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Preface: I’m writing here about my own lived experience. I’m also writing to explore poems in general, gender in general, the workshop structure in general, not as implications of my own colleagues. (Just to preemptively address the upset I’m sure is coming.)
So, preface over.
The last two weeks of workshop have gotten me thinking about how gender comes into play in terms of how readers read. These were two of the most frustrating, empty workshops of my life–my workshop this week was blazed through & I left with nothing to cling to, no idea of where to go from there. I understand that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes when it comes to workshop. Sometimes you have bad readers, sometimes workshop has an off week, sometimes you walk out feeling like you got nothing. It happens.
But my bothered-ness is more on an intellectual level than an emotional one. A] there are complex gender issues at play here & B] these are the kinds of poems I’m working on right now–& working toward a chapbook with, ideally–so I’m going to keep “alienating” my readers with them. The poems are aggressive, I know this. They are from the perspective of female speakers who are directly confronting issues of misogyny & patriarchy. My speaker this week was labeled “intense,” “obsessive,” “angry.” I received the comment that (male) readers were “unable to deal with” the phrase “onslaught of shame.” I was told that it was “too heavy” to use & repeat certain “loaded” words.
Here’s the thing–my speaker is intense, obsessive, & angry. Just like I am. I’m writing these poems because I’m sick of misogyny. I am sick of trying to theorize it away & have congenial conversations about it. I’m sick of explaining how misogyny makes me feel, & how certain actions are misogynistic. It’s not my job to teach men how they’re being misogynistic. So yeah, these poems are sometimes “heavy” & “loaded.” They address rape & objectification & abuse & silence. They address shame & desire & depression & everything else that goes into being a woman.
I’m not concerned about pandering to readers who would never buy my book anyway. I’m just intellectually curious about how patriarchal assumptions about what’s “okay” for a female poet/female speaker to say (& moreover, how it’s okay for her to say it) influence what’s considered good poetry. Perhaps this comes down to the workshop structure–something I think most of us can agree is fundamentally flawed. Is it valuable for female poets who write directly about misogyny to hear what male readers think is “too much?” Maybe it’s valuable inasmuch as that’s the direction our work should (ugh, not “should” but what’s the word here?) be pushed?
Based upon workshop, it seems the concern is that my speaker is too indulgent. It makes me think of THIS essay I wrote about Louise Gluck–so many (male) readers/critics are quick to dismiss her because she’s “too much.” Is it indulgent to hone in on a lived experience that’s minimized & silenced by society at large? Is it indulgent to depict it angrily & dramatically? Can’t things like loaded words & repetition & “indulgent” I-statements & implication of the reader accurately depict the experience of being a woman? My speaker gets to come at the reader–either narratively or mimetically–because that’s kind of the point of these poems. I feel attacked & uncomfortable every day. If a reader feels attacked & uncomfortable while he’s reading a feminist poem that challenges his position of privilege… isn’t that a good thing?
I was so frustrated when I left workshop that I asked for readers on Facebook. The interesting thing is that most of the people who replied, willing to give feedback, were women. And their feedback was largely positive–there were line edits & revision suggestions, of course, but on the whole, it was well-received by female readers. The most impactful comment I got was from a female reader who said, “This really resonates with me.” Maybe that’s how I should be judging the success of a series of outright feminist poems.
But isn’t that frustrating? To say that because certain poems confront the patriarchy, they will be limited to a female readership? Do we have to, as readers, relate to a poem in order to appreciate it or gain some kind of insight or experience from it? That’s already been considered HERE & HERE, amongst other places, but I admit that I find myself challenged in terms of relatability. As I packed up my bookshelves a couple of weeks ago, I noticed the fact that I own hardly any poetry books by men. All of my favorite poets are women. If you were to ask me about what poets were doing the most transgressive work, the most innovative work, the most socially relevant & emotionally impactful work, I’d give you a list of names–probably all women.
Does that make me a hypocrite to freely admit that I prefer to read female poets, but then express concern about my work struggling to find a male audience? I’m not concerned what any damn men think about anything I write/say/do/am, but I am concerned that my work will be passed off as not good because it’s “too much,” because I have a speaker–like Gluck’s–who (sometimes violently) refuses to bow down to gendered expectations.
