Laid bare on Facebook: Affirmation of self, revelation of character

I never intended for my Facebook page to be the site of a highly personal revelation. Nor did I ever intend to use my blog for such purposes. But since an incident on Facebook in early July, I have been kept awake at night with anger and have broken down in tears in front of people I barely know. With the permission of the person who has the most at stake, I am recounting this incident, what led up to it, and what it reveals to me about character.

First of all, here are some ways I use Facebook: I wish my friends happy birthday; I support the news about their books and other publications; I watch funny videos; I post updates about my writing, books I’m reading, my bus commute on the infamous route 358, or places I happen to be visiting. Sometimes, I express my views on social and political issues.

All of these often invite some degree of interaction—by which I mean “likes” and encouraging comments—even the posts on controversial matters. I post my views not to start a fight with anyone, but as a way of airing my rage, disbelief, or approval over a particular topic with the expectation that only those of a similar mind will respond. Until recently, that has been the case.

Facebook friends know where I stand on issues. I know where many of them stand, and some stand in full opposition to me. I notice their posts, but I don’t engage. It’s too easy for things to spill over into outright warfare and that’s not how I want to use Facebook. Though I might feel hostile to their beliefs, I don’t want to feel hostile toward them. Maybe that sounds naïve or unrealistic. What I try to remember is that people are more than their beliefs on a particular issue. One of my Facebook friends is a conservative Republican. I know his views do not coincide with mine. What I also know about him is that his interests are photography and wildlife, and he has a deep regard for the natural world. I like and appreciate these things about him. More importantly, I appreciate that he has never written rude comments on my wall in response to issues I post about, the content of which must surely at times aggravate him. Unfortunately, not everyone can resist the urge to clash or bash or even bully on Facebook.

Back in early 2012, a young relative of mine, a second cousin in his late twenties, responded to my post about a Komen official resigning over the organization’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. He wrote: I respect the convictions of both women. Standing up for one’s beliefs is important. I, for one, stand with the Komen Organization’s decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood.

I responded: Yes, I know where you stand and I appreciate your respectful comment. Hope you’re well.

We went on to exchange a few pleasantries. That was that. Or so I thought.

In early June of this year, I posted a link to this article about the proposed legislation advanced by an all-male, all-Republican congressional panel which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. I sided with the two Democrats who in the article “objected to the fact that all of the lawmakers debating the abortion bill are men and that none are doctors.” My cousin took exception to this, arguing that the same sense of right and wrong that drove men to pass laws against rape is the same impulse that drives their efforts to keep women from having abortions. My cousin equated abortion of a fetus with a mother killing her toddler. “…I can’t think of anything more selfish or unnatural than a woman killing her own child,” he wrote.

This thread became quite lengthy with two other friends joining my argument that a woman has the right to choose whether and when to have a baby, that women have always had and will continue to seek and have abortions, and that safe and affordable access to abortion is critical to women’s reproductive health, not to mention their lives. The relevance of his reference to rape eluded us.

Twice I pointed out that, given our strongly held opposing views, it was pointless for us to debate this issue, my underlying message being “stop writing on my Facebook wall.”

Later that month I posted a link to an article about Rick Perry who suggested that Texas state senator Wendy Davis’s experiences as a teen mother should have taught her to become, like him, a staunch opponent of abortion. (Wendy Davis is the Texas legislator who filibustered against the bill that would restrict abortion access for women in that state.)

My cousin again, despite my previous statements about the futility of our debating this issue, offered this unsolicited remark: This is the epitome of our culture. We want to be able to do what we want without consequences. Needless to say, there ensued another lengthy thread to which several of my friends contributed, all of them challenging my cousin’s implication that abortion happens willy-nilly without a woman’s deep deliberation of the options and how each will affect her life.

In early July, I posted an article called “How I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement.” It was an intelligent and thoughtfully written piece by a young woman who actually considered studies by the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, and other medical and science-based groups about abortion. I couldn’t help it. I tagged my cousin.

Interestingly, there was no response.

