I Do Not Feel Unburdened By #MeToo, But I Do Feel Freer of the Burden
Before I became aware of the Me Too movement — you have my sincerest gratitude, Tarana Burke — before I had to knowingly witness abusers everywhere in every sphere around me, the ugly criminals lurked privately in my mind. That’s not a good place for criminals, but at least I knew where they were. They were secrets I could withhold or give away as I saw fit. I could choose if, when, and in how much detail. I could choose to whom I would reveal the information. I was both lock and key. Before Me Too, there was a kind of power I could retain in telling or not telling.
I feel much less in control of that now, because when we opened up and told our secrets together, we also unveiled a lot of bad men. I knew they were out there, because I’d witnessed what they could do first hand, but before Me Too I couldn’t see them so readily. I could pretend we were all safer than I’d been trained to feel. Denial is a useful trick of the brain.
The thing that had kept me quiet about abuse, rape, and harassment was the same thing that had made it possible in the first place: we live in a world where what men do to children, women, and other marginalized people outside the public eye is considered a private matter, a man’s matter. Sexual assault is a private matter because you’re an object he naturally acted upon. It’s his story, and you should have expected it. What happens to us at home or in other unshared spaces belongs to them. If our stories affect the lives of men, we are to whisper, if we even give voice to our stories at all. We know who society believes has ownership of the narratives resulting from men’s choices: the men who got what they wanted. The narrative is not ours.
But, the thing that kept me quiet was also the thing that doled out a feeling of control, however small. It was a power I held after feeling powerless. I could hold my assaults out as an offering of intimacy with other survivors. I could withhold them for self-preservation or as my nuclear option. At the same time, though, I knew that secrecy was not a true power for me. We’ve all seen what happens even to more influential women. Those of us who’ve been sexually assaulted are the kind of people who everyone knows should be quiet, or must be quiet. Anyone in our position who is not too ashamed to speak of what happened is not ashamed enough, is obviously not damaged enough, to have truly been hurt. Hell, we might have even enjoyed it. If you speak about it, you must be a liar.
Before Me Too, this pain was private, and it was about private matters.
After more than a year since I began my witness of Me Too, this pain is no longer private. We opened the doors. It lives in public. This pain burns in films with actors now noted for harassment and company heads who raped and wreaked vengeance on those they couldn’t. It burns in books piled on my shelves. It burns in this culture that indoctrinates all of us. It burns in the people I know who knew and did nothing. It burns in the religious organizations I’ve worked so hard not to hate. It burns in my social media timelines and text messages and journals and dreams at night.
Healthy or not, I once could tuck the pain away into a pocket constructed by a survivalism built on cultural mores, denial, and shame and fear about what were once considered men’s matters. What’s private, though, has become more public, and women and other marginalized groups are living out loud in public like never before in recorded history. Some people think Me Too is too public, too overblown, too big, too much, but I know the surface has just been scratched. We uncover a Weinstein, we grumble some more about Affleck or Polanski, we tsk-tsk over politicians handling women’s bums during photo ops, but we know most abusers are closer to us than that. This isn’t just about men we see in the media. They’re family friends and relatives, they’re your mom’s cousin and your father and the boy you went to school with since kindergarten who regularly cornered you. They’re the funny uncle who’s not so funny. They’re your boyfriend.
Over the last year, the spotlight has been on famous men who’ve been accused of “sexual misconduct”, as though their hands and genitals had charted a nicer sexual course before — whoops! — they just happened to land poorly on the wrong person’s body. They’re the least of this toxin, though. This runs deep through all our communities. It’s not just about publicly bad bosses and politicians and celebrities. It’s about this being everywhere. It’s in our cultural products, it’s at work, it’s in our homes, and it’s in all the places we go between here and there. It’s about a culture that fosters this perverse fungal bloom in the dark of what are still considered men’s matters. The Catholic Church knows how to do it very well. Many of your families do, too. We’re taught it young. School’s enforce it with special dress codes for girls. I was told to sit with my knees together lest I look like a slut when I was an underdeveloped 11-year-old wearing Holly Hobbie glasses. I was gifted a rape whistle at 12.
There was a time I could walk out of my house, and, aside from the myriad things I had to do to stay safe from bad men — keys between knuckles, bold and fast pace, eyes everywhere, assault dry-runs practiced in my head, public places cased for dangerous corners and safe allies — there was a time I could leave my stories behind me, or at least keep them quiet and stuffed down. There was a time when that could be done. It was unhealthy, and having to live like a hunted animal is complete and utter bullshit, but I could at least tuck it away with our general social agreement to keep quiet about the worst of it.
What a horrible thing to miss.
I don’t know what to do now with this lid torn off. The toxic secrets I bore as both wounds and weapons are not just mine now. Millions of us bear the collective weight of our violent assaults together since last year. It felt good, it felt enlivening, to hear so many people sharing what had happened to them. None of us were alone anymore, and I have been able to connect with so many people who no longer have to live in silence. What I didn’t realize a year ago, though, is that really knowing this happens to at least half of us would not heal me, even as it was socially transformational. I had believed for many years that the light of day would unburden us — as though metaphors about climbing out into the light were true things — but I do not feel unburdened. I do not feel unburdened.
While I am raw, and I am still heavy with the assaults I’ve experienced, there is an invigorating anger in this rawness. Imagine those lunatic Finns rolling pink-skinned in the snow after a hot sauna. There is a bright, fresh adrenaline rush with this exposure, a power that doesn’t rest as much in bondage to others’ crimes as it does in my choice to be free of them, or rather, if not free, freer.
I do not feel unburdened by #MeToo, but I do feel freer of the burden. I can imagine a growing gap between me and a once conjoined, nearly animate weight of grief. I can now imagine that space between me and it, and I can envision cool air on the freshly exposed skin on my back. My hope is made of this new power to imagine something different. I do not feel unburdened, but I do feel freer of the burden.