The Box of Dirt

Sometimes I think in pictures. That used to be most of how I thought. Now, I think a lot in words. But there are still things I understand through the pictures of them I make in my head.

Last night, I had a picture in my head of holding a box of dirt. A tea tin of dirt. It wasn’t a nice tin of dirt. It smelled bad. It was ooey and muddy and there could have been something dead in it.

I was very attached to that box of dirt. I did not want to give that box of dirt up. So attached, in fact, that I cried quite a lot at the thought of having to give up that box of dirt.

Image credit: Berkeley Garden Coach
Image credit: Berkeley Garden Coach

The problem with thinking in pictures is that their meaning is not always terribly clear. It’s a little like speaking a language only a part of you understands. There is a necessary layer of interpretation.

So I had to tell myself what this box of dirt might mean–and along with myself, I’ll tell you.

I think the box of dirt is everything terrible I know about the world and about other human beings. It is the depravity and cruelty I know is possible, that some people live in all the time, and some people will slip into under the right pressures. It is what I know about evil, and what I have felt in the presence of evil, what I remember evil feeling like, what it does, and how it thinks.

I have never wanted to give that up.

There are some practical reasons for that. Whenever we forget what is possible, we stop working to prevent it.

But it is also simply a part of me. It was my reality for more than a decade. It is what I know. Intimately.

And what I want is not to return to a place where I can be pure, and innocent, and without any knowledge of malice. What I want is to be loved and valued along with what I know and have experienced. I want to be accepted just as I am, with my teddy bear and my box of dirt.


Unbearable Truths

I’ve just finished reading a really fantastic book. It is called Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy. The author, Rebecca Coffey, recounts the stories of a number of people with trauma issues who are trying to get better, including their stories of trauma. Her main point is that the rest of us need to be better listeners. Trauma survivors need to tell others what happened to them in order to again feel part of humanity, but so many people fail to do so because of the distress that listening to these stories causes.

Hearing about traumatic experiences leads those who haven’t been traumatized to question their own understanding of the world as a relatively safe place mostly populated by relatively safe people.

In a word, trauma precipitated by the cruelty of other human beings forces us to confront the capacity for people to be cruel. In order to recover from trauma–and in order to hear the stories of trauma survivors–we need to confront the human capacity for evil.

Throughout her book, Coffey returns to the stories of survivors she introduces early on, probing them, expanding upon them, reconsidering them. Madeline Goodman (not her real name) was gang-raped as a teenager by 27 young men at a party and then left for dead. In trying to heal from her trauma, Madeline must both confront the evil of those 27 young men who perpetrated the rape as well as other victims who were released and failed to go for help.

In other words, she must confront not only evil but the indifference of others to it.

Those have been my struggles as well. I can, in fact, come to grips with the sadism and lack of empathy of my father and my mother’s dangerous emotional dysregulation. I can accept that there are others in the world like them. Just as no two cheetahs have the same pattern of spots, the souls of human beings are not the same either. And some people want to harm others–either because they enjoy it, or because harming others helps them cope with their own pain.

But it is difficult for me, just as it is for Madeline, to confront people who might have helped but didn’t. In some cases, given the limits of the courts and justice system at the time I was abused, people who cared and wished they could help were powerless to do so.

But later, when all I needed to do was to heal from what had happened, people continued to not help. I am thinking here specifically of the years I spent in psychotherapy–more or less just spinning my wheels. There was a marginal benefit of spending an hour a week with a therapist, but it did no more than take the edge off. I did not get substantially better until I gave up on the power of the outside world to help me and began to read.

It took me about 7 years to figure out what I needed to do to get better. After that, I was able to improve substantially quite rapidly. I do see a therapist now, but I no longer expect her to know how to help me. I go in for each session with a purpose and I consider ahead of time whether what I want from that session is something that we both have the tools to give me. Anything we can’t do together is homework. And I have a lot of homework.

