This post is the first of a series of three. The second is Literary Sexual Abuse Part 2: Apologies. (NOTE: Please note that the comments by “Samantha” and some others in the comment stream below turned out to have been actually written by one of the men named.) The final post offers a ritual of healing.—AF.
Last night, my husband Glen and I went out for a date night in Portland. It was that green-golden-gray time when the soft old brick houses glow so warmly you can almost feel their heat through the black iron fences as you pass them on the streets, when the bare-shouldered days of a Maine summer seem so precious and fragile that I can hardly bear to think about their beauty. We were having a fun, relaxed walk down Congress Street when we passed a restaurant we used to go to pretty often, and he commented that we hadn’t been there in a while. . .
“I don’t feel like going there anymore,” I heard myself say quickly, noticing with an odd sensation of alienation that that’s the kind of thing I hardly ever say.
“But why?” Glen was surprised.
“Well, umm…” I looked around a bit, then commented on the lovely evening. It’s also unlike me to hedge when answering a question. Usually I love to answer questions. But he persisted. “Ummm….it’s just that I had a kind of a gross experience there.”
“What do you mean? When?”
“and . . . ummm. . . that place feels sort of contaminated to me now . . .oh, last fall, I guess . . “
Of course he wanted to know more. As I was telling him the story, I realized that it was the first time I had told it to anyone, in nearly a year. This isn’t like me either. Something had made me act quite unlike myself. And here’s what it was.
On a Friday night last fall, I attended a literary event in Portland where I knew several other writers, including the two writers who had curated this evening of staged conversation: a local well-known writer of fiction and nonfiction, Bill R., and his visiting friend Dave. I have a busy travel schedule and don’t get out with other writers in Portland that often, so I had a great time. Afterwards, everyone decided to walk a few blocks to a local tapas place. I texted to Glen that I’d be out a while longer, and our group of writers descended on the bar, where we drank and talked for a few more hours. Gradually, people peeled off, until there were about six or seven of us left, including Bill and Dave. At one point, I looked around the circle and realized briefly that I was the only woman left in the group; I was a little disappointed the other women had gone, but then I got caught up in the conversation and forgot about it.
I was enjoying the chat about literary gossip and publishing when people started talking about getting together the following day at Bill’s house to continue the conversation as a sort of house party while Dave was in town. It sounded like fun — I thought I might even try to persuade Glen to come along — so though I wasn’t sure if I’d actually make it over there the next day, I said I’d like to be there.
Then Bill, sitting next to me where we had been chatting about writing all evening, suddenly looked me right in the eye and said, “Great! Then we can all take turns fucking you.”
After 59 years of being a female on this planet, each year full of its own serious gender-related challenges, you’d think I would have finally come up with a way to handle comments like that.
It silences me every time, as it has since childhood.
Bill continues to sit right next to me grinning the asinine grin that I used to like, apparently unfazed by what has just come out of his mouth. We are both married and we both know that we are, but that’s not the point. Even if we weren’t, this kind of comment is, simply, hate speech. So why don’t I tell him so? Why don’t I say something? Why do I let him continue to get away with it?
(because oh yeah, I realize only months later, thanks to me, he has gotten away with it, so far. And believe me, I hate myself for that. And when I think of the other writers, many surely more vulnerable than I am, some perhaps students, who have likely heard this kind of thing from him also, I can only hope this essay will help.) [Note: I am keeping this writing as is to show how I felt for many months, but please see the note at the end of this post.]
I didn’t go to the event the next day. And I haven’t attended any local literary social events since. I still don’t have the stomach for it.
A week ago a writer friend, now in her mid-50s, told me that she now understands why she never finished her Masters degree: at a meeting with her thesis advisor in a cafe over thirty years ago, he started asking her obscene personal questions about scenes in the manuscript. She left the cafe in silence and soon after, she dropped out of the program. I’m sure many women can relate to this kind of thing. When it is multiplied so many times over, the effects on the culture are overwhelming.
