Blue and pink graffiti that reads "Survivor"; image via http://www.puregraffiti.com/

Why Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter Should Spark Coalition-Building Amongst Survivors With Mental Illness

This week, I have been compulsively following every aspect of Dylan Farrow’s open letter in the New York Times–its fallout, reactions from Dylan’s supporters, and, at times, the blatantly histrionic defenses of Woody Allen offered by some of his friends and colleagues. Dylan’s letter–and its detractors–triggered me to the point of being physically sick. I take my nighttime antipsychotic medicine and my daily morning mood stabilizer, all for my Bipolar Disorder-2 diagnosis three years ago, but I am haunted by conversations about Dylan. People that I trusted say she is a liar and mentally disturbed. These statements triggered me, and I thought I was headed toward a mixed episode with the amount of sadness and anger I felt. Reactions such as Stephen King’s tweet that there was “Palpable bitchery” in Dylan’s letter, or that of one person on my Facebook post about the incident, “You can’t take every sob story seriously, I know plenty of crazy people who would lie and try to convince the courts that the other parent was a horrible human being just to ‘win’ custody [sic]” have made my skin crawl. And those who “don’t care” and “will continue to watch his [Allen’s] films” may do well to heed the words of Beth Richie on the silence surrounding domestic violence: “Loyalty and devotion are enormous barriers to overcome.”

I know plenty of “crazy” people, too. I look in the mirror every morning, and one stares back at me. And here is what this “crazy” person has to say.

The attempts to discredit Malone/Dylan Farrow’s childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has commonalities and intersects with shallow, regressive national conversations about mental health–usually about individuals with mental illness like myself–that surface when acts of extreme violence are committed by young men like Adam Lanza. Denial can be defined as the power to choose what is visible and what you wish to disappear from view. To avoid or override conversations about gun control on a national scale, many people chose to see the Newtown shooting issue as one of mental health reform–reform that supposedly could have stopped an allegedly mentally ill young man from committing a massacre. In Dylan Farrow’s case, many people are choosing to lambast a young woman whose recovery from childhood sexual abuse (CSA) perhaps involved some form of therapy or mental health services. When survivors who perhaps have some form of mental illness or mood disorder speak out and demand that our voices be heard, when acts of violence are committed against us–we are told we are liars, that we are insane, that we are opportunists.

The willingness to silence survivors is an act of violence itself. I have seen entire communities turn on small groups of survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. My hometown’s church diocese seems to specialize in pedophilia. The community that I grew up in specialized in denial. I had friendships end when a particularly popular priest in my age group faced charges of sexual abuse of minors by fifteen people and I supported the victims. This priest molested one of my mother’s friend’s sons. The priest fled to Ireland, practically a safe haven for pedophiles on the run, and told people he was seeking treatment for cancer–though this was highly unlikely. His portrait still hangs in the lobby of a remodeled gymnasium, along with those of other lead priests of this particular parish.

In court, survivors of this man’s abuse were told they enjoyed the attention from that man, that they enjoyed being fondled on the soccer playing field, that they enjoyed being cornered in a classroom. Some speculate that Dylan Farrow perhaps loved the attention she received and enjoyed the manipulation that Mia carried out. This is the pain survivors face when denial is utilized. For those with a diagnosis of some sort of mood disorder or mental illness, however, it is all that much easier to discredit us.

Fortunately, activists have been pushing to make sexual assault–and CSA in particular–part of the disability movement’s agenda. Mia Mingus is a huge proponent of ending childhood sexual abuse. The mental health as a human right movement has been picking up steam, too, thanks to people like Melody Moezzi, author of the fantastic memoir Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life.  Moezzi has pushed the media and the mental health community to take those with mental illness seriously and for us to be advocates for us. Both of these women of color have dedicated their time to different realms of the disability rights movement as it intersects with CSA. The activist push to disassociate mental illness from major acts of violence and the push to make survivors of CSA heard and heeded creates an opportunity for a truly powerful coalition.

Imagine an alliance composed of generationFIVE, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), 1 in 6, Inc., and perhaps the new, nationwide Mental Health First Aid program; how much could we accomplish? How could our shared resources, empower survivors and end the ignorance and misconceptions of both, always intersecting, movements? This can be done if we make both mental health and an end to sexual violence our priorities. We can fight racism, sexism, ableism, and classism in this coalition. This coalition could be wonderful. It will be difficult. But we can win.

Reading Dylan’s story and listening to the voices of my sisters with mental illness and disabilities–all of us dedicated to social justice and desiring to see a world without rape–I can see how our issues interact and are not so separate. It makes me think of Anne Sexton’s poem “Her Kind.” Sexton, who also had bipolar disorder, seems to have written this poem as an act of recognition. I have identified strongly with female spaces all of my gay disabled life, as opposed to explicitly gay male spaces, and when I hear and read the words of women, I think, “Yes, I know and see you.” I close with this poem that reflects my connection to brave women, men, transgender, and genderqueer people; all of us survivors.

Her Kind

I have gone out a possessed witch,

haunting the black air, braver at night;

dreaming evil, I have done my hitch

over the plain houses, light by light:

lonely thing, twelve fingered, out of mind.

A woman like that is not a woman, quite.

I have been her kind.

 

 I have found the warm caves in the woods,   

filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,   

closets, silks, innumerable goods;

fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:   

whining, rearranging the disaligned.

A woman like that is misunderstood.

I have been her kind.

 

I have ridden in your cart, driver,

waved my nude arms at villages going by,   

learning the last bright routes, survivor   

where your flames still bite my thigh

and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.   

A woman like that is not ashamed to die.   

I have been her kind.”

                        –Anne Sexton, “Her Kind,” 1960