On Ghomeshi, Memory and Trauma

24 Mar

Have you ever had a moment when you suddenly realize that your memory of an event is not actually what happened?

A few years ago I was talking to someone about a pretty life-altering event that happened when I was 13. I’m not going to describe it in detail because it’s not wholly my story to tell, but I will say that it was traumatic and was something that completely upended my life. Anyway, this person that I was talking to was also present for this event; not only that, but they were already an adult at the time and had access to information that I didn’t.

As we were talking, it became clearer and clearer that my memories were not accurate – my broader understanding of the event was correct, but large chunks of what I remembered were not. Some of my memories were distortions based on a teenager’s misunderstanding what was happening, some memories of key events were just plain missing and, most disturbingly, some memories were of things that just plain didn’t happen.

I can’t tell you how disorienting it was to realize all of this. Facts about myself that I had believed to be real were not; my life story was not the one that I had been telling and re-telling for over a decade. I felt frantic – if these things weren’t true, then what else about me wasn’t true? And how had I wound up with all these inaccurate memories? Was it because at my very core I was, in fact, a liar so brilliant and sneaky that I had managed to lie convincingly to myself?

No. I was just a fallible human being with a fallible human memory.

Trauma is messy. Memory is messy. At the best of times, the way we remember an event is like watching a badly pirated copy of a movie – scenes get deleted or happen out of order, nonsensical bits are added in, and most of the dialogue is wrong. Add trauma into the mix and things become even more confusing. None of us are credible witnesses, not even of our own lives.

And yet our judicial system relies around the idea that witnesses must be credible, especially in the absence of physical evidence. If a witness changes their story or neglects to disclose parts of it then the rest of their testimony will likely be disregarded – at best they might be considered unreliable, at worst someone who is deliberately committing perjury for their own personal gain.

I wasn’t going to write anything about the Ghomeshi verdict, but I’m here because I need to ask all of you a serious question: how on earth do you expect someone to reliably recall traumatic events from thirteen years ago? What his car looked like. How they wore their hair. Whether the slap came first or the punch. The exact date. The contents of their emails. What they said, what they did, how they acted and reacted.

If you were put on a witness stand today for something that happened to you in 2003 – something that for a long time you had no intention of disclosing or maybe even remembering – how accurate would your testimony be? If you had to tell the same story several times over an 18 month period, can you be sure that it would remain perfectly consistent the entire time? How would you fare when faced with a cross-examiner who has access to old emails that you long ago deleted? How well would you do when confronted with a highly trained professional whose only job is to make you look bad?

I keep seeing people calling the witnesses in the Ghomeshi case “liars;” I see people crowing that these women deserve whatever is coming to them, that this is what you get when you commit perjury. No. This is what you get when the justice system expects victims to have perfect recall of traumatic events that happened more than a decade ago.

I’m not a legal expert. I don’t have any brilliant suggestions on how to overhaul the judicial process. All I can tell you is that the system we have now is so fundamentally broken that survivors of abuse and sexual assault stand almost no chance of seeing justice done. Even worse, they can expect to see their lives picked apart and disparaged on a national stage, often by the very system they thought was in place to protect them.

The judge presiding over the Ghomeshi case wrote that this case illustrates the need to avoid the “dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful,” and yet I have rarely if ever seen that assumption play out in court. Instead, our legal process is based on the idea that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty – which means that often the complainants are treated as if they’re guilty of lying unless they can prove otherwise.

I believe the women who testified against Ghomeshi. Yes, still. I also believe the other women who spoke up anonymously but ultimately chose not to talk about it publicly or press charges. I believe anyone who trusts me enough to disclose allegations of assault or abuse to me.

What I don’t believe is that this is the best our courts can do when it comes to violence against women.

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Guest Post: The Incredible Importance of the Ten Oaks Project

21 Mar

by Xeph Kalma

“Studies find that support from parents/the community help LGBTQ+ children!”

I keep seeing articles with titles like this pop up on my social media feeds and every time I read them I can feel this sarcastic smirk spreading across my face. Support helps people! How shocking! I would never in a million years have imagined that loving and encouraging youth rather than shunning or shaming them would be a positive thing.

Unfortunately, for some people this kind of non-judgemental support is a wickedly radical concept. Some people apparently need to read about these studies to understand that  things like having positive spaces, being surrounded by like minded folx, and receiving encouragement rather than shame reduce suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth. But for myself, a trans woman of colour who only found the language and the courage to come out at the age of 30, the results of these studies seem so obvious that it’s almost baffling to me why they needed to conduct a study in the first place. I can only imagine the positive impact an LGBTQ+ friendly space for youth would have had on me when I was younger. I know for certain that if I’d had one my journey to where I am now would have been far easier, happier, healthier and less lonely.

