Tuesday, February 22, 2011

the thin veneer

I'm a bit of a news junkie. I regularly read my local rag, The Vancouver Sun, as well as Toronto's national paper, The Globe and Mail. I flip through the headlines on the Sunday New York Times. I watch the news (I'm fond of the National). I like to know what's going on in the world. Most of the time I manage to stay numb to what I'm reading. But every now and then, the horrors pile up and get to me. This past weekend was one of those times.

If you pay attention to the news, you will have heard that some Western journalists were attacked while covering the protests in Egypt, and that while Egyptians were celebrating the exit of Egyptian President Mubarak, a few took time out to beat and sexually assault a female CBS reporter. This is worth reporting about because she was a Westerner, blonde. It's not an uncommon occurrence, apparently, for women to be harassed and assaulted in Egypt. That would be more of a dog-bites-man story, common, ho-hum. No, we can smugly say they're barbaric 'over there,' right? Western women should stay away, right?

Women should restrict their lives if they want freedom.

Of course if women stop reporting in countries where women are kept invisible...well, then we'd never know anything about what those women's lives are like, would we?

In the technologically advanced, but not yet enlightened world, the internet mob also savaged the CBS reporter. Apparently women are still guilty of 'asking for it' when they are attacked (being  blonde and pretty are particularly heinous traits). The message I am getting is that if you walk outside your house, you are somehow culpable in any crimes committed against you. At home we are safe. (Except when we aren't, which is why we have refugee centres, called safe houses, for women escaping abusive relationships.)

And so while yes, I believe that the way a society treats women is a measure of that society's, well, worth, I don't think we should be too smug here. Because I'm as horrified as any woman who expects to be able to walk down the street unmolested, but knows that it's a fallacy. I choose my streets with care.

Other things I've gleaned from the news? Here in BC more women have been murdered, their bodies dumped in ditches, fields, beaches. Often this seems somehow involved with them "belonging" to someone. Woman-as-property is an idea that is still in fashion.

Don't misunderstand me. These stories all land on the news because the vast majority of people are as horrified as I am. It is still news when women are murdered. But we've got residual morality at play, which makes us value some of those murdered women more than others. We are more appalled when the woman is a 'good' woman.

Still, another fellow has been convicted in the murders of two sex-trade workers (he was accused of the murder of three).

And in a story that gives me a particularly bad taste in my mouth, even though no women were physically harmed in the making of it, we have the wiretaps from the BC Rail corruption investigation revealing a government official was working as a pimp in order to extract his own set of favours from a lobbyist: “She’ll be putting out like you wouldn’t believe, pal” he is quoted as saying about a woman procured for the purposes.

This story doesn't disturb me because of the prostitution angle, because I actually think that if a woman wants to contract out her body it's nobody's business but hers. What bothers me is the attitude that a woman is a lesser being because she has sex outside any tiny moral straitjacket that other people want to put her in.

No, it is the sleaze of the attitude that get's me, the underlying dismissal of another human being's worth, the bagging of prey. The fact that he was working in our government, alongside lots of women. The government is also for women.

No, it's that I don't think his attitude is that unusual.

I'm disturbed because his attitude reminds me that there is only a thin veneer that protects us women from the mob, no matter where we are, and that appalls and frightens me. It ain't safe anywhere.

Because there are not many women walking about who haven't been assaulted in some way, at some time, in their lives. It's about power, and it keeps us in line. When there's a predator out there, we are the ones told to stay indoors. It's certainly more subtle here than in places where women can't stir in public without hiding their entire body, but it's real.

Women should restrict their lives if they want to be safe.

I hesitated to post this, because I have learned in my life to keep my head down, to avoid attention, to keep safe. Except that there are no guarantees that it will work, and maybe telling will help.

