we can work at curbing or understanding some of our instincts and shape ourselves into less brutish patterns. But though refraining from the actions that increase your Karmic load and thus condemn you to more time on the Wheel of Samsara is a value of many Eastern religious systems, it is, in my belief, a good goal to keep in mind but one that can never be achieved in any practical way. Besides, violence and conflict make more interesting reading than a bunch of people sitting around having intelligent conversation.

In my actual life, however, I continued to let my dislike of conflict turn me into a doormat. Over and over again, I formed relationships with people who, if not physically violent, were manipulative, emotionally abusive and toxic. Some of them were people I’d been friends with for years who came back into my life, and some were people I’d met only recently. And it was always the same. We’d hit it off right away—too quickly, one might say. We’d be sharing confidences before a week was out. I always found the other person charismatic and developed a kind of hero worship for her (it was always a woman) for any number of reasons. Because she was (in my opinion) prettier, or more experienced, or wiser, or had a better job. We became best friends.

And then she’d start the abuse. And it always looked the same. She’d elevate me into a position of ostensible power—one coven High Priestess “passed the wand” to me, for example—and then undermine my authority at every turn. She’d use subtle techniques to get me to take responsibility for her emotional health and well-being. She’d sulk and throw tantrums when I wouldn’t concede on an issue, often to the point where I’d give in just to shut her up. Or, if I held my ground, she’d ignore me and go her own way anyway, often lying and telling me I had never expressed any disagreement with her when I had, more than once.

I knew this was abuse. I KNEW IT. And yet, it often took me years and years to get out from under it. One relationship, with a woman I had known since middle school, went on past the point where the stress literally put me in the hospital. It took my therapist telling me, “You have to break it off with this woman or the relationship will kill you,” before I could shut her out of my life. And I still feel guilty about doing it, though it was nearly ten years ago.

Why? I’m a smart woman. I’m educated. I’ve studied psychology virtually all my life. So why couldn’t I get out of these relationships before they damaged me?

Lots of reasons. I grew up in a family where this kind of emotional abuse was a daily occurrence, and though I questioned it, I also thought of it as normal. At the time, emotional abuse was not really recognized or addressed by the therapeutic professions. I was brought up to put everyone else’s needs above my own. When I was bullied in my expensive, private school, I was told to stay silent and ignore it instead of making an issue of it. As a woman, I was taught to have fluid boundaries. I suffer from low self-esteem myself, so on some level maybe I thought I deserved the treatment. I am always ready to question myself, less ready to address the behaviors of others. But most of all, I sympathized with my abusers. I understood them. I knew where their behavior was coming from. My early therapists preached forgiveness and understanding: “They’re doing the best they can with what they have,” rarely going on to condemn the actions that were driving me insane. Those confidences my abusers shared with me gave me insight into their actions. They also felt powerless. They also had been abused. They needed to be loved and accepted unconditionally. I needed to prove to them that they were valued as human beings and that they did not need to resort to bizarre and destructive patterns to participate in relationships. That’s my own ego investment. Mea culpa.

I sympathized with the monster.

In fact, I empathized. I have always been an unusually empathetic person. When I got bullied in school, I did not immediately turn my frustration on someone weaker. I remember thinking, even at a very young age, “Wow, this feels so horrible. I am never going to act this way to another person.” And later, when I learned that abusers have usually themselves been abused, it was easy for me to associate their acting out with those horrible feelings I had experienced, with that pain. And because I empathized, I excused the behavior, even when it damaged me. I was incapable of addressing it, of saying, “No. This is wrong and I won’t put up with it. You need to stop, or I’m leaving.” If you understand someone so deeply, if you train yourself to refrain from judging their actions because you know the root causes, how can you give up on them? How can you distance yourself from someone who has such a deep need?

Of course, “Battered Women” have been asking themselves this since the Dawn of Time. I was just late getting on the train, possibly because this pattern never appeared in any of my infrequent romantic relationships. I like to think if it had I would have been out the door. But I can’t say.

For years I have struggled with the question: How can you understand a person (or a system) and still have boundaries? How can you label behavior as repulsive without dehumanizing the person perpetrating it? It’s easy for me to sympathize with the monster, with the eternal Other. I have, myself, been “Othered” at various times in my life—for being fat or female or too tall or not having the right clothes or income or for expressing uncomfortable ideas. Any number of things. I seem to live my life at the edge of the acceptable. In my work, I am constantly rewriting folk tales from the point of view of some minor character or making my protagonist someone who does not quite fit in to what’s considered normal society. I love this shit. In fact, I don’t think I do it enough. I like making the dark places a bit lighter, making the creature under the bed someone you can talk with over cookies and milk. I like “de-Othering.” I like reducing that conflict.

