WARNING: This blog will be even more personal than usual, so if you’re uninterested in that whole personal-meets-political stuff, this one isn’t for you.
Last week, my Uncle Paul had a heart attack, followed by triple bypass surgery the following day. Apparently, there was only one artery they could get a balloon catheter into, and that one was almost entirely clogged shut as it was. It’s not surprising. He has spent most of his adult life owning and operating Italian restaurants and pizza shops; his diet consists primarily of calzones and antipasto (hold the lettuce, please). His whole family is riddled with heart disease and diabetes, so between that genetic heritage and his dietary habits, it’s amazing he didn’t have a heart attack earlier. But this is the man who, when asked when he would stop smoking, replied that “anyone can quit smoking, but it takes a real man to face cancer.”
(I have to admit I still think that’s really funny.)
My Uncle Paul, besides being an active animal consumer, is also a first-class asshole in other ways. He was so abusive to his first wife and their daughter that when she left him, she forbade any contact between her daughter and his mother (her grandmother). He sexually abused me when I hit puberty and continued to proposition me (and my then-girlfriend) when I was 19 years old and we were selling drugs for him out of his pizza store in Pittsburgh. The mob burned down another of his pizza stores when he started fencing stolen goods out of the place, which happened to be on their territory. Soon after that, he committed armed robbery and ended up in prison for about ten years. (Before his imprisonment, he’d fled to Canada and was safe for almost seven years when his new girlfriend persuaded him to return to the states; three weeks and one “America’s Most Wanted” appearance later, he was nabbed and sent to prison). So yeah, not a prince for sure.
My mother, Paul’s older sister, had her own special effects upon me. She raised her daughters in the wake of her enormous anger, which was itself extremely difficult to handle, and left its own particular scars. More problematic was her denial of the fact that she had married a pedophile, preferring to see me as a slut trying to entice her husband and my little sister as a drama queen who kept breaking bones and experiencing vaginal bleeding (just for the hell of it, of course). My dad’s abuse ended when I was an adolescent because by then I was too old for him, and then he died when I was 18 from lung cancer. (Apparently, he was enough of a man to face cancer.) For a couple of years after that, my sister and I were so disappointing to our mother that before every family event, we would have to sit in the car while she instructed us as to the current set of lies she had told everyone about our activities. Somewhere around my 20th year and for two decades after that, I spent more time refusing to speak to her than agreeing to do so, and in fact my sister still has no contact with her. About five years ago, I reinstated contact and we embarked upon a reasonable relationship – reasonable in the context of our family history.
The reason I got in touch with her again was a combination of two simple facts. First, I knew she could not hurt me any longer. I had worked very hard for a very long time to recover from the effects of abuse and was stable enough to not be rattled by anything she threw my way. Second, she had gone to therapy and disentangled some of the reasons why she’d acted the way she had toward her children. I guess there was a third reason, which was that she was getting older and I selfishly didn’t want to risk the guilt I might feel if she died while I was still not talking to her.
Over the years, our relationship has improved. She tells me she’s proud of me (something unheard of previously). She tells me she admires my strength of will in always “going my own way,” as she calls it, although she still tells me to be careful when I foolishly tell her I’m going to change a lightbulb or paint a wall. She respects my boundaries around my sister, who has asked me to not share information with her, and doesn’t ridicule my AR work as she used to do with other activities in which I’ve engaged over the years. (Interestingly, she eats almost no animals at this point, and very few of their products, but that has more to do with her trying to keep her weight under control than ethics.) She has also spent quite a bit of time working to understand how she ended up the way she did.
My mother grew up with a Lebanese father and an Italian mother, both of whom wanted nothing but sons. They got a lot of them – five in all (although one died when he was two years old) – but right smack in the middle, there was that pesky female. The combination of neglect and contempt thrown her way was intense, particularly because we are talking old-school female hatred here; old-school Arab-man contempt for women (who are invisible until they misbehave) combined with old-school Italian son-worship (girls are all sluts, don’t you know). My mother was the only one of their children who wanted to go to college – hell, probably the only one of them who voluntarily read a book – and she was also the only one who was not offered a free ride to college.
So, she got herself into college by doing data entry for Westinghouse. While she was at it, she discovered night life in the city. She went to cocktail lounges, she met interesting men, she chatted it up with girlfriends in the late hours of the night. My mother was ravishing as a young woman, an Arab-inflected Sophia Loren; she once had a marriage proposal from a prince. But one fateful night, she met my father-to-be in a bar. He told her he was an admiral in the navy (her brothers laughed up a storm when she told them that one), and – more importantly – he told her he was Jewish. You see, to my mother, Jews represented a world for which she longed; a world of education, of deep conversations, of scholarly arguments and meaningful engagement with the world. I don’t know how long they dated, but I suspect it wasn’t too long before she converted to Judaism and they got married.