In another story I was told, one of the multiplicity of tragic and horrifying tales of sexual abuse that so many women writers are privy to, a poet friend in the last year of her MFA program was driven to an isolated spot and told, by the most eminent poet in her writing program, that he wouldn’t write her a job reference letter unless she gave him oral sex right then.
While most women likely have an endless litany of experiences like these or worse shoved down deep in our memories, when we are writers, it’s not just our voices that are silenced when we are silenced, but our lives. When we are writers, it’s not just for ourselves that we speak— and it’s not just for ourselves that we do not speak.
So, for the writers who are silenced, especially the younger writers, I am speaking up now and starting to name, at least partially, names. I have felt what a burden silence is, and what a toll it takes, how it makes it impossible to let the experience go. I vow it here: I will no longer suffer the burden of secrecy in order to protect those who sexually abuse women writers, verbally or physically. I want to say to other women writers that what you have endured is not OK, that it is safe to speak up, that you are not alone. We are everywhere. We know what it’s like. We know how it feels to be ashamed. And none of us needs to feel ashamed anymore.
Here are the secrets I’ve been keeping that I’ve been ashamed to share about being a writer. As I share them, I give up responsibility for silence:
Writing a poem at age nine in my parents’ yard. A group of boys walks by and yells, “Joey wants your pussy!” I am confused and mystified by this use of the word, but I know enough to feel shamed and silenced, and I abandon the poem.
As a freshman in college, I consult with my English professor, Alfred M., on a paper and am informed that I am “the bombshell of Lit I.”
Working in the literary bookshop Books and Company after college, I am groped repeatedly by Burt B., the owner.
As a young poet, mother of two kids, and assistant professor, I stop in the packed hotel lobby of the AWP writers conference in Atlanta to chat casually for a few minutes with a literary acquaintance, the editor and poet Ravi S. As we say goodbye, out of nowhere he forcibly tongue-kisses me, then walks away.
Several years later at another conference, as I discuss an anthology project with poet Ethelbert M.,whom I have hardly ever talked to before, on a bench outside an elevator, he places his hand deliberately very high up on my thigh and keeps it there.
During and immediately after each of these incidents, I’m ashamed to say that I just froze— robbed, it felt, entirely of myself. In the middle of my own yard. In the back of the Yale classroom. In the aisles of books of poetry. Amid a crowd of literary friends, readers, students. At the birth of an anthology project. And why? Why? Did I feel somehow responsible or guilty, even though I had done absolutely nothing to deserve this treatment? Was I trying to avoid embarrassing these men, with whom I’d had friendly professional relationships until then? Was my long training in silence, begun at the age of twelve when I told my mother I’d been sexually molested and she told me not to tell anyone, taking over my integrity, my power, my common sense? Did I think if I didn’t do anything, I could pretend to myself that it hadn’t happened?
For whatever reason, like so many women, I silently extricated myself as unobtrusively as I could and didn’t say anything to the perpetrators, nor to anyone else—not at the time and not afterwards. And it’s not that I’m incapable of speaking up, either. There have been many other incidents in my life where I was sexually assaulted and I did stand up to the men involved. Once I even broke someone’s finger. But not in these cases—and so these are the ones that have haunted me for years, the ones that won’t go away. I see now that in all these cases, I was caught offguard when I was being a poet and writer—an area of life where I usually feel completely safe, completely myself. Maybe that’s why I chose to act as if they had never happened, to take the experiences inside and let them silence me. To let them make me felt alone. To let them shame me. To take away my voice.
Reading over this post, I find myself tempted to make excuses for some of the men. “Oh, he was just joking.” “Oh, he didn’t mean it.” “Oh, that should feel flattering.” “Oh, it’s no big deal.” And so on. Maybe you feel some of the same responses arising in you.
If so, I encourage you to remember, or imagine, how your body may have felt in similar situations. For example, in each of these instances, I can remember the same sequence of freezing, shame, emptiness, and bitter confusion invading my body that I felt after Bill’s remark. That’s the true response. The rest is ego, self-manipulation, and justification.
