November 17, 2011 My son’s former teacher is arrested on child pornography charges. Two years had passed since my son was in that class. There were overnight trips out of town. The teacher was active with cameras and kept images of students as his screen saver. My son was the favourite. Everything pointed towards a red line for me, pushing the needle, trembling to the right.
Already outraged that the school was not reaching out to the families of former students about a community meeting that evening, I arrived to an overcrowded, stiflingly hot gymnasium in a state of high agitation.
As the meeting progressed, it occurred to me that the administration was more interested in protecting themselves than serving the community. I was very vocal about it, but was left feeling unheard at the end of the evening.
It took the police three months to sift through the over 40 000 images and videos in the teacher’s collection. Those three months were unbearable for me. I provided the investigator a photo of my son so they could determine whether it was in the collection. My son told me that nothing had happened. But two years had passed. What if something had happened?
Unwilling to remain feeling powerless and stuck I chose to make a police report about a sexual assaulted from the 1970’s when I was eleven years old. My motivation was dual: to be a role model to my son in case something had happened and he was unable to disclose. And somehow I knew there was something, as vague as the sense was, of benefit to myself.
Standing outside the police station, I turned the camera on myself and stated,
“Here goes. I think this is going to be the beginning of something new for myself, but I don’t know what.”
The lead investigator in my son’s case provided support all the way through making the report and then referred me to The Gatehouse, an organization that has been operating peer facilitated group programs for adult survivors of child sex abuse for 15 years.
The steps up to the Gatehouse are often described as the longest short walk you’ll ever take. I was no exception. The intake meeting was revelatory. I was afraid that somehow I didn’t fit. That I would be excluded. That my miserable story wouldn’t qualify. I was asked a series of questions about stress. The worker’s conclusion was that I was suffering from panic attacks. Until that moment I thought that the perpetual stress and anxiety I lived with was a byproduct of career path. Leaving The Gatehouse that day, the realization struck that what I was living with was the result of a series of crimes committed against my most vulnerable child-self.
That conclusion was reinforced so thoroughly through the voices of my co-participants in the first round of programming. A stunning array of stories, all echoing my own experience: the woman kicked out of her home for disclosing her father’s abuse and the subsequent failure of mental health professionals who labeled her as an attention-seeking liar; the middle aged father who was raped and ended up with AIDS; the common experiences of under-productivity, isolation, shame, guilt, desperation, substance abuse and self-harm. I related to them all. Suddenly, a veil lifted and the true extent of the crimes dawned, the worst part being the previous invisibility of their origination. I rapidly reoriented from the experience of continually struggling against invisible demons to one of empowerment. I recognized where the true responsibility lay.
By then I had started experimenting with Arthur Lockhart to use the medium of video making to empower survivors. I learned a lot from him about interviewing survivors. The relationship evolved quickly to the point where I felt comfortable enough to share a vision I had: to collaborate with an agency in Guyana. A co-worker had overheard me sharing my experiences at the Gatehouse and mentioned an organization she volunteers with in Guyana. I proposed a meeting at the Gatehouse and Lockhart wisely added another person, with experience in Ghana. Within an hour the four of us had visioned the Gatehouse Network International, for organizations around the planet who work with CSA survivors.
Through the Gatehouse, I was provided the trust to represent them at a very important event. Speaking at a Federal Justice Round Table was a very mixed experience. The government was formulating a Victims’ Bill of Rights at the time. While I believed that it was definitely a move in the right direction, the underpinnings were based on a “get tough on crime stance” that I don’t see as moral because they seem to be rooted in retribution. The message from the Minister of Justice occurred to me as being based on the need to punish people who committed crimes. The people who were harmed seemed to be pushed aside in the equation. So when it came time for me to speak I announced that, based on the Minister’s introduction that I was veering from my prepared speech. That I would speak freely and from the heart. What came out of my mouth was this: that healing should be at the top of the Victims’ Bill of rights. My logic was that the thing which unites all victims of crime is the fact that they have been harmed. To me, it is only logical that if harm has been done, then if Victims have any rights at all, that the first one ought to be the right to heal from that harm. But it was met with a blank stare. My input was not incorporated into the bill. But at least I spoke my truth.
The Gatehouse is serious about facilitating real transformation. Whether it’s the creation of a healing garden, publishing of a book, writing of a song, the leadership supports survivors of CSA move through the trauma and achieve some of their most cherished goals. My experience of this is this film. After 24 years in the film and tv industry, with the coveted goal of being a director, I had achieved a single broadcast directing credit. That I felt underproductive would have been a massive understatement. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.
