Friday, October 24, 2008


If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way. -Simone DeBeauvoir

It seems I must be joining the famous echo-chamber of the blogosphere, because somebody blogged on my ellipses. I could not help but be struck by how much the photographs, to her, seemed to mean only death, only destruction, only despair.

As some of you must know, I have a predilection for certain pastimes commonly considered depressing or hopeless. One of these is the protection of the small.

If there is to be humanity, it is impossible to prevent all child abuse. From my life and involvement in the systems that govern this matter, I can only conclude that as a society we don't care. . . And not only do we not care that complete success is impossible, as a society we don't even come close to caring enough to do what can be done. I believe we will never come close. It is across this background I paint.

A twelve year old throws a physically violent screaming tantrum because the brother who raped her is about to get out of jail. For this she must sleep on the floor of the group home, and she remains on low privileges; she's not allowed to talk to her peers, eat sweet things, listen to music, play musical instruments, wake up early, wear normal clothes, or use the exercise equipment. She may read with permission. She keeps sobbing, and going on about how her father beat her and the things that happened with her brother; the staff member who supervised this tantrum does not want details, does not want details. The child must learn to take responsibility and control her emotions; she is making excuses.

A young teenager is responsible for his siblings. He has heard more than once from his parents that they don't want him. For good reason the kids are all terrified of foster care; they've been burned. Their violent alcoholic father has completed his required therapy, and the case is about to close on the day when he towers over me and yells at me not to come around, liquor bottle in hand, slamming the door in my face. The case closes on schedule, family preserved.

A sixteen year old refuses to co-operate and keeps running away. She is given only a blanket and underwear for clothing and is under observation day and night. Had she been in the program under it's previous ownership, she might have been taken out to the pond when she kicked and screamed to "work it out in the water."

Perhaps the most impressive thing about these stories, from this vantage, is their darkness, and their closeness; these are stories of here and now, America the beautiful within the past few years. It is impossible to save them; it is impossible to vanquish the darkness. I can try, but nothing I can do will really keep these children safe from violence, from neglect, from profound institutionalized cruelty, or from rape.

Somehow, though, this is not all. Between the lines there is the constant victory of survival--and the constant victory of humanity. I had an irrevocable revelation once as a CASA, squatting with my charges in the dust behind their friend's apartment. We needed a place where we could go to talk away from Mom and Dad, where they could suss me out and decide if I was OK. We talked about school, about foster care, touched a little, briefly, on when things got "bad."

These children had been kicked out of their house in the rain and told never to come home, or watched their father beating their mom, or watched their mother go on meth, or eaten only when fed by their older brother--this all besides the direct violence they had experienced upon themselves. They had been torn away from everything they knew and learned that all the world was dangerous. They had their wariness; they had sore spots. Possibly they had patterns, internally, that would damage them for the rest of their lives.

What they had more than anything else, though, was that they were simply kids; kids who wanted a princess backpack and a new football, who yelled and laughed and ran around, who picked their noses and yelled at their brother for picking his nose. They were funny and smart and playful, silly and cool, constantly teasing me for being a geek and each other for damn near everything. No matter how much trouble they were in or how much I couldn't save them, they were still people. If you had been there to take pictures of us on that day, they would have seemed to be happy ones.

And this, perhaps, is the undercurrent I see in those photographs of destruction and pain; this, perhaps, is the reason I don't see them as even a little one-sided. Human beings will be human beings, whatever their circumstance, and just as tragedy can hide behind a smile, so are profound courage and compassion to be found in death, destruction, and despair.

Some are fortunate enough to find themselves in happier photographs--but if I had chosen happier photographs, they would still be photographs of human beings quite capable of murdering and starving one another--human beings capable of hurting, of falling, of holding a bleeding stranger in the open danger of the road--capable of growing to maturity after a childhood of torture; capable of standing before a column of tanks and dying before the world in support of what they believe in, capable of burning themselves alive to stop the burning of village after village, alive.

They could not save us, and neither can I, but life is in the trying--because we are all human, capable of squatting and joking in the dust, or comforting our children as they weep upon the sand.


___________________________ said...

Oh, Day, you remind me of why I need to stop caring and perhaps start worrying. What you said *is* tragic, and I don't know what can be done to solve the problem. How can you make a person care? Make them love?

*sigh* If you can endeavor to protect yourself from the cruelties of others, you have done better than so many others. A thought has been going through my head for awhile, here's a quote by Machiavelli:

"And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved. For of men it may generally be affirmed, that they are thankless, fickle, false studious to avoid danger, greedy of gain, devoted to you while you are able to confer benefits upon them, and ready, as I said before, while danger is distant, to shed their blood, and sacrifice their property, their lives, and their children for you; but in the hour of need they turn against you. The Prince, therefore, who without otherwise securing himself builds wholly on their professions is undone. For the friendships which we buy with a price, and do not gain by greatness and nobility of character, though they be fairly earned are not made good, but fail us when we have occasion to use them.

Moreover, men are less careful how they offend him who makes himself loved than him who makes himself feared. For love is held by the tie of obligation, which, because men are a sorry breed, is broken on every whisper of private interest; but fear is bound by the apprehension of punishment which never relaxes its grasp."

Given the truth of that, I guess I have my own fears of others.

Day said...

why worry if you don't care?

___________________________ said...

If people are that callous to the weak, then what if I am weakened?

Day said...


I think perhaps, unless one has given up on saving one's self it is impossible to save anybody.

One has to stay functional, but. . . in my life, at least, you can't save yourself; it's that simple. Once you have given up worrying about that, there's a space to actually start doing something. . . which is way, way better than nothing.

_brad_ said...

I wanted to comment on your story, but I lack the words to truly express how I feel about it.

But as a person who's childhood was filled with problems like some you have written about. I want to tell those kids, that it will be alright. That there are people in this world who do care about them, and that even with all the unfairness which we see out of own eyes. We can overcome the tragedies, we can live, and grow, and try to make a better place for our children, to protect and love the children who are being abused and neglected in ways which we have not seen yet.

We cannot change our past, or forget what has happened to us. But we can lift up the hearts, and show them love for who they are, and let them know they are not alone in dealing with these issues.

Darrin Stephens said...

We are just that, human beings... those remarkably resilient, often unperceptive, strong willed survivors, capable of such heart wrenching horror and deep hearted generosity, souls full of fear and sometimes hope... those creatures capable of being nothing or anything, in our own eyes and others'.

I've been trying really hard not to forget that, to see other humans when I look in to their eyes, or see them on the street... even just reading stories about them or seeing old photos. Those are all people built by experiences over the years, built by tragedy and laughter, and, as you say, life is in the trying.

Thank you for such beautiful words, Day, and I am sorry that I can't express my appreciation as well as I'd like. Thank you for trying, and thank you for reminding me to keep trying.

And so I will keep moving, keep doing, and I know it won't ever be enough, but maybe it'll be enough; it's something. And I'll try hard not to forget.

Dona nobis pacem sed non somnum.

Logan said...

I think perhaps, unless one has given up on saving one's self it is impossible to save anybody.

It discomfits my unconscious assumptions to consider that this might be true.