ENOUGH: They Have So Many Ways to Keep Us Quiet

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Soft Still in Pain
Meghana Mysore

Young Girl and Woman // National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

 

Young girl’s bust resides in a glass cage, her eyes soft and in terracotta and in pain. She never said she was in pain. She cannot speak. She is not alive. Like Philomela, the one in the myth, the one dying in faded coffee-stained pages, her tongue has been cut off.

A still bust is not a body. It only reminds you of one. Don’t ever confuse young girl with someone who is alive. Youth is alive and luxurious and free, but young girl is not.

This is how the myth goes: When Daphne turns into a tree, her voice becomes a memory.

 

Young girl’s cage stands against the window, so close it could almost fall through. The window lets in a view of the bright green shrubs and bushes framing the East side of the gallery. Young girl is made of terracotta with plaster and paint, carved in 1868, according to the label on the marble block. The light seeping in from outside makes her eyes seem alive for a moment. I look closer and they are drenched in sorrow.

Stillness seems to have been young girl’s eternal state. Terracotta and plaster instead of flesh. To think that Rodin’s shiny-knuckled hands, white and bony, made her. To think that he could simply craft her. She doesn’t have legs. She can’t run away. And maybe if she did try to run she’d just become a tree. Another still thing.

I wonder if she shivered under Rodin’s touch. I wonder what she would say if she could speak.

I stand between two glass cages, one holding young girl and the other holding woman, both crafted by Rodin. I wonder if still things can be alive. If they can imagine themselves alive.

 

Young girl’s hair is flat like dying grass. Around her forehead, her hair becomes thicker, juts out like a rock, and I wonder if it hurts her, carrying this weight on her forehead. I keep forgetting she isn’t alive.

How can you look at a statue with eyes like hers and believe she is inanimate? She’s been trapped in the cage so long. Her eyes ache, language halted within them. How can you walk through this room of Rodin’s women, filled with female suffering—here a woman as a sphinx, hands outstretched like paws, lips full and blossoming with dangerous desire—and not feel something large and disgusting churning in your chest? I want to vomit. How can you walk by these women caught in cages and not want to scream?

Half their bodies cut off, voiceless, eyes filled with sorrow. Could they still be alive?

To be voiceless is to be dead. Perhaps a false equivalency. But perhaps not.

Woman’s head in the opposite glass cage tilts to the left, her hair large but not free. Hair loops around her forehead and atop her head like stones tumbling clumsily together. She wears a flower crown, although the flowers look more like rocks. Their weight must be difficult to bear; woman’s eyebrows furrow. She looks older than young girl. There are cavities under her eyes. Young girl’s bust is just a smooth slab of terracotta but woman’s bust has ridges, perhaps indicating voluminous breasts, the mark of growing older. She was carved in 1875, seven years after young girl.

I stare at the flower crown and think of Ophelia drowning. It is the only image I can see when I look at her. I turn to young girl again. She is beautiful, but what is the use of beauty when stuck in a cage? I step out from in between them and stare from the side. They look at each other, and they are each other, separated only by years. I shiver. They grow older but remain imprisoned in cages. Age only cements their dark truth. Neither has the agency to speak, to scream.

 

Daphne runs and her feet turn to cement, then to bark. Before she turns fully into a tree a slab of skin slides easily off her leg. Somewhere, today, a teenager is smoking in a forest and uses the slab of her skin, now the stub of a tree, to rest on.

It is not that when she becomes a tree Daphne no longer feels pain. Apollo still touches her and she shrinks away. I don’t think she’s stopped shivering, even now.

When I step out of the gallery I still want to scream. There is cruelty contained in the room, female suffering on display. I am relieved to have walked out, to be free.

But the next morning the thought haunts me that I am not free. In the mirror, I wipe the toothpaste from the corners of my mouth. I hunch over the toilet like a piece of paper creased in the middle. I heave and nothing comes out. I cannot stand straight. I open my mouth to scream and only a throaty whisper falls out.

 

We are women, we are sphinxes, we growl, we are sexual beings—but this is our only rewarded quality: we give pleasure. Our bodies do not belong to us; we are only faces and busts.

Once, a boy pulled me on top of him and I asked if he wanted me to take off my shirt. As if his want was all that mattered. A subservience deeply engrained in me. He nodded and I took off my sweaty shirt and he fondled my breasts and kissed them and circled them with his fingers and felt the ridges of my nipples and his erection was hot and hard against my knee and he did not look at me on the street the next day and for the first time I wondered if I was invisible.

Behind closed doors I existed as a body; on the street, in open air, I did not exist at all. I became lifeless, the contents of my mind irrelevant. Any utility I had resided only in my body, in the parts that could produce pleasure for someone else.

I am hurting inside.

