Still a fighter

May 14, 2014

Last Saturday I took an acting master class with Constance Macy at Cardinal Stage Company. In one of the exercises, two people took the stage with a set of keys. Person A was supposed to try to get the keys from Person B. Their only line was, “Give me the keys.” Person B could speak if they wanted, but they were not to give up the keys. It was an exercise in seeing how many interpretations could be brought to a single line. It was also an exercise in responding to what your partner gives you, similar to the “Yes, And” improv game.

There were two pairs who went before me and I saw them being clear, powerful, wheedling, seductive, and threatening. But nobody was doing what I felt in my gut. I jumped up at the next chance and took the keys. I would be the “no” character. My partner was a tall, middle-aged, talented man who is currently working on Les Mis at Cardinal. I felt a little intimidated because I’d seen him in a few things and he definitely knows his stuff.

Unlike the people before us, he’d come up with a reason for wanting the keys: I had had too much to drink and he didn’t want me driving home. This was a good reminder to me to give lines a context. But I was immediately belligerent. “No fucking way. You want the keys, come and get them!” He circled around me (everybody did that, it must have been the most obvious character choice) but I stayed hostile and kept my distance.

Then I followed my instincts and got right up in his face. He was yelling at me and I was giving it right back. I felt adrenaline coursing through me and I was on a kind of high as I prepared to fight him. I held the keys in my right hand up near his face, taunting him. He grabbed that arm really hard and stared me down, really angry, really wanting the keys, yet not willing to take it to the next level and hit me. I then did something quintessentially me: I tossed the keys from my right hand to my left hand right in front of his face. No words, just the motion that said, “Ha ha, I am in control here, I’m going to show you how puny you are.” I felt like I was a teenager. He squeezed my arm even harder (Method, anyone? I thought for sure I would bruise, it hurt all day) and we just continued staring each other down, right in each other’s faces, until the instructor called “Enough!”

I found it fascinating that it was so easy for me to go back into that part of myself. After I was raped repeatedly by a friend’s father when I was between 8 and 10, I started beating up boys. I had all this rage inside of me and I resented the societal order that gave all the privileges to men. I never beat up girls; rather, I was their protector. Especially as we got older and the boys started making unwanted sexual advances on the girls, I would call them out after school or at the football games (I eventually was banned from the games for fighting so much) and I would beat the crap out of them.

I was under a lot of pressure to stop fighting. My parents, the principal and vice-principal, the teachers—all the adults in my life wanted me to “stop acting like a boy.” They wanted me to be “ladylike.” My vice-principal said, “Carol can’t decide if she wants to be a boy or a girl.” The pressure just mounted and mounted. I still feel it as a physical weight, pressing me down.

And so I snapped. The same year I stopped fighting boys, I started cutting myself. That was acceptable. That was ladylike.

For most of my life, people have been uncomfortable around me. I have been a polarizing figure. The way I look, the way I talk, the way I move, the way I think, the values I hold dear, are all threatening to a lot of people. And they try to disappear me. Self-mutilation was a good thing for them because it could always be ignored. I could come to the dinner table swathed in bandages and not a word would be said, but if I punched a boy in the face there were his parents to contend with. Better that I should be docile.

When I was 17 I started fighting again, only this time it wasn’t physical. And it was against injustice in general, not just men. I protested with words and deeds but I had been converted to non-violence and civil disobedience. My family didn’t respond well to that. We were a classic alcoholic family and I was threatening to disrupt the lie that we were happy and normal. They turned against me in the end. It got physically violent. My therapist says that was their fault but I still feel responsible because I was so provocative.

There was one time where one of my brothers and I were in a room yelling at each other. He reached his limit and tried to flee. I dashed over to the door before he could get there and, just like on Saturday, got right in his face and taunted him. He grabbed me by the throat and threw me across the room. I got up in a flash and charged after him down the hallway, screaming, “You’re shit! You’re shit! You look down inside yourself and all you see is shit!” It was true and I was reveling in the freedom of finally yanking the rock up and exposing the sordid underbelly of our family dynamic. By “forcing” him to be violent towards me, I had exposed him. And I was on cloud nine.