GuyanaHelp and Shelter is the only refuge for abused women and children in Guyana. In February 2013 The Gatehouse funded my travel there to build relationships.
It was fast on the heels of a similar trip to Atlanta, also funded by the GH to meet leadership at The Innocence Revolution an organization also dedicated to working internationally with CSA survivor groups. What I was becoming present to affirmed the prior experiences at the Gatehouse, but in a new way, not unlike a fractal.
With the Gatehouse interviews and time in Group, my experience as an individual survivor were validated. With the international travel, the similarities of survivor experiences shared with me so far in Canada were validated in very real terms, and the significance of what I was witnessing was dawning as being universally human. And I was gathering evidence of it.
One of the reasons why I was particularly vulnerable to the predator at age 11 is that I was newly reeling from the suicide of my older brother, Mark who had recently returned from a cultural exchange trip to Indonesia. Dealing with the loss in isolation, I was scared, confused and profoundly seeking comfort. The evil intentions of the person who harmed me and their betrayal of my innocent trust leave me very eager for the opportunity to challenge them now, evenly as an adult. I also believe the organization he was part of has not properly made amends or enough organizational changes. This was affirmed at an event where I had the opportunity to discuss my experience with a recruiter.
A few months after returning from Guyana I received an urgent message from one of my main contacts there. His cousin, who I had previously interviewed about the hardships of gay life, had been viscously attacked by two men who threw acid in her face. She was in hospital in Georgetown Guyana and he was her primary care giver. Guyana is the only country in this hemisphere where being gay is illegal. He is also gay. This was three days ahead of the Toronto Pride march. I immediately started a crowdfunding campaign, made up a sign and marched in Pride to raise awareness and support to get her out of harm’s way. They are both now in Canada, he as a refugee and she as a permanent resident.
While marching at Pride I noticed a recruiting tent for a national children’s organization. The same one that didn’t protect me from the predator within their ranks in the 1970’s. I seized the moment. I approached a man who appeared to be the leader of the group and informed him about my experiences and frustration at not being able to name and locate the person who harmed me. I expressed concern that they might still be involved within the organization and could even have been elevated to a position of leadership. The volunteer at the tent responded by saying that given how long ago my experience happened, the person was probably too old to be involved any longer. I kept my cool and moved on. There is a long way to go. That they would put someone who had clearly not been trained in sensitivity on the front line of an event like Pride speaks volumes about the organization.
Getting my life back on track has been a bittersweet experience. I am getting better at avoiding the traps of repeating circumstances which unleash the flood of feelings and noticing the symptoms of trauma when they present. I do my best to be proactive. After hearing my speech at the Justice Round Table, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime invited me to attend a victims of crime conference in Ottawa. In honour of that event I produced a poetic photo essay book on trauma recovery, supported by The Gatehouse. I pooled what I considered my best photographic work and wrote Bittersweet Grace. It is a story about honouring the damage inflicted on me, but focuses on resilience and beauty. Many of the pictures are floral still lifes that were taken during a motion control video shoot. I chronicled the entire process including the video shoot and the writing and production of the book. I am very proud of the book. It is a good companion piece for the film.
A big part of my education in trauma has come verbally from interviews with leaders like Dr. Fred Mathews (former Provincial Youth Advocate) and Tom Wilkens (author, Rebuilding Your House of Self Respect) a manual used at the Gatehouse and internationally. Working alongside Arthur Lockhart (author, Restorative Justice: Transforming Society) has also been key in the development of my awareness and sensitivity. I have very strong opinions about calling a spade a spade. I struggle with institutional resistance to change.
During the CAST Canada Grounding Trauma Conference (2014) where I was a plenary speaker, I met an executive from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The theme of the conference was the link between abuse and trauma. Dr. Gabor Mate kicked things off with a video statement that clearly connected the two in a very compassionate way. The reluctance of the mental health industry to accept the very real connections between trauma and mental health conditions as injuries astounds me. PTSD is the poster child for these connections. I prefer the term Post Traumatic Stress Injury to “disorder”. I believe the latter places too much onus on the person affected and not enough on the cause.
