Why Talking About Birth Control and Abortion Does Not Make You a Slut

For some reason, and no one intelligent knows why, far too many conservative men think that women talking about insured and covered birth control and available abortion means we are whores. Sluts. Loose women who cannot control our libidos.

The most obvious question is just who IS it all these loose women are screwing, anyway? Because clearly, it isn’t the men who are screaming the loudest about keeping us virgins or pregnant against our will. They might be a little… calmer if that were the case. It really can’t be those men because research shows that sex can actually make you smarter. And the men like Limbaugh, Huckabee, Ron Paul, Akin and countless others are not only not getting any smarter; they clearly wish to keep themselves and women as dumb as possible. Which can only be done if they keep calling us sluts and loose women and assuming that there is no way in which we are intelligent enough to make choices concerning how we care for our bodies and whether we are able or willing to care for a child.

And since available, accessible, affordable birth control =”http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/february/us-abortions-fall-to-lowest-rate-since-roe-v-wade.html”>reduces abortion one might think — if one were a sentient being — that that would be a good thing. But to too many men (and some women) it simply isn’t.

Birth control is bad. Abortion is worse. And women needing or wanting either of those are sluts, they reason.

The obvious inaccuracies that the men above keep shouting into the wind: The more sex you have, the more birth control pills you have to take; the pill is only for contraception and never used for other medical issues is another; rape can be “legitimate.” Yet men with even a smidgen of power operate by trying to shame women, which is bad enough, and trying to enact laws about birth control and abortion rights, which is even worse.

Second wave feminism coincided with the availability of the birth control pill for a reason: For the first time, women could control over how many children they had and when instead of being beholden to chance or luck or barrier methods which often failed. Roe v Wade, which made early abortions the law of the land in 1973, further helped women economically. Because it meant that they could further control their reproductive issues and could work and support themselves and their families. It also meant that illegal and back alley abortions (which killed hundreds of women and left many others scarred or infertile) would not happen.

In other words: birth control and abortion are not about who you f*ck and how many times you f*ck or even if you f*ck at all. They are about leveling the playing field a little more (equal pay would also help) so that women can be productive members of society and use their minds to the good of themselves and the world. They are about access to proper medical care.

Not so many years ago, very recently in terms of history, women had as many babies as nature allowed. Ten, fifteen, sometimes, over the course of their 40-year reproductive lives. They lost a lot of those children to childhood disease, too. And thousands and thousands died in pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, two women shockingly died this year in a Boston hospital. Young, healthy women giving birth. Dead. And a young woman was in the news for months because she died but the child inside her did not and she was kept on machines as a womb.

Pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous. Having and raising children is a huge and expensive responsibility. One should be able to make those decisions as choices, personal choices. A bunch of men who seem to know nothing about pregnancy and even less about sex should not be tasked with making laws which take away the rights of women to be people who can have some measure of control in their lives.

Women who run for office are already singled out for their bad hair choices and fashion faux pas. Now, like Wendy Davis, they are being called whores and bad mothers. Sandra Fluke’s decision to run for office makes her just about the bravest woman on the planet because from this moment on nothing will be held back. The ugliest names in the world will be permanently attached to her name.

This is not a country run by a church. One or another church (tax exempt, mind you) does not get to make physical health choices for their employees and pretend they are the moral choice. Political parties should not get to decide that abortion, the law of the land, is to be no longer allowed. But they are trying, day after day, to do just that. And at the same time, they are conflating sex and birth control and abortion as if every single sex act were somehow any of their business. And as if access to abortion and birth control were really about sex and not about inequality and equal rights and feminism: those really really scary things that some people look for under the bed at night.

We need to educate our men one at a time and then again and again and again: We are not sluts or whores or loose women. We are scientists and writers and doctors and teachers and waitresses and truck drivers and retail workers and nurses and like everyone else who works in this country, we need to be able to do so while we raise our children and to decide especially IF we will have them at all.

Think about this hard: The birth control pill was approved for use in 1960. 54 years ago. 54 years. Not even the lifespan of the average human being. But it changed women’s lives and it made it possible for us to go to college in record numbers, to postpone marriage, to choose how many children to have, to push for equality. 54 years ago. Less than 50 years before that, women were still diagnosed with “hysteria” and being institutionalized and lobotomized against their will. Women who were divorced were seen as easy, any profession like nursing in which women saw men’s bodies was suspect. It isn’t hard to see the past and right now, it isn’t too hard to see the future unless we stop it.

Everything we have fought for in order to live as equals is in jeopardy if we allow, for one moment, men in power to judge us and control us by our libidos instead of respecting us for our minds. Access to affordable birth control, access to abortions when necessary are not sexual issues, they aren’t women’s issues: they are health and economic issues. And that is how they should be discussed. Keep the loose woman red herring out of the equation

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I Am Doing Nothing!

I am doing nothing. I am doing so much nothing that I have wrapped a cocoon of nothing around myself so as to make the doing of nothing easier and less stressful. I am at a writers’ and artists’ colony and have two weeks in which to do nothing — except my work, which is not nothing, but is the kind of nothing that I haven’t had much time to do in the past nine months because I have had a lot of stress. I have been able to keep up with my writing-for-hire, but not with my own work.

I am not a good “doing nothing person,” and so this kind of doing nothing is just my cup of tea. And I really am doing nothing in the best sense of the word — excelling in this nothing doing — because this nothing will include reading and sleeping and actually some real doing nothing. Like sitting and thinking. Which isn’t doing nothing, but comes close. I am doing this partially to try and let go of some of my stress so this period of time of doing nothing will also include, along with my writing, as much of a news blackout as I can muster, although the outrage over the government shutdown creeps in and an article did just slip through the blackout. The article compelled me to write about my doing nothing.

According to an article in The Atlantic, stress has been found to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This is no small thing, especially for a woman who has the history of memory loss in her family. A history of memory loss and the accompanying stress for those of us who take care of family with memory loss.

The study states that: “Over the years, researchers looked at whether the women experienced any periods of distress, and noted changes in their behavior and intellect. For those who developed dementia, they noted the age of onset, and how the disease progressed. They also made sure to control for other factors, ranging from socioeconomic background to family history of mental illness to smoking.” The results were that “between the initial assessment in 1968 and 2006, 19.1 percent of the women developed dementia. The number of stressors women reported experiencing in 1968 was associated with long-lasting distress over the years, as well as higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia later in life.”

It looks like I picked a time to do nothing just in time, although there is no evidence that if one stops the stressors in one’s life, one can lessen the chance of dementia. It is rather, I suppose like stopping smoking doesn’t return lungs to their pre-damaged state — at least not for years and years. By the time my body reacts to this hopeful decrease in the lack of stressors, I will most likely already be in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Not to mention that living a stress-free life seems nearly impossible these days. There is always divorce (or its equivalent), disease, death, pain, sorry, worry.

In addition, the article quotes: “Increased distress could not completely explain the association between midlife stressors and dementia,” the study reads. “One reason for this is that individuals respond differently to psychosocial stressors. Thus, biological responses may develop as a reaction to psychosocial stressors also in individuals who do not experience or report increased distress in association to the stressor.”

