Ghost of Christmas Past

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During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

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Justice Court

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I arrived first.

I’d driven by this building at least one hundred times but had somehow never noticed it. It was tucked on a side road off the freeway entrance, behind a Ramada Inn. The freeway arced up and over, crossing the skyline above the court building with rushing cars and exhaust fumes. The air was biting. It was two days before Thanksgiving, but we hadn’t had our first snow yet, and I looked forward to the clean white powder falling on the city.

I considered waiting in the car, but I saw a line forming, and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to be. I got out and stood in the cold. It was 7:40 am, and the building didn’t open until 8.

My eyes scanned the crowd, the people I would be spending my morning with. I have a habit of giving people names in my brain, at least when I’m focused on them. There was a tall good-looking stoner looking guy, skinny and in baggy dress clothes; I called him Quinn. A haggard-looking white girl with a stained sweatshirt and ripped jeans sagged against a concrete pillar, awake far too early for her; I called her Tina. A large man with an ample stomach stood against the wall, wearing a baggy hoody over his curly grey hair; he kept nodding to everyone who walked up to the building, saying hello with enthusiasm in a Southern accent; I called him Beau. A gorgeous African woman with coal skin and waves of black and golden hair stood looking furious, her back turned to the man who was there with her; his skin was more like cocoa and he stood in a shirt and tie, his hands in his pockets as he looked at the ground; I called them Rose and Robert.

More people gathered and the doors finally opened. I held the door for a few folks, walked in, and somehow still ended up in the front of the line. The court windows opened, and a clerk took the citation number off of my traffic ticket, checked my name, and confirmed that I’d scheduled an appearance today. The ticket had been issued a month ago now. I signed a waiver stating that I was waiving an attorney and agreeing to represent myself, I handed the form to a pair of security guards, and I passed through a metal detector. I was immediately impressed by the multi-cultural representation in the staff here; the clerks, bailiff, guard, and court reporter were white, Hispanic, Polynesian, and Asian, both men and women, and of various ages.

As I waited for everyone to pass through security, I reviewed the facts of my case in my brain. On a Sunday evening, I’d received a ticket for ‘improper left turn’ from an aggressive officer, one who’d been belligerent and sarcastic. The ticket he’d given me had had incorrect information on it, including the wrong penalty and court information. I couldn’t argue that I’d committed the improper turn infraction, but I thought that perhaps the way in which the ticket had been given might nullify it somehow. I thought I could at least try it.

After a few minutes, with everyone in the room, we were instructed to watch a video made by a judge, a Hispanic woman, that explained our rights, including the option of pleading ‘no contest’, ‘not guilty’, or ‘guilty’ to each of the charges. We were instructed to ‘all rise’ and the judge entered in her black robes. Anna Anderson was her name (no relation). Her hair hung long on her shoulders, freshly washed and not yet dry. She carried a plastic cup with something juicy inside, took a sip from her long straw, and took a seat. The prosecutor occupied one table, a friendly man in his mid-20s, handsome, with a scruffy face and glasses. They both opened up their laptops and began to process through the cases.

I was called up first, and I pleaded ‘not guilty’. The judge invited me to speak with the prosecutor after everyone else had entered their pleas, and I agreed, so I took a seat again and prepared to wait an hour.

There were about 20 people in the room, of all shapes, races, ages, and sizes. Many I recognized from outside. Just across the row from me was a skinny Asian man, likely around 50, who was aggressively plucking nose-hairs with tweezers; he did it with such speed and efficiency that I was almost more impressed than I was grossed out. Beau sat next to him, coughing enthusiastically from time to time and apologizing to others in his Southern drawl each time he did. An old man with an oxygen tank walked in, muttering about the bail he’d posted for his ‘god-damn wife’ and about being in ‘fucking court at fucking 8 in the morning’.

My ‘improper left turn’ charge had been called up first. After that, I was shocked with how the cases escalated in severity. A woman with an endangerment to child charge from 2013 made an appearance, having been avoiding court for five years apparently. Other traffic violations, though many of them much more serious, such as major speeding infractions. Judge Anderson worked through the cases efficiently, with respect to each person, explaining things clearly, offering options for counsel, working out payment plans for various fines. Overall, I was pretty impressed.

