The stories I can’t write are complicated and sad. I could tell the stories I can’t write in lovely ways, ways you would remember and maybe learn from. I could be—would likely be—ostracized, disbelieved, and blacklisted because of these stories too.
My friend was getting evicted. Most people didn’t know yet. We sat on the floor of the nonprofit she had started, hardwoods she had sanded herself, going over each plank by hand, rubbing them with beeswax. She had turned the rented building into a community center. Every day, she would open the doors and invite people in for free coffee, snacks. There were chairs for the grownups, toys for the kids.
My son played with dominos from a rattan basket while we talked and sat cross-legged together: my friend and a woman I didn’t know, an older mother, maybe in her fifties, but likely younger in the way that Appalachia can age you, voice thick from cigarettes, tattoos up her arms.
My friend tried to tell me, twisting a stalk on the basket. “Do you ever feel like. . . .” She tried again. “When do you speak up, and when do you have to stay silent?”
I waited till my son wandered over by the rainbow parachute. “There are some things I can write about. And some I can’t because I don’t feel like it’s safe.”
The older mother, who had not said much, nodded. She reached out her hand.
I write essays, poetry, and fiction. Some of my essays have drawn attention to classism and the particular barriers facing single mothers like me—but that’s only part of what happened in my life. I can’t write some of the other parts. I can’t write the truth of some of the longest, most shaping events that have happened to me. I can’t tell my own story.
I don’t feel like it’s safe. And for a woman like me, without a tenure-track or permanent job, without a husband, without power or wealth, or an influential champion, it’s likely not.
Why do women stay silent? To stay employed. To keep our scholarships. To protect our kids. To stay alive.
These days, we temporarily praise women—sometimes, some women—who speak out, and we temporarily punish men—sometimes, some men—for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse.
But what are the long-term ramifications? People still buy tickets to Woody Allen movies. Still buy books by William S. Burroughs and Jonathan Franzen and Norman Mailer. Still hire convicted batters, suspected predators, and outspoken harassers for prestigious jobs in direct supervision of young women. How often are men hired for positions instead of women? Compare J.D. Salinger’s career to Joyce Maynard’s, Caravaggio’s to Gentileschi’s.
Louise Glück writes in “Gretel in Darkness,” a poem imaging the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel’s return from the witch’s cottage into a reality where Gretel is deeply traumatized, but her brother is fine, and the father—who abandoned the children in the woods—is totally forgiven: “All who would have seen us dead / are dead.”
But no woman lives in that world, that future. All who would have seen us dead have tenure. All who would have seen us dead are vested. All who would have seen us dead deny everything.
The men I cannot name hold more prestigious positions than I do. Make more money than I do. Are connected. And protected.
My friend suspected she was getting evicted because the landlord had never liked dealing with a woman. He had made a bet that she wouldn’t make it. That’s everyday misogyny, the ordinary exclusion that impedes us from getting a job, running a business, reaching our potential.
But for many women, the story of sexism deepens, darkens. What we do next is not a matter of strength, but of privilege. As a white woman who is physically disabled but not visibly so, I have much more privilege than most. Violence is more likely to be committed against women of color, trans women, and especially trans women of color. I hide my severe hearing loss, sometimes without meaning to, as people just assume I can hear, but sometimes, the invisible nature of my difference protects me. Whiteness also protects me. As a white woman, I am more much likely to be believed than a woman of color.
I tried inserting blanks into my writing, purposefully leaving some of the identifiers out, as though a censor had been through my work with a thick black pen. I was my own censor, stopping myself. I used ellipses. I changed the names.
But there is no real way to send out a burning beacon without it being traced back to you.
I thought I could hide a bit in poetry—and I do. Readers don’t necessarily look for a narrative, or don’t always connect the dots. Essays have become increasingly harder for me to write. Though I make a living writing and reporting, op-eds and memoir fill me with fear. I can’t voice an opinion; opinions get you killed. I can’t tell my story; my story has a villain who thinks he is a hero.
I’m left with a story that is splintered, like the years of my life. I can’t get back the time I lost to abusive men, and I can’t get the path again, the way my life was supposed to go: wholly forward. The stories I tell won’t be complete. They won’t be tidy.
As editors, solicit work from women who have gone silent, and understand that there are words behind words. There are reasons behind pain, and bruises both visible and not. There are some times and some things we can speak out about, and some we cannot. Not being able to speak is not always a lack of strength. It’s sometimes the way we survive.
Before an important court date, my friend, a writer and abuse survivor, said to me: “Breathe in your truth. Reality is on your side.” Sometimes the only thing we can do with the truth is breathe in it. Live in it—and live with it personally.
I want to tell you that the truth of my story burns in me, and one day I will rise, white-hot with justice, and tell. But I’m not sure that will or can ever happen. I know it is in me. I know it burns. I know I’m breathing.
A woman is telling you something. Listen.
Athens, Ohio. October, 2017.