The David Syndrome? By Marcia Mount Shoop


Is it just me, or does anyone else feel like we’re all in Junior High or High School again with the Petraeus scandal?  There is drama at every turn with boundaries crossed and accusations slung across every lunch table there is.

When I was a teenager we didn’t have emails, Facebook , and Twitter (thanks be to God).  We passed notes.  I remember getting a really mean one scrawled in deliberately messy handwriting to maintain anonymity about how annoying I was to the “populace” (yes I remember that word was in there) because I didn’t wear make up and I thought I was “so smart.”

Just like today’s cyber detectives who figured out Paula Broadwell’s identity from the fingerprints we all leave behind in the online lives we lead, I traced this note back to its source.  I did it the old fashioned way—I asked around.  Unfortunately I found out it was from a “friend” and teammate of mine.  When I went to her house and confronted her she admitted it.  Turns out she was envious about a boy.  Little did she know at the time that the boy she wished for was abusive and I was living in my own secret hell.  I remember thinking to myself “you can have him.”   The stakes seemed so high back then—friendships, acceptance, one’s whole sense of self were hopelessly tangled up in tenuous, even dangerous, relationships.

There are always layers to these stories.  And you can bet this tangled web of liaisons, sex, affluence, power, and betrayal that ended Petraeus’ stint as the director of the CIA has many layers to it.  And we may never know all of what it’s about for each person involved.  The “populace” is busy throwing stones and gawking at this titillating train wreck involving the highest levels of our military establishment.

It seems our collective default mode is to put everyone in a category—there’s the man who let power go to his head (and to other regions of his body), there’s the seductress, and then the social climber.  And there are people who will do anything to have proximity to powerful people.  The Internet, TV, and radio chatter on the scandal is all about these “types” and all the different ways to dissect and discuss them.

You may have drawn your own conclusions.  I know I have bouts with sorting out my own.  

The wife in me is disgusted by the story.  My husband works in a very male dominated field with similar dynamics to the military—violence and masculinity form and feed the work that he does.  Some of his co-workers through the years have had extramarital affairs.  And they have done it while their wives are working overtime at home making things work while the men are largely absent.  These same women are uprooted from support systems and communities routinely because of the vagaries of things like egos, money, and wins/losses.

The feminist theologian in me wants to go deeper in how we interrogate these hyper-masculinized spaces in American culture.  Why is it still such an easy leap to vilify the “seductress”?  The assumption that Paula Broadwell was the aggressor easily finds cultural traction.    This often replayed dynamic of men in power having moral lapses when it comes to women has been labeled the “Bathsheba Syndrome” after King David’s prideful grab for Bathsheba, another man’s wife.  Why not the “David Syndrome”?

Underneath this nomenclature is the assumption that women are the problem; women are the cause of temptation, women make revered men forget their moral values.  Women are the Achilles heels of men who are great—like rich food, or good chocolate, or some other delicacy.  The feminist in me sees how difficult it is for the broader culture to notice and to ask questions about how profoundly patriarchy in-forms these situations.   Indeed, everyone has been imprinted in deeply embodied and unconscious ways by the assumptions and distortions of patriarchy.  And male dominated structures like the military and professional football and others we can easily name, form and feed expectations of masculinity that uses and abuses power to get what it wants.  No matter what, David Petraeus’ stature renders any encounter he has loaded with opportunities for him to get his way and/or be told what he wants to hear.   Patriarchy is built with such scaffolding of masculinized power.

We are all somewhere/somehow captive to these mentalities that make women part of the conquest/contest in male dominated contexts.  When women take up more space in these institutions perhaps we hope that simple proximity and competency will usher in changes in our instincts and intuitions.  But the habits of mind and body that stitch themselves through male/female relationships are tenacious still even as women may be gaining more power in some of these male dominated contexts.  The hard truth is that patriarchy arrests our development when it comes to encountering each other across gendered identities with mutual regard and shared power.

I’ve wondered off and on whether working closely with men who have power in institutions built on male models of power is ever safe for competent and capable women.  The competitive ethos that patriarchy encourages seems to make everyone the object of conquest.  And when a woman is the object of conquest, sexual conquest may often still be the most direct path to victory.  To interrupt the patterns of conquest is the onus on women to desexualize ourselves in the workplace?  Or is the answer to sequester ourselves in woman-centered workspaces in order to find the freedom to be collaborative, creative, and professional?  It seems to me our questions must go deeper than these strategies take us.

