by survivor Bob Balfour.
For those of you with a fondness for Star Wars, I hope you’ve enjoyed ‘The Force Awakens’ – or are looking forward to enjoying it. For those of you who are not so keen, I hope you’ll bear with me as I use ‘Star Wars’ references to explore some reflections on The Independent Inquiry into Childhood Sexual Abuse (IICSA) as a male, who is also a survivor activist.
When Respect Yourself asked me to write this blog, I was surprised and flattered, but what to write? I then heard the voice of Yoda calling to my inner child and the latest ‘Star Wars’ film seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Its narrative messages offers a good vehicle to reflect on the work of the IICSA. The ‘Force Awakened’ indeed as IICSA will soon begin its mammoth task in far more observable ways – as it moves on to direct and more transparent operational delivery during 2016.
Power is a scary thing for victims of sexual violence-abuse, we are both attracted and repelled by it. In many ways the institutions and people who manage power mirror a statement Han Solo makes ‘The Dark Side – the Jedi … they’re real’. Yes they are, often I’ve found when engaging with institutional power it can feel more like the Dark Side than the light – especially when you disclose you’re a survivor. The reaction feels like you’re being asking the question ‘who are you?’ and often it’s asked in a way, both directly and indirectly, that makes you feel like answering ‘I’m no-one’. Of course it’s not your feelings that are playing out, it’s the questioners – they just project their fear or lack of insight onto you. We are really good at absorbing such projections as our own. We learnt to respond to those who had power over us as children by internalising their dysfunctional feelings, especially those that frame us as damaged or weak. Of course the truth is actually the reverse, survivors aren’t damaged or weak – the truth is the ‘Force’ in a victim-survivor context means – strong they are.
That is powerfully evidenced in an excellent book Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Abuse by Linda T. Sanford. It offers insight into what many in institutions fail or refuse to acknowledge, ‘Hope is not lost’ within us. It has always been kept safe, ready to be found, when safe spaces are made available to us. It just needs diverse, well-informed and specialist safe places. Where skilled – emotionally intelligent – people make us feel safe enough to ‘let the Force in’. Hope really is a force that speeds recovery, even when all seems lost.
You’ll hear people say recovery is really possible and you might exclude yourself – telling yourself – but not for me. Well that’s the Dark Side speaking to you. With the right combination of safe space and people (often they are the same thing) then the light ‘recovery’ really is possible. The hard bit is to keep hope alive and not look for perfection in ourselves or others. That means trusting your instincts and being kind to yourself and others. A true Jedi test if ever there was one for a survivor. Especially in a world that shames and hides from acknowledging survivors amazing adaptive courage within a deep eon-old cultural ‘othering‘.
Recovery can feel like an endless set of storms that often surround individuals within the complex processes that forge our own unique versions of it. I can sense Yoda smiling. Having been around a long time – I’ve been able to ‘see the same eyes in different people – I see your eyes – I know your eyes’, sums up what no-one is telling the institutions.
What they are encountering, and have often silenced, is the amazing force of human resilience. Survivors are not problems – they are adaptations – survivor = humans at their most amazing. Most don’t go on to do harm, instead they strive to do good – against the odds – surrounded by the toxic power of the silence, Sanford powerfully explores that in her book. In my experience survivors are true Jedi’s, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
We’ve been calling to society and its institutions for help for a long time. Now 21st century factors like the internet have shattered the silence and we’re heading home. It could be argued societies silencers lost the war back in the 1980’s, when, Dr Judith Herman wrote her seminal book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. As Sanford pointed out in the 1990’s – society needs to prepare to welcome us home pro-actively and positively. That means ceasing seeing us as damaged beyond recovery – besides control and medication maintenance. The real dysfunction lies with those who other (bully) and silence. They enhance and deepen the emotional legacies left by the abusers. My advice to professionals, both survivor and non-survivor – try re-framing survivors as amazing humans then really listen and hear their stories of resilience. It will amaze you what happens if you work hard at that – just because they are different doesn’t mean damaged – just searching for the road home.
Survivors have seen enough of the endless ‘othering’. Such marginalisation has created a self-fulfilling cycle – one which enforces societies’ individual-organisational biases. They trap us all in a silence that allows abusers to hunt freely. That cultural silencing is really over, though the ‘Dark Side’ will not give it up easily. History will show it lost the high-ground a long time ago – regardless of any attempts to return to it.
As the IICSA gathers pace it’s hard to trust it, given its birth pains and legalistic-bureaucratic construction. There are many criticisms that can be made of it. For example, its defensive behaviours towards survivors and its use of old fashioned service user engagement models stand out during 2015. However, the ‘Force’ is rooted in balance, as Yoda would remind us. We need to understand what balance means in this moment of change, then pan out and look at the big picture, regardless of the pull of the Dark Side to focus on the negatives that have occurred to date. I’m sure mistakes will still happen at the IICSA – mistakes are unavoidable – as the depth of societies’ dysfunctional attitudes towards are unpacked and hopefully leant from – even within the inquiry itself.