The good news is that there is a space like that right here in Ontario called the Ten Oaks Project. Based out of Ottawa, the Ten Oaks Project is a grassroots organizations that has been helping LGBTQ+ children and youth find a safe place to flourish and be themselves since 2004. They operate Camp Ten Oaks, an amazing summer camp with programming based on the principles of modern social, design play and workshops. They also run Project Acorn, which offers a different experiences for those ages 16-24 with a focus on creating an empowering and liberating experience with workshops and camp activities. Both spaces aim to facilitate social interaction that encourages self-esteem rather than reducing it -something that’s incredibly important for LGBTQ+ kids and children of LGBTQ+ families – as well as work on building leadership skills and self-confidence.

The Ten Oaks Project is an inclusive space, so these programs are meant to be as financially accessible as possible. They believe that no child should have to worry about whether they can afford to participate in Camp Ten Oaks or Project Acorn. There is a fee of $900 per camper, but the charity works on a sliding scale to ensure that any who would like to attend are able to do so. 80% of the participants in these programs use the sliding scale fee, which means that the Ten Oaks Project is always in need of donations and volunteers.

Registration has already filled up for many of the age groups in the 2016 Camp Ten Oaks session, which will run from July 31st to August 6th at RKY Camp near Kingston, Ontario. At the time of writing there are 23 children on the waitlist, hoping another spot at camp will open up. It is the only camp of its kind in Canada, so children who do not get a space will have no option except to wait and hope for a spot next year.

This is where you come in.

If you are financially able, please consider making a donation to the Ten Oaks Project. You can pledge to give money monthly, or if you prefer you can make a one-time donation. They also accept in-kind donations, so if you have materials, supplies, items or services you think they might be able to use, please contact them at info@tenoaksproject.org. A $10 or $25 donation can get you some sweet camp swag. If you have time to give, please consider becoming a volunteer. Even just taking the time to share information about Ten Oaks on your social media platforms can make a difference!

The Ten Oaks Project is an incredibly important resource. Spaces like these can literally be life-saving for some kids. I know the whole “it takes a village” thing is kind of trite, but the truth is that we are these children’s village, and it’s our job to create a world where they can grow and thrive.

As I said above, I can only imagine how different my life would have been if I had been able to access a warm and accepting place like Ten Oaks – a place where I could be myself rather than being forced into a gendered group to which I didn’t belong. There is such a huge power in receiving positive messages about yourself, especially when you’re a kid who’s struggling to figure everything out. And knowing that there was a whole community out there of other kids who feel the same way as me? That would have been absolutely priceless.

You can help give these priceless experiences to kids. So please, if you can, make a donation. You have no idea whose life you might save.

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You Are Here

8 Feb

I used to think that my life would always move in a linear way, like an arrow rushing towards a target or a row of dominos collapsing in perfect order. I’ve never believed that everything happens for a reason, but I did think that someday I would look back on what I’ve done and some kind of clear trajectory or narrative would emerge – like the time I read 100 Years of Solitude and was mostly baffled by it until the very end when a few choice paragraphs made clear all of the book’s obscure patterns and themes. I keep looking for those types of paragraphs in my own life, the ones that will shine a light on all of my murkiest, most inexplicable choices and prove that everything has only ever been leading to this.

I’ve been struggling with writing lately. I’m treading the line between “can’t” and “don’t want to,” that funny no man’s land where it’s hard to tell whether you need to try harder or just give up. A few weeks ago Nathan took me to a dive bar, pulled out a notebook and pen and told me that we were going to think up ten story ideas together to prove that I could still do it. Several drinks later I was yelling that it would be to write novel about 18 year old Mary Shelley slutting around Geneva, exchanging caustic bon mots with Lord Byron and composing a seminal work of science fiction. But when I got home and opened a new Word doc all I could see was the huge blankness of it, which seemed to me to mirror exactly the blankness in my head.

I’ve always believed that writing, like any other craft, is one that you can hone through dull, persistent, non-stop toil. I told myself that work begets work, and dove into the frantic grind that is freelance journalism. I pitched publication after publication, and whenever I received a rejection I would just turn around and send the same pitch somewhere else. I auctioned off deeply personal stories because an embarrassing first person essay is worth a thousand well-cited statistics. When my deadlines began to stack up I felt excited instead of anxious. I churned out hot take after hot take, often just recycling the same general words and ideas while applying them to new situations.

