Tag Archives: sexual violence

What I did this summer…

a line drawing of a long-haired woman with one eye closed holding closed fists in front of her face - words on her fists read "'cause if it wasn't for all of your torture, I wouldn't know how to be this way now and never back down, so I wanna say thank you"

This is a photo I took in Lisbon; part of the #shitgirlsdo project

… or “Yes, we live in patriarchy, and women have been telling you forever that they’re being assaulted by men from infancy through childhood, into adolescence, all through their working and mothering years and all the way up until they die, thanks for finally listening I suppose now you want us to give you a medal”

(This is very long. All summer I’ve been repeating to myself that I can’t write, I’m blocked, I sit down and nothing comes — but the truth is, I have been writing, getting words on paper, struggling through depression and with a feeling of complete helplessness in the face of this current cultural conversation that has been so innocuously labelled #metoo. So this morning, after waking at 12:30am, once again unable to sleep, I decided to combine the morning writes I’d already typed up, and realized they served as a kind of back-to-school essay: “What I did this summer.”)

 

June 13

Last night I tried to get inside what has felt like enervation around writing. I sit down to write, especially to blog, and all the energy just drains out of my body. I get tired and then I sit back and look through the sheer brown curtain covered with white circles, I look out to the backyard, the brown fence, the ivy climbing the brown fence and the treetops above the fence, the eucalyptus beyond, and then the white that is the sky. I look out and my mind goes blank like the sky, goes white like that, goes empty. I try and think about what point it makes that I’m here doing this. 

white stenciled graffiti: "where is the love?"

Lisbon street art

Type one sentence then stop. Type one sentence then stop. 

Look at the candle, look through the film of the curtain. This room is full of books. Full of possibility, of the material I have surrounded myself with for a lifetime. I try and understand it, this sense of not having anything to say, maybe not being able to get my mouth my words big enough to encompass what needs to be said.

It’s not that there’s nothing to say, but that there’s too much. Do you feel that way sometimes, too?

 It’s not that I don’t want to know these stories of violation, it’s not that I don’t want to hear about the crimes. It’s something about the way they are reported. Every time we’re supposed to react with shocked surprise. The media treat each incident like it’s unique, disconnected from the larger society or anything that happened before. 

The headline reads, “Sexual Assault on School Campuses Has to Stop,” as though 1) that wasn’t obvious, and 2) it only needed to stop on school campuses. 

The headlines are meant to do a job. They are meant to call your attention. So they must use this language this energy this sense of breathless astonishment. Each news story must be about something new. So we are hearing about assaults on college campuses and a culture of sexual violence at workplaces as though they are somehow not wholly related, wholly interwoven with one another. We are hearing about sexual harassment as though it’s somehow separate from the culture of pedophelia in the Catholic Church. We are hearing about the men who excuse the violence of other men in workplaces or on college campuses or in doctor’s offices or in professional kitchens or in Silicon Valley or in philanthropy or in sacristy or a schul or in sex-positive communities or in social change communities as though it’s not wholly related to what it means to be a man in cultures around the world. But those of us who have lived through it know that it’s all of a piece. None of this is unrelated. 

a tangle of brown, spray painted graffiti on a white cement-block wall

Lisbon graffiti

If this were a movie about a renegade virus, about the fear and panic around an outbreak of a disease, the scientists would have a map and they would be coloring in all the different places where outbreaks had already occurred. On the map showing outbreaks of sexual violence, there wouldn’t be any part of any map that wasn’t colored in. But we pretend like each incident reported in the news is a unique and disconnected site of outbreak. But no. They are all sites of the same disease: the sexual assault of women and children, the assumption that women’s bodies and children’s bodies are available for men to take and use as they so desire. Because we as a society have told men that they deserve this access, that they are the strong ones, they are the powerful ones, they are the ones who can keep us safe, and in exchange, we give them our bodies, and our children’s bodies. Is this the exchange we want to keep making? is this the devil’s bargain? Because here’s the heading — they aren’t even keeping us safe. It’s a bad fucking bargain. We have been harmed at their hands, in their homes, under their watch, in their churches, in their workplaces, in their schools, even in the groups that they organize to resist and create change.

If you are a man reading this and you are thinking to yourself, but I haven’t ever hurt anyone, I am delighted if that is true. But the work is on your shoulders now. What an awful thing, to be associated with such violence and harm. Don’t you want to do everything you can to change the story, to change the truth? To uproot this disease that has so taken hold? 

My therapist told me last week about a personality study, which showed that men could admit to feelings or acts of sexual violence and still be deemed sane, still fall within the range of normal, acceptable behavior. (Women, on the other hand, were found insane if they admitted to such thoughts or acts). We don’t find this behavior in men insane. We expect it. We indoctrinate them into it. We tell them it’s their right. 

So the disease metaphor doesn’t really work, does it? It can’t be a disease if it’s utterly enculturated, if it is part of what we call man, in this country and around the world. This behavior — the sexual assault of women and children — is not seen as problematic enough to unseat men from their thrones. You see the rise in nationalisms, fundamentalist communities, right-wing and violent belief systems — these movements are the armies that seek to keep men in their positions of power. 

So what do we do? How do we sustain ourselves? How do we hold on to the ideas, the possibilities, of things changing, in the face of such horror and resistance, especially when we get triggered every time we turn on the fucking news or open any social media site? I’ve been turning off the news. I’ve been avoiding Facebook. I’ve been reading books by women, by women from around the world, I’ve been in the garden, I’ve been baking, and I’ve been eating. I sit in the sun. Every time I try to force myself into some other feeling or state of mind, I end up feeling worse — so I try to let this feeling be, I try to accept this feeling of enervation, which is actually rage turned inward. 

graffiti of hands reaching toward a green origami bird

Lisbon graffiti

She’s just inside me, barely under the surface, that twenty-four year old who was yelling at anyone who would listen about violence against women — I guess I’m surprised that there can still be people in the world who find these “revelations” to be revelatory; haven’t women been saying for generations that we have been under assault from men? But, of course, we were not believed by the men in power, we were ignored or silenced by the women too afraid to reach for change, who sought security in the cave of the monster. 

A few weeks ago, I sat down with the Sunday times, and found rape in every section of the newspaper. It’s everywhere, all the time. But Jeff Sessions doesn’t want to allow women to be granted asylum here just because their husbands beat the shit out of them and their governments refuse to intervene — if we say it’s wrong there, well then by god, we might have to say it’s wrong here, and we don’t want to do that, do we? 

Maybe we should see this backlash as a positive step. If we pull back and look at that larger picture, the map of disease over place and time — I read somewhere recently that if you feel the resistance, you know that you are making change. They are pushing back so hard against us because they believe that we are creating real change in this country and around the world. Of course they are not just going to lay down their power and walk away. Of course they are going to fight and say it’s righteous, say it’s god’s way, say it’s the natural order of things, make whatever frantic ridiculous excuse they can for their need to keep hold of the right to violate the bodies of women and children whenever they want to.

I’ve been thinking about how to step out of the stream of news, the reports of violence, the violence of this language (someone is brought down, a man is brought down by sexual assault scandal — nope, he’s brought down because someone finally, probably after many many years of violating others, spoke out, someone broke their silence; he is brought down by his decisions and his very own behavior). 

The enervation is the other side of rage, maybe the other side of grief, too. The enervation is like depression, but without the tears. 

Firing that one guy won’t make the change that we seek. Because it’s not about that one guy.

 

statue of a man standing on top of a pedestal; below, at the base, is a statue of a woman and child - the woman points, directing her child's attention to the man standing up top -- meanwhile, her ankle is still chained

Lisbon statue; she’s directing her child’s attention to the important man standing up top — meanwhile, her ankle is still chained

June 14

I’m thinking this morning about the struggle involved in pulling oneself out of a closed system, out of a system of thought and control that’s so all pervasive it’s designed to keep you within its grasp, I mean, a system designed to confine you to one way of thought and thinking, so pervasive that it seems impossible to see it for what it is, to examine it from the outside because it seems that there is no outside from which to apprehend it. 

I’ve been trying to make sense of the particular fatigue I feel around writing these days — not all writing, just writing that’s intended to participate in any sort of current cultural conversation, which has been made difficult because I feel repelled by the language being used. I refuse the terms, I don’t agree with how we are talking about things. 

Yesterday it was this: the medical profession is having its own #metoo moment. It’s a phrase meant to connect to a meme, a term that’s been deemed acceptable by mainstream media because #metoo is somehow less frightening or threatening than rape culture or patriarchy. What is a metoo moment? These days, that phrase is intended to convey the idea that a person or a workplace or an industry is (finally) being called (not by victims, but finally by persons with power to impact change — the victims have been speaking out forever, have been silenced or shamed or fired) to admit to and do something to change their historical and present-day culture of systemic sexual violence. A “moment” in popular culture parlance is supposed to evoke a flash in the pan, something that’s been given its fifteen minutes, a little time to shine in the sun of our attention but will disappear underneath the Next Thing soon enough. 

This is the language that gets used these days — some person or place of business or particular industry is having their moment under the spotlight, is undergoing a reckoning, is revealed publicly to be sexually violent, possibly unrepentantly so. 

And we are meant to think, No way, there, too? Him, too? As though sexual violence isn’t everywhere, a part of patriarchal culture, intricately interwoven in the masculinity with which we indoctrinate our sons (and other children)? As though it isn’t absolutely everywhere, all the time?

But, “Yes, we live in patriarchy, and women have been telling you forever that they’re being assaulted by men from infancy through childhood, into adolescence, all through their working and mothering years and all the way up until they die, thanks for finally listening I suppose now you want us to give you a medal” doesn’t really make for a clickbait headline.

I turn off the news for awhile — I started doing so actively since we began hearing the story of Brock Turner’s assault and subsequent trial. Something about that incident in particular, his six-month sentence, the shit both his father and the judge had to say, that kind of knocked me over the edge of hope. I kept working and writing, I kept believing and supporting survivors, but I began to pull in. I couldn’t respond in public writing to that particular story, even though I felt like I should somehow. It happened right here in the Bay Area, it was my backyard, it was a college-educated young man at a progressive school, a young man raised after Antioch, raised, I would have thought, with lessons about consent and respect, raised with the message that real men don’t rape. But it didn’t matter. This progressive education, all our skits and writing classes and rap sessions didn’t do anything in the face of the matterhorn that is male privilege and patriarchal entitlement. He still got the message about who was important and who wasn’t. And his father and the entire judicial system backed him up, when the time came.

So what could we do? What was I doing? What difference had any of my work made? Young men are still being trained to rape as a matter of course, as a part of their passive education. They are still getting the message that It’ll be ok if they “slip”—they’ll be protected, since they’re the ones who matter. Even as we claim to be teaching girls that they have power, they are strong, they have a voice, they get to use that voice. So now we live in a world in which exists a subculture of men who are murderously enraged to recognize that women have agency and might say no.

After awhile I turn the news back on and immediately implode with resentful outrage upon hearing/reading another more story about another more man violating many, many women and/or children that is reported as though I’m supposed to be surprised to learn this information and am supposed to see th

sticker image, line drawing of a woman with cracks running through her torso -- overlaid are the words, "There's a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in."

Lisbon street art; from #shitgirlsdo project

is man as an individual problem (maybe mentally ill) and not another datapoint in a worldwide reality, just another instantiation of patriarchy, another man just doing what he was raised to do (and had been told, directly and indirectly, for years, was perfectly acceptable).

The words we use, the way we talk about a thing, impacts the way we understand that thing, impacts the way we perceive it, the way we can know it. When we say, “Oh, that guy got caught up in the #metoo movement” or “he was felled by a sexual assault scandal,” all responsibility is removed from the hands of the abuser. It wasn’t his actions that brought him down, it was this movement, it was these feminists, it was those women, it was something outside of him. That language matters. It furthers the narrative that we are (already, after about ten seconds) taking things too far, casting too wide a net (because this is about nets and capturing and we’re supposed to see most of the guys complaining as innocent little dolphins caught up in the tuna catch, as opposed to members of a system from which they have benefited since birth, whether or not they have actively raped a classmate or sexually harassed a coworker).

