Halloween 2014: Ray Rice and the Danger of Normalizing Violence

November 4, 2014 by So to Speak · 2 Comments
Filed under: News, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Uncategorized 

Halloween 2014 is officially over even for those folks appropriating the Mexican and Latin American celebration of Día de los Muertos to extend the party well into the weekend. But that’s not stopping the masses from continuing to #latergram the genius of their costume selections this year. Among the most controversial and off-putting choices this season was the seemingly inevitable take on family violence as perpetrated by professional athlete Ray Rice. Over the past few weeks Angelique Imani Rodriguez, a new contributor to StS, found herself in plenty of conversations about both the Ray Rice costume and the outrageous claim that if feminists want equality, then they should be prepared to handle violence. Rodriguez took to her blog for an honest and brave exploration of the pervasive normalization of violence not only in the world at large but in her own experience. Read below for an excerpt of Yo, Don’t Step On My Feminism.

Don’t Step on My Feminism: Ray Rice and the Danger of Normalizing Violence

By Angelique Imani Rodriguez

Credit to @KeithOlbermann

September 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a U.S. federal law that was created to strengthen the ability of the criminal justice system to respond and support victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence.  In the same month, surveillance footage from the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, NJ, of Baltimore Ravens’ football player Ray Rice and his then-fiancée Janay surfaced, sparking a national discussion of domestic violence.

Let’s first go over the video in question.

There is no audio. Ray and Janay walk towards the hotel elevator. She swats at him before walking away and into the elevator. He follows. The footage then shows them inside the elevator. You see Janay pressing the elevator buttons with Ray standing close to her and she swats at him again. He hits her directly in the face. Janay reacts, rushing towards him, and this is when he coldcocks her with a closed fist. She hits her head on the elevator banister and is knocked unconscious. He doesn’t lean over to see if she is okay, doesn’t check to see if she is still breathing. He barely looks concerned that she is unconscious, going so far as to pick her up by her arms while the elevator doors open and then dropping her back on the floor when they close again. When they reach their floor, Ray Rice drags her to the door of the elevator and drops her on the ground face first like a side of beef. He doesn’t cover her exposed behind, doesn’t sit her up, or look into her face. He kicks her legs closed as someone approaches.

The violence in itself is appalling, but what is more shocking is his treatment of her after he punched her unconscious. He drags her, a woman he claims to love, across the floor, and drops her without any concern as to whether she is breathing, or if she is suffering or in pain. He shows no regard for her dignity, or her safety, or her well-being.

I could comment on the actions of the NFL, a multi-million dollar organization that was content with a two-game suspension until the video of the attack surfaced, then proceeded to tout its code of conduct by penalizing Ray Rice with an indefinite ban, an act that shows the NFL only cares about the bottom line much like any other capitalist business. Had the video not been released, Ray Rice would still be the burgeoning football star he had set out to become. I could also talk about Janay Rice, who after the incident, married him, then later critiqued media coverage of the incident. This may be a sign of a history of abuse, that she is a battered woman. I could comment on all of the things we, as the morally and emotionally better people we feel ourselves to be, think she “should” have done in response then and now. But to do that places judgment on her and I am in no position to do so.

What followed after the video surfaced was a series of frustrating debates. I’ll refrain from rehashing all of the she-hit-him-first-so-she-provoked-him arguments, the it’s-not-about-gender-it’s-about-respect arguments, the ludicrous what-about-justice-for-Ray-Rice arguments, because to be quite frank, it is exhausting. I do not condone violence on either side; no healthy relationship should ever involve that kind of utter disrespect. But, I am aware of how normalized violence is, from “forgiving” Chris Brown’s transgressions, to this recent incident, to the everyday it’s-not-my-business practice when we come face-to-face with someone being victimized.

In no way do I perceive her swatting or nudging him away as her “provoking” him to punch her in the face. I do not see what she did as provocation enough to be treated so carelessly and so violently. “Enough.” That word alone is a sign that there is an issue. It implies that if she had done something else, kicked him, thrown a shoe at him, literally slapped him; that those actions would have been enough to warrant a punch in the face. The very language we use in discussing this situation reveals how normalized violence is, how acceptable we find it. There is no “enough” for me. I don’t believe anything justifies what Ray Rice did. This man is physically stronger than she is, is trained daily to be so, and could have easily held her at bay if she did in fact become violent first. Instead, he chose to coldcock the woman he loved and to leave her unconscious on the elevator floor with no regard for her well-being at all. My question to those who argue the she-provoked-it angle: if her head injury had not allowed her to stand, if she had died from a blood clot in her brain caused by the blow to her head….would we justify it by saying she had provoked him to his “breaking point”?

