At the global annual meeting of the Academy of Violence and Abuse on Oct. 4, where the AVA was kind enough to present me with their first Change Maker Award, I was asked to give a presentation about the origins of ACEs Connection. I've made a few changes to the presentation for the members of this network. In this story, I decided to go way back, to three pivotal moments in my life that led me, years later, to launch this social network, ACEsConnection.com, and its companion news site, ACEsTooHigh.com. Despite having no funding for the organization, like many people who see problems and think they have solutions, I decided to go ahead and launch it anyway. I believe strongly that it is vital that people learn about ACEs science and integrate it into their lives, work and communities, because with this new knowledge, we are and can continue to solve our most intractable problems.
It was about 5:30 am. I was lying in bed. I heard the family next door getting ready for the day. I was surprised, because they’d arrived late the night before from a trip to the US. The couple’s six-year-old son started fussing. No wonder, I thought. He’s only had six hours sleep AND he’s jet-lagged. He fussed some more. In the compound where I lived in Bali, the walls were made of bamboo. Nothing’s a secret.
The kid complained. Made (MAH-day), his dad, didn’t quite yell at him. But it was close. Hm, I thought. I couldn’t remember ever hearing a Balinese parent yell at their kid.
The boy whined, fussed AND complained. Suddenly I heard FWAP!!I sat bolt upright. Silence. Then a long, loud wail of betrayal, not pain. Mom, dad and kid trundled off to school.
Later that day, a friend and I walked into the compound. There’s Made, sitting on a big rock and eating a cucumber. He looked as if he’d lost his best friend.
“Made,” we asked, “what happened? Are you OK?”
Made shook his head. “I did a very bad thing today.”
My friend and I looked at each other, said nothing. She’d told me at breakfast that she’d heard the FWAP, too.
Made continued. “I hit my child.”
If we were cartoon characters, our eyeballs would have popped out of our heads and bounced on springs. What American ever admits to hitting their child?
My friend asked: “What did you do?”
Made shrugged. “I went to the doctor.”
“What did the doctor say?”
“He said to eat cucumbers three times a day and lay off meat for three weeks.”
Now, cucumbers have estrogen and meat has androgen, but not enough to change behavior. Nevertheless, a lightbulb flashed. It was more of a giant neon sign, actually. I was seeing the possibility that we could fix our very broken systems that were unsuccessfully trying to address violence.
Five things stood out to me:
First, Made didn’t blame his son for fussing. Kids don’t know how to handle stress. They have to be taught, and it has to be modeled by adults. Made knew that he behaved in a way that hurt his son. He should have helped his kid, not hit him.
Second, Made knew he needed help to deal with this.
Third, Made asked for help. He went to the doctor.
Fourth, the doctor didn’t yell at him. He had a solution!!! Every time Made ate a cucumber or didn’t eat meat when he wanted to, he thought about what he had done.
Fifth, Made told everyone what happened — even people he didn’t know very well. We were too stunned to give advice, but I’m sure his family and friends did.
I had done reporting about violence epidemiology in the early 80s, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first declared violence to be an epidemic. I was seeing a solution for violence in front of my eyes. They’re homo sapiens, we’re homo sapiens, I thought. If they can do it, we can do it. That was in 1992.
At 2 a.m., the ship’s fire alarm blares. I leap out of bed, stick my head out the cabin door and ask one of the scientists who’s walking down the companionway: “Is it a drill?” He shrugs. The alarm stops. Drill. I snug back under the comforter. The alarm blares again. This time, the captain yells over the PA system: “Attention, please. There's a small fire in the engine room. Please muster to the heli-deck!”
I quickly throw on sweaters, pants, thick jacket, hat, gloves. It’s enough to keep me warm for the short time we’d be out. It wasn’t that cold yet. My roommate climbs into her super-insulated freezer suit. “Why are you wearing that?” I ask. “I hadn’t put it away from our work on the ice,” she says. She’d just come in from our first workstation in the Antarctic sea ice. About 80 scientists and crew had left Hobart, Australia, a few days before. We were on a six-week expedition into the winter sea ice that grows around Antarctica at the rate of 22 square miles per minute in the winter. We were aboard the research icebreaker Aurora Australis. The ship can easily plow through six to 10 feet of sea ice.
