A 40-something female friend told me recently she had no #metoo stories. None. Had never experienced unwanted, inappropriate advances from a man. Frankly, this shocked me a bit, followed by a small wave of other emotions: disbelief, judgement, envy, and, of course, my loyal, invisible best friend: Shame. “Look at her,” Shame whispered. “She obviously did everything right. Where did you go so wrong? Was it really that hard to say no? Or just not put yourself in terrible situations? What a disgrace.”
The #metoo movement has cracked open a well-armed vault in my mind. A simple hashtag and an avalanche of brave voices have blown open the doors to a hard, hidden history. The stories flare like camera flashes through my memory. Random storyboard moments, somehow alive again, for a newly-reconciled narration: Remember that time, old boss from the addiction counseling office, that you asked me to help you look at hotel rooms for an upcoming conference? How you were given a key to view the space and layout. (It was a $99/night place near the truck stop–honestly, what is there to see?) Remember when we walked in that room and there I was, all naive in my mid-twenties, in my first real “grown up” assignment for a job, glancing at the dumb little desk, the Naugahyde ice bucket, attempting to put forth some kind of worthy professional opinion. Remember how I said something like “It seems fine to me. Should we just let the conference planner know we’ll hold the block of them?” to which you replied “Or, we could stay and try it out for a while.” Your small-mouthed half-smile, lips fiddling with maybe irony, maybe not. I was likely wearing baggy olive-green overalls, as was a trend in the early 2000s. Hiding my body came from a being raised in a family of hard workers, where femininity was a little mascara, curled bangs and matched colors in an outfit. But that’s it. No form-fitting tops. No patterned pantyhose in cute black flats. That would come later.
In the hotel room that day, I very likely didn’t connect all the dots, except the biggest dots, from my belly-brain to my head-brain. Nope nope nope nope. Something is weird. This guy who could be my dad is saying this to me? The same guy who corrected my grammar just last week? I know that I let out a chuckle of confusion and appeasement. Let him think that I get his joke. Don’t make things weird for him. FOR HIM.
Poor young, Michele. You didn’t even know that this would be the first of many times you would work very hard to not make things weird for the “him” of the room. At least in that moment, you slipped out the fake-mahogany door unscathed. That time, no other boundaries were crossed. It is a moment clearly marked by a man’s terribly wrong behavior. It’s obvious to me that he was the lech and power-player, the male boss vs. his young female employee, and I can easily and rightfully feel disgusted by his actions.
However, such moments of clear transgression aren’t always the most common. When it comes to relationships, sex and consent, borders can be unclear, not fully formed, and easily broken. Almost always, at the center, is a man perceived to have some kind of greater influence. Yet, can we say he was the monster? What is mine to bear? Again, stories, play out in a stuttering mental slide show: something that seemed like rape in your own bedroom, by someone you loved. Or the thing with the riding crop. Or the fat hands here. The muscled arms there. The other boss always eyeing your black tights. Your best friend’s drunk husband’s out-of-nowhere hand. The no’s that bellowed like foghorns through the cloud of your brain, caught up in your throat. Don’t make it weird. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. Be the cool/good/right girl.
These stories, lately, are choking me instead of holding firm in their usual place between heart and stomach. Stories all wadded up like tumors pressing against my lungs. Breathing and speaking is slow and jumbled, ending in many questions for the world. Now, they’ve begun breaking off in chunks and I’m strangling. This means, I know, they must come out soon. I’ll open my mouth one day and out will fly stones, or, more likely, poor dusty moths, all light-blind and frantic.
Until I find the best way to let those words out, I’ll talk about the solace found in a podcast. A podcast that unexpectedly cast a transformative light onto the black matters of my past. Recently, my whole being was jolted into truth with the Dear Sugar Radio’s series about sexual consent called “Into the Gray.” You know the Gray: a space of time, moments or months, when a “no” came out as “yes,” a trembling, question-mark, love-me-please yes. The moments we said ok, or simply failed to say stop, until suddenly, bile in our guts forced us to understand it should have been a resounding “no.” Years later, even now, that bile rushes up when we let the memory linger too long. These are the times of living in the Gray.
But women don’t talk about these gray places. We don’t share with our friends things like: “I put that outfit on. I put that face on. I liked it. For a couple minutes-hours-days, I liked it. No, I liked how he liked it. I wanted him to need me. So I let him do X. And as he was doing it…as we were doing it…I wanted to cry. I saw my self beneath it all and would have given anything to say no. But I couldn’t. Because…it was my job to make this all work. Because I had become a master at creating a future in my head that I’d force to seem beautiful in real life. Because outside of all this muddled pain and shame, I looked like I had it together. So, I kept it looking like that. Mostly.” Saying any of that would mean three things: Fucking slut. Shitty Feminist. Failed daughter/friend/woman. Your. Own. Damn. Fault.
I love gray. Did I mention that? My car. The paint in my office. Every thick cotton hoody, most of my jackets, my favorite after-work sweatpants: all gray. While online-shopping a sale the other day, here was my thought: “No more gray shirts. No more gray! You must order a color.” I chose a rusty orange. Breaking free, one sweater at a time.
However, gray is different in matters of the men in my life. Living in the gray is as awkward as a dance step for me. I’ll encourage balance, non-judgement and exploring multiple sides of an issue to my friends and family, but for me? No. I’m not allowed that. Being a girl who was brought up to blame herself for everything, there is mostly only black or white. Especially when it comes to perceived flaws of self. You either do things right, or you’re a screw up. I wasn’t taught that truths could exist in a middle place, or could change over time. Didn’t learn that there is often not just one truth at all, but many. When it came to journeying into an adult life, I was on my own, with my black-and-white rulebook, shame my compass.
As with so many things in my adulthood, a new education and self-perception has come from cognitive-behavioral therapy, reading all manner of memoir, literature and self-improvement, and lately, practicing mindfulness meditation (albeit sporadically). One of my greatest teachers has been listening to the stories told in podcasts. All I can say is thank you, to the brave letter-writers of Dear Sugar, and to Cheryl and Steve and their guests, for pulling this gray into the light. This aching mess of doubt caught for years in my soul can slowly be unknotted. It will take time to process all of these stories, the hurts and the complexities, so that I can make sense of my own difficult histories. But knowing we are out there–the Dwellers of the Gray–helps me walk a bit straighter, casting off in fragments the weight of my perceived failure and shame. And, maybe for many of my experiences, casting the blame where it should actually lie.
I hope any woman who has ever found herself in the gray will spend time with these three episodes of “Dear Sugar.” I hope their partners will spend time here, too. Maybe to develop a better understanding of what consent really means, and how to understand a lover whose ever been strangled by the gray.