How do we understand relationships in terms of trust and collaboration instead of manipulation and conquest?  The kind of transformation we need doesn’t come from regulation or from segregation; it comes from practicing mutuality in spaces where conquest is not the name of the game.  And it takes graduating to a whole new level of self-understanding—one that takes us beyond any arrested in those painful Junior High/High School habits of mind where it seems like we have so much to prove and even more to lose.

Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who lives in Chapel Hill, NC.  Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond.  She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  At www.marciamountshoop.com  Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.  



Categories: Abuse of Power

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16 replies

  1. It seems to me that this really is the question:
    To interrupt the patterns of conquest is the onus on women to desexualize ourselves in the workplace? Or is the answer to sequester ourselves in woman-centered workspaces in order to find the freedom to be collaborative, creative, and professional? It seems to me our questions must go deeper than these strategies take us.

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  2. Thank you for your comment, Carol. The question you are raising up has to do with how women locate and comport ourselves within these hyper masculine spaces. I agree with you that there is something important in a critical gaze at how we engage these spaces and how we understand our own identities within them. I wonder if there is also a way to get to an even more radical question about the tenuous and trivialized ways that men are able to define their identities in these spaces, too. As power shifts in American culture it seems really important that we all get clarity on the pitfalls of how power is understood and exercised in patriarchal systems. If we don’t, these practices will only take on a new cast of characters, but the conditions of possibility for healthy, mutual relationships will not be enriched at all. I feel a profound pull toward this question as the mother of a son. Thank you again for commenting.
    Peace,
    Marcia

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  3. I had never heard of “The Bathsheba Syndrome” before reading this post, but the more I heard the story of David and Bathsheba, the more puzzled I became as to why she was often given all or equal blame in the affair. I think “The David Syndrome” is far more accurate.

    Having had the pleasure of working over the past year in all female environments, and one of those a feminist workplace, I see the stark differences between the dynamics of these workplaces and traditional or masculinity-driven workplaces. The all female and feminist environments have been much more enriching to my soul.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Mariam. I appreciate you raising up the differences you have experienced between male/female workplaces and all female/feminist environments. I, too, have experienced the difference between the competitive, tense, turfy workplaces that are defined by a more masculine ethos and the more “yes/and” collaborative workplaces that embody a far different model of relationship and partnership. Of course, we cannot essentialize these spaces either as plenty of women have internalized the deep insecurities that patriarchy invites us to have. And when we do engage in spaces where the game-playing and competition is not there we don’t always know what to do with ourselves. It takes practice to trust a different kind of space. When we find those spaces of true mutuality and trust they can be so very liberating, so full of vitality. Here’s hoping those spaces can multiply.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  4. Sure thing–blame the women. Like, in our society, women have anything like the power that rich men have. Also in the news: lawsuits against military men for abusing women under their command. It’s their fault, too. Forgive me if I sound sarcastic, but I think our junior high school congress and news media have it wrong. Put the blame where it belongs. Blame it on horny, grabby men!

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    • Thank you for reading and for commenting, Barbara. You are pointing toward a stark reality–the profound power differential between men and women in American culture, and the well worn habit of turning that around to be about who women are in this culture. It is pathological in many, many ways. And I yearn for a more generous space, too, where we can all take a hard look at the constrained spaces we occupy because of these realities. While there are plenty “grabby” and predatory men–the pastor in me also wants to have eyes to see where those behaviors often come from in them. I wonder if patriarchy is really about the systematic institutionalizing of and imprinting within of a distorting insecurity about our own power and our own worth. I see my own son working so hard to figure out who he is supposed to be as a boy/man in this culture. It is heartbreaking. I try everyday to affirm his worth as a person so he won’t feel like he has so much to prove. It’s an uphill battle in a world where he’s supposed to be constantly competing with and comparing himself to others to gauge his value. Thanks so much, again, for commenting.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  5. Excellent blog on this matter. I have read for years Walter Brueggemann’s work with King David and many of the other Kings in the O.T. His work “David’s Truth” opened for me the dangers of “power” and the impact of such power on an entire family, people, and even nation. The reading of “David’s Truth” is not at all user friendly for “men” in general as I found in some groups that decided it was “too hard” a “read,” indeed. When I read about the other General being investigated for some of the same behavior “David’s Truth” came to memory. It is hard for men in the USofA to come to grips with this dark side. As I sat at a college football game a few weeks ago and stood watching on the horizon for two A.F. fighter aircraft to “fly over” the stadium to end the national anthem I was amused, shocked, and then brought to my senses by the response of the young men around me to the fly over. They went crazy, they would have picked up a gun in that moment, and were just gaga about the power of such systems of warfare and violence. There is something very seductive and addictive about power, destructive power. It is becoming clearer and clearer that men, young men, young boys are easily addicted to such power. We dangle things like “Black Ops II” now before our young boys titillating them and we’re told to mention such is to “cry wolf.” Thanks again for your post.

