“This is how I keep myself from killing people!”
This is a line I hear pop out of my mouth when showing off my abundantly blooming gardens. The first time I heard myself say those words, I was uncomfortable. I am not a violent person. I never have been. I have painful memories and traumas and spent many years in therapy, coming to terms with “soul murder” as incest has been called. I am greatly healed, but when that phrase comes out, I recognize a deep pool of rage from growing up abused and living in this sexist, violent, racist culture. Yesterday I was tense and I couldn’t figure out what triggered it. Oh, right. It was the headline in the New York Times: “Jeffrey Epstein commits suicide.” Rage. Anger. Right on the surface. I transferred my anger into the spade as I stabbed it into the grass to dig a new garden for day-lilies.
Of course he commits suicide, in jail, despite attempting suicide, in jail a week ago. Wasn’t that predictable? His victims, at least dozens, if not many more, teenage girls over the last few decades, were trafficked as sex slaves who gave the rich and powerful men in Epstein’s circle. “Massages” a thinly veiled term for rape. Our culture is sick. Rich white men are privileged and rarely held accountable. All of Epstein’s friends knew of his tendency of “liking” young women, and no one violated his trust by reporting this.
Sex Trafficking Seminar
Last week attend a “Sex Trafficking” seminar required by Michigan legislation for all health care providers in the state. As a survivor, I find these stories are familiar and hard to take in for two hours. Vulnerable children in poverty, immigrants, teens, LGBT youth kicked out of their homes, innocent young people are all lured in by individual attention they rarely got elsewhere into the sex trafficking underworld. Jeffrey Epstein was the problem, and he employed his own abused girls to recruit even more girls. Yet everyone knew and protected him. When journalist Vicky Ward published a profile on Epstein in 2003, she included the names of two victims who had spoken on the record to her of his abuses. The editor took them out.
Politicians both Democrats and Republicans, rich and powerful men and women all knew the truth of Epstein’s girls said nothing and did nothing. Over and over, he was protected by money and power and whiteness. The Judge was confounded when the Epstein’s Prosecutor caved in to a year of attacks from Epstein’s lawyers, and requested that Epstein no longer be charged as a level 3 Sex Offender, but be reduced to the minimal Level 1. Epstein was sent to prison for a time, but was allowed to leave prison to work at his office daily. And the United States attorney for New York’s Southern District, Geoffrey Berman, noted, “The defendant, a registered sex offender, is not reformed, he is not chastened, he is not repentant.”
Overcoming Childhood Abuse
I spent much of my 20s and early 30s in therapy, trying to come to terms with the fact in my very young life that I was raped by my father. I was raised to be a “good girl” and learned not to show my anger. Girls don’t get angry. I told a family therapist when I was in high school that I expressed anger by running upstairs to my room crying, slamming the door behind me. Only my father was allowed to show anger, and I was afraid of him. In my 30s, unable to express anger, I cried when confronting my boss. Dig that spade in the earth again. Take that anger and transform it into something acceptable, beautiful in the yard.
In Divinity School in 1985, I read Anne Wilson Schaef’s “Women’s Reality” which spoke deeply to me about women embracing their anger. I talked to my father about the book, and since he asked, I sent him a copy. He read it, but he poo-pooed as meaningless ranting. I asked my mother if she ever felt angry, thinking of when the private high School she taught at fired all the part-time teachers (including her) who all just happened to be women. She said no, she never felt anger. Mom’s backstory is that at age 2, when she and her older sister were punished for carving holes in the plaster walls of their home to play telephone, and she made a conscious decision to never get angry again. How does someone do that? Even now, I cannot remember a time when she was angry, except during the first stage of Alzheimer’s, when she chewed out my father, her husband of almost 60 years, for being a “know-it-all.” That outburst surprised me, because that was my father’s MO and she never before reacted to him.
