In a bar, with friends, listening to a man I’ve admired for years saying this: “Enough with the sob stories, ladies. We get it. If I hear one more story about some fucked up sad violent shit that happened to you, I’m going to walk. You win! You win the sad shit happened to me award! On behalf of my gender, I decree: We suck!” Laughter. The clinking of glasses. Again the secret crack in my heart. Stop telling.
The first time I saw my father’s specific sadistic brutality manifest in physical terms, I was four. My sister was flopped across his lap, barebottom. He hit her thirteen times with his leather belt. I counted. That’s all I was old enough to do. It took a very long time. She was twelve and had the beginning of boobs. I was in the bedroom down the hall, peeking out from a faithlessly thin line through my barely open bedroom door. The first two great thwacks left red welts across her ass. I couldn’t keep watching, but I couldn’t move or breathe, either. I closed my eyes. I drew on the wall by my door with an oversized purple crayon — large aimless circles and scribbles. Not the sound of the belt—but her soundlessness is what shattered me. Still.
The second time I saw my father’s naked brutality he came at my mother – I mean the second time I physically witnessed my father looking more animal than man, his embodied rage – he threw a coffee mug at her head. Hard. He once tried out for the Cleveland Indians as a pitcher. That hard. He missed, and the mug punched a hole through the wall in the kitchen. My sister was long gone—the escape of college. Afterward, there was dead silence in the kitchen. I know because I held my breath. Even air molecules seemed to still. I’d recently written a fifth grade school report on hurricanes. It felt like we were in the eye.
My father never struck my mother. She told me it was because she was a cripple. My mother was born with one of her legs six inches shorter than the other. She said, “He wouldn’t dare hit me,” the lilt of a southern drawl and vodka in her never-went-to-college voice, some kind of messed up trust in her too blue eyes. Instead, he molested his daughters.
When I was sixteen a boy older than me asked me out on a date. I was as sixteen as a girl could be. Barely able to breathe with the incomprehensibility of my own body. The heat and pulse and lurch. When he drove me home, and parked outside my house, we kissed. Because I was stupid and sixteen I thought we were alone. I got out of the car, and leaned back in through his open driver’s side window to kiss him some more, my mouth, his mouth, wet heat and tongue of youth sliding into youth, and my father, who was standing behind me there in the dark, grabbed me by the ear and dragged me all the way back to the house. My ear became more than red and hot. Then ringing. Then pain. I thought he would pull my ear off. Briefly, I saw the boy step out of his car—did he mean to save me? I shook my head wordlessly, no. Or maybe it was just in my eyes through the dark. No. He got back in his car.
That night my father hit me with language. Slut. Over and over again.
The second time I was molested I was twelve. I was on an out-of-state swimming trip with my swim team. Nebraska. Even now, I understand, the hormonal chaos of all of us half-naked in the pool every day of our lives, six to eight a.m., four to six p.m. pushing our corporeal truths up and out—I understand how hard it was for our bodies to find forms for things. A seventeen year old boy named Robert asked me to come sit by him on the plane and share his Walkman earphones—to hear a song he liked. He had one in his ear and he put the other in my ear. The song was “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. As I leaned in closely, he reached up underneath my tank top and fondled my barely there tits. I kept stealing glances at the airplane barf bag. But I didn’t move. I remember being terrified to move. Not the terror of violence. I didn’t think he’d hurt me. It was the terror of my own body. My nipples responding to this thing that made me want to throw up. Or just die there in the seat of the airplane. Crashing, crashing. Wishing for it. “When you wake up it’s a new morning/ The sun is shining, it’s a new morning/ You’re going, you’re going home.”
To this day if I hear “Baker Street,” which is mercifully almost never, I can vomit.
To this day, I would rather have taken ten plane trips sitting next to Robert than live with my father growing up.
The first time a man came at me with a fist I was eighteen. I passed out. Not from his fist though. I’d passed out drunk. When I woke up all my clothes were on the floor, my legs were spread eagle on his bed, and I was wet and sticky and sore between them. There was a bruise between my shoulder and my breast. He was snoring, asleep back in bed. I stood up and watched him sleep. I remember thinking he is beautiful. He had long blonde feathered hair and an astonishingly fit body. He did Karate. Competitively. In fact his power and beauty were what made me go home with him from the bar. I mean I went out of my way to catch his eye, wag my ass, throw my huge mane of blonde lioness hair around. I pretended I didn’t know how to play pool—which my father had taught me when I was ten—so he could “teach” me. He had blue eyes. Standing there watching him sleep, my legs shaking some, I thought, he is beautiful, and I am not, I am stupid, and drunk, and I deserve this and more.
Then I called my roommate from college at 3:00 A.M. and she and her boyfriend came to get me. I couldn’t find my underwear. I waited for them in the dark and cold morning on the front lawn. He came out before they got to me and punched me in the jaw—not hard enough to call the cops, not soft enough to keep my ear from aching, saying, “You tell anyone you crazy little bitch, I’ll find you.” He smiled. He handed me my underwear.
