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Sex Positive Parenting

https://www.healthedco.co.uk/26403-Deluxe-Condom-Training-Model-Beige

More and more frequently, in my discussions with other parents about sex positivity and parenting, and being sex-positive parents, I hear mention of how they are so sex positive that they have condoms in their homes for their teenaged children to use. ‘Better under my roof and using protection than out in a field, and not,’ is the rhetoric. And, yeah, grand. I get that. If my daughters – or yours, or your sons – were having sex, I’d prefer they were doing so somewhere warm, and comfortable and that they were using contraception and avoiding disease. It’s not really that radical to say that we’d prefer our children to be safe, is it?

If you are a parent who wishes sex to be a glorious experience for your teenager, please read on. Much of what I’ve written here is focused on the female experience, and centering it, but you can be sure your sons, as well as your daughters, need to know this.


But – when is the last time we spoke to our children – particularly our daughters – about their bodies and about loving them? Even the most ‘positive’ of these sex-positive parents don’t say to their daughters ‘It’s time you got to know your own body.’ Even the most ‘positive’ of these sex-positive parents don’t talk to their daughters about satisfying sex, or about masturbation.


When was the last time you sat down and spoke to your daughter about the importance of foreplay? Or – for that matter – spoke to her boyfriend about it? Or, when was the last time you told your sons that they need to ensure that they sexually satisfy the woman they are with? Can you even be sure that your daughters know what sexual satisfaction feels like?


Sure, we give our daughters the names of the parts of their bodies, but it’s framed around procreation and contraception. The male gaze and male satisfaction is what girls are taught about sex. I wonder when you last suggested your daughter might hop on online and choose masturbation aids for herself? Boys’ masturbation is accepted, expected, joked about. Nocturnal emissions are taken as a normal part of male puberty, but do we expect, suggest, and allow that our girls would also have orgasms?

Have you ever had a conversation with your daughter around explaining her own body? Have you ever told her that it’s okay – no! it’s more than okay, it’s necessary for her to touch her own genitals? Have you spoken to her about being turned on? Have you told her that being ‘ready’ for sex is more than just the presence of sufficient vaginal lubrication to facilitate penetration? Text books and books on sex tell us is the signifier that a woman is ready for sex. It’s the ‘green light’ men look for – and this misinformation leads them to believe that as soon as they detect a dribble of fluid in, or around, a vagina, said vagina is desperate for their penis. And it’s simply not true. Good sex – sex worth having – involves so much more. Why do we not educate our girls about the tingles and trembles associated with female arousal?

Why do we not tell our daughters about how sexy sex can be? About how getting really turned on, and just being that way, is really enjoyable? About enjoying the feeling of being really well lubricated, of feeling her sex organs engorged, of enjoying feeling sexy and attractive? When is the last time you talked to her about being focused on the sensations of her own body, and to listen to what it is telling her? When was the last time you reminded her to enjoy her body simply for he sake of enjoying it? Rather than in preparation for being a receptacle for someone else – a vehicle for someone else’s pleasure?

Because I can guarantee you this: If you don’t talk to your daughter and encourage her to find out what she likes, what her body likes, she will be far more susceptible to being told by some boy her own age, or older, what she likes. And he will be porn-informed.

He will take it upon himself to tell your daughter what she does, and doesn’t, like. If she doesn’t know herself, how can she correct, or contradict, what he tells her? Even with no malice, even with no intention to harm your daughter, any boy – or man – whose information comes only, or largely, from pornography, will not centre your daughter’s experiences. So, it’s up to you to encourage her to insist that her pleasure is centred.

To do that, you need to ensure that she knows what works for her. Talk to her about kissing, and how it’s an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Talk to her about insisting that her body is ready before anyone enters it. Teach her to deny access to her body – all of it – until she feels ready to ask for touch; until she really wants it. Tell her that ‘sex’ is not just about genital contact. Leaving condoms readily available is not sending a message that you are sex-positive. Rather, it just sends a message that you are pro-fucking, and they’re not the same thing.

Ireland: The Best Little Country To Be Racist In

Black Lives Matter - Wikipedia


Ten days ago, I published a thread of twelve tweets, detailing a few encounters I’ve had with racism in Ireland.

The discussion on racism is now looking at history (never herstory, but that’s another blog post). As a result, monuments and place names are being reviewed in terms of their usefulness, and whether or not they should be allowed to remain when they are references to slavers. In Ireland, we have many places named after our own colonial ‘masters’. For the most part, we don’t really think about them, do we? In Dublin, we walk down Wellington Road, Holles Street, Rutland Row, Cavendish Row etc. etc. etc. – all named after our British overlords, and don’t challenge them. We have plenty of people – even women! – after whom we could (re)name our streets, but we don’t. Why is that ? Laziness? Lack of interest? Lack of awareness? A desire to remember our history of colonialism at (literally) every turn?

But more than street names, there is one institution whose name makes me react with physical revulsion every time I hear / read it: The Sims Clinic , which operates in Dublin, Cork, and Carlow. Named after J. Marion Sims, a man who performed barbaric gynaecological experiments on slave women in the US. It’s similar to starting a fertility clinic and calling it ‘The Mengele Clinic’. Yes, you really did read that, and, yes, I really did write that.

In the interests of full disclosure, I attended the Sims Clinic when I was in my 20s. I had no idea who it was named after, in fact I didn’t realise it was named after anyone. About two years after I’d had my surgery, however, that I found out who it was named after.

I’m horrified by the glorification of a man who ‘perfected his techniques’ on Black, enslaved women (without using pain relief) who could not refuse; before operating on white women (using anaesthetic). If you are, too, you might consider writing to the Sims Clinic and asking them to consider changing the name of the centre to one that isn’t racist.

We need to tackle these microaggressions everywhere we see them. We need to listen to what our BIPOC brothers and sisters are telling us. We need to listen more than we speak. We need to drop our defences. We need to stop saying ‘Yes, but…’ and just say ‘yes’. We need to acknowledge that we can’t know what it’s like to have generations of hate and ridicule and trauma heaped upon your shoulders. We need to acknowledge that we all have prejudices. We need to confront our inherent biases, challenge institutional violence. We need to be vocal and visible in our rejection of policies, practices, and procedures that discriminate against people purely because they are not white. We need to confront the myth we’ve been peddling ourselves for generations that we’re not racist. Because we are.

World Narcissistic Abuse Awareness Day

Image may contain: text that says "WORLD NARCISSISTIC ABUSE AWARENESS DAY #IfMyWoundsWereVisible"

The world is becoming increasingly aware of narcissists as more and more countries – the US, the UK, and Ireland, to name but three – have fallen prey to narcissistic leaders. As with any disorder that gains prominence, every armchair psychologist thinks they are qualified to diagnose people they know and, indeed, people they have never met, with said disorder.

Narcissism is not a glib label to be applied to every person we come across who has a well-developed sense of self-esteem. Putting yourself first is not narcissism. Having a healthy sense of self is not narcissism. Being proud of your achievements is not narcissism. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is eroding, exhausting, and can even be dangerous.

While a narcissistic partner and / or a narcissistic co-parent can be frustrating and bewildering, the most damaging narcissist is the narcissistic parent. I’ve had experience of narcissistic parents, narcissistic ex-husbands, and knowing narcissists in a professional capacity. As a result, I can honestly say that, of these, the most damage is done by narcissistic parents.

Narcissistic parents will do some (or even all) of the following:

Gaslight
Neglect
Lie – to, and about, the child
Ignore – boundaries, successes, fears, and even the child as an autonomous being
Foster dependency – emotional, financial, and practical
Guilt-trip
Manipulate


If you can tick any of these off, you have my sympathy, and solidarity. If you’re a woman who has borne the brunt of an abusive mother, and the complications peculiar to that kind of relationship, please feel free to join my online support group.

An Onion Day

Organic Red Onion, One Large: Amazon.com: Grocery & Gourmet Food

CW: Sexual Abuse

Today is not a good day. And part of me is delighted.

I cried today, for the first time since…I can’t remember when. I have shed some tears, and welled-up in recent weeks: Reading of people’s hardships, and triumphs, and sharing their joys and their sorrows on the other side of my screen how could I not?

But today, I felt miserable. Overwhelmed. I felt bad. By that, I don’t mean I felt ‘off’. I mean I felt like I am a bad person. Inherently, intrinsically, indisputably bad at the core of me. This is not uncommon for people who have histories of child sexual abuse; we feel that, if someone had done something so dreadful to us, it must have been because they saw the badness in us, and addressed it.  They knew they could abuse and rape us because it was all we deserved.

Today, through the tears and (for the first time in a long time, sobs), I was able to logically provide myself with reasons why:

1. Hours of reading and writing about child sexual abuse for my PhD work (enjoying the work, but acknowledging that I need to mind myself in the middle of it).
2. A ‘brother’ hopping on to Whatsapp for the first time in years to hurl abuse during the week (blocked and reported).
3. Being reminded several times before breakfast – by all the Mothers’ Day posts on social media – that most people have mothers who don’t set out to deliberately destroy them (mine’s a narcissist, so I have hundreds of stories about how she’s done this).
4. Not being on top of the housework (is any of us ever on top of the housework?!)
5. The voice in the back of my head that tells me I’m not good enough, that I’ll never be good enough, that I’m rubbish – the voice that’s silent more often than it whispers these days – getting louder.

My daughters noticed my tears:
‘Mum! What’s the matter?’
‘Mum! What’s wrong?’
They asked, alarmed, concerned, caring.
‘Onions,’ I responded. It was true. I had been chopping onions in preparation for cooking brunch. ‘I rubbed my eyes with onion-y hands,’ I expanded.
‘You silly goose!’ Ishthara used her favourite admonishment for me. ‘But at least it wasn’t chilli!’
I smiled and agreed with her.

Now,  I must go back to my girls and tell them the rest of truth. I must tell them that I was having a bad day. I didn’t, earlier, because I didn’t want them to worry. But I wasn’t doing them any favours. By thinking I was protecting them from my sadness, I missed the opportunity to tell them that sometimes, everything tumbles in, and through, you; and you need the cathartic release of tears.

All of that said, I’m taking today as a win because I am able to feel, to know, to realise that today is just a day. This sad day is just one day. Unlike (not too many) years ago, when a sad day would mark the beginning of, or be an unremarkable part of, weeks – even months – of sadness and weeping, and fear. Proper Irish fear – eagla – equal parts terror, and paralysis, and foreboding, and regret.

Today is a win because it’s just a day, and I know that. I have no fear that tomorrow will be the same. I know it won’t. In fact, the rest of today won’t even be as bad as the earlier part was. I am measuring how far I have come. I am grateful for the relief of knowing – as opposed to hoping – that this, too, shall pass. I am not condemned to months of misery this time around.

Today is not a good day. But today is a win.

Vegan Mousska (Sort Of)

Vegan Egyptian Mousakka

We bought an eggplant on our last trip to the supermarket, and I was aware that it would need to be used up fairly quickly.  It had been a while since I’d made moussaka, but it didn’t take me long to realise that I didn’t really have all the ingredients. I did one of those ‘make-it-up-as-you-go-along’ type of recipes. We all know these can go either way. Thankfully, this one went the right way, and there wasn’t a scrap left.

I used what I had to hand, so there’s plenty of room for substitutions here – I’d have loved to have had mushrooms, for example, and bell peppers, but I didn’t. Also, I used pomegranate molasses because I didn’t have maple syrup!

Anyway, here’s the recipe:

1 eggplant
4 cups or so of chopped vegetables (I used a frozen stir-fry mix)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 teaspoons of cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of sesame seeds

Tomato Sauce:
1 teaspoon of olive oil
3 cloves of minced garlic
400g canned tomatoes
3 teaspoons of mixed herbs
Juice of half a lemon
Salt & pepper to taste

Yogurt Sauce:
3 tablespoons of plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon of tahini
1 teaspoon of pomegranate molasses (or maple syrup/honey/treacle/agave nectar)
Salt and pepper to taste.
Food grade rosebuds to granish.

Preheat the oven to 200.
Prepare a baking tray.
Slice the aubergine into discs and place them evenly on the tray.
Drizzle some olive oil over them, and pop them in the oven for about 20 minutes.
In the meantime, make the tomato sauce:
Heat a frying pan and add olive oil.
Sauté the garlic until it is golden.
Add the tomatoes, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.
Bring to a low boil, reduce the heat and cover.
Leave to simmer while you prepare the chopped vegetables:
Heat a dry frying pan and add the spices and sesame seeds.
Toast until the raw smell is gone.
Heat oil in a pan.
Sauté garlic for a minute or two, being careful not to burn.
Add the vegetables.
Add the toasted seeds and spices.
Stir, and cook for about 5 minutes.
In a casserole or deep baking dish, spread some of the tomato sauce.
Arrange the aubergine slices over the sauce.
Top with the sautéd vegetables.
(At this stage, you could sprinkle some grated cheese over the top – I would have, but we’re all out of hard cheese.)

Pop the whole lot back in the oven for 15 minutes.
While it’s baking, prepare the yogurt sauce:
Whisk together all the ingredients (I’d add some fresh mint if I had some).
Serve the vegetables with the yogurt sauce on the side.

 

Soul Song

Over on FB, Phil Kingston invited me to take part in the Poetry Exchange Initiative. I was, to be honest, very flattered to have been invited. I recorded the video and shared it on FB. A few people liked it, so I thought I’d share it here, too.

Let’s be honest here, this video lacks finesse. It lacks any sort of professional lustre. It is very clearly shot on my phone and uploaded to my laptop. The shelves behind me need a good tidy. Do you know what it is, though? It’s honest, and it’s raw, and it’s real, and it’s happy, and a celebration of love. Because, let’s face it, if there’s anything we need more of in this world, it’s love.

 

Starting Over

HKLBOTAKCU

On Friday, September 13th last, I had surgery. It was gynae surgery – of the kind I’d already had a few times. I knew I wouldn’t bounce back, but I didn’t expect to nearly die afterwards, either.

On the following Monday, I decided it was time to get back to normal and I went upstairs to put laundry away. I’ve sometimes joked that housework will be the death of me, but I never thought I would be nearly right. I felt I needed to cough, but I couldn’t complete the it, and I had the weirdest pain in the centre of my chest. I didn’t know whether I needed to stand up, lie down, or curl into a ball to make it go away: I had no instinct on how to ‘cure’ it. I stamped on the floor of my bedroom, and my eldest daughter came running in. Ishthara’s great in a crisis, and had just finished a First Responder’s course, so she rang 999, and gave my history. In the middle of that phone call, she uttered a phrase which will forever live on in family lore:
‘I think you need to know this, but I’ve just realised my mum’s turning blue – and that’s not her normal colour.’

Within ten minutes, there was a First Responder at the house; doing his best to assess the situation and to take over the burden of responsibility from Ishthara – or at least share it with her. Within ten more minutes, there was an ambulance crew with equipment running tests, and within a further five, a doctor was sprinting up the stairs. There I was, five men in my bedroom before 11am on a Monday, and all I could do was worry about the fact that I hadn’t put the laundry away!

That was the rather dramatic start of a few months of health difficulties. I’d never been in an ambulance before September 16th, but I’ve got frequent flyer miles now! By December of last year, my reproductive organs, my lungs, my heart, my brain and my kidneys had all had little ‘episodes’.  It’s like every major organ/system in my body just said ‘I’ve had enough’ and re-booted. I’ve been told by several doctors that they are amazed I’m still alive; and also that it’s incredible I’ve managed to come through all this without doing any lasting damage to any of said organs/systems.

I’m really lucky. Not just to be alive, but to be alive with the prospect of full recovery. I’m really lucky that my friends are incredible, and looked after me so well while I was ill. Most especially, I am indebted to my friend, Jane Travers who – as soon as she heard I was hospitalised – and why – hopped on a plane and came to Dublin until she was happy I was well enough to be left. (Ishthara explained Jane to her boyfriend like this ‘Jane is wonderful. She’s so lovely. But – once she gets an idea into her head just…..don’t bother arguing’). I’m really lucky that my girls are wonderful young women who cooked, cleaned, minded themselves, and the cats, and each other, and me, for months while I was unable to do any of those things myself.

The initial recovery plan would have seen me returning to ‘normal’ life in March, but then Covid-19 hit, followed shortly afterwards by the lockdown. I had been looking forward to two things; getting back to swimming, and visiting the hairdresser. I hadn’t sat in the salon chair since August, and it was time!

My hair was starting to annoy me mightily. I’d lopped a few inches off it in January, but it needed a skilled professional. During the week, I was marking assignments and just  got to the point where I couldn’t put up with it any longer. If I don’t like something, I change it. So, I picked up the nearest scissors, and cut off as much as I could – not in a fit of pique, but rather because it just felt like time . Then I went upstairs, and finished the job off with a blade.

The relief!

It’s not a statement. It’s not a Covid-19 Lockdown Haircut. It’s starting over. It’s a new  beginning. Sometimes, modification isn’t enough. Sometimes, there is nothing to salvage. Sometimes, what you’d salvage would not really be worth saving. Sometimes, you need to just start all over again.

 

Adulting

Leap Photo

I am now the parent of an adult. And I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel worthy.

Ishthara Saoirse Larkin arrived into this world, ten weeks early, in a small town in India, 18 years ago. I’d like to say that I felt an overwhelming sense of adoration and love when I first held her. But I didn’t. I was shell-shocked. It was three days before I felt that powerful dam-burst of motherly love and – oh boy! – was it something else when it came. I’d always thought myself a pacifist but I was very shocked when I realised I would happily kill for this child.

Having spent so long waiting for her – and fighting with my own body over its refusal to get pregnant, I couldn’t quite believe it when I was, finally, holding my own child. When I was, finally, a mother! At last, nestled close to me was all I had ever wanted. For some reason I couldn’t quite understand, love didn’t flood through me the first time I held her. I was numb. It was almost as though I was in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was really mine, that I was really allowed to keep her. Years later, when studying psychology, I read Viktor Frankl, and the experience made sense.

In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Frankl details how he and others were liberated from a Nazi death camp. Instead of being joy-filled and jubilant, they found themselves mis-trusting their experience; not quite believing it. Frankl explains that they had spent so long dreaming of this very moment – and had their hopes and dreams dashed so many times – that now, they were not sure they could believe it. It took the men a few days to grasp the reality that their dream had come true, and was not about to be snatched from them. That’s what becoming a mother was like for me.  It took a few days for me to realise that my dream was not going to be snatched away from me.

Ishthara has taught me so much since 2002. She has taught me what unconditional love feels like – both to give, and to receive. She has taught me that I can make mistakes, and still be worthy of love. She has taught me that I am good enough. She has taught me to forgive myself. She has taught me that, sometimes, my standards for myself are too high, and I need to ‘chill Mama’ just a bit. She has taught me that I am good enough.

During the week, Ishthara’s younger sister, Kashmira, asked me how it felt to have an adult ‘child’. I told her I didn’t feel ready. She asked me why. I told her that I didn’t feel wise enough, or accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult. I feel like I should know more, be more, have more, have done more, in order to be worthy to call myself the parent of an adult. I don’t think I’ve changed enough since Ishthara was born to be the fully-formed parent of an adult.

Kashmira (being Kashmira!) probed that.
I had to think.
‘I suppose, when Ishthara was born, I wanted the same for her then, as I do now. The fact that I haven’t evolved makes me wonder if I’m any good at this.’ I told her, truthfully.
‘What did you want for her 18 years ago?’ Kashmira asked.
‘I wanted her to be happy. And I wanted her to reach her potential. And that’s still all I want for her. It’s all I want for both of you – but we’re talking about Ishthara right now, so…’
‘And do you think we don’t know that?’

‘I think it’s wrong that you’ve grown up in consistent poverty. I think it’s wrong that you have had no support – financial, emotional, physical, or any other type – from your dad. That you have no family apart from me, and each other*.’

‘But do you not see that that has given us a unique perspective on life? That we are compassionate because we understand rather than because we have an academic, or intellectual, understanding of other people’s lived experiences?’ (Yes, she really does talk like this!!)
‘When we say to the people we work with, when we’re older, “I understand”,’ she continued. ‘They’ll know we mean it, because we will. We’ll have been there.’
‘But….’ I started again, as my inadequacy raised its head.
‘No,’ Kashmira said. ‘Just listen. We have always known that you loved us. We have always known you’ve had our backs. Even on the really bad days, we’ve always known that you would manage, that it would be okay. Even last year – when you nearly died,  THREE TIMES! in front of us – ‘nearly’ is the most important word in that sentence. We knew you wouldn’t leave us. That’s why you have an adult child.’

I was humbled into silence.

Earlier today, I spoke to my friend, Seán. Seán has known me since before I was 18, and his kids are all older than mine. I told him how I didn’t feel accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult.

‘Don’t you get it?’ he asked. ‘The adult child is the accomplishment.’

He’s right.

Ishthara Saoirse Larkin is a wonderful young woman; she is compassionate beyond her years. She reads, and understands, people with an almost eerie awareness; she loves carefully, but completely; she radiates joy; she yearns to make the world a better place; she is intolerant of injustice; she is kind, thoughtful, generous and loving; she’s a great cook; she has a wonderful, droll sense of humour; and she saved my life (metaphorically – by being born into it – and literally – by performing first aid and calling an ambulance when I collapsed last September).  I am pleased, proud, privileged, and grateful to be her mother.

Happy 18th birthday, my Darling Girl. The world is a better place because you’re in it.

 

* My father, Christy Talbot, and my brothers, Nigel Talbot, and Cormac Talbot, sexually abused, and raped me for 15+ years between them. My brothers, Barry Talbot and Ross Talbot, support them in their abuse of me, as do their wives / partners. My sister, Tracey Talbot, who was also raped by Cormac Talbot, is in such deep denial that she actually carried files into the Four Courts for him when I sued him and his brother for their years of abuse. My mother, Philomena (Johnson) Talbot is a narcissist who – to this day – condones the abuse I suffered at the hands of her husband and sons.

A Guide To Failing Sexually Abused Children

Hazel Aged 9
Me, aged 9. I’d already been a victim of sexual abuse for 7 years when this photograph was taken.

 

CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Rape, Incompetence
Help:  https://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/find-a-service/
https://www.samaritans.org/ireland/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
https://www.mentalhealthireland.ie/need-help-now/

Yesterday, Sarah McInerney wrote a piece in The Times about my late friend, Shane Griffin, and how he was let down by a number of systems in Ireland: The Eastern Health Board, the HSE, TUSLA, and the judiciary, to name a few.

It was a lovely tribute to a lovely man and it mentioned how the abuse children suffer is compounded by the neglect they (we) are then subjected to by the very institutions that are supposed to mind them (us). The problem I have with the piece is not the piece itself,  but the fact that it tells us nothing new, and it amounts to nothing more than a bit of hand-wringing, and an invitation (which was taken up by many on Twitter) to have a big, online, hand-wringing fest.

We have known for years that children who are sexually abused in Ireland have their abuse compounded by the further abuse and neglect of those who are supposed to help us. The Journal has been reporting on this for years – just have a look at this and this and this and this and this  : All pieces giving details about children who were sexually abused, and how their suffering was compounded by government agencies, individual social workers, doctors, psychologists etc. who did nothing and who were promoted for their lack of action. Our government, our government agencies, and individual social workersdoctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who work for those agencies are complicit in the abuse, neglect and suicides of people in this country. No one is held accountable, and victims struggle to survive in a country that doesn’t support us.

For example, if (God forbid) your ten-year-old child were sexually assaulted and you went to get help for them. This is what would happen:

  1. You would phone somewhere like CARI, St. Clare’s Unit, or St. Louise’s Unit, or your local social worker, begging for help.
  2. You would not receive help.
  3. The service / social worker you contacted would, in turn, contact TUSLA and report the information. (Note: If this isn’t done online – bearing in mind that only 20% of HSE workers have access to the Internet – the documents will be returned. Estimates vary on how long this will take.)
  4. TUSLA would put your child on a waiting list to be assessed. This waiting list is currently years long.
  5. A social worker from TUSLA would interview your child and decide whether or not they were lying about the abuse. They call this determining whether or not the allegations are ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’. (More about this below).
  6. If they decide that your child is not a liar, your child will be referred to CARI to be put on their waiting list for help.
  7. If you wanted to access services through the HSE, you would have to involve the Gardaí, as well. St. Clare’s and St. Louise’s Units will not put you on their waiting lists unless you have done so.

Don’t forget that, for the years you’re waiting for help, you’ll have been dealing with a child whose mental health is suffering, you’ll have been grappling with your own pain and feelings of guilt, fear, and your mental health will also be suffering. Your child may be suicidal. Your child may be self-harming. Your other children, and your partner / spouse will also be suffering in a similar way.

If the abuse was perpetrated by a member of your family, the mental anguish will be compounded. There will be no help or support for your abused child, you, or your family members unless you know how to find a competent therapist and pay for therapy yourself.  Good luck with that.

Founded / Unfounded

Whether or not your child gets help depends on whether or not a social worker in TUSLA says they’re allowed to access this help (such as it is). How do they do this? Well, the truth is that nobody knows. Social Workers in Ireland receive no training in how to determine the veracity of a claim of abuse. Nor or they trained in how to treat abuse victims or victims of trauma. (That is changing, however, as Dr Joe Mooney has just introduced a module in UCD for those studying there.)

I’m not being at all flippant when I say that they may as well just flip a coin to decide whether or not a child’s allegations are taken seriously. If you think I’m joking, have a look at the PQs (Parliamentary Questions) 445 – 447 asked by Róisín Shorthall at the end of 2018 and the Minister’s response.

Just today (January 13th, 2020), I got word from a friend – I’ll call her Anna, though that’s not her real name – who contacted TUSLA in 2010 to report abuse she had suffered when she was a child. Make no mistake, this is a brave thing to do. Anna was raped 3-4 times a week, from the age of 14 until she was 17. She is aware that she is not the only person this rapist raped. One other woman has had conversations with Anna about being raped by this man, too, but she’s afraid to go to the Gardaí. Of course, he’s an upstanding member of his local community in Wicklow, so when he was asked – more than eight years after the abuse was reported – if the allegations were untrue, he denied it.

And that was that.

Anna’s mental and physical health are suffering because of the damage this man did to her, which has been compounded by services which are supposed to put ‘Children First’. Anna no longer lives in Ireland because she can’t bear to live in a country that cares so little for raped children. I cannot say I blame her.

Getting Personal

I’m not going to pretend to be objective. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t personal. Because it is personal. I am one of the children who was let down by the system. I have encountered nothing but obstacles from every institution, service and individual – with the notable exception of one social worker who alerted me to the fact that a file on me existed. This she did, almost as an aside at the end of a conversation in 2010. It took me two years of constant requests before I was given access to my (heavily redacted) files.

This letter refers to a case conference that took place in November 1988. I was, at this time, 15 years and two months old.

Case Conference Nov 1988 croppedI think it’s worth noting that I never, ever met a single one of the people present at that ‘case conference’ – except for Imelda Ryan.

This is borne out, in part by this (heavily redacted) letter from Rosemary Cooke, who was at the meeting referred to in the correspondence above:

I Have Never Had Contact With Hazel

At the same time, she declares herself the key worker in my ‘case’.

I remain the key worker

And, as you can see from the top line, she asserts that there is ‘little social work intervention possible.’ This woman is still in practice, by the way, and has added the role of ‘Mediator’ to her suite of offerings.

It would actually be funny, if it weren’t so serious.

Let me draw your attention to lines 21, 22, 23, and 24 of the first document. Please bear in mind that everyone at that meeting knew I had been sexually abused by my elder brothers, and was being sexually abused by my father. It was further accepted that the younger children in the house were also at risk of being / were being abused.

But, as you can also see, my mammy didn’t want my daddy to leave the house. So no one interfered. Fifteen-year-old me is referred to as being ‘very disturbed’, ‘not liking my father’ and wanting him ‘out of the house’. It is absurd that this is even noteworthy – or that it is noteworthy, but no further explanation is required. ‘Dr’ Ryan suspects this is a plot on my part. Imagine being 15 and wanting a rapist out of your family home in order to protect yourself and the other children in the family! Clearly quite the little plotter. I was the only person prepared to do anything to address the situation. That should not have been my job. Please also note that I am vilified for disclosing that I was suicidal (line 24). Please also note that, even though the Gardaí were referred to – though I still have no idea how they were expected to ‘control the family’ – they were never contacted by anyone about this abuse until I knocked into my local station when I was 18.

But let me go back to the ‘psychiatrist’ involved – the woman who was supposed to have my welfare at heart. Bear in mind, I was between the ages of 14 and 16 when I was attending St Louise’s Unit. Bear in mind that it was confirmed I was being sexually abused (or, in today’s parlance, my allegations were ‘founded’) . Yet, here is a sample of things that she said about this very scared, very vulnerable teenager:

‘Hazel is “seeking attention”, and has on more than one occasion, cut her wrists’. (Letter dated (05.12.1989). Could you imagine the audacity of a suicidal teenager trying to kill herself. Clearly, still plotting!

Perhaps even more disturbing, however is this gem:

Actually, it's called rape

I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term ‘sexual intercourse’. Even in the 1980s, ‘sexual intercourse’ with a child was called rape. I would expect a professional, in a letter to other professionals, to use correct terminology. Maybe I expect too much.

I have reams of documents recovered from the HSE and St. Louise’s Unit, but I won’t bore you by reproducing them all here – I think you get the gist.

Of course, I am the first to admit that I am no spring chicken and these documents date from the late 1980s and early 1990s. BUT the system is still the same – actually, you could even argue that it’s a bit worse because ‘self-referrals’ like mine was, are no longer accepted by these units. Imelda Ryan was the director of this unit until a few years ago (2016 if my memory serves me correctly) when she retired. The culture that she inculcated is still very much alive and well in the Unit. In fact, this disdain for victims is evident in almost every single service that is meant to care for us.