There isn’t a lack of knowledge in the field about how to help people with intense and complex traumas, but the individuals I have looked to for help didn’t have it–and haven’t sought it out when it should have been clear that I was not being helped by what they knew.

It bothers me that I don’t trust anyone to be able to help me. It seems an unnecessarily negative and pessimistic view of the world. But people haven’t. I spent a decade waiting around hoping someone could help me. No one did.

What I am left with is wondering why. Because I am thinking here of people who did care–unlike the original perpetrators in my life, they did care. They didn’t want me to suffer. They wanted to help. But they didn’t know how and they didn’t try hard enough to find out that they learned.

I am left thinking they didn’t because it was easier not to. The pain of witnessing my continued suffering was easier to manage than the pain of confronting the gap in their knowledge. And I suspect the largest part of that pain was the pain of accepting the world as it is: a complex place, full of both good and evil, in which we are sometimes powerless.

And although I was in more distress, I had more tools to deal with it than they did. although they were not sufficient, but I lacked their choices. Not confronting my helplessness or the powerlessness of others to help left me in the grip of unbearable memories. Not accepting the human capacity for cruelty left me in a state of unremitting fear. It was easier for me to accept unbearable truths than to wrestle with them.

But for others, who haven’t directly experienced life in that way, there are different choices. And among them is the choice to simply close their eyes and refuse to see.

My Monsters Don’t Live under the Bed

31a4EV9y6gL._SL500_SS500_One night, my dad raped me with scissors. I was a toddler. I think this is what led to being removed from his care, but I’m not sure. It could have been after something else horrific.

I don’t bring that up to be shocking, but to get it out of the way.

At a year or two, I understood that what he had done was wrong. I didn’t know that the other forms of sexual abuse he had subjected me to were wrong. They were confusing, disgusting, and weird. But they didn’t hurt (at least not very much), and they didn’t make me bleed. I was damaged by them, but didn’t understand the nature of the damage.

As we begin to develop a conscience, and a sense of right and wrong, we begin to see patterns of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and to create lines and divisions in our mind about what is okay for people to do.

Making someone bleed was over the line for me. Especially if you don’t say you’re sorry after you do it.

And that’s when I knew I wasn’t living with a man, but a monster. I didn’t have a father, but a captor.

It is not something you ever un-know.

What is devastating about that memory for me is not just the horror of what happened, or the fear, or the pain, but the loss of it. I don’t remember what I felt for my father before that, but I can guess it was something more normal–that I felt some degree of attachment to him. But after that I did not feel anything for him but fear.

If you also grew up with horror, when did you know?


Care is very important to me. It separates the evil I was raised amidst from the rest of the world.

I have mentioned I feel at a baseline an intense degree of despair. It isn’t my only feeling, but it is something I continue to return to. My despair is about the world I live in, a world that includes such evil.

And it seems to me clear that there are two worlds, one distorted and evil, and another, ordinary world. But they brush against each other, they overlap. You cannot simply flee from one to another. Evil always exists in our everyday worlds.

What the despair turns on for me is the memory of evil when I looked it in the face, when I could smell its breath, when I touched it. The despair is closely linked to a horror at what lay there–a psychological wasteland.

Because fundamentally what I was dealing with were empty people, some of them sociopaths, and what they lacked was the ability to care or to feel deeply, or to connect to others. The horror I remember is a look at the inside of their heads.

It is a terrible place to be.

What was done to me was terrible. Being myself was terrible–as a suffering, feeling person, wounded by the betrayal of people I depended on. Being in their heads was worse.

I hate that I understand them or that, while others are puzzled when news of atrocity hits the headlines, I understand. I am not like them, but I know what it’s like to be them. I have felt their emptiness. It is awful, like a blinding snowstorm it is easy to become lost in, to freeze to death it is so cold in there

It is one thing I wish I could forget.

