When Does Editing Become Censorship?

When Editing Becomes CensorshipWHEN DOES EDITING BECOME CENSORSHIP?

I recently had to answer this question when Vermont Public Radio prohibited me from using the word “grandfather” to name my childhood abuser.

They insisted on alternatives, like “male relative.”

I refused.

For ten days we went back and forth, trying to find a way through this editorial impasse until finally, I withdrew my script and wrote the story of what had become the all-too-familiar narrative of being blamed, shamed and silenced for speaking out about sexual abuse.

But I wasn’t silenced: I wrote the story about VPR’s attempt to censor me, published here.

DRAWING AN ETHICAL LINE IN THE SAND

I was torn between my desire to broadcast my story and my need to be accurate. In the past, I’ve mostly accepted editorial suggestions that I thought were less than perfect but not worth taking to the mat. This time, I balked for the following reasons:

  1. Precision of Language: There was no reason to be vague when the English language already provides a perfectly good, accurate, and specific word to name my abuser: He was my grandfather.
  2. To use one of VPR’s suggested substitutes, like “beloved male relative” or “someone close” would be to cast aspersions on many innocent people, including all my truly beloved and respectful male relatives and friends;
  3. VPR’s claim that to name “my grandfather” crossed the line of “journalistic integrity” is specious:
    1. My grandfather died in 1972; the dead cannot sue for defamation of character;
    2. This is a commentary, not a news report;
    3. My contract clearly states that I’m responsible for the veracity of my content, not the radio station.

A MATTER OF TRUST

Worse than the arguments outlined above was the station’s complete lack of trust in me, despite their repeated protestations of “complete trust in your integrity.” Ironically, the script I’d submitted was about why women stay silent about sexual abuse for fear of being disbelieved. I was disbelieved.

Worst: VPR worked harder to protect the reputation of my long-dead abuser than to help get this story out in the world. They didn’t succeed in silencing me, as I found a different outlet for the story, but they have done their audience a disservice by remaining silent about what happens to ordinary women who are willing to speak out about what we’re discovering to be a common occurrence.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post, among other mainstream news outlets, continues to publish the voices of well-known women willing to talk about their abuse. Are only celebrities allowed to speak? Let’s not kid ourselves: sexual abuse occurs across all ages, genders, races, religions, socio-economic groups; it is truly inclusive.

ENDING THE SILENCE

At first, I was hesitant to insist on accurate language for fear that I’d never be allowed on the radio again. But during the ten days of arguing by email, I knew that speaking the dirty truth was more important than sanitizing my words, even if it meant losing what has been a wonderful gig. I’ve already found other outlets for publication.

And most important: I’m doing my part to end the silence that allows the ubiquitous abuse of girls and women at work, at school and at home to continue.

I hope you will read both He Was My Grandfather and Ordinary, Daily, Demeaning Abuse.

Thank you.

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin lives and writes in southern Vermont. She blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

25 thoughts on “When Does Editing Become Censorship?

  1. I really don’t know what I would have done in similar circumstances. It depends on how many other family members are still around and might be hurt by speaking out, especially if they are in no way to blame for what happened, your grandmother, for instance.
    I’d just like to say how brave Deborah is to share her experience. I hope her outspokenness proves a help to other abused women.

    • Thank you. You raise a good point, and I was sure to inform all those close to me before this was published, telling them what happened and that they were no way to blame. My grandfather died in 1972; my grandmother in 1973; both my parents are dead, and they only would have known if I’d told them. It’s this silence that allows this behavior to continue, so it was time to speak out.

  2. Legally I see their point. Ethically I see yours. It’s really ironic and troublesome that as they try to give survivors a voice, they try to limit that voice depending on what is being said. GG all the way, no need to censor yourself, or anyone else, because (if I’m wrong I apologize) people who go through that kind of experience already keep quiet for too long. Someone once said this about the topic and I always think about it when I read about these things.
    “Talk about it or don’t. Listen or don’t to it. Don’t go halfies during it. The abuse didnt go halfies and neither did the shame and humilation. Respect the person enough to do one or the other. It helps no one otherwise.”
    They were very strong on the point.
    GG. ❤

    • Thank you, Tina. In hindsight, I realize that I didn’t fight editorial interference before this because the stakes were too small. Not this time.

  3. I cannot say “why” your grandfather behaved in such a horrid fashion, but obviously he felt it was “okay” to do so. In other words there would be no repercussions, no real check, no blame whatsoever. He relied on accepted inviolate white-male privilege that by and large ruled from the highest echelons of power to the humble walls of a little girl’s home. Privilege that even now allows men to “get away with” sexually abusive behavior, e.g. our sitting president.

    So far as I’m concerned VPR should have rewarded your bravery with publication . Why? Because by doing so they would have been instrumental in building a strong and meaningful narrative that would serve to support any female who finds herself in a similar situation. Bless your heart, you had no safety net, no visible support. The grandfather did and he knew it. I’m glad you were able to finally publish. It is a strong statement. You are a remarkable woman.

