The Problem is, We Forget

By Alison Balaskovits

You know this by now: Tao Lin, Stephen Tully Dierks, Ed Champion, and Kirk Nesset have made headlines for abusing women, for running misogynistic campaigns to silence their voices, or collecting images of abused children numbering the obscene on their hard drive. It is shocking, devastating, an acknowledgement of madness. Worse, perhaps, because we mau know the person who committed these acts. They were one of us and, even if we didn’t know them personally, they were names within our insular community.

Judging from the reaction of my friends and colleagues on Facebook, this revelation has caused an instant revulsion and disquiet. As one person in my feed expressed with all dismay: “Apparently, I know a lot of rapists and child pornographers.”

However, it’s not only that you and I know rapists and those who perpetuate the victimization of children, though that does engender that painful reminder that we don’t always know the people we interact with, not intimately, not with a full picture of the depth of their personalities. What we often forget, when these stories break, is that we also know too many men and women who have been the victims of rape, the victims of abuse, and the victims of exploitation. RAINN’s statistics cite 1 in every 6 women, and 1 in every 33 men, of being subject to an attempted or completed rape in the United States. This is a reality of numbers, a depressing addition of faulty reporting (the actual number, we must assume, is much larger).

But still: disbelief.

Once, I had a student write an essay in my composition class about abortion, as they often do. She was very adamantly pro-life, and the assignment was to explore the other side of the issue. She met with me one on one, eighteen years old and flustered, because what she had researched dealt with women seeking that procedure because they had been raped. This was not, she told me, something she thought happened in real life. That was an Event for books or movies or art, but not something that happened in reality, and, in turn, it was something she was safe from, like monsters under the bed or Jabberwocky’s or talking animals, all make believe.

She stared at me in a way that made me think she wanted nothing more than for me to tell her it was a nightmare that couldn’t touch her outside of her unconsciousness, and the narratives she read were just words on a page, not the lives of women, and men, who experience. It was kinder to not lie to her, and though I wanted to comfort her, I nodded and said yes, this happens. To a lot of us.

When these stories break, there’s a little bit of our collective protective shield that gets cracked apart, and we have to re-evaluate our relationships with people we thought we knew. We think of people as having a cohesive identity: Man or Woman. Writer or Reader. Consumer or Consumed. Monster or Victim. Yet those identities blur, morph, shift, or fade away, and no matter how many descriptors we come up with, it is not always readily apparent who it is that we are looking at, who we are talking to, whose words we enjoy or are terrorized by when we read them. Our identities are deeply complex, and to the multitude of victims or survivors of these monstrous acts, it is almost impossible to tell them apart from anyone else. That identity gets carved on your bone, hidden away, but hurts every so often, like the elderly feel before it storms.

Believe it.

This is what the wreckage of this storm will look like: a frenzy of distancing ourselves from the men who committed these acts, a re-evaluation of our complacency in allowing, that which we did allow, these acts to go on for far too long, the unfortunate call for compassion for those who perpetuate, with little compassion for those who experience and, with all hope, that it is addressed at AWP out in the open, and not just in whispers in corners of the hallway or in digital spaces. But the frenzy often forgets the people who are hurt by this: the narrative is always dedicated to and driven by those who harm, the final act of ownership and control. And those who carry it in their bones become numbers or boogeyvictims of their own.

Please don’t forget that you know them, too.

Follow Alison on Twitter: @AABalaskovits

What it Means to Write about Sexism Today

For the past decade, people have been telling me to shut up.

One winter day in high school, I stayed after to watch a Vermeer documentary for my Art History class. The deal was we got extra credit if we filled out a worksheet based on what we learned from the film. There were two boys sitting behind me who were making a valiant effort to be as disruptive as possible—throwing popcorn, talking and laughing loudly, you get the picture. They were classmates but not friends of mine. The teacher had left the room, so eventually I turned around and said, “Hey, can you stop?”

