A truth rolls around inside of me. It's like a stone, uncomfortable and weighty. Every day I wonder whether to speak about it, to write about it, or ignore it and hope it goes away. I want to be one of those people who stands in the sun and pays no mind to the rain on the other side of the street. But who will speak for those still caught in the storm? When sexual abuse takes root in tight-knit communities, be it a church or tribal society, it affects everything and everybody. When the pedophile poses as a priest or a politician, and people still admire him, it gets under my skin. I know too much. But others know too … and yet … the silence.
I have been a staunch advocate of rural Alaska, and wrote a book about the beauty that is present in the people, the place and the earth-based ways. But there is another truth, one that is not so pretty. It haunts me. To speak of it is to invite criticism and condemnation. The truth is the truth, though, and it sets people free.
Last month I was asked to offer input on a study about suicide in our home community. My son was the most recent from there to take his leave, so it's a sensitive area for me. I asked the interviewer, who is a friend, to not take what I was about to say personally. I called B.S. on a few things. There is a level of normalcy in many rural communities that is just not healthy. The heavy drinking and drug abuse covers many secrets. And it's our secrets that keep us sick.
When my oldest son was abused by another boy, and I was (rightly) concerned, I had many people tell me I was overreacting. They said that because it was an older peer, and not a true adult, it wasn't as harmful. Maybe so. But that level of casual acceptance serves no one in the long run. I'm an adult, and have the sense and self-confidence that I didn't have as a young woman, so I can put myself and my family in positive environments. I can choose to be around high-functioning people. But what about those who are still stuck in the storm? Whether through ignorance or choice, some people perpetuate ways that are damaging. I can't pretend that's OK.
In the predominately white homestead community that I grew up in, it was considered normal for some grown men to flirt with or even "seduce" young women. I was a late bloomer, a bit of an ugly duckling. Many of my friends, some as young as 13, were not so lucky. I share this because I want to make it clear that this is not a Native or non-Native thing. It is about human beings behaving badly, and the people who cover it up through silence, laughing it off or normalizing it. This is not about blame, as that has never changed anything. But for those who are quick to blame historical trauma for the prevalence of sexual abuse in rural communities, it's time to rethink that concept.
If first responders treated physical wounds the way we do societal ills, there would be a pile of dead bodies. Knowing our history is the first step, but then all attention must be given to the condition of the wound in the present moment, and the one who hosts it. It needs to be cleaned properly to promote healing. A wound left untreated becomes a home for all sorts of foul things.
It's easy (and trendy) to highlight the beauty of rural communities, especially from the outside looking in. But there is an infection inside and it affects everyone, directly or indirectly. It won't go away unless it's acknowledged and treated, regardless of how it came to be.
There are and have been sociopaths and pedophiles in all cultures, in all communities. All human beings hold the potential for creation or destruction. However, when dysfunction becomes widespread, we have to look at the environment that enables or encourages it. We have to get real about what's going on now, not just in the past. Even though they do go hand in hand.
I know the past impacts us profoundly. A man stood before me recently, weeping for the innocent boy he had once been, and the loss of much of his adult life. It made sense to me, suddenly, his years of driving 100 miles an hour toward destruction, the tendencies to drink and be angry, the inability to focus on fathering. My heart broke with the details of how he had been abused by a drunken relative, who is now a prominent leader. No wonder it became a secret.
Small communities are wonderful, in that there is an intimacy with the people and land that is lacking in cities. But the same tightly woven structure that gives people a sense of security and identity can become a web that is sticky and stifling. Most people go along to get along. And nothing changes. I've been in the human services field for over 20 years, and many communities are facing the same social problems they did two decades ago: sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, relationship problems and domestic violence. I myself spent time caught in it.
Millions of dollars have been spent studying the problem, talking about it and creating programs to address it. But until people take a stand for themselves, take ownership of their own homes and habits, and live life honestly, the wound will continue to fester. Some ways lead to well-being and some lead to destruction. Is the leadership in your community healthy? If not, don't follow them, no matter their political stature or popularity. Find your own way.
I believe in redemption. Anyone can be redeemed. But not by pretending. It feels pretend, at this point, to think that some program is going to make a difference. I don't believe another study about suicide is going to help anything. There is a need for truth and deep healing. And that can get messy. The purging process is not neat, but it is freeing. Freedom is a birthright of all human beings, yet some children had their souls captured and fractured early on. The perpetrators were, possibly, once victims too. I'm not so interested in blame but I do hope for some accountability, and the release of secrets and shame.
I admire those who are reclaiming their freedom, like the men and women I have seen. One such individual has discovered that speaking the truth about the abuse he endured has caused his body to stop aching. Carrying the secret of what his uncle made him do was literally making him sick.
I appreciate and admire people who speak the truth about what happened, and what is still happening, in the communities. Like Cynthia Erickson of Tanana and her young friends, who stood and addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. Or like my nephew, who wrote a well-thought-out social media post about how adults who overdrink are "scary."
Maybe we can't change a whole community, but we can live the truth and set our own selves free. And that is something.
Chantelle Pence is the author of "Homestead Girl: The View From Here." She divides her time between Anchorage and Chistochina.
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