I won’t suck it up, Buttercup

Warning: coarse language and strong emotion

I’m enraged by Harvey Weinstein. I’m enraged that almost every woman I know has encountered a Harvey Weinstein in her life. I’m enraged that I can’t even write these words without my inner voice of dismissal going off like a gong inside me: whiner, victim, toughen up, suck it up Buttercup, where’s your sense of humour? This voice of contempt is implanted in me like a GPS microchip in a dog.

So I open Facebook and write: Me too. Of course me too.

And then I read Me Too on my daughter’s wall.

You too? My daughter?

My grandmother couldn’t protect my mother, my mother couldn’t protect me, and I can’t protect my daughter. Because sexual assault and harassment are almost as commonplace as breathing.

 So, yes, of course my daughter too. How could I be naïve enough to think otherwise?

Everywhere on the internet, women are saying, “Speak up, speak louder. Make more noise!” My memoir is my noise, my essays are my noise. Writing is my way of quelling that dismissive voice in my head.

When we stay silent, we stay on the same path that led us here. Making noise is making change. Making change is why we tell stories. We don’t want to have to tell stories like this one again and again. Speak louder. –Lena Dunham

When I cringe to think of my very personal memoir going out into the public sphere, I think of my daughter. And I think of my son. I wrote my memoir, End of the Rope, in large part so their stories could be different. But I didn’t include everything in my memoir. I didn’t write the backstory to my Me Too. Or to be more precise, I wrote the backstory, seven coming-of-age chapters, then took them out to go into a future memoir. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a publisher might look at my coming-of-age story and say, “Na. Been done before. The market’s saturated.”

Because life is saturated with coming-of-age stories involving predatory men who like to back young girls into the corner and stick their tongue down their throat. Like my friend’s boyfriend, Alfredo liked to do while his girlfriend was upstairs baking bread.

I’ve always thought that’s just life. That I was too sensitive. That I should get on with it. Or the absolute worst: that it was my fault. Because I hitchhiked. Or I was too friendly. Or I wore a halter top. Or I made eye contact. Because I had a living, breathing, warm body.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I was never raped. Possibly due to my strong defense mechanisms: tears, and projectile vomiting. And later, chewing tobacco. Unless, of course, you can consider it “rape” through your clothing while you’re almost passed out drunk on the floor at a party with dozens of teenagers watching and cheering on a boy twice your size. Thankfully I went to high school before social media.

No, I wasn’t raped, but I was grabbed violently by the crotch both in our crowded high school hallway, and at a busy winter carnival in Quebec City. I’ve been wary of crowds ever since.

I’ve been pinned down by boys, their leering faces close to mine, “I can do whatever I want to you and you can’t stop me.” Buttons wrenched open, rough groping. Crying helped in those situations.

I have had my head guided forcefully into a guys’ crotch, and told that he could get sick from “blue balls.” This even happened on a train going across Canada, making me wonder if date rape drugs existed in the 80s.

I wasn’t raped but I did have a little bits of my self-trust and power stolen from me with each “non-rape”.

But those were just boys. Boys will be boys and all that. The men were the ones to worry about. Men that I thought would want to protect me.

I worked at a pizza place owned by two middle-aged men who were obsessed with my virginity. “I think I see a sparkle in her eye!” they chuckled every time I came into work. Apparently, a girl gets a sparkle in her eye after her cherry’s been popped. They tried relentlessly to set me up with their leather-clad, 200-pound Harley-driving buddy who’d sit at the counter leering as I served him. “Come on. One date. Don’t you like me?”

When I did lose my virginity at seventeen, it was to a boy who spent two weeks, plus a whole evening at a party trying to talk me into it. A boy I considered my boyfriend. He managed to get my assent in that narrow window between drunk enough to do it and puking. I followed him out through the snow–stumbling and pissed to the gills–to his mother’s station wagon, and when he was done, he left me in -30 weather to pull up my pants and find my way back to the party. That night the puking came about ten minutes too late to keep me safe. He never talked to me again.

But thankfully, I was never raped.

And there’s that inner voice of admonition. Why did I drink so much? Why did I put myself in those situations?

Because our self worth was measured by the amount of male attention we got. Because we wanted to be wanted. To belong. To be loved. Because if we didn’t put out, we were called tight, cock teaser, uptight, bitch, no fun, frigid. Because if we didn’t have a boyfriend, there was something seriously wrong with us.

