Light fills the hall of the old Key West Armory, streaming in from the high windows like fairy dust, soft and white and unusually strong for a winter’s day in January. The house buzzes with excitement until Margaret Atwood steps onto the stage and a hushed quiet fills the room. I crane my neck, hoping to get a glance of her from my seat in the very back row, but I’m too short and the woman in front of me too tall. Frustrated, I shove my purse under me to get some height and there she is – her unruly mane of wiry hair, her too-white complexion, her eyes – blue, steely. Steady.
Perched on my roost of leather and lumpy wallet, I’m not steady at all. I feel like a flighty bird unseated by an inexplicable feeling of anticipation mixed with dread. The blank pages of my journal rest in my lap, open and waiting.
Margaret takes her seat on the raised dais, like a Goddess or a Queen, which she has been to me ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale, a science fiction fantasy that chilled me to the bone every time I held it in my hands. Don’t be silly, I’d tell myself. There was no reason to fear what kept creeping into the back of my mind while turning the pages, which was that this could happen, might happen – that our freedom, our gains as women in America were merely a rickety scaffold holding up a barely built cathedral.
In 1985, when the book came out, I had just left a bruising career as a punk rock singer and was diving into the “Dress for Success” eighties, throwing away my spandex and stilettos for the female version of male suits, complete with the floppy “feminine” bow ties women were encouraged to wear as they entered into the corporate class. We were post-liberation women, well past the messy fight for access to contraception and abortion fought by our older sisters, moving on to executive suites outfitted with soft carpeting and glass ceilings. Atwood’s story of fundamentalist Christians stripping women of their rights and dividing the female population into breeders and groomers and “Marthas” was just elaborate futurist fiction, right?
Twenty-seven years later, I have come to hear the woman whose words have haunted me ever since I read them. Among the sea of bodies near the front seats, someone raises her hand and asks Margaret how she came up with the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale. Did she think something like this could ever happen to women? Really?
Atwood barely blinks as she gives her answer. “I didn’t make any of this up,” she says. “It has happened and it is happening.”
I can feel my heart sinking below the polished pine floorboards she speaks of the handmaiden Leah in the Bible, of the way women are used and abused around the world, of the threat of fundamentalism and fascism, the use of fear to coerce women and enforce the privilege of patriarchy. “You can always tell when authoritarian rule is on the rise. The first thing they do is attempt to take control of women’s bodies.”
I scribble her words as fast as they are spoken, but after awhile the roar inside my head is so loud that that very little gets through. What I had intuited when reading this book, what I knew in my heart and could not allow into my head has just been confirmed by the woman who wrote it.
It has happened. It is happening.
And I can’t pretend otherwise anymore.
As a child, the tales that nurtured my young mind were of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, stories full of castles and curses and handsome princes. Growing up in a chaotic household with a father who was both a King and an ogre and a mother who fed me on fantasy and fear, fairy tales were not make-believe, they were must-believes, the only way out of a world where a small girl had little control over her life and even less power in the kingdom.
“You think you’re Cinderella, don’t you?” my father would say when I balked at doing chores at home or tending to the small tasks he assigned me when I accompanied him to his dry-cleaning store on the weekends. Half-joke, half-rebuke, we both knew he was stating the obvious. I dusted and washed and baked at home, bagged clothes, took lunch orders and cleaned the bathroom in his store. Most of the time, I didn’t mind the work, even took pride in it, because it made the King favor me. What I did not see was how this affected my Mother, who had Queenly dreams of her own, and my sister, who was forced into the role of Court Jester. Like Cinderella’s evil step-mother and step-sisters, both of them envied me – although there wasn’t much to envy besides the attention of the King.
Then again, what else mattered? In our family, our culture, our 1960’s America, where women had limited options in the outside world, the favor of the King was everything. Women, big and little, were pitted against each other in a world that hinged on access to the men who ruled. Limited resources to male privilege made enemies of sister and sister, mother and daughter, a dynamic that exists to this day in the stereotype of the catty, back biting woman .
