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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

It’s 10:00. Do You Know Whether Your Child is Being Victimized by a Sex Cult?

Last week, Keith Raniere—former head of NXIVM—was convicted of a battery of charges, including human trafficking, forced labor, and sexual exploitation of a child. You may have seen stories of how vulnerable women were invited into his “self help” organization by other women, enticed to sign non-disclosure agreements and sign up for expensive courses, then groomed for sexual slavery, branded, and ultimately compelled to bring in new victims. If you’ve read or heard any of the details, you were likely horrified. And yet, this is surely a freak occurrence, right? And Raniere has been arrested and convicted. He may even spend the rest of his life in prison. You might be tempted to believe the system works.

What you may not know is that getting to this point was a long and painful process, in large part because Raniere obtained “consent” from his victims. But, Raniere targeted women who had some status and connections. Smallville actress Allison Mack was his chief slave, responsible for the recruitment and management of many others. And, India Oxenberg, daughter of former Dynasty star and Yugoslavian princess Catherine Oxenberg, was among his victims. In other words, at least some of his victims were loved and supported by people with money, a degree of power, and a public platform.

Still, the journey to shutting Raniere down included a string of heartbreaking defeats. Oxenberg has written an excellent book about her struggle to liberate her daughter—branded and restricted to a 500-calorie-per-day diet—from Raniere’s clutches.

Imagine what would have happened if Raniere’s victims had been powerless, and lacking in the kind of support network many NXIVM slaves had.

But wait. We don’t have to.

Because as I write this post, about 30 young women have come forward to make very similar allegations against Wil Francis, formerly of the band Aiden, and also known as William Control. The photos some have shared are enough to make this mother of young women vomit, and their stories and text conversations with Francis are heartbreaking. But, in one way, Francis was smarter—or, perhaps, just less ambitious—than Raniere. His victims don’t have powerful parents or hefty television series salaries. They don’t even have credibility, because they appear to have been carefully selected for their weaknesses—mainly, mental illness and drug addiction.

They’ve banded together. They’ve been to the police. And, although law enforcement knows that Francis and his attorney submitted at least one piece of fabricated evidence to them, the response boils down to, “But you consented.”

Never mind that some of these women say they were involuntarily drugged before they “consented.” Never mind that they were fragile to begin with and systematically groomed, some over a period of years, beginning when they were teens. Never mind that you can’t actually consent to grievous bodily harm.

Nothing we can do. You consented.

Nothing they can do, either, when Francis releases selective texts and videos (often shot without consent) of these young women.

Fans rally around him. His next victims wait in the wings.

How common is this kind of systematic abuse? I don’t know. I know this: this one happened. I know it because although Francis talks about how this was all voluntary, although he claims to be wounded and not understand why all these crazy women are jumping on this bandwagon, I first heard the story of one of his victims years ago, long before NXIVM, long before #MeToo, long before I fully realized how not exactly rare this kind of thing is.

But I’m not writing this tonight because of Keith Raniere’s recent conviction, and I’m not writing it tonight because Wil Francis recently released an expose video of a young woman I’d watched fight tooth and nail for her recovery for years after her encounter with him.

I’m writing it tonight because Ryan Kopf, another man whose profession (as a con organizer and promoter) gives him a touch of charisma and access to a wide range of young women, has been accused of sexual assault by at least 8 women. I know one of them, too—a woman in an entirely different social circle than the other, of a different age, living in a different state. And today, Kopf publicly released recordings of her, just as Wil Francis has been doing to his victims.

I don’t have a neatly packaged solution to offer. The world is messy and unpredictable. It can be hard to know who to believe. But, I will offer a few things I think we should all keep in mind:

1. The most successful predators choose their victims carefully, and the way they treat the strong, healthy people in their lives may be entirely different from the way they treat those they’ve identified as vulnerable (read: the fact that someone has treated you well in no way guarantees that he hasn’t treated someone else horribly)

2. Don’t ignore red flags, no matter how appealing the “opportunity.” Remove yourself from the situation as soon as it starts to feel a little weird. By the time you’re sure it’s not safe, it may be too late to escape.

3. Reserve judgment. I’m not going to go all the way to “Believe women!” Women can lie just like men can lie and children can lie. But, consider the harm. Far too many victims have been publicly attacked by hundreds or thousands of strangers. Even if you doubt her story, there is no reason to risk inflicting deeper, more lasting damage on someone whose world has already become a dangerous place.