But a week later he posted an article on my wall called “Unborn Babies Feel Pain and They Dream,” based on a grossly misquoted science article. He accompanied it with the charge that a woman’s uterus is her own until she becomes pregnant, at which point, presumably, it belongs to others (God, the state, him?) to make a decision for her.

I’d really had enough. Too late, though. The war was on—it lasted about an hour during which 77 comments, many of them quite protracted, were posted. My cousin’s patronizing, lecturing tone was backed by his sister’s cheerleading. Meanwhile, I was getting emails and private messages from people urging me to block my cousin then and there. On the other hand, my husband advocated for letting the “debate” continue, since several other friends had joined the fray, with arguments countering both of my cousins’ rigid ideology and inflammatory rhetoric (which included a refusal to acknowledge the scientific term fetus).

Then one of my daughters posed an important question, one that is raised often in this debate. What happens when a woman is raped? What if a woman committed suicide from the trauma of giving birth to her rapist’s child? My daughter was pointing out the complexity of the issue, which required more than my cousin’s black-and white approach. My cousin responded by belittling her, calling her a liar, accusing her of “shooting from the hip” and declaring his own expert knowledge about suicide and PTSD among women. He derived this authority, he said, as a volunteer at a pregnancy crisis center.

Full of fury, shaking with outrage, I called my daughter on the phone to ask if she was doing okay with the discussion, which was more accurately an online mêlée. Unlike mine, her voice was steady. It was steely. I told her I could delete the whole post. She said no, she wanted to respond. After I hung up, I watched the screen, waiting. Just when I thought she had changed her mind, her post appeared on the screen. This is what she wrote:

I know all about PTSD, it has paralyzed me for the past five years. It has cost my family thousands of dollars and I’ve been in years of treatment, all of which are worth it as I work through my own trauma and heal. I have no shame in what I have experienced and I now know that it is not my fault. If I had had to face this choice you better believe I would have had an abortion. As much as I am sickened by what you are saying, I would never ever hope that you had to feel what I did inside. Nobody deserves that. If a woman decides to go through with the pregnancy stemming from a rape, that is her choice. But it is a choice. Having a baby would have complicated my life so much more, made me more depressed, more suicidal. I know me, I know my experience. People are different and that is why it should be a choice but you are in no position to speak on this matter. I have been diagnosed with severe PTSD, I have been in two residential treatment centers and spent the last year in continuous treatment. Today I started EMDR to start helping with memories. There will always be people like you [male cousin] who have asinine beliefs on something they could never experience. [Female cousin], I hope to God you are never raped. And that if you are, that you are able to make the choice that is right for you, whatever that may be, and without the judgment of anyone else. I am lucky I have loving parents who have done everything they can at whatever the cost to help me heal. I can’t pay attention for too long to your beliefs and others like yours. I get angry, I cry. I start to wish mean things, like for you to experience what so many women in this world have to and then potentially face the stigma of having an abortion along with all the shame that already comes with the rape. I’m done with this conversation. Just reading these threads exhausts me, let alone joining. But the only person who has a voice about the pregnancy of a woman who was raped is the woman who was raped. End of story. I’m tired, I want to go to bed. I have to work tomorrow and I’ve had a week full of therapy. Healing is exhausting. We’re cousins, though I don’t believe we’ve ever met. I don’t know if we ever will. I just need to be a voice for all the other women out there like me. Good night.

My daughter did something she’d never done before. She revealed publicly that she’d been raped. She declared openly that it wasn’t her fault. It was a courageous affirmation of self and a big step toward healing.

What is incomprehensible to me is that neither one of these cousins has reached out to my daughter after having learned that she’d been raped and has been suffering for years from trauma. So wrapped up in their ideology, neither one could say to her, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Silence. The heartless, soulless response from people who purport to care about life.

As my daughter heals, she will continue to encounter insensitive, bullying, judgmental attitudes. They will hurt. They might send her into relapse or otherwise hinder her progress. Eventually, she will fully recover. My daughter is a survivor. Every day she realizes her strength as a woman, her dignity and worth as a human being.