Six inches of snow had accumulated by the time I took Omar, my golden retriever, for a walk. Early in the three-mile loop of my subdivision, I saw the lanky figure of my neighbor Jack shoveling his long curving driveway, and we stopped to acknowledge each other.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, leaning on his shovel, the snow drifting down to settle on his shoulders.
“Yes,” I nodded. I walked on, happy to be deep in it.
A mile later I came to another driveway, and this time Astra, whose face is round like my mother’s and who is named after the stars, was doing some heavy pushing. She had a system, I could see from the neat cleared lines going up the drive. She tipped her bomber cap to me as I passed.
And then, on the last mile stretch, a family of four emerged onto the street, pulling plastic sleds back home from their morning’s fun up at the schoolyard. The older boy was in the lead and had no sled behind him. His sister, in pink snow pants and barely making any progress, was bringing up the rear. Her parents had stopped, waiting for her to catch up, but she was dragging her little pink sled slowly, her steps listless and aggrieved. It appeared that she resented the sled. His patience exhausted, the father marched back to her and yanked it from her hands, freeing her to join her brother. She trudged up to him, and just as she pulled even, he shoved her in the chest, and she collapsed into the snow bank thrown up by the plows at the side of the road. With difficulty she struggled up from the snow, and he pushed her down again.
“Make him stop!” she screamed from her prone position, now at last expending a great deal of energy. “This isn’t fair!” The mother pulled her out of the snow and told her to put a lid on the whining.
The family had come to a halt, what with all the drama, and Omar and I passed them quickly. I felt some urgency in putting them behind us. Tense emotions agitate Omar, and I didn’t like the turmoil playing out on this snow-filled morning any better than he did.
As I passed, I mused on my feelings. Was it just their messing up of my pretty winter scene that disturbed me, or was there more going on? I became aware of the internal monologue I’d been having while traipsing through the snow. I realized I had been happy to spot Astra out shoveling. I’m pleased to see people clear their driveway in the quiet, old-fashioned way, without a noisy engine going. Nothing blights a peaceful winter scene like a snow blower. But my happiness derived from more than that. I was glad to see a woman out shoveling, a fairly rare sight. I’m always on the lookout for women doing the outdoor jobs that men mostly perform. It’s men who climb the ladders and clean the gutters, men who rake the leaves, cut the wood and stack it, wield the lawn mowers and snow blowers. I get tired of the division of labor along gender lines: men in charge of the outside, women in charge of the inside. Astra was okay out-of-doors. She didn’t look aggrieved—quite the contrary. She looked as if she enjoyed her task, was glad to be deep in snow, serene even, as if the stars had aligned for her.
I carried this thinking into my reaction to the contending sister and brother. Why did his parents give his behavior a pass, as if bullying was just his being a boy, something sisters had to suffer? After all, he set the ball into motion by picking on her. I didn’t like his bad behavior, but, strangely, I disliked her reaction even more. And this was curious to me. I wondered why I was less appalled by his using his upper hand, a pattern of behavior that would be harder and harder to break as he grew up.
You could say his sister was just reacting to what he was doing. I admit, I’m overly sensitive to screaming and whining—it’s often what girls do in moments of crisis, and I don’t like it. I feel personally diminished by it—I reacted to the girl’s behavior as if she spoke for me and for all females. My emotional investment in females is different from my emotional investment in men. How can it not be? My reaction to the girl’s behavior when her brother taunted her was more personal, more intense, more complicated than my response to her brother. I didn’t identify with him, and I did identify with her. I knew well the role she had been cast in, the role she had been born into. She wasn’t encouraged to have grit, to be resourceful and self-reliant, to step into the situation, not run away. Girls are hindered from the get-go. I didn’t like what this little girl was learning, because I had learned it too and it hadn’t helped me one bit.
