The Collision: Enforced Religion Meets the Internet

Miriam Badawi, daughter of Raif, from the Free Raif Badawi Facebook page.
Every human being alive today, provided they have access to even the most rudimentary computing hardware, is now a broadcasting platform. Compared to generations past, even for the least electronically visible among us, we have many times the reach for any thought or opinion we care to express. And we rarely have full control over who hears what we say.

The consequences for the expression of religious belief (or lack thereof) have been enormous. To my mind, the collision of the democratized Internet with the innate restrictions of certain faith traditions is the most significant development in the world of religion today. Never in human history have supernaturally based belief systems, so specific in their proscriptions for behavior and thought, been so open to scrutiny and criticism, and on such a mass scale.

And it is a collision, because the free expression of dissenting ideas are anathema to dogma, particularly state-enforced dogma. Incidents of heretics and religious dissenters are not unique to our era of course, but never has it been so easy to broadcast one’s dissent, for religious authorities to become aware of said dissent, and for the rest of the world to be awoken to how those dissenters are being persecuted. They are no longer isolated to villages or insular nations. A heretical tweet can land one in jail, but one’s next tweet can then rally a movement to demand your freedom.

This collision has sparked a global crisis, a crackdown on free expression from serial offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to countries that fancy themselves democracies like Turkey, Russia, and even Greece. Often these prohibitions against religious dissent are given names like “hurting religious sentiments” or “insulting religion,” but they all fall under the rubric of blasphemy laws.

It is remarkably easy to commit blasphemy today. Some victims of persecution have been willing agitators, intentionally trying to bring about change within their own societies, such as Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, who began a website for the discussion of liberal opinion; or Alber Saber, the Egyptian secular activist arrested in 2012 for allegedly sharing links to the video “The Innocence of Muslims,” which sparked enraged protests and violence across the Islamic world. But on the other hand, we also have people like Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who has begun quietly expressing atheistic opinions on Facebook, and soon faced the violent wrath of an angry mob and several months in prison as a result.

In other words, one need not seek out controversy to find it, and one need not look to publicly commit blasphemy to find oneself in existential danger as a result of expressing dissenting beliefs. A casual Facebook conversation or tweet can land one in just as much peril as being an intentional rabble-rouser online.

The silver lining to this is how easily the rest of us can become aware of this crisis, and each instance of it. Alexander Aan began his travails alone, but soon found that he had won the support of countless allies around the world, including leading human rights organizations, such as the one that employs me, the Center for Inquiry. These newfound allies, friends he could never have known he had without the same technology that allowed him to be placed in danger in the first place, rallied to his cause and leveled a degree of political pressure to Indonesian authorities that they could not have anticipated when the first locked Alex up.

And for Raif Badawi – along with his fellow dissenter, Saudi human rights activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair, who also sits in prison for blasphemy-related offenses – their cause has likewise brought to bear the combined efforts of activists, human rights organizations, and even casual users of social media to push back against their persecution. Their case was recently brought before the UN’s Human Rights Commission by my organization, which was an important enough step in itself. But when delegates of the Saudi government manically tried to silence our own representative, Josephine Macintosh, as she delivered her rebuke of Saudi’s human rights abuses, the video of the altercation went viral, exposing to tens of thousands of individuals the extent of Saudi Arabia’s crimes, the plights of Badawi and Al-khair, and the fact that a growing movement was working so hard to push back.

But without Twitter and Facebook and other online media, we in the West might never know any of this. We might go on wholly unaware and uninterested in the challenges faced by atheists and other religious dissenters around the world. Miriam Ibrahim, originally of Sudan, is a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for refusing to convert to Islam, but the outcry for her right to follow the faith of her choosing was heard at first exclusively online, and largely from atheists and secularists. The sheer volume of attention brought to her cause online led to breathless “mainstream” media coverage, which in turn brought the heat of the world’s gaze upon Sudan, who eventually released her. She is no agitator. She didn’t have a blasphemous blog or tweet religious satire. She, simply and quietly, refused to violate her conscience, and the online world turned up the volume on her behalf.

Religious belief, whatever good can be ascribed to it, nearly always brings with it the expectation of conformity of thought and deed, lest one earn the wrath of the creator of the universe. The Internet is, among other things, an engine for sifting, parsing, and critiquing information and opinion. The collision of these two phenomena in this early part of the 21st century is one whose shockwaves will be felt for generations to come.

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Patheos community here


You can learn much more about blasphemy laws and the fight for free expression at CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression.