I thought that I was learning to be a better writer, but mostly I was just learning to be faster, sloppier one. And then I hit a wall and couldn’t write anything, not even the same essay about reproductive rights that I’d written a thousand times before.

Failure and success are a funny binary. A marriage can be a strong healthy relationship for a dozen years or more, but if for whatever reason it ends in divorce then we still call it a failed marriage. The same goes for failed careers, as if the choice to move on to something else eclipses any good times that might have happened. The way we apply these labels after the fact makes it seem like the whole enterprise was always objectively a big mistake. This, in turn, rewrites the narrative of our experiences so that they comfortably fit the model of failure/success – because if they didn’t, what would they be? Just a mess of good and bad that doesn’t make any rational sense.

I have spurts where writing comes easily and I’m able to produce essay after competent essay. When that happens, it’s tempting to believe that I’ve finally hit my stride as a writer; I feel the needle slip into the groove and I think this is it. But then I’ll go through dry spells where everything feels forced, my writing alternating between saccharine, adjective-laden prose and stilted sentences that refuse to have life breathed into them. And just like the good periods make me believe that I’ve finally made it, the difficult periods make me feel like it can only be downhill from there.

I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not failing, just taking the long way around. A little while ago a friend of mine said that he read somewhere that all artists have ten great years in which they produce their best work. “But,” he said, “what if those years are spread out? What if instead of one amazing decade, you get a year in your twenties, a couple of years in your thirties, and so on?”

What if. The idea was both comforting and exhilarating.

Beginnings are easy, or at least fun and exciting. And in some ways endings, with all their finality and clean lines, are easy too – at the very least they free you from worrying about when the end will come. What are much more difficult are the in-between times, the times when you’re adrift, rudderless and without a destination, in some uncharted sea. Do you try to paddle towards shore, even if you have no idea where shore is? Or do you sit and wait for rescue? All you can do is hold on. Or not.

Life does not move in straight lines. It moves in lazy detours; sometimes it loses traction and skids sideways, and sometimes it loops back on itself in ways that are confusing and maddening. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere; I’m still the same scared kid I was at 20, spinning my wheels and praying for something, anything – except now I have the added burden of feeling like I’m running out of time. I still have so much to do and, frustratingly, I’m not sure I’m much closer to knowing how to do it. Six months ago I thought I knew; six months from now I might think I know again.

Have you ever looked at one of those maps they have in malls and museums and airports and felt a strange thrill of grace when you see the arrow that says you are here? Of course intellectually you know that someone chose this specific location for the map and then marked that specific spot on the map, but even knowing this I find it hard not to look at those words and feel like I’ve been saved by a stroke of luck. They found me! I was just standing here feeling lost and they found me!

I’m trying to learn to live my life with the idea that wherever I am – whether I feel like I’m moving forward or backward or standing still – someone somewhere could make a map that says you are here. And I’ll know that even if it’s not clear to me right then, there is a path on that map that leads to the exit and there is a path that leads to my departure gate and there is a path that leads to the food court. And no matter what path I choose, I will eventually find another map that, comfortingly, tells me that I am here.

Everything has only ever been leading to this.

And this.

And this.

And whatever comes next.

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Now You Are Five

19 Jan

Dear Theo,

Five is a big one, eh? Half a decade. An outstretched hand with every finger proudly displayed. 1,826 loops around the sun.

You look so grownup lately. You’ve lost what little baby roundness you had and now you’re all skinny legs and big feet. You don’t sound like a baby anymore, either. You pepper your conversations with big words and thoughtful observations. Sometimes your brain is going faster than your mouth and you stumble over what you’re trying to say, then complain that you can’t get it out – but you always do, eventually, once you slow down enough to put the syllables in the right order.

I’ve always wondered how much of our personalities are innate and how much are shaped by the circumstances in which we grow up, but looking back through your other birthday letters it’s hard not to feel like you’ve always been exactly who you are. The things I want to tell you about yourself haven’t changed much since the first letter I wrote to you when you were two – you’re still funny, still charming, still easygoing and friendly. You’re stubborn, and when you want to master something you don’t give up easily. You still hate sleeping.

Your teachers tell me that you’re doing very well socially – there isn’t a single kid in your class who doesn’t consider you to be their friend. You have a fluidity that lets you move between different groups of peers with an ease that makes me envious. I ask you every day who you played with at school, and I always get different answers – sometimes you’ve gone tobogganing with R, or played house with E and U, or built a pretend castle with M.

One of your classmates says she wants to marry you, but you say you’re never going to get married because you’re going to be a farmer.