I have been accused now and again of seeing sexual violence everywhere. Surely, folks have said to me, your history and the work you do has primed you to see it everywhere. Are there some of those same folks who might want to return to that conversation now? Can we agree that, actually, I (and other survivors and other activists) see it everywhere because it is, in fact, everywhere. 

How do we step to the side of this overwhelm and rage and despair and continue to function and/or get work done and/or even continue to believe that a better world is possible? I one thing that’s given me any hope in the recent months is the raid on the Chilean Catholic Church the other day — a government entity actually willing to take on the worldwide power of that institution that has caused so much harm and damage around the world for hundreds of years. That news gave me a little twinge, a little flash, inside, of “maybe.”

 

July 16

Oh, it’s morning and I’m home. 

The keyboard is louder than I’d like, but the other one on the computer itself makes it difficult for me to write at all. Maybe another one, another option. What’s this place and possibility? I’m back in my chair at this desk in this basement outside these walls beneath this hill inside this forest of live oaks and scrub after two weeks in Lisbon. 

photo of a tile pasted to a wall, painted with blue lines and the words "it's okay to be"

Lisbon street art

It’s quiet here, and last night, after you left, I had to turn on the sounds just to get to sleep — thought that’s not so unusual when you’re away. We had seventeen hours together — you counted — between you picking me up at SFO and me dropping you off there again. I cried when I watched you go through security and head off to your gate. I wondered, is this what parents feel? What is this thing in me that has these feelings, this need to be with you? Something deeper than hunger and desire — something deeper than sex. Your face appeared from behind a group of travelers when I came out of the gates to the waiting area, not having had to go through customs when getting back here because we’d done it already in Canada, in Toronto. I hurried out, once I realized, I walked faster, almost trotting, not quite running, let’s not be ridiculous. I scanned the place for you, looked int he seating area, looked up the aisles from which you might be approaching — I was getting out so much sooner than either of us had thought I would. But I didn’t see you and I figured you were still parking. I looked then for a place to wait, maybe a place with a cup of tea. I hadn’t slept, I was fragrant with sweat, with plane smells, with travel, with the dust of now three different countries on my face and clothes. And then the group of travelers walked on and there you were, leaning against a railing at the bottom of a flight of stairs,. in your black t-shirt, watching me with your side smile.You didn’t move. You were waiting for me, you were patient. You let me find you with my eyes.

It’s not that I didn’t want to make new friends or meet new people while I was at this writing workshop— it’s that I missed the people who know me in my bones already. Who hear the layers of me when I speak, who know my undersides and curves and nuances. Is this a new feeling? It kind of seems like a new feeling. 

There are other words I’m looking for. Maybe this is a place of what love is, a piece of it — this opening to another’s presence in your life, in your skin. Maybe there aren’t really words for this thing. That’s what poetry is for. Outside the trees are just coming into view. It got to the point that I couldn’t wait to get home. Lisbon was an excellent trip, an astonishing experience, especially getting to go alone — I was hungry for that, too. I became aware, in Lisbon, that I am happy in my life so much of the time now. Could that be true?

Here is the bird awake at 5:30. These mornings in Lisbon were met with voices, people passing by along Rua L. S., still drunk or just awake, maybe hollering at someone inside the building across the way as the construction work got started. Mornings meant cool air, mostly clouds, and the birds, swallows mostly, but pigeons and seagulls, too, calling into daylight, calling the day. I sat for little bits on the terrace, looked over to the Taugus river and the bank beyond, but mostly sat inside, away from the voices, from the wind or the sun. It’s a strange thing not to wish to be back there, not to wish to be away from here, not to wish for something different from what I have and am in my life. 

 

graffiti of a koala hanging onto a cactus

Lisbon graffiti

This is a new thing. All weeks, those two weeks, I felt grateful that I had lived this long to get to this place of possibility — traveling with a desire for home.

I loved being there, being on my own, walking where I wanted whenever I wanted. I loved all the discovery and possibility. But I got tired, too.

I met people in Lisbon, at Disquiet, but spent very little time with others. I had a couple of meals with other people, maybe just one, two, and coffee, and went to workshops and some readings and a couple of the gatherings, but the gatherings at the miradours (and especially, of course, at the bar) were about drinking; there was the open bar at the embassy, the wine receptions — these were about gathering over alcohol, helping to ease the nervousness, something. What happens when I spend time with people who are drinking hard is that I feel farther and farther away from them — like they are at a party I can’t attend anymore, they are going off to their part of the world and I can’t join them.

What are you drinking, they’d say. Tea, I’d show them, And they’d nod and smile and say something about how healthy I was, how smart. 

Of course I feel like I missed out — those are the places where the connecting happens, the deepening, the conversations and openness and curiosity and revelations, the mutual riskiness. 

I took pictures and shared them with the family and made little notes and comments so I could share what I was seeing and experiencing. Now I am home and it’s quiet, there are no shouting-singers, no drunks outside the window, no music from the bar (which was mostly quite nice, in all its variations), no construction noises, no trucks or motorcycles or foghorns or dogs barking (at least not right now). It’s foggy outside. Sophie andI will go to the park and walk, and I will take out a notebook and try and find words for what I want to say next, what I want to do. The novel, the workshops. This was a good transition, this time in Lisbon. 

In Lisbon I moved every day, nearly all day — 6, 8, 11 miles walking. climbing. Last night out with Sophie I felt the impact — sure, we can walk down the trail and then come back up the hill. That will be no problem. But it was late and I was in the wrong shoes so we only went down part way and then came back — but maybe later today. Maybe this evening. I like this office space and this quiet. The house feels enormous after the studio with the slanted roof, ceiling, on which I ith my head so many times I think the bruises are still healing. Our kitchen, the fact of the dishwasher and washing machine, the fact of the space outside, how good it feels to move. 

  

August 14

sicker art, black and white image of a girl holding a frog and leaning in for a kiss

Lisbon street art (don’t do it, girl child — kissing the frog is never worth it)

I’ve been trying to get to the page all day. I’m trying something else now. Now I have the tv on and I’m at the couch and I’m listening, the upper mind occupied. I decide I’m going to go to a cafe, then change my mind. I get set up at the desk downstairs at 6, and get as far as naming this document, and then I start scrolling through the documents from around this time in 2010 and 2011, revisiting who I was. 

I have tea, the notebook and pen. I sit down and all the old addictions scream at me — or do they scream? They whisper. They are simple and comforting. They talk to me like they make sense, they are easy, they are — how do I say this — they are my friends. My long-term companions. They sound so reasonable: You’re going to be fine. Don’t worry about it now, don’t get stressed. You can do that later. You’ve got so much time. So much time. Go ahead and eat something now. Open up Facebook, check out what’s happening in the world.

What is it that keeps me from sitting down at my desk, sitting down with the notebook, pushing in? My throat speaks up now. Let’s eat, it says. There’s food upstairs, right? There’s cereal and the rest of the galette that mom left, there are cookies that Ellen doesn’t want, there’re tortillas, I could make quesadillas, make popcorn. Eat eat eat. watch tv. I come downstairs, shut the doors, keep the light out. It’s grey outside, but the sun is coming — isn’t it? 

I wanted to get started today, I wanted to come back. I wanted to find a way in, to start to explain where I’ve been, why I haven’t been writing here. Why I haven’t been seen, why I’m out of view. How much longer do I have to wait? I read through the morning writes from August, September 2010, and that woman was wanting out, imagining a long road trip, a house in the country, someplace quiet, isolated, someplace small, inexpensive, someplace I could afford — me and Sophie, just us, we would make a space just for ourselves. I read through those old writes, journal entries, longings, and I find that I have so much of what I wanted then. I was asking myself, over and over, if it made sense for me to feel the way I did, if it was normal for people in relationships to dislike each other sometimes, or even often, to have moments (or long stretches) when they didn’t communicate well or at all. Now I’m on the couch, and Sophie is at the other side of the couch, she’s on a warm blanket, she’s folded into herself, we are together. 

What’s coming? The parole letter. Am I afraid that I won’t say enough, that I won’t say it right, that I won’t have the words. Don’t I want everyone to know? How do I say it? 

On August 29, I’ll be in a room at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, NE, asking the parole board not to grant parole to the man who abused me, my sister, and my mother, and harmed countless other people in the community, 

He’s been given a parole hearing, which means he’s being considered for parole. Which means he’s been deemed — what? — worthy of early release. Rehabilitated. Safe enough to be released into the community.  This man. 

He’s also been moved to a community corrections facility — from which he may be allowed to leave, work in the community, without regular, consistent supervision (though he may have to wear an ankle monitor, which would give us a little peace of mind). 

This isn’t flowing, there’ s no poetry in it. 

graffiti image of a woman holding her hands over her chest; branches are growing out of her

Lisbon street art

When did we learn about the hearing? February? February. My sister found the information online. Thank goodness she was monitoring it herself; the corrections department didn’t get in touch with us until June, I think. If we’d waited, we wouldn’t have found out until very close to the date itself. 

I don’t have much energy for this now, Is that right? It’s not that I don’t have energy. It’s not that I don’t have words, but I have too many. Is it that I get flooded, swamped? 

The popcorn is right upstairs. 

 I’m trying to figure out what to say, how do I know what to say to the parole board that will convince them that he should not be out of jail, he shouldn’t even be in the minimum security prison.

We learned that he had been moved to this minimum security prison while I was in Portugal; I spent several days in a panic, in a fury, in a rage. What do we have to do? What else would he have to have done to us for him to be deemed, to be seen as the threat, the violent predator, that he is? 

I try to remember everything that I wanted to say, that I was feeling, the ways I swirled and fell into grief. What will it take? This man controls, threats, shames, hits, rapes us for a decade, and he’s going to get let out. Men who got arrested a few times for smoking a joint, those guys are in forever. 

I keep thinking I’m going to be able to write about this. And then I get quiet inside, not cold exactly, but blank. Not shut, not stoppered, but like I’m up against the criminal justice system, once again. 

The popcorn is still calling me. It gets louder. It’s not insistent, exactly, but like a presence, like it’s already in my throat. Like what difference does this make? But that’s not it — more like, you can keep going with this after you have me, says the popcorn. Even though I know it doesn’t work that way. If I stop here, I won’t start again today. 

spray painted graffiti: GRL PWR GRL PWR GRL PWR

Lisbon graffiti

August 15

It’s dark outside, and I’m listening for the owls. Yesterday I got started, I was here in the morning, I was ready to write something about the hearing that I would post on facebook or the blog or something, but I stopped. I read old morning writes, I thought about who I was 8, 7 years ago at this time. And who I was was hurting. It’s exhausting to read, draining. Just leave, I want to tell her. Just go. It’s not going to get any better. The longer you stay, the harder it’s going to get to go. 

Did I want to say something about Portugal, about the workshops, about what I do and why? Why is it that I’m so tired when I think about writing these days? I get exhausted, overwhelmed — why would I spell it out? Who cares?

I get so sick when I use Facebook — literally sick to my stomach. Is there another way to do it? I manage to spend time there in ways that are harmful to me. These days, when I go to Facebook, I search out controversy — not to engage in it, just to read, to immerse myself in, to bathe. These are situations in which I have some marginal connection (community, friends of friends, or old friends. people I once knew), writing vitriolically about situations or issues that matter a great deal to me generally, even though I don’t have any involvement in the specific situation. In one case, the writing all had to do about an altercation at this year’s dyke march; in another case, it has to do with a student of an old friend writing about how she felt emotionally and psychically harmed by my friend’s actions when he was her teacher. In both cases, voices are utterly polarized.. There’s a clear line down the middle between two camps, two opposing opinions, two visions of reality, two interpretations of reality — both camps/groups feel wholly in the right, certain of their point of view and interpretation of events and memories; everyone is righteous and clear. Each side is fighting the good fight, trying to make the world a better place, only speaking up the way that they are to help others who might find themselves in similar situations. Incident reports, letters to the editor, callings in, callings out: these are all intended in each of these cases, to make visible what (those speaking believe) has been kept invisible, hidden, ignored by their communities, or media, or the public at large. In both cases, there’s actual violence that’s occurred — humans have been harmed in meatspace (as we used to call it), offline; one person used their body to physically harm or threaten another body, in one case absolutely intentionally.  And yet what I’m drawn into is the violence online—our language, the way we talk to each other when we know we are right, when we have a message we want to teach, when we are experts and others need educating, when we have been silenced or ignored or shamed maybe by mainstream society and we know where to go to land some punches: we look around us, to the people who were supposed to be protecting or standing beside us, to our allies (and what does this word mean today, especially in an online context?), to our communities. This used to be called horizontal hostility, punching sideways at those standing with you because you can’t or don’t seem to be having any impact at those who are standing on your head and shoulders, directing your anger about oppression at those who are suffering similar oppression to you, rather than at those who are causing the oppression. 