I think this is where the general workshop structure comes into play. So much of the conversation is about I (don’t) like this / This is a (not) good poem / I (don’t) get this / I (don’t) get what’s happening here / etc. But are those conversations even relevant? Especially when workshop readers bring ways of reading to the table that are based upon their respective subjectivities, & those subjectivities are fundamentally at odds with the poem’s/speaker’s goals?
If the poems are aiming to express an explicitly female experience, especially from a perspective that is okay with actively implicating men, & male readers largely resist/dislike the poem, does that mean the poem is a failure or the poem is successful? That’s where I’m struggling. I don’t have any answers, but am definitely curious what others think…
Escape From Tomorrow is, on its surface, a tale of a father’s mental breakdown. Middle-aged so-called “everyman” Jim White finds out, on his family’s last day of vacation at Disney World, that he’s lost his job. Determined to hide it from his wife and two young children, he tries to continue on with the day, dealing with the stress of getting fired all by himself. He finds the rides becoming more & more bizarre, all while spending the day neglecting his kids in order to stalk to pubescent French girls, purposefully stylized as Lolita figures. Once Jim starts hallucinating monsters, hearing voices, & slipping into general paranoia, the audience knows they’re in for something strange. It isn’t until the second “act” of the film, though, that things go completely wild. The already-flimsy narrative structure is more-or-less abandoned in favor of scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Because of the guerilla-style filmmaking that went into Escape From Tomorrow (the film was shot covertly [& illegally] on Disney property), many viewers & critics expected a deliberately searing critique of the Disney cultural phenomenon. While this kind of commentary wasn’t necessarily the central point of the film, writer/director Randy Moore certainly didn’t paint Disney as the happiest place on Earth. On the contrary, Disney World becomes a place of quietly totalitarian rule. Here, to borrow from David Mamet, everything not required is forbidden. The park functions as an autonomous character, exerting its control over the patrons, & everyone from children to adults is all-too-happy to let it happen. It’s the “Disney magic” in action.
Jim losing his job right away as the film begins immediately strips him of his traditionally masculine authority. The audience never gets to know him as anything but a man who’s been “emasculated”—he’s broke, his wife can’t stand him, his kids hate him, & the younger girls he flirts with think he’s a joke. His (now-absent) power comes off-screen: he provided the money that got his family to Disney. Once his role as breadwinner is challenged, he begins to question his identity, & this instability of his sense of self is manifested in the hallucinations he has—he think he hears his wife saying she hates him, thinks he finds out that his son is not actually his son.
The film is steeped in Freudian imagery & subtexts, not the least of which is the theory of the repressed. In the realm of Freudian psychosexual drama, a person who’s still fixated on early libido objects (see Jim’s obsession with the pubescent girls), two outcomes are possible: perversion or neurosis. Jim floats back & forth between the two outcomes, flirting with internalizing or externalizing his desires. His wife more or less allows him to get away with this psychosexual game with the underage girls, but when the opportunity arises for Jim to act on his desire for them, he can’t bring himself to do it.
If Disney World is the child’s overwhelming, unbridled fantasy, Jim’s is pedophilia. The girls aren’t painted as sophisticated high-school aged temptresses (which isn’t to say if they were high-school aged, they’d be able to consent either, but the point stands). They’re depicted as 12-13 years old, skipping around, giggling, screaming on rides like the children they clearly are. Their sexuality is tentative & playful, making it clear to the viewer that if Jim were to act on his impulses, he would obviously be taking full advantage of them. Just as he’s trapped in the family structure/unit, he’s similarly trapped in his own desires—he can’t get rid of them, but can’t act on them either.
Does Moore want the viewer to sympathize with Jim for feeling trapped? For his inability to act on his desires? At multiple moments, the sympathy is clearly & emphatically placed with Jim. He’s depicted as brave for approaching the girls in the pool, daring for following them onto a ride. It isn’t until the pool rendezvous is violently interrupted by his family & the ride excursion is disrupted by his young son vomiting that the viewer is jolted back to reality, realizing just what Jim was about to do. At these moments, we sympathize with Jim’s wife & children, & see him with the same disgust they do. Moore is an expert on swinging the viewer back & forth—making her question why she’s viewing these characters the way she is, & what external forces are shaping those views.