Surviving in a landscape of lack takes cunning. You must find ways to slip in through closed doors; be grateful for the scraps you are fed, shed clothes, shed soul, giveaway yourself and pretend to like it. Do not see. Do not hear. And do not speak unless it’s what the powers that be want to hear.
The way I learned to survive was by following the bread crumbs of my fairy tale heroines. I was crafty. I kept my mouth shut, did what my father told me to do. I learned to flatter him and listen and not say what was on my mind. I was really, really good at this, anticipating wants, needs, moods before they erupted into rages. If something happened that felt wrong, I buried my feelings, took on the shame and didn’t say a word. It was obvious what happened to women - like my mother - who talked back. They were cursed: Bitch. Cunt. Friggin’ whore. Blood was spilled. Bruises appeared.
As I polished the faucets and waited to be rescued, I bided my time and bit my tongue. I believed, with all my heart that one day my prince would come.
1974. The world is upside down. My father is dead, having taken his life four years before. Woodstock has come and gone. The youth counter-culture has made its mark and the war in Vietnam is finally over. Women have burned their bras and pushed back against male chauvinist pigs. Roe v. Wade has just passed, granting women the right to a safe and legal abortion. Contraceptives have made “free love” possible. It’s a good time to be young and female in America.
At nineteen, finally unfettered by my father’s chains and “the man’s” rules, I am a wild child. My world is weed and long-haired hippie boys, rock and roll, women’s lib and power to the people. I hang with hippies and break the rules. I call myself a feminist and claim that anatomy is no longer destiny. I can go anywhere, do anything. I am woman. Hear me roar.
But the truth is I am more kitten than lion. I am naïve and needy, wanting so badly to be a part of something bigger than myself that I routinely ignore the darker truths lingering on the edges of my beloved counterculture.
At a Santana concert, I dance with a hundred others in a daisy chain, our bodies facing the crowd of people who have gathered around us in a circle. Each time I pass a certain part of the circle hands reach out and grab my breasts and crotch. A year later, walking among the crush of people in the streets of a Florida Spring Break town, anonymous hands again grab my ass, my tits and I keep walking, shocked and silent and untrusting of the truth my body knows. I ignore the way my beloved male rock icons write lyrics in their songs that demean and debase “chicks” like me. Ignore? Hell, I’m so clueless, I sing along.
But being voiceless for so long drives me to want to express myself. I write my own songs, sing the blues of strong women – Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton. After my first year of college, I run off to California to become a rock star or at the very least, to live in the land of peace and love. Heading out to a friend’s house on a dark night, I am jumped on the street, choked almost to unconsciousness and dragged into an abandoned garage where I am raped. After it’s all over, the man who has assaulted me empties my pockets. He robs me of my last twenty dollars but returns my small stash of pot. “Here,” he says. “I don’t want to take your stuff.”
Even though I’m in shock, I realize the irony of his statement. He has just taken everything, including the soul of who I might have been.
The day after the rape, I call the Berkeley Women’s Center Hotline. Two women arrive in a van and take me to a Consciousness Raising session, which in a happy coincidence is being held on that very day. I do not report the rape to the authorities, nor does anyone suggest I do. In the early 1970’s, police are “pigs,” the enemy. There is no rape hotline, no rape kits and not much support from law enforcement. In those days, the standard advice from the police is “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
In a room full of macramé plant holders and paisley prints, I become the focus of the consciousness-raising. What happened to me, they point out, has been enacted on women for centuries. I need to turn it around, use my experience to empower myself and other women. To drive their point home, they quote passages from Eldridge Cleaver’s recent book, Soul on Ice, where he advocates raping white women to further the radical black agenda.
My mission now is to become a soldier in the sexual wars. “Remember,” they say, “The personal is political.”
At first, I eagerly take on this mantle of activism. Being angry feels a lot better than feeling fear and pain. But no amount of feminist raging can take away the obvious. I am fearful. I am in pain. And I’m ashamed of feeling this way, because the message is loud and clear, even from the women who claim to fight for women. Get over it.
