Friday, November 19, 2010

See No Evil, Hear No Evil...?

From my apartment I can hear the fights of the couple across the hall from me. The screaming, the crying, the sound of things being thrown or broken...sometimes they catapult me back involuntarily to my past. A little bit of my family situation, but mostly two of the abusive relationships I was in before D*. Crying several times a day was the norm, as was being yelled at and insulted. Things were not thrown that often, but the few times it happened really stuck with me, bolstered by nightmarish memories of growing up. I was completely miserable. I was too afraid to end the relationship because I had been stripped of all my friendships and support networks and led to believe that I was too incompetent to be alone. If I had had someone, anyone, reach out to me, acknowledge what was happening, ask if I was okay, any sign of support, I might have found the strength to stand up and end an emotionally-abusive and draining relationship, but there was nothing for months and months and months.

I am very conflicted about the role of "bystanders," if you will, in abusive relationships. The worst relationship for me took place in the very same coed fraternity house in which I was raped. This was when I had first transferred to Dartmouth and didn't know anyone. People in that frat had similar interests to me, and I enjoyed going there. I got into a relationship much too quickly and became isolated from everyone, even though I pretty much lived with him in that house. When things turned sour and he and I started fighting, I knew everyone could hear it. (The walls were paper-thin and you could hear a normal conversation in one room from the next room over.) I was too intimidated to approach these people that I sort of knew but wasn't sure I was really friends with, and for six months, no one ever approached me.

To call the situation awkward was a huge understatement. I saw my neighbors in the social spaces of the house, but I had to keep up the friendly facade of talking about classes and every day chit chat, even though part of me screamed inside Don't you hear me? Won't you help? But they weren't really close friends, and I knew I was on my own.

A couple months into our fighting-and-crying phase, my then-boyfriend received one email from someone asking if he was okay. When I heard that, a surge of jealousy and desperation rose within me. Why couldn't I have received one? If I had, I might have spilled out all my misery and been able to ask for help. But I didn't have the courage to just go to someone and bare my soul unwarranted, and so I continued to stay shut-in. I was lonely even though I was surrounded by people. That kind of loneliness is the worst-- the kind where it's not about absence of people, but rather absence of interest. People politely looking away, shutting their ears and eyes, because they're not interested or because they think that's what they're supposed to do.

Because of my past, I have always urged people to speak up and say something if someone they know seems trapped in an unhappy relationship. I have done so myself, after witnessing a friend and the very unhealthy dynamic in his relationship. But I was surprised at the reaction I got-- he closed up, assuring me that everything was fine, even though it clearly wasn't. All I could do was just be a friend on the sidelines and hope all was well. But at least I was glad I had expressed my support and willingness to listen if help was ever needed.

On the other end, when I talked to friends about reaching out to other people, they expressed concern about prying into people's private matters, and said it was better to just wait and see. I was terribly confused. Why were my beliefs so very different from theirs? I would think that it is better to express care and concern and be brushed off than to not do so at all while someone hopes and waits. The friends I spoke to were so reluctant to bring up the topic even when there was evidence of other unhealthy relationships in the House. They were content to just wait until the explosive breakup happened, and then swoop in with care and comfort. I didn't understand then, and I still don't understand now. Is it that they were worried someone might be shamed by being approached about his/her relationship? Would being asked if they needed help be that embarrassing and awful? Is it about losing face? I don't understand.

To me, this culture of caution and privacy is awfully close to being dangerous. It seems like avoidance. Maybe part of it is the bystander effect-- if I see the signs then other people must too, so someone will probably handle it and it doesn't have to be me. Maybe part of it is projecting embarrassment or denial onto the person and thinking they won't want to be asked if they are okay. Maybe it's fear that the response will be so strong and angry that the friendship is harmed. I don't know what combination of reasons it is, but my heart breaks to think there are other people hoping someone will reach out to them and waiting, in vain.

So coming back to the present-- I suppose I am in even more of a dilemma here, because I don't really know my neighbors. The guy asked to borrow a vacuum once, and I know his first name. That's it. In terms of feasibility, it doesn't really seem like there's anything I can do, but I feel so helpless just sitting around. Any kind of inquiry I could make might be mistaken as a complaint that they're too loud or disruptive, which isn't what I would intend at all. (From experience, the last thing an abused person needs is to have someone complain that their fights are too loud.) It really does seem like there's nothing I can do, and it grates on me. I wish there were more I could do to help people in situations similar to my own. :-/

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Frat Update

It's funny-- the physical and emotional reactions I have to someone talking about rape or something reminding me of my own event are never as bad as the ones I have in response to my fraternity.

They have resumed talks (again, for the third time?) about changing the permanency clause, thanks to a good friend of mine. A few minutes ago, an alum sent an email to a mailing list about it. When the event happened two and a half years ago, and during the few months afterwards, I remember him being a bit of an insensitive jerk about the whole thing. When I read his email just now, my heart started pounding. I feel chilled and very tense and everything around me feels dulled down and unreal. With one email, my world has been flipped around. I haven't had physical symptoms this bad for a long time.

