Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Posts tagged ‘women’

A Friend’s Story: When You Tell

pedrojperez

I’ve sat on this for two weeks, but I’m ready to wade into the fray. With the permission of a friend, who feels it is now safe to share her story because most of the people are dead and she is mostly away from their influences, I will tell you why people wait decades to come forth with their tales of abuse.

My friend was accepted into a selective graduate program in a prestigious university. She was ecstatic as it furthered her career path. So, she uprooted her life and moved to another state with her husband to attend the program.

She did well in her master’s program – earning all As and making friends but her husband was jealous of the time she spent studying. She invited him to come to department events and tried other ways to include her husband, but he declined. She kept going to classes and making connections with her fellow students and her teachers, an essential part of the graduate school process but didn’t attend the informal events where many connections are made and strengthened.

Her husband left her in the middle of the degree. Cleaned out the bank accounts and moved to the Midwest with another woman. She was heart-broken and thought of school as her refuge enough to spend her summer camping on a friend’s dorm couch. She spent more time with her classmates and teachers, going to some of the more informal events – a cookout on the dorm steps, a beer after class with peers and teachers to follow-up on class concepts.

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One teacher noticed how sad she was looking and invited her to talk during office hours. He was sympathetic and laid an arm across her shoulders in a fatherly way. She struggled out from under it. He suggested they have a relationship. He had admitted to her that he had done this before with students – he had an “open” relationship with his wife. She said no as gently as she could – he was on her thesis committee. Without his support and his signature at the defense exam, her master’s thesis would be rejected and all her work from the past two years would be wasted. She started avoiding him, and her work suffered. She had nightmares and panic attacks. She couldn’t concentrate. She turned in lousy work for her master’s thesis barely meeting specifications, but her goal was to get out from under him, literally and metaphorically. Somehow, she passed the defense of her master’s thesis although the lecherous professor made it known that he was unhappy with her work. Lots of grumbling in the halls that isolated her from her peers and professors.

Knowing that the master’s thesis would not get her a job and that her master’s thesis would not get her into another university, she applied and was accepted into the doctoral program. But. The professor picked her as his teaching assistant, and he signed on as her graduate advisor for the doctoral dissertation. The nightmares got worse over the summer. She picked fights with other teachers, lost weight, and would jump at every noise or sudden movement.

When she started school in the fall, the reality of her situation worsened. The lecherous professor stood over her in meetings and looked down her dress. He sneered at her ideas for a dissertation delaying her progress. Her shakes increased. The other teaching assistants made fun of her, calling her variations on teacher’s pet. Her peers noticed and avoided her. She tried to talk to the professor, but he laughed saying she was misinterpreting his words. As head of her graduate committee, he could stall and even derail her doctoral program.

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She lasted two semesters before the head of another department took her to lunch. She was scared to go – what could she say that didn’t sound whiny or defensive? And the department head was male. She wore a shapeless dress to the lunch. Had her hair cut by a barber in a flat top to look less feminine. But he was kind. He asked what was going on. After hemming and hawing, she told him. He assured her that he would take care of transferring her to his department.

Emboldened from being out from the direct influence of the man, she decided to make a complaint. Following the university’s protocols, she contacted the woman administrator overseeing sexual harassment cases for the university. She did not know that the university’s first objective is to protect its own. The university’s harassment ombudswoman did not prepare her for the proceedings. The student did not know what would happen or if she would have to speak.

The predatory professor brought a legal representative. A group of her peers and professors watched them file into a conference room. She heard their whispers. She was aware that her career in the university and beyond would be affected by the outcome of this mock trial. When called upon to present her side, she stuttered. The professor sat across from her blatantly holding her gaze, a folder in his lap, his department head on one side of him and his legal representative on the other. The woman remembers feeling outnumbered.

At the end of the meeting, it was decided that he would receive a sealed letter in his personnel file to be removed after three years and that he could not give her any reference. She was under legal constraints to be silent about the entire incident. This sounded like blaming the victim to the woman. No one would know what he did. She went home and cried. Her academic work suffered. She was distracted and hostile in classes, due to sleep deprivation, wariness, and being ostracized by her peers and university faculty. She was untrusting and distressed by any male attention including her new husband’s concern.

When she attempted to get together another graduate committee for her thesis, she needed professors from the lecherous professor’s department. Her top choices, based on her dissertation topic, turned her down.

When she needed a teaching reference, the department head of the lecherous professor smirked and said he could not give her one. She had put him in “a bad position.” She didn’t get the job.

Eventually, the woman completed the dissertation in a program that was wonderful but not her first choice moving her into a career path that was not her first choice. She did the minimum amount of work to get her dissertation, not trusting the predominantly male faculty.

She brushed off other women’s attempts to talk to her about their harassment by the same professor.

