little lessons on the prairie

little lessons on the prairie

So I’ve been rereading my favorite books from childhood, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I started reading the first few with my children and then I got caught up, so I’m finishing the series.

You may recall that due to some racist elements in her work,the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award bestowed for excellence in children’s literature given by the ALSC (Association for Library Service to children) had its name changed to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.    

Personally, I think it’s fine that this has happened.  It’s just a silly award. Name it whatever you want, I guess.  But I sure do despise this tendency to remove anyone even the least little bit historically problematic from polite society.  Because regardless of what the ALSC say – that they aren’t calling for her books to be banned, that this isn’t censorship – she’s gone.  Outta here. And she’s not coming back any time soon. Given the current social atmosphere, removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from this award (and the controversy it triggered) is really effectively banning her books.  Parents will stop buying them and kids will stop reading them. I would not be at all surprised if Wilder disappears from schools everywhere over the next few years.

And that, I’m not ok with.  The Little House books were of critical importance to me as a child.  They were my best friends when I had no one and nothing else, they molded me in ways I probably couldn’t even begin to unpack.   To attack the Little House books as racist, to eliminate them from the pantheon of great children’s literature as somehow harmful to children, is in my opinion a mistake.  While it is obvious that a few elements of the books are gross and wrong, there is still great value in them – indeed, even in the gross and wrong parts – and it would be a shame to see children denied the experience of reading them.

Here’s a Vox piece that does a pretty good job of illustrating why I still see a lot to love even in the unsavory parts of Little House, while somehow simultaneously missing the entire point.    The author agrees that there is something valuable to be gleaned even from the darker parts of Little House, believing just as I do that reading them forces people to acknowledge the darker side of the pioneer mythos, but then goes on to fail to learn the biggest lesson of all.  She writes (as Laura would say, in a childish hand) “Pioneers used a prejudice against Indians to steal their land, and this was racism.”

The author of this piece claims that prejudice was some sort of calculated strategy that people were actively adopting – that the pioneer’s fear and hatred was caused by racism instead of the other way around.  Oh, those pioneers.  They had a silly prejudice, those big goofy gooses, and the reason they had that prejudice was obviously because they wanted to steal the Indians’ land!   The author asserts that their prejudice was completely baseless and was spun from thin air to justify their own bad behavior.  Pioneers like Ma Ingalls could certainly never have had some legitimate reasons to fear, even hate Native Americans (reasons that felt fully legitimate to HER, I mean).  Right? But whenever you put two groups of people whose members are actively killing one another, of course there will be fear and hate. The reverse is certainly true and none of us blame Native Americans for fearing and hating whites.  

Now, we may look back at history with our modern sensibilities and theorize that the pioneers never should have been there, should never have stolen the Natives’ land, and that the tribes were entirely justified in fighting back against these invaders.  And we’d be entirely correct in doing so.  But the fact was the pioneers were there, in that place and time, whether they should have been or not. They wanted to live just like you and I want to live and regardless of what we believe with the benefit of a century of hindsight, they believed they were entitled to be there.  Not only did they feel entitled, it is only natural to have bad feelings towards people who you fear might kill you at any point in time. If any one of us had been put in that same situation, we would have felt the same. Racism is not an excuse people conjure up to justify bad behavior. It is not an affectation or a pretense.  Racism is a mindset people develop when their backs are up against the wall.  We are all subject to the tendency. The seeds for racism are with us all and we’re no better than those who came before us.  We just have the luxury of living in the modern world where we have less to fear.

It is a natural characteristic of humankind to hate and fear those who we perceive as other from us, even more natural to hate and fear those we perceive to be our enemies.  It doesn’t make it right, but it is natural. It is in human nature to behave that way. ALL of our human nature. Bad people, good people, me, you, Gandhi, Hitler and Pa Ingalls himself.  From this wellspring of human nature that we all share, racism and lots of other nasty isms and sins are born, and we are all subject to it. Racism is not something that occurs in a passionless vacuum, it’s not a dry, calculated political tactic people choose to justify bad behavior.  No one makes an informed and rational decision to embrace racism to explain away taking land or resources from another. Racists feel fully entitled to their racism, that’s why it’s so hard to overcome. People have reasons for all their isms that they think are sound and that is why these isms are so damn dangerous – we feel like our isms are right, noble, good, and supported by hard cold facts that those people, whoever those people are, are just not like us.

