The Myth of Personal Responsibility

Several months ago, I decided to take a break from social media, namely Facebook because that’s really the only form of social media I have ever interacted on. While there are valuable things about social media and it has connected me to people I love whom I would have never connected with otherwise, I could not deny that it was also greatly contributing to my anxiety for many reasons – mostly because of its performative qualities, the same lack of mirroring of my experiences and reality as is present in non-virtual society and similar social dynamics to what I have experienced all my life.

I recently came back to FB for the sole purpose of being able to put the word out to those who may be interested about this blog. I have no intention of promoting or marketing, but I did want to share my work with those who care about it and my growth and those who may find resonance here. But I’ll also admit to feeling disconnected from some of the good reading and writing that is often shared by some of the people I am connected to on FB and wanting to reconnect to that again. And in so doing, I wound up sharing a piece, found here, because it very much reflected how I feel about the sentencing of a man named Larry Nassar and the grandstanding of the judge, Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced him.

It turns out that in the current climate especially, posting that essay,  without any commentary of my own, was unwise. I got some pretty emotional reactions I hadn’t anticipated right off the bat and wasn’t in a position to engage with in that moment and so I wound up taking it down. But I wanted to come back to this and to write more about it than can be explained or contained in a FB post, because this is a complex issue. Far more complex that what is being spoken of in the public discourse. Far more complex than the vindicating idea of a woman judge handing down a “death sentence” to a sexual predator.

The essay I shared itself was about the concept of Transformative Justice and was written in response to another piece in which the sentence Larry Nasssar was given was declared to be “transformative justice” with no regard for the fact that Transformative Justice is actually a thing that is tirelessly being worked on, mainly by activists of color. (If you’re curious, you can find out more about that here but this quote from the article I shared on FB and linked above, explains rather succinctly what Transformative Justice is:

Transformative justice is not a flowery phrase for a court proceeding that delivers an outcome we like. It is a community process developed by anti-violence activists of color, in particular, who wanted to create responses to violence that do what criminal punishment systems fail to do: build support and more safety for the person harmed, figure out how the broader context was set up for this harm to happen, and how that context can be changed so that this harm is less likely to happen again.”

One of the contributing factors to my finally deciding to leave FB was the sudden rise of the #metoo movement and the all of the sudden seemingly omnipresence of discourse around sexual harassment and sexual assualt. You might be surprised to hear that, given my history as a victim of serious sexual abuse and violence. You might be surprised to hear me say that the #metoo movement is not for me. It is not representative of my experience and while I understand it’s value to some, it lacks complexity and a full awareness around how sexual violence happens and the that culture breeds it, as do most mainstream, anti-violence movements.

Like so much of our culture, when it comes to abusers and rapists, we behave as though those incidents happen in a vacuum. That they are exceptional and that those who commit them are also somehow exceptional in their sickness and their depravity and their ability to do such harm. We turn them into monsters in our mind, subhuman  We pretend as though perpetrators of violence and harm are so other, so extremely different from the good people we convince ourselves we are and we pin the responsibility for what they’ve done solely on them and deny the fact that it is our culture and society that forms both them AND their victims AND the culture and conditions under which such harm takes place.

And I suppose this is interesting to me and worth noting because we do the same with success. We behave as though any one person’s accomplishments and prosperity in this life are due solely to their individual efforts, actions and perhaps exceptionalism and we leave out the parts about privilege and circumstance and access and all of the many intertwining people and parts that make one person’s perceived success in our society possible. It’s all about personal responsibility.

Except that it isn’t. It is our culture that gives white men privilege, power and access with impunity and without accountability to go along with it. It is our culture that grants doctors one of the highest levels of unearned respect and authority within our society and regards them as beyond question or reproach. It is our culture that constantly disregards the voices of the most vulnerable in our society, women and children among them, when they dare to speak up about incidents of sexual violence. Let’s don’t even talk about the culture around competitive sports in this country and the lengths the powers that be within them will go to to cover up scandals of all sorts within their ranks.

We, as a society, are as responsible for the crimes of Larry Nassar as he is. And we are as responsible to him as we are to his victims. The FIRST time a victim of his spoke up, we were as responsible to him to intervene and stop him harming as we were to that victim.

It is the easy way out to give this man a prison sentence he will not survive and essentially throw him away, declare that at least the very broken, dehumanizing and violent criminal justice system works some of the time, declare that judge a hero and continue on with the status quo. We don’t have to do any work that way. The hard, hard work of coming together, of re-imagining, of burning down and rebuilding. Of making amends for those we’ve harmed in support of a system that unfairly and disproportionately destroys the lives of people of color, the poor and the mentally ill. And we certainly don’t have to take ownership of our part in creating the society and the circumstances around which this man’s crimes were committed and his victims were harmed in the first place.

It is not easy for me to sit here and write these words right now. And it’s taken years of work to arrive at this place of clarity about my belief that the dehumanization of anyone, even those we believe are the WORST kind of humans is a slippery slope and one that if we choose to go down, hurts us all. It has taken an honest examination of my life, of my own history as a victim of profound violence and sexual trauma and even my own sometimes violent behavior to understand this truth – that we are, all of us, connected. That we are also an interdependent species and that much of our suffering is because we refuse to see this and because we have created a hierarchical, colonizing and insular existence. We willfully refuse to see the connections between things and desperately need to separate ourselves from that which is deemed horrific and abject in the world around us, including our own actions and contributions to such things. 

Part of my lived experience is that I was, for all intents and purposes, given by my family to my mentally ill, sex addict father as his replacement (for my mother) partner. His obsession, both with me and with sex,  and the suffocating relationship I was forced into with him is something I have struggled for several years to language after having had my narrative usurped by the prevailing narratives and beliefs around sexual abuse and incest. And I will share further writing on that in the future, but for now, in this moment and in this space, I feel it’s relevant and important to say that it is impossible for me to lay the blame for the perversion of that relationship and what happened with him solely on his shoulders or even on the shoulders of the rest of my family.

There are so very many intertwining factors at play that contributed to me spending my childhood and adolescence as the victim of long term incest and the object of his obsession. Not the least of which were cultural and societal factors and the failure of my family, of my community, of systems that are supposedly in place for the sole purpose of protection and of an entire society to not only see me and protect me but to see him and protect him from himself. 

And it is the very same community, society, systems, etc. who fails to see me and my children now, because doing so would mean facing it’s complicity and its failures. It is the same society who tells me I am personally responsible for fixing and curing myself of the effects of what was done to me at it’s hands, despite my lack of connections, resources and access. It is the very same community that tells me I am disposable, too, right along with my abusers because I can’t just get over it, pull myself up by my bootstraps, be silent and compliant and conform.

I don’t know if you can see it yet or not, but his is exactly how cycles happen. This is how they continue. This system, this way of doing things does not work and it harms us all. How long will we continue to celebrate these hollow victories and ignore what’s right in front of our faces? It is costly to face such difficult and complicated truths, but it is costing us much more to pretend they don’t exist.


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