a dialogue on abuse, systemic and personal

part of my weekend (a goodly part in fact) was spent reading derrick jensen’s latest work, endgame: the collapse of civilization and the rebirth of community, which is not yet in-print but available via his reading club. due to be released next spring in two volumes (weighing in at 1300+ pages), it is a continuation of the arguments set forth powerfully in a language older than words, the culture of make believe, (and supplemented by his other works such as strangely like war, and welcome to the machine). it is a punchline, the end point, the logical conclusion of everything he has been saying up until now – and as always, turning out to be an excellent read (those of you who know me, also know what a big fan of derrick’s writing i am).

i read about 400 pages of this work over the weekend, and upon finishing the chapter titled “abuse”, i sent derrick an email which i am modifying for this blog entry. i paused there to write him because my mind was really churning by the time i got to that point, and it seemed a good point to reflect on, both for myself and to derrick (as an appreciation for what he says there).

this chapter, “abuse”, draws out an analogy between an abusive partner, and civilization that was first introduced in a language older than words. in language, derrick posits that we are all victims of an abusive father, that we are afraid to acknowledge the abusive father shouting at the head of the table, for if we do acknowledge the abuse taking place (to our brother, to the land, to our favourite forest), then we might be implicated, thus we might have to act, thus we might be further harmed in our attempts to stop the abuse – and so instead we avert our eyes and further internalize the social justifications for what is taking place. in endgame, this analogy is drawn further to the justifications used by an abusive partner and how they mirror those of our society to carry out the death culture in which we live.

this discourse has always resonated very strongly with me, as the examples of both personal and civilizational/systemic abuse, shouted loudly at me as i was reading (the first time, it was language, now endgame)

this is what i was thinking about at the end of the chapter, when i emailed derrick:

last fall, i started dating someone who i saw for about four months. some of you who read this blog met him at the time, as i had high hopes for the relationship. although it was long-distance we spent what time we had together out in the woods, hiked a lot, and seemingly shared many goals and aspirations in life. his politics were moderate, but he showed room for expanding his analysis and interested in exploring further the spiritual-nature-psychological work that interests me. on top of that he had lots to offer in terms of outdoor skills and knowledge of much of bc’s landbase.

unfortunately (and this showed itself very early on), he also had a propensity for abusive outbursts when he felt his authority on some or another subject was being challenged. these were nasty, seemingly-out-of-nowhere, episodes characterized by name-calling and a lot of blaming (nothing physical). the first of these happened on our second time out in the woods together (in the middle of a cutblock where he was conducting research sampling), and it seemed like each trip was characterized by at least one, if not more of these episodes.

it was so shocking for me! how odd! it had been so many years since i had encountered any type of abuse that frightened me on that level. the unpredictable nature of the outbursts (not unlike my father’s unpredictable rages that often resulted in physical violence), left me defenseless, weak in the knees and in full-scale meltdown mode. i would shake, i would go passive and curl up in tears, seized by the desire to flee and the fear about doing so. my reactions were hateful to me, but obviously motivated by the feelings of helplessness to stop such occurences as has been the history in our familial relations (my mother could not stop my father, nor could i).

my weakness (or self-protectiveness) in the moment did not stop him, or even slow him down… he only finished yelling when he worked out whatever it was inside him which seemed to go on and on forever… and then accused me of over-reacting. although it was not physical, i sensed (and he denied this vehemently), that it could escalate to that given resistance on my part.

the worst thing about it, in hindsight, was that i bought his story about the abuse, that it was me triggering him and he had never done this with a partner before; that my reactions were way out of proportion to his anger; that i needed to work on myself. or maybe there were excuses – finishing up his masters was stressful for him; he was low on sleep; he wasn’t normally like this and eventually it would change without him having to do anything personally because life circumstances would change.

the landscape of abuse is something i am more than acquainted with, and i know the perpetrator’s line like i know my own father, and yet still i found the self-blaming me ready to step up to the plate and see how right he was, and how wrong i was.

fortunately, at the time this all shook down, i had been in counselling with my naturopath for quite awhile, and was able to see things for what they were through my own process (oh yes, we can change old patterns!) even so, i felt guilty when i ended things with him, and had him come to stay with me one more time late fall where another episode of his anger convinced me i couldn’t even be friends with him. he called me just before i moved in april to tell me he had met someone new, implying in the conversation that things were much easier with her than they had be with me. (of course, to get the last word, it was all my fault, he really isn’t a bad person after all).

and there it is, the self-blaming that freezes us, the internalization of abuse that shames us into hiding – the way that violence and abuse are and the way that characterizes our identification with civilization. the way we are silenced as activists – because we are “over-reacting” because “we are all part of the problem” and because “he isn’t a bad society, we’re just way too sensitive”……. it immobilizes us, spins us tighter against the web to hear the heartbeat of the predator waiting for us to slow down long enough to kill us for good.

i see this as a shop stewart over and over again – if I am successful and say – win someone’s job back (unfair terminations happen all the time) then other co-workers are heard to whisper how we are fucking over the employer by forcing them to keep a position open rather than closing it (because you know, the canadian government doesn’t have enough money to keep us all employed). over and over, they blame each other as workers rather than point the finger up at those in power – and of course it stops them (stops us) from every changing those relations for good.

this is not unlike saying “we are at war” or “your government” when we are talking about our identification and the identification of others with those in power. it’s easier on some level to point the finger, to blame those on our same level (or to blame ourselves) rather than challenge the power, or just get out of the way. we have been taught that they are us, even if us, that is me, that is – i – don’t support in the slightest what they are doing. i am not them, i am not the war in iraq, i am not the cutting of the forests on the sunshine coast, i am not hellbent on trying to eat money.

in casey maddox’s book (the day philosophy dies), step six says “you are not who they say you are, even when you do what they say you do”. similarly, a good friend and fellow traveller said to me last year – “you are not what they tell you to be, you are a wild animal, and you did not create this. you need to find a way home.” and they are right. we need to push the walls, we need to identify more strongly with those who are close to us, with those we love – rather than a state or a corporation bent on profit and control.

and in saying this, i think of nathan, and i recognize the power of our culture to keep pulling us back into the fold over and over again – just as i may be tricked back into believing i am to blame unless i am always vigilant against that….. it’s a struggle we have to make in order that life triumph against the death culture in which we live. there is nothing more straightforward than that.

2 Comments on “a dialogue on abuse, systemic and personal

  1. wow, this is really powerful and well-written. Thank you. As a man, I am always grateful for the writings of women who have been in this position who can help me see through some of my own cultural blinders and make me more self-aware, and more aware of my own actions in light of the embedded power imbalance that almost always tips in favor of my gender, my race, my nationality, my species.

    That connection between abusive personal relationships and the abusive culture is so clear, yet I probably would not have seen it a year ago. A friend who was married to an abusive alcoholic for years related something like this to me not long after the Bush Administration really began to reveal its true colors. “We’re a whole country of abuse victims,” she said. “We need an intervention to get us out of the relationship.”

  2. Thank you for your thoughts on this. Derrick’s work has had a profound impact on the way I see the world. Now that Vol. 1 of “Endgame” isn’t going to be released until the spring, I am about to join the reading club myself. Next week, I’m going to move 2,000 miles away to a town where I don’t know anybody – it’ll be a good time to sit down with this text.

    Do you read it on the screen or would you recommend printing it out?

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