I’d already had a bad day when I read Daphne Merkin’s now-infamous Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Publicly, We Say #MeToo. Privately, We Have Misgivings.” That afternoon, during a snowy after-school pickup, I pulled my nine-year-old daughter and her friend through a snowbank to cross the street. A tall, blonde, white woman, wearing a long sheepskin coat and Swedish clog booties, bustled past us with her two equally expensively dressed children to hail a cab. She nearly knocked me over and continued to stand on my toe with her hard wooden sole for the next minute as she signaled frantically for a cab to stop.
My voice rose in anger: “Excuse me! Excuse me! Excuse me!” But she wasn’t listening. I have a high, distinct voice and it is sometimes at a register that some people can’t or don’t hear. My father used to accuse me of intentionally mumbling to piss him off. Once, when I was nineteen, a shitty psychic told me that I’d never be a teacher because of my voice, and in this last year, a woman I’d only just met wondered out loud how I’d become a professor “with a voice like that.” My students hear me just fine and at readings I’m loud and clear. I’m smart enough now to read this as gatekeeping, as people letting me know that my girlish voice makes me unfit to speak, unprofessorial even, but when I was younger it kept me quiet.
I pulled my foot away and stared at her. She continued to hold onto her own children and ignored us. No cabs stopped and she finally gave up and looked around her, at the rest of us clambering around in the snow, trying to get home.
“You are not the only person on this street,” I shouted at her.
She looked surprised, then smiled sweetly at me as if I were a child and said in French-accented English, “But my darling, I didn’t even see you!” And why should she see me? I’m five four, queer, boyishly femme and of Cuban, Swedish, German, and English descent. I look more punk than corporate, more weirdo artist than banker bro. I don’t fit the profile of my gentrified New York City neighborhood. A fellow single mom friend at the school recently told me “You’re the poorest mom at the school.” I didn’t believe her, but it was an interesting moment in (in)visibility.
My daughter gave me a look. I’d seen it before. It meant, Don’t make a scene. It meant, I love it when you fight for me.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. She’d spoken a fact. This rich white woman in an outfit that costs more than what I make in a month, who stood on my toe for a minute and put her kids’ comfort and warmth easily before mine, hadn’t seen me at all. For her, I simply didn’t exist.
Isn’t that the problem? I saw it in the snowstorm and in Merkin’s op-ed. A lack of vision, of empathy, the ability to see someone else and to hear a voice that isn’t your own? What is our obligation to voices, stories, and secrets that we don’t recognize? How can we practice radical listening? Can we let voices and stories be, without correcting them or policing them, as they find their complicated path out of the dark and into the light?
#metoo (despite is much earlier origins) is a movement that hasn’t been in the mainstream for very long, and yet there’s been piece after piece about how the movement has gone too far. Many women and men are still not listening to these stories, and those who are telling them are pressured to keep secrets and watch what we say.
I prefer it when a secret becomes a story. A story is public and can be discussed, corroborated, shared, put into evidence, written about, archived, examined, and retold. In my experience secrets fester. They are wounds that can’t heal because they have no oxygen. Secrets are controlling. They engender shame and more hiding. Still, everybody has their secrets and only they can decide if and when to tell them. Some will never tell. I’m okay with that, too. I’ve told many of my secrets, mostly in writing, which can feel both nauseatingly public and incredibly lonely. Mostly though, it’s been fine, healing even.
I’ve seen what happens when not enough people tell their secrets, when one or two, usually women, usually women of color, sometimes queer, are left hanging, when there are not enough stories, and so those women are punished, scapegoated, and called liars.
Telling secrets and moving out of silence is not easy. Lives can be ruined. Mostly, it is the teller’s life, though that is starting to shift in welcome ways. Legacies are destroyed. Nostalgia gets smashed. Institutions are revealed as empty and hollow. We have to make new stories and accept our roles in the secrets and lies. Many of us are not up to these tasks. It’s one of the reasons we don’t have reparations for slavery in this country. Many Americans are not inclined towards reflection, introspection, and a true reckoning of the violence done to indigenous people and African-Americans, among others. We would need a healthcare system that would train thousands more therapists for healing and reconciliation. We don’t have anything like that yet.
