Anger that has long been simmering inside me (erupting this year more times than I am proud of) has been replaced in the past few weeks with a weary yet calm clarity. I learned long ago that this world was filled with men who were sexually aggressive and violent, men who did terrible things to (mostly) women, and I knew they did these horrible things sometimes for years to many women, and that they got away with it, too - enabled and abetted and sometimes even celebrated by those around them. Because, Me, Too.
It is deeply disturbing and discouraging for all of us to finally bear witness and come to terms with the overwhelming magnitude of the priapic decrepitude and selfishness that afflicts far too many men and women on our planet. It is a pandemic, a plague so pervasive that we have for centuries simply accepted these behaviors as part and parcel of shared reality.
Traditionally, women have always been held responsible for cultural sexual propriety; men generally are not held to the same standards, but have been given the benefit of the doubt about where their lust drives them, time and again. They have the power, within most cultures and within most justice systems, to exhibit with impunity the most toxic and violent of behaviors towards women, and women historically have had little recourse or justice. But, I think that time is finally ending, and I am filled with a degree of hope and excitement that I am alive to witness it.
The male hegemony that ancient patriarchs orchestrated many millennia ago, where womankind, who had shared status and power with men, were purposefully negated, diminished and forced into positions of inferiority, has clearly backfired - and badly. A concerted masculine effort at diminishing the once equal feminine aspect of our world created (within the men it was supposed to empower) a deep-seated disconnect, confusion, fear of unknowing and disintegration. That the result of patriarchy was endemic masculine despair, self-loathing, shame and humiliation, its toxicity increasing generation upon generation with greater and greater means of violence against each other, against women, and against our Mother Earth, is sadly ironic. These behaviors are so genetically ingrained in us now that most humans do not know any other path but violence in response to fear and despair - nor do they comprehend that they cannot completely alleviate the pain or heal themselves through that path. Many are deluded, lost, and filled with shame over what E.M. Forster referred to as “panic and emptiness” behind their fragile walls of false piousness, civility or bombastic “strength.”
We blindly follow the dark examples of generations of abusers and enablers before us, with men continuing practices of purposefully negating and diminishing women while simultaneously seeking the source of her life force, a power that was foolishly discarded long ago as worthless by our forefathers. And, our world is filled with women who diminish themselves as they desperately, fearfully cling to the shreds of power and safety that men deign to share with them, often using the only tools left to them - sexuality, manipulation and subservience - as a means of gaining status with angry, frightened, hungry men who force their deep sense of self-loathing, despair and fear on the very ones who hold the power to save and heal them.
What a world.
Truth is, even if we’ve think we’ve never done such things ourselves, we have all been witness to and enabled toxic sexually aggressive behavior at least once in our lives. You’re kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Perhaps you offered a weak shrug, an uncomfortable laugh, and changed the subject when you saw it or experienced it. Maybe you excused a perpetrator, turning a blind eye to their toxicity, glorifying their good points, while you simultaneously shunned, vilified or blamed the victim, sneering at their foolishness, what they were wearing, where or when they were walking, what they were doing - their temerity of just being. No matter how many times we hear about “false rape allegations” those are statistically minute, and as for the laws on our books stating that perpetrators are to be punished, we all know they rarely lead to convictions or harsh sentences, but almost always result in the shunning, shaming and blaming of the victim who dares to speak out. In some extreme patriarchal societies, to this day, speaking out can even result in the punishment or assassination of the victim of the crime, in order to “restore male honor.”
Hence, women’s silence. Because who wants to bear the shame and humiliation, the public abuse and vilification, the risk of potential annihilation that will inevitably come with breaking that silence?
Women are finally so fed up enough with the status quo, with being abused and ignored and marginalized and killed, that we are willing to risk our very selves and our futures by sharing our stories. It’s the Festivus Airing of Grievances, my husband dryly, apprehensively calls it. But, we are not laughing. Perhaps now we will begin to shape a world where these behaviors will no longer be tolerated? Finally, society is beginning to believe victims. Every day, I am astounded by how much impact the Me, Too movement is having on our culture and on ourselves. And, surprisingly, I’ve found a depth of gratitude for Donald Trump, because I believe the endorsement and anointing of this serial sexual predator to the most powerful position on the planet was the catalyst for a seismic shift in women, and in our collective human consciousness.