The problem is I can’t.
For three decades, I will suffer from undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological disorder that, ironically, was first identified for veterans of the War in Vietnam the same year I was raped. Sexual assault and “domestic” trauma will not be acknowledged as triggers for PTSD until the mid 1990’s and even then, women will not get the help they need because they are ashamed and afraid of being blamed for what happened to them. The prevalent view, one that hasn’t changed much over the ages, is that most women are either lying or asking for it.
As America enters the 21st century, thousands of women like me, will still hide, still pretend they are “over it,” limping like emotionally foot-bound Chinese courtesans through the rest of their lives.
When I walked out of that consciousness-raising session in Berkeley, it was like a blindfold had been ripped off of my eyes. I saw evidence of women’s subjugation everywhere: in the working world, in academia, in the newspapers, in ads, on billboards, on television. It was overwhelming to be this clear-eyed, this awake to how woman were kept in their place and indoctrinated into submission.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. Untreated and traumatized, being cognizant of the endless onslaught of female repression became too much for me. I returned home to Ohio and let go of fighting for women, instead concentrating on navigating through the world with my invisible handicap. Although I shook with fear when I walked on the streets alone, I got on with my life as best as I could. I went back to school, rode the wave of the rights that had been established for women, pretended things were not that bad, not for me, not for women in general. I took a Women’s Studies course where the most strident voices in the room were those of the lesbian separatists. Although still committed to the idea of women’s rights, I became unsure of exactly what being feminist meant.
I liked men. I wanted a boyfriend, a husband, a life. My problems, my own struggles took center stage. The pervasive misogyny I saw right after the rape receded into the background. To be honest, it was a lot easier just not to look.
Like my fairy tale heroine, Sleeping Beauty, the sting of reality was too much for me. I welcomed the trance of not knowing.
Meanwhile, thorn bushes began their steady climb up the castle walls.
The 1980’s threw kingdoms all over the globe into a panic. Religious fundamentalists in Iran dethroned a king and took Americans hostage. The Ayatollah and his followers banned woman’s mini-skirts and freedom, hiding them in burkas and confining them to the walls of their homes. In our own country, Ronald Reagan and his cronies ushered in an age where politicians curried favor from the religious right, asserted their voices as the “moral majority.” Our economy took a dive. Gas prices went up. Manufacturing jobs began to go down.
The revolutionary fervor of the 1960’s and 70’s was gone. What was there to fight about, anyway? The Vietnam War was over, women had their rights, black and white America was integrated. The youth culture was no longer young. Hippies were out. Yuppies were in. Conspicuous consumption became the drug of choice. People had kids, mortgages, responsibilities.
Women, who had been college-educated in unprecedented numbers in the previous two decades , began to think about having careers, not just jobs. A quiet revolution was taking place in the business world, driven not only by equal opportunity but by the need for additional income to maintain a family in an economy burdened the soaring inflation of the 1980’s. Women were no longer relegated to being nurses, teachers or secretaries. We could be managers, bankers, even doctors and lawyers if we got into the few allotted spaces in law or medical school. Skirted suits gave way to pantsuits, which were as much an acknowledgement of women’s place in the business world as it was fashion statement.
Great strides, it seemed. But while we took on increasing responsibilities, our roles as homemakers and mothers did not change. Now we had full time jobs in addition to kids and household tasks. We were working harder than ever, for lower wages than men in jobs that offered limited promotional opportunities, often in a workplace culture of sexual harassment. The old pattern of keeping silent to keep what little we had became the fallback position. Feminism didn’t seem relevant anymore – after all, we had the ability to plan pregnancies and earn a living. Wasn’t that enough?
Because women were no longer forced to depend on a man for their basic needs, they had more choices. The divorce rate skyrocketed as women who were able to support themselves left abusive and unhappy marriages. Sisters were “doing it for themselves,” Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox sang in 1985. Of course, for many women that meant leading the life of a single parent, saddled with more responsibilities than ever. Our freedom became another kind of ball and chain.
