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. 

what if we didn’t seem appetizing to them?

graffiti: interlocked Olympic rings, four with frowning faces and one with a smiling faceHow much longer? How much longer?

I am sick of writing about this. I am sick of hearing these stories. Now it’s Olympic swimming — oh, and a whole list of other Olympic sports — that’s in the news after “being hit with a sexual assault scandal.” That how the NPR announcer announced the story.

Was the sport hit with a scandal? That certainly puts the onus on the folks who’ve come forward, who’ve been coming forward for decades. This phrasing puts the blame on the victims for hitting the sport, the leaders, the organization, with this scandal.

That’s the power of the passive voice — it makes it sound like the organization was harmed, when, in fact, the headline should read, “Olympic swimming organization (and all the rest of these other Olympic sports) called forward to explain why, after twenty-plus years of being told about coaches’ sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment of athletes, the leadership took little to no action, sometimes actively dissuading young athletes from reporting assaultive actions, and hundreds of athletes were subsequently profoundly harmed.”

That’s not a fucking scandal. That’s a crime.

Scandal sounds salacious, has kind of sexy connotations, right? Sex scandal is practically redundant. Scandal is titillating, something to be gossiped about —

Generations of girls and other young athletes being assaulted by coaches in the name of getting to the Olympics isn’t a scandal. It’s 1) a crime, and 2) patriarchy. Patriarchy isn’t a scandal.

Please stop telling girls and other children just to report any assault they’ve been through — please stop blaming them for not telling, or not telling right, or not telling enough. We tell, and then we are shown, over and over again, that the adults in our lives would rather protect the perpetrator. It’s happening right now. It’s happening today.

Just this minute, someone is telling a mother, a nun, an administrator, a teacher, a friend in the business, a mentor, and are being told to shut up about it — that guy is a great coach; he’s the only one paying the bills; he’s our only hope of turning over that seat in the House; he has such great things to say about poverty and social justice; he’s a brilliant artist; he’s he’s he’s so much more important and necessary than you are, violated person, just keep your fucking mouth shut about how he made you do those things.

When will we get tired of this? When will we, as a country, as a society, as human beings, get tired enough to stop it? When will we get tired enough to create massive change to cultures around the world (including here in the US, of course) that are constructed around men’s access to women’s and children’s labor and bodies?

stencil graffiti, silhouette of priest chasing two childrenI have been thinking a lot lately about what would make them stop. What will cause men to stop raping children? You understand, this isn’t an individual family problem. This isn’t a mental health problem that individual perpetrators are manifesting. This isn’t about one kid, one coach, one priest, one teacher, one father, one stepfather, one boyfriend, one shopkeeper, one soldier, one babysitter, one camp instructor, one director, one neighbor, one troop leader, one librarian, one uncle, one cousin, one aide, one staff member, one counselor, one therapist, one tutor, or, later, one professor, one friend, one boyfriend’s friend, one frat guy, one supervisor, one boss, one uber driver, one guy on the subway, one coworker, one mentor, one agent, one spiritual leader, one guru, one self-help coach, one yoga instructor, one husband’s or partner’s boss, one more soldier, one bureaucrat, one government official, one coyote, one landlord, one guy at the bar, one parish coordinator, one group leader, one personal trainer, one conductor, one bus driver, one gang of guys on the bus, one brilliant writer who just wants to help you in your career, one other guy —

This isn’t about single perpetrators. This is about a history of humanity constructed around allowing and encouraging men to take what they want when they want it, by force, and when it stopped being quite so acceptable (in some places, at some times) for them to simply grab and consume, they figured out how to manipulate, which took maybe a little bit longer, but still got them what they wanted in the end.

I want a different story. I want children to be dangerous. I want women to be dangerous. I want men to be afraid of us. How do we turn the tables that way?

Maybe there will come a time when men around the world just respect the bodily integrity and emotional well-being of the other humans around them. That would be great. But until that day comes, how do we teach our children not just to tell when they have been approached by an assailant, but to cause harm to anyone who would touch them without consent? Cause literal, physical, visible harm.

Is that where I’ve come to? Teach the vulnerable not to be vulnerable anymore. What could cause a gang of men on a bus to fear the girl they have decided to gang rape? What would cause a group of soldiers with weapons to fear the woman and daughter they have decided to rape before they kill? Do we have to talk around with grenades in our sleeves? Is this really the world I want?

I have heard vegetarians — those who were raised vegetarian or became vegetarian quite young — speak of how strange it seems to them that anyone would eat meat. They never developed a taste for it. Meat doesn’t smell like food to them; when someone waxes rhapsodic about barbeque or roasted chicken, they can’t understand what’s being desired. To them, it just smells like burning flesh, which simply isn’t appetizing.

How do we raise our boys around the world not to grow up to be men who have a taste for the flesh of children, to become men who don’t find the thought of violence arousing? How much would have to change for men to grow up differently? Do you think it can be done? What do we do to create that world?

