A return to this week's post, and an apology
I failed to take my own advice, the advice of the piece itself.
CW: General discussion of trauma and traumatic events, including death.
This week’s post discussed trauma and when sharing trauma in certain settings and certain ways can be problematic. As part of the post, I discussed a particular instance of trauma sharing. Others have helped me to realize that it would have been far better to not include that. This is something worth apologizing for. So I’d like to do that.
I do think it would be helpful to give some context behind why I write on these types of issues, and why this is important to me. I’ll begin there.
My work in addressing various kinds of abuse and manipulation in the Church has given me a disposition where, when I see harm occurring on the part of Catholic leaders or within Catholic systems of power (whether formal or informal), my gut instinct is to name the harm and discuss it. Because some of this harm has at times involved sexual violence, child abuse, or other traumatic events, I’ve become accustomed to just explicitly talking about issues that don’t often come into open discussion in the Church. This may also be due to some of my work and study, from representing trafficked kids on immigration cases to my brief stint working in disability law to connecting with conversion therapy survivors to studying and writing about the John Jay Report and McCarrick Report. I’m used to reviewing horrific details and working through them towards learnings, recommendations, solutions, and advocacy.
I’ve also had to process my life as a gay Catholic, where I have been told over and over again to not share various parts of my life, to hide my deepest fears and deepest longings. I have had to resist again and again calls by people that I not speak. I have been told to be silent for as long as I’ve had a sense of who I might be. I’ve had to fight for my voice, to write about the difficult things and the things people would rather I be silent about. The calls for me to “just stop writing” have been a consistent part of my life, both as a gay Catholic and as an advocate for others.
I’m used to picking up issues that many would rather avoid. The lines around what I am willing and not willing to discuss (and what I should or shouldn’t discuss) are very different for me than many other Catholic writers. But there are lines. And I believe I crossed one recently. I need to apologize for this.
I recently wrote on the ways in which the sharing of trauma can be problematic at times, especially on social media, and especially in the midst of conflict. I had drafted most of the piece several weeks ago, when I was involved in a controversy involving multiple Catholic accounts on Instagram. (I won’t rehash all the details - you can find most of it here.) Various traumas were shared during the controversy, and a number of mental health professionals and survivors of various types of trauma reached out to provide perspectives on ways in which the public sharing of trauma can be problematic. I collected those perspectives, which became this week’s piece on trauma sharing.
When drafting the piece, I had to make a choice. Do I avoid talking about the controversy which led to the discussion on the sharing of trauma, presenting a piece which others would naturally connect to it and potentially interpret as a passive aggressive attack? Or do I explicitly acknowledge the controversy and then move into a discussion of the “red flags” others identified when it comes to trauma sharing generally? I chose the latter. I quoted public comments from one of the individuals, in which they shared graphic details of a traumatic event during an argument with a stranger on a different subject. I named the person who made the comments.
My justification at the time was that this person had posted the comment on a public account with thousands of followers, and also that this behavior had led multiple individuals to reach out to me to share ways in which they felt that type of messaging had harmed and marginalized them because of their traumas, including traumas similar to the one discussed. But even if this is an explanation, it is not an excuse. Regardless of my justification, it would have been better for me to not name the individual involved or quote their post directly (even if I had issued a content warning and removed the graphic details). In this particular circumstance, it would have been better for me to not include the discussion of that controversy and allow accusations of being passive aggressive.
Regardless of what I hoped my piece could offer, the story behind those traumatic details is horrific and deserves greater respect than I gave it. The person who shared those details has had to suffer through them. I didn’t take proper care for that. For that, I am sorry. (Also, it would have been better for me to not characterize the individual as an “influencer,” as they have not to my knowledge referred to themselves in that way. It would have been better for me to practice what I recommend for the LGBTQ+ community: using the language we use to characterize ourselves.)
And the traumatic event discussed involves someone who died. He deserves better than to have the details of his death made a part of any of these controversies. He deserves better than what I did. I nearly faced a similar fate, and I hope that others would have treated that fate better than I did here.
I am grateful to those who have helped me to better understand how to discuss trauma in these settings in a way that takes into account the experiences of others. I stand by those lessons learned. But I don’t stand by my decision to include those more personal aspects of the piece. I have removed them. Maybe there is a space to discuss those things. That space was not that piece.
I failed to take my own advice, the advice of the piece itself, which as a broader principle was: just because something is true does not mean it’s helpful, appropriate, or respectful to say it. Putting a truth in the wrong context can make it something akin to a lie. As one individual shared while providing me with constructive criticism, the sharing of graphic traumatic details in an argument can be problematic in a way similar to the ways in which holding graphic images in front of abortion clinics can be problematic. While the images may be “true” in one way, sharing them in front of women struggling with their pregnancies may not be helpful, appropriate, or respectful of the situation. I think I made a similar mistake here. I will need to continue to process to fully understand the scope and source of that mistake.
