Politisick: The struggle to overcome learned helplessness in a political circus where survivors’ voices don’t seem to matter

Politisick–video

There are many things about Las Vegas that do not suit me. I’m not a gambler. I loathe tobacco smoke. I’m not a fan of the desert or the heat that comes with it. What’s more, walking through those casinos wallops me with a one-two punch of sensory and empathy overload. But one of the perks of my former rock band being in residence at The Mirage Resort and Casino in the early 2000s was that for 3 weeks out of each month, I lived in a well-appointed room on one of the top floors of the hotel. I’d always ask for a view of the dolphin habitat because their playful nature reminded me of my dogs back home in L.A. And because dolphins are awesome. Obviously.

Performances with the band were a blast and we had a great time with the guests who came to listen or dance. Sometimes, though, our front-row view of the nightly circus could be a bit much. The dance floor mating rituals of (mostly) drunk, middle-aged white suburbanites would inspire my bandmates and me to take cleansing nighttime strolls around the property. One night as we were walking back from a private gig at one of the villas, we cut through the backstage area of Siegfreid and Roy’s Secret Garden, a menagerie of wild animals. I was clueless about our precise location until a spine-tingling roar cracked the silence. A magnificent tiger stood on his hind legs and leaned against the chain link fence we were walking by. After I caught my breath, I stopped to chat with the mighty beast for a spell until my bandmates dragged me back to the hotel. But this wonderful chance encounter had me itching to go back.

The next morning, I promptly went downstairs and coughed up the fee to visit the Secret Garden by daylight. Zoos, in general, can be difficult for me. Seeing those glorious creatures in tiny fake habitats makes me sad. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared for the crushing heartbreak I experienced when I saw Gildah, a 57 year old Asian elephant who had been with the magicians for 25 years. With a turkey as her only companion, this majestic pachyderm seemed as if her very spirit was bleeding out. Looking into her eyes felt like tapping into an infinite sadness. I stood there for the longest time with her, silent tears tracing that sadness onto my cheeks.

Did you know that some elephant trainers shackle a chain to one of the back legs of baby elephants in captivity and attach it to a sturdy pole? The baby will fight and struggle to pull away but will eventually give up and become submissive. It’s that learned helplessness that will keep a fully-grown elephant from trying to escape her shackle when in reality, she could drag the whole circus along behind her if she wanted to escape. We are stronger than we know. But that is easy to forget when we feel we have no control over our environment.

A rude awakening

These past two weeks have been rough for survivors of sexual abuse. I, for one, have been politisick. In the wake of Dr. Ford’s testimony I have seen such vitriol, gaslighting, and patent dismissal of her traumatic experience that I could just crawl into a hole for a month. Why on earth would someone wait 37 years to report a sexual assault? I would ask anyone who truly wishes to understand the answer to that question to simply scroll through their Facebook feed or read the comments section of any random news article covering the political circus that was the senate judiciary hearings and ask yourself if you would be courageous enough to make that information public, knowing the backlash you’d face.

Let me make it absolutely clear that it takes tremendous courage to share a story of sexual assault with anyone—let alone the whole world—for the very same reasons, regardless of the scale. Last week I witnessed friend after friend posting on social media about trauma they’d experienced (but had heretofore kept secret) in order to demonstrate exactly how a woman could go 37 years without reporting her assault. Women shared stories about how they tried to tell a family member or a person in authority and were summarily dismissed, silenced or forced to repeat the accusation in the presence of the perpetrator, only to be called a liar in front of the person they’d dared to confide in.

 

It took me days to understand why, after 13 years, I could not stop thinking about Gildah in all of her trapped, heart-wrenching loneliness—standing still in her small enclosure, powerless to break free.

When I’d looked into her eyes I’d touched some unspeakably hopeless sadness that transported me to our kitchen table when surrounded in a cloud of my mother’s cigarette smoke, “16-year-old me” finally confessed that my stepfather had been sexually abusing me since I was eight. With eyes as empty and broken as Gildah’s she’d replied, “He’d never do that. He could never do such a thing.”

A lifetime of unreported inappropriate sexual advances from bosses, “friends,” talent managers, directors, and strangers later, I am politisick.

The fatigue is real, ya’ll

If you’ve had any doubts, yes, the #metoo movement is necessary. But I am tired. Tired of the fighting. Tired of the outrage. Tired of the pushback. Tired of the protestations about false accusations when 63% of sexual assault doesn’t even get reported.Multiple regional, national, and meta studies conclude that false allegation claims are widely inflated and unreliable due to variations in definitions and evaluation methods across studies. Even so, depending on the study, false allegations account for a paltry 2-10% of reported assaults 2. This movement isn’t about a few dishonest women crying wolf or making a lot of noise over minor infractions. And no, I’m not referring to Dr. Ford. Being held down against your will while a belligerent, oversexed drunk covers your mouth and tries to rip your clothes off so he can rape you as he and his wasted friend laugh at your pathetic attempts to break free is not a noisy story about a minor infraction–regardless of who the perpetrator may or may not have been; lest you think I’m making this about democrats and republicans—believe me, I truly do not have the energy for that little chat.

 

Evidenced-based hope vs wishful thinking

But here’s the thing about learned helplessness—I repeat, we are stronger than we know. We can transcend it. Positive psychology has demonstrated that we can override this default response. There are empirically validated interventions and practices that help us to activate what learned helplessness pioneering researcher—psychologist, Martin Seligman, now refers to as “the hope circuit.” And no matter how helpless we might feel in the moment, we have the power to change our mindset, our behavior, and often, our circumstances.

I believe that hearts can heal. I believe that survivors’ voices matter. I believe that the cultural zeitgeist, predatory behavior, public policy, and laws must change. And I believe all of this must happen through empathy and compassion for the countless women and men who must forge a new way of working, living, and loving together. We have to allow room to make mistakes and to grow from them with humor, patience, and kindness for one another.

I am angry but I am forgiving. I am disappointed but I am hopeful. I have been hurt but I still love and respect men. I don’t advocate superiority or special privileges. I believe in respect, in taking responsibility for our actions, and in equal treatment for equal contribution. My heart is hurting but I believe in humanity. I believe in us. And I am not alone.

Yes, I am tired and maybe I need a nap and a digital detox. But I cannot and I will not lie down for long. I can commune with tigers. But I will also stand for captive elephants. One thing’s for sure, though… I am so over this circus.

References

Rennison, C. A. (2002). Rape and sexual assault: Reporting to police and medical attention, 1992-2000 [NCJ 194530]. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsarp00.pdf

National Sexual Violence Resource Center, False Reporting (2012).
Retrieved from: https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/…/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_False- Reporting.pdf

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