(I see an interesting pattern here.)

But you can take it too far. Far enough that your therapist tells you, “Get out or it will kill you.” And you need to listen to that. You really do.

I didn’t really begin to come to terms with all this until I read the novel Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, an incredible writer of speculative fiction. One of the themes in the book is the existence of evil, presented in an alien race that in its adolescent stage suffers from congenital xenophobia. This race can grow into an adult form that is beautiful and wise and super intelligent. The adolescent form, however, wants nothing more than to wipe out all life that differs from itself, and it nearly succeeds. They are monsters, and sympathizing with them will get you killed. Help them evolve and transform into their adult phase, by all means. But do not lose track of this fact.

Sometimes I think that progressive thinkers have lost track of this fact. Too much popular culture now hinges on sympathizing with the monster. We have sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. Little animated kids go to the land in the closet and hang out with friendly night terrors.
Not At All Dangerous
Villains are depicted as bumbling idiots, and this makes their plans for the subjugation of “inferior” beings more palatable. And sure, there’s always been some of this. The attraction for the “Bad Boy” or “Bad Girl” is a cliché. Serial killers on death row get a huge number of letters from “fans” of all genders who find them irresistible. And sure, it’s easy to say, “We reasonable people can recognize the difference between a TV show or a book and reality.”

Except, we can’t. Our minds do not distinguish between vividly imagined reality and concrete reality. When something in a book or film moves us, we experience the same emotions and emotional process as we do when a real-life situation moves us, sometimes more intensely. So when you forget about the monster, when you excuse the abusive behavior of a stage character because “it’s about love,” or dismiss the fact that a handsome vampire is self-centered and manipulative because underneath is all he’s really kind and devoted to the heroine, you are bringing those attitudes into your own life. You are subscribing to the kind of thinking that can endanger you, and you are responsible for perpetuating it in society. This needs to stop. Putting a pretty wrapper on abuse doesn’t make it acceptable. It just makes it harder to see.

The truth is, for time out of mind we have sympathized with the monsters. We’re all too ready to justify and excuse their behaviors, whether we’re talking about the untutored golem who kills his maker and incurs the wrath of the uncaring local villagers or the man who, due to the stress of his job and family responsibilities, lashes out at his wife and beats her bloody. The point is, the abuse has to be confronted or it will never end. Yes, perhaps none of the monsters in our lives are inherently evil. Perhaps their behaviors can be understood. It doesn’t mean what they do is acceptable. As individuals and as a society, we need to focus less on the underlying causes and more on the actions. Stand up and say, “This is wrong and you need to stop.” And take whatever steps necessary to enforce that boundary, whether that means supporting someone in getting therapy or leaving a relationship. It’s no crime to put yourself and your safety first. That’s one of the first lessons the women coming to the Safehouse had to learn.

Sympathize with the monster, by all means. But never forget it has teeth.

[i] I am well aware that men can be victims and women perpetrators of Domestic Violence. The shelter I worked with served a female population, so that’s what I’m talking about.
[ii] I find it ironic that this article is 1. So recent, 2. Written by a man who seems to think the information in it is news & 3. The best one I could find on the subject.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Streetcar" Redux: One Man's Perspective

Michael Zimmerle Teaches English  & Drama to Brilliant Misfits

Popularity and Excusing Abuse:
The Problem with A Streetcar Named Desire
Guest Post By Michael Zimmerle

Okay, so I've gotten kind of embroiled in this whole “Streetcar” business.  I wasn't really looking to spend time writing essays on the nature of gender relations and how particular works of art affect gender equality.  I didn't really want to sink my intellectual teeth into the finer points of how various interpretations of a work enforce outmoded and potentially destructive social conventions.  I have enough to deal with trying to get a group of recalcitrant teenagers to invest a little time in learning how to actually read, write, and speak the English language.  But my wife had some investment in the issue, so I had a look at the pertinent topics and interviews.  If I had been looking for a way to disengage from the situation, this was a mistake.

Here's the situation in a nutshell.  An actor my wife and I both admire is starring in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. I wondered why anyone would be producing this play, even if I could understand why an actor would choose to act in it.  I have come to think of “Streetcar” and the rest of the author's work as “Tennessee Williams Sweat Plays” (thanks to my friend Tim for the term).  Most of the works are set in the Deep South, with high temperature and humidity, and deal almost exclusively with some sort of dysfunction.  They give me a slimy feeling, like I need to shower with copious amounts of soap and all the hot water.  In general, they go nowhere, no one learns anything, no one changes, no one decides to make any effort to become a better person.  There are a few exceptions, but the predominant feeling is one of falling into a cesspool and deciding it is just too much effort to wade out.  Besides, all our friends are here.  Sure we hate each other, but what the hell?  There's bourbon. Williams did write some interesting characters who, while being largely despicable, do offer challenges to actors.  I understand the desire to look for difficult or challenging aspects in a chosen field. It is a chance to push one's self professionally.  And it can be very rewarding if successful.  Bully.  I was ready to just chalk this up to the kind of notch-in-the-belt choice an actor might make.  Challenging, resume building, diverting.  