Who had time to think about what had not changed for women, that we were still underpaid and overworked, that we were under-represented in Congress, the Boardroom and the very top echelons of business. American women, including our daughters, sisters, aunts, friends and mothers, were still victims of rape, harassment and domestic violence. In fact, for many, domestic violence did not end with separation or divorce, but took on a new, darker edge as boyfriends, lovers and husbands continued to threaten, stalk, beat and murder women who had the ability and gall to say “No.”
In 1976, only three years after Roe v. Wade granted women the right to a safe and legal abortion, The Hyde Amendment passed in Congress, which banned the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape or incest and the health of the woman. This was the first volley in a long and unrelenting battle of the legislative chipping away at the right of a woman to determine her fate. Abortion clinics were protested by picketers holding up pictures of fetuses in jars, then by threats and violence.
We turned our heads as we drove by those demonstrators with their bloody fetus signs. We kept re-electing male lawmakers who further eroded a woman’s right to choose by adding clause after clause to the Hyde amendment, further weakening a woman’s right to choose. We went about our lives, thinking our work was done.
Were we asleep? Or just too damn busy?
I was asleep.
It was a willful sleep, assisted by alcohol and drugs to keep the flood of fear from rising to the surface. The goal was not to feel. Not to know. To dream the dream of denial.
Then my fairy tale came true. I married my handsome prince. We bought a small castle and lived somewhat happily ever after.
But my prince did not rescue me.
We can try to run away from our past, but it attaches to us like a shadow, waiting to be made conscious and freed. Because of the dynamics of my childhood, the too-close relationship with my father and unsteady one with my mother, I became a woman who turned to men for friendship as well as love. I longed to be “one of the boys,” both for protection and the fear of acknowledging myself as a powerless woman.
Locking away my true self behind a persona of bravado, I hid the effects of the rape well, keeping silent about the terror that consumed my body when walking alone on the streets. By sheer guts and the company of my husband and canine protector – a fierce wolf-husky – I was able to navigate my way in the world.
Eventually I took steps to resuscitate my dreams. I went back to graduate school and got a degree in cable communications, a new technology which was just beginning to take hold across the country. And along with my husband, I formed a punk/new wave band.
It was the band that was my undoing.
Being the only woman in a rock and roll band is like having an all-access pass to the boy’s locker room. I never knew there were so many derogatory terms for women or so many inventive ways to refer to sexual acts. At first, I tried to assert my own artistic vision, but I grew less confident among their smirking comments and grunting asides. My guitar player, a particularly messed-up misogynist, had strong and strange views about women. According to him, sex with females was supposed to be only for procreation, which might have explained his proclivity for sex with men and disgust for the many women he did fuck. He was a strong personality, charming and abusive like my father, and I fell under his spell, eventually allowing him to dictate the way I dressed (stiletto heels, push-up bras), the way I did my hair (bleached and teased), they way I sang - which he insisted should sound as “little girly” as possible.
If I ever had ideas about putting my own words into the world, my own music, the music of a strong woman singing about her life, that dream was slowly slipping away.
When the guys joked about women I knew and liked, or ended rehearsals with a call for ‘poon hunting, I shrugged it off, laughed at their “jokes.” Why? Because, the potential reward – the fame and fortune to be had –was worth the compromising and denial. And like a lot of women who align themselves with anti-women men, I foolishly believed being in their camp made me immune to their disdain.
I felt like a traitor to myself.
Hippie chicks, punk girls, we all have to grow up sometime. After the guys in the band decided they didn’t need a “chick singer,” I resumed my career aspirations, dressing in bland polyester suits and slowly rehabilitating my wild, bleached-out hair. Alone in my room, I wrote songs that reflected my deeper self, writing a lot at first and then a little and then very little.
I tried to make it in the corporate world, and was quite good at it, even though I felt like a fraud. Eventually, the psychic wounds I had tried to stitch shut with booze and drugs began to rip open. I dreamed of my father pulling me into the grave with him.
And I began a long process of healing myself.
