the other F-word
I'll never forget the time, in my second year of teaching, when a male student, an 8th grader, chimed in on some female students discussing feminism, saying "you better not say the f-word" and chuckling to himself. My ears perked up, across the room where I was helping some student draw something on paper, and I asked "what f-word?" clearly picturing someone dropping the f-bomb and trying to cover it up. "Feminism." He said, and looked at me, defiantly. Rather than become offended, I reminded myself, as I often do, that these kids are young; that everything is funny and fair grounds to make jokes about, and it's my job to open discussion rather than pass judgment and push the debate further into everyone's mind as a subject that adults get flustered talking about.... So I asked him if he knew what feminism meant. He said "How women hate men." I said something like, "Well, simply, it's the belief that men and women deserve equal rights." "Oh." he said, a little deflated, and we moved on. But this story isn't about others' perceptions of feminism. This story is about how feminism, that unmentionable, became something that I only heard on the wind or on the news, to something that became imprinted on my body and psyche. It became an arrow pointing me toward a future that was less fearful. This story is personal (as are all stories in my 3rd Thoughts series), and brings up difficult topics like sexual harassment, assault, PTSD, and violence. It is not advised for young readers or people who are sensitive to these topics.
I must make a key point at the beginning. There is much misunderstanding and hatred for feminists and the feminist movement, as that former student demonstrated. I could spend an entire post, probably write entire books, and become entangled in countless conversations arguing against this hatred and, in my mind, misunderstanding of the word. But to keep it simple, I'll tell you again that feminism is advocating for equality between the sexes. Here is a link to an explanation of feminism and why people are against it.
I will quote Dr. Amanda Foreman, a researcher and creator of the far-reaching, informative documentary series The Ascent of Woman, which can be found on Netflix. Find more information about it here.
During the last few minutes of the third episode in which she addressed women in power throughout civilization, she says:
"It's not our place to judge civilizations. It's not about assessing blame for the obvious injustices that women have endured. What's more important that we open our eyes to the full panoply of history.
We have seen how women have shaped and molded the world today. The era of being a footnote in history is over. These extraordinary women were working within systems they had no part in creating, but laws and ideals are not the same as customs and reality, and in reality, they found, through their own agency, a route to power and influence.
I firmly believe that their greatest legacy they left to us, is that the ability to rule, to create, to inspire, to educate, is an ability that lies within us all."
I was shocked to discover through the series that the individuals we uphold in Western rational and philosophical thought were so anti-women. When you learn through watching documentaries such as this, or reading about feminist figureheads like Gloria Steinem, the way in which women have been ignored, dismissed, overshadowed, and written out of history is infuriatingly common throughout the ages (not to mention how they were brutally mistreated). Famous thinkers who inform our politics and philosophies in the West to this day such as Aristotle, John Locke, and in the East such as Confucius, were anti-female in much of their writing. That is something we don't discuss, much as we don't discuss the inconsistencies in the conduct of many of history's great men. We could talk about slaveholding founding fathers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name a few. But rather than point our fingers and declare, "This is Wrong" from our modern day viewpoint and moral high ground, I respect that people like Dr. Foreman are highlighting the complex nature of people, places, and societies. We are urged not to exile them from public recognition and admiration for lack of "moral perfection", but to study and learn from against the tapestry of history and civilization's rise and fall. Much like I understand that the eighth grade boy who smirked at feminism was not evil or misguided but a product of his unique upbringing and environment. To embarrass him or argue that he is wrong only pushes him to the margins of the class, isolating him and breaking his trust in the very thing that would help us to understand each other: communication.
Maybe communication won't save us. (And maybe "saving" is the wrong word, alluding to a solution to the state of apocalyptic anxiety many Americans feel in the wake of recent political happenings.) But it is a means to bridging the walls we build, the echo-chambers we yell in until we're hoarse, the prejudices we hold from our divided circumstances. So, I wish to communicate. I wish to tell the story that I have alluded to every March since 2012, in my art and my poetry, but never openly spoken of. Few people have heard it, and those who have, are dear to me; people who listen rather than judge and ask certain questions which make it more painful and isolating than I can bear. But now, I feel ready to write it down, to be vulnerable to others' eyes and comments. Mostly, I'm hoping people will read, listen, and try to understand why feminism is important from one person's perspective: my own. What it lacks in clarity, I hope it makes up for with impact. Though I've carried the following story within me for six years, writing and rewriting it, re-living it, fearing it, taking inspiration from it, I still doubted this morning whether to publish it or not, as if by letting others read it I would be punished by the teacher and ridiculed by the class. But then I read this passage from Anne Lamott's superb book on writing, Bird by Bird.
