Fully immersed in writing book No.3, here’s what I did from February to early June in between looking at old photos, reading old journals, scratching out timelines, writing chapters, half chapters, one liners that would eventually *be* chapters, editing, writing some more, deleting whole chunks of text, re-writing, re-writing, re-writing 😉 Grateful for each and every opportunity …
It was a looooooong semester!!
On Saturday, April 7, I spoke at the “Dress for What’s Next” event at the University at Buffalo School of Law. This free, all day event for survivors of domestic violence was put on by an all-volunteer team of UB Law School students. Daycare and lunch were provided for women and their children and there was even a therapy dog on site 🖤 Meditation and self-defense classes were offered, support and referral information was provided and there was even an opportunity for the ladies to do a little “gently used” clothes shopping👗👠👜 Impressive from beginning to end and I was absolutely honored to be asked to be a part of it!
If I could use only one word to describe this semester, it would be “busy”!
Miss Representation: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See A Documentary Film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
Tough Guise: Violence, Media & The Crisis in Masculinity with Jackson Katz
Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood & American Culture featuring Jackson Katz
The Mask You Live In: Is American Masculinity Harming Our Boys, Men & Society at Large? A Film by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
No matter how compassionate or understanding a person you think you are, at some point you’re going to be a little judge-y.
Everybody scoffs. Everybody – everybody – shakes their head and screws up their mouth and (in a moment of weakness) decides that the way that someone else is choosing to conduct themselves is wrong. We look at someone’s life or their current situation or their reaction to a rough patch and think, “I would never do that!” This is especially true of domestic violence. Comments like, “I would never let a man put his hands on me!” or “I would never put my children through that!” are incredibly common.
And so … maybe that’s actually the case. Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe your reaction would be different than someone else’s. But then again, how can you be sure? The reality is that until you’re in a given situation, you really don’t know how you’d react.
Because I work with DV victims and survivors as well as those who serve them, I was honestly of the opinion that I (mostly) understood the overall plight of the battered woman. Fortunately for me, I live in a county where the local FCS (ours is Family & Children’s Service of Niagara) offers the In Her Shoes DV Awareness Program.
I initially registered to attend because while I’ve worked with Family & Children’s Service of Niagara in the past, I was recently made aware that their Director of Passage House, Larissa Bachman, is using Leaving Dorian as a supplemental read with their interns. It got me to thinking that while I know quite a bit about FCS, I know little about the inner workings of Passage House. I thought what a great opportunity to speak candidly with Larissa and her team and as a bonus maybe do a blog post about the In Her Shoes Program.
I was completely unprepared for the experience that followed.
Participants were brought into a mixed-use room where I’d worked previously, only this time instead of rows of chairs there were long tables with stacks of colorful note cards. Each table had a sign attached: “Social Services”, “Hospital”, “Employment”, etc. Attendees were then paired up and we were told to pick a person’s name from the starter table. After that the journey begins; you are to make choices for your person while reading their perspective (as well as their batterer’s perspective) from each side of the card.
Because I’m a survivor of DV and because I work with amazing DV professionals and ridiculously intelligent and well-read professors and because I, too, have chosen to be well-read on the topic, I walked into the exercise feeling confident that I could help my person to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. There was no doubt in my mind that I would be able to guide her into a healthy lifestyle well within the hour or so time frame we’d been given to complete the exercise.
Within minutes I realized that I was wrong.
There’s no way that you can prepare yourself to be given the opportunity to make every choice from beginning to end and still “fail”. There’s no way to prepare yourself to walk through nearly forty-five minutes with a person (yes, a person written on paper, but one that you slowly and inadvertently invest yourself in) just to get to the last card and have it say “Funeral Home”.
I couldn’t believe it. Tears started to well in my eyes. I stood there trying to figure it out; why was the end result so hard to take? I mean, I thought I had it. I thought I knew. I am the “Her” in “In Her Shoes”, after all! I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And even beyond my own experience – as an author who’s made myself extremely accessible on social media – I routinely hear the most sad, perplexing and gut wrenching stories from victims and survivors alike. I thought nothing could surprise or shock me. And yet, tears.
I was seriously under the weather and probably should have stayed home that day, so I immediately wanted to blame it on that; I simply wasn’t feeling well. But the young woman that I was paired with didn’t like the ending either. I said, “Let’s go back…” So we did. Our character was young; not even eighteen. We had her go home. And yet, three cards in, she was right back in a tough spot. I suggested we go back even further, maybe right back to the second card that we read.
I was shaken. That couldn’t be her ending. I refused to finish the exercise. I simply would not walk over to the wall marker that said “Funeral Home”. There was nothing but an empty table in front of it. No more cards. It was left empty for reflection, but I didn’t want to reflect. I dried my eyes as the group sat down for debriefing.
I was happy to find out that not every story ended as tragically as ours. Other groups did manage to successfully maneuver their people into new lives. It’s worth noting, though, that at times these groups had to make choices for their person that weren’t always in line with their real-life belief systems. Again, an incredibly important lesson: You cannot impose your value system on someone else. Hard to hear? Sometimes, yes. But a necessary message? Absolutely.
Of course Ms. Bachman and her team were excellent facilitators and I’d like to believe that every attendee walked out that afternoon with all of their questions answered and with a deeper appreciation of the level of strength, courage, creativity and (sometimes) blind faith that victims routinely have to possess in order to safely and successfully re-start their lives. I know that I did. It was a humbling experience that I will carry with me; one that will necessarily be reflected in every presentation and classroom discussion that I participate in from now on.