The night I was raped, I did not scream. I did not utter a single word. Not once. The voice I was trying to birth as a young woman in California, the voice I attempted to wrestle out of a childhood of not being heard, left me that night.
It took a very long time to get it back.
When I finally could speak again, I wrote a book. It was about a woman who needed to walk with dogs by her side for most of her life, a child who both loved and feared her father; a girl who witnessed the dismantling of her mother’s voice by a man wracked by the twin furies of mental illness and a broken heart. It was about a young woman whose spirit was banished to the underworld for a very long time.
It was my story and I said so.
You cannot hide when you write a memoir. As I was writing, I had to push past the critics in my head who told me to give up, who asked “Who who wants to hear about this – a decades-old rape, a woman held captive by her own thoughts, a childhood of terror and silence.” “Who?” I swatted away at the voices, kept my head down and fingers on the keyboard, because I thought I knew the answer: other women who have been raped; other people who have lived in fear and shame; anyone who has been told to shut up.
I needed to hear it. Hear the sound of my own voice finally saying what it needed to say so desperately, for so long, but never could.
And as I found out, other people needed to hear it, too.
Once my words were out there for anyone to see, a strange thing happened. I discovered that my story was not just my story. It was and is the story of many people who tell me, in whispers, in phone calls, in e-mails, at book fairs – it happened to me, too. I never told anyone.
This, I realize, is how spells are cast.
And how they are broken.
Let’s talk about the spell of silence. Or not talking about the things that we cannot stand to see. Things like rape. Incest. Murder. More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century . Yet we stay quiet. We do so to protect ourselves, to remain invisible so we will not be shunned, shamed or annihilated. These dark truths are taboo, a violation of the social order. To utter them is to rip the veil off the lie. To invite disorder. Chaos, even. But that is the only way to create change.
Judith Herman, in the introduction to her landmark book, Trauma and Recovery, states, “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud; this is the meaning of the word unspeakable.”
The price we pay in keeping silent is considerable. Around the world, women are enslaved, tortured, murdered, kept ignorant, hidden, mutilated, raped, beaten, battered and stoned. Even worse, they made to feel responsible for their abuse.
It is this shifting of the blame on to women that helps keep the seal of silence intact and makes the crime much more palpable – both to the one who commits it and society at large. I am thinking of what my own father would say every time he beat my mother: “She asked for it.”
Who would ask to be beaten? Who would ask to be raped, to be abused, to be held against one’s will? The assumption that a woman is guilty until determined innocent is the story that we, as a society, tell ourselves in order not to believe, not to hear, not to protect women. It is the story that keeps women from telling their stories. It is held in place by shame, the most potent curse of all.
Shame mutes the tongue, keeps the unspeakable unspoken; because to speak of what happens is to indict oneself. Shame says not that one was wronged, but that one is wrong. It protects the perpetrators and perpetrates a climate where the unspeakable can happen again… and again.
When the publicity phase began for my book, I found myself wrestling with using the word “rape” to describe what had happened. “Assault,” I wrote for one publicity blurb, then “attack.” Then, sexual assault,” which felt slightly more accurate and slightly more comfortable than the shame-loaded word for what occurred.
During a radio interview, I did the old soft sell and said the book was about the thirty years I spent enduring the effects of being “attacked” on the streets of Berkeley. The interviewer, a woman, said, “Well, yes. But … Oh, let’s say what it was… You were raped.”
“Yes,” I said. It was a relief to have it all out in the open.
After the interview, she told me that she too, had been raped as a young woman. “It’s time we stopped skirting around the issue.”
Skirting around the issue instead of addressing it head-on. Isn’t that what we wearers of skirts are supposed to do?
From that time on, I worked on confronting my reluctance to speak the word. The more I said it, the more the consonants and vowels of that unspeakable word were formed, the easier was to own it, contain it, wring the core of its meaning into being.
The origins of the word come from Middle English , where the meaning referred to the violent seizure of property. Later, it denoted the “carrying off a woman by force,” which eventually became, “forcing of another person to have sexual intercourse against their will.”
