The Ice Bucket challenge has raised millions for ALS research, not to mention awareness about the disease: the motor neuron disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects thousands of Americans. It’s also served as a reminder about the work that Tony Judt did to convey what it was like to live with ALS, in his diary entries for the New York Review of Books. Judt died in August 2010. Here is a short collection of stories:
A hundred years ago, when I was an artist and an art student and a lover and a free spirit, I wrote a manifesto on art based on Claes Oldenburg’s I am For… from 1961. And so I dug it out from under a stone, wiped off the dirt and dust, updated it for the modern Jen, and gently laid it here. It’s a good reminder that not every child needs to be controlled by a stoplight clock (I love that ding-dang thing), not every piece of art needs to be beautiful, and most importantly, I wasn’t always Mama Art.
Once upon a time, I was For an Art...
I am for an art that reveals itself unabashedly. I am for an art that keeps deep secrets.
I am for an art that lives in dark spaces under stairwells, below dark dusty beds in musty basements and other people’s garbage.
I am for an art that wanders through nightmares, places of discomfort, frustration, loss.
I am for the art of dreams, visitations by the dead, flying through the sky, talking faceless ones.
I am for the art of pink curlers, the pulling off of a doll’s head, the odor of burning doll hair on a curling iron.
I am for the art of a weighty grandfather’s tool chest carrying mysteries and tales of pain and hardship, for the steelworker and the waitress, the housewife and the businessman, and their stumbling, tumbling progeny.
I am for the art of scary clowns, sleeping babies and the stale smell of Marlboro cigarettes.
I am for the art of the squeak of leg braces, of the rising of bile in one’s throat for an unnameable fear. I am for an art of a devotion and obsession that is two parts resentment and dread and three parts pulsing, pressing, throat-clenching love.
I am for an art that witnesses moments of absurd despair and self-loathing. I am for an art that celebrates the gritty, fearsome strength of the obese woman living inside of small women.
I am for an art of too much sugar, too much color, too much pattern, too many treasures, too many thoughts, flowers, crabapples and children.
I am for an art that expands like a turnpike, repeats itself like stripmalls and is deceptively comforting like suburbia.
I am for an art of the attic, the garage sale, the folded photograph and stories handed down, once truth, now lore.
I am for an art of the clenched fist, the pinching of one’s own flesh, the scratching of skin to erase the fear, the bone and skin and muscle.
I am for an art that counts the number of days left, years of marriage, pounds lost.
I am for an art that you can hold in your hand, that makes your nose run and mucus slide down the back of your throat, that you can stare at but never see, that embarrasses you or reminds.
I am for an art of diaries, billboards, caution signs, Charlie Brown, National Geographic magazines and hastily scribbled postcards.
I am for an art that envelops you, that makes you like a rat in a maze or a fish in a bowl or a baby in a crib or a fingernail on the page of the Sunday comics.
I am for an art that stumbles and is embarrassed, looking back to see that there was nothing to stumble on, pretending to never have stumbled.
I am for an art that lifts its skirt, that throws its skirt in the air, that gingerly peeks below its skirt, that forces you to look up its skirt, that didn’t realize its skirt was tucked into its waistband.
I am for art that is honest, that tells all. I am for art that conceals in rambling sentences of excuses and sidetracks.
I am for the art of a pregnant woman trying to sit on the ground, of a child dancing a whirling dervish, of a self-conscious teenager painted and pressed and primped.
I am for the art of sticky fingers in your hair, hands clutching your skirt, your pants, your shirt, of baby fingers curled under the edge of a bra strap as a hungry mouth sucks the milk of your marrow.
I am for the art of chance, of decision, of a changed mind, of a coincidence.
I am for the art of duty and honor, fear and betrayal, of resentment and jealousy, of humor and serendipity.
I am for the art of spinning until you throw up, of a lover’s sweaty embrace, of realizing you were wrong, of flipping through the TV channels, of wanting to be liked, of hating the way these pants fit, of a child’s tantrum, of laughing until your stomach hurts, of a beeping alarm on a hospital machine in the master bedroom, of telling a hurtful truth, of ads and radio jingles that you hum all day, of black magic markers and shiny house paint breathed deeply.
I am for an art of more, more, more. At all cost.
(I write this as part of the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, Manifesto, as a tribute to Claes Oldenburg’s chutzpah and as a reminder to myself that I am still for an art.)
You know it’s going to be one of those days when one of the first tweets on vacation inquires about the closest hospital.
Victor, one of my 11-year-olds, had something in his eye courtesy of a big gust of wind outside of Westminster Abby. He was complaining enough to let me flip his eyelid and irrigate his eye on the square in front of Big Ben. (I’m sure several people thought I was torturing him). Despite an extensive search and rinse mission no object or relief was to be found. I fretted about going to the hospital. It wasn’t the prospect of navigating a slightly foreign ER, but simply the prospect of the wait. While I am a staunch supporter of the British NHS in the back of my mind I envisioned a paralyzingly full emergency room and an agonizing 18 hour wait only to find he had nothing in his eye (the basic antechamber of Hell scenario). To ensure we really needed to go I gave Victor a choice between the emergency room and a toy store (Gunter’s 3rd rule), but he declined the toys so off we went to St. Thomas hospital, conveniently right over the bridge.
The hospital was on the aging side and a little drab, but clean and well-marked. I didn’t have to ask anyone for directions. We had to take a number to be registered, but waited less than 5 minutes. I gritted my teeth a bit in preparation for the we-are-not-from-the-UK conversation, but it wasn’t an issue at all. I offered my US insurance number for billing, but was told they didn’t need it. The clerk was, however, impressed with the fact that I flipped his eyelid and irrigated his eye before coming. “Well, you did all the right things,” and looking at his red and watering eye she smiled and said. “Looks like you are in the right place.”
