Saturday, October 6, 2018

How Society Grooms Women

Journalist Connie Chung penned an open letter supporting Christine Blasey Ford, while for the first time publicly sharing her own experience with sexual assault. Rachel Yang, Variety.
This morning I read Connie Chung's account of being sexually assaulted by her trusted family physician when she was an innocent young woman seeking birth control. Someone will no doubt ask "Why didn't she stop him?" when he brought her to orgasm with his fingers. Such a question would come from someone who has no idea of the strength of social conditioning on females to trust doctors and others in authority positions.

Feeling sick to my stomach, I remembered a similar experience when I went to a gynecologist before my first marriage. Though not as naive as Connie Chung had been, I wasn't sure about the physiology of sexual intercourse. So when the doctor--a woman, actually--explained she was slowly stretching my hymen tissue so I wouldn't feel any pain on intercourse, I felt its inappropriateness, especially because I'd told her about being raped at age 16. Nonetheless, I did exactly what Chung did, kept quiet and afterwards dashed out of there as quickly as I could, embarrassed and ashamed.

We tend to think of sexual grooming as specific to child sexual abuse, but the elements are the same in any form of abuse -- the appeal of a relationship with someone who gives you special attention, the underlying assertion of power not evident until trust is established, and the sense of secrecy based on the expectation of not being believed, or chastised if believed. Those negative judgments can be overt or covert.

In the case of my being raped as a teenager, I was on a family trip to Scotland, my parents knew I was walking on the beach near the hotel where we were staying, and they looked for me when I was not back after dark. Yet when I finally stumbled in, the police they called insisted on a medical exam to make sure I was telling the truth.

And then MY PARENTS NEVER MENTIONED THE SITUATION AGAIN! No one asked if I wanted to talk about it, no one assured me that stopping to chat with the man did not make the rape my fault, no one commented on my sudden need to have a light on in my room at night.

The Scottish man who raped me used an abbreviated form of sexual grooming--approaching me when there was still daylight with a casual question about my being American and some conversation about the golf tournament I mentioned my Dad was there to attend, treating me like an adult without ever being openly seductive, then offering to walk me back to the hotel, as it was getting dark. A very nice local man being thoughtful to a tourist. I was flattered and trusting, only half-way back to the hotel realizing--while deep in conversation--he'd walked me to an area away from the lights where sand dunes blocked a clear view from the road. When we saw the headlights of a car--which I knew was my father because one of the lights was out--the rapist clapped a hand over my mouth and said, "If you make a sound, I will kill you."

Why am I posting this in "The Only Gate is Now?" Because this blog is where I've written about surviving another kind of death threat -- breast cancer -- and reminds me that no matter what life brings, "there's nowhere to go, there's nothing else to be." Staying present for me means not numbing out, not dissociating from the emotions that flashbacks arouse. I dealt with my anger at the rapist of the past, but not until forty years after the event, awakening terrified from a nightmare and writing it down so I wouldn't numb out again, emotions that eventually found a home in my poem, "Union."

Now I must allow the anger to move through me again, aroused by Brett Kavanaugh's appointment in spite of Christine Blasey Ford's testimony and his obvious lack of integrity, and beyond these specific events to the larger world we live in, characterized by the ascent of greed and dominance of wealthy white males, to the exclusion and--often--terror of anyone not part of that club.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

I Choose Authenticity

(Published in The Enneagram of Death: Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dyling, 2012)
Authenticity is a daily practice. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the COURAGE to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the COMPASSION that comes from knowing we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the CONNECTION and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Many people who've had cancer report significant changes in their lives and a gratitude that might seem strange to those who haven't been there. Having had breast cancer, I realize how difficult it is to put into words the gratitude I felt. Of course I'm grateful to be alive, grateful to all the helping professionals, friends, and acquaintances who were part of my healing, grateful to my body that the cancer didn't spread through the lymph nodes, grateful that I didn't have to have chemo. But my gratitude spread beyond those happy aspects -- I was grateful to the cancer because it brought me into greater presence than I'd ever experienced.

The important question became, "Now that I am present to my impermanence, how do I live every moment going forward?" The answer to this question was not a conscious decision. It bloomed in me as a consequence of opening myself, of having yielded and embraced breast cancer. The biggest lesson I learned was how I'd contributed to the burden of caretaking I'd felt -- in my life and in my work -- by keeping the focus completely on other people and not asking for what I needed. I was giving, but not allowing myself to receive. 

Caretaking fed my ego and also exhausted me. Having cancer required that I learn how to ask for help and be clear to those around me what kind of help I needed: to be listened to, encouraged to talk about myself. Instead, my gift of focusing on the positive had taken charge, and left no room for feeling tired, disoriented, lonely, or that dreaded state -- NEEDY.  Everyone was rejoicing in how brave and amazing I was, while some newly acknowledged part of me simply wanted to curl up and be held. 

Exactly as Dr. Brené Brown's research on authenticity suggests, I'm more connected now because I learned a new kind of courage -- to be imperfect (needy), to set boundaries (ask for what I want and don't want), to allow myself to be vulnerable (admitting these needs without shame), and along with this came true compassion (giving is no longer a one-way street). Thus, I'm grateful to Dr. Brown for having put into words the lesson I most needed to learn.

Once my energy and mental balance returned, instead of feeling I was "back to my old self," I found myself "going forward into a new self," one that has a squishy part I didn't have before. Vulnerability can be interpreted as feeling defenseless, exposed, insecure. My new squishy part has none of those negative connotations. It has made me softer, more yielding, tender, sensitive, open, and accessible.