Struggling into our bulky life jackets, we head out the door. For no reason that I can think of, I duck back in to grab a flashlight that I bought before leaving port.
As we emerge on the brightly lit deck, my stomach clenches. The lifeboats on the deck, not in their cradles. Two crew members are dressed in firefighting gear. They don’t meet our eyes. The smell of smoke sends stabs of fear down my legs. A cold wave has moved in: It’s way below freezing and windy. The low clouds that cover the skies threaten a blizzard. The ship sits dead in the water. There is no possibility of rescue. We are 1,200 miles from the closest port. The closest icebreaker is in the North Pacific.
It’s seven minutes after the second alarm went off. Five decks below our feet, the small fire in the engine room spreads to the main engine. It explodes. The lights go out. It’s so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. We’re in critical danger…the captain can’t release the halon canisters to put out the fire until he accounts for everyone on board. But we can’t see to go through the list. I remember the flashlight in my pocket and turn it on. We quickly go through the list; we’re missing two people. Someone goes below to find them; they’d been drinking and slept through the alarm — an alarm that’s so loud it vibrates your bones.
The chief scientist radios the captain: All accounted for. The captain orders the release of the halon. We find out later that we were about eight seconds from a massive explosion. That would have sunk the ship in 12,000 feet of water. No one would have known what happened to us. The crew hadn’t issued a Mayday before the electrical systems went out.
After what seems like hours, dim emergency lights flicker on. The fire is contained. A Mayday distress call is sent. We can leave the deck, where most of us who didn’t dress warmly enough are starting to suffer. We move to the helicopter hanger. It’s not warmer, but it’s out of the wind. The captain talks with each of us to see how we’re holding up. After another hour, we pack into in a large room next to the hanger. While the crew figures out when they can get into the massive engine room, we spend the rest of the night telling jokes to stay awake in case we need to bolt to the lifeboats, and to keep our spirits up.
Just before dawn, the captain and first mate come in. They look as if they’ve aged a couple of decades. What we know is that the separate systems that provide heat, electricity, sewage disposal, water, gas for cooking, as well as the ship’s stabilizers and other systems are out. Luckily, they’re able to communicate with the home office in Hobart. We’re free to return to our cabins until the engine room has cooled enough so they can go in to make sure the fire is out and to assess the damage.
The damage, as it turns out, is severe. But the ship’s engineers, with the help of scientists and technicians from the expedition crew, begin jerry-rigging systems to get them to work. They think we might be able to get back with only the auxiliary engine. The ship is slowly freezing from the outside in. Pipes start bursting. Crews run from one emergency to another. Miracle upon miracles, an engineer is able to get the system that controls hot showers working. But nothing else is: no toilets, no electricity (except emergency lighting), no kitchen stoves. We stay dressed in our freezer suits and pitch in to cook soup on Bunsen burners, prepare sandwiches, and clean up. One blizzard blows through. During a break in the weather, some of us have a snowball fight on deck and build a snowman. I make it anatomically correct by adding a penis and scrota. As I come inside, I turn back to look out the porthole. Why did I do that?
During the first two days, the captain asks for our patience. He’s cut us off from the email system to keep it freed up for communications with engineers, fire experts and consultants in Hobart. We’d been told that P&O, the company that owns the ship, had sent out a message to our families to let them know of our situation. But once the worst was over we all wanted desperately to communicate with our loved ones. And I wanted to send my report and photos to Discovery Channel. I was on assignment for them to do report over the course of the expedition.
But the P&O manager in Hobart didn’t want word to get out about our situation. The message P&O had sent to our families said there was a small fire on the ship, it was out, we were all fine, and on our way back. The only part that was true was that the fire was out, and I’m not sure that P&O knew that when they sent the message.
After three days, the engineers said they wouldn’t do another thing until they could talk to their families. They’d been working 24 hours a day to get the ship running. The captain opened the email system. Palpable relief spread through the ship as people communicated with those they loved, and I could get my story out. It made headlines in Australia and New Zealand; news organizations started following our progress.
