Derrick Jensen spoke to Claudette Vaughan recently on what it was like growing up with a violent and sexually abusive father. This interview arose out of a conversation Derrick Jensen had with Claudette Vaughan, both being in agreement that there’s so little conversational style factual work on the topic available on rape and sexual abuse that something should be done about it. Derrick Jensen, being his usual ebullient self, jumped at the chance to speak in a sincere desire to remedy what’s fast becoming endemic in western society – silence on sexual abuse. Here is that interview.
Abolitionist: Derrick, you have spoken in your books on the subject of sexual abuse caused by your father to your family while you were growing up. What must have that been like?
Derrick Jensen: My father was extremely violent. My brother has epilepsy from too many frequent blows to the head. He broke my sister’s arm. He beat everyone in the family except me for some reason probably because I was too young. He did something different than a lot of abuse patterns. Some abusers will abuse starting very early. My father’s physical abuse started when somebody in the family reached puberty. He left when I was about 11 years old so I didn’t have that. He sexually abused – raped – my mother, my sister and me.
Abolitionist: I have been very fortunate to interview you now a couple of times and in conversation we spoke about how little knowledge is available for people who have been sexually abused. There’s just not enough material in print on the nature of sexual abuse and especially from somebody such as yourself who has obviously done a lot of work on yourself and is an internationally respected and loved author. When you went out to study the abusive patterns you father was exhibiting what conclusions did you arrive at? Did you know when your father was about to abuse someone in the family? What kind of personality was he?
Derrick Jensen: That’s a good question. The most problematical thing for me when I was a child was my father would systematically deny he was doing any of these things even denying he was doing it immediately after doing it. So in my book “A Language Older Than Words” we became a family of amnesiacs. What I found was I was holding on as tight as I could to specific memories I had because it was too easy to allow those memories to slip down the memory hole, to use an Orwellian term, and I have since learnt that is very common among abusive families. I didn’t know that as a child. R.D. Laing says that the first rule of dysfunctional families is: Rule A is Don’t. Rule A1 is Rule A does not exist, and Rule A2 is never discuss the existence or non-existence of Rules A, A1, or A2 so what that means is you can talk about anything you want except about the violence that you have to pretend isn’t happening. That’s how any dysfunctional family pretends that they aren’t dysfunctional, they just ignore all this very obvious stuff right in front of them. That was the case within my family. Immediately after a beating occurred it would get rationalized. A good example of that is: I really liked baseball when I was a kid and my father never played baseball with me. One time he said he would and he ended up hitting me in the face with the baseball hard enough to send me to hospital. All along I thought to myself, “I should have caught it” and blamed myself for not catching the ball but of course he hit me on purpose. Then in my late twenties I was watching a guy in my softball team play catch with his 8-year-old son and he threw the ball underhanded to his son in a way that if the kid had gotten hit it, wouldn’t have hurt him. Don’t throw a ball hard enough that it can put a 9 year old in hospital. The point is I didn’t make that connection until I was in my late twenties because it was an abusive family dynamic.
Everything is set up to protect the abuser and what that means is that we all conspire to help the abuser not face the implications of his abuse. We all protect the abuser emotionally so one of the ways I protected him, in a small way, was by not being able to figure out that you don’t throw a ball that hard at a 9 year old. I can also remember every day when my father would get home it was as though the ceiling dropped from its normal height down to 4ft. Everything became constrained. Everything could no longer stand up straight.
Another thing he did was everyone would be in bed and he’d blow up then get everyone up so everyone would have to watch him hit someone.
Abolitionist: Following on from everything conspires to protect the abuser. We also see the identical thing happening in the courts against women and it also occurs with affairs with married men. I have often wondered what it is that actually conspires to protect the male even though the affair is obviously wrong and has not done anybody any good.
Derrick Jensen: Judith Herman in her book, “Father/Daughter Incest” says that if she can just change one little thing to help stop incest it would be to have family rules that children don’t keep secrets. When someone tells you, “You’re not suppose to tell anybody about this”, then you tell everyone and let that be the rule in the family.