Quinn got called up after a few minutes, his blonde hair slicked back against his scalp. I noticed his shoes were scuffed. The judge reviewed his charges, which included a DUI, and he pleaded not guilty, but then changed to guilty after realizing he didn’t qualify for court-appointed counsel. The judge explained that he made far too much money for that. He looked at the ground, clearly distressed, and stated that she could go ahead and sentence him because he wasn’t going to ‘pay no attorney’. The judge counseled him to think things through, asking him if he realized that if he pleaded guilty that he could go to jail immediately and for up to six months, right there from the courthouse. At her suggestion, he agreed to at least talk to the prosecutor before he made a decision, and resumed his seat in the back row of the courtroom. My heart went out to him. I had no idea what his life was like, but facing charges like that couldn’t be easy. Anyone could get a DUI in the wrong circumstances.

Rose was called up next. She had a thick accent, but her English was impeccable. The judge explained that she was facing charges of domestic violence in the presence of a minor, and Rose pleaded not guilty, then asked for a court-appointed attorney. Robert, Rose’s boyfriend?/husband? spoke up and stated that he was financially supporting Rose and her child since she had recently lost a job, and Rose shot him a look that let me know that he had been the victim of the violence. Rose muttered something about this being ‘such a joke’ under her breath, and the judge invited her to fill out the application for court-appointed counsel. Rose stormed past Robert on her way out to the lobby.

Tina couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She looked down, muttered lowly into the microphone as she spoke to the judge about multiple traffic infractions. She pleaded guilty, apologized for having missed court before, agreed to pay the fine in full, didn’t want to come back again, and rushed out after hearing that her license could be reinstated. The was a beat of silence, during which I could only hear the intakes of the oxygen machine and the clink of the Tweezers.

Beau went last. As he name was called (his real name wasn’t Beau), he strolled up to the microphone, speaking before he got there. “Well, your honor,” he said in his drawl, “let me just say thank you for all your hard work and service, and can I just say, ‘Go Utes!'” The judge wasn’t amused. She reviewed his assault charges and Beau pleaded not guilty, laughing as he spoke. He asked for a public defender, explaining, “I’m a veteran, and I’m mentally ill! I get disability. $900 per month, and $450 goes to my new truck and the rest goes to my rent and I use public help for the rest, so I’ll need your help. Go Utes!” He was given the proper forms to fill out and he thanked the judge with one final “Go Utes!” before walking away.

All twenty plus cases were processed by the time an hour was up. Then the prosecutor pulled me into a side room to discuss my case. He was shockingly charming, laughing about how I surely wanted to be spending my day somewhere else. He listened patiently as I expressed my concerns, then he listed my options, careful not to give me advice. I quickly realized fighting the charge wasn’t worth it, though I did have some valid concerns. I ended up pleading no contest, getting quickly processed by the judge, and then paying a $120 fine. I’d already filed a professional complaint against the aggressive officer. The rest would be fine as it was.

I left the building with an overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’. A traffic ticket was ultimately inconsequential. But, upon reflection, being there was kind of a cool feeling, sitting next to people from all walks of life, people whose paths I likely wouldn’t cross even though we lived in the same city. Sitting there, we were all equal. The intricacies of the court existed. Those who worked there interacted with each other daily, with a new crowd of people crossing their paths every day. Different judges, different prosecutors, same security guards, bailiffs, and clerks.

“Hey, Janet, hope your dog is feeling better. Guess we better unlock the doors, we got forty cases on the docket this morning.”

“Hey, Georgette, did you see we have four battery charges, three assaults, and two domestic violence cases today? Better not display your last name! You have terrible taste in men.”

“Hey, Charlie, remember when that drunk guy came in last week? I’ve been drinking more lately since my son went to college. I better not ever get a DUI!”

“Hey, Joe, wanna grab a drink after work? Oh, hang on, that crying lady is walking back through.”

Numbers on a docket. Each person had some interaction with the police that led them here. Each would plead innocent, no contest, or guilty. Each would pay a fine, or hire an attorney. Each could face consequences with their jobs and families, but each represented a series of charges and penalties with the court. Did they show up? Check. Did they plead? Check. Did they accept the consequences? Check. Next! Fill up your coffee and finish your doughnut, the next forty people are headed in.

Ninety minutes in the court. My ticket was paid, my charge was over. I couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for the rest.

A Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille

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The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose. The signs hanging on the busy walls (those filled with animal heads, kitsch, and signatures in black marker) described how the Red Dog bar in Juneau had been built in 1912, to entertain the gold rushers here. I pictured the classic Wild West setup, with girls named Kitty in scandalous clothing, men in hats playing loud poker at the tables, and swinging saloon doors. They’d done a beautiful job making this space feel just like that. Crowded walls, greasy food, cheap beer, and a man who looked like an old-timey prospector playing the guitar on the small stage up front.