I can still see this plain as day. One of them stood up, and, out of nowhere, a hard, blazing look appeared in his eyes. It was maybe the first time I had ever seen such intense hatred and anger directed solely at me.

“Shut up!” he screamed. “You think you’re so smart. You think you’re smarter than everyone here. You need to SIT DOWN and SHUT UP.”

I was already sitting down, and I wasn’t speaking. He wanted me to be smaller than seated, to crouch, to disappear into the floorboards. He wanted me muted, silenced, gone.

Tears smarting in my eyes, I turned around and finished the worksheet without a word. I could still hear him muttering “shut up, just shut up” to me from behind.

In the decade since then, both men and women have explicitly and implicitly told me to shut up when I speak up about something they don’t want to hear. Being headstrong since childhood, I have never been very good at following their orders.

Moreover, I have come to learn since then that hostility and anger are often rooted in hurt and fear. But what had I done to hurt this classmate so much that he screamed such pent-up hatred towards me? What in that moment had made him so afraid?

Since my first blog post went up two weeks ago, my words and story were described on the comment section and on Facebook as: farcical, overly-sensitive, humorless, victimized, useless, anti-feminist, ageist, classist, “thin gruel,” fallacious, and “absolutely wrong.”

Men and women alike commented that I needed to embrace my femininity; to be more receptive to what others perceived as flattery even if it made me feel uncomfortable; to use “more visceral examples of sexism” (and believe me, I’ve had plenty) in my life to better illustrate my point; and to extend some grace to the man whose misguided remark hurt and stunned me.

While I expected some critique and backlash, I did not think that people would devote several hours of their day ripping apart my blog post and making crude assumptions about my character. Where did all this anger come from?

Reading the responses to my post taught me a lot about what it means to write about sexism in 2013. Several men and women had a knee-jerk reaction to my situation: either I must have been acting crazy in my story, or I must be misremembering, because it could not have possibly gone down the way I told it. In their minds, I clumsily transcribed the dialogue, overreacted with all of my lady emotions, or simply felt things that have no meaning since those readers chose not to empathize.

In fact, the only empathy that was present in those responses was directed towards the man at the bar. Readers defended him with a heated passion. I was told that I misjudged his words and that they “hoped this poor guy never reads this.” Likewise, whenever I tell my high school story, people will often brush it off as “Oh, he was probably just trying to get your attention” or “Boys will be boys!” In both of those instances, I was the one who was hurt and humiliated, and yet now I am also the one who needs to be kinder.

The biggest awareness I came away with from the haters was this: the story that I told is not my own. My authority as a writer is stripped away. Others are open to invalidate my experience and discredit my feelings, regardless of the fact that I was there—again—alone. Technically, it’s my word against theirs, but some readers continued to insist that I must be misinterpreting my own story.

What hurt or frightened people so much that they couldn’t just believe me? That they couldn’t say something like, “Hey, it sucks that this happened to you, and that benevolent and misguided sexism (as well as overt and visceral sexism) happens to countless women everywhere in a myriad of other ways, and maybe we should talk about it”?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but what I do know is that I have also received an outpouring of support, compassion, and insight from other men and women through sharing my story. To them, thank you. I’m not looking to change minds through argument; I’m looking for a connection. I’m looking for empathy and a conversation.

As Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1931 speech “Professions for Women,” while describing the main challenges of writing seriously as a woman: “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. The obstacles against her are still immensely powerful–and yet they are very difficult to define.” We’d like to think that we have progressed in the eighty-two years since then, but countless examples of women writers—including this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner Alice Munro (who was born the same year that Woolf gave her speech)—still deal with many of the same struggles. Likewise, award-winning author Laura Lippman writes about similar challenges here in her recent article titled “Female in Public.”

Our stories are important the way we experienced and remembered them, and the adverse responses I received to my post–not to mention the adverse responses to women writers around the world–are all the more reason why we should tell them.

Haters, hate on. I’m not shutting up anytime soon.