That is the real lesson of the objectionable parts of the Little House books.  It is that prejudice can be something that afflicts people like you and me, people who aren’t bad people, who are in fact good people, but who are products of a particular place and time and if we had been in that place and time we would have been and thought and felt and acted the exact same way.  We are not any more evolved than Ma Ingalls, nary a one of us. (BTW, in the Little House books, Ma’s fear of Indians is painted as old-fashioned, even irrational; both Laura and Pa are portrayed as far more enlightened where Indians are concerned.)  We are simply lucky enough to live in a place and time where we know better and have other options. To say that prejudice was an active choice that Laura Ingalls Wilder and the other pioneers made, is putting the cart before the horse and the chicken before the egg.  

Speaking of, another terribly racist book I read and adored as a child was The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald.   It’s set in Washington State where I grew up; in fact I later married a man who grew up on the rather strangely named “The Egg and I Road”, across the street from the location of the farm in the book.  (Ma and Pa Kettle, iconic characters that you may not know originated from The Egg and I, were real people – whose descendants now run an organic dairy farm in the same location they lived during the events of the book).  After I read The Egg and I for the first time, my stepmother told me that a family friend hated the book because he was Makah and the Makah were excoriated in the book.  And it’s true, they are; but I hadn’t even noticed that part. It was shocking to realize that something I had not even paid attention to, that had not even registered with me, had hurt someone I knew.  It was an early and valuable lesson that not everyone views things from the same perspective, a lesson I never would have received if I had not been allowed to read the book. If my stepmother – a children’s librarian herself, actually – had stepped in and taken the book from me when she saw it in my hand or removed it from the shelf so I never even knew it existed, I’d never have had to look my own privilege in the face at such a young age.

I recently reread The Egg and I as an adult.  The descriptions of the Coastal Native Americans in the book are indeed awful.  But I was surprised to discover that there was context to the racism. It wasn’t even remotely cut and dry problematic as people make this book out to be.  MacDonald was clearly demonstrating how badly the coastal tribes had been affected by the disruption of their culture in a way that preachier, more goody-two-shoes stories do not.  The Native Americans depicted in The Egg and I were not noble savages; they were not the depersonalized heroic stereotypes we have come to expect from modern fare.  The characters in the book – all of them – have serious, severe character flaws, and in the case of the the Native Americans, those flaws are directly caused by what white people did to them.  Being driven from their homes and their way of life caused a breakdown of their social fabric to such extent that they were destroyed by it. This reality is not skirted, it’s looked dead in the face and fully reflected upon.  It’s a valuable lesson that shouldn’t be whitewashed from history.

At the time the book was set, Betty MacDonald was a nineteen year old girl who found herself in a truly terrible situation.  She makes light of things because The Egg and I is meant to be humorous, but her life was incredibly rough (soon after, she divorced her husband and walked several miles through the forest carrying an infant and a toddler to escape).  Recall that Laura Ingalls Wilder was also a young girl in a very precarious, even brutal situation – it is no exaggeration to say that the Ingalls family could have died at any time and nearly do on several occasions  My point is not that being young or having a difficult life justifies racist viewpoints, not at all. My point is that you can plunk down any 19 year old person into a rotten place and time and they will sometimes form opinions that we older and wiser people who have every benefit of modernity would not.  Just like Ma Ingalls. It is human nature to have prejudices and to not always rise above them, and it’s a simple fact that as life gets harder, the easier it is to succumb to our darker instincts. We ignore this reality at our own peril. By pretending that racism is an active choice perpetrated by irredeemably evil people because we never read any source material in which we see the casual, accidental racism of otherwise good people, we never have to face the truth that we have that tendency within us just as our ancestors did.  

