Ep.50- REMASTERED Conversation with Lara Naughton: Compassion and Sexual Assault

Listen to this remastered version of my interview with Lara Naughton on compassion during and after a sexual assault.  In this conversation Lara shares how love and compassion saved her life after she was kidnapped while on vacation.  She talks about how compassion changed her, and shares her ideas on how to change systems so that they can work better for both men and women who are involved in SA. 


Gissele overdub: Hello and welcome to this podcast entitled, can we truly have unconditional compassion for those who hurt us? Lessons from a sexual assault. My guest today is a new Orleans based writer, teacher and compassion trainer with more than 20 years experience teaching and facilitating workshops and retreats with individuals who have faced challenging circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, HIV AIDS, wrongful conviction, incarceration, and torture.

She is a certified compassion cultivation trainer through the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She’s also the founder of the Compassion Program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, as well as the founder of the Victim Outreach Program through the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole.

She is creative writing faculty at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and her writing includes the documentary play, Never Fight a Shark in Water, The Wrongful [00:01:00] Conviction of Gregory Bright. Which has been performed by Bright himself on stages across the country. And of course her memoir, The Jaguar Man.

Welcome, Laura.

Lara: Thank you for having me.

Gissele overdub: I’d love to talk, to start talking about your book. You touch on so many issues that are facing women and men today and how we have systems that aren’t moving forward in a compassionate way when it comes to sexual assault. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what inspired you to write the book.


Lara: backstory is I went and took a, was meant to be a two week vacation in Belize and on the fourth day of that trip, I was picked up by a man. Pretending to be a cab driver, and I was kidnapped into the jungle at knife point where I was robbed and raped twice. That’s one level of the story, and of course after that kind of a traumatic incident, you know, I was left with the question, what just happened?

But there was another what just happened that was [00:02:00] even bigger, that while I was in the jungle with this man, who I refer to as the Jaguar Man throughout the book, it mixed in with the violence was also this very profound experience of compassion, because It was compassion, I believe, that saved my life.

It was very obvious that this man was acting out of his own madness, or pain, or trouble. It was not personal to me, that I knew immediately. I never met this man before, so it couldn’t have been about me. So, really my only defense, not being able to to run or to hide or to overpower him, my only defense was to turn toward him and his pain and try to soothe him so that he would stop harming me.

And all of that made a lot of sense in the jungle. But the moment I was safe and away from him, it didn’t make sense anymore. And part of that confusion came because I was living in Los Angeles at the [00:03:00] time and I told people what happened. I wasn’t hiding it or ashamed in any way. But the reactions I got were so varied and so angry, and I really started to question my own approach to self defense.

And so the book was born out of wanting to have some control over the narrative, to shape it, to make sense of it, and how to think about and talk about compassion. I wanted to have a conversation about compassion in the face of violence. and, and that’s what birthed the Jaguar Man.

Gissele overdub: That’s beautiful. And of course, writing has been a tool and probably was a tool for you beforehand. Absolutely. Yeah. That’s kind

Lara: of how I orient in the world.

Gissele overdub: Yeah. And I loved how you kind of wrote this story because you kind of use facts and myths of storytelling. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of Dr.

 Jean Houston, who is the author of Jump Time. And she [00:04:00] actually uses myth as a way to heal trauma. She actually has kind of this neat exercise where you think about a traumatic event and then use myth, use kind of a fairy tale in order to kind of retell your story as a healing tool. And so I was just wondering whether or not you could share why you had used kind of the facts and myth and whether it was kind of a tool for you to assist yourself in your healing.

Lara: When I got home from my encounter in Belize, I was really obsessed with wanting to know more about the man, the Jaguar Man. I wanted to understand what was driving him, why violence was the way he was expressing whatever he was going through. So when I sat down to write a memoir, I felt, I felt really blocked because so much of the truth of my story was about my obsession and about him.

