An Open Letter to My Brothers: #MeToo Is Not About You

As a child, I suffered several severe asthma attacks, two of which hospitalized me.  The second time I must have been maybe nine or ten years old, not breathing, lying in an emergency room bed, while a nurse kept laboriously shoving an IV needle into my right arm and then just as excruciatingly drawing it back out because she had missed my vein...again.  And I was Not.Breathing.

Meantime, like an enthusiastic Foley artist from Hell, someone else down the row of curtained beds was howling.

I concentrated on three things: drawing in any bit of air, not punching the nurse in the face as she missed my vein again, and trying to tell myself that the person howling was probably having their leg amputated without anesthesia, so who was I to complain?

Finally, they got the IV in me, put the oxygen tent around me, stuffed more oxygen up my nose, and I had breath enough to grab a passing nurse and ask what the screaming patient was suffering from.

"Oh," the nurse said, rolling her eyes.  "That guy's got an ear ache."

Silencing the Silence Breakers

I bring this story up, because I've been thinking about it ever since I've seen the steady push to silence the Silence Breakers who began #metoo.

The complaint especially from my Christian and/or Conservative brothers is that they are not sexual aggressors.  That, in fact, they as white men have been silenced because of their gender and ethnicity.  That they need to be protected from what they fear might be a "witch hunt" by those "evil feminists" always out to emasculate men.

And you know what?  Fair enough.

I grew up in the 80's and 90's with Second Wave Feminism which did play itself out as being against things: against the patriarchy, the nuclear family, the church...even against "feminine" identifiers.  And as the daughter and sister of white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, family-oriented, religious men, I have witnessed the men in my life being silenced or belittled from news outlets of popular opinion to, more practically, HR departments enacting policy that got my dad laid off in the name of diversity and plunged all of us - including his daughters - into poverty.

So, I get it.

But here's the thing, gents: right now, you've got an ear ache.  And right now, your sisters are not breathing.

How to Care For Your Feminist

The thing about the #metoo movement is that it's built up of decades' worth of sexual harassment - whether overt or covert.  It's not something that's happening now, it's a reality that the majority of women have to contend with on a daily basis.  That we are, even months later, still dealing with.  The only difference in October was that we were all brave enough to share this private trauma at the same time in the hopes that you would listen.
     #MeToo not new trauma; it's only new to you.
Just like the traumas my brothers and sisters of color bear every day are, unfortunately, not new.  I only have the privilege of their daily heartaches being news to me.  And therefore, I have the privilege, as 'twere, of forgetting their reality, because it's not my problem.  This is a privilege, and have to work hard to remember to listen, believe, and be an ally.  Just like that fellow got over his ear ache and went on to live his life without having to think about it again.  But every day many women live with the spectre of sexist trauma, just as I live with the fact that I need to make decisions that affect my career based on whether or not I'm able to breathe.

So I want to talk to you, my brothers, about what you can do now.  Because what we need from you now is for you to keep listening.

The Circle of Trauma

A few years ago, a breast cancer survivor was told by one of her colleagues that the colleague "wanted, she needed to visit Susan after the surgery."  The problem?  Susan was too exhausted to have visitors.  Her colleague promptly told Susan, "This isn't just about you."

"It's not?" Susan wondered. "My breast cancer is not about me? It's about you?"

Susan then wrote an excellent article about how to care for people in trauma called "The Ring Theory."  The general idea is that the person to whom the trauma is happening is in the center, and that only care should flow towards them.  Perhaps from close family members or friends.  Naturally, though, whatever the person in the center is feeling will have an effect on their confidants, who in turn will need support.

So, say, Susan is in the middle, dealing day to day with battling breast cancer.  Her husband flows support in; Susan can vent out.  But her husband is growing weary and frustrated.  Rather than close off Susan, or venting his frustrations inward, he finds his own circle of friends and family and vents outwards to them.  And so on.
Image courtesy of Cascadia Workshops
    Care in.  Vent out.
Now apply this to the #metoo movement.  For years, really since Eve, women have been battling sexism - both culturally and personally.  Every woman who put up a #metoo story has multiple instances to share; multiple wounds; their own personal cancers and asthmas that they weren't born with - that were inflicted on them.  Toxically, one might say.

In one heroic effort, women put up the hashtag.  And you may say: well, how heroic can it be to put up a damn hashtag?  I'll get to that in a moment.  But trust me, it weren't easy.  In one heroic moment, every woman who put up #metoo admitted that for years they'd been poisoned, had cancer, weren't breathing.  Were in need of being the one in the middle of the circle of trauma - and not the ones caring for the fellow with an ear ache.

There was response.  For the first time in millennia, there was response.  Some of the worst offenders were ejected from their seats of power.  For a time, husbands, brothers, fathers, bosses, friends offered care in, even as they nervously began to look over their shoulder, worried that any youthful indiscretions might bite them in the bum.

And slowly - or really, fairly swiftly in the grand course of a bored news cycle - the circle of trauma stopped.  As men started up with their old ear ache: venting in, wanting care to come out.  OK, already: you had your #metoo moment.  Now back to us.

But...this isn't about you.  This is about the women whom you love.  And again, we really need you to listen.

My Day With #MeToo

I remember the day I saw the first #metoo hashtag, as I blearily wandered around in my morning routine, checking Facebook.  A dear friend had posted it, along with the now famous note:
     "If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem."
I saw my friend's post - a woman I greatly respect - but still scoffed.  Personally, I hate memes, and tend to roll my eyes at trends.

But at the day wore on, and more and more of my friends began posting #metoo, some with their stories attached, I reconsidered.

