See You in Hell, My Friend

by

J.C. Schildbach

An impulse buy one morning, exhausted and mildly intoxicated. I worked nights, and so did she—back when we worked at the same place. Whiskey in the morning isn’t all that unusual when morning is your evening…and drinking a lifestyle choice.

I didn’t make the connection until I got it in the mail and thought, ‘Why the hell did I buy this?’

It was a screen-printed sweatshirt, a mock-Christmas sweater, featuring a modified version of the “Sigil of Baphomet”—an inverted pentagram, with the head of “The Goat of Mendes” inside, and the Hebrew for “Leviathan” spelled out, one character between each point of the star.

a-baphomet-xmas

But where was I going to wear this? I wasn’t going to any Christmas parties, and haven’t been in the mood to wear any sort of provocative T-shirts since, maybe, my Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to F*ck” shirt back when I was in college.

Wait…there was also “Thanks a lot, God”…which I printed and sold…a friend’s design.   And a few more are springing up now, including some fart jokes and worse. Let’s just say that within the last decade…wait…I thought of something else. Ok…moving on.

Eventually the fog lifted…Winnie the Pooh worshipping Baphomet…that’s the post she messaged me not four days before she died in her sleep. It came across as a still image, although it was supposed to be a .gif—an altered version of Pooh exercising in front of a mirror.

pooh-baphomet

Her death wasn’t expected at all. She’d had health problems—but not of the terminal kind, as far as I knew—and apparently, as far as she knew.

It wasn’t until roughly two months after she died (and at least 5 months before I ordered that sweatshirt) that the memorial service was held, on her birthday, in the early evening sun of Golden Gardens Park in Seattle.

I was reminded that night that we all know people in different ways. People remembered her as intense and potentially off-putting, while also supportive, nurturing, and teaching. There were tales of wild, dumpster-diving/reach-for-the-brass-ring adventures; and stories of sage advice, a kind word, a wisely snide comment.

Some minor celebrities were there…people whose work I knew, and admired.

I kept quiet…mostly.

The last time I saw her—in real life/face to face—was when we went out to breakfast at a dive up the road from where we worked. She had taken a new position, and was moving off the grave shifts we shared. We were celebrating her new position, and the end of our overnight shifts together.   We enjoyed Bloody Marys, Biscuits and Gravy, and hash browns.

(A few months later, I would move on, too, to another organization entirely).

On that morning I picked up the tab…but only because 1) I have a limited capacity for showing affection/appreciation otherwise, 2) I was essentially her supervisor on those shifts, so it only seemed right, and 3) we had a vague plan for a future gathering where she would get me back.

That final night, while slapping together a playlist on my laptop, I inadvertently started playing a song by Ghost…or Ghost B.C. if that’s how you want to be…”Year Zero”…which our other shift-mate instantly recognized (the chants of ‘demon’ names are hard to miss if you’re familiar with them—Belial, anyone?).

It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the band. She messaged me later in the day, saying she couldn’t believe she had never heard of them before.

Yes, ours was a soft Satanism, a casual Satanism…something difficult to fathom for those who take matters of eternal life all too seriously. And out of fear of…or concern for…those very same people, I hesitated in completing this post all those months ago…shelved it, sat on it, failed to put it together once and for all.

I neglected to process the grief in a way that made sense to me…or that made sense to the friendship I had with her. I just added it to the list of other head-kicks and gut-punches I was enduring, ignoring, and stuffing…waiting for a time when I assumed the blows would stop landing, and I might be able to crawl off to a dark corner and heal.

For her part, she was Buddhist…or something like it, I suppose. We enjoyed our dark humor more than we ever engaged in any deeply spiritual or religious discussions. I’ve got no legitimate religious/spiritual label for myself. Raised Lutheran, self-converted to agnosticism. My wife accuses me of believing in ghosts, but denying they (or any other spiritual beings or energy) exist.

True enough…but also false enough.

My co-worker and I shared a penchant for self-destruction, and self-sabotage, largely tamed by age to a kind of resignation that we weren’t really capable of being bad people…although we still kept trying to prove to ourselves, and a few select others, in small, stupid ways, that maybe we were.

She was only seven years my senior…so her death still brings shock…even after the steadily-increasing numbers of deaths I experience each year, many involving people right around her age. But most of those are prefaced with diagnoses and attempts at treatment, along with the actual spectre of specific forms of death…usually cancer of one kind or another…not the vague idea of ‘health problems,’ or a good night’s sleep unexpectedly becoming an eternal sleep.

Her picture…the one distributed on postcards at the memorial service, the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “Memorial Song” (“It is true I heard/God is where you are”) printed on the other side, is propped up on my desk at home…a reminder of…what? Not to blow off life? A reminder of the idea that we’re all gonna die sometime…maybe soon?

desk-cyndee

I don’t know

It’s there.

It makes me smile.

Sometimes it scares me into thinking I better get off my ass…but not necessarily acting on that scare.

But, always, it brings me back to that same, old, silly idea…born of tauntaun rides, and sub-par 80s metal…

(Then) I’ll see you in hell, (my friend).

Imagine Han Solo fronting Grim Reaper, or Steve Grimmet, clad in a red, pleather jumpsuit, heading out into the rapidly-dropping temperature of Hoth…or don’t. I really need to learn how to work with Photoshop to get these images out into the world…or not.

At any rate, “See you in hell” isn’t an insult or a threat, but a badge of honor among those who carry themselves as…well, I suppose ‘antiheroes’ is as close as I’m going to get…the people plugging along, trying to do good in spite of themselves…not bucking to be perfect—because who the hell cares about that?—but struggling to be human in a way that supports all other humans, or as many of them as we can tolerate, and…well…all those other damned living things.

So, yeah…

I’ll see you in hell, my friend.

 

 

 

 

 

Serving Mammon, The Duggar Way

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Last week, it came out that Josh Duggar, of the “19 Kids and Counting” Duggars, sexually assaulted four of his younger sisters as well as a young girl from another family. From what we know, this all happened back around 2003, when Josh was 14 or 15 years old.

Josh Duggar does not deny that he committed these crimes, although he refers to them as “sins” and “terrible things” and “mistakes” rather than crimes.

Josh Duggar never faced any legal consequences for his crimes.

The Duggar family claims that they addressed the sexual assaults by getting “closer to God,” by pursuing counseling for both Josh and the victims, and by going to the police.

But let’s be clear about this–the Duggar family NEVER GOT COUNSELING FOR JOSH OR THE VICTIMS OF HIS CRIMES, and THE FAMILY NEVER WENT TO THE POLICE.