How could I write a factual story when I didn’t have the facts? So [00:05:00] I named, within the memoir, what I name as fact is what I at least remember. Now, whether or not that’s factual, I don’t know, but it’s, it’s my memory to the best that I can recall. What I use as myth is what I use to fill out the story of who this man is in relation to me.

Gissele overdub: You very rarely use the word rape or sexual assault in your book. You actually kind of use the letter X. I was wondering if you could share with the audience why you, you opted to not use the word.

Lara: Right. So not using the word rape and using the symbol X instead is I think in many ways related to also your question about myth.

You know, when I hear the word rape, I think of the physical act. After my rape, I immediately had a wider perspective on that. It was so much more than the physical act. There was also the knife, and there was the jungle, there was the fear, [00:06:00] and there was the compassion, all mixed up.

And I didn’t want to use the word rape because I thought that would automatically come with a, you know, kind of a singular view. of the experience. within the book, I tried to redefine rape or X in lots of different ways to kind of give a 360, view. Of how I experienced that physical harm, but not just physically.

Gissele overdub: Yeah. Can you share a little bit as to why you opted for the Jaguar?

Lara: Yeah. So again, the Jaguar, I guess it felt true to the emotional experience of him. He was very powerful, very predatory and aggressive and taking what he wanted. And we were in the jungle and it also Jaguars are prevalent in the jungles of Belize and in fact, Very close to where he had kidnapped me is a [00:07:00] jaguar preserve, so it seemed like an appropriate, again, kind of symbol or metaphor to use.

Gissele overdub: And it’s interesting because if jaguars are on a reserve, are they trapped?

Lara: Well, they have lots of room to roam. Just land that is is a sanctuary so that they wouldn’t be shot.

Gissele overdub: Okay, so it’s a protection. Yeah. Yeah. Beautiful, because you had used the facts and myths about jaguars, and I know you were trying to introduce aspects of the individual’s history.

You had mentioned earlier that and you also mentioned it in the book, that compassion and love saved your life that day. Can you share a little bit more about that?

Lara: Yeah, that is my belief. I think my response to this man is what eventually helped him to, to calm down long enough to see me as a person separate from him.

I think. You know, my, [00:08:00] my stance was to, to just try to calm him, to listen to him. I gave him my full attention.

Gissele overdub: It’s like the power of loving presence.

Lara: Love is always going to be the strongest. And it was put to the test in this case. And it worked. Now, who’s to say it would work in every scenario? Of course.

I don’t know. In this case where there was, it was a one to one interaction, there was nothing else around us. Seeing him as an individual who needed care eventually helped him see me as an individual who didn’t deserve to be harmed. You know, it took time and he harmed me.

And at the same time, he was checking in to see who I was. He became more curious about me. And at the end of our encounter, he actually drove me to All the way back to my cabana where I was staying, as though he were my cab [00:09:00] driver. Because he said he didn’t want me to be in a place that wasn’t safe.

Right. So confusing, and yet at the same time it made sense because we had really come through the violence into seeing each other as people who needed care.

And it was hard earned.

Gissele overdub: I had finished reading your book. There were so many parts where I felt so emotional because lots of stuff was stirring for me.

 And then actually encountered this 2017 TED talk by Valerie Kaur. And she talks about revolutionary love. She shares a story about how she’s from the Sikh community and how she had had several experiences of racism. She had a friend who was actually considered an uncle who was killed by a person due to a racist act.

She talks about how the brother of this man who was assassinated was able to forgive this murderer. And, you know, they talked to him in the prison. And she talks about [00:10:00] how we require in today’s society something called revolutionary love, which is love for ourselves, love for others, and love for our enemies.

 And I found in your book, you talk about love with teeth, and she calls revolutionary love fierce and bloody. It was interesting to me how you attempted to kind of find humanity in the Jaguar man and try to understand his behavior to see him not just as this one dimensional abuser.

At one point in the book, you said love mixed with your fear gave you power. Can you explain a little bit about that?

Lara: Well, I think it was a self power and I think that having concern and compassion and even this weird, I call it jaguar love for him is an act of self love. You know, there’s that old expression that hurt people hurt people.