Are Jim’s pedophiliac desires creepier because the scene is one of innocence & youth—Disney World? Or do we give him a bit more of a free pass because he’s painted as a man trapped in a world over which he has no control? He can’t control his job, his relationship, his children, the circumstances of the park, hell—he can’t even control his own alcohol tolerance. He’s the “everyman” thrown into the ultimate world of simulacra. At Disney World, simulation triumphs over reality. Jim, therefore, permits himself to push the boundaries with his desires because Disney isn’t representative, in any way, of reality. It’s his playground, a simulation free-for-all.
As Jim plays around here, Moore wonders at his role of father-breadwinner, leading the film to imply that when the father’s physical, emotional, & monetary contributions go underappreciated, he deserves a break from reality. He gets to neglect his kids, he gets to get wasted, eat overpriced food, cheat on his wife, flirt with teenagers. This stance, paired with the film’s misogynistic painting of Jim’s wife, Emily, as a one-dimensional critical, demanding, high-pitched-voiced whiner, may serve as a problematic warning: appreciate your man or else.
Jim is by no means the flawless hero who deserves anything he wants, however. Returning to Freud, Jim’s latent fears are incredibly middle class. He’s afraid of losing his job (check), falling out of love with his wife (check), being broke (check), being inappropriately attracted to young girls (check), losing his children (check)… the list goes on. These middle class, domestic anxieties all come vividly to life in this setting, making the point that the most terrifying things we can imagine are those that we have to confront on a daily basis.
One of the most interesting “daily domestic terror” subplots in the film is that of the relationship between Jim & his son, Elliot, who clearly has an Oedipal obsession with his mother. The movie opens with Elliot locking Jim outside on the balcony so he can climb into bed with his mother, snuggling in tight & effectively taking Jim’s place in the marital bed. The relationship between father & son comes to a head at the end of the film, when Elliot opens the bathroom door to find his father dying. The triumphant look on Elliot’s face clearly lets the reader know that trying to save his father’s life never crosses his mind before he simply closes the door, going back to bed, & leaving his father to meet a grisly fate.
Elliot stands as the centerpiece of the film (even as the one character who remains silent more often than he speaks) making Jim’s ultimate failure to him. (Additionally, Moore has openly stated that his inspiration for the film came from his relationship with his estranged father & their trips to Disney World.) One key scene that speaks to this failure is when Emily takes their daughter Sara to get lunch, leaving Jim & Elliot alone together to ride the Buzz Lightyear ride Elliot’s been dying to go on all day. After waiting for over an hour in a slow-crawling line, the pair finally reaches the front, only to be told that the ride has just been shut down. Jim’s anger at being out of control leads him to become more brazen about stalking the French girls—even with Elliot (who asks why they’re following them, adding, “They’re pretty, huh?”) in tow.
Jim’s utter lack of control over the Buzz Lightyear ride mimics what he perceives as a lack of control over the failing relationship between himself & Elliot. This leads the viewer to wonder what Moore sees as being the pervasive, intergenerational failure between fathers & sons. There’s something, in other words, that is preventing men from passing along important, transcendent lessons to their sons. Here, it’s Disney itself. The infallible & oft-unnamable forces that construct the entity that is “Disney” rule children (& parents) with a heavy fist. The paternalism of the park & its related mythologies replaces Jim’s paternal role, leaving him to spin out into an identity-less mess.
Once his roles as father & breadwinner have both been effectively undermined, Jim begins to view his very masculinity as a joke, continually making cracks about the phallic imagery in the park—even calling Epcot’s famed Spaceship Earth “a giant testicle.” Not only is this a sign of Jim’s lost masculinity, it’s also representative of the way in which Disney frequently co-opts narratives as their own—but only after sanitizing the plots to hide the sex/sexuality/eroticism they contain. In Escape From Tomorrow, this forcibly repressed sexuality & eroticism bubbles up through the cracks. The imagery—everything from rides to food—becomes phallic, Disney princesses become prostitutes, kids get to live out their Oedipus-&-Electra dreams, & grown men get to have sex with children.
It is important to remember, though, that the viewer’s arbiter of this sexual freedom is ultimately a male. As such, it’s no coincidence that the film is chock-full of “male gaze” shots. What’s difficult to determine is whether they’re sincere or ironic. Do they mock the male gaze or do they revel in it? The French girls are aware of Jim’s sexualized attention, Emily is aware of it, the children are aware of it, the ex-princess Jim meets in the park is aware of it. He is by no means subtle, & that is portrayed as a flaw in his character, but it’s difficult to discern what the film would suggest as a preferable alternative—Jim not subjecting girls & women to his lecherous advances or him doing so more subtly & tactfully.
