“It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” Edmund Burke
Once, while witnessing a particularly brutal beating metered out by my mother onto the body of my ten-year-old brother, I attempted to intervene by telling her that if she didn’t stop I would call the police. She shook her wooden spoon at me and laughed. “They’ll never believe you,” she said. I was twelve-years-old at the time and sadly, I believed her.
“She’s evil,” concerned friends or family members whispered on those rare occasions when they witnessed my mother not living up to the saint-like persona she projected in public. Others, who may have suspected things weren’t quite right, teachers, neighbors, even our parish priest seemed hesitant to speak up. This was before Oprah and Dr. Phil, when children were considered personal property and the Ten Commandments held more persuasive power than a few bruises on some kid’s back.
As the eldest of six children, I had been raised to be obedient not only to my parents, God, and the Church, but to a deeply ingrained system of family secrecy. So, on those rare occasions, when people did speak up, I would dismiss their concerns with compassionate logical explanations, such as “She just gets like this sometimes,” or “It looks worse than it is,” and as I grew older, “She’s mentally ill.”
My mother did her part to protect and maintain this system of secrecy by diverting people’s attention. Usually this was accomplished by wringing her hands together with her face contorted in pain to indicate that her arthritis had flared up or by becoming despondent over some perceived injustice regarding someone else’s behavior. Most often my father, who, though certainly overwhelmed, managed to abdicate much of his own parental responsibilities by perfecting his avenues of escape; a smoke, a drink, an appointment at the office.
Yet, no matter what other people said or thought, I steadfastly refused to call my mother “evil.” Whether this was born of wisdom or fear I’m not sure. What is certain is if I chose to question her behavior, I risked exposure to the answer to the question of “who would believe me?” In strange way, the potential pain I might cause myself or others, by revealing the lies, felt more threatening than the pain of living with them. So, for survival’s sake, in my mind, I simply split my mother into two people: the Dr. Jekyll who masqueraded as my mother and the Mr. Hyde who loved me.
Those who used the word “evil” would look at me like they felt sorry for me. How simplistic and ignorant I must be. They assumed I had no sense about the true nature of love or safety. In this regard they were right for well into adulthood I seemed unable to discern between the good or ill intentions of others. Some said this was due to a natural innocence, others to an unconscious ignorance, and the hard-liners saw it as a calcified coping skill that had grown into a willful denial.
Fortunately, life has a strange way of teaching each of us what we need to learn. Over time, I found myself continually being drawn into circumstances where I became a key witness too, or the target of, someone else’s questionable behavior. Behavior that others deemed “evil.”
A former in-law who lowered his voice as he explained that smart businessmen keep two sets of books, one for the IRS and one with the actual numbers. The employee I caught charging hundreds of dollars worth of tools on the company account, who, in retaliation for my discovery, embarked on a slander campaign that derailed attention from his activities and made me the target of a generalized hatred: “Are you paranoid? I said good night,” he’d say, and then whisper again as he shut the office door, “fucking dyke.”
However, the event that blew the rusted shutters off of my denial was when my partner of seven years returned home late from Bible study to confess that she’d become romantically entangled with the minister of our church. A married man with a handful of beautiful blond-haired children, a man whose sermons had led me to tears, a man who espoused the open and affirming stance of his congregation, as I was to learn to too late, to a fault.
Impelled by the pain that had seized my heart, I finally spoke up. For this life-long habit of silence in the face of physical, emotional and spiritual destruction had become a noose around my neck. Though the twelve-years-old within secretly wished that someone stronger and more articulate than I would step in and save me. But the pain had more to teach me. In the end, we learned together that the same shadowy system of secrecy that protected my mother protected this man as well.
Yet, the effort was not wasted, nor were the words that wobbled from my mouth, for I knew my heart was true, and as I came face to face with this man’s denial, I was forced to see my own. Eye to eye, I saw evil for what it really was. And it disappeared in the light of the truth.
So, this man, who could have been any man, helped me see that my pain was my project. It was my responsibility to embrace my own healing journey, to hold and assure the terrified child within that I can and will speak up! Furthermore, if I listen to myself, I will always be able to discern the truth, and define for myself in any situation the degree of deceit (my own or another’s) at work. The only one who needs to believe me—is me.
Evil exists only when we deny the truth of who we are and nothing but an illusion can separate us from ourselves, from our truth, or from our God.