The problem is the system, and the culture that supports it. It would not be easy to overhaul the system: There would be huge resistance, and we’d have to change the culture in which we live and operate. But that’s not really the Irish way, is it? We’ll continue, instead, to wring our hands with bone-crunching intensity and cry at the funerals of our friends. Friends whose deaths were entirely preventable if only we had competent people in positions of power. Or even people who cared.

Power

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It’s that time of the year again – I need to choose my word. Now, I like to think that I generally choose my words wisely. I understand the power of words, and I try hard to select words that reflect, and convey, my meaning.

Since January, 2016, I have eschewed New Year’s Resolutions in favour of a single word to guide my intentions and my actions for the coming years. A few hours ago, I was on the phone to my friend Katie and I told her that this year was going to be defined by ‘Attack’. I explained that I was a bit fed up of being a ‘soft’ feminist. I was a bit fed up of being ‘gentle’ in my engagements with men. I’m learning to get a bit more obstreperous, but finding I’m not consistent with my obstreperousness. The conditioning runs deep.

So, I explained to Katie that, when I was using the word ‘attack’, I meant ‘dive in with enthusiasm’ rather than ‘aggressively assail’ or to deliberately injure. She understood. I admitted to having been influenced by Mona Eltahawy and her entreaty to stop being ‘nice’.

‘Attack’ I decided, was a good word to guide me through 2020. But. It didn’t really sit right. It sat ‘okay’, but not ‘perfectly’. I was happy enough to go with it. When I sat down to write this post, however, ‘Attack’ was no longer good enough. ‘Power’ sprang to mind.

So I’m running with it. I don’t want to be empowered in 2020 – I have power, I want to use it. My intention for 2020 is to prevent other people from blocking my power. My intention for 2020 is to ensure that I use my power fearlessly. My intention for 2020 is to use my power ferociously. My intention for 2020 is to use my power to attack.

In Between Days

InBetweenDaysTeaserLrg

(This is an update of a post I first wrote on 29.12.2017)

There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.

All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.

It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.

  1. Get off social media for  24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
  2. Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up. Bring a friend, if you think it’ll make it easier, or look forward to making new ones – these Park Runners are a friendly bunch!
  3. Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
  4. Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
  5. Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. Make an effort to get them something that is thoughtful, and lets them know how highly you think of them.
    If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
  6. Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t  know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
  7. Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
  8. Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week, and they are always grateful to receive donations.
  9. Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely, and nourishing about having a book read to you. You are worth the time an effort the performer went to, to make it sound so good.
  10. Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
  11. Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
  12. Have a guilt-free duvet day.
  13. Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
  14. Change the linen on your bed.
  15. Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.

16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Day 10)

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Content warning: Coercive Control, Intimate Partner Abuse

It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.

I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy.  Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.

At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:

I’m ashamed.

I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.

As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).

I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that Saradhi subjected meto for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.

More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.

To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:

Saradhi said he was very pleased that I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.

That’s what he said. 

I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.

I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’

I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
‘No.’

Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.

When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.

On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.

So – I had to go to bed at the same as he, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)

To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.

While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.

I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself.  On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.

What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).

 

Teaching Empathy

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I’m hearing a lot these days about how we need to start ‘teaching empathy’ in our schools. How, if only people learned how to be empathetic, our society would be a better place to live. I agree. What I don’t agree with, however, is the notion that empathy can be taught in school as a distinct, and designated, part of the curriculum. What we really need is a change in our culture.

We don’t have to start teaching empathy – we have to stop teaching indifference and disdain. That lesson cannot be taught just by teachers in formal educational settings. It needs to be taught to children by everyone around them from the day they are born. We need a cultural shift that understand, demands, expects, and rewards, kindness. I don’t believe it can be taught merely as a set of classroom lessons – though, for sure, it can be reinforced through fun exercises, role-plays etc. – I believe it needs to be modeled by showing children what empathy looks like.

Part of empathy is good manners, and children learn this best by having it modeled for them. To teach my children how to be be polite, I modeled it for them. Rather than the performative ‘Say thank you!’ (which I believe parents and carers say to show other adults how good they are at ‘teaching manners’), I said ‘thank you’ at the appropriate times when my children were little. Like all children, mine were eager to emulate the behaviour modeled for them. So they quickly learned – without having to told – when to say ‘thank you’ as well as ‘please’, ‘may I?’, ‘sorry’ etc. and how to behave in a way that was considerate towards others.

We need to realise that most people are empathetic – some more than others, of course – and we have to nurture and nourish that. We have to model it. At the moment, we don’t: We model bullying, disrespect, unkindness, and disdain. These traits and practices are what we reward – and that is why our levels of bullying, sexual assault, and harassment are epidemic. It’s why our populations are suffering mental ill-health in such large numbers, and why we have so many people self-harming, attempting, and dying by, suicide. It’s why conversations about consent and male entitlement are suddenly ‘fashionable’ in media at the moment.

I would argue that unkindness and lack of empathy is what we’re teaching our children – because our default is to be empathetic. We are born that way – it’s our instinctive, default position because it’s part of how we connect with other people, and as human beings, we crave, and seek, nothing more than connection with others. It’s not what we need to learn, it’s what we need to unlearn, that we should focus on.

Narcissistic Mothers

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Yesterday, I spoke with PJ Coogan, on Cork’s Opinion Line about what it’s like to be the daughter of a narcissistic mother. You can listen back (from 12.00) here.

Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.

If any of this resonates with you, please feel free to get in touch.

RSE In Irish Schools

 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been aware that my social media was peppered with reminders to read, and comment on, the proposals for the next version of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Irish schools. The NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessments) offered ‘stake holders’ and members of the public – in other words everyone – a chance to make suggestions and submissions on the draft report.

Like a good citizen who has an interest – personally and professionally – with how sex and relationships are taught in schools, I cast a cold eye over the document. It’s neither a long, nor a difficult, read; the meat and potatoes of it is just 80 pages, and the language is very accessible. At the outset, the document informs us that  the Minister for Education and Skills asked that the following be considered:

RSE
So far, so good. For too long, our non-heteronormative populations have been ignored in the arena of sex and relationship learning and teaching in Ireland. All the issues listed in the document are ones which must be addressed and I’m delighted to see them getting the attention they deserve.

I’m troubled, though, by so much of what is not mentioned – and I’m not the only one. The other day, I was chatting with Dr Clíona Saidléar, Executive Director of the RCNI, and it turned out we had the same concerns. There were issues we both felt should have been mentioned in the report that weren’t. Unsurprisingly, our lists were similar. Between us, we came up with the following list of what we feel should have been included, but wasn’t:

  • Victim blaming
  • Misogyny
  • Sexual abuse
  • Rape
  • Reporting – how to deal with a report, mandatory reporting etc.
  • Incest

It’s all very well to say we need to talk about consent, but consent is about so much more than consent around sexual touch, or even non-sexual touch. Consent is about how we speak to each other. Asking permission before entering another’s space – whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual – should be first nature to us. It should be as much a part of our accepted manners as saying ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘excuse me’.

With regard to developments in contraceptives, I am still shocked and bewildered by the fact that spermicidal jelly isn’t sold in Ireland. It makes me wonder why – is it because every sperm is sacred?! Nor is the Caya diaphragm available here. Again, I had to wonder why. Is it because they are one-size fits all and users can fit them themselves? I know many survivors of sexual assault would much prefer a non-hormonal contraceptive that they can fit and use without the interference of anyone else.

Healthy positive sexual expression and relationships are wonderful aims, but talking about them, and telling school-aged children that they’re a good idea isn’t going to be productive. They need to be modelled. Who is doing – or who might do – that for the kids?

Of course, safe use of the Internet, and social media are sensible, logical, necessary, and important matters to address. The problem in many households is that the adults are unaware of what their young people are accessing, how to protect their children from what – and who – they might encounter online, and how to have open, honest conversations about the Internet. Organisations like Zeeko – which offer talks in schools – can help with awareness, and navigation, of the http://www.  Many of the responses to the ‘Internet Question’ are pornography-focused but there is so much more than porn on the internet, and there’s a lot of good there (here!), too.

Our non-hetero folks deserve to be recognised – but not fetishized, and I remain hopeful that the Department will engage suitably qualified members of these communities to inform and advise on curricula content.

As I mentioned earlier, though, my biggest concern is not what’s included in, but what’s been omitted from, the discussion.  We can’t have a fully-informed, useful, educative, progressive conversation about relationships and sex if we don’t address the things that will be relevant to everyone: victim blaming, and misogyny – and things that will be relevant to more than one in four of our student population; sexual abuse, rape and incest. Teachers (and, indeed, other staff members) will need to be aware of how to handle disclosure. They will also need to know their obligations under mandatory reporting legislation. There also needs to be an awareness that at least one in four of our teachers will, themselves, have histories of abuse – and may, therefore, find discussions of same, and disclosure, very difficult.

I get the feeling that this invitation to discuss the RSE curriculum is very performative: That it’s an exercise in being seen to be doing the right thing rather than actually figuring out what the right thing is. We’re not taking a long, hard, look at what’s wrong with our current curriculum; at what crucial needs should be addressed, but aren’t. Saying ‘we need to talk about consent’ sounds good, but unless we talk about consent in all areas of our interactions with others – unless we talk about boundaries and feelings – we aren’t really looking at the issue properly. Saying we need to have a ‘national conversation’ about pornography sounds modern and edgy, but it’s meaningless without starting from a place of respect for women – which we don’t have, and which we can’t have in a society as patriarchal and as misogynistic as the one we currently live in.

It’s all very well to talk about ‘having conversations’ and ‘improving curricula’ but if all those conversations and curricula are going to do is enforce the current culture, then they are just exercises in breath- and money-wasting. In order for any improvements we might consider making to actually be made, we first need to change our culture. We need to change our attitudes to victims; we need to acknowledge that most sexual abuse happens within the home. We need to discuss how we treat people – how bullying, manipulation, and coercion aren’t acceptable behaviours. That’s only going to happen if we adults change how we treat others – including (especially) children and model the behaviour we want and expect.  Sex is part of life. Sexual relationships are part of life. If we want our young people to have healthier attitudes towards sex, and their sexual relationships, we need to show them what we mean, not lecture them about what we want them to do.

 

 

PSA: This Is What A Rapist Looks Like

CONTENT WARNING: CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE, RAPE, INCEST.

Cormac on Tinder Tweet

This is a tweet I sent nearly two years ago. I’d joined Tinder to see what all the fuss was about, to see if I could find someone to you date because I was fed up going to events on my own, or with a friend, or one of my own kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with my friends, or my kids; but sometimes, it’s nice to have a straight, male, companion. It can be fun to have a straight, interesting, intelligent man to share experiences with, to discuss cultural events with, to look forward to seeing – to flirt with.  Anyway, there I was swiping left more often than right, and up pops one of my brothers.

Now, of course anyone who wants to be on Tinder can be there – but I got a huge fright that night when my own brother was suggested as a potential match for me. Not least because he is one of the brothers who abused me for years when I was a child and a teenager.

Of course, we all have stories of coming across friends, friends’ spouses / partners, neighbours, colleagues etc. on Tinder. What additionally startled me about seeing my brother pop up, however, was the fact that he a) lives in France and b) claims to be happily married. Of course, he was clearly home to visit his mammy (if you look at the date, you can see it was just before Christmas), and of course, people can separate, divorce, or have open marriages. But knowing that this particular person is a rapist (he sexually abused, and raped me – orally, anally, digitally, and vaginally for years); abusive; manipulative, and has a number of personality disorders, I was concerned for the safety of any woman who might come across him and innocently agree to meet him.

Two years ago, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take screengrabs, but when he popped up on October 1st last, on another site, I did. They’re reproduced below:

Badoo #1 Badoo #2Badoo #4Badoo #3

The only good news here is that Cormac claims to live on his own – which means that his wife, Orna, has finally seen sense and left him. If that is the case, it really is a shame she didn’t do so ten years ago, when their children were still young, and she learnt of the abuse her husband had inflicted on me. It’s a shame she didn’t do that before she decided to stand with him during the days of his trial in the High Court. The only other possibility is that he’s lying and trying to cheat on her. Either way, their marital situations are of no interest to me – but protecting other women from a predator is.  Like all abusive men, he is attracted to ‘kind’ women; a phenomenon that Don Hennessy discusses in his book ‘How He Gets Into Her Head’.  It’s also interesting to see that he declares he’s ‘gentle by nature’ – I’m not entirely sure that any rapist can be ‘gentle’. I remember him using torn bits of black sacks as ‘contraceptives’ when I was a pre-teen and young teenager. There was nothing ‘gentle’ about that. I remember his fingernails tearing my vagina, and I can’t say it was ‘gentle’. I remember his penis tearing my anus, and there was certainly nothing ‘gentle’ about that, either.

Maybe we just have different definitions of the word.

In any event, consider this blog post nothing other than a public service announcement – women (and men) please avoid this abusive man at all costs. You’re worth more. You deserve better.

 

Things I Am Learning From Recovery

3D model hospital recovery room VR / AR / low-poly FBX MA ...

Those of you who follow me on social media will be aware that I have had a difficult month health-wise.

For those unaware, here’s the quick version:

On September 13th, I had fairly routine surgery. It was of a type I’ve had before, so there was nothing unexpected. (In fact, it was so routine for me that I even wrote a piece here for other women who might find themselves facing similar).

Three days later, I collapsed at home and started to turn blue. Thankfully, my eldest daughter doesn’t have college on Mondays, so she was there to call an ambulance. Once in hospital, I was diagnosed with blood clots in my lungs. A scan confirmed that there was a significant number of clots in each lung. It was stressed to me by no fewer than seven doctors how lucky I was to be alive – and how unusual it was for the experience not to have been fatal.

After being extremely well cared for in Connolly Memorial Hospital, I was discharged on Thursday, September 19th with medication and some Serious Medical Advice. I was told it would take six months until I’m back to (my version of) normal. I was warned that I need to take it easy; that I need to stay on bed rest until I feel able to do more. I was entreated to monitor myself, and that any change in symptoms, any bleeding, any falling over – anything that is out of the ordinary – necessitates seeking medical attention immediately. The earnestness with which a number of doctors gave me this information impressed on me the necessity to take it (and them) seriously.

Within 24 hours, however, I was transported (this time in the back of a squad car because an ambulance would have taken too long) back to hospital. Unfortunately, the  staff at the nearest hospital – Tallaght – wasn’t keen on even triaging me, so my friend Jane drove me back to Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown. Twice that night, my friend and family were convinced that I had died in front of them. I know I came dangerously close.

Once back in ‘my’ hospital, the team sprang into action, and I received the care I needed for what turned out to have been a neurological episode.  Again, I was discharged after a few days, with even more medical advice; and previous advice emphasised.

I took the advice seriously, and took up residence on the couch in our living room. I slept and napped between sleeps, dozing between naps. Visitors were received with much delight, and I was grateful when they realised that an hour of being chatted to while upright was as much as I could manage before I’d have to lie down again, and possibly nap.

This Wednesday just past, October 16th, I was – again – in the back of an ambulance.  Breathing had been hard all day, and the Nurse on Call advised calling an ambulance to return to hospital. Reluctantly, I did so. Transported by very kind paramedics – Eoin and John – back to Blanchardstown, I was diagnosed with low haemoglobin, and the start of an infection.

I don’t think my physical health has ever taken such a knocking, and I’m really not used to being unwell (save for the migraines every 3-6 weeks) – never mind being so unwell for so long, and knowing that it will be months before I’m fully functioning again. I’m very grateful, though, that I have managed not to do any permanent damage to myself. I’m also very grateful for the fact that I will get better. For a lot of people, there is no moving out of the wheelchair (I have one of those now), there is no moving beyond the mobility scooter (I have one of those, too; it’s  on standby for when I ‘graduate’ out of the wheelchair); and there is pain – often constant pain. I am not in pain. I’m just exhausted, often breathless, and incapable of doing very much beyond resting.

Recovery is happening, though. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t shower without taking a rest and turning it into a Two-Act event, after which I’d need a nap of about an hour.  These past few days, however, showering has reverted to being a One-Act event, with a mere half hour lie-down afterwards.

Recovery is also teaching me. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

1. It’s really hard to do nothing.
2. The doctors were right. I am still seriously unwell. I have had to learn what that means.
3. People are incredibly kind.
4. My daughters are amazing human beings.
5. I am finding it very difficulty to accept how ill I am.
6. I’d better accept it, and quick, or I’ll set my recovery back.
7. Nobody expects as much of me as I do of my myself (my PhD supervisors have said this
    to me before, but I didn’t really understand it until now).
8. People are wonderfully kind.
9. Haemoglobin transports oxygen around the body.
10. There are pills you can take for all sorts of things, but there is no pill you can take to
       speed time up.
11. There is tremendous kindness in people.
12. Being unable to do much for oneself is incredibly humbling.
13. It’s still really hard to do nothing.

All Cut Up

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A month ago, I had surgery to remove ovarian cysts. I’ve been around this particular block a few times, and knew what to expect, as well as how to prepare. Around the same time I was going into hospital, a few other women I know were similarly heading into hospital for the removal of ovarian cysts. They asked if I had advice, and I had!

Here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I had my first surgery for ovarian cyst removal:

It’s keyhole surgery, yes, but it’s still surgery. The incisions are small, but the amount of internal surgery is still the same. You will have stitches inside, layers of skin and bruises etc. that will need to heal. Also, remember, that when you’re unconscious, no one thinks to be gentle with you – they are just focused on getting the job done, so will rummage around inside you with a bit more vigour than they would if you were having a procedure done under local anesthetic.

You will bleed more than you expect. Get big granny knickers – at least two sizes bigger than you normally wear, because you will swell – and maternity pads. In fact, get maternity pads and enough disposable maternity knickers for a day or two.

You will often have huge gas pain afterwards: This is because you’ll be pumped full of gas to facilitate the surgery, and it gets trapped. The gas can go right up into your shoulders and be very painful. Get the strongest Deflatine type of medicine you can.

Get Night shirts for bed rest so that there’s no danger of elastic on the scar / damaged tissue.

Move as soon as you can after you’ve been released from hospital. You need to avoid clots (believe me – clots nearly killed me after gynae surgery a month ago, and I won’t be right for another six). Keep the surgical stockings on for 24 hours.

Remember that a general anesthetic can take up to six weeks to leave your system. The after effects include tiredness, and weepiness, and sometimes – if you are prone to it – you can get a touch of depression.

Take pain relief as you need it, sleep as much as you can, and use arnica tablets to aid swift healing.

Don’t expect yourself to bounce back – no matter what your medical team tells you. I recover well and quickly, but I found that on some occasions I was expected to be running around quicker than was possible. That said, do as much as you can, physically, but don’t push yourself. As your energy returns, remember

Listen to your body, and if you have any concerns, seek medical advice sooner rather than later.

Trauma Informed Care Workshop in Cork

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This November 11th, in the wheelchair accessible Maldron Hotel on John Redmond Street, from 10am until 2pm, I am offering my workshop for birth workers (midwives, doctors, doulas, nurses, etc.).

It’s recognised, by the NMBI, for 4 CEU (Continuing Education Units), and certificates will be presented to all participants.

As a homeschooling mother, and a lone parent with no familial support, I would encourage you not to allow lack of childcare to prevent you from attending. By all means, bring your child/ren, if that’s the only way you can make it.  Please feel free to contact me to discuss your own needs.

The fee for the workshop is €150, with an early-bird price of €100 until November 1st.  You can book your place here:

What You Can Expect:

Child sexual abuse affects approximately one in three women. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that about a third of the women you care for will have some experience of sexual abuse. This trauma means that they have additional needs during pregnancy, labour, birth, and the post-partum period.

This workshop addresses:

  • A Definition of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)
  • The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Pregnancy
  • Dealing with Disclosure – including TUSLA and Mandatory Reporting
  • Issues of Control
  • Power
  • Challenges in Labour and Birth
  • Triggers
  • Clinical Challenges in Labour, and Possible Solutions
  • Postpartum Issues
  • Communication – Verbal, and Non-Verbal
  • PTSD and Other Postpartum Mood Disorders
  • The Potential For Healing
  • Self-Help & Self-Care
  • When the Birthworker is also a Survivor

What Others Have Said:

‘Every midwife should take this course.’

‘I learnt so much today.’

‘Hazel makes a difficult subject easy to understand and deal with.’

‘I’m so glad I did this. I got so much information, and I loved Hazel’s manner and (dare I say it?) sense of humour when dealing with this sensitive topic.’

Learning from someone who has “been there” and also has academic training made her very credible. She was also great at answering questions.’

‘I can’t believe we weren’t taught this in college, with so many women having histories of child sexual abuse, we really should know this stuff before being put on wards.’

About Me:

I’m Hazel, and I’m a PhD candidate at Dublin City University, where my area of research is transgenerational trauma with specific regard to child sexual abuse. I hold a BA (Hons) in Psychology and Sociology, an MA in Sexuality Studies, and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Queen’s University, Belfast. In the academic year 2013-2014, I completed a year of research at Trinity College Dublin, where I focused on the effects of child sexual abuse on women during pregnancy and childbirth.

I am very proud of the fact that I was the first accredited doula to work in Ireland, and brought doula training here, in 2005. In 2015, I published my memoir Gullible Travels, which details my own experiences of CSA; and the long-lasting impact it has had on me. My two daughters were both born at home – in India, and Singapore, respectively – and I finally stopped breastfeeding when my youngest was five and a half years old.  My skills, experiences, and education, combine to make me ideally placed to offer this training.

In Favour of Intolerance

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Fourteen-year-old Ana Kriegal was sexually assaulted and murdered on the 14th of May last year. Two boys, aged thirteen at the time, were found guilty of the crimes against her.

Since the verdict was reached last week, there have been many column inches devoted to the case. There has been mention of how this is an ‘unusual’ case, how it shows the ‘dark side’ of Ireland. Such statements, however, are unhelpful and untrue. This is Ireland. This is the Ireland I grew up, this is the Ireland I now live in. I have seen people wonder how we ‘get boys like this’, but the truth is we create them.

Lack of education around pornography and sexual relationships has been cited as part of the problem – and I don’t discount these claims. The problem is, however, that it’s too easy to point to the obvious and suggest that it provides the complete picture. It doesn’t.

Irish society creates and condones the behaviour of these boys, and boys like them. Because – don’t kid yourself – these boys are not an aberration. Their attitudes towards, and treatment of, women and girls, is not unusual in Irish society. And it’s their attitudes that fuelled their behaviour. Yes, murder is still unusual in Ireland. Thirteen-year-olds murdering people is also still an unusual phenomenon, but thirteen-year-olds sexually assaulting girls is not nearly as unusual as you might like to think.

If Ana had ‘just’ been sexually assaulted and not murdered, think how the media and the public would have reacted. Without a doubt, she would have been unmercifully victim-blamed, in exactly the same way as every other victim of rape and sexual assault over the age of ten is blamed for their own victimisation. At this point, I would like to respectfully suggest that we need a cultural sea change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than their victims.

The problem is not with individual children or even individual families – the problem is with the whole wider society. I know this will not be a particularly popular statement, but – as my friend and colleague, Dr Jessica Eaton says – ‘our systems won’t change by protecting ourselves from our own shortcomings’.  And we have shortcomings galore in this society.

Bullying is endemic in Irish culture. We have learnt that Ana Kriegal was bullied online, and in person. People – adults – were aware that she was being bullied, and they chose to do nothing. Before she started secondary school, her resource teacher told Ana’s parents that she was worried for the child’s welfare. Ana was suicidal before she left primary school. She was bullied by children a few years older than she before she even started secondary school.

Nothing effective was done to stop the bullying because we tolerate bullying in Ireland. It flourishes in Irish schools, in Irish companies, in Irish businesses, in Irish institutions. It is a top-down phenomenon, and it thrives because our systems support it: Look at how we treat whistle-blowers, and how we treat victims of bullying.

We neither teach nor model empathy, kindness, and compassion. Such traits are seen as weaknesses. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other that ‘Boys will be boys’, that victims need to ‘toughen up’, be ‘less sensitive’, and learn to ‘cope’.  They are told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, even though every person with a pulse knows that simply isn’t true.

The word ‘resilience’ is also bandied about – as if resilience is a good thing, instead of another stick with which to beat victims. In case you’re confused, the word ‘resilience’ suggests that whatever circumstances exist to cause a person’s upset are established; and it is, therefore, incumbent upon an individual to look after themselves. As if the display of symptoms is synonymous with weakness. As if ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness’ are interchangeable.

Yes, Boy A and Boy B caused Ana Kriegal’s death, but we caused them. We – as a society – taught them how to behave.  We – as a society – support bullying, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, rape-culture, and male entitlement.

Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit.  Specific to sexual assault, the lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. Research informs us that when entitled individuals do not get what they want, they become hostile or violent.

We live in a society where we attempt to induce outrage and empathy by saying things like ‘Imagine if she were your daughter / sister / niece / cousin / friend’: By so doing, we rob the victim of her personhood. By insinuating that we can only see the victim as worthwhile or empathetic if we can, somehow, re-imagine her as someone like someone we may know speaks volumes about our inability to view a person as worthwhile simply because they exist. That, alone, should be enough without additional qualifiers – real, or imagined.

We need to create a society that is intolerant of bullying, misogyny, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, male entitlement, and rape myths. We can only do that by modelling such intolerance.

 

 

Safety Device

SAfety Device

(Content Warning: References to Child Sexual Abuse, link to graphic piece on the effects of Child Sexual Abuse)

It’s been an interesting few weeks. As some of you may know, there is a Fear Nua* in my life and I’m enjoying all sorts of things that, for many people are ‘normal’ but for me are beyond any experiences I’ve had to date. It’s all good, though. It’s all good.

I’m not about to gush about him, because he is a far more private person than I am – and I respect that – but also because so much of what’s going on is private and personal to us and to the third entity that is our relationship.

I will, however, say this much: I’ve been learning an awful lot from him. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is my own value, my own right to be, and my own right to be who I am. I’ve also been crying a lot more than usual, but they have been happy, and / or healing tears. Like last week, when I suddenly had a thought that had my eyes leaking; I’d resigned myself, years ago, to the thought that I would die without ever knowing the love of a good man, without ever knowing what it would it be like to be in a relationship with a man that wasn’t abusive. I really believed that I would die without being in a relationship where I was valued for who I am – or that I would ever be with a man who enjoyed being with me, rather than one who merely wanted to possess me, and crush me. Now, I know that’s not true. And, oh! The joy of that. The absolute fascination with being with someone who values my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts, my mere presence is something I know I can’t adequately explain.

A few days after we met, he mentioned, in the course of conversation, that he had been researching how to be with a woman who had trauma as a result of child sexual abuse. He wanted to know how best to react, how best to treat me, taking my history into account. Reader, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Never, ever, ever, has a man I’ve been with, or even a man I’ve been married to, shown the slightest bit of interest in finding out how they could make being in a relationship easier for me. I knew, then and there, that he was A Keeper.

Then, yesterday, he presented me with the bracelet you see pictured above. It’s a safety device, and I’ll explain why.  Having already read this piece, he was anxious to work with me to ameliorate the effects any way he could. We were making progress, but then he had an idea. He reminds me that I have chosen him. That I choose him, repeatedly, every day, every hour, every moment that we are together. That I could choose to walk away, but I am choosing to stay because I am choosing him. As he is, likewise, choosing me. He needs me to feel safe. To know that I am safe with him, everywhere, all the time, no matter what. He would prefer if I stayed present when we’re together, because he is no threat to me, and I need to know that, and be able to remember that, and remind myself of that any time I feel I need to.

This bracelet serves that purpose: by simply seeing it, I am reminded of him, reminded that I am always safe with him. Touching it has the same effect, and – if I move my wrist slightly – the tags you can see chime gently, providing an aural reminder.  As my friend Jane Mulcahy noted, tweeted to me ‘It’s v lovely & delicate, H. Like affection, intimacy & trust.’  I think she put it perfectly. This piece of jewellery has the added bonus of being beautiful. A bit like himself, really.


*In Irish,
Fear Nua (pronounced Farr Nooa) means ‘New Man’.

 

 

A Surge of Pain

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I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.

‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:

As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc.  Their words were incongruent  with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.

I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.

Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.

Not Consent – Exhibition

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Today, the third of the sixteen days of activism to combat violence against women and girls, I’d like to draw your attention to an exhibition that is taking place from tomorrow (Wednesday, 28th) until Sunday (December 2nd).

Called ‘Not Consent’ – as a direct reference to the recent rape trial in Cork where a pair of knickers similar to those worn by the victim (not, as was reported, her actual underwear, because the Gardaí were unable to find them) were shown to the jury with the clear message that there is a certain type of clothing that intimates that a woman wants to have sex with anyone, anywhere.

Victims of sexual abuse are sick of the victim blaming, which is a huge part of the rape culture within which we operate in this country. We are fed up of being told that what we do (or don’t) wear contributes to our being assaulted. We reject, categorically, any and all such suggestion. To that end, Ruth Maxwell, Priscilla Grainger, Shaneda Daly, and myself, are organising an event to highlight that women and men are assaulted regardless of what they are wearing. Clothes don’t rape people. Rapists rape people.

Please, if you can, pop along to Street 66 from 6pm tomorrow. Further details of the event are here.

It Takes A Village (To Abuse A Child)

It takes a village

CONTENT WARNING: Child Sexual Abuse, Incest, Incompetent Agencies, Child Neglect

In much the same way as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child, as well. It takes adults in positions of trust and authority to turn a blind eye. It takes people who have concerns not to voice those concerns. It takes family members who have a feeling something is wrong to do nothing about those concerns. It takes professionals who know based on information they are presented with, and privilege to have, to do nothing with this information. It takes people who know the child is not lying to intimidate, and (attempt to) silence that child. Even when that child becomes an adult (as is the case for many adult survivors of child sexual abuse).