I’m incredibly proud to be able to say that Family & Children’s Service of Niagara is my hometown service provider and that the staff there is offering unique, high-quality community education programs like In Her Shoes. Programs like these (offered in house or off-site) are exactly what HR professionals are looking for when putting together sensitivity training for Staff Development Days. Their utilization can only heighten awareness and bring about much needed change in our thought processes (and eventually, our behavior toward) victims of domestic violence.
If you are in Western New York, you can contact FCS of Niagara to schedule an In Her Shoes program experience at http://www.niagarafamily.org or by phone: (716) 285-6984
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence and is need of assistance, FCS of Niagara 24/7 Emergency Hotline is: (716) 299-0909
To purchase the In Her Shoes program please contact http://www.wscadv.org
Surviving…Thriving: A Journey of Healing through Art featured nearly one hundred pieces of artwork in a variety of mediums, all created by survivors of domestic violence. It was once again held at The Castellani Art Museum (which sits in the center of Niagara University campus) in conjunction with the Red Flag Campaign, a national public awareness initiative designed to encourage college students to intervene when they see a warning sign (“red flag”) of partner violence. Niagara University, The Child Advocacy Center of Niagara, Family & Children’s Service of Niagara, The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office Victim Assistance Unit, and the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier were all proud sponsors of the event, with all proceeds being donated to Passage House Domestic Services, a program of Family & Children’s Service of Niagara.
I was happy to offer closing remarks at the Welcome Reception, as October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Photos Courtesy of Andrew Emmons, student at Niagara University
Closing remarks at the Welcome Reception for Surviving to Thriving: A Journey of Healing Through Art at The Castellani Art Museum, October 5, 2017
“So often in the media we see and hear sensational stories about battered women
Horrific descriptions of women being seriously injured, maimed and even killed
By the men who claim to love them
And that is awful.
Each and every incident of battery, every life lost, is a tragedy.
But every single day
There are also hundreds of thousands of women
Who aren’t killed by their partners
Who aren’t shot or stabbed or sent to the emergency room in critical condition
But are injured nonetheless.
Every single day hundreds of thousands of women
Endure cruelties and indignities that many people cannot even fathom.
Affronts to their dignity and to their humanity
Physical abuse that wounds their bodies
And verbal abuse that wounds their hearts and souls.
Yet these women quietly carry on.
They care for their children and they go to work
They go to lunch with friends and cheer their children at little league
They organize fundraisers and sew costumes for school plays
And they pray to their God at religious services, their families by their side
All the while carefully hiding the pain and shame that they live with every day.
Hiding their bruises and their embarrassment behind long sleeves and elaborate excuses.
And when they’ve had enough and they decide to move on and start their lives anew
They do so without fanfare or praise
Often times quietly enduring continued abuse long after the relationship has ended
And yet, they remain steadfast.
They stand and they fight for their right to live free from fear
Free from physical pain and sexual coercion and verbal and emotional battery
And they do all of this in the most private corners of their lives.
They do not tell their stories. They do not let outsiders in.
They carry their tragic history silently, and by themselves.
They are what I call Invisible Victims.
But they shouldn’t be.
Surviving to Thriving: A Journey of Healing Through Art
Brings the reality of these Invisible Victims to light.
They are our mothers and sisters and co-workers and friends.
They are your child’s school teacher and your real estate agent.
They are the cashier at your favorite coffee house and the lady who delivers your mail.
I commend each and every survivor who chose to take part in this exhibition.
To lay your pain and shame and embarrassment open for the world to judge is no small task
*I am well aware of that*
So I ask each and every one of you who will walk this floor tonight to please understand
What you’re viewing isn’t merely art, it’s strength.
It is courage and dignity and tenacity.
What these walls house tonight is a testimony to the strength of the human spirit.
God Bless these women
And God Bless the volunteers who took time out of their busy lives to facilitate this exhibition.
To recognize that no one should believe that it would be better to be Invisible.”
* Photo courtesy of Andrew Emmons, Niagara University
It was a busy summer, to say the least; weddings, family road trips and lots of reading, because here in Western New York it did nothing but rain! On the up-side, I still found time to schedule three fantastic presentations with three distinctly different agencies. Each was unique and interesting in its own way and I feel lucky to have been asked by each group to spend some time with their employees, volunteers and clients.
In late June I had the privilege of speaking with an amazing group of foster parents at KidsPeace. My presentation focused on childhood trauma and how that related to my own experience with domestic violence, but we covered so much more than that in the nearly three hours that I spent with them.
“KidsPeace, founded in 1882, is a private charity dedicated to serving the behavioral and mental health needs of children, families and communities. The organization was originally a home for children orphaned by a smallpox epidemic, but has grown over the years to meet the ever-changing needs of children and adolescents. KidsPeace offers services in Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Our continuum of care includes a psychiatric hospital; a comprehensive range of residential treatment programs; accredited educational services; and a variety of foster care and community-based treatment programs to help children and families in need transform their lives.” www.kidspeace.org
I’ve never delivered a presentation to a group comprised almost entirely of men, but that’s exactly where I unveiled my newest presentation – Domestic Violence & Being An Engaged Bystander – on August 2 at Starpoint Senior High School in Pendleton, NY. Nearly 350 youth football coaches and statisticians were in attendance at NEYSA’s All Coaches meeting. I opted to speak without a mic, because often times people talk “under” you when you use one. The vast majority of these gentlemen were just that – absolute gentlemen. Maybe a little disinterested at first? Sure. But as I talked they listened and quieted and (many) even set aside their phones. I watched their faces go from polite, required attention to, “…oh my god…that actually happened to you…? Are you serious? How could that have happened to you…?” The shock, sadness and disgust that washed over many of the attendees was palpable. Here’s hoping that if these coaches are faced with a family that’s in need of intervention, they’ll remember that feeling (and where they put the paperwork I provided!) and will feel confident in their ability to provide a shoulder and a referral to those in need.