(This post also appears on my Open Salon blog.)
Ann Bauer‘s recent story about her covert escape from a marriage encounter weekend has inspired some pretty pointed comments. While some are predictably cruel and trollish, others ask this reasonable (and paraphrased) question:
“Nobody was holding you against your will. So why did you feel the need to sneak out of the hotel in which the program was held?”
I can’t speak for Ms. Bauer and her husband, of course, but my suspicion is that, like many of us, they are uncomfortable with confrontation. A less dramatic, but more obvious, retreat could have resulted in a regrettable interaction with their manipulative hosts and, perhaps, other participants.
(Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.)
The article gave me a chuckle and reminded me of an incident that occurred about 15 years ago: A friend invited me to visit her new-agey encounter group. The mixed-gender group (there were about 9 or 10 of us) met in a posh, suburban home that belonged to two of its members, a middle-aged, married couple.
The evening began with the facilitator suggesting the evening’s activity, which was as follows:
- Everyone strips naked.
- Each person takes a turn sitting in front of a large mirror.
- After appropriate contemplation of one’s own reflection, the mirror-gazer then tells the rest of the group what s/he likes about her/his own body.
She asked what we thought of this, and for a few seconds, nobody said anything. So I spoke up: I explained that I was completely uncomfortable with her proposal, and while I did not mean to disrupt the group, I would not participate in the activity.
She looked bemused and explained that, as nudity was commonplace in this program, she didn’t think it would be a problem.
My friend apologized for not explaining this to me before the meeting.
I offered to sit in another room.
The facilitator, showing signs of agitation, pointed out that the group’s purpose was pushing personal boundaries, and that maybe I should ignore my discomfort for my own benefit.
I politely acknowledged the potential validity of her assertion. I also explained that my clothes were staying on.
One group member (and its unofficial leader) became offended and offered to drive me home if getting naked was such a problem.
Over my friend’s protests, I accepted his offer.
After a bit more huffing and puffing, the group finally conceded that, in the future, members should warn guests of possible required nudity. The group also asked the facilitator to choose another, clothed activity. The meeting continued without further disruption.
In truth, I felt badly about the incident. I believe in the “when in Rome” principle, and really didn’t like the fact that my refusal to remove my clothes was such a problem.
Then something strange happened.
When the program for the evening was over, we scattered around the kitchen for snacks. Several group members came up to me and thanked me for voicing my opposition.
(Apparently, these group members, including the people who owned the house in which it met, weren’t crazy about the exercise either. They each spoke of their fear of saying anything, and again thanked me for having the “courage to stand up for myself”.)
The incident left me befuddled. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, considerably younger than the other attendees, most of who were old enough to be my parents. Why were these folks, older and wiser than me, so afraid of acknowledging that that they wanted to keep their private parts private?
(They were probably afraid of having to tangle with the group “leader”, who didn’t hesitate to express his contempt for those less enlightened than himself.)
So I while I understand the commenters who question the choices made by Ms. Bauer and her husband, I’m not going to join their chorus. Heaven knows that I became significantly less brave over the years myself, often staying silent when it was wrong to be so. So instead of telling Anne Bauer off, I am going to try and remember the girl who kept her clothes on, figure out where that courage came from, and put it good use.