Giving Voice to the Voiceless

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There’s a really disturbing story from here in Florida that was in this morning’s Orlando Sentinel. Here’s the long and short of it…

In north Florida, for decades, there was a boys reform school which is no longer in use. In their elderly years, many former residents of the boys school have come forward to report the abuse and atrocities they experienced and witnessed while there.

An anthropologist from University of South Florida was granted permission by the state to research some 30 reported graves on the property. However, this anthropologist found evidence of over 50 graves…and they believe another burial ground may also exist. Of the 30 graves, the vast majority were thought to be boys from the home, as well as a couple of adults who worked there. The graves were crudely marked and some go back to the early 1900s.

Now, we could jump to conclusions with the recent reports highlighting extreme physical abuse. Is it even possible to think this was such a house of horrors that the adult overseers killed and buried the residents without fanfare. We don’t know this for sure, so let’s not even get into that. After all, this school opened circa 1900 and the graves may also be from a flu epidemic or typhoid or diphtheria or whatever diseases were more prevelant 100 years ago. Reportedly, not all boys at the reform school were there for what we’d think of as hardcore criminal behavior. Some, it’s said, were simply there because of truancy and petty larceny.

Now comes out my criminal justice background. The vast majority of inmates in prisons across the country grew up in poverty. That’s a fact that cannot be disputed. Whether it’s circumstances of poverty, mental illness, addiction issues or whatever reason they led lives of crime, no matter, they’re still locked up. While it’s a totally different topic, anyone who has studied the criminal justice system even marginally knows that criminals who come from poverty don’t get the best representation. Thus, the state wins cases which may or may not beas easy to decipher if said accused criminals had a quality defense. When you’ve got nothing, you don’t have the funds to hire a lawyer who can argue the best case for you. It’s not too much of a leap to think the boys from this reform school also didn’t have strong advocates for their innocence or well being. And, in the early 1900s, if a boy was a troublemaker, much like today, a knee jerk (but all too common reaction) is to lock him up and throw away the key.

Now, the point of this post. One of the anthropologists said that the job of anthropologists is to give voice to the voiceless. Thus, anthropologists seek to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. In this case, the anthropologist is referring to the former residents who are now dead and gone.

This idea of giving voice to the voiceless is something we tackled in my Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University. Who are the voiceless? Why are they voiceless? If they are, in fact, not able to speak for themselves, who gets to tell their story? And what pitfalls arise when someone speaks for someone else?

One specific example we looked at was this. An illiterate mother living in Latin America needed to write to her daughter who was living in the states. The mother was elderly, uneducated, living in a third world country and needed to respond to her daughter’s letters about how the daughter was being beaten and abused by her husband. The mother dictated a letter to her daughter through an educated and well travelled woman who lived in the village as a missionary.

When the mother began dictating her letter, she made statements about how the daughter should try to be a better wife and then maybe the husband wouldn’t beat her. If she just did what he said, the abuse might stop. The mother also made reference to God taking care of her daughter and if the daughter prayed to God, the abuse would stop.

Anyone with even a taste of what domestic violence is knows this is foolish. It places all the blame squarely on the shoulders of the person who is marginalized and abused. This is the kind of manipulation that keeps people in abusive relationships for years. The translator knew this. The mother did not.

Instead of writing the exact words the mother wanted to express to her daughter, the translator would stop, question the mother if there’s not a better way to say it. When they finished the letter, it sounded so much more supportive and helpful, urging the daughter to seek assistance in leaving her husband. Gone were the “Just be a good girl and pray to God” statements the mother initially made. Instead, the letter now gave encouragement and power to the daughter to take control of her life and to leave the abuser; a 180 degree turn from the mother’s original words.

So, the letter accomplished the greater good, right? Well, yeah…but the mother was manipulated (for all the right reasons) into communicating something that wasn’t in her heart. The mother looked at the translator as educated and sophisticated and therefore, the translator must know best. In essence, what the mother wanted to say was hijacked by the translator and resembled nothing of what was in the mother’s heart. This is one of the pitfalls of giving voice to the voiceless.

Think of any marginalized portion of society. Those in poverty, homeless, minorities, those with disabilities, immigrants. Even to say that these groups are “marginalized” is a definition we, as a society, decide…not those people themselves. Heck, I’m a person with a disability. Does it sound like a good idea to have someone advocate for me simply because I have a disability? I think not. And frankly, I can speak for myself. But, not all people are comfortable with voicing their plight, concerns, etc. Instead of speaking out for justice, they simply stay quiet and take what life gives them. Somewhere between a militant self advocate and speaking for another and not speaking at all is a happy balance. I just hope you’ll consider this the next time you think of “the poor”, “the homeless” or “the disabled.” There is a fine line between assisting someone to get what they need and totally hijacking their personal narrative.

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