Amazingly enough, after that four-year minefield we call high school, I bounced out into the world looking for adventure in a tiny tank top and willowy hippy skirt, ready to embrace life, determined to do anything a guy could do. I was on my own, trusting, naïve, eighteen, cute, accessible, desperately wanting approval and a sense of belonging, and powerless. Everything a predator could dream of. I may as well have had a Fuck Me sign on my back.

I say I was on my own but really, my first foray into the world was with Katimavik, a government-sponsored nine-month volunteer program. My mother thought I’d be safe; I’d be supervised by group leaders and coordinators, with rules and structure, and it was Pierre Trudeau’s baby. But the coordinator used to take us under-aged kids drinking to the local pub, and one of those times I was picked up by a middle-aged, balding, sex-offender hippy who talked me into moving up Toba Inlet with him. It was my big dream come true –to live off the land in the bush. I hung out with him, sleeping in his truck in the Lund Hotel parking lot for two or three nights until I finally convinced him to take me back to my group. But I was lucky. He didn’t rape me. He only kissed me. He was grooming me.

Later, when my group leader, the one who’d scared off the hippy predator, told me there was something special about me, I felt complimented, until he told me he was sexually attracted to me. Then I was shocked. He was a father figure. I didn’t understand his attraction. I didn’t understand his anger. I was eighteen. He was my father’s age. “If I wasn’t married would you want to be with me?” he asked.

When my next group leader fell in love with me, this time I was smitten. He was under thirty, a dark-haired, dark-bearded, guitar-playing, Quebecois separatist and he’d chosen me! He borrowed his friend’s apartment for the night in Yellowknife so we could be “alone.” But because he didn’t approve of drinking, he ruined his chances of getting very far with me.

By age nineteen, I’d learned not to wear my little yellow tank top and willowy hippy skirt. Instead, I covered up my body with a baggy yellow sweatshirt and oversized army pants that had so many pockets not one part of my body had definition. I also gained some weight, which made me feel unattractive, but safer. I set out, undeterred, with a Fuck Vigilance attitude, to hitchhike across Alberta and BC by myself, still determined to do anything boys could do. In Banff, the first vehicle that stopped was an older, windowless van with two middle-aged men smiling from the windows. (Even as I write this, I’m begging that girl not to get in) To make a story of agonizing stupidity short, I ended up in their hotel room in Kamloops, willingly. I had a shower, unwillingly, but by then I was scared. I let them brush my hair, unwillingly, because by then I was paralyzed with fear. My baggy clothing was not going to protect me. “You have such a good figure, why do you cover it up?” When they both put their arms around me, I leapt off the bed and started to cry.

Apparently, tears are a turn-off for middle-aged men, not just teenagers. They snapped out of it and drove me to the bus station. I thanked them. I probably hugged them. I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.

I’d like to say that I learned from that experience, that things got better after that, but they didn’t.

My next job was on the coast of BC, up near Lund, working as a cook in a trailer for four loggers–two brothers, their father, in his sixties, and a partner. I held them off as long as I could–I needed the job–and finally started “dating” the youngest one. The only unmarried one. That wasn’t enough of a deterrent. Two of them still pulled me aside to kiss me. Or more.

I had my tent cabin, my sanctuary, way off in the bush in the woods, where I could escape. But one night, an aging hippy from the adjoining property came for a visit after dark to smoke a joint. I didn’t want to smoke a joint with him. But I did. To be friendly. I didn’t want him to sit on my bed beside me. But I didn’t want to offend him. I most certainly did not want to sleep with him. “You’re married,” I said, in case he’d forgotten. “We have an open relationship,” he told me. He reminded me of the special connection we’d had on the ferry, one I hadn’t particularly felt myself, singing John Prine songs together–me, him, his wife. He finally left in a huff, slamming the door, incensed because I’d encouraged him. I never told anyone. I didn’t want to embarrass him. I never felt safe in that tent cabin again.

Looking back, it’s an honest-to-god miracle I’ve gotten to fifty-six without being raped.

Fewer than two years out in the big bad world were enough to make me realize I needed to be able to protect myself. I needed to toughen up. I needed to rip the Fuck Me sign off my back.