I know what it’s like to feel so righteous, to feel so certain of my answers, of my anger. 

I was thinking, while I was in Maine, about the time I spend online these days. There was an article in the NYT one morning, “The Trolls have Won,” which made it sound as if the author believed that the trolls won just recently. But I think it’s social media that did it, that gave the trolls their final bridge into the mainstream (well, that and the comments sections on every site these days). So, thank you, Facebook, thank you Twitter. 

Sticker art, black and white image of a naked woman wearing mickey mouse ears

Lisbon street art

I’ve been online since 1990— nearly 30 fucking years. Once I loved it — I loved what seemed possible: the sharing of information around the world, the ability to connect with those you might never be able to meet in person, the ability to find support and resources around things you couldn’t talk about in meatspace — when I was first coming out as in incest survivor, I was terrified to go to police or therapist, I was afraid to check out books or buy them in a real store, but I could go to purely text-based newsgroups and talk with strangers about what I was going through; this was a time when it was still a sane thing to do to be anonymous online, is that how I want to say it, when being anonymous didn’t necessarily mean you were a hacker or a troll. It just meant you weren’t ready to give your name, you were afraid for your safety or your job, so you visited alt.sex.motss undercover of pseudonym, handle, just to be safe. 

It doesn’t even make sense to say things are different now. It’s not even apples and oranges; this thing that’s available to me through web browser or email or app bears almost no resemblance to the place I spent so much time in the 90s – though of course this world existed then. There were trolls and what we used to call flame wars (and now call calling out or having a conversation on twitter); there were codes of conduct in every community — folks, those who’d been around longer, reminded the newbies: don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage them. Don’t give them what they want: attention, energy, time. There have always been trolls, those folks who, in any situation, online or off, will make a comment just to get a rise out of someone, to piss people off; this is the guy who always has to play devil’s advocate in any discussion, or the woman who just needs to point out every slip up of language or terminology — I can’t take you seriously if you describe your feelings as dark, or some such. 

At this point, mostly, going online feels like (I forget where I read this) walking into a public square where everyone is yelling at the top of their voice. 

What is it in me now that goes to Facebook for this sort of indulgence, this sort of sticky so-called pleasure: here are people arguing righteously, shouting at people they used to call friends, allies; here we are, standing up for our people, showing off how educated, how woke we are, using the right (and right now) words to put others down, to reveal their ignorance, their backwards thinking.

The way I spend time online is taking me back to those days when I laid on the couch and watched talk shows all day, too depressed and frightened to get up, to leave the house, I watched Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael, Rikki Lake — these shows fostered the idea that we’d watch real people talk about their troubles, that they hosted brave folks who are exposing difficulties that are shameful or scary in order to help us, the audience, so that we don’t have to go through whatever it was alone.  Maury — right. There was Maury, too. But after watching these shows, I usually felt gross, like I’d just participated in a public shaming or humiliation. Here were folks who’d likely been paid some small (comparatively) amount of money to let people berate them in front of an audience of thousands, at least. who revealed terrible things about themselves, who leveled accusations, who screamed at family, at loved ones, who got more and more entrenched in whatever view or opinion they’d been called on to television to defend or change. The host asked personal, leading questions, and the guests cried or grew angry, the audience grew angry or scandalized, shouted, booed, cheered — 

Go back further: the stocks. The public hearings. The coliseum. Football. Rugby. We gather to bear witness to the suffering of others, not to ease their suffering, but for our own entertainment, to pass the time. To pass the time. 

 

August 16

red spray-painted graffiti, "poesia não basta"

Lisbon street art; poetry is not enough

It never really gets dark here, there’s always light in the clouds from the city; on clear nights, it’s a little bit darker, but when do we have clear nights? Yesterday I took BART into Oakland, to the office. The office was quiet (mostly) and it felt good to be there. I spent hours in front of the tv yesterday; that’s going to be the name of my biography: she spent hours in front of the tv. Always the same sitcoms. The same stories, I know these shows by heart. What is it that I’m getting from them?

Why am I so quiet inside? Why aren’t the words pushing up, bubbling, now that I’m back home? In Maine, I was ready to write — I left the beach, went in to the bookstore to get work done, to sit with the notebook. But now I just feel quiet and empty. Yesterday I was writing about how terrible the internet is. A couple of days ago, I posted something about the hearing on the 29th, and I’ve had an enormous response — people from all parts of my life showing up, sharing words of concern and support, asking what they can do, telling me I can do it. I go to FB for things like this — to reach out for love and concern — and then I tend not to offer it back much, because I spend such little time there. 

Two weeks in Lisbon, then three weeks in Maine. So little time in front of any screens. In Portugal, I walked — I left the tiny studio and moved my body through the city, miles every day. It was like when I first got to San Francisco, and felt too cheap to pay for the bus or subway, so I just walked, wanted to see everything, find my way by foot. If I were in Maine alone, there would be days I didn’t drive, days I didn’t leave the beach. We get in the car to drive to ice cream, some days that’s it. I drive in to a cafe for writing when everyone else is around — how would it be if I had the place to myself? Something about getting in the car, having to drive, having to surround myself that way, inflict traffic on myself, launch my body into that fray. Is it agoraphobia or something else, something broader, or smaller — wanting to be home, wanting to be able to walk to what I need, hasn’t that always been my desire? And yet I’ve never really made it for myself — maybe at Madison, that was the closest.

spray-painted image of an octopus with her tentacles tangled around a red heart

Lisbon street art

In Lisboa I walked. I put a book in my bag, a bottle of water, and took myself to little outdoor cafes, In Maine, when we were alone I read everyday, 10, 11, books in a week.

Am I feeling left out, left behind? Or like I’m intentionally stepping off the racetrack. I’m just not interested in keeping up with every podcast, every new show, every stream of content, Content is king, you say when I’m astonished that a network has decided to make not a movie but a tv show from one of the books we read in Maine, Sharp Objects by Gillian something — not Anderson, that’s the woman from the X-Files, a show I also didn’t watch? After we got home, we started watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black, but it was all violence immediately — guards beating the women indiscriminately, sadistically, forcing them to have sex with each other, the women tearing at each other over old injuries. Nope. We turned it off after the first episode and didn’t go back.

In the newspaper I can read about the Catholic Church and the latest revelations about their covering up priests’ abuses, violations of children. I can read about a man who shot his wife and children after a several-month-long struggle over custody. I can read about men blowing up a bus full of children, about white women calling the cops on black kids selling water, about the world’s atrocities. It’s not a thing that ends, or that’s going to end. Men are trained by other men to seek power, influence. If you are not a man that seeks power and influence, you’re not really a man. The sexual assault of women and children goes along with this, like a side car, like a carnival prize. It’s one way to display your power, to show the world that you’re a real man.

 

spray-painted graffiti of an owl, eyes closed, resting on a perch

Lisbon graffiti

September 20

 I was hoping for owls at this hour, but nothing yet.

I don’t know — how are you doing with this whole Brett Kavanaugh thing? Of course I’m not surprised that we, as a society, are having the same conversations about men’s violence or predatory or threatening or aggressive behavior that we had when Dr. Hill came forward about Clarence Thomas’ behavior toward her. What’s astonishing to me is that the Senate delayed the process for a single week, and are at least pretending to take this new information seriously. Take this in contrast with the response to every new revelation of shitty or sexist or predatory or violent behavior on the part of our President. (I can’t look up links to the stories right now because I will get distracted from the writing and so angry and more deeply depressed that I won’t be able to write anymore. That’s what’s happened so often over the last few weeks when I sit down and try to write something for the blog.)

What’s crazy-making are the public conversations, the constant repetition in the press of the details of his actions toward her (yes, please, say it again — there might be a couple of folks in your listening audience who aren’t triggered yet). What’s crazy-making is this sense that we’re shouting into the wind. That there can still, and it seems there always will be, be more weight given to a man than to a woman — I mean, a man’s word will be given more weight and credibility if he’s responding to a single woman (I keep saying, if you’re going to be raped or assaulted or harassed, make sure that your assailant assaults others, too, so that you’ll have others to back you up if you ever decide to go to some authority to hold him accountable for his actions). The woman is still the one portrayed as tattling, as the little girl pointing on the schoolyard and whining, It’s not fair!

What’s crazy-making is hearing folks say, over and over, I don’t know, he’s a really great guy, it’s hard to believe he could do something like this. (The subtext is, “I never saw him rape anybody; how can I believe you if I didn’t see it with my own eyes?” How many millions of people have had this thought about priests who were actively (or are now) harming children?) 

Yes, the actions one commits as a young person, a young adult, matter. This is someone being considered for a lifetime appointment to a court where he will be making decisions that affect the lives of all women in the country. 

Do we really need to hear the question, why didn’t she come forward earlier, over and over again? Do we need to say Clarance Thomas over and over again? *We do, actually — because his isn’t the name that I’m hearing. The name that I’m hearing on every reporter’s and commentator’s lips is Anita Hill. She is the one who carries the weight of his actions, because she’s the one who named them publicly. He gets to just be a supreme court justice. She — though she is a respected and successful law professor — gets to be the one who said those things about a man in front of Congress. When someone says, Anita Hill in the media, it’s a kind of short-hand for the whole situation: the fact that he behaved abominably towards her, he was elevated in his career, she believed that his actions in the workplace revealed a great deal about his feelings towards women, his respect for them, which would, necessarily, impact his professional judgement, and so she chose to bring this information to light. When we hear Clarence Thomas, we think, supreme court. 

spray painted graffiti: "You sexist me, I feminist you"

Lisbon graffiti

It’s absolutely not fair.

I’m still walking around in the aftermath of the parole hearing. Last month, my sister and mother and father and I all travelled to Lincoln, NE, where we spoke in front of the parole board, making the arguments that the man who had abused my sister and me should not be released on parole. It seems pretty straightforward, right? But the in-practice, the whole thing was not straightforward at all. 

Sometimes you go through something very big, and life goes on as usual after it’s finished, and on the outside you look like your normal, functional adult self, but on the inside, you know that you’re not ok, and sometimes it’s all you can do to take the most basic care of yourself. Maybe you return to your life and have others to care for, a busy job, a great deal to keep your mind occupied. Maybe you don’t. I don’t. It’s been very hard for me to concentrate on much since I got back from Nebraska. There have been a couple of health crises, and of course workshops to attend to, and during those I can show up, of course. But then the workshop ends or the crisis is concluded (thank goodness), and everyone leaves and goes out into their lives and I am back in this place of stasis. It looks and feels like depression — very tired but unable to sleep well, aching body, unable to concentrate, unable to see the point in almost anything I do. It’s a deeper depression than I’ve been through in awhile, and I keep beating myself up for not being more functional, not getting more writing done, not Doing More Things. It’s all so heavy and full; everything feels like it takes twice or five times as much energy to complete. 

So I make tea. I watch familiar and friendly old shows. I eat too much. I avoid email and phone calls. If I were back in school, I’d be developing or nurturing some new sexual obsession in order to take my mind off my grief and rage. I’d take myself out dancing a bunch of times — or I’d just drink too much with my friends. 

I’ll write about it here eventually; the news keeps derailing me. 

 

sticker art: "livres habitamos a substancia do tempo, Sophia de Mello Breyner"

Lisbon street art; Google translates as “free we inhabit the substance of time”

September 25

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

I don’t know how to build this story, or make it pretty. I can’t sleep these days. I wake up in the middle of the night, try to sleep again, turn over, shift, try to go back to sleep, cant. Tonight I woke up at 12:30, and finally got out of bed an hour later. I make tea, come to the desk, light my candles, and sit down not feeling especially hopeful, just resigned. Something deeper and sadder than resigned. Something older and much angrier.