Both sets of parents were crushed. Hers disowned her for a couple of years; his mother couldn’t bear to live without him (after all, he’d been taking care of them for decades – he was quite a bit older than my mother), but she and my dad’s sister made it clear how much they loathed my mother (as exemplified by their frequent use of the word “whore” in reference to her). But that wasn’t the final blow to my mother’s hopes for her life. What killed her dreams was learning that her fantasy of deep intellectual pursuits among cultural Jews was not to be. Part of the problem was that she was a convert. Jews don’t tend to like converts. What’s more, my father had no interest in book clubs or fancy dinner parties; his interests tended to run to the pursuit of children (I believe mostly little boys, although he didn’t seem to mind so much with me and my sister). By the time he tried to kill himself in our garage (I was six, my sister was four – we still aren’t sure which one of us discovered him in his carbon-monoxide-filled car), my mother had reached the inevitable conclusion: she would never attain the life she’d desired.
When people make horrible mistakes, particularly when they are unused to seeing themselves as empowered agents of change in their own lives, they tend to cast about for someone to blame for their troubles. Now, certainly, my father’s actions were no mistakes of my mother’s – by the time he tried to commit suicide, he’d already been spending quite a bit of time in my bed, and had been for years, and he had already pretty much put an end to any sexual doings with my mother (again, she was too old for him). Who knows what other mistakes he’d made. So that’s all on him. But my mother’s mistake was in refusing to see him as the source of our troubles and do something about it. She made a horrible mistake in marrying my father – an understandable mistake, but an error nonetheless – and instead of leaving his ass, she decided to immerse herself in rage and bitterness and target her children as the cause of her suffering.
That’s a typical response. It’s also extremely unfortunate – not just because it entangles innocent bystanders in the complex web that must be woven to accommodate the deception, but also because it kills any hope of solving the problem. You have to see the problem before you can solve it. But we do this all the time, don’t we, as humans. My sister and I, just this morning, were talking about global climate change, and how many ridiculous contortions people are going through in much of the world to avoid seeing the real problem for what it is. In fact, people tend to continue to go through such contortions for years, until they’re practically bludgeoned over the head with the consequences of their errors and forced to deal with them. In the case of global climate change, I have no illusions humans will get our shit together in time. Particularly because it’s already long past time. With my mother, well, it’s taken her about 70 years, but she has gained a huge amount of insight into her life – what went right and what went wrong, not just in terms of the actions of others, but also in terms of her reactions to them. She sees, now, what misogyny does to little girls and women – in general, and with her specifically. She sees, now, why it was a mistake to remain with my father, and what that did to her daughters. She sees why it’s important to look at one’s life and the people in it with a critical eye – not critical the way she interpreted that word for most of my life, but critical in the sense of appraising with the purpose of seeking insight. She’s no Carl Rogers, but she’s come a long way.
Why am I talking about all this crap? Well, I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot because my uncle’s heart attack has the potential to affect my life deeply; my mother has no support system in Pittsburgh other than him, and if he can no longer help her out as she needs, then that leaves me. She’s already mentioned – twice – that she might like to move to Vermont some day. So there’s that. But that’s the stuff of diaries and conversations with loved ones, not animal rights blogs. So again – why am I talking about this stuff here?
Well, because I too had an insight. For my entire life, I’ve rejected the notion that people do the best they can. It has always sickened me, the very notion, because it’s primarily used to excuse or justify actions that, to me, should be given no justification. Domestic violence is an excellent example in my mind. Certainly, the perpetrator of the violence is the primary force of malevolence in any DV situation – that’s clear to me. And certainly, the wife or girlfriend (pretty much always it’s a female victim, so please don’t rush to remind me that sometimes males are abused too) is the one who is the primary victim in the situation – that’s also clear. And when considering why so many women seem to either not leave their abusers, or seek out abusive partner after abusive partner, we tend to offer them understanding and compassion; after all, there are very real psychological reasons why so many women believe we deserve partners who treat us like shit. So far, I’m with it.
But let’s introduce children or non-human animals into the situation. That’s where my understanding has always – always – cut off like a switch. I couldn’t care less what women wish to do (or not do) with their own lives, in the sense that it’s their call – hope they get help – we need to offer solutions if they do – and all that. But it is NOT their right to force vulnerable creatures to endure the violence they choose to endure (because for all that some women in some places, even in this country, have no real viable options to leave, the reality is that there always exists some sort of a choice in the matter). So fine, I say, you want to stay with some man who beats the crap out of you, that’s up to you. But your kid or your dog doesn’t want to live in a horror-show – they didn’t choose this kind of life – and you have no right to force them to do so. Don’t breed and don’t adopt an animal if you’re shacking up with a perp.
