Preetha: I'm really excited to be having this conversation with my dear friend Sujatha Baliga, who I have every interaction I have had with her, I've learned and grown immensely from every pearl that comes out of her mouth. She’s someone who leaves me always wanting more, and I hope you'll have that experience today.
Sujatha is the Director of the Restorative Justice Project at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in Oakland, where she helps communities implement restorative justice alternatives to juvenile detention and zero tolerance school discipline policies.
She's also specifically dedicated to advancing restorative justice as a tool to end child sexual abuse and inter-familial sexualized violence in the US as well as South Asia.
Her work is characterized by an equal dedication to victims and persons accused of crimes. She's a former public defender herself and also a victim advocate, and she's been a frequent guest lecturer throughout the world at universities and conferences. She's been a guest on NPR's Talk of the Nation and the Today Show, and her work has been profiled in an extensive article in The New York Times Magazine. She speaks publicly and inside prisons about her personal experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse and her own personal path to forgiveness.
She is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania, and she's also had some Federal clerkships. Significantly for our audience she's a longtime meditator, about 20 years, I think.
I think, Sujatha, where I'd love to start with you is you're one of the remarkable people whose work and external, your outer life flows so organically from your inner journey and your inner work. Maybe you could start with that and tell us how did you come to your work on the justice system and on helping victims of sexual abuse?
Sujatha: Sure. Thanks, Preetha, and I'm so pleased you're moderating today. It feels comfortable to be having a chat with a friend in front of an audience. It's lovely.
A little bit about how I ended up doing the work that I do today. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970's and '80's. We were the only immigrant family in our town, and there was a larger region there. It was not an easy childhood. I was experience abuse in my home at the hands of my father. My father sexually abused me for as long as I can remember.
It was challenging to be a religious minority and a cultural minority in a small rural place, so I was having a lot of bullying experiences at school as well. Just a lot of struggle personally.
My father passed away when I was 16, which created a whole other set of struggles. I think all of that suffering catalyzed me to want to do something about it. Over the years what that looked like was moving towards victim advocacy. So I became a victim advocate during and after college, working with battered women's shelters and on crisis hotlines and with sexually harmed children and women.
What I noticed during those years is that while I was effective, I didn't like who I was personally. A lot of my work was fueled by … well, all of my work maybe at that time was fueled by my own unresolved traumas and wanting to undo my own childhood by quote, unquote, "fixing other people's lives."
Really the anger was eating at me personally. I had migraines regularly, several times a week, blinding migraines, and really terrible stomach problems. I'm sure it was some sort of IBS thing that was never really diagnosed just by going to countless doctors and going through so many procedures. Nothing could really solve it. I remember really resenting being told that it was something psychosomatic. While in retrospect I don’t think it was psychosomatic, it was all definitely happening, it was definitely what I realized caused, psychologically caused, caused by my unhappy state of being and my angry, angry state of being and also wrecking havoc on my friendships and my boyfriends and many other things at that time.
It was interesting. I had followed the man I was dating at the time, I had followed him to India for a year and was working, trying to help him start a program for the children of sex workers in Mumbai. That was the way I’d conceptualized at the time. When I got there and tried to get involved in the project, I realized the degree to which these women and their children were basically slaves. It was just too much trauma for me to handle. I hadn't worked out my own stuff, and I basically had a breakdown and realized that I needed to heal myself.
I was just about to start law school. I was 23, 24 years old. I was just about to start law school, and I realized I had to work out myself before I could possibly go to law school. I was not going to survive the emotional and intellectual rigors of law school in the current state I was in.
I went backpacking. I landed in the Dharamsala by myself and befriended a number of Tibetan families, who I was so engaged as a crisis counselor kind of person that I really would dig into stories of people about how did you escape and what's the landscape of Tibet today for your people. I really wanted to understand people's trauma, journeys and the suffering that they'd experienced.
I think that maybe was a rare experience for them, in that a lot of people I think come to places like Dharmsala, which is where the Tibetan government in Nigal at that time was and where His Holiness’s offices still are. People come for more of a spiritual journey I think. I came sort of on my trauma journey, which I think people appreciated to some degree, where I wasn't making them prisoners of Shangri-La in a sense.