Registration completed, we waited to be seen by the children’s part of the ER. A registrar (resident) did a quick triage within 5 minutes of our registering (also impressed with the eye irrigation) and then a nurse did his vitals and took a history. After that we waited less than 15 minutes for the registrar to do a formal assessment. He wanted ophthalmology to do the evaluation. I was a bit surprised the ER doc wouldn’t do it, but every facility is different and when they found out that Victor was born at 26 weeks and had retinopathy of prematurity they got a bit jumpy. Everyone does. I was ok with ophthalmology checking him out. What I have learned from years of medicine is don’t mess with the local order.
We were walked over to the urgent care clinic and were warned that the ophthalmology registrar was covering the whole hospital so it might be a while. This was our longest wait, about 20-30 minutes. She was very nice (also working on her PhD). Dr. Katie Williams (she gave me permission to use her name and her photo) diagnosed Victor with a corneal abrasion and easily snagged the offending speck of dirt wedged under his eyelid. Once removed Victor exclaimed, “It’s gone!,” and within a minute or two the redness cleared up. She put in antibiotic ointment and gave us a tube to use at home.
“So where do I pay?” I asked Dr. Williams.
The answer: you don’t. Perhaps they might bill us, she just wasn’t sure.
I was about as dumfounded at her answer as she was at my asking.
I protested that it wasn’t fair. We had used services and I was very prepared to pay. I also have insurance that covers emergencies when out of network, so I was pretty sure I would be reimbursed at least some of the visit. However, we were just sent away. They do have my address so it is possible I will get a bill in the mail.
I am very curious what similar care would have cost in the US. The saddest commentary of all is that it is really impossible to tell as billing practices are so bizarre and opaque. My guess is it would be a minimum of 00 in America for cash (which is egregious). If I ever get a bill from the UK, I’ll post a follow-up. If anyone has had similar care in the US and received a bill please do post in the comments. You can remain anonymous if you like.
But what of this idea that national health care means DMV-purgatory worthy waits, Dementor-staffed death panels, Saxon-age medical equipment, and incompetent care? Well, I can tell you we had great care at St. Thomas and Dr. Williams was fantastic. The slit lamp wasn’t brand new, but it worked just fine. Sure it’s an N of one, but I’ve been to the ER more times than I can count with my other son and this was as smooth as the best care we’ve had in the United States.
We could have hit the ER at an opportune time, but to expand my N I’ve also asked many people about their medical care while I’ve been in the UK. Not one person wanted to abandon the NHS. I’ve heard of excellent care and some care that was lacking, but the bad care has nothing to do with the “national” part. Rather it was diagnostic errors or a full hospice unit, things that I hear about with the same incidence back in the world of commercial insurance. Take away the accents and I could easily have been listening to a group of Americans discussing their care. With one exception, no one in the UK is left wondering what the price will be or gets an egregious bill.
It makes you wonder exactly what frightens Americans about the NHS?
Robin Williams died today.
It seems surreal to write that.
But since writing is the way I process the incomprehensible — I find myself writing.
Everyone is tweeting and facebooking and calling into radio shows about what a great talent Robin was.
Yeah. He was. But that wasn’t what I adored about him. It was the fact that he was an incredibly kind human being.
When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy. My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a “non-traditional” student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.
It’s devastating, at 14, to have your formal education terminated. I felt like a freak and a reject. When I arrived at work the next day, Robin noticed that I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I explained what had happened, and the next day, he handed me a letter that he wrote to my school. He explained that I was just trying to continue my education while pursuing my career. He wrote embarrassingly kind things about my character and my work, and requested that they reconsider and allow me to return to my classes.
When I told him I still didn’t think they would take me back, he said, “It’s kinda like Amnesty International. That school just needs to know that people know the truth.”
The school framed the letter. They hung it in the principal’s office. But they didn’t invite me to return to school.
But here’s what matters from that story. Robin stood up for me. He was in my corner. I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.
I know I said thank you at the time and I’m sure I wrote one of those stiff thank you notes that 14-year-olds write with slanting lines and spelling mistakes. But that all seems so insufficient now.
Even though I had not spoken with Robin in a very long time, I always assumed there would be some future opportunity to tell him that his letter changed my life. It taught me that you stand up for the things that matter. And even if your attempts fail, you tried. You told the truth. You took care of your friends. You fought back.
None of us really know what fights Robin was battling, but I know his struggles were not uncommon. It’s estimated that 16 million people in the US have struggled with depression – and I include myself in that statistic. It’s real and it’s not shameful and there is help available.
You can bring it to the light, you can tell the truth, you can go to a meeting, you can reach out to a friend.
None of us are alone.
And if you have someone in your life that you are grateful for — someone to whom you want to write another heartfelt, slanted, misspelled thank you note – do it. Tell them they made you feel loved and supported. That they made you feel like you belonged somewhere and that you were not a freak.
Tell them all of that.
Tell them today.
The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
(ETA: If you are interested in reading the letter, you can see it here.)
Today I got a bit cross. I do that occasionally. I have been watching the non-binary versus feminism wars getting increasingly heated and thinking, one day, I’ll write a considered post on this. It is an important issue that deserves my time and effort – but it is such an important issue that it deserves […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
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Three girls are smoking on the back porch of their high school dorm. It’s near midnight on a Saturday in early autumn, the leaves not yet fallen, the darkness thick. A man steps out of the woods. He is wearing a black ski mask, a hooded jacket, leather gloves. He has a gun. He tells the girls to follow him, that if they make a noise or run he’ll shoot. He makes them lie face down on the ground. He rapes first one and then the others. He walks away.
