Monthly Archives: July 2012

Penn State University: Lessons Learned

Today I’d like to introduce Dawn Sticklen, from Since You Asked…. Dawn lives in Joplin, Missouri and she writes about family life both in her local community and around the globe. Her blog offers ideas for contributing to the overall quality of life and wellness of your community.

Dawn and I have been talking about a major issue that, sadly enough, affects each and every one of our communities: sexual abuse. Recently, I wrote about the Code of Silence that protects perpetrators in child sexual abuse cases, and Dawn wrote an amazing response to that issue in the comments that followed. I asked her to expound on her response in a guest post, and what she wrote is both hair-raising and instructive. For a look at how the Code of Silence has impacted her community, please read Dawn’s excellent story below.

Today, as I ponder the sanctions handed down to Penn State University by the NCAA, I can’t help but wonder, “What can we learn from all of this?  Will we learn from this?”  Like El and most of you, I am outraged not just by Jerry Sandusky’s behavior, but also by the behavior of those surrounding him who felt that the reputation of the university and its football program was more important than the safety of the children with whom Sandusky worked – and then abused.

However, what makes me most angry about the Penn State situation is the fact that the “code of silence” is frequently enacted in our own communities.  Too often we ignore complaints about inappropriate behavior by adults in leadership positions for fear of bringing negative attention to an institution that we hold high esteem for.  We speak of the accusations in hushed tones; hoping the incident was a “one time” event or convincing ourselves it’s none of our business because our child was not the victim.  Unfortunately, what we don’t realize is that when we react swiftly in the face of accusations of abuse and/or inappropriate behavior it is an indictment against the individual.  When we are slow to react, though, it becomes an indictment against the institution.

Take, for example, the Catholic Church, of which I am a member.  Imagine how much more respect and honor the church would have received over the years if its leaders, upon learning of the very first abuse case, had simply done the right thing and adopted the policy of removing perpetrators from any contact with children.  Instead they chose to move the abusers to other churches in an effort to cover up the crimes committed and in the hopes that the perpetrator would miraculously cease his abusive acts.

After years of this pattern, the church –and rightly so – now finds itself responsible for jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of children.  Unfortunately, Joe Paterno is guilty of this same crime by hiding what he knew about Sandusky’s behavior with the young boys he came into contact with on a regular basis on Penn State’s property.

Penn State’s fans are outraged by the NCAA’s and the media’s harsh criticism toward their beloved coach.  I find this ironic because it is this same revered coach who single-handedly brought dishonor to the university by his decision to put the sanctity of the university and its football program above that of the many children who were Sandusky’s victims.  Unfortunately, this misguided anger occurs frequently in our own communities, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Locally I witnessed the firing of a high school football coach amid accusations of inappropriate text messages he sent to a student.  I was appalled to hear parents defend the coach by questioning the student’s reputation.  Some individuals even went so far as to make threatening phone calls to the victim’s home out of their anger for her drawing negative attention to their beloved coach, football program, and school.  It was the fear of this community backlash that kept past victims from coming forward to reveal the pattern of abuse exhibited by this coach.

How many other children have been victims of abuse in other communities but have been reluctant to come forward for fear of their own safety and reputation because too many people are loath to admit that someone they respect is capable of crimes against our most vulnerable citizens?  This is the “code of silence” that exists in all our communities, and it is time to break this code.  It is time for us to stand up to the bullies who desire athletic dominance over the safety of our children.  Are we really the kind of society that values the reputation and sanctity of an institution above that of a child?

NCAA president, Mark Emmert, explained the severity of the sanctions against Penn State as a wake-up call to all universities about the dangers of “hero worship” with regard to their athletic programs (specifically football).  In our own communities we, too, must endeavor to achieve a winning tradition while refusing to adopt a win-at-all-costs attitude.  We cannot allow our admiration for an individual to cloud our judgment of his behavior toward the children entrusted to his care.  We cannot continue to allow others to threaten a victim or discredit his or her claims of abuse in an effort to protect the institution with which the perpetrator is associated.