When a girl encounters a spider, she screams. Or if not a spider, whatever thing has surprised and frightened her, whatever tests her. Why must she scream? What will screaming accomplish? Nothing, I can tell you, because when confronted by a snake in the yard, I scream, and it does nothing to change the dynamics between the snake and me. The snake retains his dominion. The girl in her pink snow pants pushed by her brother into the snow bank screamed. She didn’t do anything.
I used to like my mother best when she killed a spider or fly with the palm of her hand. Better if she carried them outside and let them go (I admit, that would have been the humane thing to do). She did not scream and call for my father. When my mother took her bare hands, hands she kept moisturized, nails filed and polished, and caught the fly and then squished it, my heart sang. Sometimes she’d smash a spider with her bulging diamond wedding ring, and I couldn’t believe how shocking this was. Then she’d wipe those hands on her apron and head back into the kitchen where she was making dinner. It was in those moments that I loved my mother best and felt I underestimated her strength. But it was also in those moments when I wondered how she had not utilized her powers more than she did. My mother had accepted being relegated to the kitchen and its tasks, which had never called her, never spoke her name, and it had struck me as such a waste.
Instead of screaming alternated with whining, I wanted the little girl to punch her brother. That doesn’t sound very good, I know. But that’s what I thought. I didn’t want her to suffer her brother’s so-called playful behavior. He was picking on her to get a rise out of her and to remind her he had power she didn’t. I didn’t want her to think that screaming and whining did anything. I wanted her to chart a course that wasn’t one of feeling defeated. And so I wanted her to push him into the snow bank and maybe grab a handful of snow and stuff it into his mouth. Rough stuff. I wanted her to say I can’t be messed with, and back it up even if he retaliated and she got pushed some more. I wanted her to not think she needed someone else to fix her problem.
I don’t like how girls are often reactive, how we don’t initiate—we’ve learned to wait for boys to initiate, to start something and then and only then will we react. It puts us at a disadvantage because we aren’t deciding for ourselves what we really want in any particular moment. In the case of the brother and sister, I wanted her to react differently than she did. She seemed to feel her options were limited and on the spot she calculated, on the basis of past experience, what would be the course of action that would bring the best result. In the short term she’s learned that whining and screaming will draw the attention of her parents, who will want that ungodly noise to stop. They will come to her rescue and tell her brother to knock it off right now. Order will be restored, temporarily. Some might say she’s learned how to use her girlish vulnerability to enlist help from her parents or others who stand in for her parents. And in the short term that’s a fair assessment. But what has she learned for the long haul? What skills has she acquired that she can call upon when her parents aren’t present and she is on her own? It isn’t just a question of skills; it’s a matter of building up reserves of resilience and learning to look to yourself to solve the problem. That’s why I’d prefer that she kick her brother and endure her parents’ disapproval. That’s a trade-off I’d prefer she make. They won’t like that she’s struck back, because it isn’t how they expect a girl to act. They might punish her and tell her little girls don’t hit. But I’d maintain she sent a message to her brother, her main tormentor, that she wasn’t going to take his bullying, that she had resources of her own and was willing to deploy them. In the long run she’d be establishing boundaries her brother might go on to respect.
Instead, this stout little girl with good lungs had learned that she needed to make a fuss for someone else to step in and stop her brother. It starts early, this sense of a girl’s helplessness. How did this little girl learn to scream when she was frightened or teased or thwarted? Watching her, I thought of my daughter, who punched a boy in first grade on the playground because he was bullying her. She was sent to the principal’s office, of course, and I was called to come in and have a chat about her problematic behavior before I took her home for the day. When I arrived, she was brooding on the bench outside of the principal’s office. She didn’t look remorseful. She was still seething. I knew I was supposed to be disappointed in her behavior. I was supposed to say her behavior was unbecoming in a girl. But I couldn’t. I was glad, deeply glad, that I didn’t have a daughter who screamed and stomped her little foot and let boys push her around. I was so happy that she stood her ground.
