Unpoisoning the Well: a few points on community

 

1.) I’m a mean, mean woman

About fifteen years ago I attended a party. A man I sort of knew approached and began the dance of the aggressive would-be molester, the push to see what my “fuck off” level was, exactly. I’m not talking about flirtation, but aggression demonstrated by someone making calculations based on how drunk I was (or could be), how bored, how unwilling to be assertive. You’re trying to get laid tonight with that outfit, I know you are, I can tell…no, you are…no, you are. I know I’m trying to get laid. Why are you moving away? Don’t be shy. What are you drinking?

It was uncomfortable, but I’d already learned that subtle clues don’t register with this special breed of asshole. I’d been to pagan festivals oozing with older folks looking for broken people to vampire, to clubs where shifty guys standing at the edges of the dance floor slip pills into unguarded drinks, to hippie-rich desert trip-out spaces where people try to accuse you of not being “free enough” if you articulate a boundary. There are people of all genders who will push and push and push and use silence as consent, simply because they don’t give a shit if you’re consenting or not. The objective is you giving in; not your enjoyment, not communication, not pleasure. The goal is the contents of your pants; this isn’t romantic. The lesson I learned from watching such people in action is to deliver a “no” with a hammer when a swat won’t suffice.

So rather than stand there and dodge unwanted affection (for hours) I made direct eye contact and said, “I’m not interested. At all. So stop.”

Then another man behind me said: “Aww, why are you being mean?”

This was just enough to encourage the aggressor to start up all over again. That was exactly what he did, and exactly why I left.

Overview: When you are clear, you are mean. If you let it happen, you’re being complacent; you should have been clear. If you express enthusiasm, you’re a slut; you should hold back. If you hold back, you’re a prude or a zealot; you should give in.

You will always choose wrong.

You have a thing that is desired. You are not whole; there is a specific thing separate from you that is prized. You? You are not prized. You are the keeper of the prize; she who keeps the prize is resented. It’s not fair that you get to be the gate and the key.

If my ascent to dark and clawed cousin of the manic pixie dream girl, the venom-injected sibling of the Sad Girl could be drilled to fit a singular event, this would be it. An army of Valkyries hatched inside my head and have since been busy harvesting and hunting. What I left behind was bullshit, things that have never been missed.

I left behind the parties that invite people like this. Adult-children, who perceive other people as an entitlement, a gate to break through. Actual adulthood is achieved through recognition that initial primitive impulse is not necessarily a call to action.

I will not be a gate that holds back animals. And I’m not willing to share company with those who think animals are simply adorable, and I am only there to feed them.

 

2.) Community as cloaking device

In any community, most people know who the liabilities are: the people who can fuck up any event, party, or family gathering through being lecherous, violent, or offensive for attention. Nevertheless, crafting clever disguises and escape hatches for unsavory sorts is something that often happens, from the Catholic Church to the NFL. This also exists in so-called alternative zones, and it’s time to stop pretending that it doesn’t.

Recent headlines draw attention to this, from the alt-lit community that supports predators, to Canadian television stations where pop celebrities are quietly discussed as someone to avoid if you’re female, to the Burning Man community that knows what to do to create an instant wired city for 60,000 but not what to do for rape victims.

Since long before Burroughs writers have noted their sexual proclivities and have absorbed a fair share of scorn for the less mainstream varieties, but only in recent days have these individuals continued to enjoy mainstream support, even after numerous victims come forward to reveal a pattern of violent, dangerous behavior. Tao Lin used a relationship with an ex as the basis of a book, including verbatim pages of correspondence; in this book he detailed a pattern of abuse, and then further abused his partner by publishing it without permission. It was only after his behaviors were detailed on Twitter that he felt inspired to offer this ex any future royalties on the book in question. And in case you’re wondering, stealing words to pen a heavily autobiographical account of manipulation and rape isn’t enough to compromise a book deal.

In the mainstream writing world, Lena Dunham has increasingly come under fire for using her sister as a human shield against accusations of homophobia, for violating her trust and using her stories to bolster her own, and for detailing what many would categorize as sexual abuse in her memoir. Dunham’s response to these accusations is demanding that people take it back, calling the accusations (not her actions) “not ok”, and completely failing to note that readers are simply drawing their own conclusions based on information she freely submitted. She seems to feel these accusations are misplaced simply because she’s Lena Dunham – and those who rally around her seem to agree. Not that the Hollywood set has ever been particularly inclined to heap scorn upon someone accused (or even convicted) of a sex crime; the difference is that Lena Dunham appears to be someone who would consider what she did a crime if someone else had done the deeds.