Ferguson as Portrayed by Facebook and Twitter: Algorithms Have Consequences

Image source.
If Facebook’s algorithm is a brain, then Twitter is a stream of conscience. The Facebook brain decides what will and will not show up in your newsfeed based on an unknown array of factors, a major category of which is who has paid for extra attention (“promoted posts”). Twitter, on the other hand, is a firehose. If you follow 1000 people, you’ll see more or less whatever they tweet, at the time they tweet it, at the time you decide to look.

As insidious as it feels, the Facebook brain serves a function by curating what would otherwise be a deluge of information. For those with hundreds or thousands of “friends,” seeing everything anyone posts as it happens would be a disaster. Everyone is there, everyone is posting, and no one wants to consume every bit of that.

Twitter is used by fewer people, often by those more savvy in social media communication (though I’m sure that’s debatable), the content is intentionally limited in scope to 140 characters including links and/or images, and the expectation of following is different than with Facebook. On Facebook, we “follow” anyone we know, family of all ages and interests, old acquaintances, and anyone else we come across in real life or online. On Twitter, it’s generally accepted that we can follow whomever we please, and as few as we please, and there need be no existing social connection. I can only friend someone who agrees to it on Facebook (though I can follow many more), but I can follow anyone I like on Twitter whose account is not private.

So the Facebook brain curates for you, the Twitter firehose is curated by you.

Over the past few days, we have learned that there are significant social implications to these differences. Zeynep Tufekci has written a powerful and much talked about piece at Medium centered on the startling idea that net neutrality, and the larger ideal of the unfiltered Internet, are human rights issues, illustrated by the two platforms’ “coverage” (for lack of a better word) of the wrenching events in Ferguson, Missouri. She says that transparent and uncensored Internet communication “is a free speech issue; and an issue of the voiceless being heard, on their own terms.”

Her experience of the situation in Ferguson, as seen on Twitter and Facebook, mirrored my own:

[The events in Ferguson] unfolded in real time on my social media feed which was pretty soon taken over by the topic — and yes, it’s a function of who I follow but I follow across the political spectrum, on purpose, and also globally. Egyptians and Turks were tweeting tear gas advice. Journalists with national profiles started going live on TV. And yes, there were people from the left and the right who expressed outrage.

… I switched to non net-neutral Internet to see what was up. I mostly have a similar a composition of friends on Facebook as I do on Twitter.

Nada, zip, nada.

No Ferguson on Facebook last night. I scrolled. Refreshed.

Okay, so one platform has a lot about an unfolding news event, the other doesn’t. Eventually, Facebook began to reflect some of what was happening elsewhere, and Ferguson information did begin to filter up. But so what? If you want real-time news, you use Twitter. If you want a more generalized and friendly experience, you use Facebook. Here’s the catch, according to Tufekci:

[W]hat if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?

Without Twitter, we get no Ferguson. The mainstream outlets have only lately decided that Ferguson, a situation in which a militarized police force is laying nightly violent siege to a U.S. town of peaceful noncombatants, is worth their attention, and this is largely because the story has gotten passionate, relentless coverage by reporters and civilians alike on Twitter.

Remember, Tufekci and I both follow many of the same people on both platforms, and neither of us saw any news of Ferguson surface there until long after the story had already broken through to mainstream attention on Twitter. What about folks who don’t use Twitter? Or don’t have Facebook friends who pay attention? What if that overlap was so low that Ferguson remained a concern solely of Twitter users?

And now think about what would have happened if there was no Twitter. Or if Twitter adopted a Facebook algorithmic model, and imposed its own curation brain on content. Would we as a country be talking about the siege on Ferguson now? If so, might we be talking about it solely in terms of how these poor, wholesome cops were threatened by looting hoodlums, and never hear the voices of the real protesters, the real residents of Ferguson, whose homes were being fired into and children were being tear-gassed?

As I suggested on Twitter last night, “Maybe the rest of the country would pay attention if the protesters dumped ice buckets on their heads. Probably help with the tear gas.” Tufekci writes, “Algorithms have consequences.” I’ve been writing a lot about how platforms like Facebook and Twitter serve to define our personal identities. With the Facebook brain as a sole source, the people of Ferguson may have had none at all. With the Twitter firehose, we began to know them.

