Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Myth of Closure

What happens when religious shunning shuts one door and leaves too many others open?

Author and therapist Dr. Pauline Boss. 

“A New York reporter doing a story on the anniversary of 9/11 asked me why I thought New Yorkers weren’t over [the trauma] yet. My answer: “Because you’re trying to get over it.” 
— Dr. Pauline Boss, in the Guardian.

Just thirty minutes up I-84.

That’s how long it takes to go see my kids: “M,” my son, age twenty-five and “L,” my daughter, sixteen. An easy drive, until you factor in the unbridgeable psychic gulf—a fiery lake of religious shunning, sulfured by an aging divorcée’s ancient grudges. So there’s that. I haven’t seen L in months. For M, it’s been years. They might as well live on Saturn.

In 2002, I was disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Overnight, every friend and every family member I’d ever had vanished. Labelled an “apostate,” I was presumed toxic, a threat to my kids’ spiritual health and a stumbling block on their path to Christ’s Millennial Reich on a paradise earth. Indoctrination ensued. Eventually, the cult won. And now it’s as if they’re M.I.A. in a parallel universe. Should I mourn their loss and move on? Or should I cling to hope and put my own life on hold?

Author and therapist Dr. Pauline Boss calls such trauma ambiguous loss. As she told Krista Tippett in an interview on On Being, “With ambiguous loss, there’s really no possibility of closure. Not even, in fact, resolution. Therefore, it ends up looking like what psychiatrists now call ‘complicated grief.’” However, she draws a distinction. This isn’t a mental pathology; it’s a pathological situation — “an illogical, chaotic, unbelievably painful situation that these people go through who have missing loved ones, either physically or psychologically.”

Under these circumstances, she insists that there’s no such thing as closure. In fact, she believes that the whole idea of closure is a myth. So, too, with regard to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ famed stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression: there is no “graduation day” of acceptance. Some days you feel acceptance, some days you feel sad. In most cases, over time, the good days outnumber the bad. At this moment, I’m feeling rather pissed. Tomorrow might be better. Full overdisclosure: Zoloft helps.

For those who’ve been shunned, there is tremendous pressure to bury these feelings and move on. Faithful members will sneeringly complain that we should “get over it” — always a lovely thing to hear from your abuser.

Then there’s our society. In America, Dr. Boss (I love calling her that) observes a culture of “mastery orientation”: “We like to solve problems. We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions. That kind of mystery, I think, gives us a feeling of helplessness that we’re very uncomfortable with as a society.” Understandably, I’ve had friends pull away at a time when I most needed human connection.

It’s not me, it’s you

Fact of human nature: whether it’s a tornado or a tsunami, survivors often blame themselves for the disaster. Perpetrators, on the other hand, usually blame the victim. This is especially true in religions that practice shunning. Jehovah’s Witnesses declare disfellowshipped persons “unrepentant sinners”; those outed by Scientologists are called “Suppressive Persons”; members of the Bahá’í faith ostracize those they deem to be “Covenant-breakers.” In each case, fault for the breach in the relationship is placed entirely on the one being shunned. After being out all these years and getting lots of therapy, whenever I see a Witness on the street, I’m still overcome with feelings of shame. It doesn’t matter that I know it’s them and not me.

Name the pain.

Part of Boss’ genius was to give this malady a name where there wasn’t one before. Over and over again near Ground Zero, as if uttering a mantra, she offered these words to suffering 9/11 survivors:
“What you’re experiencing is ambiguous loss because your loved ones are still missing. It is the most difficult, most stressful loss there is, but it is not your fault.”

I’ve had to say this a few times to myself. It allows me to cry like a sissy. It helps me cope.

Own your paradox.

