Oprah Winfrey has done it again. Last week's show with Mo'nique's brother, or perhaps I should say with her family of origin, has continued to linger in my thoughts. As astutely as any family therapist I know (though none would do this on TV), she made space for Mo'nique's brother, their parents and younger brother, and asked questions, listened, empathized, confronted, challenged, affirmed, and tried to teach -- and she did all of this respectfully, while also remaining loyal to her hard-earned knowledge on the subject, to Mo'nique, and to the millions of incest survivors in her TV audience.
I'm one of them. My memoir, When the Piano Stops, the story of my healing, details specific assaults on my mind, body, and spirit, including many that are similar to Precious' life. I saw the movie Precious with my husband when it first came out, and loved it, so much so that when it was over I said aloud: "Thank you, everyone who was involved in making this film. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" I cried during Precious. This movie touched deep wounds in my heart, and helped me to get more of the poison out, and I was certain that its power would penetrate many others in the same way.
Along comes Gerald Imes, Mo'nique's brother, who began molesting her when she was seven. He describes how grieved he is about hurting her and the family. He wants to apologize to Mo'nique, but she wants no part of this TV event except to give Oprah her blessing. Wise choice. He describes his downhill slide into drinking, drugs, larceny, assaults, and, with Oprah nudging him along, a jail term for sexual assault of another child. He appears to be clean and sober, and has obviously done a lot of work on himself. But then he says that the reason he molested was because he had been molested also. I'm not a fan of blaming others for one's own behavior, and I don't buy into a linear cause/effect rationale like his because I think there are multiple interrelated dynamics at play: personality structure, family relationships, alcohol and drug abuse, community, to name a few. In this case, I'm particularly curious about what was going on in the family before and during the years in which he molested Mo'nique. But I'm also aware of relevant statistics that could influence his understanding of himself: victims of sexual assault are more likely to suffer from PTSD, sadness, and school problems, 70% of male victims are more likely to engage in alcohol and drug abuse, have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide, and violently abuse others. The realities these numbers reveal are tragic. ( For references log on to http://www.darkness2light.org/knowabout/statistics_references.asp.)
Mo'nique's respectable-looking parents, who remind me of the parents portrayed by Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden in the movie Nuts with Barbra Streisand, present their pain to Oprah and the millions who are watching, as does Mo'nique's younger brother, with Gerald looking on. The four, their preacher beside them, describe wanting to bring Mo'nique back into the fold of what they describe as their close-knit family. But they also take issue with her cut-offs from them, some of her statements, her memory, her "going public." Nobody seems to take issue with how Gerald's alcohol and drug abuse may have influenced the veracity of his version of the story.
There are always, for each person involved, barriers and opportunities present in each step of the process of healing from child abuse, and though this family's message is being presented as an opportunity, a neon sign flashes in the sidelines of my mind: barrier, barrier, barrier. Her family reveals no real understanding of what it was like for seven-year-old Mo'nique, not even a thread of awareness about how psychologically overwhelmed their little girl had been.Though this part of the family's history has clearly been painful for them, I wonder whether the deepest pain is about Mo'nique's childhood trauma or the fact that she has gone public about it. I don't hear anguish over their failure to protect her, to understand her, to help her to heal. In fact, when they report that the reason was that she'd acted like everything was OK, the bitter stench of blaming the victim enters my awareness. There doesn't seem to be any depth of understanding about long-term dynamics involved in the process of healing from incest either, or of the generosity of their daughter in telling the world, though they report great pride in her acting achievements in Precious. And while Gerald interrupts Oprah with reminders that boys are victims of sexual abuse too, which on the surface may seem a relevant point, I experience his interruption as an inability to stay with what Oprah is trying to teach them about his sister's plight. Now I believe I have a visceral sense of the wounds in Mo'nique's heart that would, when she herself became a mother, propel her to protect her babies from their uncle, and might also contribute to her cut-off from her parents.
Years ago, I attended a Power of Women event in Atlanta. Benazir Bhutto and Gloria Steinem were among the speakers. Benazir Bhutto shared her belief that there comes a moment when events take their course, and your life is not your own; your responsibilities to life are larger than your own. Gloria Steinem challenged us to see that children belong to all of us, and that it's not enough to thnk of ourselves as individuals, but we must also think about the sea in which we swim.
The sea in which we're swimming now is a culture in which sexual abuse of children by clergy is a weekly news item, while True Religion is actually a brand name of clothing found in our shopping malls. The sea in which we're swimming now is one where a girl or woman is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes, and where three children, most of them under the age of four, die every two days as a result of child abuse (Prevent Child Abuse Georgia statistics). Further, in an average 8th grade class of 30 children, 4 girls have been molested, 2 boys have been molested, and one boy has molested a younger child (statistics from Nora Harlow, Child Molestation and Research Institute).
The problem with statistics is that they can be difficult to personalize; we can become numb to them. Quite the opposite happens through movies. Cinema is one of our most powerful art forms. Just think about how efficacious films like The Magdalena Sisters, The Color Purple, Deliver Us from Evil, Ordinary People, Angela's Ashes, The Dead Poet's Society, Schindler's List, and Life is Beautiful have been in searing into our minds various tragic scenarios which have been the plight of children.
In Precious, Mo'nique brought the soul of the darkest horrendous abuse into the light of the screen for the entire world to see and to react to, and then, in what I experienced as her generosity and deep commitment to truth, she told us how she did that. Thank you, Mo'nique, from myself and on behalf of the millions of children and adults who are starving for the kind of truth that supports their capacity to bear life.