My college Junior year I spent in Jerusalem and my parents visited during Easter/Passover. My father wrote up travel accounts and recently I read his take on that visit. I was shocked to see how frequently he wrote: “Chris is so angry” as though he didn’t see a young blonde woman’s daily, infuriating encounters. As I read, I realized I had forgotten how enraged I constantly felt. Growing up outside New York City, I had had my share of catcalls from men. All you have to do to is grow breasts! Ready or not, here come the and sexual wolf-whistles, which are not compliments. But the Mediterranean men harassed blonde women on a whole new intense and constant level. Daily life of was filled with blatant suggestive comments and rude gestures, even to the point of an Hassidic man ‘copping a feel’ when the bus was full. I was shocked, but admiring when a classmate on the bus grabbed a groper’s hand and yelled “who’s hand is this?!” I kept my eyes downcast, never looking anyone in the eye as I walked through the Shuk (Arab Market) for fear of attracting unwanted attention. At an Israeli party, a soldier met me at the door and suggested immediately that we have sex, because after all, “you are a woman and I am a man, and what else is there to do?” I said there were lots of other things, and I left. Maybe the men should feel shame at their actions, but instead I felt both shame and fear every time.
When I read my dad’s account of our visit on top of the Old City Walls I realized I had forgotten that they were present for one explicit incident, but they offered me no protection. They never saw what happened. While each was 15′ in front or behind me, a Palestinian man unzipped his fly and exposed himself at me. I felt threatened by his brazen gall, never before remembering my parents were close by. It also felt frightening, profoundly sad, and pathetic. Later my boyfriend told me to deal with this by looking at his crotch and laughing. Except I felt too threatened to actually laugh.
In my 30s while I was engaged psychotherapy, body and spiritual work on healing the wounds of incest. I found I dissociated a lot, and realized I always had. What an amazing survival skill dissociation is, that we all have! Those of us growing up in violent or abusive families develop this to a greater extent both to survive the abuse and not fully absorb the terror of it. I survived. And through therapy, I began to trust my body and my memories, and my perceptions of those men who made me uncomfortable. I healed and lived in my reality of pain and joy, as they occur.
Yesterday, while shoveling up grass to create yet another garden, sweating and aching, I channeled my rage with every dig. Usually a meditative chore, I found myself repeating with each impact: “So I learned to question MY reality, while men blithely go around raping girls and women. And everyone covers for them! No wonder I was never encouraged to believe my body or trust my sense of reality!” If I had, I would not be vulnerable like Epstein’s girls. Many were incested and abused at home, so at 14 years old they were primed to be manipulated as sexual objects for the rich and famous.
Senate Hearings and Presidents
My sexual abuse memories arose during the 1990s at the time of the Senate Confirmation Hearings on Clarence Thomas, nominee for the Supreme Court. I watched riveted to the TV as Anita Hill testified, clearly, politely and courageously. Joe Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill appalled me. Soon Bill Clinton made me extremely uncomfortable with his womanizing (Gennifer Flowers to Monica Lewinski). Hillary stayed at his side, defending him against the “vast, right wing conspiracy.” Hillary staying with him after he lied to her, Congress and the nation nauseated me. It seemed she stayed to keep political power.
More recently, Christine Blasey Ford, testified to the Senate Confirmation Hearings about another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. She calmly, carefully and honestly recalled details of his sexual attack with two friends when they all were in High School. She was belittled and berated, disbelieved and mocked, just as Anita Hill was a quarter century earlier. I felt Dr. Ford’s terror and bravery viscerally. She has been nominated for the JFK Profile in Courage award, which she richly deserves. And so does Anita Hill. I am uncomfortably aware now that John F Kennedy was a politically protected playboy while President and “stepped outside his marriage” many times.
The Dangerous Price of Unknowing
Because I didn’t learn to trust my sense being danger, I put myself and others in danger. After college I co-led a week long canoe trip on the Hudson River with an older man, and about 8 high school girls. The man creeped me out to the point that I managed to ditch the whole group and return to the Camp early. I no longer remember how I got away. Was one of the girls sick and I took her back early? Did I leave alone? Now, I am ashamed to see my failed leadership.