It hadn’t been that way when I punched a boy in first grade because he was taunting me. My natural reaction on the playground when I was hanging on the monkey bars and this boy was chanting that he could see my underpants was to jump down and deck him, which is what I did. I was dragged into the principal’s office, told I had misbehaved and that girls didn’t do that, and then my mother was called. When she came to pick me up, my mother continued the chastisements. Girls were not supposed to fight back, they were supposed to take it, to suffer. I had to learn to turn my natural instincts against myself. I had to learn to suffer.
My fantasy of myself is that I am not a woman who screams when I run into something that scares me. I’m not someone who dithers and thinks a hero must appear to help me out of my mess. I want to be the woman who burrows into the problem, doubles down on what she must do. My hope for myself has always been, since I was a child, that I will hold quiet under pressure, wasting no words on worry, capable of concentration, focused on what needs to be done. And when the test comes, I will meet it with stoic calm.
That is the woman I have wanted to be, and the kind of daughter I wanted to raise. I have been fairly successful in training myself not to scream. But I have not avoided suffering.
On July 12, 2014 the New York Times ran an article about a young woman named Anna, who, as an eighteen-year-old freshman at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York, was allegedly raped a few weeks into her first semester. This story is as familiar as dirt. We read and hear about such “incidents” daily and yet there is no diminishment in their occurrence. The article is concerned with the woefully inadequate processes on college campuses to handle allegations of sexual assault and how often the systems in place fail the victim. In Anna’s case, according to the article, the process was so damaging that she regrets ever even telling her college. This, too, is common.
The system of justice available to victims of sexual assault stinks, of that there is no doubt, and improvements in training and attitude are desperately needed. Still I can’t help but think when I’m being realistic that women shouldn’t wait for fairer systems to be in place or for all men to behave as we would like them to behave. Forging institutional change is necessary but we need to arm ourselves with the wherewithal to not let these predatory situations get the better of us. Easier said than done. Some instances of sexual assault cannot be prevented no matter how armed we are. I’m not talking about carrying a real gun; I’m talking about carrying a metaphorical gun that might empower us. I hate the word “empower.” “Change the power dynamics” is what I want to say. Enlarge options for girls and women. I am incensed by the institutional failures to protect women and I hate the bullying of the girl by her brother. I just don’t put much hope in boys being less bullying or institutions functioning fairly. Women have to do for ourselves, or so it has been for me.
According to the article, Anna drank so much that she didn’t remember crucial incidents from the evening and her judgment was impaired. But more important than her impaired memory was her impaired sense of what to do when she first realized the mess she was in. She didn’t know how to size up her companions to ascertain whether they were the kind of guys you went to a private room with. She didn’t know how much she could drink and still adequately reason and function. She didn’t know how to say “No” and back it up with actions. There are so many steps Anna would have to know how to negotiate. I’m not blaming her for what happened, I’m bemoaning all that she needed in order to be prepared to handle what she faced. She was not prepared. In fact, by and large we make sure girls are not prepared to handle what threatens them and we start this training early.
The survey by the Association of American Universities, administered at the end of spring 2015, suggested that one out of five undergraduate college females has been sexually assaulted through physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation. Some are surprised by that figure, but I am not. I am a professor at one of the institutions under investigation for its inadequate handling of campus sexual assault, and I’d say one out of five might be a conservative estimate. I was also a college student in New York, near Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where the fraternity system was the dominant social life. Thirty years ago, my freshman year, it was painful to observe what befell many of my fellow students, what I thought of as the slaughter of lambs. So many girls arrived at college unprepared to cope with the party system, the out-of-control drinking, and the sometimes-predatory behavior of males. My fellow freshmen were away from home and parental supervision for the first time and unbound. They were not wary or suspicious or cautious about the amounts of alcohol they consumed. And like present-day Anna, they would disappear with some guy even though their friends tried to convince them not to. Unlike Anna who was allegedly raped by several men on the football team, the girls experienced an assault from one guy and it went unreported. There were no mechanisms in place to report sexual assault. As far as the college was concerned, it didn’t exist. We girls just took whatever happened to us and suffered. We let it curdle inside us.