If I can extend compassion to someone who’s hurting and their hurting [00:11:00] ceases or, or at least dissolves a little bit, they will then be able to be better toward me. So, you know, it’s not just just an offering to somebody else. It’s very much an acknowledgement that we are so connected that I can’t be well, unless you are well, my wellness depends on your wellness and your wellness depends on mine.

And so it’s very much a powerful act of, of self love to love another, even perhaps even especially who we might consider an enemy, but that fear. That fear is human. And, you know, and love doesn’t necessarily come without other emotional qualities attached or right next to it. But there’s something very powerful and kind of adrenaline driving about loving through the power of fear.

If I hadn’t been through hell, it wouldn’t have been so urgent. [00:12:00] And I might have turned away from that emotion, but it was urgent and there was nothing else I could think to do. So I had to dig in to that love and, and that’s what, in fact, what changed me so fundamentally as a result of this. Like, there was no time to just sit back and theorize about, oh, do, do enemies deserve love?

Like, the fear was the propulsion to the love. In my case anyway, in that moment, one probably couldn’t have existed without the other.

Gissele overdub: That’s very powerful. You ask the question in your book, if you care for your enemy, is he still your enemy? I feel like in today’s society, we’re just kind of rejecting one another and not really willing to sit in the middle.

What we’re trying to do kind of with this work and with these podcasts is try to understand how we can come together. People talk about the issue of rape as being kind of something about power, [00:13:00] but you said, for the Jaguar man, this, you know, To me feels incomplete. And I was wondering if that meant kind of the thought about how really what you mentioned, right?

Hurt people, hurt people, and that truly empowered people do not really need to take power from others. I was wondering if that’s what maybe you were referring to, or if there was more to that comment.

Lara: Yeah. You know, when I hear about rape, the kind of the quick tagline is rape is about power. The person is trying to exert or express a power over the person they’re violating.

While that is, in fact, the experience, in my situation, I felt that it wasn’t just about power, but it was about wanting to have enough power to achieve something else. And in this case, he very clearly told me that he was desperately trying to connect. It was power in order to connect with some, someone he, you know, he [00:14:00] would, he told me about the problems of his life, his problems with the law, the separation from his wife, his he was not allowed to see his son who, who is, you know, the, the love of his life.

He thought about killing himself that morning. So I had all this information. And he just kept saying that he, he just wanted to feel. So it wasn’t power for the sake of power. It was power to achieve the thing that he was so desperately missing.

And, and that, that second part I think is crucial understanding of maybe what drives people to violence. That there is this hurt that is manifesting in a violent way. But the hurt itself is trying to be soothed, and there are other ways to soothed the hurt, of course. I think it also, it probably behooves us to define compassion as well, because I think a lot of A lot of flack that people [00:15:00] get about this radical kind of love.

It’s because there are a lot of myths about compassion. Compassion is recognizing the suffering, wishing for that suffering to be relieved, and being willing to help, or motivated to help. But compassion in no way means letting somebody off the hook. Compassion is not feeling sorry for someone. It’s not condoning bad behavior, and it doesn’t even mean that there’s forgiveness.

It simply means that you see their suffering, and you want to help to relieve the suffering. That’s right. You know, there are a lot of people who think that if we if we become a culture or an individual of compassion, that suddenly we’re walked all over or harmed even more. But in fact, compassion can be a very empowering way to kind of live in the world.

And I find that the more I’ve studied compassion, the [00:16:00] more I’ve learned about it, and the more I’ve cultivated and practiced it, actually, the stronger and clearer my boundaries get. One of the myths of compassion is that suddenly people will walk all over you and take advantage of you.

But in fact, compassion can help give us much clearer boundaries. There is that expression that you can be, that there’s fierce compassion. Compassion doesn’t mean that you are always gentle. It means that your action has the intention behind it to relieve suffering. That action can come and look in lots of different ways.

