Monday, December 11, 2006

closets and windows

My Christmas art for the day is one of my favorite Madonnas. It was painted in color by Roberto Ferruzzi, but I actually prefer the black and white copy I found several years ago in a book of Christian art. You may draw your own connections between the painting and the post that follows. Let’s just say I wanted to start with an image of a loving mother.

*Disclaimer* I reserve the right to be completely not-funny today. Even though I typically try to find humor in all things, occasionally I’m thinking about stuff that is just too serious to mock. So if you’re not in the mood to tolerate a bit of bleakness, please check back tomorrow when we will return to our regularly scheduled shallowness and attempts to amuse.

There’s an image from the news that has been haunting me this week. It is of a 10 year old girl named Shelby, beaten by her father and step-mother and locked into a linen closet. She is wedged between the shelves and the door, crying for help, covered in her own vomit. It is her darkest moment, but the evidence points to a long pattern of abuse – ten short years of pain and humiliation and the kind of confusion that must fill a child’s mind whose own parents seem to despise her. Shelby’s release from this torture came not from the opening of the closet door, but from her own death. In a strangely merciful way, she was freed from a life of pain by a different kind of escape.

I’ve been thinking about, or actually agonizing about Shelby and trying not to imagine her life, but imagining it anyway. It bothers me that we only know about Shelby because she died. I have to ask the obvious question: how many others are there, just like her, who live in “dark closets” of neglect and abuse? I am also deeply troubled by the single question of how Shelby’s parents could have possibly justified their actions. I’ve written about this before – the strange capacity humans have of lying to themselves and how it helps me understand atrocities such as the Amish school shooting. But that case involved victims unknown to the murderer. This case disturbs me even more because the very people who should have nurtured and protected this young life destroyed it.

In a recent article about Shelby’s death, a caseworker suggested that the roots to the abuse likely go back to the childhood of the abusers. "Something happened when [the step-mother] was supposed to be developing empathy as a child. It's like the Columbine High shooters. No feeling for others' suffering and humiliation." I’ve heard that in language acquisition there’s a linguistic “window of opportunity” – a time when we could learn to speak any language with perfect pronunciation, but only if we are exposed to it. When that window closes, if we haven’t learned to make certain sounds, we never will. I wonder if there’s a similar developmental phase for empathy. Perhaps the ability to empathize can be permanently precluded by neglect. And it’s easy to see how the abused, through enough exposure, can learn to speak the language of abuse instead.

Probably not coincidentally, I am also re-reading (for at least the fourth time) my parenting Bible, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. Here’s what he says about empathy: “To step outside one’s own viewpoint, to consider how the world looks to another person, is, when you think about it, one of the most remarkable capabilities of the human mind.” Kohn says that a child naturally develops what he calls “perspective taking” when he starts to realize that other people’s lives are distinct from his own. Gabriel is just learning that when Grandma leaves our house, she continues to have things to do, places to go, emotions to feel. Children (and later adults) who can imagine how others experience the world are less likely to harm them. This is perhaps why Kafka once described war as a “monstrous failure of imagination.” To do violence to another person you must be incapable of imagining their perspective. You can only kill them if you see them as less human than yourself.

When I wrote last week about the qualities I admire in my kids, I was also thinking about Shelby and thinking that, ironically, the very traits we admire in children make them easily victimized. They are trusting, loving, dependent, and na├»ve to the dark truths of our world. I’m not sure if it was obvious, but as I made the list, I also meant to imply a connection between childlike and Christlike. And here’s where empathy fits in. Because there’s actually a difference between the “perspective taking” that Alfie Kohn describes and true empathy. The first means I can appreciate that someone else may be sad even though I am happy. The later means I actually feel that person’s sadness along with them. When I tell a sick friend “I really feel for you, man” I don’t actually mean that literally (unless the virus is very contagious in which case I’ll be feeling it soon enough). I believe true empathy must be pretty rare. And complete empathy has only been felt once – if you believe in a literal atonement – when Christ physically suffered for our sins, our pain, our emotional sorrows. Maybe the sympathy I feel for Shelby is meant to be just a shadow – a human vestige of a truly divine characteristic.


Anonymous said...

I have a really hard time holding onto anything resembling "objectivity" when thinking about things like this. As for understanding... there's pretty much no way.

Given our System, some attorney(s) will have to prosecute this case, others will defend, while a judge presides. I can't imagine having any of those jobs.

Anonymous said...