This idea of a “breaking point” is problematic because it is another term used to normalize violence when we discuss domestic abuse. “Everybody has a breaking point,” means that if someone provokes you, it is okay and justifiable to attack them. I mean, we’ve all been taught, if someone hits you, hit them back, right? But here’s some food for thought for you to consider: What’s your breaking point? Is it a nudge or a swat like Ray Rice? Is it a punch in the face, a kick in the shin? Would Janay have been justified if she took a bat out on him later that evening for getting KO’d in the elevator? I mean, after all, he punched her. He provoked her to her breaking point.  It goes both ways. That’s what’s claimed, right?

Furthermore, this concept of male “breaking points” merely relegates male behavior to sheer violence at the slightest provocation. Men are not animals that cannot control themselves. I refuse to believe that.  If you feel like you can’t control yourself, learn how. Take a lesson from my father, for instance, who I’m told would smash plates on the floor if he felt himself losing his cool with my mother, who in her Aries ram glory can butt heads like a pro. A congero with hands hardened by years of drum playing, who would have rather slapped himself in the face than slap her. Or my brother, who instead of yoking up his girlfriend at the time for becoming aggressive with him, chose instead to leave a gaping hole in the wall with his fist and left her standing alone and fuming.  I am aware these actions are classified as warning signs of domestic and sexual abuse, none of which occurred in these specific situations, but I bring them up to explain that these two men were at their breaking points. They were at the point where they too felt overwhelmed, and yet they chose not to inflict any of it on the women they were dealing with, despite the women’s  aggression.  More importantly, they didn’t use the women’s behavior as permission to harm them.  Knowing that as a man you can be violent, that you can overpower her, and choosing not to: that is manhood. Violence is not a definition of maleness. Ever.

Credit to @KeithOlbermann via Gawker

Again, this is not to justify or condone women raising their hands to men in a relationship, though admittedly, a part of me cringed when men debating with me about this situation referred to what Janay did as “abusing” Ray.  In fact, a female using violence reveals how women’s internalization of this violence has also become normalized. This, of course, deserves ample analysis and discussion, but not in the often-said and unsettling now-she-should-suffer-the-consequences-of-his-breaking-point angle. That only reinforces what we already have ingrained in us. The tit-for-tat argument is baseless in that it justifies the cyclical nature of violent behavior on both sides. We need to come up with a better argument, or better yet, stop trying to justify violence in relationships.

But I haven’t always thought in this way.

Let me paint you a picture.

I am sixteen years old. I am dating a twenty-one year-old male who I am too ashamed to tell my friends about because he is, essentially, the meanest person I have ever been around.  A spastic, where-did-that-come-from mean. I am no better. I am in the midst of a grief I am too young to understand, dealing with the death of someone close to me, the separation of my parents and my oldest brother moving out, all of which have shifted my heart in ways I have yet to navigate. I fight with this male every time I see him and nine times out of ten, I end up getting louder and more aggressive, he grabs me by the arms or the shoulders, I throw a punch or push him, and then he shakes me or throws me to the ground. I always justify his reactions with, “I started it.” I always know he’ll lose his shit. I only know that I won’t be “played” by him, won’t be made a fool. If he puts his hands on me, I’m going crazy. I never realize we both are.

The reason I share this snapshot is to acknowledge how I too had normalized the violence in my actions and in my justifications of his.  How the violence became a cyclical thing. How I had no resources to navigate my own anger, much less his. How it never ended. How little he valued me. How little I valued myself. How little we valued each other. I speak from experience when I speak on these things. Knowing what I know now does not whitewash my own past actions. I reveal this part of myself, because it is something I had to unlearn, that we all have to unlearn.

One of the most alarming things about the debates I have had about the Ray Rice situation is the way that some throw feminism and its concepts into the mix when trying to prove their point. Let’s face it; it happens all the time.  It’s exhausting and ludicrous, and in this case, is done to avert our gaze from the dangerous reality of the normalization of violence in relationships. Saying that equal treatment means we are deserving of violence is so beyond stupid and so far from what feminism is that I resent the comments to the fullest.