We must take our cue from the NCAA and realize that as adults and members of a community we are all accountable for the safety of our children and must strive to create a culture of honesty and integrity where children need not be afraid to report any inappropriate behavior of the adults who work with them.

These are the lessons we can – indeed, must – learn from the Penn State scandal.

Readers: how do you feel about the Code of Silence? What can we do about it?




Friday Photos: Harnessing Anger and Seeking Comfort

For the first of this week’s Friday Photos, I offer a few words on anger. I wrote this after the Penn State sanctions came down and I felt burned by my anger. So I stopped, and waited and thought about it.  Anger solves nothing, unless it is harnessed for good.  And if it is not harnessed in the service of good, it can destroy the better parts in us.

I wrote this second poster up when I was feeling like hell earlier in the week.  It wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but something in my world felt like it was crashing down on me and despair hunted me down like a rampaging werewolf.  I called my children to my side and told them that I was sad.  “I need a hug, love,” I murmured to my blue-eyed daughter.  “I’m fine, but I’m sad.”

“Oh,” she replied, a concerned eye on me.  “Here Mom!”  She flung her little self around me and her brothers soon joined the dog pile.  Within a few minutes, the dark clouds abated.  I loved.  And I knew I was loved.  All because of a simple hug.  I guess you could call this a coping mechanism.

What helps you cope with anger?  How about sadness or grief?  Is it easy for you to ask for help when you’re sad?




An Alternative to Saturation Coverage of Terrorist Acts

This weekend, I entered into a dialogue with several people regarding the media’s coverage of the Colorado shootings.  It concerned and upset me that the media, once again, sensationalized an act of terror and mass murder.  I asked a friend what the point of the media coverage is, and he (who wishes to remain anonymous, replied):

 I believe the media are looking to explain why such a senseless act would occur.  We, in turn, watch interviews with witnesses, experts and acquaintances of victims as well as perpetrators, searching for some nugget of wisdom that can explain what happened.

Yet, when you consider past tragedies, have the answers ever been satisfactory?  We want to understand how someone could kill randomly in these mass shootings. We want the comfort of knowing why something happened.  Inevitably, we will be disappointed.

I agree with my friend. We will never be able to make sense of senseless acts.   Then again, we as humans need to understand and explain the world around us.  Explaining evil may feel pointless and unnecessary; then again, I write about psychopaths in my books all the time.  Why?  To prevent more evil from happening.

So what is it that bothers me most about the unrelenting coverage media coverage?  For one thing, I suspect that when he sees his mug all over the world, the killer is receiving exactly what he was seeking: attention.  And I don’t think he deserves it.

In addition, I suspect that coverage of mass killings inspires copycat crimes.  The so-called “copycat effect” was used to describe the raft of crimes that occurred after the sensationalistic “Jack the Ripper” killings in 1912.  While this copycat effect has been debated for decades, it makes sense that we are affected and influenced by what we see and hear other people do.  The insane and depraved among us are, therefore, more likely to concoct nefarious crimes when bombarded with media reports of mass murders such as the one that occurred in Colorado.

Which gets me to my next point: focusing on the bad news makes it harder for us to heal and thrive.  It perpetuates a post-traumatic state among those of us who watch and listen to the television.  It buries our minds and hearts in darkness, grief and sorrow.

 Just as I have made the decision to look toward the future I am creating rather than the traumatic things that have happened in my life, just so have I decided not to indulge in the saturation-by-media coverage of the Colorado killings.

When I shared a poster on my Facebook Page declaring my views as set forth above, a few people got angry.

“You’re pretending that it didn’t happen,” argued one woman.

This is not true.  I am not pretending it didn’t happen.  A sick man terrorized many victims in a crowded movie theatre.  My heart breaks for the families of the victims and for the survivors who lived through hell the other day.

But I choose to embrace things for which I am grateful–things that fill me with hope and joy.

Survivors can be honored without sensationalizing the murder.  We can honor our grief, our past injuries, by looking forward.  I’m not advocating that we see no evil. What I think we should focus on, though, is the good.

I spoke with a friend who runs the Facebook Page Good Juju about the debate going down on my Facebook page, and she gave me permission to quote her.