Women are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more.
About ten years ago, I bumped into the son of my seducer and abuser. We recognized each other in our older bodies with unpleasant surprise and some caution. He had been popular in my High School, a couple of classes ahead of me. When we locked eyes this time, we were both parents of teenagers; I was approaching 42, the same age that his Father had been when he targeted me. The son’s eyes, which had once looked at me with loathing when we were teenagers, now showed a deep shame and fear. We acknowledged each other with a nod, then quickly parted. I knew he knew what his Father had done to me. And I knew that the fear I saw in his eyes was that I was angry, that I might finally accuse his Father, that “pillar of the community” who assaulted me.
But, I chose to maintain the silence that I’d held for over two decades then, as I do now. I accept responsibility for my own youthful stupidity and yes, even collusion that placed me in a position where I allowed myself to be abused by him more than once. I won’t name my abuser, because even though now would be a good time, even though his wife and son blamed me for his toxic transgressions against me, even though they enabled him and his wife called me “slut” - they were his victims, too. They were afraid of his rage and his power - his panic and emptiness - just as I was. I also see there’s rarely been a place for enablers and witnesses to abuse to find justice or safety either. And, furthermore, it will always be his shame and toxicity to bear, not theirs. (It never was mine, although he tried to place it upon me.) I don’t blame them for enabling his toxicity, I understood it, I enabled it, too. So I forgave them, long ago.
I even forgive him. He knew he should not target a vulnerable sixteen year old who could have been his own daughter, but panic and emptiness outweighed his humanity and he diminished himself. He knows what he did to me, and I imagine he suffers in lonely silence, a confused dread and fear of the threat of public humiliation hanging over him (because I was not his only victim) filled with a self-loathing and shame he may never be able to resolve. (Or not. I don't care.)
I believe a lot of men feel that dread right now - and their family members or friends, too. May this moment be the catalyst for their own self-inquiry and healing, too.
So, where do we go from here? What should we do now that we actually believe women, if we really want these changes arising from Me, Too, to do some good and last - if we really want to heal ourselves individually and collectively?
We must first see the forest for the trees and bring the most heinous, violent, egregious perpetrators to justice, ensuring that our criminal justice system works for all, not just for men. This immediate change in our justice system could do much to help bring healing. And for those lower on the scale of offense, who may not qualify for criminal prosecution, I believe the strength of public humiliation, or loss of status, will do much to create a lasting change in these sort of boorish behaviors.
Still, in this much needed frenzy of revelation and retribution, I’ve observed many folks in a righteous fury wanting to go after not only the abusers, but even their enablers. They want to dismantle and burn, on self-righteous, hypocritical pyres, anything these men have created or touched, including the folks that may have enabled or colluded, too. And, I am here to say, as a survivor of sexual assault, for all the reasons I shared above about the enablers of my own perp, we shouldn’t, because it’s just more violence. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Many may also want to destroy the creative output of the perpetrators, and here’s where things get murkier. I am going to go out on a very controversial limb here and say we should wait and take a step back before we chose that path. I am deeply ambivalent about destroying the art or the creative output of these men, because much of me believes some of their works have taken on a meaning beyond the diminished, deeply flawed men who created them. I am certain that some of the beloved books that have given me the greatest of solace and meaning in my life were written by men who were sexually aggressive or abusive of women. And I am not sure what to do with that fact. This is a confusing and frustrating place to be, as a survivor of sexual assault. While much of me wants to humiliate and punish the perpetrators of assault, and I react with shared disgust and abhorrence every time I am triggered by the stories of victims, we all have the potential of human grace, nobility and rehabilitation, even the most abhorrent and violent of us. Not all our acts are evil, yet, evil and delusion veils our light sometimes. But, I do believe the light's there, in all of us.