Be easy with yourselves today. Take a deep breath, write or move or take a break from the news or talk with someone beloved to you or cuddle your kitty or treat yourself to an hour (or two) with a cup of tea and a good book. Support the folks you love who are struggling, and let them support you, too, ok? We will move through into this new world we are visioning and creating together…

June writing retreat! Join us for a day of writing in the East Bay hills…

photo of narrow wooden deck, looking out over trees and mt tamalpais

(view from our writing room out to Mt. Tam)

photo of clouds over El Cerrito, rainbow emerging from the bay

photo of brown dog lying on a wooden deck next to table and chairs, looking out over eucalyptus grove

(Sophie enjoying the deck)

Meridian Writers
 an all-day writing retreat!
Sunday, June 24, 10:30am-5:30pm.
(Light breakfast from 9:45-10:30am)
Lunch provided.

Open to all writers, regardless of writing experience or previous participation in Meridian Writers.

Location: Private home in the East Bay

Treat yourself to a day of good writing, good food, and good community!

For this day-long writing retreat, we gather for coffee or tea and some home-baked breakfast, and then write through the rest of the morning. After a break for lunch, we dive back into our work through the afternoon, and we close by 5:30pm.

You’ll leave the retreat with: a rich body of new creative writing; feedback about what’s already strong and powerful in your new writing; and inspiration to keep on writing.

Give yourself a day to write in a beautiful, quiet space with views overlooking the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The fee for day-long retreats is $200; a $100 non-refundable deposit will secure your registration.

Spaces are limited: Please let me know if you’d like more information or would like to register! Write to me at jennifer@writingourselveswhole.org; visit writingourselveswhole.org for more info about our workshops or methods.

Writing Ourselves Whole around the blog-o-sphere!

I remember when my friend Sinclair Sexsmith’s book Sweet & Rough came out; they talked about putting together a blog tour to support the book and to get the word out. I loved that idea — a book tour that involved no travel whatsoever! A chance to connect with new readers and fresh communities, chat with smart bloggers, share blog love, all while also getting to sleep in one’s own bed and not have to navigate yet another airport security line (huzzah!).

Well, now I get to participate in a sort of blog tour of my own! Thanks to the mighty efforts of Maya Peers Nitzberg (thank you, Maya!), I’ll be “touring” the web with Writing Ourselves Whole during the next month or so, with stops at some amazing communities, podcast and blog both. I’ll post links as I get them, and hope you come along for the ride!

The 2018 Writing Ourselves Whole blog tour!

3/5 – Interview with Kori Doty of Sex, Drugs, How We Roll podcast: Sex, Drugs and How We Roll – w/ Jen Cross, Writing Ourselves Whole

3/8Why I’m starting a writing practice to heal from grief and trauma, The Art of Healing Trauma blog, by Heidi Hanson

3/16sex, love, and all the feels:  http://www.sexloveandallthefeels.com/blog/poems-can-blossom-truth-within-our-hearts-guest-post-by-jen-cross

3/20 – On Lauren Sapala’s blog (writing coaching for introverts and others!):
http://laurensapala.com/willing-leave-unfinished/

4/7 –  Jen Cross: An Interview with the Author of Writing Ourselves Whole. An interview with Laurie and Debbie at the Body Impolitic Blog

TBD – Kitty Stryker and Consent Culture

4/12Writing Ourselves Whole: Transformation, Healing, & Queer Sex: An interview with Sinclair Sexsmith at the Sugarbutch Chronicles!

4/17 – Jennifer Cross Interview: Writing Ourselves Whole
Conversation with Dr. Carol Queen  for the Good Vibrations blog

4/22 – Jen Cross on healing trauma, dissociation, & the erotic: My conversation with Dawn Serra for the Sex Gets Real podcast

4/27 – Writing As Erotic Practice: Podcast with Chris Rose of Pleasure Mechanics! We chatted about how writing can be a tool to unlock more erotic freedom and possibility, and how reading erotica help us discover what is possible for our own sex lives…

5/7 –  Talking Writing Magazine: Video Interview with Elizabeth McShane about writing to heal from sexual abuse—and to find joy

Also at Talking Writing: What Writing About Trauma Can Do, an excerpt from Chapter One of Writing Ourselves Whole

5/11 – I got to chat with one of my long-time heroes, Tristan Taormino, for her (live!) radio show Sex Out Loud! Check out the podcast of our conversation: Jen Cross on Writing Ourselves Whole

Still to come:

  • A conversation with Annie Schuessler for her Therapist Clubhouse podcast!

 

Do you have a blog or a podcast? I’d love to connect with you!

