The Facts of Life
April is National Poetry Month, but that’s not the reason I’m brooding over Rilke’s lines, “I would like to step out of my heart / and go walking beneath the enormous sky. / I would like to pray.” It is also National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
I’m brooding because the last few weeks at work have been especially dispiriting. Several women I interviewed in my job for a small agency serving the developmentally disabled told me that they had been raped as girls. One woman, my age, won’t go in for mammograms. She doesn’t want anyone touching her breasts. Molested by her father, she had confided in her mother at the time. At first her mother didn’t believe her; then her mother blamed her. She blames her still for breaking up the family, this accusation a staple of every conversation they have when her mother gives her a ride to the grocery store or doctor.
My client informed me she’s given up on counseling because just as she begins to trust someone, her counselor accepts another job or moves away. “What am I supposed to do with my anger?” she asked. She showed me the saucer-sized holes she has punched in the sheetrock in the living room of her small apartment, the ragged circles hidden behind dime store pictures of flowers. There aren’t enough walls.
Another client, a young woman half my age, told me she had tried therapy but it was too painful, more than she could bear. She was the one with both parents dead, first her father dying of cancer. It was right after he died, leaving her and her mother to dig through dumpsters for recyclables to pay for food, that a family friend raped her. She was 12. “My life was good until that,” she said.
At this point in the interview she started to hurry her words. Hers already the breathy voice of a very polite young lady, she no longer seemed able to enunciate clearly, holding the words loosely in her mouth. I had to listen more carefully, try to lip-read. She doesn’t want to remember anymore, she murmured, shaking her head slowly. She has a job at a laundry service and cleans her room at the care home when she gets off work, carefully dusting her half of the dresser and her figurines, she explained.
The alcove off the family room where we sat was light-hearted and sunny, its walls a pale, breezy green, its furniture white and immaculate. From my chair I had a view of the back yard through the picture window. She sat with her back to it. After a long pause, my client recounted the afternoon last year when she had come home from work to find her rapist there, in the back yard, visiting another resident of the care home. Though it had been eight years since the attack, her first thought—her only thought—was that he had tracked her down to kill her. When she saw him, she retraced her steps, backing up the whole way until she was in the hall again, and locked herself in the bathroom. It took her caregivers an hour to coax her out after the man left and another two hours to calm her down. Now, when she gets home, she goes for long bike rides in her small community. There aren’t enough roads.
It was the day I met with this young woman that I stopped by the grocery store on my way home and saw a former neighbor in the parking lot as she was walking to her car with her newest husband, her children trailing behind them. Several years ago she had told me about being raped by a co-worker as a teenager. At the time of the assault, she had been too afraid to tell anyone, including her parents.
A few years after she was raped, already married to her first husband, she saw her attacker at the movie theater, his arm slung around a wife or girlfriend. My neighbor had left the movie to go to the bathroom, spotted him in the hallway on her way there, and headed immediately for the car instead. Shaking, she kept veering off course as she walked, bumping into parked cars. She was able to open her car door, which she had left unlocked, but she was too weak to turn the key in the ignition. Eventually her husband found her there and drove her home. There have been other husbands since, her children moved from one residence to the next. There aren’t enough houses.
I’m brooding because, as a woman, I am a walking repository of stories like these, from women clients, girlfriends, female family members and neighbors and colleagues. I’m brooding because I have a daughter of my own.
Last weekend, my copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves in hand, I headed to my 11-year-old daughter’s room to talk to her about getting her period. It was a talk I had been looking forward to because, I imagine, it was the sort I never had with my own mother, who was too embarrassed to discuss such topics. I had intended it to be solely a celebratory talk; that was always my fantasy. And my daughter’s face did shine as I pointed to illustrations of ovaries and fallopian tubes and traced the route of an egg on its grand march to the uterus. At one point her little brother wandered into her bedroom in search of me and she chased him out with some satisfaction.
Though I hadn’t intended to, afraid to overwhelm my daughter with too much information at once, I also discussed sex—and rape, following where the discussion led. After we talked, I caught up on loads of dishes and laundry, sorted through a backlog of mail, sprayed the dogs for fleas. It was the weekend routine, yet I was increasingly glum. E-mailing girlfriends later that night, I noticed an atlas in a stack of books nearby. I realized that if I were to flip through its 200-some pages, I would find no state, province, country, continent that is safe for women. For half the world’s population, there is no sanctuary.
Soon, even though the male senators who sat in judgment of Anita Hill declared that there is no such thing as sexual harassment, my daughter will have to contend with men shouting graphic things at her when she walks or bicycles down the street. It started for me when I was 12, a trip to the corner store or mailbox on an errand for my mother more often that not demoralizing.
A student at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s, I had to plot out paths to campus that detoured around construction sites and fraternity houses, that avoided intersections with long waits for traffic light changes so I wouldn’t be stranded on the corner, exposed, tense, knowing at any moment I could be mortified in front of everyone within earshot by men hollering out what they would like to do to my genitals or what they would like me to do to theirs. I had sobering thoughts to contemplate along the way, from time to time on the sidewalk hand-painted messages announcing that a woman had been raped at that spot, giving the date and time, messages I’d find even along major thoroughfares with traffic through the night. “Here be dragons,” other women were warning me.
And that’s what I was saying to my daughter last Saturday afternoon, my sensitive, quick-witted girl who is good at drawing and soccer and science, who wants to travel the world taking pictures. Whichever map she uses, it won’t matter how faithfully the cartographers have ordered land masses according to longitude and latitude or how accurately they have drawn borders. No matter where she goes, because she travels in a female body, my daughter won’t be as free as her brother or father just to be and to be left alone. That also is a fact of life.