Even though I won the genetic & cultural & socioeconomic lottery (except for being born female), I know what it is to be ugly.
I know this because, just the other day, the day before the election, others made me so.
And I’m not talking about enemies, I’m talking about the community of people I so admire.
I reached out to them.
I imagined a village.
I created a riot.
“You were caught in the crossfire between the old masculine and the potential feminine,” a friend explains.
Are you ready to fuck her?
These words penetrate my focus–on deadline–20 feet away–on the patio of our local Co-op cafe.
I look up from my laptop. I wait.
The other boy remains silent.
I return to my work.
Are you ready to fuck her keeps looping in my head.
I hold a deep appreciation for the versatility of the word, fuck. I use it at home often.
But something is different here. The tone. The way it enters me. Violently.
The volume. In a public space. The indifference to who has heard. The age of the boys. (The candidate running for the highest office of our nation.)
Though I’m not a grandmother yet, I feel a growing grandmotherly responsibility toward the world. Toward paying attention, particularly to the seeds of misogyny. Particularly among the young.
Each year, I head to New York to join thousands of women from non-profits around the world for the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). My grandmother dreamed of working at the United Nations. This is one way honor her legacy and abbreviated life. CSW is where I’ve learned–from women and particularly men–that the seed of violence and discrimination lives in words like these, said to women, or about women, in private or public spaces.
As the guys get up to leave, the one who remained silent looks back at me.
“Hi,” he says, with surprising kindness.
“Hi,” I answer back, the same, and then I take a deep breath and add:
“Do you know why I’m staring?”
“I don’t,” he responds, with a curious smile, “That’s why I said, Hi.”
“I’ll come tell you,” I say, and I close my laptop, take another deep breath, and walk across the patio toward him, while his friend, the one who said: Are you ready to fuck her? turns away from me.
“Wait,” I say. “I want to let you know that when you said, Are you ready to fuck her, it pricked me. As a woman.”
“I didn’t say that,” he says.
“I heard you,” I tell him. “I was all the way over there. And I get it. I like sex too, but as a woman, hearing something like that, said so loudly, here, in public, in the way you said it, I felt really uncomfortable, and I wanted you to know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says, turning away again and walking up the sidewalk.
“Well, now you do,” I call after him.
Despite my years as an educator, I am unprepared for what happens next.
Just before he turns the corner past the patio, he hollers at the tops of his lungs:
I’d never been called Cunt, not out loud, certainly not in a public space, certainly not by a young man.
I look around and see that no one has heard. There’s only a single man at another table. Perhaps he’s just arrived. Perhaps he didn’t want to hear. Perhaps he’s on deadline like me. Perhaps he agrees.
I sit back down. Shake it off. Open my computer.
But it keeps rubbing. Inside.
Those boys are most likely heading back to the high school, Kelly, I tell myself. What about the young women there? What about the silenced friend? What about your son who goes to the same school? What about that other kid’s future?
I pack up my things. I stride toward my car. I pass a friend outside the Co-op doors. He’s a big, burly guy, and I feel an urge to say: “Will you come with me?”
Instead, I smile and explain the unusual paint on my forehead, a henna tattoo that I felt compelled to get ahead of the election, surprising everyone, especially myself.
“Nobody will notice in Brattleboro,” he says, laughing, as he crosses the parking lot toward his truck.
I drive up the hill, alone, toward the school, but I don’t see the guys. I want to see them. I don’t want to see them. I pull up to the curb at the highschool. I realize that I am trembling.
I approach the front doors. I am buzzed inside. I speak to the woman behind the glass.
“I have a peculiar question,” I say, “In addition to this peculiar face.”
I smile when she looks up at me. “It’s for the election,” I say, pointing to the glittered phoenix wings spread across my forehead. “Are students allowed to leave for lunch?”
They are, she tells me, but only seniors. (These guys didn’t seem old enough to be seniors, but they hadn’t returned to the school yet. Could they be middle-schoolers? Graduates?)
I ask if it’s likely that students would have enough time to walk to the Co-op and back on a lunch break. She say it isn’t. But they could have.
I tell her that I had an upsetting interaction with two young men who I expected were on their lunch break from school. “I want to follow the proper protocol,” I say.
She points to the security office, and offers to get an administrator. “I’ll wait on that,” I tell her. “I want to be sure they go here.”
I sit outside on the wall in front of the school.
They never arrive.
I drive back down toward the Co-op to return to my work, but then turn my car around around and head back up the hill toward the high school, not wanting to leave this undone.
Instead of the boys, I see me, in the rear view mirror–silver hair streaming around a painted face. Crazy lady. I’ve seen her before. When I was a young woman. I never wanted to be her.
