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You Can’t Yell at a Hurricane: On Narrative, Power, and Restorative Justice

Medieval water color of a man/beast

We should speak of relations of power, not of power plain and simple.
—Jenny Edkins

None of this is written with the desire to deflate a thoroughly remarkable moment in our country’s—world’s—history, as late-coming it may be. It is powerful and empowering. It is the consciousness raising of my generation, with the unbelievable outcome of repercussions for those who have enacted abuse and violence.

In many ways, it feels surreal to have my first book of poetry come out during this moment—a collection that narrativizes domestic abuse by a sociopathic father, as well as more subtle acts of aggression from other men. As a book that was once two manuscripts, which took ultimately over seven years to come together and then be available to the public, the timing can brush against ideas of fatedness.

What can manifest itself in the smallest space—a house—can expand outward, brutally, on a massive scale.

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I recently heard a woman ask: why must women rend scars or bare wounds regarding that which has been made clear by statistical evidence for decades?

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It is a question I asked myself, often, yet only when beginning to pursue publication of my book. The poems came in a flurry, the potential impact of those poems hitting me later. What am I teaching anyone that they don’t already know? Why put this pain under the glare of anyone who casts their attention its way?

(The answer I found to my own question is that my household was under the control of a very educated, middle class, white, American-born man. The book aims to expand the ideas of who commits domestic abuse, often otherwise generalized as enacted and sustained by immigrants and/or people of color and/or poor folks and/or the uneducated. Men like my father do this often. A lot of them.)

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My answer to the woman questioning our needing to pronounce our traumas as the numbers can tell them well enough: we are creatures fully addicted to narrative.

We have been telling each other stories since we were in caves, and before. For good or for ill, it was and is how we begin to understand ourselves and others.

So while I, too, am horrified when people attempt to turn an ear sympathetic by asking “what if that were your mother or sister?”—why must we conjure familial ties to care?—the impulse is an ancient one.

If nothing else, all of this has illustrated how little we have evolved.

While the responsibility of allowing a victim to have dimension is an invaluable and often unrealized undertaking, we must begin the far more difficult, but just as urgent, task of humanizing those guilty of abuse and violence.

Think inquiry. Think restorative justice. To trace the person enacting harm back to their own harm, to open dialog.

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It is uncomplicated to flatten the villain, make them someone for whom you have no feeling. It is a hatred sown with ease.

I certainly cultivated my own hatred. At one point in the book I write of a fantasy I began to develop, run through my head:

getting to eye level 
with my father 
 
tearing at his face 
until it is bloody and raw 
 
leaving his lower lids 
hanging loose

I was maybe six years old.

There is an undeniable danger to one’s private psychology in following this vein.

This is also true at a social level. I think of the stubborn myth that Nazis were brutal by nature—giving into such an idea agrees with the Nazis’s own propaganda that they were special.

Are we to believe that in fact most cis-gender men are simply “made” to behave this way? That far overestimates gender difference, and underestimates the power of the education we receive from infancy regarding gender, power, sexuality, and our role within their dynamics.

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To pull myself from the fugue state of victimization/villainization.

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I am not excusing violence and damaging behavior, but rather hoping we consider our next steps after naming names (as powerful and vital it may be for healing and reckoning). For if we do not look closely at what has cultivated and maintained this dynamic, the only thing changed will be people acting (or not) from fear rather than understanding.

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Not all of my abusive encounters were with a sociopath. The sexual assaults I have endured were from men with whom I had already begun sexual contact, explained my boundaries, and who boldly disregarded those boundaries. It was only a decade or so later that I realized. I was a teenager just beginning to understand sex and sexual encounters. I didn’t know how to respond to something that didn’t look like the assaults I had seen in literature and film.

If these men were approached today and told they had enacted sexual violence, they would likely be shocked.

I also didn’t really understand the rules to heed, either.

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One of the most surprising responses to my book came from my mother. She said above all what the poems illustrated to her is that anyone can be a monster to any number of people—even if they don’t intend to act in ways that harm.

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Think of this as a Milgram Experiment, an interrogation of power dynamics—or a call for one.