Opportunities to write this spring, with Writing Ourselves Whole

If there are words ripening in you these days, come join us at one of our many writing groups and workshops – either in person or online! Here’s what’s the spring schedule looks like at Writing Ourselves Whole:
Write Whole-Survivors Write. Open to all survivors of trauma 8 Wednesday evenings beginning March 28, 2018. Fee: $375 (ask about scholarship/payment plan, if needed) Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near 12th St BART Gather with other trauma survivors and write in response to exercises chosen to elicit deep-heart writing around such subjects as body image, family/community, sexuality, dreams, love, faith, and more.
Meridian Writers: A general-topic writing space open to all 8 Wednesday evenings beginning March 28, 2018. Fee: $425 (fees support our trauma survivors writing groups) Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near 12th St BART Open to writers seeking a fun, generous, and supportive atmosphere in which to write together and support one another’s creative efforts.
Dive Deep: An advanced manuscript/project workgroup – initial group is currently at capacity; now forming a second group! Next series begins begins April 2018 Fee: $225/month (multiple-month commitment) Limited to 6 members per group Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near 12th St BART Designed for those working on (or committing to) a larger project, such as a novel or memoir. Divers meet three times per month for writing, project check-in/accountability, feedback, coaching and peer support.
Online Write Whole 6-week summer sessions begin March 18, 2018 Fee is $250 (sliding scale). If you are not comfortable joining an in-person group, we offer online groups as well. This spring, our Write Whole: Survivors Write online is open to all survivors of sexual trauma. No special software required — just a computer, internet connection, and desire to write in supportive community.
Writing the Flood. A monthly writing workshop open to all Meets the third Saturday of every month Limited to 12. Fee is $50 (with a sliding scale) Meets in private workshop space in Oakland, near 12th St BART Write in response to exercises designed to get those pens moving, and get onto the page the stories that have been too long stuck inside. Next Flood Write meets Saturday, March 17. Mark your calendars now for the rest of the summer: April 21, May 19.
Create the space in your busy life for the power of your good words! All workshops facilitated by Jen Cross. Email me with any questions, or visit our contact page to register.

Sometimes the grief rides up and knocks you down

red graffiti of the words Crying Is Okay HereGood morning, good morning. I went to bed at quarter to 9, and still it was difficult to get up when the alarm went off at 4;15. I am aching today, still, and heavy and exhausted and sad and overwhelmed.

And how are you doing so far today?

These are the times when I need the hiding places. The big loss is stalking me, and so I curl up on the couch or crawl into bed or wake up as early as I can so that the darkness itself can become a cocoon for me for a while.

Yesterday was so difficult I could barely crawl through it. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, still grieving from Tuesday night. We had watched a particularly intense (and long-awaited) episode of a fairy-tale show we’ve been following (This is Us), which, again, shows a father being protective and standing up and Doing The Scary Things and then paying a price for it; this is a father that the adult children can hold on to, look up to, have as a role model. We watch the family at different points in their lives, and as I watch, I remember the time when I had a much more open-hearted, longing love for my own father, when I wanted to impress him, when I wanted him to see me and be proud of me (I also felt that way about five minutes ago – it never goes away); I heard the adult children talking to and about their dad, and then there was something else, too, and I’m trying to put my finger on just what it was…

I could have had an easier time of this writing, finding the words for It All, yesterday morning, maybe, but I was so exhausted and emotionally hungover and literally in pain when I woke up that when I went to the writing place, all I could do was sit in the dark in my little office and listen to the owls call to each other in the eucalyptus trees down the hill, and listen, too, to the little clock in my office, the one that I bought for my space in the Flood Building and that I keep not because it tells the time (the mechanism bent or broke some years ago and now the hands don’t really move right anymore) but because of the sound it makes, the steady soft solid tick-tock that evokes a place of peace in me, the place built by the grandmother clock on my father’s wall, the one that’s been in my life since I was a child, an infant. That clock meant the place with no rape in it. That clock meant the place with my father. That sound has been an underground accompaniment my whole life.

Something bad happens in the episode we watched on Tuesday night. It’s not that I didn’t know it was coming. I did. But what I didn’t expect was the enormous grief that welled up and filled me until I broke open.

Sometimes the grief is too big to move.

I cried because something awful happens, and a parent has to show up for their kids, put their kids first, put their kids’ needs and feelings first, their safety first – and I wondered what that was like. I cried for a different, loss, too, that old thing with my father, the way I loved him and needed him and admired him and needed him to save me but couldn’t tell him what was going on and even today I couldn’t say why I couldn’t tell him – because I was ashamed? afraid? because I needed him to know me well enough to see that something terrible had happened, something significant had changed, but neither he nor my mother did know me that well, it seems, because they couldn’t see. And maybe that’s asking too much of any parent, that they know their child well enough to notice that a shift in energy or tone or apparent anger or  desire not to spend time alone with an adult (see: every single young person who ever had to be alone with that fucking gymnastics doctor) isn’t just teenage angst or something to be ignored or dismissed or downplayed or actively shut down.

(I call the show a fairy tale because in this show, parents notice their kids, every time: Something is wrong, something is off, let me go ask her what’s going on, hey, what’s the matter, and then she tells her parent, and then she can say it, and then something gets better.)

Underneath the grief that makes sense and had words and some kind of clear and obvious connection to the thing we were watching was a huge wave of grief that didn’t have any words at all, and once the show was done and we turned off the tv and wiped away the wet streaks on our cheeks and my sweetheart went up to check on her own son, I went back downstairs, walked into my office which was a safe dark place to crawl into, a kind of hug, and there I started to really cry. The big old grief filled my lungs and throat and bent me forward and then pushed me all the way to the ground and I knelt there and sobbed hard, I lost my breath, coughed and kept sobbing.

