Religion is one of those things that you aren’t supposed to mention in small talk. You don’t ask someone about their religious affiliation after you’ve introduced yourself because it is a hot topic. In the last few years the gap between myself and religious affiliation has widened significantly. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at an international conference the focused on cultic organizations. Very interesting stuff. As one of the few people of color in attendance, I shared a bit of my personal experience with a branch of a religion that had a leader who dictated what to wear, what to eat, and where to go and expected to be obeyed. While the peacefulness of country living was present, it was overshadowed by oppressive rules that kept the leader in charge. During the duration of the conference I had the chance to attend seminars and meet other attendees who had once been in cults but left at some point. Many were born into various organizations that their parents had joined years ago. After the conference I wanted to read more about the experiences of individuals who had become caught up in cults and religiously abusive organizations. After meeting a few of the contributor’s at the conference, I read a book called Whispering in the Daylight and the author wrote about the cult led by Tony Alamo. It was fascinating and bone numbingly sad at the same time. One thing that was particularly sad was the fact that parents surrendered their children to be beat mercilessly and starved. They also allowed their girls as young as age 9 to be the “brides” of the leader. All in the name of religion and doing what they felt to be right. The question that always seems to be asked is how do people end up in these type of situations? The truth is that people tend to want a sense of purpose. Having a charismatic leader who seems to have found the meaning of life or claims to have some exclusive relationship to a deity can appear to be a good thing. It’s fairly easy to forsake all when one believes that not doing so would lead to eternal condemnation. By the same token, believing that your actions can earn you eternal bliss is an attractive idea. I think that it’s even different for children who grow up in that type of environment and have never known anything different. Reading the book about some of their experiences and how hard it has been and continues to be to adjust to “regular” life was eye opening. One thing that I believe is important to remember is that wanting to believe in something or someone isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. But it can become problematic when one consciously decides to yield their free will without reservation to another individual. It’s a strange dynamic that I find intriguing.
This month is Domestic Violence Awareness month and it is definitely needed and deserves attention. More recently I’ve had the opportunity to work with some women who have experienced it. While DV impacts both men and women, so far professionally I’ve primarily worked with women. People seem to be always quick to judge this population and I have to admit that women quite often catch the short end of the stick in the court of public opinion. There’s an opinion that women who stay with cheating spouses are just doing what is expected of them and in many situations men aren’t questioned when they leave a relationship if the tables are turned. The truth is that it’s not always easy to get out. Abusers often control finances and seek to isolate their victims from close family and friends. It’s even more complicated when children are involved and there are questions about next steps and potential custody battles. It’s also important to realize that abuse doesn’t always have to be physical. It can be emotional and verbal as well. In order to make a plan to leave the relationship, one has to come to the understanding that it’s an unhealthy/abusive situation. I’ve had women tell me that every marriage has ups and down and that they don’t want to be quitters by leaving when it gets tough. Many have been encouraged by pastors and faith leaders that they should just submit to their spouse and just bear their cross. It’s important to understand that most victims don’t leave their abusers on the first attempt AND that they are more at risk for increased violence when they try to leave. This is why it’s important to be a supportive friend because you don’t know what someone is going through. Many times women won’t open up to their friends or relatives because they feel ashamed and may feel like they have failed in the relationship and/or marriage. Be present, be aware, be supportive. Learn and recognize the signs of an abuser and don’t give second chances.
I rarely binge watch shows on Netflix anymore due to having better things to do with my time. But this week I made an exception for a show caught my attention. Greenleaf. I had heard good things about it, but due to never having cable (or time to research how to watch it online), I never watched it. While the show is fictional, I think that it gives an accurate portrayal of what has played out in a lot of big church settings. One of the leading characters, “Grace” spends the entire season fighting for the truth. While her methods are unorthodox and her family is largely unsupportive, she remains on a mission to expose the truth. Her tenacity is driven by the death of her sister who completed suicide–and was abused. As the season unfolds, one sees the numerous challenges that other members of the family are experiencing but trying to get through. Greenleaf is a shining example of the attempt to “keep things in the family” and ignore signs that something is amiss. The show is definitely emotional but it shows how religion can be used as a coverup for people to do what they want without being held accountable under the guise of being a spiritual leader who doesn’t answer to man. The show held my attention and I’m definitely interested in watching Season 2 to see what unfolds.