I was entrusted with a secret when I was fifteen. I was too young for this secret. I’ve been too young for a lot of things. Most girls are. I am not allowed to write about it, though arguably, since that moment of telling, it has shaped me. It’s made me fearful, suspicious, wary, and wise. Very little surprises me and for that I’m grateful. It has informed my parenting and all of my sexual relationships. It has made me less fearful in the telling of my own secrets, though every time I write and publish something I am afraid.
Merkin’s article and the several that have followed—Caitlin Flanagan’s scolding in The Atlantic, Catherine Deneuve’s sad open letter against #MeToo, Katie Roiphe’s myopic and hostile attempt to take down a thing that doesn’t even exist, something she calls “Twitter Feminism” in Harpers—reminds me of that white mom in the dirty snow that day. They literally can’t see beyond their own experiences. I suppose this is a kind of white narcissism. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it. Perhaps I could have been kinder to that tall French woman I encountered for five minutes during a blizzard. I’m sure she’s far more complicated than I’ve made her out to be in this essay. We all have our wounds.
If you live in this racist, sexist system and benefit from it, it’s easy to become myopic and entitled, but I expect better from feminists, no matter their age or wave. These writers don’t believe women, they rely on several unnamed sources who are afraid to come forward, they don’t understand harassment that hasn’t happened to them, they conflate sexual violence and harassment with flirtation and seduction, and lastly, they are confused by the relationship between social media and activism and so they condemn the feminist women who have chosen these platforms.
Here are a few moments worth lingering over.
“But privately, I suspect, many of us, including many longstanding feminists, will be rolling our eyes, having had it with the reflexive and unnuanced sense of outrage that has accompanied this cause from its inception, turning a bona fide moment of moral accountability into a series of ad hoc and sometimes unproven accusations.”
Who are these longstanding feminists who are rolling their eyes at tales of sexual assault? What feminist friends do you have that tell a rape survivor to “grow up?” I have a lot of longstanding feminist friends and this isn’t anything I’ve heard. Who are these random people at the supermarket? Does this pass for journalism? When was the last time you had a conversation about rape in the supermarket line? Which supermarket? I can see it happening at the Park Slope Food Coop maybe, but certainly not the Whole Foods at Union Square where the line is so frantic I can barely get my food out of the cart and into the cashier’s hands. Are we talking about Citarella on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan or the Key Food where I used to shop in when I lived in Queens? Is Merkin yelling this to the underpaid, overworked cashiers from who staff the Agata and Valentina on University Place? Because these women put up with so much shit, I’m pretty sure they’d “whatever” Merkin’s rant if they had to listen to it.
And then there’s this:
“Expressing sexual interest is inherently messy and, frankly, nonconsensual—one person, typically the man, bites the bullet by expressing interest in the other, typically the woman—whether it happens at work or at a bar.”
Really? Because as a self-defined sex-positive slut, I’ve been flirting with men, women, and lots of other people who are not down with gender binaries at bars (and not at work!) for quite a few years, and I have not found sexual interest to be nonconsensual. Typically, I make the first move, so there’s that, and sometimes I am not found of interest and when that is true, I move on. Is it really that difficult?
In “The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari,” Caitlin Flanagan, a longtime anti-feminist masquerading as the resident feminist at The Atlantic, remembers her own youthful training in resisting men:
“They told us over and over again that if a man tried to push you into anything you didn’t want, even just a kiss, you told him flat out you weren’t doing it. If he kept going, you got away from him. You were always to have “mad money” with you: cab fare in case he got “fresh” and then refused to drive you home. They told you to slap him if you had to; they told you to get out of the car and start wailing if you had to. They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight. In so many ways, compared with today’s young women, we were weak; we were being prepared for being wives and mothers, not occupants of the C-Suite. But as far as getting away from a man who was trying to pressure us into sex we didn’t want, we were strong.”
Her complaint against women like “Grace”—the pseudonym that a woman in her twenties used to tell her story to Babe about a date with Ansari that ended in sexual assault—who dare to hope for more from men, even celebrity men, when it comes to dating and sex, is that she didn’t say no, she stayed for too long, she didn’t scream, and she was not strong in the right way: the Flanagan way. Flanagan also fails to acknowledge that women in the 50s and 60s were fighting to protect their purity. They were not fighting the patriarchy, but rather upholding their object status within it. Grace’s refusal to be objectified seems to gall Flannagan most of all.
