Creative people sacrifice a great deal of themselves for their craft. It takes a lot of energy and confidence to take an idea, put your force of will behind it, give it lift, give it traction, and make it a reality. And sometimes we don’t have the freedom to tell our stories as we see fit. After all, we aren’t the only characters in our tales — there were other people there, too. Perhaps the artist doesn’t feel the need for self-preservation, but their loved ones do. How will they feel about their story being told alongside yours? I’ve struggled with this often.
We want to fight against the institution of stigma, but have to confront that the wardens of that institution are often those people who profess to love us the most: mothers, fathers, siblings, or friends. Perhaps their unconditional love and support doesn’t cover our attempts to feed our souls through our creativity. To surrender ourselves to living in silence or conducting part of our journey in secret protects their feelings, but also relegates us to living a half-life, unactualized and bifurcated by fear: truth on one side, peace-keeping on the other.
It’s important to recognize just how much power you give to others and if they are using it responsibly. There are those emotional tyrants who would rather you continue to live on the fringes, just so they can save face. They have robbed you of the rights to your own story, merely because they played a part in it and are ashamed of their conduct. And because you are caring, self-sacrificing, and willing, you will allow them to dictate how you live your life and what stories you will tell.
I have been in some abusive relationships. The militant part of me has welled up with righteous anger and the need to strike back, but I have always held myself back. I don’t want to hurt or offend with my writing — I write to feed my soul, and no nourishment is found in words that harm. But it’s more than that — I hold back because my love for these tyrants, regardless of their warped thinking, asks me to be kind. Asks me to put their need for under-rug-swept before my need for transparency. I think that most victims of emotional abuse, even physical abuse, face a similar quandary: how to do free yourself from the stigma of illness and abuse when doing so would harm your abuser, whom you love?
If I were unafraid, what stories would I tell?
All of them.
The quote pictured above was taken from author, Rachel Thompson, from a Facebook status made in June 2014. I invite you to check out more from Rachel here and here.
This post has been a couple weeks in the making, because, you see, I wanted to have some facts, some answers, before I told any part of this story. Otherwise too many people would have read this and then agonized right alongside me as I waited for a neurologist’s consult, a test, a diagnosis — all the things that follow the heart-stopping moment when your pediatrician starts asking too many follow-up questions.
Let me explain:
M had her six-month check up on the second. We went over the usual stuff: height (50th percentile), weight (50th percentile), head circumference (95th percentile… kid’s got a big melon). Then we talked about her eating habits and her development. That’s when I brought up the funny “head-dipping” thing that Moira had been doing the last few weeks — she’d be playing or sitting in someone’s lap, what have you, and then her head will drop until her chin hits her chest. She’ll stay like that a moment or two, then pick her head up and carry on doing whatever it is that she was doing before. I thought it was a kind of funny, idiosyncratic thing that she was doing — until our pediatrician released a litany of follow-up questions while furiously typing information into her computer. “How often is she doing this? Are her eyes open the whole time? Does she respond to her name?” When I thought about it, it was happening at least once a day. Her eyes were always open, unblinking. She didn’t always pick her head back up when we said her name.
And that, my friends, is when the red flag went up.
Once she had asked all the questions she could think of, our doc slowed down long enough to say that it looked like M was having petit mal seizures, not uncommon in children her age and mostly benign. She was going to get a neuro consult and get back to me. So we went home and waited. Ultimately, it would a week for Moira to get an EEG and another few days for the results. And thank God, or Buddha, or the Great Powers That Be: she’s fine. Nothing on her EEG to indicate that she has any kind of seizure disorder. Hallelujah.
It was a learning experience for me: coming to terms with the possibility that something could be wrong and managing to respond without the fight-or-flight response. A great deal of my anxiety stems from losing two parents to cancer and the ensuing post-traumatic stress. I’ve always been a worry-wort, but when my stepdad and later my mom got sick and died, it did a real number on my ability to codify which fears were rational and which were not. There I was at 21, living in another state far from my remaining family, having just lost both parents, just as I always feared I would. What does it do to a person to have your worst fears realized and come out on the other side? For me, it confirmed (in my addled, depressive state) that the worst possible thing can, and will, happen — so you had better be on guard at all times. That heightened sense of impending disaster became the background music to my whole worldview. I was always — always — waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I’m proud of myself for beginning to come out from under that cloud of anxiety. It’s evident in the way I responded to Moira’s potential diagnosis — I didn’t panic. I didn’t obsessively search the internet for every vague disease that she could be suffering from. I was certainly nervous, and yes, I cried a little when confronted with the possibility that my child was ill, but I handled it. And the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.
