I don’t generally wear necklaces that rest near my collarbone, but I recently bought one that was so pretty I couldn’t resist. It follows the curve of the hollow of my throat, just low enough to keep me from feeling constricted. I’ve added extenders to it, but I’m still not completely comfortable in it; I’m always checking to make sure it’s not touching my throat. I’ll probably add more.
Long necklaces aren’t a style preference for me. I think short necklaces look lovely, and go with many necklines. Long necklaces draw attention to the bust, a focus that annoys me. But I can’t tolerate anything on my neck, because I was once choked by a romantic partner.
We were arguing, and he grew irate at something I said, and shoved me against a wall and choked me.
Earlier in that relationship, the first time we had sex was non-consensual. I told him no, I told him to get off me, I tried to push him off me, but he held me down and did his thing. I don’t even know how to talk about it accurately . . . I have had a deep pit of sick feeling about that night for years, a nausea and revulsion. I didn’t acknowledge it as a rape until discussions around the Kavanaugh hearing brought up similar circumstances. Other women described situations just like mine, and put a name to it: sexual assault. “Oh,” I thought. “Oh, I see. That’s what happened. I was assaulted.”
According to the Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
I explicitly said “no.” I explicitly refused.
I was on a date, so I thought it didn’t count. I thought I was just an idiot. I thought I’d just made a bad choice letting this guy into my home, into my bedroom.
Later, I let him into my life.
Years later, he got angry and tried to choke me.
My sister and I are very close. No one knows more about me and my life than she does. She has known about every relationship I’ve had, in detail I don’t share with anyone else.
Until a couple of weeks ago, she didn’t know about this sexual assault. It happened more than two decades ago.
I doubted my own perception of the night. I must have been wrong. It couldn’t have been as bad as I thought. Did I really fight him off? Did I really not want to have sex? Hadn’t I agreed to go out with him? Hadn’t I kissed him? Hadn’t I worn an outfit to attract his attention? Didn’t I drink with him? Didn’t I go ahead and have a relationship with him? Didn’t I have sex with him again later? How could I have done that?
I had to be wrong. It wasn’t some gross stranger in a dark alley. It was someone I knew. Someone I was attracted to. Someone I went out with.
Before the Kavanaugh hearings, if I remembered that night at all, it would flit through my head like a storm cloud, and I’d shake it out. Go right past it. The last few weeks have me visiting that night in my memory more often. I remember being held down. I remember saying “no”. I remember jumping up when he rolled off me, locking myself in the bathroom and curling into a ball on the floor.
I wasn’t a virgin. I wasn’t ashamed about having sex.
I had said “no” and he ignored me and took what he wanted.
Millions of women are talking about their assaults now. They’re telling in detail about how their bodies were used without permission for someone else’s pleasure. My story isn’t unusual or notable in any way. It’s just another example of a man ignoring what a woman says and doing what he wants.
This is the heart of #MeToo, of mansplaining, of rape culture, of patriarchy. Men take what they want by force–by assault, by intimidation, blacklisting people, or just by raising their voices and talking over them. I’m sure I’ve lost some of you because I used those words. Hell, if those words bother you, I bet you didn’t even read this far.
I didn’t talk about my assault. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t bruised or cut or broken, but I was damaged. My self-determination was ruined. I wasn’t in charge of my body, how could I be in charge of my life? If I don’t have the authority to stop someone from having access to my most private of body parts, the most intimate act, how could I claim the authority to choose anything?
After my daughter was born, I started building up the strength to make decisions for my self. She needed more of me than I had had to give for my son. I found more of me than I knew existed.
I’m strong enough now to handle these memories and the feelings they’ve stirred up with control and calm. I’m not the person I was 20+ years ago; I have tools and resources for dealing with the panic that arises when I remember that assault, and the feeling of his hands on my neck.
That romantic partner is long gone. I ended it after he choked me, another decision that helped build my stamina, my will. I can move on. I am not stuck with whatever he decides I am allowed.
I fold the memory of who I was into the knowledge of who I have become; a loudmouth, observant, compassionate, fearless, with a pulsing sense of humor. I wear long necklaces.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately with creative people; hundreds of writers at a conference, and in my writers group, and in the seminar I’m attending for teaching artists.
