Validation, a double-edged sword: what parenting, formal education, scouting and Jeffrey Epstein may have in common

I remember wanting to be seen.

In fact, our entire childhood was spent working for it. Following rules to fit the rigid patterns of appropriate behavior set out before us and doing it so we didn’t get in trouble, always following and fitting in to stay safe; diligently applying ourselves to our assigned tasks, so that our families- whatever that meant for each of us- would see the fruits of our labor, be proud enough to list our achievements to their friends at the park, maybe, or describe them to that chatty neighbor on a weekday afternoon or to a co-worker they happened to run into at the supermarket.

They’d rarely speak many, if any, words of approval to us directly, though, because then they would risk letting it go to our heads and perhaps that would take away from their own, already fragile sense of achievement at having raised us well.

But that was alright, as long as we’d overhear it told to others and occasionally see our mother, or father or grandmother beaming with self-importance, as if they’ve just won first-place at an incredibly insidious game.

Praise was a bigger deal the more foreign its audience- on a good day, we’d maybe get a smile from a stranger we’d just been introduced to, an ‘Is that so?’, perhaps even a ‘Good job!’, or ‘Your mother must be proud’, and we’d cling to that. Rarely a thank you, because what would they be thankful for?

So we’d learn to live without expecting gratitude for doing what was perceived as the right thing, but instead, we would, and from a very young age, be encouraged to observe and copy the behavior of our caregivers, and begin to seek validation in the words, gestures and looks of others, be they friends, acquaintances or mere strangers. That would especially be true if at home, sometimes asking for it would be asking for it.

After being introduced to the concept of self-worth as inherent to healthy physical and emotional development by textbooks in college, I’ve been wondering how so many families could have imagined that we, as children, would learn to appreciate and love ourselves out of thin air. Without having received it first, seen it practiced by adults, those very people from whom we always expected a blueprint for the finest things in life, to trace over and color in with our own experiences, how would we stand a chance to replicate self-love on our own?

Except that many of our parents perhaps never thought of that outcome as desirable in the first place: 30 odd years ago, teaching self-love wasn’t even marginally part of a healthy upbringing, and my years working in education have shown that it isn’t the norm nowadays, either. It’s importance still needs convincing.

This is why building self-esteem, confidence and dignity is such hard work. It is a behavior learned too late. Read about in books, listened to on podcasts, watched on TV, heard it recited by therapists- it’s out there, alright, but it’s a tough one to let sink in when most of your growth has been done without it. 

They certainly didn’t teach it in school, either. That was a place where we’d either run with the wrong crowd or work hard to please. There would hardly be an in-between, save for apathy. Lethargic, I guess that’s how the middle ground would look like, most of the time.

Usually, when you learn that pleasing authority figures is the main way to stay safe, and you find a way to do so to the best of your abilities, you’d do whatever they ask you to. Some of us would find in school an escape, so we’d follow all the rules, learn all the material, recite it down to the last comma while looking up at the ceiling; we’d write it down in 40 minutes or less until our hand hurt and then forgot it was there- better. We’d beat ourselves up for falling asleep doing homework and would go from morning to afternoon to midnight, again, seven days a week and for the better half of Christmas break, feeling that we will never be enough.

That was mostly because they assigned letters to our performance and they asked to bring these home, neatly wrapped in a report card of sorts- from one authority figure to another, our performance was passed around for scrutiny, eliciting approval and praise or anger and punishment. We were mere messengers delivering our fate from the hands of those who wrote it to those who applied it- and both parties had the right and power to bestow varying degrees of freedom or suffering upon us, as a consequence to what lay written on that paper.

Overall, we’d be deemed worthy or less than based on how high we ranked up the alphabet- an otherwise random collection of letters, if it weren’t for society ascribing to it fortune-telling properties, mapping it like a linear constellation, turning it into a universally acceptable form of divination. Get it right and you get ahead.  

In high-school and college-that is, if privilege, luck and hard work conspired to get us that far-, all we did was reproduce the work of others, endlessly, and credit them for it. We were taught what ‘superior’ meant by virtue of it being that which was created beyond our potential and outside our realities, a body of work tailored to fit a narrative that supported their creators’ status and often posthumous privilege, with all the nasty bits taken out.

