In Remembrance of Jordan Riak, Child Advocate
Years ago, when I was first jolted out of the collective blind stupor that disregards violence against children, I was outraged and needed to do something. Like an Army surgeon who, after carefully refining his technique in an attempt to save one casualty after another, finally realizes the war will not end, I too finally realized the war on children, child abuse itself, would not end. Like that surgeon, I realized psychotherapy alone couldn’t possibly end child abuse. Psychotherapy, a profession that shies away from activism and essentially ignores childhood until you’re through it, was just one more intervention too late. It is an obvious fact that we can’t protect children from abuse while simultaneously providing parents a legal and psychological defense to hit them. We must acknowledge that hitting children is wrong and prohibit it. Granted, the American Psychoanalytic Association is the most courageous in its policy statement “condemning” spanking, but these are only words when no real action is being taken to end the practice. It is like condemning war, but doing nothing to stop it. I wanted to stop it and I was searching for others who did too. That is when I found Jordan Riak.
I remember his kind voice on the other line. He understood my outrage. He told me about how he had been working to end spanking for many, many years. He told me of his close friendship with Alice Miller. “Do you know her work,” he asked? Yes, I responded, absolutely. Miller was a psychoanalyst from the depth psychology tradition, a member of my own clan. I had discovered her in graduate school years ago and recalled how she had written about the staggering effects of early child maltreatment. Jordan reminded me that she also strongly condemned spanking. Alice Miller had passed away a few years before, and I could hear in his voice such tenderness and gratitude for her as he continued to carry the torch for children.
Jordan was encouraging. Despite his years of experience, he genuinely showed interest in what I thought might help. He talked about how he would walk to the post office nearly every day to mail his pamphlets to whomever needed them. His pamphlet talked about the origins of hitting children and the twisted ideology that supported its use. Jordan worried that change was too slow. He seemed tired. He confided in me, “I’m an old man now, Robbyn. In fact, if I forget to send these pamphlets, please let me know. I forget things much more these days.” I shared with him all my schemes that might shift public opinion including maybe even attempting to ban spanking in a city or two. I assured him that things were changing. We had science to lean on now. I was certain that if people really understood the invisible yet deep neurodevelopmental and relational wounds caused by spanking, there would be widespread public outrage. He laughed with delight applauding my ideas, “Yes! You have a wonderful plan,” he told me. And I believed him. Most importantly, I didn’t feel quite so alone..
A few days later, Jordan’s pamphlet came in the mail. The image on the cover was a man gripping a switch in his hand facing a cowering child. I exhaled slowly at the image of violence stripped of niceties and euphemisms. I imagined Jordan walking over to the post office the morning before, his daily ritual of love and faith. Jordan Riak believed it was possible to end spanking. He worked very hard to achieve that dream long before the fruits of peaceful parenting were visible, before the avalanche of research warned against it, even before paddling was illegal in most public schools. Jordan founded PTAVE, Parents & Teachers Against Violence in Education and wrote the bill banning paddling in California public schools in 1986. He organized and inspired so many to join the movement. Even in his eighties, Jordan Riak was doing what he could. He was still a believer. Now it’s our turn to thank Jordan and take the torch for children from his hands. Now it’s our turn to do what we can. It’s our turn to believe.
With love and gratitude for you and your life’s work Jordan Riak. Thank you.
Robbyn Peters Bennett