Some Thoughts about Steven Simpson’s Murderer’s Sentences

Steven Simpson was an autistic, gay man brutally burned to death at a party (his birthday party). For some background, see this Huffington Post, this NineMSN, or this Daily Mail article.

He wasn’t murdered. No, he just had anti-gay hate messages sprawled on his stomach, face, and arm. He then had his groin set on fire. Oh, that didn’t kill the man. No, he survived in what I can only imagine being the worst possible pain until the next day, when he died at the hospital. The person who did this act didn’t try to put out the fire (according to the Daily Mail), but instead ran away. In fact, nobody tried to put the fire out until a neighbor – not at this party – intervened. Then the murderer tried to say that the man lit himself on fire.

Again, from the Daily Mail:

Passing sentence, Judge Roger Keen told Sheard that the evening had involved ‘good-natured horseplay’ but that putting a flame to a man doused in flammable fluid was ‘a highly dangerous act’.

No, homophobic insults and trying to humiliate a vulnerable person is not “good natured horseplay.” Certainly lighting a man’s groin on fire goes beyond “dangerous act.”

The murderer received 3.5 years for manslaughter.

Let me help out judges and prosecutors everywhere by giving some definitions and examples:

Prank or “Good-Natured Horseplay”

  • Something that the person it is done to will laugh with you about.
  • Typically does not involve having racist, bigoted, or homophobic statements intended to humiliate you.
  • Does not involve inflicting intentional great pain
  • Is reciprocal – you might prank me as a friend, and I might pull a prank of similar magnitude on you later
  • Done by friends
  • If it goes wrong, people stick around and help. There is deep concern when this happens.
  • Oh, pranks are funny, not hate-fueled.

Murder

  • Might involve fire
  • Murderer typically does not want to face consequences
  • Persons committing it do not provide medical help to the victim
  • Sometimes fueled by hate, bigotry, and homophobia

I’d add that anyone that can hear someone who must have been in the pain Steven was in screaming and crying for help and then turn their back and leave…well, that’s not good-natured fun. That is also, IMHO, murder.

I am glad a neighbor showed Steven some humanity and did his best to help, even to the point of receiving his own burns. That’s what anyone should be expected to do, but when it mattered only Sean Banner did it. The murderers (referred to as pranksters by the defense attorney) didn’t help and didn’t care about the human they tortured and killed.

My prayers are with the family of Steven, who lost someone they loved and haven’t seen justice. I can’t imagine what that is like.

You’re No Ally of Mine

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Bible (don’t worry, I’m not going to try changing your religion), there’s a parable told about a man who was travelling, beat, and essentially left for dead alongside a road.  Two people walked by individually, neither stopping for the nearly-dead man.  Finally, a third man walks by, helps the man, finds the man a place to recover, and pays the man’s bills.  Jesus relates the story and then asks, “Who, then, was this man’s neighbor?” followed by “And, then, go and do likewise.”

We also saw who was and wasn’t a neighbor – or ally – in rape and sexual assault.  No, I’m not talking just Steubenville.    Or India where bystanders ignored a naked, bleeding couple following a brutal attack.  In fact, famously, it was studied after a 1964 rape in New York City, where despite screaming in a crowded urban area for 30 minutes, a woman was raped and murdered without any apparent action by witnesses, as the following video shows:

While bystander inaction in rape is absolutely beyond understanding, there’s a few things to note. I’m guessing that many of the bystanders in Steubenville, India, and New York felt that they were decent human beings. They would probably talk about how hard it is to be a lone voice, which nobody would contest. But they were no ally of the victim. In fact, their silence demonstrates that they frankly didn’t give a damn about the victim. Oh, sure, they might have in an abstract sense, but when the rubber met the road, they didn’t.

Rape is not the only place where bystanders do nothing. Too often, when a member of a minority group is harassed or belittled, the “good” people who bystanders do nothing. Let me tell you something – if you stand by inactive even for “minor” (ya, right) harassment and bullying:

You are no ally of mine.

