When I was 15 and 16, my family lived on the Bayou in Lacombe, Louisiana, across the lake from New Orleans. Besides my human family we had a Irish Setter named Hot Dog (my little brother named him) and two ducks: Fritz and Grits (my dad named them). Living on the water was fun, especially for my brothers who enjoyed fishing.
My older brother, Greg, loved to pull pranks on me, much to my chagrin. And, he was either very good at it or I was very gullible. They were all in good brother-sister fun, but one sided. I wanted so badly to get the ultimate prank revenge! However, try as I might, I could not come up with the epic gag that would trump all of the pranks he unleashed on me.
Until the summer of my 15th year: The year of ole fish eyes.
Walking along the banks of the bayou one day, I came across a horrific sight. A rather large fish (I didnt know a carp from a tuna) lay dead and partially eaten by some animal, on the bank. The sight and smell of the long dead fish made my stomach heave. I had to get out of there! Just as I was turning to leave, the proverbial light bulb lit up over my head.
This was so gros!!! What if I used the rotten carcass to freak out Greg? It would have to be unexpected to receive maximum success as a gag. It would have to be something he would not expect. As the plot formed in my head, I set up, like McGyver to gather the items I would need: knife, small tongs, old bottle, alcohol, brown postal paper, tape and a marker.
Now dont ask me how I was able to do this without getting sick…maybe the revenge reflex was stronger than my gag reflex.
I went immediately to work. I dug in the box of my dad’s antique bottles until I found a small light blue apothecary bottle with stopper and filled it with alcohol before sealing it back. Cutting out the fish eyeballs (not the grossest thing I have ever done in my life…I am, after all, a mother now ) took no time at all. I used the tongs to put the eyes into the bottle, grinning at the grotesque sight of them swimming and bumping together like deformed tadpoles.
Next, I put the bottle of fish eyes into the small box, wrapped it in postal paper, sealed it with packing tape and addressed it to my brother. The return address bore the name of our grandmother who loved sending us little gifts. I then placed the box gently in the mailbox, hoping Greg would not notice the absence of postage.
Completing the preliminary work, I mentally patted myself on the back as I ran in the house to call my little brother. I bribed him with a dollar to go see if the mail had arrived. I told him I was expecting a letter from school. He agreed and left the house. I closed my eyes, counting the seconds until he came in the house and called out to Greg. And Greg, hearing that he had a present from our grandmother, came quickly down the stairs..
Now, truly beside myself, I could barely contain my anticipation as Greg took the box. Of course, he had to throw out the obligatory jab reminding Tony and I that she hadn’t sent Us anything
I bit my lip and held my breath as he opened the package, not even glancing for the postage mark. Then came the scream I had been waiting for.
Well, not the one I had been waiting for, actually. Greg let out a scream of sheer delight.
“Wow! Tony, check this out! This is the coolest thing I have ever gotten! ” He exclaimed.
He shook the bottle and laughed as the eyes swirled in a frenzy bumping into each other. He showed my little brother and they were fascinated together.
I couldnt believe it! How could this be? Plopping down in the easy chair, I could not figure out what went wrong. This was to be an epic gross out! Instead, he found the macabre gift to be…cool?
Prank fall our came later…when I had to face the wrath of my dad for taking his antique bottle and the scolding from my grandmother. Greg had called her to thank her. After which he realized it was me and laughed at my attempt to prank him.
What had gone wrong?
Acting on assumptions.
When we are working with, dealing with or even in a relationship with other human beings, we think we know them. We base our assumptions on how they present, the tone of their voice and their behavior. Forming our mind picture of them based on such very shallow criteria leads us to make incorrect judgements. Making and acting on shallow assumptions can damage a relationship.
Especially in social work.
For example, I have heard professionals say things like, “If she loved her kids, she would have left that abusive boyfriend.” Those snap judgements do not demonstrate an effort to get to know the underlying issues and therefore often misses the whole picture. Acting on those assumptions can cause harm to children and families.
This is especially important to remember when working with victims of trauma. The simple truth is…Children who have been subjected to trauma dont feel safe. The more complex truth is that how they express that trauma is not always congruent with what they are feeling.
How many times have I heard professionals label a child by their behavior instead of really trying to understand the root cause.
When investigating sexual abuse, of teens especially, I would become uncomfortable when law enforcement would disbelieve the child had been victimized based of their current promiscuous behavior. I am not blaming the LE…because the overwhelming assumption was that if you were molested, you would not have promiscuous sex.
But assumptions can lead to poor assessments and ultimately poor interventions. Victims of molestation can and do sometimes act out incongruently by seeking out sex. Their behavior, an expression of trauma, does not negate their prior victimization.
I remember when a 4 year old, placed in a foster home, had to be removed the next day because he was “crazy”. He ran screaming through the house, jumping on furniture, throwing pictures on the floor and shattering them. The worker thought he should be hospitalized.
He came from an abusive family, watching his dad repeatedly beating his mom.
He needed to feel safe.
He needed to be assessed.
Instead of hospitalization, we placed him with a mature foster parent who had experience dealing with traumatized children. We put in a behavioral aid with him to observe, document snd redirect some of those behaviors. And we scheduled a psychological and began the process of deep assessment. His trauma behavior lessened after one week. After a few weeks, his behavioral outburst were sporadic. He was never hospitalized.
Assumptions get you nowhere and can sometimes be destructive. I assumed my brother had the same repulsion for dead fish eyes that racked me. Acting on that assumption, I became practically malcontent in an effort to “get him back”. All that planning and work only served to get me grounded and to disappoint my grandmother. What was worse, I hand delivered Greg yet another thing to tease me about.