Category Archives: Faith

LeaningIN for a clearer vision

This story originally appeared on the Lean In web site, created by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg to empower and connect women. It has been edited slightly for context here.

My hand shook so hard as I dialed the number that I nearly dropped the phone. When the voice on the other end answered and asked for my name, I panicked and blanked out. For a moment, I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, could scarcely breathe.

What if they don’t believe me? I agonized inwardly. What if they tell me it was my fault?

It was the early 1980s, and thanks to the work of the powerful women’s movement of the previous two decades, the Office for Women’s Affairs on the campus of my university had recently formed a support group for women who had survived violence and assault.

My childhood was filled with trauma and nightmares that to this day I still struggle to describe. It had caused terrible scars that left me, at barely 21 years old, so badly shattered I wanted nothing more than to find some way — any way — to end my misery. I was so depressed and hopeless that death seemed to be the only reasonable option.

Every night, on going to bed, I prayed the same prayer. “God, I think you know me well enough to know I’m not going to do it,” I prayed. “But I wish you would do it for me, and just get me out of here.”

Although I did not yet know it, God was answering my prayer. Not the one I said out loud, but the one that lay so deep within that I could not bring myself even to put words on it.

I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to want to live.

Finding my voice, and the will to live

Within that group, among women who had stories to share that were much like mine, I found my will to live. And more than that, I found the courage to dare to dream big dreams. I was in that group for more than four years, and in that time, I discovered I had a voice worth hearing. I applied to a graduate program at one of the nation’s top-ranked journalism schools, despite my fears that I would not be good enough. And I excelled in that program, emerging with a master’s degree and a string of successes in the form of published articles and clear recognition of my talent from faculty and peers.

And, I emerged with high hopes for my future.

I thank God every day of my life for the miracle of that group, and for the work of the countless women who made it possible.

Stumbling block

But then I married, and so much of that work came to a grinding halt.

In large part, it came to a halt because, although I had exerted tremendous effort in doing the hard work of changing within, the man I married had not. He saw no reason to change within. There was nothing to motivate him — not even the possibility of a stronger, happier marriage — to examine deeply held and highly destructive beliefs he had learned in childhood. And I quickly realized that if I wanted to stay married to him, I must once again silence my voice.

I have always said that our toughest battles as women will be fought on the home front, with our own husbands, fathers and sons. In many ways, I think I was simply too far ahead of the times to be able to win on a front where many still hold to the pervasive idea that the husband has to be “right” at any cost, where so much lingering, latent suspicion remains that the wife must somehow always be found to be at fault.

A difficult choice

So when a major national magazine, which I had long dreamed of working for, showed real eagerness to interview me for a position for which I would have been ideally suited, I was faced with a choice that is all too familiar to women of my generation. My husband made it clear that he would not even attempt to find a job in New York. Wouldn’t send a resume anywhere. Wouldn’t check the job boards. Just flat-out wouldn’t try.

“We can’t afford to live there,” he said stonily. And that was that. End of discussion. End of that dream.

So there it was. The choice that I and so many others have had to make: Pursue my career ambitions, or stay married.

I chose to stay married.

I cannot entirely regret that decision, even though the marriage continued to spiral downward into an increasingly toxic quagmire. Because of that decision, I have raised two beautiful daughters who are full of life and strength and potential. I have instilled in them all the messages I wish had been instilled in me: to believe in their own dreams, their own worth and their own accomplishments.

But I know there has also been an underlying message for them in the trade-off I made, and in the nagging sense that a husband who truly loved and respected his wife could surely have put forth some effort to make her dream possible, especially a dream that was well within reach. And so my hope for them has always been that they will not be faced with the terrible choice I had to make … that the world will have changed just enough to allow them better options.

Just like old friends

Until recently, I was not certain that such a hope was realistic. Like Sheryl Sandberg, I have had the uneasy sense that so much of the important work that was accomplished by those earlier feminists has been stalled, perhaps even lost.

