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Trauma Memories: Listening to the Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh Hearing

After listening to both testimonies for the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, like many I ended the day feeling cognitive dissonance fracturing my mind and jangling my nerves. Two completely different possible truths. One was delivered humbly, with strength, but also trepidation: in a one-piece bathing suit she had practiced her dives. The other was delivered forcefully with anger, indignation, and bitter upset: he lifted weights, played football, and drank beers with the guys. The two narratives spoke volumes about the effects of patriarchy. Each voice could be credible, depending on one’s construct of reality, of what’s right and what’s wrong … of what is really going on here.

I took a long walk down my dirt road.

I thought about my sex education as a young woman growing up in the ‘70s, just a few years earlier than Blasey Ford, in a small town. I got a booklet from my mom, but learned the details on the playground, like many of us did. One boy in elementary school told me, as I sat casually, legs sprawled: “Close your legs; the war is over.” I had no idea what he meant. I am not sure he did either. I felt terribly embarrassed and did not feel confident to ever sit with my legs sprawled again.

As I progressed into middle school, some girls already having sex, I learned from peers, TV, movies, and jokes told by adults:

  • Girls with big boobs got male attention. I developed quite late, not until the very end of high school. Strike one.
  • Girls who had sex were desirable, popular, and got the cutest boyfriends. They dated the sports stars. I held out until I was 17. Strike two.
  • “Boys will be boys.” Whatever boys did or desired should get preference. Home run.

The last, most damaging message was: If you teased a boy—if you flirted, made out, or put yourself in close proximity unsupervised by adults—and you got the boy excited, he had every right to do whatever he wished, because … you asked for it. It was your fault. Especially if you were drinking. Because guys, well, they have this “uncontrollable” physical reaction. It was cruel, once arousing them, not to follow through. Girls who teased were chided with the phrase “blue balls.”

I am not sure if these messages were pervasive, then, for all girls my age, in all towns, and all schools, but these were planted in my adolescent psyche, and, I suspect, in the minds of most of my peers.

Fast-forward to my senior year. When I finally went “all the way,” it felt like a badge of honor. I was in the club! Not long after this dubiously victorious moment, I went out with my friends on Halloween. Somehow over the course of the night, in three cars, we got separated. We were hanging out near our high school, thirty minutes away from home, and decided to meet at this party a classmate told us about. Driving alone for some reason, I found my way to the party at a house out in the middle of nowhere on a back road. I waited in my car in the driveway, but my friends never showed up. Not wanting the night to be a total loss and miffed at my girlfriends, I put on my witch hat and cape and went inside. It was packed and loud music was playing. I did not know a soul.

Turns out many there were a bit older and from a motorcycle gang. I didn’t drink anything, or talk to many people. I didn’t stay long. But I remember two encounters: a short, thin woman, wearing a leather biker hat, took a swig from a bottle of wine as she told me she’d just taken two valiums. Then she confided she was pregnant. I remember feeling panicked. Oh my god! I must have looked out of place and startled. The owner of the house, a stocky guy with medium-length blond hair, came over and for the rest of the short time I was there, he was nice to me. I don’t remember why, or what he did, just that he was nice.

Fast-forward to some evening in some month following this party. I visited this guy. I don’t remember how it was arranged, or why. I don’t remember exactly when—not what day, what week, or even what month. I know it was my senior year. I know it was cold out. I know this because he was fixing his furnace, which wasn’t working. That’s what he did for a living. He fixed furnaces. I don’t remember how I got there, or how I got home. I suppose I drove. Who else would drive me way up to this house out in the boondocks? I have no recollection of where it was; I could not ever find it today.

I suppose this was a stupid thing to do. But he had been nice. Perhaps I wanted a boyfriend. Perhaps I hoped for love. Perhaps I wanted to be cool. Perhaps I was simply looking for a diversion. Our senior class was tiny and here was someone new, outside our small circle. I don’t remember what we did after he fixed the furnace. We might have eaten a little dinner, listened to music. I don’t think I had more than a beer, maybe two. If I had any.

