Conspiracy of Shame

Posted: April 23, 2010 in Poetry, Uncategorized

CONTEXT: May, 2009

Okay, this is a tough one to write, but the genie is out of the bottle… as it should be… and there is no putting it back in.

Let me just say right up front, when I was young (7 or 8 is an estimate), I was sexually abused by a (male) babysitter.

To really understand the poem and where the poem came from and everything around it, you need to know that. In addition, I have come to the belief that hiding that fact is a destructive practice. It is destructive to me and it is destructive to those who could be helped by bringing the discussion out in the open.

So, why now? Why do I talk about something at the age of 42 that I have never talked about before?

Well, first, let me tell you the grand total of people that I told between then and the time I performed the poem: 3. It wasn’t that I was keeping it a secret from the world as much as I had buried it as completely as I could. The first two people I told happened in the midst of a conversation where they were talking about all the women they knew who had been abused. I said, “It isn’t just women.” I surprised myself, because I had done everything I could to not remember.

The third person I told was Ruthanne.

Buried. Deep.

So, why now?

In my last post I wrote about a poem I was writing that was about abuse. After I wrote it, while I was memorizing it, I questioned my choice to make it third person. I asked myself if it would be better in first person, even though the story was fictional (though still true, of course). I told myself it was better in third person because I didn’t really have any experience with abuse.

Then I said to myself, “Wow. Is THAT ever a lie.”

Not just a lie, but lying to MYSELF.

Well, then, while I kept working on the poem I planned to do for the finals, the lie wouldn’t get out of my head. It was distracting and upsetting. Finally I decided to just write the poem so I could get it out of my system. I had no plans to ever share it. I had kept it buried for a long time and my plan was to rebury it and then get back to Blue, Black or Red.

Then I wrote the poem. This poem. I finished it, with no shortage of pain and tears along the way, and then said, “Well, that is done. Now I will put it away and no one will ever see it.”

The problem is that the primary message of the poem is to end the ‘Conspiracy of Shame’ by talking about it. I started to realize that refusing to share it would be the ultimate hypocritical act.

I read it to Ruthanne, trying to keep myself from choking up. When I finished it the first thing she said was, “You better get to memorizing it.” She knew. I HAD to share this poem. I had very little choice at this point.

Now, let’s talk about that for a bit. I have heard the murmurs. I know there are people who think that me doing the poem at the finals was using my trauma in order to get marks. They have (quietly) accused me of trying to manipulate the audience and not expressing truth.

They are wrong.

Why did I do it at the slam? Because slam is what I do. It is the artform that I use to express myself. I do not apologize for that. Ever. To say that it wasn’t appropriate to perform this poem in that forum implies that you should not do anything that matters in slam. You should never expose yourself and share honest emotion.

I will tell you flat out that I will keep doing poems ‘like’ this in slam. If a poem doesn’t mean anything to me, I am not going to perform it. I am not a pop singer. I am a poet… and a poet that writes about things that move me or matter to me or define me… or whatever.


So I memorized it. The Finals came and I knew I was going to perform it first… for no other reason than the fact that the stress of exposing myself like I was about was actually making me ill. I knew that if I didn’t do it first, I might collapse in on myself. I picked an upbeat poem for my other choice and I could only hope I was still able to do it when it was time.

As it happened, right before me was Ikenna who debuted ‘When It Rains’. Powerful and moving… but I wasn’t really listening that time. Since then it has made me tear up, but that first time I was pretty much in a cocoon, trying to get through the night.

Then I did my poem. I had been jotting down the scores of the other poets and before I went on stage I gave my notebook to Danielle and asked her to take over for a bit. The reason is that when I tried to visualize doing the poem, it included me wanting to leave when I was done. I figured I was going to go hide for a little while to get my bearings back.

But when I performed… I was calm for a while. It was an enforced calm, trying to keep myself together. While I spoke I looked at the eyes of the people watching me. Some were friends, some strangers… but the love and support I felt was palpable. There was one young woman… I don’t know who she was, but when I got the line about admitting it was me, I thought I had just broken her heart. I started to stumble over myself as getting the words out was getting tougher, but I saw her standing there, patting her heart, with such a sad look on her face, and I just knew I could get through it. When I said the line about how I should have stopped him, she mouthed the word ‘no’ and slowly shook her head.

