We Need Safe Places, or, Overturning Tables

Originally published by Spiritual Sounding Board on April 16, 2013.


I misuse alcohol.

I use it as a coping mechanism when all the inner voices in my head get unbearable. This is not healthy and I struggle everyday with this problem. It weighs me down and wears me out.

A few months ago, I drank. It wasn’t a night of hedonistic debauchery put to the soundtrack of a Todd Phillips movie, complete with Mike Tyson’s tiger and a Will Ferrel cameo. It wasn’t portrayed with a lush, atmospheric Instagram filter. It was me, by myself, trying to black out so that — at least for a few hours — I could just stop thinking.

I had been thinking too much that week. I had been processing and writing about my experiences in homeschooling. It was overwhelming me and I should have given myself more boundaries. I confessed this to several friends. They and I thought I should take a break. But then I read about the valiant efforts of the people at QueerPHC. After a week of processing my own experiences of alienation in homeschooling, I chose to grin and bear it and write a story of support for the group. In the end, it proved encouraging and healing. Many people reached out to me and I felt like I made an important public stand for the LGBTQ community within homeschooling and conservative colleges. But I was nonetheless exhausted, emotionally and mentally. And then I slipped up.

When I awoke the next morning, feeling sick and hungover and guilty for letting myself fail, I cried. I texted my girlfriend, “I ruin everything. I hate myself.” She asked why. “I’m broken,” I said. “I just move in circles. I am tired.” She did her best to assure me that it will get better, than I am strong inside, that she loves me, and that she will help me get through everything. But I felt miserable and exhausted. So I told her I was going back to sleep.

When I awoke again, I needed to distract myself so I could prepare myself mentally for work. So I logged onto Facebook. Which was a bad idea, because all I saw was status after status as far as my eyes could see about Connecticut — how some young man walked into an elementary school and killed innocent children.

I cried again.

But this time, I cried for those children, teachers, and families. And to be honest, I cried for that young man, who we now know to be Adam Lanza.

When the reports came in, when the Facebook floodgates opened, it was all the same: half heartache for the victims, and half demonizing of the perpetrator. Sick. Evil. Satanic. Fucked up. Demonic. Insane. And so forth.

What he did was surely all those things. But in my nauseous, hungover state of feeling broken inside, all I could think was — what had happened to him, to make him feel this was his necessary life-trajectory? He was only 20. When I think of evil, brutal murderers, I think of Hollywood’s portrayal of serial killers. Hollywood’s serial killers take a real and perverse joy in what they do. But this kid — like most school shooters — was young, male, and killed himself afterwards. He had no intention of “enjoying” his work. The rest of the world can pretend they are morally superior to Adam Lanza because they declare on Facebook and Twitter that they want to spit on his grave. But I wonder why he did this — why he felt so broken and angry and confused, and why there were not people around him to help him heal whatever wounds he nursed alone.

I don’t struggle with thoughts of harming other people. If you harm other people, I get very mad. But I do struggle with thoughts of harming myself. Every day. It is one of the most overwhelming and debilitating battles one can experience. And I have a small but strong support system of friends and family around me. When I buckle under the weight, when I have no energy left to keep on fighting, there are hands outstretched to catch me when I fall.

What if I didn’t?

What if Adam Lanza, instead of feeling alone, had a support group, a place to feel safe?

We need safe places. We need places where we can experience compassion, love, and respect. Places of acceptance. Arms outstretched. Unconditional love.

I spent the week prior to the Connecticut shooting researching abuse and trauma in extreme (and sometimes normative) homeschooling subcultures. I had non-stop images of horrific situations flashing through my head. That’s all I could think about that week, along with the ongoing controversy with QueerPHC. So when I first heard about Adam Lanza, my mind immediately went to the case of Hannah Bonser, the 27-year-old woman who stabbed a 13-year-old girl to death in a park.

Bonser had a history of mental problems and substance abuse. As a child, she was homeschooled by Mormon parents even though social workers warned the government that her parents were neglecting her. Her parents’ house had rooms full of dead cats and excrement. She began hearing voices at the age of 7. She attempted suicide twice and had been locked up in a mental facility once. In the weeks before she killed the young girl, she begged doctors and nurses to lock her up again, saying she was afraid she would hurt someone. She could hear 7 voices in her head, some speaking in German. But those pleas fell on deaf ears — which was a recurring theme in Bonser’s life. Professionals noted that no one was ever really responsible for her, and that she had been almost invisible to the system. She never really felt safe her entire life, and in the end, when she was desperate for help so that others could be safe, no one took her seriously.

We have created a culture where many people feel unsafe. We have a culture where people like Adam Lanza and Hannah Bonser slip through the cracks. We have a culture where HSLDA, the largest national homeschool organization, consistently and vocally puts its vendetta against the Child Protective Services above the pressing need to address child abuse in homeschooling subcultures. We have a culture where LGBTQ students — who daily experience bigotry, dehumanization, depression, and suicidal urges — are directly denied the chance to have a “safe place” at conservative, Christian colleges.

This is wrong and it needs to change.

Tell me homosexuality is a sin and I will ask, “And?” Since when did “sinners” forfeit their need to be safe, to experience compassion, love, and respect? According to Christian theology, we are all sinners — we are all in the Adam Lanza and Hannah Bonser category. No one has the right to draw lines in the sand when it comes to acknowledging each others’ humanity. The Jesus I read about showed extraordinary compassion, love, and respect to “sinners.” The Jesus I read about only displayed rage at the self-righteous and self-appointed arbiters of law and morality, and he did so by dramatically and publicly overturning tables in their temples.

We need brave people who have the courage to overturn tables in the temples today.

We need people who are ready to cry foul to those leaders in American Christianity and homeschooling that have lost sight of what is true and good: loving one another,  the first and foremost commandment. We need to create safe places for the outcasts, the abused, the hurt, and the disenfranchised.

We need to start reaching out. We say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” but we don’t realize that our concept of “love the sinner” gets lost in translation. Creating places of safety, creating places where people can experience compassion, love, and respect — this does not mean you have to endorse anything other than your shared humanity. It simply means that you are taking a stand against abuse, isolation, and self-righteousness by seeing in another human being the same humanity you see in yourself. It means that you acknowledge that our culture — both conservative and liberal, secular and religious — is overwhelmingly hateful and cruel. This is not a political or religious or an ideological position. It is a much-needed human position.

Even if it means we have to ruin a few tables in some temples, it is the right thing to do.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

Leave a Reply