It is September, 1978. Two of the girls are my classmates; the third is a friend of theirs, visiting for the weekend. As a day student, I hear the news on Monday morning. I am fifteen and, like most of us—good girls at an all-girls boarding school—my experience of sex so far consists of sweaty slow dances and a few nights of awkward groping and beery kisses with boys I never see again. At the special all-school meeting convened that morning, the headmistress informs us of the security guard that has been hired, the safety lights that soon will be installed. Another woman, a cop or counselor, steps up to the microphone. “Rape is a crime of violence, not sex,” she says. She repeats it, like a mantra, to make sure we understand.
I try to picture the girls out there in that ravine behind the dorm, dead leaves and pine needles and dirt cold against their skin. The porch light shining dimly through the trees. The man, the mask and gloves and gun. But there the tableau freezes. I simply can’t imagine it: the logistics of it, the lying there, the terrible anticipation, and then. Wasn’t there something they could have done, I can’t help thinking, three-on-one like that?
Still, the incident does not make me fearful. I’m not afraid to be home alone in my parents’ house, just a few miles down the road. I’m not afraid to walk home from my music lessons along the wooded path that winds around the pond behind my house or to take the T into Boston by myself. I don’t believe that what happened to those girls could happen to me. More precisely, it doesn’t even occur to me that it could. I can’t make any of it touch me: the powerlessness, the fear, the shame.
A few weeks after the rapes, a man is arrested, a tennis pro from a respected local family. Everyone is shocked, relieved. The girls stay in school. They get over it, or so we all believe.
The word “rape” comes from the Latin verb rapere: to seize, to take by force, to carry off. Rape, in its original sense, was a property crime, a form of theft. The early Romans famously seized and carried off the Sabine women, being short on wives. Poussin depicts the Sabine women flung over the Romans’ shoulders, abandoned infants wailing on the ground, fathers wrestling the soldiers to get their daughters back. But in the center of the canvas, in the midst of all the chaos, a slender, blue-gowned woman can be seen strolling off arm-in-arm with her assailant, her head tilted amorously toward his. The Roman historian Livy records that the Sabine women were advised to “cool their anger and give their hearts to the men who had already taken their bodies.” A happy ending for an imperial foundation-myth.
Other words come from the same Latin root as “rape”: rapture, ravage, rapt, ravenous, rapacious, ravishing. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is filled with stories of ravishing nymphs seized and carried off by rapacious gods: Io, Daphne, Callisto, Europa, Andromeda, Leda, Persephone. (There are more than fifty sexual attacks in Ovid, by one scholar’s count.) Correggio paints Io in an erotic swoon, her head tipped back, her lips parted, her body one long, sensuous curve of flesh. You might be forgiven for forgetting that Jupiter has just chased her into the woods, whereupon, in Ovid’s words, “he hid the wide earth in a covering of fog, caught the fleeing girl, and raped her.” Titian pictures Europa in a similar state of rapture, sprawled blowsily across the back of a muscular white bull (Jupiter), her fleshy thighs parted, her translucent gown in disarray, a milky breast exposed. Inspired by Titian, Rubens depicts the abduction of the daughters of Leucippus by the twins Castor and Pollux as a Baroque spiral of rearing horses, gleaming armor, flowing golden hair, creamy female skin. The daughters, languidly reaching out for help, do not look exactly happy, but neither do they seem especially distressed.[ad]
I read Ovid and study Roman history in high school. For a fine arts course in college, I go to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and study Titian’s Rape of Europa and Botticelli’s Tragedy of Lucretia. I write essays on the aesthetic qualities and cultural contexts of the art. But as far as I can remember, I never consider the fact that these scenes are all depicted from the perspective of a man. It doesn’t occur to me to ask what it means to glorify sexual violence, to conflate rapture and ravishment and rape.
My mother stands before the bathroom mirror, putting on lipstick, brushing her hair. I am watching her get ready to go out, as I have done since I was a little girl—my beautiful mother, with her slender wrists and ankles and thick dark hair. She sprays on her perfume, Hermès’s “Calèche,” its blend of rose and iris, oak moss, and woods, even now the essence of my mother, a luxuriant, sexy smell. My father brings her gifts of perfume when he travels abroad for work.
My mother has hazel eyes, high cheekbones. She brushes rouge onto her cheeks, tilting her face before the mirror. They are a good-looking couple, my parents, romantic, although often enough, they fight. My father mutters curses under his breath when he is angry, hissed first syllables hinting at awful names: “fu—– cu–,” “stu— sh–.” He makes all the money and has all the power, my mother complains. She urges me to pursue a career, to be independent, not to marry young the way she did.
My mother inherited her high cheekbones from her mother, she tells me, whose parents emigrated from Czarist Russia at the turn of the century, fleeing the pogroms. My image of pogroms comes from Fiddler on the Roof’s horseback-riding, vodka-swilling Cossacks in their leather boots and belted tunics. Who squat and kick their heels out as they dance, their arms folded across their chests. Who rip their spears through Motel and Tzeitel’s down pillows and wedding quilts.
My mother takes a tissue and blots her lips, leaving a coral lip-print kiss. “The Cossacks had high cheekbones,” she says. “There must have been some Cossack blood back there, somewhere.”
Somehow I understand that she is talking about rape. About the vestiges of that history of violence, helixed like a secret in the DNA of every cell inside her body, and in mine.
