Sunday, 31 October 2010

the abuser is popular

"in order for you to support communities and individuals, you have to work to stop the abuse that is holding them under water.  and stopping the abuse means stopping the abuser.  and the abuser is popular.  so you wont be."
mai'a, at Outlaw Midwives, in a post called "you have to choose a side. its a war. either you are with life, or you are with the forces of genocide". please read the whole thing!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

on 'powerlessness'

i used the word 'powerless' in my last post, and then wrote a massive footnote, which i think should be a post in itself!
* i hope it's clear that i don't mean to say that survivors of abuse, or mums whose children have been removed , or women who've been criminalised (or two of these things or all three) are powerless. i don't want to speak for anyone. and i am so full of respect for all the ways in which people in these situations find and use their own powers, and reclaim their powers. i want to find ways to talk about 'powerlessness', while recognising it is never total.

is there a word for power-squished-ness? as in - a way to say that someone has tried to eliminate or drastically reduce another's power - and that this has not been total (unless the person is killed*) but squashed, reduced, hurt...? i like the word squashed as it suggests the ability to bounce/grow/unfurl back. does this make sense? please comment if you can think of a word that means having had your power reduced, but not permanently.

serious power-squashed-ness has to be one of the worst feelings it's possible to experience. maybe it's the worst form of psychological pain. to the extent that generally, no matter what they have been through, people will not admit to having felt it. and - this is hard to talk about - i see this resulting in some women who've been through abuse, kind of denying that their partner ultimately had control. women say 'i gave as good as i got' because this is less painful than dwelling on how squashed their power may have been, even while he sustained injuries, or was poisoned, or was deeply unhappy, or said he felt afraid, or sometimes did as he was told, or negotiated in certain instances.

of course it's not up to me what women who've been through abuse want to talk about, and how anyone understands and describes their own experiences! but in terms of understanding domestic abuse as a pattern, understanding why and how it happens in order to minimise it, i think it is so important to find ways to talk about the intricacies of the power, and how where a woman is experiencing control and violence from a partner and taking control and perpetrating violence against him: of the stories i have heard this is very rarely a case of 'she gives as good as she gets', given the context of, for example, how men are generally able to be financially and housing-wise independent of their ex/partner and child/ren, while the reverse is generally not true. or the context of how men are more likely to make realistic threats to kill a partner, and (on some level) know they are more likely to get away with doing so, while the reverse is not true. and connected to both of these things, the context of how women are likely to be living in a much higher level of fear - of serious injury, death, homelessness, being sectioned, losing contact with their children by being deemed an unfit mother and so on - than men. to me, these kinds of factors bestow so much more power to men, that it is only in exceptional circumstances that women can give as good as they get. i certainly don't believe that it's impossible, i'm just itchy for real, clear, ways to talk about this stuff. i want to find ways of talking about and honouring how people surviving abuse can be powerful, and powersquashed, at the same time.

hmm. any ideas?

* footnote to the footnote: and i don't believe that people who haven't survived, people who've died as a result of abuse were powerless, of course not.

* another footnote: by tagging this 'collusion' and 'myths and excuses' i don't mean to imply that survivors are guilty of collusion, or stupidly taken in by, or propagating, myths and excuses by talking about their powerfulness! i use the tags to find my own way around my thoughts on here. what i mean is more that we all in this culture collude with abuse when we drift along not questioning the myths and excuses about abuse that are provided by the culture, which is an abusive culture.

society supports

i just read this, at Flip Flopping Joy:
"I was too wild, too out of control. And rather than find a way to *refine* my own personal style–that is, be the same big, wild, out of control person in a way that didn’t cross or step on other people’s boundaries–I tried to make myself smaller. Society *supported* me making myself smaller. Society *supported* me “controlling myself” through self abuse and shame rather than refining myself through love and consideration and compassion. Society supported me hurting myself–through the normalization of hurt. Through the normalization of hurting *me*."
and it reminded me of the last group. i was trying to guide the group through a list of reasons why abuse happens - reasons that members felt were true, as well as the myths and lies that we hear all the time. so that we could sort truths from lies, because understanding why it happens (because an abuser decides that the benefits of behaving that way outweigh other considerations) is key to being able to see it and stay away from it.

