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Saying No can be a radical act but honoring it when we hear it never should be.
To comply: to conform, submit, or adapt (as to a regulation or to another’s wishes) as required or requested
I’ve been struggling with this post. It’s been swimming around in my head for days, growing increasingly insistent for structure, shape, voice. But I haven’t known – I don’t know – where to begin, I haven’t know how to parse memories and wrangle fear and somehow, somehow, somehow make sense of it all.
I still don’t know if I can – make sense of it, that is. But I also know that the words will grown more and more insistent if I don’t let them go. Words like Compliance, Defiance, Respect and Rape. Words that grow increasingly insistent, urgent. Words that won’t … comply.
The driving rain smacks the sidewalk outside the coffee shop as Lydia Brown and I talk about something that has nothing to do with anything, yet everything to do with everything. I’ve brought up a topic, seeing it, as I do, as fairly black and white. Lydia has tossed it into the air, caught it in a whirlwind of words, and handed it back to me, seeing it as she does, in Technicolor. See what you were missing, she says. It is a command, not a question.
She needs to know, she says. We are talking about Katie. All kids need to be empowered to draw their own boundaries, she says, to understand their own comfort levels, to know that it’s okay if those boundaries and comfort levels change from one situation to the next, from one time period to the next. They need to know that they can say I know this was okay last week, but it’s not okay today. They need to practice setting those boundaries early, often, always. They need to know.
I know these things, but I hadn’t seen it here. Hadn’t recognized the connection. Hadn’t understood the moment as an opportunity – a responsibility – to talk about boundaries, about will, about respect and the right to demand it. I hadn’t seen it here. Now I see it’s everywhere.
I’m surprised I missed it. I perseverate on safety, on self-determination. I wring my hands trying to figure out how to ensure that my girls will never write the words that I wrote.
It’s odd what I remember all these years later. It’s not the physical pain. It’s not the begging for him to stop. It’s not the tears nor the shock that followed.
It’s the ground. The dark, damp asphalt. And the bricks in the wall. And the smell of the dumpster just feet away.
But more than anything else what has haunted me this week has been an image of something that I couldn’t actually see at the time. A picture that I’ve created in my mind over time. From a different perspective. One outside myself. Watching it happen.
It’s his hand. Splayed across my back. Holding me in place. Taking away my choice. My control. My dignity.
I told no one.
For so many reasons, I told no one.
Twenty-three years later, I am still embarrassed. I still feel like it’s my fault. I still see his hand, the ground, the bricks, the loss.
From the moment that my children entered the world, I knew how vulnerable they would be, simply because they were human. And then autism did that thing that it does – it magnified what was already there. Because who is more vulnerable than one who cannot make herself (or himself) heard? Who more perfect a victim than one who cannot report the crime, or wouldn’t be believed if s/he did?
Langauge is unreliable. Words don’t always mean what we think they do. I’m sorry, but the testimony of one who is known to be an unreliable speaker would never hold up in court.
But it’s so much more than that.
When we prize compliance over communication, we train our children to be victims.
How do we tell our children that it’s okay to say No while keeping tallies of “incidents of non-compliance”? How do we show them that they should be able to exercise their free will when we lavish praise on them for bowing to ours? How do we teach them to create and enforce their own boundaries when we don’t recognize them when they do?
When we allow therapists to engage in hand-over-hand instruction without first seeking consent, we are teaching our children that their bodies are not their own. When we restrain them because they are not following instructions, we prove it. When we dole out gummy bears and “good jobs!” for doing what they’re told, we reinforce it.
Human beings are vulnerable to being abused by one another. Those who struggle to be understood are far more vulnerable still. So what do we do?
We teach them self-defense. Self-defense starts with self-respect. Self-respect starts with being heard. Why would No mean No at nineteen in a parking lot at midnight if it didn’t mean No in your kitchen at eight? Why would No mean No to a therapist in an adult care facility if it was ignored by your own parents at six?
Our kids say no in different ways. I’ve written about this part before, citing posts by autistic writers that I hope that you’ll click on, read, process. I’ve written about how, as a parent of an autistic child, listening for me means watching and watching means understanding and understanding means respecting. I’ve written about how No is not always a word, but can be a gesture, a scream, a physical exercise. I’ve written about how it is no less potent, meaningful, urgent in any of those forms than it would be if it were a word.
And I’ve written that saying No can be a radical act but that honoring it when we hear it never should be.
I realize as I type that I’m pounding the keys on my keyboard – that I’m typing with .. with what? … not with anger but with urgency, not with indignation but with frustration and fear. This shouldn’t be my kids’ responsibility. This should be on them – on the bullies and the would-be abusers and the ones who would hurt and berate and scar and damn it this should be on them, on their parents, their teachers, someone else, someone who is not us.
You see what I did there, right? And you knew all along that it was all crap, right? Because there is no Us and there is no Them — no tidy bifurcation of humans as would-be abusers and would-be victims. There’s just We, just Us — all of us.
Showing our children that No means No is on all of us. And it starts with honoring their right to be heard when they say it.