So here goes, here are some of my memories of unasked-for attention:
  • At the age of eleven, I was woken by the sensation of a hand feeling me up. I scrambled away. I think the man was drunk; he took his time leaving my room. I didn't know him. I was very frightened, disturbed. He was still in the house in the morning; a friend (?) of my mother's. I think I told my brother.
  • I was backed into a corner in my bedroom by another "boyfriend" of my mother's. He frightened me maybe more than the first guy, though he didn't touch me. But another time the same guy ran his hand under my shirt when my mother wasn't looking. I was maybe twelve then. Must have been my fault, right? I didn't tell.
  • I had to remove a cold hand from my thigh several times at the movies, while watching Cat Ballou. I have no idea who he was. I didn't tell.
  • Walking home from a party, in a party dress, I was offered fifty bucks (I was fifteen) by a guy who drove his car slowly, tracking me as I walked toward my house. I didn't want him to know where I lived. I remember he had a very soft voice.  A neighbour saw me, called out and scared him off, which I was very grateful for. But my fault, right? I should have been at home. Or it was what I was wearing. Maybe that was my crime.
  • Around that time too, I was set up to be someone's date, obviously expected to "put out." I didn't. Apparently that's a crime, too, because the friend stopped talking to me.
  • When I was about sixteen, seventeen, I would often get off the bus at Broadway and walk three blocks up Kingsway. The record for cars pulling over to offer me a ride was three. There was always at least one. Always.
  • I had a man knock me down in the middle of Connaught Park (it was 6 pm, and I was walking home from the bus, after classes at university) and tell me to f**k him or he'd kill me. He didn't do either but settled for taking my wallet. (I think I was saved by the volume of winter-time clothing I was wearing.) I've been afraid walking in the dark, ever since. I was eighteen. That's forty years of fearing walking at night.
  • I had a man run up beside me and grab my breast then run away. That was when I was nineteen. Weirdo, I thought.
  • I had a man reach inside my tent (in Brussels). My shriek alerted friends, scared him off.
  • A man walked into my apartment once; it was a cheap rental with a flimsy lock. I'd seen him down on the street, must have made eye contact. (That's something else we women learn not to do.) He said he was looking for the manager. Wrong apartment I said. He stood there a while longer looking at me, and then he went back down the stairs. I felt very lucky, but not safe.
  • Several times I've seen men whip open their coats to expose themselves. This really happens.
  • I've received obscene phone calls, heavy breathing. Some out of the blue, but once one who said he knew me, knew where I went with friends. Someone who heard the alarm in my voice, and called again. And again. He stopped after my (then) husband answered. Property rights established, I guess.
I've left out the whistles, catcalls, jeers, leers and bumps in crowds that help to control the behaviour of women so well, that serve to keep us quiet and in our place and in some societies, almost invisible.

The funny thing is, I don't think all men are bad. I'm completely hetero, love men actually, have had at different times loving, consensual relations with good men; there's one in particular right now. I have a good life. I'm definitely one of the lucky ones. I've never been raped.

But the conditioning has worked. There are things I don't do, places I won't go, because of the realities of life-as-female.

Monday, February 7, 2011

making those connections

Life is sometimes serendipitous in its convoluted way. I came home from my retreat week in Victoria feeling that I'd made progress in my writing, but fell back into my life at home in a strange funk that unfortunately collided with some relationship problems (mostly of my own making) with a friend.

Then one of my holds at the library came up, and so I watched a film this week, one from last year's crop: A Single Man (from a novel I haven't read, blush). It's set in the sixties, about a gay man who is grieving the death of his partner. He is almost completely alone, except for one old friendship with a woman. Her loneliness was also acute, but not so coerced; she didn't need to hide who she was. So it's set at a time where there was little understanding, pretty much still the dark ages. Persecution would have been the norm and being open, 'out of the closet', could lose you your job. (And get you beaten to a pulp, but that still happens, doesn't it?)

It's sure not a happy story, with just a glimmer of hope about the resilience of people. A disturbing and thought-provoking tale. (Can't always be laughing, can we?) But the most salient points from this movie (beyond how difficult life can be) may be that we need relationships with other people as much as we need water and air. And that secrets are deadly. And in an odd way, the movie helped clear my thinking about my own, not-so-profound-but-still-difficult problem.

Anyway, I felt I'd sorted things out by the weekend so that I could think straight and then was lucky enough to see a play (my brother, sweetheart, gave me tickets he couldn't use). August: Osage County is on at the Stanley on Granville, and if you can, go see it.  It's a great big production, a throwback to the days when theatre groups could afford to hire a big cast and build a big set. Three acts, two intermissions, remember those?

The play uses (black) comedy to make its points, and it did it really well. It's a funny but tragic (or tragic but funny?) story about convoluted and fractured family dynamics made worse with pills and alcohol. Yes, I said funny, but achingly sad, too. And oddly, though it's wildly different from A Single Man, the same kind of ideas creep out. How important to us relationships are, and how poisonous they can be, especially when secrets are kept. How easy it is to hurt each other. Lots of laughter in the telling, but a very sad story.

Funny how strongly we relate to fictional characters and made-up stories. They're all illusion, this film and this play, and yet I find myself still thinking about them days later. When stories are effective it's because they resonate, you can feel them humming inside. The truth is there, even though it's just a made up story, a pack of lies really (which is, after all, what fiction is).

Our individual stories are all unique, yet there are certainly common themes we can relate to. In these two cases, it's loneliness (in or outside of big families) and rejecting families (that still often demand our allegiance!). And secrets. Just about everyone has some experience of these, in some way or another. And even if someone comes from a 'normal' family (I think they're out there) then maybe it's just a pleasure to see how different life can be, like visiting another country, and be thankful to be born where you were.

There's no way you can 'help' the characters in these fictions, but maybe they help us by making us think about them; this works when they aren't formula anyway. I mean there are plenty of examples out there of predictably yawnable stories, but not these two.

Anyway, what I'm trying to get to is, relationship, be it friend or family or lover, is the important thing, and how we understand it, make sense of it, is through story.

And so for me, now (because it's always about me, you may have noticed) after my week away to work on my novel, and after my week of emotional something-or-other (mayhem?) I'm reminded that I want to write down this story, some parts of which are down on paper, and some still roiling around in my head. It seems possible that if I actually attend to it, to my novel-to-be, I might get it right, even 'true'. That's what I'll be shooting for, anyway. I guess I'm blessed (?) with just enough narcissism to think I can do that.