It has been an intense few days, and I would like to thank the thousands of people who have sent me emails, which have been overwhelmingly positive and supportive. They've come from everywhere, and in an age when we often seem terribly divided, especially in this country, it really means a great deal. Though now I will be answering email well into 2010, things could be much worse--when you let something explosive loose on the internet you can never predict how it will all go down. As of now I'm glad that I posted the video. I think it captures what it was really like in that theatre, and how incredibly chilling and incredibly dorky it was at the same time.
The group responsible for the incident is from a public high school, though they identified themselves to me as a Christian group as they fled the theater--it's barely audible on the YouTube clip, as an adult tells me they are a Christian group, then flees for the door, refusing to engage with me. Then in the lobby of the theater and on the phone to the box office they identified themselves again and again as a Christian group--I don't know what that says about the division of church and state in Norco, California. As a group, the people in charge freely identified themselves as a Christian group, until reporters call and they remember they are from a public high school.
As has been covered in other media outlets, I know now that the group bought their tickets that day. I have now spoken with the box office staff person who spoke with a representative from the school--when asked if the show had appropriate content for high school students, they were told it had strong language and adult situations. There are multiple corroborating witnesses to this phone conversation.
It bears noting that in fact, there were two high schools there that night--and the other high school STAYED, enjoyed the show, and I had a very good talk with them after the show discussing the work. That high school confirms that they were informed about the language and content of the show when they asked--the box office informs anyone who asks what the show contains.
I did speak with an administrator from the school, and with the individual who ruined my work. I think it's important to note that *I* found and called *them*--it is clear to me that I never would have heard from any of them again had I not hunted them down. In fact, they were surprised to hear from me, which I think speaks to the lack of understanding and civility on their part. My work had been assaulted, and I had a clear vision of this man standing above me, destroying my work, with hatred in his eyes. I refused to be a victim twice--first by being assaulted, and second by committing the sin of silence. So I knew I had to find them, and speak with the man who did this.
The first person I managed to reach was an administrator with the group, a woman who started the conversation repeating the same statement time and again, which undercut her apology: she insisted it was a "safety issue", and that "we had to get our students out of there." There was no discussion of language or appropriateness--it had become a safety issue, as though the students were in danger of being physically assaulted. I think it is tremendously chilling that the language of the war on terror, the language of security, has been appropriated for even this--we can't even begin a dialogue about what is and is not appropriate, because it has all become a "safety" issue. That ends a conversation before it has even begun.
She also insisted that they asked if the show was "clean"--a construction I think is a repulsive way to ask about content, and the way she said "clean", the finality of it, stays with me. I told her that I wasn't interested in that, but would prefer to talk about the assault and vandalization of my work, at which she became slightly more contrite.
I told her I would need to talk to the man responsible for destroying my work. She hedged and said that she'd let him know I wanted him to get in touch, but that she didn't know if he'd want to do that. I told her that I had a videotape of him destroying my work and a couple hundred witnesses, and that it was very important that I hear from him immediately. She then agreed, and I found it disappointing that a veiled threat had to be used just to bring people to the table for a simple conversation.
After talking to her I performed the show for the first time since the incident happened, and I had a hard time. Because the shows aren't scripted the relationship with my audience is key, and I was slightly hesitant--I could feel myself closing up over myself, wanting to hide. I pushed through, but it was sobering to see the damage done, real damage that extends beyond the event itself. I had hoped that it would shake off.
After the show, I reached the man who attacked my work on the phone. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous--Jean-Michele didn't even understand why I would call him; she was afraid he would simply attack me again--but I knew, especially after that second performance, that I had to try to find some communion with him. If I could look this person in the eye, hear their words and know them I would be able to move beyond that moment at the table. Never forgetting, but being able to walk forward--being able to breathe.
His name is David. At the beginning of the conversation there was a lot of silence--long, long silences that neither of us were willing to puncture. First I made him understand what he had done--that these were the only set of notes for the show, how I work with them, what he had cost me in terms of my physical work and in terms of what it had been like that next night to go out in front of them. I needed him to understand what he had taken from me.
