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Laura - 1 year old - 1966

Laura - 1 year old - 1966

I know most people in my field say that you don’t really remember things until you’re much older than I was in this picture. But I say they’re wrong.

I remember this picture being taken, not in the way we typically remember things, but in a more tactile, textural way. My memories from this age are all sensory – tactile, specifically. I remember the color and feel of the mesh screen that covered the fireplace (I’ve checked this out with my mom – she doesn’t know how I’d remember that!). On the day in question, I remember the rough, warm feeling of the rock planter that was on the side of the house…the texture was rough, and the rockes were like sandstone. I remember the feel of the breeze, and that the rocks were warm to the touch, and the smell of the daffodil. I remember feeling lifted and then set down into the grass (don’t ask me who did it – I don’t remember that!)…the point of all this reminiscing is that I do remember some things from that time period, all of them sensory.

One other thing I remember is a deep sense of contentment. The adult Laura would say that I trusted the world around me, and myself and felt my place in the world. This sense would become shaken to its core in the next few years, and would continue on throughout much of my life. Living with a depressed mother, an alcoholic father, and then having two sisters added to my life was a lot for this little person to handle, and the next thing I remember is spending a lot of time crying. Interestingly enough, my first clear memory of my mother is of her standing in front of the windows in the living room and crying – because my dad had stayed out drinking all night again and she didn’t know when or if he’d be home. There was a lot of sadness in my family.

Through some pretty dysfunctional family dynamics, I learned that my needs came last, and that I was selfish to even consider myself before everyone else. I had the “selfish” label thrown at me more times than I care to remember, as I’m sure many other little girls have…and I learned quickly that if I trusted my gut feeling on what was right or wrong, I’d end up hurt. Abusive family dynamics work that way –  you learn that what the abusers say is truth IS truth if you want to remain intact. In my family, the abuse was mainly psychological and emotional…but it still left its scars, scars I am still dealing with today. The trust I had in myself was worn away by day after day of denying my own valid needs in favor of catering to others’ – this is what you do to survive.

I’ve struggled with the effects of this pattern for decades now. I really struggle with needing to please people and feeling like I need their approval. I struggle with developing and maintaining healthy boundaries, and I struggle with being myself AND being in healthy relationships. I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression. That’s a lot of baggage – and I’m proud to say I’m making progress. I am not the same person I was even two years ago – and I like myself a lot more now. I’m lucky enough to be able to share this process with others, and to help them on their journeys as well.

These days, I’m trying to get back to the little girl in the picture – back to the days when I felt content in myself, trusted the world around me, and trusted myself. It’s hard work, too. There are things I can trust, though – I can trust that the spring warmth on frozen ground will bring flowers and sweet smelling grass. I can trust that the daffodils will still bloom every year. I can trust that my little girl will have the chance to trust herself, and recognize that her needs and wants are valid (even if she doesn’t get everything she wants!) I can trust myself that, as a mother, my daughter and my sons will be raised differently and in a world where their needs are honored and their selves are valued. I can trust that I won’t always be perfect, but that the love I have for my children is enough, and that if I honor them as unique, amazing little people, my love will shine through and guide them on their ways.

And finally, I can trust that if I learn to trust myself, I can be a good example for them, in their journeys.

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Warning: This post has should probably be rated PG-13, with an “L” for language

I read an interesting blog post from one of my favorite blogs here, Kate Harding’s “Shapely Prose”. The subject was sexual harassment, and how we women are trained pretty much from birth to be quiet, ladylike, submissive and “good” – and how those same qualities get turned into blaming the victim when a rape occurs. It got me thinking about how many experiences we have of being assaulted, harassed, and violated.

One of my first memories was going with my dad to the barber shop when I was a very little girl. I remember feeling creeped out by the way the barber would talk to me, and yet I also remember being told to “be nice.” Now that I have a daughter of my own, I cringe every time I hear someone tell a little girl who is clearly uncomfortable to “be nice.” “Being nice” is more about OUR comfort as adults than it is about respecting a child’s right to her/his own feelings. And that’s sad.

My first husband…well, prior to our wedding we had talked about that first night because we were both virgins. I made him promise me he would stop if I asked him to, because I was afraid of the pain. He promised me he would, and guess what? He didn’t. He didn’t to the point of taking me three times that night. I could barely walk the next day, and when I called my mother her response was, “well you made your bed, now you have to lie in it.”