Back in my day of creative nonfiction workshops, there was much discussion of the lines we draw for ourselves in memoir, and places where the story isn’t our to tell, and what sacrifices we make for story. Dunham’s words would have been revelatory if they included acknowledgement of her own capacity for villainy and insight as to what she’s learned about consent in the years that follow; instead, it underscores her sense of exceptionalism and narcissism. Those who aggressively defend her perpetuate this delusion. Shelter and cloak.

Comprehension of feminist rhetoric, the ability to piece together a zine, or a preference for clothing ideas inspired by sci fi films or 80s sitcoms doesn’t exempt individuals from reprehensible behaviors. Whether Brooklyn-based man-boys or Marion Zimmer Bradley, sheltering of those who respond to no as if it were a suggestion results in entire communities that reek of fear and insecurity, where talent hovers on the margins of excess and is usually neglected out of fear of being supplanted.

There is no glory in taking advantage of a situation – or other people – simply because you can. An inability through disability of will to say no does not equal yes. Fear does not equal consent; it equals fear, and invites an enabling, cowardly community of insecure individuals who cannot achieve their heart’s desire without exploitation to be created, on the face of what could have been revolutionary. The destruction of such communities might not happen overnight, but it will happen eventually, and it is loud and ugly and public and awful.

 

3.) A cure?

The wolf blood in me demands an unambiguous morality and loyalty with rigidly defined lines that cannot be crossed. And yet I have remained friends with individuals who have crossed boundaries because I have chosen to call them out in blunt terms (“mean”) and have refused to indulge it or diaper it. This has involved targeted statements such as “you are fucking creepy” and “you don’t respect boundaries” and “you are being willfully negligent of the desires of people around you so you can get what you want” and “you are a self-serving douchebag taking advantage of naive young people and abusing your position of power.” When this doesn’t work, making them leave (instead of leaving yourself) could be the solution.

Real friends and loving family members occasionally call you out in a way that reduces you to a blubbering mess. I’ve done it, and it’s happened to me in instances where I was damaging people around me, simply because I could. The notion that people don’t change is bullshit, the sort of thing articulated by someone too lazy and self-serving to change.

Those who respond to accusations with, “you’re right, but stop making me feel bad” (as was the case with the alt-lit meltdown) are desperate to remain the only living person in the discussion. Acknowledging the real pain of the individuals on the receiving end would allow them to fully exist beyond immediate convenience or supporting narrative prop. Feeling “bad” is the result of the actual adult that operates beyond primitive impulse attempting to claw to the surface; maybe feeling bad is what’s for dinner.

Others will not register a “bad” feeling, but will instead seize the opportunity to argue better. The accuser is not a rational person; the accuser is overly emotional, and therefore not to be trusted; the accuser did not firmly articulate lack of consent with a notarized “no,” and is therefore not to be taken seriously; the accusers have a personal vendetta against me (all of them), and I was fired for the activities of my private life, not because I’m a serial woman abuser who has been protected by my community for years. Does a better argument eliminate the accusation? If an IQ exceeds expectations is consent implied?

Why does the number have to grow (and grow and grow) to be taken seriously? How many accusations are enough to suggest action? Why is it suggested that accusations come from scorn, but it isn’t suggested that the original actions came from an even uglier place? And why is the desire for this to not happen again not discussed so much as the desire for no one to be accused again? Why does it so rarely lead to discussions about cloaking and enabling in community?

Communities are strengthened when standards are established, and creativity and collaboration are the anchors. Where idea exchange and common interests inform a shared desire to see what can be developed when people support each other. Victimhood is not a culture, but the inevitable outcome of a world of aggressors ill prepared for interacting with others. The way to get people to “stop being victims” is to stop the people who create victims through actions.

Violent people holding court while terrified sad people quietly whisper about the reasons to avoid them solves nothing; encouraging the people who come forward to remain quiet for the sake of the community poisons the well. Call them out, and if behavior doesn’t change, kick them out. It’s only then that other ideas and real innovation can bloom, instead of fighting for sun around weeds.