And the study already factored in mental illness, which also runs in my family. In other words, I am screwed.

When I have looked back on the women in my family who developed Alzheimer’s (my grandmother and mother), I have never factored in stress. But in hindsight, there was plenty of it. My grandmother brought her own mother home from a mental institution to live with her and her husband — a condition of her marriage to my grandfather — and then spent the next 50 years of her life trying to prevent my great-grandmother from committing suicide (which she did successfully, as my great-grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 88). My grandfather died at 62 and left my grandmother with almost nothing. At 60, she trained as a real estate agent and went to work. When she developed Alzheimer’s, my mother and aunt had to pay for her care:more than 15 years in varying stages in varying institutions.

My mother, struggling with her own sadness self-medicated with wine, experienced a stressful divorce, a move, a new full-time job and the continued (although unlikely) fear that she would be a bag lady in her later years. At 78, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and completely surrendered herself to the disease. Each time I see her it has whittled another bit of her away.

Who am I to think I can escape this trajectory? Even as I escape from the past year’s stress by trying to do nothing for a least a little while, my past is littered with divorces, nursing my best friend through 10 years of cancer, watching my father sicken and die over seven years, pulling my son out of a terrible abyss (he is fine now, but I remain watchful) and most recently, dealing with my daughter moving in with me after leaving college, with all the trauma that has entailed. And those are just the high spots. I also had a three-year long-distance relationship which finally resolved itself when my boyfriend moved close to me, financial turmoil and news of the death of two long-time lovers. I have moved twice in the past six years. I have remade my life in a new city. And I am growing older and finally admitting it. I suspect that even a tiny respite or two will do nothing concrete to alleviate the stressors that have already accumulated.

And it is hard to imagine a life without any stressors, as the authors of the study readily admit. I know no women among my intimates who live a life even remotely stress-free. We are all little hamsters on the wheel, wheezing and running as fast as we can. We are all fighting stress with the love of each other, yoga, wine, walks, and the contemplation of the beautiful, when we get a moment. Even as we hurtle toward our inevitable ends none of us has given up. We really don’t do nothing for very long, if at all, but there is nothing to be done about it. We have obligations. We have stressors.

Nonetheless, I am going to try harder to do less, if not actually nothing, for longer periods of time. I am going to try and balance the stressors I cannot avoid with those I actually can; and take less and less upon myself for the twenty or so good years — if I am lucky — I have left. Doing nothing for a while may not stop me from coming down with Alzheimer’s, as the markers are forbidding. but it, at the very least, gives me a chance to mediate my stressors and realize the damage they are doing. And to admit, as hard as it is, that someday I won’t remember any of them.

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Why The Paula Deen Controversy is About Much More Than Words

I live in Savannah, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and to which I willingly and gratefully moved when my last child left the nest.

I live in Savannah, where the lines for Paula Deen’s restaurant, Lady and Sons, stretch around the block most days, and the parking lot at her brother’s restaurant over the bridge on Whitemarsh Island, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, is perpetually overflowing. That may change with all the negative publicity but Paula Deen’s “troubles” are about far more than her use of an ugly word several years ago. They speak to the larger and more unsettling issue of inequality in the U.S., an issue which is far more difficult to discuss than whether a famous white woman should be denounced for her language.

I technically live in the city of Savannah but really in the county of Chatham. The county has a population of about 276,000 people: almost 55 percent white and 40 percent black. In Savannah proper, population around 142,000, the breakdown by race is 55 percent black and 38 percent white. According to studies, fifty years after the end of the war, 89 percent of black people still lived in the South, but a huge wave of migration between 1915 and 1920 saw perhaps a million black men and women migrate north. Between the years of 1941 and 1970 five million more African Americans left the South. Yet many Southern cities, including Richmond, New Orleans, Baltimore and Savannah still contain a majority black population. And the poverty rate in those cities is huge, on average 25 percent. no doubt badly affected by the recent recession. But in a city like Chicago, which has a majority white population, poverty among blacks there is at 32 percent. Dallas’ black population has a 30 percent poverty rate. It is clear that poverty and opportunity are the wider issues, which have not begun to be dealt with by the presidency of Barack Obama, whose election was initially hailed as a blow for racism, but which has, in so many ways, further split our country in two.

I was born and raised in the South and save for 13 years in other states and countries I have lived in three Southern states: Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia for my 57 years. I witnessed firsthand integration when, in 1964 my small town’s school admitted its first black student. In 1972, just two years after college football was fully integrated, a good friend, a young black man, rreceived a football scholarship to Georgia Tech. It wasn’t until many years later, after seeing a documentary on the integration of college football that I realized how big a deal that was.

Integration was achieved seamlessly in my town, especially compared to the stories I read about big city busing and riots, but the local country club still did not allow black members. There were also nearby country clubs which did not accept Jews, and as a young Jewish Southerner I felt my share of keen and targeted anti-Semitism; in fact, upon discussing this fairly recently with black friends from my youth, I found that they felt far more comfortable in their skins than I did. In college, in New England, a young black woman in an economics of the South seminar, vehemently defended her home state of North Carolina. She said she would much rather live in the South because there, at the least, racism was out in the open, whereas in the North it was far more insidious. This was in 1975. I was moved by her speech because I sensed the same. It seemed easier to deal with prejudice out in the open as opposed to pretending it did not exist. And while my life in the South has always been a mixed bag, I am by birth a Southerner and I have now chosen to live in one of the deepest parts of it, Savannah, Georgia.

But even in my less than two years here I know full well that the current “conversation” about Paula Deen, such as it is, is misguided in its obsession with her use of the “n” word, as it is politely called. Deen’s supporters laud her honesty in admitting she used that word in her past; her detractors wonder what century she lives in, because Deen is a throwback to a time when “polite” racism was the norm. When it was standard to separate one’s self from “others,” while, at the same time, sharing a street, a school, a table with them. The South, which has, by many Northerners been as dismissed as Deen, is seen as a racial hotbed and therefore her actions are excused. But none of the issues around Deen are about the South or even about the “n” word: they are about privilege, power, justice, and decency. Those issues strike all across America.

And the notions of privilege, power, justice and decency have just been struck a body blow by two recent Supreme Court decisions that disarm the voting rights act and make it far more difficult for employees to sue for racial harassment.

The lawsuit against Deen, which has supposedly sparked this entire controversy, and the deposition, only part of which has made the news, speak far more to the larger issues of how we treat each other in general. One can read the complaint in its entirety here, and it is eye-opening and mind-boggling. Deen and her brother are hugely successful restaurateurs but run businesses which would have made any right-thinking person run quickly away. Yet, like many areas of the country, unemployment is high in Savannah, higher now since the recession, and good jobs are hard to find. Still the levels of employee harassment hark back to the old Anita Hill days and illustrate, far better than anything I can think of, just how difficult it is to stand up for one’s self as an employee. The power is all in the hands of the boss. And people who make waves get ruined. In the Supreme Court’s decision to make it more difficult for employees to sue for harassment one has to see the supreme irony in Lisa Jackson’s lawsuit. But if it has hastened the ruin of Deen, Deen began her own descent into caricature when she admitted she had diabetes and had had the disease for years, even as she hawked her high fat and high sugar recipes to a seemingly unsuspecting public and then began another life as a shill for a diabetes medication. Yet Jackson is the one who is being vilified.