Feminism—or at least the brand of feminism I align my thinking with, does not condone violent behavior. On the contrary, feminism implores us to think critically about the way that gendered binaries exist in all areas of our lives, to really look at how pervasive these binaries are for both women and men. The brand of feminism I follow does indeed critique the dominance of heterosexual male ideologies in our society, but it doesn’t excuse or justify how some women have internalized that very same dominance. Therefore, to use feminism as a way to justify the normalized behaviors and language that it is designed to analyze and dismantle is itself a patriarchal response which demeans and devalues the true purpose of feminism.

So….

Stop that.  Don’t step on my feminism, yo.

Credit to @KeithOlbermann via Gawker

There are way too many stories of domestic violence that never see the light of day, way too many individuals who are absolutely oblivious to the need for VAWA, let alone its recent 20th anniversary. The publicity of the Ray Rice fiasco has brought these issues to the forefront of national coverage in many ways, but the problem is bigger than the Rice couple and that video. Look at how many took to social media to show themselves dressed as Ray Rice dragging a blow-up doll supposed to be Janay, crudely and tastelessly poking fun at the incident.  This, to me, is proof of how cavalier people are about domestic violence, how truly normalized violence is in relationships. Every time we turn away from these realities, every time we stand back and critique what was done to “deserve” the violence instead of admonishing the violence itself continues its normalization.  Every time someone uses warped ideas of feminism to prove how some women “deserve” violence instead of reproaching violence in relationships at all is continues normalization.

One of the goals of the feminism I align myself with is to discuss and dismantle the ingrained behaviors and language that create this culture of normalized violence. The debates I have had over the Rice couple and the popularity of the Ray Rice Halloween costume have only shown me how much further we have yet to go.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Angelique Imani Rodriguez is a second generation Puerto Rican writer  born and bred in the Bronx, NY.  She double majored in Multi-Ethnic Literature and Multi-Ethnic Women and Gender Studies at CUNY BA.  Angelique attended the 2014 VONA workshops in Berkeley, California. An alumni of both the Acentos Poetry workshops and the first round of Vanessa Martir’s Writing Our Lives workshop, Angelique is currently working on a collection of short stories with the nine-month Writing From The Womb workshop with Alicia Anabel Santos, as well as updating her blog Pen Hitting Paper.

 

 

California Senate Passes SB967: “Yes means Yes” Law

Property of The New School

As Americans we like to rage over the outrageousness of news like this summer’s case of a six-year-old in India who was raped by school staff–a security guard and a gym teacher–while on school grounds. It’s a safe kind of rage–much like pretending that longer hems and looser silhouettes protect us from sexual violence, we can huff and puff over treacherous things happening to poor, uneducated, usually dark-skinned folks in some “third” world nation unlucky in their lack of, well, America.

Yet, as a country, we’re still debating whether “no” really means “no.” Especially if the two individuals in question have a sexual history together; especially if she or he “technically” said ”yes” at some point during the act.   Sadly, educated young people and university officials in campuses across the nations are apparently among the really confused still.  In fact, this past May, the U.S. Dept. of Education named almost 60 schools which investigations of sex crimes had come under close scrutiny.

In California at least, the question of what consent is and isn’t could be cleared up once and for all as soon as  September. The state’s senate has passed SB967 and if the governor signs off on it, college students will have to have  true ”affirmative consent” before getting on with getting “some.”

“Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” — SB967

Here’s hoping.

Until then, I leave you with Laura Passin’s “In Stubenville,” published in our online issue this summer. (Haven’t seen our summer issue yet? Click here. Ready to submit your own feminist poetry, prose, or visual art? Click here.)

 

“In Stubenville”

They peed on her. That’s how you know she’s dead,

because someone pissed on her.

—Michael Nodianos, laughing

1.

The boys have been boys.

They’ve gone to boy jail.

2.

The girl, they thought as good as dead.

You can do anything to the dead:

we only remember them when they are useful.

But the dead girl was not

dead—she was a girl

instead. To be a girl at a party in Ohio

is to be as good as dead.

The boys will be boys

until they are men.

The girls will be dead.

3.

The girls are anatomical

sketches: here

you dissect the body, here is where

the flesh splits clean open.

Here is where the heart used to beat.

Here are the pearls that were her eyes.

4.

The girl was dead.

The girl was a thing

that once, if you looked at it

from just the right angle,

may have been a person. Not  a

boy. The girl was slung

and carried, hands and feet,

trussed animal.

