“I believe revelation is a human need, and even a property of matter.”
— Susan Griffin, “A Chorus of Stones”
What if revelation is stuffed back down our throats, confined to the inside of our skins and held captive there? What if a tiny tentative foray into revelation is met with icy silence, or simply eyes gently turned away, signaling the end of dialogue’s journey before it begins? What if all society’s carefully crafted signals say, silence! Your story is not printable, speakable, not worthy of the telling. What then?
For decades I have held a story that way. A story that shaped my entire life, changed its course, like a mighty river changed by a dam. I know all lives are shaped moment to moment, by accepting one job instead of another, choosing this lover and not that one, by moving across the country instead of staying put. But for some of us there is another kind of moment that contains within it an alteration so nearly mythical that it won’t be reconciled within a lifetime.
That moment for me was a night in the summer after high school when I was 17 years old, a night for which I have no memory. I drank too much, and a young man took advantage of that. I conceived a child. Because my mother was in the throes of schizophrenia and sliding toward her suicide, because of the great chasms created by family suffering, above all, because of the times, I was shuffled into a marriage with this young man. Huge steel gates slammed shut in front of the college where I was headed, and instead I slid down into a kind of underworld.
Only recently was I finally able to write a poem, just one, about what happened. I doubt I’ll ever write another. That poem was called “Flying Out of Bed.”
There was a small person growing in me, and soon he would enter the world flying. So much adrenaline, he was drenched in it. You could feel it in his tiny six pound body wound as tight as a Swiss clock. He climbed so high people came to warn me: are you that boy’s mother? But there was no stopping him. If he fell, he ran to me only to touch my body and then he was off again.
He skied down mountains, plunged off rocky cliffs into dark pools of danger below. Dropped out of airplanes. A few years ago he invited me to bungee jump off a secret bridge spanning a gorge. It’s a rush, he said.
I did fly out of bed—when my young husband kicked me in the back so hard I landed on the floor a few feet away. I had refused sex with him. I remember the shock that my body could so easily become a missile, and then the raw sensations of being on the hard linoleum floor in a cold dark room. The reckoning after a physical attack is layered: still on the floor I tried to take stock of my injuries. My back was ringing with the aftermath of the blow, my knee hurt. But then there was the shock of violence itself, of scrambling to make some sort sense of this attack, to answer “what happened?” In some way, it’s not possible to make sense of it, not then and not now.
What took place after that is missing from my memory. There was more violence, but that one time is indelible. I was about seven months pregnant. So many stress hormones poured into the tiny being waiting to be born, when he finally arrived in this world his entire body was tuned to the thrill-seeking highs of adrenaline.
The seeds were sown. My son’s addiction to thrill seeking brought him face to face with danger over and over. He was reckless. He pushed boundaries. He couldn’t fit in school. Now there were two of us whose lives were altered. Now there were two of us who were poised to reap the harvest of violence. Making repairs would be the work of a lifetime.
Of course, I didn’t know that then. Like all of us who find ourselves in trouble and alone, I hauled myself forward through what might be called will. And what exactly is will? I kept going. There was no support from my family; my parents were in their own blind alley of private suffering. When I revealed to my father (was my mother there? I don’t remember) in the living room of our Berkeley home that my husband was hurting me, he turned me away. I can see the way he sat comfortably in his favorite stuffed blue chair, the same one where he read the history of the civil war, the first world war and the second, and the strange unruffled tone of his voice when he said the words “make a go of it,” as though he were giving advice about sticking with an unpleasant job.
The room was quiet. I was living in perpetual panic, yet the conversation was so polite. He was telling me I belonged to another man. It didn’t matter whether that man gave me bruises or bouquets.
It was over so quickly. I can see myself walking out the front door, but I’ve left my body and I’m above, looking down. There is no color anywhere. Whatever happens now will be up to me. I understand that.
To leave the marriage—not “my” marriage—brought the predictable onslaught. My husband became more violent. One time I called the police, but just like my father, the officer who responded was not about to intervene. He stood in the doorway in his tan, regimental well-pressed uniform, a badge on his chest, his gun visible in the holster, and asked me a single question.
If I knew my husband was violent, why had I opened the door?
His voice had a serrated edge of hostility as though I had taken him from something more important. The assault was of no interest to him. It was yet another humiliation in the daily string of them, because he blamed me for opening the door of my apartment to my abuser. How convenient for him that the mundane act of opening the door made me willing, so he would not be called upon to confront a male who used violence to assert his ownership of a female.