Lastly, there’s the longtime debunker of sexual assault on campus, Katie Roiphe, whose article in Harpers compelled Moira Donegan to out herself as the maker of the “Shitty Media Men” list for fear of being doxed. Like Merkin, Roiphe couldn’t get anyone to speak to on record (I guess this is a whisper network that feels okay to her?), probably because these people have a sense of how ghoulish they sound even while they are speaking. But no matter, Roiphe proceeds blithely on, to claim that “One thing that makes it hard to engage with the feminist moment is the sense of great, unmanageable anger” and “The rage can at times feel like bloodlust.” Near the end of her essay, she condescends:
“I can see how the drama of this moment is enticing. It offers a grandeur, a sweeping purity to our possibly flawed and fumbling and ambivalent selves. It justifies all our failings and setbacks and mediocrities; it wasn’t us, it was men, or the patriarchy, holding us back, objectifying us. It is easier to think, for instance, that we were discriminated against than that our story wasn’t good enough or original enough to be published in The Paris Review, or even that it did not meet the editor’s highly idiosyncratic yet widely revered tastes.”
So many of Roiphe’s complaints about “Twitter Feminism” have to do with its lack of facts, its whisperings, its cruelties to men who were good to some women. Lorin Stein’s outing at The Paris Review is particularly painful to her. It’s interesting to me that she didn’t even bother to look at the VIDA stats on The Paris Review, which in fact did show a clear pattern of discrimination against women writers overall, in spite of the good editing Stein may have done with some women writers: in 2016, The Paris Review published just 35% women. Is there a correlation between the publications that continue to publish significantly fewer marginalized people and a culture of workplace harassment? I can’t answer that, but it does make me stop and think. The new VIDA stats do show improvement. In 2017, The Paris Review published 42.7% women. Stein also resigned as Editor-in-Chief.
I’ve submitted to The Paris Review maybe five or six times, a number which is not all that different from most of the mainstream publications and publishing houses that have rejected me. I’m smart enough to know that just because a man hasn’t harassed me doesn’t mean he hasn’t harassed other women. I also understand on a deeply personal level that workplaces in which women, people of color, and queer people are continually not heard, harassed, underpaid, and overworked, are often also not very good at promoting the work of those same people.
I wonder about the kinds of opportunities available at these more mainstream presses and publications. Most don’t cultivate weirder, harder, angrier, blacker, browner, queerer voices until that person has proven themselves safe for the marketplace, too popular to ignore, and/or capable of making a sale.
If you’re reading VIDA, I don’t have to tell you that the response to this mostly rich, white lady fearmongering has been swift and smart. Some of my favorites include “The Female Price of Male Pleasure” by Lili Loofbourow and the back-to-back pieces “#Me Too Won’t Succeed if We Don’t Listen to Black Women” and “Military Women Need a Voice in the #Me Too Movement ” by Shannon Lee. I watched and nodded, as anyone who has ever worked for tips would, at the waitresses telling their stories of harassment and assault in the NY Times video, “The Price Women Pay for Tips.” In an open letter about Hollywood and sexual assault, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas write:
“We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country. Your job feeds souls, fills hearts and spreads joy. Our job nourishes the nation with the fruits, vegetables and other crops that we plant, pick and pack. Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.”
I am grateful for these smart, intersectional women, who have argued for safer, non-coercive, pleasurable sex and workplaces free of harassment. They have reminded us that women of color, working women, and LGBTQA people have always been at the vanguard of the fight for sexual freedom and justice. These intersectional gestures, the pulling together of groups of women is what I understand feminism to do, but too often white women are the betrayers, the ones who are privileged enough to look away or to destroy, to speak when they need to listen, and to hold their ground when they need to shift. Many white women are doing that shifting, but there are far too many who still don’t get it. We can never forget that 53% of white women voted for Trump, and that women like Merkin, Flanagan, and Roiphe are powerful voices with huge platforms.
White feminists like Rebecca Solnit, Kate Harding, and Lindy West have big platforms too and they’ve argued smartly for letting women tell their stories, however messy it all might feel. But are un-woke white feminists listening?