This past September you started public school. Downtown. In French. In a class with 23 other kids you’d never met before September. This was a big change from your tiny, homey daycare in Forest Hill, and it certainly wasn’t without its challenges. I kind of approached with the attitude that if we threw you in the water, you’d probably learn to swim – after all, that’s what I did when I was your age, and I turned out ok, right? We had some rough patches this fall and I don’t know if I’d make the same choices again, but I’ll be damned if you aren’t pulling through with mostly flying colours.

We’ve gone through some difficult times this year. One night – maybe the worst night – I was trying to talk to you about your behaviour at school for what seemed like the millionth time and I started crying.

“I just want you to be a good listener,” I said.

You started crying too, and I was sure that you were about to apologize or promise to do better.

Instead, you said, “I just want to be able to do whatever I want.”

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry harder.

You’re not as easy for me to understand these days. You’re more opaque; I can’t always figure out what you’re thinking or what motivates your behaviour. I know that babies always think they’re an extension of their parents, but for a long time it felt like you were a sort of extension of me, or maybe another iteration of me – I knew you somehow, just like I knew myself. That’s slowly changing, and I know it’s very normal and healthy. You’re moving away from me and becoming your own person with private thoughts and desires and that’s exactly how this is supposed to happen.

But I do miss those moments of communion where I wasn’t sure where my self ended and yours began. Those aren’t exactly the right words, but they’ll have to do for now.

I love you. I love the way your eyes get so big and blue when you’re excited about something. I love your wild imagination (and all the bizarre things I overhear you say when you’re playing pretend). I love your empathy and your thoughtfulness, how you like to pick out presents for people and you always seem to know what they like. I love how you practice French pronunciations in your room, rolling your Rs over and over until you get it just right. I love the moments we look at each other out of the corners of our eyes and burst out laughing just because. I love that your life goal is to get me a spacesuit that matches yours.

Remember earlier when I said you were very much the same person that you always had been? Well, that’s kind of true and not true. I used to always joke about how little interest you had in art – in fact, I mentioned in last year’s letter that you kind of suck at drawing – and all of the sudden now you’re all over it. You love drawing all kinds of things, but your favourite things to create are blueprints and assembly guides. We got you a loft bed and put a little table and chair set under it and now you call that space your “invention dimension.” You’ll happily spend hours under there “inventing” things like a poop factory or a robot that picks up garbage.

So I guess that as much as personalities might seem set and innate and unchangeable, we probably all have the capacity for change, eh?

I feel like this year you’ve taken your first steps in the grownup world. It’s been scary, and it’s going to keep being scary for a while, I bet. I’m helping you choose your path, and that fact obviously carries a lot of weight with it. Lots of times I don’t know what I’m doing and all I can do is make the best decision possible based on the currently available data. But we’re figuring this out, you know? And I’ll keep running along behind you, acting like your training wheels until you can finally steer this thing on your own.

Happy birthday, Theo.

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A sketch of our apartment building with a secret fort on top and also two spy planes and a pet frog

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Assembly instructions for a robot

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Baby’s first Jays game

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Baby’s first jazz show

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When you fall asleep playing with your dinos

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Practicing his nurturing skills

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Still really into My Little Pony

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Dressed up as a vampire pirate for Hallowe’en because honestly why should you have to choose between the two?

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Blowing out the candles at his fifth birthday

What To Do When You Feel Like Your World Is Ending And Everybody Hates You And Nothing Will Ever Be Ok Again

8 Jan

Trigger warning: suicide

I am not always an easy person to be around.

I’m sure that most people feel that way, and to some extent it’s probably true. But there are times when I am particularly, especially, really awful to be around. What makes these times even more difficult is that they usually coincide with my periods of mental health crisis, which means that the point where my behaviour is most likely to drive my friends away is also exactly when my self-esteem is at its lowest ebb.

I don’t have a very good instinct for boundaries. I have a hard time enforcing my own, and I’m not always good at knowing how to respect those belonging to other people. I think that for a long time my personal boundaries were treated more as points of negotiation than hard lines, and by consequence I don’t have a very solid foundation when it comes to understanding how they work. If someone spells them out to me, that’s fine – but in my experience that kind of articulation often doesn’t happen until after the relationship has been damaged and feelings have been hurt.

I am a great friend until I’m not. I am fine except for when I am in a crisis, which in a bad year can last for several months on end.

I am a cryer. I am someone who panics loudly. I am a person who feels dread everywhere – in my teeth and the tips of my fingers and deep in my bones. There are days when I know with an absolute certainty that I am a miserable monster who will never feel happiness again.