4. If you’re concerned about a friend, your daughter, or even a stranger at a concert who seems like she may be in a dangerous situation, ask. Offer help. The worst that can happen if you ask (a rude response, someone thinking you’re intrusive) is a hell of a lot less worse than the worst that can happen if you’re right and say nothing.

5. Consent requires that the person giving it has the mental capacity and freedom to choose. Consent granted under the influence of drugs (especially drugs administered without consent), as the result of blackmail, to avoid physical harm, or because the victim’s mental state has been eroded through sustained abuse and manipulation is not consent. Law enforcement and prosecutors, of course, know this—but those cases are messy and difficult to prove, so it’s easier to say, “There’s nothing we can do.” Hold them accountable.

I still feel like I’m tapering off, like there should be something more solid to offer. If I think of it, I’ll be back. If YOU think of it, please add it in the comments. In the meantime, don’t look away. This is ugly and none of us wants to see it, but bright light is our only real defense.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Time Machine

The year is 2019. My daughter is 23, and moved out some time ago.

It's mid-morning on a Wednesday and we're sitting at our computers in our respective houses nervously awaiting the magical moment when we'll be able to log on and buy Jonas Brothers concert tickets.

We're nervous about the codes.

Worse, all this time travel/mentioning the year stuff has me thinking about The Year 3000, trying to figure out how to riff off of that in my opening lines, and then realizing no one who reads my blog will know what the hell I'm talking about.

Once upon a time, I spent $353 I could ill afford to buy my daughter Jonas Brothers tickets for her 12th birthday. The show was sold out and I bought e-tickets through a broker, and I was so terrified that they'd turn out to be fake or already scanned or something and she'd be disappointed that I carried $1,000 in cash in my pocket in hopes that I'd be able to scalp replacements if the worst happened.

Once upon a time I spent my lunch hour ironing "I love Nick Jonas" onto a t-shirt one letter at a time because my daughter realized belatedly that she didn't have "appropriate" clothing for the show that night.

Once upon a time I drove across the country searching for free wifi in a McDonald's or rest area so that I could search for a local hotel that had the Disney channel so we didn't miss any of the versions of Camp Rock that aired for the first time that week.

And then, it was later. Mayday Parade, Anarbor and We the Kings in a bar in the south suburbs. All American Rejects at the Metro. Yellowcard at the House of Blues. Vans Warped Tour. Repeat.

And then it was later still. Music I didn't recognize and didn't like blasting from her phone in the car, knocking on her door and getting no answer because the subwoofer drowned me out. She's hitting the road with people I've never met to see The Foo Fighters in another state.

And now, the Jonas Brothers are back.



And I can't talk to you anymore, because tickets go on sale in 20 minutes and I need to obsessively check my payment details and make sure there's no way I can screw this up.

Monday, April 8, 2019

More than I Bargained For


Usually, when people say that something was a bit more than they bargained for, they mean that it turned out to be a bit harder to handle, a bit more overwhelming than they'd expected. That's not what I mean. I mean that I bargained--and bargained hard--for a 10-year-old Honda Civic in decent condition and life gave me a brand new BMW.

More than 10 years ago, I wrote this post about the difficulty of living with "invisible" chronic medical problems. It came up in a conversation tonight and I took a look back at it for the first time in years, and I was shocked. Not by the facts, of course--I know, in an objective, factual sort of way, that I lived in fear of dying or becoming debilitated before my daughter reached adulthood. I know, in that same "story I heard once" sort of way, that I was so limited that she once looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "You can't just stay like this. You can't even play!" I remember, in words, feeling fortunate to be able to keep earning a living, but knowing that it was slowly killing me. I know that anything beyond necessities seemed ridiculously far out of reach, but that was okay, because I didn't have the energy to want to do anything.

And yet, the picture painted in that old post took me entirely by surprise, because I'd forgotten what it felt like.

I'm 52 now. I've lived long enough to support my daughter into adulthood (though there were some dicey periods) and see her start her own business and nearly complete a very good novel. For years, that was my prime objective, the only think I dared to work toward, hope for, pray for.

I'm 52 now, and I'm not just alive. I didn't just last long enough to complete my mission.

I walked four miles today, and that wasn't an accomplishment--it was a compromise, because it was a busy day. I toyed with going kayaking, but really needed to get some work done. To make up the difference, I dictated some blog posts on my exercise bike. I'm working on two books: a novel and a non-fiction book about an issue that has bothered me for years. Sometimes, I drive to Wisconsin just to write in the library overlooking the lake and then have dinner al fresco across the street from the fountain at the marina. I'm on the board of a local non-profit, and I had forgotten that when I was younger, I couldn't have dreamed of volunteering out in the sun all day.