I feel as though I have been waiting most of my adult life for some evidence that all of that work was not in vain. The high-profile launch of Lean In gives me reason to hope that there are other voices that are once again speaking for change. It’s like reconnecting with friends who have been out of touch for many years.

With that comes the hope that my daughters will indeed be able to fulfill their potential, however they choose to define it for themselves.

And reason to hope, as well, that perhaps it is not too late even for me. Maybe not even for me. As of this writing, I have been free of my oppressive, parasitic marriage for a little more than a year. It’s been a wonderful, powerful year, full of astonishment at how much I have accomplished, how well I seem to be doing on my own — far better, in fact, than I ever did when I was the demoralized “lesser half” of a couple.

So I guess we’ll see what hope lies ahead for me. We shall see.

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Filed under change, Faith, family, fearlessness

Never the Twain shall meet

I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.” – From a letter written by Mark Twain

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it now:

Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Sometimes you need to know when to shut up.

This from someone who has been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s writings and pithy sayings. I love his books. I love his short stories. I love his little bon mots that have been duly passed down by generations of admirers.

Come see the softer side of Twain

I love repeating his famous bits of wisdom like this one:  “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

And of course, this oft-repeated classic: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

There are even times when he borders on lyricism and beauty. His book Adam’s Diary, a little gem that in my opinion gets far too little attention, ends with this tender line about Eve:  “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

Aaaaahhhh.

But spare me the venom

Sometimes, however,  Twain can be a little too much like the MTV character Daria.

For those who aren’t familiar, Daria is an animated TV series created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for the teen-to-young-adult audience of MTV. The series features Daria Morgendorffer,  a sharp, acid-tongued and decidedly antisocial teenager whose wry observations about the people around her expose the follies and hypocrisies of popular culture and suburban life.

At first, her relentless cynicism is entertaining and makes her sound edgy and sharp, maybe a little smarter than the rest of us. But after a while, you just want to smack her and tell her to get over herself. Knee-jerk cynicism isn’t really any more intelligent than rank sentimentality … and given the choice, I’d rather be friends with a sentimental fool.

In praise of happy endings

I say this because Twain’s scathing dismissal of Nathaniel Hawthorne feels particularly harsh to someone who, as a teenager, found redemption and hope in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Like his main character Hester Prynne, I felt publicly branded and stigmatized for sins that  were of other people’s making. The oppressive condemnation and ostracism from self-righteous Christians that I experienced in small (and small-minded) backwater towns felt remarkably similar to that of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s tale. 

The novel ends with a happy ending of sorts:  evil is exposed, the guilty are punished, and the heroine finds genuine forgiveness and peace … and even a measure of respect from the townspeople who once shunned her.

It was good news for me

Maybe a worldly man of Twain’s maturity and experience could see where that story was headed. But to a 15-year-old girl who could barely hold her head up for all the shame that was heaped on her, it was a revelation of astounding proportions that a respected man of letters and man of God might actually be on the side of the tainted woman.

So with all due respect to Twain’s undeniable wit, given the choice between a sharp-tongued cynic or a compassionate if sentimental fool, I’ll take the sentimental fool any day, hands down.

Because if we writers truly have the power to shape the world around us, then I want to be on the side of the ones who offer mercy and hope. Seems to me that’s a much happier ending.

And when you get right down to it, don’t we all, deep down, want happy endings?

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Filed under compassion, Essays, Faith, friendship, God, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

Trust me. No woman loves it.

‎Legitimate rape. Part of God’s will. What will they think of next?

Let me be clear: I have, up to this point, studiously avoided joining in the hostile and rancorous public debate that has characterized the current presidential campaign.  I have listened with growing dismay to the increasingly hostile language that my good friends on either side of the issues hurtle at one another. And, to the extent that I have shared my views, I have held to neutral language, refraining from the fiery rhetoric and name-calling that I have heard issuing from both sides.