I pass a police car on the side of the road. I almost pull over. I’m not sure what I would say. Or what he would think of me. I want my father. (I can hardly bear the irony of this impulse.)
I realize that I can’t return to the Co-op, at least not today. I relocate to Amy’s Bakery instead. The internet connection at my house is so unreliable that I’m often forced to work downtown when I’m on deadline. (I’ve never been called a Cunt in my life.)
I sit at Amy’s for the full length of a meter’s run, and still, I don’t finish my work.
I think about asking my husband to bring home a yearbook so that I can look through the faces, but he is out of town, at a conference, and won’t be home until late at night. I wish he’d been in his classroom. What would I have done? Interrupted his teaching?
I walk toward my car, looking toward the dash to be sure I haven’t received a ticket. I lift my gaze and see two young guys walking toward me. I can barely breathe. I feel threatened. I feel compelled. I feel the synchronicity of this timing. Of this face of mine. Of this day before the election. Of the opportunity to make a difference. Of response-ability.
I pull out my device. I click…
One, two, three, four times.
I’ll show these photos to my husband when he gets home, or maybe my son will recognize the faces.
As they pass, the one who called me, Cunt, doesn’t seem to recognize me. The other one, the silent one, makes an attempt at humor? At apology?
“The Savages,” he says, as they pass.
“No, not you,” I say.
They keep on walking.
I wonder why they aren’t in school. They look older than I remember them. The one who called me, Cunt, looks bigger. Tougher. He might even be out of school. Still, they look like students.
I drive home. I return to my work. The internet connection is still dragging. I can’t concentrate. I can’t eat. I can’t wait for my husband or my son.
I reach out to a Facebook group. A community one. Maybe somebody will recognize these two boys. Know their parents. Know what school they go to. Help me follow up.
A reply comes right away. “What did they do?” he asks.
I study the profile picture of this man. I wonder if he is the father. I compare features. I worry that he might hurt his son. I’d been an ally to students in difficult families. I’d been the teacher to call home with good news before there was any bad news to report. I remember the icy reception that would greet me on the other end of the line when I identified myself. I remember the silence that followed what I had to say. The hollering. How a father or a mother would drop the receiver and call out to a spouse. “It’s his teacher! She says he was helpful today!”I remember how that family would have my back for the rest of the school year, and I would have their son’s or daughter’s back.
I decide that I should proceed. That the stakes are worthy. I copy and paste the text that I wrote in my own Facebook feed about what had happened at the Co-op. So many women replied to me immediately there on my own wall. Some men too. They mirrored my experience and my response, and by doing so, they empowered me, even now.
Sharing the photos and the text in the community group however evokes a different response.
The feed begins to fill and then flood.
One, two, three, four…
They tell me how wrong I am. How creepy. How Big Brother. They tell me to take the photos down.
Take the photos down. Take the photos down.
I feel alarmed. Confused. Concerned. Trapped.
I ask them to explain.
I clarify my intentions with one after another.
I’m told that what I’m doing is illegal. That people could press charges. That I could go to jail.
Illegal. Illegal. Illegal.
I ask if there is a lawyer in the group.
No one replies.
“You should call the police if you have a problem. Not come here,” they tell me.
I put a call into the police to see if they can tell me if I am acting illegally or inadvisably. (There are no officers available to take the call. They ask if I want a call back. I do.)
I begin to shake.
I am accused of creating a witch hunt. Of making free speech illegal. Of hysteria. Of wanting to police the world. Of overstepping. Of making more out of this than it was.
Let it go. Let it go. Let it go.
I check in with my intuition. Let this play out, I hear.
My 16 year old arrives home. He asks what’s going on. He’s outraged. He opens his computer. “What group is it?” he asks.
“Close your computer,” I tell him. “I don’t want you to see this. I don’t want you in the middle of this!”
My eyes are stinging.
“When will Dad be home?” he asks.
“Why haven’t the police called back?” he asks.
“Do you want to see this funny YouTube clip?” he asks.
He makes himself dinner. He eats alone. I watch the group feed continue to fill. I am holding my breath. I notice how badly I want to protect myself. How easily I could do that with a single click. Delete.
Women join in the feed. I feel relief.
But they echo the men.
“Eavesdropping” they say.
“MYOB!” they say.
“Are you a mother?” another asks. “Do you have sons?
Would you want someone to post their photos when they were impolite?”
Yes, I say, I would want to know if my son called a woman, Cunt.
