“A word after a word after a word is power.” – Margaret Atwood
The filmstrip of my mind clicks through the scenes ever so quickly this morning – with every footfall that lands and crunches on the fallen leaves blanketing the trail. The question is: On what scene will it settle on today as I run my 15 miles and on what memories will it trigger with each mile? For reasons perfectly clear to me, it lands on the scene where the man’s fist smashes down onto the dining room table, rattling the silverware and china, as he howls, “This is precisely why women will never make it in big business.” It was 1987. I was 18. The man was my father.
The image my mind’s eye has summoned is old but very clear, and I feel my neck and jaw muscles tense as the memories begin to unspool, spewing out the events that led up to this outburst. Pounding fists, a carving knife thrown into the hardwood floor, a smashed cocktail glass – behavior that was not uncommon at the antique dining room table where my siblings and I spent most of our childhood dinners hoping not to be called on to answer a question about history, or politics, or science, or philosophy. This was the place where stomachaches were the norm and demeaning insults left one or all of us shell shocked, ashamed, and terrified. Those not within firing range were ever-so-quiet and secretly hoping the focus wouldn’t shift to them until dinner was over and we could scatter like scared mice until bedtime.
I’m trying to pick up my pace as I run against the wind in hopes that I can shake the images and return to something more pleasant, but I know that’s not going to happen until God and I have had time to work through things today. Every day, every sunrise, every swaying blade of grass reminds me that He is here and waiting for me – to talk, to listen, to cry, to smile. It’s our time to make sense of the mess, mile after mile – until His hope pushes down my hopelessness.
“Making sense of the mess, one mile at a time.”
It all started this morning as I laced up my shoes and scanned the day’s headlines. Donald Trump’s “Locker Room Talk” continues to trend with more and more of his misogynistic behavior surfacing with each passing day. His tone. His body language. His facial expressions. His words. They are piercing and triggering to me – so much so that I have tried to avoid most social contact (online and in person) since the video surfaced. I realize now that because of my past, I cannot seem to engage in conversation about it logically and reasonably. It is obvious that I am traumatized by every sexist thing this man represents.
Trauma can be caused by one major event or a hundred things connected together. The trauma I feel when I see, and hear, and watch Trump is the result of a lifetime of oppression and fear, insecurity, abuse, and pain. And, it is never just because of his words.
This memory is brought to you by trauma.
It was right before the end of my sophomore year in college and my father declared that if I was ever going to have any possible chance of getting accepted into law school, I needed a real corporate job. One of our neighbors, ‘Mr. Gold’ was a high-powered executive at a big investment firm at the World Trade Center and, according to my father, if I was “really nice to him” maybe he would get me a job in the legal department. I remember feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as he said it – it was in the tone, the body language, the facial expressions. I felt immediately sick to my stomach and breathless. What did that mean, “If I was really nice to him?”
But, I had spent my whole life being scared, and abused, and marginalized, and bullied by my father, which led me to do everything possible to stay off the radar and make him look good. I tried to stay quiet, do all my chores quickly and without complaint, get good grades, be agreeable, be nice to my teachers, play the piano for his friends, and be responsible. So I gathered my courage and after a few very awkward phone conversations with ‘Mr. Gold’ and a short interview with the hiring manager, I got a job as a summer intern in the legal department. During the days when fax machines were a novelty, microfilm was the norm, and mainframe data entry was king, I spent 8 hours a day in a smoke-filled file room wondering if law school was really worth it.
But, to be honest, the work was actually the good part. The bad part was the drive to work – spending two hours each way in the car with this 50-something neighbor executive to whom I owed the job and now the transportation. My father’s career advice on my first day: “Try to act like a woman, talk intelligently, and be gracious for everything he is doing to help you be a successful female in the working world.”
Every day, I would get in the car with this man and feel his eyes scan me as I tried to sit as modestly as possible in his sports car with my college-budget business suit and faux leather brief case at my feet. I tried to make eye contact, but when I did, I was reminded of the old black and white cartoon of the hungry wolf salivating as he eyed the lone sheep. He was eerily silent most times, but when he did speak, his conversation was always laced with sexual innuendos and off-color cynicism. I was inexperienced and had no idea how to interpret the message or diffuse the conversation. So, I spent the commute like a stiff mannequin praying that he wouldn’t move his hand any closer up on my seat or turn off into a dark alley.
The image of the stiff mannequin child-girl is paused in my mind’s eye as the headwind kicks up dirt and pushes me backwards. I run for many reasons, and one of them is to feel some sense of power. It’s moments like these – when I’m tired, or struggling, or fatigued – that the memories feel bigger and I feel very little power. Without missing a beat, the filmstrip of my mind returns to the family dinner table. I remember it was hot and I had spent a week feeling humiliated, denigrated, and on high alert. The history of the dinner table was that I was now about to deal with the same behavior from my father, so I sat silently.
Then it happened – as usual. He barked and I jumped, “What is wrong with you?” I told him nothing was wrong. There was no way I was going to tell him what was really wrong. I knew how that would turn out. He pushed and yelled. So, I finally said, “I don’t feel well.” He laughed. “What? Do you have your period?!” He scoffed and then pounded his fist down on the table. “This is why women will never make it in big business!” I slumped lower in my chair, nodded, and tried not to cry as he droned on about women being inferior to men. If I said nothing more, maybe the yelling would stop.
I made it through that summer by moving out, living alone, and commuting via a long walk to two trains just so I could feel as if I had some sense of power. But, in truth, that was simply one more way I ran – one more escape from confronting the hurt and the cruelty. I lived in that place for a long time, well into adulthood. It took me over 20 more years to find my voice and stand up for myself. And it took me 7 more to find the courage to tell my story to anyone.
Now, I find that the power I need is not just in the run, but in the writing. My hope is that it helps someone, somewhere, somehow to find their voice and use it to show the biggest bullies, the meanest men, the greatest manipulators, and the most abusive partners that they do matter and they have the power to write their own ending.