She was my saviour in that moment and I still don’t know who she was.

When I got off the stage, the rush of love from the crowd was intense. Nate was very understated when he came back on to the mic. As I made my way through the crowd… well, let’s say it took a long time as the hugs were plentiful.

By the time I got to the back, I didn’t feel like I had to hide. Everything was clear to me that I had done the right thing. I saw more than one poet (and non-poet) with wet cheeks. It was like their tears helped me stop from breaking down, if that makes any sense.

Afterwards, one man, in his mid-twenties I would say, came up to me and thanked me for the poem. I looked in his eyes and knew what he was telling me.

The whole thing just seemed right.

After that, a few things happened. I had assumed that I was going to tell Andrew (our producer at Mudshark) that the poem was off-limits for the CD. It was one thing to share it in the room. It was another thing to broadcast my life for everyone to hear.

But I thought of that guy who came up to me after the show… and I didn’t. Andrew put it on the CD.

I DID ask John Akpata to not post the video on YouTube and I did keep discussions on-line about it well hidden, but that was for a different reason. You see, when I listed those three people I had ever told, none of them included my family (other than Ruthanne). I figured that having my parents and sister learn about it over the internet was unacceptable.

When we went to the festival this year, it was in Victoria. Before I gave them the CD I sat down with my family and let them know.

It hurt. The last thing I ever wanted was to cause my family, especially my mom, pain. I know she cried.

I just want to say here, in case she reads it (though I told her in person as well), that it was not her fault. In any way. At all.

There was no way she could have known it was going to happen and there was no way of knowing it DID happen. I was a messed up kid and she knew that. She tried her best to help me through it, but there is only so much you can do. And what can I say now? Did I get through it all?

I’m here now, aren’t I?

Originally, I was going to perform it once and put it away. I was convinced by the reactions of other people that this was a bad idea. I became convinced that I could actually DO GOOD by performing it.

Then I performed it again… when the crowd was not quite so outgoing and supportive.

I felt naked on stage. Vulnerable. Exposed.

I haven’t performed it since.

I will, though. It just has to be the right time.

    Conspiracy of Shame

There is a conspiracy of shame
Become so ingrained
It overrides all rationale.
A belief held tightly
Like a protective shield
Against the harshness of reality.

There was a man, long after a
Failed marriage, leaving
Three children behind with
Their mother.
A life filled with regrets
And alcohol
Tied together too tightly
To unravel.
Attemtps to abandon one
To correct the other
Proved fruitless as some regrets
Run too deeply and cut too severely.
At least they should.
As twenty years after the fact
His wife demands justice.
His children demand justice.
And the world learns that
Some sins can never be
Forgiven or forgotten.
He lost his freedom for a time
But they lost thier
Childhood forever.
Enveloped in
A conspiracy of shame
Become so ingrained
It overrides all rationale.
A belief held tightly
Like a protective shield
Against the harshness of reality.

Children who are sexually abused
Do not – CAN NOT – see the world
In the same way as those whoe
Were not.
The shame digs deeply
Like the twisted claws of nightmare
Hooking thier hearts and minds
And fouling them
Until the child sees himself
As a creature of horror,
Deserving of scorn.
The damage is internalized
Even after the predator has
Moved on to other prey,
Vices or nightmares.
It becomes a secret so deep,
So dark and powerful that it
Becomes a conspiracy of shame
Become so ingrained
It overrides all rationale.
A belief held tightly
Like a protective shield
Against the harshness of reality.

There was a boy, no more than 7 or 8,
Taken into the forest by a
Baby-sitter / authority figure
In order to play a game.
A game of shame so ingrained
That the shroud never truly lifts.
In Canada it is believed that 44%
Of child sexual abuse is inflicted on boys
Yet only 18% of investigations aim thier
Harsh light in that direction.
A shame already pervasive
Seems doubled and redoubled when
The stigma of abuse is mixed in the
Cauldron of homophobia.
A boy, no more than 7 or 8 had
His innocence stolen away
Leading to a lifetime of fear, mistrust,
And a lack of self-esteem.
A shame so powerful that
It makes me talk in the third person
Rather than admit that the boy
Was me.
I’ve had a lifetime of fear and denial.
A lifetime of silence and guilt
That may have let the abuser continue with others.
I coudl have stopped it, and maybe saved them
If only I could have broken
The conspiracy of shame
Become so ingrained
It overrides all rationale.