Abolitionist: You have mentioned in your own works Lundy Bancroft’s book, “Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Angry and Controlling Men”, that this was useful to you. How was it useful?
Derrick Jensen: I’ve worked very hard on issues surrounding abuse, but reading that book I realized I was still falling for some falsehoods about abuse. Bancroft helped me work my way to see those falsehoods for what they are. One of those was that Abusers lose control. That’s a classic assumption that abusers just explode in rage but Lundy Bancroft makes it very clear by asking the question: So when an abusive man gets upset, does he beat up his boss? Does he beat up a cop? Of course not. What that let’s me know is that they really don’t lose control at all. They are very sensitive to the hierarchy of whom they can assault and who they shouldn’t assault. If their boss makes them mad, he’d beat up someone lower on the hierarchy. About destroying things around the house, Lundy Bancroft says, “So did they destroy their own things, or only your things”? It’s like Huh! I never made that connection either. So that was really good in letting me know, it’s not about losing control it’s all based on perceived entitlement to exploit, it’s based on what they can get away with, it’s based on gaining tangible benefits. A really good example of that from my own childhood would be that my father didn’t do the dishes. One night my sister said to him, “You never do this dishes”. He didn’t say anything but he complained later that she had not done the dishes well enough and beat her. It doesn’t take very long after that to realize that she shouldn’t ask to help her with the dishes. One other example might be that he makes some sexual move on my mother and if she says no, then 2 hours after that he blows up at something and hits her. Like Wow! if that happens enough times, you start to see a pattern. There are tangible benefits to be gained from that. Of course I think of the larger cultural picture here as well. Corporations are incredibly destructive but you don’t see them dumping shit into the CEO’s living room, do you? When they go around destroying homes to put in a new dam, then gosh they are not destroying a CEO’s home, are they? It’s really clear there that it’s based on something that I was able to articulate in my latest book, ‘Endgame’ that this culture is based on an often unarticulated hierarchy and violence that flows down the hierarchy is often unnoticed or invisible. When it is noticed it’s fully rationalized . Violence flowing up the hierarchy is unthinkable, and when it does happen it’s met with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.
Abolitionist: The sex crime in western society is prevalent today. The west has almost “normalized” the abnormality of it. That is a crime in itself. What do you attribute this to and where do you think its source came from?
Derrick Jensen: A couple of things: one is that I would like to blame this culture for it entirely but there have been studies done on rape crime culturally and what they said was there are high rape and low rape cultures. The characteristics of high rape cultures, the valorization of the male, the valorization of the military, the perception of women as objects and this interestingly includes a history of ecological dislocation within the last several hundred years. What this says is if the culture gets stressed this way, then women as a primary group ends up paying for it.
It’s stories that teach us how to live. I just did a talk a couple of days ago and the first question during Q&A said: “You know, you attack pornography, but I have never seen you attacking dildos and why is that?” There’s a misconception there because a dildo is merely a masturbation toy as opposed to a person who is being subjugated. Take mainstream movies for example – On the Waterfront, Doctor Zhivago, V for Vendetta etc. On the Waterfront is a classic pornographic rape fantasy. The guy starts to rape a woman and she pulls him close. Dr Zhivago: Evgrav starts to rape Lara, and she pushes him away, pushes him away, and by the end of the scene she’s pulling him close, implying that she really wants it. What is this saying? This is sending out a message that women want to be raped, teaching both men and women how to behave. We see that form of propaganda constantly. At that show there were me and one women who listing off movies that show this same pornographic fantasy. Straw Dogs certainly is another one.
Abolitionist: Movies as a “teaching apparatus” from out of Hollywood are not haphazard guises. The formula movie has been in place now for a long time. It wants a certain type of male to be mimicked in life – ironically not dissimilar to the SS in Nazi Germany – a “hard” man operating without moral imperative (although convinced that he is) and treating women in only two ways – whores or breeders.