I began working on parts of this essay from Mexico City, which quickly became my favorite place in the world. I recognize the privilege I had in being able to take this trip. I had time off from teaching, my ex was taking care of our kid, and I stayed at a cheap Airbnb. I maxed out my credit card to pay for my flight, but I make enough money to be able to keep my credit card usually about five hundred dollars from its limit. It hasn’t always been so and probably won’t stay that way. I’m not good with money. If you give me some money I will spend it, mostly on necessities for my kid, but also on organic food I can’t really afford and stupid shit like sparkly tights, lipstick, and mezcal. I get nervous when people ask me about budgets, savings, and my future. What is the future? I answer cryptically, or, I if I’m feeling confrontational, I snap: the future gives me anxiety.
I hate Suze Orman. I want to do what she says, but I am a grasshopper, not an ant when it comes to money, though this is maybe not the right analogy. Because I work very hard like an ant, but I don’t save any money in my anthill, but rather play with my money recklessly at the beginning of the months like a grasshopper with a guitar and then run out of money like a grasshopper who has to maybe pawn his guitar but won’t stop singing. Maybe I’m just a Gemini or honestly, like most women I know, maybe I just don’t make enough money. I made it out of Mexico City with about fifty bucks, and I still bought little handmade gifts crafted by Mexican women to give to everyone I love.
I have also hated people who leave the brutal cold of January New York City to go to warm places and then post pictures on social media about these warm places. You can hate me for going to a warm place. I deserve that karma. I tried not to overpost on social media, but joy and warmth are complicated emotions.
On another day, 156 women, all female athletes, who were abused by one man, got to tell their stories in court and experience a kind of justice never seen before in public. And then, Bill Cosby was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. And then, more women, mostly indigenous and of color, came forward to tell stories of abuse, harassment, and day-to-day misogyny perpetrated by? famous male writers of color, Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz. Díaz had recently told his own secret story of childhood rape and abuse in The New Yorker. It was an awful, harrowing account, with a lot left unsaid about his adult relationships with women. There was more concern, this time from several esteemed Latinx academics, who worried about the treatment of Díaz in The Chronicle:
“We must work to safeguard the necessary platform of the #MeToo movement as it grows. We must ensure it does not become another way for the media, including social media, to create a spectacle out of a single person.”
I was confused by this letter, and I couldn’t figure out what its writers wanted. Did they want to protect Díaz from spectacle? Was that something any of us can do, given the stories emerging? Are media and social media one and the same? I was struck by the institutional power these feminist academic hold, and how many of them I deeply respect. I keep thinking about Salamishah Tillet’s op-ed in The New York Times, “No, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly Were Not Lynched” and Moria Donigan’s essay in The Guardian, “How #Me Too Revealed The Central Rift Within Feminism Today.” Tillet and Donigan make important distinctions between individual and social feminisms, history and intersectionality. A couple of weeks later, in another open letter, a larger group of academics, mostly of color and queer, pushed back:
“Academics do not hold the copyright on #MeToo. Survivors sounding the alarm about Díaz are in line with the purpose of the #MeToo movement founded by social activist and nonacademic, Tarana Burke. “Empowerment through empathy,” a phrase coined by Burke, calls on nonsurvivors to provide “aftercare” in the wake of the healing process. We ask the signatories, the media, and others invested in this debate to consider what care they are offering survivors.”
What does it mean for women to empathize with other women? To truly listen to these stories and let them sit out there in the world? What if listening and affirmation is the best kind of after care? I hear you. I see you. I believe you.
I reread the essay “In the Wake of His Damage” by Shreerekha in The Rumpus. She writes the most complicated story about Junot Díaz, whom she never names but instead calls the “Great Writer,” because there are so many great male writers whom we have loved both as lovers and as institutions, and yes, some of these great writers are victims of abuse as well. I am grateful for the nuance in her essay and her clarity in owning her parts of their relationship. It matters that it began in graduate school, student and professor, secrets and silence. She writes:
“Not enough can be said about sexual relationships that start in a coercive silence; the damage can be indefinite and lifelong. The silence perhaps he was practicing all his life on his childhood sexual trauma is replicated and manifested in all these different forms with women—long-term relationships, one-night stands, our own relationship and relationships like it—open, porous, unreferenced, incomplete. Moving from S to Y, what feels like a way of working through the alphabet also references entire lives that are being simultaneously resurrected and erased.”
