The Personal is Political

“…man is defined as a human being and woman is defined as a female. Whenever she tries to behave as a human being she is accused of trying to emulate the male…” Simone de Beauvoir

Recently, I was given the responsibility to serve on a panel about Rape Culture, and afterwards, to lead a vigil for victims of domestic violence. At first, I wasn’t sure in what capacity I was being asked to contribute. But when I was told that I should present a linguistic and/or narrative perspective, I ascertained an angle from which I could attempt to set the stage for why the onus for rape so frequently falls on the victim.

The feminist movement as we know it today started with consciousness raising, a practice in which women came together to share their personal experiences with one another, to find, generally, a consensus about the particular challenges of being a woman in our collective culture. These early “second wave” feminists coined the idea that the personal is political, and they actively encouraged women to tell their stories.

There are narratives that lead us to believe it is normal to colonize women’s bodies. Even though we are socially against “forcible rape,” we are somehow immune to the subtle ways we teach and reify that women’s bodies belong to men. Do we even need repressive apparatuses when we so clearly have internalized these ideological ones? Why is it that men predominantly set the rules of political engagement? Aside from the dominance of their greater physical strength, where did this culture of hierarchy and subsequent double standards start?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1

There is immense power in words.

I told a couple of stories on this panel, which I have abbreviated here:

Story one: Once upon a time, Adam was pure and free of all sin and perception of sin. He communed effortlessly with both animals and God, until one day he told God he was lonely and God said, ok, I will make you a companion. And God created Eve out of Adam’s rib. And she became his helpmate.

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Story two:

A woman committed the first sin and our reproductive challenges are direct punishments. In many communities, when a girl gets her period, it’s referred to as the curse, and the subordination of women’s bodies and minds are often rationalized as a dictate from God.
The man said, “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. Genesis 3:12-16

I was relatively comfortable discussing these stories, since they are canonical and have nothing to do with me. I was relatively comfortable listening to my two colleagues explore the sociological and legal parameters of rape culture, even when they clearly articulated the relationship between childhood victims, the internalization of blame and shame, and the subsequent tendency for repeat victimization. I have read all of these basic theories, and they make sense to me. And I was fine. We were each presenting an educated set of perspectives, with research to support our claims. Which was predictable and safe. Until a woman from the audience raised her hand and told her story, in tears, asking for an explanation for why her rapist didn’t stop, how he could continue to violate her over her tears, how he could shame her after, vilify her to her boyfriend, and she kept asking for an explanation for his pathology, asking why, why, why, admitting a desire for vengeance (because, of course, she didn’t report or press charges at the time). Suddenly, I felt like I was going to throw up.

I stayed seated, but I couldn’t speak.

Someone else answered her.

This young woman spoke at the Vigil too, as did other women, all of whom reiterated how important it is to tell our stories, how in the telling of them, we release other victims from shame and blame. I managed to share a healing meditation, supported by candles, and I invited the circle to care for one another, but I didn’t share my story.

If the personal is political, I owed them more than I shared that night. In respect and tribute to the brave women who spoke that night, and to the brave survivors both male and female who tell or have yet to tell their stories, I was raped as both a child and an adult. Here is the beginning of my story, with minor details changed to protect my family of origin:

Ken hangs onto the molding of the doorway like a spider, cavalier, appearing disinterested, like he has nothing better to do. I think if there was an earthquake, he would hold on tighter, bracing himself for imminent disaster, but it’s obvious he doesn’t have to. I am clearly not a threat.

I am lying on the thin red bedspread, my seven year old bottom peeking out under my dad’s old football jersey, knees bent, calves up, ankles crossed. But of course Ken can’t really see that. I am perched up on my elbows, watching him linger, so he can only see my face, and as usual, my face betrays nothing. I have three siblings who share this room with me, and it feels arbitrary and random who might pounce and when. I don’t face away from the door, not now, not ever.

But they are in the kitchen. And I am here on this bed, watching Ken in the doorway eye me with his half-grin and his wide eyes like headlights on my chin. He is one of the boys my father used to coach, who is well past the 19-year-old cutoff, making him too old to compete. Mother says our father asks these boys to watch out for us while he’s on the road and that we should be nice to them and grateful they care for us, because they’re not bound by blood.

So I try to smile and be polite to Ken, even though I don’t know what he sees when he watches me, or what he’s protecting me from when no one is around, when he smoothes the baby blond wisps of hair away from my cheek and runs his hands along the length in back, pets me like a kitten, demure and soft to touch. I know my grandfather has asked my mother to cut my hair, but she hasn’t, yet. Women don’t have long hair where I come from. Maybe I am too young for her to see me as a woman, so I’m not significant. Her own hair is dark and coarse and shorn tight like a boy’s. Maybe she is proud of herself for producing what she is not, or maybe the blond hair and light eyes remind her of her husband, a man who still loves her in a way no one else has.