What I noticed in my conversations with them was that they would shift from these stories, these heartbreaking stories, where people could cry and express anger eventually toward some sort of just letting the subject matter go and then a few minutes later be laughing and sharing happy stories.
I was never really able to make that transition. I lived in the anger and the rage. Eventually somebody had the courage to ask me in through my hard external way of presenting at that time, said, "What are you so angry about? What's going on with you?" which was a wonderful question.
So I started to share for the first time in my life with people outside my inner circle. My father had sexually abused me. There was a lot of horror and shock from the people that I would share this with, and many of them would say, "You should ask His Holiness how does forgiveness play a role in this." I would ask them, "How are you so happy? How can you be so happy given what you've been through?" The answer would often come back, "We practice forgiveness." Then the dialog would then turn into what's the role of forgiveness in inter-familial harm. People would say, "You should ask His Holiness. You should ask His Holiness."
I found this amusing. I said, “He’s busy. How do you ask the Dalai Lama a question like this?” Somebody said, "Write him a letter and drop it off at his monastery. You'll get some sort of response." I followed the procedures, and a week later I went back to see if there was a letter or something, and I was ushered all the way in to the desk of His Holiness's private secretary who said His Holiness's schedule had changed. He was supposed to be in Assam or something. “Would you like to have a private audience with him on Wednesday or Tuesday” or something, a few days later. I had this unbelievable opportunity to have an hour with His Holiness.
The conversation started very much from the perspective of talking about gender-based violence and sexualized violence, and then it shifted towards His Holiness sharing very deeply about his own path to forgiveness. I was so moved by his own personal sharing of times earlier in his life when he had felt anger towards the Chinese and what practices and work that he had done on himself to do this.
I could see in front of me this living embodiment of someone who had eschewed anger, let go of anger, but was still working on behalf of those who suffer without anger as the motivating force. That had been my question in my letter to him. I was unable to write the words, "I was sexually abused by my father." What I said was, "Anger is killing me but it motivates my work. How do you work on behalf of abused and oppressed people without anger as the motivating force?"
I was seeing this. I was seeing someone clearly far more effective at achieving positive ends for others without anger, even in the face of unthinkable mass atrocities against his people and his nation and himself. So how does he do this?
I said, "I want to forgive my father. I want to follow this path." The first question that came out of his mouth was, "Do you feel you have been angry long enough?" I thought this was the most brilliant question I have been ever asked, especially about forgiveness, when so many people who would say to you, "Oh, you need to forgive. You need to forgive and forget." It's very clear that when people are praising forgiveness as some freedom for you that it's really about them wanting you to get over what's happening when your natural, normal response is to unthinkable harm that you suffered.
His Holiness asked me this question, and it was a genuine question. I could feel how genuine that question was. I actually took a moment to sit in silence with him and reflect on anger's diminishing returns on my life, on my personal life, on my relationships, on my boyfriends, on my family, on my effectiveness in the work, on my happiness. After surveying the landscape of the graveyards of what anger had left in my life, I said, "Yes, I'm ready. It's served me to this point. Maybe ... not maybe ... It is a big part of why I was able to survive to this day, but here I am ready to let it go. Yes, I want to.”
So His Holiness gave me two very particular pieces of advice. The first one was to meditate. He said, "This level of rage," and even in that audience with him I was extremely angry in describing the work that I did and really raging about it and very angry. He said, “A mind that is this rageful is just out of your own control and so you need to meditate in order to reign it back in.” The first piece of advice was to meditate, really learn to be the master of your own mind. So I was, "Okay, that one I can do;" right? "I'll sign up for meditation course."
His second piece of advice was to in some way open my heart to those who have done me harm or do harm. “Open your heart to your enemies or those you perceive to be your enemies.” I started laughing. I was laughing out loud at him, saying, "That's crazy. I'm about to go to law school to be a prosecutor to lock all these abusers and batterers and child molesters up and put them behind bars." He thought this was hilarious. He pats my knee. He’s, "Okay, okay, you just meditate."
Immediately after leaving him, within the next few weeks went and sat a ten-day Vipassana Course, the Goenkaji Style Vippasana Course, and it was the hardest and best thing I had ever done in my life.