He sang a melancholy Johnny Cash song while I ordered a rum and Coke, casually observing the other patrons. The employees were dressed in period costumes. I pictured them here every day, making drinks, fries, and oyster shots for the thousands of cruise passengers who docked in the city in for mere hours. The tourists hit this gem of a town like a plague of locusts, buzzing in and out, consuming everything, until they flew back to their buffets, drinks, and pools aboard the ship. Two or three ships every day, clogging the streets, then leaving the place quiet in the evenings, for just the locals and the more long-term tourists, the ones more like me.

Four white couples sat all around me, and at least three of them were shit-faced drunk. At 8 pm on a Sunday night. The other couple, they never looked up from their phones, and I never saw them sip their beers. I casually listened to the stutters of conversation I could hear around me, but I tuned them out and instead focused on the singer. His leathered skin, his twisting white mustache, the oak barrel country twang in his voice, it was all just delicious. I sipped my drink as he sang.

“This next song is a favorite of mine,” the singer announced. “It’s by my old friend, Kenny Rogers. He told me about this woman, the one named Lucille, personally. He wrote a song about her! Sing along with the chorus if you know it.” He clearly didn’t actually know Kenny Rogers, but it somehow added to the authenticity of the experience.

And in his beautiful register, he began “Lucille.” This song automatically conjured up a bitter and happy nostalgia within me. How many times had I heard this classic country song in my teenage years, when my stepfather was in one of his good moods, filling the house with joy, love, and consistency. But those periods always followed an incident of extreme violence. Someone struck with an open hand, or grounded for weeks for with no cause, or called names until they cried, and then on came the happy music. Into the room came “Lucille.” Had I even heard this song in the two decades of my life since my stepfather had been gone? It felt strange to hear it now.

He sang, using Rogers’ words, of the bar in Toledo where a lonely and overwhelmed Lucille walked in and sat on a nearby stool, pounding back a few drinks. You don’t learn until later in the song that Lucille is trapped in a bad marriage with four hungry children and an overworked farmer for a husband. But in the second line of the song, you learn how she takes off her wedding ring, and she shortly announces that she’s looking for a good time.

But the singer changed things, trying to get a laugh. He sang, “On a barstool, she took off her clothes.” He stopped playing, then said, “Oh, did I say clothes? I of course meant ring!” He cackled, then kept laughing as the drunk crowd just talked over his music. The words tell of the singer moving down next to Lucille, seeing an opportunity with a willing woman, but immediately the singer saw the woman’s husband enter, a mountain of a man with calloused hands. The first chorus echoed that man’s words to his wife, and I sang along loudly.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field. I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times, but this time the hurtin’ won’t heal. You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.'”

After the chorus, the singer stopped, explaining that that wasn’t the way it really happened. In the real story, as Rogers had told it to him, he said, Lucille’s husband had come in and let Lucille just how he felt. He’d walked in yelling, telling Lucille exactly what she was.

“The real chorus goes like this. It’s almost the same, but just sing it like this,” he said. “‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.‘ Then you just call out what her husband called her in that bar. ‘You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Those are the actual words used in the real story! See, just try it with me. ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!’ Hey, you did great! Doesn’t that feel good! Let’s try the chorus all together now! ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut! ‘With four hungry children, and a crop in the field!'” 

I was astounded. The audience all around me screamed the words out enthusiastically, eager to slut-shame Lucille as much as possible, or perhaps just thrilled to get to shout those words in public. The girl in front of me, the whitest white girl of all, shouted the words extra loud and with enthusiasm, her middle fingers raised up for effect. “You bitch! You whore! You slut!” she repeated, before taking a swig of her beer, drunk laughing, then leaning over to her husband and whispering a secret. “That’s hilarious, that slut!”

The song went on, into the third voice. The singer ordered whiskey and took Lucille back to his hotel room, but was unable to go through with it, because he couldn’t stop thinking about what the husband said. Cue the second chorus, and the audience happily called Lucille a whore and a bitch one more time.

The singer took his hand off the guitar and leaned into the microphone. “Now, on the radio, that was the end of the song. Kenny Rogers couldn’t get away with publishing the fourth verse, the censors wouldn’t allow it. But he told it to me. Ladies and gentlemen, right here, in the Red Dog, you can hear the real ending of the classic song, Lucille, are you ready?” The crowd cheered. I felt a little nervous. This man was not treating Lucille well, and I just knew it was about to get worse.