The Apple Ethos is Bigger Than Apple Itself

The idea of Apple as a “cult” or “religion” is often expressed somewhat derisively, but there’s no doubt that for many, many people the company represents something beyond the products it produces, particularly when referring to Steve Jobs’s Apple in particular. When Jobs died, I wrote about how the grieving wasn’t exclusively about the loss of a man, but of an ethos, a way of thinking and working. Here’s John Gruber explaining that ethos back when Jobs resigned in 2011, as his illness was overtaking him:

The company is a fractal design. Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth. Zoom out enough and you can see that the same things that define Apple’s products apply to Apple as a whole. The company itself is Apple-like. The same thought, care, and painstaking attention to detail that Steve Jobs brought to questions like “How should a computer work?”, “How should a phone work?”, “How should we buy music and apps in the digital age?” he also brought to the most important question: “How should a company that creates such things function?”

And then Gruber ends with the refrain that was often heard during the transition from the Jobs era to that of Tim Cook:

Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

Jobs himself probably knew this, that the ethos of Apple was the product, the one that would birth all others to come. And that’s why he established Apple University in 2008, an institution internal to Apple that would formalize the propagation of the company culture long after he’d be there to do it himself. Brian X. Chen at the New York Times got some rare glimpses into Apple University, which, like the rest of Apple, is kept under tight wraps.

Read the article if you’re curious about things like the individual classes, but this quote from analyst Ben Bajarin is a good idea of what the motivation behind it is:

When you do the case studies on Apple decades from now, the one thing that will keep coming out is this unique culture where people there believe they’re making the best products that change people’s lives. That’s all cultural stuff they’re trying to ingrain. That becomes very difficult the bigger you get.

And from Apple folks Chen spoke to:

[Employees] described a program that is an especially vivid reflection of Apple and the image it presents to the world. Like an Apple product, it is meticulously planned, with polished presentations and a gleaming veneer that masks a great deal of effort.

Most folks will hear about Apple University and the attempts to codify the Jobs ethos and presume this applies more or less exclusively to the goings-on in Cupertino. But I can tell you from my own experience as a blue-shirted retail drone that, university or no university, the culture and values of Jobs and the company are instilled across the corporation’s many manifestations.

Matthew Panzarino understood this when he wrote his own response to Jobs’s resignation:

This philosophy has been instilled in Apple employees from the Retail Stores to the executive staff. No other major technology company employs staff as convinced that they are producing some of the best products in the world. This is a result of Jobs’ ability to lead by example, infusing the corporate culture with that same passion and pride of a creator.

To the retail employees, the store was (and I assume is) as much an iconic product as any iThing, where even those of us at the bottom of the ladder felt a little drunk on the effects of Reality Distortion Field and googly-eyed from the glow of the logo. There’s a reason why a customer’s experience with employees at Apple Stores is so vastly different from anything else in the mall, and most anywhere else for that matter.

It seems to me, given that the Apple ethos is being instilled in a formalized way within the company, that it’s kind of a shame that it isn’t done outside the company as well. Not by Apple itself, of course, as that would be against its interests as a company; why teach competitors how to do what you do?

But go back to the retail example. Now that I know how things were done within Apple Retail, imperfect as it was, I’m now ruined for all retail experiences outside the metallic box of the Apple Store. From high to low-end, I leave most retail experiences sorely disappointed, shaking my head and thinking about how whatever I just went through would never fly at Apple. There would have been an extra mile not traveled, a question unasked, a consideration not made.

This is just one example. Imagine if more aspects of life – be they commercial, governmental, artistic…anything – were to take more of an intentional queue from the way Apple works, or at least strives to work. Maybe there’s something funny about the idea of the “Cult of Apple” and the messiah Steve Jobs (peace be upon him). But if someone truly qualified offered a course or a certification in this ethos, I’d sign up right quick.

Apple may have been Steve Jobs’s greatest product, but it’s the ethos that fuels it is an even better one. I certainly wouldn’t want a world of short-fused, megalomaniacal Steve Jobses, but I would like a culture that aspires more intentionally to the fractal Gruber described: “Simplicity, elegance, beauty, cleverness, humility. Directness. Truth.” That’s a church I could believe in.

Robin Williams and the False Promise of Success

I have no idea why he did it. I have no special insight into whatever darkness weighed on the heart of Robin Williams. I haven’t even seen a Robin Williams movie since Man of the Year, which was terrible. But he’s someone I absolutely idolized as a young comedic performer, someone whose career I would have done anything to emulate. He was an early example for me of a performer who was utterly beloved entirely for his performances, for his talent and energy, for the laughs and pathos he was capable of bringing about, as opposed to his looks or some veneer of “cool.”

And while I can’t know what haunted him, I can relate to him both as a comic actor and as someone who struggles with depression. I think, in the immediate shock of the news of his apparent suicide, that Williams’ death gives the lie to the idea that I, and I’d suppose that millions of others who also live with depression, tell themselves: That if we can just reach a certain level of success, if we can just cross this undefinable threshold of validation, our hangups and sadness will be cured.