Of course, this happened slowly, and the path wasn't straight. My daughter grew older and more self-sufficient. I switched to freelancing and found that not setting an alarm clock made a tremendous difference in my health. A different medication keeps my blood pressure under control (most of the time) without causing fatigue and depression. I noticed the landmarks--that I was able to walk further and further, that I rarely woke with my heart pounding in my whole body, that the heat didn't bother me as it once had. I knew I was much better. But somehow, until I re-read that blog post this evening, I didn't know I was not just better, but different--and that my life was not just better, but different.

Most days, I don't think about how I feel.

Most days, I don't hold back from anything because I think it might jeopardize my health.

Most days, I don't notice that I'm not doing those things.

Somewhere along the way, my body (if not my mind) realized that I didn't have to focus on staying alive anymore, and I started to live instead.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Sun Rises Quietly

Five years ago, after a terrible year that I didn't expect to survive, I waited up to see the sun rise on New Year's Day. But, the sunrise never came that morning. The sky simply faded from darkness to paler and paler gray to light.

There were no bright pink streaks across the sky, no orange ball rising to color the day--it was simply dark and then less dark and then less dark still and then light.  I saw it as a bad omen, then, waiting after a bleak and hopeless year for a sunrise that never came. 

At this point in my life, I rarely wait up for midnight, let alone the sunrise. Last night, contemplating whether I wanted to wait up for the no-longer-literal ball to drop, I realized that watching the sun rise on New Year's Day didn't require staying up all night. So, I tucked into bed at a civilized hour, my bedroom glowing with the soft light from the upstairs Christmas tree and my little dog curled against my hip, and woke up before the sun. 

I pulled my boots on and went outside in my pajamas, waiting patiently in the freezing cold for the arrival of that golden light. And, once again, the world lightened gradually, more like my eyes adjusting than the turning on of a light. Again, the sunrise was devoid of a single splash of color, and I never actually saw the sun. But, that looked a little different to me this time around. It looked like real life. 

Most new beginnings don't look like this.
On New Year's Day 2013, I was looking for a sign, an unmistakable line between the past and the future, something brilliant and hopeful and CLEAR. But, that's not how most of life works. Change comes slowly, gradually, without bugles and splashy colors. We rarely wake up one day in a better world or achieve a single thing or witness a specific event that changes everything that comes after--most of the time, the darkness fades slowly, until you look up and realize suddenly that it's fully daylight.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Note from a Proud Mom

You all probably already know that I think Tori is pretty impressive, but she outdid herself this week. She got the keys to her first apartment (on fairly short notice) last weekend. She was super-excited about the move, of course, but there was one little glitch: she had some time-sensitive work to finish for her "day job" (yeah, she works for me, but the time pressure was external) and she'd already announced the launch of her new business for October 12.

Somehow, she did it all: finished my work, got her apartment set up, moved the essentials, gentled her crazy rescue dog through the transition and launched Juliet Nail Design on schedule today. 

She's selling hand-painted pre-made and custom press-on nails, all of her own creation. She even found time in the midst of all this activity to make up a set for me.


I can't wait to see where this goes.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Into the Great Wide Open

My daughter is a big fan of Conor Oberst, and this morning she mentioned that the songs of his that seem the most positive to her are the ones that most people call bleak or depressing.

Example:




 I told her I thought that the way you heard a song had a lot to do with your own perspective on life.

That reminded me of a conversation I'd had with my sister long ago. She'd described Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" as negative and depressing, and I'd been surprised. See, I heard the sad story, the way things didn't go as expected, but I also heard, "The future was wide open..."




 Sure, I recognized the ironic use of the same phrase to portray endless possibility and endless blank space, but...well...what IS endless blank space if not endless opportunity?

At least, that's the way I've seen it for most of my adult life. And, when I had that conversation with my daughter this morning, I'd have told you that was still the way I saw it.

Sometimes, internal changes are the hardest to see.

The past 15 months have been quite a journey, more filled with change than any in a very long time. In the few months following the last presidential election, I said goodbye to two of the people I counted among my closest friends. The reasons were very different, but both were of that devastating nature that makes you wonder whether you ever really knew a person at all, and whether they ever knew you at all. That kind of discovery can make you question whether you can trust your own judgment about people. When it happens twice in three months, with people you've thought you were close to for more than a decade, it makes you pretty certain that you can't.