What happened to my friends in college happened to me my senior year in high school. I arrived at Wells College, in northern New York, as a rather hardened freshman, casting a skeptical eye on the boys from the neighboring colleges who rolled through Aurora looking for a hook-up. I was wary because formerly I was not and I paid for my nonchalance.
In my senior year of high school I had gone with a female friend to a party where I knew no one, and at that party I drank copious amounts of alcohol. I knew nothing about drinking—how much I might handle while maintaining control. I got into a game of trading tequila shots with a large, older fellow, a seasoned drinker. By the time my friend’s brother arrived to pick us up, as had been arranged, I could no longer stand, and had to be carried down the stairs to the car. Collapsed in the back seat, I had no idea where her brother took me. I dimly realized that my friend didn’t come with us, and it was just her brother and me. The brother was in college and home for spring break. I knew him a little. He drove to an unfamiliar house and carried me inside, where he deposited me on a bed and closed the bedroom door. I slipped in and out of consciousness, unable to speak coherently. I was wearing a dress, and he didn’t remove my clothes except for my panties. I couldn’t give my consent, nor fight him off. I couldn’t even try to fight him off. I didn’t feel him enter me, even though I was a virgin. I hardly knew that what was happening to me was sex. He was having sex with me—although that isn’t right—that’s looking at it from his point of view. Sex is consensual; this was rape. He was using my passed-out body, upon which he performed a sex act. When my focus sharpened, he was finishing. I remember that because I couldn’t understand what he was groaning about or why he was lying on top of me. I have no idea how long the act lasted.
When it was over, he got me back into the car and drove me home. We did not speak. He didn’t even walk me to the door. He leaned across me and opened the passenger door and pushed me out—done with me, and probably worried that he would be spotted. I stumbled up the front walk to our screened porch at the side of the house and let myself in. It was about two in the morning, way past the time I was supposed to be home, and yet my father was not waiting up for me as he usually was, nor did he get up to check on me. I took a bath, a sign that I was now conscious of what had happened to me.
The next morning I learned why my father hadn’t checked on me. His mother had had a massive heart attack and died while I was downing shots of tequila and being raped.
In the time-honored fashion of young women, I never spoke of what happened to me. I even hesitated calling it rape. I heaped the largest portion of blame upon myself and believed my drunkenness invited trouble and explained why the brother had “taken advantage” of me. That was the euphemism we used in those days.
The July following the snowstorm, my husband Richard and I went out on the Red Cedar River with Marian and Lyle, our neighbors from down the street. They took their canoe, while Richard and I took our single kayaks. The river was high, perhaps the highest it’d been since we lived here because of all the rains, yet still I had no trepidation about venturing forth. I was in the lead, the designated scout, as Lyle called me. This order was nothing that had been decided, it just emerged since I was always pushing ahead, out in front as they lagged behind. It felt right, I remember thinking, I had always been the leader on the hikes of my youth, the person who volunteered to go ahead and report back.
What I mainly had to navigate on this day were the trees fallen into the river, sometimes stretching far across the expanse between the banks, and any other obstacles we’d have to figure out how to get through or around. I’d figure out how to zigzag through and the others would follow my lead. Everything was going well, the day was beautiful with strong sun coming through the canopy of trees arching over the water, and an unexpected reprieve from the mosquitos swarming on the land. My neighbors pulled out alcoholic drinks they had brought. They were so relaxed. After two hours of paddling upstream, we decided to turn around and head back—the easy part of the trip, because the current would carry us home. In the past, with the water level lower, it felt as if I was floating home, like a daydream, and I was expecting some version of that this time. Again I was in the lead, moving merrily along, happy with the world, really in a moment of bliss, unanchored from land bound cares, when out of nowhere the nose of my kayak hit a submerged branch I hadn’t seen and flipped.