Again: You are no ally of mine.

Being an ally isn’t a passive activity that you get to do only when it’s comfortable and nice and you don’t have to risk upsetting a friend or acquiescent. It’s not an activity that you only need to do when you know everyone around you will agree with you. It’s not passive. It’s not just “believing” that people shouldn’t be hurt, abused, raped, taunted, bullied, etc. That’s not enough. It’s not even enough that you, yourself don’t do these things, if you passively agree to them when they happen. You don’t get a “get out of jail card” for callously standing around while someone is hurt just because you didn’t actually say the words / commit the act. No, you sat there and watched someone do something horrible and felt that it was more okay for that horrible thing to happen than for you to get uncomfortable.

You are no ally of mine.

Is being an ally hard? Of course. There is a difference between a weak-willed well-wisher with no backbone and an ally. The well-wisher with no backbone creates no change.

Am I saying you have to respond every single time you see someone being mistreated? Well, yes. Even if it’s dangerous? Yes. Again, yes. Yes, even if it is dangerous. Yes.

Now, I’m not telling you to get into a physical altercation with someone that will just beat the shit out of you. Of course that would be stupid. But you can do things. Whether it is taking good note of the perpetrators to be a good witness, calling the police, asking “is that person bothering you,” or even comforting the victim after the attack, there’s something you can do. But you can’t do nothing. Even if you can’t do everything. If you don’t…

You are no ally of mine.

You also don’t get a pass when someone is insulted or verbally harassed and they don’t seem bothered by it. You see, the victim that is marginalized, abused, belittled, and probably way more scared than you are is a victim. When you’re not that target, you need to speak up or do something for the person who can’t.

Let’s give an example, using race. You and a group of your white friends (pretend you’re white for a minute, even if you aren’t) are eating lunch with another of your mutual friends, who is black. When one of your white friends calls your black friend “monkey lips” or some other racist bullshit. Maybe he’s joking. Maybe he’s not. Doesn’t matter. Your responsibility is to call out the bullshit. Even if your black friend doesn’t visibly appear bothered. His appearance of not being bothered may simply be a coping mechanism, a defense. You, as a person of privilege (white privilege in this case) have a position where you are at less risk personally if you stand up for what is right. So it doesn’t matter that the person without privilege didn’t speak up, you still need to do that. And you don’t need his permission (although if this happens a lot around you, you probably should discuss and defer to him as to what your response should be – but if you haven’t done that, you need to assume you should respond). The only exception to this is if your friend, the victim, says that he’s okay with it. Even if you don’t agree, he’s the victim, he gets to make that call – don’t persist at that point. But up to that point, you have a responsibility. If you just sit there because you don’t know what he wants…

You’re no ally of mine.

Sure, if you tell a friend that his joking is racist, he might get upset. You may even lose a friend. Here’s where you need to know what is important to you. And here is where we find out if an ally believes something because it’s right or merely because of social expectation. If you believe it’s right, you stand up. You take risks. You might get hurt. But you do the right thing. If you value not upsetting your friend more than you value me not getting hurt…

You’re no ally of mine.

It also doesn’t matter if it’s just words or a joke, wrong pronouns for a transgender person (accidentally or intentionally), stereotypes about people, or even something that a lot of people around agree with or laugh at. Even in these “little” things (which are anything but to someone subjected to them daily), you need to speak out or act up. Because they become bigger things. Your silent approval (and your silence is always approval) gives license to see where the line is. If the line isn’t verbal harassment, maybe a slight physical touch won’t be a problem either. And when you don’t speak up there, maybe it will escalate more. You need to speak up. You can remain silent, but just don’t call yourself an ally of mine.

You’re no ally of mine.

Now, you’ve probably not acted at some point when you should have. Change. Seriously. And let the victim of your silence know you are sorry. Don’t expect them to kiss you and tell you how wonderful you are for your new view on life. They probably won’t. You still hurt them, and words that don’t involve risk are still just words. You’ll have to earn your ally status back. You will have to put actions – and risk – to work.

