There, But For….

Some time ago, a prisoner I met went to some effort to explain to me that the media stories about male prisoners being raped were greatly exaggerated and things had changed in prisons very much since the days of “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.”  Some time later, way after that initial discussion, he admitted to me that he had been raped while in prison.

Recently, a former foster child, adopted as a teen, and now an adult, told me that he rarely told people about his foster placement history, because they would automatically believe that he was “damaged.”

I guess both guys were telling me the same thing: that assumptions would be made about them, and they would be stigmatized, simply because of their respective at one time statuses (is that a word?).  Their issue wasn’t about the truth of what had happened to them. It was instead about their right to privacy and their right to protection from those assumptions. But it was bigger than that, I think.

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the many different ways that our kids are stigmatized, and the consequences.  In every situation, it appears to come to the same thing.  They are viewed as “lesser” because of whatever circumstances they find themselves in. Rachel Lloyd (see last post) had a wonderful response to her girls about the girls’ own beliefs that they had been “damaged.” Rachel told them that they had developed normally in abnormal circumstances.  I think that is exactly right.

I think that it is also right about our kids.  They are not damaged in their personhood.  They have developed normal reactions and responses to the abnormal circumstances of their lives.  That means that any one of us, in the same circumstances, would have developed as they have.  The object, the purpose, of their development, like the development of each of us, has been to protect their psyches. They are not – media to the contrary – broken. But broken is what they believe they are.

All the therapeutic interventions in the world will not get them past that. On the contrary, such might well reinforce their belief by the very fact of “needing” therapeutic intervention.  What they must have to begin to believe that they are not broken, is an experience of being part of a “we.”  They need a person – often, but not exclusively, a parent – to meet them where they are, not to demand that they meet us where we are. A person who says to them: I am no better than you, no matter our respective circumstances and no matter how it appears or feels otherwise. To say to them that: “as people, we are exactly equal.” Meeting us where we are allows a person to become part of “us.”  Meeting them where they are allows a person to become part of a “we.”

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, and the author of “I and Thou,” says it much better than I ever could.  I have little doubt that what I have written is not clear enough. And I know that I need to work on making it clearer and explaining it much better.  Still, I am certain of the truth of it because of my own experience of living – and parenting.

The day that I knew that my brain-injured son, Luis, would be fine even when I was gone, was the day he came home from work and told me that some guy at work had given him grief.  I asked Luis how he responded, and he told me that he had said to the guy, “What makes you think that you are so much better than me?”  Luis had come to believe, in his very gut, that, as a person, he is the equal of anyone.

Because he is.

I am watching out for the implications of every message I hear, especially by every helping person I see, about those of us who are from worse circumstances than typical, being broken people. And I am going to start yelling – and yelling very loudly – no.

The starting point of any “we” has to be the recognition of, and assenting to, this:  There but for the grace of God, go I.


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