What lies beneath #MeToo

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This has not been an easy couple of weeks for me. Nor, I suspect, for any other woman or sexual assault survivor who’s been subjected to the 24/7 coverage of the Weinstein scandal and all the stories that have emerged from it.

To me, this whole Weinstein thing feels a little bit like the third major hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. this season, except the hurricane is a giant cloud of rape and misogyny, and it’s never actually going to dissipate, we’re just going to stop talking about it once everyone is tired enough. Kind of like that actual hurricane that actually destroyed a lot of Puerto Rico a month ago, or other crises célèbres that fade from public consciousness after an initial outpouring of support. This isn’t the first time rape culture has been vaulted into the public discourse in a major way. The last time I wrote a blog about it was after the Brock Turner trial, which also felt a little like a watershed moment in the discourse around rape, except that eventually it made a noise like a hoop and rolled away, as all major headlines do eventually.

Yet the Weinstein scandal feels like it might have a little more staying power. That could just be wishful thinking on my part, but deep down, I don’t know how wistful I actually am. Having already written in fairly frank terms about my history of sexual assault and the impact it’s had on my life, I have a lot of mixed feelings about the current volume of public outcry. People are raising their voices in a chorus of protest, yes. But some of those people are hitting really sour notes, some of them aren’t even on the right verse (or song), and others are standing uncomfortably on the back risers mouthing “watermelon” while other people sing around them.

Personally, I’ve sung enough solos on the topic of sexual assault that I resent, slightly, the “call to arms” vibe I’m getting from my social media networks, as though now is the time to speak out, and not…any of those other times I was speaking. I don’t like that I feel resentful. And to be clear, my resentment is entirely personal. I have no interest in extrapolating my own weariness into a prescription for how other people should engage in this conversation. I remember very well how energized I felt when I first discovered the sense of inner authority that made it possible for me to talk and write publicly about my experiences. I think a lot of women may be reaching that place in their recovery for the first time, emboldened or inspired by all the other stories they’re hearing, and I feel like good things will come out of that.

But this “call to arms”—the real reason it makes me feel weary, and resentful, is because I’m not immune to it. Despite the fact I’ve already shared as many details about my experience with sexual assault as I’m comfortable with, the urge to say something, to contribute to this conversation somehow, still compels me, even as it exhausts me. I suppose it’s the same sort of feeling that veterans of the first World War got after World War II broke out: back to the trenches again, hope my luck holds out for another round.

I don’t have to keep talking about rape and misogyny—and in case you’re a woman with a story you haven’t told, let me just emphasize, you don’t have to talk about it either—but it’s becoming clear that if I don’t contribute to this conversation on some level, I’m going to be annoyed with myself. At 3 in the morning, when I’m kicking the covers and disturbing my cat, I will probably find it even harder than usual to get to sleep if I don’t take some advantage of this extraordinary public moment—one in which it feels, slightly, as if rape is being discussed with something approaching the seriousness it deserves.

So what do I have left to say that I haven’t already said, or that other, better writers with larger platforms haven’t articulated with greater skill? Very little. Possibly nothing. But then I started thinking about the #MeToo hashtag that swept Facebook and Twitter a few days ago. Some people criticized it as an essentially voyeuristic exercise. Others felt that it served the valuable purpose of highlighting the ubiquity of sexual assault, both for the benefit of survivors who felt alone, and for the benefit of people who were in denial.

The question I’ve been asking myself since the first #MeToo appeared on my timeline is this: how many people of the latter sort—the soft denialists—understand that the actual damage done by sexual assault is still largely veiled from their eyes? Men everywhere are writhing with horror over the sheer number of women in their social networks who are using the hashtag, and judging from their reactions, too many of them feel like they “get it” now. But most of them don’t get it. They’ve glimpsed the tip of the iceberg, but the behemoth structure of suffering, damage, dismantled lives, hard work, resilience, and recovery is still hidden safely from view beneath the surface of the dark, forbidding ocean that is women’s lived experiences. Few of those people now professing themselves unsettled or grief-stricken by the reality of those experiences are ever going to dive any deeper into those experiences of their own free will.

What lies beneath the #MeToo hashtag is a narrative that can’t be summed up in 140, or even 280 characters. Not even in one of those Facebook posts that are so long you have to open them in a new window. The narrative of recovery from sexual assault is not linear. There are no happy endings, because it doesn’t end; it cycles. Recovery is possible, yes, but even for people in advanced stages of recovery, there are good days and bad days and normal days with bouts of bad mental weather that can be either fleeting or lingering.

Since I seem to need to say something, I think the one thing I’m still capable of contributing to this conversation is a glimpse of what lies beneath the #MeToo hashtag. In other words, I can show you a small piece of what my own recovery looked like during the before stages—before I began putting my life back together, before I was stable or articulate enough to write something as simple as a blog post.

