Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Beyond Cartoons and Caricatures: a Vignette in Realism About Child Abuse.

Clear fluid, quickly filled the test tubes. The nurse performing the procedure cooed soothing comments: "You're doing great," she said. "We're almost done, just a bit more."
Lisa, a pseudonym for the very real, at-risk, teen-aged girl and victim of child abuse with whom I worked years ago, seemed to barely notice any part of the ordeal, wincing only slightly, as if a fly had landed on her. She arched her back away from the prick of the syringe.
"Owe!" Lisa whined in irritation, squinting one eye and slouching toward her side. She quickly surrendered to the pain, resigned to the invasive needle.
A "cutter," Lisa bore fresh and healed razor marks, like delicate cob web bracelets at her wrist pulse points. Normally hidden, the marks were exposed as she lifted her blond hair up and out of the way of the nurse performing the spinal tap.
"Okay! We're all done," the nurse said, cheerfully. 
Lisa's hand, the one holding up her hair, flopped like that of a mannequin down to her side. Her other arm reached around her back, to rub and sooth the tender spot on her back.
"Who is we?" Lisa grumbled under her breath toward the nurse who had turned to a work table, and was placing stickers with Lisa's name on vials still warm with the freshly harvested spinal fluid. "I'm the one getting poked, bitch," Lisa growled.
She cut her eyes, pursed her lips, and exhaled through her nose. She straightened her chocolate brown, velour sweatshirt and slid down from the examining table. Walking slowly, her legs almost shuffling as if bound by shackles, she moved to and though the doorway of the hospital examination room. Her face was expressionless and eyes cast far-off and glazed over. This was her usual cadence, and her usual expression. Somewhat off-putting at first, Lisa's demeanor was dramatic. She seemed almost catatonic. Her face remained fixed and motionless, with sleepy blue-eyes to with which few things seemed to register.
Pain was not unfamiliar to Lisa. Being beaten up, and other abuse was as frequent and routine a part of her childhood as taking out the trash, washing dishes or walking the family dog was to other children. Victimized and beaten for years, Lisa was now on prescription drugs for the psychological damages of the unrelenting torment. Symptoms included hearing voices, attempting suicide and self-mutilating behaviors, like cutting.


On this day, Lisa sat perched at the dining room table in a chair pitched backward on its two, hind legs. Slowly, repetitively, but forcefully enough to be heard in the next room, she had spent considerable time pounding the back of her head against the wall in the group home's common dinning area. She said she did it to "stop the voices." 
Her equilibrium had failed to re-calibrate after this, leaving her prone to spontaneously loosing her balance, falling over and to the ground. Lisa was being seen and treated by physicians at Children's Hospital of Orange County for symptoms including vertigo. She had broken the skin on her scalp, so there was blood, and of course, a very severe headache, perhaps a mild concussion. Lisa was admitted for observation and testing.
As a children, Lisa and her sister, had often been lifted by their golden locks and thrown like rag dolls about their family home by their physically assaulting father during drunken binges and sober fetes, that left the two girls battered, bruised, and with the calloused demeanor of war-weary soldiers.
For them, such frequent hostility was an inconvenience against which they had developed resistance and resilience. To them such violence was real. They were neither cartoons, nor were the incidences of violence perpetrated against then conducted by caricatures in any sort of slapstick buffoonery.
Rather, cartoons were a stark contrast to Lisa's reality.
In further contrast, the use of cartoons and their whimsy was perhaps intended to conjure up thoughts of carefree childhoods and fun memories, a device for a viral campaign begun on Facebook to raise awareness of Child Abuse that ran through the weekend of Dec. 4, 2010. 
Conducted via the social media Internet site, it's participants were asked to replace their profile pictures with images of carton characters. The broader, collective effort aimed to eliminate all human faces on the site through Dec. 6, 2010. 
Arguably, the effort fell short of its mark.
In my personal cluster of Facebook friends and acquaintances alone, there were many who failed to supplant their cheesing mugshots for cartoon caricatures. But alternately, the campaign did achieve a fait accompli in raising awareness and bringing the issue to top-of-mind -- and their status pages -- for the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Facebook users and aficionados who participated through the weekend.
Even the Los Angeles Times' dedicated a bit of its coveted, cyber-column space to the effort many panned a hoax:
The lack of a "call to action" that went beyond the cosmetic, or request for a donation to support research or other charitable work, drew criticism for the effort which seemed nothing more than a fun, nostalgic wax and wane.
Myriad posts, lacked any sort revelatory insight about the very real, very deadly issue that, in the U.S. alone, claims the lives of about five children a day, according to data from, a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping victims of child abuse and neglect. But the Facebook campaign didn't point out such statistics.
Instead, what the effort did do -- at least for me -- was open the door and dialogue for more.
For me, the effort motivated a search not only on 70's cartoon icons,  but it also led me to search for current data, statistics and information about similar issues and associated organizations. It led me to sources like: and called to mind many of the girls in the therapeutic treatment facility in which I worked for nearly a decade.
Despite all she had been through, Lisa was a sharp, bright and tough-as-nails young woman, who had a fearless streak that ran a mile wide. She was very likeable and very capable.
The Facebook Campaign and the statistics it sparked me to research brought to mind so many other, faceless children who hadn't made it, those killed by myriad forms of abuse. The viral campaign worked for me. I "got" it. Did it 'work' for you? Click and post your "comment" below.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Crafting the Perfect Scab