The girl woke up naked, shoeless,

in a basement. Surrounded.

5.

The boys were shocked: they had held her

funeral. The boys had been boys.

6.

The girl raised herself up, Lazarus,

and testified.

She told us what it is like:

being dead.

It is like being a girl

where boys are boys.

It is any basement,

Ohio.

 

“Redneck Crazy”: Country Music’s Misogyny Problem

August 20, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Music, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics 

By Liz Egan

In June, Slate ran a piece about country music’s “bro problem” and singer Miranda Lambert’s aim to take down “bro country,” a (not so recent, but recently more obtuse) trend in country music to objectify women, aggressively corner them in bars, and reduce them to tailgate-dancin’, truckbed-climbin’, flip-flop floozies in tight jeans and/or cut-offs (depending, I guess, on the season).

But these days it’s not Miranda who’s saving the day. Newcomers Maddie and Tae are the dark horses riding up to restore order to country music. The lyrics to their debut single “Girl in a Country Song” takes direct aim at the male megastars who’ve been bankrolling their musical success on the willingness of the prophetic “girl in a country song” to get drunk enough to go for a ride in some dude’s truck.

It’s a gutsy move to take on the likes of Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Thomas Rhett, and Florida-Georgia Line (who do not seem amused by the song at all). And it’s clear from the two women’s comments about the song that they are conscious of the tight-rope they’re walking, playing down the song’s feminism by rejecting that label (a problem I’ve written about before) and cutes-ing up their language with oh-my-goshes. But as the biting role-reversal scenes in the song’s video make clear, these two ladies are tired of the sexist, objectifying nonsense that has lately been dominating the country scene (“Conway and George Strait never did it this way,” they lament).

Calling out “bro country” in a song is a step in the right direction, but first we need to be clear about something: Country doesn’t just have a “bro” problem. It has a straight-up misogyny problem.

The first time I heard Tyler Farr’s song “Redneck Crazy” on the radio, I found it tasteless and uncouth. Then a disturbed young man went on a deadly misogynist rampage in Isla Vista, and now I change the station if it comes on. To summarize the song’s events: Girl dumps boy. Boy stalks girl at her home and taunts her new boyfriend (“I didn’t come here to start a fight / but I’m up for anything tonight”). Boy’s misery is girl’s fault, because, “you know you broke the wrong heart baby / and drove me redneck crazy.”

The similarities between the tragedy in Isla Vista and the song’s sense of entitlement to sex with a woman, and the violent response to not being able to have her, are too eerie. “I’m about to get my pissed off on,” Farr sings, and each verse just gets creepier from there. (In fairness, the song’s subject seems to want to attack both the woman he can’t have and her new man, singing “He won’t be getting any sleep tonight.” Which, in fairness, only makes the Isla Vista comparison even more frightening, given the majority of that day’s victims were men.)

There is a joke in the South about women who shoot their husbands: “She just snapped” is the punchline. I guess in this case, going “redneck crazy” is meant to be the male equivalent of that phenomenon. Yay, equality? The problem with both defenses is they shift blame for a violent crime onto the victim. Not a great fix, considering violence is never the answer and victim-blaming is never okay.

Country music has a long history of celebrating traditional gender roles, roles that progressive society has been moving away from but country music is slow to let go of. In defense of country music—and the women of country who are also topping the charts—it is trying to shift this norm so that women can be empowered, too. But because men in country music are stereotyped for their way of exerting power over women and other men through violence, violence is therefore the medium by which some women in country music, like Miranda Lambert, are trying to assert their own independence and strength.

I’ll be the first to admit that Miranda Lambert is my country music idol, but I also have to admit that many of her songs are uncomfortable examples of the violent female revenge fantasy. Her 2010 platinum hit “Gunpowder and Lead” is about a woman who gets tired of being beaten up by her man, so she shoots him:

He slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll

Don’t that sound like a real man
I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of
Gunpowder and lead

While I give this song credit for the important observation that a “real man” isn’t an abusive one, I’m not sure two wrongs make a right here. This song is from the album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an image that has become integral Lambert’s brand. Her latest hit “Somethin’ Bad,” a duet with Carrie Underwood, is yet another effort to assert female power by drinking as hard and being as bad as the baddest man in town. But is matching men drink for drink and punch for punch really the only avenue available for women who want to be taken seriously in country music?