That body-based experience of feeling in my body where my anger resides, healing when images and memories of the terrible things that had been done to me came to my mind. That Vipassana scanning, that body scanning, was incredibly powerful for me to really be able to dissect where in my body those memories live and what the physical sensations around those memories and what they lead to in terms of this endless loop of suffering that my mind goes into.
I think having done that, for the first nine days you're doing breath observation for three and then six more days of body scanning and really feeling embodied for the first time in my reaction to the things that had been done to me so many years ago and also being able to be present with the present moment realizing my body is reacting to things that aren't currently happening. It was very powerful for me physically to feel, "Wow, I am having residual physical reactions to things that are not current in this beautiful meditation hall in Massachusetts;” right?
What flowed from that was the Metta Bhavana [Dala 00:14:52], loving kindness practice, that they teach you the last day. I had a spontaneous sort of vision of one of the times in which my father molested me that usually brought up experiences of rage and anger. I used to replay that memory as a fantasy as if I stabbed him to death instead of him being able to achieve what he was trying to achieve. I would imagine stabbing him to death instead.
I think that when I started doing that with that memory, adding the stabbing him to death thing was right about when my migraines started in my late teens.
Instead I just allowed the thing to happen as it happened. That doesn't mean that I condoned it. It doesn't mean that I thought it was okay, but rather that … I love this quote about forgiveness I've heard. "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past." I just let the past be what it was. I just observed it for what it was.
In this memory, rather than feeling the rage, I felt my father dissolve into light. That subtle sensation, that awareness in my own body, sort of just that lovely molecular flow that you can feel sometimes after a long sit flowed out of me and into him and he dissolved into light.
From that moment onward I have never felt any anger, rage, any of the things, feelings, desires for retribution, feelings for getting back at him, anything. All of these things of course would be impossible now that he's passed. But I still carried all those desires as if I could bring him back from the dead so that I could punish him somehow. All of those needs were gone with regard to him.
I’m not saying that I'm over anger when someone cuts me off in traffic sometimes or when some atrocity is happening in the world. I'm not beyond anger but I am beyond anger about that and about many other things. Probably beyond the feeling of retribution as being useful or even a desire for that coming up in me anymore.
I started law school a couple weeks later and I had no juice for being a prosecutor. I thought I should drop out. So I went to my criminal law professor and I said, "I think I'm dropping out." He said, "Don't drop out." I didn't tell him why. I said, "I came here to be a prosecutor. I have no interest in being a prosecutor. I came here to help battered women, and I don't know how to do this now."
He said, "You should think about being a defense attorney who defends women who kill their abusers." I was like, "Well, that's brilliant." He didn't tell me at that time, but one doesn't get to specialize in that right away; right? So I had to be a public defender for many years defending even those folks who had done exactly what was done to me as a child.
I really feel like I gave them excellent representation and had a wonderful opportunity to be of service to folks who've done things that were done to me. At the same time the entire criminal legal system always felt not okay to me. There was a way in which it was so fundamentally binary, like it was us versus them. It felt divisive and it wasn't a healing way. It wasn't what I had learned in my own life as my way of moving past terrible things that have happened. It couldn't be more different really.
I think of a court of law and I think of Susan Herman who wrote, the author of Trauma and Recovery says you couldn't create a better circumstance for bringing up traumatic stress than a court of law. We really re-victimize victims and we really ... It's a damaging process for everyone who goes through it, almost everyone who goes through it. I kept in touch with His Holiness’s office and they suggested that I read his book on Tibetan justice called The Tibetan System of Justice Prior to Chinese Occupation called The Golden Yoke, Y-O-K-E. It was a wonderful book describing many ideals that were there in the Tibetan law code about healing and victim-identified needs being attended to and notions like atonement and reconciliation that I thought, "My goodness, how could we do some of that here?"
A friend who had been saying these words for years, "restorative justice." When I was describing this to her, she said, "I've been telling you about this for years." Susan said, "It's called 'restorative justice.'" "I'm sorry. I didn't understand." And I started to go to restorative justice trainings and learned so much about this model that I work in today as what I think is the better way to address wrongdoing, even the most terrible forms of wrongdoing, when it's at all possible.