It’s not a place with words or explanation. It’s not a place that has sense in it – I might as well tell someone, I just remembered my sister and I were raped through our whole adolescence and no one could do anything about it or stop it and we lost connection with absolutely everyone we loved, even each other – and that just doesn’t make sense, because of course I never forgot that, I never forget, it doesn’t ever go away for me, but some days it’s more present, more available — or maybe this was one of those moments when one more layer of the old buried pain rises to the surface and reaches the air, and, unfortunately, has to take me down to the ground in order to move through me and out into the world.

This is the long work.

After it was over, and the sobbing was done, I was wrung out and exhausted and sore. I had a headache. I didn’t want to stay down there very long because I didn’t want anyone to discover me and then want to know why I was hiding or what’s wrong. How can I explain what’s wrong? How can I unzip my belly or bones to show what still lives in me, to just show the picture of what’s wrong, because trying to say it in that moment is far too difficult? I managed to avoid having to find the words. I went back upstairs and got into bed almost immediately, my head throbbing, my heart pounding, my eyes still leaking.

And then yesterday I had the hangover. I’d thought I’d wake up and write about what came up for me – sit down at the notebook, let the words find me. But I couldn’t even bring myself to light the candle. I sat in the dark, hurting and tight and exhausted. I just sat for a little bit, then I took my cup of tea upstairs and sat in the living room, looking out at the bridge and the bay, but no words were in me. I was empty. My neck hurt where I’d hunched it up while I cried, my eyes hurt, my head hurt. I had to bake for my Wednesday morning writing group, I had to show up and be a facilitator. There was so much to do, actually. I had to check in about an office space I’m trying to rent, I had to make a webpage to announce upcoming events and stops on the Fierce Hunger Writing Ourselves Whole book tour (every tour has to have a name, right?), I had to follow up with venues about details of the event, I had to pitch other places about possible events, I had to advertise, I had to prep for this week’s Dive Deep meeting, finishing up my notes and didn’t I want to find a short essay for us to read together?; I had email to respond to, books to mail, I really needed to take the dog for a long walk, I had to go pick up prescriptions at the drug store that would help me have more energy, for gods’ sake, if I could just get the energy to get in the car and drive down the fucking hill to the walgreen’s, I should really make a dentist appointment or, you know, find a dentist who will take my fucking insurance, I needed to respond to work posted by writers in my online group, and what else? Make deposits, submit forms to Intersection, bake, write up responses to interview requests, write a short essay for SFSU, read all 95 pages of my thesis-so-far so that I have something useful to contribute to my meeting with my advisor today, and anything else?

All of this would be a lot to try to get done on the days when I have All The Energy, but it all felt completely impossible yesterday. I did manage to bake, and get to Meridian, and work with seven brilliant writers, and that felt like a lot. Then I came home and just about completely disassembled. I sort of moved from room to room, with tea and, usually, something to eat, because if there’s anything that still works, if there’s a coping mechanism that I still get to have now that drinking myself into oblivion is off the table, there’ s food…

I managed to get little bits of work done. I showed up for my online office hours, though no one generally takes advantage of them. I read and responded to Dive Deep manuscripts. I replied to a few text messages, eventually, and a couple of emails, I think. All of that felt like a lot when I had to reach out of the tarpit of grief to reach the keyboard, when I had to unbunch the knot in my shoulders and articulate words when my head was still pounding. Otherwise, I sort of drifted. I tried to read, sat in the sun, watered plants. I laid down in the sun on the porch, and then later, I took a book into the bedroom and thought maybe I’d sleep there. Naps are nearly impossible for me on a good day, though, to say nothing of the days when the past is haunting all around me, extra visible, like a shroud, or an entourage.

(Of course, the news of the day was exceptionally helpful in getting me through my grief and loss and hopelessness and despair. The president wants to mount a military parade (probably literally). Men in Congress protest the resignation of a wife beater, saying, well, he never hit me, he was always perfectly nice to me, I think those women are liars; she could have gotten that black eye anywhere – but, sure, we’re in the middle of A Reckoning.)

I lay on the bed in the sun with a book and couldn’t keep my eyes open. The book was World Enough and Time, and I read about the kind of slowing down we do when we are grieving, or at least the author did when she was in the immediate aftermath of a big break up, how she moved slowly, spent years, in fact, just working enough to pay the bills but then reading, resting, walking, moving very slow. Meanwhile, I listened to my sweetheart in the other room, so competent and functional, making phone call after phone call while simultaneously responding to emails and posting interesting, useful, funny things to facebook. Comparison is the thief of joy, I try to remind myself, but then I just went to another part of the house, so I couldn’t hear her, and it would be easier not to beat myself up for not being more like her.

