Lucky is a Low Bar

This is a post I started writing a month ago, and then didn’t finish. This is the kind of post I’ve started writing a lot of times, and have never finished. I’m prompted to do so today by the bravery and strength of my cousin, who’s told her story of abuse in support of another woman who was abused by the same man.

Courtney says a lot of very true, very scary things — about how an abuser operates, how crazy and irrational they can make you feel, how hard it can be to admit what happened even to yourself, the challenges in coming forward, and how terribly, terribly common experiences like this are.

If you think you don’t know a woman who’s been raped, assaulted, or abused, you are just straight-up wrong. Most just don’t talk about it very openly. I don’t even have to look outside my own family to find multiple stories. That number goes exponential when I start counting friends. Which is just horrifying.

So.

A while back, I read Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence. This is far from the first such testimonial I’ve read, and I know it won’t be the last. Every one feels familiar. These experiences are universal. We don’t all experience them the same way, but we all know these stories. So this essay left me with the feeling that we should all — all girls, all women, all uterus-bearers who’ve faced these things — should write essays like this. Like maybe the sheer weight of a few million voices showing that these things happen to us will make some kind of a difference.

And then I thought that we all already are, all the time, and it has not yet mattered.

But the only way to fight is to keep talking. To keep telling the stories. To keep challenging the status quo that tells us to quiet down and just deal with it.

These are the facts of our lives. They shouldn’t be.


I am four years old the first time I can remember someone telling me I couldn’t possibly know something because I’m a girl. It’s an argument about dinosaurs. Girls don’t like dinosaurs, so girls can’t possibly know anything about dinosaurs. I’m a tiny ball of tow-headed fury, because I know I’m right about how many fingers a T-Rex had.

I’m five or six and curious about something on the news. A man’s been arrested for doing something behind a school in our county. I ask my dad — a prosecutor — about it. He has to find the words to tell his kindergartner about a sexual predator. For years, I will wonder what exactly he meant by “he made girls put their mouths on his penis”.

In the fourth grade, a boy teases me and pulls my hair for weeks. I’m told this is a sign he likes me. One day, he shoves me on the blacktop during a game of volleyball. I’ve finally had enough, so I shove him back. He grabs my pigtail and slings me to the ground. My knee, elbow, and arm are badly scraped up. My knee is also jarred so much that I will limp for two days, and enough skin comes off that when it scabs over, I won’t be able to fully bend my knee without cracking it all open again, but if the principal hadn’t happened to be passing by at the time, I don’t know if he would have been held accountable at all. My mother and father are furious. The boy’s mother makes him come to my house with flowers to apologize. My classmates somehow learn of this and say he’s my boyfriend now. I have to accept the apology but never want to speak to him again. To this day, if I get a dark enough tan, you can see a scar from this scrape on my knee.

The next summer, I’m walking my dog, alone, feeling very grown-up and responsible. A car passes me. A few minutes later, it circles around the median to pass by again, now with the windows down, and boys start shouting things I don’t even understand yet. They circle by to do it again, and while I don’t understand all of their words, I understand that they mean me harm. I try to ignore them, which just makes them yell louder. They’re driving by slower each time, pacing me until another car comes up behind them. The next time they are forced to go by, I tighten up the dog’s leash and bolt through the nearest backyard. I’m terrified of them and terrified someone will ask why I’m trespassing as I cut across neat lawns and bramble-filled easements to get home. My dad asks why I’m all scratched up and muddy. I don’t tell him about the boys. I’m worried he would find them and shoot them. The boys are barely old enough to drive. I am ten.

A confident and forthright child, I walk with my shoulders back and my chin up. When I am thirteen, my male friends start telling me this makes me look stuck up. Eventually the descriptor morphs into “bitchy”. I start looking at the ground when I walk instead. It will be over a decade before I realize I’m still walking like this and try to correct the behavior.

I’m fourteen when a boy shoots up Columbine High School. As it comes out that he may have done it because he felt bullied and ostracized, I feel confused. I’ve been bullied and ostracized for years now, but it’s never made me want to kill anyone, or think I had the right to.

As a senior in high school, a freshman friend of mine disappears at a dance, held in a hotel during a theatre convention. I don’t know where she’s gone, but a guy in his twenties was leering at her earlier. I find them in a stairwell. He’s got her pinned against the wall. He tells me to mind my own business and go away. I pull her away from him, push her out the door, and tell him that if he follows us a single step I’ll scream bloody murder. We go back to the dance.

I’m a sophomore in college and hanging out with other cast members after rehearsal. I’ve been playful and flirtatious with several of them over the course of rehearsals, but never with real intent. One guy, a senior very popular in the troupe, offers to hang with me as I’m waiting for the trolley. It’s cold, so we duck into the nearest building. After a few minutes of chatting, he tells me I’m gorgeous, grabs my wrist pulls me to him, and kisses me. He asks if I want to go back to his place. I’m flattered by the attention but not interested in him, and the kiss is sloppy and aggressive, so I beg off. In the meantime, I’ve missed the last trolley to my apartment, but choose to walk home rather than accept his offer of a ride. He doesn’t try anything again, and I don’t think anything of it. Months later, I learn that he spent the rest of the semester telling everyone what a slut and cocktease I am.