The summer after my first year in college, I get a job working as a reporter for a suburban Massachusetts newspaper, The Middlesex News. I am assigned to the Waltham bureau, a dingy storefront office on Moody Street. The editors and reporters sit at metal desks along one side of the room. The opposite side belongs to circulation, and every morning the delivery people (not boys on bikes, but shuffling adults in beat-up cars) file in to deposit their collections, interrupting the buzz and clack of our electric typewriters with the jangle of the coin-sorting machine. I write features on a diner-turned-Chinese restaurant, on neighborhood objections over a cut-down tree, on a museum of industry, on a summer camp for gifted kids. After a few weeks, I am promoted to editorial assistant and assigned the police and court beats.[ad]
I have never had a real job before. In the mornings, I sleep too late and arrive at the police station with my hair dripping down the back of my skimpy tee shirt or the summer dress my mother probably should have advised me not to wear to work. The cops hoot when I approach to read the blotter. When they learn my name is Margot, they call me Lois Lane.
“Hey, Lois! Howya doin’?” they shout when I walk in, their Boston accents thick. “Where’s Clark?”
On Monday mornings, they say, “Hey, Lois, you get married yet?”
I am embarrassed and a little offended but mostly flattered by the teasing. I squirm as I copy into my reporter’s notebook the previous days’ offenses: vandalized mailboxes, minor drug busts, stolen bikes, toilet-papered trees. Then in August there’s a rape. The victim, a single woman in her twenties, is awakened at five a.m. by an intruder (“a stocky, powerful man with an Italian accent,” I improbably report) who climbs in through her ground floor bedroom window with a white sack over his head. He holds a knife to her throat and threatens to kill her if she makes a sound or tries to run for help. It’s an August heat wave: oppressive, muggy, East Coast heat. Fans whir in the windows of the station house. Sweat trickles down my chest as I stand in the police chief’s office, pen in hand, the cover of my notebook flipped back.
Deputy Chief Rooney leans back in his desk chair and sighs. He is a heavy man, his collar tight around his ruddy neck. He says, “It’s hot. People get crazy, you know, when it’s hot.”
I know only enough to roll my eyes, afterward, when I tell people what he said. I do not know that this was the third rape in less than three weeks in Waltham. That the only female rape counselor on the Waltham force was laid off in the last round of budget cuts. That an average of 1.5 women are sexually assaulted in Boston every day. At seventeen, I consider myself a feminist, but I have not read Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 book, Against Our Will. I have not heard of the slogan “Take Back the Night.”
I am Lois Lane. “Wednesday I had a big story—rape!” I write in my journal at the end of the week. “My story made the front page on Thursday. It was all very exciting. Went out to dinner with Mom and Dad.”
Not long ago I read a memoir, Denial, written by a terrorism expert named Jessica Stern. Stern was fifteen in 1973 when she was raped, along with her fourteen-year-old sister, at gunpoint in her Concord, Massachusetts, home. In 2006, at Stern’s request, the Concord police reopened the case files and connected her assault to forty-four other similar rapes in the Boston area. Eighteen of the rapes occurred within an eight-block radius in Harvard Square; victims included the thirteen-year-old daughter of Harvard Law School’s dean. Other rapes occurred at nearby boarding schools. Two girls were raped in their dorm at Concord Academy. Two girls were raped at a private school in Natick. Two girls were raped at my high school, Dana Hall.
Whoa, I think. I know this story. That guy— the tennis pro?—raped forty-something other girls as well? But the details do not add up. I remember three girls being raped, not two. Moreover, the man who police say assaulted Stern and her sister was arrested in 1973 and spent the next eighteen years in jail. In 1973, I was ten, not in high school. Have I misremembered what happened? Or did the police make a mistake? Finally, searching the Boston Globe archives, I find an article detailing the rapes that I remember, dated November, 1978. It opens with this lead:
Lt. Victor Maccini has been a Wellesley policeman for 32 years. His memory faltered the other day when he was asked when his department had conducted its last intensive rape investigation. He gazed out of his office window and shook his head slowly before answering. “Gee . . . a rape case? I don’t remember,” he said. “We’ve had them, though, but they’ve always been on the outskirts, like Needham or Newton.”
But buried a dozen paragraphs down, the same article states:
Police concede, however, that the case is almost identical to a case in 1971 in which two Dana Hall students reported that they were raped at gunpoint by a masked gunman. That case was never solved.
It takes a minute before I comprehend that we are talking about two different incidents, both at my high school, just seven years apart. Until now, I’d never heard of the 1971 rapes. I can’t find a single mention of them in the press. Thirty-three years later, I am stunned. So many girls, raped, not “on the outskirts,” not in the crazy heat of August, but in their homes and dorms, in the tony Boston suburbs where I grew up. I was right there, but I had no idea.
In an op-ed piece published in the Boston Globe in 2010, Amy Vorenberg reveals that she is the girl Stern refers to in her book as “Lucy,” the daughter of the Harvard Law School dean, raped in 1971 by a masked gunman in an upstairs bathroom of her mother’s house while her family and friends talked and laughed downstairs. The police issued no warning. The next night, the same man raped two more girls just down the street. No one said a thing. “I have been silent long enough,” Vorenberg writes. “Although 40 years have passed, respected institutions still suppress information about sexual assault, and rape remains the most underreported of violent crimes.”
The tennis pro, as it turns out, was not the rapist. He was acquitted after a short trial at the end of November, 1978. The case was never solved.
It is the end of exam period of my senior year in college. I am finishing a thirty-five-page paper, and I have stretched it right to the end. I sit at my desk, chewing on my pencil, riffling through my stacks of notes, the scribbled pages of my draft. The paper is due at five p.m., and it is already mid-afternoon, and I have not yet finished writing, have not yet begun to type.
