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.