I know I think this. I don’t think it intellectually, of course, but it’s there. Something deep in my own mind, where I can’t yet correct it, believes this.

Robin Williams embodied a dream I once had of who I would become. He had reached the pinnacle of that ideal. But it didn’t cure him. Whatever his demons were (and again, I have no idea as to what they were beyond what is common public knowledge), they could not be erased by popularity, acclaim, awards, a guaranteed place in our cultural pantheon, or the laughter and tears of millions – billions? – of people.

I was in the audience for his Inside the Actors Studio appearance during my brief time at that school, and it was one of those evenings where he could do no wrong. He had this huge room of self-obsessed actors (many of whom probably already considered him yesterday’s news) howling with laughter, absolutely adoring him for his sharp and quick mind, and for his humanity. Because while he was cracking us up, between the frenetic barrages of wit and energy, he would pause, and he would reveal a little bit of his true self, showing us how vulnerable he really was.

Success won’t cure us by itself. That’s not what’s wrong. We have to find another way. I’m sure he tried. I wish he’d succeeded.

Of Muggles and Mutants: Sci-fi’s Concern for “Better” Humans

I’ve moments ago finished The Bone Season, a novel by Samantha Shannon that I quite enjoyed, about a near-future world in which “clairvoyants,” those born with an ability to interact with the spirit world, are considered riffraff at best and plague-carrying criminals at worst. The layers of the world are rather quickly shown to be numerous, with a number of possible answers to the question of who is really in control (and it does get complicated). For this post, I’m primarily interested in how an aspect of the book’s premise compares to that of some other fictional universes. So be warned, ahead be great spoilers.

(Not for nothin’, but I was very glad that the protagonist was an ass-kicking young woman, and not the standard “chosen one” male messiah we usually get. Paige Mahoney is powerful, but she’s not fulfilling any prophecies, just discovering, and struggling with, the extent of her considerable abilities.)

The idea of a special subgroup of humans being singled out by the less-special majority is not a new concept. The mind immediately jumps to X-Men, in which mutants with superpowers are mistrusted and feared, but there is still a semblance of struggle to integrate mutants with the rest of society. I think it’s safe to say that as the audience, though, we are generally expected to see the mutants as “better” than non-mutants. They are humans-plus.

Another version is the world of Harry Potter, where witches and wizards aren’t persecuted because they’re not known, other than to a handful of people. Magical folk, again, are presented as “better” than non-magical people who don’t get the benefit of amazing powers or insight into a universe beyond their graps. They even get a kid of abysmal name, “muggles.” Again, wizards and witches are humans-plus.

Unlike with X-Men or The Bone Season, we don’t get to see what might happen if the magical and muggle worlds were to try to integrate. But I think it’s not too hard to imagine that the non-magical world would be scared shitless to know that a race of superpowerful sorcerers who could defy the very laws of physics with magic wands were now part of society. Just as “normals” are afraid of mutants in X-Men, and afraid of clairvoyants in The Bone Season.

I don’t know enough about X-Men lore to say exactly how non-mutants are presented and treated generally, but Harry Potter’s good guys at least make a point of standing up for the right of muggles to live without the threat of Voldemort, and for the equality “half-bloods.” The wizards and witches are humans-plus, but they still care about us.

The characters of The Bone Season seem to care little for normals. Our only exposure to non-clairvoyants is negative, be they agents of the fascistic government or one of the few passerby characters who have little to say or do beyond being a threat. Once the main story gets moving, essentially all of the action takes place in the Rephaim’s cordoned-off city, so “muggles” become quickly irrelevant. Though treated like dirt by both pan-dimensional beings and regular old humans, the reader is expected to see the clairvoyants as, largely, superior to normals.

So why am I hung up on the presentation of normals in these worlds? Perhaps I have some kind of paranoia that the creators of these worlds see either themselves or some other group in the real world as being analogous to these humans-plus. There would be some subset of people in real society who have an ability or an insight that the masses do not possess, and are as a result either reviled and persecuted, or at least forced into total secrecy.

Who would that be? Intellectuals or academics? Certainly we have our “ivory tower” universities that are in a way analogous to the wizarding world, at least in as much that what goes on and is discussed in them seems weird and troubling to many on the outside. That almost makes it a good Harry Potter analogy, except that unlike Hogwarts, everyone knows that Harvard is there. This is more of akin to Neil Stephenson’s Anathem, in which an agreement is struck between the academic world and the rest of society that the academics should generally keep to themselves in their monasteries. So maybe it’s supposed to be artists and other creative types? Certainly the real world suffers through times and places in which academics and the arts are seen as too subversive and dangerous to be allowed to flourish.