How can I possibly know this? Well…

Let me first address the police situation, even if that is a bit backwards. Jim Bob Duggar (father to all of the Duggars—victims and victimizer), following Josh’s “counseling” took him to a law enforcement officer who was a family friend, for a “confession” that resulted in a “stern talk.” According to Josh’s parents, the law enforcement officer told them that since Josh had already gone through counseling, there was nothing more that could be done. So either 1) Josh’s parents are completely lying about what the police officer advised, or 2) The police officer was completely derelict in his duty, as far as what he was supposed to do when given information about sexual abuse involving children.

Also, the cop (again, a family friend) that the Duggars took Josh to meet with is currently SERVING MORE THAN 50 YEARS IN PRISON FOR POSSESSION OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY. I’m sure he quite enjoyed his meeting with the young Josh Duggar.

Now, as to the counseling…

If any of the victims, or the perpetrator, had gone to any kind of legitimate counselor who deals with sexual offense behaviors, or with sexual victimization, or with any form of recognized counseling that requires a person to be credentialed at all, a report would have been made to Child Protective Services, and an investigation would have occurred much earlier than it did—early enough that Josh would likely have faced some legitimate legal consequences before the three-year statute of limitations on his crimes ran out, and early enough that his family would not have been able to completely manipulate the situation, and keep it out of the legal system, and out of the public eye—well, out of the public eye until now.

Simply put, counselors are mandated reporters. They cannot keep things like this on the down-low—not without losing their licenses.

Such a lovely wedding.  You'd never guess...

Such a lovely wedding. You’d never guess…

As it is, if it weren’t for an anonymous “tipster” contacting the authorities in Arkansas and the production staff of the Oprah Winfrey Show (who also contacted the Arkansas authorities) back in 2006, there never would have been an investigation at all. Josh would have victimized four of his sisters, and another young girl, and had to face the “punishment” and “counseling” he got by spending four months away from home, reading the Bible and helping a family friend do some remodeling work—not exactly an evidence-based means of addressing sexually predatory behaviors.

And, again, that’s exactly what happened: No punishment. No real counseling.

The victimized girls also did not receive anything that might be considered an evidence-based form of counseling for addressing sexual trauma and sexual victimization. We have a key to what kind of treatment the girls might have received, in Samantha Field’s blog post, where Duggar-family Guru Bob Gothard’s insanely creepy “Counseling Sexual Abuse” graphic is posted—a chart that, among other things, suggests that being sexually assaulted brings one favor with God, and special spiritual strengths.

In other words, the Duggar girls were almost certainly told that being sexually victimized was a good thing in the eyes of Jesus—in no small part because it helps them recognize how terrible they were as prepubescent temptresses, and because it makes them super-spiritual. In case there is any need for clarification, such “reframing” is not considered “best practices” for addressing sexual victimization.

In fact, if any of the children had gone to any legitimate form of counseling, the girls would have had control over whether they even had to listen to an apology from Josh, much less having him allowed back in the home after a few short months away.  And there would have been a much more involved discussion of how/whether to integrate Josh back into the home.

And just so you know where I’m coming from, I spent over two years working full-time with juvenile sex offenders, and then spent over six years working part-time with adult sex offenders.

I also read the entire (redacted) police report —something I have had to do in many other cases.

The story of Josh Duggar is not unique—in the sense that families are generally unsure of what course to take when such situations arise. Families do not want to invite shame on their children–victims or victimizers–or the family as a whole, and often delay any meaningful action or professional intervention until the problem has progressed to a state where it can no longer be viewed as a “phase” or as “innocent exploration”—or until one of the victims reports the abuse to a therapist, or a school counselor, or a camp counselor, or a teacher, or a friend who tells a parent, or a pastor, or anybody else who chooses to act in a responsible fashion.

I have had contact with families who earnestly sought help and support, and tried to do right by both their daughters and their sons—and any other victims. I have had contact with families where the abusers were clearly given the benefit of the doubt, and the victims shamed as if they had deliberately ruined the family–even to the point of sending the victims away so the abusers could come back to the home. And I have been in contact with families who tried to beat the bad behavior out of the victimizers, and who go on pretending they are being persecuted over some dumb crap that they are perfectly capable of handling.

Clearly, the situation with Josh Duggar progressed to a dangerous state. His was not a case of budding sexual curiosity leading to “playing doctor.” His was a case of repeatedly exerting sexual “authority” over girls who were smaller, weaker, and devalued in his family’s “culture.”

From a fan blog--a charming sign in the Duggar family home.

From a fan blog–a charming sign in the Duggar family home.

In fact, what many have viewed as the Duggar family’s “wholesomeness”—their constant harping on values of purity and modesty—could not be further from a healthy attitude toward relationships and sex.  It places girls and women on a “pedestal” that values their virginity first, their breeding abilities second, and their whole selves not at all.  It is a “culture” that infantilizes women, treating them as too stupid to be trusted with control of their own bodies. It is a “culture” that preaches submission of wives to their husbands to an extreme degree. Women are told to recognize their inferiority, and to be celebrate it, because that’s what God wants.

Consider what message is being sent to one’s daughters—and one’s sons—when the matriarch of a family asserts publicly that it is her job to submit sexually to her husband, even when she does not want to.

Consider the message being sent to one’s children when parents say they should keep having children, no matter what, simply because it is biologically possible.

Consider the message being sent to one’s children when it is deemed acceptable for a pre-teen male to “chaperone” his nearly-adult sister on a date, to make sure she and her boyfriend do nothing inappropriate.

Many conservative/Republican figureheads have come out in support of the Duggars, and in condemnation of people who are now criticizing the Duggar family for their handling of the sexual abuse situation—mostly in the vein of “quit picking on Christians” and “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” With few exceptions, those defenses involve labeling Josh’s actions as teenage frivolity, rather than what they are—deliberate, sexually predatory behavior that was covered up by his family.

Family friend, and Duggar-political-endorsement-recipient Mike Huckabee used the argument that a victim, or multiple victims, of Josh’s behavior, wanted privacy–both in defending the family and when he had a judge he appointed destroy the un-redacted police report about Josh’s offenses. He claims the Duggars sought out help, and went to the authorities. But, yet again, they didn’t—not in any real way.

Likewise, Matt Walsh, used the childish “Oh yeah?!? Well—liberals!!” argument (along with the ‘persecuted Christians’ argument) in a post where he also made the poignant observation that, “As a parent, you have to think whether your 14 year old son deserves to have his life ruined over his mistakes.”

Really, Matt? What about your 12-, or 10-, or 8-, or 6-year-old daughter, or the 5-year-old neighbor girl? (No, I don’t have actual information on the specific ages of the victims). They’ve already had their “lives ruined” by the “mistakes” of your son. So, devalue the daughters? They’ll get over it? What’s important is that you protect your sexually-predatory teenage son?

But it’s not just a “mistake” when a 15-year-old male repeatedly gropes the genitals and chests of multiple younger girls. It is sexual assault.

