Silence and shame
10 February 2016
A Nepali man’s struggle to get the incidence of sexual abuse as a child acknowledged in a society that does not want to talk.
In late autumn in 1993, vandalism rocked a reputed boarding school situated on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Glass panes were shattered, furniture broken. The ones involved were mostly tenth grade students protesting the administration’s decision to expel some of their classmates. Since the academic year was coming to an end, they would not be able to take the imminent School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams. The expelled students’ academic career and future would be jeopardised, their supporters claimed. But the administration did not budge. The protests lasted for a couple of days and then fizzled out. A leading newspaper carried a small report on the incident. I was a seventh-grade student in that school at the time.
On one of those days – perhaps a day before or after the vandalism – I remember sitting on the red brick steps that led to our dormitory. Tall trees hovered over and along it. The vegetation was lush for most of the year because the school lies in an area in Kathmandu Valley that receives a lot of rain. Thick carpets of grass covered rolling grounds and hillocks. The greenery complemented the red bricks of the stout two-storey dormitories and classroom buildings. The first time I had entered the school in the fourth-grade, I was enchanted by its vast grounds and its beauty. All kinds of adventures beckoned. But a lot had happened since.
That day, while I sat forlornly, groups of students chit-chatted in front of our dormitory, the way they did every day to kill the leisurely hour or two after the day’s classes ended and before the evening study hour began. But the atmosphere was different that evening. It was marked by an unmistakable tension. Tenth-grade seniors from other dormitories had also gathered in front of ours. They seemed to be strategising with each other; there was an air of belligerence. Nervous juniors – some of whom were my friends – were also hanging around. Perhaps they were talking about the whole incident, perhaps not. I wouldn’t know. I was by myself. I was afraid. It felt like everyone was talking about me, looking at me.
“These things happen,” he said. “You have to be bold, okay?” That was his life-lesson: being bold.
I was the reason for those boys’ expulsion. A week or so ago, the housemaster had pulled me out of the evening study hour, taken me to his flat, sat me down and asked questions. “Did so-and-so wake you up in the middle of the night? Did he take you to his cubicle?” Having been caught off guard, I could only nod. The questions kept coming. “Did he fondle your genitals? Did he insert his penis in your anus?”
Sweater season had already started and the temperature dipped dramatically in the mornings and evenings. Inside the housemaster’s flat, a space heater was propped under a table. Perhaps it was the sudden warmth that prompted the tears. I did not completely break down but the tears did interfere with my speech, and I could only nod or respond in monosyllables.
The reality of what had been happening to me for months was suddenly in front of me. I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone before. And now, I had to confront it. It was only after I left the flat as I walked up to the study room that I fully realised the weight of my revelation. The lurking fear of the past few months shaped into terror.
Things moved quickly after that evening – the expulsion was announced, the accused were asked to leave. The news spread throughout the school. On one of the following afternoons, our seventh grade dorm-room was seized with whispers and gossip mixed with questions and confusion. One of the accused who was allowed to stay in school for a few more days was there. His head was covered. Was it a hoody or a woolen cap, I can’t remember clearly, but I remember the fear in his eyes. When he spoke to me, his voice was heavy and slow – “Did you tell? Did you mention my name?”
I don’t remember my reply.
What I remember is the days and weeks that followed. I performed poorly in my final examinations. I had not been able to concentrate on my studies and my sleep had been regularly interrupted.
“I must change schools,” I remember thinking while sitting on that red-brick pathway. Only a few more weeks until winter vacation and this will be over. How could I face everyone after what had happened? My friends, seniors, teachers – everyone knew. But I did not know whether my parents knew, and if they did, how much?
One evening during the vacation, I sat huddled in front of a space heater with my brothers, watching TV. Our parents sat right behind us in a sofa. At the beginning of the vacation, I had mentioned something about changing schools to my mother. My father brought it up during the ad break. “These things happen,” he said. “You have to be bold, okay?” That was his life-lesson: being bold. He had been saying that regularly for years, especially on the days he dropped me off at school. “Be bold. Okay?” he would say and plant a kiss on my forehead. Because clearly, I was not. I was shy. I turned red-faced when the teacher called out my name in class. I was not good in sports. I was often teased for being effeminate, for dressing up in girls’ clothes during cultural shows in school. I was not bold.