“Your kids will grow out of it.” They say. “Once they move out, they’ll want to see you again.” They say. Well-meaning thoughts. But the truth is: maybe. Maybe not. I know other disfellowshipped dads and moms who are watching their kids grow into middle age with no change in their relationship. As of now, M and L have blocked me from seeing them on social media. Sometimes I’ll grab a friend’s phone and look them up on Instagram. Reaching across the galaxy, but not quite touching. There, but not there. Says Boss:

“We like finite answers. You’re either dead or you’re alive. You’re either here or you’re gone. But now and then, there’s a problem that has no solution. To say either-or, in a binary way — he’s dead or he’s alive, you’re either here or you’re gone — that would involve some denial and lack of truth, so the only truth is a middle way: ‘he may come back and he may not.’ The only way to live with ambiguous loss is to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time. Once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that that may be the closest to the truth they’re going to get.”

Create your own damn meaning.

The Zen-like practice of holding two opposing ideas at once may not be ideal, but can be good enough. And in this crazy world, sometimes that’s what we have to settle for. If the trauma of shunning is ultimately meaningless, then let’s create our own meaning. For example, she suggests that “the mother of a kidnapped child may devote her life to helping prevent other children from going missing.” A cult survivor might (cough) write a blog with the aim of helping others escape.
Shunning has given me a blank canvas to create from scratch the meaning of my life without any obligation for it to make sense to anyone but me. For example, did you know you can add anyone as a family member on Facebook? A couple of years ago, my friend and muse Meredith did just that, adding me as her brother. My page shows her as my sister. I know it sounds silly, but it was touching and beautiful. Recently, I invited my longtime friend Kay to be my brother. He accepted. I’m slowly stringing together a new family, crafting a bespoke set of relations. I like this experiment. It feels good and makes a weird kind of sense out of something senseless. It tilts into the ambiguity. It gives me room to believe that things will be okay.

One day, poet Donna Carnes’ husband went sailing in San Francisco Bay, and that was that. Neither he nor his boat were ever found. Here’s her poem memorializing that ambiguous loss. You can also listen to Pauline Boss read it.

by Donna Carnes
You walk on
still beside me,
eyes shadowed in dusk;
you’re the
lingering question
at each day’s end.
I have to laugh
at how
open-ended you remain,
still with me
after all these years
of being lost.
I carry you like
my own personal
Time Machine,
as I put on
my lipstick, smile,
and head out to
the party.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

9 Black Lives Matter Tactics Cult Survivors Can Use Too

Black Lives Matter is changing the way activism gets done. As has been said, it’s “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement.” For instance, reflecting a society that’s more autonomous than it was in the 1960s, its leadership stays in the background and allows a profusion of voices to carry its message and stage its activities. On Twitter, Facebook and in real life it’s waging an ongoing “ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

The movement points the way for all marginalized and oppressed groups to reframe the conversation and make their voice heard. As a former Jehovah’s Witness, I think there’s much to learn as I raise my voice against abuses within that cult. (Granted, the centuries-old, systematic mistreatment of Black lives in America far outweighs the religious abuse in the Witness community and other high-control religions.)

If you aren’t familiar with the Witnesses, that C-bomb might come as a surprise. Here’s one reason why it’s justified—and why it’s a good idea to look to Black Lives Matter for guidance. In a practice known as disfellowshipping, members who fail to toe the doctrinal line are called before secretive judicial committees to confess and repent. If the committee, using guidelines from a private handbook (ordinary members aren’t allowed to read it), determines that the accused is not sincerely repentant, they will then exile that person from the community—for good. Reinstatement is possible, but it can take years of humiliating effort.

Here, a young Witness woman — let’s call her Bridget — flaunts her rebellious attitude toward church elders by displaying a hemp bracelet and pink streak in her hair. Also, just look at her shoulders. Clearly, her life is headed for ruin! — Photo: “God’s Word for Us Through Jeremiah,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2010
Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that leaving the religion leads inevitably to a life of despair and dissolution. Here, Bridget has shacked up with a ne’er-do-well. She smokes menthols and feeds her illegitimate baby formula — not breast milk — as she pines for her former, happier days with her Jehovah’s Witness friends. — Photo: “God’s Word for Us Through Jeremiah,” Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 2010
The damage from such character assassination can last a lifetime.Globally, an estimated 70,000 members are thus shunned each year. Friends and even family members are forbidden to as much as greet these individuals on the street—or they can face the same fate. Since they’re scapegoated as “mentally diseased” and worse, most Witnesses willingly shun them. Such fearmongering deters church members from voicing any disagreement over doctrine or leadership decisions.