And even as I write this, I wonder how my ideas about community and (for that matter, parties) would be different if I had chosen to stay, and he had been made to leave.

this is how it happens

(Trigger warning. This is a discussion of rape and rape culture, and it’s about to get raw, because I cannot take scrolling through message board stupidity anymore. So there’s this, and it’s all I’ve got. – Amanda)

It’s the first big pop off of spring, and whether the snow melts or not it’s on. Some of the team comes over and you spend a long time getting ready, acting like you don’t care while they fuck up your Playstation and eat your mom’s food. Before you leave the house you have a few. Not sloppy, just enough for confidence. Your boys feel the same way, and they have a few, too. You look good before you leave, and you know it.

The yard and front steps are a mess of players and cheerleaders and wannabe players and wannabe cheerleaders, screaming and flirting and play-hitting each other. It smells like hairspray and gum. There’s a keg in the basement and a collection of bottles harvested from lost liquor cabinets. You pick the bottle that sounds like something your grandpa would drink and decide to just carry it and take swallows. Who the hell gets fancy at parties? This isn’t the place for martinis or blue shit with umbrellas. It’s a good time. The girls you texted all week are there. All you have to do is fake like you aren’t interested long enough, and it’s on.

Then one of your boys hands you a drink and says, “Drink deep, brother. It’s special.” A jolt of suspicion moves through you, because you don’t trust anyone who grins like that. So you ask “Special how?” and kinda laugh, and he tips the cup up to help you swallow and you are drinking. Then he hits you on the shoulder and walks away. You figure it’ll be fine. This is your boy, your teammate. Besides, he’s bigger than you. Don’t fuck with it. Just party.

The drink hits hard and fast. You didn’t feel so drunk a second ago. Hell, you didn’t even hit buzzed and just like that you’re hammered. Then your legs are gone and so is the rest of you, and there you are. Gone.

The part of your brain still dialed into what’s happening thinks about that movie you saw about the dude who goes into surgery and the anesthetic only half-works. He can’t move, but he hears, sees, and feels everything. That’s you, on the ground, and you can’t even talk. When you try, this gurgling comes out.

“Son is done,” someone says, and you feel something wet hit your cheek. It’s his spit, drooling from his mouth. Then you feel something else wet and warm. Piss. Yours.

From out of the corner of your eye you see one of your teammates, even more gone than you are. Both of his eyes are closed and his mouth dangles open near a puddle of puke. He’s also totally naked.

Within minutes he’s like a booth at the county fair. People arrange objects on him, take pictures. Out come the Sharpies to draw a dick on his ass, boobs on his back, balls on his chin. You can’t tell if their faces are actually elongating into the masks of jackals or if that’s the last of your consciousness running for cover. The guy who gave you the drink is talking to another in a corner and you can tell he’s full of ideas. He walks up to the limp body, pulls him arm back like a slingshot, then jacks him in the face. Just like that. Hits him hard. Again. The dead body is suddenly coughing.

“Damn,” someone says, and rolls him on to his stomach so he doesn’t choke on his teeth, on his blood.

Someone squeals, “Don’t let him choke!”

Not stop punching him — don’t let him choke. You try to say What the fuck but all that comes is another gurgle.

Out come the cell phones.

He punches him in the face again, on the back of his head and shouts for everyone to notice that when you hit the back of his head, blood comes out the front. Punch to the skull, blood from the nose! Science! This is awesome! Another guy lines up behind him because this is going viral, and he wants to get in a good clean punch in too, while he’s there. He’s excited, hopping from one foot to the other, and it’s making the rest of the team excited, so they line up. They’re a team. They do things together. Someone points at you and says, “Too bad your running back is out” and another says “We know. He’s next.”

Your whole self says fuckgetup, and still, you can’t.

This guy is a bloody mess but it’s like Lord of the Flies around his carcass, everyone whooping and hollering and high-fiving, kicking him and shouting GOAL, passing around booze and joints and then suddenly pissing on him, a massive golden shower sponsored by 10 bloated athletic bladders.

Twitter lights up. #drunkpunch

Somebody starts to get pissed about the blood on the carpet. What the hell is he going to tell his mom, some dude got his period? This is hilarious, too. You’re hoping the focus on the other dude’s face and the carpet is going to make them forget about you. So much time has passed, and you can’t even raise your arm. They decide he’s going to be a burden to take care of. They decide the same thing about you.  You’re cold. That’s how you realize you’re naked, too.