So I started rock climbing. Seems like an extreme way to grow some defenses, but it’s amazing the survival skills you develop when you repeatedly and intentionally throw yourself into danger and successfully get yourself out of it. Climbing gave me physical strength and I began to feel bigger than five-foot-one-and-a-half. I stood up straighter. I walked more aggressively. I took up more space in the world. I didn’t feel like a target. And I started to believe in my ability to protect myself. Started to believe I’d be there for myself. Not freeze in fear when I needed to fight. I felt like if I could climb mountains, I could do anything.

I shouldn’t have to scare the shit out of myself climbing rock faces, or biking over rock slabs and slippery roots, or skiing steep slopes in the back country to develop my survival skills, but there you have it. That’s what I had to do. And my daughter has taken the same path. I see the strong sense of self and strength it gives her. It makes her less of a target.

The place we stand in our lives is in large part the product of the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And we have the power to revise these stories; we can find our words loosed from and thereby loosing us from the imposing grip of the past’s injustice and/or “wrongness.” Our inner voices still work. –Porochista Khakpour

Writing my memoir was my act of revising the story I’ve been telling myself about myself. It was a good exercise to get it down on paper, and now the final reckoning–publication in the spring. When I put my story out there for the whole world to see, that is me fully standing behind me. It is my final act of saying: Fuck permission. Fuck approval. Fuck apologies. Fuck silence. Fuck minimization. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

Be the heroine of your life, not the victim, Nora Ephron said. But being the heroine of my life doesn’t mean there aren’t bad guys–the Harvey Weinsteins–to contend with. It means we face them full on. It means we speak of them, write about them, roar about them from the mountaintops. When a woman breaks the silence, she is not whining and claiming victimhood, she’s finally taking off the cloak of victimhood. Being a victim is to silently brood alone until you develop irritable bowel syndrome and have to hire a psychologist for two hundred dollars an hour to tell your story to because your silence is slowly grinding you down.

There are women asking, “Why should I out myself? The guys should out themselves as the abusers!” Yes. They should. But we all know that’s not going to happen. So we write our two little words. Me too. We don’t have to go into detail. Not everyone likes to pontificate like I do. But if they hear our voices, they might wake up. The ones who don’t harass or abuse might become more aware of the Weinsteins of the world and stand up for women the next time, and who knows, maybe the Weinsteins of the world will get nervous. Especially when the next Carrie Fisher arrives at their door with a special Tiffany parcel.

I know this behaviour has been going on since the beginning of time. I know my little Me too isn’t going to change the world. But I do know change is possible. That guy that raped me through my clothes at a party? He came up to me two years later and apologized profusely. I laughed and waved him off. Hey, shit happens! But now I realize how important his heartfelt apology was. It meant he’d been thinking about it for two years. Agonizing, by the looks of it. It meant he felt shame, which means he knew it was wrong, which means he hopefully didn’t do it to anyone else, and never would. It means maybe he joined the ranks of the many other decent guys I know out there. Maybe he defended his daughter, and taught his son to be one of the decent ones.

Just a tiny move forward. Like my Me too. But it’s in the right direction.

This entry was posted in Chasing Granny, Chasing My Next Book, End of the Rope. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to I won’t suck it up, Buttercup

  1. Saskia Acton says:

    wow, this is powerful stuff. Thanks for being so open and sharing. This is so amazingly brave and heartfelt. It speaks for so many of us, too chicken to tell our own stories.

    • admin says:

      I don’t mind speaking for us! I seem to be good at hanging all my dirty laundry out on the clothes line 🙂 I know most of us have been through similar experiences. Makes me sad but it certainly toughened us up! xo

  2. Nancy Redford says:

    Jan, you are a beautiful writer & amazing woman. Thank you for your utter honesty. It’s reminded me of all the shameful cat-calling I endured even before I was 13, that disgusting culture of intimation that made me afraid to walk alone or be outside at my parent’s house in the Pine Barrens. I’m getting a stomach ache just remembering it. Keep writing and raising the bar! xoxox

    • admin says:

      Isn’t that appalling that we’re made to feel unsafe and objectified at AGE 13!! That’s outrageous. And so much more urgent for us to speak up now that we have our beautiful daughters. Thank you so much for following my writing. Means a lot to me. xo

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