Even if we remove all problematic accounts from our worldview and replace them with politically correct and sanitized literature, we will never remove this tendency from human nature.  Humans are a set of behaviors and one of those behaviors involves making snap judgments about others based on their most obvious external features and then sticking with those snap judgments even when you’re proven wrong about them.  Betty MacDonald herself understood this. It you ever read her books, which are mostly wonderful and should be read more widely than they are, a good part of them is her judging other people from various walks of life in a lighthearted, not-uncharitable way, while being simultaneously judged by them.  “Ha-ha!” MacDonald seems to be saying, “Isn’t it funny how people are, look at how small-minded we can be sometimes, and don’t we all feel perfectly justified in our small-mindedness?”) By setting herself up as victim and villain, she reveals just how silly and wrong it is to judge others and how arbitrary our criteria really are.  The everyday racism in MacDonald’s books is not only historically accurate, but is actually a great takedown of the entire concept of racism because it does it from the inside out, revealing it as being just as silly as a person judging someone on the stylishness of their wardrobe.  Betty MacDonald’s books, despite their flaws – indeed, in no small part because of them – are scathing critiques of the human animal. And we would miss that perspective if we tossed her books on the dustheap due to a kneejerk definition of what is offensive.

Avoiding the reality of our racist past makes it easier to compartmentalize racism as being something that other people do.  Bad people. Evil. People whose minds cannot ever be understood because they are fundamentally different than us. Certainly not people who could be otherwise worthy of admiration.  Racism has become our original sin and we don’t want to wrestle with the notion that we are all guilty. Refusing to even consider the stories of those who came before us simply means that we are that much less likely to recognize similar tendencies within ourselves.  If we judge racists as demons – even racists that lived decades or centuries ago and were products of a vastly different environment – we immediately find ourselves innocent because we are not demons. But prejudice is a human quality whether we want to admit that or not.  When the rubber hits the road and the — hits the fan, we WILL put ourselves and our own above everyone else. We will slit throats and take scalps and give out smallpox-laden blankets and congratulate ourselves on doing God’s work because only demons can be evil. Reading Little House and The Egg and I can inoculate us because we have learned as children that even good people with pure hearts and noble intentions can think ugly thoughts and do bad things and feel fully justified in having done them.  They can do these things without even realizing that they were wrong.

In her essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” (do read this, it’s excellent the literary critic Francine Prose dares to criticize the sacred…and as Prose describes it, “treacly”…tome To Kill a Mockingbird on precisely these grounds – that in Mockingbird, the complicated legacy of America’s racist heritage is reduced to nothing but a good guys vs. bad guys trope.  “Students are informed that literature is principally a vehicle for soporific moral blather,” Prose explains. Certainly Atticus Finch is portrayed by the author, writing from the perspective of a 9 year old daughter, as everything a father should be.  “An exercise in wish-fulfillment and self-congratulation…the comfortable certainty that the reader would NEVER harbor the racist attitudes espoused by the lowlifes in the novel,” Prose continues. Yet Pa Ingalls is also portrayed by the author (his own daughter, who is around 9 years old during much of Little House) as everything a father should be.  He whipped his daughter with a switch and was in a minstrel show.   What does that MEAN? Surely it means something; something very important, something that deserves serious consideration.

I certainly would never want any child to read anything that makes them uncomfortable.  I don’t like it at all that our dear family friend was offended by The Egg and I.  I’m sure some are screaming at their computers your lessons shouldn’t come at the expense of the feelings of others and that all this is probably white privilege but we will never overcome our racist heritage if we don’t learn these lessons.  We’ll be doomed to live it out again and again and again in a thousand different forms until we accept the reality that prejudice is in our human nature and that we are all subject to it.  Reading fiction allows us to safely try on the lives of another person, to see things from their flawed perspective, to more fully understand their motivations, both good and bad.

This is actually one of the main purposes of literature – allowing us to deeply delve into the life and mind of another.  Prose writes: “One reason we read writers from other times and cultures is to confront alternatives – of feeling and sensibility, of history and psyche, of information and ideas.”   By reading widely, even or perhaps especially tales in which people at times did questionable, even repellent things, things that I would hope that I myself would never do, I have gained greatly in understanding, in sympathy, in compassion and tolerance.  By reading widely I have been forced to confront choices and decisions that I will hopefully never be faced with. Should we ban Sophie’s Choice because the main character chooses her son’s life over her daughter’s?  Should we ban 1984 because Winston betrays Julia?  Should we ban Crime and Punishment because Raskolnikov commits murder?   Romeo and Juliet because Juliet was too young to be married?  Or The Joy Luck Club because a character abandons her twin daughters alongside a road in wartime?