so i had a section on the flipchart(!) for 'ways that society supports abuse'. and people didn't get it. someone thought i meant, like women's aid. and i said yes women's aid support women who are abused but i mean - do you think there are ways that the way that society is set up, helps abuse to happen. and then someone said that their friends had said 'he doesn't mean it, he really loves you' - and of course that was a totally relevant comment. but what i was going for was like - when the police turn up and he says you're the crazy violent one and they arrest you because they're 'not trained' (to put it politely). but no one said stuff like that and because time was short i had to just validate the stuff they were saying rather than nitpick towards my own our-culture-is-fucked agenda. sigh.

but - how do we talk about it? is it necessary to talk about it? it's good to have that part in that exercise when i'm doing 'awareness sessions' with professionals. especially cos i get to make them feel guilty about colluding with abuse, ha, and maybe they'll think a bit harder about it. but if women who've come for a 'healthy relationships' course don't find it relevant to talk that way, well...

but it upsets me how much the women, on this course in particular, internalise the blame for the abuse, and their responses to the abuse. there may be more to it than this, but i connect this to the fact that most or all of these women are on probation, have court coming up, have had their children taken into 'care', have been criminalised. these women have had to learn to play the game of the powers that be. some of them were criminalised for their responses to the abuse they've been through. and those that came to the attention of social 'care' had their children removed for reasons connected to the abuse. and so i imagine these women have learned that if they display any anger at the way they have been treated - by individual abusers, or by social care, the criminal justice system, etc, they are knocked back much further by social care and the criminal justice system. and you can't live with that sense of injustice when you need to get your children back, or you need to act sane in a court room. you have to put it out of your mind, or drop it as just untrue.

and meanwhile individual abusers, social care and the criminal justice system, continue to propagate the notion of women being to blame for abuse, and/or choosing abusive man, and/or that an act of retaliation is at least as 'evil' as years of systematic abuse. these are the explanations offered to these women for the situations they're in. and it sure must be easier to believe that you yourself are bad, than to acknowledge the way society is engineered to make you powerless.*

one woman spoke of having called the police one time, when they arrived her partner told them she was in the shower, then she and her partner walked out of the house and past the parked police car, she with a swollen freshly-bruised face, and the police officer looked her straight in the eye and did nothing. and you know in the group i can validate that that is a terrible thing, that she was let down and betrayed (while meanwhile my cofacilitator remains expressionless, in that 'well it's just her story' way). and other women rolled their eyes in sympathy. and the woman herself said "i thought that was terrible; it was disgusting." but in that charity which has been co-opted by Probation, it's not the place to recognise and name the fact that the police help abuse to happen. everyone will have to deal with police in the coming weeks and months. the officers will be not unfriendly. it doesn't help to abhor them when you're just trying to get your children back. so these women absorb and absorb this 'normalisation of hurting themselves' and i can't figure out how much i'm colluding with this process vs how much i'm rightfully working within the boundaries of what they can cope with.

* see next post for extended footnote about my use of this word!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

organisation in 'we like girls and women', shock

oh my goodness. i found this while linking to the mind-bendingly awesome Young Women's Empowerment Project in my last post. at the moment i'm working in a couple of places that use the language of empowerment and so on... well i guess they've pretty much co-opted that language, and are using it for coercive purposes. and they seem to be among the more sound of voluntary sector organisations in the uk. imagine being part of a project that promotes this stuff. imagine...