You know, the most compassionate thing might be in one situation to turn around and walk away, to leave. Another compassionate reaction might be to, to get involved you know, to try to actually be of service. And another one might be, in some cases, to use force. To change the course of an action, but always what would be the thing would [00:17:00] be the attention to relieve suffering.

And so I think it’s helpful to define that so that there’s not confusion about, oh, we’re not just saying love someone no matter what they do. We’re saying see the suffering that’s at the root cause of this behavior. Hold the person accountable and help them move beyond the limited Thinking and mindset that is driving this behavior.

Gissele overdub: You know, I’d like to believe that working from a place of compassion and love is our true nature. People that kind of do these behaviors tend to isolate themselves from others. And they, they kind of really are preventing themselves from tapping into their own love and compassion. There was a key part in the book that really had an emotional impact on me.

You kind of had a confrontation, what I would call the confrontation with God. I don’t want to spoil it for people, but I think it was one of the pivotal moments. For me in the book, at least it was but I do want to share kind of your thought about that God should have loved me more [00:18:00] and that, you know, that kind of belief that if there’s a God or there’s this kind of universal love, it’s that love is only given to people that deserve it.

Lara: You know, I, the scene that you’re referring to takes place in in a church that a friend took me to when I returned home to Los Angeles. But, you know, I was just feeling like, God, this, what in the world are you trying, what am I supposed to learn from this?

And there are a lot better ways to get my attention. You know, and I was just going back and forth in my mind. I was having this dialogue, it felt like with this, with this presence, you know, and I definitely felt as though I was being There was this other voice that was responding to me, but you know, at one point I, I just, you know, I, in my, this kind of rage toward God silently in my head and sitting in this church, I said, well, you know, do you love him more than me?

And, and I got this answer [00:19:00] back that I love you both the same. And that just did me in. I thought, no, that’s not okay. I said, God, you’re allowed to love him a little bit. Like I did. But really you should be loving me more. And, you know, and I was really petulant in my mind about this. And and I thought, no, no, no, this is, this is too big.

I’m in too deep here. And then, and then I, it really hit me that if I’m going to understand love, if I’m going to understand compassion, I have to be, I have to be willing for him to be loved. And again, not just in the theoretical sense, but, you know, we’re loved on earth through other people. And so if God’s going to love him, it’s going to, it’s going to come through others.

And one of those others was me. And would I accept that or wouldn’t I? And, and that’s where I was left. And then of course it took years, you know, to work through [00:20:00] that. Yeah, absolutely. Questions arrive and arise in these kind of momentary flashes. And then it takes years to work with them.

Gissele overdub: It’s difficult to get past the hurt.

Why should he be free and go around after doing this to people? Like we have a tendency to want to punish. And at one point in the book, you ask a question about when rape became a woman’s issue. you talk about how rape really belonged to his anger and his madness. And then you also got to talk about how the systems really weren’t designed to kind of help him get to the point where he.

would really understand the impact of his behavior. I was gathering some stats for my chat with you in Canada, according to the Sexual Assault Center. One in three women experience some sort of sexual assault in their lives. Something’s obviously not working for both men and [00:21:00] women.

Lara: It is really an epidemic, and women are the loudest voices speaking against rape.

And all the books on the topic are shelved in women’s studies. Sexual assault statistics primarily count the women, and so it’s been made to be this women’s issue. And, you know, and I really resent that rape has become a woman’s issue. And I, and, and I just, part of that resentment is just that I think that we’re, we’re in a loop of, of ineffectivity.

Although there are women who rape, ultimately it is a man’s men’s issue. And and I think that when we, when we get to the point where we’re willing to listen to men who have assaulted others and to understand what is driving them and what they need, what they didn’t receive, what sort of messages they’ve received, you know, we’re, [00:22:00] we’re getting better in our culture listening to women.

