We read about notorious incidents, not the least of which are recent cases involving the suicides of teenage girls from small towns who after being raped and shamed in social media, take their own lives.
We shake our heads at the inhumanity and awfulness of it all but also know that less broadcasted and personal hells are going on all the time.
I took a trip back to my hometown, a small city that still has an old-timely feel, but now also a few more malls, Pilates and micro-brews.
We met up with my sister’s friends including one who teaches math at our old high school. He told us about recently being granted the honor of introducing a local math and science teacher in a video project that played in the theatre.
It sounded like he gave a grand and appreciative speech for this teacher who played an important role in his life.
I remembered the teacher, not as a life-changer, but as someone who followed a friend’s progress in college, semi-stalked her via false impressions of scholastic interest and support and who later tried to convince/quasi-coerce her into having sex with him – much to her horror.
A gray area on the sexual abuse spectrum, for sure, but ON the spectrum I would say.
So in a held back tone fully expecting a “here she goes wrecking everything” stare I mentioned:
“You know that guy had a not-so-pretty flipside.”
A tense room change occurred. Two people responded with anxious defensiveness including a “we all have flaws” and some other similarly themed comment. I answered in my new calm way of arguing that I was well aware of being flawed myself but didn’t semi-stalk young people I knew in their teens.
One woman at the gathering spoke up and told the story of her friend who walked out of the theatre crying during the speech about this teacher. The woman was shaken and upset about the honoring of a man who had clearly done something “untoward” to her.
Even though there’s broader understanding that violence is often perpetrated by someone who knows their victim rather than a stranger, we are still caught in a mind loop of dismissing acquaintance-rape and abuse and amplifying stranger-rape.
Often it’s the case that many people know something is or has gone on when sexual abuse takes place. I don’t know if this math teacher was a rapist, I just know there was something very, very wrong with how he interacted with young women and girls.
So when I hear impassioned calls for ending “rape culture” I wonder at how we’ve all protected rather than spoken up or schooled someone when we had the chance – and hence participated in maintaining the status quo.
If this teacher was such a great guy deserved of accolades then why didn’t one of his fans let him know his “character flaw” (which many seemed to know about) could use some serious self-reflection and change.
Abusers are not usually one-dimensional creatures. Seemingly kind people do hideous things.
If we consider people part of our community – even in the broadest former-high-school teacher sense – then we have a role to play.
Too often we want to believe the best and do nothing, despite our hunches and intuition, until it’s too damn late.