Many responded to the Isla Vista shootings by pointing out that misogyny hurts men as well as women. This excellent graphic art captures how problematic it is to associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. When it comes to taking a jab at a man, Lambert has some impressively emasculating zingers. In “Hurts to Think” she sings, “you’ll never be half the man your mama is,” a brilliant two-for that praises a woman’s strength by diminishing a man’s. But while lines like this might seem refreshing to female listeners who are tired of the same old weepy “I can’t live without a man” bit, we have to stop and admit that these sentiments aren’t helping anyone demonstrate strength. When we allow these destructive, misogynist sentiments to become part of the ether of our everyday lives, we encourage a culture that tolerates and perpetuates the cycle of violence between men and women.

I know some will argue these are “just songs,” or “just fantasies,” and therefore their content is not meant to be taken seriously. But it is a serious matter when everywhere you look in country music, you see men and women embracing attitudes toward each other that, well, just ain’t right. I’m picking on Farr and Lambert in particular, but they’re not alone. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” cites a man’s inability to keep it in his pants as justification for property destruction, and frankly I have a hard time finding Scotty McCreery’s uninvited arrival at a woman’s home late at night to be as friendly as I’m sure he means it to be. The list goes on.

And yet: these songs come on the radio, and more often than I care to admit, I turn it up. It’s confusing to be a socially progressive woman with an addiction to country music. I’m just as guilty as anyone who ever declared “Blurred Lines” is a creepy tune while bopping along to it anyway. I don’t want to stop listening to country—for one thing, ignoring it isn’t going to make the industry’s misogyny problem go away. So I’ll keep listening, but I’m going to start talking, too, with my fellow country music fans about why these songs are not okay. Maybe if enough of us speak out, the artists I admire like Miranda Lambert will follow Maddie and Tae’s brave lead and find more empowering and less violent ways to make country music a better place for women and men to showcase their strengths and successes. Until then, I’ll keep struggling with the decision to turn it up, or turn it off.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Liz Egan earned her MFA in fiction from George Mason University in 2014, and served as Fiction Editor of So to Speak 2013-2014. Currently Liz is a co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist chapbook press that is a project of Fall for the Book and the George Mason MFA program. She lives near Jackson, Mississippi, where she teaches writing and works as Writing Center Coordinator at Millsaps College.

 

Wearing the Feminist Badge: Final Words From Our Outgoing Editor in Chief

Last fall, my sister sent me a link to a posting on a website called Imgur (pronounced Im-ih-ger). I don’t remember what the post she sent me was about, but I do remember how I felt I had found a sort of window into the internet. With a swipe to the left or to the right, I could explore all the “most-viral” images on the internet for that day, often accompanied by stories or shared experiences from various Imgur users themselves. Feeding off of the popular, user-generated website Reddit, Imgur focuses on community, with users voting through “upvotes” or “downvotes” what material makes it to the front page of the site.

What one will most commonly find on Imgur is pictures or videos of adorable animals, a funny (or not so funny) meme, a tutorial for how to make the best pepperoni calzones. One can browse the site without ever making a profile or username, and this is what I did for some time, visiting the website through its phone app when I had a spare moment in a waiting room or in line at a store.

I was in bed checking the site when I came across a post that has given me a sizeable amount of unease for the past several months. In it, a group of young women hold up hand-written signs declaring why they don’t need feminism. Their reasons range from, “because I believe in equality and not in entitlements and supremacy,” to “I respect men. I refuse to demonize them and blame them for my problems,” to “I am an adult who is capable of taking responsibility for my own actions.”  One can see why I immediately created a username and began commenting on this post like my life depended on it.

What I most wanted to point out was that none of these young women seemed to have any idea of what feminism actually is. Somehow, the idea of equality for women has become tied up with these misconstrued notions about the domination of men, the rejection of personal responsibility, and a culture of victimhood. I can’t say how this transformation took place (it seems to have something to do with tumblr, which is another content-sharing, online community, but I can’t dive into that hole right now), but the fact that there are women out there who outright reject the title of feminist is appalling to me, especially when these women so clearly are feminists themselves.

Equality is the bottom line of feminism. You can respect men without also demonizing them (I do it all the time!). Of course you are a capable adult; you can thank the generations of women who fought against the infantilization of our sex for being able to publically declare such a thing. These young women, who took to a public forum to proclaim their independence, personal responsibility, and strength, are utter and complete products of the waves of feminism that have been crashing against American culture for the past 200 years.