For me, my family was the first site of abuse: I was sexually abused by my father, Christy Talbot, and my two elder brothers, Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot.  Sexual abuse was a part of my life in the home from the time I was three until I was 19.  I was sexually assaulted (up to, and including oral, anal, digital, and vaginal rape), by one or other – sometimes more than one – of these males up to five days/nights a week when they were living under the same roof as I.

With apologies to Tolstoy, each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way, but a  hallmark of all dysfunctional families is that it is static. A static family dynamic means that in order to ‘protect’ and preserve the family norms, each member must resume the role assigned to them when the family is together.  To people who were not raised in toxic, dangerously dysfunctional, abusive families, this may seem bizarre, but collusion is very important to the family members who so collude because it means:

  • They don’t have to confront their own part in the abuse – for example, my mother does not have to deal with the fact that she took, and continues to take, the side of the abusers (my father and brothers) over the side of the abused (me)
  • No confrontation of their own possible abuse – I was not the only one in the family who was sexually abused, although my abuse was the most severe. If they refuse to admit that I was abused, then my abused siblings don’t have to deal with the fact that they were, too. Their ideas of who they are remains unchallenged because they are not confronting all of their own realities and histories
  • They don’t need to seek help for their own psychological disorders / mental health difficulties. By continuing to deny that they were were abused, that they abused, and / or that they facilitated abuse means my siblings and extended family members do not have to work on their own healing. This is hard, ugly, work and not everyone is able to – or wants to – commit to it. 
  • Their childish view of people as binary – ‘good’ or ‘bad’ remains unconfronted – casting people as either heroes or villains, rather than looking at their complexities, allows my family to cast themselves as ‘heroes’ and me as a ‘villain’. They think that, because there are so many of them, and only one of me, they must be right, and I must be wrong. But – remember Galileo?!
  • Appearances are kept up – for narcissists (like my mother), this is hugely important. When all that matters is what other people think, cruelty to your own children is an acceptable trade-off to keep up appearances. Their health and well-being can easily be sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, if the opinion will view you favourably.

Collusion within the family was aided by collusion on the part of clergy, medics, social workers, and the psychiatrist I was sent to in St Louise’s Unit in Our Lady’s Hospital in Crumlin. As you can see from this document there were a whole slew of people having meetings about me – but none of them (save Imelda Ryan) ever actually met me. Highlights from this ‘Case Conference Report’ make the following observations: 

  • This is a very disturbed Family who need (sic) help – That help was never provided.
  • They are all under enormous strain, and playing very dangerous games – This is not elaborated on, and there is no indication what the ‘dangerous games’ were, or why the vulnerable children (of which I was one) were removed. 
  • The Gardaí will have to be involved – to try to maintain a control over the family – the Gardaí were never involved until I went to them as an adult. 
  • Joint interview to be arranged – Rosemary being present to obtain an objective sense of the situation – Rosemary was, apparently my social worker. I never met her. 

Mind you,  according to her LinkedIn profile, Rosemary is still in practice. Maybe I should contact her and ask her if she’s actually learnt how to do her job in the intervening years.

Imelda Ryan – who is so incompetent and ignorant with regard to the effects of child sexual abuse, and how it presents that she is a real danger to children – was appointed to TUSLA’s National Review Panel. (I’ll have more to say about her and it at a later stage.)

Given that child sexual abuse is endemic in Irish society, those of us who value children and want what’s best for them need to step up and speak out. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Children are not (just) our future. They are our present – they are their own future. We, as adults, need to treat them as the precious beings they are and be the village they need to support them, to nourish them, to ensure that they are provided with what they need to thrive and reach their potential. Ignoring their pain, colluding to keep them in sites of abuse is a far cry from being that village. 

Uninvited Women

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Today – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – marked the publication of the first edition of the Uninvited Women Journal. I was thrilled to have a piece in it, which is reproduced below. The other contributions were written by inspiring women from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I encourage you to follow the link above, and read their stories.

VICTIM BLAMING, SHAME, AND MALE ENTITLEMENT: HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO A RAPE CULTURE IN IRELAND.

Like any culture, rape culture is a collection of elements. Three of these elements are victim blaming, male entitlement, and shame. The latter foisted on the shoulders of the victim, not the perpetrator. Victim blaming occurs when individuals blame elements of the victim’s behaviour to hold the victim at least partially responsible for their own assaults. It is often maintained by strong religious ideology. Shame, as an emotion, is socially constructed, and intertwined with disgust: The origins of disgust can be traced back to when our cave sisters and brothers rejected toxic foods because they triggered a sense of disgust. As human beings became more sophisticated, we projected our sense of disgust at certain actions and behaviours onto the actors of those actions and behaviours – creating shame within them.

Shame, then, has become linked to the idea of ‘normality’ and ‘acceptability’. I believe we need a cultural sea of change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators, rather than their victims.

Male Entitlement. Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. This sense of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. When entitled individuals do not receive what they want, they may become hostile or violent: Higher rates of self-reported sexual aggression have been found among college males who also reported a higher sense of entitlement.

THE IRISH CONTEXT

I have three words that explain – to a large extent – how victim blaming, shame, and male entitlement manifest in an Irish context. Those three words are Roman, Catholic, and Church. The rise in religiosity in Ireland can be traced back to what the colonising English called ‘The Famine’, and the Irish refer to as An Gorta Mór 1 , when English parliamentary commissions indicated that the ‘civilising of Irish society depended on giving more power to the Catholic Church’.

1 ‘THE GREAT HUNGER’

The population of Ireland was thirded by starvation and emigration as a result of An Gorta Mór. Those who remained developed strategies to ward off similar catastrophes. These included religion, education, and culture, which the Roman Catholic Church took ownership of. I think it’s safe to say that there is a strong religious ideology in Ireland. Regular mass attendance is down, but people still do their hatching, matching, and dispatching in churches; and most children are still forced through three sacraments before they start secondary school.

Shame itself is constructed in Irish society with reference to Roman Catholicism. But there’s also a peculiar Irish complexion to shame that doesn’t cast equally on men and women. Women’s bodies are policed, their actions, educations, and possibilities, are mediated by peculiarly Irish social norms. Catholic notions of sexual morality proved to be especially oppressive for Irish women, who were told their bodies were shameful – but, apart from that, they were not discussed. It was not uncommon in 1950s Ireland for women to marry without basic reproductive knowledge.

Male entitlement in Irish culture is underpinned by our patriarchal, hierarchical, paternalistic norms, which favour men. Economics, social policy, and law, all reflect, and are reinforced by, dominant ideologies, constructed by men. The structures they underpin are patriarchal. Sometimes, these structures have with a paternal gloss to intimate a protection of women and children, but which undermines, and limits, women’s agency. Women are only considered in their proximity to, and relationships with, men; and our differences are seen as aberrations from a male norm.

 

What’s Your Pencil?

Image result for sharpened pencil

I will accept that my title looks grammatically incorrect; or at least like I’ve managed to forget a word. Bear with me, though, I really do mean what I’ve said (typed). 

A few months ago, I was sitting, having a work-related conversation with the wonderfully talented and always exuberant Phil Kingston. Within minutes, we realised that we were both Lamy fans. I explained that, because my writing is the way it is (small, not exactly artistic),  I require an extra-fine nib in order to render what I write legible. I handed my instrument to him, and Phil wrote a few lines with it. He quickly agreed with me that it was a beautiful writer, and we had a most pleasant chat about pens, and writing, and choosing an instrument.

 

I mentioned that I habitually use a fountain pen, except for my Morning Pages , which – for some reason – I choose to write on yellow legal pads in pencil. And, yes, I’m as particular about my pencils as I am about my pens. The one I favour for my Morning Pages is a beauty that is a black 4B that I got in the Science Gallery a while ago. It is just the write blend of soft and dark for me: Not so soft that it smudges easily, and not so hard that it writes too faintly.  

 

As Phil and I continued our chat, we mused about how our respective upbringings had influenced our choice of writing instruments. In the middle of all this, I suddenly realised something, and shared it with him. I’d been brought up in poverty by an abusive (psychopathic) father and a narcissistic mother.  I’d always loved writing – not just the intellectual, or creative, or academic element of it – but the actual, physical element of it as well.  As a young writer of about four, I remember bringing my pencil to my mother to be pared. She refused. There was ‘still plenty of writin’ left in it’, she had declared. Any time I wanted to sharpen my pencil, she would admonish me, and tell me I was being wasteful – which was a sin! – and I was to use the pencil until it was no longer possible to write with it.  

 

Of course, I internalised this message, and carried it with me into adulthood. It took until last August before I realised that I it didn’t serve me to believe that I was only ‘allowed’ to pare my pencils when their points were beyond usability. When I realised that I no longer needed to hold to that ancient belief, I abandoned it immediately. Since then, I have sharpened my pencil every time I have felt it necessary; I have allowed myself the tactile pleasure of using a pencil at its optimum point. It is bliss. Joyful, delightful, pleasurable.  

 

It’s a small thing – sharpening my pencil every time I want to, so it always feels good when I’m using it – but it has made me examine other habits and attitudes that were foisted on me by others, and which don’t serve me. I feel liberated beyond what might seem rational by this one small thing. 

 

So it’s really not an error when I ask  – ‘What’s your Pencil?’ What is the old belief or habit that you’re hanging on to that is not serving you, and is not aligned with what you want, and deserve, for yourself?

 

 

 

Silence is Fools’ Gold

fools-gold

I’m still thinking about the Safe World Summit that I attended last week. More than thinking, I’m processing. The two days were definitely more than the sum of their parts.

After my last post a number of people contacted me to ask why I hadn’t told Nigel’s wife and Cormac’s wife that they were married to rapists. The truth is, that I did. The truth is, that they know. The truth is, that they don’t care. The truth is, that (cliché of clichés!) my brothers married their mother: They married women who would be compliant, who would put their husbands ahead of all others including their own children. They married women who would be more concerned about what the neighbours would say than with providing protection to their children. They married women who would keep their secrets.

Back in 2010, I told Cormac’s wife, Orna, that Nigel had sexually abused me. I was building up to full disclosure, telling her about her brother-in-law before telling her about her husband (whose abuse was more sadistic, and went on for longer). She had no difficulty in believing me. She even went as far as to say that it ‘made sense’. When, however, she found out that Cormac – her own husband – had also raped me for years, and that I was suing both of them, she sided with the abusers, instead of the abused.

The truth is, that while they have no difficulty with the fact that they have married misogynistic rapists, they have a difficulty with the rest of the world knowing. As long as the information was kept within the family – as long as I observed that peculiar Irish form of omerta – they were happy enough. When I started to speak out publicly, however, when I started legal civil proceedings against the brothers who had raped me, their tune changed. Bear in mind, that Anita and Orna had not spoken to each other since December of 2004.  Yet, when I started talking more and more publicly, about the abuse I had suffered at their husbands’ hands, these women rekindled their relationship and united to fight the truth.

 

Think about that for a second: Two women, married to two men, each of whom has had two children for these men, bonded over the fact that their husbands had raped the same child.  Two women who would rather live with two men who have no remorse for their abusive behaviour, than leave them. You’d have to ask yourself why.  Both men are wealthy. Both women signed pre-nuptial agreements. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though, I think there’s more to it than that.

 

I’ve written this post on foot of a challenge issued by Insia Dariwala at the Safe World Summit last week. She told us that each of us – by being silent – is complicit in the continued sexual abuse of children. This statement made me very uneasy. What was I doing to maintain the silence? What was I doing to contribute to allowing other children to be abused in the ways I had been abused? Insia Dariwala’s challenge, then, was to break our silence.

 

I have risen to that challenge. I will continue to do so.

Safe World?

***CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC ACCOUNT OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE; RAPE; SPOUSAL ABUSE.***

 

I am in the Mansion House in Dublin, on the second day of the Safe World Summit, organised by Safe Ireland.  I’m not going to lie, there have been moments that have been difficult to bear witness to. There have been moments where I have inhaled sharply, but – for the most part – there have been moments that have inspired and motivated me.

 

After years of speaking out, years of listening to other survivors, and holding the space for them, I am still struck by the similarities between my experiences, and theirs. To be honest, I identify more as a victim/survivor/victor with regard to sexual abuse, than I do with domestic violence. I am aware that the domestic violence I suffered at the hands of my ex-husbands was enabled – in part – by the the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father, and my two elder brothers – Christy, Nigel, and Cormac Talbot.

 

I suppose it’s no surprise that the night before last, sleep was evasive. I suppose it’s no surprise that that entire day, I’d had flashback after flashback after flashback. The intrusive memories crowded into my brain. I spent the day – and most of the evening – with my mind and my body re-experiencing the abuse perpetrated on my body by Nigel an Cormac Talbot – my two elder brothers.

 

I felt, again, Nigel slobbering over my teenaged breasts. My body felt his breath, his grasping hands, his copious saliva running over my bare, exposed, goosepimpled flesh. Later, my body and mind would remind me of other occasions when my brothers sexually assaulted, and raped me. I felt these experiences as if they were happening again, in that moment – in those moments. I remind myself of stories where amputees detail having pain in the missing limb.

 

I re-experienced being eight or nine years old, and lying in bed, reading my book (I was always reading, as a child – I loved it more than anything else I did) and Nigel came in, pulled up my nightdress, and down my knickers. I was so used to my brothers entering my room – entering me – that I didn’t even put my book down. I disengaged so much, disassociated completely. I was reading my book, I was in my book. I was in my book more than I was in my body. I remember turning a page at one point, and glancing down to see him nipping his lower lip, a look of concentration on his face,  while using his fingers to spread my labia before thrusting his fingers inside me.

 

Clashing with this memory was another; of my other brother, Cormac Talbot. As one memory left my body, the other replaced it. This was a memory of Cormac, with his bony fingers inside me, nothing gentle about his touch, his ragged fingernails scraping my tender, internal, flesh. Repeatedly, hour after hour, my body and mind were re-traumatised by these memories and others: Memories of Cormac using a torn piece of a black rubbish sack as a crude type of condom, while he decided to rape me. Memories of Cormac, anally raping me as form of ‘contraception’. My sphincter muscles tightened, repeatedly, involuntarily, as my body remembered the pressure on my anus as his erect penis breached it. For a full waking day, these memories possessed me – and I use that word very particularly to evoke the image of being possessed by evil. Because I was.

 

For my entire childhood, I was so dis-empowered by my family, and the patriarchal culture in which that family operate(s) that I was trained to expect nothing else. I was told I deserved nothing better. Most recently, I was told I deserved nothing better by my ‘mother’ Phil (Johnson) Talbot.  I last spoke to her in November of 2016 and I recently referred to the record of that conversation to be sure that my memory of it was not flawed (reader, it was not).

 

During that conversation (which I will describe in greater detail in another post), she eventually said – her voice dripping with the cloying martyr tone she has perfected over 70 years –

‘Well, if it’s an apology ye’re lookin’ fer, I’m sorry – okay?’

I wasn’t going to get her off that easily.

‘What are you sorry for?’ I asked.

‘I’m sorry I wasn’t a perfect mother,’ her retort was spat in anger at my audacity to challenge her so calmly.

I made no response. She continued in the same tone.

‘And I’m sorry you didn’t have the childhood you think you deserved.’

Think about that for a second. Think about my ‘mother’ unable to contain her anger that I would dare think I was entitled not to be raped by her husband, and her precious sons during my childhood. More worryingly, however, was her refusal to tell their wives the truth. ‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated four or five times when I challenged her on aiding and abetting her rapist sons to abuse her grandchildren with impunity.

 

She disgusts me – they all do – but I recognise that they are part of the patriarchy. They are products of the patriarchy. They are complicit elements of the patriarchy. I also recognise, however, that I am the biggest the threat to them and, in a way, to the patriarchy itself. Because I am a fearless truth-teller. And I will not stop.

I will not be stopped.

#Stand4Truth

Truth

Today, I will be in the Garden of Remembrance, at a rally organised by Colm O’Gorman (Executive Director of Amnesty International, survivor of clerical abuse and rape, and the boy who sued the pope). We’ll be standing with thousands of other people in solidarity with those who were abused – physically, sexually, and emotionally – by the Roman Catholic Church.

This week’s visit by the pope has been hugely painful for many thousands of people on this island. People are finding themselves hurt, upset, and triggered all over again. Even as someone who was never sexually abused by a member of the Roman Catholic Church – although members of the church concealed that they knew my two elder brothers (Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot) were sexually abusing me – I have found details of the continued abuse of people by the Roman Catholic Church upsetting. I have heard from many survivors of clerical abuse how difficult and traumatic these weeks have been for them. I want them to know that I bear witness to their pain, I acknowledge it, I believe them.

I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s important to honour the truth of those who have suffered. It is important to honour the pain of those who have suffered – and to recognise the origins of that pain; the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish society that stood by in silence and allowed the rape and abuse of young children to take place.

I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today to honour the memories of those who can’t make it: Those who were murdered by the Roman Catholic Church; those who were sold by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their bones broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their spirits broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those for whom being there would be too emotionally difficult; those who died by suicide,  who are in addiction, who are homeless, who are in psychiatric units on account of the trauma visited on them by the Roman Catholic Church.

 

I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s the least I can do.

Breastfeeding After CSA

Breastfeeding Awareness Month 2018

The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but in the US, the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that (not in the least because I didn’t blog about the issue during the first seven days of August!), I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after child sexual abuse (CSA).

While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum such a history.  I’ve enumerated a few of them here:

  • If our breasts were a focal point of our abuse, we may be reluctant to offer, or share them, with anyone else – even our own babies. The physical contact may be just too much.
  • Dissociation is something I’ve discussed on this blog before – it’s often a huge part of our experiences when we are being abused. Dissociation, sadly, can also be part of our experiences when we’re breastfeeding – which can effect the mother-child bonding that is a much-mentioned positive element of breastfeeding. This, in turn, can lead to further shame and guilt around our bodies.
  • There are three kinds of touch that can be difficult for a woman with a history of CSA: self-touch, touch of another, and medical touch. Breastfeeding is, often, comprised of all three: The touch of the mother’s own hand on her breast – before, during, and after, a feed; the touch of the baby on the mother’s breasts; the manipulation of the mother’s breasts in order to assist with a latch etc.
  • Bodily fluids – even her own breastmilk – may be disgusting to the new mother who associates such fluids with abuse.
  • The shame that CSA visits on a woman, on her body, on her sense of self, can be mirrored in the shame that attaches to ‘bodies on display’ in many parts of the world. Then, there is the fact that  many societies visit shame on women who breastfeed in public, so this adds to the difficulty.
  • The mouth of her child on her breast can be triggering for the new mother with a history of CSA. It may remind her too much of her abuser/s slobbering all over her breasts.
  • If her birth didn’t go how she planned, the new mother may well have the old tape of ‘I can’t do anything right’ playing in her head. This may mean that she is convinced she can’t breastfeed her baby, either – so she may not even try.
  • If breastfeeding is difficult – or impossible – for the survivor of CSA, it can add to her feelings of guilt, and of the fact that her body is ‘failing’ her.

It’s not all bad, though. For many women with a history of CSA, managing to breastfeed successfully can be an hugely healing experience for women. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.

If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of CSA, there are things you can do to help:

  • Reassure her that her choices are valid.
  • Reassure her that she is not being judged.
  • Reassure her that there are myriad other ways to love her baby.
  • If she really wants to breastfeed, discuss using a pump and expressing milk for her baby to exclusively feed breastmilk to her child.
  • Help her to see her milk as a ‘good’ / ‘useful’ fluid.
  • Remind her that she birthed beautifully, and that she can breastfeed beautifully, too – with help and support.
  • Encourage her to attend La Leche League, or Cuidiú meetings while she’s still pregnant.

The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of CSA. Ditto breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, and empowering, for these women.

The Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

NarisscissI am delighted to report that Headstuff has published a piece I wrote about Narcissistic Mothers. You can read it here.

On foot of recognising the terrible damage my own narcissistic mother is responsible for, I set up a support group for daughters of narcissistic mothers. It’s a secret group on FB (so no one knows you’re there, except you and the other members).

Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother can be a very lonely place; Society would like us to be very quiet about the fact that our mothers don’t love us. Even people who didn’t have ideal childhoods, even people who were abused by their mothers, find it difficult to believe that there exist mothers who simply refuse to love their daughters. Those of us who have suffered – and those of us who continue to suffer – the terrible impact of narcissistic mothers, however ‘get it’.

In part, that’s why the FB group is such a wonderful place to hang out – it’s populated by wonderful women who completely understand how it feels to have a mother who doesn’t care about you; who pits your siblings against you; who lies about you; who refuses to celebrate your wins; who puts you down at every turn; who is jealous of your every success and attempts to take the good out of it; who cannot bear the idea that you might be happier than she; who is filled with rage at the idea that your standard of living might be better than hers etc. etc. Having somewhere to bring this hurt, where you will be understood, and not judged, is a huge relief.

If you’d like to join, this group, please contact me via this page, DM me on Twitter, or send me a few words on Messenger .

 

 

Birth Trauma Awareness Week

Traumatised Woman Eyes - Edited

Content Warning: Sexual Assault / Sexual Abuse / Incest

This week is Birth Trauma Awareness week.

For many women, the birth itself is traumatic because of how they are treated during labour and birth. For women who have been sexually abused as children, however, labour and birth can compound the trauma they have suffered.

While she was growing up, Orla’s* father ‘played’ with her by playing ‘tickling’ with her. He would chase her, catch her, and then hold her down tickle her, kiss her, and – as she hit puberty –  touch her breasts, buttocks, and genitals.

Like many people who are abused over a period of time, Orla started to recognise the ‘cues’ from her father that an abusive incident was coming. She would try, desperately, to get away from him, but she was never successful. Orla felt helpless, but still, when he tickled her, she laughed. This would result in him calling her ‘a little flirt’ and saying things like ‘you’re just pretending you don’t want me to do it.’

Orla couldn’t get away from her dad because he was too strong. Her laughter would give away to tears, and then to crying, and eventually to screaming. Finally, he would stop.

When Orla grew up, she did not look back on her father’s actions as abusive, because it was labelled as ‘play’, and she remembers laughing at the time.

Years afterwards, however, when she was in labour with her first child, she was hooked up to a foetal monitor, had a canula inserted, and a blood pressure cuff. She had a panic attack on account of the restrictions on her movements. Her reaction seemed disproportionate until later, when Orla connected the events during childbirth with being restrained while her father abused her.

Like Orla, many women are surprised by the degree of their distress over routine aspects of maternity care. For abuse survivors, distressing or traumatic events can bring up the same feelings of helplessness and fear that they felt with the original abuse. It can be difficult to understand, however, why seemingly innocuous or helpful interventions can also bring up feelings of helplessness and fear. If the trauma of the original abuse was never correctly addressed, they are at risk for re-traumatisation, and may end up  suffering from chronic post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD).

Much of this distress can be alleviated for pregnant women survivors of CSA if, before labour, they have an opportunity to explore some of the features (events, procedures, and care policies) of childbirth that might bear similarities to their abuse, and to plan strategies for avoiding, or coping with, them.

Women often dread the prospect of deeply exploring the origins of abuse-related symptoms. Once they do take that step, with the support of understanding health-care practitioners / birthworkers, they usually feel relieved and unburdened of guilt and responsibility. Our capacity for healing is enormous, through it requires hard work perseverance, and courage. Finding the time, and the energy, for that is hard at any stage – harder again when you’re pregnant. A birthworker who brings compassion, and understanding of the trauma of CSA will make the biggest of differences to her client.

 

*Not her real name

‘Making’ Readers

Books (Drama)

I’ve been reading since before I was three, and books have always been sacred to me (then, Hinduism taught me that they really are sacred!). Books helped me to make sense of the world I knew I didn’t fit into (and often believed I didn’t belong in). They gave me new words, opened up new arenas, showed me things, taught me things, gave me different perspectives, nudged me towards decisions, instructed me, and even annoyed me.

I had books for my girls before they were born, and read to them several times a day. Reading was never ‘just’ about books – it was about signs, menus, cards, posters, advertisements, magazines, and timetables. Yet, I still managed to produce a non-reader. I couldn’t understand how she had no interest in reading and tried everything to get her  to love books. The library was (and is) a place we visit for pleasure. The Kindle is stuffed with books that might interest her, our home has shelves full of books, boxes full of books, bags of books, tables littered with books and yet – and yet – she doesn’t read.

I tried everything to interest her in books; I continued reading, and talking about books, and sharing bits in books I was reading. I presented a trip to the library as a treat (well, it is!); I got her books in different genres; I got her graphic novels; I borrowed audiobooks from the library, and played them in the car when we were all together. Believing that there is no difference between a reward and a punishment, I never tied reading into getting ‘treats’ (reading is a treat itself).

Niggling away at the back of my mind was a conviction that reading was difficult for her. But was reassured, on a number of occasions, that her eyesight was so good, she could nearly see around corners, and she definitely wasn’t dyslexic. A few years ago, however, she was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, and the difficulties I knew she had with reading were finally recognised.

It was too late, however. She hadn’t learnt to love reading; she’d learnt it was difficult and time consuming, and painful. She could read – she just didn’t choose to.

One day, I realised that the problem wasn’t hers, it was mine. Books had been such a relief for me – such a joy, such an escape, such a wonderful gift, that I wanted to give that gift to my children. A gift, however, is only a gift if it brings joy to the recipient. I was pushing something on my child that she really didn’t want. Unpacking what I wanted her to get from reading, I realised it boiled down to four things:

  1. Love of story.
  2. Storytelling skills.
  3. Increased vocabulary.
  4. Pleasure.
  5. Critical thinking skills.
  6. Critiquing abilities.

Then, I realised that she could get all these elements are available from things she does enjoy – films, television programmes, and live theatre. And I was reminded – one size does not fit all; there is more than one way to skin a cat; as a parent, I need to provide access to what my children need – not what I want them to need, or what I think they need; my children are ‘of me’, but they are not ‘mine’; not everyone is a ‘reader’ and that’s okay.

 

My daughter can read, she just chooses not to. If she needs information that can only be accessed via text, she can navigate that text. In much the same way as I can sew – I just choose not to. If I need to fix, create, or mend something, I will drag out the sewing machine and set to. I’d much rather, however, pull my knitting close, and enjoy that. Knitting does for me what sewing (or other crafting) does for other people. Theatre, films, and TV programmes do for my daughter what books do for me. And that’s okay – we have plenty of shared passions and interests to provide us with common ground and opportunities to strengthen our relationship. What’s far more important is that we already have the ability to read each other like books.

 

Fathers’ Day

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Here we are again, ‘celebrating’ another Hallmark holiday. My friend, Martin McMahon tweeted this morning that it might be a good idea to do away with the notion of separate parental celebration days. I’d go even further and suggest that is might be useful to do away with parental celebration days altogether.

Let’s face it – if you need a day set aside to remind you that you have parents that you should be kind to, then that day will not make you a ‘better’ son or daughter. If you don’t have a father or mother worth honouring, then these days have the  potential to be the source of much anguish for you. Many of us have neither a father nor a mother to celebrate, so annual reminders (on top of the daily reminders) are unhelpful, to say the least.

Spare a thought, too, for the children at school whose parents are absent. I’ve been an active member of SPARK for about three years now, and I am aware that some children are acutely hurt by their schools’ activities around making cards and gifts for parents  who are not part of their lives.  I remember my own daughter being very hurt by a teacher asking her, when she was only 7, if she had ever even met her father (the principal took her teacher’s side, so I started homeschooling).

 

What, really, is the point of ‘Mothers’ Day’ and ‘Fathers’ Day’? Like Valentine’s Day, they just seem like an excuse to encourage people to spend money (that they may or not be able to afford) on things like gifts, cards, and meals out. They can add pressure to already pressurised relationships.  They serve, as far as I can see, no useful purpose.

 

What are your thoughts?

The #SaveNonso Campaign

Image result for nonso Muojeke

Yesterday, this petition popped up on my timeline. It details the plight of a young man who is the same age as my youngest daughter (14). Please bear in mind that I know nothing about this family, save what I read on the petition page, and saw on an RTE news-clip.

 

From what I can glean from those sources, Nonso Muojeke has lived in Ireland since he was two years old. His mother was widowed, then ‘claimed by’ her dead husband’s brother. According to Mrs Muojeke, he – and the rest of her in-laws – treated her horrifically. She fled to Ireland, from Nigeria, with her two children, arriving in 2007.

 

The family was refused asylum in 2009, and has lived in a terrible legal limbo since. Nine years is a long time to live, with no security, with no idea whether or not you’ll be allowed to stay indefinitely. Not knowing if you might be taken from your home and sent back to a place of danger. I can only imagine what that does to a person’s mental health.

 

For me, though, the person at the centre of this tale is not Nonso himself, but his mother.  This is a woman who was treated horrifically by her in-laws after she was widowed and ‘taken’ by her dead husband’s brother, as his wife. She gathered the courage and the internal, and external, resources to leave the house, the village, the country, with her two young children. She arrived in Ireland – a place she knew little, or nothing, about and has stayed here, in spite of her case being fouled up by her solicitor (solicitors can pretty much do what they like in this country, by the way – without fear of censure). She has managed to provide for herself and her family without drawing from the public purse in terms of receiving a cent in social welfare payments, or getting healthcare for herself and her children.

 

She has held herself, and her family, together all this time. She has helped them to become part of the community where they live. She has kept her boys fed, warm, educated, housed, loved. And safe. She has kept them safe.

