My Feminist Journey, Part IV

In 1994, the British Union opened a library in my city. This was a godsend because finding books in English in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine was a constant problem. Things had gotten so bad that I had devoured a small library of naval novels and had nightmares populated with fo’c’sles, lanyards, and spinnakers.

The library of the British Union contained a very incongruous selection of books on a wide variety of subjects. I was making my way through them shelf by shelf without leaving anything out because I didn’t have the capacity to distinguish what was good and what was bad. I even pored over thick reference books reckoning that it wouldn’t do any harm to peruse them.

This is how I got to the section with the mysterious name of “Gender Studies.” At first, the books were incomprehensible. They seemed to reflect a reality that was very alien to mine. The main emphasis in them was on women who underachieved while men overachieved. I’d never seen such people, and the analysis of their lives didn’t seem very interesting.

Still, I gradually came to realize that the terminology these books was using could be applied to what I knew. The solution to all the mysteries about the strange behavior of men and women that I had been observing throughout my life was contained in the Gender Studies volumes.

In the books, women kept sacrificing their professional and financial realization for the sake of being in a family, irrespective of how crappy that family ended up being. They cried, yelled, had hysterical outbursts, beat their children, and constantly got depressed and moody. The women I knew found it easy to make money and have careers. Still, they kept sacrificing something equally crucial for the sake of being in a family, irrespective of how crappy that family ended up being. Their sacrifice was their sexuality, their emotional lives, the joy they could take in their female bodies.

There had to be a name for the phenomenon that seemed to compel women to self-mutilate for the sake of an empty concept. From the Psychology 101 course I was taking, I knew that a psychologically healthy individual was the one who was equally well-fulfilled in the public and in the private sphere. A career without a personal life is as unbalanced as a personal life with no career.

Why were all the women I knew bullied at a very early age into creating families they neither needed nor loved? Why were they spending their lives burning with passionate hatred for these families where they were hopelessly trapped and with an even greater hatred for those few women who did not bury their sexuality completely? Why did everything and everyone seem to conspire to stomp out every trace of female sexuality from the earliest childhood experiences of a little girl?

Was it really not possible for women to retain both the private and the public spheres of their lives without having the Family devour either one or the other?

[To be continued. . .]

20 thoughts on “My Feminist Journey, Part IV

  1. The situation where the males invade one’s private space in order to make you shrink into a smaller mindset —I’ve had that experience a lot, earlier in my life. To move in and take up space that you require, but which they don’t require, puts you on the defensive. That uses up psychical energy, which means you don’t have as much to expend in developing a public life, either. First consolidate your space in the private realm and then you can extend into the public. My family of origin were very keen to stop me from developing in this way. It was psychological warfare.

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    1. And by the way, the Rhodesian military used to use the same strategy of ongoing harassment to keep the blacks from making civil protests. They would switch off their water and electricity and harass them with helicopters as a warning not do try protesting again. So my father had actually had substantial formal training in the art of keeping someone down.

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      1. Which was why I developed a generalized anxiety disorder, which people in the public realm saw fit to put down to whatever nefarious anti-female label came to their small minds.

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        1. I find that many people can’t even contemplate a discussion of familial abuse. The patriarchal prohibition against demanding accountability of one’s parents is too strong. In my culture, it’s the prohibition against being critical of the mother who is entitled to inflict absolutely anything on the children. In other cultures , it’s the father who is outside the pale of any criticism. The rage people invest into hounding a person who protests against this abuse is incredibly strong.

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          1. Yes, that is what I have found also. An additional problem is that I was unable to articulate the nature of the harassment. I now see where it comes from — a kind of soldiering mentality that was a conditioned outlook. But all the same, people will read what I have said and make excuses or even go so far as to insist that they had a better knowledge of my experience than I have had, as one UWA prof seemed to imply. Of course, to claim to know better about my experiences than I do is to claim omniscience, which is a narcissistic posture. So people seem to respond to my truths by taking on a narcissistic stance and insisting they have experienced everything I have in a more veracious way.

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            1. What is really tragic is to see how people interiorize the abuse and become copies of their own abusers. For example, my mother was very badly abused by her in-laws. They used her poverty and her lack of options to mistreat her in really nasty ways. She spent my entire childhood weeping because of it. And what do you think? Thirty years later she is doing EXACTLY what was done to her to her own daughter. She is repeating every abusive practice robotically. I just discovered this was happening and I’m in a state of shock that people could be so devoid of any capacity to analyze and remember.

