Spoiler alert 1: This post has no pictures
Spoiler alert 2: I have been debating whether today is a good day to write this post which is a little close to home at present (my daughter is extricating herself from an emotionally abusive husband) and on what would have been my husband’s birthday so I am a bit off balance. Will I make it too sharp or wrap it up so carefully it is impenetrable? If I get it wrong please forgive me but let me know – I need to learn! The issue has been on my mind and writing will help me think.
Like all of you I was shocked and upset by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman. I have felt your bewilderment and outrage in the posts you have written and the comments on them. Like you I deplore the discrimination and injustices, the inequalities and deprivations that are endemic in our societies and the cultural normalising and acceptance of them – the shrug of the shoulders and the ‘that’s life’ response. What I am not is surprised.
Many moons ago, in what feels like a different life on a different planet, I worked as a trainer for Relate, the UK charity which provides couple therapy. Inevitably part of that was helping trainee counsellors work with abusive relationships. Based on the work of Karpman (google it if you want the theory) we looked at the three roles which are there in all the fairy stories and myths we grew up with.
The wicked stepmother, evil fairy, bad witch, possessive husband, (the ABUSER who can be either gender) drives away, puts to sleep, incarcerates in a tower, the hapless princess, daughter, seal who has shed her skin (the VICTIM – almost always female) until the handsome prince, fairy godmother, brave daughter willing to undergo trials, comes along (the RESCUER) and they all live happily ever after. These stories resonate with us from an early age because they are based on inequalities of power and as small children we know all about feelings of powerlessness, however loving and secure our childhoods are, because as little people we are vulnerable and at the mercy of our caregivers.
The less happy side of the theory is the corollary – we are all capable of playing all three roles. Before you click off this post let me emphasise that I am not saying you are capable of murder! I don’t know about you but I have certainly been fleetingly tempted but I have resisted that temptation as, I assume, have you. I am much more likely to use my power to rescue. That is why I was drawn to counselling as I later came to realise. I am a compulsive caretaker!
But the roles are not stable and if we get caught in the ‘dance’, for which we all know the steps, we move seamlessly between the roles. The abuser sees the prince as an interfering busybody who doesn’t understand the situation and, in an abuse of might, is carrying off his property. The knight in shining armour does nothing in the stories to raise the hapless princess’s self esteem or sense of her own power unless it is that of her beauty and golden hair (not reliable long term sources of power as us crones know only too well!) If his ‘rescuing’ fails and ‘happy ever after’ doesn’t materialise or his armour proves creaky and tarnished he can soon be perceived by the victim as just another abuser. It is the fate of peacekeeping forces the world over – sent in to rescue the underdog they are turned on by both sides in the conflict and feel, with some justification, victimised by everybody.
We all feel vulnerable at times because we all are vulnerable in some ways. I am a strong, resilient, self reliant, older, white woman. But, during this pandemic and lockdown especially, I have been very grateful for the network of support, both practical and emotional I have been able to draw on. If I was young, black or from an ethnic minority, disadvantaged, gay, homeless, jobless, under parented, I would find my ‘tribe’ even more crucial. I might feel much better if we were armed and organised. And because the victim is stereotypically female in our patriarchal society it is very hard for men to own their vulnerability and even more so to admit that they are unable, or choose not to, fight back and protect themselves. To be a non-aggressive, vulnerable male requires vast maturity and huge courage. Policeman and women can feel vulnerable too – they are peacekeepers after all – between warring parts of society.
So I can use theory to understand how these things happen out there, safely away from me. Me? Abusive? Never! Well not often. But the real breakthrough for me came when I acknowledged that I too can abuse. Not by murder or any other ‘arrestable offence’ but much more subtly. I am blessed with intelligence, a sharp wit and a way with words. I can use those words as weapons to cut people to the quick. Just ask anyone who has caught the rough edge of my tongue. I can use my intelligence to out-argue, run rings round, others in a way that diminishes their self-esteem. I can do those things unwittingly or with malice aforethought (usually aforethought in the depths of a sleepless night when I am full of fury). I would like to say that only the unwitting passes my guard but to my shame that would be a lie. Sometimes I ‘open gob without engaging brain’ and sometimes I deliberately speak to wound and even (thankfully only occasionally) enjoy it.
Which does not excuse, could never excuse, killing someone, institutionalised racism or any of the other evils apparent in the George Floyd murder. I too have signed a petition and I salute those of you who have protested peacefully. I offer this post because to solve a problem we must, I think, first understand it. We start from a poisonous legacy of colonialism and slavery overlaid by (growing) inequalities and twisted by the failure of our political and economic system to make good on its promises. The policeman who killed George Floyd and the colleagues who looked on without interfering must face justice. Equally they must not be scapegoats for the system which created them and allowed them to operate freely and with an expectation of impunity.
I wish I had answers. I wish I had the power to change the world. I wish that if I had that power I could be sure I would always use it wisely, fairly and for the good of all.
What I can do is call out injustice wherever I see it. I can use my vote. I can spread kindness, empathy and compassion as freely and widely as I can.
But there is one more thing. This event caused the furore it has because a witness filmed it, and the press and social media published it. Whatever the faults of facebook et.al. they allow ordinary people to publish things the establishment would rather remained hidden. A free and fearless press, from those young reporters who sit through endless boring council meetings sniffing out nepotism, shady deals, collusions and wastes of money, to the old warhorses who interview politicians on primetime TV, is the best protection for our democracy. So when I can go shopping I will buy a local and a national paper even if their main use will be to light the fire and I will continue to pay my TV licence fee, even though I have no TV, in order to feel justified in accessing public radio.
Thank you for reading this long and not very cheerful post. Please join the conversation so we can all find a way forward – I am looking forward to seeing any comments.