The groundbreaking psychotherapist Alice Miller, in her book Banished Knowledge, points out that it’s an outrage that our culture expects children to forgive our parents for whatever harm we’ve endured at their hands. There’s no need to forgive, Miller argues. We can still love our parents, but it’s most important that we respect and honor the hurt child inside ourselves. That’s who needs us most, and that’s who we need most, if we want to reclaim our authentic selves. And it’s the same with what one might call literary sexual abuse.
I have built my career under literary sexism, and I notice new forms of it regularly. Whether it’s the miasma of sexist remarks from the blackboard, the lectern, the panel table, or in print; ignorance or lack of attention to female literary traditions and influences on the part of teachers, editors and reviewers; the grevious gender imbalances that still remain in the choice of book series and journal editorships, high-profile reading, lecture, and media engagements, contest judgeships, teaching appointments, visiting writer gigs, and publishing; or the deep sadness of hearing one’s most respected female mentors say that they’ve entirely stopped writing recommendations for grants and fellowships because “none of the people I recommend ever win” — sexism of these kinds is infuriating, debilitating, and—certainly— terribly, horribly silencing to our voices.
But still, those kinds of sexism don’t silence us from inside our own skin. They may make us feel angry, but they don’t make us feel ashamed. They don’t threaten to wall in our hearts, sever us from our bodies, and rot out our voices the way sexual abuse does.
As director of a creative writing program, I had to deal with firing three different male faculty members—two inherited when I got the job, and one whom I made the mistake of hiring—who had engaged in sexually harassing behavior with students (consensual in two of the cases). I am not listing their names because I think the university’s termination agreements may forbid it, but most of us in the literary world know of esteemed writers on creative writing faculties who are tolerated in spite of regularly making women students feel sexually uncomfortable or worse. When an ordinary eighteen-year-old who has consensual sex with a sixteen-year-old needs to stay on a public sexual offender registry for life, it doesn’t seem right that universities protect the reputations of teachers of creative writing whom numerous vulnerable young writers entrust with their most intimate and precious possession—their voice.
I feel that the only way to free our writers’ voices from the silence of shame is to use them to share our stories. That’s why I have decided to speak up and share my own—finally. And if you’d like to comment, please do (it is mostly working fine but a couple of people have lost things so if your comment is one you want to keep, please be sure you have a backup before clicking button to offer your comment). Thank you for speaking up, speaking out, speaking freely!
With love and respect,
P.S. I would like to make clear here that my impression of Bill R. changed completely later on, as described in Literary Sexual Abuse Part 2: Apologies and the comments of others who were there that night. Here are excerpts from my note to one of them:
“This situation shows that a comment meant purely in jest by a kind and aware person can still turn out to be triggering and harmful. It is important for people to know that it’s not only sexist jerks who can perpetuate sexist abuse, but sensitive, wonderful people too. . . Even after we cleared up the misunderstanding about the joke part [N.B. the joke was based on a conversation about Game of Thrones that had been going on earlier that he assumed I’d heard, but I hadn’t], he chose to apologize anyway since, wonderful person as he is, he “got it” that 1. he had no way to be sure I was in a position to get the joke (i wasn’t) and 2. even if I was, he had no way to be sure I wasn’t someone who would be triggered by such a joke, and 3. even if I wasn’t triggered, any joke that depends on the gender of the person addressed for its humor is not a joke he wanted to tell. So he apologized. And I accepted. . . . . I will post this clarifying information I am writing here as part of the original post, to make it clear that he was not doing what at first it seemed to me he was doing. As I wrote in the second post, on apologies, he was the first man I’ve known in my life who apologized effectively for such behavior, and his apology was extremely healing for me. I agree he is a wonderful person, and I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about that, so I hope this change will help.”
This post is the first of a series. The second is Literary Sexual Abuse Part 2: Apologies. The final post will offer a poetic ritual of healing.—AF.
URGENT NOTE: An extra followup post reveals the use of sock puppets (false online identities) in several of the remarks in the comment thread below this post.