Derrick Jensen: It’s very expensive to maintain a lie. You have to say it over and over again to make it stick. It needs to be repeated constantly otherwise people will remember that there’s another way to be. In the book, “The Age of Sex Crime” by Jane Caputi she talks about modern serial sex killers as something of a modern phenomena in terms of how common they have become. One of the connections she makes in this fabulous book is the connection between cutting up women and symbolically using their body parts to sell products and unnecessary hysterectomies and breast surgeries.
With serial sex killers culturally it manifests as a desire to cut up women.
Abolitionist: It occurs to me how little intelligent people know about the incremental steps it takes to make a pedophile. How are monsters made? You wrote in one of your books that an ex-girlfriend said to you once that you wouldn’t be the writer you are today, if it wasn’t for your father. That is incredibly insensitive. What was your reaction to that when you first heard it?
Derrick Jensen: I’ve gotten that one a few times mainly from people who don’t know me at all. My answer I have developed is: He is responsible for me having insomnia; he is responsible for my fractured family relationships. He is not responsible for anything I have been able to convert into a gift for the community. That’s my doing. That’s the doing of loving communities. He traumatized me terribly. He terrorized me. Anything good that’s come out of that is my doing.
Abolitionist: What other advice have you been given from friends or family that missed the mark? I don’t think you would disagree with this statement that, yes forgiveness does have it’s place if only so you don’t destroy yourself in the process, but is it possible to forgive your father for all he’s done to you and your family?
Derrick Jensen: As a kid gd I got that all the time. Forgive your father. One of the good things that emerged politically from all this abuse I endured was an early consciousness of how the political system really works. Both the courts and the church came down strongly on my father’s side. That told me that those institutions were not interested in either justice or children. Those institutions were primarily interested in maintaining power. They also are entirely corrupt. My father is rich and he’s a big wig in a church. That’s how the System works. Coming back to that point about pedophilia. There’s another book, Lolita. What does that book say about gender relationships? Judith Herman said it’s the most beautifully written apology for child rape.
Abolitionist: And even though most men don’t rape, Lolita is an apology for male sleaze. What makes a man sleazy, slimy, sex-addicted? And what will stop him from lusting after young girls and women? Celebrities particularly lead the way in normalizing sleaze.
Derrick Jensen: A book came out a few years ago that stated it was a “feminist book” on Lolita. The storyline is that the guy comes after Lolita, but the real story is that she is leading him on, and wondering what the hell took him so long to actually fuck her. Of course this is all just the standard pornographic rape fantasy.
Going back to the question of forgiveness: I got a lot when I was a kid, “You need to forgive your father”. Just recently I wrote a forward to a book coming out and one of the things it asked was, “What is so unique about Jesus?” Jesus said we should love our enemies and we should show them the other cheek again and again and again…and we should keep forgiving them. But that is precisely what the abuser wants for the victim to do. Jesus was giving advice that serves abusers. When I read that it struck me very hard, and I think it’s true.
