Updated: Nov 1, 2020
part three of a blog series on compassionate self-witness and my new book still life
Compassion is the radicalism of our time.
The Dalai Lama
The cinematography was gray and flickered as a man spoke in slow speech about his strange desire to touch children, his need for their closeness and bodily response. My senses churned with disgust and pity as I listened. Curiosity had led me here, to this series of interviews on Netflix, as man after man explained his addiction to pedophilia. With consistency, they testified to bondage. Many wanted to stop what they were doing but felt that they couldn’t—and more distressing were their expressions of isolation. Deemed unsafe by society, they could turn to no one for help.
As a victim of pedophilia, I have to admit, I still don’t know what to think about the things I heard that day. But, as a human, it’s all too evident to me that all of us feel bound to some attitude, behavior, or habit we also feel powerless to alter. As a member of society, it’s also all too easy to judge these attitudes, behaviors, and habits on a spectrum; to assume that one is more worthy of condemnation than another; to avoid context; to make personal choices about who deserves our compassion and help and who does not based on the social narratives we’ve adopted.
My impulse to judge functions as readily and humanly as anyone’s. I know this because I recognize how quickly I judge myself when the trauma I experience from having been molested flares up. In those moments, I assume others are judging with me—and I even, sometimes, invite them to do so. Ugh.
With this in mind, knowing myself, I listened to these men, and in the voices of their bound souls I heard it too—all the judgement.
And, knowing myself—my impulse to judge quickly and severely with far too much ease—I couldn’t judge back.
I mean, I wanted to. It would be so much simpler to demonize the abuser and call myself good, pure, and well-intended in all my ways. Most of the time, I probably am. But “most of the time” is not all of the time and my own shortcomings are always a revelation to me that I am disposed to a little wrong, a little failure, a little evil too.
After writing the poems in still life, I read them over and over again and begin to see more of the man (a man I barely remember) that had harmed me. I began to feel his strangeness and altered reality. In those poems, I lived inside his prison and let myself imagine his cyclical addiction to something so gross I couldn’t go there—I couldn’t imagine it well enough. What a deep confusion this must be. What a twisting. And what effort would it take to untwist? Could it be done? Could it be done in isolation, completely alone?
In my own struggle to overcome the manifestation of a pedophile’s act against my body, I have often been far too alone, but not completely alone. At very least, as a victim (not a perpetrator), my larger social structures and the people that inhabit them, want me to survive the trauma while surrounded by supportive social structures even when, as individuals, many of them fail to be part of this solution. I, at least, have this ideological sociological advantage.
The men that spoke in the documentary hid their faces in shadows, ostracized from society and sitting in isolated unadorned rooms as the interviewer asked questions. Do you feel remorse? he asked each one. Yes, they all expressed remorse for passing on this shadow-life to countless children.
For some of those children now adults—my potential readers—still life might be a book of anger and frustration towards these shadowed men. For others it may illuminate the struggle of living with PTSD. And still, for others, it may be a catalogue of lament. But for me, it is a book of compassion—even a companion. The young girl—raw, desperate, confused, and alone—in these pages is a friend I’m learning to care for when she is most pained. The woman that holds this book is also someone learning to hear all the voices that arise from these traumas, to judge no one, to admit that, given a different set of life circumstances, she may have chosen to do this evil too.
Compassion is radical because it compels me to set aside my right to judge even when I know my judgement—a quick and sure condemnation—is merited, completely right.
still life is my prayer, a supplication that I resist condemning all the lives I hold here between these covers, in the pages of this book: myself, my abuser, and a society complicit and complacent breeding all things good and evil on a wavering spectrum. Teach me, dear trauma, how to be reverent and hear.
This is the third of a series of blogs I will write on assault, trauma, and compassionate self-witness, as well as the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with ourselves in the dark. After all, as Martin Luther King once said so brilliantly, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” In our darkness, the hope of gentle light.
Order still life from PANK Press in October of 2020 at https://pankmagazine.com/shop/still-life-kimberly-ann-priest/