We were trained to follow that model of learning, of absorbing the right information to make sense of a fraction of the world that was considered useful to make sense of, and then perpetuate that knowledge, transpose it into action, often without questioning it. The main assumption, throughout formal education, seems to have been that someone of our age and skill could not be able to come up with anything original, a thought of their own worthy of attention, a criticism worth taking note of. I heard that last spoken to a class of seniors by a university professor we all saw as forward-thinking. I was twenty-two at the time. He was trying to make a case for proper citation, but that’s not all we heard.

In fact, I heard, once again, that my own thoughts didn’t matter- my own analysis or interpretation of the reading and research that I had carried on my own was of little importance, because – and that’s assuming I was capable of producing it- it was still not what was going to get me an A on the paper. That was not what would get me into my masters. That was not what was going to make me look employable- and that was not what was going to get me a job.

Validation and abuse, a dynamic duo

As we are taught to seek appreciation outside ourselves, by every structure of society and by the finest and highest systems of education we now have in place, it’s only natural that it becomes the only way we know how to function.

If we’re lucky, very lucky, we’ll seek validation from our teachers and professors, our colleagues and employers, our friends, our significant others and even in the smile of the cashier at the corner store- which we often like to pretend that she’s not contractually bound to put on, but does it because she sees something in us. It’s that something that we all secretly hope shines through, isn’t it?

However, if chance had it that we were born into poverty and thrust head-first into every form of injustice conceivable under the law; if we were raised by broken families and exposed to every form of violence that either leaves marks or doesn’t, and that was the only way of life we’d ever gotten a taste of, without ever being given the chance to be weaned off it, then there wouldn’t be much that we were dealt to work with, to neatly stack together as evidence of our successes, of our worth as a person, that we could put forth for social scrutiny, now wouldn’t it?

Still, we would have to survive somehow. So, we would seek validation from anyone who’d be willing to give it: it could be older men or women, with their authority and money and power and promises; and it could just so happen that many of these were abusive family members, friends and partners, or drug dealers and child traffickers, who see in us an opportunity for exploitation, a presence that could serve their interests.

These people, we would repeatedly follow around, crawl in bed with, obey and trust, if we genuinely thought that they were our only chance at safety, stability and a future. That, and we’d freeze. Abuse takes that away from one, too: their power of reaction, their ability to flee. After it’s happened for a while, we’d feel that we’re staying close to those who harm us for our own good; that it’s our only chance to feel seen, loved; that maybe they’d introduce us to the right people, pay for our education, help us get a job, build a life  that’s different from what we’d left behind. Abuse, in itself, could become a form of validation.

The need for it, then, could throw us into a cycle of abuse that we come to know as normal. As we rely on other people to validate our experiences, many will do so as a means to an end. Validation makes us feel seen, heard, real. Abusers can validate certain aspects of our life, meet a number of our needs that they can easily identify, and then spend the rest of their time convincing us that what they are doing to us ‘on the side’ is not abuse at all.  

Escaping that would first imply the ability to validate one’s own experiences, and to distinguish between the positive and negative ones, which is usually out of reach for abuse victims. Usually, they do not believe in themselves and doubt their experiences or their perceptions of them; often, they even question if what they’ve been through ever took place at all.

Abuse is isolating, it’s the absence of trust and comfort, the lack of mirroring in others and the world around you and it carries with it ever-present fear. It is only when other victims or their advocates reach out and confirm one’s abusive experiences by being able to relate to them that things start becoming clear to them. Unfortunately, however, that does not happen for everyone- or it happens too late.

If it does, then it can be satisfying, it could bring comfort and much-needed help, as dealing with an abusive situation is often confusing and the support of others becomes invaluable when trying to overcome it. However, relying on external support for too long without building one’s independence can work against victims, by adding to a victim mentality that often keeps them from healing. So no, they can’t just simply walk away from it.