A secret, coercive relationship. A life resurrected and then erased. The life-long damage of it.
On another day, I arrive to my “Youth in Revolt” course to find a room full of 20 year-old feminist women, angrily talking about my colleague who allegedly engaged in a relationship with a 15 year-old-student when he was 22 and teaching at a private boarding school. They ask me what I think and I say I need some time because I don’t know legally what I’m allowed to say and I haven’t read the article they’re talking about. Later, I lie on my couch with my arm over my eyes. I’m disgusted and tired. I’ve read through some of the “Shitty Men in Academia List.” As of January, it had over 2000 entries. I couldn’t read it all because it made me sick to think of all of the abuse and careers thwarted, the silence, and the lack of response from institutions. Everyone I know has a story. I believe women.
On another day, the three poetry editors of the Boston Review, Timothy Donnelly, B.K. Fisher, and Stefania Heim resigned in protest over Junot Díaz’s continued work as fiction editor at the Boston Review. In their statement they wrote, “What most distresses us are the letter’s apparent arbitration of what constitutes inclusion in the #MeToo movement and its lack of attentiveness to power dynamics in a star-driven media and publishing landscape.” I appreciate these editors calling out of the Boston’s Review’s arbitration and their lack of attentiveness to power dynamics in publishing.
Initially, Díaz issued an apology in the New York Times, stating:
“I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath. This conversation is important and must continue. I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”
Díaz has since disavowed this statement and hired a lawyer. He has given himself what essayist Lili Loofbourow calls “the male self-pardon” while never acknowledging or apologizing to Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, Monica Byrne, or Alisa Rivera, whose allegations range from a forced kissed to verbal assault.
On another day, I decided not to have sex with someone even though it would have been easier for me emotionally to have just followed them to their apartment. I wanted to, but I also didn’t, and I recognized that all these women’s stories were strengthening me, and what I would have done in the past out of habit and courtesy and indecision and whole bunch of dithering that is honestly the story of me being a woman, I didn’t do. The person looked a little sad, but they bounced back pretty quickly and moved on. In fact, they were very cool about it. And I realized it was me who had changed.
Later still, an ex sent me a picture of the restaurant where I briefly worked as a bus girl in the 90s. He was visiting our college town for a conference. I asked him to send me the picture. We couldn’t believe the restaurant still existed. As I zoomed into the shot with my fingers, I realized I’ve never really grappled with what went on in those two smoky, meaty rooms. I half jokingly texted back “trauma site” and then saved it to my phone.
I feel at home in Spanish-speaking countries. I was a Spanish minor and I studied away in Madrid and for a time I was a pretty passable speaker of Spanish. I ran out of money in Madrid too, by the way. I would have been super hungry if I hadn’t been living with a Spanish woman who fed me. My Spanish is not great anymore, but it returns to me in moments of wonder and awe and I can order things and manage verbs in a not-totally?-embarrassing way.
When I saw the biggest piñata I’ve ever seen en El Centro in Mexico City, I said to the Uber driver, “Hay dulce in la grande piñata?” He chuckled and said, “No senora.” It’s not much, but making a native speaker laugh is something I’ll take.
My friend and I were on our way to see Diego Rivera’s murals, something I’d only ever seen in books. She was living in Mexico City for a couple of months and is the most adventurous traveler I know. Still, the earthquakes rattled her and she was reluctant to take the subways. She didn’t care much about Diego Rivera but indulged me anyway. She does this a lot and I think it isn’t fair to her, but I let her. She is 27 and I am 45. Ours is an improbable friendship. She was my student and though I think I have pretty good boundaries, occasionally a student will sneak through and become my dear friend. They usually do this by realizing I am a failing human in need of care and love. She has given me, my daughter, and my ex so much of that, and I’m truly grateful.
“I’ve never thought much of him,” she said as we stood in front of a fresco of mural of workers in front of a loom full of blue thread. “Wasn’t he mean to Frida,” she added.
“His affairs?” I asked. I can’t remember if Rivera was just a cad or if he has some kind of rapist past that I’ve blocked out. This is the moment we, all of the women and some of the men I know, seem to be in right now: is he a rapist or just an asshole?