Are you taking care of yourself these days? Are you getting enough sleep, eating well, staying connected with friends, those who love you, writing or painting or otherwise doing creative work that brings you joy and opens you to permeability? 

Me, either.

Last night, listening to the radio about this third — what do we call it — this third description of B. K.’s deeply respectful behavior toward women — let me give a link here, I’m not going to recite the details right now, as they are awful — I wanted to throw all the chairs off the deck. I wanted to break something big and heavy, toss it in the air and watch it smash on the concrete below. I wanted to do something irreparable. I wanted to know how it felt. 

Yesterday I kept the news on while I was working — it’s been so hard to get motivated to work, and I was feeling good that I had the energy — and during the few hours those few hours, I heard, repeatedly, the details of B.K.;s assault on Dr. Ford’s and his assault on his classmate at Yale. Then there was the opportunity to listen to a detailed description of the rape of a high school girl at the hands of at least two male classmates. I declined, turned the channel, turned it off. I got to hear news anchors describe only cursorily Bill Cosby’s assaults on the one woman whose case made it to trial, but they did remind us that he has been accused by 60 women of doing exactly the same thing to them. (SIXTY.)

If I were to read the paper, maybe I would see something about the “scandal” in the Catholic Church — it’s a scandal now because people are paying attention, some handful of priests are being held to account, the church is paying some small amount of reparations, our progressive pope is having to face his own actions and inactions around the sustained and systemic abuse of children under the auspices of church and god. 

The other day, I said to my sweetheart, we use the phrase “war on women” like it’s a metaphor, but it’s a fact.

We live amid men — family members and coaches,  religious “leaders,” classmates, people we may have known since childhood, doctors, mentors — haven’t I written this all already? — who will, it seems, if given what they consider to be the opportunity, unhinge us from our wild and precious lives for their own momentary amusement, and then go on with their own lives like nothing happened, like they didn’t do anything wrong, like they didn’t violate the autonomy, the bodily integrity, the sovereign integrity of another human being. This begins as young as very early childhood and can continue through a man’s whole life (hello Bill Cosby), He has a system of laws and societal mores and social rules/restrictions that protect him. He has a community of men — teachers, coaches, school administrators, police, courts, classmates, teammates, accomplices, presidents — who will hold his secrets for him, support and sustain him, treat him with respect, remind him that he’s a good guy, a giving guy, remind him how much good he’s done in his community/school/workplace, who will pat him on the back and say good man, who will rally around him, who will — if she breaks his silence and tells about his violation of her— reframe the problem as hers alone. (think Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky — their names precede the word “scandal;” Clarance Thomas’ name precedes the phrase “supreme court justice; Bill Clinton’s name preceded “president” — why don’t these men get to evoke “scandal” whenever their names are uttered, too?)

And to protect us, we women? We have a system of laws (which work very well to inhibit sexual violence, as we can see from the news.) We have rules and mores that teach us who we can talk to, what we can wear, where we can go, what we should act like if we don’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention — that is, we are trained to police ourselves, each other. We have “chivalry” ostensibly on our side, which, as we can see, has not worked to keep us safe in any way. 

What have I done with my one wild and precious life? I have spent it recovering from the violence that my once-stepfather decided, over and over, daily, over the course of a decade, to inflict on me and my family. I am still in that work. My task has been to clean up the mess that he made of me. I want not to think of it, of myself, that way. I want to say that he didn’t succeed, I am unbroken, I am a survivor. And I am. But I am also irreparably harmed; his actions impact every day of my life. they have impacted where I lived, my work as a writer, my work off the page, my sense of myself and my capacity.

I have been reading recently about the uses of rape as a war crime in Bosnia during the wars in the early 90s, and the abduction and sexual enslavement of Yazidi women in Iraq. I read about the rape of Chinese women in Nanking by Japanese soldiers, and their keeping of Korean “comfort women.” Women are systematically raped in conflicts in the Congo, Sierra Leone, girls are abducted and kept as sexual chattel in Nigeria. Women are being raped as a part of the effort on the part of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority to ethnically cleanse their country of Rohingya. There is an epidemic of violence against Native women across North America, women sexually assaulted, women disappeared. Men still, in the US and around the world, even after a century of efforts to raise awareness of and criminalize the behavior (with the idea that, I guess, if it’s against the law, maybe at some point men will understand that it’s unacceptable—though, again, as we see, that hasn’t worked with rape) beat, rape, and kill the women they say they love, they tell others that they love, they pretend to love but really just seek to control (I can’t look up links to news stories about domestic violence right now, I just can’t).

words drawn into concrete: "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? - M. Oliver"

Oakland sidewalk art

What about our wild and precious lives? What else had we planned to do? Does it matter to the men around us? 

I am preaching to the choir, I know. I am yelling this out to the home team. We know all these things to be true. Here’s what else is true: What we are hearing about this man, this judge, this man who has been instrumental in the creation of legal precedent, who has been allowed to rise almost to the top of his field and participate in legal decisions that will get woven into the fabric of our country and history—his actions are part and parcel of this war against women. The description of the actions he and his friends are to have engaged in in Washington dc sound remarkably like the actions of Serbian soldiers in 1992.

This isn’t about a few bad apples. This isn’t about a couple of priests gone rogue, it isn’t about individual ethnic conflicts. Pull back, look at the planet from a different vantage point — I mean, consider the actions of men in all environments and cultures across the planet: men create conditions in which they can systematically make use of and then destroy the women around them. If they are not actively harming the bodies of women, then they are keeping the silences of the men in their communities who have.

On the news last night, I heard reporting of a conversation with a male classmate of BK’s — I think it was from Yale — who said he had heard the story about his actions toward the second woman who has come forward; this classmate said that the story had stayed with him; he never forgot it. News for this “friend” of hers:

1) neither did she ever forget it,

2) but you did a great job of helping BK hold his silence for all these years.

It’s that simple.

I am tired of thinking about us having to break our silences about the harm done to our bodies and our lives. Last night I said, these men walk around in our silences. They count on our silence in order to continue living their happy lives. These crimes, this shame, these silences all belong to the perpetrator. 

What will happen when men begin coming forward about the actions of their colleagues, classmates, coaches, parents, friends, frat brothers, priests, mentors, and brothers? Not out of some idea of chivalry, not out of some sense of protection, but out of a sense of human decency? What will happen when those men — those men who read this and say to themselves, Hey, ti’s not all men! Hey, I’m not like that — those men who want to change what it means to be a man (look at the history of the world; rapist is what it means to be a man) — what will happen when those men begin standing up and fighting back? Whey they refuse to hold the silences, to collude with the violence, to laugh along, to keep watch at the front door for the cops or some other authority, even if they’re not actually in the room where those men are raping that drunk girl? 

it used to feel cathartic to write these things. It doesn’t right now. I feel sick and still wide awake — what is sustaining me right now is the new writing I get to be surrounded with in workshops and writing groups, plus ridiculous sitcom reruns and many many cups of green tea. 

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

7:00 am

I’m grateful that you’re out there. I know I am not alone in these feelings, in this overwhelm, in this ongoing triggeredness, in this sense of being so enraged that some days it’s all I can do just to keep putting one foot in front of the other without smashing all the furniture or windowpanes or dishes in my immediate vicinity. “Be easy with you” is, for me, difficult work these days — but I do keep saying the words to myself, a little like a mantra, and trying to let myself feel it when others say it to me — I mean, feel and trust their care and concern. I offer that in your direction, too — care and concern from my corner to yours.

Be easy with you. Your life, your living, is wild and precious. Find your way to your words however it works best for you. Please keep going — we need your stories, in all the forms in which they come into the world. 

I can’t even — ok, well maybe I can

Picture of little white girl sitting crosslegged, looking at a bluebird, beneath the words, "If you get tired learn to rest, not to quit! -Banksy"Good morning, good morning.

Deep breath. Ready? Ok.

One more time. I’m going to try one more time to write this post. Hang on — this is a long one.

Yesterday I was talking with a friend, who is in a tough work situation. He is well-spoken, articulate, smart, and has decades of experience in his work, yet whenever he speaks with his boss (someone who consistently undermines and then gaslights him), he gets tongue-tined, feels silenced, mute. There’s nothing I can say, he tells me. I feel stupid, practically like a child.

I nodded as he spoke, then said to my friend, this sounds so much like the relationship I was in seven years ago — by the end, I told him. I was convinced that I was actually a terrible communicator, that I literally did not have the ability to communicate with other people, that there was not just something wrong with my ability to connect, to convey my thoughts and to interact with another person through words, but that I had deluded myself into thinking  that I could communicate well.

My friend looked wide-eyed at me, so surprised, given that I center my life and work around deep and open communication. I laughed at myself and the situation, maybe a little more gently than I’ve done in the past — maybe I’m beginning to forgive myself.

I tried to explain to my friend what I’d learned from the analyst I was seeing back just before I left that relationship — that my ex had created a closed system around us, and I had to agree to the terms he set for this system, or I was violating the system and harming him. Either I agreed with his worldview and outlook or I was against him. Layer on top of that insinuations of (my) racism and classism, as well as my history, and you can see why I was in knots and, like my friend, tongue-tied for the better part of eight years.

Unfortunately, this mirrored another relationship I’d been in, the one with my mother’s second husband. Closed system, setting the terms of the conversation, the debate, setting the very terms for reality — and you either agreed, or took your life and the lives of those closest to you in hand.

I have been experiencing a similar tongue-tied-ness, muteness, around our entire public “conversation” about sexual violence in the last couple of months.

Yesterday I went back through a big handful of blog posts I’d started and abandoned, twenty pages of stops and starts, of trying to get in, of trying to figure out what I wanted to say about each new major issue that bubbled to the top of our media frenzy about rape culture: the hierarchy of violence (is it really that bad if he’s not Harvey Weinstein?); the idea of a witch hunt; the fear of a sex panic; women suddenly having all the power and wielding it indiscriminately (unlike men, of course), bringing down any guy who just happened to look at them wrong or who, you know, shamed or cajoled or pressured or guilted or threatened them into sex; female sexual agency (what’s that?); enthusiastic consent — so many important issues about which I have a great deal to say, and yet each post would trail off after some thousand words or more, and I’d be unable to bring it to a close, unable to find a particular point I wanted to make.

I often look back on a particular phone call I had with my stepfather, late in his abuse of me

 

and my sister. I was in college, a junior at that point; it would be almost a year before I was able to get away from him. I was at a payphone on the first floor of my dorm, a newer, non-descript building that felt like a cavern every time I walked in the doors. In my memory, I am clinging to the black receiver like I’m holding onto a life raft. My stepfather has said the word incest, he has used the word: Sure, it’s incest (technically, he probably clarified), but it’s only a problem because of this repressive, sex-negative culture we live in.

I didn’t hear much else during that call.  He used the word, the one he’d denied and avoided for all the years he’d been assaulting me. He claimed it, took it away from me — he would not allow that word to have any power. And I understood several things: He knew exactly what he was doing, and what he’d been doing for years; I was not crazy to think he knew he was harming us; and he wasn’t going to allow me to talk my way out of this, though he’d pretended to offer me that possibility for years. He would always reshape the terms of the debate to serve him, to favor his interpretation, to keep himself in the right and in power and in our beds, There was nothing I could say to make him acknowledge my experience or admit his wrongdoing.

Photo of a poster that reads Mister, Mister Get your laws off my sister, above an image of the woman's symbol with a fist at the center

So we come back around to why it’s been so difficult to talk or engage in writing in this larger public conversation — do I have to use the hashtag? — about rape and sexual violence and male power and privilege and entitlement. The trouble is that this is another closed system: if you want to enter the conversation, you have to agree to the rules of the game — and the rules are, you have to let them frame the conversation, and you have to talk about what they want to talk about, the way they want to talk about it, if you want to be heard (or delude yourself that you will be heard).

This is where I got stuck. I don’t agree to the terms.

I said to a friend, it’s like a theoretical mathematician having to talk about something they know intimately and in profound depth, but they are only allowed to use the terminology of second-grade arithmetic. We are still only able, or allowed, to talk about violence against women (and children, and others) in incredulous, lurid, simplistic terms.