All this time, she shielded her body in baggy clothes, kept her hair short, and avoided men in places of power. She made herself small and invisible. Hid her face behind big glasses. Didn’t go places alone.

No one knew what he did to her. What he cost her.

After over two decades, she put this behind her, but it still comes up. She told me about the years of therapy for the PTSD and feelings of betrayal by the university and her peers. She told me about the moments of panic when she thinks she sees him in a crowd or on the street. She had to learn to approach men as human beings.

Even today, after the professional awards and personal accomplishments, she can’t –

Account for a gap on her resume

Works in a field that was not her first choice

Has moments of panic when a man, a boy, or anybody looks at her body

Feels uncomfortable in meetings and minimizes her accomplishments/ideas

Why would she want to expose herself to betrayal and ostracism again unless she knew she had the support of other women? So as women come forward with their stories, she started to feel emboldened. She wanted her story told and believed.

That’s why you are seeing a great many women come forward; finally, there are enough of us talking for a woman to feel safe telling her story.

Please, when a woman tells you her story, say ‘thank you.’

She has probably told it before, and it has been dismissed or silenced.

Don’t do that to her. Ask her how you can help.

 

(Images courtesy of morguefile.com by PEDROJPEREZ and JELTOVSKI.)

Half Waxed

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Over a decade ago, swayed by peer pressure, I tried bikini waxing for the first time. My friend warned me to go to a salon for the service. Being cheap and overestimating my smarts, I thought I would try it at home.

“Do you think that’s wise?” she said.

“Can’t be that difficult. They sell kits at the drug store,” I said blithely.

Bad, very bad idea. The drug store and their waxing kits lied.  I have managed to give myself a concussion and melt my underwear to the left side of my crotch. Here’s my story:

After perusing the personal products aisle of the drug store for an hour, I went to the counter for some help.  “What product would you suggest for home waxing?”

The woman’s penciled eyebrows lifted three inches.  “How much pain can you endure?”  That’s such a bad question.

“Uh, I’m not a total wimp”.  Then a client beeped me.  So I may have missed some vital information.  The phone call took some time and when it was finished, the woman was helping other customers – customers who were buying gum, newspapers, and magazines.  No waxing products.  So off to the personal products aisle again.  I picked up the most expensive waxing kit thinking this is no time to skimp.

Following the kit’s instructions, I laid out a brownie pan, plastic gloves, the block of wax, scissors, a wooden spoon, two ice packs and my contribution to the process, a small glass of Scotch for the pain.  Some of the instructions were baffling.  I put on a favorite pair of green bikinis because I wanted a clean line for the finished product.  (Note to anyone — never wear polyester undies while waxing – the reason will become apparent later).  As directed, I melted the wax in the brownie pan using the wooden spoon.  The dogs laid their heads to one side before starting a low baying sound.  I poured some wax on the right side of my crotch and then on the left side before the pain registered.  I screamed.  The animals jumped back barking.  (Another note to anyone — always test the temperature of the wax before applying.)

From pubic bone to mid thigh was bright red. There was an interesting smell.  My skin was disintegrating.  One layer of skin, maybe two.  Definitely first degree burns.  Hoping to avoid the second degree blistering, I quickly yanked off the wax from the right side.  Immediately I passed out from the pain.  The best I can tell, I hit my head on the counter on the way down.  I woke into painful consciousness, stars buzzing around my head like in a Looney Tunes Cartoon, lying curled in the fetal position on the kitchen floor.  The two dogs and the cat were looking at me with these quizzical expressions of “should we eat her now?”

By that time, the underwear on my left side had melted to my crotch.  (Polyester melts in hot wax — very important note.)  Holding the counter for support, I got myself upright and chugged the glass of Scotch with two aspirin from the junk drawer. I corralled the animals, shoved them into the utility room, and closed the door.  Taking a deep breath, I yanked at the strip of wax on my left side of my crotch.  Off came a good inch of skin and melted undies.  I quickly found the ice pack and applied it while jumping around the kitchen.  The room was dark and hopefully the neighbors had not seen my personal auto-da-fe.  Now, what do I do?  The choices were dire.

First, I assessed the situation.  The right side of my crotch was a bright red field of blisters with small patches of scorched earth.  The left side looked worse.  One inch was oozing blood like partially defrosted hamburger.  A good four inches was covered with hard wax and melted spring green undies.

Second, I outlined my three options.  I could continue to self-mutilate my crotch by tearing off the fricassee of wax, undies, skin, and connective tissue.  I’m not sure I had the fortitude for such an option.  I could call Barbara and after she stopped laughing, she could help we with the left side.  This could be embarrassing as I conjured up the image of us tugging at my crotch.  That left option number three.  I could cut off as much of the melted wax – undies – skin – connective tissue combo as possible with my old dissecting scissors, apply burn balm, and cover the wound with a dressing then go to bed.

