Sunday, April 21, 2013

Silence During Tragedy

I went to a history conference, and one of the PhDs at the front was talking about the common occurrence of silence during tragedy.  And, while those around me discussed WWII, and the Iran-Iraq war, and internment of the Japanese in Canada, I started thinking more about how uncomfortable people are talking about rape.

It all fit together for me largely because of a woman I once met, a friend's mom, who had lived in a concentration camp in Poland.  She had nine kids, and two were born there, while she was separated from her husband.  The guards routinely took women into their cabins.  But, she said, the difference between that time and place and now, is that when a woman came out of those cabins, the rest of the women were ready for her, with open arms and warm blankets and a soothing touch.  According to this smiling woman with only one good leg and numbers on her arm, rape couldn't be hidden there, so it was much, much easier to recover from.

The worst thing that's ever happened to me was watching my mother die by inches, so slowly and painfully, over five years of surgeries and near-misses.  Tragedy makes people feel awkward, but if I walked into a room and reminisced about how horrible those years were so long ago now, people would commiserate.  Even those who hadn't had a similar experience could muster the empathy to recognize how difficult it must have been because they'd be able to imagine how hard it would be for them to experience the same outcome, god forbid.  And the conversation would be made easier because it's all so far in the distance - almost twenty years ago now.  People wouldn't feel they had to console me at all, and some would gladly take up the offer to join in lamenting the fragility of life.  But one thing's for sure, people would talk with me about it.

But if I walked into a room and reminisced about being raped thirty years ago, I'd get a very different response.  People would look down, uncomfortable.  Some might be angry that I'd say such a thing publicly.  Why would I do that to them - shove it in their face like that!?  Others would feel the need to console and comfort me, to apologize for such a thing ever happening to me, even though it was decades ago.  And if I said I'm long over it, they wouldn't believe me.  We've elevated rape to being the worst thing possible.  It's not acceptable not to be destroyed by it.  And this perception alone makes it all the worse.

What makes rape so much harder than other tragedies to talk about openly?  To bitch about even.   We can openly complain about being robbed, assaulted, abandoned, our house burning down, a tree smashing our car, and the death of loved ones, just not this one thing that so desperately needs discussing.  So I wondered, is there anything else that gets that kind of a reaction - a particular type of embarrassment, anger, or concern?

And then I thought of that one time I read Gloria Steinem's essay, "If Men Could Menstruate," to an unsuspecting grade 11 class.  Most of the essay is a light-hearted and funny look at sexism, but there's this one bit in which Steinem describes a woman having obviously starting her period while giving a speech on stage.  The woman tells the audience they should be lucky to have her there since it's the first real thing that's happened to them in ages, but my class wasn't convinced.  That one scenario had some facing downward and some angry that I'd read such a thing to them.  It upset them to hear about people confronted with a menstruating woman in an essay written before they were born, but not upset in a way that made them feel badly for her, but in a way that made them feel badly for themselves having to know this story.  They were so outraged with me that I never read the story again.  I couldn't spin it the way I intended, so it had the opposite effect on them.

And I think, though I can't be sure, I think that if the essay had described a male speaker who had sudden explosive diarrhea or randomly upchucked from nerves right there on stage, people might have been grossed out and groaned, but many others would have openly laughed at the guy - particularly since it's in the middle of a funny essay.  They'd want to hear more!  A menstruating woman isn't funny.  At all.  And it's curious because she isn't even sick.  It's just a normal part of her life.  The poor guy would have to have something wrong to be so afflicted.   Yet we'd laugh at the guy, and feel embarrassed and uncomfortable for the woman - and angry at her and the writer and me for talking about it at all.

What's with that?

Is it that we squirm around discussions of rape because it's about "down there"?  Someone writing about getting their head hacked off with a saw is hilarious, but a menstruating woman is vile and way way over the line.  If we can't discuss periods and vulvas without flinching, then we'll never be able to talk about rape.

It's one reason I insist Superbad is a feminist movie (although I didn't get to the period scene)!  They at least had the guts to put it out there for all to see, to force the typical teenaged audience to get over it already - to put it on equal footing with other gross-out humour.

And it's one reason I speak openly with my class about the merits of a Diva cup over tampons.  Let them squirm; this is just part of life.  Get over it.  Because I want women everywhere who have been raped to know they can tell a roomful of people and be consoled - exactly as would happen if she'd been robbed or had a child die.  And to have women commiserate over the shittiness of it all.

Because if we can't talk about it, and then start bitching about it, and then get some traction together in solidarity, then the rapists will win.   And that can't continue to happen.

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