I remember as a kid knocking on the glass that separated me from the sharks in the tank at the zoo, just to make sure it was really there and I was really safe. It was also to get their attention, in order to let them know, lest there be any doubt on their part, that I was in fact unreachable.
A mutual friend thought it would be nice if I met her friend Grace in Peru. I agreed and soon got an introductory e-mail from Grace. Very nice. 26 years old. She said that our friend told her that I was “nice and handsome” and that she would love to meet me during my upcoming trip to Lima. She somehow thought it was necessary to add that her boyfriend “lets” her do whatever she wants because he can’t control her and doesn’t want sex as much as she does anyway. More than I needed to hear.
Then came the x-rated pictures and the explicit comments about what she planned to do with, or rather to me when we meet. The all-too-familiar seduction games that I can smell a mile away, that no longer make it past my first perceptual entry gate unnoticed. I was supposed to go gaga all over her like every other guy she’s ever met and when I didn’t she became even more interested in me, puzzled, and then angry. I have to admit, I love turning the tables. One of the benefits of getting beaten at a game a thousand times is that you finally learn how to play it. And how to break the rules.
I have had a recurring dream for many years – That I am swimming and I see somebody drowning but I can’t get to her/him because the opposing tide is too strong and I can’t get close enough. Like those dreams where you’re running but not getting anywhere. I’m so close to the person but I might as well be a million miles away. There is nothing I can do. The person dies. I’m right there and I see it but I can’t stop it.
I was recently told the tragic story of a woman who on 9/11 called home from a floor above where one of the planes struck, talking to her family and knowing that she was about to die. I thought of her family listening, knowing that she was about to die and not being able to do anything about it, nothing except stand by. How well I know that feeling.
So after a few more exchanges Grace finally tells me that I’m just a typical American jerk, loser, asshole and so on. Sometimes one of my own defenses against feeling hurt is to go right into “shrink mode:” Ok, she’s 26 going on 14. Severe personality disorder. High probability of history of being abused. Distant and removed or overbearing and narcissistic parents. Low self-esteem with high need for control, manifested in maladaptive sexual behavior. I went on and on in my mind, diagnosing and dismissing her. It made me feel better at the time. It gave me the sense of power. But I wonder now what would have happened if we weren’t separated by the glass? What if she were here, in front of me? Would it have gone down any differently?
We say we hate drama, but we also hunger for it, crave it, seek it out, and welcome it. Because it distracts us, even if only momentarily, from the awareness of how alone each of us really is. We play these games with each other to help us forget. To help us forget that there is a glass between us. We play these games with each other to help us remember. To help us remember that there is a glass between us.
But sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a crack in the glass, and sometimes with a little effort that crack becomes an opening, and then you’re really together. And sometimes that scares us and we build another glass. And so on. Most of us eventually give up. Many of us just keep playing the game. The brave keep on trying. The few succeed.
Sometimes I wonder why we are all not raving lunatics.
How much of our contacts and relationships are “real?” By “real” I mean, for example, how much of who you see there through that glass is really him/her, and how much your own projections, and you their projections? Projections – Of who you want to see, need to see, are afraid to see, are angry at, triggered by, etc. How much of him/her or us actually permeates the glass and makes it through our perceptual entry gates unscathed? Answer: Very, very little. Much, if not most, of what we perceive in others are our own projections. We do not see things as they are – We see things as we are.
And I saw Grace as an able seductress with power over others, the maturity of an adolescent and the emotional intelligence of a five year old. As controlling and strong, as sick and weak.
About a year ago a 17 year-old girl named D’ua (literally: “Prayer”) Khalil Aswad, a member of a minority Kurdish religious group called Yezidi, was condemned to death as an “honor killing” by her own family and religious leaders because she loved a boy of a different religion. The teenager was dragged outside by several men, her bottom clothing removed to shame her, then stoned and beaten for a half hour until she died. A large crowd of witnesses, including a local security force, did nothing to try to stop it. They just listened as she begged for her life and watched as she lost it, blow by blow, breath by breath.
What made this particular “honor killing” unique is that it was videotaped on a cellphone and distributed over the internet. The horror was recorded in every detail and viewed by millions. There were the perfunctory international outcries and calls for justice and reform. But no one was ever arrested for Dua’s death, and there have been at least 50 more (reported) “honor killings” since. I felt compelled – no, obligated, to watch the video. I do not recommend it. What I saw through this glass etched in my mind and will haunt me forever. I want to rewind the tape, make it not happen, save her, believe that such evil cannot possibly exist, that there was justice, that there was Grace.
After hearing the story of the woman on the cellphone in the World Trade Center I looked up the U-Tube video of people jumping from the burning towers that day. It had been viewed 105,101 times. So far. I wonder why people feel compelled to watch that, just as I felt compelled to watch Dua Aswad get brutally killed. Did 105,101 people want to undo it, to rewind the tape, to somehow make justice out of it all? Why do we want to watch?
A few weeks later I got an e-mail from Grace apologizing for “being such a bitch.” She said that she was really trying to change some things about herself. I felt her sincerity, and her vulnerability. I also took it upon myself to offer her some feedback. I told her that I thought she just uses men to play games, that she uses her sexuality to seduce and have power over men and to toy with them, and that besides being ultimately unsatisfying for her that that just wasn’t nice. She thanked me for that feedback and said that everything I told her was true. She said that she was ashamed of herself, that she tries not to play games but can’t seem to control it. If a guy shows interest in her it turns her off – If he does not show interest it turns her on and she then seduces him – a challenge to “win him over,” which, due to her outstanding beauty, she rarely lost. Games.