I get my hair cut at the same salon her son Bobby uses. I have a dear friend who is a friend of Paula’s and has vigorously defended her. Our local paper, the Savannah Morning News, has put the issue of Paula on its front page, above the fold. More than any other person, save for John Berendt and his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (which is featured in every tourist and book shop around) Deen has brought visitors to Savannah. Officials are treading lightly. She is a celebrity. In Savannah, perhaps our largest. Yesterday people stood in protest outside of Lady and Sons.

An interesting choice of name for the restaurant: Paula Deen does indeed see herself as a lady but listen to this interview from a year ago and then decide. Deen is a classicist, a power broker drunk on her own success, a woman who, with her family, thought that their businesses could be run by their own peculiar rules, which included every single aspect of a hostile workplace. That is fully clear in the complete complaint..

The controversy surrounding Deen is not just about race or an ugly word. It is about who we really are as Americans. And what this brouhaha shows is that we are not even close to being an inclusive society, despite having a black president, despite the inroads the women’s movement has made, despite our sudden willingness to deal with immigration reform. Each day as many laws are being passed to defeat the progress we have made as to perpetuate it. There have been more than 300 laws passed which restricting women’s power over their bodies this year alone. But those in power, like Deen, hold themselves above the fray and feel comfortable making the rules for the rest of us.

Having been subjected to no small measure of prejudice for much of my life, I never used the ugly word that is part of the controversy surrounding Deen. That does not mean I don’t have my own biases which I struggle against and it doesn’t mean I haven’t stepped on landmines myself. Paula Deen, however, did not step on a land mine: she and her brother created one and armed it themselves and should not be surprised it went off and blew them up. Drunk with power and her world-wide celebrity, Deen grew from a humble sandwich peddler to a juggernaut who believed she was untouchable, despite her endorsement of Smithfield Hams (which has now dropped Deen as a spokeswoman) being marred by the workers who protested conditions at the plant, despite her diabetes revelation, despite myriad rumors which have swirled around her here in Savannah.

People ate and will most likely continue to eat, at Lady and Sons and Uncle Bubba’s as long as they remain open: not for the food but for the cachet. She will still have her loyal supporters, many of whom have taken to the internet to speak in language even uglier than that which Deen used. But what those comments don’t seem to take into account is the larger issues the lawsuit raises, mainly, I suspect, because most people take a snippet of information and run with it, which seems to be de rigueur in commentary these days. Deen parlayed a simple idea into huge success through, admittedly, hard work and chutzpah. But the mighty fall hard. And if what happened to her helps us talk more openly about race and class and privilege and a fair workplace, then her fallen star will be to the good.

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I Want My Mother Back

I want my mean, bitchy, drunk mother back. The mother who was depressed and melancholy, who said cruel things about my work and criticized my parenting, who undermined instructions to my kids by saying “You really don’t have to pay attention to her.” I want the mother back who invited herself to my first apartment and then pitched screaming fits in the streets of Boston. The woman who threatened to pull off my arm and beat me with its bloody stump. The mother who said that if I told her she wasn’t a good mother she would kill herself. I want the mother back who came to my college graduation and could barely stand for all the scotch she had had. The mother who took to her bed for weeks. The woman who stood eating supper in the kitchen because she couldn’t bear the meaninglessness of the family dinner table conversations.

I want her back.

I want her back in her old, her former, her horrific but real configuration. I want that woman back who couldn’t see me with a new pocketbook or pair of shoes without saying, “Lovely, but I could never afford such a thing.” The woman who asked for detailed instructions as to what my children wanted for Hanukkah and birthdays and then said those requests were too expensive and sent a $10 check instead. The woman who called me on my birthday (when she remembered at all) and said, “I can’t believe I am a woman old enough to have a daughter as old as you are,” who sent gifts (when she remembered at all) that were unwrapped and showed the mark-downed price she had garnered at Filene’s Basement. Who sent me her old clothes that still smelled of her body and Clinique Aromatics.

I want my mother back.

I want her back to see her grandchildren grown and beautiful and interesting, even if she may still find something wrong with them. I want her to meet my new lover, even if she will raise an eyebrow as if to say: Is this man better than the ones you left? I want the mother back who careened from man to man herself, always searching for that one true great big movie love, and who then complained about being alone. I want the mother back who always complained about the noise, the food, the temperature of a restaurant and then went to the bathroom when the check came.

I also want the mother back who taught me to love music and art and theatre and books. The woman who showed me how to arrange flowers. The woman who traveled the world and took breathtaking photographs. The woman who was not afraid to leave her husband and start a new life, even if that new life began in an institution after a breakdown. The mother who held my babies and wept. The woman who handed me a Valium as I walked down the aisle. The mother who was beautiful and smart, who did the New York Times crossword puzzle in an hour. In ink. Who, as an actress, was a better Martha than Elizabeth Taylor and a better Eleanor of Aquitaine than Katharine Hepburn.

I want the mother back who lived with her pain, even if she did not understand it. Who was born sad and could not climb out of her sadness, but who managed a spectacular life despite it. The woman who was born at the wrong time, married the wrong man and had the wrong children. The mother who, despite it all, gathered friends to her like an abundance of autumn leaves and had all my friends convinced she was the most glamorous mother in town. The woman who struggled and struggled to find meaning in her world and railed against injustice and marched and fought for the rights of the disenfranchised. The woman whose house was filled with gifts from admirers, whose portrait serves as the face of the fairy godmother in a children’s book. The mother who wanted to live forever, but bought long-term care insurance so her daughters would not have to pay for her care as she had paid for her mother’s.

I want my old mother back. The one I had finally made peace with. The one whose whims and vagaries I understood. Whose moods and methods were familiar.

The mother who said she never wished to be a burden but was far more a burden then than she could ever be now.

Eight years ago, before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, visits with my mother were still fraught with tension: How would she be this time? How long would any mood stand? How drunk would she get before she said something terrible? But at least I knew who she was. She was the mother I had had, for better or worse, for nearly 50 years.

Now, she curls up on her bed, recently incontinent. My beautiful and immaculate mother cannot hold in her waste: It flows into a diaper. She must be coerced into eating. She will stay in bed all morning if she is allowed. On a good day ,she insists her memory is fine, although she can answer no question about herself or the world. On a bad day, she gazes at her sister or my sister with confusion; she has already forgotten she has grandchildren. She can no longer write her name.

Soon after the diagnosis, when I first went to clean out her house in order to sell it and move her into assisted living, the out-of-date foodstuffs, the empty refrigerator, the dead flowers, told me what I had already known but hadn’t wanted to admit: that the incoherent late-night telephone calls were not the product of the end of a large bottle of wine, but of something far more sinister. I had not wished to recognize her disease because it would mean taking care of her, something I resisted deep in my soul: She had not taken care of me, after all. But once she moved and I visited her, I knew that taking care of her was all I could do, the most and least, the best and the worst, that I could do. And so I took her on outings, I sat with her while she held my hand and told me she loved me. I sat with her for hours and hours of silence filled only by my chatter. And each time, I felt a huge and deafening grief mixed with a profound guilt that I could no do more. But now, those feelings have changed once again. Because she is changing once again.