 

Before exiting the room, I stop at another statue by Rodin, of a man, called Le Penseur. Le Penseur’s penis emerges in bronze from between his legs, his head downturned. The Sphinx woman could also be le penseur, I want to say out loud. She could be both—full of desire, and full of thought. I wish I could tell Rodin. I don’t know whether he would agree, whether he could understand.

Before I can leave gravity pulls me back to the young girl and woman. Something disturbs me—the greenery outside, peeking through their glass cages, teasing at freedom.

I know what the curators of the exhibit want us to see: the evolution of female life, the process of aging, a young woman facing her older self. I know they’re supposed to be different, their distinction marked by woman’s more voluptuous bust, her more fully grown hair, bodied enough to hold a flower crown. But to me the crown is not beautiful, only sinister. Something sharp is caught in my throat. Ophelia drowns, is drowning, and does anyone see? Underwater she cannot speak and does not call for help. She’s disappeared from the text, the love of Hamlet, girl who spoke in mad riddles. She had nothing to say. Nothing to say.

 

My voice wavers in classrooms and most people I meet tell me that I’m quiet and I think they must be right and that’s how I should stay so I keep trying to make myself smaller, make myself disappear. To not be an inconvenience to anyone else. This is what I was taught, in a home where my dad’s voice was the loudest; there is only so much noise a house can take. Walls always on the verge of crumbling. So I bit my tongue, like my mother. I apologized. I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry—let me be invisible, I wished again and again when I was younger, burying myself underneath my sheets. I still wish this when my emotions are too loud, too heavy. I try to make them lighter. I rip the sheets clean off my bed. A body without skin is just bones. It weighs less. Takes up less space. More convenient. For others. Only side effect is it is no longer alive.

 

I pull the sheets off my bed so the bed is naked, stripped clean of its skin, and I cry, bite my tongue to muffle the sound of my sorrow so that my roommate can’t hear. I bite it so hard I think I taste a little blood. I keep thinking of the boy, how his eyes evaded mine, how all he had wanted from me was part of me, how so many people believe that the sphinx woman and le penseur must exist in separate frames.

 

My mind wanders back to the gallery. I have left the room that haunted me, the room of half-dead women, dead women, sphinx woman, young girl, woman, bust, breast, crown. I have left the gallery, but I keep coming back to young girl and woman. No one looks at their eyes, how sad they are, in the glass frame. Don’t they seem so alive? Their eyes scream. Their tongues burn.

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Lies of Omission
Emily O’Neill

I’m home from college and we’re in the kitchen. The radio is on, a talk show to fill the space where a few moments before there was yelling, enough to fill the entire house. My gram is cooking dinner as if nothing has happened. My dad tests his blood sugar, hands still vibrating with rage. He mutters about respect, his frustration braiding itself with the low calm of NPR. How my sister should respect him, how nobody does.

I do not remember the argument they had, only that she ran from the house in tears. She won’t be back for hours. She’s gone to work this way. Furious. Wounded. It doesn’t matter what was said, only that he’s incapable of letting the argument go. He wants me to commiserate. “You heard her.” I stand in the doorway near the stove, unsure whether I should leave the room.

“You can’t demand respect when you won’t give any.”

“You’re my children; you have to respect me.”

“It’s reciprocal. She wouldn’t fight so much if you’d speak to her how you want to be spoken to.”

“It’s not my job to respect a child.”

“We’re not children anymore. You picked a fight with her.”

“She never listens.”

“No, you’re not listening.”

Gram stirs something in a saucepan. I try to decide what would happen if I pushed, but I am already pushing and nothing shifts. He’s raising his voice as if doing so might convince me I’m the one who started this newer argument. It doesn’t matter who he’s yelling at, only that he gets to yell. His anger eats its own tail.

His glucometer is on the placemat in front of him alongside a napkin where he pressed his finger to stop the blood after holding a bead of it against the test strip. The number has vanished from the screen already, offering no clue as to whether he’s repeating himself because he’s angry or because he’s going into diabetic shock. Maybe it’s both. Sometimes anger makes the number plummet so quickly he forgets where he is. I have so often quelled my own rage to force juice down his throat, to feed him Lifesavers. I’ve had to give up on convincing him of anything countless times to make sure he stays conscious.

 

It’s easier to tell the story of my father as hero than it is to talk about how he hurt me. I say I don’t remember my childhood because it is a blur of curtained hospital beds, and that is true. I can list illnesses as proof of this. But there is another explanation for my vanished memories, pulled from behind my ear like a trick coin. The story that doesn’t fit with the version of my father most people knew: the suffering man, alive against the odds. Each day, his continued survival an unexpected gift.