I will note that the recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders (and for adult sex offenders) who are caught and go through some sort of legal proceeding is much lower than the public perceives it to be, and that said rate goes down even more with appropriate treatment. So, given that Josh was caught, but not actually subject to legal punishment or real treatment, I guess I can believe that he’s steered clear of further offenses—as Josh and the family assert–although there’s not a lot of data on people who got caught but essentially are allowed to skate.

But I do not believe Josh has really changed his attitude toward his behaviors—especially when he calls them “mistakes” for which he feels he has already paid a big enough price.

Also, for those who are claiming to support the Duggars, let’s be clear about what is being supported. In pursuit of both political power, and celebrity, (the truest of Christian values) the Duggar family decided to bury sexual offenses committed by their son, against their daughters and another girl. Their attempts to prevent Josh from getting in trouble were successful, inasmuch as the offenses did not come to light until after the law no longer allowed any punishment for son Josh.

So, if you’re supporting the Duggars, you’re arguing that families should dodge the law, allow their daughters to be sexually assaulted by their brothers or by family friends, and do what they can to keep their sons from getting in legal trouble, all while counseling the children that sex is bad, but that it’s okay that the sexual assault took place because boys and men can’t help themselves and girls and women are really only important as breeding stock–and provoke sexual assault in the first place.

Furthermore, you’re advocating that it’s acceptable for the son who committed the offenses to take a prominent job with a well-known organization that utilizes bogus research in an attempt to control women, and demonize the LGBTQ community in order to deny them the basic rights that heterosexual adults have—all while accusing the LGBTQ community of habitually engaging in the behaviors that Josh engaged in, and that his parents covered up.

That’s not wholesomeness or purity.

Those aren’t “mistakes.”

Those aren’t the kind of beliefs, or actions, anyone should be lauding.

Pam Geller’s Free Speech Chum

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Two heavily armed, body-armor-clad, wannabe-jihadists shooting a security guard in the ankle and then getting picked off by a pistol-wielding traffic cop in a parking lot outside a cartoon contest in small-town Texas is not, as Pam Geller would have us believe, some kind of religious war in the United States. Rather, it was Geller’s own failed effort to start a larger fight.

Before I go any further, let me state up front that Geller, along with everybody else in America, has every right to say whatever paranoid, delusional things she wants to say about the inevitable imposition of Sharia Law and the ensuing mandatory ‘honor killings’ by our ‘secret Muslim’ President. She also has every right to hold a cartoon contest deliberately designed to insult a particular group of people over their religious views. Said group of people, or any of its members, has the right to fight back with words, logic, cartoons or delusional rants of their own—but not with bullets, bombs, or knives.

Let me also point out that some people have stated that there are prohibitions against engaging in speech that is designed to incite people to violence. But that doesn’t really apply in this case. If Geller held a rally where she encouraged the attendees to go out and physically attack somebody, then she would be inciting people to violence. Saying something to deliberately offend somebody is not inciting that person (or group) to do anything. Their reaction is entirely up to them.

That said, Geller sailed into Garland, Texas, along with Dutch politician Geert Wilders, to hold a cartoon contest intended to insult Muslims over their belief that the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted in any physical form—much less in any deliberately offensive form. (Judaism and Christianity, among other religions, have similar prohibitions written into their holy books regarding depictions of holy figures, but plenty of Christians really like pictures and statues of Jesus—unless they’re offensive, in which case they call for bans on whoever made them, whatever paid for them, and whoever hung them on a wall).

Geller’s reason for holding the event at a community center in Garland was apparently related to a Muslim event held there earlier in the year, called “Stand with the Prophet in Honor and Respect,” an event which had been held in Chicago the previous year. In 2015, the “Stand with the Prophet” event had the unfortunate coincidence of having been scheduled to occur shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

Geller has stated that her cartoon contest is intended as a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Charlie Hebdo folks, though, were equal-opportunity offenders. That is, they didn’t seek only to piss off Muslims, they wanted to piss off everybody. And they’d been going at it for years. They didn’t just hire their own little paramilitary-force-for-a-day and set about trying to troll militant Muslims.

Geller, on the other hand, tried to chum the waters with her cartoon contest, thinking she’d draw a feeding frenzy of violent jihadists to her little event—perfect target practice for the $10,000 worth of security she hired. What she got instead was a pair of inexperienced, young pups, mouths full of aimlessly-chomping teeth, drunk on the blood and guts of Geller’s antagonism, who bit off way more than they could chew.

We're gonna need a dumber boat!

We’re gonna need a dumber boat!

Geller, when she isn’t directly attempting to insult all Muslims, claims that she is an opponent of Muslim extremists and extremism. However, she does not actually draw that line, or make any consistent effort to explain where that line actually is. To her, Muslims who actually do attack things and people like her cartoon contest and its attendees are seen as proof that she is right about the intent of Muslims to take over America and kill all non-Muslims. Unfortunately, to Geller, Muslims who do not attack are seen as evidence of a quiet, creeping plot—sleeper cells who are biding their time, before they make their move to take over America and kill all the non-Muslims.

Geller also claims she is a defender of free speech, religious freedom, and individual rights. But, again, her position on such freedoms is a bit muddled. For instance, if she is so supportive of religious freedom, it’s hard to understand why she pushed so hard to stop the “ground zero mosque” from being opened, or why she spends so much time antagonizing Muslims in general, accusing the religion as a whole, and all of its adherents, in whatever form, of heinous crimes (and future crimes).

Likewise, Dutch madman Wilders has attempted to ban the Quran in his home country, as well as trying to prevent mosques from being built there—all under the guise of protecting women and other ‘victims’ of Islam. These are not exactly the actions of someone who thinks that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ will lead to the best possible outcome.

In short, Geller and Wilders are in favor of freedoms for those who they agree with, but want to shut down those with whom they disagree, even if Geller’s and Wilder’s disagreements are with vague caricatures of their alleged enemies, or if those disagreements are assumed to apply to all people who fit under a vast umbrella of a label.

Yet, despite Geller’s and Wilders’ proclamations of war, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi do not represent all of Islam anymore than, say, Michelle Bachmann represents all of Christianity, or anymore than Geller and Geert actually represent the concerns of all people as relates to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Still, if we’re going to ban Geller from her weird little attention grabs, than might we also have to ban things like, say, The Book of Mormon (the play, not the book)?  As much as the authors of The Book of Mormon might have been making a more nuanced critique of religion and what it means to believe, they certainly weren’t out to avoid offense.

And if we’re going to justify Simpson’s and Soofi’s actions as some kind of expected or normal response to Geller’s provocation, then aren’t we moving dangerously in the direction of saying that perpetrators of violence are only acting in ways that the victims of the violence should have expected, and have to accept?