And, of course, everyone I work with at Multnomah Arts Center is an artist in their own right; clay and steel and paint and dance and movement and theatre and music and poetry. And that’s just the people in the main office.
The shades of difference between discomfort and safety, between conflict and challenge have jumped to the front of my mind, as I’m struck with that old feeling of being an impostor. Like I don’t belong here among these REAL artists, like I’m hiding my inadequacy under the scrim of jargon and copying behavior. Like they’ll find out any moment, or they already know and they wish I would just beat it and let the real artists get back to work.
I’ve heard it’s called impostor syndrome. It rose up this week in my thoughts about my writers group, in which I am the sole member among eight people who does not have an MFA in writing. What the HELL am I doing here?
It came again in my teaching artists seminar. There are professional teachers in this cohort, and accomplished artists, people who have made their living with the expression that rises from deep within them. I get a little thrill calling it a cohort, but this again reinforces my fear that I really don’t belong among this group of experienced, knowledgeable professionals.
To my shock, many of the same artists I’ve been around lately express the same fear; that they’re in over their heads, they don’t know what they’re doing here, they see everyone else as far more competent, and they do not belong. There are artists here that I have seen on stage, captivating an audience over 5000 strong; people who organize
city-wide listening projects around calling out white fragility; people who paint murals on walls as tall as a city building. And yet some still feel like they are hiding out, fear they’ll be discovered, think they might just be faking it well enough to go undetected but they’re terrified that everyone already knows what a joker they are.
I have a friend who has worked for the DA in a large city for years and says he still feels like an impostor sometimes. Decades into his work.
I’ve decided to grab that feeling of being a fake and throttle it until it can’t make any more noise in my head. I’m a writer; I write. I write for you here, I write articles about music and theatre and sports and they are published all over the place, and I write fiction. I write. My characters and settings live in black and white, in letters and words and sentences, outside my head. I write.
This is my art. I’m still learning the art of what I do. I’m still learning how to organize that art to share it with other people in a classroom or other setting. I want to share that art, which is why I’m in the teaching artist studio.
My doubt comes from the discomfort I feel when I’m doing something that is challenging, something different and new. It’s discomfort, not based in fact.
I’m here. I’m doing what I love and I’m learning. And if you feel like you’re hiding out, like someone’s going to discover your secret, just know you are not alone. In my assessment, everyone feels like this to some degree either some of the time or all of the time.
If you’re doing your art, if you’re learning and growing, if you’re open to the challenge of making yourself better, you’re no impostor. Tell that lying voice to fuck off and keep moving. You belong here. I belong here.
Postscript–I was awakened last night by a hollow-pointed fear, a syringe straight into my confidence, sucking it clean. My beliefs is misplaced, it screamed. Look at this evidence! And proceeded to call up a memory of an interaction I was unsure about, something I wrestled with. This fear decided to this tiny bit of data was important to use to admonish me awake, to shake me out of dreams and push me to the edge of the self-destructive abyss. But I’m clear-thinking enough to know, even at 3 a.m., that just because it comes from my subconscious doesn’t mean it’s right. I went back to sleep.
On the way into the hospital for a routine visit, I saw a perfect depiction of the entirety of life; an older man and woman pushing someone in a wheelchair who appeared to be the woman’s mother chatting as they passed a young woman heavily pregnant, waiting for her partner so they could take the elevator together.
It was so tidy a picture of humanity — caring for loved ones at the end of life, anticipating the beginning of life — I wanted to remember it. Three days now I’ve been in hospitals, one as a volunteer, two as a patient for annual exams. I love hospitals; the staff is always intelligent and dedicated, by and large, and patients are being cared for by nurses and doctors and families. The reason for a hospital visit may be quotidian, like mine, but are often more pressing, an illness or injury requiring attention. Those more grave reasons seem to remind people of what’s important, of the ticking past of the very few minutes we are given. The hospital is a place where the dearness of life, the connection or disconnection in each of our lives is realized.
That dawning realization and the care poured out upon loved individuals makes me at ease in hospitals. The whole building is staffed by carers who also have the intelligence to learn the human body in minute detail and have studied the science of helping those bodies thrive.
I know my comfort in hospitals stems from raising my daughter, so many days and weeks getting treatment or surgery or going to clinic. She was treated like a regular person at our hospital, Chicago Shriners, not like a person with a problem or someone to be pitied or diminished. At Shriners, she got to be just a kid for the first — and sometimes only — time in her life. That experience colored hospitals for me permanently, though I realize non-children’s hospitals may not be quite so charming and balloon filled.