On Tuesday, before the show, before the crying, before the eruption of grief, I’d met my mother for lunch. She moved to the area last year, but I don’t see her all that often because she moved about two hours away (two hours when there’s no traffic, that is, which means never). We met in the middle (though she had to drive farther) and ate Indochinese noodles while talking about graduation ceremonies. I’m finally going to walk; when I graduate with my MFA, it will be the first time I’ve ever participated in a graduation ceremony or walked for a degree, I said. I meant for any of my higher-education degrees – I didn’t walk for my undergraduate degree, and my first MA was at an alternative program that is so small that the graduation ceremony was more like a barn dance (it was held in a barn, and, in fact, I think there was a dance after, right?). Anyway, my mom said, well, except for your high school graduation, and I realized in that moment that I had absolutely no memory of my high school graduation. I remember the tassel hanging on a corkboard in my room, but not the ceremony itself, which would have been enormous, because there were hundreds of students in my graduating class. My mother described how she felt like something was wrong, something was off, that day – it just seemed like I should have been celebrating with my friends, that it shouldn’t have been just the four of us – her, me, my sister, and my stepfather – at the Neon Goose for dinner after the ceremony.

I didn’t ask her why she didn’t ask me that day if anything was the matter, because I already knew the answer. I didn’t say, I didn’t have any friends by that point, because it wouldn’t really have contributed anything to the conversation. Then she said, And maybe I was just remembering my own graduation, how it wasn’t what I’d wanted it to be, I couldn’t go out with my friends because we had to leave that night to go visit my brother in another state – which was how my stepfather manipulated her for so long: making her second-guess her instincts, her reactions, her parenting, insisting that she was too controlling, too overbearing, as a result of unfinished business from her own childhood. Even now, all these years later, knowing exactly what was going on that night at dinner after my high school graduation, and remembering how things felt weird for her, she doesn’t connect it to what she didn’t see or name, but the idea that she was just projecting onto me her own teenage disappointment. Even now she held open the possibility that I was having a really good time, everything was just fine, and the problem was all in her own mind.

I couldn’t say any of this, because it touches on the other enormous thing living in me, the vast continent of my anger, and I was just trying to make it through lunch and eat and make conversation and have some kind of relationship with my mom.

Later, on the phone while I was driving home, my sweetheart asked, How was lunch? The void opened up in me, and I couldn’t answer. What answer is there for that question, for all that lies beneath it? It was-, I said, and then I was quiet. It was-, I tried again. What words are there, what words exist for this thing that just happened, that I tried to do, what words signify when I go to lunch with her, when my sister has her over, when we are still in her life, when she is still in ours, even though – even though, even now, she seems not to be able to come out from under the weight of his brainwashing into the breadth and vastness of all that was lost. (And let me just lean on the passive voice there, please. I can’t be more direct than that today).

It was – good, I answer, finally. And then I try to explain how this happens whenever my sister and I talk about time with mom, how things are with mom. We fall into this void, I say. it happens to us both. It was – she is – we were – and then nothing. Our mouths go quiet, our throats empty, there’s nothing to say, there’re no words – maybe no words big enough, or clear enough, or specific enough for us enough to name this reality that exists among us whenever we share any sort of space in any way, all the history that enters the room with us that no one else can see or even seems to be conscious of, and so much of it is still unspoken, unspeakable. Whenever we try to just simply say how our visit was with our mom, all that stuff we couldn’t say, can’t say, all he told us never to speak, it clogs our throat, even still, twenty-five, thirty years later.

So I guess, of course it makes sense I was tired yesterday and I couldn’t get to that phone call or that email or write another pitch email or get excited about all the events I have coming up in Portland and Denver and Boulder that I need to let people know about. Right? I try to do the thing I invite others to do all the time — be easy with you. Be easy with you, Jen. Be easy with you out there. Sometimes the grief rides up and knocks you down and all you can do is feel it. Somedays you can’t just power through the way Americans are supposed to. Sometimes you’re more human than American. So be easy with you. Sit in the sun (or by the fire) with your tea and read a book if you can manage, and if you can’t, just watch the flames or the birds flicker around. Breathe in and out. Remember that crying is ok here, that you are ok here, no matter what you write or don’t write, no matter the emails you can’t respond to or the work you have to set aside for the moment. You are still ok, just being you. You get to feel this and know you are alive and made it through. You will get to the other side of this. But today there are tears, and that is ok, too.

It’s all practice — life,  I mean. Course correction. One more chance to get it right. Be easy with you, all right? And I will (try and) do the same. 

The Writing Ourselves Whole book tour!

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole bookJen & the Writing Ourselves Whole book are headed your way!

This past weekend, I got to bring Writing Ourselves Whole to Portland, OR, for a stop at In Other Words Feminist Community Center, followed by a beautiful private house party.

The tour heads next to Colorado, then to New England and Southern California. 

If you’re based in any of these areas and would like to bring Writing Ourselves Whole to your school or organization or in for a house party, please let me know!