Again, speaking up isn’t always the right thing. Again, you can do any number of things. Anything other than nothing. If you want to be my ally, or someone else’s ally, that’s what you’ll do. I don’t care if your thoughts about me are pure if those thoughts never leave your head when they matter. So let them out. Take the risk. And actually be an ally. You don’t get to be both passive and an ally.

Stopping Harassment or Just Stopping Harassment Claims

I’ve been looking for some good adult anti-bullying/anti-harassment training material.  Unfortunately, I’m looking for cheap stuff (preferably free), as I’m not doing this for a for-profit organization, but for a community group.  So I can’t afford “$50 per employee” or such.  I’m also looking for something a bit more general than just sexual harassment (ideally it would cover harassment on the basis of race or disability, as well as other areas).

Unfortunately almost everything I have is full of problems:

Problem 1: The Focus

The biggest problem has been the focus of the material.  Most is about avoiding claims.  While I realize that talking about how much a successful lawsuit against a company can cost might convince a corporate officer to pay for some training material (“See, you’ll save money!”), that’s not what I’m after.  I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about checking a box that says “Yes, we’ve trained people.  So you can’t sue us. Ha-ha-ha!  And we don’t actually have to stop abuse!  Ha-ha-ha!”  But that’s exactly what I’ve found.

Maybe I’m unfairly characterizing some of this stuff.  But go do your own Google search for harassment training, and report what you find.  Most is marketed as “when your people harass each other, now you can say, ‘I trained them!  So you can’t sue me.  I tried.”  Sorry, no.  First, that’s not what the law says.  But I’m not a lawyer so I probably shouldn’t go there.  Second, and more importantly, there’s a huge difference between trying to reduce claims and trying to reduce actual harassment.  Reducing harassment has a neat side effect of reducing claims, although not necessarily the other way around.

For instance, see Best Practices for Preventing Workplace Harassment – a site you  might expect to tell you how to create a decent workplace, at least regarding harassment.  Nope!  It has gems like this:

Harassment claims are bad for business. They hurt productivity and morale, can make it harder to retain qualified employees, and can damage your organization’s reputation through negative media coverage. Also, dealing with a harassment claim could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and even larger amounts in settlements, judgments, and punitive damage awards.

Seriously?  Let me let you in on a hint: Harassment even without a “claim” is bad for business and hurts productivity and morale!  I’m not saying this site isn’t giving good legal advice (it likely is).  But eliminating liability shouldn’t be anyone’s major reason for teaching people how to stop sexual harassment.

Problem 2: Discouraging People from Seeking Solutions

A few years ago, the employer I was with (not my current one) made us watch a supposedly anti-harassment video for, presumably, liability reasons.  I say “made us” because  it was clear this was simply a requirement of the company based on sound legal advice – not something that actually mattered in our lives or to our managers.  But I’ll put that aside and move onto the content of the video.  After all, it’s possible that the tool itself wasn’t bad, even if the presentation of the tool to employees was.

After watching the video, it became clear that there was a theme.  The theme was “not everything is harassment.”  Well, duh.  Along with valid points (yes, having a romance between coworkers that is mutual, consensual  and doesn’t create a conflict of interest is fine), it kept emphasizing this point.  What point, exactly?  It was essentially saying, “You might be bothered by something, but that doesn’t make it harassment.  There’s a high bar for harassment.”  The subtle message conveyed was that your (likely real) harassment might not be real enough.  After all, one of the biggest doubts victims of abuse have is that they were actually abused.

Following the “you weren’t really harassed” nonsense, it progressed into talk about how your management would have to do a deep, invasive investigation to figure out the truth, because, basically, you might be a liar.  Sure, they told you (quickly and quietly) that there would be no retaliation for reporting harassment – but the message conveyed was quite different.  It was, “it probably wasn’t harassment, you’re just overreacting.  And even if it was, you don’t want to go through this horrible process that doesn’t respect that if you really are a victim that you might feel scared, powerless, and concerned about even reporting it.”