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One poem:

I see I have made
my mother think
of it all
too much
 
You see me
as the victim
, she says

but maybe I’m not

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While telling traumatic events we have endured is a powerful, urgent, and resonant act, it can also divert our attention. In my writing about child abuse, I quickly realized I could not attempt to lay bare in my poems what that abuse made me feel. It would be a pen on a bright page in terrible loops, a dark frilly form scratched into existence no one but myself can reckon with. At one point in a line I call it, simply, “my void.” This still feels accurate. What I hoped to do in my poems was not to succumb to that void, but rather to ask, “how did it happen?” and, “in what ways is it still here in a place I don’t expect?”

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Over the past several months, the question that continues to resurface in my mind is, “how did we get here?” This query is in the spirit of restorative justice, and it is twofold. It sweeps from the personal to the grand dynamic we are seeing throughout the world, initially made plain in the United States by the entertainment industry. On the larger scale, what this watershed moment has shown—as have statistics, which we know are an underestimate—is that, more than gender, this is an issue of power.

Just as racial injustice is often deeply entwined with issues of poverty, so too is gender inequality and sexual aggression. Yet both of those realities are driven by systems of power—that which maintains the subjugation of populations that are, for one reason or another, made vulnerable, kept oppressed, forced into dependence.

It is cis-gender men who have the power in almost every situation.

While they make up the bulk, they are not the only perpetrators. 

I wait patiently for more people to come forward about those who don’t embody the usual assailant, to complicate, force us to take stock.

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This is not to deny the overwhelming numbers, the power of a platform for those who previously had none—but #MeToo does not answer my question.

The concern of power leaves room for the victims and survivors I see time and again passed over in the thrilling speeches, the she vs. he.

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What those with power enact upon the vulnerable is not new—it leads us back to before the first written word of history.

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Our current moment shines a light on our dysfunctional interactions with power when it is in our grasp. This runs a gamut we have seen publicly and likely know personally—from active predation to bumbling inappropriate behavior. None of it is excusable. Yet focusing there, on that dynamic, may begin to give us means to solutions. How we can educate ourselves, children, about power—and ingrain a consideration of our own position when engaging with others sexually (or otherwise).

There will always be predators.

I thoroughly believe informing others, early, to be aware of when power slants in their direction it will have a notable impact.

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With the eye of restorative justice, of course, it is far more difficult when trained upon personal violence. At one point a therapist asked me if I was angry at my father, and I responded, “How can you be angry with a hurricane?” for it felt like he had blown through my family and we now had to reckon with the damage.

I am realizing it will be the project of my life to cultivate compassion for my father. This is without interest in literal dialog (his issues being hardened into sociopathy halts that method).

The hurricane metaphor still applies.

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As a child, I ultimately did what so many victims attempt when they are utterly powerless: I watched. This was how I stayed as safe as possible in a dangerous place—observe, alter behavior, go unnoticed. Because of watching, however, I also became a witness. It is why I was able to write it down years later. And how I saw echoes of the abuse as an adult when I watched my mother struggle with similarly terrifying entanglements with strangers. Those who did relatively small acts to make her feel thoroughly unsafe on her property had resonances with that which she had already endured with an abusive spouse.

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You can’t yell at a hurricane, make it understand the implications of its violence. For a long time, I cultivated sympathy for almost any other party than my father. Murderers, rapists, and cult leaders all deserved some understanding in my mind. He maintained the role of the flattest of villains to me. Something monstrous, untouchable. Yet it was this same therapist who revealed to me, after years of sessions, that my father likely was a victim, too.

Does this surprise anyone? Of course not.

It shocked me.

This was before my book was printed. I had the chance to include:

                           it is likely that as a child
my father endured sexual violence

I know the victim-
to-perpetrator arc well
 
(It is one I fear, trailing me—
my tired shadow)

I never thought this haunting his

He instead sick from no source
 
Born to harm

So this revelation

it stops me dead
in my tracks a while

And it did.

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The theorist Harvey Young writes, “Future bodies carry the markings, the scars, of a passed/past violence. Violence passes.”

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So I try to collapse time. I try to see him, small. Afraid. Harmed. I try to shift from “how did I get here?” to “how did we get here?” to “what happened to you?” To trace those traumas far back,
those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence
upon those who enacted violence upon those who enacted violence, to the ancients. To think of how to help others think about their power, their own pain—and behave otherwise.

 

 

All poems quoted from Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press, 2017).

Originally Published: August 6th, 2018

Diana Arterian is the author of Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press, 2017), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press, 2017) and Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), and coeditor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet, 2016). Her creative work has been recognized with fellowships from the Banff Centre,...