“Genie,” a mysterious, feral survivor of abuse from California, sees the ocean for the first time, 1970
“After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading centers and to the hired soldiers who defend them. They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices. This indifference strikes home; their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies. Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it. Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound, and perished with cold. Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, 1961
“Genie” spent the first 13 years of her life strapped to a podie chair in a dark, locked room. She was force-fed and beaten if she made any sound. Her father, who orchestrated this utter isolation, shot himself upon her discovery. Her mother did absolutely nothing to stop the abuse, or to stand up for her daughter at all.
The piercing light of late afternoon froze me as I heard about it for the first time; the Fritzl case. Time seemed to stop in the quiet bakery as I listened to a British podcast; a remarkable tale. A man had imprisoned his own daughter, turned her into a sex slave and had seven children by her. Details of the dungeon and the family slowly sprawled out into the room as I stood there dumbfounded. An immense amount of sorrow and empathy flowed from me, towards Elizabeth Fritzl and her children. At the same time, deep down, I felt a sense of alarm, that such massive decades-long destruction could come of the instincts of men- I had already become deeply alarmed about the predatory nature of male sexuality for other reasons.
Never in my life had I come so close to the knowledge of another man’s monstrous treatment of a woman, before those long months- months of quiet listening, agony over someones situation I could not improve or change- someone trapped within blatant disregard for their well-being, their feelings, their wants and desires, their freedom. Constantly belittled and ignored, shunted aside, and threatened. I wanted so very badly to protect this person; to make them realize that intimacy was something more sacred than dominance; that closeness did not entail abuse; that love truly existed. But for whatever reason, I failed to convince them of any of this. Power, connections, and money spoke louder than any voice I’d ever had, and like the shadowplay of Fritzl’s threat of poison gas that never existed, they worked.
From what I understand, the Fritzl case was at its heart about control. He felt his daughter was going astray, staying out late and drinking with dangerous boys. So he felt as if the dungeon would protect her from herself, and from the many dangers in the unknown, outside world. Genie also was a product of these malformed instincts; her father felt profoundly protective of her, wanted to shield her somehow. The very instinct of men to protect and provide crosses over into monstrous realms of power and control quite easily. But not until the last two years had I come to see the manifestation of such realms within my sight. It led me to question even my own sexual desires towards a woman. Did I simply want her for physical contact, for mutual pleasure, for a closeness rare in this world of isolation and competition? Or did my desires lead me to a darker place of confinement and smothering exploitation? Did I want an exclusive, monogamous relationship out of a mutual sense of partnership and trust, or because I wanted to own and control her actions somehow? Although I knew deep down that my intentions were always straightforward, giving, and caring with her, still this small nagging occurred. I was so totally repulsed by the Fritzls of the world I felt conflicted about wanting anything from, or with, anyone.
Still, a door was open and my instincts helped push me through- the faint chance of true life partnership was too sweet to pass up. And after being led through that door by hopes and dreams and a commitment to marriage, I stumbled into a dungeon of power and control where the verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, the lies and abandonment, outshone even the crass betrayal of my ex wife many years ago that destroyed my marriage. And, like Genie’s father saying he had to do it because she was “slow,” and Elizabeth’s father saying he had to do it because she was drinking and staying out too late with dubious company, blaming the victim ensued. The abuse was my fault because I was insecure, and my unhappiness was an unforgivable crime, while the abuse was because I was unhealthy- I created this unhealthy situation and brought the lies and abandonment upon myself. Right.
This experience led me to a new and strange kingdom, where love, caring and giving weren’t quite enough. A place where I realized that enabling abuse, enabling issues of power, control, exploitation and dominance, was like helping Fritzl with the door to the dungeon, or tightening Genie’s harness to the podie chair. The right not to be abused is a human right, regardless of gender, age, or anything else- and respecting that right has slowly become more important to me than respecting the right for abusers, exploiters, bullies and other cruel people to continue practicing their craft. It’s strange how factions of American society actually claim that torture itself is not as much a crime as the actual acknowledgement of the truth that the government engaged in torture; likewise, the abuse, lies and abandonment I have suffered are supposedly not nearly as egregious as my acknowledgment that these things have happened. In fact, resisting forms of domination, control and bullying is perceived as highly irrational or tiresome behavior on my part.
But now I warm myself by a fire that no one else has lit. My ethics now have undergone their own post-colonial battle, and though they are the same material, it is now fashioned into something that bullies and users, dominants and abusers, can’t recognize, can’t fathom, can’t even approach. Genie and Elizabeth Fritzl are there, as are all survivors of traumatic abuse, and as they emerge from their cells and dungeons and squint in the sunlight, the cycle of dehumanization is broken, and the uncontrollable, indiscernible flow of wind and air, clouds and rivers and mountains, shines with a truth that is deeper and older than the tantrums of those who think they can control or own such mysteries. We’re all such enigmas, and whatever put downs, lies and acts of control or abandonment thrown at us really just tumble down into nothing, scraps of paper drifting into an open canyon, where a thin river waits at the bottom to soak, drift and eventually rot such nonsense away.