I suspect this is typical of these videos (along with cheesy acting and bad attempts to use “common” vernacular street terms to demonstrate what is and isn’t harassment, but likely using terms that would never be used by anyone outside of an HR department’s classroom.

Problem 3: Too Much Focus on Distinctions

Almost every training curriculum out there spends a lot of time talking about what is harassment (particularly, what is sexual harassment?).  They focus an amazing amount of time on the distinction between quid-pro-quo harassment and hostile environment harassment.  Now, while this might be interesting and useful to lawyers, it doesn’t help anyone.  Both types of harassment are illegal and immoral, and both types should not be seen in any decent organization.  I don’t know that someone who is a victim of harassment cares whether or not he can label it “quid-pro-quo” or “hostile environment.”  He just wants it stopped.

And that’s my concern.  Rather than making us memorize definitions (ah, but there’s a test at the end!  And it’s harder to test for “decent human being” than “was able to remember the difference between definition A and definition B”), it might be better to focus on how to stop harassment.  Most people only need a short lesson on what is inappropriate (basically, “it doesn’t matter if you’re asking for sexual favors as a supervisor or you are just a coworker making crude jokes about someone’s anatomy – it’s wrong either way.”).  What each type of harassment is called isn’t nearly as important as (1) recognizing it is harassment and (2) knowing what to do.

Problem 4: Response to Harassment

I’ve only come across a few sites that don’t immediately say “go talk to your harasser in private” or similar.  They convey an expectation that if you aren’t just trying to get money from the company, you would talk to the harasser first.  After all, she might not know what she’s doing is wrong.  Or so the theory goes.

Certainly, there are times when a private one-on-one discussion makes sense and can solve an issue.  But harassment is often not one of those times.  Much harassment takes advantage of power differences – a man harassing a woman, a non-disabled person harassing a disabled person, a (supposedly) Christian man harassing a Muslim, etc.  These aren’t equal power – these are groups that have legitimate reasons to fear physical and other attack and abuse from the world.  So asking someone to talk to their harasser…well, that can shut down the whole process right there.

Even if the person isn’t scared to do so, what do you say? What do you do?  That’s rarely talked about, and if talked about at all, it’s talked about rarely.

Some programs get that the best time to confront someone is right when they speak the bigotry, hatred, racism, misogyny, etc.  But then they get it wrong what the response of the victim should be.  First, let me say in most cases, the victim should not need to respond.  Someone else should.  Most harassment is witnessed by others.  But, all too often, the rest of a room remains silent.  Sometimes there isn’t others there.  Either way, sometimes the victim can stop further abuse by speaking up.

It’s important to note a few things here.  There are two possible reasons someone said or did something inappropriate.  Either they knew it was wrong or they didn’t! If they didn’t, and they are a decent human being, a simple quick rebuke should extract an apology and behavior change.  Failing that (or where it is obvious it’s intentionally malicious, sexist, racist, etc), the best response I’ve seen is public shaming.  Confronting the harasser in private protects the harasser, but doesn’t help the victim.  The best example I can think of this was when a woman coworker was grabbed by the arm by a man coworker to keep her from leaving his office until he finished his lecture to her.  She responded by shouting, very loudly, “Don’t touch me.  Don’t ever touch me again.”  She was alone in the office with him, but this shout got the attention of half the building – and got her support if he were ever to do it again.  He didn’t.

What doesn’t work, ever, is ignoring it or using humor and jokes.  Yet, that’s exactly what’s recommended by North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Anti-Harassment Training:

… here are some standard responses, said lightly and jokingly that might be useful:

“Uh-Oh! That’s sexual harassment — you had better watch out before you get in big trouble.”

“Is this a test to see how I handle sexual harassment? (This could also be said without humor. See previous suggestion.)

“Are you sexually harassing me again? I’m going to have to call the sexual harassment committee (EEOC, my attorney, the affirmative action officer, etc.) right now.