I also remember being in the hospital at one point, and having another patient – male – enter my room and try to sexually assault me. I told the staff about it, and they “arranged” a time for me confront him. When he got up and left the room, slamming the door in my face, they simply said, “well he’s brain damaged. We can’t expect more.” Then, I knew I felt violated a second time and didn’t say much – where was it going to get me? Today…well, I would have said, “You sure fucking can! Get me a lawyer, because I want to press charges.” The hospital was lucky I didn’t sue them as well.

The really sad thing? For literally YEARS after that incident, I would have nightmares of being chased and hunted down, and not being able to yell or scream because I couldn’t open my mouth. Talk about dreams reflecting real life…at this point in my life, I recognize that I was dealing with classic PTSD, generalized anxiety, and depression. It didn’t help that my husband was an emotionally abusive man either, or that I grew up in a verbally and emotionally abusive home. Following years of being verbally and emotionally abused took its toll on me though, and I didn’t even realize that they (both the hospital and the man) shouldn’t have been able to get away with what they did.

Another incident occurred while I was in graduate school. This time I was guest lecturing for my advisor, and was confronted by extremely rude, confrontative, aggressive behavior from a male student. The first time I lectured, he “merely” made sexist comments. My advisor (a woman) “advised me” to let it go, so I did. In graduate school, advisors have a LOT of power over you, so I didn’t feel I could take action. The second time this happened, I was more firm and the student nearly became violent at the end of class. He was calling me a “motherfucking bitch” and “cunt” and other names. When I turned away, he yelled “Don’t you turn away from me, you motherfucking cunt!” Where was my advisor during all this? Trying to placate HIM. It turns out this student had various harassing incidents on the student listserv, and other in-class violations which had gone unreported.

When I told her I was going to report this incident, my advisor wanted me to “collaborate” with her and her teaching assistant so we could “be consistent” in our reports. I went over her head, and felt every right in doing so – she was essentially revictimizing me by trying to put a face-saving spin on the incident. I wasn’t having any of it and went to my teaching supervisor and the department head – both male and both more supportive than my advisor. Now, you have to realize that my advisor was one of the more vocal feminists in the department – I realized after that incident that she was more talk than walk. It was a horribly sad, eye-opening incident.

What ended up happening was the the case was taken to the student ombudsmen, who supported me. The student was expelled. The damage between me and my advisor was irreparable though, and shortly afterward I changed to a different advisor. I found out later that one of my friends had been raped her first year by another graduate student and that our (mutual) advisor had acted very similarly, and actually discouraged her from reporting it. So much for being a feminist, or even supportive. You would think that incidents like these would affect this woman’s career – but no. Tenure is a powerful thing, and this woman is internationally known and acclaimed for her research. So…like many incidents involving women who are in unequal power positions, it got swept under the carpet.

The truly tragic thing about these incidents is that they’re not isolated. They’re COMMON. Nearly every woman and far too many girls have stories like this to report. It is hard for me to even accept that I’ve been assaulted at all, but I consider myself a survivor. I’ve survived a lot of abuse, and yet it’s nothing compared to what some women and girls experience.

In our society, women are still objectified and judged by their attractiveness to a male audience. My appearance and my body size – my attractiveness – are what matters in society, and all of these are open to scrutinization and comment, whether I want it or not. I’m STILL being violated, as are ALL women, whether we want to admit it or not. This is in addition to everything SweetMachine writes about – women are victimized if they dare vary from the ideal of what a woman should look like or be. This kind of thing is still ignored, minimized and laughed at, because we want to believe our society has overcome these kinds of abuse.

And that’s what these incidents are – abuse, pure and simple. Women in this country, and around the world (in even worse situations) are abused on a daily basis. It’s so common, we don’t even think about it at ALL, much less think about it as abuse. As SweetMachine pointed out in her post, we think that the way we’re taught to behave, the way we’re taught not to be provocative is protective and normal. In reality, it’s the beginnings of blaming the victim. Before something even happens, we warn women and girls, “don’t do anything that could be taken wrong.” We SHOULD be warning men instead, “don’t do things that hurt people.” It’s that simple – we’re blaming the potential victims for the inappropriate, hurtful and violating actions of others.

No wonder we’re afraid to report. No wonder we’re afraid to talk. No wonder we keep quiet on the blogs, listservs, websites, emails – we risk being harassed or hurt every time we open our mouths. And now…I’ve had enough. I’m opening my mouth, and not just talking but yelling it to the rafters: “THIS IS WRONG! WE HAVE A RIGHT TO BE FREE FROM ABUSE!”

It’s that simple.

Reflections of Reflections…

Other Facets of the Mirror