I phone my professor to ask for an extension. Just until the morning, I plead. Just for time to type. I expect him to be sympathetic. I’m a senior, a good student, a hard worker. I’ve already turned in my honors thesis, passed my orals, won a prestigious scholarship to graduate school. There is a faint buzzing on the line. I wait.
He says, “If that paper is not at my house by nine o’clock tomorrow morning, I’m giving you an F.”
I pull an all-nighter finishing the paper. In the morning, I walk across Harvard Square to the address the professor has given me. It’s a long walk; I don’t have a car. I haven’t showered or changed my clothes. My eyes are gritty, my hair greasy. People are strolling along the sidewalks, new leaves fluttering on the trees, but in my fatigue, nothing feels quite real. I climb the steps and ring the bell.[ad]
He comes to the door wearing bright red running shorts and nothing else. He is bare-chested, barelegged, barefoot, practically naked, except for those red shorts. He is square-jawed and blond-bearded and runner-thin. He motions for me to come in.
I step into the living room. He picks up a telephone that is lying on the table off the hook and, cradling the receiver between his shoulder and his cheek, continues whatever conversation he was having before my arrival. He flips rapidly through the pages of my paper, the one I’ve worked so hard on, the one I stayed up all night to type. He is skimming, making a show of disinterest, I think. He flips the pages, murmuring into the phone. I perch on the edge of the couch and wait. A clock ticks in the kitchen, which I can see through an open door. There is no one else in the house, as near as I can tell. After a little while, he hangs up the phone and fixes me with a look.
“I would have given you an A,” he says, “but the paper is late. So I’m giving you a B instead.” He comes around the table to me. My heart is beating hard. I’d like to protest—I wrote a thirty-five-page paper, after all, and it’s good!—but I do not, cannot, speak.
He writes something on a card, slides it into an envelope. He holds it out to me. “I want you to go over to University Hall now,” he says, “and turn in my grades.”
Grades are not due for several days, I am quite sure. He has no right to make me run his errands for him. But he is giving me an order, not an option. He stands there in his red running shorts, bare-chested, practically naked, holding out that envelope. It’s clear that he would have no compunction about ripping it open and changing the B to an F if I refuse. It’s clear he could do anything he wants.
He could, for example, push my head down to those red running shorts and make me suck his dick.
He does not do it, but he could.
I take the envelope and walk back across the square and turn it in.
Anita Hill is on the radio, promoting her new book. It has been twenty years since the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings in which Hill accused Judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. People are calling in to thank her: women and men who admire her bravery, mothers whose daughters have grown up taking it for granted that it’s not okay to tell lewd jokes in the workplace, to touch a woman without asking, to hold out rewards in exchange for sex. I’m thinking of my teenage daughter, what she will encounter soon at school or work. How much has changed?
David Mamet’s play, Oleanna—which I saw at its Harvard Square premiere in 1992, just seven months after the Thomas hearings— dramatizes a power struggle between a college student, Carol, and a young professor, John. Carol is on the verge of failing and desperate to pass John’s course. John patronizes Carol’s lack of understanding, interrupts their conversation to talk to his wife on the phone, then tells Carol that if she comes to his office for private tutorials, he’ll give her an “A.”
In a gesture that might or might not be paternal, John reaches out to touch her shoulder. Carol files a sexual harassment complaint. John’s tenure bid is put on hold. When John tries to talk Carol into dropping the charges, he grows angry and grabs her arm, and she raises the charges to attempted rape. In the play’s final scene, John loses control and beats Carol with a chair. “Oh, my God,” he says, realizing what he has done. From where she cowers on the floor, Carol looks up at him and says slowly, “Yes, that’s right.”
Mamet complicates the narrative of sexual harassment, giving Carol the power to destroy John, making John both a monster and a dupe. Watching the play, I find that I am shocked that Carol has such power. It has not dawned on me until now that in my own run-in with my red-running-shorts-clad professor, six years earlier, I had power, too. (Like John, my professor did not have tenure. All I would have had to do was file a complaint!) Yet I can’t help feeling that John, for all his smugness and paternalistic hypocrisy—or, for that matter, my professor— does not deserve to be destroyed. Does power necessarily corrupt? Or are we more complicit in protecting privilege than we’d like to think?
I am now a college professor, the one with power (such as it is) over deadlines, extensions, grades. Since the eighties, of course, things have changed. I keep my office door open during student conferences, watch my gestures and my language, encourage students to engage with questions of power, privilege, race, gender, class. College is no longer a boys’ club. These days, in the classroom, the women outperform the men. They raise their hands and voice opinions. They are diligent, articulate, and bright.
At the college where I teach, as elsewhere, kids drink, hook up. Here, as elsewhere, girls get drunk at parties, black out, and wake up to discover they’ve been raped. Girls are assaulted walking across campus and in their dorms, by strangers and by friends. A study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in five female students will be raped during their college years. But over eighty percent of victims do not report the crime.
A former student of mine is one of the few who does speak up. Almost nothing about her case is clear. She says she did shots before going to a party and can’t remember anything that happened after that. The boy in question says she came on to him aggressively at a party and clearly wanted sex. She says she only discovered she’d gone back to his room when she heard the gossip the next day. People who were at the party confirm they saw her grinding with him on the dance floor. After a disciplinary hearing, the boy is suspended for the year. She receives vicious messages, calling her a slut, accusing her of ruining his life.
I don’t know what to think. My mother says, “Why should the boy take all the blame? In my day, as a girl, you knew you had to take responsibility for yourself.” My husband says, “It’s not that complicated. You just don’t mess around with a girl who’s drunk.”
When we meet for coffee, my student says her parents are planning to appeal the verdict; his parents have filed suit. She’s looking into transferring to a different college, although so far this semester, her grades are not so great. “It’s been pretty rough,” she says. She shakes back her long hair and fiddles with her coffee cup. “You are not a victim,” I want to tell her, but we both know it is too late. You become a victim once you call it rape.