Uh, no (in fairness to the State of NC, this training looks relatively old and does have some good in it as well – but they really miss the mark here).

No, the right response, if any, is to tell they harasser they are wrong.  And to stop.  Now.

Problem 5: Making it the Victim’s Problem

Most harassment doesn’t happen in isolated spaces with nobody else around.  But, rather than creating an environment where everyone speaks up when they see abuse or harassment, most bystandards are silent when harassment occurs – or may even laugh with inappropriate jokes or remarks.

That doesn’t mean the bystandards are comfortable – they probably aren’t.  But, at the same time, they’ve acted in a way that says to the victim, “Your well-being is less important than me not stirring up anything.  I don’t care about you.

Yes, that’s what you say when you stay silent.

Yet few trainings on harassment, and even fewer policies, make those who observe harassment accountable for giving power to the abuser through silence.  Instead, they focus on “what could the victim have done?”  No, the victim didn’t do anything to deserve to be harassed.  So the question is, “How could the asshole be stopped?” That involves everyone else (all of us!) speaking up and let him have it verbally when we observe harassment.  Sure, it take courage.  And it’s hard.  But it’s a lot easier for us than the victim.

When this doesn’t happen, we should be accountable.  Seriously.  We can give the victim or the harasser power – doing nothing always works in favor of promoting harassment.

In addition, when we observe this crap, we need to report it.  We were witnesses and can strengthen the case.  This person very likely doesn’t just have one victim during one incident.  By keeping silent, we allow him or her to continue.

So…HELP!!!

Does anyone know of any anti-bullying/anti-harassment training that doesn’t have these problems, is cheap or free, and which focuses on a wide spectrum of harassment, not just sexual harassment?  If so, I’d love to know about it.

 

Just Expressing My Feelings…Let Us Hate Things Together

The comments in an article on Autistic Hoya’s site, “My Heart Breaks for Your Child,” got me thinking about how often people, when called out about awful things that are said about someone simply respond with something like, “I’m just being honest about my feelings.  I can’t help the way I feel.”

Feeling a certain way doesn’t make that thing either true or right.  If I felt that I was in danger when a hispanic family moves in next to me, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am actually in danger (heck, I might feel safe if a white family moves in next to me, but they might actually be mass murderers).  In this case, racism is racism, even if a person is a sincere racist (really, is there any other kind?).

Maybe people who experience racism prefer people to be up front about their feelings and hope racists tell the world about their racism.  I don’t know.  But even if people prefer this, I can’t imagine that makes them like the racist, nor does it take away the ugly part inside the racist.  Even if the racist is honest and sincere.

The most common way this is expressed in the disability world is a parent (sadly, it’s often a parent) who says, “I wish I didn’t have a disabled child.”  There are two things here that need to be deconstructed a bit:

  1. Most of the time they do have a disabled child.  It is the child they have, and to not want a disabled child is to not want their child.  I can hear the screams of some readers now…”But that’s not what I mean!”  That’s fine.  I can understand that sometimes you might use the wrong words.  Now you know how your words come across, so please choose different ones.  But if you insist that these words aren’t what you mean, but continue using them, don’t expect sympathy from me.
  2. Getting past not wanting a child, what many people mean by this is that they don’t want their child to have the bad things that they associate with disability.  Fair enough – who would want any child to have bad things?  But the problem here is that you’ve confused disability and bad things.  Also, you may consider disability-associated traits from a perspective of a non-disabled person and make assumptions that aren’t actually valid from the perspective of a disabled person.

I’m not going to focus on the first point.  I don’t think most parents saying they don’t want an autistic kid (or a kid with another disability) are talking about the first point.  Generally, I’m not going to question most people on whether or not they want their child – I assume they love and cherish their child, even if they say stupid things.  But, I do ask for more precision in language however, as, sadly, there are parents that are selfish enough to neglect and abuse their disabled children because they – the parents – don’t like the impact of the disability on the parents’ lives.  I hope most parents don’t want to accidentally be grouped into that category!