I also admit: I want to have my cake and eat it to - that is, I am ambivalent because a small part of me really wants to continue to use Mario Batali’s recipes, wants to watch films that star Dustin Hoffman, or are directed by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, or produced by Harvey Weinstein. As well, what about the women who were forced to demean themselves in order to create the art that they loved through the aegis of toxic men? Should they be “punished” through the act of never watching their films or works of art they participated in or made with diminished deviants like Harvey Weinstein? Shakespeare in Love is a lovely, graceful, entertaining film, and the excellent, extraordinary Frida, written and starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymore is yet another superlative work of art. Both films are Oscar-winning box office smashes that likely would not have been made unless Harvey Weinstein had produced them. That he was a monster who horribly abused the women who had the misfortune to come into his orbit will forever disgust me and most people - but nevertheless, his power and creative vision within the misogynistic culture we all exist in helped bring a lot of great art made by some amazing, talented women and men to fruition. (It is simultaneously deeply disturbing that his very existence also silenced countless talented, creative women, too.)
So, am I an enabler of sexual predators if I admire or find solace in something wonderful these toxic men created, or helped bring forth into our world? Maybe. Maybe I do not get to allow myself these pleasures or the solace of these works of art any longer, because healing the lives that have been hurt by these men is more important than any work of art? If that’s what it takes to heal them, maybe we should all deny ourselves the solace they bring?
Should we shun the art because of the sometimes deeply flawed humans who create it?
I still don’t know the answer yet. It begs the question: How do we separate the man/monster from the art, or things of beauty, grace or meaning which extremely flawed men may have created or helped produce or share with the world? Can we even do that? And what if these flawed men are people that we love and revere, who have blessed us with learning, beauty and grace by their very presence in our lives? Is that possible to hold both feelings simultaneously - love tempered with deep anger and disappointment - and still help survivors find healing? A white haired old man now, and a grandfather, I am certain my abuser’s family and their community loves, respects and reveres him, and doesn’t suspect about his toxicity. If they do, I’m sure they don’t know how to handle their ambivalence about him, either. I hope he seeks their forgiveness.
I am really wrestling with this question right now, especially as an old, well-discussed story about the many transgressions of the Indian progenitor of the yoga that has been my life’s practice, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, has resurfaced these past few weeks. Jois died in 2009, but the story and the images arise on social media again every year or so. Recently, it’s been further whipped to a frenzy with some purposefully orchestrated Facebook “justice” - a mob mentality fomented by agenda-driven folks aligned with the American-based bureaucracy, the Yoga Alliance, who desire to destroy the Indian-based Ashtanga Yoga lineage, out of commodification, spite and most likely for self-aggrandizement and accolades. I suspect there is a hope that they can step into a power vacuum that might be created from its destruction or humiliation - and hence, loss of status, and money-paying yoga students. Always follow the money.
These folks are so hypocritical and manipulative, they sneeringly hurl the epithet of “cult” to incite anger and confusion amongst a community I've known for over two decades, that has sometimes felt a little dogmatic at times, but never has felt like a cult. (I stopped practicing Ashtanga for almost two years when I was injured by an IUD, and no one cared or came looking for me to "return.") What’s worse, they are actually using the stories of survivors, ostensibly to help their healing, but also to quietly further their own ends (see above) - a fact which disgusts me. More violence against women. Without belaboring the story, I’ve included a link, here in the words of one of his victims, that help explain how Pattabhi Jois behaved, and the attempts by his students and family at ending his behavior as well as the enabling that surrounded his behavior here.
Yes, it’s true, he touched people, men and women, on their genitals sometimes while adjusting them in asana. Some students were traumatized by this, some were not. Few who experienced it or saw it and knew it was wrong challenged him on it. Many enabled. This fact is deeply disappointing, but not criminal. Because, news flash, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months (or maybe if you’re a man, sorrynotsorry) we all now know that we live in a culture where pretty much everyone - every institution, workplace, family, and community - enables. To publicly humiliate enablers does nothing to help heal survivors. It’s just more abuse, albeit coming from a place that seems justified. It’s not.
