Sailing Alone Around the World
The Two Mennonites

The French Version of Geraldo?

It's not unusual for the developmentally disabled to have issues of self-esteem. And it's not hard to see why. If your closest associates - in the vast majority of cases, your only associates - are people who have to be paid to see you, you don't think you might have some self-esteem issues?

But Doug has no issues of self-esteem. He is one of the few who has benefited from heavy family involvement. At the restaurant, he barks (more or less literally) directions to staff as they pass by - this or that dish is empty, and he holds it up to make his point. Doug is non-verbal. If you don't know him, you won't understand a thing he says. If you do know him, you still won't understand a thing he says but, combined with gestures, you can usually catch the drift. Doug's very social. He thrusts out a hand to men as they pass, inviting a handshake. From women he wants hugs; he holds out both arms.

After the meal, we drive over to the Fairport commons area - Liftbridge Park - to hang out a bit. We're in luck. Lots is happening - a classic car show and a live band. I wheel Doug near the band, an all-girl group called It's My Party, who perform songs from the early 60's, and perform them very well. They have matching outfits, just like in the 60's, synchronized gestures, and ... um...some campy 60's dialog between songs. The drummer is their producer, and their website says they have performed for 20 years. How can that be, since the singers themselves are yet high-schoolers? Ah, the producer has been around that long, and maybe some of the backup musicians, of which there are 8 or 9 - are some of them high-schoolers, too? The girl singers have been replaced once or twice.

Many in the audience are older folk - revisiting their youth, one suspects - and after the show, a woman remarks on the lankiest singer's long limbs. "Yeah, it's hard to get clothes," the performer replies. Actually, I thought she said it's hard to get close. That would fit too, for the trio accentuate their songs with 60's cheerleading gestures, arms flailing like windmills.

Doug is captivated by all this. You want to leave? I ask after a few songs. Slight but emphatic shake of the head no. You want to stay? Slight but emphatic shake of the head yes. You want one of their CDs? Yes. So we wait in the lineup, which really isn't wheelchair accessible, and they sign his copy with hugs and kisses - xxooxxoo. Of course, Doug solicits actual hugs and gets them from the girl or two closest to him. Backing out, he keeps it up and gets several more hugs from other girls....you know...girls in the audience, girl friends of the singers, and so forth!

Back at the home I write up a report - they like to keep track of social progress and "if it's not documented, it didn't happen." I tell about all the hugs and conclude with the question "how does he do that?" I mean, it's not as if anyone offered to hug me.

These are my people: the developmentally disabled - to use the current jargon. Working at the group home was probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had, and I resisted any attempts to rise in the ranks because each step up meant more bureaucracy and less contact with residents. I still keep up with them. This outing with Doug was on my own time.

All this explains why I'm not in a hurry to pick any quarrel with Sabrine Bonnaire, one of France's premiere actresses. We're on the same team. True, I'm not familiar with her acting career, but then I'm not French, am I? Who would ever have thought that a film would be made about a group home, and if it was, who would ever have thought it would be any good? But such is Ms. Bonnaire's first stab at film directing. The film is Her Name is Sabine. It's a documentary set in a group home. Sabine is Sabrine's sister.  Sigh....I hope it's not a sign of how invisible these people are that even the reviewer has screwed up the title: it is not the cheery My Name is Sabine, as he states. It is the more provocative Her Name is Sabine, implying that most people would see her as a subject, a patient, a resident, a disabled person, a ....but she has a name.

Sabrine Bonnaire makes sure people know her name. She's pulled photos and home movies out of a seemingly bottomless reservoir to show her sister growing up - a vibrant, talented (she plays classical piano), pleasantly quirky girl - once inseparable from the 18 month older Sabrine. But she suffers from autism. It's effects grow more pronounced through the years. Her parents pull her out of school and hire tutors. Still, she deteriorates. An admittance to the hospital's psych ward is a total disaster - the screen goes black while Sabrine narrates the details.