I started this blog in August of 2014, about a month after I moved to Baltimore and found stable housing and began my career as a writer and a freelance editor. I started this blog with the goal of telling stories from my life that were important to me—stories that would remind me who I was, who I had been, before I began to conceive of my identity solely in terms of the trauma I’d been through.

But before I got to that point—before I had a permanent place to live, or a steady-ish job, or a specific goal to strive for, or the will to acquire any of those things—I was already writing. I’d forgotten about that until recently, when I reorganized all the Word files on my hard drive. Amidst the hundreds of documents that needed sorting into new folders, I discovered a file I’d titled “Upwardly Mobile Homelessness”. Opening it, I found a kind of private journal entry. Normally I write my journals by hand, in notebooks, but one day, for whatever reason, I wrote it in a Word document. Maybe I thought I would be more motivated to keep writing if I did it on the computer. I don’t remember clearly what my intentions were at the time. There are a lot of things about that period of my life I don’t remember clearly.

Reading that journal again a few days ago—an impossibly short three years after I wrote it—was not a pleasant experience. I think it’s safe to say that I wrote it on one of the worst days of my life. Everything about the journal, from my painfully vague allusions to people and events, to the short, clipped tone of the sentences, drags me, briefly, back into the headspace of the person I was when I wrote it. That person was still me, of course, but it was a version of me that saw no escape from prison of severe trauma. I had reached the point where I no longer lamented what had happened to me, so much as I loathed the person I had become as a result of what had happened to me. That was, and still is, in my mind, the worst consequence of sexual trauma.

I’m not sure what effect this 24/7 coverage of Harvey Weinstein and his career in sexual predation would have had on me if the story had broken in late June of 2014, when I was still living in hotels and trying to convince myself that my life was as valuable as the monetary price of my upkeep. I don’t know if it would have hastened my recovery or made things even worse. This is what I know: in June of 2014, I was just as eligible for the #MeToo label as I am now. But even though I am at a very different place in my recovery now—happier, healthier, more engaged in my community, with goals for my future—you wouldn’t know that just to look at a hashtag.

Some of the people you know who’ve said #MeToo are fairly okay. Some of them aren’t. What they share with you, how much they share with you, is up to them. But since I’m in a position to give you a glimpse of what lies beneath the hashtag, I figure I might as well.

Below the read more, you will find the largely unedited text of that journal entry I wrote in June of 2014. You may want to read it with caution.

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A Shakespeare Read-Along Adventure post: CYMBELINE

cymbeline-1(Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

A few years ago (ten, it was ten years ago, I’m so old) I had an on-going, super informal Hamlet discussion going on in my LiveJournal. Actually, calling it a “discussion” might be dignifying it too much. Mostly it was me reading the play and posting scene-by-scene, line-by-line commentary. Sometimes it was super profound commentary that would make my former professors proud. Sometimes it was me making fun of Horatio for thinking he would know how to talk to ghosts just because he went to college for three semesters. And the comments, of course, were open for everyone else to post their own insight and mockery.

So after a recent discussion on Facebook, I decided to host a similar discussion for Cymbeline here at Language and Light. Never read Cymbeline? Never fear! The text of the play will be posted in its entirety, scene by scene by scene, so you can read along with me, as long as you don’t mind me snickering in your ear as we go along. All my commentary is marked in bold, even, so you can skip right past it if you like your initial read-through to be untainted by other people’s opinions.

Each post will be dedicated to a single scene, unless a scene is really short, and then I might cram two scenes in.

Why Cymbeline?

I love the “romances”—Pericles, Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and a few others like Measure for Measure that just defy neat categorization. There are lots of reasons for this, but the principle one is that I feel like the romances get overlooked next to their noisier, bloodier sisters like Macbeth, and the second Henriad, and yes, Hamlet.

I should probably point out that I’m not a scholar by profession, I never went to grad school, I never wrote a dissertation. I’m just a nerd who reads a lot of books and spends too much time on the internet. Don’t be surprised if I started reacting in memes once the play gets properly underway.

CYMBELINE: A cursory background

For those of you coming to the play for the first time, here’s some context. Cymbeline is one of the “romances” or “tragicomedies” written late in Shakespeare’s career—1609-1610, in this case. Some people characterize the romances as “tragedies, but with happy endings”. (If, by happy endings, you mean that the stage isn’t littered with bodies at the end of the play, I’m willing to go with that generalization.) Personally I think the reason that Shakespeare’s last handful of plays are the weird little stories they are is because, as he neared the end of his career, he threw out his personal dramatic rule book and wrote what he damn well pleased. But I’ll save my thoughts on that for later.