I waited for my roommate to pick me up. I heard a dog bark. I smelled cow shit from Lubbock stockyards. I picked at a scab on my arm like a kid. You’re no victim if you are a drunk ass slut. I didn’t cry. I swallowed it whole.
I didn’t tell anyone. In fact, later that year? I went home with him again. On purpose.
The second time a man hit me I was in college. The man was a poet. A pacifist. A hippie. Somehow I believed things like that could matter. But he had a hair trigger rage in him. His father had been career military and hit him all through boyhood. The rage in him sat like the crouch of dead dreams in his fingers. Poems came out. And that shot to the bridge of my nose. Probably that’s what drew me to him. It was familiar.
Twice in my life I’ve been homeless, both times the result of emotional trauma. Both times I woke up under overpasses with no pants or underwear, vomit everywhere, a throbbing pain between my legs extending to my asshole. I’m assuming I was raped. But where do you put the story of rape when there’s no man to blame? I put it the only place I knew how to. I put it back into my body.
I’m trying to tell you something here, but it’s starting to sound like what I’m saying is that I deserved these violences. Let me be clear. I did not. No one does. Ever. But when women tell how it is for them, when they self narrate their ordinary lives, it’s instantly sucked up by the culture—there’s already a place waiting for the story. A place where the story gets annulled. It’s 2012 and I’m still reading about what the girl or woman was wearing that night. Or how she should hold aspirin between her legs. Or how she shouldn’t say the word “vagina” on the floor of congress. Or how a friend at a bar wants the sob stories to end. What I’m trying to tell you is that violence against girls and women is in every move we make, whether it is big violence or small, explicit or hidden behind the word father. Priest. Lover. Teacher. Coach. Friend. I’m trying to explain how you can be a girl and a woman and travel through male violence like it’s part of what living a life means. Getting into or out of a car. A plane. Going through a door to your own home. A church. School. Pool. It can seem normal. It can seem like just the way things are.
To be honest, the first reason I understand the complexities of male violence against girls and women is that I went to college and read a shit ton of books—and even that wasn’t enough education—I went to graduate school, where finally, finally, the books that I read and the films that I watched and the art that I experienced and the teachers that I had showed me just how not normal male violence against girls and women—or boys and men—is. Ever. And yet at the same time, the more conscious I became, the more I also understood that the pervasiveness of that violence has saturated the entire culture. It’s both omnipresent, and unbelievably invisible in its dispersed and sanctioned forms. So many times the cult of good citizenship covering over the atrocities of girls and boys. Mothers who go numb. Counselors who ask the wrong questions. Coaches and priests and teachers whose desires are costumed and sanctified by their authority. Neighbors who go blind and deaf. Paying bills. Drinking lattes.
The second reason I understand is that I am alive. Still. Differently.
It wasn’t that I did not understand the violences against me were wrong. I did. Even at three years of age. It was that I thought I deserved it, and possibly worse: that deserving it, I could withstand it. Mightily. Heroically. You see? As a righteously indignant defense. I could take it. As good as if I was some body’s son. It was a choice.
When my father raised his hand to me in our garage at eighteen, I said, “Do it.”
When the poet punched me in the nose in my pick-up truck at a stop light, I said, “Get the fuck out of my car or I will kill you.” And I meant it.
I’m telling you this because I know I’m not the only one who came of age like this. Up and through male violence. I’m telling you because there are all the things that need to be done “out there” to stop it. But then there are also all the things that needed to be done in me. To stop it.
Listen, these are not the sad stories. Worse things happened to me. Those aren’t the sad stories either. These stories don’t carry the pathos to signify culturally in my culture. These stories I’m telling you are commonplace. That’s the point. They just happen and you live them and as you go you have to decide who you want to be.
When I was thirteen, in Jr. High, my best friend Emory was beaten and sodomized in the boy’s locker room at school by some sadistic members of the football team. Because he was gay. Or at least that’s what they were aiming at. In truth, Emory had not yet finished discovering his own sexual self. Like my sister, Emory suffered rectal damage the rest of his life. They used a baseball bat. Emory says, I’ll never be in any kind of relationship. Emory says, my chance at being with anyone, a family, feeling OK, died that day. Emory was also a swimmer, and so after swim practice, sometimes we’d sit in the parking lot waiting for our moms to pick us up and drink vodka from a flask an older girl swimmer had bequeathed to me. I never knew what to say about what happened. I didn’t even understand it until we were adults. I’m only glad we are still in contact – writing. The tether of words when the world isn’t safe like it was supposed to be.
The boys who committed this brutality were never charged. Emory couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone, and anyhow, at that time, there were no laws on the books to protect us anyway. Also, he was instructed by his father’s lawyer that the term “rape” was not available to him in this situation.