Make no mistake, there are consequences to Geller’s form of speech. The main form of those consequences is that stupid people will agree with her, and will buy into her ridiculous ideas that there is some vast Muslim conspiracy that is mere days away from taking away all of our freedoms as U.S. citizens in order to impose Sharia law. Said stupid people may even commit violent acts of their own, and will certainly engage in forms of speech that are as similarly unappealing as Geller’s. There is also the potential consequence that people of the Muslim faith around the world will view Americans as somehow aligned with Geller’s form of thinking (as opposed to tolerating it, because that’s what we do). Such people may view our tolerance of Geller as evidence of the ill intent of Americans toward the Muslim world, potentially perpetuating a long chain of conflict.

Although I’m not exactly demonstrating this by writing about them, perhaps the best response to people like Geller and Wilders is the response that all but two of the members of the Muslim community in the United States exercised: ignoring them/refusing to take the bait.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing about Voltaire, expressed the core idea of freedom of speech as follows: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not sure I’m actually willing to take a bullet so that Geller can continue to peddle her special brand of targeted, incendiary bullshit. But I’m definitely not ready to make an argument that she must be shut down/shut up (like the arguments she has made about Muslims).

At the same time, I’ve also written numerous pieces suggesting that maybe certain forms of speech should be curbed in an attempt to reduce hostility toward people with mental illness, toward minorities, and toward people who generally don’t find themselves at the top of the power pyramid. Curbing such speech is, of course, a matter of personal choice, and a matter of seeking to be decent human beings. Under the banner of individual freedom, we get to say and do what we want, so long as we aren’t actually hurting anybody in some directly demonstrable way.

Of course, Geller isn’t on some quest to prove what a decent person she is, or what decent people Americans are in their acceptance of diverse traditions and differing viewpoints. She’s not on any kind of mission to promote free speech, despite her claims to the contrary.

And Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi went down to Garland Texas with the intent to fight and die, much like Geller and Wilder went down to Garland Texas to try and provoke a fight.

They all got what they wanted—sort of.

Passing on Tradition: Easter Edition

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Being the son of a pastor, and having been raised religiously, you might think Easter would have a pronounced level of importance in my consciousness. But it doesn’t really register with me. Growing up, I was fascinated by the Good Friday church service—the overall tone of fear and denial, lapses of faith, betrayal, brutality, and sacrifice. Exiting the church in silence into a darkened spring night.

Easter service, in contrast, felt more like an obligation and an aggravation. Crowded with people who didn’t regularly attend church, those who showed up only to get ‘the good stuff’—just like at Christmas—it felt something like the story of the ‘Little Red Hen’ minus the justice of it all—which I suppose is the point of all that ‘grace’ business.

The idea of a resurrection was appealing to me, I suppose. But I like my resurrection stories with a bigger helping of horror and revenge.  (There’s that grace getting in the way again). And maybe the idea of an empty tomb as the big symbol of hope was just a little unnerving to me.

In my adult life, I don’t think I’ve been to a single Easter church service. I’ve occasionally made it to Christmas Eve (nighttime) services. Maybe if I thought ahead about Easter at all, I would take in a Good Friday service.

I do remember the fun of Easter weekends as a child—a quick (indoor) Easter egg hunt, getting a basket of candy. We, of course, dyed the eggs on Saturday, which I enjoyed. But perhaps being unable to eat eggs, the art project angle, followed by the hiding-and-seeking, was all I was ever going to get out of that. The church service was a sort of drawn-out block of time before a gathering of extended family members—with ham (or pink pig meat, as it came to be known in a family joke based on my younger brother’s objection to ham’s color reminding him of the actual animal we were eating).  And in another aside, my mother apparently makes amazing deviled eggs–something I’ll never experience unless allergy-defeating technology makes a huge leap forward.

All of this background is by way of observing my current lack of (meaningful) observation of the Easter holiday.

This morning, I treated my wife, M, to an indoor Easter egg hunt—a few plastic eggs stuffed with gifts. But that had more to do with a particular 7/$27 clearance sale that coincided with the holiday, than with anything else.

The aftermath of a half-assed Easter observation

The aftermath of a half-assed Easter observation

The kid is off with her boyfriend, not observing the holiday in their own way.

And despite efforts—mostly aimed at all that business about creating fun memories for one’s children—to engage with the Easter holiday, we (M, the kid, and I) never really got any solid tradition going.

There were years when we colored eggs, sometimes with other family friends and their children—which inevitably involved me running out to a store on Saturday afternoon to get eggs, vinegar, and dye, as I hadn’t given it any thought beforehand.

There was a stretch of years where Easter involved me hiding plastic eggs, each containing a numbered clue, pointing the kid toward a fabulous gift—a basketball hoop, a rubber raft…something related to spring and getting outside and having fun.

There were years—or maybe just one year—when the kid went off with family friends to their big, extended-family gathering, out somewhere where I could not go due to work or school, and to which M did not want to go without me.

There was a year where we tried doing the public, child-centered, not-really-religious observation. When I asked the kid about Easter memories, she described it as that “Easter event at some community space we went to where they trapped a bunch of kids in a room with a bunch of plastic eggs with prizes,” and where one of the children who’d gone along with us “was scared shitless of the guy in the Easter Bunny costume.” For whatever reason, I found it rather amusing that the kid took pains to spell out “the guy in the Easter Bunny costume” rather than just saying “the Easter Bunny.”

There was a year when we were invited to a family celebration, which consisted of us arriving to a very short period of pre-dinner conversation, the serving of the meal, then dessert, then everyone being asked to leave so that there would be no further disruption in the family routine. Sure, there’s something to be said for stability, but if a holiday isn’t an excuse for an extended routine-disruption, what is?  Okay, to be fair, there were added complications that I won’t get into right now.  But, still, it felt like the least celebratory celebration in the history of Easter.

I sometimes have regrets that M and I were not more consistent in our own routines where (some) holidays and traditions are concerned. The kid simply has no solid foundation for an Easter tradition—or even a solid conviction about not celebrating the holiday. Perhaps that’s not so unusual as I think it is—a thought that is based on my own upbringing, and my vague sense of what many other people do to mark the holiday each year.

On some level, I suppose my concern about how we’ve celebrated, or not celebrated, Easter over the years boils down to a question of what kind of memories I’ve provided for the kid, or perhaps, what kind of memories she has formed around the holiday, based on the cicumstances we provided. Most of that is probably concern based around the knowledge that my own mother established a remarkably stable environment for our family, despite some major challenges—a level of stability I’ve never come close to achieving through the various moves, shifts in careers, and tenuous connections with friends and family.

But in the end, I suppose the kid has a sense of humor about it all. My feelings of urgency or importance to the holiday—feelings that are definitely muted and muddled—came out of the sense of importance assigned to the holiday in my upbringing. My feelings that I should be doing more about Easter are, ultimately, tied to a sense that my family did more for me around the holiday (and about religion and tradition in general), and that I should pick that up and go with it.

