I am nervous about this post because I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to name names. But let’s edge up to it, shall we?
Last weekend I was “My Angry Vagina” in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. It was a local production benefitting Middle Way House. I first heard about Vagina Monologues many years ago when Ensler was here to perform it. I remember the furor around town that the word “vagina” was emblazoned big and bold on the billboards promoting the event. But that’s kind of her point.
The Monologues are just that: A series of monologues based on interviews with hundreds of women about their bodies, particularly their relationship with their vagina. The writing quality varies, but there’s enough to make you laugh, to make you cry, and a lot to make you think.
I auditioned with “Because He Liked to Look at It,” which chronicles how a woman goes from hating her vagina and being ashamed of it to being in love with her body, all due to her sexual encounter with the innocuous vagina connoisseur “Bob.” I liked it because it had a lot of range. They also had me read “Cunt,” which is about reclaiming the word. I didn’t like that one as much, not because of the content, but because it was more like riffing on poetry rather than doing something dramatic.
So I was cast in everybody’s favorite bit, the ranting vagina. Jenny Gibson gave a legendary performance of it last year and she left huge shoes to fill. I worked with the divine Diane Kondrat to get inside the piece.
The first time I read it, I was a little uncomfortable. After all, I would have to say “vagina” multiple times. And “pussy.” These are Things We Do Not Speak Of. I read through it again and warmed up to it. By the third read I was like, “Piece o’ cake, now how do I break this down into beats?” Maybe it’s because I swear like a sailer, but the mysterious words no longer had power over me. From then on it became a dramatic exercise.
At the evening performance, Lara and I set up some chairs behind the curtain onstage so we could listen to the show. This is the only time I’ve heard the whole thing. It was a great experience as a feminist celebration of womanhood. All these words that we’re not allowed to say being reclaimed. Being said so many times they lose their unsavory connotations. Released into the light to become just another aspect of ourselves to celebrate, like our creativity and our intelligence and our compassion. Brought out of the darkness.
The play opens with a rundown of euphemisms for “vagina.” They are hysterical. “You need to air out your pussycat” is one of my favorite lines from the show. But when I was growing up, I didn’t have euphemisms. I didn’t have anything. I had no words. Not even “down there.” There was just nothing in my head, so it was like this whole part of my body didn’t exist.
Until he came. The first Bad Man. The worst Bad Man. There would be many others over the next twenty years but he was the worst because he was the first, the most trusted, the most ruthless. I stopped trusting men after him.
His name is Ron Hampsten.
I have never said his name publicly. I have rarely said it all, even to therapists. But to name a thing is to have power over it. Or so say the traditions of my religion. He was the father of my best friend.
I was somewhere between eight and ten when it started. We only know this because it was about this time that I began beating up boys. I stopped beating up boys when I was about 15, when I had been told by every authority figure that it wasn’t “feminine” and I “couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a boy or a girl” and it was time to “grow up.” So I started cutting my wrists. That was acceptable. That was feminine.
In 1990 when I was 22 I stood in the library of Nottingham Polytechnic in England, my hand poised in the air for what felt like hours. The book I was reaching for was on recovery from sexual abuse. But to pick up that book—to touch it—would mean it had actually happened to me. That it had been real. But I was determined to heal. I sobbed quietly and picked it up.
A few weeks later I went through a mindfully constructed series of rituals to name what had happened to me, acknowledge its influence on my life, and begin to heal from it. I had my friends in the States sending me energy and I had a wide variety of guardians and guides as I went on my way through realities and memories. And I was amazed at the smart, resourceful little girl who was then known as Carol.
I have bits of memories, nothing linear. I was in the pool with his four children and he was beckoning me to him, telling me he was going to teach me how to float. He had done this before so this time, knowing what was in store, I said, “No!” big and loud. But he insisted, smile on his face. When he did what he did to me, I gasped, “Ow!” but he did not stop. He took turns with all of us in the pool. His wife, “Mrs Hampsten” (my sister probably remembers her first name; I don’t) was 15 feet away, cooking hot dogs on the grill. Did she know?
There were a variety of episodes but there’s one that’s bifurcated. I have two equally clear memories. I was lying next to my friend, asleep, when he came into the room. The light was pouring in from the hallway. I became aware of him over me, pulling up my nightgown. I had practiced a million times what I would do if robbers or monsters broke into my home, so I did what I had always done: I pretended like I was sort of waking up and rolled onto my side. He dropped my nightgown and backed out of the room.
Or did he? The other clear memory is that Mrs Hampsten came down the hallway behind him and whispered, “Ron!” He then dropped my dress and hurried out.
Which is true? I will never know.
Somehow I told my best friend what was going on. I don’t have any memory of telling her, but I do remember a walk we took one night some time after he’d stopped abusing me. In the darkness, she confessed that he had been sexually abusing her every Thursday night while her mother was out bowling. Now he was starting in on her younger sisters. It wasn’t enough that he was hurting her—she was only spurred to action in order to try to protect her sisters. I told her she had to tell her mom. I have no memory of what happened next.
Because I had no name for the body parts he was raping, I had no way of conceptualizing what was happening. It never occurred to me to tell my parents. We didn’t talk about such things. I knew my body was dirty and sinful as a daughter of Eve but I was very hazy on the specifics. Like so many victims, I blocked all memory of the episodes from my brain.