Literature should be complicated.  It should present flawed, realistic characters who are products of their time and place and force us to seriously consider their point of view.  In the years since Francine Prose wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read, the first draft of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was found and published under the name Go Set a Watchman.  In this version of the story, Atticus is a more complicated, flawed character; a man more representative of the time and place in which he lived.  Of Go Set a Watchman, the writer Ursula K. LeGuin wrote, “Harper Lee was a good writer.  She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.”  Hard questions are good.  Children – indeed, all of us – should be exposed to hard questions that lack easy answers.  But fans of Mockingbird were outraged by the morally complex version of Atticus – Atticus could NOT have flaws, he was ATTICUS.  They couldn’t accept that he might have been a flawed man. One family, in an act of self-indulgence I consider borderline child abuse, even changed their toddler son’s name because of it.

Reading things like this, I think we NEED Little House now more than ever.  I feel like our society is plagued with moral absolutism that is manifesting itself as a nasty Puritanical streak.  We have removed our consciences and replaced them with groupthink just like poor little Atticus’ parents took his name away from him and changed it to Luke.  As Prose described the state of children’s literature over a decade ago, “…the gross oversimplification…values imagination and empathy less than the ability to make quick and irreversible judgements, to entertain and maintain simplistic immovable opinions about guilt and innocence, about the possibilities of human nature.  Less comfortable with the gray areas than with sharply delineated black and white, he or she can work in groups and operate under consensus and has a resultant, residual distrust for the eccentric, the idiosyncratic, the annoyingly…individual.”

It sounds as if she’s describing America 2018.  

We NEED children to be exposed to ideas that make us adults uncomfortable, that appear to raise issues we’d rather not discuss, that reveal that humanity has endured through many different systems of ethics and values and that at every point in time, what “everyone” thought seemed self-evident, correct, and proper to them at the time.  

And we need it very soon.  If you haven’t read your children the Little House books or haven’t read them yourself, try them.  There are a lot of wonderful things contained in their pages.  Even in the less wonderful things, you may find value.

Happy Thanksgiving.



the toxic hierarchy of female suffering

the toxic hierarchy of female suffering

Trigger alert: involves in depth discussion of pregnancy loss and sexual assault

Women tend to organize themselves into hierarchies.  This is not a terribly surprising observation; after all, the forming of hierarchies is a human characteristic.  Chickens have a pecking order, humans have hierarchies. Unlike chickens, humans have the unusual ability to belong to several hierarchies all at the same time.  It’s often quite a juggling act, managing your positions in the various hierarchies.  Any given person you encounter may be simultaneously above you on one hierarchy, while beneath you on another. Understanding the subtleties of hierarchies and your place within them can tell us how much consideration we need to give another, how much respect they’re due, how much weight to give their opinion, and how much of those things to expect from them in return.

I find that women, even highly accomplished, entirely enlightened women, don’t always or even usually organize based on achievement or success as men tend to do.   I suspect this is at least in part because women are socialized from a very early age not to brag or take (outward) pride in their accomplishments. In fact, the woman who’s perceived as TOO accomplished is often quietly despised by other women.   Women’s hierarchies are generally built around other aspects of personality instead.  We organize based on who’s the nicest, the hardest working, the most generous, the best mom, the most fashionable (not expensively dressed, but fashionable…two different things!) rather than who can deadlift the most weight or who has the fanciest car or who picked up the most boys at the bar last month.

One socially accepted way women form up into hierarchies is on the basis of who has it the worst.  Since suffering is something none of us have earned and all of us could experience at any time, ranking based on pain means women can shuffle ourselves into a hierarchy without rewarding the super high achievers more than they have already been rewarded by the universe, or punishing those who can’t compete in terms of money or intellect or beauty more than they’ve already been punished by life.

Suffering crosses all economic lines and knows no political party or social class. Using suffering as a metric, we women, who generally despise braggarts and arrogance, can sort things out without violating that intensive socialization we received from the cradle – good girls don’t ever mention the things they’re really good at, and good girls always downplay their accomplishments.  Suffering requires no skillset, no well-padded bank account, no delicate features.  Suffering is an accomplishment anyone can attain, thus it’s an ideal way for women to organize into layers of power.

