Story Play Showcase: On Forgiveness

January 27, 2013

Last night Nell hosted another Story Play showcase at Janiece’s house. We three performed along with Meryl and Rachael. I did a solo on the theme of forgiveness and then did a fully improvised duo with Rachael that started out with the topic of “spies” and ended up with us as Holy Rollers. It was freaking hysterical.

I wasn’t sure how my solo would go off because it was pretty heavy and didn’t have a beginning, middle, and end. It was somewhat diffuse. But MaryPat caught me afterwards and said that no matter if I’m doing comedy or something serious, I always come across as authentic. Someone said that about me somewhere before. I need to remember it so I can examine it in my work. She also said I go places other people are afraid to go, which I’ve heard all my life. What’s so scary? Why are people afraid to admit what’s real? Polite conversation is dead dull.

So. The solo. I don’t remember everything and there was one fencepost I wanted to include that I didn’t get to, so I’ll just reconstruct based on what I was going in with.

Yesterday I watched a brief documentary on Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on lynching. They interviewed a 92- and 93-year-old pair of sisters who as children had peeked out their window to see a mob carry a bullet-ridden body through the street in front of their house. The mob took the man to a tree and hanged him, then dragged his corpse through town behind a car to warn “uppity niggers.”

Another man was almost the victim of a lynching. He was grabbed by a mob and was being dragged to the tree when suddenly a white man appeared like Atticus Finch with a shotgun over his arm. The man told the crowd there would be no lynching that night. And the mob dispersed. “I knew when I saw that man,” said the survivor, “that I had to forgive them all.”

The two old women who’d seen the mob from their window talked about how they had hated whites until the hatred started to make them hard, started to eat them up inside. They didn’t want to be that way and realized they had to forgive.

While I didn’t put this in my solo, the most striking example of forgiveness I know of is the Amish school massacre that took place in Pennsylvania in 2006. After letting the adults and male children go, the shooter lined up the girls along the chalkboard and then methodically shot them in the head before killing himself. Five dead, five wounded.

The stunning thing is that that same day the grandfather of one of the murdered girls said he forgave the shooter. “He is standing before a just God,” he said, implying that judgment would be fair and meted out by God and not by humans. Thirty Amish attended the shooter’s funeral to provide comfort to his family. This is saintliness. It’s so far removed from the revenge/vengeance/vigilante culture we have in the dominant society that it might as well be from the moon.

I think about all the men who abused me, from when I was little until I was in my 20s, even when I said, “No!”. Have I forgiven them? I don’t know. I can’t tell.

I know what it feels like to be forgiven. Back when I was a Catholic girl, I would go into the box and confess my sins and then do penance gratefully. It wasn’t so much about the prayers as the trance-like state I would achieve where I could receive God’s grace. I would end up feeling shriven, clean, relaxed, shining.

I know what it feels like to forgive myself. May 15th 1997 I am standing in sacred space under a waterfall of mercy as I forgive myself for the years of cutting and burning and hitting myself, all the years of screaming, “I hate you!” into the mirror. And I am washed clean by these waters and made into a new person on every level. There is a reason I call it Rebirthday.

Does forgiveness come at the start of the process? Do you forgive and then start working through the process of understanding the trauma and re-assembling the self in the light of that forgiveness? Or does it come after you’ve processed the trauma as a sort of culmination/transformation?

I think of the worst of those men, the father of my best friend—tall, dark, with a monstrous limp and an unyielding will. I have done deep work processing the events surrounding his abuse of me and for the most part the experiences have their proper place in my psyche. Do I want him to suffer? A little bit would be okay. Maybe even a lot. But eternal suffering? No. Not even for him. Because somewhere in the depths of that monster I know there is a broken child.

I don’t know if I’ve forgiven them. All I know is that I don’t want to be hard. I don’t want to be eaten up inside. I want to be a being of compassion. I want to be a being of mercy. I want to be a being transformed.

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Was Persephone abducted or raped?

January 7, 2011

I finally started writing my version of the Demeter/Persephone tale from ancient Greece. I’ve been researching on and off for almost 10 years. It’s going to take a long time to write and an even longer time to edit.