I saw a quote recently on the facebooks —  it said something about it being ok not to engage in arguments with people who are determined to misunderstand you. We who are insisting that rape culture harms absolutely everyone are being asked to define our terms and defend our positions over and over, endlessly, made to prove our points, to offer evidence in the form of our experiences and our bodies, repeatedly, to those who will, every time, find ways to deliberately misunderstand or misconstrue or misdirect or straight up deny what we’re saying, simply because they don’t want to have to be accountable for their behavior or make any changes in their lives or thinking. The hope is that, if we have to explain ourselves over and over (and over and over and over and over) and over again, eventually we will get tired (as I have gotten tired) and just go away and let things stay the way they’ve been for, oh, I don’t know, millennia.

It’s not that hard. Folks who have power don’t want to let go of it — any of it. Neither the rapist nor the rape apologist, neither Trump nor Sarah Sanders, wants to give up the power they’ve got in this culture. There’s power in being able to shape the conversation, the narrative, to demand that your accusers, those insisting on cultural change, prove their very right to speak endlessly, until they are exhausted.

So, in order to enter the conversation, I have to accede, accept, the terms that, for instance, it makes sense that a radio announcer in 2018 will state, breathlessly, that we’re seeing sexual harassment in all sorts of workplace environments (what, really?) — or accept the idea that a hashtag constitutes a movement (thereby agreeing to ahistoricize it, pretend like we just got started, decontextualize it from, let’s say, feminism and the generations of women (and others) who have named sexual violence and its harmful effects, demanding something better.  I have to agree that there’s a hierarchy of sexual violence and then weigh in on whether someone who isn’t systematically torturing victims over decades is really doing something all that bad; I have to agree that rich, white women started this “movement”; I have to hop up and down, the little kid in the back of the classroom, saying Ooh ooh ooh, me too! Me too! Hey, me too!

Even if I don’t agree on the terms, I have to agree to debate them — to discuss them, if I want my contribution to be even remotely relevant.

But these conversations are so ludicrous to me that I can’t even engage them seriously. A sex panic? Honestly? A witch hunt? Weighing the relative violence of acts that don’t violate criminal law (but are obviously deeply problematic/ impactful/harmful and create lasting impact, and undergird a system of violence that supports more violent acts)? Are you kidding me with this?

How to enter the conversation if you don’t agree to the terms of the debate? Maybe you don’t.

I’ve had this trouble for years. There are simply debates I can’t enter. I won’t talk with you about the relative merits of Lolita. I won’t discuss how great William Burroughs’ Queer was (because I haven’t read it, and frankly, I’d rather not have him in my queer lineage at all, thank you very much), you know, in spite of the fact that he shot his wife in the head (as though that were a side note in his life, a quirk, a small biographical detail). Is it even sort of of ok for a guy to have sex with a girl who’s drunk and not actively shoving him off her because she’s too out of it? Nope. Is it ok that David bowie had sex with children? Nope.

I am not your girl for those discussions. (But no worries — there are many thousands of folks who will talk about these things, so no one’s missing out on anything.)

It’s not just that I don’t agree on the terms of the debate — I don’t even agree that any of this is debatable.

I can’t engage seriously in any conversation that begins with, “Why is it difficult for women to come forward about experiences of sexual harassment at work?”

I can’t take seriously a “movement” to end sexual violence globally when it’s centered around rich (mostly) white women with access and power and is supposed to, what, trickle down to the rest of us?

I can’t take seriously any panic about witch hunts and male fear when children are still being raped in their beds across the planet, and the pope still protects the rapists in his ostensibly-Christian ranks.

I just can’t even.

You understand this feeling, the I can’t even feeling. I think anyone who has experienced or is experiencing oppression, and seeks to create change or simply have the reality of their situation recognized, acknowledged, for what it is, can understand this feeling.

I can’t even lives on the other side of the tongue-tiedness, but is mostly spoken to those who stand with us, who can hear is, who understand all that we are not saying, who read us without our even having to speak. Because having to speak the same fucking things over and over, having to reaffirm our humanity and the violence done to us, having to articulate, again, the harm that violence did and does, is exhausting. It takes work not to fall into the crazy-making mire of gaslighting and but-what-abouts and reverse oppression and backlash … I can’t even comes before the deep breath, the closed eyes, the sigh, the restating what we have been saying for decades, generations:

Yes, this entire system was set up to serve and protect those in power, by those in power. It’s just that simple.

I’m sorry, William Macy and Frank Bruni, if it’s hard to be a white man in this moment (well, at least in these conversations — are you having a lot of trouble, as powerful white men, outside of discussions involving racism or sexual violence? I didn’t think so). That’s not quite true, of course. I’m not sorry. Because I don’t believe it’s hard. I believe you’re experiencing some discomfort, sometimes, in some conversations. And that’s discomfort you can choose to feel or not; you can step out of the conversation. You can turn to another part of your life and never have to think about these things. The people who are inviting you to feel this discomfort? They — we — can’t step away.

I have been feeling “I can’t even” several times a day, most days, if I choose to engage in any media consumption whatsoever, for months now. And then I take that deep breath and close my eyes and sigh and pick up my hands and drop them on the keyboard and try to engage and find myself frozen. It’s not fear that freezes me, I suppose, but rage. The NYT magazine this weekend has a piece about female rage, about how and when (and which) women “get” to be angry, and how readily angry women are dismissed from any conversation.

Folks who’ve been oppressed for generations aren’t supposed to be angry about it — we are supposed to forgive and move forward with our oppressors. Women of all races; folks of color; queer folks — forgive and move on! Things are better now! Don’t be so angry. Why are you so angry? Don’t you know if you bring anger into the room, no one will take you seriously? You’ll just make people uncomfortable.

And anyway, what do you have to be angry about, women? Some men who abused women have been fired! You got what you wanted! Some men are — well — thinking about their language sometimes, in mixed company. Isn’t that the revolution you were looking for?

What I noticed was that a lot of those blog posts I started and then abandoned were really fucking angry. I am so tired of having to DEBATE the relative harm of different forms of sexual violence in a culture that is built on and shaped to protect male sexual entitlement, hello. Every piece of it, that is, every instance of sexual violence feeds the system, and tangles with every other instance. Every Aziz Ansari who we dismiss as not that bad and just needs to learn and didn’t know he was doing the wrong thing is laying the groundwork for a Harvey W., and is communicating to every woman everywhere what she can expect, or what she has to defend or armor up against, if she wants to have sex with men or masculine people.

If we repeat it enough, will you hear us? It doesn’t seem likely, but we keep saying it, just not for you — but for us. For those among us who need to know that we are not crazy for being outraged or triggered every time we turn on the news; that there’s nothing wrong with us for expecting our sexual partners to treat us like human beings who deserve respect and even adoration; that there’s nothing wrong with us for having expected those who were tasked with the job of raising and protecting us to do just that and only that; and that there’s nothing wrong with us for wanting a break from the litany of abuse stories sometimes — it doesn’t make us bad survivors, or unsupportive.

Sometimes you have to leave the room, quit trying to talk to people who will insist on misunderstanding you so that they can exhaust you into submission and silence. Sometimes you have to shift into another part of the house, with people who are interested in a different kind of conversation.

Be easy with yourselves out there, ok? Write hard, write whatever the fuck you want to, as angry as you want to write it, and then take yourself out for some ice cream or popcorn or even a non-food-related treat (which I just can’t seem to be able to imagine at the moment). I am grateful for each of you out there, and stand with you in the moments when you can’t speak, when you choose not to,  and in the moments when you do. Thank you for your words today.

the dance floor was the one safe place to have a body

CW: violence, sex, grief, a graphic detail about rape

This morning, I’m out at my neighborhood cafe, where they are playing club music to wake up the patrons. Or maybe in solidarity and grief and resistance. this cafe is queer-owned/-operated, and has sizable queer clientele. A handful of folks come in who I read as queer; we’re subdued this morning. We don’t smile big. We give each other the side eye, we purse our lips in that sort of sad smile that says, I’m grieving, too, even though I’m out in the world trying to look like I have my shit together. The world feels quieter today, muted, and not just because of the fog dampening the trees and the morning commute.

This morning I am grieving like so many of us are grieving because we’ve had a mass shooting hit us in our back yard. Many others of us are grieving because this is only the latest shooting to target someone or some community we love.

My love and I spent early Sunday morning with the New York Times, out on the back deck in the sun. After more than a week of doing everything I could to avoid hearing or reading about the Stanford Rape fiasco, I finally felt like I was ready to look. To open my eyes and look. To pull my head out of the sand and look, read, take it in. I’d been avoiding the news because I didn’t want to be surprised by details of the violence, I didn’t want to hear any more about how a white man’s future is protected by all the white men in power, even though he raped a drunk woman in the bushes and was witnessed in the act. I didn’t yet want to read her letter. I wasn’t ready. I just didn’t have the room in my body for the details, and for the rage that rises up in me every time I even think about it, and I wanted to wait until I did have some room in me before I tried to take in the story. I avoided Facebook even more studiously that usual, not wanting to run into excerpts of the survivor’s letter, into yet another story about the rapist or, even worse, learning the details from some ironic Facebookable image or satirical story.

Just yesterday, sitting on the back porch with the New York Times review section, I ran into yet another article about the case — I suppose I should be grateful that rape is finally deemed newsworthy in this way — and thought, Ok. All right. Fine. I’ll read it. I took a deep breath, and got about a quarter of the way in, until I reached a line that included details about gravel in the victim’s vagina. And then I shouted, “That’s enough!” and turned the page. My beloved looked at me sympathetically as I was shrieking at newsprint.

Until we got in the car an hour after that to drive the 45 minutes to the little church that I fell in love with when I lived in Tiburon, I didn’t know about the violence in Orlando. We switched on the radio, which was turned down low, and heard the whisper of one of the NPR announcers talking about special coverage of yet another mass shooting — and then I grabbed my phone and looked up the news.” It was a gay bar,” I said. “A gay bar.”

~~ ~~ ~~

I still haven’t read anything that explains why it took the police three hours to get into that bar after patrons started calling 911.

~~ ~~ ~~

Yesterday, driving down the hill from church and looking out on the San Francisco Bay, I thought about how it could have been us. I thought, Those were kids, the people in that bar — queer youth looking for sanctuary, looking for sweetness and solidarity and, yes, sex.

They were like us, who piled into Anna’s suburban late on a Sunday to head over to the one bar in the Upper Valley that had an “alternative lifestyle” night, who knew that if we timed it just right, the bouncer wouldn’t care that some of us were underage because the bar was going to close in an hour anyway, and we tumbled into the place like a bunch of oversexed puppies and took over (we thought we took over, I thought we took over) the dance floor, and we preened and performed for each other and the “older folks” (who were what, 35?) and spun and bounced and flirted and had one place that we were “normal,” we were the majority, we were right. This place was one of the few sanctuaries I had in the world, one of the places my stepfather would have never thought to try and track me down, one of the places where sometimes I almost even forgot about him and what he had made me into. The club, the dance floor, was my reclamation space, my resistance to incest and rape; it was, for some years, some many years, the only place it felt truly safe to have a body.

I thought about the majority young, majority-Latinx queer folks at Pulse this weekend and what that night, last Saturday night/early Sunday morning, was supposed to be for them. I thought about how hard some of the people in that club had had to work just to walk in the door. I thought about the joy and delight, the sexuality, the history and ache throbbing in that place.

The word we have for the act of violating a place of holiness and worship is desecration. What the shooter did on Saturday night was a desecration.

Where can we go to be safe? Where can we go to let down our guard? As women, as queer folks, and I think even more for my QTPOC beloveds and community, what does ‘safe space’ even mean?

~~ ~~ ~~

 I listened to the news yesterday, learned that the shooter was of Middle Eastern descent, and thought, Just wait for what Trump is going to say. Just wait for the Republicans to pretend to be friends of the queer community now. Meanwhile, LGBTQ rights are under assault across the country. Meanwhile, the same politicians who called us perverts yesterday are going to try and use us now to further their cause for war. They don’t care about queer people. They care about power and violence.

Meanwhile, queer men still can’t donate blood unless they’ve been celibate for a year. (In protest of this rule, I myself haven’t donated blood since the 90s.)