People of particular religious worldviews could easily see themselves in the role of the humans-plus in these stories, for what is it to follow a religion but to suppose one has a special understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything that the rest of the heretics and infidels of the world do not? (Unless of course you’re a progressive religious believer, in which case you believe every faith is an equally valid path to God, etcetera, etcetera.)

Yes, atheists easily fit this mold, too, perhaps better than those of any supernatural worldview, for our stance – atheism itself – is based on the idea that everyone else is doing it wrong. (Which, it happens, is probably true.) And if my time as a professional skepto-atheist has shown me anything, it’s that our crowd is particularly adept at feeling superior to believers, so much so that we often have to turn that smugness on each other just to vent some of the excess pride.

But I honestly don’t know. If these stories were simply allegories to help us shed new light on how we treat those different from us, such as racial, religious, or other minorities, that would be one thing. But instead the persecuted (or secreted) minorities are born “better” than their persecutors. They are not just “different” by way of look or language or origin, but enhanced.

So the metaphor then becomes one focused on how society treats those who are in some form or other “superior” to the majority. That’s uncomfortable for me to say the least. And I’m frankly not too worried about how we might treat humans-plus. I think the way we treat “the least of these” is probably a more important story to tell.

I just don’t quite know how you make that into a compelling sci-fi adventure. But I’ll bet someone has.

Abuse on Twitter: Humans Can’t Always Just “Brush it Off”

Image by Matthew Keys.
People being assholes online is hardly new, though awful people using Twitter as a kind of heat-seeking missile to hurt people has only lately begun to rise to the level of a mainstream conversation.

There seem to be three legs to this stool: The responsibilities of the perpetrators of Twitter abuse, what the target of the abuse is obliged to either tolerate or resist, and what Twitter itself ought to be doing.

For leg 1, the people who use Twitter (or any medium) to hurt people’s feelings, to scare them, to threaten them, the answer is clear, and we need not dwell on it. They should drop dead.

Let us assume, though, that they will disagree with me and continue to both live and use Twitter as a vessel for their vileness. We have left legs two and three.

To get at leg 2, I recommend a conversation had on this topic on This Week in Google between hosts Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Leo Laporte. Jarvis and Laporte, both of whom I admire very much, while sensitive to what (mostly) women endure online, seem focused on the idea of ignoring the abuse, blocking bad actors and not letting the harassment get to you, lest the bad guys win. (The exceptions Laporte makes are for actual threats of violence that warrant real-world intervention, and the kind of abuse that can harm his business, but that’s a different thing.)

It takes Trapani, however, to ground the conversation where I think it belongs, in the minds and perceptions of those who are not public figures, who have not signed up to be in the spotlight, and are human.

In the abstract, on paper, it sounds entirely reasonable to recommend simply brushing off the vitriolic spewings of idiots on Twitter. But as Trapani explains from her own experience when she first became a visible figure online, the utter onslaught of criticism, the “nitpicking” of every facet of her existence, was completely overwhelming. Again, she knows that she chose to be in this spotlight, and was able, over time, to become more or less inured to the attacks. But think of the countless (mostly) women on Twitter, especially now that the service is mainstream and not a geek/niche platform, who suffer the same level of abuse that a public figure might. Now tell me they should just brush it off.

Because we are humans, you see. It’s not enough to say we ought simply process the data and coldly weigh the costs and benefits of every action and then act for the optimal outcome. “Too much abuse? Block, put it out of your mind, and decide not to be affected.” It simply doesn’t work that way for human beings with feelings and memories and psychological baggage and hearts. When we’re attacked, either in person or through bits, we feel it, physiologically. We experience real emotions like fear, self-loathing, and depression. Whether the abuse is “genuine” or a real-world physical threat is beside the point. We’re not the computers.

I’ve felt fear from the Internet, and it’s the same feeling as fear in meatspace. And I’m not a real target, not like so many (mostly) women are. I can’t imagine turning that fear up by several orders of magnitude, just so I can be free to tweet.

So what ought the targets do? They ought to have a service that does a hell of a lot more to both be safe and feel safe.

