Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Derrick Jensen’s interview with George Gerbner [“Telling Stories: How TV Skews Our View of Society, and Ourselves,” August 1998] helped answer a puzzling question for me. Recently, while driving over a bridge on the interstate, my sixteen-year-old daughter and I noticed some children crossing on the adjacent walkway. Until then, my daughter had never realized that one could actually walk across that immense span. She said those kids shouldn’t have been taking such a risk. I gently reminded her that not everyone has the luxury of owning an automobile, to which she replied that they should have taken the train that ran beside the bridge. When I suggested that not everyone could afford the train fare, my daughter became exasperated and said incredulously, “Mom, nobody’s that poor!”
Now it was my turn to be amazed. Where, I thought, did she get such a concept? Where, indeed.
We read with interest Derrick Jensen’s interview with George Gerbner. Many of Gerbner’s observations hit home with the force of revelation: that the media have virtually eliminated real political choice in this country; that television will never attack the corporate structure; that five or six men determine most of what we see on television; that television cultivates passivity, withdrawal, and insecurity, which is precisely its purpose.
After recognizing such disturbing truths, however, Gerbner offers this remedy: diversity in programming. He says that the single most important thing we can do is “demand that producers cast more women and more people of color.” But what possible difference will this make if the goal is still to “deliver the audience to the commercial in a mood to buy”?
Gerbner also says the enormous amount of time people spend watching television is not the main problem. Yet even if television offered more real choice, more people of color, and more complexity of plot and character, seven hours in front of the television is still seven hours you are not reading, or talking with your neighbors, or walking in the woods.
No, the single most important thing a person can do is turn the television off. That is what the corporations controlling television fear the most.
Two letters attacking my interview with Judith Herman [“Out of the Ashes: Violence and Its Aftermath,” May 1998] appeared in your August 1998 Correspondence section. The letter writers, parents accused of abusing their children, argued that “repressed memories” do not exist and suggested that psychotherapists working to stop the epidemic of child abuse in this country (“Herman and others of her ilk,” as one letter put it) are “the true abusers.”
In the interview, Herman and I intentionally avoided the topic of repressed memories, because we didn’t want perpetrators and their defenders to be able to divert the discussion from the very real horrors of child abuse and the courage of those who survive it. But now that these letter writers have opened the subject, I feel the need to respond.
The position that recovered memory does not exist is empirically indefensible. Even a cursory review of the literature provides plenty of unimpeachable evidence in the forms of confessions, hospital records, pornographic videos made by the perpetrators, and so on. For example, in 1996, Grassian and Holtzen surveyed forty-two men and women who had been sexually abused by a priest who acknowledged molesting numerous children over the years and was ultimately convicted of his crimes. Of these subjects, 47 percent reported having no memory of the abuse. In 1994 and 1995, L. M. Williams studied 129 women with documented histories of childhood sexual abuse; 39 percent failed to recall the incidents described in their medical records. An additional 16 percent described a previous period of amnesia followed by recall of abuse. Another study has suggested that 90 percent of Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge had some degree of amnesia associated with traumatization.
Yes, inept or malicious therapists can convince clients they were abused when they were not, and it is important to exonerate the falsely accused. But more commonly it is perpetrators, often with their victims’ cooperation, who alter memories by pushing them far back into the subconscious.
Taken as a whole, the recovered-memory debate is a red herring that serves to divert us from the mass sexual and physical abuse of children. Study after study has revealed that 20 to 30 percent of all girls and 5 to 10 percent of all boys are sexually abused before they reach eighteen. According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year approximately 614,000 American children are physically abused, 300,000 are sexually abused, 532,000 are emotionally abused, 507,000 are physically neglected, 585,000 are emotionally neglected, and 565,000 are seriously injured or killed by their parents or guardians. Of course, perpetrators and their defenders would have us focus not on these awful numbers, but on this spurious debate.
