I recently read a powerful piece questioning why so few people in America seem to have sympathy for Melania Trump. She has most assuredly been wronged by her husband and yet we do two seemingly inconsistent things: we question the veracity of the women who apparently had affairs with her husband (I don't doubt them actually) and we believe Melania knew her poison (so to speak) when she married the Donald.
It is a piece well worth reading.
A phrase used in this article got me thinking -- both about its meaning and origins and its applicability to Melania and more generally. It is the phrase (that varies a tad): You made your bed; now lie in it (or sleep in it). The phrase apparently means that if you contributed to your downfall or to your situation, you own it and have to live with the consequences. So, applying this to Melania, she married the Donald, known for philandering and so, she "deserves" what she got: a cheating husband. To be sure, she did not expect him to be President when she married him as the above article rightly observes, suggesting that she never expected her husband's cheating to be the news of the month or year for that matter.
The oft-used phrase seems to refer to a time in which permanent beds were unusual and we often literally made our beds with straw. So, if you made your straw bed, comfortable or not, it was "yours." And, the phrase is apparently used in languages in addition to English -- so it is not an American oddity (as many phrases are). I see it as a cautionary phrase, a warning of sorts.
This all reminds me of the legal concept of contributory negligence. If something bad happens and you enabled it to happen, then you too are at least partly responsible. So, if you saw that the bed was too close to the portable heater, you cannot solely blame the heater manufacturer for a heater that overheats. You put the heater in a dangerous space. So, reflecting on Melania, we assume she put herself in a dangerous position: being wife to a cheater and so she can hardly escape blame.
There is something odd in this -- even though I confess to having zero sympathy for Melania. We certainly do not blame spouses who return to their abusers only to be abused again (at least most of us do not). We recognize that abuse is abuse, even if you put yourself in harm's way. So, the idea that abused spouses should have just walked out is debunked as psychologically defective thinking. Many spouses who are abused struggle to leave but do not, believing the next time will be different or they are to blame and deserve the abuse. We also recognize that because a woman dresses seductively, she is not inviting rape and is not responsible for her being raped. She has no contributory negligence although one reads some commentary by those who believe rapes often did not occur because the woman "asked for it." Yipes.
It is in this context that I have been reflecting on the growing scandal at Michigan State with respect to the abuse of gymnasts among others. Surely we can now see that it was not just the team doctor who was an abuser; there were many who bear responsibility, and one hopes they will be arrested and pay for their crimes which devastated the lives of many. And, we have (at least most of us have) extraordinary sympathy for the victims -- who were abused again and again by individuals and organizations in power. We surely don't look at the gymnasts and say: you made your own bed; now lie in it. We don't challenge their ambition, their fear, their inability to speak truth to power; we allow ourselves to feel for them and with them and wonder how such wrongs could have occurred especially at an educational institution. Another yipes.
.In the tragedy of Parkland, I have been struck by how many people have been seeking to disbelieve and disavow and distrust the young survivors. They have been accused of all sorts of wrongs: being shills for their parents and others; being actors; being wrongdoers (with fake images presented); being overly dramatic (like the silence of Emma); being traitors or Communists. Really. Goodness. How can we be so harsh and hostile? These are young people who had no responsibility for what happened at their school; instead they are desperately trying to improve our world. We can fail to sympathize with Melania but surely we can sympathize with the victims and survivors of school shootings.
To return to Melania and the disbelief of the accusers of her husband, perhaps our distain or our lack of sympathy has to do with the fact that none of these women are working to improve the larger world and taking the harm done to them as a platform for speaking up and out about abuse or philandering or cheating. The women who had the affairs may feel sorry for what they did and may be trying to overturn confidentiality agreements but I do not see them as advocates for women's sexual independence or women's right to sleep with whomever they choose to sleep. They are hardly victims. As to Melania, she is "standing by her man" at a distance -- standing far away but not speaking up and out. Perhaps she is trying to save her son. Too late for that. Perhaps she is trying to protect her image. Too late for that. Perhaps she is trying to ignore the whole affair (so to speak). Too late for that.
I look at the images of Melania, even before the recent revelations of cheating. She seemed singularly unhappy. Bitter even. Angry. She swatted her husband's hand at least once as if to say: "Leave me be. I don't want to be with you." I wonder why she doesn't leave. Perhaps she too has an agreement with a confidentiality clause. Perhaps she likes the money. Perhaps she likes the life. None of these seem like reason enough for me.
It is hard to leave an abuser. It is hard to leave a situation that is, by all accounts, terrible or threatening or downright damaging. It takes courage to walk away, especially if one is walking away from a life that one expected to be different and one has a child and one wants to preserve some pride. I get that. I really do. More than you know. But, if Melania wants sympathy, she will not get it without leaving. And she may not get it even then. But, unlike the victims in Parkland or the victims of rape or the victims of abuse by a team doctor among others who bore a responsibility for one's wellbeing, Melania did make her bed. And as the saying goes, that is why she now needs to sleep in it.
I've often said it is easy to complain about things. It is not so easy to make changes. I have often said that most people can express their dissatisfaction with a marriage or a job by using their feet -- walking out. Now, that option does not exist for teenage gymnasts trying to further their careers and risking all; it does not exist for many abused spouses who cannot leave because of ties that bind them literally and figuratively. But, high heels and all, Melania could walk with her feet but she chooses not to do so. That's why we have no sympathy. That's why our empathy engines are not primed. That's why she gets our distain or perhaps our disgust.
Here's a thought: the Donald seems to lack an empathy engine. I wonder how many others do too. Mirror neurons are powerful if they are activated. His are not. Perhaps his gaps in this arena extend to how we think about his wife. He is not sympathetic so she is not worthy of sympathy either. We attribute his behaviors to her; after all, she has not spoken up publicly against him --- and surely her focus on cyber-bullying is fraught with irony. That's why I think this is a topic on which we all need to reflect --- when should we empathize and if we do not do so, why not? And, when do we hold folks accountable for bad situations not necessarily fully of their own making?
In today's complex world, ponder what it really means to make one's own bed and then lie in it. We better make good beds. We have to lie in them.
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.