I’m afraid of what white gay folks and queers will do, are doing, with news like this. We tend to make it all about ourselves, and only about ourselves — all gay and only gay, forgetting about or actively erasing the intersections. This was an attack on queer folks, yes, and primarily on queer people of color. Yesterday I turned on the radio for a minute, just to be with people who were talking about the horror, and I heard a reporter relay the comments of someone at a rally: “This is our Charleston, SC!” I can only imagine this was a white person speaking, though I might be wrong; I make this assumption because white queer folks have a history of laying claim to Black struggle with entitlement. I had to turn off the radio immediately, because I started shouting again. Queer folks have been under attack throughout human history; we don’t have to appropriate an atrocity committed on Black folks (some of whom may certainly have been queer) in a house of worship (who were targeted for their Blackness in a place of sanctuary by a white man whose actions were not called terrorism and initiated no calls to remove all white men or white people from the country, though because historically violence of this nature is committed overwhelmingly by white men, a case could be made that we might be a safer country if we did just that).

~~ ~~ ~~

At the end of last week, while having sex with my beloved, I ran my hands up and down her body, over and over, and felt a kind of thick astonishment that I get to be with this woman. With this woman. It was an old feeling, like I imagine dykes in the 50s or 60s felt, this terrified wonder, this sense of transgressing, of holding something I was never supposed to be able to hold, of experiencing a kind of joy and pleasure I was never supposed to be able to experience. Like I was doing something wrong. Maybe that feeling is my legacy, a kind of queer bone memory. I thought, But why should I be feeling this way today, in 2016, when queer folks have so much acceptance, when no one cares anymore if you’re queer?

Then I remembered the number of trans women murdered just so far this year. Then I remembered that I live in a bubble here in the Bay Area — that when I met my sweetheart at the airport in Omaha when I was there visiting a couple of weeks ago, we both hesitated before kissing hello. I put my lips on her forehead instead. Just taking her hand and wrapping her up in my welcoming arms felt wildly visible, potentially dangerous. We laughed about it nervously, but I kept an eye on the people who were keeping their eyes on us. (A few days later, back in the airport on our way out, we passed a man arriving in Omaha wearing a tshirt that read Black Guns Matter – and I was so sad to acknowledge that I was glad to be leaving.)

Then I heard the news about Orlando.

Yes, it’s still transgressive to love and want a woman the way I love and want mine. Yes, there are still plenty of people who want to see queerfolks “cured” or fixed or killed. Yes, there are still plenty of people who “love the sinner and hate the sin. Yes, there are politicians – and plenty of folks in their constituencies – who would happily legislate queerfolks out of existence.

~~ ~~ ~~

These are days for grief and rage. We live in a white supremacist patriarchy that privileges access to weaponry over the sanctity of human life, that cares more about the future well-being of a white male rapist than about holding him accountable for his crimes, that over and over deems Black and Brown bodies expendable, that treats gender transgressive bodies as crimes against nature. Change is possible — isn’t it true that change must be possible, that resistance and solidarity and the vision of something different must take precedence over hopelessness and resignation? But today it’s a struggle to pull away from the quicksand of hopelessness.

I have been thinking since yesterday of a poem by Essex Hemphill that I’ve handed out at many of my erotic writing groups – his words speak louder and more clearly than anything else I could say.

American Wedding
by Essex Hemphill

In america,
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
No horsemen
bearing terror,
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
critically.
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than
milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
In america,
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.

not confused

(I began this last fall, and never posted it, because I couldn’t finish the piece… more about that at the end.)

I’ve been immersed in sexual assault these days. (So much so that I can’t even engage in my usual mild self-harming practice of watching Law and Order:SVU) Who isn’t, though — I mean, when aren’t we all immersed in sexual assault and hostility? When do we get a break?

I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s new book The Small Backs of Children (read it), then her essay Explicit Violence when thinking about how to write about violence without “overwhelming” my readers (a topic we discuss often in grad school — never mind that no matter how explicitly I describe the violence done to me or my sister, how cleanly I can recreate the house we lived in, the reader is never going to be as overwhelmed as we are just living with the memories). One book I read for my Autobiograpy class includes the narrator getting routinely raped by her brother, almost gang raped by older boys at her high school, and pressured into sex by her “boyfriend”– and that’s just in the first 80 pages. Never mind the news: Bill Cosby, sexual assaults on camps, story after story about how the Catholic Church continues to cover up the abuse of children perpetrated by its priests around the world. My dear friend tells me some of what she’s learning in her anti-trafficking trainings, as local organizations ramp up their services in advance of the Super Bowl. I get an announcement from the SFSU security deparment, reporting a stranger rape on campus, which reads like an old-school alt.sex.stories.rape post…

And then there’s the writing I’m trying to do — finding the words for it, writing down the old stories, the stories I haven’t written yet, the parts of my story that appear between the time Before and the time After. I’ve spent a lot of ink these last ten years writing about After, but I’ve done very little writing about During. And writing about the During means being back in the During — means having to remember what it felt like to be a confused 12, 14, 16 year old, being back in that body, being back in that disembodiment.

I’m thinking a lot about writing violence, how violence is portrayed, who gets to wield it unreservedly, even in fiction.

There have been two sharp spotlights of surprise in all this media consumption of violence against women. The first was while my sweetheart and I were watching the Sopranos (please don’t ask how I got myself watching this show that I managed to avoid watching for all these years), and in one episode, a woman simply picks up a gun and shoots in the chest a man (her fiancee) who had hit her in the face. I couldn’t help it — I cheered.

The other while watching Queen Latifah’s portrayal of Bessie Smith in the HBO movie Bessie. The movie gives us Bessie Smith as an absolutely take-n0-shit kind of woman — in one of the earliest scenes (spoiler alert), Bessie is fooling around, drunkenly, with a guy in an alleyway back behind a theater where she’s performing. Her back’s against the brick wall, they’re having a good time, and then he’s trying to pull down her drawers, which she doesn’t want, and she says no. He keeps pressing, pushing her to go further than she wants. She knocks his hands away, and he punches her hard in the face, knocking her over, and curses her. While she’s bent down, and he’s preparing to go ahead and take what she wouldn’t give him, she picks up a shard of glass. She straightens up and stabs him in the side, doubling him over. Then she stands over him and says something like, I said I wanted to fool around, but I didn’t want all that, damn. And it was just getting good, too. Then she kicks him, not hard, just a kind of nudge — a sharp nudge. Her brother bursts out of the back door, frantic — it’s time for her to go on stage. So Bessie leaves the guy bleeding, goes back into the theater, dons her costume, rushes out on stage and sings for a packed house, with a bleeding cut on her head.

I cheered then, too.

There are several moments in Bessie, actually, where we get to see her bashing back on the men who expect her to simply and unquestioningly comply with their wishes, sexual and otherwise. She doesn’t appear to hesitate, just turns the violence they do to her right and exactly back onto them. And because they don’t expect it, don’t expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no, the men are astonished at Bessie Smith — I was astonished, too, because I, too, have been conditioned not to expect any woman to fight back, to stand up for themselves, to say no and have the full power of their strength and agency behind that no.

It gets beaten out of us. It gets terified out of us. It gets silenced out of us.

Around the time I watched Bessie last fall, I said to my sweetheart, what if women’s violence were a more common response to men’s violence? It isn’t the solution I want for us as a human race, and yet, just today, I want all of us armed with knives and coat hangers and guns and shards of glass. I want all of us put through tae quan do training, I want all of us fully aware of our phenomenal strenghth, not just internally but externally — in our biceps and quads, in our jaws and teeth. How many men would keep shoving their dicks in mouths that are absolutely willing to bite down hard enough to sever flesh from flesh

Do you think men will stop their violence on their own? Do you think they will be peacefulled, yoga’d, west-coast-Buddhist-ed out of it? Do you think those ecstatically-dancing, hippie Burning Man guys aren’t beating their girlfriends, sexually assaulting drunken female rvelers (who thought they were hanging out with friends in a place of peace and love and new possibility), aren’t expecting that the new order will still have them absolutely in control?

Think again.

“Listen, I know this is a bit of a dreary story. But whenever I get told that, by friends, or agents, or editors, or publishers, I think, if this dreary story is hard for you to live with, how are we supposed to live with you?” – Lidia Yuknavitch, “Explicit Violence

Are we still really wondering whether no means no? Are today’s college-age men learning something that their older brothers didn’t learn?  Are they doing it differently? You saw the study last year announcing that nearly a third of college-age men in this country say they’d commit rape if they thought they could get away with it: “When combined with what the study’s authors described as ‘callous sexual attitudes,’ the results suggest a man with a hostile attitude toward women may view “forced intercourse as an achievement,” and a woman saying ‘no’ could be ‘perceived as a token resistance consistent with stereotypical gender norms.’”

Also last year, in a story about affirmative consent (which means that folks get to say yes to sex they want, instead of it being all right for someone to fuck them just because they didn’t hear her/him/hir say no loudly enough), the author wrote: “Studies have found these stereotypes, even in the age of hookup sites like Tinder, to be generally true. Men tend to rely on nonverbal cues in interpreting consent (61 percent say they get consent via body language), but women tend to wait to be asked before signaling consent (only 10 percent say they give consent via body language). No wonder there’s so much confusion.” (“Affirmative Consent; Are Students Really Asking?” New York Times, 7/28/15)

Confusion. Aha — that’s what we’re calling it.

Here’s the thing: They’re not confused. We’re not confused, no matter how long (like, centuries) they’ve worked to convince us otherwise.

Is it any wonder that I can’t listen to the news these days. I look up stories of women who fight back —

And right here is when I stopped writing last fall — I looked up links to those stories of women who fight back against men who are assaulting them, and was overwhelmed with all the stories from around the world of women being attacked by men, page after page after page. I couldn’t read through even a fraction of them just to pick out two or three links, no matter how much I wanted to show you a couple of the women who said No More and “won.” But instead, guess what I found? You know. You know what happens to many women who say no more — they’re jailed for killing the men who’ve been abusing them for years, for fighting back against the rapist (against whom they have to fight back if they want to be taken seriously as “victim” rather than “tease”) — or they’re killed.

There’s a reason many of us keep our old Hothead Paisan books in easy reach.

I just tried again to find those links. And had the same experience. So let me just link here to Home Alive in Seattle — the organization that formed in the wake of the murder of Gits’ singer Mia Zapata in 1993, which offers self defense classes and information rooted in social justice analysis. This is a group of folks who said No More, and are still alive, still fighting, not giving any ground to the folks who want to hold on to the license to rape offered by the so-called confusion about what the words yes and no mean, and yet also holding out hope that a different world is possible (to paraphrase the tagline of the US Social Forum), with heads held high, shoulders back, eyes up, unashamed of our strength, unashamed of our survival, unashamed of all the truths we have to tell, and honoring every bit of the myriad ways we fight back every day of our lives. 

Thank you for your resistance. Thank you for your resilience. Thank you for your words.

opening to new stories

Thomas King writes, in The Truth About Stories, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.”

What is a story? It is a rehashing of events, a narrative, an anecdote, a lie, a truth. The dictionary isn’t helping me here, just giving me synonyms. What is a story? It’s a telling or a making up. It’s offering an account of an experience, so someone else can can come to know or understand what happened. It’s a fabrication, a weaving into existence something that wasn’t, that didn’t exist, until we put it into precise words.

 Story is contextual. And who determines a story’s context? “She’s telling stories” is the way some folks call us liars. But we know what truths come from storyteller’s mouths.

 Thomas King also writes, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” He repeats this line throughout his slender book, driving the point home: we create ourselves, we know and understand ourselves, through the stories we tell and/or listen to and believe about ourselves, about those like us, about our communities, society, families, world.

Trauma is a story. Identity is a story. Religion is a story. Sex is a story. The body is a story.

Yes, the body is also bone and tissue, chemical reactions, pulses, electrical leaps. The body is fluid and organ, is emergence and excretion, is breath and heartbeat. The body exists as an object in this precise moment, entirely independent of its context, its historical situation, its experiences. Doesn’t it?

Would this body be what and how it is independent of the stories I have told about it? What is my body without its stories, its histories and herstories? What is yours?