I capsized in a matter of seconds. I was ejected and submerged with the kayak turning over and trapping me underneath. This spot in the river was too deep for me to stand on the bottom and the current was pushing me, and the kayak, downstream. I managed to swim out from under the kayak and come back up to the surface. But then I had to turn the kayak right side up, which was no easy task. My companions had watched the whole thing and now were closing in to where I was and Lyle, whose voice carried the loudest, asked if I was hurt. Their sense of alarm made me feel I should pull myself together. I was not afraid to be immersed. I had confidence, perhaps a misplaced confidence, that I could swim, that I could manage. Of course it must be said that I might not have managed. I might well have hit my head on a boulder or gotten pegged in the mouth of the kayak. But I didn’t think about those possibilities.
“I’m okay,” I told them. But my kayak was full of water and too heavy for me to lift and tip over.
I had to get to the side of the river where I might be able to stand, pull the kayak up onto the bank, and then tip it over to get the water out. Easier said than done. I managed to swim the kayak over to the bank, but after that everything was nearly impossible. The banks sloped steeply into the river and were composed of soft mud, which made it hard to get my footing and stay upright. I couldn’t get a stable grip from which to pull the enormously heavy kayak full of water up out of the river and onto the bank. Every time I tried, I fell down and slipped back into the river. I tried to climb higher up on the bank over a fallen log and into the jungle-like growth of briars and poison ivy and who knows what. Again I couldn’t stay upright and ended up falling down the banks.
Lyle, from his perch in their canoe, said, “I don’t think we should try to help.” They might fall in themselves. I hadn’t asked them for help, but I assumed someone might help me. There it was—was I going to rely on myself or expect someone to get me out of the mess I was in? Richard did come to my assistance, paddling over to the bank and getting out of his kayak to help me pull my two-ton baby up the bank. There followed a slapstick routine straight out of a Buster Keaton movie in which one or the other of us fell down over and over, each time getting more and more mud all over ourselves. We turned the bank into a full-fledged mudslide all the while my kayak stubbornly stayed where it began, half in and half out of the river.
Still our neighbors watched from their canoe.
Richard and I applied ourselves to getting as much water out of the kayak as we could, so that I could get back in it and go home. We bailed and bailed, until only a few inches of river water remained. I got back in the kayak and Richard got back in his kayak, and we rode the river back to our house and pulled the thing up the bank and tipped it over to drain the water.
My neighbors were more shaken by the tip-over than I was, or shaken in a different way. They had watched it rather than lived it. They saw me be ejected and go under and not come up for some seconds. I could have hit my head on a hidden stone or been trapped under the kayak. It happened much more slowly for them than for me, I think. I reacted instinctively to a crisis, focused entirely on what to do, with no time to consider my feelings. But they became frightened for themselves—what if it was them, what would they do? I heard it in their voices, which echoed from the river to the woods. They were afraid of the water, and I was not.
Later, Lyle was at pains to explain why he hadn’t come to my assistance. He felt chagrined, concerned that he hadn’t comported himself admirably. The incident, he said, had made him ask himself if he would try to save someone from drowning. He used a young boy as an example, some incident in the news. He didn’t think he would; his responsibility was to keep himself alive. There were people who needed him. He was making a calculation, deciding, when he added up all the factors, that he would not go into the river to save the boy. He wasn’t a strong swimmer, he added.
I realized with certainty that I would go into the river to save the boy. My grandmother, as a young woman, was swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island when she spotted a man in distress. You have to be gifted to see the subtle signs of real distress and she was. She swam to him and carried him to shore. The story made the newspapers. My grandmother didn’t know the man. I knew I’d do what my grandmother did—it’s in my blood.
My neighbors assumed I must have had a terrible time, that the thing was traumatic for me and would keep me from going out on the river again. Far from being traumatized, I felt elated, fully alive, fully human. It was a moment when I came close to the woman I wanted to be but often wasn’t. In a difficult situation, I had taken action for myself. It’s true my husband had come to my assistance, but I’d managed most of it without him. I guided my kayak home, and really, that’s all I ever wanted.
Rumpus original art by Melissa Gutierrez.