A conspiracy of shame.
A conspiracy of one.
A conspiracy that ends now.


Well I need to recover from that.

Luckily the next poem is a lot lighter.

  1. nadinethornhill says:

    This is poem is an act of courage, healing and vulnerability. I generally try to respect people’s right to an opinion, but anyone who felt you should not have performed what you wrote here is wrong. Plain and simple.

    But of course the biggest wrong is what was done to you. The person who hurt you, had no right to inflict his own twisted pain on a little boy…or anybody for that matter. Not talking can create a sort of cocoon of shame and guilt, but that cocoon might also protect you when you’re too raw and vulnerable to deal. You did the best that you could. It wasn’t your responsibility to stop him. It was his responsibility not to hurt you.

    I know nothing I can write, say or do can change what happened or how you feel. But I want you to know that however you managed to survive, I glad that you did it. I’m glad that you’re here and I’m glad you’re my friend.

    And finally…thank you for the poem.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rusty Priske. Rusty Priske said: #rustythepoet Conspiracy of Shame […]

  3. Danny Crane says:

    Very powerful stuff Rusty. Probably your favourite poem that I’ve read of yours (yes, I do actually read them) because it’s so raw and emotional. A very big secret to keep for so long, I hope this poem helps you (and those around you) heal a bit from the experience. It doesn’t have to be a secret anymore.

  4. Tammy MacKenzie says:

    You know I relate.
    To your whole post. In fact, the gift you gave the audience that night was my motivation for doing my piece at our Finals.
    You were there…
    So were my parents.
    It was hard, and painful, and scary.
    And very empowering and liberating.
    I too have had people thank me, for saying what needs to be heard, especially for so many who cannot.
    And that, more than anything, is why it IS right.
    But it was still easier for me, because I am a woman, because my closest friends and parents already knew and were supporting me, and because you had underlined for me once again that it was right.
    I know. And I have the deepest respect and admiration for you.

    Those people? Fuck them. And pray they never have to confront this type of issue first-hand and discover the painful truth of how right you were and what a gift you gave of yourself that night.
    I have to go find the kleenex now…
    Much love Rusty.
    Your Sister…

    • rpriske says:

      I was there and it was amazing and powerful.

      As for ‘those people’, keep in mind that nobody has said this to me… I was just able to pick up on it. In fact, I can see their point, but it comes down to motivation. I know what mine was and that is the only person I need to clear it with.

  5. Toni says:

    one side note: there were/are 4 kids…

    i don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear or read this one without crying.
    for you.
    for mom.
    i don’t even think i know where i fit.
    i was a kid too.
    but now i’m a mom, and to think for a moment that there are things happening that i can’t ….fix

    i love you little brother!
    and i’m sorry if i let you down.


    • rpriske says:

      Yeah, I know there were four. When I wrote it I said three and I think it was the same subconscious gender-typing that caused me so much trouble. I only counted the girls. I decided to leave it, because that part doesn’t have to be specific. It could me talking about all too many families… unfortunately.

      You aren’t the only one who has trouble getting through this one without crying. Trust me on that.

      You never let me down. Nobody did, other than the obvious. I spent most of my life trying to ensure that nobody knew what was going on in my head, if only to make the whole ‘nobody understands me’ thing self-fulfilling.

      My own nature made me put the family at arm’s-reach, but that is all me – not you, not mom, not dad, not anyone else. I’ve grown up now and trust me, I love and value all of you.

  6. […] independently of my slam prep, I wrote Conspiracy of Shame. I’m not going to get into the whole argument of using personal tragedy for slam scores, […]

  7. […] never used to happen. Ever. Before this. I considered it a big breakthrough that I was able to acknowledge it and deal with it. I even felt […]

  8. […] the more personal version, that is Conspiracy of Shame. I haven’t done that piece in a long time. It is hard to do. Maybe I should rememorize it. I […]

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