Background on Cymbeline specifically: like so many of his history-light plays, Shakespeare drew on Holinshed for this one, though since the play is set in pre-Christian, pre-Roman Britain, it’s probably also worth mentioning that he got some background from Livy, Plutarch, and Ovid, like any good grammar-school boy of his era. We know this in part because Shakespeare was kind of obsessed with the Rape of Lucrece, subject of one of his earliest poetic works, and the dramatic conflict in Cymbeline owes a lot to that story. (Livy and Ovid would have been his sources for that story.) But as is typically the case with anything written by Shakespeare (who, like me, was no scholar), Cymbeline takes place in its own setting, freed from any aspirations towards historical accuracy. Shakespeare chucks history aside whenever he feels like it, basically; best to just get used to that.

That said: there was a Cymbeline who ruled in Britain in the decades before the Roman invasion. He was called Cunobelinus, until an historian in 1136 dubbed him Kymbelinus, which probably means I’ve been mispronouncing Cymbeline with a soft C all this time. I honestly wrote up a good two paragraphs worth of background comparing what we know about the historical Cunobelinus versus the legendary version of the story that made it into Holinshed, but the fact is, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Holinshed’s Cunobelinus have basically nothing in common, so I decided too much detail would just be confusing. There are only two things about the legendary/historical king that are relevant to Shakespeare’s play: Cymbeline/Kymbelinus/Cunbobelinus was the king who either intentionally or inadvertently invited the Romans under Claudius to invade Britain and make it into the Roman vassal state, Brittania. (In some versions, this was the doing of one of his sons, who had been a hostage/fosterling in Rome under Caligula; in the Holinshed version, Cunobelinus was the hostage/fosterling who swore fealty to Rome.) The other relevant point is that Holinshed’s Cunobelinus wasn’t king of Britain, but rather the nephew of a king called Cassibellaunus. This uncle-king figure gets a name check in scene one.

That’s it. That’s all the similarities there are between Shakespeare and his quasi-historical sources. If this surprises you, congratulations: welcome to Shakespeare studies.

Honestly, the historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s portrayal of Cymbeline is doubly irrelevant, not just because Shakespeare manifestly doesn’t care about history, except to cherry pick it for dramatic prompts, but because, like so many of his plays, the title isn’t super relevant to the theme of the play. It makes about as much sense to name Cymbeline after Cymbeline/Kymbelinus as it would if they’d named The Winter’s Tale after Leontes. We’re not reading this play for him, we’re reading it for Imogen. But we can’t start talking about the arbitrary weirdness of the titles of Shakespeare’s plays now, or we’ll be here forever.

Okay! I think that’s enough to be going on with. Text and analysis of the play appears after the jump cut. Make this worth my while, guys. There’s a comment section. Use it.

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What Kay meant to me – June 7, 2017

I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.

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At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.

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Advent meditation for 6 December 2016

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Annunciation, by James Tissot. I love it when the angels are weird.

I’m a fairly patient person; waiting isn’t painful to me as long as I know what it is I’m waiting for. When I don’t know what’s coming—when all I know is that it’s something big, something with the potential to shake up my life, something that might go easier if I were able to prepare for it but I can’t prepare for it because I don’t know what it isthat’s when I get anxious.

Most of the time, Advent is, to me, precisely what it’s “supposed” to be—a season of joyful anticipation. This year is a little different. I don’t know where I’m going to be living come Christmas. I don’t know what kind of world I’m going to be living in come January. There are no Christmas decorations up in my house this year. I spent the entire month of November in another state, and I feel like I abruptly skipped from All Hallow’s to Advent without any breathing space between. I usually think of “waiting” as something you want to be over as soon as possible. But the dread you experience when something is barreling down the pipeline towards you at far too fast a clip, that’s part of waiting too.

This year, for a number of reasons, the waiting of Advent is, to me, the kind of waiting that doesn’t last long enough. Like, if Christmas could get here in two months instead of three weeks, that would suit me just fine. If time in general could slow and stretch, I would be into that. I always feel like things are happening a little too fast. I react to all change like it’s a change for the worse. A daily dose of dread is a normal part of my life.

The way practically everyone tells the annunciation story, Mary’s complete submission to “God’s will” gets emphasized over everything else. But even if humble obedience really was her chief reaction to being told by an angel that a divine fetus was about to be magically implanted in her body, I’m sure that wasn’t the whole of it. I know that if I were in Mary’s shoes, I would definitely be wondering about the nature of the holy infant I was carrying. Like, how does “divinity” express itself in a baby? Is this kid going to be speaking in complete sentences with the authority of God the Father straight out of the birth canal? Is he gonna have wings? You’d have to pause, considering the possibilities.