As female viewers, we are all intimately aware of the existence of the male gaze—we all know what it feels like to be subjected to it, including by someone like Jim, yet Moore shoots the film largely from Jim’s perspective in a feeble attempt to get us to identify with him. The male gaze is given the Hitchcockian treatment—we see Jim’s face, then we see what he’s looking at (often the French girls). We become intimate first with Jim’s reaction (the effect), only then with the girls (the cause). The one time we see the girls through Emily’s eyes, their faces become contorted, taking on the shapes of monsters.
As previously mentioned, Emily is well-aware of Jim’s eroticized feelings for the girls, even making comments like “They’re a little young, Jim, even for you!” Since the viewer always sees them the way Jim sees them, they are presented onscreen as stereotypical “Lolitas,” young, thin, doe-eyed, largely physically undeveloped, & wearing flimsy white clothing adorned with hearts. Their symbolic markers of innocence are clear, in other words. The question then arises—if they are filtered solely through Jim, if it were not for his lecherous, pedophiliac reaction, would the audience think twice about their sexual appeal? It seems nearly impossible to claim that the audience wouldn’t already sexualize the two girls, even if Jim hadn’t done it first. The film, in this way, puts the onus on the viewer, saying, in essence, you thought it, too, don’t lie.
As the film progresses, both Jim & the girls become bolder in their moves toward one another, & it becomes clear that this is a game for both of them. Though they may have different outcomes in mind, the strategic moves are clear on both sides. When one of the two girls invites Jim to come with them & he can’t muster up the courage to say yes, she spits in his face. The audience later learns that she’s given him the mysterious & deadly “cat flu” that’s been going around the park. If the girls are the cat, Jim is the mouse. He’s been caught, bested in the game. The assumption here is that the pursued, forbidden girl is really the one with all the power; that the grown man is inevitably powerless in the face of the underage girl, & she bats him around just for fun—because she can.
The dangerous stances here are evident. The girls (remember, they’re portrayed as middle schoolers—12-13 years old) may flirt playfully with Jim, but at the end of the day, they are shown skipping, eating frozen treats, riding the teacups, enjoying fireworks, & running around, playing with boys their own age. They’re still innocent & their tentative foray into sexuality & sexual power is just that—tentative. They’re testing their power in a land (Disney World) that’s distinctly separate from reality. It’s a simulation. As Baurdrillard explains, not only is Disney World a copy of a fictional/cultural idea; it’s also a copy of Disneyland. It’s a simulacrum to the second power. The girls’ test of their sexual power occurred in a space that is not real & therefore should not have been subjected to reality’s terms & consequences.
Jim’s denial of their continued test (as he refuses to go with them) shatters the illusion. He’s brought the real—with its norms, expectations, & consequences—into the fantasy. The punishment for this? Cat flu &, ultimately, death.
The gender politics swing pendulously throughout Escape From Tomorrow. To map major moments on this trajectory:
- Jim brings family to Disneyworld, demonstrating monetary power & role as breadwinning father
- Emily repeatedly & shrilly criticizes Jim’s every parenting decision
- Beautiful female nurse explains cat flu to Jim & how he can’t control it
- Ex-princess seduces & then rapes Jim
- Jim & Emily argue about Jim’s drinking; Jim looks like a fool, Emily a shrew
- Emily confronts Jim about the French girls; lashes out by hitting her daughter
- French girls ask Jim to come with him; he rejects them & they repay him for this decision by giving him cat flu
- Ex-princess kidnaps Sara; Jim rescues her
- Jim dies of cat flu, leaving the viewer w/the closing image of the French girls as grinning fairies
Neither male or female characters are painted as particularly illustrious, despite the plethora of gender-based commentary. There are five speaking female characters in the film, along with the voice-less Disney princesses whom we come to learn are actually high-priced prostitutes:
- Emily: Prudish, controlling, shrill, critical, exhausted
- Sara: Worships her father, innocent, puts on a strong face in front of him
- Ex-Princess: Seduces Jim w/her amulet, rapes him, kidnaps Sara
- Disney Princesses: Beautiful, mythologized, secretly sexual
- / 6. French Girls: Innocent, but seductive (to Jim), ultimately deadly to him
The fact that the French girls Jim idealizes are a sharp composite of the four other women (counting the princesses as an entity) in the film is fascinating. The two girls are innocent, curious, & worshipful, just like his daughter, Sara; they’re controlling of & ultimately rude to him just like his wife, Emily; they’re seductive & powerful just like the ex-princess; they’re beautiful & mythologized (as Nabokov’s nymphets) just like the Disney princesses. The two girls whom Jim feels have inescapable control over him are actually representative of women in general. His misogyny, his cockiness, his cowardice, are ultimately his downfall. The fact that he sees these girls (& thereby all women) as his consequence-less playthings, is what kills him. It’s the male corruption of the ultimate space of innocence—both in terms of the virginal female body & of Disney World.