I assumed that he was making a general reference to bullies in school. So I mumbled a response and the chapter was closed. I was going back to the same school. But I decided to bring about a change in my demeanour. So that winter, I started waking up at five in the morning. I jogged from my home in Purano Baneshwor to the Pashupati area. I bought dumbbells. I threw punches in the air, imagining the faces of bullies. I also started drinking lots of water because I needed to get taller. It was a trick I had heard somewhere. Probably a coincidence, but I did transform physically during the few weeks at home. I had shot up by a few inches, become slightly muscular. On the first day back to school, some friends noticed the change.
A few teachers and most of the students appeared to accuse me. It was my effeminate nature that made me a target, they implied.
I devoted that whole year to studies and excelled in the eighth-grade final examinations. It was an important year; the beginning of SLC exam preparation. After eighth grade, students were tracked more carefully and sectioned off based on their academic performance. I managed to get into Set A – reserved for the most academically inclined – in all three of the important subjects, English, Math and Science.
I started getting popular with girls as well. I also managed to maintain my friendship with a few friends with whom I had been close since joining school in fourth grade. Most of them happened to be voracious readers and we used to have a lot of discussions on books. We met during vacations, invited each other to birthday parties. None of them brought up what had happened at the end of seventh grade. In fact, for the next five years, no one brought it up. What that meant was that every day, I had to put up a facade of normalcy and camaraderie. The overwhelming silence and the accompanied sense of shame prompted me to suppress the memory. But there were reminders everywhere.
I had to think twice before joining a group of friends for a walk around the school or during regular hang-outs, lest anyone bring up the seventh grade incident. When somebody laughed at the other end of a classroom, I felt that they were laughing at me. I dreaded Biology classes because it dealt with living beings. Those chapters often had graphic images of human and animal bodies, with each part labelled. The digestive system starting from the mouth, then the oesophagus, which led to the anus. This was just one of the many things that paralysed me with shame.
Years later, in New York, when I serendipitously stumbled into American scholar Brene Brown’s works and lectures on vulnerability and shame I felt as if I had finally found an outlet for my thoughts and memories. I was able to view my past in a completely new light.
In the video titled “Listening to Shame”, Brown quotes Jungian analysts who view shame as the ‘swampland of the soul’: that mushy, dark and dangerous place where nothing grows; where even potent and life-affirming emotions, if planted, are in danger of wilting, of getting crushed. Brown also goes on to explain that shame may be a secret behind many forms of broken behaviour. It is, she explains, highly correlated with addiction, violent behaviour, depression, aggression and even eating disorders. Shame, she continues, grows like bacteria in an atmosphere of secrecy, silence and judgment. What shame needs is empathy.
That video threw a spotlight on aspects of my emotional life that had been troubling me for many years. Brown’s work is supported by other experts, such as sociologist Thomas Scheff from the University of California. Scheff writes that shame is a master emotion that regulates the expression of other feelings. “Whenever shame enters the picture,” wrote Scheff, “we inhibit the free expression of emotions, with the exception of anger.”
Evidently, the boarding school culture promoted silence, secrecy and judgment around the incident, factors that, as Brown pointed out, exacerbate a traumatic experience. Even that one session with the housemaster was more like an interrogation rather than counseling. After the clinical questions, the administration imposed a sustained act of denial over the incident: something unspeakable had happened.
A few teachers and most of the students appeared to accuse me. It was my effeminate nature that made me a target, they implied. Attending classes, being social, trying to get included – these were massive internal challenges for me. There must have been a teacher or a student who sympathised with me, someone who might have wanted to reach out. But it would have been risky for them to do so, considering the hostile environment and the general mindset around these issues.
Throughout our middle and high school years, the silence and secrecy surrounding the abuse hung in the air, almost tangibly.
The school administration did not properly monitor the behaviour of the seniors towards juniors. The sixteen-year-olds dominated the community, both socially and psychologically, where introverts were constantly ridiculed and harassed. Some of these issues came to light after the seventh grade incident. Also, in order to address growing tension between different dormitories, they shuffled the living arrangements the following year, so that very young students were kept in junior dormitories. But irrespective of this structural change, the administration did very little to address the emotional and mental health needs of the students.