That’s right.  Women attain social currency, even power, through suffering.  

It ain’t pretty, but it’s real.

I have frequently observed this hierarchy in action on fertility websites where I’ve spent many hours over the course of my childbearing years. The woman who has a stillbirth is “above” the woman who had a miscarriage at 10 weeks’ gestation who is “above” the woman who had a chemical pregnancy (a pregnancy that ended shortly after getting a positive pregnancy test.)  By “above” I mean she is more worthy of consideration, she gets extra attention, extra love and care, her opinions on the subjects of loss and pregnancy carry more weight than others’ do. She’s not a queen among women or anything, but there is definitely a kind of special status that is bestowed upon her.

While certainly no one seeks out that status deliberately, once it’s thrust upon you, it would be next to impossible to turn down.  Others WILL treat you differently because they know that you’ve suffered and there’s no getting around it. They put you on the hierarchy whether you want to be there or not.  Minimizing your pain and denying the kindness and consideration others wish to shower you with, not only irritates people (no one likes their kindnesses declined) but also makes you look rather monstrous. Don’t you hurt?  Don’t you care?  People DO wonder and do judge each other’s grief.  So you take your place on the hierarchy, oftentimes begrudgingly, because you have to prove to other people that yes, you hurt, and yes, you care, and yes, you grieve.

This hierarchy of suffering seems fairly obvious, though, right??   While pregnancy loss always is  deserving of sympathy, surely a woman who carried a baby for 9 long months only to lose it just before or during the birth, who still has to go through labor to deliver a dead child and then return home to a beautiful nursery full of baby clothes and toys with empty arms, is in need of more intensive emotional support than a woman who one day got a positive pregnancy test and the very next day got her period.  These two things both suck, but they are not the same, not even close to it. It’s not even rational to entertain the idea that they are in any way equivalent.

But it is in the nature of hierarchies and human beings that sometimes, people who are lower on the hierarchy, want to be higher.   Even when the hierarchy is based on negative experiences, there’s something in us that desires, even if only subconsciously, the benefits that come with higher status.  This occasionally ends up as a very odd state of affairs where some women will behave as if a chemical pregnancy is equal on the hierarchy to a later miscarriage or even a stillbirth, mourning the “loss” as publicly (if you can truly call a positive pregnancy test one day and a period the next, a loss) and passionately as if they had a child who was ripped away from their arms. 

In this hierarchy of suffering, the temptation to make your losses sound a little worse, a little more painful than they really were, is nearly irresistible.  I know this because I’ve succumbed to it myself.  I’ve played up early losses that really didn’t bother me that much because I didn’t want people to think I was a heartless monster who didn’t care about the baby that was no longer in my womb (I cared, of course, I just didn’t feel like I had truly lost a child).  Later on, I found much to my surprise and dismay, that in some ways I enjoyed the attention and status I got from it.  Stranger still, once I began entertaining the notion that my suffering was deserving of more empathy than it probably really was, I began experiencing sorrow commensurate with a greater loss.  Over time, the more I thought about my losses, the more upset I became.  I went into mourning, retroactively, over things that really hadn’t made me that sad at the time.  

Now, please understand, I don’t doubt that many women who have had a chemical pregnancy are very very sad over it.  It is truly a painful experience, especially if you’ve been trying to conceive for some time.  It is only natural to hurt over it, to cry over it, to get angry and shake your fist at the sky over it.  But a chemical pregnancy is in NO WAY akin to what a woman who has had a miscarriage at 12 weeks or 20 weeks or loses a baby during labor experiences.  It is not even rational to equate the two.  Yet some women will act as if their small hurt is worthy of the same consideration as an unimaginable one, and years later will still talk about their loss of a “baby” that existed only for a couple of days. I don’t doubt their turmoil is real, but based on my own experience, I wonder how much comes from the actual loss itself and how much of it is self-inflicted.  When they tell themselves again and again, I’ve had a miscarriage, I’ve lost a child, their spirit responds accordingly.  

