Tuesday, December 12, 2017

#MeToo: READING HELEN GARNER AND KRISTEN ROUPENIAN

Heading to the Women's March on Washington
Over the last several weeks, in the wake of  #metoo and the endless slew of sexual harassment allegations in the news, I found myself turning to a book by Australian writer Helen Garner.  The First Stone is a work of investigative journalism/memoir - and I devoured every word from the moment I first picked it up.

It's about a charge of sexual harassment made by two female students in the 1990s, against a college professor in Melbourne. Although the case ultimately came down to one person's word against another, it ruined the professor's career - and took a huge toll on his accusers.

 But what makes Garner's analysis extraordinary, is the way she examines first one side and then the other - parsing generational and gender perspectives, interspersed with her own experiences. "What happens to truth when rage and fear and ideological passions are on the rampage," she asks.

She begins with asking why the young women went to the police? The affronts were relatively minor. Couldn't they have been addressed more immediately within the college and on a different basis?  But here's a second equally compelling question she addresses: Why do women so often becomes passive at the time of an actual sexual offense, only to come forward in full force long afterwards?  Some of Roy Moore's defenders have asked this question. Why are they coming forward now?

In her analysis, Garner recalls a time when she was the victim of an assault. "What was my state that allowed me to accept his unattractive advances without protest?" she asks. "I was just putting up with him. I felt myself to be luckier, cleverer, younger than he was.  I felt sorry for him.  I went on putting up with him, long past the point at which I should have told him to back off.  Should have? Whose should is this? What I mean is, would have liked to. Wanted to.  But I lacked the... lacked the what?"


This reminded me of an experience I had in my twenties.  I'd discovered that my sister's then boyfriend was the stepson of a man I had worked for a few years earlier.  He had a small recording company in Cambridge Massachusetts and upon the discovery of this new connection, he invited me over to catch up.

 I had not been in his office for more than ten minutes, when he began to make the moves on me.  I was completely surprised.  I had been interested in his mind.  I thought he was interested in mine too!  How naive I had been. Your mind? You actually think your mind is interesting? Of course it's not your mind!  You're a pretty girl. What else do you have to offer.  These were the recriminating thoughts that ran through my head.  But still I was shocked that in spite of the fact that my sister was going out with his stepson,  he was willing to take such a risk. He locked me in an awkward embrace and in his gravelly voice explained that he had always found me attractive.  The next thing I knew he had his tongue in my mouth.

Why didn't I simply kick him in the balls?

First, I was afraid of changing the mood so drastically - even though the atmosphere had been altered for me beyond repair.  I didn't want to embarrass him. Here he was, this fifty something guy - Whatever had given him the idea that I, a pretty young woman in her twenties, would find him attractive? Therefore, I wanted to help him save face.

Also - and this was equally crucial - I didn't want to unleash his displeasure and anger.  I was afraid and suddenly on high alert. I didn't want to be raped.  We were in a basement office in an old brownstone and I needed to get out in one piece.  So I sat with him for what seemed like an eternity on his horrible leather sofa, with his arm around me, pretending to make chit chat - all the while trying to work out how to  extricate myself without further damage.

"Thank you for sharing with me," I remember him saying as I made my escape. Sharing?

I never saw him again.  But of course, I did have to face my sister's boyfriend. And although I was planning on telling him nothing, as soon as he saw me he knew what had happened. He read it on my face.  I felt so guilty because now he knew this about his mother's husband and I couldn't undo the damage.

What would have happened had I slapped him across the face or simply asked him to show me out of the door?  Well, I remembered another time when crossing a street in Boston, and a car of guys drove by in a convertible heckling me, and in response, I flipped them the bird.  Boy, did I regret it. Because what that gesture unleashed was a stream of such violent and hateful verbal abuse that I ran into a building on the other side of the road and cut my way through to another street - afraid they would follow me.  Another pedestrian  - a man - came to my rescue, screening me from the car as we crossed the road.  "What did you do?" he asked in amazement.

Well, I had stood up for myself. I had insulted their pride.  I hadn't laughed it off or smiled. I had not been flattered by their attention.

This is not to say that every action that has the potential to be offensive, actually is offensive.
Another time, during the same era, I remember a man yelled out at me as I was walking down the street "You have the best ass in Boston!"  He was driving by on a busy street and wasn't going to stop - so perhaps that's why it didn't seem threatening.  In fact, dear reader - I actually took it as a compliment!  Why?  I do not know.  I do not know.

But that was in the 1980's, and a lot has changed since then.  There's the internet and its proliferation of porn - there's texting and sexting and dating apps - all of which I feel grateful to have escaped.

Which brings me to Kristen Roupenian's story Cat Person which has generated so much controversy this week in social media.  The reluctance - in fact, the impossibility of walking something back once certain sexual buttons have been pushed, is part of what the story is about.

At one point, prior to having sex with a man Margot thinks she likes but barely knows - (a man she's already discovered to be a terrible kisser), she reflects that “It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting that they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.”

Yup  - that old passivity again.  It rears its head when you believe you have done something which has inadvertently pushed things forward to a point of no return.  Messages have been sent which you didn't intend to send. And you feel responsible.

It's often only later - as Helen Garner observes in The First Stone - that anger builds up and a woman feels she must take action.  Sometimes this happens when she grows older and more confident.  I've always hoped I will turn out to be an old lady who won't hesitate to hit a disrespectful man over the head with my rolled up umbrella if necessary! I hope I am well on my way to becoming such a nasty woman.

pink hats at the Women's March on Washington
But when we are younger, Helen Garner maintains, our sense of powerlessness, our inability to protect ourselves or our children from the real predators of the world "must get bottled up and then let loose on poor blunderers who get drunk at parties and make clumsy passes."  That's what happened
with Al Franken. "The ability,"  Garner continues, "to discriminate must be maintained. Otherwise all we are doing is increasing the injustice of the world."

I couldn't agree with her more.

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