During that same few months, my daughter, who has been the focus of most of my adult life, turned 21. Shortly after, she broke up with her longtime boyfriend. It was a good choice for her, but one more big change, since he'd become a part of my family.

Quick summary: LOTS of new space in my life.

Just a few months earlier, I'd have seen that as a positive. See, as much as I love the people in my life, there's a significant part of me that's always yearned to be left alone to write. There's never been any question in my mind about what I would do with my "empty nest" years. But, there's always a glitch.

In the midst of all this, I had a "cardiac incident" of the "your blood pressure is on the verge of destroying your heart--get it down NOW if you want to keep functioning relatively normally" variety (as if I haven't been working fruitlessly toward that particular goal for nearly two decades).

The future wasn't looking so wide open. In fact, my health problems have always been the one obstacle I haven't been able to and didn't believe I could overcome.

I had a lot of work, and it was work I liked. I just kept raising my rates and it just kept rolling in anyway, and first I was booked a week out and then two and then a month, and then I was turning work away. It wasn't challenging work, but that was okay--I knew I could do it well and it paid well, and, though I didn't realize it at the time, I may have been afraid to commit to anything too challenging because something medical might crop up again.

It came anyway, as things do when the time is right. I'm working on a book about a legal/social issue I've felt strongly about for more than a decade. There's another interesting book with an interesting client waiting in the wings. A well-established company reached out to me to work on legal tech thought leadership pieces. My long-time favorite client wanted to re-up our work together.

I said yes to all of it and started cutting back on blogging and websites and the work that had been my bread and butter. But, I had a sense of anxiety I've rarely had about work before. I examined each project and couldn't find a reason. I'm confident in my ability to do each well. I'm not overbooked. They're all things I want to do.

Still, every time I passed up a website job or phased out a blogging client, that sense of anxiety reared it's head.

Until today.

Because this morning, I told my daughter that the way you heard a song depended on your outlook on the world. And, this evening, while I was fighting with all my might not to accept a safe and familiar website job, I opened Spotify and clicked on the "daily mix" they'd created for me, and the very first song they played was "Into the Great Wide Open."

I laughed out loud, as I always do when the message is so blatant.

The future IS wide open, and I don't need to hedge my bets.







Wednesday, October 4, 2017

You're Better than You Think You Are

If you happened to be awake and on the Internet in the early morning hours of October 2, you probably saw a non-stop stream of people offering help to strangers in the middle of the night. People offered rides, shelter, water, food--even their own blood--to anyone in need.

I've written before about how we see the best in people in the midst of a crisis or in the wake of a tragedy, how having life abruptly stripped to its essentials reminds us of what's most important. This time, it occurred to me that people aren't really different in those moments at all. They've simply been shaken free of distractions and remembered who they truly are.



If you stood in line for hours to donate blood in the wake of the Vegas shooting, you care about human life--even the lives of strangers.


If you had power during Hurricane Sandy and you threaded an extension cord and power strip out your front gate and left a note that anyone who needed to charge a phone or other device was free to share, you understand that even small contributions can make a huge difference to people in need--and you're willing to make those contributions.

If you immediately responded to the more recent round of hurricanes with donations to organizations working on the ground, you understand that providing relief to those in crisis is important--and you're willing to back that understanding with your wallet.

If you offered a place to sleep, or food, or water, then you don't like to see people hungry, thirsty and tired due to circumstances beyond your control--and you're prepared to do something about it.

This time, when the crisis ends, try to remember those things about yourself. You don't have to change your priorities or try to be a better person or anything so ambitious...you just have to remember who you are.

Every day of your life, you'll encounter a person who is hungry or thirsty or frightened, a person who needs a ride or just an encouraging word. Every day of your life, there are people in the world whose lives could be changed in some small (or huge) way by a small effort or contribution on your part. Every day of your life, you will meet a person on the street (or in the grocery line or on the telephone when you're angry because your cable doesn't work) whose day can be immeasurably brightened or darkened by the way you speak to him or her.

In those moments, don't tell yourself that you should care. Don't try to be better than you are. Instead, remind yourself that you DO care--that when confronted with those very same needs in an attention-catching way, you cared more about strangers than your comfort, keeping your car clean, whatever other plans you had for that money, getting a good night's sleep. That's who you are. Sometimes, that person gets buried or distracted by day-to-day life, responsibilities, stresses, even the quest for a new toy. But, when the chips are down and we see inside you, you're a person who stands for hours in the Vegas sun to give his blood to a stranger.

Don't forget that. Let us see that person every day.