Recently there was a video making its rounds on social media that showed a father and son. The father starts off very calm explaining that his son had been acting up in school and that he felt some punishment was necessary while also teaching his son to defend himself. Then the video starts and I have to admit that I fast forwarded to the end as soon as I saw how bloody it was because (at times) I’m a sensitive soul and I always hate seeing people get hurt. The video showed the father boxing with his son. I use “boxing” loosely because it looked like someone of superior height, weight, and experience beating up on someone. The father didn’t hold back and landed multiple punches to his son’s face. The end of the video showed the father questioning the son while the son was obviously still bleeding pretty badly asking him if he would act up again in school. I ran across a follow up article on the video today and you can read it here . Basically, the father was arrested and the son was removed from the home as a result of the video. Let me say first and foremost that what the father did is pretty much the definition of physical abuse if you want to get technical. When a child discloses something like that to me I’m mandated to report it because of my profession and license–whether I agree with it or not. I’ve reported child abuse on multiple occasions as it’s been a regular part of the jobs that I’ve had. In no way am I endorsing the father’s method of parenting but I have also witnessed the opposite where parents stay up all night in shifts because they are terrified that their child will kill them in the middle of the night. I can assure you that being scared of your child and what they are capable of is terrifying. Neither option is ideal by any means. However, in addition to beating up his son who was clearly unable to defend himself, the father took it a step further and posted it on social media so the whole world could see (literally). He mentioned the son’s classmates and teachers as well in the video. That’s pretty humiliating and public shaming as a form of discipline is a horrible decision. But we also have to be honest. A startling number of kids these days do not have any respect for authority figures of any sort. There are too many horrible situations where there has been a conflict that involved an authority figure (law enforcement officer) that turned deadly for no reason at all. Also, by the same token there are also situations where someone was compliant and still ended up “mysteriously” dead. I guess my point is that you can’t really win these days. I think that the father had good intentions. He was trying to teach his (almost) adult son about making better choices and respecting authority and he ended up in jail himself with his child being removed from his care. I don’t have a solution to the problem but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve posting a video of a child being hit in the head until he’s bleeding profusely. There has to be another way.
One thing I notice in relationships is the influence of power and control. The misuse of power and control in relationships is what makes them abusive in nature. Someone attempting and even succeeding at violating thee boundaries of their significant other through force or manipulation is an example of an extremely dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship. Power and control can also show up in other ways. I’ve also encountered it in the therapy room when I’ve worked with clients who are resistant. The whole thought behind power and control in this context is that people want to be in control of something. When their values or beliefs are challenged they immediately put up their guard and even subconsciously seek to manipulate the situation so that they remain in control at all times and they never have to change their faulty belief patterns. It’s the avoidance being honest with oneself and being in a vulnerable place. It’s almost like playing a game because as a therapist I’m trying to challenge them in a way that won’t make them defensive but will also be effective in helping them make necessary changes. Recently, I found myself in an unfamiliar environment where power and control dynamics came into play. I’m the type of person who likes to be in control at all times. Not necessarily in charge of what happens to me because I know that’s impossible, but I like being in my right mind (to a reasonable degree) without being impaired by various substances. I want the ability to exercise self control so that I don’t have to face the unpleasant consequences of a stupid and impulsive decision later on. That being said, this environment was very unfamiliar and out of my comfort zone. On paper it was a great opportunity to experience something new. However, it required a level of trust that I did not feel was warranted. So I did what any human who feels threatened in some way would do or would at least attempt–took power and control of the situation. While it was definitely an overreaction, I preferred it (at the time) to giving up power and control. It was a learning experience to be on the other side of a power and control dynamic where I was in a similar position to that of some of my clients and had to take action to remain in control. Interesting.