There were other incidences, all following the same pattern. It was not pretty. But I actively wanted them to be violent towards me, to break the lie that said we were a happy family. I hated the deceit of the dysfunction we were living. There came a moment where my life was in danger and all I could think was, “Do it.” Not just because a part of me wanted to die. More than that, it was so that it would prove, once and for all, that we were not the controlled, polite family projected in Sears portraits on the wall. I would rather die than perpetuate the lie.

And apparently that impulse is still somewhere inside me. Don’t piss me off. 😉

How women support patriarchy

April 27, 2013

Well, that’s a big title, but all I want to do is record a passage from Eve Ensler‘s thought-provoking book, Insecure at Last: Losing It in our Security Obsessed World. It relates to my “Feminism by any other name” post.

She talks about her time in Kosova (I don’t know why she calls it Kosova, I’ve always heard it as Kosovo, but she’s the one writing books about it, not I). She has been interviewing women to learn their stories and to give them the space to begin to heal. She is returning to a bombed-out home with supplies to help a small family of women which has been hoping against hope that its menfolk will return. And lo and behold:

Her son Agim was a big man, strong, muscular, dark-haired, in his forties. He seemed paralyzed—unable to move or talk. Maybe it was our arriving at that moment and being witnesses, maybe it was his hearing I was from the United States, but for some reason he looked at me, threw his arms around my neck, and started weeping. No, it was more like wailing. I have never heard a sound like that. He would not let go. The wailing grew louder. I sat down in order to hold him better, and he buried himself in my arms. Then this weeping wailing began to build and release. It could not be controlled or stopped. It resounded through the neighborhood. People from the village began to gather around.

I held onto Agim, but inside, honestly, I wanted him to stop. All these years I had told myself I wanted men to be vulnerable, to have their feelings, to cry. All of a sudden it felt like a lie. I did not want this man to be so destroyed, so out of control. I wanted him to have answers and be tough and know the way and make everything work out. I understood how part of me was afraid of men being lost, how I needed them to be tough and sure. I understood how many years I had carried their invisible pain so I wouldn’t have to see them weak or ashamed. This weeping liquid man in my arms was my undoing, pulling me out to sea in the wild waves of his crying.

The wailing went on. His body shook and thrashed about. It was as if I were holding the secret story of men in my lap. Centuries of male sorrow and loss, centuries of unexpressed worry and doubt, centuries of pain. I suddenly understood violence and war. I understood retaliation and revenge. I understood how deep the agony is and how its suppression has made men into other things. I understood that these tears falling down Agim’s face would have become bullets in any other case, hardened drops of grief and rage directed toward a needed enemy. I saw how, in fighting to live up to the tyranny of masculinity, men become driven to do anything to prove they are neither tender, nor weak, nor insecure. They are forced to cage and kill the feminine within their own beings and consequently in the world.

I remember once in the long ago, when I was walking down to the post office with my once-upon-a-time fiancée, I was criticizing this and that about him. Nattering on and on, digging and digging. With this perfectly wide open, vulnerable, beautiful face, he turned to me and asked, “Why do I always have to be the strong one?” I was speechless. As so often happened with him, he raised a mirror to my faults and gently allowed me to recognize and correct them.

In my case, I was actually trying to protect him, in a twisted way. I don’t remember what we were talking about before that, but it was clear to me on a subconscious level that his comments expressed his vulnerability on the issue. On cue, I responded like I had since I was a child: Attack the vulnerability and eliminate it before higher powers notice it. My siblings and I used to do this to each other—cut each other down before our parents could notice our weaknesses and do greater damage. It was our way of looking out for each other.

I have never forgotten what he said to me that day, or how he said it, since it threw into such stark relief how I viewed his role as a man (and how different his self-conception was). I was plenty strong for the two of us; I didn’t need him to carry me. He had a different strength, a gentler strength, deep and passionate but not tinged with violence and sheer pig-headedness as mine is. And I had not made room for it. As much as I decried patriarchy, I was demanding that he take on a patriarchal role—one that hurt us both. It is a mistake I hope never to repeat.