Still, what I grew up with was “normal” to me, and I wasn’t able, or willing, to maintain it. What the kid grew up with is something she has to define for herself, and which she can decide to expand on, or abandon. As much as we may like to think that such celebrations are universal in action and understanding, obligation and satisfaction, we’re all bringing our own baggage, and taking away what we will.

Happy Easter.

Sylvia Frumkin’s Place

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

I’d venture a guess that many who enter the mental health field, as with any potentially dramatic profession all the way from police to executives, do so with visions informed by Hollywood. One of the main Hollywood portrayals of the mental health worker is is that of the therapist/psychiatrist as a well-compensated genius, ensconced in a plush office, treating the worried well or other “eccentric” or “neurotic” types, while constantly being admired by clients for one’s observational skill and ability to call forth ‘breakthrough’ moments. The other end of the spectrum is the heroic social worker who, through sheer tenacity, overcomes all the problems an impoverished neighborhood can throw at her, overcoming multi-generational patterns, and very recent traumas, to really, really make a difference in the lives of an entire community.

Many in the field are drawn to books by Yalom, or Rogers, or perhaps even some acolytes of Oprah, who tell us that just by listening and accepting our clients, or by throwing the right bit of tough-love advice a client’s way, true transformation will take place, and clients will make huge leaps forward, forever changing their lives for the better.

Susan Sheehan’s “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” is perhaps the perfect antidote to the pie-in-the-sky visions of one’s brilliance and dedication making all the clinical difference in the world. It balances out the ideas about the wondrous gift of therapy with the reality of chronic and severe mental illness, and its resistance to ‘ah-ha moments’ and dramatic progress. It pushes past that “we don’t need no medications” mantra, which can, in fairness, apply to a lot of mental health issues.

“Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” was first published as a four part series in The New Yorker in 1981, then published as a book in 1982. For it, Sheehan won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1983. A new edition of the book was released roughly a year ago, including a new afterword by Sheehan. On reading about the re-issue in the online version of the New York Times in January of 2014, and having never read it before, I put it on my ‘to read’ list, and eventually checked out an old edition from the library.

Frumkin cover

The book, written from the perspective of a journalist, and not of a therapist trying to convince the readers of the efficacy of particular approaches to treatment, is involved in ways that few case studies can be. Sheehan spent over two years with Sylvia Frumkin (not her real name), a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sheehan had a great deal of access not only to the information on Frumkin’s treatment and behavior during the period when Sheehan shadowed Frumkin, but also to family members and others, getting a great deal of background on Frumkin’s life prior to her diagnosis, and the progress and setbacks that took place before Sheehan had ever met her.

Having had numerous contacts with clients diagnosed with schizophrenia, or suffering from other forms of psychosis, most often from a distance, it took me a while to get through the book. That is, the kinds of delusions, rants, and flights from treatment that plague Frumkin and those trying to help her, and which Sheehan documents in detail, were familiar to me—of course, with Frumkin’s behaviors being particular to her own case. Still, it was like trying to read about many of the most frustrating aspects of work during one’s down time.

For the uninitiated, I imagine the book is much more compelling, rather than overly familiar, and thus, somewhat draining. In discussing “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” with colleagues, I’ve most often likened it to Kafka’s “The Trial”—a book that is deliberately tedious in its depiction of a bureaucracy more intent on sustaining itself than serving any clear purpose—although, that comparison probably has much more to do with what I bring to the reading of Sheehan’s book than to what she has documented in such depth of detail. Also, I don’t think the mental health system—either now or at the time—is deliberately set up to be frustrating…it just frequently is, particularly for those most in need of help.

In addition to capturing the daily details of the behavior of a (this) client with schizophrenia, Sheehan also does a masterful job of explaining, simply and concisely, some fairly complicated legal, medical, and treatment-related concepts. For instance, Sheehan outlines the concept of “least restrictive” forms of treatment, both the bane and the beauty of our mental health system, which has been around since well before the current lack of options made it so completely mandatory.  In doing so, she answers that most familiar of questions about why we can’t “just lock up” people suffering from chronic forms of mental illness who can become rather taxing to a variety of public and private resources.

The most fascinating elements of Frumkin’s story to me, though, were the ‘side treatments’—pointless, and sometimes dangerous, programs that Sylvia was subjected to. Without going into a great deal of detail, the treatments ranged from moving in with a relative and his family who believed that all Frumkin needed was a good dose of Jesus and discipline to overcome her laziness and wicked ways, to a doctor who felt that manipulating the insulin levels of patients to extreme degrees could cure them of schizophrenia.

Ultimately, what works for Frumkin (or worked back around 1980) is what still works for clients today: a small number of medications that prove effective in treating schizophrenia, as well as (to greatly simplify things) a structured environment and supportive professionals. Unfortunately, said medications can lose their effectiveness over time, or the side effects can become increasingly detrimental to the clients. It is also quite common for clients to simply quit taking their medications, feeling them unnecessary or viewing them as the root cause of various forms of discomfort or other troubles in their lives. In addition, the structured environments can only be maintained for as long as clients are compliant with treatment, and as long as the treatment remains effective, and as long as funding and various programs allow. On top of that, anything from the restructuring of institutions, to changes in law and other policy, to the career changes of providers, to differences of opinion between providers and family members, can lead to new doctors and other providers making changes, sometimes rather arbitrarily, to a client’s medication regimen or support systems. In Frumkin’s case, alterations to her treatment and medications were made numerous times, in the most haphazard of fashions, often by doctors and other providers who seemed ignorant of her case history, or of how the medications work.

One might also note that this book was written back before the U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, decided that people with chronic mental illness enjoy the freedom that homelessness brings. So, Frumkin’s movements within the system are relatively easy in terms of her various forays into decompensation leading to fairly quick, and relatively long-term inpatient placements, with step-downs to semi-independent housing, and other supports that are much rarer today (and for most of the last three decades).

Ideally, Sheehan’s book would be taught in graduate schools, or maybe at earlier levels, by instructors who are familiar with the clinical aspects of schizophrenia; the current and historical treatments for it; and the current and historical state of affairs with regard to mental health facilities, available inpatient beds for clients with mental health issues, and legal and systemic complications to accessing those beds or other program options.

To be clear, it is necessary, as therapists, or in other capacities in the mental health field, to come equipped with a belief that we can make a difference. Without a bit of the dreamer in us, we would never head down this path to begin with.

But it is also necessary for providers at all levels to understand just what they are up against, particularly given that almost all providers in the mental health field will end up doing at least a round or two in the public mental health system–from practicums/internships to early jobs to entire careers–where the most challenging of clients often end up by default—frequently after being abandoned by families and other support systems, including insurance companies.