In the late 1980s, after graduate school, I go to work for a consulting firm in New York. It’s the kind of job that, not even a generation ago, was the sole domain of men. But the group of associates I am hired with is nearly forty percent women, and we’re sure the senior ranks—scarcely four percent women—will catch up soon enough. We’re well educated, well paid, and young enough to believe that you can have a high-powered job like this and still get married and have kids. I want it all and I want it now, reads a button I’ve tacked up on my bulletin board.
Office romance is officially against the rules but common nonetheless. At an off-site meeting in Arizona during a business trip, one of the partners—I’ll call him Rick—approaches me after dinner on the final night. He invites me to skip the party and go out for a drink with him instead. He is a few years older than me and more senior in the firm, but I don’t work with him directly, and he’s not my boss. He is single and athletic and not bad looking and has a reputation for being really smart. I say sure.
The bellman calls us a taxi. As soon as we leave the irrigated grounds of our hotel, the Sonoran Desert opens up, a bleak expanse of sand and scrub grass cooling beneath the evening sun. The cab driver takes us to a bar on the outskirts of Scottsdale, a converted bunkhouse with a row of dusty Harleys parked out front. We settle at a picnic table, and Rick fetches himself a nonalcoholic beer and me an Amstel Light. He is fun to talk with, and I like his blue eyes and his smile. The possibility, even the likelihood, of sex flares between us like the distant heat lightning forking over the ridge of the McDowells.[ad]
I go back with Rick to his hotel room of my own free will. I am not drunk. I let him take off my clothes and lead me to the bed, filled with the strange attraction of a stranger’s body touching mine. We enter such situations with certain expectations. We expect intelligent people to behave intelligently, colleagues to behave collegially, people with whom we have a lot in common to think the way we think. So when I ask if he has a condom, I don’t expect him to laugh and say, “Oh, I don’t do condoms.” I don’t expect that he won’t stop. We are two bodies in motion, and momentum exerts its force. My mind whirls, but no words come out.
Very quickly, it is over. He sighs and rolls away. I phone my doctor the next day and ask for the morning-after pill. I hear only what I take for disapproval in her voice as she gives me instructions, her tone clinical and clipped. I don’t remember if she asks me about what happened. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t use the word consent. Anyway, I consented, didn’t I? I could have said no, could have tried to stopped him, but I didn’t. I fill the prescription, swallow the pills, and for the next twenty-four hours, I throw up. I don’t talk to Rick. I tell my friends I must have caught a stomach bug. The wretchedness of my secret feels like the punishment I deserve.
Jury duty, Salt Lake City, 2004. At the courthouse, people wait in rows of plastic chairs, mumbling into cell phones, as a film plays overhead about the civic importance and personal rewards of jury service. Finally, a few of us are called up to the courtroom for the voir dire. We stand in turn and answer questions printed on a laminated sheet. One of the questions asks what kinds of things we read. A number of people say “only religious material.” I’m an East Coast liberal, working toward an English Ph.D.; I tell them: The New Yorker, literary fiction, Derrida. I’m thinking that I’ll be dismissed.
After the questioning, the judge informs us that the criminal trial we’re being selected for is a rape case. The defendant, who is married to the victim, is being tried on five counts of rape. The judge asks if anyone feels they cannot be objective in this kind of case. She asks if anyone has a problem with the concept that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. Several people raise their hands and are excused. I’m in.
Spousal rape has been against the law in Utah, as in most states, since 1991, but the concept is still not so easy to digest. The wife and husband in this case are young and poor and have two small kids. She works in a gas station convenience store. He is out of work. We’re told they fight over child care and who gets to use the car. We watch a video of him being interrogated by a detective who appears to be coercing him to confess. We watch as the wife takes the stand and starts to cry, her waist-length brown hair hanging in her face, as she says she loves her husband, has always loved him, loves him still.
We understand that the law says you don’t have to kick and scream or struggle for an unwanted sexual act to be considered rape. That you don’t have to be physically threatened or forcibly pinned down. That you have to be capable of consent, and that you can withdraw that consent at any point. That rape is not the victim’s fault. We understand all this and yet. We struggle, listening to the testimony, with the fact that this man did not use force, that his wife did not fight back. We sit around the table in the jury room and argue for hours, conflicted and confused:
“What bothers me is that she didn’t do anything to stop him.”
“Come on, what could she have done? She said she knew she couldn’t stop him no matter what she did.”
“She told him, ‘Stop, you’ll wake the kids.’”
“But was she like, ‘Oh, we really should stop, honey,’ or like, ‘You need to stop right this minute?’ How can you tell?”
“Look, it’s not as if he hurt her. Bad sex isn’t a crime.”
“It doesn’t make any difference whether or not he hurt her. She didn’t want to do it. That’s her right.”
“Haven’t we all done things we didn’t want to do? That’s called life.”
“She got up there on the stand and said she loves him.”
In the end, we can’t agree to call it rape. They’re both young and foolish, we rationalize. None of us wants to be responsible for ruining a young man’s life.
After we deliver our not-guilty verdict, the prosecutor comes storming back. She is furious, her red hair ablaze.
She says, “What is it about ‘no means no’ that you all don’t understand?”