The next day you wake up, and have no idea where you are. Wait: your bed. You remember your bed. Mom. That was who found you on the front porch, naked and covered in blood. All you know is what the mirror reveals: you’re missing a few teeth, and your cheek might need hospital intervention to properly heal. Still, you prepare yourself to say something about how the night was alright, and you fell. Boys being boys and all that.

Downstairs your mom is crying. You can’t deal with her yet, and she lets you walk right on by her. You plug in your cell phone, turn it on. The phone lights up. The first thing you see is a picture of the quarterback’s nuts on your forehead. One dick for each one of your eyes. There’s a foot on your face. Teeth, resting on the stained carpet. #drunkpunch.

Another photo shows someone writing something. You can’t tell what it says, so you lift up your shirt. Your stomach reads: “Turned out slut.”

There’s naked pictures of the other guy everywhere. You see more of his intimate anatomy than you’ve seen of your own. You throw up. Hangovers, they’ll do that.

You try to think of what to text him, but you don’t know what to say. Finally you come up with: I guess we got pretty wasted. 

No response.

You’re still trying to come up with what to say to your mother when the police come by. They’re hoping you’ll come down to the station. There’s a bit of confusion, because there’s been an assault, but they’re not really sure it was an assault. You play dumb for a second, which is hard when your whole face is bruises and blood. Instead you try, “People get punched. It happens.” The police say that yes, his teeth got punched out, and he has a concussion, and contusions all over his body, and even a few puncture wounds. They’re not sure whether this was consensual. He says it wasn’t consensual. You say, “Well, he went to the party.”

Still, you go down to the station.

The police are concerned about you as well. They ask about your own beating and missing teeth, and you tell them you’re a football player. They ask if the other guy is one too, and you say of course. And you say hey, if you’re a football player and go to a party, stuff is going to happen.

When they leave the room you check your phone to see what’s up on Twitter, Snapchat, all your internet business. There’s video. Video is the worst.

No: the discussion underneath the video is the worst. Words like sloppy-ass bitches pop out. People being cute, saying that football players like hitting things, so maybe they enjoyed the ass-kicking. How it’s not like anyone said no.

Then you get a text from one of the girls you like. It says, I saw a video of you. I’m sorry. 

You still don’t know what to say. You do know you won’t text her again.

The police come back in and recommend avoiding the internet. You say that’s kind of like avoiding oxygen or avoiding waking up, but they’re not listening. Instead, they say you have to go to the hospital, as some of your wounds are significant and require documentation. Shit.

At the hospital, the doctor is concerned. She needs to take a lot of tests. There’s a number of infections you could have been exposed to, with many open wounds, with being naked and exposed to the elements. That means a Qtip shoved up your dickhole. She shaves half of your body and puts it into a bag. She clips your fingernails. You think it’s all ingredients for some kind of voodoo, but you’re done talking.

She’s not. She says it’s also important to document as much as possible for the police report. That means getting naked again. That means remaining that way, while the camera flashes.

Shit.

On the way home you realize there are 45 new posts using 45 different variations of #punchingbag, including #dickpunch and #dickbag and #punchingdick. You’re officially in the mix with #teabag, which seems worse than #punchingbag.  You tweet: I might be a teabag but I’m not a snitch. #punchingbag Someone responds, Whatever #snitchbag.

Then the other guy texts you: I might be a snitch, but you’re a coward.

You don’t say shit, because he’s right.

Your front lawn is lined with media wolves, and you wonder how they found out so fast. Right. Fucking internet. They are careful to use words like alleged. They want to know if they can use your name. Then they want to know if they can use your name after you turn 18. When do you turn 18 again?  It’s hard to not notice the one reporter who always screws her eyebrows up in concern and talks about the “potential to ruin a whole season.” She really wants to talk to you. You really don’t care.

Weeks later you still don’t have any front teeth, and neither does he. The dentist estimates implants will cost $8K, even with your insurance. You wonder what his dentist said. He’s still not talking to you. He quit the team because he gets these dizzy spells that make it hard for him to stand up for long periods of time. Everyone says he’s faking it. That he’s just embarrassed, is all. They paint his locker pink and write Punching Bag Bitch so he knows where he lives. You wonder if he still has a scholarship, and if he doesn’t, what he’s going to do. You think your mind might be tricking with you, but it seems like he’s shorter.