I don’t know. She’s never here. Father is on a coaching trip for the next ten weeks, and if I were a boy, and eight, mother says he would take me. But for now I am seven, and my father already has his sights set on my brother as his athlete, and I keep thinking that maybe Mikey won’t have the moves, and our father will reconsider and train me instead. That’s my plan, to get trained by my father so I can compete and get out of here. I wonder if my mother is coaching this evening as well, but girls don’t get to go on the same trips, and she never really tells us where she is, so I don’t think she will train me, even if she could. She and my father have many serious responsibilities that keep them on the Field or on the road for hours, days or months at a time. I have been told they work for the Lord our God and the fulfillment of His Kingdom. I only know that home is the worst place anyone can be.

* * *

I stand in the kitchen with my siblings, watching my mother gather her things to depart for the evening and I ask her softly to stay, to please stay. I must have the sad face on, a look of need, because her body hardens as she turns to look at me.

“Stop it!” she hisses in a whisper, her face contorted in controlled anger. I close my eyes and pull the emotion in like a syringe, softening my face before the tears emerge. I take a deep breath. Nothing. I have swallowed the sadness and it lingers in my belly like a dead animal waiting to rot. But my face shows nothing anymore. I am sure of this from the way my mother turns away again, that I have managed what she most respects and demands. I don’t show my cards.

She has told me since I was three that the worst thing a girl can ever do is cry for herself. The goal of womanhood is not to shed a tear for either physical or emotional pain. Childbirth will bring pain, but you can’t let it get to you, she says. The Ticuna Indian girls don’t cry. Not even when they are eleven years old and everyone pulls out all their hair til they’re bald. They don’t cry even then. The community circles around the girl, torturing her, but she can’t show fear, can’t lose her composure or show any signs of distress. This is what it is to be female, my mother says. But when her hair grows back into fullness, she can get married. That’s the consolation. Marriage. That’s how we become women.

You have nothing to complain about, she says, you have it good. Your life is easy. No one has pulled out my hair in handfuls, so she has a point. It’s also true that things are easier without my dad, easier when he’s gone travelling with his boys. It’s true that his rage and random violence is more difficult to manage than her predictable whispers and the tightness of her lips, pursed in displeasure. It’s true that I have very little to fear from her, as long as I keep my emotions and my needs to myself. As long as I don’t ask for anything, I can remain in her presence. Need or vulnerability or desire for comfort, affirmation, human touch are sins in her world. What’s important is to meet other people’s needs and to be polite. Especially to father’s boys.

* * *

All I want for Christmas is a Jewel Magic. I want to make jewelry that will protect me, jewelry like Wonder Woman’s bracelets, jewelry that will ward off hostile invaders. I don’t know how I will make this jewelry work, but I know if I can create pieces myself, that I will make them strong, durable, and pretty, and they will be sufficient against whatever weapons he can use on me.

Ken doesn’t really use weapons, though. He’s nice to me. The last time he came over, while my parents were preaching at Phosterians, he sent the other kids outside with Big Stick popsicles and said I was special, so he had brought me something even more special, a 15 inch Marathon bar, a braided chocolate covered caramel bar I had never seen the likes of, and this was the largest version available, and he said he would sit on my bed and read to me while I ate it. I sat cross-legged across from him, far enough away that he could barely nudge me with his feet, and I sucked on that gooey chocolate bar for an hour, making it last while he read to me from Strong’s Concordance, and I would cross-reference and quote back the passages from the Bible I had memorized. He said I was as smart as a circus monkey. I asked him to read to me about Esther, because Grandmother said she was so beautiful and clever, the King gave her anything she desired. The King sought her out from the whole land. He brought her to the Kingdom for such a time as this. I loved the sound of that, loved the way my Grandmother imitated the drama of Esther’s words, how she went into the King without his solicitation to save her people, the Jews.

And now Ken is reading it to me and I think there must be hope in revealing the truth after all, that the King must have loved her enough, he could stand the pain of her words, the secret knowledge that she was a Jew too, that she had hidden that from him, but revealed it now when she needed to to save her people. If he killed her people, as he planned to do via military edict, he had to kill her too, and she would tell him this. And according to law and tradition, he should have killed her for deceiving him, and for making a request of him unsolicited, and of course, for being a Jew in the first place, but he had come to love her, and he raised his sceptre so she could enter safely and make her request of him. Ken runs his hands along father’s jersey, along my waist, and removes my panties. And I recite the verses and keep thinking, the King forgave Esther’s deception and told her he would honor her request, even if she wanted half his Kingdom for herself. He would give her half his Kingdom, even though she lied by omission.

And the King saved her life and the lives or all of her family and her whole tribe of people. I don’t know what will happen if I tell Father about the way his boys touch me, if I tell him what they do when he’s not here. Maybe when I grow up, I will have the courage, like Esther, to tell him, or to tell someone the whole truth, and maybe someone will love me some day and I will know he loves me by his forgiveness and “I will go in unto the King, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

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