I’m in my early twenties when the man I think is the love of my life emotionally abuses me through relentless gaslighting. He never says it’s because I’m a woman, but everything in the language he uses is gendered. I’m too irrational. I’m too emotional. I’m too selfish. I’ve lost control. I can’t possibly understand. I should stop expecting so much of him. I should accept what he’s willing to give me. I’m acting too much like his crazy ex-wife. I don’t appreciate how much he loves me. When he hurts me, it’s my fault. When he loses control, it’s only because I made him. For two years, it doesn’t occur to me there’s anything wrong with the relationship. For two years after it ends, I’m still not ready to call it abuse. How could a strong, smart girl let that happen to her? How could she not know?

Twice at parties, I put all five-foot-three of myself, trembling with rage, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her. Both men look startled that I have the nerve to stand up to them. I know, someday, I will probably get hurt doing this. I know I can’t stop.

I’m twenty-six and an ex-boyfriend with whom I am on with friendly terms starts getting handsy whenever we hang out together. I have no interest in renewing the relationship, and tell him so. He persists. After one group dinner when he wouldn’t stop stroking my leg beneath the table, even when I tell him three times to stop, when he tries to take me by the waist in the parking lot on our way out, I snap and scream at him. He is so offended by my outburst that we never speak again. He swears up and down to our mutual friends that he never sexually harassed me, whatever I have to say about it.

I’m twenty-nine and becoming inured to gross comments during the interactive theatre work that I do, but still, the guy who tells me, “You make my dick hard. I bet you like that. I bet you wanna tell everybody about it” manages to astonish me.

I’m thirty years old, my heart bleeding for the women I know and love who’ve suffered, and thinking that I’m lucky. I’ve only been physically assaulted infrequently. I’m not still with my abuser. I haven’t been raped. I’m not dead.

Yes, All Women: Cultural Misogyny from a Writer’s Perspective

First off, if you are somehow on the internet and not yet aware of the #YesAllWomen phenomenon going on over on Twitter, then you need to check it out. If you’re a woman, you will probably feel some combination of depressed, heartened, proud, scared, and totally unsurprised by the stories being shared. If you’re a man, especially a man who wants to think of himself as a good guy, as a feminist ally, as someone trustworthy, then you need to go read, absorb, learn, and resist the temptation to put your two cents in.

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I have a lot of thoughts on this. A lot. It’s certainly no secret that I am an outspoken feminist, and this issue is one that cuts deep. It would at any time, but after the UCSB tragedy, after the girl who got stabbed to death when she wouldn’t go with a guy to prom, after the girl who got kicked out of her prom because her dress was considered impure by a bunch of gross fathers… it’s particularly timely.

I was ten years old the first time I feared for my safety because of sexual aggression from men. Boys, really — they probably weren’t much older than 16 or 17. But I was 10 years old, walking my dog, and they were following me in their car and shouting things I didn’t even understand yet. They circled back around again and again, until I, terrified, took a shortcut between several backyards to get home. I didn’t tell my father, because I was afraid he’d hunt them down with a gun.

It started when I was ten. It has not stopped.

I have friends who have been raped. I have friends who have narrowly escaped rape. I have friends who’ve been physically assaulted. I have been physically assaulted. I have been emotionally abused. I have friends who have been abused. I have friends who have been followed by men, on the street, in cars, in hallways, in hotels, in dorms, in museums, in libraries. I have friends who have had to resort to physical violence when men wouldn’t take the message. I don’t think I have a single female friend who doesn’t have a story about a time a man made her feel unsafe.

So I have a lot of feelings.

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I’m also a writer. So I think about this issue as it pertains to storytelling.

And just as an exercise in that, it’s enormously powerful. The stories being told on that hashtag are emotionally moving — some are so sad, some are enraging, some are empowering, but they’re all getting my heart rate up. And as depressing as the stories are, as hard as they can be to read — particularly when the stream just keeps throttling, when the tales of misery and fear just. keep. coming. — it also makes me proud, and happy in a perverse, backwards sort of way. Because women so often feel silenced. Women don’t always get the space and the attention to tell their stories — and there are plenty of people out there trying to take this one away, to shame and silence what’s happening. (A note: If you’re a man arguing against this hashtag, you are part of the problem. If you’re a woman decrying it and claiming to be “not like those others”, you have some internalized misogyny that needs examining).

But I’m also a writer of fiction. So I’m thinking about that as well.

Media perpetuates these problems, but it can fight them, too — if done right. Some media tries and fails. Some — a lot — doesn’t try at all. And some stories — generally those told about women, by women, for women — succeed, at least in some measure. We can fight through stories. We can tell our own, we can tell each other’s, we can tell imagined stories that illustrate the reality.

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I write fantasy and science fiction. When I write fantasy, it’s generally historical fantasy — but that means AUs, which means I could change any rules I want. And in futuristic sci-fi, you get to make it all up anyway. So could I write a world without misogyny? Could I write a world where women felt safe in public? Where sexual violence was not the first threat an opponent would think to make? Where it wasn’t something women just expected to have to guard against?

I don’t think I could. Because I wouldn’t believe it.

I have to believe what I write in order for the story to work. Not in a literal way, but in the “things need not have happened to be true” sort of way.

And while I can believe in the possibility of elemental magic, of starships and moving through dark matter, of alien races and alternate words, of the dominos effect in history that could create a whole new reality… the misogyny of the world that I live in  is so ingrained that I don’t know that my imagination stretches far enough to undo it. I can hope for it, but not really believe in it, and that would out in the writing.

And I doubt my readers — at least, my female readers — would be able to believe in it, either.

There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend.

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