For the first several years of her illness, she held me and wept every time I left, followed me outside the door and stood waving until I drove away. Now, she lets me go with little regret or remembrance, her attention already turned to something else or nothing else. She listens to music that would have made her laugh just a few years ago. She cannot read, cannot think, cannot follow a conversation, can hardly speak. She forgets to put on her bra, goes around all day in her bedroom slippers. Not only is her brain shrinking inside her head, but her body is shrinking inside her clothes. Each time I see her she is smaller and smaller. Soon, she will be as tiny as Tiny Alice.

I did not know how to cope with the recent phone call which told me she woke in the night, wet the bed, screaming, and was taken to the hospital where they found nothing physically wrong with her. I called her multitude of doctors. Over and over. Finally, she was taken off some of her medications — especially the ones designed to slow the disease, as there is no possibility of that now — and put on others, specifically one to ease her pain, even if the cause of that pain remains unknown.

But nothing in my history with this woman who shaped me, who abused me and who loved me with her own mixture of crazy and brutal passion has prepared me for the way I weep now, the way I break down when I see her; the way I can’t help but imagine her as she was alone in a hospital room, screaming in pain.

The tears come unbidden. The last time I saw her, I began to weep and she watched, completely detached, as though I were something curious. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

Nothing in our long history as mother and daughter or the relatively short history of her disease seems to be able to prepare me for the way, from now on, she will only go downhill faster and faster, like a skier who has lost his poles. Nothing prepares me for the headlong crash into the tree which will be the end of her. Nothing prepares me for the myriad ways all of it makes me feel.

I know she won’t be back. But still, I want her so to be who she was, as awful as she could be, as wonderful as I know she wanted to be. Anything, even the mother who was so very very hard to love, would be better than who she is now. It may be much easier to love her, but it never gets easier watching her disappear, to see every vestige of the woman who once was — difficult, demanding, beautiful, cruel and exhilaratingly troubled — slide down and off her old self, like raindrops on a window.

(This originally appeared on The Broad Side and the Huffington Post)

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Why We Cannot Be Part of the 54 Percent of Women Who Do Not Report Sexual Assault

Before the bombings in Boston and the explosion in Texas and the ricin-laced letters to the president and congressmen, two women quietly committed suicide, not I think so much because they had been raped — a traumatic enough event in itself — but because the crime had been broadcast all over the Internet by the perpetrators. The women in question had not only lost control over their bodies and their safety, they had lost control over their very privacy. Everyone knew what had happened to them and, sadly, enough of those “everyones” had blamed the women instead of the men who committed the heinous act.

The young woman in Steubenville whose life was upended by being raped by two high school football players might never have reported the crime had the event not been filmed and bragged about. Had there not been witnesses. Like many women who are raped or beaten or both — whether by strangers or people they know — she might have chosen to keep the crime secret: perhaps telling a friend or two, perhaps not speaking of it until years later. Because she was ashamed, deeply mortified, deeply frightened and in shock. Because she knew, if she did speak out it would be her word against the rapists. And without witnesses her word might have meant nothing.

As it was, she was shamed, blamed, and castigated for the rape: because she was drunk, because she was at a party, because she “ruined” the lives of the two young men who assaulted her. Because she made an entire town, and entire nation, have to think hard about its culture: a culture that puts the burden of proof on the victim to “prove” she was raped, that she tried to fight back, that she wasn’t in a dicey situation or wearing “provocative clothes.” The mainstream news media, in its inimitable fashion, spent less time on the victim than it did on the perpetrators, just as they did with the mass shootings in Virginia, Colorado, Connecticut. We can all reel off the names of the men who did the shooting but we need to search for the names of the dead and wounded. In the Steubenville case, the raped girl’s name should not be telegraphed, but certainly what happened to her should be: and what happened to her is far more heinous than the punishment meted out to the young men who raped her. In the case of the two girls who killed themselves, they meted out punishment to themselves that is irrevocable and plunged their families into endless grief.

There are hundreds of examples of judges, police and media figures shaming young women who have been raped. The most recent is that of Australian radio host John Laws whose interview of a rape survivor is so surreal as to be unbelievable. But those who have been raped believe it well: they have gone for years, decades, afraid to speak out about what happened to them for fear of the way it would be received.

At least 54 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.

I get that. I am one of those statistics.

In my mid-twenties I was raped on a date with a man with whom I had been set up. I did nothing other than tell the person who set me up that the guy wasn’t a good person. I felt helpless and stupid. He was in my house, I had invited him in, I had, at that time, more than 30 years ago, no tools with which to figure out what to do. I tried to fight but I was terrified.

A couple of years later, a man I was dating, a veteran of the Vietnam War whom I knew had mental health issues, beat me in a violent rage after I told him I was having lunch with an old male friend the next day. The beating, clearly a sexual assault, did not go as far as rape, although my clothes were ripped from my body and there was clear intent. Luckily, he was drunk and I managed to escape and lock myself in my bedroom. I called my best friend. She came and got me and I went to the hospital where I actually told the doctor I had fallen down the stairs. He did not press me. I did not tell the police. I did call the man’s mother and his therapist. But that was as far as I went.

Just by telling these stories I know I am opening myself up to accusations that I have lousy taste in men. Which is why very very few people in my life know anything about these events. Had the telling of these events been taken out of my hands by their being broadcast to the world, I have no idea what I would have done. Although I was a little older than the girls I talk about above I was not yet fully formed, I harbored the same insecurities and doubts that all young women do, I was strong only on the outside: my inner turmoil I kept confined to journal entries and only the closest of friends. Had my privacy been so violated I can well imagine feeling as desperate and lost as the two girls who committed suicide.

I lived with what happened to me for many years. I never told my parents or friends about the rape. When I told my father about the beating he offered, in good faith I assume, to get a couple of guys he knew to teach the man a lesson. He then tried immediately to fix me up with a man he knew, even as the left side of my caved-in face was still covered inexpertly with makeup. I did not tell my mother who would have, I expect, asked me “Well what did you do wrong?” That was her usual response to me when I told her about things which had happened.

I have a 20-year-old daughter who is as cavalier about her safety as most young women; she thinks she is invincible. Her heart has been broken, yes, but never, not yet anyway, her body. I fear for her every day. I have tried to talk to her about watching men who might put something in her drink, about putting herself in situations she can’t quite get out of, about trusting the untrustworthy. I have told her more than once that she cannot go out in the outfit she has on, that it telegraphs signals which may then spark behavior that she may not be able to fend off. But I also told my son at puberty, when the sex talks had long been had, that “no” always means “no,” and that women should be treated with respect and kindness and decency at all times. I told him that he should imagine every woman he dates is his younger sister and treat them as he would wish her to be treated. I know I have not always been successful in counseling either of them; they have both taken risks that frighten me.