February 23-25: Pacific Northwest

Friday 2/23 Evergreen State CollegeCancelled.
Fierce Hunger: Writing Survivor Desire
A writing group with Jen Cross

Sunday 2/25 – In Other Words (Portland)
We are more than a hashtag
Reading and conversation with Jen Cross (1:30-3pm)

Sunday 2/25 – Private House Party (4pm)

 

March 3-5: Colorado

Saturday 3/3 – Boulder Bookstore
Writing as Radical Self-Care
A writing workshop with Jen Cross
Saturday, March 3 (my birthday!)
2-4pm
Tickets are $40, and include a copy of Writing Ourselves Whole
1107 Pearl St, Boulder CO
303-447-2047

Sunday 3/4 Tattered Cover Colfax Ave
Using the Power of Our Own Creativity to Recover and Heal From Sexual Trauma
Book Talk & Signing
2pm
2526 E Colfax Ave
Denver, CO

Monday 3/5 – Arapahoe Community College
“How I Became A Writer”

 

April 6-10: New England

April 6 – Boston; Amherst-Northampton, MA

April 7 – Amherst-Northampton, MA

April 8 – Providence, RI

April 9 – Hanover, NH

 

April 26-30: Southern CA

 

Watch this space for updates and more details! Can’t wait to connect with you out on the road.

Be easy with you, ok?

omg sex panic!

graffiti of a woman holding her cheeks and screaming Ok — here we go again. Bear with me, my friends.

Now that a very small handful of men have suffered some consequences for their sexually-assaultive behavior, we’re apparently heading into a witch hunt and on the cusp of a full-blown sex panic. No one is going to have sex any more, at least, not the way we have been or want to or like to. No one’s going to get to joke anymore, and all the men have to be worried that anything they say can be misconstrued, and they’ll get in trouble even though they didn’t mean anything bad by it. They are worried that they’re going to have to monitor their behavior, that they’re going to have to think before they speak, that they’re going to feel constrained in word and deed.

Welcome to the indoctrination every woman has gotten since birth, my friends.

News articles evoke the limits (the risks!) of believing women, the dangers ( if there’s any chance of any false reporting ever, we just shouldn’t believe any of them until we see some proof), the limits to challenging, changing, calling out and transforming rape culture.

I feel frustrated and tired and not even a little but surprised that so much of the media coverage, ostensibly about the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our country,  has turned to whether or not we can really believe women, and to what extent we really want to change our culture. Don’t we just want to focus on the few bad apples at the top? Do we really have to ask men to change their behavior at home and at work and on the bus and on the street and on military bases and in government and in school and on campus and in the fields and and and

Masha Gessen raised the specter of sex panics, evoking the language used during the early days if the AIDS crisis, when gay men (and straight women) were dying because the government refused to acknowledge that this disease was a problem, and the main message we got was to be afraid of sex because sex could kill you. Queer folks fought back against this fear-mongering, celebrating our bodies, laying claim to all the protection and latex barriers we needed: we deserve pleasure, we said, we deserve joy, desire, sex, whether with strangers or in a monogamous long-term coupling or with a good friend now and then — pretending to be straight married people was not going to save us. Money for research for a cure and a vaccine was going to save us, and with that not forthcoming, we were going to have to save ourselves.

This is not the situation we find ourselves in now. The situation we find ourselves in now is that men suddenly (after decades –even generations — of being told that their behavior was hurting women and other folks) are expected to be accountable — or maybe are just afraid of being held accountable — for their actions. This expectation has arisen in social media and on news channels for about five minutes, and now we’re asked to worry about a sex panic: All flirtation is about to come to a screeching halt because god forbid you flirt with someone at a bar and she didn’t want you to flirt with her and now she’s called the cops and ooh you’re in trouble!

Because that’s the world we live in. Where women are the problem.

The thing about the sex panic — please. I am trying to take it seriously, to respond thoughtfully, but it sounds like backlash and redirection to me, and I’m sorry to see so many women writers and reporters taking up the mantle of edgy and rebellious to sound the alarm. God forbid we expect folks to be intentional about their sex, their sexuality. But I’ll tell you what — the crisis for these men in the workplace (or college campus or in the home, or when training olympic gymnasts, or…) isn’t that they’re afraid they won’t get to have sex, but that they won’t get to do what they want, when they want, with impunity.

stencil graffiti of a screaming womanIt’s a power panic, not a sex panic my friends.

God forbid you should have to take some care around how you approach a potential sexual partner, or even a whole sexual encounter.  There are folks who apparently have no idea how hot it is for a partner to ask you if they can kiss you or if they can touch you, exposing their desire while also leaving room open for me to say no. That option to say no is as important as the option to say yes; I mean, if I can’t say no, then I can’t actually consent. I have no patience with people who freak out about the Antioch rules, who blubber that it’s just not going to be sexy if he (or they or she) has to say, every step of the way: Can I kiss you here? Do you want me to touch you here? Can I stroke this part of you? And when folks describe these steps, they use a mincing, mocking, emasculated (of course) tone, disrespectful toward any man who would deign to ask for sex. Because men – well, men are not supposed to ask for sex or anything else — they’re just supposed to take it. We’re hamstringing, even castrating, our men, turning them into (gasp) women.

Because it’s women who ask permission for things, right?

Imagine that scene played out with a whole different tone — breathless, obviously hungry, and vulnerable. Yikes. Scary, right?