In the wake of the shooting in Isla Vista, a conversation entered the mainstream media about the idea of male entitlement and the associated societal structures that breed this sort of mentality. Rape culture. Ingrained misogyny. Got me thinking, where else do I observe the abuse of dominance? It’s not just in the minds of the “friend-zoned” or out-and-out woman-haters. It’s in all of us. It’s everywhere. And women contribute, too.
In particular, it occurred to me that there is a fundamental conflict between what women say and what we do. For example, there are scores of books and movies dedicated to the average American woman’s notion of romance. You could call it “girl porn”, as seen in the film Don Jon: Men like to watch people getting it on, but women? Women like romantic comedies, romantic dramas, harlequin romance novels, Disney-style fairytales. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that OF COURSE there are females that enjoy pornography. But I’m going to wager a guess that most women go for the “romance porn” stuff.)
In these books and films we see male characters who are often disrespectful of a woman’s right to her own body, tending to act forcefully, or even aggressively, to assert their male right to female attention. These characters are written as Alpha-males, dominant over their women and their environment — they know what they want, they feel entitled to it, they are persistent, and they get it. Alternately, we have the “wounded soul” male — a person whose whole life experience has been so fraught that we can hardly blame him for being so flawed. We read Twilight (crazy obsessive stalker) and 50 Shades of Grey (emotionally unstable man-child who is borderline abusive, but has a heart of gold) and we swoon over these damaged male characters who treat their women poorly and possessively. Somehow, the lonely, needing quality gives these fictional men the right to exhibit aggressively toxic masculinity, particularly in their pursuit of the female protagonist. The stalking, the jealous rage, the single-minded focus of the male’s attention on the female — our culture has conditioned us to believe that these stunts are romantic. And we just eat that shit up. Men see that, see the hypocrisy in it, and come to the conclusion that all women a.) don’t really know what they want, b.) are sending mixed messages/being manipulative, and c.) that this crap:
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read them all. I like them. They’re my guilty little pleasure. Some romance novels are actually very well-written and well-balanced, depicting not an over-hyped ideal, but a realistic struggle that we can all relate to. In a genre largely written for women by women, there is a tremendous opportunity to extol the virtues of sexual equality. But even when it comes to less delicately written erotica, I enjoy getting lost in the romance, the intrigue — mentally substituting the weak female protagonist for myself (because that’s exactly what these books are for), and embarking on a whirlwind romantic flight of fancy.
But then I stop. I put the book down. And I think about how I would never, ever, EVER accept that kind of treatment from my partner in real life. I think it’s time to own up to the truth: that, unfortunately, my partaking of this form of media is complicit acceptance ingrained misogyny. And that it is a bit hypocritical.
Women can, and sometimes do, send mixed messages. But it isn’t because we’re emotionally manipulative or cunning. We’re taught that clear, explicit messages of arousal or consent are unromantic. That being assertive is slutty. That you have to wait for the man to make the move. A woman that propositions a man is a slut, but women who are selective or discerning when selecting a sexual partner are prudish and condescending. Those words in bold? I don’t want to be any of those things, but it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. I know a lot of women who feel the same way.
I think it’s time that we all start taking responsibility for the ways in which our culture has altered our consciousness on sexual norms. For women, that means coming to grips with the fact that we are literally buying into patriarchy — not just by spending money on “romance porn”, but also spending billions of dollars every year on attempts to embody a standard of beauty that is unrealistic and psychologically, economically, and politically damaging.
Truthfully, I like getting dolled-up. I do my hair and make-up like a 1950’s pin-up model, not to attract male attention, but because it makes me feel good about myself and gives me confidence. But lest I forget that I am a product of my culture and my environment, I have to ask myself, how much of what I like is because I really like it and how much is because I’ve been conditioned to like it?
Girls grow up in a world where we are taught that our primary (if not our only) commodity is our beauty. While it’s not necessarily taboo to be an intelligent, articulate, or independent girl, it’s not so often praised either. I, for one, clearly remember feeling the need at eight years old to suck in my tummy when passing boys in the supermarket, but I didn’t begin pride myself on my smarts until I was in my 20’s. And that wasn’t because I was raised by misogynists (I wasn’t) or because I grew up in an environment that devalued educational accomplishments (I didn’t). It’s because even at that young age, I understood that my worth as a human being was inextricably bound to my appearance, so I had better make it good.
Women and men alike need to come together in the spirit of finding balance and establishing equality — first by confronting our previously unacknowledged hypocrisies and universally accepted “truths”, and then by making a commitment to change them. In the last few weeks I’ve heard a lot of people say “feminist” like it’s a dirty word, I think because there is a common misconception that being a feminist means “a women who hates men“. To assume such a thing is to miss the point entirely, and ultimately, to doom the fight by misdirecting the conversation (once again) towards hate and extremism. It’s about equality— and if that’s what we want, ladies and gents, then we all need to come to terms with the ways in which we directly or inadvertently add to the imbalance.