My next inclination was to say: "Oh, but not me."  After all, I have several friends, too many, who have been raped.  Some repeatedly.  So yes, #metoo for them...but not...for me?  But then I thought further about the fellow who tried to abduct me in Paris, and who forced me to hold his hand and kissed me in a really brutal way, and...

But I'd gotten over that, right?  I mean, I fled from Paris and went into a minor breakdown back in Austria.  But...I was totally better.  Nope.  Nope.  Not me.  Except...

Oh, right.  There was that guy who sexually harassed me in high school.  The quarterback who pinned me against the bleachers and made suggestive comments.  And then took the opportunity in weight lifting to give me massages.  And who tried to call me out in front of the whole school cafeteria. 

But...but...although I'd been scared the first time, I'd turned the rest of the times into jokes, and even enjoyed the attention by the end, and that excused pinning me against the bleachers and asking if it was good for me, right?  Because: noNot me.

Except that...

There was the neighborhood kid who looked up my skirt and was generally a jackass.  And there was some pretty awful stuff that happened when I was seven or eight years old with other neighborhood kids that I'm not going to go into here, and about which I still feel guilty.  Not to mention the guy masturbating on the train across from me just the other day.  Not to mention the guy in Italy who groped me on the bus.  Not to mention the occasional wolf whistles in town. Not to mention the guy who slapped my ass while I was walking to the train in Harlem.  Not to mention the actor who used that one time to try to stick his tongue down my throat.  Not to mention that dickwad who used me to cheat on his girlfriend, said he loved me, left me, begged me to be silent, and got off scott free, leaving me to suffer three years of traumaNot to mention...not to mention...not to mention...

The subtler attacks.  The jobs I'd been refused from high school on because I wasn't fuckable enough for the pervy director.  The jobs I'd been refused because I was a woman who knew her mind, and this was a place run by guys in over their heads.  The jobs I'd gotten where I'd had to endure being hugged and kissed as a form of greeting, while the men all shook each other's hands.  The jobs I'd gotten where I was the only woman in the room, and I watched the job I was in the middle of doing being given away to another man who had just admitted he wasn't prepped for the job.

So, yeah.  Yeah.  Yeah.  ME.  FUCKING.  TOO. 

Lice in a Tea Cozy: An Analogy

The problem of opening up one part of a trauma is that it opens up all the traumas.

Talking with my girlfriends in the weeks and months that followed, we acknowledged how shaken, how hypersensitive, how high-alert we all felt.  How, in fact, by having spent the day examining our lives in the light of #metoo, we were reliving those same traumas - but this time without the safety net of recontextualizing, excusing, or laughing our traumas away.

This past summer, I wrote an article looking at how masculine vs. feminine brains generally tend to process experience and emotion.

One of the most fascinating aspects I discovered was that it appears that men tend to have stronger back-to-front reactions to experiences, which encourages a man to either "fix or ditch" the experience.  To put it in terms of #metoo, and why men might not have noticed what was happening daily to the women around them, since the men were not being harassed (or harassing), it was nothing they could fix and so they ditched the memory altogether.  Hence, when they witnessed the next time that same woman was harassed, the men hadn't maintained the previous memory of what had happened the last time, and likely ditched this time as well.

Contrast this to how a woman processes emotion.  Studies found that in general female brains process across hemispheres, as well as storing experiences immediately and automatically in the amygdala - which is the memory and emotion center of the brain.  Essentially, as a woman experiences something, it gets filed and cross filed with every previous association of similar experiences, which then encourages whatever action she has deemed fittest from all her previous experiences.  To put it in terms of #metoo, every time a woman experiences sexual harassment, it goes to the same memory bank as the previous one.  So that to access that one time that one guy did that one thing is to access every time that particular trauma was stored. And then to enact whatever her coping mechanism might be - generally, making the trauma "safe" not only from herself, but also from you, my dear brothers.

To use an analogy:

Imagine that every time a traumatic occurrence happens it's a piece of lice.
  • A man's brain is generally wired to either accept the lice or to disregard it and pretend there were never any lice at all.
  • A woman's brain is generally wired not to ditch the lice, but to keep and "make safe" the lice - possibly by knitting a nice tea cozy and covering over every little bug.  The woman keeps having men fling lice on her.  No problem.  She pops it in the tea cozy.  And it's like no one has to know and everything is fine.  Another lice?  No problem.  Laugh it off.  And it's funny to have lice.  And let's just pop that in the tea cozy, shall we?  And so on and so on.
And it's easy, isn't it my brothers, to pretend we all like lice.

But on the day of #metoo, one by one we women took off those tea cozies, and had to deal with every wriggling worm that life had shoved on us.  And some were so monstrous, we were able to tear them down (for now).  And others...well, gentlemen, I imagine if you're afraid of a witch hunt, it's because you're wondering whether the girl you pinned up against the lockers in high school remembers, and whether she was thinking of you while she typed out, in fear and trembling:

#me.fucking.too.

A New Hope

Ultimately, we're going to need new legislation that favors victims rather than protecting predators.  Hopefully, that legislation will start to be enacted this year.  But in the meantime, my brothers, I'm going to challenge you to step up to the plate...and do nothing.
      Listen.  Care in, vent out.  
Just because a few months have passed, and we've chopped off a hydra head or two, doesn't mean the battle's done.  Far from it.  And you know what?  That girl you groped, that woman whose "No," you didn't respect, or just this blogger you're calling names in the comments...we're gonna forgive the Hell outta you.

Eventually.

Maybe not today.

And only if you're sorry.

But for God's sake: keep listening.

Because the tea cozy has come off, we've got some things to say.

~*~


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