Given the largely overall endorsement at the conference of the cause/effect relationship, I had the opportunity to ask the CAMH executive why she believed these injuries were still defined as disorders. I expressed my belief that using that term helps keep stigma in place. The example I used to make the point is that of an abused person showing up at a hospital with a broken arm. The broken arm would never be described as a “broken arm disorder”. So my question is, when a child who has been severely abused ends up with a Post Traumatic Stress Injury, why in the world is it called a “disorder”? Her response was that the DSM which is used as the manual for diagnosis for mental illnesses necessitates that mental health issues be defined as disorders so as to qualify for drug and insurance policy payments. The gasp in the room left me feeling like the little boy in the fairy tale about the king with no clothes. A mental health professional from Vancouver approached me later that day to thank me for increasing his sensitivity. This is not rocket science.
What is becoming apparent to me is the irony of the simplicity and effectiveness of some very low cost methods for healing trauma. Mankind has invested a great deal of time and money looking both very far into the distance and also very closely at smaller and smaller things, searching for the meaning of life. Perhaps one of the reasons we haven’t found what we’re looking for is because the answers are staring us in the face. We are too close to them. Maybe we are not ready for the bigger answers to either the universe or the atoms because we do not yet truly know ourselves. The expression, “You can’t get there from here” comes to mind. How can we possibly expect to get the bigger picture when we haven’t truly accepted our own for what it is? One fifth of the entire population of the planet is likely sexually traumatized. And if their experiences are anything like mine, or all of the people I’ve interviewed around the world, they are stuck in the dark. Uneducated about why. Preoccupied. Battling an invisible demon. Looking in all the wrong places.
The statistics are undeniable.
Although the numbers in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand are believed to be under reported, they are large enough to indicate this truth: childhood sexual abuse is an epidemic of global proportions. But we as a race are in denial. Even with the general acceptance of the numbers of between one in three to four females and one in five to six males abused sexually before adulthood, somehow the alarm bells are not ringing. Extrapolating these numbers to the entire planet (where the likelihood of the real numbers being much higher is probable), we are conservatively talking about a billion people, sexually traumatized in childhood. A billion people in a deep freeze, feeling isolated, disenfranchised, ripped off and largely unaware about why or how to become liberated.
To me, the experience of coming out of the trauma was one of self-emancipation. Once I was educated about the effects of the abuse, saw the commonness amongst other survivors and realized that I wasn’t the way I was because of a character flaw, but instead as a predictable result from a specific injury…then I was able to come out from the deep freeze.
Story telling is a key part of the solution used at The Gatehouse. Often, survivors feel the need to be heard as primary. The emancipation of survivors in this simple and effective programming is achieved with a relatively small amount of resources, especially when compared with therapy and drugs. Programs are not therapy and are and are facilitated by volunteers in a peer-to-peer lay scenario. It’s simple and it works. I have experienced it for myself, have seen it work for others and have interviewed many other people who corroborate this.
But how can this be? How can one part of the solution to such a terrible affliction be so deceptively simple, so accessible, so…obvious? I have compassion for the answer. It’s because the first step is the hardest. And that is to face the truth that each and every one of us, adding up to humanity as a whole, are largely traumatized or are living closely with someone who is.
I believe that humanity can and will get it together. If you think I’m talking pie in the sky; if you prefer an Orwellian vision and don’t see the possibility of the internet and social media as extensions of human consciousness; if all of that is missed on you, please take a step back to consider the miracle that the simple existence of our little blue planet is in the universe. In comparison, the possibility of a technology enabled collective consciousness isn’t much of a leap. There’s no point questioning it. It simply is. It’s already here.
I stand by the statement that fell on deaf ears at the Justice Round Table. Healing must be the priority. It is the first and next crucial step that we need to take. Without it, how can we possibly see anything else? By pursuing it, other next steps will become obvious. And there lies true progress.
Who am I to speak so boldly? Am I not arrogant for assuming some access to Truth? Let me share with you another part of how I came to have these opinions. In Waking the Tiger, Dr. Peter A. Levine outlines patterns of trauma recovery in the animal kingdom. From mice to polar bears, reactions were similar. When animals experienced threats their reactions varied from the poles of fight/flight, which are commonly understood. But there was also a third reaction that came into play when the threats were overwhelming to the point where death was possible. Freeze.
Freeze is thought to be a natural reaction to imminent death, like an in-built anesthetic, activated only in the very worst of situations. A consolation, to spare suffering. In those moments, the most vital life energy of that animal is locked down.
If the threat disappears, the animal comes out of the freeze in very predictable ways. There’s a physical process of trauma recovery that Levine has observed over and over again in animals small and large. They slowly regain awareness of their surroundings. And as they do, they begin to shake off the trauma. They tremble it away. The return of their natural energy balance coincides with the reintegration of awareness of their surroundings. Once the shaking has taken its course, the animal resumes its business as it was meant to. They move forward and don’t look back.