The “I”

There was a morning when it suddenly became apparent to me that I had multiple senses of subjectivity, that there what felt like whole people within me who had different perspectives from one another, different memories, different self-images.  I was sitting in the Grand-Hope Park watching birds picking things out of the grass when I was suddenly aware of a new person in me.

Now, I don’t know how you would classify this.  I don’t have full-blown Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), so I don’t know if you’d call Katie and Lana and Charlie and all of the others who have populated my head alters or ego states or what.  But I was aware from that moment that I lacked any sense of core self–there was no “real” me.  There was a self that coped fairly well with normal life, was practical and kept things together, and that you might say was “me” most of the time, but she was no more authentic or whole or “me” than anyone else.

I was composed of a series of fragments, and all of the parts felt insubstantial, paper-thin, and in some ways false.  All of them.  As I’ve addressed various kinds of trauma, they’ve faded.  They are no longer separate entities.  However, I don’t necessarily have any clear sense of myself as being a coherent person.  I still feel, at heart, paper-thin.

Being this way is confusing.  I don’t see myself in a consistent way, I don’t have coherent beliefs or even memories, and I don’t present myself to others in a unitary, whole way either.  That means the feedback I get from other people about who I am is contradictory and fragmented as well.  It’s hard to form an image of myself that actually makes sense from that.

So, I’ve just been waiting.  Waiting to come out of this liminal sense of being neither here nor there, not quite this or and not quite that, waiting to stop being Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there” personified.  I’ve had faith it will happen and maybe it has.

It always seems to come down to core beliefs that simply don’t hang together, and a lack of ability to understand the world or my place in it in a unified when.  When I can address the trauma enough to start dealing with my beliefs about life and myself, and after I’ve gotten them knit together again, then I’m also able to knit together myself.

And I think I’ve found some “I” peeping through today, a person who isn’t a fragment or paper-thin and feels like “me.”  It’s a big day.  I think maybe I’ll get some cake.

I’ll tell you what it is.  You’ve listened this long.  That’s your reward.

I feel evil.

I’ll tell you about that too.

In psychotherapy terms, we talk a lot about victims feeling ashamed and about victims blaming themselves.  I’ve written about that a few times on here.  In “Thinking Like the Enemy: Why Victims Blame Themselves,” I explained how the views perpetrators have of their victims bleeds into the victims’ views of themselves.  And in Uh-oh, a Dirty Diaper, and the Hell Inside, I pondered shame.

I can also tell you that, after a lot of work and psychotherapy, I like my personality reasonably well and I approve of my character and moral values.  It isn’t about that.

Evil is not the same thing as unworthy or undeserving.  Evil is its own entity.

I grew up so close to evil, to people who did evil things and had evil thoughts, that the evil feels a part of my own head.  That sounds bad.  That sounds like I have come to think my own evil thoughts and do the same evil things as I witnessed and was the victim of, and that’s not it at all.  Let me try again.

In the process of trying to understand other people, we form images of them.  We imagine them.  You could almost say we dream them.  And I’ve been so close to evil people, and the evil was so terrible, that those images of evil have been extremely profound and vivid.  So much so that I didn’t understand that they were someone else–like a dream so vivid you think it’s real.

Also, I’ve done evil things.  A lot of them.  Things that at least I thought were evil.  And I was too young to understand that evil isn’t about what you do, or even about what you think.  Evil is about what you choose to do, and none of what I did was my choice.  In most cases, I wasn’t old enough to even make a choice. Children sometimes just do what they’re told, even when they know its wrong.

And you might be tempted to protest that I know now.  I don’t have to go on thinking that.  But it’s just so nice to feel I know what I think, and to be a person whose thoughts have some coherence, and in some way know who I am, that I think I’ll just sit with this for a minute.  And then maybe see about cake.

Or chocolate.  Anyone have any chocolate?

Towards a Unified Theory of Evil

Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.
Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Washington Post staff.

August 6th, a lone gunman toting two semi-automatic weapons killed seven people and wounded a number of others at a crowded Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A few weeks before, a man opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 12 and wounded 58 others. The first instance is classified as a hate crime. The second appears to be entirely random—murder for the sake of it.