As a viewer, it’s extremely difficult to discern what Moore is, in fact, attempting to say about gender & gender roles. Is Jim the victim? Is his wife? Are the girls? It’s a question that might take multiple views of the film to explore—& even then, may still very well go unanswered.
“We have all known the long loneliness and
we have learned that the only solution is love and
that love comes with community.” — Dorothy Day
On last count, Rebecca Makkai’s Ploughshares column, “Writers You Want To Punch in the Face(book),” has been shared almost a dozen times on my Facebook newsfeed today. I have to wonder why. Are we really all that passive aggressive? Each time someone posted it, I couldn’t help but wonder who they were silently jabbing at. (I can guarantee they each had at least one person in mind when they hit “share”—otherwise why share it if they hadn’t seen it themselves?)
In the column, Makkai invents a hypothetical writer, Todd Manly-Krauss. Our dear Todd is described as a “good enough guy in real life,” but his Facebook presence is depicted as insufferable. He’s the guy who claims to be “so utterly humbled!” at everything, keeps count of the nonsense “best of” lists he’s made it onto, hashtags about how great his “writing life” is. He gives canned literary advice, brags about each page he’s written, namedrops the poets he’s hanging out with. I get it. Upon reading the article, at least one particular person on my newsfeed popped right into my head. I’m sure we all know our own version of Todd Manly-Krauss.
& don’t get me wrong—the column’s hilarious. The kind of person it’s poking fun at so needs to be poked. What’s been bugging me all day, though, are the kinds of conversations I’ve seen pop up in comment threads on it, conversations that bring up things that seem pretty counterproductive to the formation & sustenance of a literary community. The kinds of things “Todd Manly-Krauss” is doing in the article are terrible, annoying, awful. I agree. It’s self-aggrandizing & obnoxious. The problem is the fine line between self-aggrandizing & self-promoting. I’ve read tons of comment-criticism of the latter today—something that’s really bothering me.
We’re writers. Especially for those of us who are poets, very few people give two shits about what we do. Most of us can’t rely on the New York Times or Barnes & Noble to promote our work. Most of us don’t have agents who can worm our names into ad space. What’s left? Self-promotion—& taking a negative, bratty approach to that is dangerous for all of us.
Of course, there are tactful, non-irritating ways to self-promote, & some people do it really wrong. But in the grand scheme of things, sharing links to your work, sharing your big accomplishments (publishing in a good venue, releasing a new issue of your journal, getting into an MFA or Ph.D. program, getting a job) isn’t something we should have to worry about people being catty & passive-aggressive about. None of us want to have to second-guess whether people will be talking about us behind our backs because we celebrate something we’re proud of.
So many writers (especially in the poetry world) pay tons of lip service to this big idea of COMMUNITY. We want to expand our readership, we want editors of our work, we want to make drinking buddies & poem-a-day compatriots. We want to visit each other for readings & review each other’s books & send to each other’s journals. We want friends.
But so much of the behavior I see facilitates absolutely the opposite of community. Cliques form, rumors & drama start, people are blacklisted for absolutely asinine reasons—or for no reasons at all. The other day, I was having the conversation with a couple of friends about Facebook’s “algorithm” change, as we noticed that the “seen by” numbers on one of the publications we run had suddenly taken a steep dive. (If we paid to promote the posts, they shot back up, FWIW.) Roll your eyes at the “algorithm” discussion all you want—that’s fine—but I’ve had discussions with lots of other editors & they’ve noticed similar things. The numbers don’t lie.
If even our platform itself is working against us, don’t we owe it to one another to put in a little bit of work to make this whole “community” thing happen? Doesn’t that happen by supporting other writers in their accomplishments, not by ignoring them, passive aggressively attacking them, or flat-out belittling them?