Sabine is now in a group home, just like where Doug is. The French actress used her fame to jump-start funding, and the house exists largely because of her. She's since met with French President Nocolas Sarkozy and Minister for Work and Social Affairs Xavier Bertrand to argue for the disabled. Is Sandrine Bonnaire the French version of Geraldo Rivera? Like him, she's done much to advocate for this most vulnerable population, and I can't do anything but cheer her for that.

Now....the point upon which I would contend with Ms. Bonnaire is a small point. It's hardly the focus of her story. Barely worth mentioning. On the other hand, I will mention it AND I will make a big deal over it. It steams me. In the midst of the film review linked to above is inserted Sabrine's observation about their Jehovah's Witnesses upbringing (who would have guessed?), as if it somehow explains Sabine's troubles:

Sandrine and Sabine grew up in a large, working-class family on the outskirts of Paris. Their mother was a Jehovah's Witness whose strict adherence to the sect's rules on birth control explains the number of children: 11 in total, of which Sandrine, now 41, is the sixth, Sabine the seventh. Growing up in a Jehovah's Witness home was "quite heavy", says Sandrine. "First of all, it was very boring. You don't do birthdays and Christmas when everyone else does them. You can have them, but three or four days after the date, so you feel apart from your friends."

I tell you, I won't put up with it. I'll bet you anything that this girl was fully embraced in the local congregation and circuit, where the atmosphere is warm and accepting, and where children are taught to be kind and compassionate to those less fortunate, rather than "bullying" and "mocking" (yes, even during birthdays and Christmas), as they were in the grade school Sabine had to be pulled from. It's not Jehovah's Witnesses who screwed up the title of her film. The JW mother ought to be a hero in this story, not a token religious nut. She nurtured her daughter as a child and adult as, one by one, other siblings departed for lives of their own. How is it that Sabine plays classical piano without, at the very least, mother's support? Mom dutifully followed doctor's advice and admitted Sabine into the local hospital, where they put her in locked isolation and straightjacket, administered drugs by the truckload, denied toilet facilities, and ultimately forbade family visitation - these were medical experts, mind you - and finally returned the woman to her mother in far worse shape than they found her. Does it occur to anyone that the mother's faith helped her carry on when everyone else failed her daughter? As stated at the outset, family involvement with the developmentally disabled is, at least in the U.S, rare.

And what is this about the "sect's rules on birth control?" Nobody among Jehovah's Witnesses has any hang-ups about birth control, unless you mean the abortion-inducing IUD kind, which yes, we do reject. But contraceptives? Condoms? No one has any issue with them. So if the mother did have strong views in this regard, it didn't come from the "sect." And the holidays? Well, yes, I suppose. But surely it's a matter of perspective. There were Jewish kids when I was going to school and they sat out every Christmas and Easter. It wasn't that big of a deal. There were compensating attributes within their own faith. No one carried on about how they were deprived. Look, if there's a party going on, of course a child will want to be part of it, same as all will want to subsist on ice cream and candy. But as adults, you hopefully come to realize what's important and what's not. Christmas, to take the most prominent example, does not fall on Christ's birthday. Jesus never said anything about celebrating his birth anyway, and most customs associated with it are from non if not anti-Christian sources.

In fact, is it just Sabrine Bonnaire or is it all of France? For perhaps two decades, France has leveled a 60% tax on financial contributions made to Jehovah's Witnesses, a repressive measure unheard of in any free country, and a plain attempt to stamp out the group. The policy's been under appeal from the outset and will likely be decided in the European High Court. Look, I know that much of Europe is intensely secular, and probably France most of all. I suspect it stems from World Wars I and II, bloodbaths that found fertile soil in the very continent where churches held most sway. If churches can't prevent such mass slaughters, what good are they? But how ironic that the only Christian group with the guts to unilaterally stand up to Hitler is the one most harassed in post-war France!

Still, the movie is great. It's a shame so few Americans know of it, just as they know nothing of Maigret. French critics dubbed it "the most beautiful film Cannes has given us this year". Mrs. Sheepandgoats and I, though not of that august body, fully concur.

