For my Sisters in #MeToo & Otherwise
I am an accomplished published poet, viewed by many wonderful people to be highly gifted. I am a civil rights advocate—a force of nature, in that regard, a blogger, essayist, scholar, lover and wife, a steward of the magnificent English Golden Retriever. A fundamentally good person in spite of many flaws, I believe.
But, for 45 years I saw it as my job to cater to men—to please them, even the most derelict and unappealing stranger, whose appetites I saw it as a duty to sate—with a homecooked meal and sex as unforgettable as I could make it because I kept thinking it would purchase me love.
It is immensely painful to say these things and I do it because I can no longer keep my shame to myself. The burden is too great. We are in a time of truth-telling with one exception, the dirty profane pig who inhabits the White House, whom we need to depose or dispatch from this world, one or the other, for his abuse of women as much as his abuse of the United States of America.
I want to preface what I say with this: I have the great fortune to be loved by a good man, someone with whom I have been in a relationship forged by alternating periods of joy and adversity for many years. Someone who seemingly accepts my past, forgives readily, is far more of an adult than I in his circumspection. More on this later.
I feel that it is important to come clean in the most literal sense, as if settling into a hot bath in a safe world of my own making, like the draped clawfoot tub I had in a little trailer in the stable next to my home, where I would wash off all evidence of an encounter I had just had, telling myself I had just had a wonderful time.
There was nothing wonderful about such times—once in awhile a little sexual transcendence. But in nearly every case, what I gave was immensely disproportionate to what I got. And the kind of shame I explore here is the kind in which one feels dirty, contaminated and sullied, and therefore unworthy, of being used goods.
I could confess every sordid encounter, explicate how it made me feel, but I am not sure that this is the most important thing. A few examples should suffice to set the stage: how when I was new in AA I was hit on by allegedly “sober” men I was too profoundly vulnerable to resist. One would see me going into a restaurant, invite me to get into his van, drive up to the foothills overlooking a lake, and I would obediently give him oral sex, sometimes choking, telling myself that I had to go through with it, that I owed him and had passed the point of the right to say no.
In another case I met a truck driver, an esoteric, tall and handsome 60 year old with a wife with MS. He drove an 18-wheeler between my city and Utah; his attention made my heart beat faster. We began an affair in which he would call me, park his truck and ride with me to my trailer, my sanctuary, where I would keep his beer mug chilled. We would go back to the bedroom for intense sex that aroused but did not fulfill me; I faked it to get through it, telling myself it was good, afraid to show him what was good for me.
Another such dilettante lived in the mountains where he had a relationship with a woman he described as not liking sex but whom he otherwise loved. He too was tall and charismatic, casting a long shadow over my chronic loneliness. I serviced him and sometimes in the most mechanical and meaningless of ways, he would service me.
Even when some of these men were boyfriends with whom there was the semblance of intimacy, I had this same profound sense of obligation to keep them coming back to me with mind-blowing sex. At one of my lowest points, I screwed the guy in the program everyone was screwing and I found out why, enduring the pain of accommodating him, switching myself onto high beam, exulting only briefly in the very brief power I had over him.
Isn’t it about power at the end of the day? The power the cobra has over the mouse, the power the cheetah has over the gazelle fawn?
In the 70’s, a blur of wine, men, and loneliness taking me from Colorado to Minnesota to Europe and back to Colorado, I honed my skill in the sack, rolling around in my sheets in a sweaty clench with strangers—perhaps I was trying to master what I saw men do, dipping their beaks into every open flower.
In reality I was cross-pollinating my own shame, insuring that I would lose my hard won sixteen years of sobriety because I was in so much pain—relentless and lonely pain, the pain and shame of having letting myself be used, and knowing it..
At one point I underwent an Episcopal ritual with a priest I had gotten to know, a Rite of Confession and Reconciliation, a version of AA’s “Fourth Step.” I couldn’t disclose every detail, although he encouraged me to, but he said something judgmental to me and I clammed up so that any relief I might have felt was short-circuited.
For decades, I cured my loneliness and the pain of multiple stockpiling abandonments by continuing on, discovering Craig’s List Denver, posting in “Seeking Sex with No Strings.”
Oh, the momentary high and fix of anticipation of a rapidly filling e-mail box, that someone whose enticing photo I had seen was on his way to me.
Once again, once someone was in my home, no matter whether he matched his photo or not, inevitably saying to me that he only had a “few hours” before he had to get “home,” I went on duty. I believed that it was my job, my role, my bounden duty, somehow, to go through with these hook-ups.