 Choosing the positive over the negative doesn’t make us cold-hearted,  uncaring or unsympathetic.  It just means that we [should] recognize the tragedy in a respectful, empathetic way, then shift our focus to . . . recognizing the GOOD in life.  I believe there is much more good in this world than evil, yet one would never know it if only following the media.  What we focus on is what we bring into our lives.  The choice is ours.  I know where  my focus lies.

So, what does this mean for us?  Or as my friend, Happiness in Your Life wrote to me last night, “You’re telling people what not to read.  And that’s fine.  But now you need to tell people what to read.”

It’s a little harder to find good news in the mainstream media, but I have a few examples for you.

First, in this article from the L.A. Times, scientists believe that it’s possible to cure the HIV virus:

After studying the virus for more than 30 years and developing potent drugs that transformed the disease from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition, a growing number of researchers now say the search for a cure should be a major research priority. While acknowledging substantial challenges, they argue that the effort is necessary because the epidemic cannot be contained through treatment and prevention alone. And recent medical and scientific advances — including the case of the first man definitively cured of HIV — offer proof that it’s possible.

Second, added Happiness in Your Life, why aren’t we reading about heroes? Like the rangers who rescued 40 people from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Fourth of July?  How about the volunteer Fripp Island Sea Rescue Squad, which is composed of old men?  This rescue squad saved eight people last week.  In fact, over the years, these “old men in the sea have responded to 1,300 to 1,400 cases, helped 3,000 to 3,500 people, and saved at least 100 lives.”  This is the sort of news that I want to read about.

Added Happiness in Your Life, “People say you are ignoring reality if you don’t focus on the bad news.  But many things happen in one day and that’s what reality is . . . not JUST the bad stuff or JUST the good stuff but a mix.”  For example, hurricane warnings and salmonella poisonings inform and educate us. News from a rock concert or concerning an art exhibition entertains us.  But too often, the news itself merely terrorizes us.

Over the next few weeks, I will be watching men and women compete in the Olympics.  Droplets of water will fall through the air; horses will prance and jump; gymnasts will fly over bars and balance beams; sprinters will limber up and thunder down the backstretch; long distance runners will tap their shoes at 180 strides a minute on the streets of London.  And through it all, indeed, because of it, I will smile inside and over and over again, the words

Citius, Altius, Fortius . . . Faster, Higher, Stronger . . .

will repeat in my head, like a melodious mantra guiding me to a quiet, happy and healthy place.

What is your take on the media coverage of the Colorado shootings?  What have you read recently that made you feel good or helped you heal?




Friday Photos by El: Enabling and Worrying

Good morning friends!! I am starting a new thing here and I’m really excited about it.  I run a page on Facebook called Running from Hell with El and it is my flagship, my baby. It’s where all of this (gesturing) started. I also help run another page called Rebel Thriver, which is dedicated to helping survivors of abuse thrive.

For these Facebook pages, I create a lot of posters and pictures that include my original writing.  From now on, I will offer these for your enjoyment on Friday Photos.  If you have time, please visit us on Facebook.

And while you’re visiting, please stop by my dear friend Doe’s page.  To be honest, she helped me with the below poster.  Giggle.  A lot.  She can be found at Happiness in Your Life.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you think about what you see below.  One in particular, about enabling destructive behaviors, takes a hard line and has provoked a healthy debate.  I’ll lead with that one:

Do you agree?




PSU and Getting in Touch with my own Anger

  I’ve followed the Jerry Sandusky case with a bit of self-protective distance until yesterday.  Revelation after revelation exposed both horrific child abuse and an even worse phenomenon: a Code of Silence that protected a football program while it sacrificed the safety and welfare of young men.  Not only did the football coach I’d so admired uphold the Code: so did the athletic director and the Penn State University president.

For my entire life, my identity has consisted of two major facets: athlete, and intellectual.  I admired Joe Paterno and his football program.  His players seemed to abide by high moral standards, and they graduated.