I personally know far too many women who have been raped or abused. I have heard their stories even if they have chosen not to tell them to the world. I would not advise them to do so. But today our world is far different than it was 30 years ago. We have lost our choice about who to tell about what happens to us when everyone has a cellphone with a camera and the internet can make even the most intensely private act public in a matter of seconds. Which is why we have to control, as best we can, who we tell and how and why. And we have to keep telling and telling until the boys who tell our stories for us — without our permission — no longer have power over us. No longer have the kind of power it took to destroy Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott.

Rape has always been about power, not about sex, despite the myriad misunderstandings about the crime itself and the shaming of the victims by describing how they were dressed, where they were walking, how much they had had to drink, how pretty and desirable they were. But the power of rape is magnified exponentially when the act can be broadcast everywhere.

So I say we give up our privacy in the fight for justice, for education: in the quest to take back some of the power we have lost by being attacked. The world is always in our business so we should make it our business to defuse the bomb of shame and to stand up to those who would shame us.

It has taken me weeks to write this article, nay, even years. But something in the stories of the women whose private horror was spread around the world has made me step up. We must report these crimes even if we take the risk that we will be blamed or that our stories will be telegraphed around the world. We must tell our stories even if we fear that our own actions will place the blame on us rather than those who raped or abused us. We must be willing to bear the shame of telling for the benefit of putting our stories out there so that the millions of women who cannot talk about their trauma may be finally able to do so.

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The Rise (Again) of the Celebrity Feminist.

Someone recently said to me that the reason something is in the news, what makes it newsworthy, is the huge chance that it won’t happen to you. For example, most people, thank God, will not be shot in a shopping mall or a school, will not die when a sinkhole takes their bedroom, and will not end up in the hospital with the flesh-eating bacteria. And conversely, most people won’t win the lottery or find a suitcase full of thousands of dollars or publish a best-selling novel or win an Oscar. When those bad or good things happen they make the news.

And while one in four women will get raped in her lifetime and one in eight will get breast cancer, the chance that a woman will become a high level corporate executive like Melissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg is miniscule. Women hold only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.

Which is why Mayer and Sandberg are in the news. They are aberrations. And why this ginned up “fight” among feminists about those women is just that: ginned up by the news of two women who aren’t like most of us. They are celebrity feminists, long after Gloria Steinem became one of the first, 40 years ago.

I have already written about Mayer’s new rules for Yahoo and how she ignores class divides. But now Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg graces the cover of Time with a tagline taken from a hair color advertisement. We are admonished not to hate her because she is “successful.”

But we don’t hate her; we don’t hate Marissa Mayer, either. We are also not jealous. We are just weary at having to defend ourselves against such accusations. I think most women who came to feminism during the second wave are pretty exhausted in general. We are exhausted by the years of trying not just to break through an almost unbreakable glass ceiling but by trying to reframe women’s issues as society’s issues. And because we should be farther along — all of us, men and women — than we are at this moment. We are tired. But we can’t stop worrying about our place in the world because the generations coming up behind us find themselves having to either justify or deny their feminism.

It is swell that at 43 Sandberg finally admitted she is a feminist. But I’m not at all sure her book says anything particularly new or noteworthy. From the excerpts I have read and the interviews she has given she is basically saying that we have to get out of our own way, support each other, and try to form enlightened relationships with the men with whom we wish to start a family. Which is what we long-time feminists have been saying and doing for years. Even as we are forced to fight old battles over and over again.

According to the article on Sandberg in Time, she wishes to “reboot” feminism. Which would be charming were it really necessary. Perhaps her coming to feminism late makes her think that women haven’t been busting their asses for equality every day for the past 50 years. Because they have. Ask any ordinary woman (and I mean someone who makes under a half-million a year) who has long been trying to juggle a career and motherhood. Ask Lilly Ledbetter, the catalyst for President Obama signing the Fair Pay Act of 2009. Ask all those millions of women who lobbied for years for the still-not-ratified ERA. Who marched in the street. The only “new” think that Sandberg offers is an admonishment to “lean” into power. As if that were as easy as it sounds.

Sandberg worries that women aren’t working hard enough to get to the top.

According to Time article : “Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions,” she writes (in her book Lean In). It’s not exactly that they’re to blame, she notes. Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance. “My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

But assuming women don’t want and fight for power is akin to assuming that all things are equal which would be the same as assuming that black people don’t suffer from prejudice and an unfair court system, and that poor people need only to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to get rich. I can’t find any evidence that women don’t want to be in positions of power. What women want is a society that allows us to try and rise, while supporting the idea that we can also raise families. What we want is a society where women in power are no longer an aberration and where those women who have it don’t divide their press time with men who are trying to take it away.

The fact that we have no paid maternity leave (unlike much of Europe) and no universal health care is part of the reason we can’t get ahead as fast as we might like. There is also, despite Ledbetter, too many professions where women are paid less than men for the same job. It is not quite as simple as demanding raises. I well remember the concern that women not be too aggressive, even as we were encouraged to take “assertiveness” training. Same old same old: are women bitchy or tough? It all depends on who is in charge.

Sandberg also states that women are critical of successful women and points to the articles about Marissa Mayer and her new rules at Yahoo as an example. But that isn’t it. As I wrote, women are not critical of Meyer’s success, they are critical of the way she denies the experiences of other women and uses her own privilege to make her life stunningly more easy than is possible for 99 percent of other women.

I think we are all tired of the fact that feminism still needs to be discussed at all. That it took Sandberg until age 43 to admit to being one. That people still have issues with the word. That we can still be called names by right-wingers in Congress and on the radio just for trying to get ahead. We are not a post-racial society, we are not a post-prejudice society, and we certainly are not a society where women have equal status. If we were then there would not be a raft of stories about how there are finally 20 women (out of 100) senators. Househusbands would not be written about as if they were modern miracles. And Sandberg and Mayer would not be getting the publicity they are, decades after Gloria Steinem got similar publicity and was roundly criticized for it. She was also charged with being beautiful — as if beauty and feminism contradict each other.

Sandberg is still a rare bird. So is Mayer. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be reading about everything they say and every decision they make, as though they were the Kardashians or Snookie. They are celebrities, celebrity women, whose philosophy, feminist or not, is getting the same kind of press that a woman star’s wardrobe malfunction gets. Sensationalist. Gossipy. What a few women who have achieved extraordinary success have to say is important only if they take measures to make sure that their own success is no longer so extraordinary. It will be a fine day indeed, and a huge gain for both men and women, when women who achieve are not a dog bites man story but rather not big news at all.

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Marissa Mayer and the Great Class Divide

A few women I know were discussing, lamenting, the state of women and the women’s movement a couple of days ago, wondering why it seems that for every step we take forward we take two steps back. They were wondering, much like the Republicans seem to be, whether feminism’s messaging is off rather than whether or not what we are doing as women is somehow misdirected. Fifty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique it is a good idea to look at our messaging and see if it is off and off-putting. Yes. Are we sending some of the wrong signals? Perhaps. Even this many years on we still aren’t perfect.

But more important than our message or even the signals that that message sends is this. What are our beliefs? What are we fighting for? Who are we fighting for? What is it that we must have, that we need absolutely? And can those things be gained by all women of every race and class and background? In our discussion we simply must talk, deeply and really, about whether feminism, in the next generations, will be exclusive or inclusive. This is an issue which has been facing feminism from the very beginning, and especially from the beginning of second wave feminism. And we have yet to completely solve it. How do we speak to and provide options for all women of all classes?