Once and for all: rape is an act of violence

But I cannot keep silent in the face of this constant barrage of bizarre declarations about rape from so many Republican candidates in recent months. Rape is never legitimate. Rape is never part of God’s plan to populate the earth.

Rape is never anything but an act of violence and power. Period. Its sole purpose is to dominate, degrade and control. It does not matter whether you knew your assailant before the attack, whether the assault resulted in pregnancy, whether in the heat of the moment it seemed best to acquiesce rather than risk being killed.

And sometimes, you can put up every form of resistance you have in your power, and still it does not stop the rape from happening, and still no one will believe you, and still you will be told that you should have done more, that it is somehow entirely your fault.

And no one is immune

I know because I was stalked, pursued and assaulted by a classmate many years ago, when I was in eighth grade.* Back then, there was no language to correctly identify his actions as acquaintance rape. That kind of awareness was still decades away in the public discourse. Indeed, no one besides me seemed to think there was anything even slightly out of the ordinary in his overtly aggressive, sexually menacing behavior.

The person they criticized, for not being able to “handle it,” was me. A naïve, bookish 13-year-old girl. The class egghead. The shy, nerdy new girl.

In fact, those closest to me blamed me for having been, of all things, “too innocent.” Ironic, isn’t it? Especially when you consider that I had asked virtually every adult in my immediate acquaintance — parents, teachers, school administrators — for help in dealing with the escalating threats from “Dirk” (not his real name).

Not one of them had taken me seriously.

Clearly, the inclination to blame the victim runs deep within our collective consciousness — so much so that we willingly accept the most outlandish theories about rape, rather than face the uncomfortable reality that there are distinct threads of misogyny interwoven throughout our social fabric.

Shocked out of my complacency
This is never an easy or pleasant story to tell. Which is why, over the years, I have grown increasingly reluctant to tell it. It’s so much easier just to keep moving forward and never speak of it.

Besides, because my own recovery was so complete — the result of many years of sifting through the painful details in a support group for women whose horror stories were similar to mine —  it had led me to believe that things had changed.

I became somewhat complacent. Life was good. My children were turning out well. I had achieved many successes in my career. And rarely, if ever, did I have to think about that long-ago event.

Best to leave well enough alone.

But then there came the day in one of my college English classes when a male student — who in many other respects seemed genuinely kind and well-mannered — casually remarked that some women love sexual violence.

“Trust me,” I shot back with some heat. “No woman loves it.”

It reminded me of a similar incident from high school, when my own assault was still painfully fresh in my mind. During a lively class discussion about some topic I have since forgotten, one male classmate who was studious and well-liked suddenly spoke up.

To this day, I can quote him verbatim.

“I hate women who scream rape,” he said. “They all ask for it, anyway.”

Back then, I had no vocabulary to describe what had happened to me, much less to respond to such a remark. I had not the presence of mind to ask him whether that observation included his mother, sisters, grandmothers and aunts. I can’t recall whether anyone else challenged him, either.

All I can remember is those words, and how they stung.

Tell, and keep telling
So while I was glad to be in a position as the professor in my own class not to allow such a remark to pass without comment, it made me realize that I must keep telling my story, however much I’d rather not.

There are so many others out there who still wear blinders.

There are so many others out there who still hold to unbelievably convoluted, logic-defying notions because accepting them is much easier than facing unpleasant truths.

And, there are so many others out there who are still unable to move forward unless someone who has already made the journey to wholeness is willing to light the way.

The good news is that healing and wholeness are possible. In fact, refusing to become permanently damaged is our best hope in triumphing over this particular evil; to rise up, reclaim our dignity, and refuse to be silent. It can be done. Women are doing it all over our country every day. That is what I wish for every woman who has been raped. That is what I hope for every woman who comes to this space and reads these words.

*You can read more details about my experience on my Essays tab here on this site. Click on “Meditations on a Sepia.”

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Filed under Faith, God, Misogyny, Quick takes, Rape