To further complicate matters, recall that women often secretly resent the high achievers.  In our toxic hierarchy of female suffering, all too often, women who’ve had stillbirths are treated almost like that girl who everyone secretly hated because she was gorgeous, a straight A student, class president, and captain of the basketball team.  Who does she think she is, anyway, being above me on the hierarchy?  People aren’t mean to women who have had late-term losses of course; they would never express that ugly sentiment openly, or even consciously engage it in their mind.  But they just don’t seem to know what to do with these women who have suffered so greatly.

Their fellow women often end up inadvertently ostracizing them.  For not only do we subconsciously fear the idea that their misfortune might be contagious and keep them at arm’s length for that reason (as we do with everyone who experiences suffering that seems too great to bear), not only do we not know the right things to say and feel awkward and embarrassed and don’t reach out when we should, but on some level we loathe their being above us on the hierarchy.  Not deliberately, but it’s there, just a hint of jealousy that others have done the math and found their suffering to be worse than ours. Even when it IS worse than ours by all objective measure.

Of late, I feel like the #metoo movement has devolved into a similarly perverse hierarchy of toxic suffering.  I think we all instinctively realize that being raped by a stranger is by any objective measure worse than a guy grabbing your ass on the subway.  Acquaintance rape is worse than an unwanted but thankfully brief pass made by a boss.  We’d all probably rather hang out with Aziz Ansari than Louis CK, and Louis CK than Harvey Weinstein…even though none of us want to hang out with Louis CK OR Aziz Ansari.  Sexual aggression is never acceptable, but not all aggressive actions are the same in terms of trauma inflicted. There’s a hierarchy here and it is rational that there is a hierarchy because these experiences are simply not equivalent to each other.  

Yet minor injuries are still injuries.  Of course they cause us pain.  It is only natural to hurt, to cry, to get angry and shake your fist at the sky even over what most would consider a relatively slight offense.  None of these experiences, even the briefest ones, we’d wish on our worst enemy, but it’s simply not rational to insist that a minuscule and momentary violation of sexual consent by an otherwise well-meaning man is in any way equivalent to being grabbed off the street and held captive by a stranger who brutalizes you.  They are not equivalent events any more than a stillbirth and a chemical pregnancy are.

The victims of all sexual harm, great or small, deserve our sympathy.  Be they gaping wounds or hangnails, we should be able to talk about them openly if we wish to, and create awareness of them (just like with pregnancy loss).  We should be able to come together in sisterhood to demand that the little hurts are stopped right alongside the big ones. But I fear that within our sisterhood, we have begun to incentivize pain – the more pain you’re in, the higher your “worth”.  We have turned #metoo into a toxic hierarchy in which we wish to keep the victims of the worst sexual violence at a distance because they remind us that it can happen to us, while simultaneously jockeying for a better position on the hierarchy.  In this climate, the women in the most pain, who have suffered the most grievous wrongs, are being drowned out by a flood of voices many of which are conflating temporary annoyances and awkward moments with violent and sadistic sex crimes.

In a hierarchy based around suffering, the tendency to make our experience sound a little worse, a little more traumatic, is very tempting. There’s a reward – sympathy, attention, respect. In a very real way, it’s getting to the point where you earn your stripes as a woman by sharing a #metoo story. (All women have numerous #metoo stories – men, please think on this.  This article is in no way meant to let you off the hook for bad behavior.)

I feel the urge too.  I really do. Looking back on my life through a #metoo lens I see several unpleasant but thankfully brief experiences in a more sinister light than I did at the time I experienced them.  It’s quite peculiar because even as I do this, I find myself minimizing some terrifying and serious events that occurred.  I think I do this because I perceive them as too embarrassing to share.  I minimize anything with gray areas, anything I feel somehow complicit in, things I worry people might hold against me in some way.  I was drunk, we were in a relationship, I wasn’t assertive enough, I shouldn’t have been out walking alone. I find myself instead revisiting things that didn’t even particularly bother me at the time they happened and dwelling on those instead.  Not only because of “awareness”, not only because I now realize that some things that I thought were normal, acceptable, a by-product of being a woman that you just had to put up with, were actually wrongs. It’s partially that, but it’s not only that. If it was just an increased level of awareness, I’d be talking about the serious things too.  But I don’t.  I push them away, deny them.  I barely even think of them.