Frumkin’s family, as dysfunctional as they are, and as frequently detrimental to her treatment as they can be, at least hang in there to the extent that they can—which I imagine was at least somewhat less difficult when hospital beds and supported living options weren’t at such a premium as they are today. In the end, though, this isn’t a story of a family hanging together and triumphing over a terrible disease. It’s the story of a debilitating mental illness, and the toll it takes on the client, as well as those around her, and the wildly inconsistent efforts by a variety of people and systems to help her cope.

Welcome to Sylvia’s Place.

Merry Elvismas!

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Well, it’s Elvismas time, pretty baby.  And the snow is fallin’ on the ground…

In years past, I held Elvismas parties each year on Elvis’ birthday (January 8), as well as “Departure Day” parties, on the anniversary of Elvis…leaving us.

I won’t get into all the gory details right now, but will say that I do hope to get the house put back together enough to where I can get the shrine, or a version of it, put back up.

In years past, my dear friends over at Creepy Cult (see their web site–under construction–here: Creeps;  or their Etsy page here: And Creeps;  or their Facebook page here: And More Creeps–all with plenty of nifty things) would print up postcards for me on the occasions of the parties–at least when I got them the artwork on time and they had extra space on a print run to fit them in–because they’re cool like that, and because I’m cheap like that.

Elvis consumed

The image above is one such postcard from all the way back in 1993, when I devoted a bit more of my time to doing design work–if you want to call it that.  Elvis had a twin brother, Jesse, who never got to see the light of day; and Elvis easily had enough cool for at least two people.  So the image addresses that concept, along with Vernon Presley’s story that on the night of Elvis’ birth, he saw a powerful omen–the sky ringed in blue.

Peace, y’all.

Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.

 

 

Dad’s Grave

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Preacher’s Kid

The Summer of 1977 is forever burned into my brain as a collection of hallowed moments experienced while on a cross-country, family car trip in a Pine-Green Chevy Impala Station Wagon: Seeing a lightning storm roll toward St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoying a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco, swimming in Lake Michigan, watching “Star Wars” at a theater in Chicago when we were unable to procure tickets to the King Tut exhibit. (As a decades-long fan of the movie, it pains me to note that I nodded off sometime after the scene of R2-D2’s capture, later jarring awake to the battle cry of a Tusken Raider).

There were days-long visits to farms in communities we had lived in before I was old enough to remember, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, play in a rubber raft in a flooded cornfield, and experience the frightening speed of an angry mother pig as a newfound friend and I were made to race it to the fence of its pen after said friend pelted the sow with a dried-out corn cob. There was the morning I inadvertently released the inmates of a henhouse as I made a rather misguided effort to helpfully gather the eggs before breakfast, and the wonder of first experiencing the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” surf anthems from a landlocked farm community in the midwest.

Somewhat more mundane moments have stuck with me as well—attending a Saturday night church service in Sheboygan; staying up late to watch “Sssssss” on TV on a rainy night in Independence, Missouri; settling into the perfect stereo situation in the back seat of the Impala as my brothers played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” on the car’s cassette deck—“This ain’t the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

But there was one great disappointment in the whole epic adventure: the trip to my father’s grave in a small town in Nebraska. The victim of a stop-sign-running driver, and the shoddy engineering of the late-60s AMC vehicle he was driving, my father, the local Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, lost his life in the late summer of 1971. I am writing and posting this on the 43rd anniversary of that unhappy day—a day I was too young to remember or properly process—a day that gave birth to the attachment issues referenced in the subtitle of this blog.

Pops at 21...on his way to change the world.

Pops at 21…on his way to change the world.

The occasion, for me, was already lacking the appropriate sense of solemnity, with the shouting from a baseball game just across the road filling the bright, evening air. Things seemed even further amiss as we headed in the direction of…well, what seemed to be nothing.

Where was the towering monument? The magnificent marble Pieta? Or at least a moderately ornate cross?

Being a big fan of horror movies, and fascinated with the ornamentation and mythology of the church, I had built up the idea in my mind that my father’s grave would be marked by something appropriate to his stature as an important religious leader. My ideas were perhaps weirdly informed by my recent reading of Scott Corbett’s “Here Lies the Body”—a story set in a graveyard, and involving a massive grave marker with a statue of a pointing, judgmental angel—not to mention occult symbols scrawled in blood, and a murder mystery. On top of that, to pass the time on the drive from state to state, I had also read and re-read a book of “real life monsters,” which included stories of Vlad Dracula, and Haitian zombification procedures.

So when I saw the flat, drab grave marker, I wouldn’t say my heart exactly sunk, but my 8-year-old mind certainly underwent some shifts in its understanding of the world–shifts I filed away for later examination.

A little over a decade later, when I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” album, and heard the song “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” (about the 1977 suicide of a 15-year-old girl who jumped from the 17th story of a Hollywood hotel with her guitar) which contains the line, “Nebraska never lets you come back home,” that scene of my father’s grave came back to me, despite not having given it much thought at all in the interim.

The passage of time, and hopefully the acquisition of some tiny bit of maturity, led me to reassess the precise meaning of my father’s grave. I realized that that grave marker wasn’t about his importance in the world, or his stature in a small Nebraska town. It was just some sign, marking the place where the material–or perhaps more preciseley, the matter-bound–part of his existence was left. His influence, his importance, extends way beyond that little concrete or stone marker.

My father’s influence in the communities he served extends to this day, in part through the connections my family made in those communities.  His impact, which, combined with the hard work and diligence of my mother, who raised five sons and a daughter in the years after my father’s passing, extends out into the world in myriad ways, through the hard work and community involvement of all of my siblings and their children—all in their own ways striving to make the world a more humane place.

For my own part, struggling to understand my father’s path in life before it was cut short, and trying to find my connection to it, has been a lifelong endeavor. And while I may have, at times, viewed my father and his life in weirdly iconic terms—iconic in the sense of symbols, signs, and signals to the outside world—I now view it as iconic in the sense of legitimate meaning and influence, the ability to impact the world positively by being a decent person…the same sort of influence I can only hope to emulate.

Happy death day, pops!

Why Would You Work in the Field of Sexual Abuse?

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

There are few circumstances where one would relish the opportunity to talk about sexual assault with one’s niece. But given that my niece and I both work in fields related to sexual abuse, and don’t get to see each other very often, chances to “talk shop”—despite “shop” involving some rather heinous things—are pretty great.

You see, my niece, I’ll call her SC for short so I don’t have to keep calling her “my niece” and so I don’t have to use her actual name, spends a portion of her workweek as a Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE). I spend a portion of my workweek as an (Affiliate) Sex Offender Treatment Provider, and have worked with offenders in one capacity or another for over seven years.

