How do we begin to name the deep knowing that something happening around us, or being done to us, now or in the past, was or is just not right? No matter what anyone else says, not okay. Not okay for me.
We talk about physical and sexual abuse and increasingly we agree on what that looks and feels like. We may also call it bullying or inappropriate, and we don’t stand for it, and we call each other out. It still occurs, but at least, with more awareness, it can be more likely internally understood and then externally validated. We can know and be affirmed that yes, this is wrong.
What about mental or emotional abuse? Psychological abuse? Abuse to the right to determine a place of psychological comfort within a family and community? Abuse to a sense of personal sovereignty, and then abuse to the ability to behave in ways that protect that unique sovereignty? Spiritual abuse? Much harder to pin down. Much more subjective, much more open to debate, even dismissible.
As the wife of one of the original children of Centrepoint, I live with someone where this form of abuse was the reality of childhood. It is hard, hard work to understand and support a person whose personality and coping strategies were formed in such nebulous psychological certainties, let alone safety.
Within his family, that I have been part of for over two decades, this abuse is now perpetuated through the denial of the reality of our shared reality. At best it is silence or omission, at worst manipulation and lies.
But it feels very wrong. It is wrong. I know this in every cell of my body, and it feels like white hot rage. On behalf of another yes, but also to my own sense of the right to be able to wholeheartedly be myself as a wife, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law and a stepmother. To be able to navigate these relationships as congruently as possible for my own psychological safety.
Often, I feel angry. Often, I feel confused. Did the freedom to roam in native bush and the resilience, independence and sheer intelligence formed by such an upbringing somehow ameliorate the neglect? Does the ability to adapt and quickly learn new skills somehow make up for the pathological mistrust of authority? Does the ease with which he can subsume his needs to put others first, the incredible generosity of spirit he can display, somehow lessen the dis-ease I feel as to just how easily and convincingly he can lie? Am I just too damn judgmental? Is the problem more in the way I am perceiving it? If I feel such angst – and I know, I wasn’t even there – I can only imagine the mental and emotional torments of my husband. Just what he is up against.
I live as wife to a man who, after twenty years of marriage, still doesn’t, is incapable of, trusting me fully. Trusting anyone fully. It is a daily challenge to live with one whose life has been haunted, with life-threatening consequences, by this tragic loss of the ability to hear and live one’s own truth. It is confusing. It is infuriating. It is heart-breaking. It is at times deeply lonely.
It is tough, ongoing and sometimes even feels dangerous to love someone who is desperate to love fully, desperate to trust, when everything in him screams No! Don’t!! Not safe!!!
So, I have come to understand the bravery and resilience required by all of us affected - to whatever extent - by Centrepoint. The psychological abuse was complex and remains deeply confusing; the best lies are based on the truth, and Centrepoint offered a seductive version of the truth that love is paramount, openness forges community, and healthy sexuality can be life affirming.
This distorted version of the truth, and the ripple effects over the decades, caused and is causing injury to many souls.
It caused “moral injury”, the most insidious form of abuse there is.
Moral injury is a diagnostic term coined by the father of a good friend of mine in America, Dr Sam Shay. Dr Jonathan Shay is a pioneering psychologist in the field of trauma and introduced this concept when he sought to articulate the profound sense of mental anguish and dis-ease present in Vietnam war veterans. Their bodily injuries had healed. Their psyches hadn’t. In a recent call with Sam, he gave me his father’s three criteria for moral injury to be present:
(i) There has been a betrayal of what is morally right (ii) by someone who holds legitimate authority (iii) in a high-stakes situation.
From talking with him I further understood that it can occur when there is a perpetration, a witness of, or a failure to prevent acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. It is then related to pathological manifestations of guilt, shame, anger and disgust.
But here we are again. It is all so damn subjective. So damn personal. What is morally right? And who gets to decide? And whose beliefs, whose expectations? And on what end of the spectrum might we be affected? Hardly at all? Or soul- destroying?
I believe in our common humanity that we do share concepts of right from wrong, if not black-and-white definable, at least some agreements of what we find acceptable or tolerable. Perhaps, within individual permutations of nature and nurture, we are biologically hardwired for it, and the obvious taboos have arisen from genetic benefits to further the evolution of our species.
More mundanely perhaps we call it “common sense”, in that we share similar human instincts common to most, and it is a sense, as in we feel it. Something within us, when we experience or witness something directly affecting us or those around us, knows intuitively whether it feels good or bad, right or wrong.
Did Centrepoint parents truly feel comfortable introducing powerful hallucinogens to the still-forming brains and psyches of prepubescents and teens? Seeing the sexual activity of their teens or having their teens observe theirs?
Did mothers at Centrepoint truly feel at ease about handing over their toddler or young girl to another woman for sexual initiation by Bert, and did those women in turn feel sanguine about then taking them to Bert?
Did fathers at Centrepoint feel at peace with the community-encouraged activity of performing cunnilingus on their daughters as a bonding practice during nappy changes?
If they didn’t, what overrode that instinct?
Was it the influence of someone around them in legitimate authority? The hierarchical model of Centrepoint where Bert, his inner circle, and the more articulate, manipulative and dominant personalities could make your daily life charmed or difficult? Someone who, through the community’s therapeutic model, knew your darkest secrets and deepest fears and could use them to control or publicly shame you if you didn’t toe the line?
The high-stake situation? Throwing one’s lot in, financially? Trapped by situation, no other viable options. Confused as all-get-up, not so sure, but desperate to belong. Terrified to stand out, to be “the other”. Exhausted by trying to follow the rules (“Bert says …”). Terrified, ashamed? Or just too damn exhausted to put up a fight, let alone try to get out?
No choice, you are a child, this is your family?
Centrepoint was a community that from the start set itself as apart from and superior to “out there”. In his fourteen years living at Centrepoint, between ages three to seventeen, my husband was told repeatedly “out there” was wrong. How to begin to make sense of the fact that so much of “in here” felt so, so wrong, in every fibre of his being.
He thought he must be wrong. He went underground. He learnt to please and mostly he learnt to dissemble. He learnt to lie. He learnt to deny himself.
When he is struggling, he still psychologically vanishes. It feels like a matter of survival.
Once, when things were really bad and I was desperately trying to understand the quagmire that is Centrepoint, to understand my husband – in truth to save his life - someone said to me that “the kids who grew up at Centrepoint, unlike the kids taken there at a later age, would’ve had an easier time of it because that was all they knew”.
I, with an adult life lived with one of these children, wholeheartedly disagree. They did not learn, could not learn and have had to try to painstakingly embody a fundamental birthright: to thine own self be true. Know thyself.
It seems to me that within the Centrepoint story there were many betrayals of this simple but profound map to navigate life, for both children and adults, victims and perpetrators. And although a clear distinction between the two was and is virtually impossible when it comes to Centrepoint, everyone involved now, and then, experienced or experience moral injury.
The injury to a shared humanity is what unites.
Love heals everything. But first the injury must be acknowledged. Then love can get to work.
Kia kaha, everyone.