They haven’t let up on you either, but it’s easier to focus in on him.

The prosecutor says there isn’t much to go on. All he has is four videos, about a dozen still images, his testimony and yours, 46 witnesses, 342 Tweets, and a signed confession from the boy with the chemistry experiment drinks. This really isn’t enough for a conviction. Your mom is pissed. She says all it would take is four joints to get another type of conviction. Then the prosecutor holds up his hand and says, “It’s not enough. Not for this type of case. It’s simply not enough.”

Your mom is talking about suing somebody. She says all the boys in the pictures need to go to jail. You are thinking about how everyone knows your body, your face with fewer teeth, and your name everywhere you go. The media sort of tried to hide it, and then they didn’t. When people don’t know your name, it’s Snitchbag.

His parents are talking about moving. His mother was smoking outside one day and you walked passed and she waved you over. Then she pointed at her house and said: “Tell me, just how many eggs does that supermarket sell?” You say you’re not sure what she means, but you know.

Here’s something else you know: you’ve got four more sessions with the counselor, and then they might leave you alone. This counselor likes to talk about your role in going to the party, about having a drink in the first place. That all of this could have been avoided if you had just stayed home and never played football.

You don’t say anything back. You’ve got nothing to say. If they don’t leave you alone, you might just leave.

And even though you can’t remember that night, you keep trying to remember. Then you try and remember to try and forget. You’re supposed to find it all funny. You’re supposed to let it all go. You’re supposed to remember that it was just a party. A party you chose to attend. That you could have been okay with it. That it could have been okay. You should know.

Your wounds have been recorded.

Kali-Ma (On Working for a Sexual Assault Hotline in the Appalachian Foothills)

Woman says: “Walked in on my boyfriend. He was with my four year-old daughter. He was touching her all kinds of places. Called the police, and they can’t find him, but I know where he is. I’m gonna kill him.”

She says: “I know what they’ll put her through. First they’ll give her this exam and stick objects she doesn’t understand in places she no longer loves to collect DNA on swabs they’ll likely lose. Then too much time will pass before they put her on a stand and hand her a doll and ask her to show the court what happened. They’ll say, ‘Did he use his thing? His private parts?’ And she’ll be scared and confused, and she’ll start to hate dolls, and the defense will call her an ‘unreliable witness’ and that’s when they’ll call me up.”

“I won’t need no doll. I’ll tell them what I saw. Don’t think every word I say will be sweet on their ears. And they’ll say, ‘Oh, you was angry at the defendant, wasn’t you? He was gonna break up with you. He never loved you. That made you angry, didn’t it?’ I’ll say I don’t know about all of that, all I know is he smelled like dead man the minute he sunk his dick into my daughter. He smelled like gun powder, just like my hands do now.”

“And they’ll say, ‘Is that a threat?’ and they’ll pack that man in a bullet proof vest and position one cop to the left and another to the right so I don’t do what needs doing – and we both know what needs doing.”

I’m nodding at the phone like I’m seen when she says: “Am I wrong for thinking this?”

Shuttered black eyes blink skulls to my feet, then I respond: “No. Where is your daughter? Is she safe?”

She says: “She’s settin’ in my lap. I told her she’s going to Nana’s for a spell. Jus a lil while. Jus a spell. She doesn’t want me to go, but I’m fixin’ to have myself an accident, if you know what I mean.”

I do. People have accidents all the time. Hell, just recently in Athens County a certain pedophile ate the wrong batch of brownies. He just so happened to die.

She coughs fire from her throat and asks: “What would you do?”

And I answer long-tongued: “I’d hide the body.”

She laughs, and so do I, both wondering if I’m serious. So I add with the rolling hill accent: “I don’t rightly know.”

In my daydream her head fills my lap, and comfort crafts saccharine speeches: There are children who don’t remember. Who wash it cleaner in their minds. Transform the memory into a less-fulfilling game of doctor. Some people become scientists, anyway. End up okay anyway. Some people do, anyway.

Instead something spools out about trusting the system and the wonders of counseling. It’s my job to talk this way.  I congratulate her for electing not to continue to share a bed with unfortunate company, for not considering her four year-old a hussy, like some might. Some might.

She snorts: “I don’t know about those women. I know about this one. I’m her mother. The night is long. I’m not even tired. And I know where he is.”