Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.
I can almost hear my mother comforting me with those words when I cried because somebody called me a name. I had no way of comparing the two experiences - sticks and stones vs. words - until much later, but I'm here to tell you that there has never been an aphorism more false.
This was brought home to me the morning I lay on my couch and listened to Dr. Blasey-Ford talk about Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge. Yes, they hurt her, but not badly. She was frightened of them, but she got away. It was likely the first and I hope the last time she ever experienced this kind of sexual assault, and if so, she would have remembered it no matter how much time passed. But the thing that sealed the deal, that locked the memory tightly in the memory vault, that, in her own words seared itself into her hippocampus, was the laughter. Brett and Mark were having a fine old time. She was nothing. And they laughed about it.
Here is a comprehensive list (I think) of the times and manner in which I have been physically abused:
- Arms held painfully behind my back by a man who thought he could pimp me out. I had no intention of ever obeying, and kept telling him not to be so silly, he was behaving like somebody in a bad B movie. I even felt embarrassed for him. Well, it was a bad B-movie to me. Never quite real to me at the time. But I do remember that it happened.
- Jumped into a fray between a girlfriend of mine and her boyfriend, and was knocked to the pavement. I got up and didn't try that again, until ...
- Jumped on a guy's back when he threatened to kill his girlfriend in a bar, and had my legs knocked painfully against the pool table while the guy kept yelling for me to get off so he could kill me. I think my boyfriend and the bartender came to the rescue, but I really can't remember.
- The worst one: a jealous boyfriend pulled his motorcycle over into a roadside stop one night after a party. We were both drunk so I was more honest than usual and he got angry. He accused me of not loving him and not wanting him to follow me when I moved to Seattle. He was right on both counts. His response was to beat my head on the ground for so long and so hard that I thought he would kill me. I have a memory of him threatening me with a knife one time later, but I was able to grab it and throw it out the window. I could and probably should have reported these, but I was leaving town and didn't want to get hung up in court. I just wanted out of there.
- Jumped on a very big guy with a very long reach who was going after my boyfriend, who was shorter with not so long a reach, and was punched in the mouth and knocked to the sidewalk. I still don't remember going in a second time, but everybody said that I did. The next thing I knew I was in the girls bathroom with some friends, wiping blood off the cut on my lip that came from the ring on his finger. The next day, somebody asked about me if I had herpes. I told him not to worry about it because it would never be anything he would have to worry about.
- Coke addict boyfriend hit me in the face in Mexico when I would not give him drug money. I gave in, not trusting Mexican police to be protective of me.
- Same boyfriend spit Listerine in my eyes, when I would not give him drug money. Now I was home, and did not give in. However, for many reasons, I never reported him.
You will notice, none of these qualify as sexual assaults. Still, if you think I lose sleep over these memories just because I remember them, that they haunt me in any way, you would be wrong.
There is only one man whose treatment of me still comes back like a bad dream, and he never laid a finger on me. Instead, he belittled me in subtle ways, gas lighted me, let me know, when I was down, that it was all my own fault and that he wasn't on my side. His favorite movie, he told me, was A Boy and His Dog. I hadn't seen it. I wish I had. He isn't a bad man. He is a cruel man.
A blow to the head or a spit in the face in anger is almost, if not quite, forgivable. Those men were weak and afraid and had violence in them. But they weren't cruel.
It's cruelty that hurt the most. Just as it is the cruel laughter that Dr. Blasey-Ford still hears.
Donald Trump is a cruel man. Many of his followers reflect that cruelty. Brett Kavanaugh, in his yearbook, betrays the stain of cruelty in his remark about Renate. His dissension in re the immigrant girl who needed an abortion betrays that stain as well. The Senators that waved away, even smiled down at women confronting them with their own pain, are cruel men. The Republican Party, as Paul Krugman points out, seems to have embraced cruelty as a kind of discipline. They are people who do not and can not look angry women in the face when these women are talking to them. And as painful as those women's memories were and as hard as it was to tell of them, they now have the added pain of the cruel men, and women, who did not want to listen.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit on this subject which is one that mystifies me still. I am still friends with the coke addict. I think he's clean, but it doesn't matter. I'll likely never see him again, since I've moved too far from his stomping grounds. None of the others are anywhere near my life - I don't remember their names and wouldn't know them if I bumped into them somewhere. Their misdeeds are nothing more than fodder for my fictions mill should I need them. But I wonder about those incidents sometimes. About why I'm not angry. Why I'm not hurt. And I think maybe it's because they are just sticks and stones. They hurt for a moment. They didn't mess with my head.
The cruel man moved far, far away. The last I heard, he was starting a new relationship. I wish I had her email. I'd tell her to watch A Boy and His Dog.
But Mom, I have to tell you. Whenever I have been physically hurt, when my arms have been twisted behind my back, when my head has been pounded into the ground, or when I was washing Listerine out of my eyes, that pain disappeared. The words live on. Sometimes they still hurt.