I’m a writer. It’s all I really know how to do, besides being a wife and mother. I consider myself a success story. Because I am alive I mean, and because I think writing and books and art are the reason. As a writer, I’m not so sure I see much difference in the storylines for women and girls who enter the field. I see that some art is rewarded for being “universal,” and it is written by men. Other art is deemed confessional. Or sentimental. Or too subjective. And it is written by women. I see that straight white men are published in prestigious venues more often than women. I see that women are told by editors and agents and publishers to take explicitly sexual or violent or subjective language out of their work unless they can bend the language toward the culture in a way that will sell. These are gendered terms, laden with a force as real as my father’s. I write my heart out. I do. For better or worse. I write my heart out because my heart, well, she was almost taken from me. Every year of my life until now. It’s something I can “do.” A verb. Something that has at least a chance of interrupting another girl or boy’s story with other options. Write. Make art. Find others. It’s a choice.
Listen, I know this is a bit of a dreary story. But whenever I get told that, by friends, or agents, or editors, or publishers, I think, if this dreary story is hard for you to live with, how are we supposed to live with you?
When my father was thirty, he had all of his teeth pulled. Just bad genes with regard to teeth, I guess. Early dentures. When he came home from the surgery he turned all the living room lights off, became part of the couch, and turned the television on. It was a horrible week waiting for his mouth to heal. I don’t know how to say it—things went too dark and horribly submerged. If my mother or I spoke, he yelled, but we could barely understand him. Laughter and crying kept getting caught and confused in my throat. My mother made soup. Mashed potatoes. Ice cream. I drew on the walls in my room. It was like his rage had gone underground, under the beds, the house, the dirt. But we could feel it, pulsing. Pervading everything.
They sent his teeth home with him. I never understood that. I just know I stole one. A molar. Off white as a baseball and like a wrong pearl. I have it still.
Sometimes I think about the children that didn’t come out of me. Four. Three of them were zygotes. The zygotes were sucked out of me in what can best be described as a process involving a hoover upright old-school vacuum. That’s what it always looked like to me. Though medical technology has advanced since I was in my teens and twenties. And yet it’s 2012 and I keep reading about ideas like forced sonograms where the newly or barely pregnant woman is made to watch. I saw a congressman interviewed who actually said, “Well, no one can really be made to ‘watch,’ the woman could just close her eyes.’” While a camera wand is shoved up her. It makes me think of the film A Clockwork Orange. It makes me think how yes we are forced to watch, every day of our lives, we are forced to watch how our culture still doesn’t get what it means to live every moment of a life in the body of a woman.
The zygotes that did not become children—I think about them. Who would they be? Would they have lived? It’s a question I feel I’ve earned the right to, since one of the children who came through my body died—nothing wrong with my body or hers, sometimes babies just die. Though for more than a decade I believed it was my body that killed her. My body I’d made into a war zone to mirror the culture as I saw it. When Christians in particular talk to me about “killing babies” and abortions, in my head I think, trust me, I know the difference between a dead baby and a zygote. Once a white Christian woman with shellacked blonde hair and the smallest green eyes I’d ever seen told me I was going to hell on my way in to Planned Parenthood. I thought to myself, lady, I’ve been there and back. Only it was called “family.”
Those zygotes, would they be boys? Girls? Would I have survived? I had no money during that part of my life. I stole food and did things I’m not proud of so that I could eat and have shelter and go to school. I also worked three jobs. And still I needed food stamps, just to stay alive. What would they have eaten, the three zygotes, where would they have lived? Would there have been a man under the beds, house, down in the dirt, his rage and violence waiting? Would I have let him in the door, his face so familiar I couldn’t recognize it?
I carry deep shame in my body for the zygotes. I don’t know a single woman alive who is “happy” to have had an abortion. Or two. Or four. And it’s not just me. Other women. Republicans. Democrats. Unaffiliated women. Atheists. Christians. Muslims. Buddhists. Armies of us walking around carrying our body secrets. Our shame over the zygotes. Or maybe there’s something deeper than shame—maybe there’s a second self I had to kill in order to live. The Lidia who believed she deserved it. Could take it. Should. It was a choice.
My father’s tooth is in a pink plastic box that was my mother’s. Inside it too, a lock of my hair and two of my baby teeth and that little bracelet they used to give babies that spells out L-I-D-I-A. I’m the one who put my father’s tooth in there after my mother died. I don’t know why. Sometimes I get it out and look at it – hold it in the palm of my hand. So small. The man who terrorized us. His DNA. So large the culture that let him.
I am a survivor of sexual abuse and male violence. I’ve had three abortions. I also had one baby girl that died the day she was born. I have a husband and a son now. My husband plays cello, and makes films and writes, and in the evening he hits the heavy bag; he’s proficient at Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu. My son can’t throw a baseball properly to save his life. His favorite color is purple. He draws and draws. Me, between them, I am alive, unflinchingly.
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:
Section 1. Policy. (a) Recognizing that gender-based violence undermines not only the safety, dignity, and human rights of the millions of individuals who experience it, but also the public health, economic stability, and security of nations, it is the policy and practice of the executive branch of the United States Government to have a multi-year strategy that will more effectively prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally.