Sharing a Sandwich With a Would-Be Killer

As I think probably most readers know, I escaped an abusive relationship with a partner a few years ago.

The details to me now are a bit boring, because my life since then has been quite the opposite of that situation. In just the three months after my flight from that abuse, I found myself in a deeply safe, mutually caring, well-boundaried, and relentlessly joyful place, which has become now my “default”, my “normal” life for over 14 months.

So to mention that previous situation isn’t to elicit sympathy, nor to talk about the sorrows that occurred during it. It’s all so distant from my world that it feels like a film I once watched, rather than a part of who I am.

Trauma heals, or better said, we heal our trauma. This second way of putting it is vital, I think, especially since abuse and trauma cause a displacement of our personal agency. Something is done to us, we are victimized: that is, we become passive objects in an experience, often with a sense of our agency being stolen. To heal from such a state then requires reclaiming our agency, become again the creators of our life.

One of my recent essays discusses what happens when we don’t recover that agency, when we stay in a passive state even when our agency is no longer being stolen from us. That essay, The Vampiric Gaze, discusses the concept of ressentiment and its link to the Evil Eye, both of which arise from an eventual choice to stay in a passive, “victim” state.

The person who chooses to stay in a state of ressentiment has made an easily-made mistake, which is associating a specific trauma with the order of things, with something societal, or something about who they are themselves.

This often takes the form of stereotyping, which I wrote about in my previous dispatch. In stereotyping, we define an entire set of people by our experience with a small subset of those people. So a person held at gunpoint on a street at night by a black man might stereotype all black men as dangerous. Similarly, a black person called a racist name by a white person might stereotype all white people as racist.

Both of these situations are traumatic for the person experiencing them and represent displacements of agency. When you are held at gunpoint, your agency is literally held hostage. When you are reduced as a person to your dark skin color and smeared for it, your agency to define yourself as a human is held hostage to the will of others.

The trauma of such moments isn’t easy to heal, and it’s incredibly easy instead to let it remain unhealed and be defined by that trauma. To stay in that trauma requires certain beliefs, though, beliefs about how the world works, why you were victimized, and especially beliefs about the person associated with that initial trauma.

That’s where ideology—which has been my focus of these last few dispatches—comes in. Racial ideology in particular serves quite well to keep people in that state of ressentiment, because it has a ready-made framework of beliefs about people based on easily identifiable characteristics.

It’s become quite heretical to say this, but this goes in all directions. A person who believes all black people can be defined by certain negative characteristics is doing nothing different from someone who believes all Arabs, or all Asians, or yes all white people, can be similarly defined.

Before I continue, I need to tell you a story. You’ve possibly noticed that this is the second dispatch in which I’ve mentioned a situation of someone being held at gunpoint by a black man.

That was me. And his name was Dewitt. And it’s actually a rather magical story.

When I was 23 I got it into my head to move across the country with only a duffel bag full of possessions. I took a Greyhound bus from Portland, Maine to Seattle, Washington, a four day trip, with about 100 dollars in my wallet, a small stash of weed, and a complete lack of worry about my future.

It was a ridiculous thing to do, and I’m glad I did. Long bus rides across America are far from enchanting, by the way. They smell, they are cramped and miserable, and they never stop at places with grocery stores but instead at fast food restaurants. Still, you meet some fascinating people, all of them part of the lowest class of American society, and all of them with their stories.

One day I’ll write an account of that entire trip, but the most relevant part was the 6 hour leg between Spokane, Washington and Seattle, the final bit. The bus had stopped for only a half hour, just enough time for me to smoke the very last of my weed and buy a sandwich.

The bus had been mostly empty on the previous leg, but this time it was full with new passengers all wearing similar clothes: ill-fitting, poorly made stiff jeans with button-down shirts of similar quality. One of those new passengers sat next to me, and I asked him why everyone was wearing the same clothes.

“We’re just outta prison, man. This is what they gave us to wear.”

He talked to me non-stop for the rest of the ride, told me his story, what it was like in prison, what he hoped to go back to in Seattle, what he hoped was still waiting for him after 5 years away, and especially what he wanted to make of his life. I gave him half my sandwich, which he ate happily. He’d had no cash, just a check the prison issued for 60 dollars. It was his first non-prison food, and even though he told me he hated pickles he said it was the best sandwich of his life.

When we arrived in Seattle, I wished him luck. He seemed so full of hope and so eager to get his life together again that I felt inspired myself.

In the following six months, I lived mostly on the streets, sleeping in parks, crashing on the floors of kind strangers or in the beds of guys I’d meet at the gay leather bar. Eventually I found a boyfriend, a really fascinating man who was from Montana and was a total goth and lived in the Central District of Seattle, at that time a heavily black and very poor neighborhood.

One night, stumbling back from an industrial dance club to his place, both of us drunk and happy, we got accosted by two men. One of them was standing at the end of the street, looking nervous, scanning the intersection. The other was in front of my boyfriend’s house, his hand holding something large and metal in his right pocket.

“I need money,” the man said, gesturing with the gun.

My boyfriend was understandably terrified and had opened his wallet already. But he’d spent everything at the club. So had I.

I was scared too, and then suddenly I noticed something familiar about the man with the gun.

“Dewitt?”

The man got suddenly very agitated. “How the fuck you know my name?” he said, holding the gun tighter.

“Dude, Dewitt. I gave you half my sandwich when you got out of prison. I thought you said you were going to get your life together for your son?”

“I don’t know who the fuck you are,” he said, but looked confused. And just at that moment, his companion, acting as lookout, called to him that a car was coming.

They both ran, and so did we, they down the street and my boyfriend and I into his house, pushing a couch in front of the door just in case.

As I tell the story now, it’s quite magical. What were the chances that a man holding me and my boyfriend at gunpoint would have been the same man I “randomly” sat next to on a cross-country bus six months before?

(As an aside, that’s one of the things that made me Pagan and a druid, because so many “coincidences” like that have occurred in my life that I suspected something else has always been afoot.)

I also need to be clear, though—it was a terrifying, traumatic experience regardless. That could all have gone quite differently. Had I not have met the man once before, or had that car not been coming, or had my boyfriend acting in any other manner besides submission, we could have been shot. And that’s not even to mention the deep trauma of having a gun pointed at you, the first time (and unfortunately not the only time) this had happened in my life.

What is most important here, however, is how I interpreted the situation later. Rather than staying in the trauma of my life being threatened with a gun, I chose to see it as a moment of profound Otherness. Also, I did not believe there was any such thing as race then, nor do I believe there is now, so recourse to racial ideology or stereotyping wasn’t something I even considered.

For those who do believe race is a thing, that skin color is a significant detail of a person that determines who they are, the ideological formation of racism is a much more likely path. But it’s not an inevitable one, because we can always short-circuit ideology and return back to the bodies of the people involved, including our own. And most of all, we can reclaim our agency, rather than accepting ideological formations which make it easier for us to feel we are victims of entire groups of people.

Again, I think we need to insist this goes in all directions. I started this dispatch by referring to an abusive relationship which I escaped, because what I’ve learned from how it displaced my agency has helped me see how much of the current discussions about race on all sides mimic the tactics of abuse.

This observation becomes clearer and clearer for me the more I read about recent incidents of social media or in-person crusades against people deemed immoral according to whichever framework the crusaders are using. I opened my essay The Plague of Gods with the account of one such crusade against a woman, but it’s not hard to find countless other examples where the cause of righteousness suddenly morphs into an abusive mob.

I won’t detail them here, as they are exhausting. Instead, though, I’ll quote part of an interview I just watched with a professor in Burlington, Vermont, whose views on the long-term essentializing effects of “anti-racist theory” are close to my own, as well as to the position of many Marxist writers. To summarize those views: refocusing the problem of racial equality from a question of economic injustice to one of “whiteness” merely reproduces racial ideology. This has serious implications for any attempt to correct these injustices, since it only inverses the moral framework of the problem. That is, before it was “white people are good, black people are bad.” Now it is “black people are good, white people are bad.” Both views stem from a Christian framework, and both ultimately perpetuate the belief that race is a true division of humans, rather than an ideological category that needs to be abolished.

In responding to a question about the crusade against him for his questioning about this framework, he noted that the current theories that frame white people as inherently racist (for instance, the “anti-racism” of Robin DiAngelo, or the general social justice framework that asserts racism is something white people need to constantly confess and absolve themselves of) replicate a core mechanism of abuse.

One thing that happens in abusive relationships is one person will try to control another by suggesting that there’s something deeply wrong with the first, but will never be specific about what that is. So I might say to you, ‘I really feel like I could love you if you would just try to change some things about yourself, and I accept you and I appreciate you and yet I feel like you’ve got some work to do’. But you’re never told  precisely what that work is. And then I’ll say something like ‘the work is is never done and don’t expect concrete results’.

Because the work is never done, it places this person in a state of uncertainty and anxiety, where they are now encouraged to give their moral compass to somebody else and to check in on somebody else as to whether they are doing the right thing or not. They’re doing what the other person wants them to do. And that’s what happens almost word for word in abusive relationships.

In the abusive situation I escaped, it was precisely like this. There was always something I was doing wrong, some “better” thing that I should have done, and the goal posts for these were always moving. Things that were what I thought were normal human things were suddenly “harmful” to him, including wanting to spend a few hours alone, or wanting to go see my best friend, or wanting to set a boundary around my private conversations on the phone. In a million little ways I was “offending” and “hurting” him, but when I would ask what those things were so I could avoid doing it again, he would tell me “it’s not my responsibility to tell you how you should be better.”

Eventually this psychological abuse became physical abuse as well, and each time it occurred it was always “my fault.” I had somehow provoked these violent responses, the slammed doors, the thrown dishes, and then the pushing, and then the kicking, and then the punches.

In all of that, I had come to believe he was correct. The process was a slow one, my agency gradually displaced into his hands. And unfortunately, my response to it was one of a constant desire to fix it, to make things better, to make amends for the things I was doing—and eventually, the things I inherently am—in order to right the wrongs he saw.

One thing that I still remember vividly was when I told a now-former friend about what was happening. She and I had known each other in Seattle, a social justice “anarchist” who was often chiding me for not being “intersectional” enough. As with my abusive partner, she always seemed to move the goal posts: nothing I did was enough, the “work is never done” as she said once.

When I told her about him hitting me, she then sent me several articles from Everyday Feminism and said: “your toxic masculinity is provoking him. You need to listen to him more.”

I believed her. I read those articles, tried to listen more, changed myself even more. And he hit me again, and finally better friends said to me, “this is abuse. You need to leave.”

Judging from the countless articles, essays, and personal reflections I’ve read in these last few weeks, I suspect many others are coming to this same conclusion, that there is something abusive in the way social justice theory is applied. What has most interested me in reading these is how many are also identifying the core mechanisms as something deeply religious and especially monotheist.

Monotheism positions a constantly angry and easily-offended singular god that needs always to be propitiated. He is holy and therefore we are not, but to escape punishment for our unholy state we must constantly strive to be holy. We must always try to be better, confess our faults, recognize that we are sinners, and recognize that our efforts will never be enough.

To short-circuit this, to jump off the hamster wheel, requires reclaiming individual agency and especially the divine act of asserting our humanity again. We are not these ideological formations: we are not races or categories. We are people who might find themselves one day sitting on a bus next to a man sharing a sandwich, and another day find ourselves on the other side of a gun held by that same man. And as people, as humans, we can experience those situations without any recourse to ideology, but instead just let those things—and people—be what they are.

This post was also published through substack. Subscribing there for free guarantees you’ll get notified of all subsequent dispatches.

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