Steve Reinke @spreinke
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou
Despite having written much over the past couple of years about a devastating turn in my life, I have not shared that writing. My body has decided on this opportunity to demonstrate a marked indifference to the compulsive clamoring of the mind’s narrative. The body insists upon trauma and it’s own temporal mandates: I am not healed.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the head knows what the heart still refuses to metabolize. The disjunction between the knowledge that true sanction lies within, and the invincible and contraindicated desire to share, causes me shame. I’ve failed to reconcile these internal mechanics, limping around like a simulated human from some dystopian future, not yet able to integrate different parts, to achieve credible likeness through human fluidity.
As I attempt to parse this conflict, shame emerges, thematic. The more I consider my reluctance to share, the memories of shameful experiences proliferate. Feelings of shame have been, for me, less terrifying than an alternative where those closest to me could not be counted on for comfort or connection. I have learned not to trust my own emotions, and have been unable to use them as a compass for living. I preferred the thought that I was the cause of my own distress,that my abnormality, my wrong-ness was to blame for feeling so alone.
After my divorce, there were people who never spoke to me again. One, a man I’d known for almost 15 years, someone I’d invited into my home after his own divorce when he needed a place to rebuild. The same man who delivered a reading from Wendell Berry at my wedding: “Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me… . It creates pain that it is the only cure for.” A particularized problem so complex and inextricable from our selves, so inexorable as to produce countless impasses for the imagination (the human tool possessed most fully of infinitude) that to evade that rhizomatic nest is simply to bury that self along with epigenetic hopes for future peace.
I thought back to one of the final exchanges I had with this man. He spent the night at the house I shared with my then-husband. He, firmly middle-aged, had recently started seeing a woman considerably younger than himself, a pattern that unfolded in the typical manner: he grew older, the women stayed the same age. This particular woman had apparently been through a series of sexual traumas, a topic he broached with us, his close friends, in a serious and avuncular tone. He, in his consummate sensitivity and gentleness would save her from this history. His manner approached fetishistic – he the guide to this young woman, a savior from the damage of sexual predators past. (Attempting to disavow any connection to a gendered power dynamic, he self-described as lesbian.) He elaborated tales of this young woman’s trauma, which, although undoubtedly trauma, he characterized as assault: In high school, she had given a blow job she did not want to give to a young man because he was “popular”, “black”, and “on the football team.”
Admittedly, I was rather blunt in my attack of this disclosure. Insensitive.
Lest the description of my dismay topple into the well-worn grooves the media and cultural discussion have handed us in order to properly analyze and divide over this kind of story, I’ve searched for the impasse. I’ll proffer a suggestion at bypass: There is the culture, or community, on the one hand, and individuals, on the other. #MeToo has taken highly personal stories and reflected them into a cultural narrative. We have not recognized that the equation, from one to many, is unidirectional. While appropriate to generalize from a pool of specifics, not so to reflect the general back onto an individual. We expand culture by adding elaborately specific stories, not by taking the average of those stories and waging it on the imagination of those who’ve yet to create their own.
In the case of #MeToo, the culture has given us two possible reactions to individual stories. On the one hand, you can blame the individual (she was drunk, she wore the wrong clothing, was too subtle, too unsubtle) and on the other, you can validate the victim (it was not her fault). Ostensibly different, there is common ground: Women are always victimized. If not by some outside force, then by the narrative that invokes her personal, often ethical, failure.
There is actually a third, and most powerful option: Just keep telling stories. True stories are like the body, like the heart, they demonstrate, in aggregate, that same indifference to the compulsions of analysis, in favor of something a lot more resistant to digestion. True stories quite literally don’t make sense in the way we like to think of it, unless we omit the nagging suspicions and fleeting glances that would never hold up in court. Making these omissions too shameful to report. They destroy our coherence, and women, most especially, are rendered powerless through an image of incoherence.
I suggested to my friend that a woman whose history was scarred by repeated incidents of unwanted sexual encounters hinging upon murky wagers of sexuality bore some self-examination. Perhaps the more accurate language would have been: “Your story about these events scares me in it’s implications about my own ability to consent, and therefore, the possibility of any personal integrity or cultural agency.”
I am not blind or unfeeling to the traumatic effect of such encounters, nor to the deep rooted structural inequity eroding the foundation on which all sexual encounters are predicated, however, I shudder to recast all regretful sexual encounters as assault. I do not know where the self resides in that narrative. The self that is the consciousness of thoughts and feelings, not their subject. I shudder at the implicit bias: the explicit designation of the perpetrator as “black” in the retelling of this story.
Should we outlaw sex between men and women? After all, we are so far from social equality, the existing power differential does not admit consent in any case.
My now ex-husband used to joke, “all heterosexual sex is rape.” Just one in a series of memories provoking waves of shame as I flinchingly contemplate my complicity.
My friend’s account of his young girlfriend’s story was pre-#MeToo. There was no cultural resurgence of Monica Lewinsky and Caitlin Moran had not yet written How to Tell the Bad Men From the Good Men; there was no conversation around Aziz Ansari’s behavior or that of his accuser. (A conversation which simply vacillates between the two aforementioned channels of prescribed thought: blame the victim or validate the victim.)