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    • Thank you, Michael, for your response. You lift up some vivid examples of what the “David Syndrome” brings up. I am not familiar with Brueggemann’s work that you mention. It sounds like it covers some important ground. I agree that these issues are hard to touch, hard to look at. It is the scaffolding of our culture, the framework for making sense of many things. To dismantle it feels very frightening for lots of people. I also think young men and boys don’t have a whole lot of space to figure out how to feel safe in the face of life in a violent world that doesn’t have to do with “power over” formation. Football (my husband’s business) embodies these mentalities to be sure. And we mix it all up with how we understand might in the broader scheme of things in the world. It can be soul killing. I pray that we can find the communal courage to look at these deeply entrenched patterns without fear. Thank you again for your comments, Michael. They are very helpful.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  6. Good morning Marcia, and thanks for weighing in on this topic. It is a sad commentary that we have had to legislate morality and appropriate behavior in the workplace, but such legislation has done a lot of good for women in our country. But we have a long way to go. You know from your work with multicultural awareness that the dominate culture (in this case men in general) have to be able to own their own power before change can begin to occur. I think the generation of the boomers is a lost cause but we can take heart that our young people may have more of an opportunity to see what male domination does, not just in the work place but in the home, in church, and in a lot of other venues. We just need to keep educating. As women (also read people of color) we are (by in large) well aware of the power structures, but those who enjoy the power and the attendant entitlements of that power aren’t going to change until they (read mostly white males) take ownership of their own actions and are willing to share/partnership with those who do not have those entitlements. I agree that the Petraus “affair” is incredibly “silly” in light of the many important issues facing our country and world. However it may, in the right circumstances, be a great teaching moment for a new generation. Just a thought.

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    • Thank you, Janet, for reading and for commenting. You raise an important point about the necessity of men to name and claim these dynamics and their stake in it in order for radical transformation to occur. The parallel to the necessity of whites to own their own privilege is a similar and just as necessary dynamic for cultural change to take hold. And practicing power sharing must be what comes from this truth telling and this will toward change. I agree with you that the Petraus situation is a potent mirror for these patterns. The best case scenario is that we encounter it as an invitation to deepen our communal will to find a new way. Thanks again, Janet. Your comments enrich the conversation.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  7. Call me a slut, I have always refused to dress in a way that hid the beauty of a female body. Probably I paid a price for that. Why should we have to hide our female bodies under a bushel (and still be forced to wear 6 inch heels) in order to be taken seriously. This is a real disconnect.

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    • Amen, Carol. You are so right about this disconnect. And perhaps the most important thing you point toward in your comment is: “Probably I paid a price for that.” Can we even begin to parse out how much women have to alter their appearance and behavior to achieve certain kinds of success and recognition? And furthermore, can we begin to fathom what the cost is when we simply want to “be ourselves”? The assumptions, judgments, and consequences come at us from every angle. And the costs are not just in outcomes, but in our very self-understanding.
      Thanks, again, Carol.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  8. Reblogged this on Lead Me On and commented:
    This feminist minister and religious studies scholar writes: “How do we understand relationships in terms of trust and collaboration instead of manipulation and conquest? The kind of transformation we need doesn’t come from regulation or from segregation; it comes from practicing mutuality in spaces where conquest is not the name of the game. And it takes graduating to a whole new level of self-understanding—one that takes us beyond any arrested in those painful Junior High/High School habits of mind where it seems like we have so much to prove and even more to lose.” That indeed, is the a question that’s particularly pertinent with the David Syndrome, commonly known as the Bathsheba Syndrome. In everything I’ve written about this, I don’t think I’ve been able to say what she does (and I wholeheartedly agree!) — that there’s something so “junior high” about this so-called syndrome, which makes a roof-bathing neighbor into a symbol for all power-over temptations, and sex a stand-in for any and every business sin, from adultery to embezzlement. Which begs the question — when did adultery become a business sin? So simple and yet so complex! Indeed, it may be time to ask, what hath leadership storytelling wrought?

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  9. This is a powerful commentary on this topic. Thank you for what you have written! Indeed, I’m with you in naming the “David Syndrome”- time to stop the “slut” shaming.

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  10. Also- so you know- your post came up when I searched for “Bathsheba” and “Feminism”…I’m working on a sermon on Psalm 51 and am really trying to flip the scrip on the way that Psalm 51 and the 2 Samuel 10 and following narrative is so often preached.

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