Last week I was in an email conversation with one of my very best friends, a writer who lived on the Peninsula many years and is now in Portland for health reasons. We were checking in, just comparing our lives, talking about the times, good and bad.
Among other things she wrote, “I love that so many women are reclaiming their right to safety and control. Having rights to your own body seems so very basic but seems many bad bargains can be made from fear and ambition. The fall of Charlie Rose was/is some kind of lesson to me as I believed that with education, intelligence, and good manners came some level of decency and sensitivity — that a man of his position would not engage in cheap tricks to entrap. I believed he was ethical. Now comes Al Franken who is made to pay for his grossness and is willing to do so, though I loved his parting comments. Exciting times. I imagine you are writing about them in the Chinook Observer.”
This is perhaps the second wave of feminism we’re witnessing as a country in my lifetime. The first was during the Viet Nam War years, during the reexaminations happening in the 60s and 70s for us Boomers. I began thinking about my friend’s assumption as a challenge, until this week finally I said to myself, “Why have I not written about #MeToo? This is important. Perhaps I can tackle the topic.”
I don’t think any of my women friends are surprised about the wave of #MeToo sexual assault stories erupting into the American media these days. Perhaps what should be more surprising is why they were kept silent for so long — although a recent conversation around a dinner table caught me by surprise and begins to explain some aspect of this hiddenness.
Another of my women friends was hosting a dinner last month and asked, just out of curiosity, who around the table was taken aback by the many disclosures of sexual improprieties. All the men’s hands went up and not one female hand. This was startling to us women. Have we not shared with our male friends how difficult it is sometimes just to be a woman in the day-to-day world? Have we just assumed it was the way things are, the way things would always be and therefore not worthy of conversation? Have we internalized so deeply and so thoroughly the “second-class-citizenshipness” of our gender that it is invisible even to ourselves?
As Pandora’s Box (pun intended) opened and the first Weinstein accuser stepped forward, followed by an avalanche, now a tsunami, of sordid stories, I thought back on my own life. First I’d thought, no, I haven’t had any of those experiences of sexual power plays. I haven’t been raped. Then as I sat down to write this article I reflected more deeply. In fact, once I opened my mental file, there were many instances of sexual improprieties that I’d experienced and shuttered away for years. There was that son of a prominent woman poet one night in Oakland. The man who exposed himself to me while I sat quietly thinking and writing near Gertrude Stein’s grave in Paris’s Pere LaChaise cemetery. That fellow in Greece. The East Indian man in London. The old guy sitting next to me on BART. The guy on the Alaska Airlines flight. One thought led to another and another until I was surprised at my list, and then by my own ability to compartmentalize and forget.
How had all these experiences of invasive hands, tongues, and other body parts so escaped my conscious notice? Where had they been locked and stored away all these years? Some in the general public might say, “Why didn’t you talk about this sooner?” with no understanding of just how humiliating — even when revealed only to one’s self — speaking about these episodes is. That one experienced them and then did nothing, said nothing, adds to the shame. And anyway what good would talking about them have done?
As another literary friend wrote me today, “The new Oliver Sachs book of essays, as reviewed by Nicole Strauss in the NYT, talks about ‘our sense of the past as an imaginative reconstruction’ and quotes Sacks as writing ‘we have no direct access to historical truth… our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves, the stories we continually recategorize and refine.’”
That must be it then. These past experience of mine I chose not to make into important stories so that they would not and could not be part of “my narrative truth.” I stashed them away in a dusty file labeled “not-how-I-define-myself” and left it at that. I buried them and forgot them, especially now in my life when sexuality — though still pleasurable, still important — does not carry the same weight as other aspects of my life.
But the obliviousness of men to women’s experience in this regard I suppose is similar to the kind of color-blindness we white folks are guilty of regarding racism. Being stopped by police on the premise of DWB — driving while black — happens only to Black or Hispanic Americans. Us white-face folks have no knowledge of that outrage, so we assume there is no problem. As individuals, as tribes, as cultural groups perhaps we can only experience the narrative truths that we feel in our bodies, that we have direct bodily experience of.
When racism is also part of the #MeToo mix, when sex is used by a man who has power over another, with another level of “less-than” in the mix, the potential for the problem is even greater and even more likely to be ignored.
Which is why Tarana Burke, the Black woman who launched the “Me Too” campaign in 2006 for the “well-being and wholeness of young women of color” (tinyurl.com/y7quejv8 ) was not included on the cover of Time magazine. Unfortunately Tarana’s movement wasn’t as interesting to the media as when white women victims with more status spoke out against famous perpetrators like Ailes, Weinstein, and Franken; even though, of course Black women, young women, poor women are the most vulnerable ones. Speaking truth to power is not for the faint of heart, as is so richly proven by the Roy Moore and Donald Trump perpetrators of the world.
But now that this dirty little secret is out — that many men in power take sexual advantage of women, in ways big and small — now that we have a name (and a hashtag!) for it, perhaps it will become part of our culture’s “narrative truth.” It’s like the Berlin Wall coming down — sometimes out of the blue, right things begin to happen.