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.

22 June 2014

I’ve been living in motels for four weeks now. I’m trying to find an apartment but it isn’t easy. I have a job interview on Tuesday but if I don’t get it, I’m back to square one.

A friend of mine is paying for me to live here. Or another way to say it is that she’s paying for me to live. I probably would be dead now without her money. I’m not always pleased that I took it.

Five months ago I was raped. Four months ago I became homeless for the third time since 2011. I have two close relationships, and both of them have broken down almost completely. I can’t exist without spreading the suffering to the people closest to me. I’m going to be in this hotel for at least another week. I try to keep busy every day, but today I just stopped. Today I’m in the kind of mood where I want everything to stop.

I don’t ever really stop though. Instead I just linger. Sometimes I make a little progress, enough to give me hope that things will be different soon, that I’ll have things to look forward to. There’s never a real rock bottom to hit. Or maybe there is, but it’s a place you visit way more than once. Unless there’s something worse than this. I’m sure there must be, and sometimes I wish I’d just get there.

I probably won’t feel this way tomorrow. That’s the aggravating thing. Makes it impossible to ever form a resolution for good and all.

The other day I had an email exchange with an old professor who has always sincerely believed I could do anything. That’s because he knew me before I was like this, when I was nineteen and flourishing for the first time. He honestly believes I am too extraordinary for any amount of damage to stand in the way of what I want to do for very long—if I just exert myself.

People who have never been anything else don’t realize that health may as well be a superpower. Healthy people are the really extraordinary ones, as far as I can tell. The faster my brain runs the faster I unravel.

All I want to do lately is apologize to everyone I know for being the way I am, but all the apologies in the world won’t stop people from being driven away when they’re exhausted from fighting against being sucked into the gravity well of my despair.

It’s within my power, at least theoretically, to be different. And sometimes I do feel capable of that. But those capable periods don’t last. The powerless times don’t last forever either, but the damage that accrues doing times of powerlessness comes in much faster and has a longer-lasting effect than the advances that get made in periods of greater health. It isn’t insanity, but it’s sanity deprivation—the healthy periods are spent trying to undo damage, and they rarely last long enough to move to the next step, where you lay foundations that will shore you up against the next time the powerlessness overcomes you.

I wear out the compassion and patience of even my closest friends. The ones who have been the most patient are the ones I’ve withheld the most from—the ones who don’t really know me at both my best and my ugliest, and therefore don’t know me well at all.

My greatest fear, I think, is always that I will sink so far that I create disgust and revulsion in my friends, instead of understanding and compassion. But it’s not the kind of “greatest fear” that you hide in a closet with the bogeyman, and never really expect to face. It happens to me all the time. I wear people out every day.

I will feel differently tomorrow. Maybe not better, but different. Maybe tomorrow, there will be health and sanity and perspective enough to take strength from the things I haven’t lost and keep myself from being crushed by the knowledge of all that I have. Or maybe it will be worse. I won’t know until I wake up in the morning. It would be preferable, in many ways, if I just didn’t.

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2 thoughts on “What lies beneath #MeToo

  1. You are an incredibly talented and gifted writer, an absolute wordsmith of a lady. While I have chosen not to write about my sexual assault, or participate in the #metoo trend, I am glad that there are strong voices like yours which are constant. I was personally annoyed by the me too hashtag, as I found that it somehow cheapens the hell and lasting impact created by sexual assault. There was a facebook post by a man that I know, who described a one night stand as sexual assault – and was nothing if not completely serious about it. I love that people want to speak up about sexual assault, but in this way it becomes something that is on trend, instead of how life ruining it actually is for those who have suffered it. Again, you are a gorgeous writer.

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  2. The Me Too stuff has been sort of weird for me because of the gendering of the discussion: I’ve had intimate partner violence and sexual harassment in the workplace, which some of the posts say qualify me to use the hashtag, but I don’t want to be that guy who shouts, Look at me! My suffering requires more attention than anyone else’s because I’m a man! And I also know full well that my suffering is in no way equivalent to yours. And that being a white man who dresses above his pay grade gets me a lot of benefits that balance the suffering.

    This was a minor point, but I did want to share a related experience: In grad school, we were discussing the narrator of C Bronte’s Villette, and the professor said that he thought she was really weird. He liked her, but she was totally foreign to him. Several of us had felt really close to her, including me, so I checked his CV online and considered what I knew of his personal life, and I realized that he didn’t have the experiences of rejection and isolation that make us Lucy Snowe. I guess a doctorate and a long list of publications aren’t the only qualifications a person needs to teach literature.

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