And listening to their experience, listening to the to the, to the victim or the survivor does not change the behavior of the offender. So I really would like to turn this on its head somehow, some way. And that’s one of the things that propelled me to want to go to, into, into a prison and just, you know, figure out what, what is missing, what has been missing in, in the healing of people who end up committing these really horrible.

violences and then suffer the consequences of it for the rest of their lives. Like that’s not working for anyone and it’s not healing women. You know, putting someone in jail does not heal a woman. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be in jail. I’m just saying it’s not a direct relationship to someone else’s healing.[00:23:00]

Gissele overdub: I’ve been thinking about kind of the whole concept of prison and how historically Like, our solution to our problems has been isolate and segregate, right? Like, this is how we treated children with developmental disabilities. This is how we’ve treated people with mental health problems. But we’re not really kind of addressing the problems.

You talk about how prison is really the place where the sickest people go, only to get more pain inflicted on them. One of the questions I wanted to ask is, what you thought we really need to kind of create systems that actually work for both men and women?

Lara: From working in the prison system, what I see are competing needs and competing purposes. There’s the purpose of isolation and separation, and in many cases that is appropriate. Some people would need to be removed from that community so they don’t cause harm. That is the first purpose of the criminal justice system.

Another is punishment, [00:24:00] and you know, retribution for caused harm. And then the third is rehabilitation. And what I see is that all three of these are functioning simultaneously, but in many cases at odds with one another. So once a person has been separated from their community, is incarcerated, then they’re offered rehabilitation programs, some incredible programs, at least in Angola.

And at the same time, there’s a lingering desire within the larger community for eternal punishment. And so we have, in many cases, a person whose mindset and behavior is very rehabilitated. Having served 20, 30 years in prison. And now we’re punishing a person who doesn’t really resemble the violent person of their past.

What is it that we intend incarceration to be? Who is it for? Is it for, is it for the individual who caused the harm? Is it for the survivor of the harm? Competition of, of needs and purposes is really causing [00:25:00] enormous confusion and strife and and chaos.

Gissele overdub: Very well put. I do find in these systems, there’s all these competing needs.

Doesn’t it feel like we’re making progress in terms of helping people understand and really truly rehabilitate? I was wondering if you could kind of share a little bit of the work, the compassion work that you’re doing within the prison system.

Lara: Kind of a circuitous path, I guess. They, when I got home, the first thing I did was to write the book.

And again, that was, that was just to find some clarity within my own thinking. And then as the book was about to be published, I got really scared. It’s like, oops, you know, am I sure of what I’m saying? And I don’t really have a circle of kind of compassionistas, you know, to make sure that he, that I can, that I can stand behind.

What I’m saying, like, am I out here on my own? And so I searched [00:26:00] and I found a program at Stanford University, the Compassion Cultivation Training. It’s an eight week science and mindfulness based Compassion training course. So I went and I got trained to teach that course and really what I was looking for was a community And answers to what is compassion because I knew I was going to be asked to talk about it and I wanted to talk about it beyond just my own experience, but I wanted to have a much more education, you know, the science and the research and the philosophy behind it.

So I, so I got trained in that. And then as a result of that certification through a series of kind of. You know, unexpected and remarkable events. I, I ended up being invited to Angola out of the blue to speak. And from that moment on, I’ve been going once a week ever since. And I teach the eight week compassion.

I teach that series to to men who [00:27:00] are incarcerated. That’s kind of the main component of the program. We also do shared compassion workshops. We do all day conferences in Louisiana. The idea is to bring people together and talk about the urgent issues within corrections through the lens of compassion.

It’s been really life changing for me. And I didn’t even know I would appreciate it. You know, I certainly have been kind of forced to, to face some questions. I didn’t necessarily want, want to face or know I wanted to face, you know, like, what is justice?

Gissele overdub: Yeah. Challenging work.

Lara: Yeah. You know, honestly. I have not encountered anyone yet at Angola who’s not willing or interested in being part of those questions in conversation. The biggest learning for me has been more an unlearning, unlearning impressions of who people are and who are in prison.

Gissele overdub: We tend [00:28:00] to make a lot of judgments about who people are

Lara: A lot of judgments and narrative that’s promoted through media and tv and movies. It’s just not at all what I’ve encountered. So it’s been a long process of unlearning before I could even build up new learning.

