Monday, 16 October 2017

Long tails

I’m a Methodist. In our denomination (I expect it’s the same in yours) any of us who hold a responsibility must undergo regular checks and training as part of our Safeguarding procedural requirements to keep children and vulnerable adults protected from harm. The many (unsurprising to those 0f us who’ve attended church a long time) revelations of abuse perpetrated within a church or other institutional context make it absolutely essential to have such Safeguarding measures in place.

But there are some aspects of it that cause me unease. 

One is that our emphasis is on detecting and dealing with perpetrators, and protecting vulnerable individuals from them, rather than on strengthening the individuals to make them less vulnerable to abuse. This is in keeping with the present trends of approach to the problem of rape culture (prevalent in most societies of the world). In the past, the approach to protecting vulnerable individuals against rape culture has been to encourage those individuals to cower out of sight of predators - to dress modestly lest their clothing invite attack, to stay at home at night lest being out late should invite attack, to lower the eyes and behave submissively lest boldness be misinterpreted as invitation, to avoid intoxicants lest drunkenness render one unable to detect attack and defend oneself against it. Etc. The current movement to re-focus attention on the perpetrator - teaching sexual aggressors that other people are not commodities for their opportunism under any circumstances, is long over-due.

But there is a third way that I think is under-emphasised. Not catching perpetrators, not teaching the vulnerable to be good in the hope of escaping predation - but helping the vulnerable to be both vocal and strong. We are not good at that.

To pay attention to our children’s reluctance to be in the presence of certain adults, to allow our children to refuse unwanted kisses and embraces from adults (aunts/uncles, grandparents, family friends etc), to encourage our children to believe they can be courteously assertive and protective of their personal dignity; this is still lacking. The approach of strong authorities leaping to their defence to detect and remove predators actually enhances weakness and vulnerability. Oh, what would I do without big strong you there to protect me?

Another aspect of Safeguarding, as it really is, that concerns me is the matter of untidy consequences left lying about all over the place to trip us up. Experiences with long tails.

What if it is the institution itself that has made an individual vulnerable and damaged his/her mental health? What if the individuals delivering the Safeguarding training bear a strong resemblance to the perpetrators and have many characteristics in common?

In every institution I’ve come across, from the family up and out, it is the whistle-blowers who are punished. “Don’t rock the boat,” as my mother used to say. When, as a teenage care assistant, I saw across the garden the priest run his hands up the leg of the attractive resident of the nursing home, and saw her discomfort and bewilderment, I knew better than to tell the nuns who ran the place. Actually, it didn't occur to me. In the 1970s, that’s what girls were for. I didn't know abuse was abuse, and I strongly suspect the same is true of the Jimmy Saviles and Rolf Harrises of this world. We are to a great extent products of our times and our society.

I know more than one excellent teacher who has been bullied into mental breakdown within the professional structure of public (and private) education, then made to sign a vow of silence in return for the handout standing between them and destitution.

Edward Snowden, David Kelly, Chelsea Manning – these and no doubt countless silenced individuals – bear witness to the reluctance within the political institution to take responsibility. Hushing things up is how institutions invariably deal with their own wrongdoing.

But, what do we do with these long tails? With the unacknowledged hurt, the still aching scars of those whom the system has wounded but who for one reason or another still wish to operate within it? Those who, for example, still feel the imperative to preach the Gospel and make common cause with the Christian faithful, but whose souls bear the thumbprint of institutional ineptitude or worse?

What do we do with the long tails? Is it always only about being tidy and authoritarian? Will we never progress to the place where the people of God organise into a circle not a pyramid, where the voices of the anawim (the little ones, the lowly, the poor and marginalised) are no longer silenced and disregarded? Will we never find a way to get past shame as the principle tool of control? Will we never realise that control is not a worthwhile aspiration in the first place? Healing is better.

And how do I deal with the long tails in my own life? I don’t know. I don’t know.


Fiona said...