In the secret fourth verse, he sang about how Lucille had left the hotel room, and so the singer had returned to the bar, where he had met two sisters. He took both sisters back to his hotel room, took of their clothes, and was about to fool around with both of them, when Lucille came back into the hotel room, still wanting to be with him, apparently. And to get her to go away, now that he had better prospects, the singer had repeated the husband’s words in a third chorus.

“‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.’ You bitch! You whore! You slut!'”

I walked out of Red Dog, my mind spinning with the whole experience. I felt disgusted. I felt strangely protective of Lucille, though she was fictional. She had once represented happy times in my home. I didn’t like how the crowd had slut-shamed her, blaming her for seeking an escape from her tortured marriage. I didn’t like the man in the song and how he’d shamed Lucille while he himself was trying to sleep with two sisters. I knew it was all supposed to be a joke, that people there had been laughing, but I kept hearing the crowd chanting bitch, slut, and whore, and I kept seeing that woman with her raised middle fingers. They shamed Lucille for sexualized behavior while screaming with enthusiasm for Kenny Rogers and his supposed debauchery. It was gross. Lucille didn’t deserve that, I decided. And then I remembered the venue, the atmosphere of the people there.

The floor was thick with sawdust, on purpose.

“Give him a chance!”

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Since the historic and painful election of Donald Trump, I keep hearing from leaders who disavowed him, everyone from Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney to Barack Obama himself, that we should give him a chance. The thing is, I don’t know if I can. I certainly don’t want to. It’s a survival skill to deny people who have shown they are willing to hurt me the opportunity to hurt me again.

I haven’t had great experiences with men in my life. My father was emotionally distant for years before he left the house, and he had little to do with me after that. And my stepfather was violent, with words and fists, just as he had been in two marriages prior to the one toward my mother. And I grew up in a church led by white men that told me being gay was a sin.

It was early on when I became aware of the patriarchal society that we live in, where we see entire systems that favor men, give them power, and then make excuses for their bad behavior and weakness. Religious institutions that give solely men the ability to act in God’s name, a country whose government only recognized white men as voting bodies and citizens for the first few hundred years of rule and have made it extremely difficult for anyone else who wants a place at the table, and employment systems that favor men in salary and position, after they grew up in schools that gave men better access to educational opportunities and resources. Men receive favoritism on almost every front of their lives, and white straight Christian men get the most handed to them.

Look at that basic system and history and tie that in to irrefutable statistics. Men almost universally are the perpetrators of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault and molestation (towards both men and women), and violent crimes, including murder and gun crimes. Men have driven our world to war. Men have enslaved races. Men cast laws that vilify and punish those that aren’t like them. And men toss aside anyone who tries to refute or reduce their power or ideals, generally in the name of a male god. (And when I say “almost universally”, I’m referencing statistics that are in excess of 95 per cent out of 100).

Not all men fall into these categories by any means. I’m a man who is a loving father of two sons. I know many men who are honorable, kind, and strong. But I have been hurt by many men, and not by any women. I learned long ago to keep clear boundaries around someone who has shown they are willing to hurt me. I will not, will never make excuses for someone who uses fists and violent words to hurt me. I will not give them another chance to do so. Forgive, never forget.

And so, I’m angry about being told to “give him a chance.” I accept the world that I live in is one that favors men, that says “boys will be boys” when a man commits a rape, and then blames the girl for the rape with “she should have said no more loudly” or “she shouldn’t have been drinking”; a society that says batterers were merely “pushed too hard” while blaming the woman for staying; religions that say that men have God-given potentials to lead others to salvation while women are merely meant to be wives and mothers and to serve the men they belong to.

I’m angry about a campaign that excused Donald Trump at every turn while vilifying Hillary Clinton; that shrugged off his sexual assault talk as “locker room talk” or “a long time ago” while lambasting her for calling some Americans deplorable; that excuses his failure to show tax returns and overlooks several pending criminal charges against him while constantly calling her a criminal for perceived offenses for which she is solely responsible. And I’m furious that we set up a patriarchal set of rules for Hillary to play by, saying this was the only way for a woman to become president, and then we tore her apart and blamed her for operating within the system that was set up.