I am told that I probably didn’t hear what I thought I heard. That maybe the guy was singing a song. That maybe he didn’t say Cunt. That maybe he wasn’t talking to me. That maybe I misunderstood his meaning. Or that I am making more of this than it is. That kids make mistakes. That I am trying to vilify them.
People began to speak about me–to each other–instead of to me.
Piranhas come to mind.
I consider deleting the whole thread now. But I am suspended. In terror. In awe.
I stay in respect for voice.
Not mine, which seeks protection.
But women’s and children’s.
History. Humanity. Community.
Isn’t this what always happens?
Voices bullied into silence?
The comments in the group grow more pointed. Harsher.
For the longest time; it feels like the longest time; there isn’t a single voice in my defense, or at least in defense of why I am there asking if anyone knew them, or at least in defense of how this is playing out, so aggressively, toward me.
And then a warrior arrives. Apparently accustomed to battles like this. She enters the heat, surely knowing that she will be attacked:
The attack reaches a tidal point.
A new voice enters. Another man.
He writes this about me to the others:
At the ripe age of grandmotherhood, I have been called Cunt twice in the same day in my own community.
This is followed by another harsh critique from a woman who is apparently an early-ed provider (like I had been after my boys were born.) If she’s against me, I must be wrong, I think.
Just then, the entire thread disappears. Vanishes. Like it never happened.
But it doesn’t vanish, inside.
A final comment lingers. From the film maker who earlier said that if I wanted everyone on my side, I should have shared it with my own forum, and that I had been childish in bringing it here. Vindictive.
“Just call him a dick and get it over with,” he says.
I realized then that there would be no understanding.
No understanding of my intentions.
No understanding of the relevance of speech in misogyny toward women.
No understanding of the imperative of intervention.
No understanding of how a woman and a village might work together on behalf of the young, on behalf of women, on behalf of humanity.
No understanding of the power differential between genders, not just physically, but politically, financially, culturally, historically, and how that makes a difference–in everything.
No understanding that calling someone a Dick, will never be the same as calling someone a Cunt.
Posting the photos in this community group, particularly given the way they responded to me, may have been a big mistake–with regard to the safety of these young men–but why had it struck such ire? Or why I had become a target so quickly, and why were so many willing to join in, and only one willing to speak on my behalf?
After the feed was deleted (by an administrator? by Facebook?), another offense sprouted up in its place (mocking my warrior friend.)
Although neither of us join in the conversation, voices rallied against both of us until someone asks for more context.
The new narrative goes something like this:
Some kid said: Fuck, and some lady was eavesdropping, and then she went ballistic, trying to incite drama here.
For the first time, I am not only afraid for my country. I am afraid for myself.
My entire body is trembling.
I receive a private message. Someone whose kid recognized the ones in the pictures. Had the photos still been posted, I would have deleted them at this point.
I go to bed feeling ashamed, confused, threatened.
Just before I fall into a deep sleep beside my husband, the phone rings.
“Wait for the message,” he suggests.
“It might be the police,” I say. “I don’t want to miss the call.”
I speak with an officer, and then a sergeant. I hang up the phone, relieved.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I say, and with that my body begins to shake even more violently.
My husband wraps his arms around me.
I pull back with terrified eyes:
“Women were burned for this.”
And with that, tears stream down my face, and full body tremors continue into the night.
In the morning I wake with a throbbing head and fists balled against my belly.
My husband tells me that I called out in my sleep.
All day, I feel ugly.
When I run into the warrior (the woman who had my back) downtown, our conversation re-triggers the trauma from the night before. I shake into the afternoon. Election day.
When women arrive to my evening yogadance class, I turn off the lights, and begin singing (though I’ve never done anything like this before):
Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water…
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home…
I want to die easy when I die. I want to die easy when I die. I want die easy when I die. Shout salvation when I rise. I want die easy when I die…
The next morning–this morning–I wake to the election of a man who has publicly degraded women.
My mouth is parched as I write, as if I’ve been in the desert, without water, too long.
A Facebook friend, a woman who thanked God for the outcome of the election, sees the grieving photo I’ve posted of myself, and writes:
May I say that you are much better looking than this.
Get rid of this awful picture!!!
Which makes me certain that the President-Elect won’t find me fuckable.
Addendum: After reading this piece, women came forward admitting that they had seen the feed in the community group or even participated in it, and they apologized, saying that they had been too afraid to do anything else. For this they have my deep compassion and understanding. This also explains why it’s so hard to wake up from misogyny, even if you’re the victim of it.
Family wedding a week later–in New Jersey. I decide to leave the tattoo in place.
#3, January 21, 2017:
How Online Abuse of Women Has Spiraled Out of Control