"Truth seems to want expression. Unacknowledged truth saps your energy and keeps you and your characters wired and delusional. But when you open the closet door and let what was inside out, you can get a rush of liberation and even joy. If we can believe in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas, old Uncle Jesus said, 'If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don't bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth can destroy you."
land of the magyars
In the spring of 2012, I flew to Hungary, was picked up by a car, and traveled in silence and snowfall to a small city called Pécs (pronounced like "page" with a soft "ch" sound at the end) in the south. I took advantage of the study abroad program at my university, feeling compelled to travel under my academic scholarship and relative freedom as graduation loomed a few years in the future. Familiar heads will nod and eyes will roll at the mention of "Hungary." These short six months were life-changing in many ways, an experience I talked about incessantly when I returned, succumbing to post-study-abroad-syndrom much to the chagrin of my close friends. I've described the experience broadly to other adults who tell me how lucky I was (and believe me, I feel and know I was), and I nod and tell them that I experienced the highest highs and lowest lows of my life. Traveling to an exotic-sounding place I knew very little about is romantic in theory, and a few other less-rosy words in practice. That semester was an acceleration in everything I could imagine: fun, cultural differences, isolation, substance abuse, friendship, artistic growth, etc. It was as if someone had control of a dial in my life, labeled "Intensity", and turned it all the way up to 10. Being sheltered as well as responsible my entire life before the trip, I let loose my own shackles and willfully forgot what being a good person/woman/daughter/friend looked like and drank more than I should have, said more than I should have, went to places I shouldn't have gone, and learned much from those actions to put it lightly. I was ready to meet that experience with everything I had. I was pushing my limits, going beyond them in many ways, and living in a constant state of duality; experiencing and reflecting on all the newness and lessons life had to teach me.
One night, roughly a month after I had settled in the city, I remember vividly. It was the starting point of a new view of the world and myself. It was the night of March 8th, International Women's Day. Ironically, it was the first year I heard that this day was a thing people celebrated, as friends bought and received flowers from other women and men. The desk at the immigration office where I had my picture taken that morning was covered in vases of flowers. Curious, I wondered how long the holiday had been celebrated. That evening there was a concert near the arts faculty on the far side of the city. Two close friends and I made the trek in the early spring cold, where we met up with other friends I had made, Hungarian students in my painting studio. We shared art-making quarters and ideas about painting. Unlike the European students I lived with in a giant dorm, affectionately nicknamed "The Cockroach", these students were Hungarian and through them I learned more about Hungary and fell in love with it swiftly and inexplicably. When I felt the weight of my shame and isolation press on me like an anvil, painting and drawing were just about the only skills I could value about myself. These students, these artists, were sensitive like me. We could share deeper feelings, make instant coffee, and let the hours and anxieties fall away in the top floor of the visual art building. Before I meander too far down memory lane, back to the concert. Naturally, I had a few drinks, danced wildly, laughed copiously. As was common, my two friends from the dormitory wanted to leave earlier than I. They pressured me to come home but I waved them away, enjoying my time with my art friends and the timeless feeling of the night that only youth seem to possess. By around two, I was sobering up and ready to travel home. I said goodbye to my friends and began walking. It was cold and I pulled my thin black jacket closer to my body, shoving my hands in my pockets and cursing my past self for putting on thin tights. The walk between the arts faculty and Boszorkány, the cockroach dorm, was around 45 minutes. I traveled the distance morning and evening, often walking back to the city center halfway through the day for a bite to eat. I could walk the route in my sleep, and had walked it practically every hour of the night and day over the past month. If you're becoming impatient with me setting the scene for something you feel is going to be climactic and possibly terrible, so be it. I can tell you the infinitesimal details about this night until I'm blue in the face, as if remembering them will help me understand why it happened. If anything, it helps me cope. I do not enjoy this; this is not me as a writer setting a scene for a character and wondering how I can build the drama to be more poignant. This is exactly how my memory recalls that night. So let's dive in again.