This is leg 3: What Twitter ought to do about all this. Trapani and Jarvis both note that there simply must be algorithmic things that Twitter can implement to at least begin to create a safer online space. But to get a more concrete idea, I recommend a post by Danilo Campos titled, appropriately, “The Least Twitter Could Do.” He has some concrete ideas about the steps Twitter could take, such as allowing users to set an auto-block threshold for users with few followers, or blocking any account that a certain number of one’s friends have blocked. Campos says these are only “band-aids,” but they’d be something. And it’s not clear to me at all that Twitter has taken this seriously yet.

Hey, I get it, they’re Silicon Valley, libertarian, information-wants-to-be-free types. But again, we’re talking about people, not machines, not startup manifestos or mission statements. Twitter’s got its infrastructure, its platform, its cultural power, and lots of engineering talent and money. It now just needs to give enough of a damn.

After the Attack, the Work

I’m not sure if this was a “secret,” if I intentionally haven’t written about this because it was too personal, or what. Well. The thing is, since I was beaten to a bloody pulp by a couple of thugs outside my home Metro stop back in DC over two years ago, I’d been in therapy to deal with the psychological aftermath. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and I underwent two years of treatment using a therapy known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), working to heal some of the damage that was not visible on my face, head, and body.
And today was my last day.

So I’m cured! I am now officially devoid of any psychological problems. I am the very picture of mental health. I have the perfect psyche.

Well, no, but I’ve come a long way, and if I haven’t written about therapy before, I figure a good way to mark the occasion is to talk about it in this public forum. Or maybe it’s not, and this is a bad idea. Maybe I’m looking for something of a back-pat from the interwebs, and maybe I just need to, as it were, say it out loud to make it real.

When I started therapy two years ago, I was a wreck. My wife and I had decided to leave DC rather suddenly after the attack, figuring that we’d be better off in Maine, surrounded by my wife’s family (which is an awesome family), living in an environment far less hostile than DC, and giving our then-infant son a better place to grow up.

But of course, we arrived with little in the way of plans. We lived with relatives for a time, and I scrambled for employment (I had been working for the Secular Coalition for America at the time of the attack, but was already on my way out). It was a long time before I felt together enough to work, or to even look for work, and the pickings were rather slim. My work experience, my advanced degree in political management, none of it mattered much now that I was far away from Washington. I had to take what I could get.

So during my first session with my therapist, the cast had just come off my arm, we were broke, I was unemployed, my wife was still looking for permanent employment, we were living with one of my in-laws, and I was in such a dark, ugly place that I began to see my very existence as a detriment to the well-being of my wife and son. I had nightmares and would sink into reveries of sadness and guilt, or from out of nowhere would experience a sense of panic, feeling a need to physically run away from…toward…I didn’t know. Sad, scared, ashamed, paranoid, embarrassed, weary, resigned, terrified.

Therapy, if you’re doing it right, will get to work on the problem you came in for, yes, but will also address whatever might surround the event in question, other things in my life and mind that gave the attack the meaning that I would come to give it. I think we did it right. The work we did in therapy certainly targeted the assault — heavily — but managed to clean out a lot of other cruft that had built up over the years, over the decades. The attack was an extremely traumatic event, of course, but it had been colored by myriad other events from my past, a sickly array of self-conceptions and assumptions that I had spent a lifetime inculcating myself with, being miseducated about by the world around me. We targeted that stuff, too.

We didn’t fix it all, but we shrunk it. We got me to perceive those things as closer to their actual size, to their actual power. I didn’t lose all my misperceptions about myself or how others see me, but I learned to at least acknowledge that they may not all be true. Guys, I’m telling you, that’s huge.

You know what? I got bored with the memory of the attack. What was once a horror movie I would replay in my head over and over with new feelings of terror and dread with each mental reenactment, eventually became a sad rerun of a show that I was tired of seeing. That, I’m telling you, is huge.

So I’m not “cured.” I don’t think I ever will be, and quite frankly, I don’t want to forget. I don’t want to lose what will now forever be a part of my story, a part of who I am. What the work helped accomplish was making the attack no longer define who I am. And it began the work of not letting all the darkness that came before it define who I am — the years of mockery, bullying, and harassment all through middle and high school, the professional failures and life mistakes made in adulthood, my hangups and neuroses. Not exclusively define me, anyway. They will all always be a part of me, but I learned that they’re not all that I am.

You know what I think was the big tip-off that it was time to wrap things up? When my therapist realized that the things that troubled me, that the things that consumed me, were, well, predictable. Banal. My toddler is behaving badly. Work is stressful. Money is always tight. But that’s stuff everyone deals with. And that’s what was consuming me. Not self-doubt. Not a tar pit of guilt and shame. Not terror and fear. Just, you know, the life of a grownup with kids. It’s, well, normal.