I’m going to tell you right now that interactions like that one changed my life, my relationship to sex and sexuality, my desire to have sex, my sense of my own power, autonomy, integrity: all because it happened one day in college that a lover listened when I said no, even though she was hungry and wanting. That act, that moment, made yes an entirely different animal for me.

I feel no sympathy for men who are upset that their sexual lives are about to be upended because they can’t harass women with impunity anymore (for this particular moment in time). I feel no sympathy if you are looking at your own behavior and wondering if maybe you hurt your friends or coworkers or subordinates or classmates or former partners. I feel no sympathy if you are upset that now you need to be more cautious in your approach to sex.

(And why are we talking about sex panics when the focus has been sexual harassment in the workplace? Of course we should redirect attention away from the idea that women should be treated like human beings and not potential receptacles for your dick, should be treated like coworkers and not a visiting sorority party, are not at work to meet a husband, to complete a MRS degree, to find sex partners (there are so many apps for that now), or augment your workday by providing eye candy or “harmless” flirtation — nope, women are at work to work and get paid, just like you. What a concept. But apparently expecting men to put a lid on some fraction of their sexually-inappropriate behavior is akin to asking them to put on a chastity belt and sit in a corner with hands tied, mouth taped, sad and lonely and pathetic and emasculated — yikes — and is somehow going to cause the downfall of society because some people met at work and fell in love at work after they flirted or fooled around and now that’s not going to be allowed anymore and then no one will get together and no one will have any more babies and America is going to wither and die because we can’t grab the secretary’s ass anymore or ask her what kind of porn she likes.)

Here’s the difference between the behavior that’s being called out and those consensual relationships at work — the word consensual. That’s the difference. This isn’t something that should need explaining, and I don’t think it actually does — I think those who are raising the fear of witch hunts and sex panics know exactly what they’re doing. They’re doing what abusers (and apologists for abusers) always do when their behavior is called out and made visible, when someone tries to hold them accountable for their actions: they turn the tables and begin scrambling to put the blame on victims and accusers, on anyone who tells them that they are responsible for their actions, that they are responsible to not actively hurt the people in their lives.

That fourteen year old at the mall? She was asking for it. It’s her fault. It’s their fault. If you tell, everything’s going to fall apart, and it’s going to be all your fault.

These conversations don’t seem hard to me, and they don’t seem as complicated as this particular cultural moment wants to make them. Don’t rape anyone today. Don’t rape anyone when you go out into the world, or take someone out on a date, or go to a party, or go to church for your shift at the altar, or tuck your kids in to bed. It seems actually quite simple to me. 

And yet, these days, those whose power is under some small threat are trying to make us feel guilty or bad that they have been forced to attend, to some tiny extent, to the consequences of their actions. Witch hunt, folks are crying. What’s the quote I saw in a recent article: women have the power and now it’s the men who are afraid!!1!1! The tables have turned, we’re supposed to understand, and women are going to do to men what men have been doing to women since there have been such things as women and men in our cultural collective consciousness —

graffiti of woman screamingDogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Meanwhile, back in reality, let’s just have a look at the news, shall we? Parents are having endless children and chaining them to their beds. A man, over decades, sexually assaults over one hundred and fifty girls in the guise of gymnastic coaching. The pope, this new liberal pope we love, calls those who expect him to take real action on sexual abuse in his church stupid leftists. Teenage boys rape teenage girls and share the video live on social media.

 And yet, older “feminists” call younger women entitled or weak or whiny because they won’t just “take it” or — are you kidding me, Caitlin Flanagan? — insisting that when we were taught to keep our knees together, sure, it was sexist, but it taught us to stand up for ourselves, to slap someone who went too far, to keep a dime in our shoes so we could call for a ride home if our dates got too handsy — wait, what? Are we saying that, back in the day, girls weren’t raped or “pressured into having bad sex they didn’t really want?”

While we are busy worrying about whether Aziz Ansari is a dick to his sexual partners. women and children are being raped en masse in war zones across the world. Everytime you write about a Weinstein or a Cosby or a Allen, all those guys get is more press. This is not a Hollywood problem. When are we going to turn our attention to the cultural forces that trained the women who were drugged or raped by HW or BC, who taught those women what was expected of them, who touched them in their bedrooms or grabbed at them on the street or expected them to be available for the looking, the touching, the fucking? When are we going to turn our attention to our homes, our classrooms, our schools, our streets, to the so-called private places where parents are given leave to do whatever they want (because: parenting is sacrosanct! You can’t tell me what I can do in my own home! A man’s home is his castle!)?

What he did wasn’t as bad as HW, we say, so let’s just give hum seven or eight thousand more chances to get it right — he’s basically a good guy! He says good stuff in public! He does good work for the church! He didn’t mean it! It was just a joke! maybe he’s learned something!

Whatever. Let’s keep on excusing the behavior. That’ll do the trick,

It’s not as bad as  can easily be translated to, it’s the fucking baseline for. Aziz Ansari-type behavior is  just a little bit bad, right? Not so terrible, just a bad date — not like he forced her down and shoved his dick into her, right? Not like he threatened her job or to kill her or anything? So let’s give it a pass. Let’s let it get worse before we take any action.