My father hit us when we were young. Me and my sisters. Beat us with his braided leather belt. Kept his watch on when he used his hand so the band would sting the skin. I have pieced these images together in adulthood. I am afraid of the downstairs bathroom in the house I grew up in. I can barely picture it when it was still the laundry room, before it was remodeled. When it was the only door in the house with a working lock. I am afraid of men who are taller than me, men who corner me when we disagree, men who refuse to concede. When a man yells, I become an unrecognizable coward. I crawl to the space between my bed and the window to hide like I would hide on the far side of my parents’ room where my dad propped up his prosthetic legs. The carpet smelled like Silvadene and rubbing alcohol. I don’t know how many times I laid flat on the floor hoping he wouldn’t find me there. I can’t count how many times he did.

By the time my brother was born, my dad’s rage had changed shape. I don’t remember him hitting my brother. I do remember the few times I tried to ask about his anger, I was told it was his medicine that made him mad. That he couldn’t control it when it happened. That he needed that medicine, so we had to learn how to be better instead of expecting him to change. I didn’t learn to be better, only quieter. I wet the bed. Was a sleepwalker. Had a recurring dream of walking down an endless flight of stairs. Every time I had this dream I would end up in the basement, then scooped into my mother’s arms and carried back to bed. I was always trying to disappear. Once, I fell asleep on a long drive home and my dad tried to carry me in from the car without waking me. As soon as I was in his arms, I started to pee, my body terrified even while asleep. I woke up to my mother repeating, “She didn’t know,” as she took me from him in the yard while he cursed.

 

I am home from college, forever on the edge of a migraine as soon as I cross the threshold. Everyone moves through the house so tightly wound, prepared to defend themselves. My defense is blinding pain. It keeps me in bed, away from arguments like this one.

We’re yelling about him yelling and I snap, say, “If you can’t admit that you used to hit us you don’t deserve a relationship with me at all.” He denies it. I insist I won’t be home again if he can’t own up to the truth. “You hurt us. If you love me, you’ll at least admit that.” 

He looks at me. I have always suspected the reason he was hard on me was because I reminded him of himself. I was too soft. Wounded by everything. Constantly sick with stomach aches and ear infections, fainting in school, crying all the time. I want to believe that he hurt me to ossify me against the world’s brutality. I know this is too generous. I know that I make him a myth because of the distance it creates between us and I am tired of holding him far away from myself. I’m tired of being objective.

He cries. My gram is still cooking as if we aren’t in the room. He says he failed. That he never felt like a man because of all the things he couldn’t give us. Our own home. Allowance every week. Cars and clothes and vacations and opportunities. He’d stood up to face me as the conversation escalated, and as he lists what he wished had been different, he deflates and staggers back into his chair at the kitchen table.

“I’m sorry,” he says. It is the first time I see him leave a conflict contrite.

 

There is another fight, not long before his apology, when pushing didn’t work. When we come to a similar impasse, and we both run out of the house to escape our own unspent energy. I climb into a friend’s car and go to the movies, where I can hide in the dark. My dad walks up the street to the bus station with only his wallet, intending to get on a bus to New York. In his hurry he trips over the train crossing in the center of town and falls, badly cutting his ear on a chunk of gravel.

My mother is driving home from an errand and sees him on the ground, the right side of his head covered in blood. She tells him to get in the car, but he won’t. She doesn’t know the source of the blood but the sight of it alone convinces her he needed to go to the ER. She talks him into returning home, but he refuses a ride. She drives alongside him as he walks. Eventually, he agrees to go to the hospital. There, the wound is cleaned and sewn closed, and afterward, the procedure is billed to his insurance company.

The ritual intervention mitigated the visible symptom, but he was still guaranteed a scar.

*

On Female Silence
Kerry Cohen

When I was seven I found my cat on the highway, dead. I ran to my house with a terrible hole in my chest because I couldn’t bear to watch my grandfather peel my cat’s dead body from the road with a shovel and garbage bag. I cried hard for hours and I didn’t go down for dinner that evening. I lay in bed with the covers pulled up around my neck until I fell asleep.

The next day my mother told me I’d actually been crying about her and my father’s separation earlier that summer. That wasn’t true. I loved that cat more than either of my parents then, but I knew it wasn’t worth arguing with my mother, especially about my own feelings. She would hear only what she wanted to hear, so I said nothing. Maybe that was the first silence, or at least the first conscious one, the first time I knowingly kept my feelings to myself to avoid being too much for someone else.

When I was nine a boy I recognized from town approached me in the woods near my house holding his erect penis outside his open fly. I backed away, scared, and ran home. I told no one about this incident. Maybe if I had been a bit younger or if he had been a bit older, it would have made more sense to tell. Telling would have been simpler if my feelings were simpler. But alongside my fear at seeing him exposed had existed curiosity and intrigue, and I worried that these were things I shouldn’t feel.

When I was twelve a man slid his hands up under my skirt and pressed his fingers against my underwear. I didn’t have time to say no but I hadn’t said yes. I told no one about this, either, because I’d obviously brought it on myself—I was wearing a short skirt and makeup, wanting boys to like me.