Is my DNA a story? My musculature? What can you learn from the story of my skin, her scars and stretch marks, her stains and curves? What can you read in the complicated interweaving of my neuronal infrastructure (which would be transformed if the stories of my body were transformed)?

We use story every day, throughout the day. When someone asks how we slept, we offer a story of deems and waking. When a friend calls to tell us about her morning, she gives us a story, an anecdote. We tell childhood stories, baby stories, coming out stories, the story of how we met, the story of an illness, the story of our experience of abuse, the story of our recovery. When I ask someone, “Do you know my story?” – I have a particular story in mind. I meant the story of my trauma, most of the time – and this is the story of my body.

Every story is an illumination and an occlusion. Every story highlights one side of a situation while leaving out other information. This is out of necessity. We can’t remember or apprehend every detail of a happening or an experience. We remember what’s important – we tell what we remember and, over time, what we remember is what we’ve told repeatedly. We believe our own stories. We can forget that there are other ways to tell, understand, consider those stories – and each different telling provides a different lens through which to consider ourselves and our experiences.

How we tell our stories matters. The words we use for our stories matters. The metaphors and symbolic language, the imagery – all matter, all influence how we perceive ourselves, our bodies, our physical being, our agency, our history and our possibility.

What stories do you have about yourself and your experience that no longer serve you? What happens when you shift, examine or change the stories you’ve been living with, and by, and through? What happens when you expose yourself to other people’s stories, really listen to them, and consider how they compare to your own?

after awareness, then what?

Good morning — can you feel the hard grey wash outside your window? Is it revealed, or hidden under the blue? I refilled the feeder, and the birds have returned — mostly house finches, a black-capped chickadee or two. The weather’s coming in and I just want to snuggle up on the couch with the puppy, a cup of tea, and Jane Vandenburgh’s The Architecture of the Novel instead of sitting up here at the keyboard, banging against my own book.

So let me blog instead.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Do you feel unaware of sexual assault? I would like a different tagline. I understand the need for X Awareness Months, so that organizations and government entities can rally around a particular cause, so that issues we would otherwise prefer to ignore get a bit more of the attention, resources and airtime that they deserve.

Yesterday, either online or on the radio, I was confronted with plenty of stories about sexual assault– not because it’s April, or because the media I was engaging with had any heightened coverage of sexual violence, but because people perpetrate sexually violent acts on a daily basis. Continue reading

they are protecting power

Good morning, good morning. Here it’s five am, the heater is trying to warm the little office, the quiet is pervasive. I’ve been awake since 3, but only writing since 3.30. A full hour-plus of notebook time feels like a luxury. It is a luxury. I sit with that knowledge.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

Have you seen this week’s SF Weekly? The cover story is about police officers who abuse, molest, rape, and otherwise take advantage of young folks who are participating in the Boy Scouts’ Explorers program. I saw the headline (“Hands-on Experience” (because this story warrants punning for sure) — with a drawing of a cop wearing mirrored shades looking out toward the viewer, his hand on the thigh of a profoundly-uncomfortable young teenage girl wearing in a Boy Scouts’ uniform), felt disgusted with the cover & headline, took the paper anyway. I opened to the story, got through a couple of paragraphs, and then threw the paper down on the seat next to me. Do I really need to read more of this? I asked myself. Then, after a few minutes, I picked the paper back up. What are these kids’ stories? Who’s listening to them? During the long shuttle ride from the UCSF Parnassus campus down to Mission Bay, I did that several times, deciding to give myself a break from this bullshit, and then feeling drawn back to the story, the reporting — yes, yes, like feeling drawn back to looking at a car wreck. What happened there? The language used in the piece made me cringe — a couple of girls described in Lolita-esque tones, asking for it, several situations described vaguely enough that one might come away with the idea that the kids involved were not only consenting participants to the assaults of multiple uniformed police officers, but instigators.

I participated in the Explorer program back in Nebraska, only not with a police department. Instead, I went onto Offut Air Force Base and learned how to program in Ada — we were the Computer Programming Explorers. No ride alongs. No one-on-one time with the men charged with teaching and guiding us. We were always a group on the weekend afternoons when we met (Is that true? I’m remembering other kids in the program, but also remembering working alone with a lieutenant. Anyway, all I learned was Ada, and some of the intricacies of getting permission to come onto an air force base. I remember feeling really privileged, lucky, and nervous. The coding itself was pretty boring, even though I was learning to program in a language named for the first computer programmer, who was a woman, Ada Lovelace.)

After reading this article, I find that the kids in the police Explorer program went off with individual officers, it would appear, for ride-alongs and rape. Not all of them, no. Maybe not the majority. But enough. Enough. And a lot of the officers, at least as reported in this article, got off with warnings — because their departments hadn’t specifically told them, through handbooks or departmental rule books, not to rape or molest or have sex with the young folks they were charged with guiding and teaching about police work (and didn’t they do just that, though?), they couldn’t be expected to know, apparently, that it was wrong. The Explorers programs also got in trouble for not having code or language in their handbooks outlining expectations that police wouldn’t abuse or have sex with the Explorers in their charge — because why would we expect police to know that? They need it in writing. We all know that written departmental codes keep everyone in line. Send a memo next time. That’ll do it.

The Catholic Church. The Boy Scouts. The US Military. Penn State. Syracuse University. Police Departments.  This is not even a fraction of the institutions that are systematically abusing/raping people and/or covering up for abusers.

Yesterday, when I left San Francisco, headed for home across the bay, the corners down across from the Ferry Building were all coated, crawling, dotted, smeared, filled with cops, many of them in riot gear. In the middle of the night, early yesterday morning, the SF Police Department had rousted the folks at the OccupySF encampment and driven them out of Justin Herman Plaza. Then the police and the city destroyed all the protesters’ belongings and scrubbed Justin Herman Plaza clean, sanitized away all markings, all signs that anyone had tried to create a new way of living together in that space named for a man who once said, “Without adequate housing for the poor, critics will rightly condemn urban renewal as a land-grab for the rich and a heartless push-out for the poor and nonwhites” — and who also ‘urban renewal’ed people out of their homes and businesses in the Filmore and SOMA.

The first phalanx of cops in riot gear I saw were standing right next to a B of A down at Market and Spear; didn’t this tell me all I needed to know? They were protecting not the people — not the people who need housing and jobs, not the people who need food or healing — but the banks and an empty public park.

They are protecting power, I thought, and not just the power of those over them in their own hierarchy — they’re protecting their own assumptive access to those they have power over, their right to beat, to abuse, to molest, to take to take to take to take. This is what they get, now, after delivering themselves into whatever humiliations they undertook to rise up the ranks in the police force — don’t they get to take some of what was taken from them?

This is the stone cold bedrock we’ve finally hit, all of us, together, finally, isn’t it? This is what liberation means: someone else can’t just take me, my body, my home, my belongings, my life, my labor, my creative work, my energy, without my consent. Period.

I want the Occupy movement to take this on, not replicate the same sexist dynamics. I want to hear what a vision for a world without sexual violence, a world of equal access to resources, a world of safe housing and food for all would look like — because I can’t imagine it. We must be able to envision what we’re moving toward, and I’m sunk in the mire today. This is the aftermath, possibly part of the underlying aim of so many news stories about so much institutionalized sexual violence: we are surrounded; those in power don’t listen to/believe/take action on our stories; we only can heal in the aftermath — we cannot change the culture that perpetuates these violences.

I know that last line isn’t true. I’m just not able to feel my way into the possibility at the moment. It feels enormous, un-entrenching this assumption (that those in power have the right to harm, at any time, those with less power) that seems to be a part of the human dna.

Please help me — it’s selfish to make this request, but I’m also thinking about my little cousin who was just born, any niece or nephew of mine who might come into the world, my friends’ baby girls who have just landed on this planet — all of the babies that have just come into your lives, too: they deserve more than what this society offers them right now. If you’re writing your visions of a new possibility, of a world utterly rid of sexual violence (which would, wouldn’t it, entail being rid of other forms of oppression, by necessity), then that work, that idea, your vision becomes a part of the collective unconscious.

I’ll keep trying, too.

Thanks for the times you write anyway, even when it feels useless. We know, after, that it wasn’t — sometimes after is a long time coming, though.Thanks for your extraordinary vision, the depth of possibility that you hold in your hands.

(nablopomo #9) how deep are we really ready to go?

graffiti of a girlchild holding on to a bunch of balloons, which are carrying her over the wall the graffiti is painted onGood morning good morning. The wall heater has just kicked on, so I can’t hear the owl that I was about to describe to you — s/he’s out in the pine trees, maybe situated near the top, maybe watching the moon, who-who-whoing every now and again, waking up the air around me this morning.

How is it where you are? I ask this every day, and here’s why: 1) I’m curious (and if you wanted to tell me about it in the comments, I’d love it) and 2) I think it matters for our writing, to know how we’re situated, I mean the details of place, what and where we begin from.

(A note about comments: I love them and am so grateful when you write here. I’m not always able to respond right away, but the responses mean so much to me, and I want to offer a public thank you right here.)

There’s work to do, a talk for next week to prepare (how do you define liberatory, after all?), but I’m here with this quiet page, quiet music, quiet cold air, not quite into the day yet, because it’s still dark out, so that means we’re in the inbetween. Night, early morning, isn’t that the inbetween?

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There are big things I’d like to write about this morning — including the sexual assault awfulness at Penn State and the way sexual violence is being used and ignored at #ows encampments. When does this writing happen?

I set my timer and am just doing it. These subjects don’t go away, but public interest in them does, fades, shifts to the next best public horror. At Penn State, they’re apparently working with the model of the mainstream Catholic Church, which means, allow the pedophile to continue to have access to the children, and to use resources and facilities for his violence, but work, always work, to keep it quiet and hidden. Then they said, well, just don’t do it on campus. Yes, thank you. Take it home, don’t do it here. That way, we’re not liable. We don’t have to call you out or fire you. We don’t have to be accountable.

The truth is that we have plenty of precedent for this, not just the catholic church. This way of engaging power is all around us. Is this part of what the #ows movement wants to change? This is certainly part of the privilege that the 1% wants to hold onto, that many in the 99% also expect to have access to.

Why is anyone surprised at this behavior, at this story? The fact is, I want to be surprised. I want to be horrified. I’m not. It doesn’t feel like a calloused or cynical thing, more like familiarity with what goes on behind the surfaces of perfection and ostensible ethics. (You’ll remember, or some of you won’t know, that my mother’s second husband, the man who violated all of us, he was a child sexual abuse therapist, who wrote articles and small books about treating CSA) — The thing I heard on the news about this coach,  the one who covered for the pedophile, was that his ethics were always impeccable, everyone counted on him to do things the right way.

How do we learn to trust people again, when they never give us the chance to?

There’s more. Don’t stop. I want the details of this story, I want all of those people, those men, the men who colluded with this violence, the men who made it possible for all those boys to be raped, I want them fired, I want them held to account. Maybe jailed, but better would be a public remembrance — don’t forget. What does transformative/restorative justice look like in this case? Do they need to sit in a room with the boys and their families and listen to the damage that they were instrumental in causing? Do they need to not just apologize but provide financial restitution? They wanted to distance themselves from this man’s actions but somehow also, for reasons I don’t understand because I’m not a sports person or because I’m not a man, they wanted to keep him around. What do they have in their own closets? Why not fire him as soon as they learned about the abuse, the violence? Why are the priests moved around from parish to parish instead of fired, released from duty, sent to a monastery where they won’t have access to children, something? What is the investment for those in power, if not  so that those in power can continue to render themselves blameless for their own violences?

Why do we continue to expect more than violence from those in positions of power, when they show us, over and over, that they will violate our trust, our skin, when given opportunity — when we see, over and over, that those around them will shield them, not us.

This is where it gets complicated — we want to change how financial resources are distributed, in and with and through this movement, but we don’t necessarily want to give up our white privilege and we don’t necessarily want to give up our access to women’s and children’s bodies (& to men’s bodies, too). Is that it? What part of cultural revolution doesn’t include a revolution around engagement with racial violence and sexual violence? Deep change means giving it all up, means letting go of the places where you had unearned power and privilege, also — without knowing what will happen after you open your hands and bodies and release.