 

Now, however, the family is at risk of being returned to Nigeria. To a place where Mrs Muojeke was abused and degraded. To a place where the boys don’t feel a part of the society (because they never have been), to a place where the boys’ mental health would be at risk. None of this appears to matter to the Department of Justice, or the Minister for Justice. What this tells me is that returning a woman to a place where she is seen as nothing other than chattel – where she can be ‘inherited’ like a piece of furniture – is not something that this government objects to. This government is fine with the notion of a man ‘claiming’ his dead brother’s wife for himself (and then abusing her). This government is clearly absolutely fine with the idea of a man abusing a woman. But then, we know that already.

 

We may have voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, but we haven’t yet managed to repeal patriarchy.

Dear Love Boaters

Repealed

So, the voters of Ireland have spoken, overwhelmingly. Last Friday, Irish people voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution.

More people voted in the referendum than have ever voted on a single day in the country before. It was that important. The vote was carried by nearly 70%. It was that important.

Of course, those who voted ‘No’ are very disappointed. They may be feeling hurt, and upset, and abandoned, and powerless. They fought hard for something that was important to them, and they feel let down by those who voted ‘Yes’, and who are responsible for the fact that the 8th Amendment will be repealed, and women will have bodily autonomy.

 

I would hate for those voters to feel powerless, so – based on a number of suggestions that the No voters mooted as ‘solutions’ to choice – I’d like to offer the following for their kind consideration:

  1. The No voters were very concerned about foetuses being aborted because they (the foetuses) had severe, life-limiting, life-constraining disabilities. Given their concern, I’m sure they’d love to help children and families who have disabled children. I know several such families who need respite, who need practical help with regard to buying nappies and specially-adapted vehicles and much more. My friend, Tracy McGinnis, has a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy an adapted house for her severely disabled son. You can donate here.
  2. They were also concerned that women and girls who were pregnant as a result of rape would not have abortions. Clearly, their concern for those of us who have been raped – and especially those of us who have been raped by our own fathers and brothers – is touching. I’d suggest donating funds to their local rape crisis centre, sexual assault treatment unit, or even training and volunteering to help women after they have been raped.
  3. There was much attention paid by the ‘No’ campaigners that even the threat of suicide, or other mental health difficulties, was not enough to offer support to women who wanted to make choices around their pregnancies. I’d suggest that they fund-raise for Pieta House, the Samaritans, or – better yet – to pay for more perinatal psychiatric services in Ireland. Currently, there are only three such specialised doctors, and they practice in Dublin.
  4.  As a lone parent – one who didn’t abort, in other words – I’d have loved their support when my children were younger. My family of origin is toxic and abusive, so I have no contact with them. Nor do I have support from the ex, so someone to have come around a few times a week to help with the housework; with child-minding; or even to make me a cup of coffee and chat with me when the kids were in bed, would have been fantastic. So – No Voters – find a lone mother in your locale, and find out what you can do to help her. Then help her.
  5. In a similar vein – find a man who was left raising his child/ren on his own because the 8th Amendment caused his wife’s death, and do what you can to help him, and them.
  6. No-ers had a great plan for women who didn’t want to continue their pregnancies: They figured these women should continue their pregnancies, and then have their babies adopted. Now, the problem with this ‘solution’ is that adoption is the solution to unwanted parenthood, not unwanted pregnancies. So, here’s what’ I’d suggest: People who think adoption is a great idea should roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to helping re-unite babies, who were sold by the religious orders, with their birth parents. They should campaign to have the files held by these religious orders opened wide, and information shared with those who want it.

 

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of more. Please feel free to share them. No voters – you’ve shown us your passion, you’ve shown us you can mobilise, you’ve shown us that you can be (dare I say it?) obstreperous; you’ve shown us how loud you can be when MSM ‘silences’ you; you’ve shown us that you can persuade people to fly in from all over (but especially from America) to help you. Put all that passion and expertise (and money!) to good use and help out the already-born.

Some Lone Parenting Realities

Euro in Hand

Yesterday, the Irish Times reported that the number of poor mothers dying by suicide is on the rise. 

Privately, a friend who works in an economically-deprived area in Dublin, told me that in the past year, three lone mothers have died by suicide in that area.

Mothers who parent alone get the shitty end of the stick in this country. Lone parent families have the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland, according to the most recent SILC report (which you can read here). The vast majority of lone parent families are headed by women. There are barriers to education and paid employment – and the work women do in the home is completely discounted; it’s expected that we will

*cook

*clean

*make appointments for the children

*take the children to those appointments

*do the laundry

*do the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise the handyman (if we can’t do the DIY ourselves)

*top up the leap cards

*keep the car on the road (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise drop-offs and pick-ups

*do drop-offs and pick-ups

*pay attention to every sign and symptom of our babies, children, teens so we’re on top of their mental health and physical health

*provide healthy, nutritious meals for our children

*clothe our children

*provide appropriate shelter for our children

*ensure that they are doing well at school

*fight for everything they require if they have any sort of additional need

*pay all the bills

*organise birthday parties

*find the money for cards and gifts for our children’s friends’ birthdays

*make time to spend with each of our children on their own

*read to our children

*take care of their cultural, sporting, and academic requirements

*make sure they take their medication

*keep an eye on who they’re friends with

*get to know their friends

*forget that third drink on a weekend night, in case one of the kids gets sick and you need to take them to the doctor / hospital

*turn down invitations because you don’t have / can’t afford childcare

*monitor the kids’ internet usage

 

This list is not exhaustive. In fact, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg of the things that mothers parenting on their own are expected to do – and judged and vilified for if they don’t, or don’t do it to someone else’s ridiculously high standards.

Is it any wonder an increasing amount of us are suicidal?

* If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing jo@samaritans.ie or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: supportmail@aware.ie

Not All Mothers Love

Not all mothers love

Today is a tough day for many of my American friends. It’s Mothers’ Day over that side of the Atlantic, and that’s not all sweetness and light for everyone. Aside altogether, from women who have lost their mothers to illness, there are many who were never mothered to begin with.

I believe that the last social taboo surrounds abusive mothers. The dominant narrative is that mothers are all-loving, all-giving, self-sacrificing fonts of love for all their offspring. To challenge that account of mothers is, to many, worse than blasphemy. This has the effect of silencing so many of us who survived our mothers, and who want to share our experiences to find other survivors and develop a community that understands, and supports us.

I remember, about eight years ago, I decided to cut ties with my toxic, abusive family (my father and two eldest brothers sexually abused me my entire childhood, my other brothers, my sister – who was also raped by one of my brothers – and their partners, choose to support my eldest brothers), and a friend of mine said ‘Well, yes, cut ties with all of them. Except your mum. You can’t not talk to your mum. Because….well, she’s you mum.’  It’s so difficult for people who were raised by someone who loved them – however imperfectly – that those of us who never experienced maternal love actually exist.

In the month or so since I started my secret Facebook Page for Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers*, I have been amazed, horrified, and comforted by the amount of women who share my grief at having been raised by at least one narcissist.  The last time I spoke to my mother was at the end of 2016. It was a surreal conversation, in many ways, and if I hadn’t recorded it, it would be hard to believe some of the things that came out of her mouth actually did. Most notable was her response when I asked her why she had never told my sisters-in-law, that I had been raped by my brothers.

‘It’s not my place,’ she said.

‘Not even to protect your grandchildren?’ I asked.

‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated.

 

To reveal that I was telling the absolute, irrefutable, empirical, truth about my brothers was too much of a challenge to her view of herself. She couldn’t possibly be the person she wants the world to believe she is if she admitted that her sons raped her daughter, and she chose to support her boys instead of her girl.  Mind you, this is the same woman who refused to let me be taken into care as a teenager because she was ‘worried about what the neighbours would say.’ When I confronted her with this piece of information (gleaned as the result of an FOI request), she nodded and said categorically and with a tone of extreme rightousness ‘Yes, yes, I did say that.’ Only a narcissist could possibly utter such a response.

Philip Larkin (no relation!) famously wrote:

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.’

 

In the case of narcissistic mothers, however, they don’t actually care about the ways in which they damage their children. They feel no remorse, accept no responsibility, offer no apologies, and care only about how they are perceived by people they don’t live with. If you suspect your mother might be a narcissist, this article provides a short list of things that others do, that narcissists will never do.

 

Finally,  this piece, from Dr Karyl McBride, offers ten tips for coping with Mothers’ Day for adult children of narcissistic mothers. Mind yourself.

 

 *If you’d like to join, please send me an email, a DM on Twitter, or drop a line in comments here. Comments are moderated before posting, so you won’t be revealing more than you’d care to share with the world at large.

Anxiety

Image result for the scream

Let me tell you about anxiety. Or, rather, let me tell you about my experience of anxiety. I’ve had anxiety for years, but didn’t know what it was until about two years ago. Then, I had the diagnosis, but didn’t realise the plethora of symptoms that could be attributed to it until the medication eased them. That’s right – I’m on medication for my anxiety, and have been for about a year. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that before, because of the amount of stigma associated with being on medication. Still, in 2018. But I refuse to allow that to hold me back from speaking my truth. If I had asthma and needed an inhaler every day, would I be ’embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’ or ‘shamed’ because of it? Probably not.

(As a brief aside, I love my medication. It doesn’t make me happy – it doesn’t make my life any better, it merely enables me to meet the life that comes at me without falling to pieces. It makes me functional. It restores me to myself. )

Anyway, even with medication, I still have anxiety, and even with the medication, it sometimes gets bad. Now, we all get a bit anxious. I accept that. But clinical anxiety is to ‘being a bit anxious’ as clinical depression is to ‘being a bit sad’.  Here’s what it’s like for me:

I wake up in the morning and it feels like I have something heavy – like a cannon ball – sitting in my solar plexus: It feels like it’s pinning me to the bed. I am paralysed by it. I lie there, trying to identify the source of the fear. The following sentences literally form themselves in my brain:
‘What have I failed at?’
‘What do I have to do today that’s terrifying me?’
‘What is today bringing me that I won’t be able to do?’

I know that I generally feel a bit better if I’m upright. It can take me up to two hours to cajole myself out of bed, though. So I get the added delight of telling myself:
‘This is you, doing nothing.’
‘This is you, failing. Right here, right now, this is exactly what you’re doing. Failing.’
‘You’re useless. You’re doing nothing. You’ll never get anything done.’

‘Just give it up. Give up everything you’re trying to do because you’re not doing it! Just STOP! Stop everything because you are nothing.’

I’m getting better at ignoring that voice, though, or of dismissing it when it speaks to me.

In addition to the shit I tell myself, I find breathing difficult when my anxiety is bad. I can go a minute or so without breathing, and not notice. Clearly, this is not a good thing. Especially when I realise I’ve been holding my breath, and then I bring my attention to it, and run the risk of inducing a panic attack! Really not a good look. (Panic attacks are evil.) So, I’ve got better at just breathing Like A Normal Person (for those who aren’t familiar, Normal People are people who aren’t me!).

Then there’s the wasps in my head. Not actual wasps, you understand, but that’s what it feels like, sometimes; that there is a whole swarm of angry wasps inside my skull, and I just can’t stop them buzzing, flying, stinging, the inside of my head.

Sometimes, for the sake of variety, my thoughts will try to emulate barbed wire on the inside of my head, rather than wasps. They’d hate me to get bored. They are hard to deal with, I’ll admit it. But I’m working on catching them and dismissing them before they multiply. I’m not always successful – but, then, they’re not always that bad.  A soothing distraction can be good – taking up my knitting, or doing a bit of colouring (as I mentioned before, I use kids’ colouring books because ‘mindful’ ones crank my anxiety levels up), or sticking. I also love devotional music – I prefer Hindu mantras – but devotional music comes (I feel) from a very special place, so devotional music of any persuasion touches me. Get on to You Tube, and see what works for you.

 

Recently, I have found that it really works for me if I forget about compiling a list of things to do – and give myself just one, achievable task to get through in a day. Some days (like today), it might take me all day to get it done. Funny thing is, that once I have that ticked off, I often feel like doing something else. So I’ll do something else, and that feeds a sense of achievement I hadn’t expected.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself. ‘Speak Love to yourself,’ my friend Kuxi wrote to me today. (When I’m bad, I can’t speak. I know, I know, it should be a national holiday, but it just feels like it’s too hard – so I send emails, or text messages. I know it’s important not to isolate myself too much.)

 

Also today, for the first time ever, I caught myself thinking

‘It’s going to be okay. You’ve lived through this before. You’ve lived through worse. You’ll bounce back – you always do.’

And the relief was amazing. I was able to recognise that I’m more unwell than I had previously admitted to myself, and reach out to a variety of people who can help – friends, my supervisor at uni, my doctor.

 

But the most important reaching out I did was to myself.  I was kinder, gentler, more understanding of myself this time around than ever before. I’m hoping it’ll ease up soon, and the next time it’s bad, I’ll be more aware and reach out even sooner. If you have anxiety, what works for you?

 

 

 

Baby Boxes Won’t Raise Birth Rates

hazelkatherinelarkin

Special Delivery....!

(This is not a Finnish baby box!)

 

A week ago, Katherine Zappone announced baby boxes would be given to all new parents in an attempt to increase the birth rate in Ireland.

Baby boxes were first introduced in Finland in 1938, when infant mortality stood at 65 per 1,000. The boxes contained clothes, nappies, a mattress, picture books and a teething toy. With the mattress in the bottom, the box doubled as a bed. They were introduced as part of a drive to bring down Finland’s infant mortality rate.

In Ireland, in 2018, however, they’re, at best, cute, and at worst, a waste of money.  This government would be better serving their remit if they poured support into children who are already here. Here is an incomplete list of thing the government could better do with money to help the children who are already here:

  • Lone parents need better supports…

View original post 352 more words

Baby Boxes Won’t Raise Birth Rates

Special Delivery....!

(This is not a Finnish baby box!)

 

A week ago, Katherine Zappone announced baby boxes would be given to all new parents in an attempt to increase the birth rate in Ireland.

Baby boxes were first introduced in Finland in 1938, when infant mortality stood at 65 per 1,000. The boxes contained clothes, nappies, a mattress, picture books and a teething toy. With the mattress in the bottom, the box doubled as a bed. They were introduced as part of a drive to bring down Finland’s infant mortality rate.

In Ireland, in 2018, however, they’re, at best, cute, and at worst, a waste of money.  This government would be better serving their remit if they poured support into children who are already here. Here is an incomplete list of thing the government could better do with money to help the children who are already here:

  • Lone parents need better supports, and clearer pathways back to employment / education that won’t penalise them.
  • We need better supports for adults who were abused as children, so that they can parent better.
  • We need more midwives, so pregnant people can have continuity of care.
  • We need better mental health care for children.
  • Our education system needs a complete overhaul (including better sex and relationship education).
  • We need to provide permanent homes for the 3,000+ homeless children in Ireland at the moment.

 

We need to value the children we already have before we start spouting off about how to look like we’re making life better for children who aren’t even here yet. It is true that raising children is expensive. People are putting off having children, or having more children, if they are unsure that they will be able to mange to keep those children safe, healthy, housed, fed, and educated. A few nappies, and a couple of babygros in the bottom of a cardboard box are not going to encourage people to have more babies – but here are a few things that might:

  • Affordable housing and I don’t (necessarily) mean state-subsidised housing, but houses where mortgages are easy to pay on one salary.
  • Education that is aligned with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the education of the child ‘shall be directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential. Currently, such education is not available in Ireland.
  • An improved maternity system, with women at the centre of care. I have spoken with many women who – having been traumatised in Irish hospitals – are too afraid to have another child.
  • Valuing the caring work that parents do: Currently, parents on social welfare are receiving €31 per week per child. If those same children were in foster care, the government would happily hand over between €325 and €352 per child per week to the foster parents.

Fix the leaky roof, and crumbling walls, of the house you live in before you start planning a fancy garden shed.

Narcissistic Mothers

hazelkatherinelarkin

thinkaboutme_400w

Cartoon courtesy of Ian Sala sonsofnarcissisticmothers.org

A few days ago, I started a secret group, on Facebook, for daughters of narcissistic mothers.  One of the  last remaining social taboos is challenging the myth of the ‘perfect mother’. While it is perfectly acceptable to snark about other mothers online, revealing that your own mother was abusive is still frowned upon. The fact that mothers are still revered makes it difficult to discuss the failings of your own with others. But the only way to heal from anything is to acknowledge it – and acknowledgement starts with naming. Giving a name to our mothers’ behaviour is the beginning of dealing with, and accepting what we went through.

I am, of course, using ‘narcissistic’ in a clinical sense, rather than to just mean ‘self-centred’.

Characteristics of Mothers With Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

1.Everything she does is deniable. 

2. She violates your boundaries. 

3. She…

View original post 605 more words

Narcissistic Mothers

thinkaboutme_400w

Cartoon courtesy of Ian Sala sonsofnarcissisticmothers.org

A few days ago, I started a secret group, on Facebook, for daughters of narcissistic mothers.  One of the  last remaining social taboos is challenging the myth of the ‘perfect mother’. While it is perfectly acceptable to snark about other mothers online, revealing that your own mother was abusive is still frowned upon. The fact that mothers are still revered makes it difficult to discuss the failings of your own with others. But the only way to heal from anything is to acknowledge it – and acknowledgement starts with naming. Giving a name to our mothers’ behaviour is the beginning of dealing with, and accepting what we went through.

I am, of course, using ‘narcissistic’ in a clinical sense, rather than to just mean ‘self-centred’.

Characteristics of Mothers With Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

1.Everything she does is deniable. 

2. She violates your boundaries. 

3. She displays no respect  for you. 

4. She refuses to accept that you are a woman separate from her;  entitled to your own life, and experiences.

5. She plays favourites with her children.

6. She undermines you – your dreams, ideas, and successes.

7. She is jealous of you.

8. She demeans, criticises, and denigrates you.

9. If you don’t behave exactly how she would like / expects you to, she will treat you as though you are crazy.

10. She lies – by omission, and commission.

11. She reinvents the past to make herself look good – or least better.

12. She has to be the centre of attention all the time.

13. She manipulates your emotions in order to feed on your pain.

14. She’s selfish and wilful.

15. She’s self-absorbed.

16. She’s unable to accept criticism, and gets extremely defensive in the face of it.

17. She’s infantile and petty.

18. She’s aggressive / passive-aggressive.

19. She ‘parentifies’.

19. She’s manipulative.

20. She’s exploitative.

21. She projects.

22. She can never accept that she is wrong about anything.

23. She cannot accept that others have different ways of doing things.

24. She blames others for her mistakes.

25. She actively works to destroy your relationships.

Not every aspect on this list may apply to your mother; but it’s safe to say that if she presents with at least 15 of the 25, she’s a narcissist, and you’re having to deal with the effects of her personality disorder.

 

For me, one of the worst parts of growing up with a narcissistic mother was her total denial of my right to an emotional life. She never recognised my emotions, needs, or desires. She expected, and demanded that I share details of every experience I had outside the home with her. Depending on what it was, she would
(1) ignore me/it,
(2) counter it with a story of her own,
(3) use that particular need or desire against me, or
(4) using her passive-aggressive skills or outright manipulation to guilt trip me for having needs, desires, etc. that were separate, and different from, her own. 

This continued right throughout my childhood and into my adulthood, until I found the strength to escape from the toxic, abusive family I grew up.

One of the saddest things, for me, about the FB group*, is the fact that so many of the members have disclosed a history of child sexual abuse. It’s terribly sad that so many of us have both those things in common. Having grown up with a narcissistic mother can also impact on our own mothering.  A mother who didn’t love you makes loving your own children something you worry about: How can anyone possibly be expected to emulate a behaviour that has never been modelled for them?  (Dealing with narcissistic mothers, and their effect on pregnant women will be discussed at this workshop in May.)

 

Of course, I accept that my own mother had adversity in her own life. There is sexual abuse in her own background; she married young (as she says herself, to ‘spite’ her own mother); and her husband was abusive. She suffers with a food addiction, and was a secret eater throughout my childhood. She’s deeply unhappy, and feels the need to inflict that unhappiness on her own daughter. While I can have compassion for the fact that her life didn’t exactly go to plan, I can still hold her accountable for her behaviour – something she’s completely incapable of doing herself.

 

(*If you’d like to join the group, DM me on Twitter, or email me hazel@hazelkatherinelarkin.com)

Unsolicited Pictures – A Follow-Up

hazelkatherinelarkin

Last week, I wrote about unsolicited dick pics, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of them. To be clear, I have absolutely no judgement around solicited penis pictures. If sending nudies is part of the sex-play between two consenting adults, I hope it works well for them.

 

The unsolicited pictures, and the sending of them, however, started a conversation on Twitter, and a number of women asked me why men sent these pictures. Well, as a woman, I have no idea. So I decided to ask the men who send them. Now, this is in no way a rigorous piece of scientific research. It’s a Twitter poll. There were 74 responses, and one of them was from a woman who clicked by accident and bumped up option two by one number. There may have been more people who clicked accidentally, but I have no…

View original post 315 more words

Unsolicited Pictures – A Follow-Up

Last week, I wrote about unsolicited dick pics, and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of them. To be clear, I have absolutely no judgement around solicited penis pictures. If sending nudies is part of the sex-play between two consenting adults, I hope it works well for them.

 

The unsolicited pictures, and the sending of them, however, started a conversation on Twitter, and a number of women asked me why men sent these pictures. Well, as a woman, I have no idea. So I decided to ask the men who send them. Now, this is in no way a rigorous piece of scientific research. It’s a Twitter poll. There were 74 responses, and one of them was from a woman who clicked by accident and bumped up option two by one number. There may have been more people who clicked accidentally, but I have no way of knowing. All I can tell you is that, from the first few responses, the results were fairly consistent.

 

So, here’s what I got:

Twitter Dick Pic Poll

As you can see, 8% of respondents said they send these pictures because they think their penises are gorgeous, with 14% wanting the person on the receiving end to express admiration for the penis they are presented with. I must admit, that I thought the percentage of those in the first category would be higher. In my experience, men think their reproductive organs are beautiful (most women don’t – penises are only thought of aesthetically pleasing by women when they have an emotional attachment to the man on the end of it). Again, I’m surprised that so few men admitted to sending unsolicited penis pictures because they want their members to be admired.

 

The final two responses are the ones that worry me most. Sixteen percent of respondents admit to sending unsolicited pictures to shock the person who would receive it. There is something disturbing about a man wanting to shock a woman with a picture of his genitals. It’s an expression of a desire to exert power over the receiver, which is distasteful, to say the least.

 

Finally, the majority of men – 62% of them – who responded admitted sending unsolicited dick pics in the hope that the woman who receives them will send back a photograph of her genitals. I feel duty-bound to let these men know that that’s not how it works. Women are likely to be disturbed and upset if men send unsolicited pictures of their genitals, and really not inclined to reciprocate.

 

If you want to send pictures of your willies, guys, please afford the intended recipient the courtesy of ensuring that it will be a welcome photograph – and don’t expect one in return. Instead, wait until one is offered.

Consent And Unsolicited Pictures

food-sausage-puff-pastry-hot-dog.jpg

Consent is, thankfully, back in the news these days.  Sober Paddy wrote a great piece on how not to be a rapist. That post focuses on how important consent is when seeking to have sexual contact with someone else.

The Minister for Education and Skills has issued a statement committing to bringing the issue of consent into the new sex ed curricula. Until the proposed curricula have been published, it is impossible to comment on their content – obviously! – but I would hope that ‘consent’ would cover everything from hugging right up to, and including, penetrative sex.

Schools are not the only place where people can, and should, receive education, information, and training, however. Sports clubs, professional bodies and organisations, have a duty of care to ensure that their members are aware of what consent is, how to obtain it, and how to respond when consent is refused / revoked. I would argue that workplaces would also do well to consider educating their employees on issues of consent. After all, mental health and other elements of self-care are being introduced by employers across the country, so why not consent workshops, too?

Seeking, and obtaining, consent is an element of challenging the entitlement with which most men in our society are raised. Even men who identify as ‘one of the good guys’ (who doesn’t?!); and think they are kind, considerate, and emotionally intelligent can – due to their own sense of entitlement – over-step boundaries, causing upset and distress.

As the person on the receiving end of such behaviour recently, I’m going to tell you a little story about consent and unsolicited dick pics.

It’s no secret that I’ve dabbled in the world of online dating – with mixed results. There have been a few first dates, fewer second dates, and a scant handful of third (or subsequent) dates, but for the most part, it’s been fun.

About a fortnight ago I connected with a man who seemed like A Decent Bloke. I enjoyed chatting with him; he ticked a lot of boxes, and I was looking forward to meeting him. From our first conversation, I had flagged my dislike of dick pics – photographs of men’s penises sent to my phone, and / or email – and he had assured me that he wouldn’t send any.

It got to the stage where the (non) sending of dick pics was a source of mirth. In nearly every conversation we had, the fact that I didn’t like them, and he, therefore, wouldn’t send them was mentioned. I was clear, not just about my aversion to dick pics, but also about why I really didn’t want them sent to me. He understood. ‘I’m one of the good guys,’ he assured me. Hmmmmm.

Last week, we were chatting away, and it was all a bit flirty and harmless and comfortable. Then, he whips out his penis, snaps a pic, and sends it to me on Whatsapp.

I was more upset than I thought I’d be: I’m in my mid-forties, I’ve seen penises before; and I’ve been violated in worse ways (and by family members, too), but upset I was. I immediately shut down the conversation on Whatsapp, and sent a ‘regular’ text message. This is the exchange that followed:

Screenshot Adrian Edited

I didn’t reply. I have no desire to communicate with someone who thinks this is an adequate response. Look at what he says:

‘I got carried away’ – in other words ‘It wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t control myself.’

How many times have women heard this as a way for men to shift the blame for their actions away from them to …well, who or what, exactly? The woman? Their penis as a third party and separate entity? I’m not sure, but if you have any thoughts, please enlighten me.

In his final missive, he says:

‘I really thought we had reached a point where you would be ok with that.’

He thought I’d be okay with him sending me an unsolicited dick pic even though I’d told him I really didn’t want one. He thought that; so it must be right, right? He thought that; so there was no need to check with me, right? He thought that; so there was no need to seek consent, right? And he could have, so easily….if he was sitting there, all horny and dying to show me what that looked like (!), couldn’t he just have asked? How difficult would it have been for him to say something like:

‘I know you don’t want unsolicited dick pics – but to you fancy soliciting one? 😊’ or

‘I’m horny as fuck – wanna see?!’ or

‘I think I have the most amazing mickey in the world, and I want you to agree.’

Whatever! Anything other than this clear display of white, male, middle-class, entitlement. I’m sick of it.

Sending an unsolicited picture of your genitals to another person is an act of aggression. Sent as a message (rather than an attachment), means that it confronts the person when they open the relevant application. It’s violating. It’s upsetting. Particularly when the person on the receiving end has been clear and explicit about why they do not wish to receive such a photograph (and, should I really have to disclose details of my abuse in order to hope that I’ll be spared an unsolicited dick pic? Or tell men that my children have access to my phone, so I don’t want their penises all over it?!)

Exposing children to pornographic images is classed as sexual abuse. Exposing adults to pornographic images should, at the very least, require consent.

Dear Decent Men

hazelkatherinelarkin

Content Warning: Rape

Rapists

 

Dear Decent Men

Here is what we need from you right now. (When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’ and the abused women I’ve spoken to recently.) We need you to listen to us. We need you to listen to our hurt, and our rage, and our pain. We need you to understand that, actually, this is personal. It is a personal message to every woman who has ever, or will ever, be raped or sexually assaulted – and Lord knows there’s enough of us – that we will be abused and traumatised again by the legal system if we dare to open our mouths and report the assault/s. That more worth and weight is attached to the lies of rapists than to the truths of rape victims.

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you to call out men (and women) of your acquaintance who say…

View original post 599 more words

Dear Decent Men

Content Warning: Rape

Rapists

 

Dear Decent Men

Here is what we need from you right now. (When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’ and the abused women I’ve spoken to recently.) We need you to listen to us. We need you to listen to our hurt, and our rage, and our pain. We need you to understand that, actually, this is personal. It is a personal message to every woman who has ever, or will ever, be raped or sexually assaulted – and Lord knows there’s enough of us – that we will be abused and traumatised again by the legal system if we dare to open our mouths and report the assault/s. That more worth and weight is attached to the lies of rapists than to the truths of rape victims.

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you to call out men (and women) of your acquaintance who say things like ‘I knew they were innocent’ –  remind them that, in law, ‘not guilty’ is not the same as ‘innocent’. We need you to remind people who say that ‘Justice was done’ that there is a difference between ‘justice’ and ‘law’. We need you to remind others that laws were written for privileged men, by privileged men, to privilege privileged men.

 

We need you to remind those who need reminding that just because a judge is female, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is sympathetic to other women; that the legal system is a patriarchal institution, and those who are successful within it must play that game in order to be awarded success.

 

We need you to talk about how a jury of the accused’s peers is likely to be sympathetic to him by the very virtue of the fact that they are his peers – and not the peers of his victim. We need you to talk about how the members of the legal profession – on both sides – will have more in common with white, privileged males than with a rape victim.

 

We need you to let people know that you do not appreciate derogatory comments about women, and you do not want women referred to as ‘whores’, ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’, or ‘cunts’ in your hearing.  We need you to state, simply, and calmly, that rape ‘jokes’ are not funny.

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you to make it clear that you think women deserve respect at all times; that you believe women – all women, all the time – are the only people who have a ‘right’ to their bodies: Everyone else has to ask, and that if they don’t get an enthusiastic, ongoing, non-coerced, freely-given ‘YES!’ then that’s a ‘NO!’ And ‘no’ is a complete sentence – not an invitation to do what you want anyway.