In truth, the IICSA is building the equivalent of a cultural ‘Death Star’ to kill the silence. Its weapons are pointed, not at a defenceless planet, but at the Dark Side itself – academics call it paradigm shift. There are Jedi survivors within the IICSA – some self-aware and some not yet open to that awareness. Sadly there are those within it who will side with the Dark Side at every opportunity – some are survivors and I have encountered both and its been insightful.
However, I know which will dominate in the end, and it’s not the Dark Side. The growing defeat of denial is already making a difference to the big picture of global change in child protection. Events in Pakistan strangely evidencing both the challenges and hope in the ending of silence. The documentary Pakistan’s Hidden Shame clearly showing change is happening. New charities like Respect Yourself and emerging ones like I-RAP are gathering amazing support, that is now irreversible. Once the Dark Side could bury evidence and social action under mountains of social silencing – no more. (The island of Jersey clearly offers insights into how that process worked, as its inquiry will show, as one of the first to report in 2017).
We are also close to seeing the long-delayed Dame Janet Smith review into Sir Jimmy Savile’s relationship with the BBC (February/March 2016). Plus the review of a previous inquiry which looked at one dimension of my own childhood abuse experience, Waterhouse’s ‘Lost In Care‘ by Justice Macur. They will tell us much about the directions of travel in relation to truth and acknowledgement of the journeys survivors have been forced to take by the powerful in society.
The issue for survivors is how do we manage our often rebelliousness natures towards authority, during such a challenging time of change? A Jedi’s aim should be to do real and lasting good, not just for ourselves, but for those still lost in society’s shaming and fear of the truth, especially those experiencing abuse today – child and adult.
Society has shamed and blamed us for the crimes of others for far too long. It still tries to do so – especially if we stand up to its othering. Linda Sandford offers us the insight that many of us are directed by a kind of real force – one that calls to us to do good, not bad, as the myths of the silencers would have you believe. Carl Rogers said such power really is within us all. Shamans are often touched by the hand of childhood abuse and seen as the go-to healers in native societies. We’ve lost that wisdom and should rediscover it – especially as more and more survivors emerge from societies silencing. Those survivors who have become self-aware and are able to walk with other survivors safely. Well society is going to need lots of such self-aware walkers to support survivors during the years to come – if it is not to create further harm.
Many survivors are Care Assistants, Therapists, Police Officers, Civil Servants, Doctors, Psychologists, Nurses, Social-Foreign Aid Workers, Lawyers and Politicians.
That’s not the story society tells is it. If it did – it would mean having to stop victim-blaming and look at its biases and how they have supported the silence over the protection of children. The IICSA research into media/social/collective representations will offer insights into the stories people tell themselves to reinforce their ‘hate’ of the victims in some cases.
Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. – Foucault
Many survivors are not aware that there have been many Jedi survivors over the decades ‘the stories are true’. There were many voices before me, it’s easy to forget them, as few of them and few records before the internet – we shouldn’t forget them. What many learnt was what the wisest of the Jedi once warned:
Fear is the key to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. – Yoda
Our righteous anger is natural given the abuse and cultural silencing we’ve endured. The need for institutions like the IICSA to have control and power over events is normal and to be expected. It can be hard, especially if we don’t sit at the top table and don’t feel part of the decisions that will shape events. We could so easily show everyone the right way to change the whole world lol. The drive for some survivors to be a ‘Messiah’ is pretty normal – if ill-judged and doomed to failure – as we have seen play out during 2015. We need to find smart and safe ways to be involved that work for the majority.
I’ve found it all difficult personally on occasion and I’ve been challenging the silence for nearly two decades now. I believe its never been more important for survivors to continue such challenging. But increasingly, it’s important to take notice of Yoda and avoid the lure of the Dark Side (hate) and often its blind distress-fuelled raging. Many have travelled to that personally-constructed place of hope (recovery) for millennia. When you’re ready, if you choose, so can you. Then you can help shape a new safeguarded story for all children – as well as lighting the way for safe homecomings for all survivors. That’s going to be hard, as power really doesn’t know how to talk to survivors and there are no easy roads to that dialogue – learning to do that well – will test all stakeholders. It’s going to be a bumpy ride and be prepared to be blamed by ‘professionals’ for their mistakes in that process.
Strangely our abuse experiences gifted us insights on the how of achieving change positively. By taking the positive high ground we will ensure the spirit of Yoda is with us in forging that change:
Hope is not lost today – it is found.
The Force is truly calling to us, like never before in the history of the human race. We all have an opportunity to share in fulfilling an historic destiny for survivors. The ‘galaxy … far far way’ has always been the ending of the silence, for child and adult. Not with the tools of the abusers – hate, anger, deceit and self-serving ego.
Instead with insight, emotional intelligence – resilience, openness and the power of the light – hope and kindness.
The ‘Dark Side’ really has no defence against the righteous and their kindness.
May the ‘Force’ be within you.
About the author: Bob Balfour founded Survivors West Yorkshire in 2000. He is currently involved in projects to develop new service innovations both in West Yorkshire, the EU and internationally. He edits a sexual violence-abuse report series called ‘A View From Inside The Box‘ and can be contacted via www.survivorswestyorkshire.org.uk
For more information please visit menshealthforum.org.uk.
The views expressed within this blog are the author’s opinions and may not necessarily be endorsed by Respect Yourself.