Comments

Mary from Meander With Me

An interesting and indepth look into the background of a child brought up in a Jehovah Witness household. Causes me to appreciate even more my childhood. Though never forced to go to either Sunday School or church, never heard a spoken prayer from either of my parents,never had so much as a moment of Bible instruction and looked forward with anticipation to holidays such as Easter and Christmas, I somehow was reared to be an honest, compassionate, empathizing and loving adult. I wish my own children could have been so lucky. By the time our third child was born, my husband, with me meekly folllowing, became emeshed in a fundamental church whose members believed in curtailing all things "wordly". Our "Christmas tree" for a few years became a lighted Cross in the living room. Forunately, such restrictions did not deter them from becming loving and compassionae human beings.

tom sheepandgoats

I'm not sure how typical it is. From what I understand, Sandrine auditioned, almost as a fluke, as a teenager. Directors liked what they saw, and she soon became a French megastar, living in a world entirely different from we regular people, as megastars do. She now observes that aspects of her childhood were not fun. Everyone wants to have fun. Ours is an age in which people typically resent restrictions and want to throw them off - not merely religious restrictions, but any restrictions.

You observe that your own children are loving and compassionate, and then conclude that it was in spite of their restrictions. Perhaps it was because of them? Probably there were plusses and minuses. But six out of six is not a bad track record. I'ts hard to argue that their upbringing was unequivocally rotten. From this distance, it seems your children have not been too poorly served by their training, and it is mostly your resentment with your former religion, which you seemingly had no background, temperment or heartfelt agreement with, but instead were "bullied" into it, that causes you to see it all in a negative light. Perhaps their upbringing truly was repressive without redemption; I wouldn't know, and in any case am not an apologist for Mennonites. But I'm sure you will acknowledge that there are truckloads of thoroughly loathsome people in the world today, and the proportion of them coming from "restrictive" religious upbringings is not unduly large.

JWs don't classify themselves as fundamentalists, though I will concede there are some similarities. But, then again, there are some similarities with many groups.

Mary from Meander With Me

tom sheepandgoats, you suggest that perhaps my children turned out well because of the restrictions placed on them by their parents' religion. Not so. By the time my youngest children were old enough to be aware of the pleasure denied them at Christmas time and so on, I had come to my senses. I demanded my husband relax the strict rules imposed by the church and once again, a decorated Christmas tree was an important part of Christmas. Come Easter,Easter baskets became a tradition. When I brought our first television into the house, my enraged husband was determined it was not going to remain. It did. If you were to talk to my oldest son and oldest daughter, they'd tell you what it was like to be brought up in an overly religious household. For that, I would give much to undo.

Mary from Meander With Me

No, I was not "bullied" into anything. I may have followed my husband into an overly religious church group of Bible-believing Christians, because I saw no other way, however I believed every word I was told, that is until I finally came to my senses. If I am bitter about anything, I am bitter about what my oldest children endured for far too many years. One can love and obey God without going to extremes.

tom sheepandgoats

Okay.

Regarding TV, I found that the best way to get a TV was not to have one. Visitors would stop by, notice the gaping hole in the living room, and would feel bad, as if they discovered your refrigerator empty. Next thing you know, they'd buy a new set and give you the old one.

It worked recently. A relative bought one of those new half-acre sized TVs and gave us the old one, which is larger than anything else we've ever had. Lest you think we're freeloaders, I don't lobby for them or cry the blues that I'm missing CSI. No. They just come my way.

Ragoth

Hey Tom,

I would also point out the Confessing Church during World War II, a la Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Granted, most of them were put to death, Bonhoeffer for spying for England and being involved with the plot to assassinate Hitler, but they stood their ground in opposition to the Nazi take-over of the German church.

Now, also granted, they didn't take a pacifist stance. Bonhoeffer and Barth originally started that way, but Bonhoeffer became convinced that as evil a thing as it would be, he would have to suffer the consequences in the afterlife to help the Brits, and, eventually, to become involved in the assassination plot.

Also granted they were a relatively small group, but, I just wanted to throw in there were some other religious groups openly and constantly opposed to Hitler and the Nazi party, even in the face of death threats and directly against the rest of the churches out of which they came from.