Like so many heroes of mine, Paterno proved weaker than I expected.  Despite knowing that a boy was raped by Sandusky, a PSU coach, in the locker room showers, Paterno did not report this to the police.  He figured that the Program, with all of its heft and power, could handle it internally.  The Code prevailed.  The Code of Silence.

Three things were sacrificed to this Code: the abused boy; subsequent Sandusky victims; and the psyche of abuse victims throughout the world.

I try to write about this and my brain shuts down right HERE.  Grief takes over.  I’m so confused.

I’m spinning.  Sorry.  Where was I?  Victims and how we feel when the authorities protect abusers.  THAT.  Yes.  My chest grips me and I cannot access words, but I will try.  Those of us who suffered abuse suffered something much worse: silence.  Our own silence, and the silence of people who knew that we were abused.  This hurts worse than the touch of hands that had no right to touch our bodies.

It’s so hard to explain.  I tried to advocate for shutting down the PSU football program last night.  My poster, now taken down, said:

Stop Child Abuse.  Shut down the PSU Football Program.

Sarcastic and offended PSU supporters attacked me, but as a friend noted, the discussion was pretty civilized.  You know why it was civilized?  Because I kept it so.  I swallowed my anger and took care of everyone else.  To the PSU grads who felt attacked, who mourned the potential loss of their beloved white and navy-clad football players, I said I was sorry.

And I was sorry for their pain.  But I wasn’t sorry for advocating the shutting down of a football program.  The student-athletes who get a free ride at PSU can transfer to other universities, and be paid to run up and down a field of green for four years.  They will receive a free education.

I’m not sorry for believing that shutting the program down will help shatter the Code.  Shut it down.  Send a message to future coaches and athletic directors and university presidents: your team is not above the law.  If you protect the abusers, you will suffer consequences.  It’s too bad that the consequences will affect players and fans and alumnae.  But we live in an interconnected world.  We do not own the teams we follow.

Ownership.  Funny, that it comes back to ownership.  The rights of each person begin where the rights of another person end.  Sandusky violated those boundaries when he raped that boy in the showers.  From that crime rained down shards that cut so many others.  And so much of it could have been prevented, if the men who knew of the crime reported it to the authorities.  Those men represent a university, and since they acted on the university’s behalf, the university must bear the responsibility and face the punishment.

Am I disinterested?  No.  This case means a lot to me. The mother I’ve become sees her own boys shivering in the corner of some university’s showers ten years in the future.  My anger and my pain and my grief rage inside me right now, and I am struggling against it, trying not to self-destruct by burning too hot.

This anger and grief is crippling me today.  I feel scared and alone, and yet I know I can’t sit with this too long.  Soon.  Soon I will rise and move and run again.  Soon.  This fire burns too hot inside, but I will rise.  Soon.




Saying “No” at Work to Devils and Ordinary Men

First, I gotta be honest with y’all. I am by no means an expert at saying “No.”  It almost pains me to form the two letters that go into the word.   So how about if we have a cup of iced coffee and chat about it? Yes, I am drinking iced coffee right now.  It’s hot as hell where I live.

One time, I was hanging out with a friend, and when I complained how stuck I felt in a toxic relationship and couldn’t say no, she glared at me and snapped, “No is a sentence.”

I sighed and messed around with the button on my shirt. “One word sentence?”

“One word. No. Nothing else. No explanations, qualifiers, apologies or chances for the ‘no’ to change to a ‘yes.'”

I shifted around and fidgeted. “Just ‘no?’”

She winked at me. “Yes.”

It still isn’t easy for me to begin and end a sentence with “No,” unless I am talking to one of my children.  By training, I avoid unpleasant situations, and if I don’t respect someone or fear they are abusive, I won’t keep saying “No.” I will say or write it once and then walk away.

This morning, a few of my friends were talking about how hard it is to say “No.”   One woman mentioned that the last time she said “No” at work, it backfired.  She lost her job.

This got me thinking: is it impossible to say “No” at work?  To answer this question, I thought back to my legal career.  Specifically, I recalled a few times I did or did not say “No” and how it worked out for me.  The results were mixed, but I don’t regret any of the times I said “No.”