I had passed the city center, Széchenyi Tér, the open square past the old Ottoman-era mosque-turned-church, the statue of János Hunyadi on horseback, the McDonald's, when I turned my head around and saw a figure quite a distance away from me. I wasn't scared, but that late at night I didn't want to run into anyone on the quiet streets, so I quickened my pace. I passed the wooded park in front of the Cathedral, and was walking through a section called the Barbakán, an old stone tower and stone battlement walls, when an arm violently grabbed my waist and a hand covered my mouth. It was hard to even register. One moment I was walking with only the thought of the warm dormitory and soft bed that lay ahead of me, the other I was trapped in a terrifying embrace with a stranger. I jerked my head to the left and right, trying to break free or at least see my attacker. I've never felt more powerless in my life. I'm tall for a woman- 5'9" and athletic, but no movement I made could break his hold. It is difficult to describe to anyone, the panic of being in my attacker's grip. While I remember seeing countless enactments of a similar nature on TV and movies, nothing could prepare me for the utter paralysis of being overpowered by another human. It was like drowning and needing air desperately as you sink further under the waves, the metaphor feeling real because I could scarcely breathe with his hand clamped over my mouth and nose. I could smell the leather of his glove over my nose and mouth as I struggled to breathe. I could smell the alcohol from his breath and facial hair scratching my cheek and neck as he pushed his mouth near my ear; every sensation was intensified, every sense magnified, and time really did appear to slow down. I heard him rapidly hiss Hungarian into my ear in a low, gravelly voice. Despite a month of semi-immersion and half-hearted study of the language before I arrived, my terror didn't translate any of it. I kept shaking my head and struggling. He forced me down to my knees. On contact with the cobble stones, the skin of my knees broke open and I felt a sharp, intense pain. He drew his hand from my mouth and gripped around my chest as I let myself go limp, struggling to drag me across the cobblestones. I shook my head crying and saying "nem", Hungarian for "no", over and over. In a split second I remember thinking coldly that he could have a knife and that my life was in his hands. He was mostly likely going to rape me, by the tower. He might kill me afterward. I tilted my head back, not to see him but to look at the world before it was to go dark. I saw a nearly-full moon and streetlights. I saw the road ahead lined with darkened, silent apartment and shop windows. I thought, "this is it." He continued dragging me across the cobblestones toward the stone tower. Like a gong, like a voice distorted by a bull-horn in the distance, I heard my mother's voice. "Fight! You have to fight! You have to get away! You have to run!" She had told me this time and time again, cautioning me that I always had to be aware of my surroundings, from a young age to present day. She perceived danger everywhere, constantly worrying about the worst-case scenario. It was a trait my brothers and I teased her for, but I knew she was right in many cases. There were "bad people" out there who would do bad things to you. I shudder now to think that her fears might be grounded in realities that she was forced to face earlier in life. Whether it was adrenaline-infused-memory that brought those words to my consciousness or her voice reaching across time and space to wake me up, her words saved my life that night. Without warning I started fighting his hold and yelling "HELP!" over and over. For what seemed like an eternity, he gripped my thrashing body, fighting my loud voice and flailing limbs. Then, like a flicker of light, he was gone. I didn't have time to wonder why he had let me go; whether he was afraid of the attention my yelling could cause or surprised at the English words tumbling out of my mouth, he fled, probably deciding I wasn't worth the hassle. I pulled myself upright and ran across the street. I spotted a line of taxis parked along the road and climbed into the passenger's seat of one of them. I was sobbing, recounting the experience in spurts of incoherent words and loud, snot-filled crying. I looked over at him, a middle-aged man in glasses. His face was incredibly concerned. He didn't try to calm me down; I don't think he even spoke to me for a while. He let me cry and sputter and shake until I was calm enough to muster "Boszorkány. I want to go to Boszorkány." in Hungarian. He started the car, this angel of a man, and drove the remaining two minutes, another ten walking minutes, to my dormitory. Outside the building I pulled money out of my bag and tried to hand it to him. He shook his hands and head, refusing to take my money; so I started sobbing again, and threw the money on the seat as I flung open the door and ran into the building, past the ever-present, revolving-door group of smokers on another late-night student cigarette break.