Originally written by Valerie Williams-Sanchez on Monday, April 26, 2010 at 2:29pm. Modified for posting at date.

It was the Fall.
That was when the announcement went out:"Bring Your Son/Daughter to Work Day."
I'm intellectualizing pain, again, a process that makes ya sorta numb, eventually. You know, it's like picking and poking at a wound…
I've ruminated months over it ever since. Considering what I would do, and how I would handle the day and the absence of my daughter. Through the result of a series of life twists and turns, I find myself working far away from, across the country, in fact, my 14-year-old daughter. You see, my employer, and subsequently my job, relocated to the opposite coast as my family and home at a time when the local and State economy was in a recession and unemployment rates were at historic highs. To keep my job, I had to move, a scenario, I'm learning through my travels is more common than I previously thought.
Got one on my left elbow. I slid down the stairs where I'm staying here on the East Coast. It was late, I was loaded down with bags and stuff …
Not without friends locally, it can still be tough going. I miss my kid terribly and considered staying home, today, in protest of the circumstances and situation that has led to the separation. But, I decided to come to work today, anyway. 
It could be far worse, for sure.
This latest fall, however, brought to mind once when I slid down iced-over subway stairs out in Brooklyn, covering a story, years ago as grad student. It was a tough story, eye-opening in many ways to the bitter poverty, bleakness, and aggressive hope that can exist in the blizzardous, dead-of- winter in a Northeastern ghetto…
And, after thinking it through, I don't wanna waste a good sick day. It is one I could use to be somewhere I really need or want to be – if not recovering from the flu, I'm thinking the Caribbean--maybe, someday?
Besides, these kids here today, I rationalized with myself to realize, aren't my kid. Neither are they any of the 250 group home kids I worked with for nearly 10 years--a story to be told on another occasion.
I ended up with a great big bruise on the hip that bore the brunt of the impact. I was sore and hurting for a long time. But looking at my left elbow today, …
And so, I really have to let go of whatever anger, resentment, frustration or anxiety I have over the whole thing. One has nothing to do with the other.
So, here I am. Funny, it is sort of like one of Ludacris's lyrics, I heard for the first time recently. It goes: "Just have some prune juice and let the 's-h-%-&' go!" Poetic, too, in a different, more 'urban' (I really do loathe the euphemism) way, the sentiment in the rap lyric echoes that of another song that has recently conquered the billboard charts: "This too shall pass." occurred to me…
The real trick to the healing process, I suppose, is to do it just right. So that in the end, like a scab, the pain will simply fall away, without even leaving a scar.

Notes: Continuing my personal exploration of the writing process, the written space and its effect on messaging in my own work, this story looks to exploit the space between paragraphs, the process points of transition, that go together to create a cohesive tale. The story attempts to show how an unwritten memory influences the current, articulated thought, to create a new layer of narrative. The subtext, in blue, is the chord  and theme which in its conclussion reflects the fullnes of a complete and harmonized thought: the pain of the various "falls" successfully deconstructed, healed, made whole with forward-looking hope.

(c) 2010 Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Graffiti by Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Urged on by each other, one fateful sleepover-night, we friends plotted to make things happen. Under an unfurled sofa bed, we were indoor safe, with all the feel of outside adventure. It was after a day spent at Disneyland, and in this fortress where we read teeny-bopper magazines by flashlight, and dreamed how we would each meet and become Mr. and Mrs. Heartthrob, pointing out our future husbands from pages in 'Right On,' or 'Tiger Beat' magazine.

Muffled squeals, sighs, and giggles punctuated tales told of mortifying acts of stupidity, innocence or just plain bad luck: "How embarrassing!" The phrase rang out time and again as we shared stories of how kids in our day-to-day worlds had succeeded or failed to conquer the idiosyncrasies of adolescence.

