I often think about my blind spots, especially when it comes to sexual assault and the behavior of the men in my life. I am prone to flirtation, yes, but visibly and happily in a heterosexual marriage. I am not an obvious target. It is easy for the predators, abusers and manipulators not to come after me. And to betray my misandrist roots, I like men. There are a lot of good ones in my life. There are many that I’ve trusted longer than I’ve trusted women in my life. And yet there’s been an increasingly sharp sting in the back of my mind of what they do when I’m not watching. Who are you with? What do you tell her? Do you listen? Do you lie?
I am not saying anything no one has thought of or even written about before. “Men disappoint” is not really a headline anymore. But recently, another story played out in my life the way it always does. A man in the periphery who I assumed to be good, or at least neutral, and a story from a friend that proved otherwise. Another man moved from column A to column B, another person who I cannot change, but who I’ll look at sideeyed from now on. You know, same as it ever was.
I think about the small ways this keeps happening, even in the good parts of my life. Once, I had to explain to a man why his soon-to-be-fiance may not want to take his last name. A good man, a man I knew and trusted, said it would be devastating if she didn’t. I asked why and he said it’s because he loved his name and his family, and sharing it with her was important to him. I asked if she came to him saying the exact same thing, or said that her name was important to her and that she wanted to keep it for herself, what would he say? He admitted he had never thought that was something that could happen. She took his name. I want to believe he took what I said to heart and that he didn’t pressure her. I want to believe she did it for the number of other reasons why you would. I worry.
As questionable male behavior goes that’s a pretty mild example! It’s not something that shook my trust of men to the core, just another blip on the “ugh, men” screen. I don’t look at him sideeyed anymore. Once a friend kissed me and pinned me to a wall as I yelled “no” and only backed off when I slapped him. I don’t look at him sideeyed anymore either.
My life does not depend on these men. They were not family members or significant others or well regarded writers and editors who I may someday work with. But it’s that anticipation that’s making me keep people at arms length. The not-quite-fear that any day another person I know or like will be revealed as an inhabitant of column B, or that maybe they already have and I never noticed because they didn’t do anything to me. The fact that I made it to 29 before this sort of paranoia set in is called luck. This feeling is not special and that’s horrible.
I wrestle with forgiveness and justice. I’m not talking about the justice of the law, that may not be applicable, and few of us feel comfortable attempting anyway. I’m talking about the personal justice of the cold shoulder and curt email. I don’t know where to draw the line. Do I cut ties with anyone a friend tells me has been abusive or manipulative, or does their abuse need to reach some arbitrary level of horror? Do I need proof? How many people do I have left after that? When you cut them out, how many publications are left to write for? How many parties are left to go to? How many friends do you start to question because they’re friends with the person you cut ties with? Do they even lose anything without me, or am I the one at a disadvantage?
I think we’re understanding more and more that having columns A and B doesn’t always help. People can be good, loyal friends and talented in their professions and abusers and manipulators, and there’s a large grey area of how and when those latters supersede the formers. I want to believe that people can learn and attone, and that lives and careers don’t have to be ruined on either side. I want to believe that I am not defined by the times I have abused and manipulated, or the shitty things I said on my blog when I was 19. But I have a vengeful core (the Slytherin and the Scorpio in me) that never forgives or forgets.
I was stuck on how to end this meandering set of thoughts and I went to Twitter, and someone retweeted an Elena Ferrante quote into my timeline. When asked what she hopes readers take away from her work, she responded “That even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved.” That is a bummer of a quote, but I hate that, right now, I sort of believe her.