So I’ll focus on the second part of this.  Your feelings if you are talking about not wanting the bad things associated with disability are an expression of your beliefs.

And it’s these beliefs that concern disabled people – because you’ll be making many, many decisions on the basis of these beliefs.  If your premise is wrong, your conclusion is going to be wrong.

Let me talk about some of the bad things that parents who say they don’t want a disabled kid mean when they say they don’t want them for their kids.

  1. Medical Issues: A child might have severe medical issues, either associated with disability or not.  For instance, a child might have a heart defect that could kill them at a young age (the child doesn’t need to be in the typical categories of disabled to have this, I might add, but that’s not really relevant here – I’ll grant some disabilities make this more likely).  I can’t imagine what it’s like to be worried about your child dying.  I wouldn’t wish that for anyone.  So, yes, I agree, that’s a fine thing to wish your child didn’t deal with.  But focus on the medical problem, not disabilities as a whole.
  2. Social Stigma and Prejudice: A lot of disabled people are badly treated by society.  This, too, is a fine thing to wish your child didn’t have to deal with.  Note however that this isn’t your child’s characteristic.  He is the victim, not the one that needs to change.  When the desire of a heart is that a person not be disabled so they won’t be mistreated, that expresses a subtle prejudice that considers the victim’s treatment inevitable if the disability remains – and inevitability means that it’s not worth trying to change things.  It’s not inevitable.  We can make the world a better place.  You don’t wish a woman who was raped was instead a man, so that she wouldn’t have experienced this horrible crime against her.  You instead wish that all men would treat women decently, that women would see justice when that doesn’t happen, and that society would take the problem seriously.  And your hope might even spur you to action, since there is no hopeless inevitability here.
  3. Loss of Opportunities: It’s also fine to wish a child had an opportunity that would be appropriate to them.  Sometimes we don’t get the chance in life that someone else might get.  This is true for all of us – maybe that company doesn’t ask you in for an interview after receiving your resume, even though you would be a great fit.  Or maybe you don’t meet up with the perfect spouse that is out there, just not where you are.  When the loss of opportunity is related to prejudice, see #2 above – it’s not the disability, it’s the bigot or prejudiced people that are at fault.  But there are two other possibilities too.  First, your child might have dreams that are unfulfilled because your child lacks the ability to fulfill those dreams, even if opportunities were given.  I’ll talk about that in #4.  Second, what I’ll talk about here, is that sometimes the lost opportunity isn’t necessarily something that the child wants.  I’m sure my dad, before I was born, pictured himself playing all sorts of sports with me.  But I’m pretty darn unathletic.  Not only that, I really had no desire to play the sports!  It was his dream, not mine.  And that’s nothing to do with my disability.  So wishing my disability away to solve it is, again, the wrong approach.  It’s his unfulfilled dream, not mine!
  4. Inability to Fulfill Dreams and Desires: I’m not talking about lost opportunities.  I’m talking about the dreams we might have that we simply will never accomplish, no matter how much we might try or how much society changes.  Unfulfilled dreams are, sadly, a part of all of our lives.  Someone might want to play pro football as a kid – but they simply aren’t professional league material.  No matter how hard they try, that dream will be unfulfilled.  For some people, that can be extremely depressing.  Part of the job of the wider community is to help people discover the things that match their aptitude, interests, and personality and provide the opportunities to pursue them, gently guiding people towards these incredible dreams.  It’s important to realize however how many greats were previously told that excelling in their field was impossible for them.  Just because I think someone can’t become a pro football player doesn’t mean I’m right!  But at the same time, how many people get to have the fairy tale life they dreamed of as kids?  Does that mean our lives all suck?
  5. Perceived Loss: I can’t imagine being blind.  I suspect a lot of parents can’t either, even if they have a blind child.  To me, thinking of losing my sight causes feelings of fear.  I think of how sad it would be to not do so many of the things I enjoy.  But, again, much of this is based on my perspective as a sighted person!  If I were to close my eyes (the best I can do to imagine the blind experience) and walk around my house, I’d break things (maybe even parts of myself!).  It would be hard.  I couldn’t get to work.  I don’t know how I would cook or take care of myself.  It would be exceptionally hard emotionally.  But of course that would be as someone with no experience being blind!  Someone who lives daily with being blind learns how to get around their house without breaking things (or themself), learns how to get to work, learns how to take care of themself, learns how to cook, etc.  Maybe some things need to be done differently, or maybe they need help that sighted people generally don’t (outside of rich people who have staff to cook and clean for them, anyway).  Of course maybe they don’t need the help that I, as a sighted person, would think they need!  Telling a blind person, “I wish my child wasn’t blind,” is saying, “My child has lost so much by not being able to see.”  That’s very likely not the blind person’s perspective – particularly if that person has accomplished many of their own dreams!
  6. I don’t want to suffer: Sometimes the parent saying this is, themselves, suffering.  They may lack support.  They may be depressed.  They may not know how they are going to get through another day.  Again, this is a problem the parent is experiencing, and that is where the focus needs to be – to help the parent, not to wish for a magical cure pill for the child.

