This is one of two posts to follow up on my post “Things I’ve Been Ashamed to Say About Being a Writer Until Now” — (NOTE: Unforeseen circumstances resulting from this post made necessary an extra followup post about online literary sexual abuse.) (the final post will offer a poetic ritual of healing)—AF.
Speaking out about the secrets I’d been carrying turned out to be helpful not only for me, but for many others. Countless women have told me this week that they had similar experiences and that my piece helped them feel more validated and empowered to share their own stories and reclaim their voices. So many women shared their stories that it was like an ocean of poisonous contaminated water was unleashed and came washing over me. And still I’m saying thank you, sisters, mothers, daughters, keep it coming, because silence is so much worse! As we all know, any such tale is only the tip of the iceberg because the sexual abuse has been so constant, so ubiquitous, in our literary lives. So it can feel daunting to begin to speak because there is just so overwhelmingly much to tell. But to start seems to be the path to freedom. When I wrote my piece, I had no idea what it would feel like afterwards; I was feeling rather numb in fact. But after the secrets I had carried so long were told, I was astounded to discover that, for the first time in my professional life, I knew what it felt like to carry myself with the full dignity of a complete human being.
One person, out of hundreds, suggested in a comment on my previous post that it was cowardice for me to speak out because I hadn’t done so at the time of the events. I disagree heartily—and I need to disagree, because the survival of the voices of so many women is at stake. I have been blessed to connect in the aftermath of my post with the editor of Drunken Boat, Erica Mena, who brought the model of Restorative Justice into our discussions of sexual abuse. This model seems to me the perfect way to approach these issues in the literary community, both for our own sakes and perhaps as a model for the larger national and world community to which writers, after all, are accountable. This is a community issue, one where communication and human connection, not finger-pointing and retribution, will lead to meaningful and lasting healing. In such a model there is no statute of limitation; it is never too early nor too late to speak the truth that as humans we deserve to tell–and in so doing, to get our voices back. Women who have been abused don’t owe anyone silence–not ever, and certainly not anymore. We don’t owe silence to the intimidators, attackers, or abusers, to bosses, editors, or publishers, to mothers, friends or sisters, to lovers, husbands or children, and least of all to those who are clueless about sexism.
As a male friend commented on reading the previous post, incidents like these are all about power, not about sex: they put women down and subtly (or blatantly, as in this case!) remind us throughout our literary careers that we are second or third class citizens. These are the pieces of sand that are melted into the glass ceiling. I have no doubt that sickening, oppressive incidents such as I’ve heard about this week, especially in the context of the endemic sexism we all breathe constantly, can have a profound experience on one’s life and fundamentally affect a career path. So I am ready for more tales of literary sexual abuse, here or in the comments section of my post where people have been starting to post (please keep a backup copy before you press submit because though it is mostly working fine, as you may know, WordPress sometimes eats things). No justification, no comparison, no downplaying, no self-sacrifice needed; the truth of the pain you felt is enough–more than enough.
After spending much of my career working to strengthen women’s voices, through starting communities such as WOMPO (Women’s Poetry Listserv) and through editing and writing about the traditions and influences of women’s writing, I am shocked how long it took me to understand that complete freedom to speak out about literary sexual abuse is essential to women’s ability to claim our full places as writers. I am now convinced, through this experience of coming forward, that keeping secrets about sexual abuse is the bedrock on which other forms of sexual oppression rest—and that only by telling the truth and no longer being complicit in protecting people who have done these things will we free ourselves (and free the perpetrators as well) from the terrible burden that has been muting our literary voices and robbing the world of our true words.
Two of the men mentioned in my piece, Bill R. and Ravi S., contacted me to apologize. Bill’s apology, in a private email which he did not want quoted but gave me permission to paraphrase at will, was gratifying. He said he has no recollection of making the remark I describe, but he took full and complete responsiblity for making it. He assumes it was meant as a joke, but he completely understood my response and not only apologized but also empathized completely with my feelings, so that I felt fully heard and respected. He expressed sincere, compassionate, and genuine remorse and made it clear how terrible he feels about the pain he caused to me. He closed by letting me know that he is making meaningful and significant changes in his life to ensure that he never hurts anyone like that again.
