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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

There Are None So Blind

Image from a private collection

Imagine being accepted into one of the most prestigious private schools in America. And not just a private school, but a nationally renowned theater conservatory. A school born from the mind of a genius, a school written about in newspapers from coast to coast. A school praised by Joel Grey, Dr. Seuss, Tomie dePaola, a school so famous, it was featured in Smithsonian Magazine. You auditioned for the theater school, or interviewed for the tech school, and from hundreds of other applicants, you were accepted. You were a student at Children's Theatre Conservatory in Minneapolis.

Wearing your grey sweatshirt with the signature CTC bird emblazoned on the back, black karate pants, and sneakers (or jazz shoes, which were all the rage in the 80's), you dashed into the red lobby every morning, excited to begin the day. You took "regular" classes-math, English, science, history-and then you were immersed in your theatrical lessons. For acting students, there was ballet, jazz, movement, improv, voice, speech, stage fighting. For tech students, you might learn how to draft a light plot, design a series of sound cues, build a car for Babar to drive around, program a light or sound board, hem a costume. It was the most wonderful place in the world.

But there were whispers, allegations spoken in hushed tones. That genius, artistic director John Clark Donahue, was taking young male students to his office, closing the curtains couldn't believe it. The sound designer, one of the tech instructors, well, yes, he'd...but...and an intern might have raped a female student...but this was CTC! This was a famous school, where you were told day in and day out you were safe, understood, that no one on the "outside" would ever understand you the way CTC did. Donahue would hold "meetings" in the black box theater, seated upon what looked very much like a throne, and tell you and other students CTC was a "womb." He would, in his low, almost hypnotic voice, make you believe children, especially "special" children, didn't want to be treated like children. 

And then, one day (it may have just seemed like one day), it all exploded. Or imploded, depending on where you were standing at the time. The whispered allegations were true. John Clark Donahue was a child molester, as were others on the teaching staff. Still others knew precisely what was going on, and did nothing. They lied to us. Yes, us. I was a student at CTC for a little over two years, and I was a victim of one of the teachers in the tech department. Trust me when I tell you the denial on the part of the administration, many parents, the city of Minneapolis, and even the students who had been preyed upon, was powerful. I didn't tell the investigators what happened to me, primarily because even as a tech student, who didn't have as much contact with Donahue as students in the acting school, I still believed what had happened to me was okay. I was a nerdy teenage girl with a punk haircut, he was handsome and talented, and there was that never-ending mantra playing in my head: special children don't want to be treated like children.

The safety we were promised was as flimsy as a scrim. That womb was, in reality, a mine field. The adults charged with our education were, at the very least, culpable in what happened to us. Our childhoods were less important than the reputation of John Clark Donahue's creation. To this day, some survivors of that time at CTC struggle to come to grips with what happened, not only to them, but to others. 

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Children's Theatre. We, the former students of CTC, want our voices to be heard. We need to be honored and remembered for what we endured, and for what we have become. Artists, actors, screenwriters, musicians, dancers, teachers, writers, choreographers, wives, husbands, parents. We are more than our time at CTC, and yet our time there influences us to this day, in both good ways and not-so-good-ways. We love theater, music, art, dance. When my husband, son, and I attended a Moody Blues concert last summer, I spent over half an hour with the lighting designer. CTC gave that to me.

CTC also took away so much innocence. We were betrayed, we were preyed upon, we were lied to, and in the end, many were treated like criminals by law enforcement. But how do you explain to a police officer, or a BCA investigator, that you were part of a cult masquerading as a school? How do stammer out that you don't think what happened to you was wrong, because every day, for a year, or two years, or more, a man who was worshiped by so many told you special children don't want to be treated like children? And part of that was sex? It was called sex, not rape, not molestation, not abuse, and you believed that. How do you ever make that sound sane or rational?

In the end, Donahue pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and spent less than a year on a work farm. The others charged were either acquitted, or the charges against them were dropped. Students refused to testify, or lied to the grand jury. You can't blame them; we were brainwashed into believing down to our core that this was how "it" worked. We were remarkable children, mature beyond our years, and thus, it was perfectly normal for adults to approach us sexually. When law enforcement told us it was, in fact, not normal, and illegal, we were incredulous.

The saying goes "There are none so blind as those who will not see." I've often wondered if, at least in regards to the CTC scandal so many years ago, that saying should be tweaked a bit. Perhaps it could read "There are none so blind as those who do not see what they are seeing." In his book, Hating the sin, loving the sinner: the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company adolescent sexual abuse prosecutions, Martin Costello writes they-the adults, the administration, perhaps even parents-didn't see what they were seeing. It was unfathomable to so many that this was really happening, even after at least one parent removed a child from the school, after the board questioned Donahue, after students began speaking out. 

