Junot Díaz and the Not-So-Brief, Wondrous Life of #MeToo
Childhood sexual abuse, victim-perpetrators and healing.
Posted Jun 20, 2018
An otherwise excellent recent Washington Post review of Bernice Yeung’s book In A Day’s Work: The Fight To End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers had an unfortunate headline: “In a new book, domestic workers get their #MeToo moment. We need to listen.” (Tara Murtha, June 8, 2018) What is #MeToo a “moment”? I felt like it was a watershed, coming after many similar waves of concern, dating back at least to the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. Concerns of low-income women are unfortunately usually moved to the back of the bus, while other women are able to broadcast their trauma loudly to a cheering audience. Everyone’s concerns matter, but it’s harder for me to get worked up about someone complaining about a man’s supposed overbearing attitude or the fact that he once yelled a naughty word in the heat of an argument. Attitudes and words matter, of course, in interpersonal relationships — but how much should they take control of a story? We have to look deeper.
We also have to move deeper than the surface issues of accusations and sometimes vitriolic defenses, which particularly characterize our time on social media. We do have to assess the truth of claims and make sure power is not used to harm people. But here we have a contradiction. Power does corrupt. In Yeung’s book and other work, we see that men with even a tiny bit of power have used it to harm women under their control. Social psychologist Dacher Keltner’s The Power Paradox outlines his research showing that as people gain power and influence, they often lose empathy. The obvious awareness is that men disproportionately hold power over women, just as whites disproportionately hold power over the lives of blacks and people of color, and the rich hold power disproportionately over the poor. How would it feel to be a poor woman of color placed in harm’s way? Yeung’s book takes us there.
Junot Diaz’s unfolding personal story bears witness, though, to the complications of assigning blame, or thinking that any one of us can truly judge another. (See “Junot Díaz cleared of misconduct by MIT,” New York Times, June 19, 2018.) “He who is without sin, cast the first stone," indeed. If the “original sin” of human consciousness is self-centeredness, which leads to overvaluation of self, devaluation of others, and potential abuses of power (including MLK’s Giant Triplet of Materialism, Militarism and Materialism), then we are all guilty in some measure. There is a “healthy narcissism,” and I think nearly all of us struggle at some level with the human question of “am I for myself or for others?” (Listen to Episode 10 of my podcast, Narcissism in the American Psyche and Social Media, for an overview, on Soundcloud, Stitcher and iTunes.)
The complication is that Díaz himself is a victim of sexual trauma. (See "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma" by Díaz in The New Yorker, April 16, 2018.) Research suggests that about 1/3 of victims of childhood abuse end up abusing their children. Glasser et al found1 similar rates for intergenerational transmission of sexual abuse, but the rate was much higher for men than women. Men are more at risk of passing on trauma from unhealed wounds. I would imagine that women are more likely to take out their pain on themselves, or become emotionally, and not sexually, abusive. Childhood sexual abuse is correlated with personality disorders later in life.2 Being a victim-perpetrator is a particularly toxic lot in life; not only do you have the pain of the past to weigh you down, you also have the shame, guilt, rage and confusion about one’s own harmful actions. Still, it's important to note that the majority of the abused do not abuse others, even though they may suffer from trauma. Still, at least 20% of girls and 5% of boys experience childhood sexual abuse. At least 20% of children experience emotional and physical abuse. If these numbers doesn't make you sick I don't know what will.
I’ve come to believe that the core of healing comes from the combination of mindfulness, compassion, and relationship (see my article for Hyphen Magazine). Mindfulness, to develop an observer awareness of one’s emotions, thoughts, and narratives, without jumping to judgements about self or other. Compassion and relationship to develop a friendly inner and outer life. I think "These Three Things" are a way out of the traps of self-centered power.
We have good reason to want justice and equality in our relationships and institutions. Hopefully, as we reckon with who should have power and under what circumstances, we can also work on cultivating relatedness, even to the most difficult questions that weigh upon our souls. As I write in Asian American Anger, available for free download:
“This “world-defining relationship” of men and women, marred in the extreme by violence, is prime evidence of the world’s brokenness and suffering. It is also, by nature, the main hope for the world’s redemption, which must, of course, be in the triumph of love. If there is a gender war, there are many more gender collaborators. We are, after all, not entrenched enemies. We’re mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, partners, friends. Community.
With, one hopes, a mutual, common destiny.”
(c) 2018 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.
1. Glasser M, Kolvin I, Campbell D et al. Cycle of child sexual abuse: links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. Br J Psychiatry. 2001 Dec; 179:482-94
2. Pereda N, Gallardo-Pujol D, Jimenez Padilla R. Personality disorders in child sexual abuse victims. Actas Esp Psiquiatr 2011;39(2):131-9