What you have written in this post is also much on my own mind at the moment, and I agree with you that equipping the vulnerable with the strength and assertiveness to respond to manipulation and potential abuse is vital. I too have known more than one teacher who has been in the position you describe, and I despair to see people wrongly coerced into obedience and acquiescence by those who are ostensibly more powerful and authoritative than those from whom they demand and expect those things. I have no idea what the solution is, but integrity is always the better way.

Pen Wilcock said...

There's a saying, "She who sleeps on the floor will never fall out of bed", and I think that expresses well the link between simplicity and integrity. If we live humbly and low, integrity can be easier to afford. It's one of the reasons I feel uneasy about paid church ministry - there are times when, if your family's home and income are both at stake, telling the truth will prove so expensive that keeping quiet takes on a very attractive aspect. Authoritarian institutions (that's any kind of institution) are dangerous places to roost.

Elin Hagberg said...

I follow some of the advice I have been given by Save the Children. Talk about the body, teach names of body parts early, learn about how the body works including genitals. Talk about good and bad secrets with adults. Allow body integrity and to not have to hug people etc.) Learn that it is OK to say no to things and to do so firmly. My own additions to the material is to try to also make her the expert on her body, she knows if something is wrong and so on. She is 5 so of course it doesn't work all the time but much of it even with a young kid. I feel that while they do give good advice it sometimes sounds so negative with regards to the body, that it needs protection, people need to be told no with regards to it and so on. It is important but the body does have "yes-rights" too even for 5 year olds.

One perhaps controversial thing I have done is that I have told my daughter that she is allowed to hit boys who don't listen to her or the teachers. I explained that some children unfortunately only listen to their own language and that sometimes the only way someone learns not to hit is to be hit back. She is five now but I just cannot give her the message that boys are allowed to hit her for whatever reason they do it. We can understand why they do it and try to do something about it before it happens or with non-violent methods first but she is allowed to defend herself too.

My son will hear no such things, society will be much more accepting of any violent streaks in him. He is just one now and in a phase which involves biting and pinching. I try to stop the behavior before it happens or avoid situations which stimulate this but I remember that his sister was the same way the same age and it did grow away. They have not said anything at preschool either so I assume it is not a thing there right now at least. He mainly bites me at home so I think it is something he actually does as a frustration thing towards me who he is safe with rather than other people.

Pen Wilcock said...

My youngest child occasionally bit people when she was very small, and has grown up into one of the earth's gentlest and most understanding people. Young children can be so alarming!!

Bethany said...

On the heels of a season of brokenness and loss, I've come again to your novel, "The Clear Light of Day" for solace. My story has its particulars, but I know you understand the universals--the struggle to find room for vocation in an institution, the grief of walking away from the institution only to feel pressed out of the circle of connection with loved ones. With as much as I've resonated with your writing over the years, both here and in your published work, I'm not surprised that today's post struck home so soundly. Thank you for asking the questions. Thank you for ministering to me as I ask them in my life too.

Pen Wilcock said...

God bless you Bethany. May you have courage for every day, and good companions on your journey. x

Fiona said...

I was, coincidentally, in bed on the floor when I read your reply to my comment :) You are so right in what you say, and I suppose there's that potential for the need for compromise in any paid work to some extent, and the fear of being turfed out - whether that has financial, professional, personal or social consequences - can indeed feel as if it's too much to countenance. Liberation from those shackles can feel both freeing and terrifying, but the more I read your blog, the more convinced I am about the importance of simplicity and the widespread effect it can have on many areas of a person's life. Thank you, as ever, for your wise words.

Pen Wilcock said...



Nearly Martha said...

Hello Pen. Just wondered if you had seen this

BBC Four - Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery

It's really interesting - no commentary. Just lets it be. We are watching on catch up

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh yes. As I write this reply, I am sitting in my rocking chair with a homemade cookie just out of the oven, and a cup of nettle tea, waiting while Episode 3 (Belmont Abbey) downloads. I loved yesterday's from Pluscarden. Thanks for the heads-up! xx