My heart aches for Shelby. What a sad and terrible story. I have never understood how anyone could harm a precious little child, let alone their own offspring. I am just grateful that she is in a better place right now. I hope that all these people who abuse children pay a hefty price when we pass on to the next life.

P.S. That is a beautiful picture of Mary and Jesus. Very precious. I would be curious to see the color version.

And one more thing, your list last week definitley had a childlike/Christlike connection.

Anonymous said...

I agree with RaJ, I find it hard to stay objective too. Thank you for this post. It touched me deeply.

Julie said...

I agree. My sister is in her last year of Law School and has worked in the juvenile courts. She's seen more of this side of society than I think I'd ever care to know about.

Ordinary Mom
Check out this link to see a color version

scribbit said...

Those kinds of stories hurt so much I feel sick. I don't know if it's a lack of character on my part but the only way I can deal with it is to not think about it because it's just too painful. I want to help and prevent these things, but the feelings of impotence--not being able to do a thing for children like Shelby because they're hidden--makes it even worse. There doesn't seem to be much I can do to prevent or help when these things often happen behind closed doors.

Moobs said...

THis post resonated for me on a number of levels. The painting you have chosen hung above my cot when I was a baby. I still have it in a big box of childhood ephemera.

My wife is a child care lawyer whose everyday work is child abuse cases. I do not know where she finds the strength. I have learned to avoid opening any set of papers she brings home for fear of what I will encounter. The plain fact is that very serious abuse of children is commonplace.

Anonymous said...

I am going to take another point of view just for a brief little moment. Think about how worthless and subhuman you would have to feel to commit these acts? Even most animals do not torture their children. Her parents behavior counteracts all instinct that we have. I am pretty sure that they grew up in a house of horrors themselves.

I think that a lot of support systems have been lost in our society. For example, stay at home moms. When I was a kid, every mom on the block was at home and they all looked out for every kid on the block. My mom's friend used to bathe her neighbors kid who was neglected and dirty. She fed this child too. We all could be disciplined by any mother on the block. Today, many houses are dark until after 6:00. Children only have scheduled playdates with pre-aproved friends. If you tried to bathe an neighbors kid you might be accused of child abuse yourself.

I will have to work after I have children, I am not blaming working moms for this problem, but I think as a society we undervalue the enormous role that stay at home moms had/have in our neighborhoods.

I think it's much easier for the abuser to hide today.

Anonymous said...

These cases are always so very tragic. I have found that the further I get in my schooling, the less surprised I am at what humans can do to each other. Some people fail to ever develop empathy; no one knows for sure why this is. It can stem from abusive childhoods, but sociopathic personalities can just as easily come from relatively normal families. Because of what I will be doing when I graduate, I must harden myself some to these atrocities of humanity. But I have decided that the day that they don't bother me anymore is the day that I retire and find a new career path. I am glad that Shelby is in a better place with a Father who loves her.

Julie said...

You're welcome. I'm sorry to share disturbing news, but hoping it might increase my resolve to be a better mother and neighbor and friend.

I understand what you mean. Even if you suspect abuse (there's a family I know...) it's not easy to intervene. I'm trying to decide the best way to help without making things worse.

So this painting is familiar to you! I had never seen it before I encountered it a few year ago. Now I'm realizing that it's quite popular in Europe and especially Catholic circles. It's probably even considered cliche by some, but I think it's beautiful.

Julie said...

Great comment. I actually live in an amazing neighborhood where people really look out for each other. There's a row of 7 families, all with children about the same ages and the kids just go in and out of each other's houses at all hours. The parents are all good friends and love each other's children as their own. It's a real demonstration of the "it takes a village to raise a child" principle.

Julie said...

I appreciate your comment. I'm not sure what you're studying, but I hope that your career path gives you opportunities to help solve the problem. I have a very little sphere of influence but I want to make a difference in the world. Call me an idealist but I think if we were given the incredible blessing of a happy childhood (as I was) then we have a responsibility to pass it on.f

Kimberly said...

You can be unfunny any time you want - because you're intelligent and interesting and that more than compensates.

I love your posts so much, by the way. I'm having trouble balancing between my two identities lately though (Plain Old Kim and Internet Kim...yes, I need to come up with more exciting titles), and I haven't been doing much blog reading and commenting lately.

Sometimes I think that we need these little bits of heartache. It seems to be an essential part of the human condition. Maybe we need our hearts to heart to fully realize that they're there.