I don’t think the Bible indicates whether Mary’s pregnancy lasted the full term of a normal human pregnancy, but let’s assume it did. For eight months, Mary could treat all those questions as theoretical, but around the beginning of month nine, I bet she felt the glare of metaphorical approaching headlights. No doubt she was full of tender maternal joy, just like all the stories say, but if there wasn’t a little dread mixed in there too, I would be very surprised.

I find all of that sort of comforting. When December 1st rolled around last week and I didn’t feel like dragging out my mini-tree, I felt like I was ruining the holiday season. But I feel less that way now. The darkness that wraps around the northern hemisphere in December makes dread practically a biological imperative. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s fine that I sometimes look at the birth of Christ and see an event rivaling the Second Coming in its fear and uncertainty. The word has turned upside down many, many times. The here-and-now has always been someone’s apocalypse. Advent is the prelude, not just to the miracle of the incarnation, but to the ministry of the man who gave us fair warning that he came to bring not peace but a sword. The dread is probably a gift of some kind. I just have to figure out what to do with it.

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Annunciation, by Rose M Barron. I love everything about this, but especially the skeptical look on Mary’s face.

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story

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(My grandmother holding the first quilt I made for her, Christmas 2008.)

My grandmother, Hester Ferguson Preston, passed away on October 27th. Her funeral was yesterday, and I was asked to write and deliver her eulogy, so I thought I would share it here as well.

Eulogy for Hester Preston

31 October 2016

When my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday a few years ago, my mother and my aunt asked everyone who attended her party to write something for her to put in a keepsake book. I write for a living, so I thought, “This will be a piece of cake!” I wanted my contribution to be perfect—I was going to impress Granny with my writing skills and tell her all kinds of things about me and about the example she’d set for me as I was growing up. I was raised in North Carolina, so I mostly saw Granny at Christmas, and we were usually too busy to sit down and have long conversations. Most of the stories I heard about her from when she was younger were told to me by other people. She didn’t really talk about herself to me all that much. So I wanted to make sure she knew that those stories had had an impact on me, and I was going to use that birthday letter to tell her, because I wasn’t sure if she knew or not.

Unfortunately, I tripped over my own good intentions—I tried so hard to come up with the perfect letter that I gave myself a classic case of writer’s block. By the time her birthday party came around, I didn’t have anything to show for myself. But just a few months ago, I had a moment where I realized that there was a chance I wouldn’t get to see Granny again before she died. So I made myself sit down then and there and write her a short letter. It didn’t live up to my ambitions for the birthday letter, but it covered all the important stuff, and I sent it off feeling like I’d told her everything I really needed her to know. Obviously, I was really grateful that I’d done that when I got the news on Thursday that she’d passed away.

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Nostalgia: On the 15th Anniversary of 9/11

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If only I had known that I was growing up in the nineties while I was doing it. I remember being afraid of war as a child; my father fought in Vietnam, and I was told often by my mother that it had “changed” him in some mysterious ways. A precocious history student, I had read books about the Holocaust and the Russian Revolution. I had a haunting sense of what life during wartime might be like; it happened in a world that was like my own, but subtly off in the unheimlich way of a bad dream.

I must have assumed that we lived in a time past war, or else in one of those golden gaps in history where nothing especially horrible happens to anyone who looks like you for entire decades at a time. Had anyone told me that we were living a small sliver of a gap between the Cold War and the age of terrorism, my teenaged dreams for the future would have shaped themselves differently, I think.

I don’t know how long it was after 9/11 before I started wondering when it would be over. I just know that the early 2000’s would have been much worse for me if I had realized that my bedrock underlying assumption, that there was a time not too far off when it would be over, was entirely mistaken.

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A List of Books That Traumatized Me As A Child, In Chronological Order

1. Title of Book: The Bible

Age I Was Traumatized: 4

I am not saying that the Bible was written by a sexual sadist. I am saying that my 1986 edition children’s Bible was, without question, illustrated by someone who regularly tied their partner to a cave wall and flogged them to ecstasy while in a Hebrew slave-Egyptian overseer roleplaying situation.

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(For a kid whose parents barely let her watch TV, some of my Sunday school lessons were intense.)

2. Title of Book: Little House On the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Age I Was Traumatized: 7

The prairie is on fire. A snake is twisting itself around your leg, having mistaken you for a source of safety. Inside the sod house, Ma is making rabbit stew with dumplings, only she has no more meat, only flour and grease. Pa tells you to bring him a drink of water from the dipper. “This is fine,” he says, staring out the window at the burning world. “Everything here is just fine.”

3. Title of Book: The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom

Age I Was Traumatized: 9

Third grade is a normal and developmentally appropriate time in a child’s life for reading vivid first-person memoirs about hiding from Nazis and surviving Ravensbrück for over a year.

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