I have sat in my living room at three in the afternoon and three in the morning and every hour in between consumed with an unhappiness so intense that I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that it just is. And it swells up so huge inside of me that it obscures everything else including my sense of myself and the passage of time so that there is no more past and there is no more future and there is just this exquisitely awful present that can only possibly be escaped through death.

I know. I know. But also that’s just how it is sometimes, you know?

And once you’re there, you just keep going further down the rabbit hole. All you can talk about is what an awful person you are, and the more you say it, the truer it feels. When your friend disagrees, you get angry and accuse them of not being on your side (the joke is, of course, that no one is on your side because what the fuck is your side). You show up at their place crying, asking if you can crash on their couch because you’re not sure you can survive a night alone at home. When they call to check on you, you say that you’re going through the medicine cabinet trying to figure out the deadliest combination of pills.

These are all awful things to do and I am ashamed to write them out but at the time they felt inevitable. I didn’t know how else to be, and every new friendship meant counting down the minutes until they discovered the real me, the awful me, the one who cries over dinner, in the grocery store, during a very normal conversation that shouldn’t be sad at all. I felt like I’d tricked people into wanting to spend time with me, and much of my mental and physical energy was used keeping up the image of what an upstanding not-awful person I was. That is, until the next rough patch hit and I couldn’t sustain it anymore.

I did not drive every friend away. But I can honestly say that I did drive some friends away.

*                    *                   *

When I was going through a particularly hard time in university, a friend that I often leaned on for support – let’s call her C – suggested that I make a list of all the things I hated about myself. “Once you’ve got that list,” she said, “you’ll know what you want to change.”

C was big on self-improvement. She did stuff like quitting the school’s meal program and buying herself a bar fridge so that she could better follow The Zone diet in the privacy of her own dorm room. She was the kind of person who always seemed to intuitively know what she needed – a new rug for her room, an hour at the gym, a quiet night in watching Sense and Sensibility. And, in marked contrast to me, she didn’t have frequent weepy meltdowns about how much of a mess her life was. So when she suggested writing out all the worst things about myself, I readily agreed. After all, if I couldn’t identify the problem, how on earth was I going to come up with a solution?

So I parked myself in the library’s atrium one afternoon to make this list. Another friend – let’s call her K – asked me what I was doing. When I told her that C had told me that I could improve my life by thinking up all the things I didn’t like about myself and then changing them, K said something like: “You know what will really improve your life? Getting rid of the friends who tell you to make lists of the things you hate about yourself. Maybe start hanging around with the people who want you to like yourself for who you are.”

In the decade or so since then, I’ve realized that both of their ideas have merit.

I should be able to expect that my friends love me for who I am, including the wailing banshee that lives somewhere in the shadowlands of my heart who believes that she is anything but loveable.

But I should also try to take what responsibility I can for what I say and do when that banshee does her best to trash the party and leave.

Because that banshee is me and I am that banshee and even though I’m still not quite sure what to do with that information I know it’s important.

*                    *                   *

I’ve seen a few debates lately about what the “right” kind of self-care is. Should you do the dishes or leave them in the sink while you take a nap? Should you make good on your plans and go out with friends even when you feel crappy or should you bail with some transparent excuse? Should you clean your room or hunker down with a good book and let your future self worry about picking up your clothes?

I don’t think there are any cut and dried answers to these questions. There’s no good way to have a mental health crisis. Sometimes it’s smarter to wash your dishes and sometimes you need a break and it’s hard to know in the moment which one is true. On the one hand, a messy apartment makes me feel like the world is closing in on me, but on the other hand the best prescription a doctor ever wrote for me said “do more things that you enjoy.” Maybe the thing that feels worst is not making a choice and spending a four hour stretch sobbing on the couch unable to decide whether you should clean the bathroom or make yourself a cup of tea.

*                    *                   *

Here are a few things I’ve learned after nearly two decades of weathering my own breakdowns:

  1. All feelings are valid, but they are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. Treat feelings as symptoms rather than the disease, which is to say do what you can to alleviate them while at the same time looking for a root cause.

  2. When you are down the rabbit hole, there is not a single thing anyone can say to make you feel better about yourself. The best they can do is hold your hand while you go through it.

  3. It helps to prepare for the bad times during the good times. I have a word doc of all the reasons why my friends probably don’t hate me that I go through and read when I feel like all of my friends probably hate me.

  4. Wait a day before ending a friendship or quitting a job or running away from the thing that you really want to run away from. You might be making the right choice, but it rarely hurts to give yourself some breathing room before committing.

