This post is the first of a series of three. The second is Literary Sexual Abuse Part 2: Apologies. (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.) The final post offers a poetic 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 . . ”
And 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, “sure, that sounds like fun — count me in.”
Then Bill, sitting next to me where we had been enjoying a perfectly civil and professional writerly conversation 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, with the same icy sudden petrifying stab in the chest.
Then comes remembering that my face is visible, and then the urge to hide it, to cover the painful unfair heat rising in my cheeks. Then comes the shame washing through me at being who—what—I am.
Then comes the yawning emptiness of loneliness in my center, as I understand all over again in my core that I don’t belong here, that I am, even when I don’t know it, an alien, an outsider, an object in this world where I mistakenly thought I had a place.
Then insult piles onto injury, the helpless impotent silent taste of frustration demeaning my mouth as I realize that, once again, I am saying nothing, and will say nothing, to this man I had thought until this minute was my friend and even my literary supporter.
And I have no excuse. This isn’t someone hooting from a passing car or murmuring insinuatingly on the street, out of sight before I can gather my voice. 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. And this time I’m not fourteen anymore; I’m a respected writer, with dozens of years of therapy under her belt. 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 don’t I let him know out of bounds that was, or at the very least, tell him how I feel, or at the very least try to satisfy my curiosity about how he could ever imagine he could get away with such a remark?
(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.)
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 dear friend, now in her mid-50s, told me that she recently came to understand why she never finished her Masters degree in writing. One afternoon over thirty years ago, she was meeting with her thesis advisor in a cafe to discuss her work when he started asking her obscene personal questions about scenes in the manuscript. She left the cafe in silence and didn’t tell anyone what had happened. Soon after, she dropped out of the program. She never went back to school.
Another talented friend told me that when she was completing her MFA in creative writing, the world-renowned writer who was her teacher told her that unless she gave him oral sex, he wouldn’t write her any job recommendations. She said nothing, left in silence, and didn’t tell anyone for years. I don’t know if that’s why, but she still doesn’t have a fulltime teaching job.
Most women likely have an endless litany of experiences like these or worse shoved down deep in our memories. There are the catcalls, the obscene comments, the grabs, the stares, the exposures, the whispers, and more whose memories move through our days and the panic, the clutched keys, the quick looks, the half-running strides through the dark, and more whose memories move through our nights.
Yet when we are writers, there’s another dimension too. 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 I’m following the lead of VIDA in 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:
When I was nine years old, I was standing in my parents’ yard on a spring afternoon staring at the buds on the trees with a pad of paper in my hand, in the middle of writing one of my first poems. A group of boys walked by and shocked me out of my reverie by yelling, “Joey wants your pussy!” I was horribly confused; the only pussy I knew of was growing on the pussy willow bush in the corner of the yard. But though I had no understanding of what they meant, I could tell from the way they kept watching for my reaction that somehow, this comment meant that I should feel very, very ashamed.
As a freshman in college, after class one day I spoke with my English professor, Alfred M., to ask his opinion about a paper I was going to write on Borges. He prefaced his remarks by informing me that I was “the bombshell of Lit I.” Just as I did at age nine, I had to find out what that word meant before I could begin to try to understand why I suddenly felt so dirty, so helpless, and so very disempowered.
I started my first literary job when I moved to New York after college, at a legendary bookstore located next to the Whitney Museum. The owner, Burt B., groped me whenever he found me alone in the book aisles. All I could do was try to stay away from him, which made it hard to savor my first taste of the New York literary world. There was nobody to talk to about it; he was the boss.
As a young poet, mother of two kids, and assistant professor, I was walking through the middle of a packed hotel lobby at a writers conference in Chicago and stopped to chat casually for five minutes with Ravi S., the editor of a journal that had published my poems—a poet I had had dinner with along with a mutual friend a few years earlier but otherwise barely knew. As we said goodbye, he grabbed me with very strong arms and suddenly shoved his tongue briefly and hard into my mouth, then walked away, leaving me in a state of violation and robbed energy that I still experience as I remember it.
As an associate professor at another conference, I sat down with a poet acquaintance I knew through years of casual occasional literary emails, Ethelbert M., on a bench outside an elevator to discuss his contribution to a book I was thinking of editing. As we talked earnestly about the project—the longest conversation we’d ever had in person to date—he casually rested his hand high up on my thigh—very high up on my thigh. And kept 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 were charged with sexual harassment by students. I am not including their names because I think the university’s termination agreements may forbid it, but I’ll look into it and share them if I can. 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 vulnerable 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,
This post is the first of a series of three. The second is Literary Sexual Abuse Part 2: Apologies. The final post will offer a poetic ritual of healing.—AF.