Maybe all-ages hospitals could do with more balloons.
There’s great quiet in hospitals, too, the private rooms, the purposeful striding of residents in their very important snow-white coats, no time to talk or make eye contact. The air vents always give a pleasant — if antiseptic-odored — white noise, and people tend to leave visitors alone. It’s a great place to write, with its halls full of human drama, plenty of caffeine available at all hours, and uninterrupted quiet in empty cafeterias.
I go through my regular day so blithely, expecting the next 24 hours to be served to me on a platter of golden sunlight. So often, too often, I spend that 24 hours sad or anxious. Being at the hospital grounds me in a way no other setting does. By the sounds and smells, the blue scrubs and clacking name badges, tight smiles and tighter ponytails, and obscenely large clusters of balloons, I am reminded of the days I came to the edge, the brink of losing the only precious thing in this world, one of my children, and I am flooded with gratitude for the gift of her continued presence in my life, and for my sons. And I know in my bones–my sturdy, unbroken bones–that my life is equally fragile, if for different reasons, and I am grateful anew for the chance I am given repeatedly, every morning, to live in this day and be glad in it.
I wrote this entire piece in an exam gown with a paper drape on my lap, waiting for my doctor to give me a pelvic exam. Tell me this isn’t a great place to write. Now I’m going to read a six-month old magazine with Melissa McCarthy, who looks like my mom did, and think about twinkling Irish women and their dimpled smiles.
Maybe I’ll write about that too. Fingers crossed, the doctor will continue to be “a little behind” today.
“If I thought she’d get the story right, I would have told her everything.”
I found that line on a piece of paper in a random box I was cleaning out, and I’m not sure if I wrote it or someone else did. It resonates for me now, alongside the phrase “if they’ll talk with you about someone else’s business, they’ll talk about your business with someone else.”
These words are surfacing for me now, coincidentally, burbling to a central thought. My joy at finding women who show me the way forward is tempered by the realization that I’ve also found people showing me the way not to go. And I’m grateful for them too. As my sister says, everybody has a purpose, even if only to serve as a horrible example.
The lesson about gossips, about taking care with your choices, is easy to forget when you’ve spent years as an outsider, when you’re finally included in the circle, when you find yourself on the grown-up version of the prom committee. It’s easy to get caught up in the giggles and snark in the back of the room, laughter at the expense of another person.
But it won’t be long before that laughter is at your expense. It won’t be long before the prom committee aims its cruelty missile your direction, because it must always have a target or it won’t exist.
The realization that you’re the subject of insider discussion is unsettling. I spent years fighting the culture of gossip, which was easier to spot in cliquish suburban Chicago, where clique members wore the uniform of acceptable suburban hair color (honey blonde) and drove acceptable suburban vehicles (Lexus) and had acceptable family units (blond husband, two kids). It’s harder to spot in Portland, where people revel in their differences and celebrate being weird.
But it exists here too. No matter where it’s found, gossips show themselves. They’re easier to spot, if you remind yourself what to look for.
I needed a refresher on this lesson before it kicked my ass. I’m glad I found that piece of paper, and this poem, to remind me to take care in my associations.
Emily Dickinson provided similar observations;
The Soul selects her own Society
Then–shuts the Door
I’m glad to remember these lessons before I need them, even in this place of wonder and acceptance. I’ve gotten better at seeing the signs now, avoiding entanglements with people who demonstrate with their actions that they should not be trusted. And that’s the hardest part, really; choosing not to trust someone, keeping them at bay, staying untangled.
The lure of acceptance is enticing to an introvert. But it is possible to consider carefully who to choose, which people to select for your own society without losing the joy of creating community. And in this, I’ve gained trustworthy friends too, people who have gently reminded me to look at the signals, who have shared their difficult paths and pointed out pitfalls before I went so far down a road that I couldn’t find my way back.
I have been lucky at last in learning this lesson the easy way. I’ll fly headlong into adventure on my own, take professional risks that lead me into unfamiliar territory, but I take longer now to gauge the depth and breadth of a person’s character, and trust my instincts when the warning lights flash.
This is another facet of the aging process for which I am so grateful; the wisdom of discernment.