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Monday, July 3, 2017

Jung Yun's Shelter and Why My Facebook is Weird

One of his clearest memories of Mae dates back to grade school, when she stood in the hallway outside his room for over and hour, staring at herself in a full-length mirror. She was wearing a new mink coat, a plush gray one streaked with black and white--the kind that actresses on television wore when their characters were supposed to be rich. Mae kept turning from side to side, swinging the coat to make the fur brush against her legs, which were purple with bruises. He hated her then--he hates her still--for teaching him that everyone had a price. Jung Yun, Shelter
Have you ever been in a group of your friends talking about whatever it is that's going on in your lives or your bad opinions or jokes or whatever and you see someone you kind of know leaning towards you and listening in? Like it's kind of flattering but also kind of creepy but it mostly makes you very self-conscious. You start realizing how banal every conversation you have is. You think you're being profound and hilarious, but all of that is based on the shared experience you have with the people with whom you're talking.

The reason you know this is because when you're alone and bored and listen to a table full of friends talk about their lives it's almost universally horrible and makes you feel like the bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark when the eponymous lost ark gets opened. I can't be that awful, you say to yourself as your eyeballs recede into your bloody face before you turn to dust and blow away into the wind like so many delusions of your own importance.

Most of us have 5-10 social media friends who we interact with regularly, which may actually reflect your closest friend group but probably has more to do with the handful of us who check it every day and have similar opinions about the kind of stuff people talk about on social media--but who we've maybe never met or have met only briefly decades ago. It's kind of easy to assume that we're just talking among ourselves and nobody even cares. Maybe they don't. I kind of doubt it, though, because of how much I quietly soak up about people I barely know based on their own Facebook activity.

I don't do this on purpose. I'm just curious sometimes. If someone "likes" a marriage and family therapist, I don't dive into their lives and search for evidence of anything going on, but maybe I just log it back there in my head. Maybe it's your friend who you are supporting in her new business, it's not any of my business. But it kind of sticks in there, you know? Not even in a gossipy way but in a way that says, I hope she's OK. I know a lot of stuff about people who I barely know just because it's so easy to be out there about your life and you forget that there are hundreds of people who quietly watch what's going on without any context.

So then I think about my end of that. If you follow me on Instagram and read my blog, then my Facebook probably makes some sense. If the only interaction you have with me is that we worked together for one season in the field seven years ago, or we went to high school together and didn't even actually hang out, then my feed is probably... really weird? I went through it just now and it's basically divided into thirds: one third is jokes (most of them kind of bad in retrospect), one third is family stuff, bird pictures, and food I made, and one third is about domestic violence and rape.

If you don't know me well, that last one must make you shake your head. If it were me reading it, I'd be speculating too. What did this guy go through? That would be my first impression. I would assume, if I were you, that there is abuse in my history. That seems like a pretty reasonable conclusion. But there isn't. I haven't been personally affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. It wasn't even on my radar until a few years ago. The closest I got to even thinking about it was when I was trading in my ancient flip phone for my first (and only, so far) smartphone and I was asked if I wanted to donate it to battered women and part of me thought about keeping it as a toy for my kids instead.

One question that comes up every time I'm at the shelter or on a hospital call is "why did you start volunteering?" For a lot of people they do it because they need to in order to get college credits. Or it's an internship for a career in social work. When I'm asked, I rarely have the same answer. Looking back, I'm not even sure how it happened myself. The rough timeline is that I got a job in which I work four ten hour shifts and have Fridays off and on my day off I would stay in bed until 11 staring at my phone and then feeling guilty about it so I started googling volunteer opportunities.

For whatever reason I started with the domestic violence shelter and once it stuck in my head, it was the only thing I wanted to do. The other stuff sounded great--mentoring kids who are struggling in school, food bank, etc.--but I couldn't shake a memory of walking into the grocery store in my old city where a couple of college girls were asking for donations to the shelter there. A white-haired man in his 60s with his wife walked past, and when he was addressed, he scoffed at her and said, "No thanks. I won't contribute to organizations that tear up families."

That guy stuck in my head. I thought about him when I was told that I'd have to wait a couple of months before training started. And when I went to training for four hours a night, three nights a week after working a 10-hour shift, I couldn't shake it. I lived in a society where men, distinguished looking men who looked like grandpas and bishops and stake presidents, believed that a woman should stay with an abusive husband because apparently living with an abuser is better for her and her children than living as a single mother.

I remembered a time when I was on my mission in Mexico, where we ate once a week at the house of a woman who was being physically and emotionally abused. We asked her why she stayed, and she said that her bishop told her that if she divorced her husband, he would take away her temple recommend, which she considered her most prized possession. I remembered a friend telling me about her first marriage. That she told her bishop she'd rather go to hell than spend another day with her husband.

Even then, I was just looking for something to do. It was during that training we listened to the recording of a tiny girl calling 911 while her stepfather beats her mother in front of her and her baby sister that I started feeling like an activist. It's awful. You should listen to it. You should also read up on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study done by Kaiser Permanente between 1995 and 1997. Over 9,500 people participated in a questionnaire in which they were asked a series of questions about their lives before the age of 18 and then compared them with multiple questions about behavior and disease.
Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, ≥50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity. The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. The seven categories of adverse childhood experiences were strongly interrelated and persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.
There's plenty of evidence showing that infants under the age of one who are exposed to violence against a parent show long-term effects, even if they didn't have the cognitive ability to understand what is happening. A Michigan State University study even showed that unborn children show symptoms of trauma when their mothers are abused. "The study of 182 mothers ages 18-34 found a surprisingly strong relationship between a mother’s prenatal abuse by a male partner and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child."