"What we believe

  • Confidentiality. Anything that is said here stays here. We use anonymous identifiers to keep records of what we do.
  • Harm reduction. We support young women and girls in making any decisions in their lives that they want. We don’t tell anyone what to do or who to be. We think that youth are the best at making decisions about their lives.
  • No requirements of youth. Any young woman or girl impacted by the sex trade/street economy can participate.
  • Every participant is smart and can contribute to the project immediately. We don’t think that people need to be sober or out of the trade to express their thoughts and feelings, help us out, or to learn.
  • Sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia intersect and deeply affect the trade and girls and women who are involved. We can’t talk about the trade without talking about these issues.
  • Solidarity with boys/men/transgender persons involved in the trade. This issue isn’t only about women and girls.
  • We like girls and women. We don’t think they are “a problem,” “hard to work with,” or “difficult.”
  • We are lead by women who have been there. We call the shots.
  • We believe people who know this life are the ones who should be around this group.
  • We strive to have respect for everyone. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, where you’re at, who you are, or what your opinions may be.
  • People don’t need labels. We respect youth by not labeling them as problem youth, delinquents, etc.
  • We don’t want girls to “be saved.” We are here to support young women in making decisions about their lives.
  • We do not have one set of ideas. We don’t think that girls in our project should, either.
  • Our views about the trade are always changing. We reserve the right to change our minds when we learn new things.
  • We are not a social service agency. We do not provide case management.
  • Everyone can help make decisions.
  • We believe in partnerships between youth and adults, and partnership means that adults don’t make all of the decisions.
  • We believe that girls do not “seek out” abuse. Girls do what they need to do to survive.
  • Our experiences in the street economy/sex trade do not define who we are, or who we may become.
  • We believe that involvement in the sex trade/street economy does not suddenly become harmless based on age, sex, or gender. We believe in listening to people who are involved to find out what is happening.
  • Girls have their own language and understanding about the sex trade/street economy. Everyone who is living it is the expert.
  • Small is best. We don’t want to be a monolithic ‘agency.’ We offer different spaces, different ways of understanding, and we feel most comfortable with small arrangements."

honouring this

"i can't getcha outta jail, but i can getcha outta hell..."

oh, kate bornstein. queen advocate of coping strategies. someone should put her in charge. i hope by the time i get to my sixties i have as much compassion and wisdom to give, and keep on giving. do you know about her anti-suicide book? do you know about the blog where she keeps on posting and responding to comments from suicidal young people? oh i wish i'd had those sorts of messages when i was a teenager. i wish i'd had them when i was 25.

honestly, i see her work as so important and counter-cultural. keeping the people alive who can't bear to live here. not by making them stay, but by offering them a message they have almost certainly never heard: "You can do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything. Anything at all. It can be immoral, unethical, or illegal [...] It can even be self-destructive." so that there keep on being more of us, so there are more of us to work against the culture, even if that's only by staying alive. "There's only one rule [...]: Don't be mean. That's the only rule you ever need to follow to make sure that your life is gonna get better. If you're not mean, you can do anything it takes to make your life more worth living. [...] It takes true courage to follow your outlaw identities and desires in the world. Doing that nearly always ends you up with less worldly power. But I promise: you can always do something to make your life better every single day of your freaky geeky life."

and i'd like to do another project like this but aimed at adults, people who don't consider themselves 'teens, freaks and other outlaws'. or at least come up with a good, simple way of expressing this stuff, to use in my work. does stabbing your partner when it seems like he's going to kill you count as being mean? i have a lot of these kinds of conversations with women who can never forgive themselves for fighting back, and who have been (or are in the process of being) gravely punished for keeping themselves alive. 

and about how women cope with it. all the crazy stuff that people do in crazy situations - it needs to be honoured. the incredible Young Women's Empowerment Project (in Chicago) has the tagline "girls do what they have to do to survive".

how do you bring that kind of message to adult women who are already trapped, or even already criminalised for doing whatever it took to make their life more worth living?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

i heart lundy bancroft

guess what - he even has a blog! which unfortunately it seems he hardly ever updates. a cursory glance at the posts might make him seem a bit of a cheesey self-help merchant but i swear to you this man is an understated genius. and his analysis of abusive relationships and perpetrator mentalities applies to goddamn civilisation as a whole. i have given out hundreds of photocopies of chapter 14 (The Process of Change) and chapter 7 (The Abusive Man and Breaking Up), from Why Does He Do That and no one has ever said to me 'that's not relevant to my life'. everyone who's read it has got safer and saner. in a world dedicated to covering up for abuse and oppression, this bespectacled fellow keeps on quietly telling the truth.