The first time I should have said “No” was when I was a first-year associate at a dimly lit, dingy, mid-sized rat house of a litigation boutique.  I was ashamed of this job, for more reasons than the crappy paycheck.  In one of my first days on the job, this redheaded beast of a partner insulted me in a way that epitomizes “sexual harassment,” and I froze like a deer in the headlights.  I simply wasn’t prepared to draw any protective boundaries that hot summer afternoon.  I smiled an uncomfortable smile and walked back to my desk, insecure and unsure of myself.

Several months later, the Senior Partner called me into his office and asked me to sit in on a deposition.  Midway through it, I wanted to run out of the room and vomit, because I realized we were defending a drunk driver who admitted responsibility for injuring the plaintiff.  I made it through the deposition without losing my breakfast, and an hour later, I sat in the Senior Partner’s office.  He said to me, “I want you to work up this case.  It will be good experience for you.”

I stared at him with indignation, shock and disgust, and I walked back to my office and wrote my resignation letter.  In that letter, I told the Senior Partner about the sexual harassment.  And I told him I didn’t go to law school to defend drunk drivers.  As I drove out of the parking lot that afternoon, I glimpsed a welcome sight: the senior partner was chewing out the redheaded, sexually inappropriate douchebag.  It was his last day at the firm too.

Fast forward a few years.  Now I am a fifth-year associate earning a six-figure salary.  I have a lot to lose.  The partner I report to is a skinny, well-connected, hard-working, junior partner who has gotten ahead by getting along, and he asks me to do something unscrupulous with a document we’ve been ordered to produce.   As an attorney, I am bound by a Code of Ethics, and if I violate that Code, I could be disbarred, and my law firm could be sanctioned.

When I get home from work that night, I agonize over the conundrum I’m in.  If I refuse to withhold the document, I could get blackballed at the firm, and no longer trusted with assignments.  I could be fired.  But if I violate my principles, I could lose my license to practice law.  Worse, I could lose my self-respect.

When I woke up the next morning, I spent a few hours drafting a tactful memorandum in which I outlined the risks of withholding the document and sent it to the partner who had suggested I lose the document.  I didn’t refuse to destroy it.  I didn’t scream, “No,” but in a very careful way, I showed him why it wasn’t prudent to withhold it.  After all, I explained, it is not prudent to run afoul of the state bar’s ethics.  And as the supervising attorney, he would be the one who would get crucified.

We produced the document.  But from then on, the deal partner stopped assigning me work, not in an obvious way.  Bit by bit, case by case, less work came my way.   Regrets?  No, none.  It isn’t necessary to scream and make a scene when you draw a boundary.  There are as many ways to say “No” as there are ways to fashion a boundary that protects you from the dangers that intrude on your safety and your peace of mind.

So, dear readers, how hard is it for you to say “No?”  Is it easier or harder to say “No” in a professional setting than it is in social situations?

***Note: It is with a grin that I include Al Pacino pictures from The Devil’s Advocate, but my experience practicing law often reminded me of this fine movie. It’s not that I worked for terrible people, but I often wrestled with my conscience as if I were tempted by demons or the devil to do the wrong thing.




Status of Ripple and Running Memoirs

This weekend I finished Draft Two of Ripple and I have sent it out much gratitude to my very competent beta readers, Deborah Bryan and Astrea Baldwin, as well as the world’s best writing partner, Renée Schuls-Jacobson.

Meanwhile, with the help of the gracious and brilliant Piper Bayard, I’ve drafted a logline, or 25-word plot summary for Ripple:

A murder suspect teams up with a band of women at a safe house to trap a would-be rapist who is stalking her daughter.

While Ripple is undergoing review, I am working on another big project: writing a book with the working title of I Run. I am seeking to take my own experiences as a runner and morph them into a story about a girl named Sally who used running to hide from abuse she suffered as a child. I am pulling together all of my blog and journal entries from 2011 that pertain to running. So far, I am looking at a 200-page book, and will publish this as an E-book in the late summer or early fall. Those of you who follow me on my Facebook Page know that Running from Hell with El applies to the concept of running from pain and then triumphing over it. It’s also a riff on running towards Home, or heaven. For those of you who don’t know how important running is to me, I thought I would excerpt an intro about my running, and then follow up with a short sample from I Run.