Traveling in New Zealand, I strike up a conversation with an American in a Queenstown café. He’s thirty-something, my age as well, a high school science teacher who, like me, has taken a leave of absence from work. His accent is appealingly familiar. He seems like any number of the fellow travelers I’ve met while on the road alone: friendly, companionable, polite. After we finish eating, he invites me to walk back with him to his hostel to watch a movie on the common room TV. It’s a pleasant, early autumn evening—March in the antipodes—and I have nothing else to do, so I agree. We meander across town, chatting about Wanaka and the Milford Sound, our hikes along the Franz Josef Glacier, the sea-eroded rocks at Hokitika, the seals basking on the beach at Jackson Bay.
At the hostel, the common room is deserted and nothing good is playing on TV. I look around for the proprietor of the hostel, other guests, but there’s no one else in sight. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead. Sitting beside him on the couch as he clicks through the channels, I feel the energy between us shift. After a bit, he puts his arm around me and pulls me to him. He tries to kiss me, but I shake my head, pull back. “I’m sorry,” I say, feeling like a jerk. I didn’t mean to lead him on. It really didn’t occur to me this is what he had in mind.
He stiffens, but instead of backing off, he presses closer, fumbling with the zipper of his pants with one hand, pushing my head down with the other, angling his pelvis toward my face. He does not hurt me, but there is nothing but aggression in his actions. For a moment, I consider giving in. It’s just a blow job, after all. But instead I pull free, stand up. His anger radiates toward me, hard and petulant, like a child’s, only he is no child.
“I’d better go,” I say.
He says, “You fucking bitch.”
I leave him sitting on the couch. Outside in the darkness, fear catches me by the throat. It is quite a long distance back to where I’m staying, and I’m not sure I know the way. I walk as quickly as I can without running, scanning the dark streets for a taxi, for attackers, my room keys threaded through my fingers, adrenaline vibrating through my limbs. I am less angry with him than with myself.
I thought I knew how to take care of myself, but I fucked up.
In my journal, I write only: “Met F. at dinner. Took a walk back to his hostel.” I edit out the details but not the shame, which lingers, even after all these years.
Rape happens behind closed doors, between the sheets, in locker rooms, in prisons, in churches, in refugee camps, in dorms, in back alleys, in three-thousand-dollar per night luxury hotel suites. It happens between the powerful and the weak, between men and women, men and boys, husbands and wives, adults and children, strangers and lovers, between ordinary people like you and me. You might say you’re just having a little fun, horsing around, hooking up. Sometimes there’s a knife or gun. Sometimes there’s a kiss. It isn’t so easy to tell lie from truth, intention from mistake.
After a Toronto cop tells a group of college women that they shouldn’t dress provocatively if they don’t want to get raped, women around the world take to the streets dressed in bras and camisoles and fishnet tights, the word SLUT scrawled in Sharpie across their bare arms and backs. Bloggers rail against rape culture. Activists wage campaigns for better information and awareness, trumpeting the slogan “rape is rape.” All this talk gives me a bit of hope. I’d like to think my children will grow up to a world where girls are not attacked at gunpoint in their homes or dorms or taken advantage of when drunk, where threats or accusations of rape are not used to gain political advantage, where women can express their sexuality without being shamed as sluts, where men and women understand that no means no and yes means yes. But I’m not so sure.
Maybe anatomy is destiny; maybe Freud was right. The language of desire is the language of violence, after all. Sexy women are knockouts, bombshells, stunning, dressed to kill, femmes fatales. Love is an abduction: your heart is stolen. You’re smitten, hooked, swept off your feet. Cupid’s weapon is an arrow. Sex and violence, violence and sex, twine together in a knot that cannot be undone.
* * *
Photo: Kjell Reigstad
This article appeared in the Guardian this morning. There’s much in it I agree with.
School leaders  have been informed that this country’s teachers are failing, and that they must take charge of a lazy and unprofessional teaching staff, leading to suspicion within our schools.  I often found that by 9:30am (by which point I had been at school for two hours) I felt I had been reprimanded five or six times in emails to all staff, or in departmental meetings, or staff briefings – all a direct result of current education policies.
This had me nodding along, and at some point in the future I’ll probably have a full spleen vent about the adoption of Cult of The Leader enforcement nonsense by rather too many SLTs. However, this is only a quick piece, and I want to focus on this :
I am an outstanding teacher.
With the best will in the world, Ms Palmer, I disagree. Not because I think you’re rubbish. I’m sure that you’re dedicated, hard-working and engaging. I disagree because I think that the classification of teachers into categories of “outstanding, good, requires improvement, and inadequate” is one of the most corrosive aspects of education policy over the last five years. I understand why the author labels herself so, in order to avoid the “well, she’s just moaning because she failed” criticism from the trolls who lurk below the line on any Guardian education story. However, by accepting and wearing that label, you are giving credence and succour to an incredibly damaging development in education : the labelling of people.
Let me be clear : I am not an outstanding teacher. Nor am I good or inadequate or requiring of improvement. Sometimes my lessons are great and I leave the classroom feeling like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. Sometimes they’re awful and I leave giving thanks that no adult witnessed my contemptible failure. A lot of the time they’re fine. Interestingly, what I think of the lessons, and what any observer thinks, does not always chime with what the students think, on those rare occasions when they deign to provide such fulsome feedback as “thanks, sir”.
I don’t mind the concept of considering whether a lesson was good or not. I might quibble with you over what Ofsted consider to be good, as opposed to what is good in the real world. I might also argue the toss over whether a four-level labelling process is a useful tool as opposed to a professional discussion about what went well and what might be improved upon in any given lesson, (interesting that for students’ work we are increasingly demanding formative constructive feedback rather than grades/levels, even as we stick rigidly to grades and levels for teachers’ work). However, I accept the fundamental premise that one can legitimately reach a conclusion about a lesson.