on his blogger profile, his interests are 'domestic violence and sexual assault' 'child abuse and neglect' 'peak oil' 'bioregionalism' and 'over thirties baseball'.

we always hurt the ones we love the most

heard that again this week.

no, we hurt the most the ones we can get away with hurting.

from correspondence

"i agree that anyone has the right to be defended against accusations, of course. but i think it's really important for both sides to be differentiating the naming/questionning of bad behaviour from an implication that someone is inherently racist, abusive, evil, etc. [...]

to state the obvious, it's important to be able to have ways of talking about perceived oppressive behaviour without a) it being a character assassination and/or b) people framing it as a character assassination in a way that can divert the conversation away from the questionable behaviour and on to a character defence."

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

i'm sorry, you're just not ready

we met with someone this week, who was interested in coming on the course. kind of interested, kind of scared. and she'd had a lot go on and was just on the cusp of wanting to deal with it, wanting to open herself up and see what was there.

and because the content of the course would be challenging her relationships with the people she currently relies on for support, she would need additional support to go alongside the course. such as counselling. but there is a huge waiting list for counselling. so really, it's not ok to invite her on to an intense, structured course which is going to break down her support system while offering no alternative. and there is no unstructured group available, even though that would be the simplest thing to offer. and there is no counselling for several months.

so the worker's automatic response to this was to say "i'll talk with her caseworker and explain that she's just not ready." aarrgh. i mean, i argued and said that it's important to make sure the woman knows that it's not that there's something wrong with her, that the lack is with the service. but this could easily be lost in translation between so many workers. and it infuriates me that the unthinking default is to place the blame, constantly and in tiny ways and turns of phrase, with the service users and not with the service. it's sending the constant low-level message that they can't do anything right. remind you of anything?

and most of all i feel so sad for this woman, who is doing the scary thing of opening up and being honest about her history and her needs, and that there is no support for her. when she is so ready. and she was even going to rearrange her work so that she could do the course. more and more 'clients' are getting jobs midway through their support and having to give up the support. because obviously the work can't be flexible. all this pressure to get off benefits just means that people don't even have time...

it's crazy that we've created this course and the course is already excluding the 'wrong type' of survivor. so i guess i'm just repeating myself and saying that it's all bollocks except for open, long-term, user-led groups.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

about the magic

i dreamed about one of my ex-clients last night. there was some kind of party at my mum's house and i think a few women i used to work with were there, but she was the only one i talked to properly. she seemed quite a lot more sorted and had stopped drinking. i was impressed that she had decided to come to a party despite struggling with alcohol. she is glamorous in real life, and was looking really good for the party. i don't remember much else but i do wonder what on earth my subconscious is doing with all the 'material' it's amassed over the past seven years working. i kind of imagined that i'd have this process of processing it, and that i'd have this wonderful sense of gaining perspective on it all. but it seems to be hiding, or maybe this is how it's going to trickle out.

it's so so odd, having had one-sided, intimate involvement in key changes in so many people's lives. and so so odd to think that all of those memories are still in me, although i don't consciously remember them. i sorely wish that this kind of thing, this odd, magical, privileged, disturbing, part of the job was talked about in my office, in what little training we had, or even on the smokebreaks, but... nothing. having to deal with several realities, and deal with my colleagues pretending everything is normal, makes me feel crazy (another reason i had to leave). but if they won't talk about the magic, well, i still know the magic's there.

a cultural issue

i find it difficult to explain how much it means to me to come across simple, accessible, heartfelt writing that explodes oppressive myths and lies and distractions and scapegoats and 'things that people say' and replaces them with articulate truths. i read this today...
"Still, we in the West too often find it easier to perceive rape as an accepted part of an unfamiliar culture rather than as a tool of war that we could help banish. Too often, the enemy becomes all Congolese men rather than men with guns terrorizing the Congolese people. By casting the chaos and violence as “men vs. women” or dismissing the crisis as “cultural,” we do a profound injustice to Congolese men. Rather than help, we send an implicit insult: It’s a pity, but, well…it’s just who you people are. [...]