Here’s the deal: People say to me, “Hey, you’ve got to have compassion for the perpetrators”. Fucking bullshit. I have no compassion for the perpetrators. If they really stop perpetrating then we can talk about whether it’s appropriate but if they are still perpetrating I have no compassion for them. Culturally if it’s a CEO, I have no compassion for them. If it’s a vivisector, I have no compassion for them if he’s still vivisecting. If somebody quits vivisecting and says, “Oh God, I did such a shameful thing “ and then they start working to make it right, we can talk about whether forgiveness is appropriate. If that’s the case, then they have changed direction. But if they are still perpetrating, if they are still being a vivisector, forgiveness is codependent. A really great example of this is: I wrote an essay on the question of forgiveness about my mother and my father. In my twenties my mother and I went through a very hard time because I resented the fact that my mother had stuck around my abusive father for so long. Why didn’t you move to Brazil? Anything would have been better than what we had. My mother said she was waiting until I was old enough so my father wouldn’t get custody. Even as it was, there was a custody battle and really it was touch and go for many years. She was right but when I was in my late twenties I absolutely rejected that logic because what it was saying was if it wasn’t for my existence then everybody else would have not been subjected to that last 10 years of beatings and abuse. I said to my mother, “You can’t put that on me. You made those decisions”. She said, “Do you think an hour doesn’t go by when I don’t regret or think about that”. She said, “Why do you think that all through your twenties when you were calling yourself a writer, but were doing no writing I supported you. Why do you think I never pushed you to get a job. Why do you think that I supported you so much emotionally and sometimes financially? It’s because you didn’t have a childhood and if you were to have a happy adulthood, you needed to have a long time to adjust”. The point is, at that moment all of the resentment that I had evaporated. I no longer had any resentment for her. There was nothing to forgive because what more can you ask of somebody than that they acknowledge that what they did was wrong and that they spend 10 years trying to make it right? So there’s no reason to forgive my Mom but to forgive my father would be abusive to the child who went through this. Think about it this way: If your 5 year old was being raped right now and if someone said to you, “You need to forgive the perpetrator”, that is really fucked up. It is an obscenity to forgive the perpetrator.
Abolitionist: Do you think your father was possessed at all?
Derrick Jensen: I was really too young to be able to form opinions on that. Maybe there was some sort of possession but if that was the case then we have to say the same thing about CEO’s and the people who make the propaganda in Hollywood and vivisectors etc. Even if it is, it’s ultimately their own destiny. If they are allowing themselves to become a vessel for that they are still culpable.
Abolitionist: Yeah, you’re right. Who opened the door in the first place, you mean?
Derrick Jensen: Yeah. What I’m really interested in is stopping it. If an exorcism stops it, and I’m not being sarcastic at all, then great! If counseling stops it, great! And by the way counseling never stops it, if a bullet to the brain stops it, then that’s great too! Whatever it takes to stop the abuse.
Abolitionist: Do sexually abusive men change?
Derrick Jensen: No. This is true for all abusers. There was a study done in England several years ago of this program they had for sexually abusive males and they only had one person who went through that program who ever changed. They ended up taking away the money spent on that program and giving it to battered women’s shelter. Lundy Bancroft made this clear too. Most addicts don’t quit their addiction until they have hit rock bottom. When somebody is addicted to heroin, say, this is destroying their own life. The problem with abusers is they are actually do quite well – thank you very much – because the ones whose lives they are destroying are other people, so they don’t hit rock bottom, the other people do. The only way to get an abuser to change, is to force him to change. That could be, if they do actually care about their family at all, then that could be saying okay you have a choice. You change 100% or we are gone. The abuser’s system works very well for them. It’s the same as capitalism. Capitalism works very well for the capitalists. It doesn’t deal with what they really want in terms of a relationship etc because it doesn’t give a shit about that. This is probably why capitalism will not end voluntarily because those who are the beneficiary of the System gain all kinds of groovy little toys and they really don’t give a shit about who gets hurt in the process.
Abolitionist: Capitalism also creates that kind of man that will work willingly without moral imperative…
Derrick Jensen: Also some reactionary feminism does as well. A feminist wrote about my work recently in a letter to the editor that any thought of fighting back is male dominated thinking. She’s falling into the exact same patriarchal trap that these pornographers do and how Hollywood does in that, what are male characteristics? Violence, domination blah, blah, blah. What are women characteristics? Soft, nurturing, submission blah, blah, blah. Those are all parts of patriarchy and the truth is we all have those characteristics in us. Take Aggression. Aggression is just aggression. Joy is joy. Have you ever seen Hummingbirds? They can be very aggressive. We all have aggression. My point is these are all perfectly valid parts of life and we all have those capacities inside of us. By the way, I’m not talking about rape here. I’m saying, take jealously for example. Jealously of itself is just jealously. Of themselves they are not bad things. What’s bad is when they start becoming pathological or not addressed to a current situation.
I have some issues with alcohol. I can’t date someone who drinks because of the fear involved when my father used to drink. If I am dating someone and she drinks, I am suddenly thrust back to when I was 8 years old in the past and that’s pretty much a definition of what a neurotic is.