Gissele overdub: Would you be able to share maybe some of the outcomes you’ve seen after implementing the compassion training?

Lara: A lot of the outcomes are similar to the outcomes I’ve seen outside of prison. The hardest part of compassion is the self compassion. That is something I have noticed across the board with every group of people that I’ve run the Compassion Workshops with.

So one of the outcomes has been maybe greater self care, maybe a softer approach to their own pain. Sadness, loneliness, grief, shame. I think one of the biggest benefits of the class is creating a shared environment where it’s okay to be really honest and vulnerable. We sit face to face, sometimes in pairs, small groups or big groups, and we get [00:29:00] honest and real about how we’re feeling in that moment.

And there aren’t a lot of opportunities within prison or frankly outside either for that kind of focused and caring exchange. People crave that. They thrive on that, but we are so skillful at avoiding that.

Gissele overdub: So I’m just wondering what kind of support you, you have received from the leadership at the organization?

Lara: Oh, it’s, it’s been extraordinary support. Angola is a place that has, has welcomed me, you know, and I think part of.

What, what makes me interesting to the, to the participants in my classes is that I do come from a victim experience that, and I, I share that very openly. And so, and there’s such a desire within Angola to have access to the person they harmed, to be able to apologize, but there isn’t a mechanism for that.

And so, for me to be a [00:30:00] survivor of a violent crime and show interest and to be willing to understand it is refreshing, new, and important. And so, the prison administration has been very welcoming.

Gissele overdub: And I think that’s really instrumental in being able to do this kind of work within the prison system.

Lara: Absolutely.

Gissele overdub: Can you talk a little bit about what you think are kind of some key areas that are missing within the prison system in creating kind of more compassionate and healing places?

Lara: Maybe one of the places to start is outside of prison with our attitudes and assumptions. we’re really asking people who are incarcerated in this country to do a Herculean task of, of overriding and, you know, a harsh, cold environment in order to be a loving person. I don’t know. I, I’m not sure I did any, your question, any justice at all, but I think it’s just such a [00:31:00] huge question.

I don’t know where to begin, you know, because it’s at the individual system level, I think Ear Hustle do a great job. That’s, that’s a podcast that comes out of San Quentin in California, where the hosts are talking about the daily life of prison. And, and yet it just, it reminds people outside that, Oh, right.

We’re talking about individual people who are living individual lives, very full in many cases, lives with people, with jobs, within prison, with relationships, with families, relationships that they’re, that they’ve managed to maintain over decades. And you know, when we talk about quote unquote offenders, I think that’s problematic because it’s.

In many cases, the offense occurred decades ago, and yet we continue to refer to a person as an offender. we hold the very, the very definition of that person according to that act.

 [00:32:00] I think, you know, if we are going to start changing a system, we’re also going to need to change your perception of the individuals within that system.

Gissele overdub: Absolutely. And I think you did a beautiful job answering the question. I mean, these are great points in terms of looking at the environments we’re creating top to bottom in, you know, whether or not we’re creating kind of these dehumanizing systems.

 And looking at our attitudes is our purpose to punish is our purpose to really rehabilitate and can those two really coexist together. I think you’ve got us on the journey to kind of really think about how we can create more compassionate places. So, thank you. What’s next for you? Is there anything that’s coming up that you would like to share with us in terms of some of the work that you’re doing?

Lara: you know, I am carrying on This i’m i’m deep in it. I teach my full time job as I teach creative writing, at an arts conservatory high school and then You know, when I spend my time in Angola, I also [00:33:00] work with a victim outreach program. I think that’s really important to mention as well that, that my focus is, is really on you know, we talk about sides, you know, both sides, I, I really don’t see sides.

I see lots of people who who are hurting, who want to, who want to heal, And I’m just going to keep on keeping on.

Gissele overdub: I’d like to encourage everyone to go buy the Jaguar men available on Amazon.

And I’d like to thank you, Laura, for the work that you’re doing. It’s so impactful.

Lara: Thank you so much.

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