23 Oct

Out of Body

There’s something about choosing an inanimate object as a Halloween costume that simultaneously amuses and unnerves people. When I was a kid I was fond of painting boxes to resemble this or that. One year, a packet of gum, another, a teapot. This year, every person who I have told I plan to be a tree has abruptly burst with laughter. There’s something unexpected about being a thing instead of being a someone. But I struggle to embody someone else when I hardly can embody myself. How can I be someone else when some days, it seems like I am barely myself?

I remember taking a disposable camera with me on a fourth-grade field trip to Sacramento. After developing the roll of film, my parents discovered that the majority of my photos were of squirrels I’d witnessed in and around the capitol. In the eighth grade, when I went to Washington D.C., I used 8 rolls of film taking pictures of monuments, buildings from abstruse angles, and clouds. My parents were mad at the cost of developing all my photos, then puzzled by their contents. “There are no people in these pictures,” my step-mom observed, anguished, “Where are your friends?” Do people have friends in eighth grade? I’m not convinced I did.

Days into my student teaching assignment, my mentor (and now friend) Shannon asked me if I felt like I was observing my life from a distance, like watching a movie of my existence rather than experiencing it firsthand. I narrowed my eyes. Maybe? How would you know to ask something like that? Well, if you know what autism looks like, it’s really not hard to spot in the wild.

My father-in-law is not a man of faith in the typical sense but he has unrelenting faith in the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Your path laid out before you in a four-letter sequence as tidy as your DNA. a-t, c-g, INTJ, ENFP. Destiny. Because my father-in-law and I share a type, INTJ, he believes he knows a lot about me. He doesn’t bother to ask my opinion or hear about my experiences. He knows me like he knows himself. He acts like we’re part of an elite club, leaning in conspiratorially to share a universal truth about the long-suffering life sentence of the INTJ. “You and me,” he begins, “we’re not compassionate. You don’t know how to be a nice person.” One time I said I was, in fact, a pretty alright person and he didn’t know my life, to which he informed me that my response was not indicative of a compassionate person. Apparently, the truly compassionate would have the forbearance and wisdom to take this character assassination in stride and merely smile into the middle distance, secure in the knowledge of themselves.

I want to not be bothered by the stupid shit my father-in-law thinks he knows about me. But when parental figures wade into sensitive subjects it’s difficult to remain steady and trust my sense of self. Why is it a sensitive subject anyway? Why have I spent years thinking I’m some kind of arrogant jerk when, I’m pretty sure, I’m not that at all? Why have I made such efforts to improve my people skills over time? Oh, right, that other father figure: my dad.

My dad has left me with some stupid ideas about myself. Intellectually, I know it’s not true and probably an act of projection, more than one of judgment, but intellectual understanding doesn’t always lead to emotional truth. My dad has said that I’m arrogant, I can’t relate to people. I’m a smart-ass, I’m rude, I’m too loud. But also, that I’m too sensitive, that I’m defensive and collapse under the slightest criticism. It’s taxing, being a living contradiction.

I spent a lot of time in my 20s working on my perceived faults, if they were ever really faults in the first place. Even if my worst traits weren’t as egregious as they were made out to be, I am still glad I was able to improve something about myself. That’s the nature of adulthood: you can choose who to be. I don’t have to be a compassionless jerk if I don’t want to be. So I developed better qualities. I worked on myself. I feel good about the person I am.

Unfortunately, it takes so little to strip me of my sense of self and leave me bare, crying in the bathroom at my in-laws’ house, hoping no one can hear my muffled sobs. My mantra isn’t “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me,” but that’s not too far from what I hold onto when I’m hiding in the restroom. It’s too easy to peel back years of self-sufficient, emotionally mature adulthood to reveal the friendless eighth grader taking pictures of clouds on a field trip to Washington.

Ultimately these patriarchal take-downs hurt me because they reveal my fears about myself. I often feel disconnected from myself and others. Maybe I’m even less connected to people than I thought. Maybe my friends aren’t really my friends and everyone is just tolerating me. Maybe I really am just a tree or a teapot, a passenger in my own life.

I know none of those things are true, but sometimes, they feel very real.

17 Oct

Me, You, and Everyone Too

Me, too.