Class is something we don’t like to talk about in the United States. We like to pretend it doesn’t exist. We like to pretend that everyone with a little luck and some hard work can become a millionaire. That all that divides us is money rather than values or lifestyle or desire or, frankly, birth. Of course that isn’t true. As so many have so eloquently stated: Money doesn’t buy happiness; it just makes unhappiness easier to bear. What divides the classes is far more than money: it is opportunity, it is access, it is power, it a voice. And the poorer one is the less power, opportunity, access and voice one has.

Marissa Mayer doesn’t get that. She doesn’t get that her particular brand of feminism — going back to work after two weeks and setting up a private nursery near her office, while denying her workers the chance to work sometimes at home so that they can have the kinds of relationships with their children that Mayer is trying to foster with her own child –is pretty awful. In fact, she is clueless in general. Her quote that babies were easier than she thought will come back to haunt her when her child is a toddler, going through an illness, or starting his first day at school. She will realize fairly quickly that tending to a mostly sleeping infant is a whole lot less difficult than every year after infancy. I want to see her juggle baseball and soccer and school science projects and bullying and everything else kids bring to us while she manages one of the largest companies in the world. Then let’s see how easy she finds parenthood. Even with millions of dollars and a nanny.

Those of us in the generations who came before Mayer are, understandably, cringing. She is just the kind of woman we don’t seem to be able to reach: the kind of woman who has no idea what women before her went through to allow Mayer to bust through the glass ceiling. Her money and her power cushion her from even having to think about those issues. But every woman in the U.S. with less money and less power and less flexibility — which is nearly a 100 percent of us — are still struggling with the issues of equality which we have been struggling with and fighting for, for more than half a century. Mayer is a rare bird. An exotic. She isn’t representative. And so that makes her statements about her workers even less valid. And far more sad. She simply does not get it.

Those of us who went to work in the ’60s and ’70s remember quite well when sexual harassment was de rigueur and how Anita Hill’s testimony set off a flurry of lightbulb moments. Those of us who grew up back then remember clearly the year we were allowed to wear pants to school, which may not seem like a big deal but in the context of that time was enormous. We remember how we faced date rape alone and ashamed, how some of us had illegal and unsafe abortions, how too many of us never received equal pay for our work and could not even imagine getting to the point where Mayer is. I remember a newspaper clipping I saved while I was in high school in the early ’70s: it profiled an all-woman law firm which at that time was a complete anomaly. And if more women than men are attending university today it hasn’t been that way for very long.

Women are still being raped and blamed for it. White male lawmakers continue to try and take away our rights. Women still don’t enjoy equality in the marketplace or the media. As far as we have come we have faltered, perhaps through no fault of our own but perhaps with complicity: some of us got a little too comfortable with the way things are now and we forget how hard it was to get here. Girls even younger than my 20-year-old daughter need to be reminded again and again how far we have come in just a few generations and how they mustn’t let the gains be taken away. But they also need to be encouraged to be completely inclusive. So must we who came to feminism decades ago be more and more inclusive, more sensitive to the needs of all women.

We women who watched second wave feminism’s birth need to retroactively and proactively include women of every color and class in our continued struggle. We need to dismiss the media attention of a woman like Mayer and concentrate on showcasing everyone else. There are far more women who are not like Mayer than who are like her. Far more women who struggle every day to work and raise children with none of the resources and help that Mayer enjoys and who would wish for more compassionate employers, employers who, rather than use Mayer as an example of what is possible, will use ordinary working women as the example of what is reality. Like the sequester, which will affect people disproportionately, feminism has done much for the middle and upper classes and less for lower class and poor women. As President Clinton was famous for saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I say here: It’s class, stupid. Class. Class. Class. Class.

It isn’t just that Mayer has nixed Yahoo employees working at home. It is that she is completely blind to the hundreds of millions of women who are not like her. Here’s the thing: no one is equal until everyone is equal. That is as it has been and as it will always be.

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Are Women Responsible for the Powerlessness of Men?

In the 1950s and 60s “refrigerator” mothers, those who were seen, accurately or not, as cold and unloving were to blame for the mental fragility or illness of their children. Until far too recently, it was only a mother’s age, genetics, and health that were taken into consideration when evaluating whether a child would be born whole or not. Mothers are blamed for not bonding properly with their children, for being either too lax or too strict. And in the case of the most recent mass murder, we know that Nancy Lanza was a mother who was more than a bit of a kook, an end-of-the-world nut who stockpiled guns and taught her emotionally unstable son to shoot. She paid for her philosophy with her death.
But blaming mothers and by extension all women for the epidemic of young disaffected white males who have been responsible for mass shootings is more than a little simplistic. Yet that opinion is getting play, big time, anyway.

In a recent New York Times editorial, writer Christy Wampole actually writes: From the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and onward, young men – and young white men in particular – have increasingly been asked to yield what they’d believed was securely theirs. This underlying fact, compounded by the backdrop of violent entertainment and easy access to weapons, creates the conditions for thousands of young men to consider their future prospects and decide they would rather destroy than create.

As though power were a finite object rather than a thing like love. Love, we know, is infinite. We do not have a certain allotment of it to go around and when we have used it up it is gone: mothers know this every time they add a child to their family; we all know this every time we make a new friend or fall for a new lover.

White men are not being asked to yield their power, they have not been asked to give up what is theirs. They have been asked, rather, to share. To share success, empowerment, advancement, education, civil rights, with their fellow humans: women.

The notion that women’s liberation has emasculated men is balderdash. That women gaining the vote, the right to work, the right to speak out without fear of being institutionalized (as was the case as recently as the early 20th century) is the reason why young white men pick up automatic weapons and kill men, women and children is fantastic. And far too easy.

There is more than enough blame to go around and laying it all on the backs of women is obscene.

Walpole writes: For women, things are looking up. We can vote, we can make more choices about our bodies than in decades past, we’ve made significant progress regarding fair pay, and more women are involved in American politics than ever before. The same can be said for minorities. However, because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. Even if this feels intuitively fair to many, including those white males who are happy to share resources for the greater benefit of the nation as a whole, it must feel absolutely distressing for those who are uncomfortable with change and who have a difficult time adjusting to the inevitable reordering of society.

But are things “looking up?” Really?

Clearly white men, even if they are no longer the majority, still wield enormous power: that was apparent during the last election cycle when they tried to put in place laws governing women’s bodies that were offensive beyond belief but still informed the national discussion. When judges can still say that young women didn’t fight “hard” enough against a rapist, when women and their children are still shot and killed by their mates and we call this “domestic violence,” softening its blow from the heinous to the more easily digestible, that doesn’t sound very positive to me. And we may be able to work but we still don’t earn equal pay for equal work. We are still relegated to the “mommy” track; we are still bumping up against glass ceiling after glass ceiling. And that is only middle class women. Poor women have made far fewer gains than their more affluent sisters.

Feminism has never been and will never be about taking rights away from men, about gaining rights at their expense. Rights, like power, are not finite. If everyone has them, everyone gains.