Among the topics we discussed was the rather personal issue of why anyone gets into a field related to so much trauma and other forms of ugliness.

One big similarity we found is that, on learning of our professional lives, most everyone says, “I couldn’t do what you do.” In fact, we said it to each other. I have zero desire to be involved in anything that involves touching patients or perpetrators in order to draw blood or gather other bodily fluids and materials. I cannot imagine dealing with people who have just been traumatized, when the wounds are so fresh and the pain is still so raw. SC has no interest in engaging with those who commit sexual crimes, in order to get them to accept responsibility for what they’ve done, and unravel the knots they’ve tied themselves into on their way to convincing themselves it was okay.

One huge difference SC and I found in relation to the subject of why we do the work we do is that almost everybody asks me how I got into the field, while almost nobody asks her the same. The split in questions about why anyone goes into any career built around sexual crimes may be based largely on gender, and stereotypical beliefs about how one’s gender informs one’s connection to sexual assault. Then again, the particulars of our jobs might connect to different expectations. She’s involved in the early stages of trauma intervention and evidence gathering. Generally speaking, I’m involved with people with impending court proceedings or who have already served time for their crimes.

At any rate, in her estimation, it’s likely that nobody asks SC about her entry into the field because there is an underlying assumption/fear that she chose her path because she was sexually victimized. There is an assumption that asking her will unleash some history of traumatic experiences that will lead to all manner of emotional unpleasantness and the conversation rapidly turning uncomfortable.

Anna Gillespie's "I Don't Want to Know"

Anna Gillespie’s “I Don’t Want to Know”

On the other hand, people ask me because they assume that, since I’m a guy, I’ll have some interesting tale that is much less likely to involve me having been sexually victimized. From a purely statistical standpoint, the gender-based assumptions make a fairly good bit of sense. Although, with SC working mostly with adult victims of violent crimes, and me working mostly with offenders who groomed and manipulated underage victims, and no fully accurate statistics existing for crimes in either realm, statistics only say so much.

On top of the statistical inadequacies, despite such gender-based assumptions, I’m really not sure what people might think would be my reason for getting involved in the field that wouldn’t involve at least some form of indirect (to me) trauma—such as someone I know and love having been victimized. Or perhaps there’s some stereotypical thought that men in this field are engaged in matters of clinical interest due to career-building, problem-solving pursuits, while women are involved with their choices for more personal reasons. Perhaps a bit of research on gender-based perceptions of the career choices made by other people is in in order.

Inevitably, when I attempt to explain my involvement in evaluating and treating sex offenders, and I mention a connection to a pastor at the church I attended growing up, I get a “say no more” response. That is, once a pastor is invoked, the person asking me makes a quick re-evaluation of their question, resulting in the immediate reaction of trying to cut me off before I say anything they’d rather not hear.

But the connection to the pastor has much more to do with struggles of faith, and just what it means to have a significant portion of one’s religious education delivered by a sexual abuser of children, than with having been victimized. It has to do with understanding how anybody, let alone a religious leader, could have developed such behavior. But I rarely have the chance to get all of that out once the question has been raised.

And now that I think of it, while talking with SC, I didn’t get through much of that either—through no fault of hers, but due to my own hesitation/difficulty at explaining myself in this matter—or perhaps because I’m so used to being cut off. I did get to the “I’m not doing this because I was molested by a pastor” part, but didn’t get into the more esoteric components of my attraction to the field.

I don’t fault people for their (perhaps prurient) interest in hearing disturbing tales of twice-removed personal trauma. Anybody in this field has at least a clinical interest in such stories and understanding what is behind them, or how those involved might be healed or rehabilitated to the extent possible. Still, it’s much easier for most people to deal with such tales when they involve an unknown or distant victim, or when a computer or TV screen or a printed page is safely containing that victim’s story, than it is to deal with somebody whose emotional scars may burst open right in front of you.

In my work, I am much less likely to deal with such potential emotional eruptions than SC is. I’m used to dealing with all manner of misdirected, sometimes explosive, anger and shame. Still, the focus of my work involves a significant amount of distance from the victims of sexual crimes, and the pain of those experiences. As much as those of us who are involved in the treatment of offenders may attempt to dig in deep and uproot the sources of objectification and emotional distortion that may lead to further offenses, we providers are spared that intense level of immediate pain that comes from sexual assault. Even when dealing with offenders who have a history of victimization themselves, providers are generally removed from such experiences by years. In other words, I’m afforded a high level of abstraction of the victims and their pain that SC is not allowed in her work.

It may ultimately be that the distance from, and abstraction of, pain and victimization involved in my work makes it easier for people to ask me why I do what I do. In fact, the people I deal with are, to the general public, abstractions themselves. “Sex offenders” and “pedophiles” are little more than skewed ideas to large portions of the population. People want to know what such offenders are like, and if they fit the pervasive stereotypes. In that context, asking me what I do is merely a precursor to getting to “the good stuff,” the hope for a glimpse at the back-stories of true crime tales, as well as the actual true crime tales.

In contrast, the immediacy of the hurt SC deals with as a routine part of her job, and the connection to so much pain, is perhaps too real for most people to want to delve into. It doesn’t involve that level of abstraction, where offenders stay as cartoon characters, and, where the bad guys have already been caught and made to pay.

Or, to put it another way…SC deals with “us.” I deal with “them.” We all know what “us” is about. But what’s up with “them”?

People understand how a person could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, how someone could be so unfortunate as to become a victim, and they want to keep that out of their mind as much as possible, because it suggests their own vulnerability. They really want to know how a person becomes the factor…the thing…that causes that shift in time and place that makes that time and place all wrong. What they don’t realize is they’re still touching on another form of vulnerability, but one that they can’t acknowledge in themselves. They want to remain “us”—potential victims but still ‘normal’—while looking at “them”—the offenders as something alien.

Perhaps it’s just that people want to know more about my work, or why I’m doing it, because it involves the more unfathomable end of the abuse equation, the place where they cannot imagine themselves being, while they don’t want to know about SC’s work, or her connections to it, because that speaks to a form of vulnerability they more immediately understand…how they could be assaulted. Failing to imagine how anything could ever happen to lead them to become a victimizer (although, statistically speaking, a huge number more people victimize than are ever held to account for such behavior—whether with adult or child victims) people are much more comfortable asking me, “Why did you get into this field?”

Teddy in a Dress, Broadway Joe in the Toilet

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

As with so many largely pointless childhood stories, the exact why and how of Mego Joe Namath ending up in the toilet are lost to time, blurred in a haze of retelling and embellishment, and perhaps a heavy dose of blame-shifting.

I’ve always carried a sense that whatever bad happens to me, I am somehow deserving of it, usually because I can trace a path through the exact actions I took that led to the consequences. When it comes to arguments with siblings, those paths are usually pretty clear.