As a manuscript reader for The Sun, I’ve sometimes expressed dislike for a piece of writing, then seen it published anyway. There’ve never been any hard feelings. But I do feel strongly about David Steinberg’s “To Be a Sexual Son” [June 1998].
Though I like Steinberg’s idea that a family should acknowledge its members’ sexuality, I don’t like how he forces this idea on his mother, then gloats about doing so. Steinberg judges his mother harshly, but her actions show her to be fair, kind, and accepting. For instance, when she finds — in her room — his preteen letter describing a sexual fantasy, she doesn’t tell him it’s dirty or wrong, or even that he should keep it to himself. Instead, she takes the blame and gives him an out, saying, “I think I just found something I wasn’t supposed to see.”
When, as an adult, Steinberg finds that he can’t get it up every single time with anyone but his primary partner, he tries to blame his mother by producing incest memories. This would be laughable if it weren’t so infuriating. Then, despite turning up no memory more incriminating than his mother’s making a matter-of-fact reference to his genitals, he goes to Incest Survivors Anonymous meetings and lies, saying he is a survivor, thus trivializing the pain of real incest victims.
Throughout the essay, the fact that Steinberg’s mother might be a tad embarrassed or uncomfortable is treated as her fault. He has no sympathy for her position. And while he interprets his mother’s reaction as evidence of prudishness and fear, he never questions his own motives. Did he ever consider whether he got a thrill out of shocking and harassing his mother?
In the face of all this, his mother seems to have done just about everything right. I agree with what she told her son: that sex is natural, healthy, good — and private. But because his folks never French-kissed in front of him as a child, Steinberg whines that “this thing that was so natural and good also remained decidedly mysterious to me.” Does he think that sex should not be mysterious to a child?
Steinberg exploits his own sexuality and that of his parents and partners by demanding such attention to it. He insists that his mother not only acknowledge and accept the fact that he’s obsessed with sex, but also that she witness — and even enjoy seeing — him in a sexual act. Has he ever heard of limits? Of respect for other people’s boundaries?
Initially, the nurturing side of me considered giving Steinberg the praise he so desperately wants. (“Good boy! You talked about sex with your mama.”) Now I want to tell him that a pen and a penis are not the same thing, and he should put both back in his pants.
David Steinberg’s “To Be a Sexual Son” was disturbing and repulsive to me, but not because it dealt with the erotic currents in parent-child relationships. What nauseated me was Steinberg’s obsessive need to “educate” his parents — his mother, in particular — by making them witness every detail of his sexual life, with little apparent concern for their own wishes or feelings.
Steinberg blames his mother for the birth of his sexual shame in his youth, and seems to spend the rest of his life getting back at her for it by rubbing her face in his sexuality. His interest in pornography, S&M, sex parties, and so on is nothing unusual. What’s strange is how this interest becomes a means by which to continually assault the barrier between himself and his mother, whom he “feels sorry for” because she apparently lacks his unlimited interest in sex. He’s on a campaign to sexualize his mother on his terms. When he talks to her about his sadomasochistic experiences over dinner, or invites her to watch as a stripper fucks herself with a dildo for his birthday/group-sex party, he treats these moments of gratuitous exhibitionism as triumphs.
Steinberg seems never to consider whether his mother might be averse to — or downright disinterested in — the details of his sexual life; nor does he show any desire to know the quality and texture of her personal sense of the erotic. A more interesting and truthful piece about the erotic mother-son relationship would have acknowledged and honored the mother’s sexuality, too, rather than used her as a mere foil for the neurotic preoccupations of the son.
There is something infantile about the way that Steinberg fixates on his mother, the way that sex is the measure by which he gauges the “progress” of their relationship. It’s as if he hasn’t grasped the fact of their being separate individuals. Perhaps, despite Steinberg’s self-congratulatory avowals of openness and comfort with his sexuality, he is still the ashamed little boy who can’t feel secure unless Mommy is watching from nearby, telling him that everything’s OK.