  5. It’s good to create a safe space for yourself on social media – a group chat with friends you trust or a Facebook page where people can post stuff for you and commiserate about mental health woes. I know this isn’t everyone’s jam, but I live in terror of exhausting people with my shit so it’s better for me to have an opt-in system where friends can choose to participate if they feel up to it.

  6. Your survival rate up until now has been 100%. That is the best possible rate. You have made it through every bad day so far, and statistics are on your side when it comes to making it through the next one.

  7. I don’t know if my good days outnumber my bad and I’m not sure it’s worth counting them, but I do know that after each storm blows itself out I’m always grateful to still be here.

If you’re in a bad place, I hope some of this helps. Happy January, darlings.

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sometimes you need to find that internal weather map (not to mention that internal weather girl so you can get hot tips on her bouffant hairdo)

Blessed Art Thou

29 Dec

 

Trigger warning: mention of rape

I think about Mary a lot.

Not the Mary you see on Christmas cards or in stained glass windows or in children’s bibles. Not the milk-fed blond virgins in Renaissance paintings. Not the grownup white lady in crisp blue robes with the fat baby on her lap. Mary wasn’t any of these people.

I think about Mary as a scrawny kid, barely in her teens and engaged to a man who was probably more than twice her age. She’s be at that age where you’re all arms and legs, when whatever childish grace you had has given way to adolescent clumsiness. She has big dark eyes and long black hair tucked neatly under a veil. Her skin is brown. Her hands are small, quick, good at sewing a tidy hemline or kneading a ball of dough.

I think about what it must have been like to live in a militarized occupied state. How she must have kept her head down, ducked past the soldiers she saw on the street, in the marketplace, out front of the temple. She wouldn’t have talked to them unless she had to, and even then it would be in whispered monosyllables. Not because she wasn’t brave, but because that’s the reality of life under occupation. You don’t give them a reason to notice you. You don’t give them an excuse to hurt you.

They are looking for literally any excuse.

Maybe the baby’s father was god, but maybe it was the boy next door. The one she used to make mud pies with in the alley between their houses. The one whose nose she’d bloodied during an argument over who should get the bigger slice of cake. The one she used to run foot races with until her parents said she was too old to run around like a child anymore. The one who had dug the heels of his hands into his eyes so that he wouldn’t cry when he learned about her betrothal.

Or maybe the father was a soldier who didn’t like the way she looked at him, or else liked it too much. Maybe the baby was the product of one of the oldest and vilest war tactics known to man.

Maybe Mary lied, and hoped that no one would ever question a lie so huge and so outrageous.

Maybe after she said it enough times – to her parents, to Elizabeth, to Joseph – she started to believe it. Anything can seem true if you hear it often enough.

Maybe she talked herself into it, telling herself that the lord works in mysterious ways, that he can use any person in any way to fulfill his wondrous purpose.

Or maybe the only way that her mind could cope with the trauma was to alter the memory of what had happened. A beam of light, like the sun glinting off a sword. An angel in battle armour. A choosing. A blessing. A reason for all that suffering.

I think about Mary walking around Nazareth, her belly too big to hide anymore – not that hiding it would have done any good, because it wouldn’t have been long before everyone would have known her story. I picture her keeping her head high, thrusting her little chin out while the women at the market whispered and giggled, only to break down later at home, sobbing in bed while her mother strokes her hair. Late at night she hears her father in the next room reciting prayer after prayer. He asks for strength, for faith, for guidance, for something, anything.

There must have been some part of Mary that felt relieved when she learned that they were going to Bethlehem. At the very least, she had the chance to get away from the gossiping neighbours. Sort of a fresh start.

The donkey ride across country while nine months pregnant must have been pure hell. Every morning she must have bitten back a sob as she hauled her bruised, swollen body once more onto that beast’s back. She must have clutched the reins and gritted her teeth and counted the hours until she could lie down in the flea-ridden bed of some dirty old back-country inn.

And then there was that final inn, in Bethlehem, the one they came to late at night after being turned away from all of the others. Mary must have been miserable by then – she’d probably been having contractions for hours, barely able to keep herself from howling with pain as the donkey jostled her up and down the crowded alleyways.

Was anyone there to help when the baby was finally born? Did the innkeeper’s wife come out to the stables to hold her hand, wipe her forehead, and finally guide him out between her thighs? Or was it just Joseph, humbly leaning on his staff and trying not to be sick from the heat, the stench of blood, the sound of his wife’s gut-wrenching groans?