I began to climb the central staircase, suddenly feeling self-conscious under the fluorescent lighting, worrying about, of all things, how I would look if anyone was in the gathering place on the second floor. Because if there was anything I was not going to do, it was explaining what had just happened to me. I don't remember now if there was anyone in the common area. I set my face to look as emotive as stone and walked quickly to my room. Our rooms had a small common area with cabinets and a door to the bathroom. There were two doors: one led to my and my roommate Victoria's room, the other to our flatmates Pina and Yvana's room. I stepped into the common area, closed the door behind me, took a deep breath and smelled the garlic in Pina and Yvana's cabinet, took off my shoes, and tip-toed into my room. Victoria was sleeping so I tried to make no noise as to not wake her. Inside my head was a sound that can only be described as that channel that picks up static on the television, turned up as loud as the volume goes. My head was throbbing and my knees felt torn up. I stripped off my dress, grabbed my toiletries, and sneaked to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror, repeating to myself silently but mouthing the words, "You're alive, you're alive, you're alive, you're alive......" Nothing felt real and I didn't feel safe even in a room with a locked door. I sat down on the floor, looked at my new, green tights. I had lost the same pair of tights a few weeks before on a trip to Budapest, leaving the boutique bag at a restaurant. I was distressed and my friends, feeling for me, kindly bought me a new pair of green tights. Why this thought surfaced on my mind then is a mystery to me. Maybe it was the irony of it; this second pair of tights, now torn into shreds above my kneecaps, bright red blood oozing over my skin and staining the green a dirty brown; now adding to the bitter irony of International Women's Day. I was still shaking as I stripped down and took a long, hot shower, scrubbing my skin and my burning knees. Finally I got out, dried off, and lay down on my warm bed, letting exhaustion take hold as my roommate's soft breathing and the faint laughter of student smokers lulled me into sleep.
For a few days, I told no one. I carried on. I went out to the bars, to the clubs. Inside my mind, I was a mess. Incessant thoughts, silent breakdowns, pages of my journal devoted to anguished recounts of the attack and pleads to try to understand why. After three days I finally disclosed a short version of the story to my two good friends, the ones who left the concert early, trying to convince me to go with them. I don't know what I was expecting. Wanting compassion, I instead received somewhat condescending concern and harsh reprimands. Of course they thought it was awful; they were sorry. But, those sentences came with the ones that went: "This is why you can't walk alone at night. This is why you should have gone home with us. This is why you should have taken a cab. This is why you shouldn't drink so much. At least you weren't raped. It could have been worse...."It went on. While I know they were trying their best, I felt about as small and rejected as a wad of chewed gum lodged under someone's shoe, picking up the filth of the ground. I felt filthy, disgusting. I felt I deserved it. I felt self-hatred weave its way into my everyday thoughts and opinions. I felt their judgment searing my heart closed. Inside, besides feeling small and ashamed, I felt rage building. When we went away to a wine region together with the other students later that day, I was quiet and withdrawn. Little by little I drank more until I danced and laughed, and probably said things I shouldn't have. I didn't "cope" with the incident and my feelings very well. I drank heavily, alternating between my silly, carefree nature and taking out my rage on others with a sharp and hostile tongue. Much of the time I stuffed the attack deep in my memory and subconscious. I did my best to carry on and fit in; to find my way in this new place with its new language, personalities, and prejudices. Still, that night's effects surfaced when my guard was down, after enough drinks or enough hours in the art studio. Friends from home would call and I'd be faced with admitting that everything wasn't great; that often I felt like I was losing a war with myself in disgust for everything I was and the violent nature of the world. I continually denied the role my attack played in my debaucherous lifestyle. It was easy to hide from others, and especially to myself, that I was reeling from trauma in the study abroad culture of drinking and partying. I believed it was part of the collective experience, the right of me as a young student abroad to binge-drink and black out, to make mistakes I would later regret. Looking back, I don't regret anything, realizing how those mistakes shaped me, even if the shaping was violent and gruesome. If it wasn't for the kind listening of the other friend I told there, the reminders of who I was from my friends back home, or the gentle nature of most of my male friends in the group, I can't imagine what would have happened. Who knows how far we go when trying to stay afloat above our own despair.