I should give a bit of context: the nature of conversations with this friend tended to the personal, but always through an intellectual lens, often making use of books or various theories to consider the topic at hand. Our conversations were explicit, probing, critical, contemplative, speculative, abstract, analytical. They weren’t shy. It’s likely I would not have suggested my qualms at the accounting had it been told by the woman herself, and I’m sure the first-hand account would’ve differed from the retelling. I did not know her, nor would I want to hurt her, blame her, or denigrate her experience. My observations reside now, as then, at the level of using these personal stories to contemplate my own integrity, my own consciousness, my own ability to consent. Hearing her stories (admittedly secondhand and through the mouthpiece of a new, male lover), my stomach immediately turned at the implications. Myself being the figure standing in for all of those implicated by the cultural exigencies created in these private mythologies. After all, we tend to tell stories that sound like the ones we already know. We can’t see things that we’ve never seen before. In these tales, we find palliatives for difficult feelings and we’re taught that our feelings are our truth. They’re not. They are metabolic flotsam to be witnessed for transience. We’re not comfortable living with mystery, and quite often agency treads too closely to responsibility to inspire our full enthusiasm.
This friend took a liberty in telling his girlfriend’s story. He was appalled at my reaction and vowed to protect his girlfriend from me. He would never bring her around me. I was dangerous in my cruelty. He would fix her with his compassion and would tailor his love-making strategy to her recovery.
I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
This man stopped speaking to me after my divorce. He preferred the friendship of my ex-husband. This makes a bit more sense in light of the details. Suffice it to say, my middle-aged husband also found a young woman to analyze, encouraging her to share her erotic dreams so that he could examine them. Let’s not forget, too, I am cruel. And insensitive.
During this same time period, my young friend who would become my husband’s second wife, was engaged. She was quite aimless at the time, floating from barista job to bartender job, fantasizing about being a midwife, but mostly creating drama in her romantic relationships to avoid facing the deadening ennui. She would break up, get back together, muse on the boredom once things had settled into a routine, shake things back up again with suggestions of moving in together, or moving out, or drunkenly kissing other men at bars. Generally, provoking feelings to mask the malaise and avoiding the work that would create meaning. In one such fit of impulsivity, she convinced her boyfriend to marry her. He was complacent, too, and agreed on one condition. They would not be married “for real.” They would not file paperwork. They argued: “It’s only a piece of paper.”
Her engagement announcement was met by a small group of friends with some measure of surprise. As the conversation tended towards diffusing the awkward reaction, she managed to back peddle away from anything that looked like an engagement or subsequent marriage. As it turned out the promise would culminate in a potluck dance party in her own honor, affording the opportunity to dress up and be center of attention under fraudulent pretenses while not actually committing to anything.
I suggested she take a closer look at what she meant by marriage, that perhaps there was more at stake in the piece of paper than she thought, in invoking the sanction and support of a community. After all, I told her, gay people are fighting too hard to get married so you can have your sham wedding.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m more in the “ban marriage for everyone” camp, than a subscriber to the “marriage equality” oxymoron, but what can I say, I find words meaningful, alchemical even. It’s another case of the complex boundaries between individual cases and the larger culture. Ultimately, a case of connectivity, perhaps of meaning at all.
I’m an asshole, it’s a theme. She cried, of course she did. She pouted and insisted, indignantly and self-righteously that her perspective was well-considered. I was being elitist with my ideas about what a wedding should be. Not everyone must be so rigid in relation to ideas. She sobbed.
Here’s the refrain: I apologized profusely. I felt ashamed.
Please indulge my addition of the final chapter to that engagement: It fell apart when she, after months of sending her sex dreams to my husband, staying up with him late at night, decided to put his penis in her mouth while I was out of town.
Remember when I apologized to her for second guessing the triviality with which she faced her engagement? I suppose she proved her case. She instantiated a reality simultaneously selfish and nihilistic.
I’d made a fundamental mistake in these cases. I took these conversations to be about ideas, to be the general case. I wasn’t sensitive to the reality that most people don’t want to test their personal stories against some Kantian imperative. Everything tends to get a little too not-in-my-backyard feeling when we have to consider a reality where we live with others, truly connected to others. After all what is the American self if not exceptional?
Let me tell you about one more friend. She and her husband are still in touch with my ex-husband, although admittedly they’re not so fond of him. Or rather, they describe him as self-serving, duplicitous, and deeply narcissistic. However, they know that according to popular culture you shouldn’t have to take sides in a divorce. In fact, it is much more deserving of dignity to be able to remain a kind of neutral party. This husband, he’s never thought much of me. He once wrote a short story depicting me (thinly veiled of course, only animals don’t invoke plausible deniability) as a cruel woman, albeit in a position of power, who would “spit” at her assistants and who demeaned her husband with her “roving eye.” He once gave me a book titled something like, Decor for Dictators. It made him “think of me”. I don’t behave as he thinks a woman should. I saw my friend, this man’s wife, recently and I told her I’d be interested in her thoughts on some articles I was reading about #MeToo and #TimesUp. She characteristically wrinkled her nose, “I don’t know what I’ll think about that. I’m pretty regressive when it comes to these issues”, she warned. When I shared my writing with her about the dissolution of my marriage, she was conspicuously quiet. I felt ashamed.
When people show you who they are, believe them.
Self-publishing my stories feels like another form of shame. As if the stories represent something abhorrent about me, something defective. It feels as though these kind of stories need authoritative sanction, an aegis.