  4. Censorship is indeed taking over from Truth telling as far as writers are concerned. Politically correct language has become ridiculous ie no genders in stories when clearly it needs a girl, and a boy etc. Yet here in Oz we are stunned by how the media can get away with outright deception and even lies particularly when it comes to your now sitting President. Previous Presidents who did woeful things simply got away with it.(wait to see the unravelled lives only just coming to light. We here in Oz marvelled but such is the way of Deception and Truth. As far as your story is concerned …it is a horrid event but does it do any good to anyone to write the graphic identities of perpetrators who may have people still alive who are innocent who would be harmed by the disclosure?. We all have our stories BUT…..I would not leave as my legacy such a story or such a legacy. Truth needs to be TOLD. Evil needs to be uncovered but is it necessary to specifically pinpoint. people. My family too has its past sins but the women today would write perhaps to help others but would not in wider public disclosure ‘say it as it was with identity disclosure’. (A can of worms…better buried).

  5. Proud of you on many levels here. Standing up for your truth, naming your grandfather to diminish his power, being honest about your story, being educated and wise about all the arguments thrown at you, and honoring your right to be open. All things that come from strength. Those commenting here who feel the past should stay in the past because others might be harmed only put layers of shame, guilt, and undeserved responsibility on the victim.

  6. If one will look at the FCC Charter, it specifically states that since the public airwaves belong to the People of the United States, First Amendment rights of Freedom of Speech (I like to use the word “liberty” because it implies personal responsibility) must be adhered to and maintained and not stifled except in very specific cases of things like fraud, slander, intentional harm and insurrection. They cannot deny you access to the airwaves. They may say “Public” in their name, but they are indeed private and the US Constitution nor any of its laws give them any official powers. Since they take government funding and grants they are doubly obligated to obey these tenets. I have helped fight First Amendment cases, assisting the ACLU and every single time we have won. Calling up the ACLU might not be a bad idea to find out if your matter is important enough for them to help you take on. To me, the greatest act of a true patriot is to stand witness against those who would seek to destroy our liberties. At least that is what I thought when I joined the Service so long ago and what I still fervently believe to this day. You are strong. You are righteous and you are are a true patriot. Thank you and bless you.

    • Wow! Your words are both refreshing and inspiring. Dissidents and Whistleblowers are so often blamed and shunned for speaking out that to be reminded that speaking out is patriotic is a balm. Thank you, thank you. And I’m taking your advice seriously. First, however, a journalist has picked up the story for wider circulation. I’m interested to see what we can do using our First Amendment rights.
      Again, thanks for your support and blessing.

  7. Wow. What a powerful article and I am glad you spoke the truth, without bowing to victim-shaming language. We need stories like yours, that are specific in their language so others may feel empowered in their own voices. Thank you for sharing, and for not allowing yourself to be censored.

    • You are welcome. The outpouring of support has been astonishing. I knew I was doing the right thing; it’s very gratifying to have it acknowledged. And the more I think about it, the more important it is to have named my relationship to my abuser. So many people have confided in my “it was a favorite uncle,” “it was a family friend,” “it was my father.” There are literally untold stories of sexual abuse of young girls by close family members – and it’s just not said, even in this era of national accounting. I hope that by speaking out, those who are suffering this secret abuse know that they have a right to speak up and stay STOP! And maybe those who are abusing the young girls in their families see their actions in a new light. it’s a lot to hope for – especially when public radio is too timid to air the truth.

  8. Thanks for being strong. We are looking up to people like you who will take their stand on important mattersthat matters to the masses. Write to live., live to write…. That is challenging

  9. Pingback: Rape is Rape – Chaotic Dancing Star

  10. I too have a very powerful urge to tell the truth of events and people exactly as I remember them, If I write that a shirt was blue, for example, and it was really red I agonize, so I have to change it. I realize how difficult that decision must have been for you.

    • I’m hopeful that the more people talk about what they remember during and after abuse and assault, the more people will understand how the stress of these events skews memory. The judicial system invokes facts as evidence; hopefully they will start to acknowledge the fact of stress as evidence.
      At first I didn’t want to speak out against Vermont Public Radio. I didn’t want to have to give up my work there as a long-time regular commentator. But over the ten days of trying to understand their ever-changing and never defined “standards,” it became clear that they were more interested in protecting my long-dead and never named grandfather than in airing an important commentary for our times. Their bad. Thank you for your kind words.

  11. Very powerful testimony Deborah, I applaud you and encourage you to speak the truth . . . even if VPR backed away.
    I’ve been reading your posts for a long time, first time commented. I’m a full time writer, have a travel blog as well, but don’t have time to comment on blogs. You’re the exception.
    Embrace your strength — as a woman and author.

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