The rage within me built, fueled by my habit for reflection. I thought about my attacker constantly, hoping to spot him on the street without even knowing what he looked like. I didn't have any fantasies of revenge or violence against him. I don't know what I would do if I recognized him. I was desperate for answers. Why would someone do this? Why did it happen to me? slowly changed to How can someone treat someone else as property? Why did this man think he could grab me and try to rape me? Why did he feel he had power over me? How could any person hurt another person like that? Would he have killed me if he could? Why does this happen to women? Why are women the ones most often attacked, raped, killed? How the hell can this be stopped? My thinking turned from shame about being assaulted and how I had brought this on myself, to the absolute injustice of this happening to me and any other woman. The forces that hurt and threatened to destroy me were larger than that man. They were all the structures that allowed him to feel justified, even in an alcoholic stupor, in terrorizing a young women and attempting to rape and hurt her. The forces aren't always so violent. They also dictate how women live their lives, where they are able to go. They remind us when and where we can feel safe and when and where we should feel fear. And then, when a woman "inevitably" gets assaulted, it becomes her fault. When they open their mouths about it, they are silenced, blamed, and ignored. I was hurting and silenced after telling a few souls about my attack, but I did not shrink and hide. I refused to let the attack change when and where I wanted to travel. I would walk anywhere in the city that I wanted to. Better than that, I would bike. I went to my friend Csaba, who owns a wonderful hostel and was like a kind uncle and wise sage to me during many of my tough days. I told him I needed to rent a bicycle. That day he fixed up a yellow mountain-bike, charged me my first month's fee, and re-taught me how to ride a gear-shift bike. I felt safer on a bike. I rode farther. I rode any time of day or night, defiantly. I became more aware of my surroundings, more fearful at night, but I never stopped myself from going out. I refused. And if I didn't take my bike, I asked male friends to walk home with me or I took a cab. To this day, I've traveled to over a dozen countries since living that semester in Hungary, the majority of which I've traveled to and in alone. I've learned to trust in the kindness of strangers and the strength of my intuition. What happened to me in Pécs could have happened in any of these places or on campus at my university or in my city. It just happened to happen there and then. Another casualty. Another statistic.
when home becomes hostile
When I returned home to the U.S., I was still processing all the experiences from that semester: many of them bright, wonderful, happy, and fulfilling. A few of them dark and heavy. None were as transformative, painful, or hard to share as my attack. My artwork from Pécs grew darker in themes and the colors I used, as did the art I created the following year. I believe everything is reflective of our inner state, even if I didn't recognize the gravity and relation my behaviors had to that six-month experience. Even though I kept my mouth shut about that night, more women were sharing their stories of assault, harassment, and rape with me. I don't know if I was drawn to those stories or that I was more receptive to them now that I experienced some of their stigma and weight. Maybe it was the inevitability of these violent acts happening to women. The statistics I read and heard about surprised me. But now, rather than keep them at arms length, I felt connected. I was one of the numbers. Though I count myself as lucky for not having been raped or more violently attacked, I stopped feeling that my experience wasn't harrowing or terrible just because it hadn't gone that far. If we begin to compare our hardships, we'll always find others whose lives carry more tragedy than we can ever fathom or try reach around with our arms. Now it was clear just how many times I had misunderstood feminism. Now I recalled how poorly I reacted to friends' stories of abuse or sexual assault. I didn't know how to respond to it. We never learned in school. Despite my mother's warnings of how to avoid getting kidnapped or raped, I was never taught how to cope with the hard facts, with how to comfort others who had suffered it or how to comfort myself. I didn't know how to talk about it. I experienced what I now know was acute PTSD without warning. I would be walking somewhere around dusk or at night, even in "safe" areas or indoors. I would turn around and see a figure some distance away and my heart would begin to pound, my head throb, the panic inside my body rising and reacting in a way I couldn't control. Sometimes I ran, sometimes I yelled or vomited, sometimes I started crying and excused myself with embarrassment. I disclosed the story to a boyfriend one March 8th, on the anniversary of that day, two years later. He listened so compassionately, held me, and after weeks of coaxing, helped me see my first therapist. I only saw her eight times, but that was enough to begin healing more productively. She was the first person to tell me that I didn't have to justify my anxiety, my PTSD reaction, or my anger from the incident. She was one of the people who helped me accept what had happened to me, not blame myself, recognize how unfair the situation was, and take pride in (some of) how I had coped. I opened up slightly, making art directly about the experience on the path to healing, realizing it was okay to be vulnerable and to recognize that healing would take many years of expression and searching.