As my friend Chelsea astutely noted, there’s sometimes a tone-deafness when it comes to Facebook writer interaction. I’m always confused by the number of people who can’t even go to the one-second trouble of clicking “like” on a publication by one of their colleagues, but then make 422 posts a week about every tiny writing-related thing they’ve done, expecting applause. Do the “likes” mean anything? Maybe not. They don’t have to mean, “Wow, I love this poem! It brought me to tears & I’m printing thirty copies right now!” or “Damn—it’s made my life significantly better that you’ve gotten into a Ph.D. program!” They can just mean, “Hey man, I know how hard it is to succeed in this world. Good on you for doing it.”
It mirrors what applies in the creative writing classroom. I had a reputation for being critical in the MFA workshop setting. Sure—I was critical, but I was also almost always the first person to speak up & totally gush about a poem I loved. I don’t feel threatened when someone else submits a good poem to workshop—it doesn’t make my poem any less good! It just means there are two good poems in the room that day. & isn’t that something we should all be celebrating—good poems?
The same goes for Facebook. It doesn’t take much to open someone’s link & read a poem he or she is proud of. It takes even less to click “like” or make a congratulatory comment, to metaphorically say, “Hey, I see your achievement in this tough, competitive world!” If we’re really a community, let’s engage like one. There’s this awesome quote by Dorothy Day—“We have all known the long loneliness & we have learned that the only solution is love & that love comes with community.” We’re ignored. Our families don’t get it, our non-writer friends don’t get it, the media doesn’t get it, the government doesn’t get it. But we get it. We need to stick together & stop ignoring one another out of petty jealousy or passive aggressiveness or selfishness or ego.
I’m egotistical. I’ll be the first person to admit that. I’m also a huge misanthrope. I think of this interview I read with (my some-other-phrase-for-spirit-animal-because-I-hate-the-phrase-spirit-animal) Mary Karr. She says straight-out, “I don’t like most people. I’m a little bit of a misanthrope,” & goes on to explain, “My natural reflex is that I’m being attacked. […] My sense of other people as the enemy is a constant threat to my being able to love them.”
I feel that so hard, & I bet lots of other writers do, too. This world is tiny. There are only a handful of poets in each issue of a journal. There are even less Ph.D. spots in each program. There are even less tenure-track jobs out there. There are only so many awards we can win, so many presses that can publish our books. Those things are finite, & they’re harder than hell to get.
But someone getting one is not a direct insult to the rest of us. It’s not a direct threat. It’s a sign that a member of our community is excelling. And if they can do it, why not us? Isn’t it more productive to be encouraged by our colleagues’, our drinking buddies’, our Facebook friends’ successes & moments of pride than to ignore them or cut them down?
“Ugh, that person got another poem picked up—I’m not going to click like on that!” or “My CV is better than that person’s; they shouldn’t have gotten that job—I’m not going to say congratulations!” don’t build community. They build resentment & isolation.
Guys, we’re all on Writer Island together. Let’s stop chopping it into smaller islands before we whittle ourselves into the sea.
I feel like there are so many people saying things far more articulately than I could say them, so I haven’t said much. I was talking to a friend about this the other day… I hate the term “triggering,” but the last few days have been so massively triggering for me that I’ve had a hard time just existing. What does that mean? For me, it means I’ve canceled my classes because I don’t feel like I can be a good teacher right now. It means panic attacks–lots of them. It means I’ve slept way too much & drank way too much & pushed my body at the gym way too much. It means I’ve avoided other human beings because I generally just want to violently shake (most of) them until they vomit from it.
Even as I start to type this, I’m physically shaking–my teeth are chattering & my arms are trembling.
In the little bitty poetry community, multiple women have recently come forward & accused another poet of abuse–sexual, physical, emotional. They (& those of us who’ve adamantly defended them) have been challenged with doubt, attacks, demands for proof. Then this Woody Allen story… journalists are participating in public victim shaming & blaming–& being lauded for it on my Facebook feed. “This is interesting,” people write about victim-blaming articles. It’s not interesting. It’s dangerous—make no mistake.
Here’s what I’ve been told by the internet this week: Your sexual assault was your fault. I’ve been told that when a grown man preys upon a young girl, we owe him the presumption of innocence–that we don’t owe our girls, our women the respect of hearing their voices. I’ve been told that if there are no bruises, no physical scars, no rape kit, no surveillance footage, then there’s no proof that anything happened, & if there’s no proof, then you–as a victim, as a survivor–have no right to speak.