We need you to let other men know that when our vaginas hurt and are bleeding, and the pain is excruciating, that we may negotiate. We know that until a rapist climaxes, he won’t leave us alone. We know that a drunk rapist will take longer to climax than a sober one; so we offer an alternative – a hand-job or a blow-job – to make the burning, stinging, stretching, tearing pain in our vaginas, at our cervixes, at the very core of us, stop. That is not ‘offering’ to perform oral sex – it is the same thing as offering to swap one hostage for another. It is not an enthusiastic suggestion of consensual sexual activity.

Dear Decent Men, We need you to hold the space for us as we express our rage, and  our fear, and our horror, and our feelings of being belittled and diminished by a system – a society – that does not value us. We need you to hold the space for us while we process our thoughts and feelings. We don’t need you to tell us things that you hope will make us feel better; that you hope will shut us up.

We need you to bear witness to our pain and suffering. We need you to acknowledge it. We need you to pledge to work with us to change a system that is so broken it is absolutely not fit for purpose. We need you to express, at every opportunity, that women deserve respect, not because we are / could be ‘someone’s sister / aunt / mother / wife / cousin / neighbour / girlfriend’ but because we are human. 

 

Dear Decent Men, we need you.

Ranty McRant Face

(Celeste Erlach, Facebook)

Yesterday, Celeste Erlach’s Facebook rant to (about?) her husband went viral. It was picked up by media outlets across the globe, including our own Irish Independent. She was clearly upset and at the end of her tether, and she called her husband out on his lack of help with the kids – they have two, a baby and a toddler.

 

I must admit that my initial reaction was ‘Lady, try doing it all on your own, all the time – that’s hard.’ Regular readers will know that I have two daughters with just 26 months between them, and that I have been parenting alone for nigh on 15 years. Then, I caught myself on a bit. I might be all on my own, but Celeste Erlach isn’t. She is married, and has every right to expect that her husband will step up and help. Sure, he’s in an office all day while she’s at home all day – but they are both working. Why does his work stop when he gets home, and hers continues? If she’s married, then she can expect a partner who shares the workload.

 

I am cautiously aware that this rant only provides one side of the story – and it’s a snapshot of that one side as well. Ms Erlach gives specific examples of what she wishes her husband did better, but there is concern (which was addressed on PJ Coogan’s show on CorkFM this morning) that Facebook is not the place to air marital grievances. Part of me is inclined to agree, though another part of me is aware that only posting ‘the good stuff’ on FB can create anxiety in those who read our status updates – they compare their insides to the outsides presented. I’m all for posting the good with the bad. What I’m not all for, however, is using Facebook as a tool to shame people. Shame is a powerful tool of social control – just ask the Roman Catholic Church who used it to great effect in Ireland – and it’s also an emotion that we don’t talk about very much.

 

It would appear that there is a lack of communication between Celeste Erlach and her husband and it would also appear – if you look at her Facebook page – that she has used her rant as a vehicle for attention, and to raise her own profile publicly. I’m struck by the banner on her page, though, which reads ‘Ask Yourself: What kind of Mom do you want to be?’ Clearly, Celeste Erlach wants to be the kind of mom who shames and humiliates the father of her children in a very public way. I’m not sure that’s fair on them. Turning to social media to berate the other parent of your child/ren is, I would suggest, potentially damaging to their relationship with that parent, because it smacks of a lack of respect.

 

I’m not suggesting that this wife and mother doesn’t have legitimate gripes. I’m not suggesting that there multiple ways her husband and the father of her children could help. What I am suggesting, however, is that it might have been kinder, and more useful – to her own family, and to the thousands of people who have viewed, liked, shared, and discussed her rant – if she had shared her concerns privately, found a workable solution with her husband, and shared that publicly. If she had written this letter and given it to him, expressing her frustration, her physical, emotional, and psychological needs and found a workable solution with her husband, that might have been a better post to share to share with her friends and followers.

 

I think that approach would have been more valuable; no one would have been publicly shamed, humiliated or reprimanded, and her children would have had good conflict resolution modelled for them. I think that’s worth a lot more than a shed-load of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’.

CSA Disclosures In Pregnancy: Why Women Don’t Tell

Here’s one from my other blog

hazelkatherinelarkin

Zipped Mouth

With more than 25% of women reporting that they have been sexually assaulted, every midwife and birthworker will encounter a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA) several times in her / his career.

Not everyone who has been abused will disclose to their midwife. Given that, I advise midwives, and other HCPs to treat all women as survivors until, and unless, they are told otherwise.  There are a number of reasons why a woman might be fearful of disclosing to her midwife: Depending on where she is in her recovery, the woman may feel guilty about the  abuse – victim-blaming is so common in society that it’s not unusual for a woman to feel this way. Often, we feel that we need to protect people from our reality, and don’t want to upset or shock our lovely midwives. There is also the additional concern that we will be labelled as…

View original post 359 more words

CSA Disclosures In Pregnancy: Why Women Don’t Tell

Zipped Mouth

With more than 25% of women reporting that they have been sexually assaulted, every midwife and birthworker will encounter a survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA) several times in her / his career.

Not everyone who has been abused will disclose to their midwife. Given that, I advise midwives, and other HCPs to treat all women as survivors until, and unless, they are told otherwise.  There are a number of reasons why a woman might be fearful of disclosing to her midwife: Depending on where she is in her recovery, the woman may feel guilty about the  abuse – victim-blaming is so common in society that it’s not unusual for a woman to feel this way. Often, we feel that we need to protect people from our reality, and don’t want to upset or shock our lovely midwives. There is also the additional concern that we will be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘needy’ or ‘defective’.

A survivor can also feel that her trauma will be minimised, misunderstood, or ignored. She may also worry that she will be told it ‘makes no difference’ or ‘it’s not relevant’. This is particularly likely if she has had these reactions on previous occasions when she has disclosed.

 

Pregnant women may also worry that their history of child sexual abuse will be recorded on their charts, viewed by many other people and discussed without her knowledge or permission. These days, with a mandatory reporting obligation on caregivers, women may be concerned that their abuse will be ‘broadcast’ and that they will be called upon to revisit it with other agencies. The stress of this may be something they don’t want to think about – especially not while they are pregnant.

Sometimes, a pregnancy might feel like the first time that a woman’s body has done something ‘right’ or ‘normal’, and the woman may be striving really hard to be treated as ‘normal’ throughout her pregnancy. There is always a possibility, too, that the woman may not have disclosed to her partner that she has a history of CSA. She may also be afraid of bringing up the emotional pain and stress of her abuse by mentioning it to her midwife.

 

Women may already have experienced reactions that left a lot to be desired with regard to the amount of empathy they were met with. Whether or not her midwife will be empathetic or knowledgeable is hard to tell on first meeting her. It can feel like a huge emotional risk for a pregnant woman to disclose her history of child sexual abuse to a stranger, even if that stranger is a medical professional. If a woman doesn’t get a sense that her information would be treated sensitively, indeed, that she wouldn’t be treated sensitively upon disclosure, she may feel safer keeping that information to herself.

 

(If you are a midwife or birthworker interested in learning more about how to support women who have been sexually abused, check out the details of this course, which will be available in May:  http://bit.ly/2E9Be9p).

 

Love Is All Around Us

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I’ve been thinking about this post for the past few weeks. Then, with Valentine’s Day falling this past week, I thought about it a bit more.

I’ve been thinking about love, and how we seem to compartmentalise it. There are people we ‘fall in love’ with; people we are ‘expected’ to love, as a matter of duty, people we are assumed to love, and even deities that are demanding of our love. The idea of ‘self-love’ is bandied about – and we are expected to know how to love ourselves before we can ‘truly’ love another. I dispute this, as it happens. I know that I loved my children long before I loved myself. In truth, I think my children were instrumental in teaching me how to love myself.  But I digress.

While there are people we are ‘expected’ and ‘allowed’ to love – love is treated as something that is in short supply: We’re not encouraged to be too flaithúlach (an Irish word meaning ‘overly generous’) with our love, and declarations thereof. As if, somehow, declaring love for someone not on our ‘permitted / expected’ list is somehow an aberration. Like you, I’ve also heard that old saw that you can’t love someone you don’t know, and it takes years to get to know someone well – and well enough to know that you love them.

Here’s the thing, though. I love a lot of people – and, in part, I’ve only realised that, or allowed myself to recognise my feeling for these people as ‘love’ in the past year or two. There is a very long list of people I love, and I have started (only recently, mind you!) to tell them.  I’m newly confident. That confidence is as a result of a number of things that have happened to, and because of, me in the past year or so.  I’ve started telling people I love, that I love them. I don’t expect them to respond in any way but to hear me and to believe me. When I tell you I love you, I’m doing so in all honesty and sincerity. I’m doing so even though I may not have known you for years. I’m doing so even though I may not know every facet of your personality. I’m doing so even though I may not know or love everything about you. In a way, it’s similar to the Sanskrit greeting ‘Namaste’ – which means, essentially, that ‘the Divine in me recognises the Divine in you’.  The essence of love in me recognises the essence of love in you and wishes to acknowledge it.

 

Life is short, and the things that really matter have been brought into focus for me quite sharply in the past week or two. I’ve read what Dr Alistair McAlpine learned from his terminally-ill, paediatric patients. I’ve witnessed the horror that is yet another mass shooting in the US, that left seventeen beautiful children dead. Closer to home, I’ve read Emma Hannigan’s touching and dignified farewell post on Facebook, with tears coursing down my face.

 

Life – even the longest of lives – is short. What matters is other people, and spending time with them. Spending time loving them. Eat the ice cream. Eat it with someone you love. And tell them that you love them.

 

The Lack of Provision for the Special Educational Needs of Children of Gifted Intelligence in the Republic of Ireland is a Breach of their Human Rights.

 

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I know, I know, it’s a mouthful.

It’s also the title of a paper I presented at the SLSA (Socio-Legal Studies Association) Conference in Lancaster in 2016. If you want to read it (with the added bonus of my slides attached!), you can do so here. 

Forgiveness (Part 2)

forgiveness-332x263

Last month, I wrote the first part of this ‘series’ in Forgiveness. If you’re interested, you can read that entry here.

I wrote about what I think forgiveness isn’t. I ended the piece talking about peace – and how those of use who have been hurt (and are generally called upon to forgive) need, and deserve peace.

Here’s what I have learnt about forgiveness in recent months, though – bearing in mind that I have researched this from an academic point of view, as well as engaging with people who work in law enforcement, and others who are dedicated to reform, here and abroad.

My ‘aha’ moment around forgiveness, though, came when I was talking to a financial coach, Karen McAllister.  Funny how the answers you’re looking for don’t necessarily come from the source you might expect them to. Anyway, talking to Karen about forgiveness, I realised that my version of forgiveness was not about exonerating the transgressor, but about reclaiming the power that I was settling on them. 

Let me unpack that, and explain what I mean. At this juncture, I’m going to go backwards for a little bit, and look at the etymology of the word ‘forgive’. To forgive means to grant a pardon, and a pardon is to ‘pass over an offence without punishment’. ‘Pardon’ has its roots in two Latin words: ‘Per’ (which means ‘forward’ or ‘hence’) and ‘Donare’ (which means ‘give as a gift’).  To forgive, then, is ‘the granting of the gift of, henceforth, not punishing an offence’. Forgiving, then, in the traditional sense, the way I wrote about it last month, essentially gives the forgiven a free pass, while not doing an awful lot for the forgivee.  To me, that reinforces something else I mentioned last month; that the only person we need to forgive, in that sense, is ourselves.

To come back, now,  to the idea of forgiveness as a reclamation of power, I think that is the manifestation of forgiveness of the self.  The person who has damaged you, who has trespassed against you, is not given a free pass, but you reclaim the  power that they have stolen from you.

Perhaps the easiest way to do that is to use a real-life example. My eldest brother, Nigel Talbot, sexually abused me for most of my childhood. He is not remorseful, and though he has said ‘sorry’ in person, he has continued to abuse me in other ways, and he has also continued to abuse other women – sexually, emotionally, and financially.  My forgiveness took the form of a letter to him. Initially, I was going to send it to him, but – thinking about it – I realised that, to do so, would still be giving him power. I would still be expressing a desire for him to do something / to be something that he could choose not to be. What I need to do, for myself, is to call back that energy that he holds while I don’t forgive. The forgiveness is about me, not about him.

In any event, I know that if I did send a letter to him, his wife would keep it from him.

If you would like to read that letter, you can do so here.

This was the first of many such letters I’m writing, and with the penning of every one, I am feeling stronger, and more self-reclaimed. It’s definitely something I’d recommend, and if you do it, too, I’d love to know if it works for you.

 

 

                                                                                                           

 

 

 


 

 

Smear Campaign

Pearls of wisdom

CW: Child Sexual Abuse, Pregnancy Loss

 

This year, European Cervical Cancer Awareness Week falls from January 28th. As a result, the past few days have seen my Twitter feed full of reminders that smear tests save lives; that cervical cancer is an awful way to go; that it is preventable; that a few minutes’ of (unnecessary) embarrassment and (minimal) discomfort are worth it if they save your life; that you really don’t want to be one of the 70 women in Ireland who dies as a result of cervical cancer this year.

I chose to believe this piece of research that instructed me that there is a statistically significant number of false positive results. I decided to nod in agreement with pieces like this from The Guardian. Never mind that it’s nearly 15 years old. I liked what I read.  I also had a look at the academic journals and read the ones that would confirm my existing bias. As a full-time researcher in the social sciences, I know better; but I decided to suspend my natural and professional critical interrogative proclivities in order to tell myself I was making an informed decision. Hey! I wasn’t going to be publishing my findings, and I wasn’t going to be harming anyone (except, maybe, myself) if I was wrong.  I also had a quick look at this website and decided I didn’t tick enough boxes to be anything other than ‘low risk’.

 

So, for the 16th year running, I won’t be having a smear test. Head-in-the-sand? Definitely. I wouldn’t normally be so reckless about screening (I had my first mammogram at 27 – before I’d even had kids), but a smear test is a slightly different screening exam to most, and the reason for my aversion is – sorry to say – rooted in my experiences of child sexual abuse, and subsequent sexual assaults as an adult. I want to feel empowered as much as, and as often as, possible. Smear tests aren’t really empowering.

 

All of that said, however, I think there might be a solution. I am not the only woman in Ireland with a history of sexual assault. There are thousands of us in the ‘smear test age bracket’ who have been sexually abused, and I think it might be a good idea if we were facilitated with a bit of compassion / understanding.

 

I’m reminded, very much, of the last time a health professional went faffing around at my nether regions. It was four years ago last week, and I was losing a pregnancy. This had not been an easy pregnancy to achieve, and I’d used donor sperm for a variety of reasons (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post). Anyway.

 

Losing this baby* was devastating. Not least because I didn’t have a partner to hug me and tell me it would all be all right, but because accessing healthcare was difficult for me. I decided to do what I could to take ownership of my own care, and empower myself as best I could. The first thing I did was drive an hour out of Dublin (passing, literally, by two maternity hospitals on my way) to Mullingar. I’m a doula, and although I rarely practice any more, I am still in contact with many members of the birth community; and I hear things, and I know things. One of the things I had heard was that I could expect to find more compassion in Mullingar than in the Dublin hospitals (for a variety of reasons).

 

In Mullingar, I was treated with kindness and compassion by the young male doctor in A&E who drew blood and tried to be as reassuring as possible. I was invited (and I choose the word deliberately) to return for further blood tests and a scan at the Early Pregnancy Unit. I thought about it. I wasn’t keen, but I steeled myself and showed up. When I was registering that morning, I noticed that the nurse (Deborah) wore a name-tag which indicated that she was attached to the SATU (sexual assault treatment unit) in the hospital. Ten minutes after sitting down, waiting to be called, I decided to take my treatment in my own hands, ignored the voice that said I was ‘being dramatic’ and ‘attention seeking’ (my abusers used to toss this at me any time I got upset about how I was being treated) and I approached this nurse. I disclosed that I had a history of sexual abuse and explained that I found trans-vaginal ultrasounds immensely difficult.

 

The amount of compassion and understanding I bumped up against was instantly reassuring. Deborah asked what I needed, how she could help, offered me choices (I didn’t need to have a trans-vaginal ultrasound if I didn’t want one, and could opt for the ‘old-fashioned’ way of drinking litres of water and having an abdominal scan instead). She literally held my hand throughout the procedure and did her absolute best to make sure that I felt empowered, comfortable and heard at all times.

 

I can honestly say that hearing the dreaded words ‘I’m really sorry – there’s no heartbeat’ was made that bit easier by the way I had been treated with compassion and dignity every step of the way.

 

Now, I know that having a miscarriage and having a smear test are different – but in many ways, they’re not that different. So what I’m wondering is if might be possible to have some additional consideration for women who have a history of sexual assault? Is there any chance, for example, that we could have our smears done in one of the SATUs around the country? Or – given that I know how over-stretched the SATUs are – could we have HCPs undergo additional training to make them more aware of the issues  faced by abuse survivors? Is there any possibility that we might have trauma-informed care around smear testing? Honestly, if I were to re-consider my position, that is the one thing that would make me do so; and I don’t think I’m the only one.

 

This is one of those times when I’m going to say ‘do as I say, not as I do’ and encourage you – if you live in Ireland and own a cervix – to check here to see if you’re due a smear test. And if you are, to go and have one.

 

*Lookit, I know it wasn’t really a baby, but it was in my head, because I desperately wanted it to become one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgiveness (Part One)

forgiveness-332x263

Forgiveness is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to – specifically with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape. Forgiveness seems to be something that is as good – if not better – for the forgiver as for the forgivee.

The way forgiveness is generally talked about, it appears as if forgiving confers on the forgiver a deed to a piece of land high up on the moral ground. Forgivers are seen as morally superior, somehow. ‘Good’ people forgive. ‘Bad’ people don’t. This puts the onus back on the transgressed to do the right thing; to fix the situation. We are urged to ‘let it go’ to ‘move on’, to ‘let bygones be bygones’ to ‘be the bigger person’.

But is it really better for the person of whom forgiveness is expected to actually give that forgiveness? Is forgiveness the same as saying that whatever happened doesn’t matter? Or it doesn’t matter any more?

We’re told that holding on to the anger just hurts the transgressed – it does nothing to the transgressor.  But are anger and a lack of forgiveness, and / or a refusal to forgive, the same thing?

I think the notion of forgiveness as the ‘right’ thing to do comes from religious traditions; specifically the Abrahamic religions. The idea of turning the other cheek (so that can be slapped, too), of giving your coat to someone who is suing you for your shirt is the ‘right’ thing to do; the ‘better’, the more noble thing to do. The morally superior thing to do.

I would contend that the only person you have to forgive is yourself. You don’t have to ‘forgive’ the person who hurt you, you don’t owe them anything. You do, however, owe yourself your best life. The only person you need to forgive in life is yourself. Really. You are the only person you ever have to forgive for anything. What could a person who survived child sexual abuse possibly have to forgive themselves for? We need to forgive ourselves for believing the lies we were told. We need to forgive ourselves for believing we were worth nothing. We need to forgive ourselves for hating ourselves; for turning the tyranny inwards. We need to forgive ourselves for being hard on ourselves, for expecting more of ourselves than it was possible to give or be. We need to forgive ourselves for the frustration that brings. We need to forgive ourselves for trying to love the people who were abusing us. We need to forgive ourselves for the denial of the damage that was done to us.

Other people, I feel need to ‘earn’ forgiveness. I think that can only happen when the transgressor is remorseful. There is a dyad involved here, and in order for the exercise to be effective, each must play their part. There’s also the fact that people who do not experience remorse will transgress again, simply because they do not believe that there is anything wrong with their behaviour.

What we’re looking for is peace – peace inside ourselves so that we can move forward and live our best lives, without the wrongs done to us tormenting us. Or continuing to torment us. We don’t need to forgive – in the accepted sense – in order to manifest that peace.

 

More about that in my next post.

More On ‘Due Process’

Due Process

I really dislike repeating myself, but it’s time to revisit this topic. I wrote about this in November – you can read that post here –  but felt compelled to return and write more after listening to this podcast from the BBC’s Woman’s Hour.  The women in conversation  with host Lauren Laverne – Salli Hughes, Zoe Strimpel, and Afua Hirsch –  discussed the #metoo campaign and there was mention made of how naming men on social media was not affording them ‘due process’. Again, there was a presumption that due process is fair and easily accessible. It’s not.

 

In addition to the points I mentioned previously, there is the very real fact that men still hold more power than women in every facet of life, including the law. Laws are written by men. The language used in laws, therefore, is ‘male’ and patriarchal and serves men better than it does women. The majority of victims are female. The majority of court officers – solicitors, barristers, and judges – are male. Even where women are Officers of the Court, they are working within a patriarchal system that rewards non-feminine behaviour. So, while more women may be in the legal professions, they are still marching to the beat of a patriarchal drum, with little leeway for their own feminist interpretation.

 

The fact that so few cases of sexual assault actually get to court means that very few solicitors and barristers actually have experience in these cases. Bear in mind, too, that no judge in Ireland has availed themselves of the training offered by the Rape Crisis Centre to educate them on how sexual assault and sexual abuse impact on victims.

 

If a person does decide to go the civil route, and sue their abuser, the cost is prohibitive, and the course is a lengthy and emotionally tortuous one. This prevents many from even contemplating seeking redress from the courts.  So the notion of ‘due process’ is a bit of an equality fairy-tale. At the same time, though, one of the legacies of abuse is that those of us who have been abused feel a responsibility to save others from the same pain, humiliation, and trauma. Sometimes, all we can do is warn other women. Our feeling of protection towards other vulnerable women far outweighs our concern that the men who hurt us might be annoyed by our speaking out.

 

I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of discussing ‘grades’ of sexual intimidation, harassment, and assault. That kind of discussion generally goes down the route of ‘X only did this, so he’s not as bad as Y.’ I think it misses the point and results in many women minimizing their own experiences because they ‘weren’t as bad as’ someone else’s. While, as far as the judiciary is concerned, there are levels of seriousness, for those of us who have been hurt, there need be no ‘grading’ of our experiences: We have all been hurt, we have all been humiliated, we have all been targeted for assault based on our sex (regardless of our gender).  We deserve to have that recognised, even if it’s just by ourselves. The first, and most important disclosure of sexual abuse is, after all, the disclosure a victim makes to themselves.

In-between Days

InBetweenDaysTeaserLrg

There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.

 

All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.

It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.

 

  1. Get off social media for  24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
  2. Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up.
  3. Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
  4. Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
  5. Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
  6. Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t  know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
  7. Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
  8. Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week and they are always grateful to receive donations.
  9. Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely about having a book read to you.
  10. Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
  11. Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
  12. Have a guilt-free duvet day.
  13. Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
  14. Change the sheets on your bed.
  15. Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.

Don’t (Just) Write What You Know

Typewriter

 

Writers who are starting out are encouraged to write what they know. They are told that such an approach will lend an air of authenticity to their words, and will somehow be ‘easier’.  It’s good advice, but it’s not great advice.

Rather than write what you know, write what’s important.

Research goes hand-in-hand with writing. If you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. You are also a researcher. You are the kind of person who can find stuff out – by talking to people, by networking, by using libraries, by asking questions.

 

No matter your genre, if you only write what you know, you’ll only write one book. You might publish several, but they will all be about the same thing, and get repetitive. The only way to grow as a writer, and to keep yourself and your readers happy, is to stretch yourself. The only way you can do that is by finding out about things you don’t know about, and writing about them in the way that only you can.

 

What annoys you? What intrigues you? What upsets you? What issue would you like to see highlighted? Write about that.  Find the thing that fires you, that excites extremes of passion in you, and write about that.  If you feel you’re not enough of an ‘expert’ on it, become one – or become enough of one to write authentically about it.

Then write. You’ll be following the advice of ‘writing what you know’, but you’ll be writing about what you know now,  rather than what you’ve always known. You’re writing will, then, always be fresh, always ‘new’. It will keep you engaged, and be engaging for your readers.

Women And Media Requests

Mic on Air

This past week, I was a guest on the Echo Chamber Podcast.  For those unfamiliar, the podcast is in its infancy – it’s just ten episodes old – and uses stories from Twitter as a jumping-off point. Having heard most of the podcasts, I was honoured to have been asked, and delighted to accept the invitation immediately.

 

After we’d recorded, Tony (@trickstersworld), Martin (@williamhboney1), and I (@hazelklarkin) were having a chat, and Tony mentioned how they are making a conscious effort to ask as many women as men to take part.

‘Because there’s two of us, it’s (the podcast) already gender-skewed before we invite anyone else on,’ he said.

Martin and Tony informed me that as many women as men have been asked to appear as guests on the Echo Chamber Podcast, but fewer women respond positively. I was surprised. Tony elucidated.

‘Women will be interested, but also more hesitant. They ask questions about who we’re aligned with – politically – who our listenership is…things like that. They say they’ll have to think about it. They are often concerned about any possible back-lash with regards to their jobs. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to just say “Yes! I have something to say, I’ll come and say it!” ‘

 

This was a new narrative to me. I have been involved with initiatives such as Women On Air, and MAM, and I would normally only turn down a media appearance if I have a scheduling conflict. I have heard women say they are never asked – or they are only asked to comment on things that are specifically women- or children-centred. Or they are asked to contribute to more ‘fluffy’ items on radio, television, or in print. I have also heard producers and researchers talk about how difficult it is to find women who can talk on ‘meaty’ subjects, and who are willing to take part in programmes. In an effort to ameliorate this, Women On Air maintains a list of women experts in a number of subject areas. Still we don’t hear enough women’s voices on public platforms.

 

Why do women hesitate to take part in a podcast or other platform? Why are women more cautious with regard to committing to airing their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and reactions? I’ve been thinking about this ever since Martin, Tony, and I discussed it.  I’m of the opinion that the issue of the lack of women’s voices in public is not as simple as ‘there aren’t enough women’ and /  or ‘we’re never asked’. The evil twins Patriarchy andToxic Masculinity are, I fear, to blame here.

 

Women, I think, are more hesitant to go on air because they fear the backlash. We fear that our words will be scrutinised to a greater extent than men’s. We fear that our mistakes, our gaffes, will not be forgiven. We fear that if we fudge a response, we will be ridiculed for being inarticulate and lacking in knowledge. We fear that our employers, or clients (or whoever it is who pays us),  will take agin us if we express an opinion that is not aligned with theirs.

 

We fear that we do not have an equivalent of ‘boys will be boys’ to excuse our behaviour if we are deemed, on reflection, to have over-stepped a mark. We fear this because we are aware that we have not perfected how to have lines such as the following accepted women to the same extent, and with as much ease, as they are accepted from men. :

‘Can you not take a joke?’

‘I didn’t mean it like that.

‘Have you never heard of irony?’

‘Oh. I mis-spoke. What I meant was…’

‘I was speaking in my personal, not my professional, capacity’

‘If we all thought the same, life would be boring’

‘You’re taking me out of context’

 

This is one of the faces of toxic masculinity; that element of our attitude to men and women that allows men to be – and forgives them for being – irresponsible and immature; that doesn’t expect, or demand, that they stop acting like boys; that does not hold them to the high standards that women are held to; that doesn’t hold men accountable for their words and deeds; that allows men to get away with things that women wouldn’t be allowed to get away with; that portrays men as a bit bumbling, but generally well-meaning. I think the closest trope women have to this ‘Bumbling Ineffectual’ is the ‘Damsel in Distress’ – but the latter needs to be ‘rescued’ (and usually by a man). Mansplaining is an extension of this ‘rescuing’ of ‘distressed damsels’ and most women have been subjected to it, and are aware of how tedious and teeth-clenchingly insulting it is. Why, then, would any woman offer those whose wont it is, the opportunity to mansplain at them?

 

While the lack of women’s voices on air is a multi-faceted problem, there may be more facets to it than I had originally thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twelve Tips For Maternity Care for Survivors of Sexual Abuse / Assault

Pregnant Belly

About a month ago, I posted on Twitter using the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Maternity Care’ hashtags. Quite a few people got in touch to say that they found the advice I offered useful. A number of women contacted me privately to say that they found my tweets validating and reassuring. A few fathers also sent me messages to let me know that they witnessed the mothers of their children experiencing issues around their treatment and they realised, having read my tweets, that these reactions and issues were directly related to the abuse they had suffered as children.

In the hopes that these words will reach – and help – more people, I’m posting them here, as well.

  1. Sexual abuse is endemic. Treat ALL women as survivors until they tell you otherwise. Err on the side of caution.
  2. Continuity of care is best for women in order to build trust. We are extra vulnerable when pregnant, birthing, and in the peri-natal period.
  3. Before labour, ask if we have special requests for during labour – places not to touch, words not to use, etc.
  4. Call us by our names. Not ‘Love’ or ‘Sweetheart’. Abusers rarely use our names. Don’t diminish our personhood.
  5. Never, ever use the phrase ‘good girl’. We’re not girls. We’re women. Most of us were abused by people who used the phrase ‘good girl’ while they were abusing us.
  6. Don’t use nursery / childish language around us. That can be triggering.
  7. Don’t tell us to do something, eg ‘pop up on the bed’. Ask if we’d like to – explain why.
  8. Accept ‘no’ as an answer – don’t try and cajole or persuade us to turn our ‘no’ to a ‘yes’.
  9. Never tell us you’re going to do something. Ask permission. Our bodies belong to us, even when we’re birthing.
  10. Never perform a VE unless it’s necessary (hint: it’s *never* necessary.
  11. Be aware that our physiological responses may be different. EG we often pause dilation at about 4cms. Don’t rush with interventions because we are taking ‘too long’. Trust us. Trust our bodies.
  12. After birth, breastfeeding – no matter how much we want to – may be extremely triggering. Have compassion.

I offer workshops based on trauma-informed care to birth workers, based on my own experiences, and my academic research, (and the fact that I was Ireland’s first practicing doula!). If you’d like details, please get in touch.