Now, I know that there are plenty of disabled people who have internalized these messages and think, “If I wasn’t disabled, my life wouldn’t suck.”  They may even be right (although I doubt life would be as rosy as they might imagine).  But I think much of this comes from disability being a convient thing to blame for all the problems of life.   And of course these disabled people are brought out front-and-center every time this debate comes up, to show how my part of the disabled experience is invalid.  But, no, they also do not have the fullness of the disabled experience anymore than I do!  It’s only one element of the whole of disabled experience.

Nor is someone who hates their life and blames it on disability “more disabled” than everyone who loves their life.  Things don’t work that way.  Level of disability, however you categorize it, has nothing to do with happiness.  I think research here would be worthwhile – what makes a disabled person’s life better?  I say that because I see people who can do many things I can’t who hate their lives, and I see many people who can’t do many things I can who enjoy their lives.  It’s not about ability.  It’s about other things – probably the very things that matter to us all like a connection to other people (yes, even “profoundly” disabled children seek that, although it’s not necessarily recognized as what it is), a safe place to be, meeting your basic life needs, and the chance to pursue the achievable dreams.  None of this is helped by a parent expressing feelings that disability is to blame.

I know in my life, it’s pretty simple to figure out what made me happy and what made me depressed.  When I feared for my life from other kids, when I was being abused by other kids, when I experienced the shame and humiliation daily around other kids…well, I probably would have taken a magic cure pill had it been offered.  I hated who I was, after all.  Everyone (including teachers and other adults) told me that if I was someone else, I wouldn’t be experiencing this.  The victim was blamed. My disability was blamed.  I was blamed.  I imagine these people were sincere, though.

Do you know what happened when I left that town one day in the mid 1990s?  Every day – yes, every day – has been better than those days.  Even my worst day in the many years since is better than the days when I was facing that abuse.  I thank God, literally, that I made it and that I somehow retained some of who I am – my essence – through it all.

Now, I’m not saying everyone who hates being disabled does so because of bullying.   That’s not the case.  Nor am I saying my life is all wonderful and that all my problems are solved.  I still have plenty of problems.  I still have sad days.  I still have days that are miserable.  But I’ve experienced good days, wonderful times, and things that make me glad I’m alive.  No, it’s not because I’m less disabled than someone else.  It’s because I’ve had good experience and a full life.

So, when I hear disability blamed for misery, even if it is a sincere belief, I know that belief is hogwash.  It’s not about disability, it’s about other things.  Let’s hate those other things together.

Thanksgiving, Star Trek, Abuse, and Miracles

For people in the US, Happy Thanksgiving!

I’m thankful for…

  • My freedom
  • My wife
  • My survival
  • My friends
  • Star Trek
Let me explain.