Any Congolese will tell you rape is not “traditional.” It did occur in Congo before the war, as it does everywhere. But the proliferation of sexual violence came with the war. Militias and Congolese soldiers alike now use sexual violence as a weapon. Left unchecked, sexual violence has festered in Congo’s war-ravaged east. This does not make rape cultural. It makes it easy to commit. There is a difference. [...]

“Cultural relativism legitimizes the violence and discredits the victims, because when you accept rape as cultural, you make rape inevitable,” [...]

When we blame all Congolese men for sexual violence, not only do we imply that rape is inherent to the African landscape, we avoid critical questions, particularly regarding the role that we in the West play.[...]

When we label rape in Congo “cultural,” we let ourselves off the hook. And that is a cultural issue. Ours." 
 Lisa Shannon, in the New York Times*, via the beautifully-named A Life Well Loved blog.

*dammit, i wanted to provide a link for you to read the whole thing but now it says subscribers only. 

Monday, 4 October 2010

women in prison

"Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her."
Chris Tchaikovsky - Former prisoner and founder of Women in Prison


i really want to write here more, so i'm going to eke out some ramblings, until it comes more naturally again.

i'm facilitating a course about domestic abuse with a group of women. it's through an organisation who work with 'women offenders'. funny how many of my friends could be described in the same way... anyhow, it's the first piece of work i've done since leaving my casework, and i'm struggling really to find the part of myself that works. for seven years i would get dressed and drink my coffee and travel to work and then find myself at my computer, or in the hospital, with lots of work to do and a professional identity to inhabit. i spent a lot of time feeling like this persona was fraying at the edges, and trying to be both the smooth, capable, educated professional that other professionals required me to be, and the down-to-earth, real-person(?!) support worker that the women using the service needed, was one more exhausting aspect of the job.

now every couple of days i need to pull myself up into some sort of professional mode to make a phonecall to people, and i procrastinate, because that person was never real, just a necessary part of what i was doing, which i don't really do any more.

i'm also finding it difficult to focus on the tasks i need to do. i'm a bit worried about this course. i did a two hour workshop with other women using the service a few months ago. it was great, as i was an outsider coming in so i had licence to just do my workshop as always, in a way that is kind of led by the group rather than me.

but now that i've written this course, in consultation with a worker from the service, and met some of the women who'll be on the course, i'm becoming more uncomfortable with how prescriptive courses are at this service, and how disempowered the women are.

the women who came in for appointments about the course, seemed to have rock-bottom confidence, even though the appointments were in a building they use frequently. it seems to me that, although the service seemed initially to be a really good, flexible, service for marginalised women, it has now been more and more co-opted by probation and social care. it seems like a lot of women are 'required' to be there by their probation officer and/or social worker. i think this could be overcome if i was doing the kind of group i used to run in my job - just open discussion groups where women can talk about whatever is going on and support each other and be validated. but i was asked to write a course. because that's how they do things here. and i'm picking up a general attitude from well-meaning workers, that the women are problematic, because they are lost, and they can't sort out their lives, and they can't look after their children. which totally disturbs me. i've tried to make clear to the workers that my attitude is that these women 'have all the knowledge/resources' to support each other and understand domestic abuse etc etc, but i'm worried that i won't be able to single-handedly make the course an empowering experience if the attitude of the co-facilitator (out of habit more than anything) is that the women need to be taught.

and i tried to suggest that we keep the course as open and 'user-led' as possible, but the worker replied that the organisation has to be able to demonstrate to probation/social care that there is concrete content to their courses otherwise they can be written off as wishy-washy. i really disagree. i used to have to write letters to probation/solititors/social care to explain what 'work i'd done' with a particular woman. i would write a strongly-worded letter saying we'd done rigorous work on safety-planning, patterns within abuse and control, looking for the first signs of control in new relationships, confidence-building and so on and so on - because this is all true! even though i wasn't teaching them, only facilitating their discussion and doing an exercise together maybe every two weeks. and as professionals we have licence to represent our work however is appropriate - because probation/social care thank god can't actually come into the group sessions. so it's such a cop-out, or a tragic reversal of what these women need, to try and tailor courses to the fucked up demands of statutory agencies.

god, user-led groups really are the only way! everything else is just painfully wrong.