Then I started reading some of the interviews that the aforementioned actor gave, and found myself baffled by by what I was reading.  I was reminded of the tendency of some academics to generate  theses that seem to have relevance only in the Bizzaro world.   “WHAT? Where do you get that?  How can you possibly find that?” or “Are you really that clueless?  Do you have NO IDEA what the abusive pattern is?  Have you never heard of the cycle of violence?”  I even found myself saying, “Oh, you poor stupid fuck.”  I really meant that last one, as I do have some sympathy for someone who doesn't recognize that he is saying things that support a social pattern of abuse, which I am fairly confident that, if asked directly, he would vehemently oppose.

As I see it, the difficulties I have with this situation come down to two things.  The first is really an artist's right to defend a work of art.  In some ways, this is an unassailable issue, as it comes down to personal aesthetic and interpretation.  I happen to hate Moby Dick, while other English majors find it a fascinating and captivating work.  To me it is only a classic because someone else said so, not because it's a particularly good piece of writing.  “Streetcar” fits into this category for me.  As I stated earlier, I find almost nothing redeeming in most Williams plays past the historical significance.  Williams did something groundbreaking in putting ugly issues on the stage.  I understand that this was happening at a time when society was working very hard at denying that there were any ugly issues.  This trend has continued to the present in theater and film where there is an admission that life doesn't always have happy endings.  Sometimes that makes for good story telling.  Sometimes we can take a good lesson from a disturbing, even repulsive tale.  However, I personally find it important that the characters show at least some sign of learning that lesson themselves.  I don't find this to be the case in most of these “Sweat Plays.”  A more contemporary example is the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas.  It won numerous awards, garnered critical acclaim, was a great way for the actors to stretch themselves, and was to my mind, two hours that I will never get back.  No lessons learned, no hope generated, no character development arc.  This is not my kind of story.  If an artist wants to defend this type of art, I suppose it is his right.  If he finds something worthy in a static morass of fucked up individuals, so be it.  I've seen enough of that in my actual life.  I'll pass.

The second issue is a good deal more difficult to recognize and explain, and it is far more important.  It is the societal and individual tendency to excuse abuse or find ways to sympathize with the abuser.  It is the attempt to justify abusive behavior by focusing on the abuser's deep internal state or external charm.  Time and time again, I have seen abusers excused by claiming that they are good at heart, or suffering from internal trauma, or that they just love so deeply that they act out, or they just act the way they have been taught, blah, blah, blah.  More energy goes into justifying why they can't change than goes into demanding that they must.  Oh, there is some token comment that perhaps an abuser should change his ways, but there is no insistence that they do so.  It is as if we think that beaten, bloody, or dead “loved ones” are preferable to making an abuser responsible for his behavior.

In a recent interview on the actor in question said:  It's him protecting what he loves and he loves his wife, he just has these severe handicaps in dealing with other people.” This is exactly the kind of thinking I mean.  This is a blatant justification of Stanley's abuse by calling it love and a kind of social awkwardness.  Oh, well if that's all it is, then Stella should feel sorry for Stanley when he beats the shit out of her.  The truly horrifying thing is that for generations women have been told just that.  When I read the above quote, I could only shake my head.  Here was a man that I have grown to respect as an actor and as an intelligent human being, spouting an attitude that has damaged both men and women for ages.  The really sad thing is that finding sympathy for an abuser may point to a genuinely caring heart.  It indicates that the speaker believes that there is good in the abuser.  That's not a bad thing if you are a therapist dealing with someone who is actually willing to correct his behavior.  It's also vital to an actor trying to legitimately portray a character.  But for anyone else, it just enables the abuser.  It provides an excuse.  “It's not my fault I hit you, baby.  It's 'cause I love you too much.”  Love is the thing that makes an abuser realize that he is hurting the beloved and STOP DOING IT!