I never thought I could ever describe anything about myself that way. I’ll take it.

*  *  *

(For previous writings on this topic, you can read posts under this tag.)

The Attack

On the evening of October 26, I was returning home from my second day of training at my new part-time job. I was in the midst of a transition; in my last week at my desk job as a communications manager at a nonprofit and moving to working weekends and some nights so I could be a stay-at-home daddy. On this day, a Tuesday, I had worked a normal day at my old job, and gone straight to train at my new job.

I traveled home by Metro to the Stadium-Armory stop, arriving around 11:00 PM. As I ascended the escalator from the station, I could hear a lot of activity at the bus stop at the top of the stairs. A lot of people were being loud and rowdy, a lot of laughing and shouting. It made me nervous, not so much because I was afraid of being harmed, but I had a kind of flashback-to-middle-school feeling, that a group of rowdy young people would choose me as a target for mockery. It’s an old instinct that I’ve never been able to shake.

I moved briskly past the group and began the walk to my home. I felt more and more vulnerable, so I quickened my pace. I had my backpack on my back and hung my hooded sweatshirt by the hood on my head, not wearing it but simply letting it dangle off my head.

Only a handful of paces from the Metro stop, I heard a pair of very fast footfalls behind me, and before I even had a chance to wonder why someone would be running, before I had a chance to be frightened by it, I had been struck a powerful and painful blow to my head. I was being attacked.

Two people had snuck up behind me, run at me, and began beating me, severely, brutally, mostly about my head and face. They shouted things at me, peppered with curses of various kinds, but I couldn’t make out specific sentences or commands because of the blows to my head. I began to make out something about giving them my items (I had my iPhone and wallet on me), and tried to aquiesce. But even as I attempted to speak, just to shout “okay” in order to let them know they could have my items, they kept hitting me.

At one point, I managed to stagger to a standing position, I presumed to give them my wallet and phone. But no, the moment I stood, they continued to hit me. As I was knocked down a second time, and fell upon the palms of my hands, my wallet, phone, and keys simply fell out of my pockets and on to the ground. I was given a few more blows, and my attackers grabbed my items and ran off. I never saw their faces. I presume that was intentional.

I was seized with desperation to get home. I was in pain, yes, but my head was ringing, and I felt wetness all over me. I tried to stand, and could not even make it to a crouch, and fell again to my palms. I tried again, got a little closer to standing, but my legs were not ready, and I fell again. On my third attempt, I managed to stand and “walk,” but it wasn’t much of a walk. I blundered a few steps, and careened into a fence off to my left, collapsing again. Finally, I stood and managed to begin walking home, slow but determined, moaning, dizzy, and wet. All I knew was that my nose was bleeding.

It was late. After laboring up the steps to the front of our house, I pathetically slapped the door and called out for my wife, in a voice that sounded more like a ghostly version of myself, a half-moan, half-sob. My hand smeared blood on the white door as I struck it.

Luckily, Jessica awoke fairly quickly and opened the door. Of course, she was terrified by what she saw. She would later tell me that I resembled something out of a horror movie; I was covered in blood, my face mashed and distorted. I think I groaned something akin to “I was mugged.” I stumbled into the living room and sat on the floor, moaning as the pain began to make itself known, and the reality of what had happened began to sink in. Fear was taking hold.

My baby boy Toby was still blessedly asleep in his room upstairs.

Jessica wasted no time and called 911, then rushed to our neighbor’s door. She awakened them (and their collection of big, loud dogs) and asked one of them to come to our house to tend to Toby once the ambulance arrived to cart us away. Jessica at some point after that contacted our friends Ryan and Brooke, who we knew far better than our most excellent neighbors, and had cared for Toby before, and asked them to come and relieve our neighbors and take over Toby-sitting duties. They did not let us down.

Paramedics arrived, as did police but I never saw them. I was put on a stretcher, and put on the ambulance, but Jess was not. I started asking after Toby, not knowing what had been arranged, and one paramedic filled me in. They removed my wedding ring, they scissored my pants and shirt looking for wounds — I later learned that they thought I might have been stabbed (I was not). I asked if I was going to be okay, and, oddly, they would not tell me. I think that’s because they didn’t know.

The ambulance began to pull away with Jess still outside. This was because she was taking care of other important business; flagging down police, Ryan and Brooke, and somewhat miraculously, identifying the attackers.

