(Trigger warning: The following post includes details of sexual abuse and voyeurism). During grade school, I needed a baby picture for a project. All of us went home and asked our moms. My mom made a long process out of grabbing a Virginia Slim, lifting the window above the kitchen sink, and curling her mouth around the tip. About the time my head was ready to explode in the awkward silence, I heard “What for?” as she lit up. She blew smoke, hard, out of her nose; not even bothering to aim at the window.
“I have to make your father his dinner.”
She rarely yelled. She withheld. It was more effective. She could go silent, or use one or two words, for days on end. In hindsight, I see the genius in it. She had a talent and brevity with scary sounding words that put Edgar Allen Poe to shame. All done while exhaling smoke and without expending an ounce of her own emotional energy.
By that point in my life the edge in her, the lack of words, was as familiar to me as the sugary-but-empty-gushing times, the free flow of words that she turned on whenever she was low on ‘fuel.’ It was others who fed her, never the other way around. My childhood was a combination of being stuck by her side filling her needs, or in some corner hiding from her and taking care of myself.
A few days later I was the only one who hadn’t brought back a baby photo. And Mom was still exhaling scary poetry. Luckily I was home alone after school and found my unfinished album perched on top of my older siblings’ baby books, in the back of Mom’s closet. The oldest child’s book was nearly full.
Mine, the youngest, was 1/4 full. On the first page my eyes landed on me and mom in a rocking chair. Mom was scowling, as if she was either annoyed to be photographed, or annoyed to be rocking me. I was wrapped in a blanket so big you couldn’t see my face, and her glasses were glaring stars from the flashbulb. It was a frightening photograph. The other kids would make fun of it; they often made fun of my weird parents.
Thankfully a birth announcement card slipped out from one of the back pages of the album. It was the resale kind that hospitals take before dismissing newborns (maybe they stopped doing that now). Some other kids in my class had already brought their own hospital-created newborn shots. So I grabbed that card out of the book with great relief.
Then I turned the page.
At first my heart swelled to see snapshots of my toddler years. It soon fell. I was naked in the bathtub with my cousin, naked in a chair with a cheesy grin, posing in the kitchen like an underwear model, (except I wasn’t wearing any). There were more naked photographs of my early childhood then there were clothed.
I turned the pages back and forth, confused by all the strange poses, wondering why I couldn’t remember any of it. It wasn’t that long ago.
The final photo in the book gave me some hope. I was wearing clothes and holding the barbie I’d received for my fourth birthday. I still had the doll. But my cousin had destroyed her as she had all the others. After a holiday visit, during which she had played for hours by herself in my playroom, all of my Barbie clothes had disappeared, their long hair had been chopped off, and every last one had pubic hair and nipples drawn on with a magic marker. Seeing how lovely the doll had once been, I felt fresh hatred toward my cousin. I returned the album and ran into my bedroom before anyone caught me snooping.
The house I grew up in held other horrors. I couldn’t have escaped them if I tried.
There were stacks of Hustlers, next to the Disney princess books, on my playroom shelf. My uncle, a minister and a frequent over night guest in our home, spied openly on me while I was in the bathroom–from as early as I can recall, right up until college when I left home. I was forced to watch explicit movies with my uncles, and to watch and/or hear about explicit acts. Eventually my cousin and I viewed the Hustlers together, in my playroom, during her visits. Likely the aim of whichever adult(s) placed them there in the first place.
I struggle to think of an adult, or a child, in my family of origin who wasn’t openly perverted.
To this day I still don’t like being watched, and I hate that I still have a lingering primal urge to view explicit things or laugh at dirty jokes. At some point I realized that viewing the intimate actions of others (pornography and explicit movies but also certain people on facebook and some TV shows), listening in on conversations (GOSSIP included), was doing to others exactly what had been to me in my childhood. It. Was. Just. Plain. Wrong. And eventually something switched in me. I wanted to give other people space and privacy.
Even if they aren’t asking for it.
I am still learning how to derive pleasure just for the sake of pleasure, without it coming at the expense of others. Joy for the sake of joy. Intimacy for the sake of intimacy. I know, from my childhood, that there is a counterfeit. A stand in-for-true-joy, love making– without any love whatsoever, an excited type of temporary pleasure, which comes from viewing other people’s naked states (whatever that might look like) and using that to fuel your own needs — and lately I am aware that there is a type of uninvited ‘nakedness’, and viewing of it, involved with gossip.
Christians sometimes justify airing a confidential or private detail because they say they want others hearing it to be ‘in prayer’ for that person.
I’m learning to put a hand up and say, stop, I don’t want to know that. I don’t want to be in on viewing that. I want to respect that person in their state of nakedness.