I can’t keep making excuses for Trump. I won’t sympathize with him for being under pressure, I won’t explain away his terrible comments and statements about entire populations of people, I won’t shrug off his history of misogyny. He can put on a suit and speak to the people, but I will hear him describing walking in on teenage girls of beauty pageants so he can see them change because no one would stop him. I can watch him shake hands with foreign leaders, but I will remember him lauding Putin as a leader while threatening to register and ban an entire religion. I can see him shrug that gay people and black people and women are okay and they don’t bother him, but I will recall his endorsements by white supremacists, his governmental appointments of people who demonstrate hate toward those not like them, and the dozen women who have accused him of sexual assault.

Conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, it is long past time we let women have an equal, if not majority, position in leading our country, in any and all elected positions. There has been a lot of horrible and horrific things that have happened in our world’s history, and nearly all of it can be directly tied to a system that prefers men and places them in charge. We do not need men to merely honor and respect women, we need men to acknowledge and recognize that there are some things that women are better at, and on that list is leading.

I can only imagine how ugly things are about to get in a country that is willing to give men like Donald Trump a chance. I fear we are in for Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover levels of pain and shame in the few years ahead. And when someone strikes my cheek, I refuse to turn it so he can strike the other.

 

 

 

Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

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Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

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Men with Two Faces

It takes a certain kind of man to lead two lives. And we all know at least a few of them.

Some men have the ability to lead one life in private and a very different life in public. Sure, women can do it too, but this is far and above a male problem.

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Take Don Draper, from the show Mad Men. In the first episode of the series, we meet a very successful advertising executive with a high rise office and a gorgeous girlfriend that he meets for an afternoon tryst. And then, at the end of the episode, Don goes home to his beautiful and faithful wife and children at their house in the suburbs. Don has the uncanny ability to carry on a long-term relationship with two separate women. It’s as if he enters the office, and sets his family on the shelf; then he returns home to pay with the kids and cuddle his wife while his work life stays in the city. And we learn, later on, that when he doesn’t have someone on the side, he actively seeks someone; it’s an obsession, a compulsion.

Those of us who aren’t Don Draper might be fascinated, confused, or outraged by this, but most of us simply don’t understand how this could happen, and how it could be sustained. What makes a man capable of both having a family and an entire other life, cheating on them on the side?

My stepfather, Kent, was a different kind of man with two sides. In public, he was a stalwart Mormon family man with a big heart, showing up at church every week with a firm handshake, a hearty laugh, and a genuine smile. Yet behind the closed doors of our home, he had a violent and explosive temper, and would use violence and words to manipulate and control the members of the household.

Perhaps the most extreme example I can think of is Dennis Rader. I read his biography a few years ago. A God-fearing, church-going family man with a wife and children and a full-time job, baseball games and barbecues and family outings. Yet he had a secret, decades-long life in which he would violently murder others as the BTK Killer, taunting police with clues along the way. When he was arrested, his family had absolutely no idea about his double life.

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I often have clients come in to my office (I’m a therapist) who have just learned about the double life of a spouse. A man married for ten years has learned his husband has been cheating on him the entire time. A woman with five children finds her husband arrested for sexual molestation of a young teenage girl down the street. A 60 year old woman finds a note in her husband’s pocket, calls the number, and learns about a five-year long affair. A young wife discovers a bank account her husband never told her about, and learns about his addiction to gambling funds on the stock market.

The first emotion is shock. Then a deep sense of betrayal. How could he do this to me? Then there is a deep pain, a combination of rage and hurt and grief and shame. How could I not have known? Why did he hurt me? Maybe I’m not meant to fall in love. I did everything for him and he betrayed me!

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Many times, the client has confronted their spouse before they come in. And it often looks something like this.

Maggie: Mark, I know about Jenny. I saw her text messages.

Mark: What? I told you not to go through my phone! I warned you!

Maggie: Don’t yell at me. I’m so angry with you. You cheated on me. 

Mark: Oh please, we were just texting. We didn’t actually do anything. 

Maggie: Mark, I know you’ve been sleeping together. I saw the content of the messages. 

Mark: I don’t know what you think you read, but you’re wrong. It’s not a big deal. 

Maggie: If it wasn’t a big deal, why didn’t you tell me about her?

Mark: Because I knew you would act like this!

Maggie: I’ve packed my bag. I’m going to my parents. 

Mark: What! Oh my god, you’re over-reacting! 

Maggie: Goodbye, Mark.

Mark: Wait! Don’t go! Okay, okay, I’m sorry, okay? Is that what you want?

Maggie: I want the truth.