It seems that police were close enough to the scene when Jess called 911 that they were able to pick out two people who seemed “not right.” As soon as the police’s lights were put on them, they dropped a phone, wallet, and keys and ran — though to no avail, as the police caught them. Jess was brought over to the scene of the attack — secretly — to confirm that the items they dropped were indeed mine. So, yes, folks, if you can believe it, they caught the attackers and I got my stuff back that night. (Just a couple of days ago, I found out that my attackers plead guilty to felony assault with significant injury and felony robbery, and will be sentenced in February.)

Meanwhile, at the hospital, I was being treated. It was chaos from my perspective; I rarely had any good idea of what was being done to me, though a few things I do recall; x-rays, a CT scan, and most painful of all, stitches in my head. At my more lucid moments, I tried to make jokes, and then I would panic or confess to being terrified of what was happening to me. The hospital staff, on the whole, was wonderful and kind.

Jess got to the hospital and spent hours waiting to be able to see me, contacting friends and relatives, and talking with detectives.

Eventually, Jess was allowed to see me. It was the first time she’d seen me since I had been carted away hours before. As she entered the trauma unit where I lay, I said to her, “I have an idea: why don’t we move?”

I’ve recounted in previous posts some of the physical damage I took, but to be specific, my head and face were quite mashed up. I had a fracture in my right orbital bone (the bone just below my eye, the top of my cheek), a gash in my scalp, and the right side of my face was swollen to an absurd degree. My right eye was mostly closed and the eyeball was half-covered in red. I could not close my jaw or open it very wide (and still can’t), and a facial nerve was damaged in the attack, causing some of my upper teeth to go numb (and they still are). In general, my entire head and face, but particularly my scalp and mask area (eyes and nose) were covered in painful bruises.

From the several falls, my hands and wrists were damaged. The muscles in my hands and fingers were shocked and hurt for weeks with sharp pain. Two bones in both my wrists impacted into cartilage as well; for some reason my left wrist got the worst of that, and is in a cast today. The right wrist is also damaged, though not as badly, though I had already been undergoing weeks of physical therapy for tendonitis and carpal tunnel related problems in that wrist before the attack, so all of that work was thrown out the window.

For weeks, I could not chew, I could not lift a glass of water. I could not really be hugged. I could not hold my boy, or
let him near my head (as he likes to show affection by smacking me in the face). When I finally allowed myself to look at myself in the mirror, two days after the attack, I was shocked — I looked far worse than I had expected. I was, in general, something of a wreck, as you might imagine. But every day I have gotten a little better.

Obviously, I am psychologically affected. Suffice it to say, I am more afraid, more skittish, less trusting. I feel more vulnerable, and I feel that my family is more vulnerable, then ever in my life. I still relive the attack, the walk home, several times a day. Sometimes it’s clinical, or just a distant narrative. Other times it feels like it’s happening all over again. I find myself locked in morbid fantasies of further similar attacks — what if my boy is with me when I’m attacked? What if I can’t get in touch with anyone? What if they go for my wife? Earlier on the same day of my attack, a rock had been thrown at our door, breaking its glass, while our nanny was with our son. I’m told this is a way of “casing” a house for alarms or dogs. That only adds to my fear.

I have never had a high opinion of my species, and the attack served to exemplify its worst and best aspects. The two who attacked me made me feel worse about my fellow humans than I ever had before — not to mention the large group of people at the bus stop who watched all of it take place and did nothing to stop it — but the people who came to my aid, both professionally and friends in the moment, reminded me of the heights of goodness of which we’re capable. Both stay with me, the low and the high.

I have been blessed with support. People have helped us with babysitting, with expenses, with meals, you name it. Our family, friends, neighbors, and even people we’ve never met came out swinging the second they were needed, and there are too many to name. I am so grateful for these people.

I don’t feel “lucky” as many have said I should. It usually goes something like “You’re lucky you survived” or “You’re lucky they didn’t have a knife” or something like that. I understand the sentiment, but no, I’m not lucky. If I’m “lucky they didn’t have a knife,” that assumes a world in which the zero-point, the point of normalcy, is to be severely beaten by two anonymous thugs and then stabbed. Only then are you “lucky” not to be stabbed. Though I suppose it’s a good thing that my attackers were caught and convicted, I don’t feel triumphant. I know they will likely only come out of prison worse than when they went in. There is little vindication in this.

But I am glad. I am so deeply glad to be alive. I am so glad I did survive. Yesterday I celebrated my 33rd birthday, alive, intact, mobile, able to slowly gnaw through a pizza, hug my wife, and cuddle my baby boy. We’re moving out of DC this month to live a more peaceful, more fulfilling life in Maine.

I’m optimistic. I’m getting better. I have a long, long way to go, and many more wounds to heal. But I’m so glad to still be around.