The comments that this actor has made make me think that he really doesn't have much awareness of the mindset of most abusers or how the typical cycle of violence works.  Abuse, like rape, is not about love or sex.  It's about control and power.  Regardless of the capacity for actual love that an abuser might have (a dubious supposition in most cases), the behavior and the feelings leading up to an abusive incident stem from a desire to control or exercise power over another person or a situation.  The motivation is rarely, if ever, actually love. Stanley is not protecting his love; he is protecting his familiar situation, a situation that he has control over, the woman he has control over, the group of friends he has control over.  He is even exercising control over and protecting his own bitterness and dysfunction.  When Blanche comes in, he finds himself with a variable that he needs to find a way to control.  Blanche threatens his dreams of money, his relationship with Stella (not by questioning his love, but by questioning his behavior), she even threatens his friendship with his buddy, Mitch.  She has to be taken down.  Stanley can't control Blanche, so he destroys her.  Mercilessly. Utterly. 

I'm beginning to hear reviews for preview performances of “Streetcar,” and I'm slightly horrified.  Apparently, the director has taken a tender approach to the relationships, and the cast has done a wonderful job of portraying the characters and the director's vision.  From the same interview:
            But, at the same time, I think there are moments that I have found, especially this time around, where he has this little boy in him still that is incredibly lovable as well. There are moments  with Stella where he just doesn't want her to leave. It's a fascinating play.
People are coming away thinking that they have just witnessed a love story.  They seem bent on making excuses for Stanley's behavior, using ambiguity of staging to suggest that there was no rape, lauding Stella's dedication to her man regardless of her bruises, and otherwise getting caught up in the passion, while totally missing that this is a play about an abusive lout (narrowly) avoiding being brought to task for his abusive behavior. 

Herein lies the crux of the abuse issue: Behavior.  It doesn't matter what the core issues are, it doesn't matter how charming, how wounded, or how potentially lovable a person is.  The abusive behavior has to stop before any of the rest can even be addressed.  In this same interview, the actor does say:

             I think what's interesting is that he wrote this play in 1947, and now here we are 40 odd years into the post-feminist era, and I think playing a man of that archetype is very interesting now. Because there are parts of it where you can see how men without therapy, men without support  groups, men without any sort of spirituality, got a very bad name for men. There is this interesting merging of this sort of animal attraction with him and Stella. With the perspective that I have from stuff that I've gone through, you read it and you cringe. You know what he's  doing and it's so brilliantly written – and even with it being written years ago – you still know these people. I know Stella and I know Stanley.

Yes, we know them.  We know them and we weep that they are still suffering from the same dysfunction.  But I weep for a society that hasn't learned a damn thing in 40 years.  We are still making excuses for men who beat their wives, who destroy lives because they are given every excuse not to get the kind of therapy the actor mentions.  The fact that many people have developed sympathy for such and abuser and his doormat wife only reinforces how important this issue still is.  After decades of feminism and other activism on the part of women and men, we are still finding ways to try and gloss over the horror that Williams put on the stage in 1947.  People, the abuse has to stop before any healing can even begin! 

There are countless stories and fairy tales where a man learns his lesson at the hand of his wife.  Some gentle, some violent.  The fairy who becomes a mortal's wife on condition he never raise a hand to her.  He does and she disappears with all her wealth and the children.  The woman who is beaten by her drunk husband and then breaks his arm with a frying pan when he passes out.  The woman who tells her new husband that if he ever strikes her she will leave him and then does so after 65 years of marriage.  Where are these stories?   The last one I remember is the 1984 made for T.V. The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett, about a woman who, after years of abuse and marital rape, kills her husband by setting his bed on fire.  One reviewer on The Internet Movie Database ( credits this movie with giving her the strength to leave her abusive husband.  And yet, after all this time and hard work, we are still producing plays and movies that ask us to sympathize with abusers, excuse their behaviors and claim that sex and passion excuse everything.  

Simply stated: To portray an abuser as a sympathetic character, and to portray an abusive relationship as at all romantic, is to excuse and encourage abuse and dysfunction.  Hey, artistic community, wrong message.

I have only one last parting shot.  I'm afraid I can't claim that this is anything other than a dig, thinly veiled as a life lesson.  Two last quotes from the actor.  The first from the interview and the second from a different interview on New Haven Register  ( 
            This is really very personal for you.
            (Actor): Yeah. It's my play. And I belong to it. So you know, I don't really want to see somebody  else having sex with my wife. [Laughs.]

            (The actor's) most recent “play” was a benefit staged reading with William H. Macy in Santa Monica in July of Williams’ last play “Small Craft Warnings,” playing a character he calls “a  ashed-up Stanley.”

            “It’s weird and interesting that this character keeps following me every few years,” he smiles.
It has been my personal experience that if an issue keeps coming up in my life, it usually means I haven't learned an important lesson.  It would be frankly unfair and belabor the point to make suppositions about what these statements might mean for the actor, but perhaps we, as a culture can take the lesson.  If we are having this discussion about the portrayal of abuse and dysfunction in the twenty-first century, we still have a long way to go.

Time For Brownies and Milk.