I have not seen nor heard of ANY evidence of actual collusion or aiding and abetting of the behavior - that is, “honeypotting” - in any of his family or students, and that’s encouraging. There is no excuse, however, in modern society to do the things he did. So, I am not excusing him. These grievous instances of a beloved, brilliant man’s deep flaws - of his own “panic and emptiness” and his refusal to change his behavior, his "relapses" - sadden, anger and upset me to this day. For this reason, I’ve chosen to remove his photo from Ashtanga Yoga Northampton. It’s not respectful to his victims, nor is it healing having it up there, not only for myself, but for anyone of the students that practices with us who may also be sexual assault survivors, to see it every day.
Nevertheless, I believe in the inherent goodness of people, that they can rise above their flaws, rise above the panic and emptiness that haunts them to reveal the loving light of their true and essentially noblest being. Few things have convinced me more of this truth than Ashtanga Yoga. I love my Ashtanga sadhana; it has literally saved my life. I am dedicated to and believe wholly in the Ashtanga practice and what it has to offer the world - this beautiful eight-limbed practice to knowing who we are that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois shared lovingly - yes, lovingly and compassionately - with my teachers, and which they lovingly and compassionately shared with me. I practice it and teach it with reverence - not for the man who shared it with us, but for the students. It is a brilliant and wise system that has brought me great solace and beauty, and through it, I hope to continue to serve those who wish to find some solace and beauty in their lives to, too.
Finally, what can be done to help heal both the survivors and the shaken Ashtanga community?
First, we need to believe the survivors and support them as they process and heal. That means listening to their stories, acknowledging their truth without defending Jois, and seeking compassionately to find justice for them in the way they need, if that is possible at this stage, because, after all, he is dead.
(Which begs the question: Do we “visit the sins of the Father on the Son?” Do we malign or punish his family or his students? Maybe those that deny or refuse to believe the survivors should be taken to task - but those who freely admit error? Again, enabling is not criminal, it’s just deeply disappointing. I’ve observed a Facebook frenzy of self righteous anger against and shaming of those who have already bravely come forward to admit their enabling, and that’s wrong. Again, as a survivor, I don’t believe that’s the answer to finding personal healing surrounding sexual trauma means shaming enablers who show remorse, and shame on those who do.)
Second, the Ashtanga community and its senior teachers need to continue to be absolutely transparent, forthcoming and honest about what happened, what they observed, and the parts they played in what happened, too. Come clean, and share your stories, please. Truth and reconciliation needs to happen for the survivors, and for the entire community to move forward in a healthy and positive way.
Third, the KPJAYI must take active public steps immediately that ensure and safeguard the interests of victims before those of Ashtanga teachers, living or dead, no matter how “loved” or revered. If they do not already exist, clear and accessible protocols need to be developed and established to address any further allegations against transgressions by Ashtanga teachers. Obtaining the help of organizations that support survivors of sexual assault, both here and in Mysore, India, to help develop those protocols is key.
Fourth, more stringent vetting and regular peer review of those who wish to teach Ashtanga should seriously be considered by all Ashtanga senior teachers who offer any kind of teacher training or authorization. If I have to do a CORI check here in the States to volunteer to sell cookies at a Bake Sale at my kids’ grammar school, I think we in the Ashtanga world can come up with at standard means of determining whether or not the teachers we are authorizing to teach are at the very least, not sexual predators. And we don't need the Yoga Alliance to show us how to do that.
And, lastly, without question, there needs to be an established, International Ashtanga Code of Ethics, based on the tenets outlined in the first two limbs of Patanjali's Eight-Limbed path, Yama and Niyama - including compassion, nonstealing, nongreediness, austerity, self-inquiry, and wise use of our personal sexual lifeforce - for all who choose to teach this practice.
May we all find our way.