Were You There?
LC Van Savage
Here we go again. What is it about us, not all of us of course, but some, what is it that makes us insist when we learn about people who are in nearly impossible predicaments, that after our initial shock and concern, we begin to start acting tough and judgmental, insisting that the victims “could have escaped their problem if they’d just tried.” Really? You know this? You were there?
We’re doing it again with those 13 Turpin kids in Perris CA who were discovered chained to furniture, starved for both food, humanity and knowledge. Everyone has heard of them, and what their parents did to them. Can any of us imagine what their lives were like? And yet typically, at first we’re horrified about what happened to those precious young people, so starved for good food they were thin and stunted in too many ways. Now that our sympathy button has been pushed, we’re over it, and right on cue, we start to say, “Well, in all those years, at least one of them could have escaped. One of those kids even went to college and yeah, his mother drove him and picked him up. But he could have told someone and saved his siblings. He was in class. He should have told his teachers.” Oh? No kidding! How smart we are. What a perfect solution to a problem about which we know absolutely nothing. Do any of us have a clue what that young college student was told would happen to him if he tried to escape, or to tell anyone what was happening at home? Were you there? I wasn’t. He was clearly so brain-washed he likely thought all kids were raised the way he was. And yes, eventually a sister did make it out and told, and she was believed, and those kids are now saved, if years of adjustment, building up their physical bodies, and therapy, can even begin to save them.
Remember Patty Hearst? I do. Yes, we were all sympathetic and horrified at the time of her kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974 from her apartment in Berkeley, CA when she was 19. The kidnappers had big plans for Patty who was the granddaughter of the mega wealthy William Randolph Hearst. And right on schedule after a respectable period of time, short, we started again with the, “Oh she could have escaped. She had plenty of opportunities. She just didn’t want to.” Really? She “could” have escaped? Do we know what those people told her while she was chained to a toilet for weeks? Do we know how they bent her mind? Do we know how she suffered? Do any of us know the psychology of why captured, tortured and tormented people often bond with their oppressors? Is it that these victims come to utterly depend on them for survival, food, shelter, protection and friendship? Do you actually know these things? I don’t. Were you there?
Let’s not forget young Elizabeth Smart, from Salt Lake. Remember her? Kidnapped at knife point at age 14 from her bedroom, raped every single day by a low-life monster whose wife was complicit, and yet I’ve heard and read people saying, “Oh please, she had plenty of opportunities when she could have run. That couple let her walk freely everywhere with them. She was in plain sight, for God’s sake. All she had to do was shout or run. I sure would have. She could have escaped dozens of times.” Seriously folks? You know that absolutely? Impressive. Do any of us have a clue what that poor, terrified and debased child suffered? You were there?
And let’s consider the Jews and all the other millions murdered during the Holocaust. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve heard people, after they expressed the obligatory horror of course, say stupid things like “Well, after all, there were only a few guys, OK Nazis, with guns and there were countless thousands of people being marched to the gas chambers. No one could have run? No one could have stepped up?” Really folks? Would you have? A few did, many of them died, and not easily. Who of us can possibly even begin to know how it feels to be shoved into a railroad car stuffed with far too many people, starving, thirsty, terrified, cold, eventually to be gassed, murdered along with their children, their beloved family members? I can’t even begin to imagine it. And that was just the beginning of the horrors awaiting them. Would I have taken a stand and attempted to rescue thousands of people from a few Nazis with guns? No. Would you? I seriously doubt it. I was not there. Were you?
Now let’s talk about young people who murder their abusive parents. How many times have you heard people say, “there is never an excuse for killing. Sure, maybe things were bad but he/she could have told someone, a school counselor, a teacher or priest. I know I’d have done that. I’d never have killed my father just because he got a little rough with me.” No kidding? Really? Are you quite serious? Hey people, maybe they did tell. Maybe they were not believed. Sometimes people who hear these things react by saying “Oh yeah? Well if this so-called abuse is happening to you, then prove it!” And the abused of course, is deeply afraid and cannot ”prove it.”
News flash folks; sometimes, some extreme times, killing is the only way to escape and survive lives of unspeakable violence. You say you’d never do that. Are you absolutely sure? Do you positively know that? If we would only just hear these kids and even better, believe them, when they describe the horrific things family members did and do to them, and what their honored parents promised would happen if they told, but we so often don’t, or won’t, hear. It’s a whole lot easier that way. We decide they’re making it all up and so we punish them for finally protecting themselves, even when we have all the gruesome facts of the abuses heaped upon them. We say it’s an over-active imagination. We say they’re doing it for attention. We say crazy things like, “Oh I’ve known those parents for 30 years and there is no way they could possibly be doing those things to their kids, no way! We’ve had barbeques at each other’s homes, for heaven’s sake. No, not possible. They are lying,” forgetting yet once again that what happens to people behind closed doors is often at polar opposites to what happens in public. Tell me, were you there when a parent was routinely beating his child half to death on a daily basis for some stumbling shortcoming? I wasn’t. But I believe them. Why can’t we do that?
Those powerful words --- should, would, could—folks, we weren’t there. Why can’t we get that part? We don’t know what indescribable things were forced into the minds and hearts of these desperate victims. It is clear I am not a therapist but I wonder if it somehow soothes us and makes us feel a lot better when we hear of these horrifying atrocities inflicted on often helpless people, even very young children, if we convince ourselves that the fault lies with the victim, that “all he had to do was run/shout/call someone/send a note/flag down a cop, anything,” etc. etc. Maybe that’s it. Maybe blaming those foolish, short-sighted victims lets us not have to deal with what happened to them. Maybe it’s easier for us to think and say, “It’s their own fault.” So many of us will drone, “Well, if that happened to me, I’d have escaped. I’d have run. I’d have fought back. They would never have known what hit them. There’s no way they’d have gotten away with that if they’d done those things to me. No way.” Does blatting out all those big tough swaggering words make them true? Not in my world. Disbelieving these victims can make them valueless, and they are anything but. Yeah, we’re all armchair heroes.
But again, tell me, do you really know the answers? Were you there? I wasn’t.
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