I actually really like Bonhoeffer, and I think he did some good, if ultimately unworkable, thinking in ethics. Good reading, anyway, for the most part.

How are things in the Sheepandgoats land?

-Ragoth

tom sheepandgoats

At the beginning of the Nazi era, the German population was almost exclusively Lutheran or Catholic. If either of those faiths had taken the same stand as Jehovah's Witnesses, there probably would not have been a WWII. But nationalism won out, as it almost always does. Those churches threw in their support behind Hitler.

Now, not everyone in those churches threw in their support. It was not unanamous. Perhaps 10% of German Protestants took a stand against Hitler. Doubtless Catholics as well. The point is, though, that they had to defy their church to do it. They were an embarrassment to their church, denounced by the leadership as unpatriotic and so forth. So some of them banded together into schisms of their own - such as the Confessing Church? Others acted independently as renegades. I have nothing but admiration for these persons. You're absolutely right to recognize and honor them. They were extraordinary people.

But not everyone is extraordinary. Most people are quite ordinary. It's true with Jehovah's Witnesses. Some are extraordinary, but most are just regular folk. Our people did not have to stand against their own religious organization. We stood against Hitler because of our religious training. Those others stood against Hitler in spite of theirs.

People benefit from organization, even though that is almost a dirty word today. You should hear how often the terms "brain-washing" and "mind control" are applied to us. But without leadership from a genuine principled organization, only 10% were able to resist the greatest atrocity of all time. With leadership from a genuine principled organization, virtually all were able to resist.

You may know that, once in the concentration camps, Jehovah's Witnesses were able to write their ticket out at any time. All they had to do was sign a statement renouncing their faith and pledging support to the Nazi regime. Only a handful obliged - a fact that sixty years later I still find staggering.

Nice hearing from you, Ragoth, and thanks for the greetings. What's new here? Though most of the country baked this summer, we in New York had one of the coldest, rainiest summers on record. What looks like my suntan is actually rust.

Ragoth

I agree with you in so far as your analysis of the Jehovah's Witnesses during WWII is concerned. My only point of contention is that I think both the members of the Confessing Church and myself would say that they were acting out of their religious training as well, as opposed to the religious leanings of the rest of the people at the time. They utterly rejected what Nazi politics had done within the church, essentially turning Jesus into Thor, and rejected the unity of church and state. There are some uncomfortable parallels between the Nazi church and some modern American evangelical movements which want to present Christianity as a permanent crusade against outsiders and others, and a God-given, pure-bred American right and heritage.

Regardless, yes, there were some brave people who stood up the Nazi regime, and many of them gave their lives for it. I think it's important for people to realize, as you state, that for most people it wasn't something inherently evil that drove them to support, at least tacitly, the Nazis - it's an entirely human trait to be obedient to authority along some spectrum. The Milgram experiments, and latter confirmations, have gone a long way towards getting to the basis of some of this obedience complex...I don't know if they ever tested Jehovah's Witnesses, or if they did if they kept a record of it, but in general, the ones who stop the experiment tend to be the ones who reject higher authorities, or, those who have an extremely strong empathic response from some moral code. These two can overlap, in the case of some secular humanists, and some of the very religious reject any worldly authority figures. It's an interesting experiment, and a little depressing in its exposure of our ordinariness and compliance with authority figures.

Trust me, I can understand the crappy summer. I'm in Chicago, and we had maybe one or two warm days. It's usually overcast, cold, and dreary here. I'm got red rot stains on some of my fingers from working in the library, and I think I'm paler than I ever was after being in that basement all day every day. Good luck to you, and it's good to hear from you again. I'm still puttering around my own blog, but with trying to plan a wedding, working, and all the other stress of life, it's been hard to update anywhere near regularly.

tom sheepandgoats

The lesson to be learned, then - is it that we should reject authority? Or that we should choose our authority wisely?

The first course, I readily concede, appeals to both human intellect and pride. But I think it's contrary to the way we're 'built.' The human authority that JWs acknowledge knows full well that their authority is relative, and they comport themselves accordingly. We would not have selected them otherwise.

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