With humans, because our minds are so evolved, the process is much more complicated. In short, human trauma recovery is interrupted because our problems are often wrapped in feelings of guilt and shame. We don’t simply allow the physical process of trauma recovery to happen. We end up with our energy blocked. The human experience of this occurs as an array of symptoms that include feelings of being stuck, panic, anxiety, flashbacks, repetitive thoughts of guilt and shame. We end up with bigger problems that don’t resolve easily. And around we go in spirals of despair. Many people don’t survive. They slowly succumb into deep psychological illnesses, grasping at any available resource, desperately trying to abate their pain.
One of the most profound gifts of my recovery journey came knocking suddenly one morning at my kitchen window. A Pine Siskin, a small migratory bird similar to a sparrow, had its flight suddenly and painfully interrupted by a powerful and invisible force. The bird that had flown hundreds, or maybe thousands of miles in nature was instantly and without warning dropped to the ground. And I was there to film it going through the exact process that Levine had described. I have an hour’s worth of stunningly beautiful and compelling evidence that validates his theory. And it condenses down to five minutes of footage that moves people to tears. Inspires them into action on their own healing journeys.
This is the power of story telling. This is the answer to the question of why I am so certain. This is my own unique gift. But it was hard won. I struggled for over thirty years as an unaware trauma survivor. Not knowing why I was so overwhelmingly troubled, especially when it came to having any optimistic sense of the future for myself. I was stuck in a cycle of battling invisible demons. But I am resilient. I was on a trail. I had resolve. But because I was not educated about trauma, I ended up going in circles, retraumatizing myself. But I would like to make use of my suffering. I think by sharing it that perhaps other people might suffer less.
I keep the experiences of Dr. Fred Mathews in mind. Thirty years ago, when he first started publicly talking about males who had experienced sexual abuse he was booed. Although he kept going, he took a personal hit. That experience pained him. But because he kept going and would not allow himself to be silenced awareness was expanded and my experience of coming out from the shame has been easier than it might have been. So too, I hope to contribute something of benefit to others. I believe that the sooner people can address the trauma, the sooner they can resume their lives as they were meant to. My journey towards the epicenter of my trauma was very long and drawn out. But that centre had gravity. I made several long and arduous trips around it, ever drawing closer to the eye.
Although my access to the subject of this project (myself) is unlimited, some parts of the story are impossible to film directly because they can’t be seen. I’m talking about mental health injuries. This is why the use of metaphor is necessary. And I have been very fortunate indeed to have no shortage of opportunities.
After a long spell of being risk averse in business I took a massive leap of faith to create a public presence for my company. Successfully applying for a local community association program led to the opening of a storefront studio space on a long neglected stretch of a main street in Toronto targeted for redevelopment. The space was modest and had a large room facing the street with tall and wide windows spanning the full width. I hung large photo prints from Guyana and was very proud of getting that far. A home for my work. And then the worst ice storm in recent times hit the city. Hard.
Entire neighbourhoods went without power for weeks. Water mains cracked open, flooding then freezing major intersections. Twenty percent of the total tree canopy of our very green city came crashing down. City services were immediately overwhelmed. The cleanup took months. It was a perfect backdrop for my journey.
The front windows of my studio froze over from top to bottom and stayed that way for two weeks. I had recently invested in a very powerful macro lens. So I went to work first photographing, then filming the frost at near microscopic magnification. At first I was captivated by the sheer natural beauty of how the ice crystals looked at different times of day. But then parts of the window would thaw. I decided to accelerate the process by melting it with a strong light. Mystically eerie ice patterns existed in stasis. Frozen into place. But then through deliberate action, they shifted and fell away revealing a much larger something else behind. A vividly real picture of a bigger world.
The Gatehouse hosts an annual conference at the Toronto Police College. For two years now the Gatehouse Network International has been prominently featured. Representatives from Ghana, Germany, Britain, Guyana and Bolivia have attended. Some delegates from Nigeria and Ghana were denied exit visas by their own governments.
At this years Gatehouse hosted conference, From Trauma to Truimph, I met the leadership from an organization in Cochabamba Bolivia. Hearing them describe an annual march against sexual violence that they founded instantly raised my antenna. I knew it could be a significant way to illustrate an important message. Also, I saw an opportunity to show that the GNI work is not about spreading certain methodologies, although facilitator training is provided free of charge at the conference. Rather, it is about allowing for our collective wisdom to unfold.