Mark: Okay, okay, I slept with her. Once. But then it was over. It didn’t mean anything. Then I called it off. 

Maggie: You texted her this morning. She said you were with her last night. 

Mark: She’s lying! Nothing happened!

Maggie: Goodbye, Mark. 

Mark: Fine, go! I make one mistake! Nothing I ever do is ever good enough for you!

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There is no easy way to measure out the long-term effects of a betrayal. When you trust someone that much and build a life with them, a wide wound opens up, a rift within, when you learn about this secret life divided.

And there is no easy way to understand how someone can live these lives. It happens far too often. Small secrets and lies lead to larger and larger ones. People divide themselves into pieces and, with practice, become very good at it. It requires a certain sense of narcissism, a heavy sense of entitlement, an ability to take advantage of a person deeply loved and trusted mixed with an ability to think more is owed or deserved outside of the relationship.

For any who have been betrayed, you can live a happy and healthy life with love and passion and success. You have to allow your wounds time to heal, you have to learn to put your needs up to the surface, to prioritize and to take care of your self and obligations. It’s a long process, and you’ll come out the other side stronger as the wounds heal.

And for any who have done the betraying, it is likely you’ll hurt another person without help. The compulsion to have your cake and eat it too, or to have the two separate lives you want… it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t something you can keep doing over time without consistently hurting the ones you love. You have to learn to be accountable and empathetic, to sacrifice your needs and compulsions in order to have the stable and happy family life you want and crave. And you have to want to stop hurting the people you care about.

No man can easily wear two faces. Not for long. And not without hurting everyone he loves.

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Boys will be boys

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“Boys will be boys,” parents say, to excuse skinned knees, black eyes, broken windows, and bad smells.

“Boys will be boys,” school officials say, to explain absences, aggressive behavior, and drug and alcohol use.

“Boys will be boys,” wives say, to quiet doubts about late evenings at work, lipstick smudges, raised voices, and household budgets.

“Boys will be boys,” the courts say, to dismiss drug offenses, sexual assaults, and domestic violence.

And in this boy-loving culture, where boys fill the seats of court stands, elected offices, church leadership positions, and chief executive officers, the boys are excused, the bad behavior overlooked and shrugged off. Because, after all, boys couldn’t possibly help their very nature. They are driven toward aggression, sex, and conquest, and it simply can’t be avoided. In fact, boys who aren’t driven toward those things are aberrant and less valuable.

And thus, the politicians go to war over oil and debt and revenge, and millions are killed, while human atrocities are ignored, rape and famine seen as the natural consequences of male behavior. And the fathers smile at their sons, pat them on the back, tell them “I’m so proud of you.”

And this was the world in which Stu Ungar was raised in. Stu, often called “the Kid” affectionately, lived from 1953 to 1998. Stu’s father, Ido, had a wife and a child when he started his bookie business, paying off all those he needed to to keep the cops and the mafia off his back. Ido soon left his wife for one of his mistresses, Fay, a beautiful socialite who liked a lot of attention. But that’s okay for Ido, because boys will be boys.

Fay had two children, and the oldest, Stuey, had an aptitude early on for cards, realizing that a mix of skill in the game and a capability of reading people lead to victory every time. Using contacts from his father’s business, Stuey played a lot of cards and won a lot of money, shirking school to do so, because boys will be boys.

After Ido died, Fay sunk into drugs and depression, and Stuey found a new mentor in Victor Romano, a made mafia man, one who had memorized the entire dictionary during his lengthy prison sentence. Romano got Stuey involved in mafia-led card games of Pinochle, Poker, and Gin Rummy, giving him protection and women and money for as long as he kept winning for them, because boys will be boys.

And as Stuey watched men around him die and disappear in mafia hits, he racked up debts, more than he could pay off, so he ran to Las Vegas to try and make more money. Without a drivers license or a Social Security card, and having never worked for a wage, Stuey drifted from game to game, winning vast sums then losing every dollar within hours, over and over and over, for years, because boys will be boys.

And then Stuey started cheating on his wife, leaving her home with his daughter and stepson and using drugs, disappearing for weeks at a time. But he was great at poker and began winning world championships, and he was celebrated, lauded, and honored, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey’s stepson committed suicide by hanging himself at a construction site, Stuey grieved by gambling and snorting cocaine, until his nasal cavity finally collapsed in on itself, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey was found dead at 45, in a hotel room, from a drug overdose, everyone shrugged at the sadness, because boys will be boys.