He quietly said that he had heard me, and that he understood.
I gradually opened him up by listening, and responding, the one-on-one version of what I do with an audience. We talked about many things, for almost an hour, and step by step, his story emerged.
He has three kids--one is 21, and two are 17--and he's terrified of the world. Terrified by violence, and sex, and he sees it all linked together--a horrifying world filled with darkness, pornography and filth that threatens his children, has threatened them all his life. They're older now, but he says he still sees things the same way--and that the only way to protect his children and himself is to lock it all out of his life.
He also said he's had anger-control issues for years, and sometimes acts of rage come over him--he explodes, and then has to apologize, and doesn't know why it happens. He tries to lock it down, but it happens, and he's ashamed of it. I told him that regardless of where we both stand, I felt very strongly that the repression of walling off everything in the world and viewing it all as filth is connecting with these outbursts, and that it isn't going to work--until you deal with the root causes, and deal with the world, his anger and rage would keep using him.
He agreed with this.
It wasn't all agreement--he reiterated the administrator's line that it had been a "security issue" (his words) and that "we had to get our kids out of there". He said at one point, "You're probably more *liberal* than I am" and the word *liberal* had this hook on the end of it, one that he probably didn't even intend, but it was unavoidable for him--it sounded edged, like a slur.
He also casually used a coarse racial epithet to refer to black people in a very loose, unnecessary analogy, which was remarkable to me--in a situation where violence resulted from offense at language, our worlds are so far apart that he didn't think for a moment about throwing out this word. I believe strongly that everyone is free to speak, but we are also accountable for our speech--the casual indifference of it shocked me under the circumstances of our conversation.
The moment that was most illuminating was this:
We have been talking for quite some time, making progress, when I mention offhandedly in response to something that I had been raised Catholic.
At this, he makes this little sound: "oh!" It's a tiny exclamation, upward-inflected. I hear that sound, and my heart sinks.
It's a sound of surprise he makes, and of recognition. Of fellowship. And immediately, everything he says is the same, but it is surrounded with a superstructure of scripture--there are supporting arguments from Jesus, the apostles, the whole nine yards. His cadence and language is entirely different, because now he is drawing on over two thousand years of religious writing to enfold and magnify his arguments.
For the first time in the conversation, in my heart, I am furious.
What was I before that moment? I thought we were trying to speak to one another and I was honest with you--but this is your real face, and I only earn the right to see it if I say the right password and get let into your club.
Who was I before? Was I nobody? Was I simply a *liberal*, the word with the hook on the end of it? A dirty, pornographic artist? A purveyor of filth?
No. It's worse than that, worse than labels. I know the truth. I was no one. I was no one to you, not a real person at all--I wasn't real when you destroyed my work, and until the moment I said the magic word I wasn't real. When he made that sound, he betrayed his heart and finally spoke the truth, and I could see him fully. Now I know him, and now he has no power over me.
We keep talking, and now that I can see him completely he's just an angry man, angry and impotent. He is sorry, though not so sorry that he sought me out--and when I ask what the people in his group are saying about what happened, he confesses that no one is talking about it.
I ask him to do one thing for me. I ask him to talk to everyone in the group together, parents and students alike, and talk to them about what happened. I do not even ask him to apologize, nor do I dictate what he should say--that's his prerogative. I simply ask that he open the door for the conversation be allowed to happen. I believe in the truth, and I want him to let the group speak its mind to him and to itself. I do not know if he did this--I hope that he did, and I will continue to hope.
And then I forgive him. He is very quiet--he is obviously shocked. And I tell him, "I want you to remember that a liberal atheist has forgiven you today. I don't want you to ever forget that, as long as you live, do not forget what happened here. I don't have God behind me, but I speak for myself, and I forgive you for myself, and for you. Never forget this."
He said that he would. I wished him good luck, good luck with everything. He wished me the same.
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