•••

Intro

            I started running when I was a chubby, fourteen year old fast pitch softball player and point guard.  Soon enough, I found that I loved running as much as I loved hurling a ball or shooting a layup.  After a month of running, I was hooked.  I could run just about all day, and pretty fast, too. I captained my cross-country team and could run ten miles in seventy-five minutes.

I ran fifty miles a week right through college, with a year off to gain my obligatory freshman fifteen pounds.  Unfortunately, the fifteen turned into fifty pounds, and losing that weight was its own odyssey.  I kept running fifty miles a week through my first couple years of law school. To my great regret, I did not run a marathon when I could have, because I was afraid.  Then, in my second year of law school, I broke my ankle, and was never the same athlete after that.

In my late twenties, I developed epilepsy, high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat, and to this day, I take medications to treat these conditions.  From age 26 to age 33, I practiced law in Virginia and D.C.  I worked hard, but found the work soul crushing, boring and stressful.

Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I stayed in shape but struggled to keep my weight down.  I stopped practicing law when I bore my first child, and two more children followed, stepladder style, in the next two years.  While I stayed in shape and worked out, I ran only sporadically for the first three years after my third child was born in 2006.

In 2009, I started to train seriously again.  This time, I took to the pool, with the crazy idea of swimming across the Chesapeake Bay and then the English Channel.  By the fall, I was swimming 2-3 miles a day, running and lifting weights. I was back in fighting trim.

Then, on November 16, 2009, a Washington Metro bus struck my family’s SUV in excess of 30 miles per hour.  Miraculously, my three children escaped injury; unfortunately, I did not.  In that moment between living and dying, many highlights and lowlights of my life flashed before me.  I yelled at God to save my children, and promised that if he did, I would stop living my life in fear.  God heard me.  I was grateful to have another chance to live.  This time, it would be without regrets.

The accident left me unable to walk, run or swim without serious pain in my back, rib cage and left knee.  My dream of swimming the Chesapeake and the English Channel looked impossible.  By Christmas Day, 2009, I felt depressed and overwhelmed.  In search of hope, I formed an equally impossible dream: to run a marathon.

Eight months later, I began running in earnest.  In October 2010, I ran the Army Ten-Miler.  No longer could I run ten miles in 75 minutes.  Now, it took me more than 100 minutes.  I may have lost my speed, but in its place remained guts, determination and sheer endurance.

By the end of 2010, I had run 750 miles.  At no point was this easy or pain-free.  I received painful shots in my knee, feet and back, and underwent a rhizotomy on my back that burned the nerves in my facet joints at 300 degrees.  Throughout 2009-10, I fought through all sorts of back and leg pain.  I ran, and I kept running.

In January 2011, I set a goal: to run 2,000 miles and ten marathons.  This is the story of how I chased after this goal: the joy, the pain, and the sheer craziness of all those miles on an aging athlete’s tired old legs.

I Run

I run so I don’t have to stand still.  I run from the depression that ensnares me if I let its dense shadow catch me.  I run back to my better, stronger, happier self, to hold and carry her in spirit for a stride or two, until she leaps out of me and I realize that I must always chase her but never catch her.  I run for the little Sally who had nowhere else to go but far away from the only home she knew.  I run for tomorrow and yesterday and today.

I run for the smell of the dew on the fresh-cut grass.  I run for the glint of sun dappling through the towering pin oak trees.  I run because in running sometimes I find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask.  I run for the quiet, gentle burn in my chest.  I run for the dopamine and the endorphins, drugs stronger and healthier and safer than the drinks and drugs that destroyed my childhood home.

I run to silence the demons of my past life.  I run because I can run and I must run.  Some say this doesn’t sound healthy or wise or reasonable or sane but when I cannot run, I am none of these things either.

I run for today because there is nothing I can do to fix the mistakes of yesterday and there is no promise there will be a tomorrow.   I run for no one.  I run.

© 2012, E. L. Farris




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