Now that the negative (and sexual) charge was out of our “relationship” it became a genuinely warm friendship, at least as warm and genuine as a mutually projected cyber-friendship can be, through the glass. She confided in me, trusted me, and valued my advice and feedback. I became her big brother, father confessor, therapist, friend. Whatever she projected onto me. She became the wounded child, the tormented soul that was crying out for help and wanting me to help her. Whatever I projected onto her. Of course, any glass, if you look close enough, is partly a mirror too.
She wrote almost exclusively about sexual situations she got herself into that made her feel very ashamed and self-loathing. She was very conflicted – compelled to behave the way she did and hating herself for it afterward. She had this need to degrade herself, which took sexual forms. This became more and more intense with each e-mail I got, each situation more risky and more degrading. She was spiraling downward like a tornado. “What can I do?” I asked myself a hundred times.
She wrote me saying that an Australian saw her in a bar in Cuzco and asked her “how much,” thinking she was a hooker. She said that she decided to play along because she wanted to know what getting paid for sex felt like. She liked it. And not for the money – Grace was wealthy. The guy started pimping her out to his many friends and other strangers. This went on for a few days. She then wrote me and said that she was feeling sick and ashamed and that maybe she should leave. I told her to slip away to the airport, get the hell away from there and go back to her home in Lima. I wanted to take her there myself.
I next heard from her in Lima. She said that she was alone with a black eye that she didn’t remember getting and that she didn’t know what to do. She said that she was going to go out and get drunk. I wrote back and empathized with her feelings, and I told her, honestly, that I cared about her – But I don’t think she had the programming to understand a guy just caring for her insides, not her outsides. And, obviously, there is very little anyway that one can do from so far away as I was to her, from behind the glass. But then again, would it have made a difference if I were next-door? How many real next-door neighbors have I been able to help, truly?
Her next letter, a couple of days later: She had met three American marines in a bar. They asked her if she ever did a black man, to which she said no, so they decided to indoctrinate her. She said that she wasn’t interested. She was really, at this point, trying to slam on the brakes but it was already far too late. The marines were very aggressive, feeding her drinks and groping her there at the bar. She wrote that she did not want to pursue that, that she had told them no, but that “Something else took over – I was not in control.” They took her to their hotel room, invited over a few more friends, and they passed her around all night long. I wonder if anyone watching thought it was wrong. I wonder if anyone watching Du’a Aswad being stoned to death thought it was wrong.
She wrote that in the morning she left feeling extreme physical pain, self-hatred and shame. She wrote that part of her wanted to go to her parents’ house (less than a mile away) but that there was another force, from within, compelling her not to, to “act bad” again, and she felt powerless over it. Her pain bled onto my keyboard and dried there. That was the last I heard from her.
Her death was ruled an “accidental overdose” of tranquilizers and alcohol. So what is “accidental?” Did she intend to kill herself that night? I think not. Grace had a very sincere and genuine desire to change, but it was too little too late. She also had an internal force to behave self-destructively and she lost the battle, succumbing to her demons within. And of course I went through all of the “What if I had…,” “I should have…,” etc., etc. But I know there was nothing I could have done to stop it. I couldn’t break through that glass and save her from those sharks. “And,” I ask myself, “What do you think you could have done if you were there? What about those in my life who have died by their own hand, directly or indirectly? What about those close to me, literally and figuratively, whom I couldn’t get to stop harming themselves until they were dead?
There are those I’ve made passionate love with that I will never know. There are those whom I have never met that I will always love. Where then, is the real glass, the real divide? Do we have any control over those we can reach and those we cannot? Over those we let in and those we do not? Of those we see relatively clearly and those we see solely through our own filter?
I never met Grace. I never met Du’a. I never met that woman in the World Trade Center. But I grieve for them, and I cry for them, and I wonder – So where was “God” and where was His justice, His kindness? Where were the answers to my prayers? I have been equally if not more self-destructive than Grace at times in my life. Why am I here and not her? I am certainly not gooder or kinder or better or more innocent than Du’a Aswad. So why am I here and not her?And the woman in the tower, and so on. This is a very long list.
What is “God’s grace” anyway? That God randomly treats some people better than others? I asked a respected psychiatrist and colleague, who said that “grace” is available to anybody who is spiritually open to receiving it. But I’ve known too many evil people saved, good people slain. Did Du’a die for not being “open to grace?” Why am I here after being so closed to all things spiritual for years? Sorry, no sale.
I believe in a force of goodness and love, albeit not an anthropomorphic one. And not an omnipotent one either, but one that cries with us when bad things happen. And I also believe in an opposing force. The demons that effect us from the inside and the out. I have personally looked into some eyes and have seen pure evil. It’s terrifying. It’s the last thing Du’a Aswad ever saw.
There is no justice. “Karma” is a concept for the privileged. Evil men and women get to sip champagne and laugh; the ignorant, oblivious to all else, fret with every drop in the stock market; and the pathetic not-in-my-backyard folks demand their lattes impatiently on their way to work. We mistreat our children. We yell at the clerk. We curse the rain in the winter.
Some people get wet. Others feel the rain.
There is no justice. Yet we must still cry out for it. The battle can never be won, yet it must always be fought. We must be kind to one another. Because, you see, we are all we have and time is running out.
Grace’s funeral was Saturday. Her body was cremated and sprinkled over the Peruvian sea that she loved. Du’a Aswad’s body, after being tied to a car and dragged through the villiage, was put in an unmarked grave with a dog to demonstrate that she was worthless.
D’ua Khalil Aswad (1990-2007)