Let me throw two key statistics at you:  The incidence of false reporting of sexual assault is LESS THAN 3%.  Only 3% of rapists ever spend a day behind bars. Lena Dunham spoke it fabulously in saying this on Twitter: “I’ve noticed a lot of guys obsessed with the idea of being falsely accused, as if you would just be walking down the street one day, get accused of assault or sexual misconduct, and suddenly life would derail.” These are not stories that we make up for fun. This is not for attention or revenge or to make some bitter feminist point. This is about the fact that every 2 minutes in America, someone is sexually assaulted & the fact that 60% of sexual assaults are never reported. I mean, Jesus, I wonder why when this is what women are met with. This is rape culture.
I haven’t been able to exist in the world the past few days because the Facebook comments mirror the things I was told to my face when I finally got up the nerve to tell someone about what had happened to me. “Have you thought about how you’re ruining his life?” “What about his family?” “Are you sure it really happened that way?” “Are you just doing this for attention?” “If you press charges, your entire sexual history will be on display in court.” “Do you have proof he said/did (x) (y) (z) things?” “Why didn’t you say something right after it happened? Why did you wait to come forward?”
I was a child. Legally, mentally, I was a child. I am an adult now. I know that these things were textbook victim blaming & shaming. But when I still see them being thrown around willy-nilly at women who are brave enough to speak up, it takes me right back to that tiny room where I sat at a round table across from uniformed police officers who were essentially pointing their fingers at a child because a predator had decided to screw with her. It takes me back to the office where, the next day, I sat opposite the investigator who broke me down to sobbing tears, challenging every assertion I made until I left the room & threw up in terror, calling my mom to come pick me up because I “couldn’t do it anymore.”
Last night, a friend posted an article that contained the quote “Being disbelieved is a secondary trauma.” This resonated so strongly with me, & here’s why: Physically, I healed from the incident. Even mentally, I exist well-on the road to healing from it. But what I still haven’t come close to healing from is the disbelief, the blame, the externally-imposed shame. Before I spoke up about it, it hadn’t really crossed my mind that I’d somehow brought on what had happened, that I was doing anything wrong by naming him. Now every single time someone vehemently doubts & blames these women who came forward about this poet, doubts & blames Dylan for coming forward about Woody Allen, what they’re doing is doubting & blaming every woman who’s ever come forward–including me.
My Facebook “friends” are essentially sitting at that table beside the uniformed officers who pointed fingers at me. They sit there & ask questions that all lead to their one implicit question: “What makes you think you get to have a voice?”
I spent all of yesterday traveling across the country for the holidays, & experienced something that’s made me so actively angry that I still can’t get it out of my mind 36 hours later. I caught a 2-something AM bus from Toledo, wearing this hat–a regular staple of my wardrobe:
I wear snapbacks most days, & have never gotten a negative comment about it, but I stepped off the bus in Chicago at a little after 7am, probably looking like death, if the above photo is any indication, & had a different experience. I only had about a 40-minute layover, so I figured I was safer, time-wise, waiting on the street rather than venturing into Union Station for coffee or anything like that. I chain-smoked my cheesy e-cig & made small talk with other people who were waiting for buses.
A bus that’d come from DSM pulled up, & I assumed it might be headed back that way in a loop, so I waited by its open doors, anxious to see if the “destination” sign would flip over to DSM. In the meantime, the bus driver–a 50-ish year old smarmy white guy with infinite amounts of gel in his grey hair–got off & said that bus was done for the day. I replied, “Okay, thanks,” & started toward the place where the next bus would pull up. As I headed off, he said, “Hey!” I turned around. “I like your hat!” he pointed. I said thanks & smiled, to which he replied, “All women should have one–obey.” I responded with a glare & after a few seconds of silence, told him he was being a disgusting, sexist moron. He responded by making a kissy face at me & intently looking me up & down.
At that moment, I had so many retorts streaming through my head–so many explanations of why he was horrible, so many insults, so many strings of strung-together obscenities. But as I looked at this creepy middle-aged man who was making clearly unwanted sexual overtures toward me, I distinctly wondered if it would be safe for me to say anything else. This is what it is to be a woman. It means that you are expected to take abuse for nothing more than wearing a hat. But not only that–it means that after that abuse, you are expected to feel unsettled. You are expected to feel unsafe at any given moment.