Willing and will. I was not willing. I was trying to use my will to become a captain of my own ship. But there was a fossilized code that had to be broken, a code of ownership of females, a code of males calling the shots, submerging the will of females when it conflicted with their urges and belief in their right to dominate. It was the 20th century, but something very ancient was playing itself out in my one life. And in those years of searching for a way to break free, to endure aloneness and terror of aloneness, I came to understand that ancient system—because it made its mark on me. That code burned my flesh like hot iron. Nightmares went on for decades, and the pervasive sense that I was going to be murdered trailed behind me and made simple tasks like returning to an empty house at night into something sinister requiring the need to check closets for an intruder who must be there.
I know why I haven’t spoken about the violence that shaped my life. It was the perfectly crafted system of male dominance lashed firmly in place by all sorts of visible structures—educational, political and religious, by cultural expressions in books and movies, by cascading ads that smother our minds, by males with one part to play and females with another, all making speaking too dangerous. If the holding of pain is hard, the speaking of it to a world that does not want to hear is not a risk most of us will take. Yet there have been a few remarkably brave souls over these last decades who’ve told their stories anyway and kept the truth alive.
Every system of domination makes doubly sure its victims are seen as debased and diminished, even depraved. Slavery required slave owners to declare their human property less than human. How else could such an abomination be justified? Women victims of rape and male violence face all sort of dehumanizations.
From the inside of this looking out, I think of us as messengers from the underworld, from a dark and dangerous territory, from a place no one goes willingly. Those of us who have been to that land have a message which needs to come into the light.
It’s not a beautiful story or an uplifting one. It’s an ugly story. But it is that very ugliness that demands illumination.
Are we willing to hear the stories now? I’m not talking about the high-profile ones, the ones that have the added valance of money and power and glamor. I’m talking about our stories—those of us who live commonplace lives out of the spotlight, cooking meals for loved ones, rising each morning and going to work, tending our gardens. Are our mothers, our best friends, the people in our book group or church community, ready to listen, to hear the extent of the damage, to search together for the portal where progress can squeeze through?
Since our social nature interweaves us with others, our actions have a ripple effect like stones tossed on the mirrored surface of a pond. Retributive punishing systems—and male dominance is the perfect expression of retribution—are happy to find someone to blame and dump the fury there. Restorative responses look deeper for those with co-responsibilities, more perfectly reflecting our entwined nature as humans. That’s what we need now.
Who was silent in spite of suspecting violence was happening? Who neglected to actively teach their sons respect for women? Who failed to challenge a hiring system that favored men? Who allowed their police to carry on without a solid rape policy backed by training? Men must never escape accountability for rapes, for molesting, but if we don’t also commit to dismantling the entire set of instructions for male entitlement and power, they will still be replicating themselves and ruling our lives even as individual men go down.
I have a relative who was gang raped just before her 13th birthday. Her mother never sought help for her; the moment she told her mother was the last moment her truth was spoken for decades. I think her mother was avoiding a potentially messy conflict with the parents of the neighborhood teenagers who raped her daughter. She played a role in the victimization of her daughter.
My own father turned me away. I know he never raped or groped a woman, but he had a part to play in my victimization.
My father and my relative’s mother could not have lived comfortably with their actions. (Before he died, my father, in a conversation unrelated to his failure to protect me, referred to himself as a “coward.”) The protective impulse we feel toward our children is one of the most powerful forces we know. That the juggernaut of male dominance outweighed the desire of these two parents to protect their children only tells us how hard we’ll have to work to dismantle and replace that system—but it also gives us the reason we have to do it. It’s a system that hurts everyone it touches.
Male dominance is an ordering principle determining every aspect of our lives; freeing ourselves will take many forms. We’ll need to unravel a huge tangle of cultural threads so we can see each thread clearly. We’ll need to look at our own part, as parents of both girls and boys, as friends and relatives of those who’ve been raped or molested, as co-workers of women who are being targeted, as citizens creating collective lives. We’ll have to work close to home with ourselves and our loved ones, inside the gears of our communities where male dominance rages on, taking its toll every single day.
And revelation will play a part. Any of us can receive a revelation, and in those moments, become a part of the healing, a new place on our human map, marked by a gold circle. The beginning of a long journey, the place where the truth and a bright ray of sunlight finally come together.
An epilogue: My son’s farewell to flying from the poem “Flying Out of Bed.”
Not long ago I stood in his living room. He was on his couch looking up at me. I can’t remember the context, what we were saying that called forth two unadorned words.
It’s over, he said. Others drifted into the room, and I couldn’t say, what is over?
Later, I asked what he meant. He didn’t remember saying it, but I’m sure he did.
I know he had to fly, and I know you can love a person even if they rarely come to earth. We fellow travelers, who began a journey with blows to our bodies, have survived, me touching the fringes of old age and him prevailing with his ruined shoulder and scarred hands.
The Greek sirens of danger have lost their power. His farewell to flying makes room for a small murmuring grief, as steady as a rivulet. Sometimes, he lets me hold him for a few fleeting moments.