And I still don’t enjoy cameras in my face. I could never do reality TV. Back when I didn’t bother to regulate the camera discomfort, there wouldn’t be any photographs of me after a big event or trip; just shots of the kids with my husband. Or there I was with hands, or menu, held over my face. Over the ‘mom’ years I forced myself to be ok with being in photographs, otherwise my adult photo album would be as empty as my baby book. I wanted more than that out of life.
Yet that grind in my gut remains whenever I see someone come at me with a camera. I know, now, how to tell myself: Thank you, Central Nervous System, someone with a camera in your face was a real danger in our past…But, this person is my friend. She just wants to remember our lovely time tonight!
Usually I can relax into a natural smile. Unless the person on the other side is shady. I listen to my gut then and remove myself. Or I insist, ‘Do. Not. Put. That. On. FACEBOOK.’
The real issue which lingers, per everything else that happened to me in my childhood, stems from the perverted care I received by the adults around me. That lack of intimate bonding affected my relationship with my Heavenly Parent (God). Mainly in the area of TRUST. Or lack thereof.
My therapist suggested I journal my thoughts about God being omnipresent, to journal through my thoughts about Him seeing, literally, everything about me. Every private moment. Every private action. Every. Thing. Like reality TV cameras in every single room of my house.
How do I really feel about God being omnipresent?
During that counseling session a disturbing question popped into my head: is God a voyeur?
After all, He does know, and can ‘see’ everything.
I was immediately uncomfortable at the thought, it seemed blasphemous to think it, seems blasphemous all over again as I write it out. I knew the discomfort meant I had to confront the feeling; and the thought.
That was months ago. I journaled some; mostly ‘around’ the question. I edged closer and closer in my head and in my written thoughts.
Then I had a watershed moment that made a distinction between knowing and viewing. It came to me in the form of a rhetorical question and it relieved the disturbing question I couldn’t shake: is God a voyeur?
The question which came to me in response is the very title of this post. And it changed something inside of me.
God knows everything. He is omnipresent. But, what does that mean, exactly??? A few stories came to mind as I pondered God’s character and ability to ‘see’ all.
Ham, Noah’s son, was punished for generations– his entire family tree cursed, after he walked into his father’s tent and gaped at Noah’s drunken, passed out, naked state.* Contrast that with Shem and Japheth, Noah’s other sons, who walked backwards into the tent with a blanket, in order to avoid ‘viewing’ their father in a compromised position. (*Some scholars believe there may be more to Hams’ sinful action in that tent– things that went further than merely viewing Noah without clothes on. I’ll leave you to study that on your own, if so inclined.).
It seems that Shem and Japheth’s action is the one which represents the character of God.
King David, before he was king, watched King Saul relieve himself in a cave, his men urging him to outright kill him; David snatching a piece of Saul’s cloak instead…but then, later on, David felt guilty for doing so…
If David, a ‘man after God’s own heart’, felt guilty after being so close to Saul while he was relieving himself in a cave, doesn’t that mean He was outside of the character of God in that moment?
Such were the questions, and the Bible stories, in my head as I journaled and pondered God watching me. I had uncomfortable thoughts. Things like, does God literally watch me, as my uncle watched me, when I use the toilet, or take a shower?
I have a great friend that I swap ‘you-won’t-believe-my-family-stories’ with, who once shared that her Grandpa kept his Bible and stacks of old Guideposts on the back of his toilet. She found it to be a combination of funny and disturbing. We never could answer the question of whether it is a good thing, or grossly perverted, to read the Holy Word, while on the toilet.
Interestingly, Webster’s 1828 print and online dictionary (one of my ‘go to’ word and Bible study tools, linked to above on the word ‘omnipresent’) doesn’t even contain the word voyeur. Seems the need to define voyeurism is a relatively new thing.
Undoubtedly, God knows everything. Like a Mother’s intuition and love knows about her children thousands of miles away. It is hard to grasp the idea of someone being everywhere at once and NOT also watching all that is taking place. But it wasn’t until I could separate out the difference between knowing, and seeing, that I began to find more peace, and trust, in an omnipresent God.
Furthermore, when we sin, does God view that, or is He simply aware of it? Does He take any pleasure in such things? One definition of a voyeur is a prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous. (Again, the voyeuristic action which plagues me now is not the porn exposure of my past. It is: gossip.)
Or does God intentionally NOT watch, does He turn away His eyes, in such moments. After all He already knows everything anyway. Why the need to see certain things, anyway?
In summation, God is no voyeur. To conclude that He is not one, a distinction needed to be made between being all present and all knowing, and purposely and intentionally WATCHING and VIEWING all things. The question I eventually answered my own question with makes that distinction. Therefore, in true Hebrew form, I ended up answering a (disturbing) question with another question.
Q: Is God a voyeur?
A: God knows everything. But does He WATCH everything?