Wednesday, December 12, 2012

There's abuse and there's abuse and there's narratives

I had written a somewhat long post that I have refrained, so far, from publishing.  

And I'm going to publish this one instead, although I'd like to make a point or two in this post that will have been made in the other post, if I decide to publish that one. (That one's just a bit too incendiary perhaps.)

Let's stipulate that some women were harmed as a result of abuse by Sasaki Roshi - though I have absolutely positively no first hand knowledge of any events in the matter.  My interest is that of a lay practitioner in the Rinzai school, as well as a guy who's known his share of bad things flown his way and all related suffering to that.  Not to mention all the crap that I've inflicted on others as well.

But were all women who interacted with Sasaki Roshi harmed, and were they all harmed to the same degree?

Likely not.  This is not to minimize the suffering of all who were greatly harmed but it is to point out a fact that is sometimes lost, especially if one is too attached to a narrative.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion mentioned that he was the recipient of highly inappropriate sexual advances on the part of some clergy member.  But Dawkins makes a very interesting point, one that I heartily endorse.   That point is that the abuse of children by attempting - and succeeding often - at convincing  them they are fundamentally damaged goods who will suffer the fires of hell for eternity can be far more damaging and widespread than the incidents of sexual abuse by Christian clergy. 

He's right. 

He's so right.

I was never sexually abused by clergy, but I sure as hell was the recipient of various forms of abuse predicated upon the above narrative. 

We should be careful about the narratives we are prescribing for the harm we see around us.


genkaku said...

Nice point. I wonder if there are any prescriptions -- any at all -- that do not bring with them the very real possibility of doing harm. I doubt it. Good or bad, there's always some mess that needs cleaning up.

Mumon K said...

I have seen marriages of friends end over poor narratives accepted by one party after being "suggested" by "counselors."

Some of those folks are, as my lawyer brother would call it, "real pieces of work."

Algernon said...

Very important, this. I had a relationship that meant a great deal to me seriously undermined by a counselor wielding a certain narrative about men and women. Ending therapy actually helped for a while, but a new narrative about money took over and ended things definitively.

My wife was terrorized in her childhood by a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher and the impression lingers well into her adulthood.

NellaLou said...

This is a really important point. A lot of women who are abused/assaulted/"taken advantage of" are fed a narrative that disempowers them. I read a good piece on that in the New Inquiry by a sex worker. She wrote:

"If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only “learn” to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives."

The whole piece Live Through This is worth reading. It's pretty raw and graphic though. Just a warning.

This is part of the reason why people have to stay in control of their own experience and not adopt narratives others want to shove down their throats. And it's mostly self-proclaimed do-gooders that want to do the shoving.

I'm glad you brought this up.

Algernon said...

...and just to add something to this problem: As Narrative A is imposed, and someone attempts to defend the possibility of Non-Narrative A (or hey, No Narrative itself), the defenders of A levy charges of Thought Crime.

Let the witch trials begin.

David Musgrove said...

Nearly every field recognizes the unequal relationship between authority figures and their subordinates. Counselors, teachers, employers, clergy...all discouraged from and reprimanded for sexual relations with those under their charge.

Sad some in the Zen community ignore what the 'un-enlightened' see so clearly.

Mumon K said...


Most organizations have some kind of procedure for dealing with what is abuse, not consensual relations; the major issues regarding consensual relations are conflicts of interest, which in themselves are only a problem if there IS a conflict of interest, which might not be the case (or might be) in a sangha.

Human communities are human communities, and organizations with "zero tolerance" have their own sicknesses engendered by zero tolerance.

Thanks, you hit the point I wanted to make I think better than I did in my original post, where I neglected to mention that Dawkins did not find his abuse particularly traumatic.

The point is also makeable with other things, as well, including the 12 Step approach to substance abuse (addicts never "recover" they are always "recovering") and, the latest was the brouhaha where some "professionals" wanted to lump grief over death with depression in the DSM!

Barbara O'Brien said...

Mumon -- I agree with your point about sexual abuse and narratives, and that the greater damage is done by shame and guilt harbored by the abused than by the abuse itself.

But there's narratives, and there's narratives. At my place I've been arguing that the real issue vis a vis Sasaki Roshi isn't sex or sexual morality but bigotry. The "narrative" I see coming out of Sasaki Roshi's sangha is that women are second-class students there. When a woman reports being groped to senior students, and the senior students just laugh about it, to me this is similar to taking African American students aside and telling them to fix lunch while the white folks meditate.

It's my understanding that this kind of gender bias is what caused the late Maurine Stuart to part company with Eido Shimano Roshi and burn the rakusu he had given her. By all accounts she was a strong woman and nobody's victim. And I've never heard that she was sexually exploited herself. She grew disgusted because women generally were being treated as less worthy than men in that sangha.

While it may be true that shame and guilt do the real damage, it's also damaging to expect people to swallow their feelings and be good sports about something that feels demeaning and, well, icky. You could make an argument that one shouldn't feel demeaned, but "should" is irrelevant here. People feel what they feel. And going along with nonsense you don't like because an authority figure tells you to is hardly liberating. "Liberating" would be to smack Roshi upside the head with his hossu and tell him to keep his mitts to himself. I suspect the senior sangha wouldn't laugh about that, though.

Let me be clear that I am not sanctifying victimhood. Nobody reaches adulthood without some wounds, and ultimately we have to heal ourselves. I get very tired of people insisting that their particular abuse narrative trumps everyone else's and entitles them to deference. But I'm very certain that if I had been subjected to groping or sexual exploitation as a new Zen student, I would not be an old Zen student now.

Mumon K said...

Barbara -

Your point is definitely valid, and I would not for a minute want what I'm saying to be any kind of approval of anything inherently demeaning and dehumanizing towards women, or any other kind of abuse in the name of authority.

I think in fact your point is in concord with my point as well.

I also think what made this particular affair a bit different from the Gempo & Eido Shimano situations is that the first thing i.e., the "god quote") we heard, although heavily distorted from what I would take as consonant with Zen practice, raised a question (in particular by Brad Warner). That question was, "Was there abuse?"

That in fact is a legitimate question, with the probable answer of yes, and for the reasons you and others have pointed out.

But that led to other questions, which the on-line sangasphere is grappling with.