The only conclusion I can draw is that on some level I want to be on the hierarchy.  But I want to be on the hierarchy only for things I feel don’t reflect badly upon me in any way.  For things I won’t be judged over. So I focus on the random and momentary events in which I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and keep the really bad things to myself. Because I want to appear both wronged but also entirely innocent, and the really bad things always have some component of self-blame involved.

That seems to me to be a step backwards, a step away from awareness and openness towards a world where women are still keeping secrets, still feeling shame, still blaming themselves and analyzing their behavior to figure out did I lead him on? was this my fault? how could I have prevented this? Even as everyone dissects microaggressions down to the subatomic level, the heaviest burden of sexual assault still falls onto the victims. And the worst perpetrators end up hiding in plain sight, protected by our silence.  Same as it ever was.

Suddenly everyone has a story to tell about how their lives are ruined over a guy that tried to kiss them in 1993, a guy who asked for their phone number on a bus, a guy who looked a little too long or hooted as they walked past on the street.  But the problem is, once you start buying into the idea that every disagreeable sexual experience no matter how small or short-lived, was a violation, a crime, that you are a victim, that the man who wronged you is irredeemably evil, that all men are evil, you WILL start experiencing the emotions to go with it.  Terror and a pervasive sense of victimhood will color everything in your life. The men who wronged you in virtually all cases will never be held accountable, but you will find yourself awash in negative emotions over things that barely even upset you when they happened.

It’s like giving yourself a life sentence for a crime someone else committed.   

When you start telling yourself I was assaulted, I am damaged, I will never recover from this! your spirit listens and you will find yourself beset with feelings that you maybe never had at the time.  Pop psychologists will tell us it’s because we didn’t allow ourselves to feel at the time. We “blocked” our emotions until it was “safe” to experience them. But I believe in many cases, it’s because we didn’t view ourselves as victims.  It’s the sudden sense of victimization that creates the surge of emotion months or even years later. That conviction that something horrible happened. But did something HORRIBLE really happen?  Or merely awkward and unpleasant?  Are we mentally rewriting our script and recasting ourselves as victims because that’s what others are doing and we don’t want to be left out?  

It is a trap that’s very easy to fall into. But if you weren’t deeply upset about something that happened at the time, consider the possibility that you may be psyching yourself up in the here and now to have huge feelings over something that barely even upset you when it occurred. And if you are talking about small things even as you keep the large ones to yourself, is this really freeing you at all?  Or are you still hiding your real pain while exploiting the little things so you can earn your #metoo stripes, like I did?

Straight talk – women are not fragile, easily broken creatures.  I promise. Women have endless reserves of strength and endurance in the face of suffering that most of us never even (thankfully) have to tap into in this modern world.  People – most people who have ever lived, male or female, but especially female – have experienced loss and pain and adversity that most of us living First World today cannot even really imagine.  And yet they rose above those things. They recovered from them. They were NOT destroyed. They lived their lives not as victim but as survivor.

We often criticize our foremothers for staying silent.  Some would call that complicity. But I don’t, not any more.  I understand why they didn’t talk about this stuff.  Because I didn’t talk about this stuff either until I was empowered by the actions of others and even now I keep the truly awful to myself.  Because I don’t want to be judged.  Those ladies of the past did not stay silent because they weren’t as strong and brave as we are (hint – coming forward in a world full of people who are also coming forward and all of you met with thunderous applause, is not as strong and brave as people are telling us that it is) They weren’t weaklings or cowards.  They just didn’t want to be held hostage to their pain forever – a sentiment I completely understand. They didn’t want to go through their life as “that girl who the bad thing happened to” because that would simply compound their suffering.  

So don’t now decide to hold YOURSELF hostage to your own pain forever!

Every human being is wronged countless times over the course of their lives.  But a minor wrong done doesn’t destroy you. Don’t allow another person’s bad behavior to ruin sex for you, to ruin love for you, to make you afraid of everyone and everything forever.  Don’t be in such a hurry to claim your place in the toxic hierarchy of women’s suffering that you end up defining yourself by something that someone else did to you for the rest of your life.