Why have young men chosen lives of sloth and violence while women increasingly, despite hardship, setbacks, misogyny, have gone on to grow and change, get educated, become everything they wish to be is a valid question for discussion. What has our society contributed to the culture of violence is another good question as is this: where do our “freedoms” bump up against the good of the culture? We abolished slavery, gave women the right to vote, instituted child labor laws, enhanced worker safety—all at the price of individual freedom but our society as a whole has gained. The freedom to oppress is no freedom at all.

But the truth is also that there have been “angry young men” since the 1950s when a group of male writers railed against traditional British societal norms. If the anger now is literal rather than literary then we need to address it. But not by assigning blame.

Wampole writes: Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.

Classic. Men feel unnecessary because we have made them feel so. How then to explain the huge numbers of men who don’t feel that way at all? Who are gentle, loving, kind and good? Who willingly and happily search for women who are intelligent equals?

We do no one—not victim nor perpetrator—any good by blaming what some men feel they have lost on what some women may have gained. If young white men are angry, and yes, they seem to be, we might remind them that power lies in one’s own empowerment, that disaffection is both choice and symptom.

Several centuries ago women who ministered to the pregnant, sick and dying were hanged or drowned as witches. For hundreds of years onward they were held down, dismissed, made to feel second class. Our very recent “rise” is cause for celebration not damnation. We are not collectively to blame for men who rampage. And those who say we are are contributing nothing to the discussion.

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Black Boots for the End of the World

I was in Paris recently, walking and walking as I do, when I realized that the black boots I had worn for several years were on their last legs. What better place to purchase a new pair than in Paris? I allowed myself to consider the splurge as I wandered shops and tried on pairs of boots. Just the day before I had, with my friend Karen, an American expat with whom I was staying, been discussing end of the world theories. We talked of the natural and unnatural disasters which were plaguing the world. Over wine, we speculated: What if? What if?

A few days before, in London with my daughter, where we had met up during her break from a semester abroad in The Netherlands, I had talked her down from yet another existential ledge: Over the past couple of years, perhaps sparked by her study of philosophy and religion, perhaps fired by the news of disasters both natural and man-made she had spoken to me several times about her life, the future, the two of those things in tandem. She wanted to know: What does it all mean?

The young are pondering the future and its possibility, the possibility that there will be none, while my friends and I, in late middle age, on the far side of our lives, are wondering: What are we leaving? What will happen? What have we wrought?

I easily remember a time without computers, cell phones, iPods, cable, VCRs, DVD players and even CDs. Yet, like most of us, I made the transition from that time to this, rather seamlessly. My grandmother, who was born in 1891 and died just six months shy of her 100th birthday, transitioned from horses to cars, from dresses to pants. She lived through two World Wars and Korea and Vietnam. She saw women get the vote and enter the workplace. She learned how to “type” on a computer. In her 80′s she still loved to play the slots in Vegas. But the future is happening far faster than even we can cope sometimes, and we are still worrying about it in 20th-century ways.

If we, too, many years ago discussed in heated terms the world’s probable doom, if we fought against our own existential crises, we also tamped down our fears down enough to bring our children into the world. Was that an act of faith or foolishness?

In The New York Times a convincing argument is made that New York City will sink. Perhaps in our lifetime, definitely in our children’s or grandchildren’s. The Congo is exploding. The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Gaza is as thin as gauze. Syria is being destroyed from both without and within. Everyone has a hand in, a hand out, a need somehow for the violence we have spawned. And I was searching for black boots. A pair of sturdy black boots, not glamorous or high-heeled, not couture or outlandish. Just a pair of black boots to walk the streets of Paris.

I bought them. Of course I bought them. But not without the realization that they, like everything we buy and replace and keep and cherish, is ephemeral. Like our desire. Our hope. We look forward, but not without glancing more than once over our shoulder.

What is it that is coming up so close, so fast behind us? It is the consequence. The effect. All that we have caused by not looking far enough forward, by not taking seriously our history. By crashing into one another on Black Friday, just weeks after we gave up our time and our money to help those who had lost everything to flood and fire. If profound gratefulness brought us to the Thanksgiving table too many of us got up too quickly, to check the sales, to stand in line, to buy things we don’t need, we can’t possibly really want, and that others, who stand in line for a morsel of food, or a blanket, or a jug of water, could only imagine wanting, rather than needing, again, or once, or some day.

The refugees of Africa, the tribes buried deep in the Amazon, wear our cast-offs: t-hirts with American slogans, baggy pants, fancy sneakers. Ann Patchett, in her glorious novel State of Wonder parses this disconnect, and others. But the truth is that we are all disconnected. From each other. From what we really want. From what it is we need.

Many of us read books written hundreds of years ago: novels, histories, diaries and journals. But who will be around to read what we write now, today, this month, this year?

Whether climate change is man-made or just man enhanced, we have put our fingerprint on this planet. Whether wars are over God or land, we fight nonetheless harder. Whether the foolish selfishness of our government will cause another depression or whether we will avoid going over the cliff, we will just be putting off that journey downward. Eventually, inevitably, the worst will happen.

I buy black boots. Others spray pepper spray in the clamor for a video game player. Still others work all day long on a supposed holiday so that those who don’t care about spending their holiday with those they love can shop and buy and destroy the day.

New York is sinking. The Congo is exploding. The rainforests of the Amazon are disappearing, playing host to shopping malls and people yearning for a better life. Our American Congress plays with people’s lives like a puppet master while we the puppets pummel each other like Punch and Judy, so eager, so damned eager to be engines of our own destruction.

Yet I talked my daughter off the ledge. I don’t believe in the end of the world. Not now. Not quite.

Occupy Sandy served 10,000 Thanksgiving dinners.

Cyber Monday was the most successful ever.

I buy black boots as a sign I will be around to wear them — that we may all be around when the fires die down, when we all get tired of grabbing and fighting and killing. When we stop mocking those whose only desire is to stay alive, stop starving those who happen to live on the other side of the world. When those who still have hope that the cities will not sink, the ice caps will not melt, the forests will not be denuded and the world will not explode will be the most of us. The best of us. But hope isn’t enough.

There are those who take seriously the Dec. 21 date as the end of us, or at the least, the end of us as we know us. There are others who point out the other dates of doom over the past centuries — dozens of them each with their fervent supporters. Still others make fun, draw cartoons, or tamp down their anxiety with booze and drugs. And there are those who hoard guns and food, hoping perhaps to have a leg up on those of us who don’t wish to think that way. But the future is now, the enemy is us. We should continue to behave not as though this is the end of the world as we know it but as if we can still make a difference now, right now. And for all the tomorrows we will have.

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Interpreting “The Language of Men”

I have known a father, two husbands, and a number of lovers. I have a 25-year-old son. And still, much of the time, I don’t understand the language of men. In an epic, more than 50-year struggle, I tried to talk to my father; I tried to listen to him. I tried to parse his words and even what he didn’t say. In my marriages, my relationships, I made many mistakes by being both too honest and too fearful of honesty. My son and I are close but I think we still confound each other sometimes. There is a clear difference between the ways men and communicate but it goes way beyond Debra Tannen or John Gray. Yet I know that trying to bridge those gaps is absolutely necessary.