As I read Bill’s apology, I was shocked to find tears running down my cheeks. Finally I had to put my laptop aside for fear of getting the keyboard wet. And then I found myself sobbing aloud, as if my heart would break-—though after a few minutes I realized it was not breaking, but healing. Because of all the men who have attacked, exploited, groped, grabbed, embarrassed, offended, catcalled, whispered, hooted, molested, or otherwise sexually abused me during my life (a hundredfold more times than just the specifically literary incidents described in my post, as I’m sure few women will be surprised to hear), Bill is as far as I can remember the first man ever to apologize to me for sexually abusive behavior.
Not only did it feel incredibly, deliciously, good to read Bill’s apology that morning, when a level of relief and relaxation and joy and trust and openness towards men I can never remember feeling before flooded over me–but the effects have lasted. I had noticed with dismay for a long time an undercurrent of distrust weakening my relationships with heterosexual men, especially older men who might have a sort of paternal or avuncular relationship with me. But since reading Bill’s apology, I notice a distinct increase in my capacity to trust that a man is OK and safe—whether a man I know in my own life, or even a picture in the media of a man holding a child, for instance— and that I don’t have to feel constantly on guard. This is an immense relief and makes me feel that, in a sense, I am entering the human community for the first time. It also makes me immensely sad for my former self, for the wounds I still carry, and for all my sisters around the world who have suffered such unspeakable things from childhood on. There is so much healing to be done. But on the positive side, who knew that one man’s apology in 2016 could help so much, so easily, and so rapidly to heal the effects of so many years of sexual abuse deep in my psyche? The beauty of healing is that it is whole-ing; it restores us to the wholeness we are deeply and already ready for. It goes with gravity. It flows downhill. It has momentum on its side. And it is never too late.
Ravi also wrote an apology which he asked me to post on this blog. I agreed, and here it is in full. Originally I intended to follow it with some comments, but I’m going to take a break now, with thanks to everyone for your support and love which have meant so much to me this week.
“TOWARDS PUBLIC DIALOGUE” By Ravi Shankar
When Annie Finch reached out to me on Twitter after I had retweeted a courageous Indian woman recounting tales of her own sexual assault, my instinctive reaction was to thank her for her courage and even to apologize on behalf of all men without even having read Annie’s piece, never imagining for a second I would be somehow implicated. When Annie quizzed me a little about whether I had read the piece including the hashtag #notokay, I finally sat down to read the powerful and revelatory essay. Imagine my surprise when midway through the essay I got to my own name as one of the perpetrators in question. My first reaction, I’ll admit it, was one of complete outrage – are you kidding me? I’m a staunch feminist, a brother of two sisters, the father of two girls, and a lover and champion of women. Surely there was no way what she alleged could have taken place for I had no recollection of this episode from over a decade ago. Nor have I ever been physically attracted to Annie; what I have always found most appealing is her mind, her formally inventive poems and perspicacious criticism, the way she has gone about creating a poetry community.
But then as I sat further with this feeling, trying to recollect the memory of first meeting Annie, I had to allow for that gulf between intention and perception, to acknowledge that perhaps I had done something to violate her in some way. Could it be true? Certainly I would swear on my life that I’ve never ever forced my tongue into anyone’s mouth but here she was claiming just that. What was my culpability and was I in fact capable of such a trespass? The longer I sat with that question the less I could say for certain.
I come from a physically affectionate culture; my aunts and uncles are all huggers and after living in Paris, I have always thought to kiss someone on the cheek when you meet them is to be possessed of a certain sophistication. But I need to acknowledge that for someone that could be too intimate, taking too many liberties for granted. Plus I am no saint; I’ve had relationships with many women, including occasionally at AWP. I’ve never felt there was an exploitation of power there because I’ve always felt these connections were mutual but have they all been?