With Mego Joe Namath, the clarity’s not there, perhaps due to my own desire to forget.

Mego was a company that once largely had the corner on the action-figure market, manufacturing all of the DC and Marvel superhero dolls, most of which were crafted with identical bodies—the hands, feet, and heads the only variable parts—with clingy, fabric, footy-pajama-like costumes to provide the rest of the customization. Anyone familiar with Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken” has seen plenty of Mego toys.

Mego Joe Namath, who had a decidedly different style of dress compared to the superheroes, was a birthday gift from my paternal grandmother. It was totally unexpected, given that she usually only sent cards with checks or cash for birthdays, and a Hickory Farms gift pack as a family gift at Christmas—something that, to this day, makes it mandatory for me to include summer sausage in my Christmas Eve festivities. Mego Joe Namath was also totally unexpected because I had zero interest in football—and may not have even known who Joe Namath was at the time.

Broadway Joe ponders the great mysteries of memory and intent.

Broadway Joe ponders the great mysteries of memory and intent.

I like to attribute my sense of confusion over the story of Mego Joe Namath to my grandmother’s penchant for revisionist history, as if some of her mojo got on that Joe Namath doll, and made it impossible for me to own up to the specifics of what happened. A refugee, along with my grandfather, to the U.S. of A. just prior to WWII, grandma squished and squashed the family history into something palatable for that era, and then for a later era, the story always holding too many contradictory elements for anybody who knew more than the small slice she was dishing up at any particular time. And, I should also note, I don’t know that grandma was the source of the stories. I just don’t know who else to blame.

In Grandma’s telling, we came from a line of German barons, low-level royalty of sorts, but we were also Jews, dodging Hitler by changing our name from Schildberg to Schildbach.  I’m not sure which part of the story is harder to swallow–that a Jewish family attained noble status in Germany, or that our family’s heavy Lutheran leanings were born of a conversion of convenience–a cover story that resulted in such a complete abandonment of our heritage that the family attended church–well, religiously–and my father became a pastor. We were Nazi fighters, or fighters of Nazis.  Or perhaps we were communist fighters, or fighters of communists. And maybe, just maybe, we were Nazis fighting the communists, or vice versa. However it turns and churns, we were never whatever was bad.

And whatever happened, the family got out of Germany at a pretty good time to get…so hooray for not ending up dead for some political or religious leaning or another.

The shifts in my rememberances and interpretations of the Mego Joe Namath saga could also be attributed to my last memories of my grandmother. She had come to visit my mother’s home around Christmastime during my college years. Before I made it home for the holiday break, my younger brother had already sent notice that grandma was spending most of her time in front of the TV complaining—frequently about communists and gay people—and this was in the days before Fox News. I can only imagine what mainlining such misappropriated anger would have done for her, when a news story about the Soviet Union would send her into a grumble about how we don’t need communists on the TV at Christmas, or seeing Brian Boitano in Olympic trials would launch her into a confused rant about how “they” had accused one of my cousins of being gay—maybe she meant the United States Figure Skating Association, although that seems unlikely.

At some point, I conflated these late memories of my grandmother with why she ever would have sent me a Joe Namath doll in the first place. I figured that maybe, in my early primary school years, she had become concerned because, along with my girly curly hair, penchant for art projects, and general lack of interest in sports, I carted around a dress-wearing teddy bear named Cindy. Grandma may have decided that the antidote to such anti-masculine behavior was a doll that played football. And, speaking of things I really don’t remember, I’m not sure where the teddy bear came from, or why I was convinced it was female and asked my mom to make a dress for it, but I suspect that my sister had a strong hand in all of it.

It was also by my sister’s hand that Joe Namath ended up in the toilet. I’m sure there were numerous warnings leading up to the actual toilet incident. I just don’t remember the triggering event. It could have been that I snuck into her bedroom while she was in the shower, and played 45s on her portable record player. I thought maybe it had something to do with me stealing her Sunshine Family Farm chicken again, so I could make fart noises as I made it squeeze out eggs—but the timeline for that toy’s release placed it far too late to match up with Mego Joe’s trip to the pool. It may have been that I stole Sunshine Family dad’s sweater, so that Mego Joe Namath would have something to wear other than his football outfit—a likely possibility, given that, while Joe’s shirt went into the toilet with him, he was not wearing it.

Chances are, the event that led to Joe taking the plunge was little more than my bragging about how grandma had sent me a present but hadn’t sent one to my sister…or some other antagonistic foolishness…singing an annoying commercial jingle over and over again, calling her names, suggesting she was in love with somebody…I could be pretty damn annoying with very little effort. I can’t remember if the event took place in one fell swoop, with my sister grabbing up the doll and accessories and dropping them all in the toilet, or if it happened in stages, with me refusing to give up whatever it was I was doing that was annoying her, as she dropped items of clothing into the toilet, one by one, finally plopping Joe in as the final measure.

There is also the matter of just who hit the handle on the toilet, flushing as much as would go down—which I think was only Joe’s shirt, football, and helmet—maybe one of his shoes, too. Joe himself was spared the trip to the sewer by dint of his size, or positioning–an inability to navigate the crooks of the toilet piping.

I have a vague recollection, obscured by the lies that took place in its wake, of staring down at Joe in the toilet after my sister stomped triumphantly out of the bathroom, evil grin on her face, or maybe with her standing right there, relishing my disbelief. And as I looked, and imagined having to fish him out of the toilet to clean and dry him off, and admit my sister got the best of me—that she had completed an unspeakable act I was sure she would never dare—I was filled with anger…anger that could only be redeemed with destruction. Joe would go down, a sacrifice to Mars, and I would blame it on my sister, pleading with my mother to punish her for the destruction of such a beloved gift.

Truth is, from the time I got Mego Joe Namath, I was puzzled. What the hell did I want this for? But it was a toy, right? A gift? Something I obviously was supposed to want. And given my unnatural attachment to objects, I had to keep it. It had to mean something more than I could quite fathom. It was as important as all material things, as all toys I longed for…right?

But I believe it was me who hit that handle, not only to get my sister in trouble, but because I was finally presented with a way to get rid of that weird, incomprehensible, whatever of a gift. The guilt of trying to flush him was roughly comparable to the guilt of not wanting him in the first place. Perpetually vexed by the tension between trying to accept and do what adults expected of me, and the desire to just melt down or blow up, I was a bit of a mess as a child…as I suspect all children are, in one way or another.

Feeling that you want what others think you shouldn’t, and that you don’t want what they think you should, is a hell of a thing.

So, Joe didn’t go, but he didn’t stay whole. And that became excuse enough for me to leave him behind…something incomplete I had an excuse to no longer play with. Back to teddy bears in dresses for me, with only a small lump of guilt for the subterfuge visited on Joe. And grandma, living several states away, never needed to know.