We'll see how this discussion thread goes. I guess my body is just gearing up for an emotionally upsetting and tumultuous fight. I don't know why I still care about this issue, but the fact of the matter is that I do, despite my best efforts to change that.

I'll try to still study for my organic chemistry exam, even though I feel like this. At least tomorrow I get to see D*, and we're going to try to go dancing as part of our therapy assignment. (More on that later.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bullying: I do not think the problem is what you think it is.

(Princess Bride reference aside, let's call this "Adults and Cowardice.")

Bullying. You've all heard about it recently-- the heartbreaking stories of gay children and teens driven to suicide, and the 14-year-old girl who hanged herself after being bullied for coming out as a rape survivor. Bullying has suddenly become a big deal. Great, you might think, people might actually support anti-bullying programs in schools now that numerous victims have already died. But no. Christian groups like Focus on the Family argue that anti-bullying programs "push the gay agenda." A Michigan high school teacher was suspended for kicking a student out of class who made a homophobic comment. What is this, people? Jezebel has got it totally right: it's time schools quit treating homophobia like it's a valid opinion worth respecting. Homophobic hate speech is no different from racism, and you wouldn't allow that in your schools now, would you?

One recent argument I heard against homosexual couples was that the children that gay couples might adopt would be harmed. A slew of studies have shown that this is not the case. (That article links to several different reports and studies.) As far as studies go, the most recent one was fairly scientifically rigorous: the measurement of social development and psychological health of the children was not based on the opinions of their parents alone but also of outside observers, like teachers and caregivers, and a control group of heterosexual couples was used. The conclusion? Quality of parenting determines the psychological health of the child, not the sexual orientation of the parents. From a policy standpoint, the data provide no justification for denying lesbian and gay adults from adopting children.

But won't children of gay and lesbian parents be bullied in school, you might ask? Yes, there is a high likelihood that they will. However, obese children, ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged children, even smart children get bullied too. The solution to the bullying problem is to address the bullying, not use it as a reason to prohibit gay couples from adopting children.

When I was in elementary school, I was bullied every day. Sometimes it was for being Asian in a neighborhood of rich white kids; sometimes it was for being a smart girl; but usually it was about my physical appearance. I got picked on for having a "mustache," the unfortunate result of having black hair but light skin. This bullying went on for years and only got worse as the tormentors grew in vocabulary and cleverness. It was a sly comment here, a rude gesture there. All things that might have been caught and reprimanded in kindergarten but ironically were ignored in sixth grade. I cried every day when I came home from school. Finally, I told my parents, and they spoke to my teacher about the bullying.

Her response? "That happened to me growing up too. You can buy products at CVS to bleach that hair."

My parents accepted that as an answer. So did I, at the time. Only after I left for college and had the ability to look back on those years without overwhelming bitterness did I realize how wrong a response that was. Where was the apology for letting this hateful bullying happen right under her nose? More importantly, where was the action in response to it? Even after my parents met with her, she never spoke up or stood up for me against the bullies. They never got in trouble, even though now she couldn't say she didn't know it was happening.

This is the huge problem with bullying nowadays. It is easier for teachers and administrators to coerce the bullied into changing than it is to confront the bullies themselves. Society already does its fair share of looking down upon the marginalized and pressuring them to change their identities; that makes it far too easy for adults to do it under the guise of looking out for the child's best interests when it is in fact a cowardly way of handling the problem.

If gay children are bullied, don't try to change them-- stop the bullying. If children of gay parents are bullied, don't prohibit gay couples from adopting-- stop the bullying. The problem is not why these children are the way they are. The problem lies with the parents, teachers, and administrators who turn a blind eye to the hateful words and actions that shouldn't be tolerated in the first place.

Why is this such a hard concept for policy-makers to understand? It's not like bullying is a valuable skill that children need to learn to grow into healthy, capable adults. (And if it is, well, something is grievously wrong with our society.) Stop bullying. Make sure kids understand that it is wrong, it is hurtful, and it reflects badly on them, not their victims. Give victims support. Stand up and say that bullying will not be tolerated in my classroom/school. And actually follow through with that-- watch for instances of bullying and address it every time it happens, not just when you feel like it.

No one should have to change who they are in order to go to school and not be picked on constantly. It's not about "pushing the gay agenda" or "protecting freedom of speech"; it's about creating a healthy environment for children to learn and grow in. Racism, classism, homophobia, and all other forms of hate speech are not valid opinions to be respected. Period.

On a more heartwarming note, here are two things that refresh my faith in humanity:

A 14-year-old student gave an eloquent speech in defense of the high school teacher that took a stand against homophobia. I was touched.

A mother proudly defended her son's right to wear whatever he wants for Halloween and correctly points to other mothers' judgmental attitudes as the problem. This was an amazing and uplifting piece to read.