Jean Vanier: a mother’s perspective on vulnerability and abuse

It was May 2019 when I first encountered John Vanier. A quiet morning with Radio 4 murmuring in the background, the polished voices of media intelligentsia companionably disregarded as I swept and wiped away the debris of breakfast.

Thought For The Day was on. Not being the world’s greatest fan of organised religion, I usually find it pretty easy to close my ears when this programme pipes up. But on that day the words of historian and Telegraph writer Tim Stanley, touched me profoundly.

He spoke of the recently departed Jean Vanier, who had died aged 90, considered a living saint for his work in establishing the worldwide L’Arche charity, a network of over 140 communities where people with learning disabilities are at the heart. Where those with and without disability live side by side, in community and equality, living simply but with a crystal clear eye for what matters most in this life.

Stanley spoke eloquently of Vanier’s embodiment of ‘upside down economics’ where people are valued for who they are, for their heart, for their capacity to love and be loved.

And in these words I recognised my own experience, as a parent of a child who has intellectual disabilities. Who has taught me so much, and brought my own hazy world view into unclouded focus. Whose purity of heart, honesty of emotion and sheer joy at being surrounded by love and fun give short shrift to any pride or envy I might feel towards others with more conventional success, opportunity or money than I.

I also felt hope.

Hope that in this world of increasing violence towards people and planet, there really are living saints. Those who are motivated by good. Those who truly see what I feel privileged to see, and experience in my daily life, and have the means to make way for it in society. Who listen and learn from those who don’t speak verbal language, are not politically powerful, nor able to influence with money or action, but can show us through just being who they are, what human existence really is. That is isn’t money, or status, or belongings. That it is love.

And I felt connection.

Connection to a network of people who lived and experienced my world. And whom I could perhaps consider a safety net. If it all went deeply wrong in my world, the part of my mind that needs a plan b had decided I could retreat there, to a L’Arche community. To put all my religious stereotypes and suspicions aside, and to immerse myself in that life. As a family we would have been welcomed, I have no doubt.

It also made me feel safer about what might happen to my son after we are gone. That there might actually be people in the world who would love and value him, taking care of more than just his basic needs and helping him to flourish and find community.

Vanier spoke to me in a way that few others in public or my own life have done so.

Most people that we meet in our lives are kind. We experience very little stigma. And yet I know, I can feel, that under the surface of most people’s kindness there exists a huge gulf of understanding. Perhaps they feel sorry for us, they find my son’s disabilities sad, or find some strange inspiration in our determination to live a normal life.

And that is where the gulf lies.

Because I know they don’t really get it. They don’t value my son for who he is. Not really. They see deficit. Loss. Hardship.

Society still pushes people with intellectual disabilities to the margins, but Vanier wanted to place them at the very heart of society. He believed that this way people, and society, could find not just grace but peace.

I found Vanier inspiring. I wanted to tell everyone about him. To show them that intellectual disability isn’t the life sentence of hardship that so many believe it to be, and that here was a man of influence who could convince them. More powerful perhaps than just another (clearly deluded) mother of a disabled child boring on about how her child actually has a great life, and finds happiness and fulfilment, despite his disabilities, and brings joy to all he meets.

But this week brought terrible news. Not the galloping spectre of coronavirus, or even the verdict of the Weinstein trial. Something just as malevolent for all who are connected in some way to L’Arche, however distant and for those with vulnerable people in their families.

Jean Vanier, once considered a prophet for our troubled times, has been exposed as an abuser. A report produced for L’Arche International has shown that Vanier engaged in ‘manipulative sexual relationships’ with women who worked in his communities over a period of 35 years.

Of course, we know nothing of whether Vanier’s sexual and spiritual abuse stretched beyond those who worked for him towards the vulnerable within L’Arche communities. The charity has been keen to point out that there is no evidence to suggest this but how we can know with any certainty, is surely a discomforting impossibility.

This news has left a deep and piercing cavity of distrust among those who love and care for people with intellectual disabilities.

For it challenges everything we thought we knew about how and where abuse happens.

The narrative of late has shone a light on institutional abuse of people with autism (a neurological not an intellectual condition), and people with learning disability. We know from this narrative that when vulnerable people are in the care of people who lack knowledge or compassion, in places where safeguarding the system and the financial bottom line matters more than helping an individual to flourish, that devastating abuse happens.

We know that when love is stripped away from care, we end up with Winterbourne View, Whorlton Hall, the unforgivable mistreatment of Beth, and Connor Sparrowhawk, and the many many others that have not hit the headlines but sit hidden in Serious Case Reviews in NHS filing cabinets.

But when love and abuse sit side by side? It becomes more than a little complicated. When a shining light in our world is revealed to be nothing more than an illusion, a monster in disguise, how do we begin, or continue to trust those who seemingly love our children?

I have wrestled with this thought since the weekend when the Vanier abuse story broke. And the only conclusion I can come to is that we have to trust our guts. For when something seemingly beautiful has an ugly heart, it is usually our guts that can tell us, well before any cognitive or rational recognition can be found.

Last year when I read one of Vanier’s books, ‘A Cry is Heard’, I was inspired by his words but I also felt a tinge of discomfort. One that I brushed aside at the time but this news has shown me that I should have listened harder.

The way Vanier wrote of being brought to personal grace by being in the presence of people with intellectual disability felt usury to me. The entirety of his book centred on his own path to peace, his own redemption and finding of true meaning. The voices of the people within his communities were conspicuous by their absence.

And as I turn my thought to those who support us and care for our son, I know that I have only felt this same sense of disquiet once. A therapist slightly too entranced by my son, a warmth of welcome a touch too familiar, an approach just a little too personal. Seemingly extremely knowledgeable, and deeply compassionate, but I couldn’t shake my discomfort. I kept quiet about it, as others who saw the same therapist apparently didn’t feel as I did, crediting this person with having changed their lives. But we didn’t go back.

Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, but the exacting parallels of feeling I had in the presence of this therapist, and while reading Vanier’s words, have taught me that perhaps the best way I can protect my child is to keep listening to my gut.

What happens after I am gone I do not know. But for now, while I hope I never have to use it, my second brain is firmly in gear.