What I do remember is this:

A narrow, dirty-white couch in the middle of an otherwise sparse living room. Making out on this couch with this blond-haired guy I barely knew. Saying, “Stop” when he wanted to keep going past making out. His look of disgust. I remember telling him it was my time of the month, hoping to dissuade him with a decent excuse. It did not stop him. He asked me how many days was I into my cycle. I said, “near the end.” I was shocked when he pushed forward, saying, “no big deal.”

I don’t remember if I said stop again. I might have just gone along with him, because, well, boys will be boys. He was stocky; I didn’t know him very well. I had aroused him, so it was my duty to deliver. I remember my humiliation when he removed my monthly protection and dangled it in the air, almost mocking me. I don’t remember the act itself. I think it was rather quick and business-like. I remember a sick feeling when we were done. Something wasn’t right. But I didn’t know what. And I remember the month of terror after, hoping I wouldn’t become pregnant. Luckily I did not.

I might have told a friend or two. Otherwise I filed this incident away as one of the dumb things I did as a teen. It was my fault. I filed it away initially as evidence that those early messages were true. But one was not true: I was not cool or desirable to have put myself in such a position. I filed away a sense of my powerlessness as a young woman, as a woman of any age. My “Stop” did not matter. Not to him. Not to our culture. I had no name for this until I was in my early 30s—date rape.

The snarky, hateful comments about Blasey Ford on social media run the gamut, but one refrain, even chanted by the President, ridicules her spotty memory of her trauma: How can she not remember how she got there and back? Why can’t she remember how much she drank? When it was? Where it was? Why she went in the first place?

Walking down my dirt road, thinking back on my own trauma, I realized I was missing all the same puzzle pieces. Yet, like Blasey Ford, the moment of violation was crystal clear some 36 years later. I have a similar residual trauma from the incident, though it has manifested in me differently than hers.

But Blasey Ford has at least one memory I don’t have. She remembers his name.



Two Queens: Ruminations on Success

Now that I have my own business and am in a band for the first time in twenty years playing bluegrass music, I’ve been thinking a lot about success—what is it exactly? What does it mean to me? What are my barriers to achieving it?

I’ve also been rereading Sue Monk Kidd’s book the Dance of the Dissident Daughter, her memoir about questioning her spirituality and her role as a woman in a culture with deep patriarchal roots. This has led me to further questions, such as how has being a woman who subconsciously absorbed the patriarchal hierarchy (in this order—a male god, men, women, children and the elderly, animals, plants, minerals…) kept me from achieving “success”? How have I been carrying out and limited by feminine roles that I didn’t even choose?

Kidd illustrates how women have internalized various roles, without necessarily even being aware of them. A woman is expected to be all nurturing, at the expense of her own needs, to be “silent” or subvert her real views to conform to convention, and to strive to gain attention from and to please males. One can easily see how taking care of the needs of everyone else—pets, husbands, children, bosses—before she focuses on her own goals, coupled with trying to do this nurturing very well to get external approval and validation, while also submerging her true self and views so as not to make waves, would get in the way of success, whatever success looks like to any one woman.

Right now you may be saying, “Oh, hogwash. Another feminist crying about her spilled milk.” Or, you may be nodding in agreement. Either way, think about this: What kinds of associations come immediately to mind simply at the word “feminist?” Many women hesitate to even adopt that title, because it’s so negative. Go on admit it. Birkenstock-wearing, hairy-legged women, who dance naked in their gardens, who hate men, who pontificate constantly about what a raw deal they’ve gotten. While I personally see nothing wrong with a woman who fits that description if that’s who she wants to be, what I am wondering is, how is it possible that we go from being subservient “beautiful” daughters to that image in one word?