As I’ve researched, I’ve gathered key plot points and catalogued all the different versions of them. For instance, the set-up of Persephone’s encounter with Hades has at least 10 variations, such as

  1. Persephone gathers flowers on a hillside alone in order to make a garland for Demeter.
  2. Persephone plays with the sea nymphs. She runs to gather flowers in order to make necklaces for them but is soon far afield.
  3. Persephone gathers flowers in the cool, moist woods with Demeter, then notices a narcissus. She wanders off in search of more.
  4. Persephone gathers flowers in a meadow along with four river nymphs.

The variations go on. What’s clear is that each writer has hir own imagination, as well as hir own agenda. Whether she’s picking flowers by herself or with others may not have much portent, but what about the question of whether or not Hades rapes her?

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Greek religions knows how common male-on-female rape is. Zeus seems to be the greatest criminal in religion (well, maybe Satan is worse). The general consensus of feminist critique is that these stories of rape reflect the violent takeover of one region by a dominant Greek one. Invade a city-state, rape their goddesses. That sort of thing.

I grew up on stories of Persephone’s being abducted by Hades. It wasn’t until later that I became familiar with the feminist reading of that abduction as a cover story for rape. It makes a lot of sense, in both a historical sense and a mythic one.

A digression: One of the things I love about Paganism is that you can find a deity for any state of being. For instance, the physically challenged need only look to the Greek god Hephaestus, who was lame. This idea of making all facets of the human experience divine is one that I find endlessly fascinating as well as comforting. No matter what’s going on in one’s life, one can always find a story to go along with it.

In the case of Persephone, reading her abduction as a cover story for rape creates a powerful story. As I read in one feminist critique, it positions Persephone as incredibly powerful; she goes fully into a state of violation, despair, and negation—and she creates. This has echoes of the Hindu goddess Kali but it’s not quite the same. It tells us (women in particular) that we can be at the lowest point of our lives and still find the power of creation within ourselves. We may not believe it, but here’s a story that holds out a vision for us.

So I’m faced with the choice of which story point to use: abduction or rape? What strikes me as I collect the re-tellings is how many of them don’t mention rape. They don’t mention love. They don’t mention any motivation for Hades’ appearance at all. Of course, some depict him as hell-bent on wielding power over Persephone and some say he’s a victim of Cupid’s arrows, but most of the interpretations I’ve read don’t mention a motivation. I find that curious.

The story of Persephone’s descent to the Underworld is obviously a coming of age story. What I like about this lack of motivation for Hades’ actions is that it avoids casting him as an evil being who attacks Persephone. It tells a story where Persephone is not a victim per se; rather, the things that happen to her happen because they happen to her. They just do. In a sense, it’s just time for them to. When it’s time to put away childish things, it’s not always because some evil-doer comes along and oppresses you. Sometimes it’s just time.

This interpretation appeals to me because it allows broader identification with Persephone. I am telling the story from all three characters’ points of view, including Hades’. Everyone has trouble reconciling Persephone’s faithful marriage to Hades with the whole abduction thing, and that point becomes more problematic if he raped her. Keeping him as a more passive figure, as an agent of time rather than of evil, makes it easier to transition to the relatively balanced relationship they share.

Aside from all these storytelling niceties, one of my sources noted that the earliest Orphic tellings of the story make it clear that it was an abduction, and only later versions turn it into rape.

In a way, it’s analogous to Set’s place in the Egyptian pantheon. He is now often perceived as evil, but he originally was the destructive side of nature that makes it possible for creation to happen. He represents the flooding of the Nile each year that destroyed villages and livestock but which also left fertile soil in its wake. There are many reasons why he got a bad rap later on, but the earliest stories make it clear that he is not evil incarnate. That idea comes later, seems rooted in the Middle East, and seems to be a product of dualistic religions which split all the world into good or evil. Other religions’ deities are more nuanced—more like human beings.

Back to Persephone—I am writing a story about mental illness, about depression. She goes into the Underworld again and again—but she also comes out into the sun-lit world again. Yes, it’s a story of the seasons on the one hand, but on a psychological level it’s a very personal drama of the soul’s descent into madness and its eventual recovery—repeatedly. Her strength lies in how she navigates these cycles.

Lastly, I am writing the story in part for my nieces and goddessdaughters, and when it came time for me to decide whether it would be abduction or rape, I decided to go with abduction. They are young and will discover the realities of sexual violence soon enough. I don’t want it coming from me.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.