We gabbed through the night, gossiping, playing truth or dare, and applying make-up while we crowded around the powder room mirror of our home in, Orange County, California. The little bathroom was generic, like most of the tract homes on the block, and of the era. All the fixtures; sink, faucet, and Formica countertops, were standard issue. But there was one element of the dĂ©cor that made the restroom at 709 Concord Street distinct. One wall had been decorated with graphic wallpaper in a design that simulated graffiti. Yeah, that's right, graffiti. In our sterile, cookie-cutter, suburban, tract home, our bathroom was decorated to look as if it had been tagged.

Mechanically etched and repeated markings lacking any sort of real edge or originality were emblazoned across our wall. Puffy, scrolled letters and forms spelled out funny, often banal messages, under fluorescent light and my scrutiny. More than once, I pondered that wallpaper, never quite able to reconcile how it had been deemed acceptable. After all, it was vandalism, a prohibited activity that was in direct opposition to any definition of "appropriate behavior" that existed in my stringent, pre-teen world.

In those days, diatribes about what was becoming of a young woman, who, like me, "should be striving to become a young lady" were frequent. Against this backdrop, how those particular scribbles had transcended from vulgar to stylish, gaining entre into suburbia and onto the walls of my family's home completely perplexed and befuddled my friends and me.
"Hey," Crystal asked as we each rouged our cheeks and glossed our lips, "can we write something on the wall, too!?"
"Oh yeah, can we?" asked Charra.
"Uh, I don't think that'd be a good idea," I argued, feebly, anticipating trouble. But then, Jennae asked, as I had of myself, 'why would anything we wrote be any worse?' After all, I continued the thought, what harm would there be in simply adding a few marks to an already tagged wall? Would anybody even notice? Besides, anything we girls could do, would be infinitely more interesting if not equally good, right? "Well, that's true," I said. 

Our action was taboo, but we managed to rationalize it, to craft a sort of justification that was just plausible enough to make things exciting, and to convince ourselves to do it.

"Uh, okay, sure," I capitulated to the role of leader.
Excited, we all looked for pens.
"Black ink ones, only," I said sternly, feigning control. One, then another found ball-point, then felt-tipped, even a roller-balled pen in the sticky-bottoms of the drawers.
"Hey, I need one," another said. When there were no more pens to be found, I went to the kitchen and found two more. The last, a red, chisel tip marker was for me.

We wasted little time writing and drawing on the wall, just at our eye-level. When nearly all were done, I added my message to the effort in red letters. After, each was proud of her work, creativity and bravery. Far more personal and meaningful than the stock text, ours were the markings of true artists. In our minds, we were rebels, risk-takers. But mostly, it had been fun. We headed back to our fortress, falling asleep, finally. We awoke without giving a second thought to our masterwork as each of us gathered belongings and headed out, signaled by moms' honking horns on station wagons. Not until shortly after the last girl had gone, was it that my mother went into the bathroom looking for something. 

"Valerie!" My name rang out into the hall, echoing like a siren into a New York City street. Not thinking about our art, I was somewhat confused by her call. But her tone left no doubt I needed to get down stairs to the bathroom, quickly. Once there, the look on my mother's face spoke volumes. Punishment and consequences seemed imminent, destined to fall squarely on my shoulders with the other girls gone.
"What is this?" she demanded.  
"Oh, we drew on the wall," I said matter-of-factly.
"Why?" she quizzed, "you have destroyed the wallpaper."
"I didn't think it was a big deal," I said innocently.
"It is a very big deal," she said, rolling into a lecture about why our actions had been so terribly wrong. Her soliloquy ended with me being grounded for a month.

That month passed. Then another passed, and another after that. Despite her lecture about what we had done, years later, our art remained. My mother never took down the wallpaper. I never told my friends how I had paid for our fun. Rather, each time, even years later, whenever I stood at the vanity and looked into the mirror, I saw our messages and it reminded me of that day when I had led our overlooked, ignored, chastised, and otherwise marginalized, pre-teen-girl voices.

In writing on the bathroom wall, I felt I had done something important. For me, the experience was one of my earliest tastes of leadership, the power of communications and the written word.

My mark then, "Valerie Williams was here," was significant in ways metaphoric and literal, for me it was a move out of the margins. However misguided, the gesture to add my own voice to a written discourse on public display as a means of empowerment, and an exhilarating harbinger of things to come.  

(c) 2010 Valerie Williams-Sanchez