Bolivia is a perfect example of this. It was also a good chance to take my training and empowerment in video skills to the next level. The Bolivians were very keen to use the tools of video and I shared as much as I could with them while there, as I had done and documented in Guyana.
To my knowledge, Centro Una Brisa de Esperenza offers the most comprehensive services for survivors of CSA on the planet. They facilitate interventions, rescues and arrests. They provide safe environments for children to recover in the short, mid and long term. They provide psycho-social support and legal representation. Everything is coordinated and based on the timetable of the child. Their conviction rate is 92%. They regularly challenge laws nationally and at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
By the time you read this I will have returned home from Taipei. Because of my prolific struggles to learn as a child, I have gone to great lengths to attempt mastering the process of filmmaking. As a professional instructor I have invested a lot of energy into finding the words to convey not only how to use specific tools and techniques, but also to describe the underpinnings. That way, information can be transferable and more useful over the long run. I am currently working with Arthur Lockhart to refine my techniques for using filmmaking in the process of social transformation. While visiting GNI member Garden of Hope Foundation in Taiwan, I will be documenting the extension of an invitation to attend our conference next year and to also participate in training on the use of filmmaking as a tool for change. If they accept, I will film this in the spring of 2015. At some point I will wrap principle photography, but it’s likely that I may very well choose to include capture of some of the very final video editing moments in the story of the film.
Because of the injuries I experienced in childhood my sense of future was seriously infringed upon. For that reason I struggled for a very long time, dwelling in the process of filmmaking, without hope or promise of a completed work. I spent many years of that painful journey, paralyzed in the “fake it till you make it” stage. But now I am now equally focused on process and result and I relate to the massive amount of captured video as resources, not a burden. I know it’s real. And I am close to the finish line.
This is my second chance. In a lot of ways it feels like my first. Thank-you for being witness to this part of the story.
A Robust Project with Many Components
While the core of this project is a feature length documentary film, there are five ancillary components. Three are filmed media and two are print. All of the filmed “extras” are derived from the core film and elaborate on aspects that are shown there, but have a longer life of their own. Additional story lines that stand alone as shorter films. While critical to the arc of the story, they are deeper looks at the long journey circling the epicenter of trauma. Each of these stories has a clear beginning, middle and end along a healing trajectory.
Each shows a different aspect of my quest for meaningful inclusion in humanity and delineates my ambition to make a contribution. And each is far too complex to show in its entirety in the 90 minute format. These are the films I was making in the lead up to the start of this project. Locked in an unaware cycle of process, I had been traveling vast distances, making these films, feeling that with each one there was an urgency and purpose, but by following the thread, felt that things were unraveling rather than coming together. Here is some brief information. They are listed in chronological order:
I affectionately call Nebraska disaster preparedness expert Eddy Weiss a “recovering storm chaser”. After a mostly uneventful five days in rural Nebraska, disaster struck. A tornado nearly took Eddy’s home and some of his family. Although it wasn’t his fault, Eddy was retraumatized. Together we traveled the path of the storm a few months later, taking it back. We reviewed the data, found the farmers who were impacted, chronicled some of the damage and in the end reclaimed the experience.
Having been to Samoa in 2000 and 2003, seeing the front page pictures of beaches wiped out by a tsunami…beaches I had slept on, was shocking. Filled with the urgent desire to simply lend a helping hand, it occurred to me that I could use my filmmaking skills. Electricians were strapping on their tool belts and rigging new power infrastructure. Carpenters were shipping their tools and rebuilding homes and communities. So why not take a camera and help with storytelling? I ended up making a series of short videos with local resort owners, showing how they had been impacted and the status of their rebuilding efforts. I also collaborated with a national umbrella for Non-governmental organizations to send a message of thanks to people who had sent very generous aid.
35 years after my brother Mark’s suicide, I was invited to represent him at the reunion of a cultural exchange trip made in the last year of his life. Doing this in Bali, with the spiritual guidance of a Hindu Brahmin, one of his closest friends, was especially poignant. Once I began to talk with the people who knew Mark best near the end of his short life, my purpose began to take on a wider scope. Realizing that none of his trip mates had closure was a wonderful opportunity to give them the gift of conversation.
Following are the two book projects.
Bittersweet Grace (2012)
Poetic photo essay book, including photos from Indonesia, Samoa, Nebraska, Canada, and Guyana.
Running for the Wall/Leaning on a Bog (2015)
Written autobiographical account of the creation of Picking Traumas Pocket and all associated materials.
Peace Love and Light,
James Buffin, 2015