Disfellowshipping strips people of their dignity and stigmatizes its victims. It destroys friendships and marriages and alienates parents from their own children. Not surprisingly, the aftermath includes anxiety, depression and, at times, suicide. This religious abuse needs to stop.

As with minority and queer movements that have borrowed ideas from the Black liberation movement, this trauma demands an “ideological and political intervention.” How is Black Lives Matter going about their struggle—and what can we learn from them?

1. Speak your truth, without apology. Black Lives Matter’s guiding principles state: “We are unapologetically Black in our positioning…. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a necessary prerequisite for wanting the same for others.” Disfellowshipping didn’t strip you of your voice. It actually freed you say what you’ve bottled up, probably for years. Speaking up for ourselves restores our humanity and value.

2. Stand up for those who have been especially othered. Black Lives Matter has a special place in its ranks for Black people who suffer doubly from homophobia, sexism and other stigmas. By caring for its most wounded members, its strongest members are made invincible. Many ex-Witnesses are likewise LGBTQ or members of other marginalized minorities. Even though they might no longer believe in Watchtower teachings, the residual religious shame can run deep. Let’s stand up for them.

3. Be loving. Another line from their guiding principles: “We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people.” Good marching orders for ex-Witnesses.

4. Be angry. It’s fairly impossible to be Black in America (or be White, with an ounce of compassion) and have a pulse and not be angry. Similarly (though admittedly to a lesser extent), the Witnesses’ religious abuse is outrageous. From that, it follows that the only sane response is outrage. Let’s own it.

5. Realize that the two are not mutually exclusive. What James Baldwin famously wrote about race in America is also true for us: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”

6. Understand that those who have shunned you will probably never change their position, but their kids might. As Black Lives Matter founder Patrice Cullers said recently, “It is very easy when you’re fighting big systems that crush whole communities to ask, “what’s the point?” And I think the point isn’t… necessarily [seeking a] victory, the point is building the power of our communities…. If it’s about something bigger than us, then we’re going to stay in it for the long haul—because the hope is that in 100 or 200 years from now… we will have left this place better off.” I’d love to see The Watchtower Society put completely out of business. But that probably won’t happen in my lifetime. I’ve got to be in it for the long haul.

7. Don’t try to be the next MLK. Part of Black Lives Matter’s momentum derives from the fact that it avoids hierarchy and centralized leadership. Likewise, the world doesn’t need another hotshot “apostate leader.” People left the cult because they were tired of being “shepherded.” So if you’re an organizer of a Meetup or other support group, stay chill and in the background.

8. Be willing to be disruptive. In order to jump-start conversation about race that leads to change, Black lives activists have ruffled a lot of feathers in very public — yet legal — ways. Logically, If we allow ourselves to be silenced, it makes us complicit in the Witnesses’ shunning. It suggests that we haven’t fully left the cult. (Are you offended by that statement? Good!) So go to a meeting and raise your hand. Partake at the Memorial. Approach Witnesses on the street with their silly magazine racks and talk to them. If you see a Witness who was once your friend, go say hello. Force them to confront what shunning really means. It isn’t easy. I’ve given the Witnesses the power to shun me more times than I want to think about. But, rather than just deciding to be more confrontational, maybe we can just decide to be willing to be more vocal about our lives when we encounter Jehovah’s Witnesses. That tiny change is doable—and I think it can work miracles.

9. Hone your message. Black Lives Matter has one message that’s so simple and refined it’s got own hashtag. What is the one thing you want people to remember about your particular form of activism? Boil that down, think it through and maybe you’ll do your part to help #stopshunning.

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