In 2008, Child Workers in Nepal Concerned Center (CWIN), an organisation that focuses on children’s rights, published its half-yearly report titled “The State of the Rights of the Child 2008”. Data from the report has shed light on the abuse and mistreatment of children in Nepal. Among the incidents of sexual abuse in Nepal, recorded CWIN, 64 percent were rape cases of children below the age of 16. Among 432 cases of child abuse, 16 percent were cases of corporal punishment in schools.
I came to know later was that two other classmates, one of them a close friend, were being simultaneously abused by those tenth-graders. It was the other boy who revealed the matter and he left school after seventh grade. Despite our close friendship, years passed before my friend and I became comfortable enough to address the topic. Throughout our middle and high school years, the silence and secrecy surrounding the abuse hung in the air, almost tangibly. It was only when we were pursuing higher studies in the US that one of us broached the topic. Since then, we have gradually opened up. Now, we feel comfortable enough to be lighthearted about it.
We also brought up the incident with our friends in the US, and more recently, in Nepal, and made no secret of the fact that we are both gay. I came out to my family regarding my sexual orientation as well. Although I never had a problem coming to terms with being gay, in the context of Nepali society, the process has been anything but smooth. Most of my family and relatives know about it, but again, there is silence and secrecy around it. This has also pushed me into a somewhat self-imposed isolation, accompanied with the realisation that in the end, while people are not affected by this silence, I am.
In the first couple of years of moving to New York my newfound freedom and independence helped me emerge out of an emotional swamp, fully embrace my identity and revel in its possibilities. But the burden of being a gay Nepali man and the uncertainty of how to deal with it back home soon cast a heavy shadow. My early romantic and professional aspirations were constrained by these thoughts.
Upon returning to Kathmandu, I invested all my attention in my areas of interests to make up for the lack of engagement with my family and immediate society. Since there was no scope to talk freely about myself, I have had to limit my thoughts to writings and introspections. Writing on the incident is an attempt to unsilence myself. In fact, this piece is an attempt to contextualise the incident in Kathmandu’s upper-middle class society and talk about the role shame plays in the way one deals with sexual abuse and sexuality. It is a culture where honour, and conversely, shame, is linked with family dynamics, one’s place in society and notions of success and failure.
Although things are changing, especially in light of the socio political shifts that have taken place in Nepal in the last decade, it is still a struggle. In the family’s bid to maintain the societal status quo, individual aspirations routinely get discouraged, often sacrificed. Only when the dominant culture does not constrain talking about these tabooed topics will sexual abuse survivors or sexual minorities no longer need to lead covert lives with the garb of normalcy.
With the establishment of the Blue Diamond Society (BDS) in 2001, an organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenders in Nepal, things seemed to take on a new direction. Throughout the first decade, the BDS gradually expanded, mostly because of the work and activism by its founder Sunil Babu Pant, who was also elected to the first Constituent Assembly. Because of BDS’ advocacy, political and media campaigns, a space for sexual minorities, however limited, has been created in Kathmandu’s society. Simultaneously, as a result of the People’s War, there is now greater awareness regarding the rights of not just women and ethnic minorities, but also of sexual minorities. Despite these changes, Kathmandu’s establishment, especially powerful players in the field of politics and media, are still mired in inertia, reminding everyone that change, especially regarding prejudices against certain groups of people, can take a long time to come around.
Still not comfortable with the idea of a confrontation, I composed a long email to my immediate family members detailing the seventh grade incident after writing this piece. Even after all these years, I had not been able to talk about it with my parents. I did not know if they were aware of it, and if they did, how it was possible for them to be silent.
However, emboldened by a rare sense of urgency I called my mother minutes after writing the email. I was determined to raise the question directly. “I wanted to ask you about an incident, something that happened to me at the end of seventh grade.”
“Oh. I know what you are referring to,” she said.
“So the school told you and father everything?” I pressed on.
“Yes, we came to the school and spoke to the housemaster. He assured us that the boys were getting expelled.”
They knew. My parents knew about it. They knew what had happened to me.
~Niranjan Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu.