One of my friends recently pointed me toward a review of Act Normal. It has one of my favorite observations.
The author, Kristy Burmeister, was brutally honest, even when it meant she looked like shit.
I love it because this person got it. It’s true. Sometimes I’m kind of a shitty person.
I’m waaaaaaay too snarky.
I do things I know I shouldn’t do.
I say things I know I shouldn’t say.
I’m not some virgin princess in a tower. I’m a procrastinating pie-lover who never does her dishes and says “shit” a lot. I’m a real person, and real people suck sometimes.
And victims are real people.
It doesn’t matter that I screw up sometimes. I was still a victim.
It doesn’t matter if Ray wasn’t 100% evil. Even if he was secretly a super nice person who regularly recycled his old newspapers, he still victimized me.
Victims and predators don’t fit into our neat columns of who’s good and who’s bad. People are more complicated than that.
When the Vulnerable Attack the Vulnerable
There’s been some discussion around this, and I think this is a good place to address it.
What do you do when a member of one vulnerable group attacks a member of another vulnerable group?
A teenage girl, especially within a patriarchal church, is vulnerable.
An adult man with an untreated mental illness is also vulnerable.
Does Ray’s mental illness make me less of a victim? Does it make him less of a predator?
I want to make something very clear. Schizophrenia does not force a person to become a stalker. He had some delusions, which inspired the stalking, but his actions were within his control. He knew he was scaring my family. That was the point.
Ray made that choice, and remember, he was a family friend who we knew very well. He was aware of his mental illness and chose not to pursue the treatment that was available to him. My family was supportive of him receiving treatment. He did have a support system for that.
Yes, some people in our church claimed he’d been healed of his mental illness, but we need to be careful here. We shouldn’t infantilize people who have mental illnesses like schizophrenia. This was not a man who was incapable of making his own decisions. These church members enabled Ray, but they didn’t twist his arm and deny him treatment. He sought out a community would tell him the things he wanted to hear and wouldn’t hold him accountable. It’s what predators do.
Some people will read about Ray’s mental illness and think that obviously makes him dangerous.
Some people will read about Ray’s mental illness and think that obviously makes him a victim.
Neither of those are true.
A person can’t be summed up with the label of their mental illness. I certainly can’t be summed up just by saying, “I have PTSD.”
But that also doesn’t mean PTSD has no influence on who I am or what I do. It’s complicated.
I have PTSD. I’m also argumentative when I don’t need to be. I also help my friends, curse at the snow, eat way too much junk food, have long discussions about history with my kids, love to make people laugh, and can be kind of shitty sometimes. Having PTSD, even when I’ve been triggered and I’m in the middle of a panic attack, is no excuse for causing harm to another person.
Ray had schizophrenia. He was also domineering, a dog-helper, abusive, occasionally funny, surprisingly charismatic, and chose to live in a shack without running water. (That had nothing to do with his mental illness. He wasn’t homeless. He owned his own property and wanted to homestead.)
We want to believe if we just care hard enough, we can save everyone. We can’t. Sometimes the best we can do is mitigate the damage.
Ray is not the poster child for people with schizophrenia. I’m not the poster child for stalking victims. He is just one predator. I’m just one victim. We come in all sorts of forms.
Case by Case
What happened to me isn’t uncommon.
I wish I could type up a step-by-step guide to eradicating stalkers from churches, but I can’t. The two cases in Act Normal are examples.
What I will say is each case needs to be carefully evaluated. In some cases, there will be a mental illness involved. In some of those cases, the stalker might actually be a pretty decent person who needs help. In those cases, maybe a church community could support that person as well as his victim.
In some cases, even when a mental illness is involved, the stalker is in control of their actions and is choosing to cause pain. In those cases, it might be best to remove those stalkers from the church community. You can’t help a person who doesn’t want to be helped.
In my specific case with Ray, he should have been removed from our church. I lived next door to the church. His presence in our congregation put my life at risk. Some people really are that dangerous, and we don’t do anyone any favors by pretending they aren’t. There were plenty of ways individual church members could have helped and supported him without exposing me to more danger. Sometimes when we say, “The church should do something,” it’s a way of shirking individual responsibility. We are the church, so if you find yourself in a situation like this, and you think “the church” should help the predator, nobody is stopping you from doing just that.
If we do believe the predator is someone who needs help, and we’ve committed to providing that help, we have to be careful not to become enablers. We have to be careful not to rob the person we want to help of their humanity and dignity by implying they have no control over their lives.
And we have to be careful not to lose sight of the primary victim. Sometimes predators will weaponize their challenges in order to maintain control over and access to their victim. It’s a manipulation tactic anyone who wants to help both parties needs to be aware of.
I realize these are difficult conversations, and I realize it can be offensive to some people. It makes us uncomfortable to think we might have to choose between helping one person or the other. But that’s real life. Sometimes we have to make choices and do the best we can.
You probably won’t meet a perfect victim. You won’t meet a perfect villain. And sometimes a person who happens to be a member of a vulnerable group isn’t a victim at all, but a predator instead.
You won’t find perfect solutions to cases like this. What you can find are solutions that cause the least amount of collateral damage. The reality is there will be some amount of damage when you’re dealing with a predator. Someone is going to be hurt. The question is, who is going to bear the burden of that pain?
Image credit: Neil Tackaberry (flickr, Creative Commons)