It got easier, the not telling. There would be times I let boys I liked put their fingers in me and I thought yes, more, there. But I wouldn’t say that. I had no language for my feelings, for my longing, and the words I did know were shameful: slut, whore, nympho.

Also when I was twelve, my mother left. In the scene of my mother’s leaving I stand with my arms at my sides as she hugs me. She says, “Don’t be sad,” and I say nothing. I hold my breath so I won’t have to breathe in her scent. The truth is that I wasn’t sad. I was numb, the kind of numbness that settles into the female body when our feelings become overwhelming and suck everything up into a vacuum.

There is destruction like this in so many women’s bodies. We lose ourselves somewhere early on. My losing began with my mother but continued to grow alongside other women’s losing. Our losing grows in a world that presses in on us, a world where there is no room for our bodies or our words or our desires.

I tried to fill my losing with men’s desires and, for a long time, I forgot about my own. My mother’s leaving defined me. Her absence lived inside me like a shrunken balloon. All that happened from then on, everything that touched my skin and my heart, was merely a reminder of that void.

When I was seventeen a friend’s boyfriend moved his body onto mine while I slept. My friend had argued with him and he came to my room to sleep because there was an extra bed. I woke, groggy and confused, and I panicked. He was heavy. I couldn’t push him off. I said one word: Don’t. But he did anyway, my one word floating up and away, evaporating. It was over quickly. I didn’t tell my friend, that night or the next day, because I worried that she would be angry—not at her boyfriend for raping me but at me for letting him. I didn’t tell anyone about the rape, not for a long time.

Silence is a kind of violence society inflicts upon girls and women. My memories were mute. My silent body, my harmed body, was bursting at the seams then; it is bursting at the seams now. My body is all desire, loud and chaotic, but shhh, shhh.

I tried to silence my wanting with men. Men tried to silence my wanting, too. My father taught me to need nothing from men. Boys don’t like it when girls want too much, he told me. Relax. Keep calm. Don’t freak out.

The first man I loved told me to shut up. He said it only during arguments, but I understood that my anger made me unlovable. I understood that to want anything he didn’t feel like giving, or was incapable of giving, or was too damaged to give, made me too much.

I wanted sex.
I wanted success.
I wanted money.
I wanted to love people.
I wanted people to love me.
I wanted to know people and to understand them.
I wanted to know and understand myself.

Is that okay with you, my love?

My wants were not okay with a man I married and eventually divorced. I wrote about a difficult time in my life, some of which occurred during our time together, and that made him so angry he wrote to my publisher. He demanded they refuse to publish my story because it might harm his children. But the truth was that my words, which he had not even read, had the potential to make him feel badly. They might hurt his feelings and therefore they shouldn’t exist.

For a year I wrestled with the fact that he had tried to silence me. I write because words live in my throat and if they don’t come out in the stories I craft, they will eat me from the inside. Suddenly, I couldn’t write. When I expressed my fury about this—my rage at a world full of men who take as much and give as little as they choose to—people told me to relax, to soften my anger. Even my therapist said my anger was only hurting me.

I say fuck that. Fuck all of them. Fuck this world where men can hurt women, this society that lets men rape us, take what’s ours, casually destroy us. This society that ultimately silences us because it doesn’t have a use for our pain.  Instead, we hear danger in women’s voices. How dangerous we are, with our words and our anger and our truths. I see what men have done to me, knowing they could, knowing that no one would care, not really, not enough to stop them from causing harm.

I paint my face with makeup: eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. I keep my hair long. I still love attention from men, sometimes. I still wear clothes to attract men, sometimes. I regret it when I attract men I don’t want. They call out to me from cars. They corner me in bars. But I don’t have to dress a certain way to attract this unwanted attention. I need only to be in the world in a woman’s body. Women’s bodies are fair game. And so other times, on the streets at night, I walk quietly so as not to draw attention. I bind my breasts with a bra. I dress in clothes that will make me invisible. I cover my face with my long hair. I whisper. It is a constant tension, my desire to be both visible and invisible.

If you cracked open my body there would be a tsunami of words. Women’s bodies are full of words. We walk by one another unknowing, but also knowing, how our stories flow from our homes, into our neighborhoods, through our towns and cities, outward until they reach the oceans. Our stories swim in the oceans, too.

And yet: Hush, we’re told. Not like that, they say. They have so many ways to keep us quiet.

I’ve had sex and I want more.
I’ve had success and I want more.
I’ve had money and I want more.
I’ve loved people and want to love more.
I’ve had people love me and I want more love.
I’ve known and understood people and I want to know and understand them more.
I keep trying to know and understand myself, entirely and exquisitely.

I no longer ask if that’s okay.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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