If the movement doesn’t deal with these structural, cultural places of damage and pain, it will disintegrate. First, because the ‘new society’ being created will look awfully the same to folks of color, all women, all children — change that comes for white men isn’t the only change we need. Second, because those in power, the 1%, will always say that they want to protect women and children, and will use the issue of sexual violence as a reason to attack and dismantle encampments — not because they care about protecting anyone from sexual violence, mind you, but because they want the movement to go away. We’ve seen this already, at occupyoakland and elsewhere.

What are we fighting for at this time of revolution? How deep are we really ready and willing to go?

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The nablopomo prompt for today is this: When was the first time that you realized that your home was not like other people’s homes? I have an old piece of writing to share, in response to this:

I was hunched up against the night, sometimes. I watched all the lights go on inside.  I looked in shamelessly, walked my dog through quiet neighborhoods where nothing was happening inside the houses that would make you want to call the cops.  I looked in and watched dinner times, I watched rooms turned blue flickering with television, I watched straining and want.  I passed by.  I never stood there. I passed by.  The crickets were nighttime and I was safe in them. No one was baking bread. That was a long time ago, back when the fields were real and the houses were wool and the streets outside were gravel and cicada shells swollen with puffs of cottonwood trees, swollen with something. Possibility. Hope.  At 5, there’s nothing but.  At 5, there’s nothing but.  Later, though.  Then.  Now.  Teenager in crimson pants or nothing.  Teenager in bright green anger. Teenager gliding through nothing like hope anymore because the concrete has thrown itself up into roadblocks.

Where can I go with this story, tell the drama of those walks and all they meant for me. They were like a movie but worse, a long-going soap opera, a hope for something new, no, just escape. They were a movie where I’d never be interrupted because it was all in my own head.  This was near the university, not so far from Elmwood Park, where I only went alone when I was older and I learned there was nothing to be scared of, nothing scarier than I might find at home.  This was why I hated winter.  Walks were circumscribed.  The dog got cold and so did I and I hated being all bundled. I hated the ways the windows got frosty and kept me out; I couldn’t see inside, could just see the blue flickering against the ice on the windowpanes.  A pristine kind of privacy. Winter kept me locked out., and in.  Winter kept me too hot in my own head with no time away for distraction.  No crickets.  Still no bread.  Just the cold against the fingers.  Just the frost heaves, just the grass turning dead but still green, too poisoned, too fertilized.  What were those walks but forays into aloneness? What were they but desperation?  I’d defend myself when I got home, learned to gauge what was too much, too long. An hour? Mid day summer vacation only.  Nighttime?  Strictly ten minutes or less, unless I was pushy.  And I usually was.  That was my problem.  Half an hour with the dog meant half an hour of relative freedom, some new breath, something unsupervised.  Not free.  Just unwatched movements, when I could watch alone.

Want to use this as your prompt? Give yourself 10 minutes, just 10 minutes, set the timer, put the pen to the page, write straight through, don’t stop and don’t think/edit/censor. Let the words come. More than you might imagine can emerge in 10 minutes.

Thanks for all the questions you’re asking, the places you’re holding open for answers to emerge. Thanks for your deep engagement in complication. Thank you for your words.

Jaycee and the rest of us

bright purple graffiti of the word LIBERATEThis morning it’s quiet and grey, except for the birds, who are forever providing exception. Last night was some excitement at 11am with two red ticks making their slow, deliberate way through Sophie’s short fur. This will be the one time I praise pesticides, and am grateful for the tick repellent we apply to her neck every month, the stuff that may have kept the ticks from anchoring. Do I know what the pesticide is doing to my pup, to her nerves, to her behavior? I don’t. I trust the manufacturer, which is rarely a wise idea to do implicitly. I weigh the benefits of this poison against the damage that the tick’s poison could do: what a calculation.

Today, Sophie gets to visit doggie day care for the first time — this is the day care’s test run. Wish her heart (and mine) good luck as mama drops her baby off for her first day alone.

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This morning I get to spend a half-hour with Sharon Bray‘s Writing as a Healing Ministry class at PSR; I want to talk about communal freewriting as liberatory practice, for trauma survivors, yes, and for all of us. Sharon gathers up folks who want to lead writing workshops in their faith or other communities and, in a week-long intensive, presents them with many different workshop models, from AWA to poetry therapy and more. Participants do lots of their own writing and exploring, and get to meet facilitators who are out in the world already doing the work. The class sounds like a fabulous opportunity, and she teaches it every year during PSR’s summer session! Check them out!

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The latest People magazine has another cover story about Jaycee Dugard (don’t worry; the link doesn’t take you to the People site, but to HuffPo); the last time I bought People off the rack was when Jaycee had just been found (after a guard on the UC Berkeley Campus saw something odd, took her and her children aside, away from the man who’d held her captive for 18 years, and asked her what was up) and People offered maybe an exclusive about the immediate aftermath as Jaycee returned to the world.

I’m fascinated by Jaycee’s story — there’s a way in which I resonate with her experience, in the sense that she grew up through pre-adolescence and into early adulthood, under the control of a sexual abuser. She was kidnapped at 11, taken from her family, kept by a man and woman, raped and sexually abused for years. She gave birth to two children. This is barely surface; what I’ve just written hardly tells you anything about her. It’s a character sketch, plot details, scratch marks on her face. This isn’t a story.

I would dearly love to write with Jaycee in a workshop. She’s written or co-written a book about her experiences, and I’ll read it, of course, and I’ll also wonder how much more of her story there is to tell. What lives inside and underneath the stories the media and mainstream public all expect/want to hear.

The other thing that fascinates me, though, is the media/public’s engagement with the story of Jaycee Dugard. Here’s one story of child abduction and abuse that’s blown up and given massive mainstream coverage. This is not to undermine in any way the horror that Jaycee went through, but I have this question: Isn’t it true that we are so (encouraged to be) engaged with this story because Jaycee was abducted by strangers, at a bus stop. Her story is safe to publicize, and safe for us as a public to be openly horrified over, because it doesn’t challenge the story that we tell ourselves that children are harmed by those outside the family — any harm that comes to children in the family has to do with parenting differences, the rights of parents to discipline; perhaps the child had it coming, after all. After a story like Jaycee’s, we soothe ourselves by saying that we’ll watch our children closer  and keep them close to home, where they will be safe from the monsters. Our mainstream narrative (and the lies as well) are kept safe.

I want to tell you that I know hundreds of people who were held captive and abused — but not by strangers. These are people kept in their homes, who didn’t have the fantasy, the luxury, of imagining what it will be like when they can see their parents and be safe at home again. These are people who grew up living in two worlds, just like Jaycee, who were beaten and/or tortured; some bore children. Some have scars. The scars on others are invisible. These folks are also telling, also writing, their stories, they are exposing deep truths about our society’s commitment to ‘family values’ — and they will never be seen being interviewed by Diane Sawyer.  Why aren’t we also publicizing these stories? Why don’t these folks have time in Time magazine? (It’s too common, someone might say — everyday, common-place activities, like the rape of kids by parents, that’s not news.)

Jaycee’s story should be publicized — and so, too, should the rest of our stories. In combination, we would show (wouldn’t we?) the lie that is America’s self-soothing story about protecting the children. We would tear the story open, and in that raw aftermath, we would make way for something new to be born.

I want our societal story about rape and sexual violence to shift away from this focus on the monsters outside; I want us to open up the searchlight and see all the harm, all the monsters (who, in the end, look most often like regular people — that’s the most terrifying thing). I want us to have deeper conversations about who is safe, and where, and when. About what protection and accountability look like. About how to move, work, stretch, create, grow into a society that doesn’t feed on its youth.

Take 10 minutes for you today, to write or walk or breathe. Know that your story is important. Understand that your tellings are a part of this new narrative that we’re all working on together — your piece is necessary. Thank you for writing, and for sharing it.

we’re here, we’re queer, we’re surviving

graffiti of a female face, frowning, serious, strong, with the caption 'recuerda! hoy es el dia!'

"Remember! Today is the day" (click on the image to see more of LD-'s flickr set)

It’s October — LGBT Awareness month (which includes National Coming Out Day on 10/11) and Domestic Violence Awareness Month. How do these national-anything months affect our lives once we’re out of school, away from the programming groups that have a captive audience? It’s the month for NCOD, Take Back the Night marches, times when we announce who we are, what we’ve experienced, what we want to see change.

National Coming Out Month and Domestic Violence Awareness Month go together, of course, when it comes to queer kids getting beaten, getting harassed, getting assaulted, getting kicked out — We’re here, we’re queer, and we deserve bodily integrity, we deserve health and safe homes, we deserve not to be bullied, not to be harassed, not to bully or harass others.

There’s a campaign that I found to get queer folks to re-associate with their high schools, to be a visible and out alumnus. I wasn’t out, even to myself, in high school.  Instead, I was being regularly sexually assaulted by my mother’s husband, and the only friends I was allowed were the boys who I might date, the boys who my stepfather thought would eventually have sex with me — my entire life revolved around my sexuality, in this hideous and adult-driven way. I had no idea that anything other than heterosexuality and sexual violence could be in store for me. There was no place to explore my own desires or fantasies, to think about how my body worked or why, to consider what brought me joy. Sex wasn’t about joy — it was about endurance and escape. Sometimes there was a moment of connection, and I’m grateful for those — moments that were outside my stepfather’s control, that were about just me and his other person, or even about a momentary wholeness in my body. These were fleeting and sometimes even more painful for my remembering them later, knowing I could never count on them, never get them back.

The It Gets Better campaign wouldn’t have worked for me; that’s not to shut it down or say that it isn’t useful (and click on that link above to see what might have gotten through, though, that message from Aunt Kate) — most of the public awareness campaigns didn’t work for me. We might have a lecture at school about tell someone if someone’s touching you wrong and all of us in the audience would be squirming and embarrassed and cutting our eyes at the kids (the girls) who it was rumored were having to have sex with someone in their family. My stepfather might have given that lecture to our school — he didn’t, but he could have, because that’s the work he did: and he always wanted to be of service. So no one would be cutting their eyes at me, though I’d be looking for it and I was terrified of someone finding out — not because of the shame or embarrassment, but because of his punishment, the way I’d have to repudiate anyone else’s knowledge, the way I’d have to learn how to hide better, more transparently, more in clean sight.

I had no possible sense of a future that didn’t include my stepfather’s control, so there was no place in my life where “it gets better” would have fit. I don’t know what would have worked (except, maybe, for one of his colleagues to have stepped forward, to have paid attention to what they were seeing (my stepfather’s extreme control of his family) and taken action).

Would it have helped if there’d been a campaign specifically aimed at those experiencing sexual violence — for a grown woman to say to a camera somewhere in the world, seeming like she’s looking right at me, somehow more safe for that intimacy of one person speaking to one other person: I never thought I could get away. But I did — finally, I was able to get away from the man/person who was hurting me, and this is how I did it and this is where I got help… Would that have helped me consider my own possible escape? Maybe I would have tucked it away somewhere inside future reference.

I want a hopeful end here, a clear sense of what could work, now, for someone else in my situation. I guess, though, that that’s why I write at all, and why I write under my own name. My survival, my rescue, came incrementally, and it mostly came through reading other people’s stories — it came through a slow awareness that I was not alone, that I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced this kind of isolation and control, that other people went through this and then, later, had a life that they were happy with, that they found pleasure and joy in. It was through reading the coming out stories, the survivor stories, through Dorothy Allison and Maya Angelou, the collections of Take Back the Night readings. Over and over, those voices reached out and caught me, and so I keep on trying to reach out and catch someone else. I needed to know that, yes, something as plain as ‘incest’ and ‘domestic violence’ could be applied to my stepfather’s behavior, that I could find myself and my experiences in that language.

My queerness is entirely interwoven with my incest survivor-ness, and my National Coming Out Day is always inflected with DV Awareness month, so my slogans look like this: We’re here, we’re queer, we’re surviving and We’re loud and raunchy and messy, because finally we can be and Big joyful incest survivor queergrrl.

What does National Coming Out Day look like for you? Do you still have coming out moments? Want to write about one of those as a prompt for today? (Write about whichever one just came to mind when you read that question — share it here if you want)

Or just think about it, and know that I’m grateful for that work you did, are doing, will continue to be a part of today…