Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/12/2011

Mr. President, you are wrong about heartbreak

Yesterday I asked here why I write  this stuff. The answer was vaguely, “to find out who I am.” In one respect I know too clearly who I am. Or I at least know too clearly some of what has happened to make me who I am. Psychotherapy, counseling, and neurological care for the last 45 years have given me a fairly clear picture.

In other respects I will never know who I am. I have a perplexity that will go with me to my grave.

One of the primary symptoms of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is a sense of dissociation coupled with strange and often bewildering déjà vu experiences. Fortunately I have other symptoms of TLE so my diagnosis as TLEptic makes perfect sense.

One of the primary symptoms of childhood sexual abuse is a sense of dissociation couple with strange and often bewildering body memories for which there seems to be no cause. Not exactly the same as symptoms of TLE, but so close as to create a bewildering perplexity of neurological/mental/physical phenomena that one who experiences can never sort out.

I am that one.

I’m not going to go into detail about either reality of my brain’s existence (I must also add Bipolar II disorder—or at least what looks like that but may, in fact, be simply the confusing result of the combination of the other two realities).  The details are none of anyone’s business except persons I know to be trustworthy.

I’ll just say I understand more completely than I wish I did that when

precious bonds of love and attachment are torn apart by the physical or sexual abuse of a child by one or more caretakers or relatives, the impact on development is rather like what is left after a train leaves its tracks and plows through a flower garden (1).

The assistant coach in the Penn State football program was a surrogate caretaker for young boys through a foundation he apparently set up especially to make possible his being a surrogate caretaker for young boys. He tore apart the precious bond of love and attachment at least eight of those boys had developed with him.

I must say, of course, the indictment alleges he tore apart that precious bond. He is innocent until proven guilty, but it hardly seems likely the Penn State Board of Trustees would have terminated the legendary career of its most famous personality over mere allegations.

President Obama said of the sordid affair, “Obviously what happened was heartbreaking, especially for the victims, the young people who got affected by these alleged assaults.”

He is so wrong. So very, very wrong.  What happened is not in any way “heartbreaking.” For the adults involved—all of them, coaches, athletic director, provost, president, all of them—what happened is simply that they violated the law; more significantly, they violated our basic codes of decency and morality. Breaking the law is not heartbreak.

For the boys involved, what happened to them is not “heartbreaking,” either. It is devastating. It is horrific. It is a terror against which they will have to strive, to struggle, to defend themselves for the rest of their lives.

Writer Heather Kirn has described the devastation these boys are likely to experience. She writes about her sexual abuse by her father. A universal schoolyard joke is for her a constant terror. She says in school her friends asked, as a joke

why the chicken crossed the road. [But] at night I couldn’t make it to the other side. And now in my adulthood, when I try to write [about my father] all I recall are shadows. Shadows creeping down corridors, shadows lingering at the top of stairwells and standing in doorways. Shadows indicating terror but shedding no light. He’s the vague evildoer. I’m the kid who can’t get to the other side (2).

Shall I say this here? I don’t want to. But you have to know that I know what I am talking about. One of my earliest memories, from age three or four, is waking up in the middle of the night in the embrace of an adult relative, smeared with his semen.

Yes, I have to be graphic. Otherwise you might go right on thinking “what happened was heartbreaking.”

I have been in psychological treatment of one sort or another my entire adult life. I’m not writing a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. I’m not saying my sexual abuse was the only reason for therapy. But one of my psychiatrists told me that “childhood sexual abuse is the only trauma I know that the victim never can get over.”

The sordid Penn State affair is not some indiscretion on the part of a coach. It is abuse—monstrous abuse by a pedophile. It is abuse on the part of those who could have but didn’t stop it in its tracks and bring the pedophile to justice.

I’m sorry, Mr. President, but you are dead wrong.
(1) Lyon, Emily. “The Spiritual Implications Of Interpersonal Abuse: Speaking Of The Soul.” Pastoral Psychology 59.2 (2010): 233-247.
(2) Kirn, Heather. “The Evildoer and the God Who Made Him.” Southern Review 47.1 (2011): 125-140.


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