Im a lefty academic versed in feminist hypothesi. Still, I rebelled against the idea that rich and powerful men regularly rape or attempt to rape women
This is a very difficult column for me to write because it’s about my mother.
A week or two after then-IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a posh New York hotel in 2011, there was another case when an Egyptian businessman was briefly arrested for a similar assault at another such New York hotel.
This first struck me as puzzling. It could hardly be a copycat crime; considering the drama surrounding the arrest and travails of DSK, it was inconceivable that anyone would see this and say ” oh good notion, I’ll attack a chambermaid as well .”
Then it dawned on me.
The only logical explanation was that businessmen, legislators, public officials and financiers rape, or attempt to rape, hotel employees all the time. It’s just that normally, those assaulted know there’s nothing they can do about it.
In DSK’s case, someone–for whatever complex political reasons–must have refused to make the usual telephone call. There was a scandal. As a outcome, when the next assault took place, the survivor must have said to herself,” oh, so does this mean we actually are allowed to call the cops now if a client tries to rape us ?” and acted accordingly. And sure enough this is precisely what turned out to have happened.( In the end, both women were silenced, and neither humen convicted of any crime .)
What I genuinely want to draw attention to here is my initial reaction of incredulity:’ sure things are bad; but it can’t be that bad .’ Even a lefty academic versed in feminist theory instinctively rebelled against the idea that rich and powerful humen regularly rape or attempt to rape the women cleaning their rooms, that this happens all the time, that everyone in the hotel industry knows it happens( since they must know ), and that those rich and powerful humen in turn know they could get away with it because if any woman they attacked did protest too strenuously, everyone would move in lockstep to do whatever was required to attain their own problems go away.
It’s of course this very disbelief that allows such things to happen. We are loathe to accept people we might know might practice pure, naked aggressivenes. This is how bullies get away with what they do. I’ve written about this.
Bullying is not just a relation between bully and victim. It’s really a three-way relation, between bully, victim, and everyone who refuses to do anything about the aggression; all those people who say ” sons will be boys” or feign there’s some equivalence between attacker and aggressed. Who ensure a conflict and say ” it doesn’t matter who started it” even in cases where, in reality , nothing could possibly matter more.
It constructs no difference if there’s a real physical audience or if the audience merely exists inside the victim’s head. You know what will happen if you fight back. You know what people will say about you. You internalize it. Before long, even if nothing is said, you can’t help wonder if these things they would say are actually true.
Sexual predation is a particular variety of bullying but like all forms of bullying it operates above all in precisely this style by destroying the victim’s sense of self.
I had another, similar, horrified moment of realization in reading Dame Emma Thompson’s statements about Harvey Weinstein. Not because of her observation that his predations were, as she said,” the tip of the iceberg “– this is surely true, but not entirely unknown; what startled me was one word. She described Weinstein’s behavior as typical of” a system of harassment and belittle and bully and interference” that women had faced from time immemorial.
The word that struck me was ” denigrate .”
This is where the story becomes personal.
Let me tell you about my mother. Mom was a prodigy. Arriving in America at age 10, speaking not a word of English, she skipped so many grades she was in college by 16. Then she fell out of college to help the family( it was the Depression) by get a factory task sewing brassieres.
The union had the crazy notion at that time to put on a musical comedy performed solely by garment workers. The play( Pins and Needles) astonished everyone by becoming a smash hit on Broadway, with mommy( then Ruth Rubinstein) as female lead.
She was hailed as comic genius, which I can show she definitely was, was featured in Life, gratified FDR and Gypsy Rose Lee, and for three years hobnobbed with celebrities and was gossiped about in rumor column. Then she went back to working in the factory again.
Eventually she fulfilled my father, then a sailor; he found work in offset lithography, she dedicated herself to creating me and my brother, along with a variety of local activist projects and occasional part-time undertakings.
As a child it never passed to me to ask why she never continued in the theatre, even though she followed it avidly, or went back to college, even though she filled the house with volumes, or sought her own career.
When I afterwards asked she’d just say,” I lacked self-confidence .” But once I remember the phrase” casting couch ,” came up and I asked her if such things had existed in her day. She threw her eyes up and said,” well, why do you think I never sought a career in show business? Some of us were willing to sleep with producers. I wasn’t .”
This is why I’d like to get my thumbs on the throat of Harvey Weinstein. It’s not just that sneaks like him drove my mother off the stage. It’s that in the process, they transgressed something. I don’t know what actually happened, or if any one specific thing even did happen; but the result was to leave her persuaded she was unworthy; intellectually superficial; not genuinely talented; a lightweight; a fraud.
Because just as everyone links with hotels falls into lockstep to tell chambermaids they are unworthy of protection from rapists, so did everything in my mother’s surrounding conspire to tell her she had no grounds for objection if someone told her was unworthy to continue to perform on stage, whatever her achievements, without also performing in private as a part-time sexuality employee.
As a result, her sense of self collapsed.
All of us are heirs to a thousand forms of violence. Many shape our lives in ways we’ll never know. My mother was an enormous human stuck in a tiny box. Late in her life she was still hilariously funny; but she also collected tea-towels with inscriptions like” don’t expect miracles .”
She created me to presume I was destined for greatness( like her, I was considered something of a prodigy ), then, would fall into inexplicable depression for days that would invariably end with her lashing out at me as terrible, selfish, uncaring person for not properly cleaning my room.
Only now do I understand she was really lashing out at even having to care about my room. Later she lived in part vicariously through me but also–I “re going to have to” assume–was wracked by guilt for any indignation she could not assist but feel that this was the only style she could live the kind of life she should have had.
In endless ways, the violence of powerful humen plays havoc with our souls. It induces us complicit in acts of reciprocal destruction. It’s too late now for my mother. She died ten years ago, taking the details of what happened with her. But if we can do anything for her now, can’t we at least break out of lockstep?
Let’s stop pretending these things can’t really be happening–and then, as soon as we learn it did happen, tell the person it happened to,” well what else did you expect ?”
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