I picked option number three, bandaged myself, and phoned my friend.

“My crotch is toast.”

“We must have a bad connection. You’re eating toast? What about your crotch?”

“No. No. In the process of home waxing I learned some important life lessons.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. What did you learn?”

“Waxing is rocket science and should be left to the professionals. And. One should never wax with animals nearby.”

“Did they bite?”

“No but I think they were trying to decide if I was dead. Oh and never, ever overheat your polyester undies.  They will melt.”

“Should I call the paramedics?”

“Nah. Off to apply more ice. Stop laughing.  It’s not funny.”

“You’re a mess.” My friend hung up. I hear her laughter every time I shudder past the personal products aisle in a drug store.

 

“Now?” “No not yet.”

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When anyone asks me to describe my childhood, I have a stock answer. “We had a childhood written by Stephen King starring Cruella DeVille and Captain Ahab.” That usually shuts them up. It’s painful when you don’t have the All-American-Family portrayed by Norman Rockwell. I have the European-Holocaust-AbsentShipCaptain-family portrayed by Bosch and Dali.

My dislike for my mother, Cruella, swarms like a soul-sucking tornado as Mother’s Day approaches. My mother died in 1998. The whole shebang was surreal. Mom had been dying three times a year for a decade. She had deathbeds in Alabama and California; places I could not get to without long expensive plane flights. But I tried. I really tried for the first couple of years. Then I said, “Fuck it.” With an eye on being the good daughter, I lobbied my husband for Mom to come live with us. He said, “No. I am not having that woman who caused you so much pain live with us. I can’t watch her hurt you.” He left the room, slammed every door in the house before driving off in his rusted out Camaro. I sat in our house still rattling with his anger. Okay, that was a resounding no-go.

So time passed; Mom continued to have near death experiences. My sister went to live with her. I sent money secreted from my own account but a few times from the household account. Ten years passed until one day I received a phone call from my sister. “Mom is dying. She’s not going to make it through the night. Get on a plane.” Uh-huh. My sister rambled while I rolled my eyes. I don’t remember why Mom was “dying.”

The next day, I received another phone call. “Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it … “ I finished the sentence, “Through the night.” My sister yelled until she hung up.

My sister called again on the next day. I looked at the caller ID, answered nonplused, “Don’t tell me. Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it through the night.” My sister was all kinds of pissed. “Look call me when she’s got one foot through death’s door,” I said and hung up.

The rest of the week passed into the weekend. Monday around a quarter to one, my father called me. We chatted in a weather-report kind of way before he said, “Well she did it.”

“What?”

“Your mother died thirty minutes ago,” he said.

I stood looking at the phone, examining the soft blue hue, feeling the weight of the receiver in my hands, and inside … nothing. Then both of us started laughing. “Oops, I misjudged this,” I said.

“She was dramatic,” he said. We hung up. Big portions of my life began. I felt free. Open to the many different possibilities of living without the specter of her cruelty.

The loss did not hit until ten years later when it was safe to mourn. I was writing a short story based on a fragment of memory – an interaction with Mom where not one character in the story was sympathetic. Mom’s motivations were beyond my understanding but I knew the event happened. I looked for explanations of Mom’s behaviors in books, class notes, newspapers, and family albums. I found them. With that information, her actions, some good but mostly horrific, made sense. Compassion for her battled my history of contempt, grown from the minefield she dug. The confusion caused my gut to knot, my head to pound, and sizzled my dreams to the point of night terrors. When my perceptions of the world have reorganized so I don’t feel like I am peeling off my skin, I’ll tell you.

Mom would say to me, “To know everything is to understand everything.” Maybe she was giving me a way to view her life and behaviors in a larger context.

My therapist would say to me, “All behavior is productive.” Maybe he was asking me to stop with the duality of right and wrong.

They were both right. I weep for my mother, the no-escaping tragic course of her life, the bad turns she took, and the relationships she blew. I weep for myself, the mother I never knew until she died, the things we could not do together, and the long years we spent hating each other. On this Mother’s Day, you can celebrate or feel nothing, mourn or let it go, I will support you either way. Not everyone has a Rockwell family.

Garlands of Daisies (55 word story)

“I made garlands of yellow posies in childhood.

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All too soon, my mother took me to buy my first bra.   Slyly that night, with tiny, skillful stitches, she altered it. The next day, I decorated my sprouting breasts with embroidered daisies.

Nowadays, I grow luscious gardens of multicolored flowers in the loam of my body.”

This is my little 55 word story I wrote in honor of my mom buying my first bra. Celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month – buy flowers, maybe daisies, for the women in your life – mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, coworkers, and anyone else.

Big hug.

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