The current Children's Theatre Company is nothing like the one John Clark Donahue created. It is run by remarkable artists, and continues to produce the best children's theater in the country. And lest anyone think I, or others who survived the dark times of CTC, have no fond memories of our education, you would be wrong. Lifelong friendships were formed, talent blossomed, stars were born. Many of us have a love-hate relationship with CTC, some have more love, while others, more hate. But in the end, it's up to us to carve our names in the stones of tomorrow. And I know we will never turn a blind eye to any child who is suffering, we will never refuse to see what we are seeing. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How Donald Trump could win

Image from

Our neighbors are extremely conservative octogenarians. The first conversation I had with one of them spiraled into a paranoid conspiracy about the "powerful people" who had paid for President Obama's college, and "all his homes." They cannot stand liberals (although he thinks I am "delightful" in spite of my political beliefs; she's not so sure), they think the president is a rabid socialist, and they are extremely Catholic. 

They also vote. Every election, whether local or national, they are at the Knights of Columbus building, ready to make their voices heard. I vote, as does my husband, in every election, and last year, we noticed something. The majority of people waiting in line to cast their vote here were over the age of 70. Now this town has a lot of elderly folks, but we also have younger adults, and those younger adults do not show up to the polls in droves the way retired people seem to.

Yesterday, I watched Donald Trump give a rambling, narcissistic speech to a room filled with older, white conservatives. They laughed at his insults, they cheered his rhetoric about China and Mexico, and they applauded loudly when he claimed he would never, ever cut their Medicare or Social Security. If you visit his Facebook page, which consists primarily of boasting and press releases written on Trump letterhead, his most rabid supporters are older conservatives. 

We all have a relative who sends us weird chain emails. Stuff from Infowars, or Heritage Foundation, about the END OF IT ALL, or how Obama is COMING FOR YOUR GUNS, or SCOTUS has to be fired. With Trump, it's as if two things have happened: that relative is running for office, and the only people he appeals to are other goofy cousins, aunts, and uncles who think all our problems will be solved if we become a theocracy, give guns to everyone over the age of 6 months, and blow up the Middle East, except for Israel. 

They're terrified. Of what, it's hard to say. They have this fantasy about what America should be, and Trump has the same fantasy. It's a country where the minimum wage no longer exists, but somehow, we manage to get all our technology manufactured here. It's a country where we use Christian dogma to govern, but have disdain and hatred for all other religions. It's a country where a fetus is sacrosanct, but feeding poor children isn't important. It's a country where the government makes endless war, but claims it cares about veterans.

It's a country of hypocrisy, contradiction, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and social injustice. Where a bakery can make a fortune online refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings, but a charity that helps LGBT teens whose "Christian" families have thrown them out onto the street struggles to make ends meet. Where single mothers are shamed by conservative presidential candidates, while at the same time shaming contraception. Where a white police officer who was "dismissed" from the force for performing in blackface will be appearing at a fundraiser for the police officers charged with killing unarmed African American Freddie Gray in blackface.

That's the country Donald Trump and his army of retired conservatives dream about on a daily basis. The country we live in now, for the most part. And they want to keep it this way. They long for the 1950's, before that pesky Civil Rights Act, before women went to work, when there was a Chevy in every driveway, the LGBT community was being institutionalized against their will, interracial marriage was illegal, and the marginal tax rate for wealthiest Americans was around 90%. Well, not the last part, obviously, but everything else. 

And those terrified, white, conservative retirees are supporting Donald Trump in droves. Will he get the nomination? Doubtful, but he could run on a third party ticket. Then what? Do the same people who stayed home last year have faith that millions of scared, white, elderly Americans won't buck the system, and vote for Trump no matter what? 

Our former landlord used to inundate my husband with wild stories of the "Muslim president," socialism, and religion. He votes. The elderly man I heard yelling at the bank because Obama never served in Vietnam votes. The older woman at the salon, musing that if young women didn't get themselves all "tarted up," they wouldn't get raped-she votes. The retirees walking the mall, growling about how we're no longer a "Christian nation," and how we need to teach creationism in public schools-they vote. And they really like Donald Trump, because he's rude, and opinionated, and boorish, and he doesn't care a whit what other candidates think of him. Trump feeds off negative publicity; he loved it when Lindsey Graham called him a jackass, he loved it when Hillary Clinton spoke about his tone, he was thrilled when Marco Rubio and Scott Walker and Jeb Bush called him out for his comments about John McCain. 

That's how Trump could win. By being the antithesis of what America actually needs to move forward. By appealing to an entire (and very large) demographic that wants to continue taking America back to a time when, if you weren't a white, male, heterosexual Christian, your life pretty much sucked. Donald Trump is not presidential material, any more than Sarah Palin was. But she appealed to the same kind of people: fervently religious, desperately afraid, ignorant, xenophobic, and filled with a longing for a "simpler time." 

You know, a simpler time. When racism, classism, discrimination, sexism, and white folks ruled the country. Before that "uppity" black president. Before "they" could get married. When we put God on our money, in our pledge, and in our motto. When a deputy sheriff in the KKK could help arrange the murder of three civil rights workers, and nobody cared.

A simpler time. That's what Donald Trump is promising, and that's what his supporters want. Do you?