Of course, me, too. I struggle to imagine what sort of woman has never been harassed or assaulted. This theoretical woman would probably be the type to live under some mantle of patrilineal protection: I can only imagine a woman free of harassment if she lives according to the patriarchy’s ever-shifting rules. Even then, is she really free of harassment? If you second-guess yourself into oblivion, contort your whole life to conform to the rules and expectations of the men who surround you, have you really lived a life free of harassment? Or have you merely applied it to yourself, sparing the need for patriarchal sanction?

These discussions surrounding abuse always get me because I have been subject to the leering and dangerous attentions of men, but then I think, well, I’ve never been raped. I’ve never been assaulted. I’ve never not made it home safe. Yet, what I have experienced has stayed with me:

14 and walking home from school, a man pulls his car up to the curb where I’m walking. Two tittering women in the backseat. He invites me in. I can’t remember what he said only that terror overtook me and through the shroud of my naiveté I at least knew to stride purposefully (don’t run, don’t show fear) to my door, lock myself inside.

17 and working a high school job as a caterer. A male patron asks me, “Aren’t you out past your bedtime?” The threat, of course, lurking in the subtext.

19 and working in a mall bookshop. A male customer tells me that it’s cool that I like “reading and stuff.” He follows this statement up with, “How old are you?” and attempts to ask me out.

21 and a man on a bus won’t stop talking to me. He tells me I have a “smile like Malcolm X.” Perhaps this isn’t a true instance of harassment, but it stayed with me. I felt powerless to disengage from this commuter conversation. I still don’t know what about my smile put him in mind of Malcolm X. This mystery lingers.

24 and riding my bike home from work. A man (a youth, more likely) shouts at me from a passing vehicle, “Go eat hamburger, bitch.” Is there truly anything more offensive than a fat woman on a bicycle?

It’s interesting to me that I struggle to recall particular instances of harassment as an adult. Did people stop harassing me? I don’t think so. As I matured and grew confident, shedding my ignorance, I learned how to tell men to leave well enough alone. My male peers started calling me “intimidating.” But something else happened too. I stopped being young. I lost the casual fuckability that men ascribe to young women. I put on weight, shaved my head, became strong. That’s still a woman that men harass, but not the “hey baby” kind of harassment. It’s the “You’re too fat to fuck but I still would and that makes me hate myself and you by extension” brand, which I stopped caring about many years ago.

#MeToo is about sexualized harassment and violence, but I can’t help considering all sex-based oppression. Do I get sexually harassed at work anymore? No. But in my last job, I spent years being seen as some kind of untrustworthy bitch because I refused to do the things women are supposed to do to make men feel comfortable. I am unflinchingly confident. I stopped apologizing for having ideas. I no longer hesitate to correct a man when he talks over me or repeats my suggestions. And you know what? Men fucking hate that. So no, not me too, not lately. Yet, men still hang their expectations on me, and on women everywhere, and behave badly when we refuse to meet them.

Harassment, as #MeToo demonstrates, is not isolated. All women (and some men, sure) experience it. To me though, my experiences seem petty in contrast not only to those of my fellow women, but to those inflicted on us by this system of patriarchal, capitalistic oppression.

Men feel entitled to women. They think they have the right to punish women for not conforming to their “standards” of sexuality. They think they have the right to punish other men for encroaching upon what’s “theirs.”

When I thought about this “me, too” discussion, one of the first things that I recalled was not something that happened to me, per se, but something that happened to my dad.

At eight years old, I witnessed a man smash the side of my dad’s skull with a baseball bat.

My dad had come to retrieve my sister and I from my mom and her boyfriend’s (husband’s? who remembers) house. Some kind of argument ensued. The details I’ve forgotten or perhaps never knew, but can there be any doubt that the nature of this dispute was over who held the rights to my mother?

Dad’s face was covered in blood. We spent the night with my Aunt Ruth and my cousins. I don’t think I understood what was going on but I knew there was a lot of blood involved. My dad lost most of his hearing in one ear.

I know my dad wouldn’t be on team #MeToo, but maybe he should be. This incident wasn’t exactly harassment of me, my sister, or my mom, but it feels like we should think of it that way. What was this other than an act to threaten my mom, to get her in line, to remove a potential suitor and male competitor? Patriarchy is about the violent custody of women as property. Any act to further that system is a part of me, too, in my opinion. So, of course, me too.