In Utah, one third of the homicides are related to domestic violence. And occurrences are higher than the national average. "147 Utah children were directly exposed to an intimate partner-related homicide from 2003-2008 and 78% of these children were under six years of age."
Part of the reason so many children are victims of lethal domestic violence in Utah, Oxborrow said, is because the state has a high birth rate to begin with, and many mothers fear they will lose custody of their children if they report domestic violence because they have exposed their children to a dangerous environment.
Also, the wage gap in Utah between women and men is bigger than in many other states, she said, and women are often afraid they won't be able to survive financially if they lose their household's main income, provided by their abusers.
"It's just a really bad combination of factors," Oxborrow said. "People are staying in really dangerous relationships for a long time." - Source
I say all of this because the main character, Kyung, of Jung Yun's Shelter is insufferable. It's almost impossible to relate to him. I'm unaware of a single reasonable or laudable decision that he makes in this book that he isn't cajoled into by his saintly wife Gillian. Often someone asks him why he's behaving the way he is, and his inner dialogue is a perfect description that if he only spoke out loud, it would open up lines of communication and healing. Instead, when he opens his mouth, he consistently says something awful and cutting.

It's the housing crisis and Kyung, a South Korean immigrant, is upside-down on his house. He has a tenure-track professor job, but the ballooning house payment is a constant source of stress. Then his mom shows up to his house, brutally beaten, and he immediately assumes it's his father, because for much of Kyung's young life, his father beat his mother often and mercilessly. He soon finds out that the situation is much worse: both of his parents and their housekeeper were victims of a cruel home invasion.

The emotional fallout in the aftermath would test the most emotionally healthy of us. Kyung is not healthy. And what many consider the book's biggest fault ends up being, to me, it's greatest strength. People who have experienced trauma, especially at a young age, and especially especially the kind of relentless and steady trauma that takes place over years and years like domestic violence does, develop survival skills. Some of these survival skills are not good social skills.

This pops up at the domestic violence shelter sometimes. Humans tend to want victims to act like some kind of caricature so that we can feel good about helping them. Humble, but strong. Grateful for our help. Lovable. In reality they are coping with extreme things in the best way they know how. Sometimes these survival skills take the forms of hoarding, manipulation, theft, or wild mood swings. Sometimes they are lazy or don't want to leave their room. Or they take drugs. Sometimes they threaten and push away the people who are trying to help them.

As any school teacher will tell you, kids with tough homes are hard to love, even if they need the love the very most. From that angle, Kyung is sympathetic because he isn't sympathetic. He's selfish and almost incapable of understanding anyone else's emotions. As we learn more about his life and his childhood, we want to love him, but he's so consistently unlovable. It's almost fascinating. The fact that he's been as productive and useful so far is basically amazing, but the standards required to thrive in modern society are so high, and the margin of error so low.

Kyung is talking to his boss, who is bragging about his twins' amazing accomplishments:
As he feels Craig's grip loosen, he squeezes harder, realizing that the answer was right there in front of him the entire time. The twins turned out well, not because of anything that Craig or his wife did but because of the kind of people they are. Good, decent people who always put the needs of their children ahead of their own. It was never more complicated that love, one generation raising a better version of the next.
"I never really had a chance, did I?"
Craig squints at him. "A chance of what?"
"Nothing," he says. "I was just thinking out loud."
As a society we're getting better at helping victims. Clients who complete their goals and stick with the commitments required of them from the shelter and post-shelter care have a remarkable success rate. That only covers the people who are reaching out for help, though. And we know that to be a small percentage. The rest are coping the best they can without any professional help. And from the outside it often looks like normal life unless something comes along that pushes too hard for too long.

Understanding what someone is going through isn't the same as not holding them accountable. Given Kyung's history, we're not surprised by his behavior, but it doesn't excuse it either. He hurts people, and it's not their fault that his dad hit his mom. It's not a victim's fault that their abuser was abused as a child as well. Sometimes people end up at domestic violence shelters because they've burned every other bridge available to them with the aforementioned behavior. Ultimately, I'd say that's a good thing. It's a better place for them to be than, say, a sister's house or a friend's. They have policies that protect other people, they have government programs, they have professional training and counseling services. They can hold victims accountable on their path to independence in ways family members are uncomfortable or incapable of doing.

If you're in a position where you're asked for help, make sure you reach out to a professional as well. It's not selfish to consider your own health and especially that of your children if you decide to take this on. Get your friend or family member plugged into services, many of them free, that will help them in ways that just a bed to sleep in and a safe place to stay can not. The Hotline is a good place to start. This isn't something you can do on your own.

Kyung's story ultimately ends hopefully, but his suffering is nothing compared to his mother's. Her ordeal is traumatic in multiple ways, shattering a talented woman on the brink of rediscovery. I have a hard time recommending a book in which someone is treated so cruelly, even knowing first hand that these things happen with sickening regularity in real life. It was worth reading for me, though. I needed the reminder.

Anyway, all of this is to say sorry about the Facebook stuff.