Hot Stones

Hot Stones

 

My words are like hot coals in my mouth

I cannot hold them

They scorch the soft, pink flesh

Jangling against each other as

I juggle them with my tongue;

Cracking against my teeth

They burn and fizz and fizzle

Blistering

I can no longer contain them

I can no longer conceal them

I spit them out

Hear them sizzle

Listen

I hold the Truth

I speak the Truth

I am the Truth.

A Good Bad Day

Spiral

 

Today was Not A Good Day.

 

The seeds for today not being A Good Day were sown last night, just after 6pm. That’s when the first thing went wrong. This morning, we were up and had left the house before 7.30. By 9.00am, the second thing had gone wrong. Things kept going wrong until 9.41am. By 10am, seven things had gone wrong – including the first thing that went wrong last night. By 10.13am, we thought we were back on track. Then something else went wrong. This is Thing Number Eight. It was too much.

 

Panic.

 

I couldn’t. I repeated that about 14 or 15 times ‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!’

 

Tears. Sobbing. Overwhelm.

 

The kindness of strangers.

 

The unexpected kindness of strangers.

 

The compassion of those who chose not to look the other way.

 

The unexpected compassion of strangers who chose to help.

 

The ninth thing went wrong. The ninth thing going right had been contingent on at least the eighth thing going right.

I was upset that the ninth thing went wrong. I knew I’d let my eldest daughter down because the ninth thing went wrong. But nobody died. We were all safe.

Later, the day (sort of) got back on track. I reflected on The Bad Day and realised that it had, actually, been a Good Bad Day: It took eight things before I felt overwhelmed. Eight. A year ago, one of those things would have overwhelmed me.  A year ago, one of those thing would have incapacitated me. A year ago, I would still – twelve hours later  – not have recovered. Today, it took less than an hour.

Today, I listened to what the voice in my head was saying. As I cried in the car after dropping my girls to school, I heard it. It said ‘I feel like a failure. I hate feeling like a failure.’ For the first time ever, it was saying ‘I feel like a failure’ and not ‘I am a failure.’

For all that they are real and valid, feelings are feelings; feelings aren’t facts. I was able to hear that I was acknowledging how I felt, rather than telling myself an absolute. This is progress.

 

A year ago, I’d have spun down a spiral that is hugely difficult to spin back up. In fact, I’ve never spun back up – I’ve only ever managed to crawl back up; slowly, on my hands and knees. Today, I was able to talk myself back from the first step on the spiral.

I felt dispirited, I felt like I had not won Wednesday, I felt frustrated, I felt powerless, I felt I had let my kids down. But I also felt like I could recover.

And I did.

Small victories, but victories none the less – and I have learned to celebrate my wins where I find them. Or where they find me.

Several things went wrong for me today – but they didn’t defeat me, the way they would have a few months ago. I’m learning. I’m learning self-compassion. I’m learning that sometimes, things just happen, and they’re not my fault. I’m learning that I don’t have to beat myself up when life doesn’t go according to plan. That’s what made today a Good Bad Day.

 

 

The Women Who Support Abusers

Madeline Albright

 

Collusion is key. Men who abuse women are supported by other women. I’ve been trying to write a blog post all week about women who collude with abusive men. It’s harder than I thought it would be. On the one hand, I have so much to say on the subject – so many examples from my own life – that I’m afraid I’d write far, far more than a blog post calls for.  At the same time, however, finding the words to get started is proving difficult.

 

I’m not sure where to start, but I have a feeling the way in might be to actually just record my thoughts and then transcribe them.

 

Bear with me!

Breaking the Cycle

I wrote this, a year ago, on my other blog. I thought it might be worth sharing here, too.

In My Own Write

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Safe Ireland held a seminar with distinguished speakers from around the world. They discussed things I know a lot about – abuse, violence, trauma and the effects of same. I wasn’t at the conference, because (frankly) it was out of my price range, but I am very grateful to those who live-tweeted the event using the hashtag #safeirelandsummit

One of the things that struck me was the fact that John Lonergan (former governor of Mountjoy Jail) was reported as asking ‘How do we prevent? That is the challenge’

I can only assume he was asking how we might prevent domestic violence. Part of me is shocked that someone would even need to ask, but I’ll get over that and focus instead on the fact that, if you’re asking, it means you’re interested. So, here, are ten things that you can do to work…

View original post 591 more words

Savage That There’s No Funding for SAVI

savi-report1.jpg

The Irish Government has said that there isn’t enough money in the coffers for a new SAVI report. The last one was produced in 2002.

A new SAVI Report is vital in order to get an idea of the current beliefs, attitudes, and – crucially – experiences of men and women in Ireland. Significantly for me, my eldest daughter was born in 2002, which means it’s very easy for me to remember that year. It’s not just nearly 16 years ago, it is a very real year for me. It means I can easily pinpoint 2002 in my memory, and compare and contrast now with then.

I am aware of how much technology has changed since then; how simultaneously enabling and disabling it is. I am aware of how much our attitudes towards sex and sexuality have changed since that year. I am aware that people are more aware, and more articulate around, sex, sexuality, and their sexual experiences now than they were then. I am aware that people who were young children in 2002 are now fully-grown adults. I am also aware that people who were young children in 2002, and who were being abused then, are now fully-grown adults who may, or may not, have ever had the opportunity to disclose and discuss their experiences. We need to capture this data.

We need to capture this data in order to inform policy, practice, and funding for people and services who care for those of us who are affected by sexual assault and abuse. We need to be visible and vocal about the fact that we are gathering this data so the people who are directly affected by it feel, and are, heard.

To commission a new SAVI Report would cost approximately €1m. The government has claimed they don’t have the budget. They do, however, have €64m for Irish Racing; they also have €16 for greyhound racing; they found an extra €500,000 for National Parks; and, of course, Leo the Liar easily found €5m for his own spin doctors

All of that tells us that sexually abused and assaulted children, women, and men in Ireland are worth less to this government than racing horses, bloodsports, trees, and Leo’s own personal public relations unit.  As if our self-esteem hadn’t taken enough of a battering already.

 

 

Just

Just Wordcloud

The #MeToo on Twitter, and the discussion in the wider world of sexual abuse, sexual assault sexual harassment, rape, grooming and other offences of a sexual nature is providing a climate where those who have not previously spoken about their experiences, to do so.

 

One of the things that has bothered me, though, is the number of people (predominantly men), who simply say things like ‘then go to the police / Gardaí’, and ‘he hasn’t been convicted, so….presumption of innocence’. As if it is that simple. As if reporting a sexual assault to the police or the Gardaí is as simple, or as easy as telling a woman (or a man) to do so. God bless the privilege of the people who say this. God bless their innocence.  Reporting a crime – particularly one of such a highly personal nature – to the Gardaí is no easy thing to do. (At this point, I must say that I have never been treated with anything but kindness and professional understanding by members of An Garda Siochana).

 

Yet, the smug ‘just report it’ crowd seem to believe that going to the Gardaí and making a full and detailed report of a sexual assault is as easy and straightforward – and that the results are as swift – as telling Mammy, or going to the teacher in a primary school classroom. Sadly, that isn’t the case. Apart, altogether, from the harrowing experience of going to the Gardaí in the first place, and making a full and frank statement; providing details of a very distressing event – an event that was visited upon your person, an event that was visited upon the most private parts of your person, an event that was visited upon your psyche, an event that will forever change you isn’t easy.

Even if a person does manage to find the strength to do all that, they then have to face the rest of what the smug ‘just report it’ crowd refer to as ‘due process’. Due process is the idea that a person will get a fair trial in front of an impartial judge. The ‘just report it’ crowd also seem to think that anyone who commits a crime, and whose crime is reported and investigated, and against whom evidence is gathered, will automatically appear before a judge and be found guilty.  Until and unless that happens, they feel that no truths should be told, no allegations uttered, no solidarity of and with, victims shown publicly.

 

In an ideal world, a person who commits a crime, and whose crime is reported and investigated, and against whom evidence is gathered, would automatically appear before a judge, and be found guilty. We don’t, unfortunately, live in an ideal world.

 

Then, there is ‘due process’ that the smug ‘just report it’ crowd clamour for. Broadly, this means that a file is prepared by the gardaí who have conducted the investigation. The superintendent in the station then sends the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The DPP then decides whether or not to proceed with the case, and bring it to trial.

Now, here’s the thing that you may, or may not, know. Here’s the thing that the ‘just report it’ gang clearly don’t know (or want to admit). The DPP doesn’t decide to proceed to trial based on the evidence. The DPP doesn’t decide to proceed to trial based on whether or not they personally believe the crime, as described, occurred. The DPP bases her decision on whether or not they are reasonably confident that they will secure a conviction. In other words, the DPP will only allow a case to proceed to trial if she thinks it makes financial sense. The decision, therefore, to prosecute is based, not on legal, as much as on economic considerations.

Looking at the crime of sexual assault, the DPP deciding not to prosecute doesn’t mean the man is innocent. Nor does it mean that the woman is a liar. It doesn’t mean that there is a lack of evidence. Nor does it mean that the evidence is unconvincing. What is means is that the DPP doesn’t think that a jury will convict the man in spite of the evidence, in spite of the recommendation of the Superintendent at the investigating Garda station. Sometimes, the DPP will decide not to prosecute even though a confession has been provided to the Gardaí.  (This isn’t far-fetched; it happened to me in the case of my father, Christy Talbot.)

 

In some cases, like the case of my brother, Cormac Talbot, the DPP will decide not to prosecute because, frankly, the cost of flying him back from France to be prosecuted for historical sexual abuse, including digital, oral, anal, and vaginal rape is not worth it. In spite of the evidence. Cormac, living in the South of France, is no longer a danger to the Irish public, so the decision was made to leave him where he is.

 

Sometimes, people aren’t prosecuted because they are unwell. As in the case of my brother, Nigel Talbot, who claims partial memory-loss on account of his brain tumour.

 

The fact that someone hasn’t been prosecuted, and found guilty in a court of law doesn’t mean they’re innocent. Worse, it doesn’t mean that they are no longer abusing women and / or children.

 

Others have contacted me privately to let me know that they were abused by my brothers. If you were, too, please feel free to contact me in confidence. 

If this post was difficult for you to read because of your own experiences, please remember that the following agencies have phonelines, which are staffed 24/7:

Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 778888

Samaritans: 116 123

Pieta House: 1800 247 247

 

 

Failure?

Failing-is-not-always-failure.

I haven’t been thinking about failure as much as I used to. I used to wake up every morning, and feel paralysed by – among other things – a sense of failure. I felt I’d failed my children by not giving them a better life.  I spent literally hours beating myself up for failing them. I felt they deserved more. Here’s a partial list of what I felt they deserved (and that I wasn’t giving them):

  • A better life. I couldn’t quite define what that ‘better life’ might look like, but I was sure it wasn’t the one they were living.
  • A country other than Ireland to live in. I had a horrible childhood in Ireland. I wanted better for my children. I felt awfully guilty for bringing them (under duress, but still) to Ireland instead of staying in Asia.
  • A bigger house. We could do with at least one extra room – I dream of a library / study / creative area. And bigger rooms. I’d like them to have bigger bedrooms. Preferably in the city centre. (Hey, if you’re going to beat yourself up – you might as well use the heaviest stick you can find!)
  • An extended family that wasn’t filled with abusive people, so they could have safe relationships.

Then, one day, when I was apologising to them for their lack, they gently disabused me of my notion of failure. You see, I was measuring what I thought they wanted against what I wanted for them, and believing I was right.  I was wrong. Dismantling my list above, the girls made the following points:

  • In much the same way as I was vague about what their ‘better’ life might look like, they couldn’t describe it, either. They are happy.
  • They actually like living in Ireland. This seemed like such an absurd idea, that it never occurred to me as a possibility. Their experiences are not mine – they are not living a duplication of my life, just because they are living in the same geographical area.  They have spent enough time in Asia to tell me that they don’t want to live there. They like visiting well enough, but they see Asia as ‘my’ place, rather than theirs (even though they are the ones with Indian blood!)
  • ‘I love our house!’ they both exclaimed when I suggested they might not be delighted living here. More to the point, we are all very, very grateful to have a roof over our heads. Especially when there is a desperate housing crisis in Ireland at the moment, and one-parent families are disproportionately reflected in the homeless figures. I’ve been homeless, and it’s not fun. And, sure, there are houses we pass, and areas we pass through that we exclaim over and that allow us to imagine what it would be like to live there.  It’s nice to have dreams. You don’t, however, have to realise every single one of them.
  • As they have gotten older, I have told my children more and more about my own history, as it is appropriate for them to know it, and as they have been able to assume the information. They don’t want to have anything to do with the people who abuse me. They have plenty of wonderful people in their lives – a richly diverse gang of men, women, and children from all backgrounds who share their lives.

I was astonished. I hadn’t realised that the girls were, and are, quite content to live in Ireland. We travel enough that they have experienced other places and cultures and aren’t insular and parochial in their outlook. They have travelled enough to know that they love travelling, but – equally – they love returning to this house, in this village, in this country. Unlike their mother, my children have a sense of ‘home’,

 

I’ve also beaten myself up, on a regular basis, for appearing to fail in so many other ways. Most obvious, is my failure to perform as this patriarchal, capitalist society insists I must in order to be a ‘success’.

Recently, however, I have realised a few things. I can make a living and be aligned with my own values. Crucial to this realisation have been three people: Meg Kissack, Karen McAllister, and Prudence Moneypenny.  I’ve added these women – and the people they connect me with – to my team.

I’ve also realised that the only person I can truly ‘fail’ is myself. I fail myself by acting in ways that are not aligned with my purpose, my beliefs, and my values. I fail myself by trying to fit into a box that was never meant to contain me. I fail myself by denying what I bring to the party – by not acknowledging the value I can add to this world and the experiences of those who live in it.

Failing, I have realised, is not not doing everything by myself. Failing is not seeking and / or accepting help. Recognising true help can be tricky – often, I have found, the people who say they have your best interests at heart, really only have their own best interests at heart.

Finally, I have realised that part of my purpose may well be to allow others to do what they do best. That means accepting help that is offered if it supports me, and is aligned with my own beliefs and values.

If you feel you’re failing, I’d respectfully suggest that you’re really not.

Colour Me Delighted

A few years ago, I went to visit my friend, June. I wanted to bring her a gift, but rejected the obvious – wine, flowers, chocolates – in favour of a colouring book. She was delighted.

About a year later, ‘mindful’ colouring books, and ‘adult’ colouring books became a ‘thing’.

I liked the idea of grabbing myself a colouring book or two and calming myself with a bit of colouring. The first one I bought was full of mosaics. It drove me mad. There were so many little bits of it. It was abandoned.  I got another. Its pages were filled with intricate pictures awaiting colour. I couldn’t give them what they were waiting for. They remained monochrome.

The pages of the ‘mindful’ and ‘adult’ colouring books that I bought, or considered buying, filled me with anxiety. I could feel it rising. The sections were too small. They didn’t scream ‘fun’, they screamed ‘task’. I have enough tasks I was looking for something to enjoy – in a similar way to how I enjoy knitting. It is repetitive, meditative, and soothing. These colouring books were not stirring the same emotions.

Then I remembered Kalkitos, and how much I’d enjoyed that, as a child.  I also loved stickers, and using them to make pictures with. I couldn’t find any Kalkitos, but I did find a sticker book for adults. It was filled with tiny flower-stickers, and other tiny stickers. I was tempted, but couldn’t part with £12.99 to buy a book that didn’t fill me with excitement.

Then, I had a brainwave. Why was I so hung up on adult versions? Hadn’t I enjoyed colouring books as a child? So, why was I looking at adult colouring books?

I came home with this:

 

Colouring Book

Which had the added bonus of these:

Stickers #2

I was delighted. This little book, and the stickers in it, filled me with joy, and anticipation, and excitement.

 

Colouring might well be a good tool for improving your mental health. Like any other tool, however, you need to make sure you have the right one. Don’t feel you need a ‘grown-up’ version of something that used to bring you joy when you were a child. Think of comfort food; if a toasted cheese sandwich was what made you feel safe and loved when you were little, then avocado toast with a sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt and a light dusting of cracked black pepper isn’t going to revive that feeling.  Go with what it feels right to use, rather than what you think you should be using.

 

 

 

 

Me Time

What is ‘me time’, and when do I get it?

I became a mum at 28 – after nearly ten years of trying to start a family. My daughter lit my life up even more than I could have imagined (and I have a reasonable imagination). The love I felt for her was matched only by the arrival of her sister two years later. I was amazed by how much love was inside me. I still am.

By the time I was two weeks pregnant with my younger daughter, I was a single parent with a seventeen-month old, and another another on the way. I was very lucky, though; I had a fantastic live-in nanny with whom we had a great relationship, who was a great cook, and who adored my child (and, later, my children).

When I moved back to Ireland (worst mistake of my life, but complex and complicated – a whole other blog post!), I was completely on my own with the two girls. I started to hear about ‘me time’ from other women.  I started to hear about how I needed to make time for myself, how I needed to find time to get away from my children and indulge myself with kid-free time.

I was never really convinced. Until I had them, my entire life was – more or less – focused on trying to become a mother. Once I had realised that ambition, I wanted to revel in it. I wanted to enjoy every minute of it.

Here’s the thing; for me, ‘me time’ is time spent with my babies – who are now 13 and 15 – it’s where my joy is. Where my bliss is. Where I feel happiest. I don’t want to ‘escape’ from that; why would I? Why would anyone spend their lives trying to achieve something, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to get away from that same thing?

I adore my girls. I am very grateful for the relationships we have; I am delighted with the fact that they they have a wonderful relationship. They are best friends, as well as  being sisters.

 

Of course, I understand that it makes sense to spend time away from other people – even people you adore, people you love to spend time with. But if ‘me time’ is meant to be a reward, if ‘me time’ is meant to be something you do for yourself, then my ‘me time’ is the time I spend with my girls; enjoying their company, sharing experiences with them, encountering the world together. It took a long time for me to realise this: I felt like I was failing, somehow, by wanting to be with my girls as often as I could. I had my children because I wanted to. I had my children because I wanted their company – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Manufacturing time to be away from them is inauthentic, though of course, as they get older, they find themselves wanting to spend less time glued to me; which is perfectly age-appropriate. The thing is, though, that they are choosing to separate from me, rather then being pushed away. Rather than being told that I need to be away from them, they are telling me that they want to engage with the world on their terms, which often means I’m not invited. As my girls age, I will have more and more time without them. I’ll have more ‘me time’ than you could shake a stick at. I don’t need to find it – it will find me.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Cosy Up (To Sexual Predators)

 

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It is with disgust that I register Dublin City University (DCU) has conferred an honorary doctorate on Bill Clinton today. I was awarded my first Master’s degree at DCU and – all things being equal – will be conferred with my own doctorate from DCU in a few short years. So, to be honest, I expected more of the university. One of the attractive things about DCU is that it’s a young, progressive, innovative university. I have studied at four other universities and have returned to DCU to pursue my doctorate for precisely these reasons. There is still an academic and intellectual rigour and standard, but there is less in terms of stricture that often impedes research in other institutions which are bound by a sense of ‘tradition’.

 

As an aside, I don’t have much truck with honorary degrees and doctorates. I do believe that people should have to earn their academic accolades. It’s a large two-fingered gesture to those of us who put more than ten years’ of hard work into our studies. I am of the view that an honorary doctorate is little more than a mutual ego-massaging exercise: Each party gets the PR associated with claiming association with the perceived achievements of the other.  My objection to Clinton’s ‘doctorate’ however, isn’t just based on this belief.

 

I am disgusted that a man who abused his power, who preyed on young women, who sexually assaulted women, has been honoured by my Alma Mater. I have no idea who makes these decisions, but I do wish that the alumni were consulted. I think we should have a vote on who is recognised by our university; on who our university declares admiration for in such a public way.

 

I think, on the same day that it has become common knowledge that that other sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, contributed to Clinton’s legal fund when he was defending himself against Monica Lewinsky, it is in poor taste to honour the man.  This is also the week when #MeToo is trending on Twitter; when women the world over are talking publicly about their experiences of sexual assault.

DCU, I think, would be better placed honouring Monica Lewinsky herself. Apart from her TED Talk on shame, she has spoken out against bullying, and cyber-bullying in particular. Surely she deserves to be honoured more than the man who abused his power for (her) sexual favours?

The Love That Grows

Ishthara & Kashmira Baking, October 2007

 

I love my kids. That should go without saying, but not everyone loves their kids (as I know from my personal experience of growing up in a house of horrors).  Every day, I go about doing what it is I have to do, and am aware of the fact that I love my girls. In much the same way as I am aware of the fact that I am white, Irish etc. It’s just there. It’s just a fact.

Every so often, however, I fall in love with them all over again. Or fall deeper in love with them. I suddenly get gripped and overwhelmed by how amazing they are, and how they are containers for so much goodness, and joy, and love, and understanding, and kindness, and gentleness. I am overwhelmed by how awesome (literally, not colloquially) they are. I am humbled by the fact that they have allowed me to parent them, that they are so patient with me, and allow me to bear witness to their unfolding into adulthood.

 

It reminds me of when they were babies, and all I could do was gaze at them with gratitude and admiration. Now that they’re teenagers, I love that feeling of heart-swell I get, that feeling that my heart has to grow to accommodate the love I have for them. I am delighted that my love for them continues to grow, that it doesn’t stagnate, that there is more, there is more, there is always more.

 

Pic: Ishthara and Kashmira baking, exactly ten years ago – I didn’t think I could love them more, but I do! 

World Mental Health Day

Mental HealthToday is World Mental Health Day – a day when we’re supposed to reflect on our own mental health, and how we care for it.

I think that World Mental Health Awareness Day might be a more appropriate name, but I don’t get to decide these things. I suppose the fact that the day is named and acknowledged at all means that there is awareness brought to mental health.  Not so long ago, people in Ireland didn’t mention mental health at all. It was stigmatised almost as much as being an unmarried mother. And that’s saying something.

Sadly, both states – being a lone mother, and having mental health difficulties – are still stigmatised in today’s Ireland. It’s no wonder that so many women who parent alone report having mental health difficulties. As a proud member of the steering group of S.P.A.R.K., I conducted research among our members and will be presenting my findings at our First National Conference on November 3rd, next.

Campaigns such as the Green Ribbon Campaign   have certainly helped get people talking, but it’s not enough to get adults talking to each other about how they are feeling. We need to give our children the language to talk about their emotions, too, and – just as importantly – we need to listen. I am often struck by how the reaction to our high rates of suicide among young men, our response is to encourage them to talk. I honestly feel that that’s a case of ‘too little, too late’. As a nation, we spend their entire formative years telling our children to ‘shut up’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘speak when they’re spoken to’, to ‘mind their own business’ when they ask questions, to do things ‘because I say so’, to ‘stop crying’ when they are upset etc. etc. How can we, then, reasonably expect these same children – when they are teenagers and adolescents – to talk about how they are feeling?

 

I must also point out that it’s all very well encouraging people to have conversations, to open up about their mental health, and to stop hiding how they really feel, but it’s a bit irresponsible if there isn’t also information around how to receive and react to the information once it has been expressed. What should you do or say to someone who reveals, in the course of a conversation, that they do want to die? Or even that they are teetering on the edge of a depression? Or that their anxiety is so bad that they aren’t sure they’ll be able to make it home from work?

 

Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems we have with regard to mental and emotional health and their effective treatment is access to appropriate supports. In Ireland, a child in acute crisis (eg at risk of dying by suicide) could be waiting months to be seen by a member of the CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. That’s if they’re lucky. Thankfully, Pieta House will see those who are suicidal much, much quicker. Adult services aren’t much better – with just six sessions of ‘talking therapy’ being offered to medical card holders in crisis; preceded, of course, by a good long wait on a waiting list. For those who would benefit from therapies such as CBT or DBT, a catchment area lottery applies. You may or may not be offered a treatment that has good success rates for your particular difficulty if it is not provided by the HSE in your area. This is hardly a person-centric model of care.

 

Even with a sympathetic GP, the help and support vista around mental health is rather grim.  GPs often have little to offer beyond chemical intervention (pills don’t suit everyone, and the side-effects can be horrific; including increased anxiety and suicidal ideation), and general advice to exercise, drink less alcohol and caffeine, and avoid stressful situations.

I’m not saying anything new. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. I’m just bringing attention (again) to the dire state of mental health services and care in Ireland, and the damage lack of access to care brings to the lives of those suffering.

 

 

Ask And Ye Shall Receive…

I should be in bed, it’s past midnight, and I am planning on being out the door tomorrow morning (with my face and a good gúna on) by 7, because I’m speaking at a conference tomorrow at 9.30am.

I couldn’t end the day, however, without acknowledging something that happened earlier, and is, actually, still happening on my FB page.

A bit of background: It irks me that my children are stoic. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really don’t want a pair of moaning minnies for whom nothing is ever right, and everything is always the worst (insert issue here) ever. At the same time, though, I have often felt compelled to remind them that they are still only minors, and they don’t need to deal with everything by themselves, and if something goes wrong – or even looks like it might go wrong – they are to talk to me about it. I’ve also mentioned to them more than once that if they are in pain, they need to tell me that too, because pain is never ‘normal’. I think that if my eldest had bothered to tell me how much pain she was in on a daily basis, her coeliac disease might have been diagnosed (years) sooner, for example.

Anyway, on more than one occasion, friends have pointed out that I’m not exactly a moaning minnie myself, and maybe that’s where my children get it from. One or two have said things like ‘Well, that’s not something they licked off the walls’, and one or two even blunter friends have said ‘What do you expect? You’re pretty bloody stoic yourself!!’

I don’t think of myself as stoic, though, and that might be part of the problem. Children, I know, don’t do as we say, they do as we do. There is no point in telling my children that a certain course of action is the healthiest one, if I then deliberately and obviously choose another course of action myself.

I don’t want my children to think that they must handle everything that comes their way quietly – even if they are able to do so superbly.

So, today, in an attempt to model the behaviour I want my girls to emulate, I posted on FB that one of them is booked in for surgery in a few weeks. I explained that it’s (relatively) minor, she has a great surgeon, and it’s only going to be under for an hour. She’ll be out, and on her way home, about four hours afterwards. The bit that bothers me is the general anaesthetic; my girl in that liminal state between life and death frightens me. I know it’s not rational, but I’m not operating out of my academic, logical, rational brain – I’m operating out of my Mammy Brain. I asked for support. I asked for a volunteer to come and sit with me while my baby is in surgery, and I’m knitting and pretending to be nonchalant.

I didn’t get one response. I got more than twenty. More than twenty people contacted me to say that they would gladly come and sit with me for a few hours. Others with small babies offered to have me come to them (because a hospital – full of sick people – is no place for a small child), but I know I won’t leave the building until my baby is leaving it with me.  Still more contacted me from overseas to say that they would be there in a heartbeat if there weren’t seas and mountains and deserts between us.

Now, I have a support person and stand-by support people, and people offering to do shifts, and people offering to pop in to see me on their lunch breaks and have coffee with me and my support person…..truly, I feel so very, very blessed and humbled. Save for my girls, I have no (non-abusive) family members, so the fact that people who aren’t obliged to show up for me – literally and figuratively – are willing to do so makes me realise how lucky I am, and how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who choose to give me their time and love.

 

That is what I want to model to, and for, my girls. I want them to not just hear me say that there is no shame in asking for help, I want them to see me ask for for help; and not be ashamed to ask for it, and to accept it with Grace and Gratitude.

Hook, Spine, And Sphincter

We want to be safeI’ve been away while this particular storm has been raging over in Ireland, but I’ve been following it on social media, and reading the opinions in the newspapers. I’ve read the transcript of Hook’s original comments, and his apology. Then I managed to make myself listen to them both – steeling myself first because I knew I would find them difficult. Still, I was lucky – I had had the trigger warning beforehand, unlike rape survivors who heard Hook’s bluster live.

 

Hook

Many of you will already be aware that George Hook made very offensive comments about rape victims on his show ‘High Noon’ on Newstalk radio on Friday, September 8th. In referring to a woman who was raped by a man in the UK, after having consensual sex with another man, George wondered aloud what she expected.  ‘Is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?’

 

This is what we call ‘victim blaming’ and it is an inherent part of rape culture. Blaming the victim shifts the focus of blame for a rape or sexual assault from the perpetrator to the victim. It implies that victims could – and should – have done something to prevent their assault. This puts the blame for the episode on the victim, and presupposes a non-existent situation where there is equality of power between the rapist and the rape victim. It presupposes a relationship where a woman can say ‘no’ and have that ‘no’ respected. It presupposes a relationship where consent is sought, and the response to that request is respected. Unfortunately, as those of us who have been raped, and otherwise sexually assaulted know too well, such a relationship does not exist.

 

Blaming a woman for being raped is the same as blaming a pedestrian who is waiting for the lights to change so they can safely cross, for their own injuries when a drunk driver mounts the pavement and ploughs into them.

From his place of privilege and power, Hook refuses to see that. He does not like to have his views challenged, and he is not open to having his opinions changed. He believes he is right all the time, about everything. Put bluntly, George Hook is an arrogant old boor of a man. But men like this have a special place in Irish society – they are tolerated by most, indulged by others, and revered by some. People refer to him, and people (usually, though not always, men) of his ilk as ‘harmless’. The ‘harmless’ man who says and does what he likes and gets away with it is an interesting character in Irish society. Their outrageous statements are greeted with a shrug of acceptance and the utterance that ‘Shur, he’s harmless; there’s no badness in him.’ It is an invitation – or admonishment – to  shut up and leave the man alone. To let him say what he likes because he doesn’t mean any harm.

 

Few people dare to publicly call George Hook out, because when they do, they are accused of attempting censorship.  Here’s the thing, though, it is not a call to censorship when a person calls for disgusting views and opinions not to be shared on the national airwaves. Yes, George Hook is entitled to his personal opinion on any- and everything under the sun. What he is not entitled to do, however, is to spew that opinion publicly. He, and his employer, have a duty of care to listeners. That duty includes not spreading hate, or putting a group of people in danger. Saying that rape victims bear responsibility for the fact that they were raped does both.