The issue is, however, these women don’t know that. And, they shy away from the “feminist” or “feminism” terms. These words have become tarnished, covered in the muck of misandry and fanatical, misinformed rebuttals. I spoke about this in my last blog piece, where I mentioned how I had to combat these misconceptions amongst my own family members, but the problem with the young women on Imgur is even stranger to me, mostly because they are feminists. Reluctant as they may be to wear that badge proudly, it is still tacked onto their bodies somewhere, albeit under layers of ignorance and/or confusion.

This rejection of the feminist identity leads to an even more problematic aspect of this trend: the self-centeredness of it all. I can only conclude that each of these young women has led a life free of sexual harassment or of judgment based on how they look or on their sexual habits. That each of these young women has never had to worry about accessing an education or a driver’s license. That each of these women has never had her reproductive rights challenged or been trapped in an abusive relationship. How blessed these young women are, and how infuriating that they cannot see past their own life experiences into those of others who may not have been so lucky.

Beyond the problem of being unwilling to accept the feminist title, these young women are spreading the dangerous idea that women have reached equality in the US and in the wider world. What they are saying, by rejecting the mantle of feminism, is that there is no more work to be done. They are turning away from the gang rapes that happen with stunning frequency in India and elsewhere. They are looking past the millions of women who are unable, for any number of reasons, to make choices about their bodies and when or if they have a child (or how many). They are saying, “okay” to the overwhelming number of rape kits that escape DNA analysis. They are saying: If you are not me, or like me, you do not matter.

What is most important for these women to understand is that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself (though wearing the feminist badge like a crown would be a welcome fashion statement). What does matter is that, if they see the rights of other women (of other people!)  being challenged, though theirs may not be, it is important for them to say something, to do something, to recognize the wrong where there is wrong and confront it.

There’s a fear that goes along with defining oneself as part of a certain cause with perceived expectations. We prefer to live as sketches, erasing and redrawing the lines of ourselves when we feel threatened or uncomfortable. But, I would argue that the young women on Imgur would have to do very little revising to find that they fit into a feminist way of life. And that’s all I wanted to say to them, and to our readers: Like it or not, you’re a feminist. Now, go out there and own it.

____________________________________________________________________________

Michele K. Johnson graduated from George Mason University with her MFA in poetry in 2014. While pursuing her degree, she taught Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition at the university, and served as Editor in Chief of So to Speak. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in the Ampersand Review, the Ucity Review, OVS Magazine, THRUSH Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

 

Secrets in the Dark

by Melanie Lynn Griffin

The woman has been roughed up. There’s a bruise on her cheek, and her blouse is ripped. Her long brown hair has been hacked off with a pair of scissors, by her own hands, and several of her teeth have just been brutally yanked out by a tooth-seller. A crowd of filthy men and women taunt her, shoving her along a darkened street. Her voice breaks into a raw, bitter wail. “There was a time when men were kind, when their voices were soft and their words inviting.”

If you’ve ever seen Les Misérables, you probably recognize this gut-wrenching scene. Fantine, a factory worker who has just lost her job, has sold her hair and teeth to pay for her young daughter’s room and board.

Anne Hathaway plays the role in the latest film version of Victor Hugo’s story of love and hate in the French Revolution. She’s painfully beautiful in this scene, bruises dark on her pale skin, eyes sunken and hopeless as she’s pressured into prostitution to support her daughter.

A French army officer has just finished doing his business on top of her. She’s belting out this song, and I can hear people all around me sniffling in the dark of the movie theater:

“I had a dream my life would be

So different from this hell I’m living.

So different now from what it seemed

Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

Even the guy behind me with the annoying belching issue seems to be crying. He starts breathing badly, and I wonder if he’s having a heart attack or something. I’m considering turning around to ask if he’s OK, but I don’t want to embarrass him if he’s crying.

His labored breathing suddenly evens out, and I hear the sound of a zipper being closed. Apparently he successfully put himself in the French officer’s place and had his own way with Anne Hathaway in the dark.

“Why didn’t you move?” My therapist’s face had that inscrutable look she gets, and her question seemed as impenetrable as her expression.

“Move?” I echoed. “Why didn’t I move?” An irrational shame nudged a blush up my neck as I tried to remember: Did I even think of moving?

Doctor Z nodded and leaned forward in her chair, elbows perched on her knees and fingers pressed together in a teepee under her chin as if trying to keep her mouth from dropping open.

