Not obliged to submit

Some further thoughts from Barbara Glasson’s A Spirituality of Survival: Enabling a Response to Trauma and Abuse:

Relationships should never be traps; they should hold and not bind. […] abuse is about the misuse of power and to ‘sur vivre‘ is to emerge from underneath the story of oppression.

We are most likely to ‘sur vivre‘ if we know that someone is searching for us, that there is a longing for us to re-surface among those who realize we are missing.

Abuse is not just a blip in an otherwise normal life, it is a total disruption of normality. What is perceived to be normal is in fact destructive.

However, the problem is that a woman suffering abuse:

believes that her experience is ‘just how it is’ and so fails to speak out for fear of destruction on the one hand and ridicule on the other.

In many ways a victim of … abuse does not have choices. Abuse happens to them, they are trapped, silenced, damaged … by others who have taken away any sense of their autonomy or self-worth, they are made into objects.

Those … whose lives have been violated, subsumed and stolen … are called to find freedom, safe enough space in which to claim life and flourish. They are not obliged to submit to repressive, self-denying demands but to find strength and authenticity through the bringing to light of the truth.

A way to flourish

I believe in a gospel that calls us to ‘life in all its fullness’. This is not just divine wishful thinking but the call to live our lives on top of oppression and abuse and enable others to do the same. If abuse is about the deadly effect of misappropriated power, then I believe that God calls forth life, life from under the oppressions that seek to crush us, and begins to give voice to another way. God desires us to live in a way that subverts abuses. God’s way is not a way of death, but a way to flourish.

Barbara Glasson, A Spirituality of Survival: Enabling a Response to Trauma and Abuse

A double bind

Following up a friend’s recommendation, I am currently reading Barbara Glasson’s A Spirituality of Survival: Enabling a Response to Trauma and Abuse, a book that I am finding increasingly insightful, the more I am getting into it. Taking Miroslav Volf’s definition of exclusion from Exclusion and Embrace as her point of departure, Glasson rephrases this from the perspective of the victim, suggesting that:

… exclusion is being made invisible by someone who assumes superior power over us. We are rendered irrelevant and of no consequence. We are therefore pushed to the edges of … relationship to a place of silence, worthlessness and loneliness. … it can mean being owned or manipulated by someone who assumes power over us to such an extent that we lose any sense of autonomy.

Glasson describes this as ‘a double bind of silencing and isolation’, noting that victims are ‘simultaneously completely related to “the other” but also rendered totally irrelevant by “the other”.

Regardless of the motives of the abuser, a victim experiences this double bind of exclusion; this is why it renders them feeling unable to make easy changes. Whatever choice they make, they will be compounded in one cycle or another, of isolation or of ridicule, rendering them simultaneously more dependent and more isolated.

She adds:

In order to not be a victim of either oppression or invisibility … the structures of power [need to be reversed] in such a way that boundaries become liberating rather than controlling.

And she suggests:

The abused person is unable to unbind herself from the knot of victimization without the solidarity of others. These “others in solidarity” need to be prepared to enter into the bind and release it on behalf of the victim. Victims rarely move out of the cycles of abuse on their own but rather need the support, insight and understanding of those who “stand in solidarity”.

Geryon’s childhood

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse – Anne Carson’s masterpiece. Having just read the sequel Red Doc>, I simply had to revisit what has become one of my favourite books of all time. And so I am currently reading this narrative poem, which I only discovered about a year ago, for the fourth time. There is no other book, in which I can lose myself in quite the same way.

The story is based on some fragments by the Greek writer Stesichoros, whose work in turn reinterprets an episode of the story of Heracles (Hercules), one of whose labours involved killing a dragon in order to get its magic cattle. Stesichoros retells the story from the perspective of the dragon/monster, whom he calls Geryon. Carson adopts the same perspective but gives it another twist by turning Herakles (as a classicist, she adopts the ‘proper’ spelling) into Geryon’s lover.

Carson’s story begins with the childhood of Geryon, the red dragon (hence Autobiography of Red). Sexually abused and bullied by his older brother, he retreats into himself:

Inside is mine, he thought.

That was also the day
he began his autobiography. In this work Geryon set down all inside things
particularly his own heroism
and early death much to the despair of the community. He coolly omitted
all outside things.

Carson is a perceptive observer and an unrivalled communicator: the retreat, the self-pity – it’s all here and all so well expressed.

Because of the problems with his brother, Geryon is quite fixated upon his mother. So when, one evening, his mother goes out, leaving him alone with his brother and the babysitter:

Geryon felt the walls of the kitchen contract as most of the air in the room
swirled after her.
He could not breathe. He knew he must not cry. And he knew the sound
of the door closing
had to be kept out of him. Geryon turned all attention to his inside world.

Then he is told that his mother won’t be back for hours.

At this news Geryon felt everything in the room hurl itself
away from him
towards the rims of the world.

In another scene Geryon and his mother enjoy spending some time on their own:

She winked at him over the telephone. He winked back using both eyes
and returned to work.
He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair
and was gluing these to the top of the tomato.

The tomato sculpture, by the way, is Geryon’s autobiography, as he hasn’t learned how to write yet.

His mother is on the phone while Geryon is working on his sculpture. This is how the scene ends:

Maybe next time you could
use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten for the hair, she said as they began to eat.

Soon after: enter Herakles – but that will have to wait for now.

A truly delightful story this …