Please pass this rationale on to the women brutalized or killed by male partners, women who went to the cops to try and get some protection only to be told, Well, what he’s doing isn’t technically illegal, and we can’t do anything until he breaks a real law. Harassing you endlessly, calling your phone so often you have to change numbers, stalking you at home and at work, threatening to take your kids, threatening to harm himself, even just intimating he might do you harm — well, that stuff’s not arrestable, He’s just kind of a jerk, right? Maybe don’t have gotten involved with him next time. That’ll fix you right up, honey.

Maybe let’s just give those guys a pass. They didn’t know it wasn’t ok to treat a woman like a receptacle, like it’s her entire job to give him sex, it’s her reason for existence.

He just didn’t’ know! No one ever told him! Well, now he’s gotten the message, I’m sure. And lots of other guys have, too — and here’s the message they’re getting: Keep on doing what you’re doing; there are women who will stand up for your right to be a shitty asshole when it comes to sex, especially if you’re kind of a good guy out in the world.

You understand (right?), that giving the Azizs and the Francos a pass is what builds the HWs. HW didn’t start out raping women over hotel couches. It doesn’t work like that. He built up slowly, and people gave him a pass, over and over and over and over and over again. He didn’t know it was wrong! He just went too far. He was just too handsy. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s just part of the job. Suck it up, little camper. Didn’t you say you wanted to be an actress?

I’m not saying, of course, that Aziz or James Franco or any other guy who pressures or shames or guilts a partner into sex is about to become our next mass rapist — who knows if they will. I’m saying some other things. I’m saying that when we excuse shitty behavior — whether or not it’s technically against the law — we normalize it, we make more room for it in our culture, we strengthen the baseline for more violent behavior, we reify rape culture.

It’s not that difficult to know when someone wants to have sex with you. But, of course, I’m over here trying to have a conversation about enthusiastic consent and women’s sexual agency, and over there, the rapists and rape apologists are on a different planet, one where men want sex when they want it, and women are there as catalysts or providers or receptacles, but the words yes and no don’t really come into the equation. They don’t really matter, they aren’t part of the game, because in this other game, women’s words don’t mean much, anywhere — in bed or in court or in the office. I’m trying to have nuanced conversations about consent with people who refuse to concede the capacity of women to consent, or that consent is something that matters in sex, or that a woman’s desire is something they should take into consideration at all.

This is a distraction, this talk of sex panics — let’s obfuscate the issue so that we don’t have to respond to what’s really being said, which is that it is unacceptable to subject anyone to unwanted sexual behavior, and if you do it, there are (maybe) going to be (sort of) negative consequences (for a few perpetrators), but at least the conversation is louder, and a little more difficult, for the moment, to ignore.

~~ ~~ ~~

I’m hoping, soon, to be able to write about something else here. In my notebooks, I’m writing fairy tales and novel chapters. What about you? What creative projects are percolating around the edges of your rage and fear? What words will you offer into the world today?

 

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.

Brief Write Whole postponement and more…

Just a quick note! We have had to briefly postpone the start of our Winter Write Whole session – we now begin next Wednesday, 1/17! We still have a few spaces available in that group, so contact me if you’d like to join us!

Here’s what we’ve got coming up this month:

~Write Whole: Survivors Write
Open to women sexual trauma survivors
8 Wednesday evenings, 6:30-9:00pm,
January 17-March 7

o In the *Write Whole: Survivors Write* workshop, you’ll gather with other trauma survivors to create new art and new beauty out of life’s difficult and complicated realities. Learn to trust the flow of your own writing, and receive immediate feedback about the power of your words! Remember: we’re open to all women, and ‘survivor’ is self-defined! Fee is $375; partial scholarships are available for all trauma-centered writing groups. 

~Meridian Writers
A general-topic group open to all writers – begins tomorrow!
8 Wednesday mornings, 9:30am-12:00pm, beginning January 10

o *Meridian Writers* invites you to join a community of writers who are connecting more deeply with their writing practice. Find your center and write your story. Coffee and/or tea will be provided, as well as light snacks (sometimes even including homemade bread). At the end of our eight weeks together, you will have a new creative community, and a strong body of new writing. Spaces are limited to 9 writers per workshop session. Fee: $425. Fees from this workshop support scholarships for Writing Ourselves Whole’s workshops for trauma survivors.

~Writing the Flood
Drop in and write!
Third Saturday of every month, 1-4:30pm
Except for this month, when we meet on January 27 (because: women’s marches on 1/20!)

o *Writing the Flood* is a writing group for anyone looking to prime the writing pump: using the Amherst Writers and Artists method, we will write together in response to exercises designed to get those pens moving, and get onto the page the stories, poems, essays, images and voices that have been stuck inside for too long. This is a time to work on a larger project, get started on new work, play on the page, or write yourself through a block and back into your writing voice. Fee for this workshop is $25-50, sliding scale.

Join us!

No previous writing experience necessary! All groups meet near BART station and other public transportation options. Spaces are still available, though limited, and pre-registration is required! 

Questions or concerns? Write to me at jennifer(at)writingourselveswhole.org.