“Well, I thought about it for a minute, but — I know it sounds stupid — at first I couldn’t believe it was happening. Like, I must be wrong. Then I thought that he was obviously a mess, sick, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” I paused, and my therapist raised her eyebrows. “Wow,” I said.

“Yeah, wow,” she said.

“But I felt trapped. Moving didn’t really seem like an option.”

“Why don’t you journal about this? Writing always helps you. I’ve heard you use those words before, feeling trapped, not trusting your own experience, not being able to take care of yourself because you were worried how it might make someone else feel.”

Doctor Z pulled some papers out of her black bag, the signal that our time was up. I wrote her a check and drove home with only half my mind on the road. “Why didn’t I move?” I kept hearing the question.

First entry:

Tough therapy session. Why didn’t I move away from that guy in the theater? Why did I feel so powerless? The other thing I can’t figure out is why I was afraid to tell anyone, even my friends. Like I had done something wrong, or the whole thing was so disgusting and ugly that I had to hold it in, protect the world from it. Not pollute other people’s lives with my pain. Just like when I was a kid. Don’t tell anyone what’s going on in the house; don’t tell the neighbors about Daddy passing out. Put the vodka bottles at the bottom of the trash bag. It’s all a secret I have to keep.

My mom. The queen of denial. She’s the one who taught me how to keep a secret. When she caught me on the couch with my ninth-grade boyfriend’s hand down my pants, she said, “I know I didn’t see what I just saw,” and she never said another word about it. Mom didn’t even want to tell the doctor that Daddy was an alcoholic when he was lying on life support in the hospital! As if they couldn’t tell. I broke the secrecy code and told the nurse our shameful secret. Daddy died anyway.

Now that I think of it, the voice in my head at the movie theater saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I must be wrong,” was my mom’s voice.

“Good work,” said Doctor Z, when I finished reading my journal entry. “What else?”

“Well, I guess my family was so focused on our shame and secrecy that what I needed didn’t matter much. It’s like I learned that I’m not worth taking care of — I don’t believe I have any rights. Mom never took care of her own needs either — trying not to upset my father always came first. That’s why I was more worried about how that guy might feel if I moved than I was about my own feelings.”

I picked up the cushion on the sofa and began messing with the stitching. “Have I ever told you about when I lost my virginity?” I asked, though I knew I hadn’t. It all came out in a rush. “I was sixteen and I was at a party in an upstairs room with an older guy, kind of a friend. We were messing around and he got really aggressive. I said no to him, told him to stop. I said I didn’t want to, but he went ahead and I thought, ‘Oh well.’ I wanted him to like me, and I guess I figured it wouldn’t be worth the fight. I’ve always felt ashamed of that.”

There was a silence while we sat with my shame and I continued to unravel her cushion.

“You were sixteen, Melanie. Just sixteen.”

“Yes.” More silence. I couldn’t look at her.

“You’re an adult now. You can take care of yourself. You don’t have to be a victim . . . you have choices.”

“Yes, I have choices.” I did not sound like an adult. I sounded like a little girl parroting her mother’s directions. I waited for further instruction.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” Doctor Z reminded me, as she often must.

I exhaled a laugh, set the cushion down, and looked her in the face. “Yes, I do have choices.”

Final entry:

I am going back to the theater tonight. It’s been nearly two months since Les Mis, and I was telling Dr. Z how mad I was at that asshole cause I felt like he had stolen my theater from me. I usually go every week, but the thought’s been making me nauseated.  “I can’t imagine sitting in that seat again,” I told her.

“Well,” she said, “you could sit in a different seat.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, laughing at this obvious solution. “I have choices.”

So I’ve been planning on choosing a new seat. But that’s still making me mad. He stole my spot and I feel l like a victim. So I think I’ll march right down that aisle and sit in my regular seat, twelve rows back on the left. If somebody sits behind me, I can always move.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Melanie Lynn Griffin leads writing workshops and spiritual retreats. Her writing has appeared in Sierra magazine, AARP Bulletin,WildEarth JournalOutside In Travel Magazine, and a 2014 anthology entitled Answers I’ll Accept. She holds a Masters in Creative Nonfiction from Johns Hopkins University and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from National Cathedral College. A complete list of publications and her blog Writing with Spirit can be found at http://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/


 

Next Page »


So to Speak
George Mason University
4400 University Drive, MSN 2C5
Fairfax, VA 22030-4444
http://www.gmu.edu/org/sts
sts@gmu.edu