Sounds harsh, but that’s how I feel. But of course, that’s not how it works, is it.
The reality is that millions of children, dogs, cats, and others are forced to live in violent homes because there’s a violent individual living there and any other grown-up humans who might be non-violent were unwilling to do the right thing in the first place and refuse to bring vulnerable creatures into the situation, and unwilling to get them out of there once the violence started in the second place. (I am aware that many women refuse to leave violent situations because they don’t want to leave their “pets” with their abusers, but I’m not sure what possessed them to get a pet in the first place, and I also know there are plenty of women who COULD leave but do NOT leave, and that’s the dynamic I’m speaking to here.)
That’s how I’ve always felt. You take responsibility for your actions as much as possible, and that includes, first and foremost, protecting those in your care. However, at one point after I learned about my uncle’s heart attack, when thinking about my mother, I had a moment when I thought “you know, she did the best she could.” When I had that thought, it almost took me off my feet. I was shocked, and frankly also a bit disgusted with myself. Was I getting soft? Was I forgiving her for not protecting us against the monster she’d married? UGH – the very thought kind of made me sick.
But not for long. For the first time in my life, I had a different understanding of what “everyone does the best they can” means. Certainly, I’ve believed that on the macro scale for many years, in the sense that I believe humans, as the species we are today, are incapable of being any better than we are now – some of us get a clue, most of us don’t, and if any real change is to occur, on a big scale, it will have to involve some kind of actual biological/genetic evolution of our species. But on the individual level, I have always believed that everyone CAN do better, but REFUSES to do better because Gosh Golly It’s Just So Hard.
Well, after some reflection, I am finding that while I still believe that for the most part, I am also coming to believe that when some people do rotten things, it really IS the best they can do. We are all shaped by a mixture of nature and nurture, and being shaped doesn’t just mean our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs (themselves hard enough to shift), but also our neural pathways, our hormonal, electrical, and chemical impulses. Think about a tree who has to grow around a barrier; that trunk will be shaped, either for a very long time or forever (in the context of its own life) by that barrier. We are physical creatures. We are biological creatures. Yes, we are also cognitive creatures (whatever that means), but even our cognition is shaped by a mixture of internal and external forces.
I think back to all the people I’ve known in my life who exhibit certain behaviors, traits, and so forth – ones they themselves wish to kick, like addictions – who just can’t kick them. All the people I’ve known who want to change things about themselves that make them profoundly unhappy, but just can’t. So, if people can’t even change at will to make their own lives better, how much more difficult is it for them to change when it doesn’t directly benefit them?
I’m thinking about all of that, and I’m starting to wonder if perhaps this is true for humans who eat animals and their products. How many people, when you try to tell them the truth behind their dietary choices, tell you to stop talking because they will not change, and don’t want to know? How many people DO know, but do NOT change, even when they agree that what happens to animals is horrific? What if we look at these people as humans who are doing the best they can, even when they are doing a horrible thing? What if we see them as people on a journey – a journey we can facilitate if we know the proper strategies to do so?
After all, we were all these people at one point – most of us, anyway. Yes, it’s true, many vegans learned about animal abuse and the next day went vegan – but that’s not typical. There’s usually a trajectory, a path, that people follow. Denial followed by going vegetarian followed by setbacks followed by – well, you know the drill. Something kept us from changing immediately as soon as we learned the truth; and perhaps that something was nothing more complicated (and, conversely, every bit as complicated) as the fact that we could not do any better than we did at the time.
I don’t say these things to let anyone off the hook. Hell, my world is full of hooks, many of which I hang from myself, and I doubt I’ll ever mellow enough to feel any kind of generalized benevolent love toward the broad array of members of my own species. I say these things because just possibly they might be true. It might be the case that some approaches could be crafted that take this into account, that walk the line between enabling bad behaviors and applying angry retribution – approaches that are effective. For example, we could start asking people why they continue to do something they know is wrong (I’ve done this upon occasion and it’s very interesting, the answers I’ve gotten).
I’m thinking that perhaps, at this point, I’m able to see past my own rage to see something that might have been there all the time: the rock-bottom reality that humans are what they are, and instead of ranting and raving that we be different, it might be more effective if we try a different approach. As Pattrice mentioned to me the other day when we were talking about a similar issue, all that matters is that we save as many animals as we can, and if something offers the possibility of doing just that, it’s worth looking into. Who knows. Something to think about.