This Place Feels Sticky

I remembered something.  There was this weird thing that happened to me a lot in the Pentecostal church, so it must have happened to others, too. Maybe it happened to me more often since I ran wild on bible college campuses as a child. I don’t know.

Men would offer to be my boyfriend.  They would call me their girlfriend in intimate and flirtatious ways and pretend to want to date me. I usually knew they were not serious, but to have the attention of grown men as a ten or twelve year old girl was confusing and head-turning stuff.

Now I know their words were sexual predation. Grooming, if you will.  Had any of those men, most only eighteen or nineteen themselves, some older, had a more nefarious bent and tried to corner me in a dark room, I would have complied.  I would not have thought to resist.

As #MeToo moments go, being noticed in sexually or romantically suggestive ways by men is “not that bad.” I was never raped, have no violence to report, no molestation, no physical contact, except for that once, but I knew no one would believe me. And yet… I remember them all.

My value as a human was defined from day one by my appearance and my sexual value.  “You’re going to be beautiful when you grow up,” they would say, with a glance up and down, while everything sexual was condemned and shamed within the cult of the United Pentecostal Church.  Sex education was non-existent, information forbidden, genitals unnamed, normal developmental desires were an unspeakable sin punishable by the fires of hell. They were not joking.

Add in the Biblical philosophy of the second class nature of women and the demand for their submission, acquiescence, and silence.  The female body was vile and a dangerous threat; our shoulders and kneecaps an abomination to the eye, designed to tempt unwitting men. Scriptures seemed to be full of stories of women whose offense was to be curious or smart or beautiful (Eve, Lot’s wife, Jezebel) and they were always killed or banished for their infractions. Jezebel had the audacity to decorate herself and so was fed to dogs. Her story was a little more complicated than that, but the Sunday School literature blamed it on makeup and jewelry.

But, still, be pretty. Be pretty and wait to get laid by your future husband, a man of god who will pick you to have his children and play his piano. The scrutiny of every detail of females’ appearance played into this culture of sexualization, even of children. Our only value was sexual; our sexuality was also our shame. What a twisted fucking message.

In defense of those males, except for that one who knew better, they were victims of the same culture. I doubt any of them gave a second thought to the things they said to the Bible college campus child-pet and would probably be horrified to have their words marked as predatory or even inappropriate. Who knows what they got out of it.

“A woman’s body always stands on the outskirts of town, verging on uncivilization. A thin paper gown is all that separates it from the wilderness. Half of its whole being is devoted to remembering how to live in the woods. This is why Witch, this is why Whore, this is why Unlucky and this is why Unclean. This is why attempts to govern the female body always have the feeling of a last resort, because the female body is fundamentally ungovernable.”   —from Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patrick Lockwood

Of all of the books I’ve read that I wish I had written, this is the one I wish I had written the most.

Isolation

I’m thinking about isolation.  Not what you do on a Sunday morning? Just me?

Several recent conversations with my sisters and my mother have reminded me how isolated we all were from each other in years past.  The stage was set within our family for absolute obedience and we were a perfect storm of noncommunication.

Firstly, the cult of Pentecostalism required isolation from the world in general, effectively taking away any context for normality.  Intrinsic to that religious culture is the submission of women to men.  Women cannot hold positions of power or have a public voice.  Their submission must be evident in behavior and appearance.

But you know that.

Add in an ambitious, power-hungry, sexually frustrated narcissist on a mission from God with a public persona to protect and we have a family of women who were not allowed to talk to each other.  Not because we didn’t want to, but because we were forbidden and didn’t know how.

When crises came around, we were already in a state of silence.  By the time my teenage fallopian tube exploded (see Close Call for the story) and I was near death, we were all perfectly trained. All Dad had to say was do not speak and we didn’t.  Our silence went far beyond lying to church people who would judge him for having a wayward daughter.  He didn’t have to tell me not to speak.  I hadn’t spoken out loud in my family for years and was not about to start.

Mom knew I was sick but was not allowed to visit me in the hospital, nor to comfort me afterward.  Dad told my sister that Mom didn’t know what happened to me and not to tell her, so she didn’t.  My sister was the only person who spoke to me during my six weeks of recovery following surgery.  I sat home alone with no one to blame but myself. My other sister was told nothing at all.

Silence filled our home, the air too thick to breathe. Not one word was spoken between mother and daughters nor sister to sister about the fact that one of us had a tragic, terrifying, near-death experience.

Thirty-ish years later, with the threat of Dad’s wrath long gone, we talk.  Now we know what we were forced to deny.  Now we say the words.  Now we are free to love each other.  And breathe.

Fathers’ Day

I am contemplating fathers on this quiet afternoon.

My own, with his smarts, drive and ambition, had very little time for hanging out.  Moments alone with him were precious and few, treasured.  He had the ability to impart gentle wisdom and great affection and had a fun, silly streak.  On the rare occasion he stepped foot in a grocery store, you wanted to be there because Cocoa Puffs.  It’s always nice when a parent has a secret sweet tooth.  Christmas excited him as much as me.  One year we made a manger scene in our basement with my baby doll as Jesus.  It was magical.  When he was happy, it was contagious.  I remember being referred to as “Daddy’s Girl” more than once, and I did relish his attention.  And I will never forget the day he told me I didn’t have to take piano lessons anymore or eat tomatoes.  He may as well have been wearing a cape.  And the day he dropped what he was doing to take me to the hospital and save my life, no questions asked.

If my father-in-law were still alive, he would be my ex-father-in-law now.  He was a quiet guy, deep, brilliant, funny, completely focused on doing his own thing.  He showed me science and sparked an interest in the natural world that has never left.  He showed interest in who I am and we had many conversations.  In-law relationships are never uncomplicated and ours was no exception, but I still feel his loss.  I am sorry that he is not around to be a grandfather to my kids, who adored him.  He took them fishing, taught them to shoot BB guns and bows and arrows.  I am grateful for the time we had with him.

My kids’ dad loves them with all his heart.  He has been there for them every single day of their lives.   Their ability to think deeply, dissect a plot line and make connections that are not obvious is all him.  By the time they were halfway through elementary school, they could predict the end of any film, 15 minutes in.  His superior culinary skills have gotten me out of kitchen duty a million times, a gift for which I am truly grateful even if it means they look askance at my meals.  And they have his social ease, charm and humor.  For all of our shortcomings, we made some spectacular humans.

Now, I observe my partner’s relationship with his own children and his growing relationship with mine.  His kids are confident young adults who have never had to wonder if they will be able to afford food or college, have never been expected to shoulder their parents’ emotional struggles as my own have had to do.  If it is true that hurt people hurt people, then encouraged people encourage people.  They just know how. I sat on the sidelines recently while he and my son took shots on goal with the soccer ball, and he simultaneously instructed, teased and encouraged in the most fascinating way.  I had never witnessed such a thing before and was overwhelmed. It is a powerful thing to see a man engaged with a child that way.   My kids get to see their mother happy and secure.  They get to see how it can be.

The influence of any man who is part of a child’s life cannot be overestimated.  They are a bridge to the world, an example of how to be in it, a protector, a teacher, a safety net.  You don’t have to be perfect, but present and engaged.  It matters so much.