These are difficult and frightening times we live in.  Much of the Middle East has become destabilized, with civil war raging in Syria and smoldering in Egypt. Terrorist attacks and sectarian violence have become so commonplace in Afghanistan and Iraq it no longer seems to be news. Bombs planted in war-torn Chechnya, where violence has erupted sporadically since the start of the First Chechen War in 1994, reportedly killed four individuals on the same day as the gurudwara shooting. Meanwhile, the Indian Mujahideen struck in Pune on August 1st, when serial explosions rocked Jangli Maharaj Road. The world has become a terrifying place.

Or has it? Is this really anything new?

The aftermath of the 2010 German Bakery bombing in Pune.

What about the 500,000-100,000 murdered in Rwanda in 1994? The 200,000 killed in Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” between 1992 and 1995? The 2 million executed, starved, or worked to death in Cambodia starting in 1975? The .5 million hacked to death or burned alive during Partition? Or, for heaven’s sake, the 11 million who died during the Holocaust under Nazi rule? And going back to perhaps one of the first genocides of the 20th century, the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish beginning in 1915? What about them?

Targets change, weapons improve, but ordinary people are now and always have been quite capable of torture and mass murder. Evil, it seems, is part of the human heart.

In saying this, I am not arguing that we are all just sinners, hopelessly seduced by that devil. Evil, at least in my mind, is a complicated matter. It is worth making an effort to understand  These are my questions:

Why do some people carry out evil acts?

Why do some engage in more extreme acts of evil than others?

Why do these events occur more at some times than others?

How is it that some people—and not others—take a stand against evil, often at great personal risk to themselves?

This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.
This Travelodge in Oceanside was shut down in 2011 because of its use in sex trafficking by gang members.

Since I was about 13 years old, I have been deeply and abidingly interested in these questions. While an adolescent Stephen Hawking may have started searching for a unified theory of physics at that age, I started looking for a unified theory of evil. We need to understand the worlds we live in, and mine was for many years almost unrelentingly evil.

It might help to tell a little of my story. My dad molested me from the time I can remember. When I was two, he raped me with a pair of scissors. Like many sociopaths, he killed animals from time to time—usually in front of me—and at least once insisted I kill as well. His aim was not only to frighten, but to corrupt.

Before I was school-aged, my mother assaulted me multiple times—a few times by strangling, once with a pair of kitchen knives, once with a kitchen chair. I have incoherent memories of being dunked head-first in water—the tub or the toilet. I think she did that. But I don’t know.

To discipline me, one or both of them shut me up in a freezer until I lost consciousness. Alternatively, they chained me blindfolded to a wall in the garage, at times without any clothes on. In the garage, I was fed spoiled food, crawling with bugs, or no food at all and refused access to a toilet.

At the same time, my father was also my pimp. For 11 years, I serviced the perverted desires of pedophiles, mainly in a variety of cheap hotels, but also at home or in the homes of his friends. In addition, I performed sporadically in child pornography—both still and filmed.

I grew up in hell and the devil lived there.

Except these were people. People did these things, and in some cases, a lot of people. Unlike my mother, who acted impulsively and alone, my father was intelligent, organized, and apparently well-connected. For the most part, he abused me in the context of organizations that were systematically abusing other children and employed a variety of people—as actors and film crew, hotel managers, maintenance and janitorial workers, and human traffickers.

This was not simply the product of a single, unbalanced mind going over the edge, nor was it the result of a few people getting greedy and slipping into amoral behavior. There were too many of them—both consumers and producers—for these to be adequately understood as isolated incidents or as the work of the 1% of the population who simply lack conscience. Some of this is about ordinary people committing unbelievably, horrifyingly evil acts..

This blog is not so much the place where I am telling my story, as the place where I work to understand those stories. And also where I try to heal the scars.

Thanks for being here with me.