While we talk about Hook, and those like him as ‘harmless’, and while it may be true that he ‘means no harm’, the effect of his words is harmful.  By saying what he does, and being allowed to say what he does, his views are endorsed and given legitimacy.  They become an accepted narrative, they become seen as reasonable points of view. Not everyone is a critical thinker; not everyone is analytical. Many people will take their lead from a voice on the radio and think that because they agreed with one opinion a particular person set forth, that person is always right; and will find themselves accepting that broadcaster’s stance on any and every issue.

 

Imagine, for a moment, if George Hook had said ‘All Jews are filthy money-grubbing bastards, and Hitler was right’, or if he’d said ‘All Travellers are duplicitous monkeys who smell like shite,’ would people still be falling over themselves to say that he was entitled to his opinion, and to voice his opinion, and that any attempt to silence him was an attempt at censorship?

 

And if you want to talk about censorship – let’s talk about how women are censored on the airwaves of Ireland. Our voices, for the most part, aren’t even allowed on said airwaves. Think about that for a second.

 

Sure, Newstalk’s Managing Editor, Patricia Monahan, in a piece in the Irish Times last Saturday went to  great lengths to remind us all that she is a woman, and that most of the producers in Newstalk are women.  Her piece misses many points, however. One of them being that women who are in the minority take on the characteristics of the dominant culture – which, in the case of Newstalk is male. Just because a person has a vagina doesn’t make them a champion of women’s right. Sadly. It takes a minimum of three women on a board, for example, to effect real change within an organisation.

 

Monahan poses the question ‘Do I not qualify as female representation because my voice is not heard on-air?’ – and, my answer to that is sadly, no, you don’t.  I have worked in media in enough countries to know that the on-air voice has the final say (literally and figuratively). If that voice is male – which it is for the most part on Irish radio – then the fact that the researcher, producer, and even the managing editor are female makes no difference to what goes out on air.

 

Spine

George Hook was forced to apologise for his victim-blaming comments the Monday after he made them. I wonder, though, if  his employer would have insisted he apologise if their bottom line wasn’t hurting? George Hook is a misogynist and his comments often reflect this, but Newstalk has never had the backbone to make him read out an apology before. I think the only reason they did on this occasion was because advertisers and sponsors had withdrawn their financial backing, and Newstalk was trying to claw back some credibility.

It is worth noting that Newstalk only suspended George Hook a full week after he made these comments. If they had any spine, he would have been suspended immediately after he made them. The fact that it took a week for him to be suspended (not sacked, mind you, just suspended) means that his employers don’t have any difficulty with George’s comments. If they had, they would have sacked him years ago.

 

Sphincter

When a sphincter muscle is touched it contracts. Those who have reacted in George Hook’s defence remind me of sphincter muscles. They have bunched up and contracted in reaction to his being challenged on his victim-blaming comments, talking about how he’s not the worst.

Ciara Kelly, a colleague and friend of Hook’s wrote a piece for the Journal calling George one of the most ‘gender blind’ people she’s ever worked with. All I can say to that is that Dr Kelly must not have worked with many people, ever, because people aren’t gender blind, any more than they are colour blind.  The only example of this alleged ‘gender blindness’ she pointed to in her article was to mention how George has always championed her. And she’s a woman. That’s great. But she’s also his friend. People generally champion their friends. It’s human nature. It doesn’t mean they’re gender blind, or colour blind, or sexual-orientation blind, or religion blind, or that they have any other kind of blindness.

 

George Hook is not a monster – of course he’s not. He is human, and humans are not cartoon characters – either hero or villain. People are not this or that; they are complex, and our feelings about them are equally complex. It is absolutely possible for a person to be kind to animals, yet beat their own children. It is absolutely possible for a person to be  rapist and make wonderful art. It is absolutely possible for a person to be good at his job and have raped his sister for years (like two of my own brothers). One fact does not make the other untrue.  Nor does one fact make the other excusable.

 

I’m all for personal responsibility, but that extends to George Hook. He needs to be held personally accountable for his comments to victims of rape. And, yes, maybe I am taking this personally – after all, I was raped by family members, strangers, acquaintances and both my former husbands. But those experiences mean that I am more aware than most of how damaging George Hook’s comments are, and how grateful I am that he no longer has a public platform from which to air them.

Hidden In Plain Sight

At the end of last month, Jack Watson died on the streets of Dublin. I know (now) that he had a number of other names, but to me, he was Jack, so that’s what I’m going to call him.

 

Not long after the  vigil at Dáil Eireann (which I attended) along with many other people who had been volunteers in Apollo House over the last Xmas and New Year period, the Irish Sun revealed that Jack had a string of convictions behind him in Australia. The most serious, and the most unpalatable of which were two convictions for sexual assaults on young girls, and another for the wilful transmission of HIV to a woman.

For me, and for many of the people who interacted with Jack during his time in Apollo House, and when he was on the streets afterwards, it was an enormous shock to learn that Jack had committed sexual offences. Speaking with some of the women afterwards, we were all dismayed to learn of Jack’s past; not least because – for many of us – our personal and professional backgrounds had brought us into contact with abusive men, and we were pretty sure we’d know one if we saw one. We were confident in our abilities to spot the ‘warning signs’ and the behaviour of a man who preyed on women and girls.  To learn that we’d been duped by Jack – not one of us suspected that he was, or might be a sex offender – shook us.

 

And that’s the point: Men who abuse women, and men who sexually assault children don’t have a certain ‘look’; they don’t use key phrases that you can identify immediately, and recognise as indicators.

 

Above all, they are cunning. If they have been caught (as Jack was), they learn from that ‘mistake’ and adapt their behaviour in order to avoid detection in the future. They modify their approach to women in order to avoid suspicion. They don’t stop abusing women. They just stop getting caught. Sex offenders and predators walk among us; they look like the other men in our society, they sound like them, they present like them. They don’t have horns and a tail, or an easy identifier to alert the rest of us to their presence. They are our fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, trusted friends, neigbours, priests, teachers, solicitors, doctors, quantity-surveyors, gardeners – they exist in every socio-economic demographic, are of every religious and cultural background, and they walk among us, hidden in plain sight.

Happiness Is…

Happiness is walking in your front door and hearing your 13 year-old daughter and her friend in gales of laughter.

Happiness is having a chat with your 13 year-old daughter and her friend, and really enjoying the conversation.

Happiness is phoning your 13 year-old daughter’s friend’s mum and telling her that even though you have met her daughter a number of times, you haven’t met her, but you wanted to reassure the mum that her child is safe, and fed and happy.  That you haven’t sold her into the white slave trade.

Happiness is hearing your 13 year-old daughter’s friend’s mum laugh and tell you she’s glad you phoned, and she’s glad the girls have made friends (what remains unsaid is that you know that your girls find it hard to meet people like them).

Happiness is knowing your girl finds it hard to meet people like her, but she finally has, and – not just that – they get on like a house on fire.

Happiness is walking into your fifteen year-old’s room while she’s on the phone to her boyfriend, and he says ‘Is that your mum? Put me on speaker, please, I’d like to say “hi” to her.’ And you and he have a lovely, comfortable chat with your fifteen year-old contributing.

Happiness is heading back downstairs and heating up food the three of you made the night before, and smiling at the memory of the assembly of the food and the discussions that led up to it.

Laksa 24.08.17

Happiness is a glass of thick, syrupy Zinfandel on a Friday evening.

 

Happiness is knowing your babies are safe.

Happiness is a roof over your head.

Happiness is the little things.

Happiness is the big things.

Happiness is the little things that are huge.

 

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re dancing with happiness.

A Woman on Public Transport is Not Public Property

Smash the patriarchy hammer

I read this today: It’s a story about a woman – Nathalie Gordon (@awlilnatty) – who was on a bus, with her headphones in, when a man made unwanted advances. She was polite to each of his intrusions, and the incident ended with him masturbating in the seat beside her, and her reporting this to the bus driver. The driver shrugged and asked her what she expected.

 

In response, Nathalie reveals that what she expects is:

Respect for women no matter who they are, or what they look like, or what they’re wearing; respect for women who don’t want go for a drink, who ask for help, who are afraid; to feel safe on the bus, the street, in her house or anywhere she chooses to go; not to be on guard everywhere she goes; she expects men to stop thinking every woman on the planet owes them something; good men to be on our side, to support us, to listen, to care, to stand up for us when we can’t, and to educate others.

 

It doesn’t sound like too much to expect, does it? Sadly, if you’re a woman, it appears that, if this is what you expect, you’re expecting too much. I shared Nathalie’s piece with friends. Interestingly, every woman who responded, had a similar story to tell. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a woman alive who has not been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention. Not only have we been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention, we’ve also been on the receiving end of comments like:

‘What do you expect – you’re a pretty girl?’ (So, should I disfigure myself to make myself less of a target?)

‘Take it as a compliment.’ (Really? Assault is a compliment?)

‘What were you doing?’ (Usually minding our own business.)

‘What were you wearing?’ (Clothes. Always.)

 

Those of us who also have daughters related our concerns regarding our girls, and how society views (literally), and treats, them. I was reminded of the work my girls and I had to do before I could allow them to take public transport on their own. To prepare my (then) 11 year old for taking a single bus (in other words, there was no need for her to change buses) from outside her school to the end of our road took hours. I spoke to her and her sister about the rules:

  1. Greet the driver (to be polite, but also so s/he registers that you are a minor onboard, unaccompanied);
  2. If you must sit beside someone, choose to sit beside a woman rather than a man.
  3. Stay sitting on the aisle seat, allow someone to pass by you, so they get the window seat.
  4. Stay downstairs. Even if there are no seats downstairs, and there are seats upstairs, stay standing downstairs.
  5. If possible, stay where the bus driver can see you.
  6. You do not have to be polite to someone who is making you feel uncomfortable.
  7. If you feel threatened or unsafe, move seats. You do not have to justify your feelings, even to yourself. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
  8. If someone makes you feel unsafe, go to the bus driver and tell him/her.

 

Then, we role-played, several times, over several days, how to act / re-act if someone made them feel uncomfortable. We defined what that might be – talking to them when they didn’t want to be spoken to, saying things – racist, sexist or personal things – that made them feel uncomfortable. Pretending not to speak English if they felt that would keep them safer (they can get away with this, because they look ‘foreign’).   I gave them permission to be rude to someone they didn’t feel safe beside. I practised being a lecherous male and putting a hand on my daughters’ knees, so they could practise shouting ‘Stop touching me!’ (I was amazed at how long it took to get them to shout. How well society has taught them to be quiet!). I got them to practice getting out of their seats and going to the driver. I gave them permission to defend themselves, and showed them how.

 

As I discussed these measures with my friends this morning, a thought struck me; if I had sons, it would never have occurred to me to go to such lengths before letting them take the bus on their own. I can’t imagine that I would have felt the need to do more than have one conversation with a son about general safety and what to do if he was uncomfortable. The difference being that, as a mother of daughters, I know my children will have to confront a male making unwanted advances. I know they will need to know how to react. I know they will have to confront lecherous males (they do, on a regular basis), and I want them to feel empowered in those situations. Don’t get me wrong, though, even though I am aware that the girls will face unwanted sexual advances, doesn’t mean I’m resigned to the fact – it means I will continue to fight to change this fact. The first step in changing something is acknowledging that it exists in the first place.

 

 

 

 

 

Rosemary’s Bravery

Five months ago, Rosemary Mac Cabe wrote a brutally honest post about why she didn’t report the fact that she’d been raped. Her piece resonated with me, and my fingers itched to write a response straight away. I didn’t though. I thought about it, I thought about it for a few days. I got busy with other things. Then, I decided I’d left it too late, and my response was too long after Rosemary’s post to be timely and relevant.

Of course, women’s experiences are always relevant, no matter how historical. The truth is, that I was avoiding it. I have been writing for long enough to know that when I provide myself with excuses not to write something, it’s usually because I’m afraid of it. I’m afraid to confront my own knowledge and / or experience of the thing I’m trying to write about. I’m simply not ready. The more solid my excuses to myself, the more I’m trying to avoid whatever it is I know I need to write. I have realised, in the past few months, that I sometimes avoid writing something – or at least writing something for publication – because I haven’t processed the issue at hand. My aversion to writing in support of what Rosemary had written was born of avoidance.

Then, within the past month, Rosemary tweeted that she’d been alluded to in a podcast. I didn’t hear the podcast in question, and it has since been removed from the website where it was originally hosted, so I can’t really comment with any first-hand knowledge on its content. All I can say is that reminded me that I needed to write a response to Rosemary’s post. So, I got my pen out, and started to write. And then I dithered. I told myself (again), that I’d left it too late to respond. That the moment was lost.

Until nearly three weeks ago, when someone else decided to troll Rosemary Mac Cabe on Twitter. I was reminded that it is never too late to tell the truth. It’s never too late to speak your truth. It’s never too late to honour the part of you that worked hard to ensure you made it through the traumatic event – whatever that event was. So, today, I have decided to write – and publish – my response to Rosemary’s post of five months ago.

We don’t have accurate figures for rape and sexual assault in this country. The SAVI Report  is 15 years old, and it tells us that 20.4% of adult women are subjected to unwanted, non-consensual sexual contact. A further 5.1% reported unwanted, non-consensual, non-contact sexual experiences. In addition, 6.1% of the women interviewed reported being raped. And, in that last sentence, the word reported is key. As we learn from Rosemary’s post, and the response she had to that post when it was originally published, many women don’t report their experiences of rape. Like Rosemary, many of us don’t term what happened to us ‘rape’. Many of us don’t realise that what happened to us was, actually, rape. Many of us blame ourselves.

We are conditioned to believe that when men act badly, it is our fault. We are conditioned to believe that, not only must we be responsible for what we do, we must be responsible for what men do, too. This attitude sees men absolved of personal responsibility – which is a by-product of the patriarchy, and serves men as poorly as it serves women, by infantalising men in this regard.

In her post, Rosemary talks about how she didn’t report her rapist because he was basically a nice guy, and she didn’t want to ruin his life. That’s part of the problem with the dominant narrative of sex offenders as monsters. We find it difficult to accept that men who are good to their mothers, who adopt three-legged dogs, and who give money to charity, can possibly be the kind of men who would touch a woman who didn’t want them to touch her. Sadly, the kind of men who abuse women look exactly like ‘normal, everyday’ men. Tom Meagher wrote about the ‘Monster Myth’ three and a half years ago and made the point that most cases of violence against women are ‘perpetrated and suffered in silence’.

Reading Rosemary’s blog, I was reminded of two specific incidents that had taken place in my own life. There are many more, but these are the two that sprang to mind immediately:

  1. I was Eighteen Years Old

I’d gone out West to spend the weekend with my baby niece and her family. Her mother – Mary (not her real name) – wanted to go out in the local town. She had made arrangements to meet her boyfriend, Donal (not his real name), at a nightclub there.  So we got dolled up, Mary’s parents and siblings were put on babysitting duty, and off we went.

It was a pleasant enough night. I got talking to one of Mary’s boyfriend’s friends, whom I will call Brian (again, not his real name) – who also happened to share a house with Mary’s boyfriend. When the nightclub closed, we went back to Mary’s boyfriend’s house because they wanted some private time together. I was knackered. Mary suggested I have a sleep in Brian’s bed because he wasn’t home yet.

I collapsed into sleep – fully clothed except for my jumper – and the next thing I knew, I was waking up as Brian groped me.

‘What are you doing? Stop!’

I think it was reasonable, at this stage, for him to stop touching me. I was expecting too much, though. This white, privileged male, in his early twenties didn’t see why he should stop touching a woman who was asleep and had not consented to any kind of physical contact with him.

‘You’re in my bed.’ He responded. As if being in a man’s bed – even if you had made your way there when he wasn’t even in the building, and with the sole intention of getting some sleep – gave him the right to touch you without your consent.

‘I’ll get out of it then,’ I offered, groggily, sitting up.

He pushed me back down.

‘No. You’re here now. This is my bed. You might as well say.’

‘Mary and Donal said it would be all right for me to get a bit of sleep here, because you were out, and you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Yeah? Well I do mind’

‘I’ll leave then,’ I offered again.

‘No. Stay where you are,’ he said and got into bed beside me – wearing nothing but his boxers – grabbed my breast and started to kiss me.

I surprised myself by not freezing, but by trying to push him off me, and by saying ‘no’ again.

‘What?’ he said again, annoyed. ‘You’re in my bed.’

‘If you don’t stop,’ I warned him. ‘I’m going to scream.’

He considered this for a moment.

‘Have your bed back,’ I told him. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch.’

‘No, it’s fine. Stay where you are,’ he responded. ‘I’ll sleep on the couch.’

Later, on the way home with Mary, I recounted the episode.

‘Wow!’ she said. I thought she was aghast at his behaviour. And she was, but not for the reasons I’d hoped. ‘He must really fancy you. Brian’s got a girlfriend. They’ve been together for the past 18 months and they’re mad about each other.’

‘But….’

‘God. I’ve never heard of him even noticing another woman. He must really fancy you. You should be flattered.’

And that was the message I got – that the unwanted attentions of a man should flatter a woman. This is rape culture.

  1. I was twenty-five.

Not long out of my first marriage, I met the man who would become my second husband. He was a friend of a friend of mine. And she sent me off to meet him, warning me that he wasn’t my ‘type’, but we’d get on. She was right, he wasn’t my type, but I thought there would be no harm in having a drink with him. Within less than an hour, he’d declared he loved me, and was going to marry me. I was taken aback, but the alarm bells that should have been ringing weren’t. That was the night my schooling in the fragile Indian male ego began.

After a while, Krishna suggested we get dinner. I agreed.

‘First, if you don’t mind, I’d like to go home and change,’ he told me.

Later, people would scoff at how I fell for such an old line; but it wasn’t one that been tried on me before then, so I took what he said at face-value. The first thing he did when we got back was open a bottle of arrack and insist I tried it. I demurred. I didn’t want to drink any more without eating first. Sitting down with a glass in his hand, Krishna reverted to his earlier topic of marriage. Specifically, one that involved the two of us. Still too much of a ‘good girl’ to be rude, I did my best to be polite, but discouraging.

Eventually, he sat in front of me and said ‘I’m trying really hard not to kiss you.’

The last thing I wanted was for this man to touch me – but I had never been equipped with the tools to fend off men who propositioned me. I didn’t know what to do or say and was terrified of causing offence.

‘You keep trying,’ I told Krishna. ‘Because you’re doing a really good job. And I appreciate you not kissing me.’

He wasn’t deterred, though. He kept insisting that he was going to marry me.

‘You’re going to be my wife,’ he insisted.

‘I’m not, actually,’ I tried to be firm, but polite.

‘I’m telling you you’re going to be my wife, and you will be,’ he nodded.

‘You’re wrong about that,’ I laughed, trying to keep the tone light. Arguing with him wasn’t getting me anywhere.

In the end, he just lunged in and kissed me. It was horrible, and felt more like an assault than a caress. He was a dreadful kisser – tasting of cigarettes and alcohol and clearly of the impression that pouncing on a girl and poking your tongue into her mouth and swirling it around a little bit counted as ‘kissing’. I couldn’t escape from him, however. He’d had too much to drink and was hostile to the idea of my leaving. Too late, I realised how foolish I’d been; I was in the apartment of someone I didn’t know, and I didn’t know where I was, either.

Of course, this was Singapore, so if I’d managed to get out of the apartment, I’d have managed to get a cab to take me back to where I was staying. That wasn’t possible, however, because Krishna forcibly barred my way to the door and locked me in. I was on the fourth floor and there was no other way out. There was no fire escape. I could have jumped off the balcony. But God knows what harm I’d have done myself if I had. Left with no real choice, I stayed the night and did my best to keep Krishna off me.  I wasn’t very successful, however. Eventually, I stopped saying ‘no’. There was no point.

I wasn’t happy about what transpired that night. But at no stage did he ask me what I wanted. At no point was consent raised. At no point did my ‘no’ make any difference to him. Still, it was only in 2013 – fifteen or so years after the event – that I realised what had happened that night was rape. And I had to have it pointed to me by someone else; a woman doing her PhD on re-victimisation of women spoke with me and we discussed the episode, and, gently prompting me, she asked what I would say to someone else who recounted the tale I had just told her. How, she wondered, would I term the event?

‘Well, it’s rape!’ I told her. ‘If a woman says “no” and a man continues, and has sex with her, that is non-consensual sex. That’s rape!’

‘If it happened to someone else?’ she gently asked. ‘But if it happened to you?’

I was silent for a while as I tried to make sense of what she was saying. How could I have been raped and not known it? How had I been raped, and then gone on to marry my rapist?

It turns out that this is not as unusual as we would like to think. I have spoken to a number of people since who have had similar experiences. And this, too, is rape culture. The idea that if a woman doesn’t successfully fight a man off, then it’s her fault. Never mind that we’re also told that if we fight back, it will make it worse.

Let’s not forget that even now (never mind back in 1999, in Singapore), a woman is held accountable for any and all sex that takes place. Let’s not forget that victims are still blamed for rape even when the man admits he raped her (you can read about that here, here, and here, as a few random examples)

Let’s not forget that most cases of rape happen behind closed doors and involve an element of ‘he said / she said’.

So, yes, I understand why Rosemary didn’t report the rape that was perpetrated on her. Why would she have? Would you?

 

Zeitgeist

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The zeitgeist of Irish society, with regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape is sadly very regressive. Victims themselves are still blamed – to a large extent – for the assaults they suffer. Their previous sexual experience is interrogated. What they wore; who they were with; if, and how much, they had been drinking; how they met the person who assaulted them; how long it took them to report the assault (if they did); and whether or not they fought back, are all discussed and dissected in the Court of Public Opinion, if not in the legal court of the land. In the rare event that a case of sexual assault actually gets to court, the sentences are shockingly short, and don’t always include an immediate custodial element.

 

As a society, we don’t seem to have realised that unless consent is sought, freely given, given in advance, given enthusiastically, and ongoing, any ensuing act is assault. The problem with the prevailing attitudes and beliefs has long been identified by feminists. Identification of a problem, of course is an important first step; but it is only the first step. Once it’s been identified, a solution needs to be found. A concerted, consistent campaign (or series of campaigns) to highlight the issues and confront them is what’s needed next. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again, but consent really is key. Consent workshops are a great idea, and my feeling (unpopular though it may be) is that they should be mandatory across all educational institutions. Yes, I really do mean starting with preschool facilities, and teaching children that they don’t have to give or receive hugs and kisses that they don’t want. In tandem with that, our understanding of, and response to, sexual assault needs to move beyond the binary, and speak to those in our communities who don’t identify as straight.

 

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt, either, to insist that any judge in Ireland, who is likely to be asked to preside over a case of sexual assault, abuse, or rape, should undergo mandatory training from the Rape Crisis Centre. I have it on good authority that, even though it’s been offered for several years, no judge has ever availed of this training.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoni-Reclaiming

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Yoni reclamation is key to recovery from Girls and women who are sexually abused, sexually assaulted, and / or raped are violated at our very core. In Sanskrit, the female genitalia are referred to as yoni. The meaning of the word itself is akin to ‘source’. Female genitals – vulva, vagina, and womb – are collectively the source of life; but not just the source of the next generation. Our genitals are the source of our sexual pleasure, and when we have been abused, that sense of pleasure is interfered with.

 

I have spoken with many women who express deep shame as a result of experiencing sexual pleasure when they were abused as children. No matter how often they are told that a sexual reaction to sexual touch is not something they had control over, they are still upset and disgusted with themselves. For many, it is ‘proof’ that they were complicit in their own abuse, which makes them deeply conflicted.

 

Reclaiming her yoni – and all its power, and joy, and beauty, and promise, and orgasmic glory – is one of the hardest parts of recovering from sexual abuse for any woman. It’s made harder still because of the lack of recognition of the damage that is done, at a primal level, to women when they are abused. If there is no public acknowledgement of the need to reclaim something, then accessing the resources to do so is difficult, if not impossible.

 

Many healthcare professionals – including doulas and midwives – have no understanding of the deep wounds inflicted on women and their psyches when they are sexually abused. This makes receiving healthcare fraught with difficulty, and the potential for re-traumatisation cannot be underestimated. If your pain, and your trauma has not been acknowledged, has not been addressed, how – and where – do you go to heal?

 

If the fact that something has been taken from you is not something about which you are encouraged to talk, or think – or even feel – how do you go about getting it back? The first thing we need to do – personally, and as a society – is acknowledge that the yoni of the sexually abused woman, and its energy, has been misappropriated by their abuser/s, Only then we can start to think about how to reclaim it.

 

 

 

 

Xenization

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Xenization refers to the act of travelling like a stranger. For many of us who were sexually abused, particularly those of us who were sexually abused as children, we can often feel that we travel this whole, wide, world as strangers.

 

Dissociation can leave us feeling as though we are strangers in our own bodies. Essentially, dissociation is a coping skill developed – usually in childhood – whereby the abused person disengages from their own body and steps outside of themselves, in order to create distance between them and the abuse that is happening to them.  There is a propensity to label dissociation as an unhealthy coping skill, but – for those of us who developed it – it served a purpose, and helped us to cope with unspeakable horror. A child who is overwhelmed by trauma, and who manages to get through it should not then have to have their means of getting through it criticised. We did what we had to do to stay alive!

 

Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families where we were abused felt strangers in the world of ‘normality’. I remember, as a child in primary school, scrutinising what other people did, and how they reacted to other family members, so I could ape them. Even now, I sometimes catch myself asking myself what ‘normal’ people would do.

 

As an adult, nowhere is this more obvious than in the arena of sexual relations. I’ve written about this before but behaving ‘normally’ around a member of the sex to which we are attracted can be a hugely difficult task for those of us who have been abused. It is definitely an arena where we walk like strangers.

 

Like any stranger, we observe the cultures and the language of those in the world we have travelled to inhabit: For those of us who were sexually abused as children, there is a need to learn the culture and language of people who were not abused, so that we can integrate into this new world. This can mean that, as adults, we need to learn that certain words and phrases – which were part of our experiences of abuse – are not used by other people as ‘code’ or with the intention to  upset or demean us. It means learning that the language of touch can be comforting, reassuring, loving, even. It’s not always abusive.

 

Like many strangers who travel to distant lands, we often carry luggage with us. Over time, and with experience, however, we learn (hopefully), that our luggage doesn’t have to be comprised of several large pieces. As my wonderful friend, Sarah-in-Leiden (that’s how we refer to her in our house – I have a few wonderful friends called Sarah!) says: ‘We all have baggage. You just need to decide if you’re going to cart around a steam trunk, or an interesting handbag.’

 

 

Whistle Blowers

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We’re not fond of whistle-blowers in Ireland. Ask Jonathan Sugarman, Gda Maurice McCabe or Dr Tom Clonan.  We don’t make it easy on people to tell the truth, and the truth we hate the most is the truth around sex abuse. Look at the Grace case, where a child was abused, in foster care, for years before the HSE – who knew about the abuse – did anything.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is what Ferguson refers to as the notion of ‘abused and looked after children’ being viewed as ‘moral dirt’. I believe that part of the difficulty around welcoming whistle-blowers in the arena of child sexual abuse is tied up with our societal propensity for victim-blaming. Victims are viewed as ‘dirty’ and ‘shameful’. They are treated with less respect than they deserve, and they are blamed for their own abuse. Because we find the topic of CSA distasteful, we view the victims as shameful, too. By extension, then, we view those who highlight their plight as equally shameful, and attempt to silence them. It’s not a guilt around our collective failing of the vulnerable, but a disgust around discussion of anything to do with sex and the distasteful issue of child sexual abuse, which we still don’t know how to properly address.

Until there are better protections for whistle-blowers, until we shirk off the yoke of mis-placed omerta that exists in Irish society, until we make it easier to whistle-blow, until we actually reward whistle-blowers, we will continue to fail our most vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

 

Victim-Blaming

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Sadly, victim-blaming is a huge part of every survivors narrative. Questions are asked of her and her behaviour and demeanour that are never asked of a victim of any other type of crime. Questions like:

‘What were you wearing?’

‘How much had you had to drink?’

‘Why were you there on your own?’

‘Did you lead him on?’

‘What did you expect?’

‘Boys will be boys.’

‘Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?’

‘Why didn’t you just fight him off?’

A woman’s previous sexual experience and the fact that men can’t really help themselves will be discussed in certain quarters. This puts the onus on women to accept responsibility for, not just their own behaviour, but that of men as well.

The bottom line is that victims of rape and sexual assault are blamed for what happened to them. As a result, a lot of victims blame themselves. This sort of victim-blaming is used particularly around young children to ensure that they stay quiet and don’t report the abuse because they are told that society, power, people in charge will not believe them – or will blame them for what happened to them.

Should a victim have the temerity, the audacity, and the courage to even attempt to seek some form of justice (there’s that word again!), they will find that those who take the side of their abusers will blame and bully the victim. For many (such as the members of my own immediate family), this helps them to avoid dealing with their own culpability, shame, and guilt around their own abuse of the victim. Or the fact that they allowed the abuse to continue by refusing to do anything to help the victim. Far, far, easier to blame the victim than to look in the mirror and take responsibility for how they made matters worse (or, at the very least, refused to make them better) for the victim.

 

 

 

 

 

Unsexy

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Here’s the thing about sexual abuse – it’s not sexy. In fact, it’s decidedly unsexy. For those of us who have lived through sexual abuse, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, one of the things that can be really difficult is disclosing to a (potential) sexual partner.