“I think he made Frida sad, but they had a complicated open relationship that lots of artists have, though I’m sure they didn’t like process it and have language for it like we do now,” I said and I knew I was mansplaining, so I stopped. Also, I don’t care about affairs. Don’t lie, but do what you gotta do, I sometimes think. “I’m not thinking much about him as a person I guess,” I admitted.
We stood in front of fresco that spans two walls and a giant doorway. On the top of the doorway was a beautiful woman—full bodied, bare feet, brown skin, an angular nose, major eyebrows. Una campesina. We were both in awe.
The size of the work, the scale of it, the audacity and the women, the workers, the overt socialism. I love it. I can’t help it.
I know too that he encouraged Frida to paint bigger pictures. He may have pained her, but he also made space for her pain.
When I finished writing that morning I went to Frida’s house. I insisted on going alone. I know to love her is a bit of cliché as this point, but I don’t care. I loved her early on and fiercely and she drove me to champion ugly, messy, disabled, and queer things.
Though my friend spent huge amounts of time alone in Mexico City, when she had visitors, she wanted us close. I was my usual prickly self. I needed my own bed. I had to stop talking after a couple of hours. I retreated into silence. I needed to go off on my own because it’s truly often the only way I can know my own mind and make my own decisions.
On the walk there I thought of Frida and Tina, one of her lovers. I don’t care that much about Diego, though I will love the murals forever because they are radical and huge and that’s what I want my work to be.
Why linger over these women, mostly white, but not always, who don’t believe women? Why even write about them? Because they still have a lot of power and I’ve had this fight with well-meaning, mostly upper-middle class white women before. I don’t feel like calling them feminists because well, if they can’t think intersectionally, they’re not feminists to me. We’ve fought about #metoo, but also about #blacklivesmatter and VIDA’s Reports from the Field. I wouldn’t say these arguments have been especially productive and I don’t think I’ve changed many of these women’s minds. In fact, I think I’ve made them feel angrier. I have seen the toll that these arguments have taken on women of color especially and I have worked harder to step up and do my share and account for my 75% whiteness. I have tried to channel my Cuban grandmother: what would she do in a moment like this? Most likely, she’d get on the phone to her sister Yolanda and trash talk Daphne and Caitlin and Katie. Lol. But if I’m being really honest, I can admit that given her own deeply internalized trauma, racialized self-loathing, and Catholic morality about sexuality, it’s possible she wouldn’t believe most of the women telling their stories either. Instead I channel my mother, who is super white but spent a lifetime advocating for poor children, mostly children of color. She taught me to believe women and children.
The truth is, I don’t understand: what are these white women so afraid of? I’m not sure. Fear of change. Fear of losing out. Fear of not having all the power that comes from sleeping with and protecting the big white daddies out there. Fear of having to grapple with complicity or past events that now have to be unearthed and re-examined. Fear of what stories can do to institutions. Fear of losing status in institutions that have protected them but excluded so many others. Fear of secrets.
My biggest pet peeve, when arguing about #metoo and #blacklivesmatter and all manner of social movements that started on social media, is the very dated assumption that there is some kind of central office in which all decisions are being made by an evil cabal of young, angry, slutty women who are idiots and don’t know a thing about the history of feminism.
Started by Tarana Burke in 2006 as a way for survivors to tell their stories, move out of shame, and share resources with one another, metoo continues to be a movement about individual women telling their stories publicly if they choose to do so, only now it’s viral rather than in person. It’s not a registered party with a headquarters. There’s not a physical office where you can file complaints. It’s happening in real time and it’s not controllable. That’s its beauty and maybe sometimes its weakness, but I’m for it.
And because it’s not a political party, you cannot demand that it act a certain way. You don’t have to believe all of the stories and you can hope for it to have different outcomes. You can also work to help survivors find justice. You can also work to create those outcomes. Lobby for due process. Lobby for rape kits to not be thrown away. Lobby for sexual harassment protocols with teeth. Lobby to stop SESTA/FOSTA and the very real physical danger it’s creating for sex workers. Lobby for restorative justice, if that’s what you believe. Another way is to believe women. Not just because the statistics for false accusations are very low, but because intersectional feminism is about not throwing other women under the bus for your own personal comfort and gain. Another way is to not hobble a movement that has only just begun. Another way is to step aside and stop talking about all the things that are not right for you as a white woman and make space for other voices that you maybe don’t recognize or can’t hear.
