Rant against power – a personal perspective

My tirade against power would not be complete if I did not also mention the areas of life where we use our limited or constrained power in ways that disgust us when we hear of men being convicted of crimes against helpless people. The problem is that our imagination knows no bounds, and too many find themselves in situations where men have watched or even incited the perpetrators, even if they were not the perpetrators themselves.

I remember at the tender age of sixteen, still “wet behind the ears”, hearing grown men in the company where I started working talk about a “gangbang” they had witnessed or heard about, or perhaps even participated in, where the woman at the centre was mentally impaired or drugged and brutally exploited. What puzzled me was that even though they knew about the woman’s limitations, it ‘turned them on’, as they said, in a way they felt was wrong.

Later, after joining the army and during a ‘firing camp’ in Wales, I was woken up in the tent that served as accommodation and asked to come along to a similar ‘event’ that the soldiers were celebrating with a local girl who probably had similar mental limitations. I declined, probably more out of embarrassment than anything else, and found it hard to grasp the fact that the same people who had asked me to write love letters for their girlfriends were doing this.

The disturbing thing about such stories, apart from the fact that it was quite obvious that a woman was being brutally exploited, was that every man knows that he did not intervene, but only smiled sheepishly when there was talk of such behaviour, so as not to appear stupid or to share in the pleasure they derived from it; too weak in spirit to object, too compromised by their own imaginations to be disgusted by the whole thing. Disgust with oneself grows with incidents of not doing the right thing.

Fortunately, my upbringing had instilled in me some principles that were battered by such experiences, causing a guilty conscience that even invaded my dreams and made me sit upright and feel guilty, even though I was not actually actively involved. Men know that our imagination deceives us, and happy is the man whose thoughts are not visible to all. Our shadow, which we conveniently avoid, plays these abstruse ideas to us, which should awaken humility and curb the misplaced pride that gets so out of hand.

Perhaps it was these experiences that shaped my relationships with women differently and empowered my naïve imagination to write love letters that other soldiers copied and sent home to their girlfriends. I was able to retain a certain romanticism, able to plagiarise the romantic poetry that attracted me and use it in my own interest. But that was manipulative too! I knew how the young women melted away then when they read my words, though I also knew how well I could walk away.

That too is an abuse of power, and the ability to exploit a weakness, even a desire in someone, is a power used to cause pain, sadness, and despair. I experienced the effect of my words one evening in a soldiers’ club where I impressed a woman with my words and watched her eyes widen and her lips moisten with no intention of going further. I knew she was a married woman and therefore ‘off limits’ to single soldiers like me. When I got up to leave, she got up behind me and followed me to the stairs where she ripped my shirt off and had to be held back by passers-by. I took no pleasure in the emotional impact I had but was rather shocked at how powerful words can be. My superiors saw the situation similarly and I was sternly reprimanded and warned not to do the same again, although I detected a smirk on their faces that suggested they were behaving as they were expected to and not as they felt about the matter.

This influenced my later relationships where I tried to be more responsible, but I still experienced how the local German girls reacted to me and sometimes saw through my game. It wasn’t until I was left confused by a girl who had declared her love for me in a letter received on my last day in Northern Ireland, that I felt I had “had a taste of my own medicine.” On my return I found that she had changed her address and was living in a place I didn’t know but was supposedly fifty kilometres away. From then on, I was more self-critical and cautious and stopped playing games. I also realised that I wanted more from a relationship, as perhaps had numerous recipients of my letters. This self-reflection was my salvation, if you will, and gave me an understanding of what people need in a relationship. My next girlfriend, who knew me before, sensed the change in me but was sceptical at first. Over time, she gained confidence and we got married.

Life offers many opportunities to experience the abuse of power and the next time a personal experience gave me a warning, I was training to be a geriatric nurse in Germany. Again, it was about situations where people find themselves dependent, in this case on the people who had the task of caring for them. I must add that I was quite idealistic about nursing and saw it as a vocation, which the headmistress warned could become a problem over time. However, the first experience of nursing practice was to discover that women could also be disturbingly pragmatic. This was expressed in a number of ways, starting with the first impression on my first day when a dying person was kept in the corridor so that staff could ‘keep an eye on them’. Another shock was the sight of a “force-feeding” of an old lady with dementia, which led me to lodge an official protest and resulted in the removal of the staff member in question.  Another humiliating practice was “group peeing” in a large bathroom before meals, with bars on the walls for the disabled people to hold onto while their clothes and nappies were adjusted, lined up in a row of 6-8 people.

There were many other situations that ran counter to my idealism, which was reinforced by the school being a Catholic institution. Although I was probably seen as a troublemaker at first, my diligence and willingness to take on the less attractive tasks led to me being asked to return. Eventually, during the ‘recognition year’ after the exams, I was provisionally appointed ward manager, although I had not yet received my final certification, and we set about changing many things on the ward that were questionable. One practice that was very disturbing was the habit of mixing ‘cocktails’ for patients who had trouble sleeping or who wandered around at night. This took some time and in the end some staff who had worked there for a long time were asked to leave. By the time the authorities became aware of the abuses, we had changed the way we worked and most of the staff no longer accepted them, although we certainly could not eliminate them completely.

This is not, as some have said, to ridicule the hard work done with geriatric patients, many of whom are mentally impaired in some way, but the fact that people uncritically develop habits that they tolerate because that is the way they have always been. This is abuse of power, and there are much worse cases that have come to public attention where this is quite obvious. This reminds me of a key experience in training when I had the task of changing wound dressings and came across a patient who had a dressing but no wound. When I recognised the date on the dressing, I asked why this was still done and the answer was: because it has always been done that way. The same response was given when I asked why a patient was not listened to when she made a request. The answer was that she always forgets after a short time. Mistakes like forgetting dentures and observing that the patient was not eating were common until we started to rethink what we were doing.

The heart-breaking truth is that malice, even if not always intentional, is often tolerated when it happens in situations where confidentiality is maintained. The only imperative then is not to get caught. The victim is rarely able to differentiate and can only recognise the malice as an abuse of power and disregard for their right to life and liberty. The victim often has no way to escape, and the perpetrator is well aware of this, which in my eyes constitutes evil.

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