Epstein: Filthy, Rich

It all came together for me after watching Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. A missed opportunity there, the comma between Filthy and Rich that could have summarized that documentary a whole lot better. Most, if not all of Epstein’s victims, share a similar story of abuse, of negligence and of having been let down by every social system that was allegedly designed to protect them- for the entirety of their lives, before meeting him and after that.  What followed their recruitment into his child prostitution ring, the abuse they endured, surviving it, their courage to come forth and seek justice and the corrupt system that worked tirelessly to silence them was -not ironically but the de facto response of our society- more abuse.

It became clear to me then that any attempt of the public to question the victims’ ability to recollect events as they happened, or the intentions behind their accusations did not just stem from a lack of empathy, but was in itself a declaration of ignorance of what abuse is and the frequency with which it takes place all around us. Hanging on to that ignorance and defending it beyond the limits of the law or common sense is also a form of protection: turning a blind eye to it lets us go about our day pretending that awful things don’t happen to good people, only to those who were ‘looking for it’, which naturally excludes you and those you hold dear. It is, perhaps, the one assumption that we can make about abuse that directly exposes all of us to it.

What also makes abuse difficult to spot, still, and weakens our defense, is that it doesn’t look the same or feel the same for everyone, be they victims, abusers or bystanders. As such, many forms of abuse are still rarely acknowledged as ill-treatment unless the harm done is visible. Physical: whether it originated in the body or in the mind, society has to see it with their own eyes to believe it. To believe you.  

Collectively, we still find it appropriate to demand tangible evidence from victims that we can then dissect ourselves; we deconstruct their lives and look for signs in their actions or words, past or present, that could point to them making it all up, for money or fame. It often feels as if surviving abuse inevitably turns victims into protagonists of their very own reality show, and we, the audience, must keep an eye out for signs that it’s been scripted.

With the audience’s industry-induced desire for entertainment having infiltrated and corrupted even the highest ranks of power, including but not limited to the presidency,  it’s then hardly any wonder that society will challenge accounts of abusive experiences, call these the victims’ stories, consume them as fiction rather than fact, and end up often blaming the victims for reacting to their trauma throughout their lives, or for seeking justice (which they equate with ‘attention’)- as if the audience, by virtue of its paid subscription to televised programs, has the right to a final say in the outcomes of others’ lives.

Ultimately, whatever evidence victims can provide of having survived abusive circumstances, especially as children, and be that as clear as day, it still remains ‘insufficient’ for those who refuse to accept as admissible whatever they have a hard time relating to. Empathy is just not a common attribute of those who inhabit this world we live in. Neither is our commitment to keeping each other safe.

Scouting: too good to be true?

Our failure to see how the media distorts our perception of danger, leading to our inability to rationally distinguish between what’s to be desired and what’s to be kept at bay, is also well reflected in our collective attitude towards talent scouting. In fact, I have not come across any study or report that analyzes the positive and negative effects of this practice amongst people of any age.

Held in high regards and often aspirational, being scouted remains generally seen as the highest form of recognition there is- a one-way ticket to fame and fortune.

A talent scout is a person tasked with discovering and recruiting people of various talents to perform a certain activity or work in a specialized field. They have ties to a variety of high-paying, often glamorous fields that pertain to the entertainment industry, such as professional sports, modelling, film, theatre, music and dance.  In a nutshell, they spot you, they engage with you, they introduce you to the right people in the industry, and they make you someone.

For many young people, it’s a dream: ‘He was scouted outside of McDonald’s in Bucharest on his way home from school’, read a model’s bio on a model management website. ‘He quickly signed with Yes Model Management and has been working on getting his model style all the way right’

What’s not to want? This is an age-old version of the rags to riches narrative for many young people around the world. To them, it doesn’t sound too good to be true, just true: from the personal accounts of many celebrities to biographical documentaries of some of the world’s leading figures in various fields, scouting pops up as an integral, defining part of the early careers of many fashion models, musicians, actors and professional athletes, who allegedly would not have been where they are right now- whether now is a fixed point in time or a marker of eternity- if someone hadn’t seen something in them and introduced them to the right people.

Being seen for who you are and having your potential discovered, accidentally and without having to do anything to prove it other than simply existing in one’s natural, comfortable state of mind, body and the expression of these (in person or on social media), might seem like the highest form of validation, but it is also the most perverse, as it entails an almost supernatural ability on the part of others, mere strangers to the subjects of their scouting, to not only read into the minds and the past of those they see potential in, but also to be able to foresee their personal and professional trajectory and map out their future for them. That’s pretty much the stuff of magic, and it certainly does not unfold that way in reality- in fact, a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, the real hard work, the sacrifice, and often the forms of abuse that are endured in the process are often edited out of the way and remain unseen, unheard of.

It is no wonder, then, that so many young, inexperienced, vulnerable young people fall prey to this rhetoric and the practice of scouting, still- and I say prey, because that’s exactly what Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein did, individually or through third parties: scouted.

Failing our children

The testimonies of the victims that had the courage to step forward and speak against the wealthy financier and his ring of power and abuse show a brutal reality: that of young, inexperienced women, most of them coming from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who were lured into Epstein’s homes with the promise of an income or a career that would help them pull themselves out of their difficult realities; instead, they became part of a sexual pyramid scheme that they found very difficult to escape from.

Most were no strangers to violence. Shawna Rivera confessed that she watched her father and stepmother beat one of her stepbrothers to death in their home. He was eight. After that, she lived in a shelter home before her grandmother obtained legal custody of her. Experiencing violence in its most brutal forms had been part of her life since she could remember and unfortunately, it was something that she would continue to be part of after meeting Epstein. Perhaps the most hurtful part of this reality is that it could have been avoided, and yet it still remained inevitable for Shawna, and for all of his victims. He made sure to pick them right.

Harsh circumstances were what Epstein promised to pull Rivera and many of his other victims out of, with the $200 each received from him every time they were molested or when they recruited another girl into his ring. That was money they could finally use to meet their basic needs at that age, which were not adequately provided for by their family or the so-called first-world society they grew up in. Epstein also promised exposure, work, travel and networking opportunities, careers that were too good to pass.

It seemed very much like the American dream unfolding before their eyes. In fact, if anything, Rivera, like countless other young people living in adverse socio-economic conditions, were systematically let down by the very structures put in place to protect them: their family, the education system and law enforcement, the failures of which Epstein and the likes of him still have an easy time profiting from. The kids are out there, they just have to scout them out.

Aside from these accounts of abuse and others that would surface now and again, scouting is only presented in a positive light- one that fits the narrative of the industry that uses it to attract the minds, bodies and skills of young people worldwide into a money-making web, that is certainly profitable for those who run it, but often do irreparable damage to those who work for them. In any case, it’s marketable. As such, it is easy for society to continue to glorify this practice and for all of us to wish it upon ourselves, while cataloguing stories of abuse as exceptions, glitches in the system- human errors and usually, on the part of the victims.

But what if they’re not- it’s just that we have collectively become accustomed to the thought of being hard-handled on the proverbial road to success? What if we could do without all of that harm? What if we would still allow these horrific situations to unfold, should we find ourselves in them, because of our inherent belief that if it doesn’t hurt, we’re not doing it right? They are not, yes we could and yes, we might let it happen to us, too, if presented with what we may see as an opportunity rather than a threat- and we’d welcome it irrespective of what we are trying to achieve or escape from, but perhaps more so if that’s poverty.  

In the end, the way society is run at present already has laid fertile ground for abusers to operate on. Overall, we’ve been so trained to seek external validation by our education system and the types of parenting that our own young, tired parents inherited from their hardworking, exhausted families  that when we finally mastered it, got really good at seeking it and obtaining it, we failed to see that we also opened upon us the floodgates of self-deprecation and made of ourselves easy targets for those who work well with speculation.

We may have a hard time noticing that or admitting to it, as we have to push through it, day in and day out; perhaps glimpses of it come in the way we welcome every break from abuse in all its forms – when we’re not shouted at at work, or not groped on public transport and not treated as a commodity- almost with pride and exhilaration, like one would a hard-earned achievement.

Except that a life free from abuse should be the norm, shouldn’t it? If it were, then perhaps a history of abuse and poverty would not make children susceptible to being sexually molested, because they wouldn’t have lived through it in the first place; and perhaps so many of us wouldn’t be standing ducks for what scouters are looking for- especially when those are the likes of Jeffrey Epstein.

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