As is par for the course for lots of women, I’m used to sexual overtures–both invited & uninvited. I usually feel capable of dealing with them, either directly or indirectly. But something about this situation made me feel so uncomfortable. Was it the possibility that I could still have ended up confined on a bus with him for the day? That I wasn’t around any people or places I felt comfortable if I needed to escape or have “back up?” It’s not that I necessarily thought this gross guy would assault (verbally, physically, sexually, whatever) me there on the streets of Chicago. But it’s that somewhere in my mind, I knew I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t.
I ended up feeling helpless. His behavior had silenced me, despite all of the intellectual & emotional responses boiling beneath my surface, I felt like I had to be silent out of concern for my own safety. This is what it is to be a woman.
Lately, I’ve been getting sick almost every time I eat. This is not purposeful. I’ll spare you the gory details, but whether I eat a gigantic meal or half a tortilla, I quickly end up regretting it. Because I’m a fat ass who loves food (& also, you know, needs it to survive), I keep eating & thereby keep experiencing what it means to have my body feel utterly empty afterward. Maybe it’s dependent upon my mood or on how many stimulants I’ve consumed that day, but this emptiness never feels the same way twice. Sometimes it manifests as utter lethargy; sometimes it’s energizing. It doesn’t make me look lighter, but it always makes me feel lighter, as though my body has just freed itself of some abstract negative energy.
The concept that one can take pleasure in emptiness isn’t anything new. Look at Buddhism. In the Suñña Sutta, one of Buddha’s attendants asks how it is that the world can be empty, & The Buddha replies “Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self.” To be empty means to be freed–peaceful & emancipated from the mind, the self. If there’s no mind to run through its motions, what keeps our brains loud?
We have a tendency to parallel emptiness & silence. But the emptiness of my body doesn’t equate to silence–in fact, it’s usually the opposite. My stomach demands food, water, something to calm it. Its emptiness doesn’t lead to sensory peace, despite how it might manifest psychologically.
The kind of sensory peace that brings together emptiness & silence makes me think of John Cage & his seminal piece 4’33”. When something with such dramatic flair leads only to silence, where does the viewer go? Does she suddenly become as empty as the room? Or does she realize that the room can never be empty, that there will never be true silence? Suddenly she hears a ticking watch, a leaky pipe, a rustling suit jacket. Or she hears her esophagus contracting, slick with saliva; her perhaps newly-shallow breath. 4’33” is not an act of sensory deprivation–no, it’s an act of sensory exaggeration. Cage wanted to move from making sound to accepting it. Yet we still think silence. We think emptiness.
But can we make emptiness the way a composer makes sound? We can make space, surely. We can prescribe bounds by building boxes or walls or borders, & we can refuse to fill those bounds, but does that make them empty? Have we created emptiness or have we only created space? Really, can we even imagine an empty space in & of itself, or do we–as Gaston Bachelard argues–always fill “intimate imaginal spaces, even if they are factually empty [with] possibility and […] hope?” We become uncomfortable with these bounded spaces, we want to make them do something, be something.
My body has more bounded spaces than I can count, & at some moment, I’ve probably had the desire for each of them to be filled. Maybe I mean this biblically; maybe my body’s refusal of food only leaves more space for other things. When my decidedly non-silent mind drifts to this person or that who’s filled (x) or (y) space, I become furious with my previously-cherished emptiness. I don’t want it. Like Bachelard, I can suddenly imagine my bounded spaces only in terms of what has the potential to fill them. (Or who.) Is it who? Is this about desire or is it about satisfaction? & if it’s the latter, is it physical or existential?
Suddenly, anything becomes better than this goddamn emptiness. Give us something to fill it! Anything! we beg. In mathematical terms, we’ve confronted the empty set. It’s a set with nothing inside of it, but a set always has to be something, right? The well-known syllogism for it tells us that:
Nothing is better than eternal happiness; a ham sandwich is better than nothing; therefore a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.
Let’s try again.
Nothing is better than emptiness; being filled is better than nothing; therefore being filled is better than emptiness.
We tiptoe up to emptiness, but Bachelard, like a good crossing guard, extends his arms in crucifix formation. “You can’t imagine emptiness,” he decrees from somewhere above. & he’s right–we can’t. We can only imagine how it will feel to fill it. & we want it filled–oh, we want it so badly.