I was bewildered by one thing. How was it that after such intimacy, such “passion,” they could just drive away? My euphoria would wear off, and I would turn back to alcohol or potentiation of prescription drugs, not seeing entirely, what I was doing to myself.
In 2017 I fell from a horse and shattered my right leg, which deformed. Suddenly, emerging from five months in a nursing home, I lost my appetite for nearly all of it. I carried a torch for the man who is now my husband, who had been a friend and ally with me through it all, but who had we both thought at the time, put our early past as lovers behind us. I had no hope of his ever changing his mind about our being done in that department. And, we had a painful history too, of good times and agonizing ones, inflicting deep wounds on each other that had begun to heal. I contend that no intimacy is easy and when two people try to commit with their baggage in hand, they are asking for a rough ride to anything like stability.
But that he was closed down to me physically at the time made him safe, obviously; he was my confidante and broad shoulder, helping me overcome my fear of leaving my wheelchair, beginning to weight-bear, and eventually leave the nursing home. I took an apartment and then I spent four years writing and growing and the last thing I wanted was the old fix, the old shot of adrenaline.
What I don’t hear from women identifying themselves with #metoo is anything about what might be in their personal pasts that made them vulnerable to victimization. I hear a good deal of pinning the tail on the donkey, of blame. Men are beasts. They are a class of perpetrators unto themselves.
If you pose this question to those in the movement, they bristle with antagonism. They immediately accuse me of blaming the victim, smearing me.
Let me give you a leg up, sisters in pain, whose wounds are surely as deep as mine. It is time to open the core wound, the core betrayal to the light.
I believe that my relationship with my father has everything to do with my sense of obligation to “take care of/caretake” men and let them have their way with me.
I adored my father. From an early time, he was all I had, because my mother was repeatedly diagnosed with mental illness and hospitalized. I became his mascot, his sidekick who went with him into the mountains in his job as a forest pathologist for the government.
When my father drank, he underwent a personality change. I remember certain things that are like clues along a path into the heart of an Africa in my childhood, a dark continent where dark things happened to us all in a family without boundaries, afflicted with alcoholism and drug addiction.
I was my mother’s proxy. The feminine and female presence in our home, even though in the beginning I was a little girl. When my mother was absent, my father was profoundly depressed and lonely, drinking.
I ask myself at this moment, what was my job—it wasn’t to be a five or six or seven year old with a carefree life. It became something else.
There was a lesson I learned one black afternoon, when as I remember it, my father grabbed me and kissed me on the mouth, plunging his tongue down my throat. I remember that he drew away, his face darkening, in what I sensed was shame.
I remember how I felt: uncertain,shaken, aware that some world I did not understand had just been revealed to me.
I was a sitting duck for this bereft man, who was supposed to protect me and safeguard my innocence, who seemed to not be able to cope with his own emptiness, my mother’s absence.
I have chosen to not excavate this ruin. It is enough, isn’t it, to imagine that there were other things I repressed, excused, thought I should do merely because I loved and needed him?
I even saw it as my job to reassure him, to fill her shoes, somehow absorb his grief and need.
So it was that I went on duty to him, feeling responsible for his happiness. We took long trips across the desert together, staying in cabins on the Navajo and Apache reservations together.
I sometimes have fragments of memory, flashes on a shorty pair of pajamas I had with blue forget-me-nots on them. Too early, I began to obsess about sex, to learn to pleasure myself. I came to understand what I had to do to purchase love.
I believe that these things are the reason I have encouraged other women to stay out of the black pit of self-victimization. I lived there, falling into it again and again, writing poems about it all.
What can be done to change the past, the course of a life, a personal history? I watched both my parents wear down with terrible illnesses, my father running out of air. If I was his lover, he paid for it in gasping for every breath in years of grueling emphysema until his last day on earth.
It is not going to fix our brokenness or our wounds to blame men or ourselves. To do the same laundry again and again, hoping to wash the blood and the rank odor of Scotch and sweat out of it.
What does work is to find a way to surrender the burden of the past on a spiritual level; to allow ourselves to move on, to see and to accept the gifts of the moment, the tasks of the moment.
At this moment a manuscript is waiting for me. Someone whom I love very imperfectly is out working on a fence. The clock is ticking. Life is short. A garden in ruin can undergo a resurrection; Spring will come again and new growth where the fires of pain have obliterated a landscape. If we need bit by bit to summon the courage to go spelunking into old caves, to visit old graves, we must be sure we can nurture ourselves and be loved through the work of giving birth to the new Self, the whole woman we are each meant to be, without the pain, the blame, our own shame or the need to shame others.
Copyright Jenne’ R. Andrews 2018