Was anyone there to teach Mary how to nurse? How to squeeze her breast between her fingers and draw the baby’s mouth towards her nipple? Did anyone tell her about plugged ducts or thrush or the creeping red ache of mastitis?

Was there even one person there to tell her she was doing fine, it was all fine, she was going to be fine?

I think about how very much alone Mary must have felt sitting there in that stable, a scared kid holding her own kid in her arms.

I think about her fleeing to Egypt, her days-old baby strapped to her chest with a strip of cloth. Everything there must have seemed so foreign and dangerous – though not as dangerous as what she’d left behind her. I picture her struggling to learn the language, to map the new landscape, to eat the strange food. But I also picture her entering the temple of Isis and finding comfort in the images of the goddess with the baby Horus on her lap. The story of young god growing up in hiding from his evil uncle-king must have felt familiar to her. I hope it made Mary feel less alone.

Mary was the kind of girl who got things done, a problem-solver, a person who thinks on her feet. She was the kind to ask “what next?” instead of “why me?” Mary was someone who doggedly put one foot in front of the other because if she sat down to rest she might never get up. After all, the only way out is through.

When I think about Mary, I think about all the women I’ve known who have faced adversity by putting their heads down and just ploughing through it. These women don’t give up because giving up is simply not an option; they don’t have the luxury of running away to some distant planet at the edge of a galaxy far, far away. They survive because what other choice is there?

That’s the Mary I think about.

Mary the blessed.

Mary full of grace.

Mary the most holy.

Mary the immaculate.

Mary the queen of heaven.

Mary the advocate of Eve.

Mary the seat of wisdom.

Mary the star of the sea.

Mary the daughter.

Mary the mother.

Mary the survivor.

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Being A Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence

3 Dec

1.

I am six. My babysitter’s son, who is five but a whole head taller than me, likes to show me his penis. He does it when his mother isn’t looking. One time when I tell him not to, he holds me down and puts penis on my arm. I bite his shoulder, hard. He starts crying, pulls up his pants and runs upstairs to tell his mother that I bit him. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone about the penis part, so they all just think I bit him for no reason.

I get in trouble first at the babysitter’s house, then later at home.

The next time the babysitter’s son tries to show me his penis, I don’t fight back because I don’t want to get in trouble.

One day I tell the babysitter what her son does, she tells me that he’s just a little boy, he doesn’t know any better. I can tell that she’s angry at me, and I don’t know why. Later that day, when my mother comes to pick me up, the babysitter hugs me too hard and says how jealous she is because she only has sons and she wishes she had a daughter as sweet as me.

One day when we’re playing in the backyard he tells me very seriously that he might kill me one day and I believe him.

2.

I am in the second grade and our classroom has a weird open-concept thing going on, and the fourth wall is actually the hallway to the gym. All day long, we surreptitiously watch the other grades file past on the way to and from the gym. We are supposed to ignore most of them. The only class we are not supposed to ignore is Monsieur Pierre’s grade six class.

Every time Monsieur Pierre walks by, we are supposed to chorus “Bonjour, Monsieur Sexiste.” We are instructed to do this by our impossibly beautiful teacher, Madame Lemieux. She tells us that Monsieur Pierre, a dapper man with grey hair and a moustache, is sexist because he won’t let the girls in his class play hockey. She is the first person I have ever heard use the word sexist.

The word sounds very serious when she says it. She looks around the class to make sure everyone is paying attention and her voice gets intense and sort of tight.

“Girls can play hockey. Girls can do anything that boys do,” she tells us.

We don’t really believe her. For one thing, girls don’t play hockey. Everyone in the NHL – including our hero Mario Lemieux, who we sometimes whisper might be our teacher’s brother or cousin or even husband – is a boy. But we accept that maybe sixth grade girls can play hockey in gym class, so we do what she asks.

Mostly what I remember is the smile that spreads across Monsieur Pierre’s face whenever we call him a sexist. It is not the smile of someone who is ashamed; it is the smile of someone who finds us adorable in our outrage.

3.

Later that same year a man walks into Montreal’s École Polytechnique and kills fourteen women. He kills them because he hates feminists. He kills them because they are going to be engineers, because they go to school, because they take up space. He kills them because he thinks they have stolen something that is rightfully his. He kills them because they are women.

Everything about the day is grey: the sky, the rain, the street, the concrete side of the École Polytechnique, the pictures of the fourteen girls that they print in the newspaper. My mother’s face is grey. It’s winter, and the air tastes like water drunk from a tin cup.

Madame Lemieux doesn’t tell us to call Monsieur Pierre a sexist anymore. Maybe he lets the girls play hockey now. Or maybe she is afraid.