What I absolutely reject is that one can sift teachers into four categories. But this is where we are. I’ve heard SLT members talking about teachers – not lessons – being “outstanding” or “box 3″. I’ve seen training courses advertised, called “How to be an outstanding teacher“, as opposed to “How to teach an outstanding lesson“. I’ve heard some colleagues refer to themselves as “I’m an outstanding teacher” before offering an opinion on something, as if that label means their opinion should somehow carry more weight than the rabble (possible future Ofsted inspector there, perhaps?).
This is sick. Something has gone terribly wrong. No teacher teaches only “outstanding” lessons. Anyone who tells you they do is delusional. All teachers teach a mix of lessons of varying quality, and all of us generally try to teach more good ones than bad ones. But life doesn’t always go according to plan. We can have really good weeks, and we can have really bad weeks. We can go on a real run of great times with class X, but be put through the weekly mincer with class Y. In other words, we are human.
Yet without any announcement, discussion or resistance, we seem to have slid from a world in which people’s work is judged on its merits, to people themselves being judged. This is cancerous. As a professional adult, I absolutely accept that you could watch one of my lessons and tell me afterwards that you thought this was not so good, this could use improvement and so on. That’s a constructive and useful process which helps me. An effective teacher is a reflective one, who analyses their own work and seeks to improve it. But tell me that I, personally, am “inadequate” and that’s not a critique of my work which can be addressed next time, but a personal attack on my qualities and ability.
In addition, these words have now been bastardised beyond belief. This is how these labels are now used :
We have a four point system in which three points are now undesirable outcomes ! So when we start labelling teachers as “outstanding” or otherwise, we’re really saying to all of our colleagues not accorded the “outstanding” accolade that they are sub-standard. Not their work, not their occasional lesson, but them, personally. They are sub-standard. They are failures. They are Bad Teachers ™.
Is there any other profession anywhere which labels individuals along these lines, as opposed to assessing work on its merits? Are lawyers, doctors, civil servants categorized in such a way that they themselves are awarded numbers, as opposed to their performance over a given period ? It’s as if our students were to open their envelopes this summer and find, not a list of grades for their work, but a single grade for them: You Are A B-Grade Human Being. If someone labelled my children as such, I’d be heading off to the exam board with a baseball bat. Why would I accept that for myself and my colleagues ?
In an education system which seeks to weigh everything, classify everything and measure everything, it is hard to keep sight of that reality that not just our students, but our colleagues, are human. In a system where nothing has value unless it can be recorded on a spreadsheet, it is tempting to surrender to the process and start slapping labels on ourselves too. But please, stop, think, don’t. We don’t have to do this. None of us are numbers, we’re human beings, and God help us if the gradgrindians, managerialists and bean-counters ever succeed in driving that wonderful humanity out of our classrooms.
Whenever I need a break from music, I log on to Tumblr, scroll down, and zone out. Then the other day in the midst of mindless scrolling I saw this. Of course I immediately wondered if this was the work of a trickster with too much time on his hands and a grudge to bear against […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
This week marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Today marks the anniversary of an even more grotesque event – the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. These remain the only use of […]
Freshly Pressed: Editors’ Picks
I attended OSCON 2014, which happens to be my very first OSCON and O’Reilly conference.
The experience was a bit bittersweet. I will start off with the good: The sessions were awesome and the speakers were very nice and knowledgeable. The food was good and plentiful, and the after-parties were fun. I did manage to make a couple friends there.
Now, the bad. It was rather hard to make any friends there or get a decent conversation going with the regular attendees. In fact, I felt rather ostracized and was downright harassed. Here are a few examples:
Almost every attendee I have talked to, the conversation would start out like this:
“Hey, [my name], what do you do at [company name on my badge]?”
I would explain what I do and/or what my company does, then:
“Great. Do you have a BF? Are you looking?”
I would either say yes (even though I don’t have a BF, but saying no would make them not leave me alone) or say I’m not interested.
“Oh, ok, that’s too bad”
The conversation would end right there. That’s it, no other interest in me except what’s in my pants.
During many of my conversations at OSCON, the man would touch me somehow. Touch my arm, touch my back, touch my shoulder, touch EVERYTHING, even my butt. Yes, even my butt. I usually get treated better in a bar. It was incredibly aggravating, and telling them to stop or avoiding them doesn’t solve anything. This happened nearly every day during the convention.
I handed out about 50 business cards at OSCON. The people who I gave them to seem interested in learning more about what I do or what my company does. None of them were used to actually contact me for professional reasons. In fact, about 1/3 of them were only used to ask me out. The reason why this bothers me is because they were ONLY used to ask me out. Not only that, but my company expects me to at least recruit a few people. It wasn’t just “Oh, let’s go get coffee and talk about your company” or something, it was “Hey, you’re pretty cute/hot, want to get coffee sometime?”
While my experience at OSCON was enjoyable otherwise, and I have learned a lot there, I truly did not feel treated like an equal. The experience was also a bit of a reminder of how alone I feel. Being a woman in the tech industry, is actually quite a lonely existence. There’s a reason why women shy away from science or engineering type roles. 95% of your colleagues will be dudes, and most of them will be incredibly socially inept, or have that “brogrammer” mentality. If you don’t share similar interests with them, it’s “Oh, she’s a girl, that’s why.” If you DO share similar interests with them, it’s “Wow, that girl likes [x], I should ask her out because she’s also hot” You really can’t win.
The reason why I’m still even in the industry is because I truly love what I do. I love anything that uses electricity, and building things that make people’s lives easier is an incredibly satisfying thing. I don’t want to let the negative experience shy me away from my passion. I think soon enough, things will change, which is why I wrote this post. To raise awareness of why you (possibly you, the reader as well) are preventing half the world’s population from innovating and making the future brighter for everyone.