I’m putting my toes in the dangerous fray around the Kavanaugh nomination and its intersection with the Me Too movement.
Eve Ensler published a letter in Time magazine last week, to white women who are supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Ensler is a Tony-winning playwright activist and author of The Vagina Monologues. She founded both V-Day, a global movement dedicated to ending violence against women, and the One Billion Rising campaign.
I am not going to get into the politics here, thankfully, but instead am sharing some of Ensler’s insights about how violence towards women “destroys our souls”, why it is important for women to break their silence, plus some pointers and “rewrites” from my relationship repair work that bring more safety and clarity to the conversation.
Ensler’s open letter was inspired by her grief when her own childhood sexual assault trauma was triggered by seeing women in an audience laugh at President Trump while he was mocking Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman that accused Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
As an empathic communication coach I appreciate that Ensler committed to “Not lecture them. Not denigrate them. Just simply to speak to them directly and to try to explain my feelings.” As her coach I would have encouraged her to go two steps further and identify her unmet core needs – perhaps for truth? Shared reality? Support? Emotional healing? The needs that are causing her upset. I’d suggest that she make a request(s) of the women that would inspire them to help her meet these needs.
Vulnerable, right? To even think she can ask, let alone inspire “them, the other side” to help her meet her needs? So scary. Yet once she identifies her needs, articulates them, and formulates a positive request that would help get them met, she dramatically increases her chances of meeting them. Especially if she has made true empathic connection with her “opposition”.
At the end of her letter Ensler does in fact make a suggestion about what she’d like them to do, but it is more of a disconnecting demand than an inspiring request.
With my Empathic Communication lens I view Trump’s mockery as a strategy for meeting one or more of Trump’s core needs. Perhaps for discrediting Dr. Ford, which in turn is a strategy. How do I know? Because everything we do and say is to meet our core needs, though unfortunately we are usually unconscious about what needs we are trying to meet and why we have selected the strategy we are using. This is a life changing realization for my clients as they get conscious about their needs and strategies.
What were Trump’s core needs he was trying to meet by mocking Blasey Ford?
I can only guess. Perhaps power, and underlying that might be his need for personal security. It’s nice to think he might also have been experiencing a need for truth or shared reality. Empathic communication is about trying to connect to him in his world, with an open heart and an open mind – to “get” him, to understand his motivations, his feelings, the humanity behind the needs he is trying to meet.
Ensler points out the kind of thinking that disempowers women and gives permission for violence. Her mother, Chris Ensler, stayed silent or, worse yet, sided with Eve’s father, Arthur Ensler, about his sexual abuse and beating of Eve as a child.
“She sided with my father, just like these women sided with Donald Trump, and I understand why. She sided with him because he was the breadwinner. She sided with him because of her need to survive. She sided with him because the reality of what was happening in front of her was so terrible, it was easier not to see. She sided with him because she was brought up never to question a man. She was taught to serve men and make men happy. She was trained not to believe women.”
Had Eve’s mother Chris been trained in Empathic Communication she would have focused her attention on trying to meet her own needs alongside men’s and everyone else’s needs, such as needs for physical and emotional safety, self expression, trust, stability, respect etc. She would have learned to question men in order to better understand them and help them understand her world – how she is feeling about how her needs are being met or not being met.
If her questioning triggered anger blasts from Arthur, she would not be afraid or ashamed. Or at least she would know the pathway to shift out of those emotions when she regained composure and gave herself empathy. She would not be a deer in front of the anger headlights because she would know that his anger does not mean that she is a “bad or wrong” person, but instead means that he has core needs that are not being met yet.
She would remain emotionally stable inside as she considered best action, carefully considering, based on what her heart was telling her, how she might be inspired or not inspired to help him meet his needs, while keeping her and her daughter’s needs in sharp focus.
Need for Security and Comfort
“It was only much later, after my father died, that she was able to acknowledge the truth of my childhood and to ask for my forgiveness. It was only then, too late, that she was able to see how she had sacrificed her daughter for security and comfort. She used those words. I was her ‘sacrifice’.”
Here Eve sees some of the needs Chris was trying to meet with her behaviors – security and comfort. If Chris had Empathic Communication training she could have listened more deeply to her own heart, which was probably sending her strong signals of guilt, shame, fear, grief and anger – feelings signalling possible unmet needs for safety, respect, care, kindness, etc – for her and her daughter.
She would have realized that her strategy of silence or, worse yet, of supporting the perpetrator of violence was chosen in order to meet her own needs for security and comfort. She would have asked herself whether there might be better, far less damaging strategies for getting her needs met.