Abolitionist: I don’t think it’s neurosis. Certain smells have the capacity to take you back to that place where they were first encountered. I think we’re made up of atoms and molecules with a purpose to life and we have to find out what that purpose is.
Derrick Jensen. I agree and I have no problem with that whole going back into time and time not being linear. The reason I was saying I was neurotic is when one is not responding in a present situation because one is being paralyzed by the past, one can’t move on from the past. I’ve never had fears about sexuality, but let’s say that I did. I’ve known some women who were sexually abused who later could not participate in sexual relationships because it scared them so much but what I’m saying their fears would over-ride what would have been a normally natural part of life, I’m just saying a value neutral thing that’s pretty much my definition of neurotic.
Abolitionist: You have refused to become a victim of your father’s deeds. How did you mange that achievement?
Derrick Jensen: I remember being terrified seeing this ad when I was a kid. It was some public service ad showing a bunch of people in prison and it said that 90% of people in prison were once abused. They were trying to say, “Don’t abuse your kids otherwise they’ll end up in prison”. That terrified my because what I thought was, “I’ve been abused. I’m going to end up in prison.” That was one of the reasons when I was a kid that I vowed I’d never end up like my father because I knew that was a bad thing.
Abolitionist: Which is ironic because you’ve taught creative writing in prisons for some of your life…
Derrick Jensen: Yes I did. Because my father was so angry I shut down all anger, I couldn’t get angry. I spent a lot of my teenage years being dull – unemotional. When I started high jumping I started losing my temper which was pretty funny because my coach was wondering what was going on and I was just overjoyed to be feeling any emotion at all.
Something else happened in my late twenties. I can’t remember exactly what it was but this thing was way too scary and I didn’t want to do it because I had been abused and then I had this thought, “I can go the rest of my life making the best excuses in the world for not doing this or I can just go ahead and do it” and that was really the moment when I decided I wasn’t going to let having been abused overtake what I wanted to do. I know how people who have been abused beat up on themselves so I don’t want to give out the wrong impression because there have been areas in my own life too, i.e., alcohol where I haven’t worked through things because it hasn’t been worth it. Alcohol isn’t a particularly valuable thing that I want in my life anyhow. I was ashamed of that fear for a long time. I would try to just stuff it down until I realised when I was young and being sexually abused I somehow knew that sexuality would be important to me. I simply realised when I was a kid I had taken all the fears about the rape and had put them in a box labeled alcohol instead of a box labeled sex and shut them up.
Abolitionist: Have you ever given any thought to why universally peoples’ preference to the outrage that is sexual abuse has been, and is to this day, to avert their eyes elsewhere? And this amnesia that you spoke your family suffered from your father’s abuse is also prevalent in a cultural sense. E.g., When Madeleine Albright was US Secretary of State she went on a special Oprah Winfrey Show about children telling everyone how much she loved children yet she couldn’t make the connection that as Secretary of State the US Government simultaneously was bombing and murdering hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq at the same time. How does this double think work?
Derrick Jensen: Through my work in Endgame I know that everything in an abusive dynamic is set up to protect the abusers. So if a CEO denies responsibility for mass killing, or if George Bush denies responsibility for mass killing, I guarantee that if somebody jumped out of the audience and said, “How can you possibly say that when you are responsible for killing all those children?” then that person would be seen as being the terrible person. That person would have been seen as breaking the silence. That is rude. How can you possibly say that to such an esteemed person? The media would have gone head over heels into high gear to attack and erase all of that so that it would be all forgotten and we would go back to wondering who is the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s daughter. This isn’t just set up to protect the abusers, it’s set up to protect the entire System because part of what happens is you are taught to identify more strongly with the abusive System rather than identify with yourself, with your children or your living animal body. If the abusive System breaks down that identity of yours will die. You fear that, like you fear death.
Originally published at Abolitionist OnlineFiled in Interviews of Derrick Jensen