And how do we view women who don’t spend all their time caring for their partner, children, animals, community, and everyone else in the world, god forbid while also trying to be successful? Well, I’ve heard the word “selfish” more than once. She is self-centered and not good partner or mother material. She is “unique” (not in a good way) or, “wild and crazy.” Or what about women who speak up? Cosmopolitan published an article this winter about the language we use for strong successful women, as compared to men. Words like “bitch,” “shrew,” “harsh,” “pushy,” “outspoken.” While men garner these terms: “intelligent,” “a leader,” “decisive,” “strong.”

All that is the landscape for my road to “success.” Like it or not. I’m not crying in my beer. I’m deciding how to play the hand that I have been dealt. As I’ve been pondering all this, something has truly shocked me. I realized that it has never occurred to me, until now at 50, that I could actually aim for mastery at something, that I could excel completely, that I could be really good. Even now I have trouble writing “the best.” I have, sadly, never, until now, created a goal saying I will master this; I will rock this!

Instead I always thought, I will do a decent job. I can be good enough. And that’s what I’ve aimed for: good enough. “I will do pretty well, but I’m a girl, so don’t expect too much.” My parents demanded good grades; they supported my horse riding, skiing, music. But there has always been an undercurrent…not theirs exactly…but as if this message is in the air and the water—you can only do so well, but that’s it.

This sounds ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m admitting it! But by admitting it, I’m finally taking the chain off of the door. Because I can finally respond, “Nonsense!” In the past few years on different occasions, two different male flatpicking guitarists, both masters at their craft, (See? Males, in and of themselves, are not evil, of course…fie on you feminist stereotyping), said to me, “You can be a great flatpicking guitarist. There is nothing stopping you. You learn quick; you work hard.” This rocked my world. Really? But I’m a woman. I’m just beginning. And that was the first time I thought, “I can rock this.”

Still…now I have to be careful I don’t replace the old shackle with a new chain: I’m 50 years old. Our culture is as ageist, as it is sexist, as it is racist. Now I am not only a woman, but a middle-aged woman. Gasp! It took awhile before I could even say I’m 50. I took my birthday off of Facebook. For men or women, I’d argue the pervading belief is, “Why even bother pursuing success once you get out of your 30s?” Older people aren’t hip, they don’t have their fingers on the pulse of the new and the cool, and they’ve pretty much done all the growing and achieving they are going to do. Really, they should just don a sweatshirt with a lobster on it, put on some white sneakers and putter about in their garden, or take a guided tour with a bunch of other silver-hairs to some European country where they can do the hokey pokey over mashed potatoes and light beer.

I bought into this. When I was a teen, I declared I didn’t want to live past 40 because it would be no fun whatsoever. Out of necessity, I did change my tune.

But an older woman? “Hag,” “crone,” “dried up,” “wrinkled and grey,” in a word, “unsexy.” Or as declared by my 9th grade students, “Eew!”

Once, when I was still in my 30s (!) I was planting flowers in a window box when a group of boys from the apartment nearby strolled down the street, swearing up a whole crop of colorful words. I’ve been known to throw around the F word myself, but this was loud and excessive, and they were only about 11 or 12. It takes a village. So I said, “Hey guys, watch your language please.” And a blond, stocky kid said to me, “Shut up, you old bag!!” My face flushed red and I was prepared to march out there and ream them out good, but my ex-husband cautioned through the open window, “Kyle…just stay here.”

Do we say those things about older men? No. They get “salt and pepper,” as if they are a fine old spice, and “distinguished.” Authoritative, strong. And even handsome.

So now I’ve got two cards stacked against my psyche about success. I’m a woman. I’m 50. But those cards will be played on my terms. I’ve turned both cards over on the table. This is MY game. Instead of two’s and three’s, I see two queens—the queen of hearts who now listens carefully to the song in her heart, instead of limiting messages, who will take her writing and music passions as far as she possibly can; and the queen of spades who knows that success is tied ONLY to dedication, hard work, and a belief in yourself. And I’m doing it…no matter what careless names and terms are tossed my way. I will never be an old bag, and I will rock this.

Stay tuned for more musings about defining and achieving success for oneself…woman or man…The question will be, “are you good enough for YOU?”