Due to the great skills and ingenuity of some very smart people, we limped home, with more near-escapes along the way. When we were a day out of port, planes with news crews circled overhead to take video and photos. The manager made sure we docked in the middle of the night. He’d hoped that news crews wouldn’t bother to turn out. When we docked, the wharf overflowed with hundreds of people: spouses, children, friends, dogs, signs, balloons, confetti and lots of reporters and cameras.
Two days later, I flew home to Northern California. It took many long walks along the ocean bluffs near my home to process all that had happened. In those few days, I understood how the trip echoed and conflated much of what I was suppressing; it fractured the shell that kept my childhood adversity closed off from my consciousness and understanding.
The extreme disturbance in the middle of the night echoed the sexual abuse I experienced night after night when I was a child.
Memories began leaking out, which is why I put genitals on the snowman. The P&O manager told the outside world we’d had a minor incident, and nothing was wrong, just as my parents had covered up and lied. Had we sunk without a trace, our story would never have been known. How many have suffered and are still suffering that fate?
But we worked hard to survive. Our lives depended on it. And we lived to tell our story to the world. The Aurora Australis was repaired to sail again, with flashlights in every companionway and cabin, fuel lines that don’t leak, and a failsafe generator for the communications system so that a Mayday could be sent no matter what.
That voyage took place 21 years ago, in 1998. I was 50 years old. That was the beginning of my emergence from the prison of childhood adversity that held me captive well into adulthood. I divorced my family. I began the long slow process of healing, which goes on to this day. I learned that sexual abuse isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a child, it’s just the thing that people don’t want to talk about. Betrayal and neglect are sexual abuse’s companions and might be more difficult to recover from because it takes so long to find the words to describe something that’s so routine in our lives that it’s considered normal. I sometimes think how different my life would have been if I’d learned about ACEs science when I was a teen. Of course, that’s impossible, because the ACE Study was published in 1998, not in the 1960s. Nevertheless, I am oh so grateful that I discover it six years later.
One afternoon in 2004, as I was reading the Davis, CA, Enterprise, I noticed an article about a child sexual abuse conference taking place in town. It was sponsored by the Incest Survivors Speakers Bureau. Incest Survivors Speakers Bureau? I wondered just how many requests they received. “Not many,” Connie Valentine told me after I tracked her down. She was the founder of ISSB and an advocate who’d been organizing the conferences for several years.
We spent an afternoon talking about her work, the conference, and our society’s problems with addressing child abuse. As I mentioned earlier, I had done reporting about violence epidemiology in the early 80s, when the CDC declared violence to be an epidemic. But something had always bothered me: If you had a family of four kids from the same neighborhood and parents, and one shot and killed a person, and the other three siblings didn’t, why didn’t the other three siblings engage in violence, too? The violence epidemiologists’ answer at the time was: They escaped. That had never made sense to me.
At some point in the conversation with Connie, she asked: “Have you heard about the ACE Study?” Nope. She told me about it. And suddenly I understood that in this research was the answer to my question. The three siblings didn’t escape. One may have become an alcoholic, another obese, the third an overachiever who looked as if she escaped, but actually became a workaholic who passed on her ACEs as neglect, verbal abuse and divorce.
The ACE Study also explained my own life. I could see that I wasn't born bad. I had no control over what happened to me as a child. I coped appropriately —with cocaine, sex, thrill sports, etc. — given that I was not provided healthy coping skills. And I could change.
Connie put me in touch with Dr. Vincent Felitti, who also put me in touch with Dr. Rob Anda. They are the two principle investigators of the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. I interviewed them both several times, as well as several others involved in other parts of ACEs science. And wrote my first story about ACEs science for the Sacramento Bee in 2005.
Over the next several years, as I was teaching journalism at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and working in news organizations, I kept doing stories from time to time about new ACE Study publications.
In late 2012, I took a flying leap into the unknown and launched ACEs Connection without funding, but with a small contract to write articles about how schools were taking different approaches to solving their discipline issues.