But it this first definition, “a violent seizure of property,” that provides the key to understanding the heart of the problem for women. The fact is, underneath it all – despite voting rights and the equal opportunity and the ability to decide whether or not to have children – remains the age-old assumption that women are property.
If you are property, you can be owned but you cannot own yourself. If you are property, laws can be made restricting your use and boundaries.
The United Nations recently underwrote an unprecedented study on violence against women worldwide. Out of 10,000 men surveyed, one half reported the use of physical and/or sexual violence against a woman and one quarter of those surveyed admitted to rape. The most common motivation that men cited for committing rape was to sexual entitlement — a belief that men have a right to have sex with women regardless of consent. In other words, women’s bodies as public property.
As American women, we know we’re one of the lucky ones. We have access to education and freedom of expression; we can work, play, vote, drive cars, fly planes, crash through glass ceilings, travel unescorted through our days. And we can own property. But ownership of the female lands –including that small but fertile acreage of womb and uterus inside us – is still very much in dispute.
That brings us back to the Handmaid’s Tale, narrated by a woman who was once independent and free but now finds herself living the life of an anonymous breeder. If you think this is a fairy tale, consider this: Between 2011 and 2013, over, 205 abortion restrictions have been enacted on a state level*, more than the last ten years combined. A woman’s access to and means of contraception is on trial at the highest levels of government.* Rape, the violent seizure of a woman’s body, continues to be seen not as a crime, but as a lie made up by women who regret having had given in to their sexual urges. This unspoken assumption underlies the assertion by several politicians during the 2012 United States congressional election that during a “legitimate rape” a woman cannot become pregnant because her body shuts down the reproductive cycle*. It also speaks to the bullying of a thirteen year-old girl who was gang-raped in 2013 by members of local football team and accused on social media of “ruining lives” when she pressed charges against her perpetrators.* And what happens if a pregnancy does occur as a result of rape and a woman does not or cannot obtain an abortion? In thirty-one states, the rapist is granted paternity and custody rights. * Think about it: there are laws on the books that grant perpetrators access to his victim for the rest of her life.
Perhaps the most alarming trend in anti-female legislation is the current enthusiasm for fetus “personhood” bills that are being floated through state legislatures. This law, which denies a woman the ability to terminate a pregnancy for any reason, grants more rights to a zygote than the adult human whose body it resides in. In essence, it reduces a woman to a version of Atwood’s handmaiden.
When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, my psyche was still too unstable to endure the fear and outrage the story awakened in me. But writing and telling my truth has transformed me. I can speak again and I’m not going to shut up, even though it’s still scary, even though coaxing the words out can be hard and difficult work, even though I know there will always be those who will try and silence me and my kind.
“Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their story is told,” Judith Herman says. “Murder will out. Remembering and telling the truth …are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and the healing of individual victims.”*
Walking the malls and streets of America, I see little girls everywhere dressed as fairy princesses in crinoline tutus and pale pink tights. How I would have loved to be able to dress like that in public as a child. But I’m concerned that another generation of women may be falling for the illusion that they are powerless and that their only way out is to dream of handsome princes and magic potions. A high school teacher tells me that many of her female students say their plan for the future consists of marrying a rich man who will take care of them. The fantasy lives on.
Fairy tales were originally written in code to warn children – especially girls – how to make their way in a hostile world. The advice was subtle but clear: Be patient like Cinderella. Be passive like Snow White. Be beautiful like Sleeping Beauty. And keep silent. Magic will save you, the stories say.
I say words will save you, save all of us.
This is how it works. We tell our secrets, our shame, our suffering. We hold each other up as one story after another, one tale, then two, then more, get told. We begin to see that bravery has its own kind of beauty.
When Sleeping Beauty awoke, nothing had changed; all was as it was one hundred years ago. In fairy tale terms, that’s a happy ending. In reality, it’s a nightmare. Women have suffered for centuries and continue to do so. We cannot afford to re-live the past. Unleash your voice, your anger, your truth. Wake to your own story.
This is how new endings begin.