For my part, reading Annie’s essay brought up memories of my own; the female TA in college who asked me into her office, locked the door and demanded a massage; the very drunk student who I taught in Hong Kong who came onto me and when I refused and put her in a cab home accused me of sexual harassment but thankfully I was in the company of other faculty members who could vouch for the truth of what happened; the times I have been embroiled in a kiss with someone I’d rather not be kissing, but that I have felt too much like a “gentleman” to stop from happening. Harassment and sexual assault can go in both directions.
But that ultimately avoids the allegation, which I take very seriously, in part because who knows who Bill R. or Dave or Alfred M. are but I think there’s not much guesswork involved in figuring out who a Ravi S. or a Ethlebert M. might be, and also because I’m not teaching now but hope to do so again, and yes have had some unfortunate experiences with the criminal justice system , the truth of which has not been told yet (but that I am writing about now, and FYI, I was promoted not tenured during this time Amy G.) , so I really don’t need anything more going against me, but those are all self-interested reasons. Obviously Annie has carried these feelings with her for all of these years and it took great courage to open up about it. So while I can’t even clearly remember it, this is not to excuse my behavior. The more I sat and thought about it, the more I had to come to recognize that maybe something like that, in spite of motives or desires, could possibly have happened. There’s still a part of me that’s still totally nonplussed and incredulous that I would ever try to French kiss someone I barely knew in the middle of a teeming hotel. And whenever I would see Annie again, we would greet each other warmly, even corresponding over the years on various topics. However I can’t say for certain that what she said happened didn’t happen, and for that I apologize to Annie. It’s so far out of the realm of how I perceive myself that I’m deeply dismayed and shocked, and I just wish Annie had said something to me earlier, though I understand how difficult it is to do so.
Let’s begin with the premise that we live in a moment where gender relations are pretty messed up. Where it is hard to be a woman and hard to be a man. Where we are saturated in sexuality but also have a concomitant Puritanical response to our bodies. Where there is a lot of ambivalence – we want someone and we don’t want them; we want to be swept off our feet and we want to be independent; where we are all living somewhere on a spectrum of masculinity and feminity and where our emplacement there is fluid. So how do we end the silence?
I think speaking up immediately is important. I wish Annie had said those many years ago, Ravi what on earth are you doing?? because I would have been able to process and engage with it better than I am now when I’m completely different person than I was in my late 20’s. I think creating safe space for those kinds of concerns to be raised is cruicial. We need to listen to and not shame those who come forward. I also think that we need to own our part in how we influence the world. Writing and education are patently carnal acts, they engage with the beauty and desire manifest in the world, so can we be honest about that as well as our own feelings? I think as unsexy as it might sound we need to be more vocal in articulating what we do and don’t want, in saying NO, even if we have been engaged in what some might perceive as flirtation. That clearer communication can help head off something that we might later look back in regret at. And for men, we need to begin with respecting women, thinking of them as equal subjects rather than something to gratify our sense of ego. We need to recognize how power enters into these relationships and we – myself definitely included – need to get better at understanding one another’s boundaries.
As saddened as I was to see myself in Annie’s essay, I’m so glad she wrote it. Whatever the truth of what happened between us so long ago, I’m sorry for making her carry this shame with her. As I told her on Twitter, I respect and admire her far too much to ever imagine myself capable of what she described, but perhaps I was and still am; if so, it’s to make certain that nothing like this ever happens again that I write this. I hope that we can begin to shift the dynamic of sexism and abuse that has existed for far too long and hope to do my small part towards that.
Love and gratitude,
NOTE: Unforeseen circumstances resulting from this post and its comment threads made necessary an extra followup post about online literary sexual abuse and the use of sock puppets.)