I was also feeling sorry for myself in Mexico City because my novel had been rejected by many big and small presses. I had been in this position before. This was my second “debut” novel. I have two young adult novels and three poetry manuscripts that have also never been published. I don’t think any of these books were perfect, but I know this last one to be truly good and deserving of a home, and I don’t say this out of arrogance. I worked on it for five years. I revised it several times in major ways. There are now two versions of this book—one that is “bigger” and one that is “quieter.” I’ve read some of pass notes too, and while some editors just didn’t like it, several loved it deeply but couldn’t get it past the rest of their team. A few more editors said they loved my voice but they couldn’t recognize any of the characters—they were such outsiders. Most of these editors are the very smart, mostly white, mostly middle-class women of mainstream publishing. I have great awe and respect for them. They work damn hard and in a difficult industry, and I have no idea what it’s like to work in these publishing houses.
The protagonists in my book are a depressed, mixed race, single mom writer who has a lot of sex and hangs out at Occupy Wall Street, her bisexual, polya best friend, bartender, and a homeless punk runaway who lives in the park with her abusive boyfriend. The engine of the novel is the single mom’s impending eviction, protest, sex, and the mysterious suicide of a female student.
One of my dear friends once teased me, “You really know how to keep going in the face of years of rejection.” I think having a disability taught me this. I just keep crawling along, because what else is there to do? Also, I am lucky to have a tenacious agent who gets me, an amazing writing community, and a small group of sweet fans. It took me a long time and a lot of work to find these people, and no matter what, there is always the writing, which I am compelled to do nearly every day to feel like a person.
Eventually, Feminist Press, and more specifically, Michelle Tea, and her queer imprint, Amethyst, chose my novel for publication. They are a small, dedicated, intersectional, imprint. I am lucky to find a home there, and still I continue to wonder about access and storytelling.
Are you telling the story or trying to control it?
Are you letting the stories go where they need to go or are you trying to stop the stories?
Are you mad at the women for not telling the stories in the right way?
Are any of us really that good at saying no?
If you don’t know the story as your own, does that mean you shouldn’t publish it?
What about all the stories we haven’t yet heard?
What about the secrets waiting to be told?
In the hot sun, waiting in line to go inside Frida Kahlo’s house, I fashion a protective headdress out of my jean jacket. Inside, I cry over her wheelchair pushed up against her easel and her bed with a mirror specially built into the top of it so that she could paint self-portraits while she was bedridden and in pain. I spend a long time at the wall of photographs entitled “Pasiones,” which includes Diego and several other men and women. I’m pretty sure they left out some of the women.
I remember the first time I saw Kahlo’s work. It was 1991, and I was living with two painters and a writer in Binghamton, New York. The other writer was epically in love and so never home. One of the painters papered his bedroom walls with cutouts of vaginas and labias from porn magazines. His painting was radical and amazing and I dreamed of sleeping with him, though he treated me like a kid sister and I hated his bedroom. The other painter was my best friend, a tall blonde, former swimmer who was often so speechless that new friends thought she was from another country. I adored her. She was my first true roommate and we were bonded in all things. We cooked together, cuddled in the same bed, and she often used me as her model for drawing class because I was always around. She told me her secrets while we listened to The Pretenders’ greatest hits on cassette. She brought home art books from the library for us to use for inspiration. I was only writing poems them. I remembered the day she came home with Frida Kahlo.
We sat on our shitty couch and turned the pages slowly. A deer with Kahlo’s head on it, shot through with arrows! Her unibrow and mustache! A small Kahlo painted on the forehead of a big Kahlo! A woman’s naked body flayed by the doctor!
Pain writ large and unexplained. Female pain for the sake of its own self. Pain not simplified or turned into evidence for someone else to dissect and abuse. She crafted solely on her own terms, the story she wanted to tell.
CARLEY MOORE is an essayist, novelist, and poet. Her debut collection of essays, 16 Pills, was published in May of 2018 by Tinderbox Editions. Her debut novel, The Not Wives, is forthcoming from the Feminist Press in the fall of 2019. In 2017, she published her first poetry chapbook, Portal Poem (Dancing Girl Press) and in 2012, she published a young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). She lives in New York City and teaches at NYU and Bard College. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.