Sometimes life is hard.  But just surviving those hard times makes me thankful.  I’m thankful that when I tried to take my life as a child, I failed.  I’m thankful for all the stupid little things that kept me alive in the midst of abuse.  I’m thankful that these things gave me a reason to wait just another day or even hour.  I’m very thankful.

I spent much of my childhood terrified that I was going to be killed by classmates (there are a few instances where I think it was but for a miracle that they didn’t).  Much of it was without friends, only tormenters.  I remember almost feeling like I was looking at myself from the outside, being burned, punched, spit on, urinated upon, and things even worse than this.  I remember the humiliation of it all, and it still hurts – 20 or even 25 years later.  I remember being locked in seclusion for two weeks straight while at school because I told the truth (I didn’t do it.  Really.).  I remember running for my life, running to a teacher, where I was laughed at and told to be a man.  I remember other abuse, and the shame that comes with it.  I wanted to disappear most of the time, even as I was crushed under the loneliness of my life.

I know that others can relate.  Others have stories even more horrifying, although I would never try to compare one form of hopelessness, humiliation, and shame with someone else’s.  In the end it takes a miracle to make it through it.

My miracle came in many forms.  It was often something very small, something that just gave me a reason to make it through one more day or maybe just one more hour.  I mentioned I’m thankful for Star Trek.  Sometimes just wanting to watch the next episode of The Next Generation was enough to give me a reason – something I desperately wanted at the same time I desperately wanted to die – to hold off, at least for a little bit.  There were plenty of other things – maybe I told someone I’d help them with something.  Maybe my cat curled up in my lap.  Maybe I wanted to finish the chapter of the book. These might seem like small things, but they aren’t.  They were life and death.  They gave me just enough reason to hold off.

I am thankful to God for putting those things in my life.  Star Trek wasn’t made to save my life.  It was made to sell advertising for a bunch of products that people didn’t know they needed.  Yet somehow that was sufficient when I needed it, as were the hundreds of other things used to give me just enough hope or just enough reason to wait it out.

I’m so very glad I waited it out.  It’s not because of any strength of character or supernatural ability.  It was stupid little things.  No, that’s not right – it was because of the miracles that God put in my life to turn my focus away from the horrors of my reality, for just a little bit.

I’m thankful that this is no longer my reality, and I’m thankful for this in my autistic friends who also somehow made it through childhood.  My life is a good life today.  I have a wonderful wife.  I live in a nice town, a full day’s drive from the hell hole of my childhood.  I have a great job.  Nobody has tried to urinate on me, burn me, rape me, or assault me for the last 17 years – about half my life now.  I don’t feel that shame or humiliation that was so incredibly horrible and hopeless.  Things did get better, from the minute I left my hometown at 4:00 AM on the first day I could (that is, the first day that the dorms opened at my university at 8:00 AM, a 4 hour drive away from home).  I’ve been able to come to peace with my childhood – recognizing the horrors that no innocent child should ever know, while also recognizing it’s affect – good and bad – on my character and who I am today.  I’m thankful for the empathy it has given me.

So things did get better for me.  But, still, I’m most thankful for those times when I was 8, 9, 12, 14, 16 or whatever when the only thing that I could see that was worth staying alive for was the next episode of Star Trek.  Perhaps our perseverations aren’t merely deficits or disordered.  Perhaps they are survival.

Along with my prayers of thanksgiving this holiday will be prayers for those who feel they don’t have hope or must endure another day of abuse on this holiday.  I’m praying for miracles.  If that’s you, please find something – ANYTHING – that can get you through this day.  It’s okay if it seems stupid or small.  It’s not if it gets you through another day.  Don’t worry about tomorrow if that’s too much – focus on just getting through the here and now.  I don’t know what you’re going through, and I can’t pretend I know how much pain you’re in.  I just know that I endured a lot of pain, a lot of abuse, a lot of hopelessness, and I’m glad today that I made it through.  I’m glad you somehow have made it this far, against all odds.  And I’m thankful for that miracle too, even while I pray and hope for your next miracle.