When I was 15 or 16 I was setting in church and the priest was giving a sermon on sexual abuse. Like a light slowly dawning, I realized, “That happened to me.” And I was grateful that I’d forgotten. Why? Because in the intervening years I was a manipulative liar and I knew that if I’d had this in my bag of tricks I would have used it against some unsuspecting bystander. I was glad that I remembered at a time when my soul was purer and more noble. I was glad there had been no repercussions.
No repercussions. None at all. Like the fact that when similar things happened with other men later, I always froze or at best tried to misdirect their attention. I could not defend myself, even after I’d gone through the deep healing process of serious ritual at the center of my spiritual universe. There, in the core of my being, I gave myself permission to kill anyone who tried to touch me against my will again. Two years later, in a peaceful English graveyard, a man in his sixties kept calling me “me duck” and tried getting his hands all over me. And I froze. Again. Perhaps I always will.
It’s a miracle to me that I had a wonderful sex life as an adult. All that ritual paid off in one sense, at least. I never had any flashbacks or anything like that. But I always trusted my partners absolutely, too. They were all good men.
In 1997 I went through a revolutionary healing process that completely changed my life. I still celebrate Rebirthday. I truly came into my own. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I trusted myself. I loved myself. I knew I could cope with anything that came my way. My mental illnesses would be with me, but they’d be manageable. I’d never fall so far as I had in years past. This healing wasn’t about sexual abuse—it was about every aspect of my life, particularly mental illness, and it totally transformed everything it touched.
But then on 2 January 2000, something catastrophic happened to me. I know it and I name it in my head but I will not name it here. It happened. And everything given to me and earned by me in Rebirthday was swept away.
Eve Ensler was here the other night to give a lecture at the IU Auditorium and she talked about being dissociated from your body. I kept crying. I know exactly what she means. She talked about not knowing when we’re hungry, not knowing when we’re sleepy—treating our bodies as machines. This is exactly what my relationship with my body is like since the catastrophe happened.
I never get hungry. I eat on a schedule. I get dizzy if I go too long without eating, so it’s convenient to eat at 2 and 8. I drink milk and water to keep me full in the meantime.
I never get sleepy. I have shiny medications that put me under in 20 minutes, and on the very rare night when I don’t immediately fall asleep, I pop an Ambien and away I go.
During the recession my alter ego’s business almost collapsed. I somehow lost weight. Then I lost more. Then I lost more. I ate half a turkey sandwich for lunch. I ate a quarter cup of granola for dinner. Sometimes I would vary it by having a bowl of plain, air-popped popcorn instead of granola. I was taking in fewer than 1,000 calories a day. I got down to 110 pounds. My clothes were falling off me. Friends and family expressed concern. But at business events, all I heard was, “You look great! Business must be doing really well!” Note how the two things go together. If I could just get thinner, I would look more successful, and then maybe someone would give me some work.
At the urging of my therapist and psychiatrist, I went to see my GP. She was very calm and said she didn’t want to see me lose any more weight but she wasn’t going to freak out and make it worse. She changed all my vitamins and supplements so I could start getting better nutrients. I decided I would stay at 110—109 meant I had anorexia, 111 meant I was fat. 110 EXACTLY was where I would stay.
I stayed there for two years. Then somewhere in the haze that is my life I began gaining weight. And I couldn’t stop. Now I’m at 135/140. And I’m totally out of control of my eating. Or more accurately, I’m constantly trying to control my eating. I alternate between starving and bingeing. I lost three pounds this last week. So I made brownies today and will not be able to stop eating them. I will gain the weight back. I will hate the treadmill and the elliptical and most importantly myself that I am so weak and I will go back to turkey and popcorn for a few weeks. Then more bingeing. Back and forth it goes. My GP says I need to slow down and really taste my food and my eating will come into balance. But I don’t want to taste it. I don’t want to eat at all. I just want my body to do what it’s supposed to do and shut the hell up. I am living Fatso.
The woman who cuts my hair has several daughters. From a very early age she has taught them to refer to their genitals using the proper terms. When her eldest reached menarche, Alicia took her to a fancy Indianapolis hotel, got them mani-pedis, and then explained sex in very matter-of-fact terms. Her daughters know their bodies. They understand their bodies. They are friends with their bodies. They are reliable and strong and pliant. They are fully integrated with all the other aspects of self.
I hate my body. I hate the chronic pain. I broke my back when I was fifteen and was never taken to the hospital so it didn’t heal right. I have been in multiple car accidents that left me with soft tissue damage. My hips and knees ache. I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I hate my fat, uncontrollable body. The way it won’t stay satisfied with plain popcorn. The way it betrays me when I need it to be strong and resilient.
And yet I’m grateful that it thwarted some of my abusers. I love my body when I dig my feet into grass or sand or rest my aching back against a tree. I love the feel of the earth between my fingers as I work in my garden. The medications I take for my mental illnesses have robbed me of much of my ability to dance, but when Lotus comes around, I can count on my body to celebrate. The days of pain afterwards are worth it! And now I’m grateful for the words that I never had as a child—vagina, vulva, labia, uterus—that remind my dried-up self that I still have the potential for passionate creativity. No man was ever able to take that from me.
My relationship with my body has careened wildly throughout my life. As a child it was strong and resilient with a dark continent of no-thing-ness in the middle. As I grew older and damaged it in accidents and sports, it became something to fight against. In Rebirthday it became something to celebrate and rejoice in. And now it’s a millstone around my neck, a ravaged record of every broken promise made in sickness and in health.
I am grateful to Eve Ensler for giving me the means to reclaim some tiny island of peace amidst the raging seas of self-loathing. I have a long way to go.