I started ACEs Connection with two sites: ACEsTooHigh.com, which is a news site for the general public. I’m a long-time journalist. I know how to manage a news site. I did a few posts, and it was up and running.
The other part, ACEsConnection.com, is a social network. It also needs content, and I posted some basic information and stories there, too.
But a social network needs people. And I’d learned from doing a couple of other social networks that it’s the people of the social network who determine what the network will be. After launching ACEsConnection in January 2012 and inviting about a dozen people, I remember sitting in my living room and having a sudden thought that had, for some reason, not occurred to me: “What if nobody joins?”
Although I knew that it was important and useful to connect the pioneers in this very nascent movement, to provide a place for news about what people were doing, and to educate people about ACEs science, I created ACEs Connection more or less with a “if you build it, they will come” marketing plan. Suddenly that seemed a little tenuous.
When I went to bed that night, there were barely a handful of members. All were my close friends.
The next day, I checked ACEsConnection. Two hundred people had joined. Felitti, who was in that first dozen people I invited, had sent the invitation to everyone on his email list.
I didn’t know any of them at the time. But they inspired me to keep going. I have to admit, some of the inspiration was driven by, “Holy crap, this is real, I’d better get my shit together.”
But mostly I’ve been driven to keep doing this for the last nine years, because the world needs to know about the incredible work people in this network are doing. The people who are doing this incredible work need to be connected with each other, and with those who hear about ACEs science and want to do the work and join this movement. We are fortunate and grateful that ACEs Connection’s funders — the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The California Endowment, the George Sarlo Foundation, the Lisa Stone Pritzker Family Fund and Genentech — believe that, too, and believe that ACEs Connection accelerates the expansion of this knowledge.
Today, ACEsTooHigh’s stories about how people are implementing practices based on ACEs science sometimes go viral with hundreds of thousands, occasionally millions, of page views. These stories fuel the movement. ACEsConnection.com, the social network, has grown to more than 37,000 members. The 300+ community sites on ACEsConnection — they’re sort of like mini-ACEsConnections for communities — represent ACEs initiatives in cities, counties, states and countries. And now there’s an incredible team of 18 people who work full-time and part-time to support all of that.
We continue to listen to the ACEs Connection community about what people and organizations need to accelerate the movement. In the next couple of months, as we start on our journey to building capacity to support thousands of ACEs initiatives, we’re adding a cooperative to ACEs Connection — a cooperative of communities. It will give us funds to develop tools such as community resilience trackers and community outcome data so that we, as a community and a movement, can identify what really works in our communities and systems that make us all economically, socially, mentally, physically and spiritually healthier while drastically reducing chronic disease, violence, and being a victim of violence, among other things. It will take us to the next level so that we can start calculating savings across sectors for communities that integrate ACEs science in just one sector. It will help us fund nascent ACEs inititiatives.
In the United States, there are 34,000 cities and counties. Our goal is to work with people in this movement to inspire the launch of 6,000 ACEs initiatives over the next five years, because that’s an approximate tipping point into full integration and to the day when we no longer have to explain ACEs science. That’s when ACEs science will be like electricity. We’ll only notice it when it isn’t there.
So, what was the point of me telling these stories of the origins of ACEs Connection?
Well, there are a few points. Some you can probably guess. Others you may not:
Teach ACEs science to the young everywhere and let them decide what to do with it and how to communicate it. Give as many opportunities as possible for people to start healing when they’re in their teens, before they have children of their own.
Tell your own story to your friends, family, co-workers and the world. Each of us is doing this work for reasons of the heart. This is all about moving away from using blame, shame and punishment as ways to change human behavior — which data clearly show doesn’t work — to using understanding, nurturing and helping people heal themselves, which data show does work. In other words, it’s all about love and relationships. And for relationships to be equitable, we have to share, empathize with, understand and accept each other’s stories.
Keep going, even if things don’t make sense, your ideas don’t have a place to grow yet or people don’t believe you. They will eventually, because ACEs science is real and it solves our most intractable problems.
Always carry a flashlight.
Be open to all kinds of experiences. You never know when you might get your best ideas from a guy who sits on a rock and eats cucumbers.