There were the boys who showed me things I didn’t want to see and said things I didn’t want to hear.
There were the strangers on the street who shouted encouragements to smile, to accept their remarks as compliments, to tell them my name.
There were the family friends, teachers, and colleagues—husbands, brothers, fathers, sons—who pulled me in too close, whose hands landed on the wrong parts of my body, whose words made me cringe and hate myself and wish I was invisible.
There was the man who jumped out of the bushes when I was stopped in my car at a quiet intersection. He tried to open my door but it was locked. He hit the window a few times—more in frustration than to break it—before I recovered from my shock, took my foot off the brake, and drove through the red light.
There was the big, drunk boy at a prom party—a popular kid, an athlete, a leader—whose fixed, unsmiling attention from across the room had unnerved me. When he approached me, there were few of us left in that hotel room, mostly his friends. I went to the bathroom and locked myself in until a friend coaxed me out, reassuring me that the boy had gone.
There was an uncle who I was sometimes left alone with. I was very young. I didn’t have words to tell my parents what happened when they were gone. I found out years later, at my mother’s funeral, that he had been molested when he was very young. I still didn’t have words.
When I found out during a sonogram that my first child was a girl, I cried, afraid for the hatred, threats, and violence my daughter would face.
Every day in the news, I see more stories of men harming women—their bodies, their psyches, their abilities to succeed and thrive. I think about how large this system of oppression is, how reliant it is on shame and doubt and isolation (all of these feelings arose in me while I wrote this note: that I should be embarrassed about things that happened to me, that no one would believe me, that I was alone in these experiences). I think about how deeply embedded we are all in it, even those of us who know better, who wish to be better.
My efforts to chip away at this system seem small: I listen. I believe. I speak up. I try to raise my kids to be in the world differently than I was when I was young. I don’t make them hug people they don’t want to hug. When they were toddlers and I would tickle them, if they said stop, even amid a cascade of giggles, I stopped. When my son is horsing around with his friends, I am stern when I remind them that the word stop requires an immediate action: stop. I tell both my kids that the phrase “boys will be boys” is never an acceptable explanation for bad behavior.
But I still sometimes fall into habits that I absorbed and was praised for when I was younger: to be accommodating, to not make a fuss, to smile and be pleasant. These are still in me beneath the newer layers of knowledge and reflection and practice. At the grocery store one day, a male cashier said to my thirteen-year-old daughter, “What’s up with that pout?” He then crossed his arms and pushed his lips out in an exaggerated manner, mimicking her, cajoling her.
She looked the cashier in the eye and said firmly, “I’m fine.” I reflexively added, “Oh, it’s been a long day and we’ve been doing errands. Not her favorite.” I shrugged and grinned, bringing him in on a joke, that teenage girls will be teenage girls.
Walking out to the car, my daughter said indignantly, “That guy was so rude. Who cares how I look? I can look how I want.”
She continued ranting the whole way home. I again felt like crying, but this time, less out of fear and more out of shame. But mixed in with shame was also pride and hope that my efforts—some valiant and substantial, some small and feeble—contribute to a larger cacophony, all of us saying the same thing: Stop.
1 comments have been posted.
This was so beautifully written and on point that I cried. Thank you for your way of being in the world, Ms. Holt.
Beth | January 2018 |