My lack of self-trust repeatedly let me stay in threatening situations, wondering how I got into danger. I am very lucky that I was able to talk myself out of several of those situation, yelling at whoever threatened me, or running away. I always kept in mind the way to be left alone in the NYC subways was to pretend to be schizophrenic and start conversing with a pole or a railing when threatened. I never remembered to do that in the moment, but somehow it was safer to be mentally ill than a young woman. As a young pastor, new to a small church in Michigan, an older couple from a prior church post visited. I didn’t know the couple well so I was surprised to see them, but graciously showed them around the church. In my office, the husband silently cornered me and moved in to kiss me. I was terrified and quickly escaped his reach. His wife was in the next room! Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I protect myself? Like a good victim, I said nothing, but I was horrified and for the next several years I tried to convince myself that I had imagined this.
The #MeToo movement brought tears to my eyes many times. I grew up in the Feminist wave 70s of burning bras and using inclusive language. I knew that many women breaking in to most professions were seen as sexual objects and “sleeping with the boss” was the only way to advance. My generation tolerated these horrors just to break into male dominated careers, trying to be taken seriously professionally seriously. Finally, we now talk about how wide spread this toxic masculinity dominated women’s careers.
Luck and Aging
Somehow, luck has followed me and I have avoided being trafficked or raped once I grew breasts. I innocently traveled around the world, naively thinking I could handle whatever might happen. Looking back on those experiences in Israel, and before that in Ghana as an American Field Service exchange student, I was young, naïve and idealistic. I expected to be treated fairly just for being a nice person. And it mostly worked out well. I now understand why my grandmother protested my travelling alone then. I look back on dozens of situations that would make my hair stand on end now!
And speaking of hair, now that I am 60, I have grown into my premature white hair. It is my superpower of invisibility. I visited Jerusalem 10 years ago and realized I could hold my head high, looking at shopkeepers in the eye as I walked through the Shuk. No one catcalled me! It was so freeing!
Gardening: Rage to Roses
The energy invested in each shovel full of dirt released a few atoms of fury. As a child I dissociated. Now, I am physically and emotionally in my body as I dig. Usually, I am in the moment, not consciously thinking of anything other than the task at hand: planting, pruning, watering, weeding or digging. Watering is a lovely time of simply directing the hose’s gift of water to the thirsty plants. I meditate in the several hours it takes and I feel peaceful for hours after.
After the start of the Afghanistan war, I heard an NPR story about embedded journalists returning from battle assignments with post-traumatic stress. They were encouraged to heal by spending time sitting in a beautiful garden. The sights, the sounds, the experience of being in gardens promote healing from PTSD. I intuitively longed to garden in my 20s and 30s, but I had no land.
After 15 years in my current home, I have taken gardening to heart. My small yard is overflowing with petal colors and a shades of green leaves. Every few weeks, the procession of blooms continues with a new batch of flowers. First crocuses, tulips and daffodils. Then crab apples and cherries. On to daisies, irises and poppies, followed by lilac and viburnum. Now we are in the season phlox, bee balm and black eyed Susan’s. The monarch’s life cycle revolves on my milkweed, the black swallowtail’s cycle, on my dill. My home-life is surrounded in peace and beauty.
I am speechless with a silly smile on my face as I stand in awe of the heaven I have helped to create. Every atom of rage that has been released in this garden has transformed: Fury is now flowers. Anger is now autumn leaves. Hope is witch hazel, the last bloom of in November as well as the first flower in February. Somehow, the seasons cycle through, and the gardens soak in my toxic rage and renew as beautiful blossoms. The world is still an enraging, dangerous and scary place. Sexism and sexual violence abound, tapping my rage. The news reports what we are now willing to listen to, that no one wanted to hear about Epstein in 2003. Now the details of his offenses need to come out, even in his death, to vindicate his victims. Further rages loom: white nationalism, domestic terrorism, climate change, and lethal political games abusing helpless immigrant seeking legal refuge.
When I read the news daily, I feel small and helpless, enraged and ineffective. I can do so little. I may not be able to change the world into a more loving, respectful place, but I do what I can. In my own corner of the world I listen to clients who seek healing, and tend to my gardens as a co-creator of my little slice of heaven. My anger has transformed one plot of grass into a spot of ever changing beauty, for all who pass to breathe in.
Last week, I told a young man “I do this so I don’t kill anyone” and he had a comeback: “Is this where you hide the bodies?” In a sense, yes, this is where the bodies of rage are not just buried, but transformed.
You can ask your questions to Christine at: firstname.lastname@example.org