Tuned into her heart, she would have been able to tune into Eve’s heart. She would have seen that Eve’s core needs for safety, comfort, respect and peace were not being met.
She would have also inquired about what needs her husband Arthur was trying to meet by sexually assaulting and beating Eve. She would intuitively know that there had to be far better strategies for meeting these needs of his, whatever they were. From his perspective, something seemingly positive came out of his violence, or else he would not have done it. Was he trying to satisfy a need for power maybe, and underlying that a need for security? With tragic strategies of control and punishment – the inflicting of pain on his child?
Feelings – the Pain, Fear, Sorrow and Rage
Ensler provides a lot of insight in these passages. Many women are unaware they are in denial of their own violent pasts, and are paying a big price. We all are.
“Some people when they look at this video of women laughing at Dr. Ford, will see callousness. I see distancing. I see denial. I have worked on ending violence against women for 20 years. I have traveled this country many times. I have sat with women of all ages and political persuasions. I remember the first performances of my play The Vagina Monologues in Oklahoma City, when half the women in the audience came up to tell me they had been raped or battered. Most of them whispered it to me, and often I was the first and only person they had told. Until that moment, they had found a way to normalize it. Expect it. Accept it. Deny it.
I don’t believe you want to have to choose your sons and your husbands over your daughters. I don’t believe you want the pain that was inflicted on us inflicted on future generations.
I know the risk many of you take in coming out to say you believe a woman over a man. It means you might then have to recognize and believe your own experience. If one out of three women in the world have been raped or beaten, it must mean some of you have had this experience. To believe another woman means having to touch into the pain and fear and sorrow and rage of your own experience and that sometimes feels unbearable. I know because it took me years to come out of my own denial and to break with my perpetrator, my father. To speak the truth that risked upending the comfort of my very carefully constructed life. But I can tell you that living a lie is living half a life. It was only after telling my story that I knew happiness and freedom.
I know the risk others of you face who have witnessed those you love suffer the traumatic after-effects of violence and those who worry for both your sons and daughters that may someday face this violence
I write to you because we need you, the way I once needed my mother. We need you to stand with women who are breaking the silence in spite of their terror and shame. I believe inside the bodies of some of those women who laughed at that rally were other impulses and feelings they weren’t expressing.
Here is why I believe you should take this stand with me. Violence against women destroys our souls. It annihilates our sense of self. It numbs us. It separates us from our bodies. It is the tool used to keep us second-class citizens. And if we don’t address it, it can lead to depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, overeating and suicide. It makes us believe we are not worthy of happiness.”
Stop Laughing and Start Fighting
“Stop the ascension of a man who is angry, aggressive, and vengeful and could very well be a sexual assaulter. Time is short. Call your senators. Stop laughing and start fighting.”
A possible Empathic Communication rewrite of this plea…
Please help to stop the ascension of a man who appears to be angry, aggressive, and vengeful, given that he said or did….., and could very well be a sexual assaulter, and therefore unable to provide safety, wisdom and respect as a Supreme Court Justice. Time is short. Please call your senators. Please stop laughing at people who are mocking others, and instead support victims of sexual assault by speaking truth and protesting violence.
I know my version is not as catchy, but I’m willing to sacrifice that for emotional safety and clarity. I’ve added “please” to convert her demands into requests. I’ve removed the static label that Kavanaugh “is” angry, aggressive and vengeful, and instead claim these as appearances or as my own judgements, providing my related observations.
By transforming our demands into requests, we honor people’s choice and autonomy. We want people to do things only from inspiration, and not from guilt, shame or “have to” thinking, because that is too expensive psychologically and emotionally, for everyone involved.
Since Dr. Ford testified, she is unable to return home because of multiple death threats to her and her family. Death threats are also tragic strategies, attempts to meet core needs. I know that we human beings are capable of far safer, kinder, smarter strategies.
I long to fill our media airwaves with slowed down, respectful, creative needs-based conversations, scrubbed clean from diagnosing, criticizing, “guilting”, demanding, threatening and focusing on who is right or wrong and what they deserve. These “clean room” conversations will bring us our best strategies for moving forward with getting our needs met!
Step by step to peace,
P.S. If you are struggling in an important relationship and you need a “rewrite”, you can set up a complimentary session here to find out what that can sound like!
Catherine Cooley is a mediator and a communication coach. She has worked in environments of extreme conflict including prisons, the court system and local communities teaching what she calls "Breakthrough Conversations." She specializes in helping people foster clear, respectful, warm, cooperative relationships at home and in the workplace.
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