In today’s political climate I am often horrified by some of the things men in power say: about the way they wish to take women back to the days of our mandated silence, our inability to control our own bodies; to those days even when women were sent to the madhouse for disobeying or being combative. In no time in my life have the differences between the sexes seemed so very sharp.

And yet there are many of us, still and always, who search for ways to communicate better with the men in their lives.

Such is Anthony D’Aries journey in his compelling memoir The Language of Men. D’Aries uses a trip to Vietnam to validate his father’s experiences in the war there and as a spring board to chronicle his own life-long need to understand his father. The surprising result is an examination of his own language and the illumination of the language of men in general. D’Aries provides keen insight, for this reader, into the male mind and guides us through his own journey as he discovers the costs of speaking like a man.

D’Aries grew up in what seems at first to be an almost pathologically normal family: father, mother, older brother; working class, close. But his mother worked a series of difficult and low-level jobs, his father ruled with both brutality and love, and his older brother provided a role model of a man not to be like. The television ran constantly like a meme, often violent films that the family of men would watch over and over.

A man’s man, D’Aries describes his father as smelling of Winstons, coffee, gasoline, a hint of Old Spice, a whiff of bologna. “I picture him on a billboard, straddling a dusty horse, cowboy hat tipped over his face, leather reins clenched in his left fist and in his right a small bottle of amber cologne. Work by My Father.”

This is a romantic portrait. His father was nothing like that picture, except in his son’s overactive imagination. D’Aries had the same view of his grandfather, who lived on a farm and had hands busted and split by work, the same kind of hands D’Aries’ father had. He worked in a deli, a job to which he would sometimes take his son, a place which “took a piece of almost all his fingers, the flesh slivers ending up ‘in someone’s ham sandwich, I guess.’” The hands of his ancestors were the hands he wanted to inherit. But some larger part of the author realized that with that kind of inheritance came a sort of manhood with which he was not completely comfortable.

In his off hours, D’Aries’ father taxidermies small animals, many of them road kill. In both his father’s job and his avocation D’Aries rightly sees an undercurrent of violence, a life on the edge of blood, forged perhaps in the war, but just as possibly in his DNA. His father’s talk of the whores he bedded in Nam belie the gentle and courtly way he treats D’Aries’ mother or the respect he seems to have for D’Aries’ wife, Vanessa; it is in fact D’Aries’ relationship with her that prompts him to make the journey into his own past and figure out what being a man really means.

Freely admitting to an impatient and even imperious treatment of his wife, speaking about his use of pornography instead of intimacy, expressly discussing his own inadequate attempts to understand Vanessa’s commitment to health care for underserved women, D’Aries clearly and honestly opens up his life to his readers as he struggles against his demons. His confessions are well worth the struggle: He begins to see, over the course of the memoir, how much he has assimilated from his father, his brother, his male friends, and how much he needs to both understand and discard.

In a telling passage during their trip to Vietnam, Anthony comes close to the ambivalence of his own “language:”

‘Babe, you gotta hear this. My Dad once told me about this Vietnamese dude who…’

‘I’m really not in the mood right now.’

“It’s not that long.’

She sits up. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. I don’t care about the girls he was with or what he spent his money on. I don’t get why you’re so obsessed with it.’

‘I’m not obsessed with it. It’s not like I’m getting off on these stories.’

Vanessa reaches for her water bottle. Then she stands up and tries to turn up the air conditioner, but it’s already on high.

‘Have you even been listening to yourself on that tape? You snicker each time your Dad says “beaver” or ‘jugs.”

I fight the urge to snicker now. ‘Oh, come on. Those words are hilarious. I don’t condone his behavior.’

“Whatever. You stare into every massage parlor we walk past. You take us to that saloon. Then, after I spend all day talking to these women with horrible stories of rape and whatever else, you take me to a movie that’s basically a 90-minute rape scene. And you keep playing me these stories about your Dad doing whatever he did here.’

‘Yeah, but there is a big difference, babe. He didn’t rape or kill anyone.’ My voice echoes off the low ceiling.

‘I’m not saying he did, but those women he was with –’

‘He was only nineteen. Show me another nineteen-year-old guy who would have done any different.’

She shakes her head. ‘you really think we’re only talking about your father right now?’

My face burned. ‘What?’

To his credit, D’Aries includes that personally unattractive section in his memoir, but he tries hard to learn from it. The fascination and repulsion he feels for his father’s wartime behavior cuts to the core of who he himself is as a man. He searches both his father’s past and his own, looking for answers, trying to figure out just what it is his father was telling him.

Like many children who grow up to be writers (even if they have no idea that that is what they will be), D’Aries spent a lot of time alone or in the company of some very strange friends. There were days he did not speak a word. His room was his “decompression chamber, equalizing the me the world saw and the me I really was.” He pushed back against his own violence, even as he went on odd and dangerous adventures with his buddies. He stole an expensive watch from a relative and, rather than be discovered, smashed it into pieces. His close friend Billy, whose family was far weirder than D’Aries’, provided the template from which he judged his own growing up. But somehow each stage of his life stymies D’Aries, until he begins to collect his father’s Vietnam memories and from them to try and draw a portrait of the man who loomed so large in his life.

Still, like many good men who wish to live an intentional life rather than one shaped by destiny, family, the media, D’Aries struggled with his own impulses, which were often contradictory. He dated a good friend’s ex-girl and destroyed friendships, he gave into his pornography habit even though he adored his wife, he took great pleasure in his father’s unseemly relationships with women during the war, and some part of him envied his n’er-do-well brother who was always getting into one fix or another. Yet his impulses were decent and The Language of Men is the result of those impulses.

D’Aries memoir reads like a film in places: he was influenced by the film of Stephen King’s Stand By Me, by the films of De Niro and James Dean. By the idyllic boyhoods and rough violent adulthood which bumped up against each other. His is a cinematic journey through an ’80s childhood that seems quaintly old-fashioned, almost as if D’Aries stepped out of another, more long-ago decade. There are cars and guns and fights and the simplicity of man against woman that speak of a darker age. But it is important to realize how, in so many ways, the language of both men and women has not changed as much as we might like.

D’Aries obsession with his father’s past is something his father doesn’t completely understand. But for D’Aries to make it work with Vanessa, it is clear he has to come to terms with who he is and who he is is a man shaped by a soldier father; it is clear D’Aries sees the contrast of his father’s war days against who he was later to his son. But D’Aries has his own demons to fight. Up front about his drinking and carousing in college, he and his high school friends (Team Destructo) seem to find their masculinity in the traditional ways of rootless young men: partying, risk-taking, and impulsiveness, all of which D’Aries writes about as though it happened to someone else. This is not who he wants to be. You can feel the push back, even as he allows himself to participate.

Although I continue to try and understand the language of the men in my life, I never got to take the journey toward understanding my father that D’Aries did. His brave and honest book is a testimony to both his persistence and his growth. While, the book ends with a Vietnam-era reunion which the entire family attends, it is not closure for any of them. It answers no questions but rather hints at the possibility of a future new language for all of them.

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