Here I am, six years later, sharing it in writing, in public for the first time. I'm scared to do this. I'm sweating. My body reacted the entire time I wrote specifically about the attack, shaking and trembling, adrenaline running through my system. It hurts almost more than I can bear that to share this story means causing pain to people I love. But I can't stay silent and perpetuate the idea that we as survivors need to be quiet and ashamed of the abuse we've suffered just to maintain normalcy in the eyes of our social circles.
But, I would be lying if I said I'm not getting anything positive from sharing this. It is cathartic. It is important to me, in the way that others sharing their most painful experiences has been. It is important for me to recognize that incident as a starting point in my feminism, in my fight against unequal treatment of women, in my belief that anyone should be able to walk at night without feeling fear, in belief that change is possible. I feel truth in my rage over society, men, and women turning a blind or judgmental eye against victims/survivors of sexual assault, in my prickling and disciplining over rape jokes and anti-women attitudes from my students. No change has ever come from staying silent. Feminism and belief in equal rights for all is a matter of justice. Belief in justice and equality is born from an event or a lifetime of injustice and inequality. You might have heard the phrase "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." If violence, mistreatment, and systematic/systemic inequality of women doesn't matter to you, consider yourself either lucky for never suffering through the pain of its injustice, or ignorant for not paying attention to the very real physical and emotional suffering of others around you.
I learned that I could spend a lifetime telling my story, making it all about me. But it is not just about me. This connects me, in a sorrowful twist, to many women and men who have like stories to share. I was never one to accept the sayings: "That's just how it is. That's just how people are. It happens. Get over it. People are people. People are animals. Men are dogs. They can't help themselves....." If that is our way at coping as a people, at justifying our lack of care or rage or concern over the abuse and mistreatment of our fellow humans...If this is our way of talking over female survivors and shouting that they were bringing it upon themselves, that they were responsible for the violence, that they should shut up because men have it hard too, well then, things have to change.
They are changing. Not always for the better. The #meToo movement has its triumphs and its pitfalls. Sometimes it feels the pendulum is swinging too far and the reactions from the other side will crush us into silence and shame again. I know there isn't one solution. I spent a few days this summer at a gathering in Germany. Its rules were inclusive and open to all parties, gender expressions, and kinds of humans. I heard many topics and arguments between groups. I felt bitterness and rage between them. I felt distressed at the breakdown in communication; at how fights over the right language and personal prejudices seemed to derail the group from the positive changes it strove to make. I remember thinking that everyone who was shouting was still processing and healing from a past of exclusion, ridicule, disappointment and quite possibly violence like I had experienced.
Like these red-faced acquaintances whose public pain I winced at, I'm still processing and healing. I am also spared from the compounding pain that women of color experience, at higher rates than white women, of the same events. I don't wish to bicker or mince words. I don't wish to step all over someone else's pain while shouting about my own. I don't wish to point fingers at any one man or woman or country or leader or society as a whole. I just wish to share my story, in the hopes it will be read and understood. In the hopes others will feel the complexity of the messes we call ourselves, so we take apart the walls, brick by brick, and recognize the wounded person on the other side. To smile and respect that person. To stop shouting for a moment, and appreciate that we are alive right now. I am alive. I am alive. I alive alive. I am alive.....When I refused to let that experience define and narrow my life and limit my mobility and my movement, I let its power over me weaken. Now that I'm speaking it, I let its power shrink to words on a page, an event that happened and hurt me and changed me, but ultimately did not win. Anne Lamott's words on the truth ring true to me now:
"Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don't have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in---then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home."
-written by Alexa Fermeglia / Alex Ferel