I think my readers are worthy of more, as are the individuals who were the subjects of the matter. It was jarring for some to see such a painful part of a person’s story included in a piece like this. I should do better. For some, the inclusion of those details hindered the ability to receive the most important messages from the piece (among them, that the responsible sharing of traumatic details on social media should take into account at least two key concerns: consent of those receiving them and a movement towards empathy for everyone).
I should express my gratitude to those of you who reached out to offer feedback, both positive and critical. To those of you who found the piece wanting or problematic in various ways: I’m sorry, thank you for sharing, I want to do better in the future, and thank you in advance if you choose to do this again at some point where I make another mistake down the road. (I’ve made mistakes before, and given the challenging topics I engage with, I am sure I will make mistakes again.) To those of you who found the piece helpful, whether in the original draft or with the later edits: thank you for sharing, and I’m sorry that it wasn’t even more helpful, that what was not necessary but which I chose to include has become the focus of the piece for some. As many shared with me privately, while that may have not been my intention, writers do need to carefully consider what various people will take away from their writings. One of the most helpful pieces of feedback I got was from multiple people who shared with me, “I don’t think you were doing X, but I can see why others took it that way.” Both intent and impact should be considered.
The controversy I mentioned earlier was one which brought clarity to a number of issues for me. It touched on a number of topics with which I struggle, both in my writing life and personally, from racism to deconstruction to the structural designs driving various dynamics on social media. I will be writing on those issues in the future. I have already written on some of them. (Most of the essays I publish were written weeks or more before publication.) That controversy raised a number of questions for me and put a host of issues and experiences in a new light. Readers are certainly welcome to consider the ways in which the controversy might be considered with respect to my future writings. But going forward I think it would be good for me to avoid referring to it and the individual involved directly. I can’t promise that I will never speak of it again. But I want to focus more on lessons that can enable a better future.
That isn’t to say I won’t talk about the past. Part of the challenge of the controversy at issue is that it brought back for me my own traumas, including PTSD from my college years, and traumas which I had not yet processed (even though I thought I had, as these things go) but remembered in the midst of it and then began processing afterwards. It has forced me to face again various kinds of loss, both for myself and for my family, some of which I will likely never discuss publicly. But I am rethinking my previous decisions to not talk about some of these openly, and may do so in the future.
This has also helped me to remember the ways in which I had let my past traumas and struggles with coping lead me to harm to others. Struggles to cope with those traumas led to manipulative and harmful dynamics and behavior. This is understandable as a survival mechanism that stayed with me even if the original contexts for those traumas were gone. But the manipulation and harm was still wrong. I’ve been working on this for years, but even now I’m in a better place to understand that and to seek ways to take continued accountability. I’m grateful to the people who continue to help me take accountability and to not make excuses (and who also lovingly listen to the explanations and help untangle them). I still have a lot of work to do.
Even if those harms arose due to traumas I had to suffer, taking accountability is one act of healing. The trauma may have driven it. But I did it. I am reconnecting and reintegrating my past, my present, my hopes, my fears, my desires, my words, and my actions. I can take responsibility. Trauma and responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Healing often involves disentangling and reintegrating these in various ways. This process is empowering, for everyone. It’s the pathway from victimhood to agency, from excuses to moral responsibility. (I’ll share a bit about this in the context of the lives of conversion therapy survivors in my next newsletter.) I’m considering whether and how I want to open up about those parts of myself through my writing. As painful as it is, I’m grateful to be in a place of deeper processing and healing. As challenging as this controversy has been, it has helped to bring me deeper into that place.
One of the ways in which I try to seek accountability is through the tone of my writing. Many people have commented on the balanced and calm tone with which I write on difficult subjects, even when I am being attacked. This isn’t a virtue. I focus on writing in this way partly because I don’t see myself as someone with sufficient righteousness to generally write in a prophetic voice. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes. I try to have balance and clarity, because this is often what I need myself. There is no training or preparation course for this: living life as a gay Catholic who keeps finding himself in positions trying to help people address some of the most challenging experiences of their lives in the Church. I can only do my best to learn along the way, and I need to give others space to do that as well. It’s all any of us can do.
I made mistakes here. This was more challenging and painful than it needed to be. An apology is necessary for healing. It’s not sufficient. But it is very necessary. So I’m sorry.
One individual helpfully shared that it would be good to help people work through how to navigate supporting people who have experienced trauma. I am not in a place to write that piece presently, but below are some resources that may be helpful:
PsychCentral: How to help someone with trauma
Psychology Today: 5 ways to be there for a loved one with a trauma history
At this point, others may comment on this piece, my motivations, or whatever they wish, whether on social media or elsewhere. I am going to do my best to resist responding. I certainly appreciate feedback. I want to continue to seek ways to be accountable for my writing. I recognize this will not be enough for some. I will certainly continue to examine what accountability looks like. But I don’t believe it would be helpful for me to engage in public-facing discussion on this piece at this time. An apology should give the other party the opportunity to have the last word. So I’m going to do that here.