When survivors enter into new romantic/intimate relationships, the twin questions of when, and how, to disclose to this person can be difficult. Until you actually disclose, you can’t be sure how the other person will react – and, of course, you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. Minimizing what you’ve been through might help the other person to feel less uncomfortable, but you’ll be doing yourself a dis-service. I would suggest discussing the approach you plan on taking with someone else; a trusted friend, relative, therapist or counsellor.

It’s never going to be easy to have the discussion, it’s never going to be easy to disclose (and, if you’re like me, you’ll resent having to every single time). After disclosure (which I always think feels like a ‘warning’), the unsexiness doesn’t end. There is the difficulty that every survivor encounters when they attempt to blossom as a sexual being. For many of us, the easiest thing is to exit the scene. By that I mean be sexually available to your partner, but unable to actually take part in the event. [Edit: I talk more about this here]. For many survivors of sexual assault, reclaiming their own sexuality is one of the hardest things they will ever have to do – not least because so few people understand, or appreciate,  the difficulties and complexities surrounding this reclamation. It’s decidedly unsexy.

Being a participant, rather than an observer, in your own sex-life, is the least we can expect. Getting there can, however, be decidedly unsexy.

Truth

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Keats would have us believe that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. We all know how that feels. To be in the presence of the truth, knowing that what is being presented is authentic and honest and real.

 

The truth can be a very difficult thing to articulate. As Erik De Soir, the trauma and crisis specialist, said ‘There are certain traumas that cannot be spoken of’ because the person who was traumatised is so profoundly affected by the experience, that they either cannot, or dare not, speak of it. This is part of the reason why I write, and speak, of the uncomfortable truths that are mine: I am quite sure that my experiences, and reactions to them, are not unique to me.  In this, I have been proved correct time and again: Every time I publish something, I am contacted by people – usually complete strangers – to let me know that I have written something that applied to them, and that having read my words, they no longer feel alone.  That response is worth any amount of discomfort that I might feel about revealing intimate details of my life and experiences.

 

People, sadly, have an interesting relationship with the truth. My own family, for example, has been aware of the abuse I suffered – and at whose hands.  I disclosed to family members individually, over the years; and my truth was never denied by the perpetrators, nor questioned by the other members of the family. As long as I was prepared to keep it secret. Nearly seven years ago, in therapy, I realised that the my mental health problems stemmed entirely from the abuse I had suffered as a child, and the continuing abuse from my family members.

 

So I removed myself from the ‘family’ and – in a quest for justice (which I wrote about here)  – I started legal proceedings against the two brothers who had raped me. Since then, other members of my ‘family’ have adopted a revisionist approach to the truth. I have no insight into their motives for lying, but suspect that they are fearful of having to examine their own wilful interaction with highly abusive men. In a conversation I had with my ‘mother’ in October, she repeatedly said ‘It’s not my place to tell them’ – ‘them’ being the women in my brothers’ lives. These women know the truth of course, but refuse to accept the evidence in front of them. I was sure that the mother of the rapists confirming that I speak only the truth, would make a difference to these women, and inspire them to do something to help their own kids.

 

At this stage, all I can do is continue to tell the truth. Every time I am challenged by one of these abusive people, Anne Lamott’s quote (from Bird by Bird) floats into my brain:

‘You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.’

 

A few weeks ago, I spoke at an event. Afterwards, an older woman came up to me and called me a ‘truth teller’, and went on to say that I had chosen a hard path. She’s right; but what’s harder for me – what literally makes me sick – is denying the truth.

 

Statistics

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The SAVI – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland –  report was published in 2002. It details the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of people with regard to sexual abuse in Ireland, and it makes for grim reading. Three thousand randomly-selected adults were surveyed for the report. Given the random-selection of participants, and the fact that the response rate was over 71%, it is safe to say that the findings can be extrapolated into the general population. Overall, almost one-third of women, and a quarter of men reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood. Attempted or actual penetrative sex was experienced by 7.6 per cent of girls, and 4.2 per cent of boys. Equivalent rape or attempted rape figures in adulthood (adults were defined as those aged 17 and over) were 7.4 per cent for women and 1.5 per cent for men.

 

The SAVI Report is now 14 years old, and I really do think it’s time we had another. We would like to think that attitudes towards sexual assault have changed in the (almost) decade and a half since the SAVI Report was published. Changed for the better, I mean. And I, for one, would like to know what the numbers currently are in Ireland. I’d like to think that revelations about institutions have made people more confident in speaking up. I’d like to think that some people being open about their experiences has made it easier for more people to be open about their experiences. And, yeah, I include myself in that.

 

The most recent statistics the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has are from 2013. A quick look at those numbers tells us that 2,467 people made 22,460 appointments for counselling and support. The Rape Crisis Network answered the phone 32,026 times to people who needed to talk. Horrifyingly, 61% of survivors who reported being abused as teenagers were raped. Of all the people who reported being sexually assaulted, 91% knew the person who attacked them.

 

These numbers are deeply disturbing, suggesting that sexual violence is still a part of everyday life for too many women, children, and men in our society. We need a consistent, sustained campaign to teach our nation about a variety of connected issues and to combat the persistent rape culture that permits and promotes the persistent sexual abuse of vulnerable people.

 

 

Quitting

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Quitting. Quitting everything – including life itself – is an attractive proposition to many people. To those of us who have survived sexual abuse, however, it can feel more attractive, more frequently, than it does to members of the general population. How often, and how strongly, you feel like quitting depends on a number of factors, but support is key to helping you get through the bad minutes, hours and days.

 

In this blog post, I am speaking directly to people who have been sexually assaulted, and who feel like quitting.

 

Sometimes, the first person you can turn to for support is yourself. Sometimes, the only person you can turn to for support is yourself. Before you consider quitting this life, please read this first:

  •  Please do not do anything to harm yourself today. Give it 24 hours, and remember that your record for getting through days like today is 100%.

 

  • Feeling suicidal is not a failing on your part. These feelings arise when the level of pain someone is feeling exceeds their ability to cope with that pain. You just need to figure out a way to either lessen the pain, or increase your coping mechanisms. Both are possible.

 

  • If your suicidal feelings are being caused by flashbacks, a useful thing to do is to ground yourself and remind yourself that even though you feel like you are living the experience again, you’re not. You are not being assaulted in this instant. What can be hugely helpful in these instances is to be aware of what is happening to you in this moment. Look around you. See who is in the room with you. Name them. Look at what you are wearing. Name it. Look at the room you are in. Name it. Describe things you can see in the room with you. Keep going until the flashback (or intrusive thought, whatever you want to call it) is gone. Repeat as often as necessary.

 

  • If the pain is too much for you to bear on your own, don’t even try. Reach out to someone who will understand you. That last bit is very important – very often, survivors reach out to people who are not supportive, or who appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. Call your local rape crisis centre. Call or text the Samaritans. They will not judge you, but they will help you. If you have a good relationship with a mental health professional or service, give them a ring and let them know how you are feeling. Ask for help. You are worth it.

 

  • When the suicidal feelings pass – and they will – don’t judge yourself for feeling like quitting. Be kind to yourself afterwards. Acknowledge that you were having a really hard time, and congratulate yourself for getting through it.

 

 

 

Public Property

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One of the most awful ‘side-effects’ of sexual abuse, for me, was the re-victimisation I was subjected to as a teenager, as a young adult, and even as an older adult. When you have been abused by several members of your immediate family, and then abused again by strangers and others, you do end up feeling a bit like public property. I wrote about that feeling when I was about sixteen, and am re-producing the text here:

 

Public Property

I am public property
You can own me, if you like
Anyone can own me.
All you have to do is ask.
Or drop a few subtle hints.
Or pretend you really want to.
Doesn’t make much difference.
At least, not to me.
I don’t care.
I am public property.

I am public property.
Whatever I have is yours.
I have no secrets, no dreams,
No hopes, no ambitions.
They all belong to you.
You wrested them from me.
I could not fight to keep them.
I have no right to them, really.
They’re not actually mine.
I have nothing.
I am public property.

I am public property.
You’re allowed to play with me.
Use me at your own discretion.
Tear me up, wear me out.
Grind me down – you’re allowed.
I won’t protest.
I don’t protest.
I can’t protest.
I am not allowed.
I am public property.

Opinions

O

 

Opinions, we have all heard, are like assholes; everyone has one. There is also the more genteel version of the ubiquity of opinions, that everyone is entitled to their own. The thing about opinions, however, is that they are not facts. Opinions, I think, should be based in fact in order to hold any credence, or be of any value, but often they are not.

 

When it comes to abuse, many people – from friends and relatives to some therapists, to the victims ourselves – have opinions on when and how we should ‘recover’, and when and how the aftermath is ‘allowed’ to impinge on our day-to-day lives.  Some people believe that, if you were abused as a child, you should be well over the abuse by the time you are 21. There is absolutely no basis in fact for this opinion; different people recover from abuse at different paces. People also recover at different levels; meaning that they deal with the abuse at the level they can manage at any given time. Sometimes, this means not dealing with it, because they feel they couldn’t cope – at that moment – with the upset that looking at the abuse and its effects on them would bring to their lives.

 

Another commonly-held opinion is that everyone should be affected by abuse in the same way: That, because one person reacts in a certain way to sexual abuse, everyone should react in the same way. Again, there is no basis in fact for this. While there are a set of behaviours that manifest in a lot of people who were abused, not everyone will have the same reaction to their life events. Nor will everyone react in the same way at the same time. For example, many women who are abused and/or raped by family members choose not to deal with their abuse, or to deal with it on certain levels only, because they do not believe they could deal with the fallout if they delved fully into the complexities of the effects of the abuse on them and their relationships.

 

Then, there is that old chestnut about how ‘real’ sexual assault is a rare thing and a lot of women either lie or exaggerate what has happened to them. Again, there is no basis in truth for this. Thankfully, this opinion is being challenged more and more in mainstream media, and on social media with women recounting their own experiences of sexual assault. Perhaps the most shocking thing about these revelations is the opinion, held by so many sexually-assaulted women, that this type of abuse is ‘normal’ and ‘part of being a girl/woman’. See, for example, #everydaysexism (where many of the examples are, in fact, of sexual assault), and #shoutingback (where women recount their experiences of sexual assault) on Twitter.

 

Another old favourite among rape-apologists (male and female) is that women are somehow complicit in their own abuse. Sadly, this opinion has no basis in fact, either. It is true, however, that many women are conditioned to believe that because they engaged with a man, or didn’t engage with him; or because they stopped saying no when they were attacked; or because of what they were wearing they ‘invited’ an assault. This is a sad reflection on the attitude society has to victims, not on victims themselves.

 

We all hold opinions, on everything from the job the government is doing, to what colour works best where, to what makes a good book. We’re all entitled to hold whatever opinions we like, but if we expect our opinions on serious topics to be taken seriously, we need to educate ourselves on the facts surrounding these topics first.

 

 

Terrible Teenagers

Girls in Masks
My Tremendous Teens & Me

About an hour ago, I heard an advertisement for an article in tomorrow’s paper. The piece promises ‘experts to tell you how to deal with your terrible teens’ and it really annoyed me. Why would anyone talk about ‘terrible teens’? Why would anyone tell parents that their teenagers are ‘terrible’? More importantly, why would anyone tell their teens that they are ‘terrible’?

 

I was so cross. Why would anyone tell anyone that they are ‘terrible’ – unless it was in that jesting way of ‘oh stop! You’re tehhhrrrrible‘ ? And why, oh why, would anyone tell a sensitive teenager that they are terrible? Why are we so happy to shame teenagers? Could you imagine if the same language was applied to older people? Imagine if there was an advertisement on the radio for a piece in tomorrow’s paper that would tell you how to deal with your ‘Problematic Parents’, or your ‘Exasperating Elders’? would that be okay? I hardly think so. Why is it permissible – even expected – to tell our teenagers that they are difficult? I’d also question the credentials of any ‘expert’ who would suggest that teens are ‘terrible’.

 

Here’s the thing; teenagers will live up – or down – to the expectations placed on them. Given that, how about this for an idea; instead of popular culture telling our teens they’re ‘terrible’, how about telling them they’re ‘terrific’, or ‘tremendous’? Instead of writing articles about how to deal with ‘terrible’ teens, why don’t we have experts writing articles about ‘terrific’ teens?

 

I would also respectfully suggest that any parent who thinks their teen is ‘terrible’ might want to look at their parenting first.

Cut Child Benefit to Punish Parents?

So, I read this afternoon, that some GPs are in favour of reducing child benefit by half in cases where parents don’t have those children vaccinated.

I think this is an appalling idea. Child benefit is a monthly, non-means-tested payment made, by the Irish State, to ease the financial costs associated with raising children in Ireland. Many households here rely on Child Benefit to help pay recurring monthly bills; gas, electricity, insurance, mortgage etc. You can’t argue that children don’t benefit from those bills being paid; or that they aren’t necessary for the child’s well-being. In other households (like mine), that €140 per child, is ear-marked for educational purposes. Other people use it for shoes or clothes. A few, a very lucky few, save or invest in order to have a lump sum for that child on their 18th birthday, or to help with costs associated with third-level education. Whatever the money is spent on, the clue really is in the title – the money is for each child in the country to help defray costs associated with raising that child. Cutting the benefit will not punish the parents, it will punish the children.

To suggest that a financial payment for a child should be cut if that child is not vaccinated against childhood diseases is a display of angry, lazy thinking at its worst. If the desire is to increase the uptake of vaccinations, then surely a better approach is to educate parents, to address their fears and concerns around vaccinations? Then – and I know this might appear radical – how about allowing parents to, you know, parent? By that I mean provide them with information and then encourage them to decide for themselves what is right for their particular child, and their particular family, at that time.

The idea that child benefit should be halved for children whose parents don’t act in the way that a certain group of people think they should act is patronising, paternalistic, and arrogant. It indicates that the group calling for this diminishing of the benefit believes they are absolutely right. In this instance, a group of doctors think that they should be able to wield a financial stick at parents who don’t agree with them. Missing the point entirely, of course, that such action would impact more on the children than on their parents. It also further encourages the myth that child benefit is a boon to parents – that it can (and should) be rescinded for non-compliance with a particular directive. What next? A slashing of child benefit if they don’t go to school? A further cut if they’re not breastfed? Another if they’re obese?

I would point out to this group of GPs that to punish a child for the lack of action on the part of their parents – which you view as negligent in the first place – is, by your own logic, punishing the child twice. Don’t do that. Don’t suggest that your frustrations be taken out on an already vulnerable group.

 

Today

I don’t write poetry much / often these days – who has the time to be brief?! – but I wrote this the other day for someone I love, who happens to be dangerously ill, and who I’m not ready to let go of.

 

Today

If all you can give me

Is today

Then give me today.

I won’t ask for tomorrow.

 

If all you can commit to

Is now

Then just give me now

I won’t demand then.

 

If all you can promise me

Is the night

Then just me the night

I won’t ask for the morning.

 

When the grief is too much

Let me sit with you

When the fear is too much

Let me hold you

When you’re too overwhelmed

Let me save you

When worry weighs you down

Let me pick you up.

 

If all you can give me

Is today

Then give me today.

 

Every day.

Apollo House

I wrote this piece on December 27th, but didn’t want to publish it until it had received the ‘all clear’ from the media team at Apollo House. Given that they have more pressing things to worry about, this took a while. 🙂 

 

I did my first shift at Apollo House yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, Apollo House is a government building that is owned by NAMA – the National Assets Management Agency (essentially a ‘bad bank’). That means that, really, the building (which – ironically – was a social welfare office) is owned by the Irish people. About a fortnight ago, the building was taken over by a group of activists, artists, actors and musicians, who opened the doors of the building to homeless people.

 

‘Ordinary’ people responded with generosity, solidarity, and kindness. They donated books, clothes, shoes, food, more food, kitchen equipment, toiletries, blankets, office equipment, money, washing machines, dryers, washing powder, plates, cups, coffee, tea, milk, time, talent and love.

 

NAMA responded by taking the Home Sweet Home Group – under whose auspices Apollo House is run – to court in an effort to get them to vacate the building. They claimed that part of their reaction was on the grounds that the building was unsafe.  The counter-argument to that was that the building was checked by Health & Safety Officers, and by Fire Safety Officers – who deemed the building safe. It is beyond ridiculous to suggest that people are safer on the cold streets of Dublin than they are in a secure building where they are treated with dignity: Where they have access to nourishing food, tea, coffee, water, medical care, showers, cooking facilities; and people who will talk to them, listen to them, and show them love and kindness.

 

Enda Kenny, our head of government, said that there are enough beds available so that no one needs to sleep on the street. At best, he is ill-informed. At worst, he is lying through his teeth.

 

Last Thursday, Judge Gilligan granted the order to vacate, but gave a stay until 12pm on January 11th. He further stipulated that the house could only give shelter to 40 people.
By the time I turned up for my shift at 3pm, all 40 beds in Apollo House had been allocated. People who had no beds secured for the night wandered by, asking if they could be put up. Over and over again, it was explained that we absolutely had to keep to the 40 residents that the judge had ruled. The best we could do was feed people we couldn’t accommodate, offer them clean, dry, warm clothes, sleeping bags, and a phone call to the Freephone number to seek a bed in a hostel.

 

Not everyone wants a bed in a hostel – they can be dangerous places; we heard tales of people being beaten up, robbed, having their clothes stolen; of recovering addicts being exposed to drugs, and worse.

 

After a handover and a brief, I went on the first of five runs for the day; bringing food, blankets and  clean, dry clothes to people on the streets who didn’t have accommodation. We tried to get beds in hostels for people who wanted them. By 7.38pm, however, the operator on the Freephone line told us that there were no more beds available. Of course, our runs were done in co-ordination and co-operation with other charities who were doing runs last night so that we didn’t end up visiting the same streets.

 

Inside, Apollo House is a well-run organisation. Volunteers are divided into teams – media, finance, security, support, outreach, medical, cleaning, catering, legal – according to their skills and experience. The volunteers are well-managed, with handovers at the start of each shift, proper briefings, tasks allocated, and a team manager who answers questions and makes decisions.

 

Apollo House is a home for the residents. Unlike the hostels, where people are usually only allowed to stay between 9pm and 9am, the residents of Apollo House are not put out on the streets mid-morning. They come and go as they please (as long as they sign in and out – for obvious reasons). They eat, shower, wash their clothes, watch telly, chat, read, hang out and – since yesterday – play pool  (thanks to the generosity of a man who drove from Kerry to Dublin to bring a pool table to Apollo House).

 

The Apollo House initiative is a short-term solution to a long-term problem; we all know this. But, for the 40 people who have been safe, warm, clean, fed, kept company, cared for, cared about, and nourished in several different ways since the takeover of the building, each night inside is a better proposition than a night outside on the cold, dangerous streets of Dublin.

 

The point of the initiative is two-fold; to provide for as many people as possible, and to continue to raise awareness. I’m not telling you this because you haven’t heard it before. I’m telling you this because you have heard it before. There is nothing new in the plight of the homeless in Ireland. There is nothing new about how shamefully they are treated by successive Irish governments. There is nothing new about people shivering, hungry, and wet on the streets of Dublin – and the streets of other cities and towns around Ireland. There is nothing new about women and men being treated disrespectfully on the streets of Dublin. There is nothing new about women and men being scared and vulnerable and abused on the streets. That’s precisely the problem. It is an old story, and it’s still being told, just with new narrators.

 

 

‘Don’t Use Words I Don’t Want You To’ – Irish Minister

pregnant-belly

As if running the Department of Poverty wasn’t a big enough job for Leo Varadkar, he’s decided to elect himself Minister for Mansplaining, and give himself cabinet responsibility for correct terminology as well.

Leo has decided that for every person, everywhere, who is ever pregnant, the correct word to use to describe the contents of their womb is ‘baby’.

‘Foetus’ Leo mansplains to all of us who have ever, will ever, or might ever, be pregnant, is not a word that we should use. Nor is it a word that should be used in reference to our pregnancies by mere mortals without a medical degree. ‘Foetus’, according to Dr V, is a medical word. The implication being that those of us who don’t hold medical degrees should not use medical words. We should not refer to our fingers as ‘digits’, either, he cautions. Presumably in case we lose the run of ourselves entirely, and start having a go at performing craniotomies during our lunch-breaks.

I only wish Dr V had been around 13 or 14 years ago, when I started telling my daughter that her vulva was her vulva, rather than her ‘fanny’ or her ‘front bum’ or her ‘butterfly’. I hope she doesn’t get notions above her station as a result. Idly, I wonder if Leo referred to his penis as his ‘passion pencil’ until he was a fully qualified medical doctor. Or if he’d be chagrined if he heard me talking about a migraine, and explaining to my GP that it had started occipitally? Would he chastise me, do you think, and tell me I should talk about the back of my head, instead? Except, referring to the back of my head is not as precise as referring to my occipital bone; and sometimes it is necessary and useful to be precise.

Does Leo not understand that women are allowed to refer to the contents of their wombs however they please? If a woman wants to refer to the product of conception inside her as ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘peanut’, ‘sprog’, ‘alien’ or any other word she likes (the last time I was pregnant, my daughters referred to the contents of my womb as ‘The Minion’), it is not my place to tell her that she is using the wrong word. I would respectfully suggest that Dr V adopt the same attitude.

I find his diktat that all women should refer to their foetuses as babies – and that their friends and families should, too – to be more than vaguely unsettling.  If women aren’t even allowed, by Leo, to use the language which feels most appropriate for them, at a given time, what else does he think they really shouldn’t have a choice about? Or that they should only have limited choice about?

There is an element of nuance involved in this naming business. For a lot of women, when a pregnancy is wanted, they talk about their ‘baby’ even though they know it is not, actually, a baby. Every woman who wants to be a mother, wants to have a baby; but knows that first, she will have a blastocyst, then a zygote, then an embryo, then a foetus, then – if she’s lucky – a baby. We project our hopes onto our wanted pregnancies. We imagine what we’ll have at the end. We invest in them.

Every woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, doesn’t want to have a baby. She knows that she is well within her rights – even if not well within the law in Ireland – to decide what happens to her body. She will refer to it as an embryo or a foetus when discussing it because she is using the correct terminology, whether Leo likes it or not.

Leo also mentioned asking his pregnant friend if she knew what sex her baby was going to be (thank God he used correct terminology and didn’t ask her what gender) and I’m a bit horrified by this, to be honest. It’s none of his business. If his friend wanted to tell him, he should have left it up to her to disclose, and not gone prying. Is it just me, or does this interrogation assume a level of entitlement that he doesn’t deserve?

I also find it interesting that Leo decided to speak for his friend and his sisters by telling the world that if he had used the word ‘foetus’ when referring to their pregnancies, they would have been offended. Why? Because he thinks it’s a ‘medical’ word. I find this deeply disturbing; that a man would assume a woman would take offence because he thinks their thoughts and feelings should match his own? Is this more evidence of entitlement? Or am I over-thinking this?

When I speak to friends who are pregnant, I never say ‘How’s the foetus?’ (I reserve that for when I’m gently joshing friends who are in May-December relationships). Equally, though, I never say ‘How’s the baby?’ Instead, I ask ‘How are you?’ The person I’m addressing is free to choose whether or not to interpret that as second person singular or second person plural (do you think Leo will object to my using such technical language?), and answer accordingly. I don’t decide for her what word should be used in this context. It’s not my place.

 Maybe I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe I just don’t like being mansplained at by a privileged male with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

Breaking the Cycle

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Safe Ireland held a seminar with distinguished speakers from around the world. They discussed things I know a lot about – abuse, violence, trauma and the effects of same. I wasn’t at the conference, because (frankly) it was out of my price range, but I am very grateful to those who live-tweeted the event using the hashtag #safeirelandsummit

 

One of the things that struck me was the fact that John Lonergan (former governor of Mountjoy Jail) was reported as asking ‘How do we prevent? That is the challenge’

 

I can only assume he was asking how we might prevent domestic violence. Part of me is shocked that someone would even need to ask, but I’ll get over that and focus instead on the fact that, if you’re asking, it means you’re interested. So, here, are ten things that you can do to work on the prevention and elimination of domestic violence.

 

  1. Stop calling it ‘domestic’ violence. It’s family violence. It’s intimate partner abuse, it’s family abuse. ‘Domestic’ makes it sound less serious than it actually is. Calling abusing your partner ‘a domestic’ makes it sound innocuous, and makes it less likely that anyone will intervene.

 

  1. Start respecting women. All women. Not just the ones you’re related to – and not just because you’re related to them. Women deserve respect because they are alive, not because of their relationship to you or someone you know. Personally, I’m sick of hearing / reading ‘Imagine if it was your wife / girlfriend / sister / mother / daughter’. Woman are valid regardless of their kinship.

 

  1. Don’t tolerate sexist language. If a colleague makes an anti-woman ‘joke’ or statement, call them on it. Remember when it was okay to tell anti-Irish jokes? Why is it not okay to do that any more? Because people stopped accepting that casual racism as ‘humour’. Do the same with sexist jokes.

 

  1. Don’t tell your sons not to hit girls. Tell them not to hit anyone. Telling boys not to hit girls implies that girls can’t take care of themselves, and are easier targets than other boys. It also reinforces the notion that hitting females is an easy way to control them. We don’t want violence in our lives, no matter who it’s directed at.

 

  1. Teach the males in your lives that it’s not okay to talk over women, or interrupt them. To do so is disrespectful. Respecting women is key to not abusing them.

 

  1. Don’t take up more space than you have to: For example, ‘manspreading’ on public transport, and expecting a woman to move out of your way when you’re walking down the street. It’s aggressive and disrespectful. By taking up more space than you need, you’re forcing us to take up less than we need. You’re treating us as if we’re invisible. Invisible women don’t feel safe.

 

  1. Recognise that abuse is more than physical. Often, it’s the bruises that can’t be seen that cause most pain. Emotional, financial, psychological and sexual abuse cause (at least) as much damage. The threat of being hit, of knowing that the man you’re with, may strike out at you at any stage, is hugely damaging. Gaslighting is highly abusive.

 

  1. Make sure there is information about where help can be found prominently displayed in your office. Often, women who are gaslighted and otherwise abused, have no idea that what is happening to them is wrong. Often, they don’t see themselves as abused. Sometimes because a part of them believes they deserve the treatment they’re getting. Informing them otherwise may empower them to get help.

 

  1. Many women who are victims of their intimate partners are re-victimised. They have already been traumatised. They have grown up seeing their (step)fathers abuse their mothers; they have been sexually assaulted, they have been conditioned to expect nothing else. Be kind. Kindness – given freely, and without expectation of ‘payment’ – is the opposite of abuse.

 

  1. Finally, we will stop men hurting women when we stop accepting and excusing it. Stop saying ‘But he’s a pillar of the community’, stop saying ‘But he’s a great GAA man’, stop saying ‘But he’s a good provider’, stop saying ‘But he’s very good to his mother’. Stop insinuating that because he has done one good thing, he is incapable of hurting the woman he lives with – and their children.

 

Break the cycle. Don’t accept, excuse, or refuse to see, intimate partner abuse.

Dear Ireland

Dear Ireland

I don’t have long this morning to make my point, so I will be brief (we all know I can bang on a bit, so I know you’ll be a bit relieved to read that.)

I seem to be in a perpetual state of annoyance with you, but if you’d keep your word on the important things, then maybe I wouldn’t be quite so cross.

What’s been really annoying me lately is your treatment of refugee children in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. Actually, ‘annoying me’ is an understatement. I’m actually spitting fire.  Ireland, what is wrong with you? These are babies. And you are turning your back on them. These are young hearts and minds and souls that you are deliberately failing. The damage that abandonment and trauma does to young minds is irreversible. It is. I’ve studied this. I know what I’m talking about. (I’m also an adult who was traumatised as a child, and had that trauma compounded by the state, so I have lived experience, too.) You, Ireland, by refusing to act, are condemning these children to a lifetime of psychological pain. And many of those lives will be cut short because of your inaction.  A generation of little babies damaged beyond repair. On your head be it, Ireland, because you are standing idly by and doing nothing more than wringing your hands and – I’ll bet – counting your blessings that Calais is not just outside Cork or Dublin or Galway.

I am disgusted, ashamed, and appalled by your treatment of these children who need help, and need help now. Honestly, though, I’m not surprised because – let’s face it – your track record on looking after babies and children leaves a lot to be desired.  But I don’t have time to list your past failings, I think what’s most important today is to address your current one.

Ireland, I know your memory for certain things is a bit poor. (Except the potato famine and the 1916 Rising, of course.) So let me take this opportunity to remind you of a document you signed, and then ratified on September 28th, 1992. That’s a while ago I admit; 24 years, one month and four days ago now. Let me remind you what it was – a wee thing known as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. You signed this, Ireland. You signed this as a solemn pledge to be bound by the contents of the document. You signed this, agreeing that it was right and proper and correct that children should be treated in accordance with the Convention.

Let me jog your memory a bit, Ireland, and remind you of your obligations under this Convention. Article 38.4, if you want to have a look at it, says that countries who sign up to the Convention

‘shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.’

Article 39 is a commitment to

‘take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.’

Now, Ireland, can you honestly say that you are honouring your commitment to these children? And don’t start whining about ‘looking after our own’ first or any of that nonsense, because I don’t want to hear it. Not least because these children are our own. Every child is the responsibility of every adult. Really. If a child’s primary carers are unable to care for them, for whatever reason, then the rest of us need to step up and mind those babies and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve. And, yes, love them. Love them fiercely and unconditionally and without reservation.

Do it now, Ireland. These children can’t wait any longer. Do it now and argue about it afterwards. Don’t be the country that saves banks, and sacrifices children. Step up, Ireland. Grow a pair. Open your doors and your heart and welcome these children. Hold them close, nourish them, help them to heal as much as they can.

I said I didn’t have long this morning to fire off letters to you, Ireland, but these children have even less time than I do. They need you to act now.