Girls can do anything that boys do but it turns out that sometimes they get killed for it.

4.

I am fourteen and my classmate’s mother is killed by her boyfriend. He stabs her to death. In the newspaper they call it a crime of passion. When she comes back to school, she doesn’t talk about it. When she does mention her mother it’s always in the present tense – “my mom says” or “my mom thinks” – as if she is still alive. She transfers schools the next year because her father lives across town in a different school district.

Passion. As if murder is the same thing as spreading rose petals on your bed or eating dinner by candlelight or kissing through the credits of a movie.

5.

Men start to say things to me on the street, sometimes loudly enough that everyone around us can hear, but not always. Sometimes they mutter quietly, so that I’m the only one who knows. So that if I react, I’ll seem like I’m blowing things out of proportion or flat-out making them up. These whispers make me feel complicit in something, although I don’t quite know what.

I feel like I deserve it. I feel like I am asking for it. I feel dirty and ashamed.

I want to stand up for myself and tell these men off, but I am afraid. I am angry that I’m such a baby about it. I feel like if I were braver, they wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Eventually I screw up enough courage and tell a man to leave me alone; I deliberately keep my voice steady and unemotional, trying to make it sound more like a command than a request. He grabs my wrist and calls me a fucking bitch.

After that I don’t talk back anymore. Instead I just smile weakly; sometimes I duck my head and whisper thank you. I quicken my steps and hurry away until one time a man yells don’t you fucking run away and starts to follow me.

After that I always try to keep my pace even, my breath slow. Like how they tell you that if you ever see a bear you shouldn’t run, you should just slowly back away until he can’t see you.

I think that these men, like dogs, can smell my fear.

6.

On my eighteenth birthday my cousin takes me out clubbing. While we’re dancing, a man comes up behind me and starts fiddling with the straps on my flouncy black dress. But he’s sort of dancing with me and this is my first time ever at a club and I want to play it cool, so I don’t say anything. Then he pulls the straps all the way down and everyone laughs as I scramble to cover my chest.

At a concert a man comes up behind me and slides his hand around me and starts playing with my nipple while he kisses my neck. By the time I’ve got enough wiggle room to turn around, he’s gone.

At my friend’s birthday party a gay man grabs my breasts and tells everyone that he’s allowed to do it because he’s not into girls. I laugh because everyone else laughs because what else are you supposed to do?

Men press up against me on the subway, on the bus, once even in a crowd at a protest. Their hands dangle casually, sometimes brushing up against my crotch or my ass. One time it’s so bad that I complain to the bus driver and he makes the man get off the bus but then he tells me that if I don’t like the attention maybe I shouldn’t wear such short skirts.

7.

I get a job as a patient-sitter, someone who sits with hospital patients who are in danger of pulling out their IVs or hurting themselves or even running away. The shifts are twelve hours and there is no real training, but the pay is good.

Lots of male patients masturbate in front of me. Some of them are obvious, which is actually kind of better because then I can call a nurse. Some of them are less obvious, and then the nurses don’t really care. When that happens, I just bury my head in a book and pretend I don’t know what they’re doing.

One time an elderly man asks me to fix his pillow and when I bend over him to do that he grabs my hand and puts it on his dick.

When I call my supervisor to complain she says that I shouldn’t be upset because he didn’t know what he was doing.

8.

A man walks into an Amish school, tells all the little girls to line up against the chalkboard, and starts shooting.

A man walks into a sorority house and starts shooting.

A man walks into a theatre because the movie was written by a feminist and starts shooting.

A man walks into Planned Parenthood and starts shooting.

A man walks into.

9.

I start writing about feminism on the internet, and within a few months I start getting angry comments from men. Not death threats, exactly, but still scary. Scary because of how huge and real their rage is. Scary because they swear they don’t hate women, they just think women like me need to be put in their place.

I get to a point where the comments – and even the occasional violent threat – become routine. I joke about them. I think of them as a strange badge of honour, like I’m in some kind of club. The club for women who get threats from men.

It’s not really funny.

10.

Someone makes a death threat against my son.

I don’t tell anyone right away because I feel like it is my fault – my fault for being too loud, too outspoken, too obviously a parent.

When I do finally start telling people, most of them are sympathetic. But a few women say stuff like “this is why I don’t share anything about my children online,” or “this is why I don’t post any pictures of my child.”

Even when a man makes a choice to threaten a small child it is still, somehow, a woman’s fault.

11.

I try not to be afraid.

I am still afraid.

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The author, age 7