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              1. Yes, that’s what my father did as well. His father was a step-father who was ambivalent to him and practically disowned him. My father did the same to me, even though I am his daughter by blood.

                Now, when I say to people that I am in a specific sense a hero, because I have survived all this and did not disintegrate, they take it that I am merely big-noting myself. They can’t see the struggle, so they surmise it was negligible or does not exist. Their insistence that my struggle has no real existence is mind blowing, but it’s still what people feel comfortable doing, so there’s no talking them out of it.

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              2. I also believe that it takes a heroic effort to stand up to this. It’s a system of generational abuse that exists throughout decades and decades. And then one person stands up against it and breaks the circle of abuse. A very profound work has to be done to see all of the insidious inner workings of the abuse and to oppose them at every level.

                Those who deny the importance of this work are envious because they never dared to do it for themselves

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              3. It may be so (your last sentence). I also think that people find complexity itself irritating to have to handle. They think it might be a sign of somebody taking themselves too seriously. Not being in the situation themselves, they lack empathy for this kind of suffering.

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            2. The only positive thing here is that you and I at least have found the voice to say, “This was done to me, this is wrong.” One either protests loudly or ends up being exactly like one’s abuser.

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              1. A lot of positive things came out of my situation, although this took a tremendous amount of time to happen. One of these is that I learned about the levels of denial and, in a word, hypocrisy, that are in all levels of society, so I am able to form a lifestyle that is at least authentic, based on my knowledge of the hollowness of bourgeois life.

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              2. An authentic life is the most difficult thing to achieve when one had to learn to conceal and falsify everything about oneself to preserve one’s individuality in an abusive environment.

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              3. The pressure to conceal is the pressure to remain always upbeat, to seem not to be unduly critical of one’s circumstances and the people who reinforce the existing state of affairs. If one is not happy at all times, people like to make the assumption that one harbors a character flaw — one which, they, personally, have the responsibility to iron out. So you get people ironing you out all the time.

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              4. Yes. As I was growing up, I was never allowed any emotions but happiness and gratitude. Obviously, this approach did not lead to genuine happiness or gratitude. Of course, people who experience really harsh abuse do often develop the required characteristics. For them it isn’t concealment as much as real self-mutilation.

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              5. You know, my situation was even more complex, because of the layer of guilt and shame my family experience after migration. So anything but a happy emotion was not tolerated. Also, the hosts of the new country were hardly welcoming. They expressed — and continue to express — deep suspicion of all my motives.

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  2. “my mother was very badly abused by her in-laws”

    While I sometimes question your optimistic opinions on American mental health (where is your data sample from and can’t be from your colleagues…) I think one area where Americans have a sane approach is in-laws. There’s no special tradition of a young couple’s parents messing around in their lives.

    In Poland, one of the most common causes of marital failure and unhappiness are parents butting into their adult children’s marriages. Some turbulence in the early days of a marriage is perfectly normal but rather than let newlyweds work out their problems like adults the parents on one side or the other (or both!) jump in and inevitably make things far worse. I imagine that’s true of FSU countries as well.

    I think the NAmerican tradition of keeping out of your children’s marriages has a lot more benefits than disadvantages. I’m wondering if the cursed helicopter parents of the poor bullied millenial generation will follow this wonderful tradition of if mom and dad are going to start tagging along during the honeymoon (honestly I would not be at all surprised if that’s the next step).

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    1. “While I sometimes question your optimistic opinions on American mental health (where is your data sample from and can’t be from your colleagues…) ”

      – Compared to people in the same profession in the FSU, they are a picture of mental health. 🙂

      “Some turbulence in the early days of a marriage is perfectly normal but rather than let newlyweds work out their problems like adults the parents on one side or the other (or both!) jump in and inevitably make things far worse. I imagine that’s true of FSU countries as well.”

      – Yes. Oh, ain’t that so? 🙂 Another pretext for brutal hostilities are children (grandchildren.) I was that child who was being torn apart by the battling relatives and I don’t have tender memories of the process. Everything becomes a battle: what the child eats, wears, does, etc. It’s always just about sticking it to each other and affirming control. How the child feels in the meanwhile is of no interest to anybody. Even the child’s body becomes a battlefield. It’s simply horrible.

      “I’m wondering if the cursed helicopter parents of the poor bullied millenial generation will follow this wonderful tradition of if mom and dad are going to start tagging along during the honeymoon (honestly I would not be at all surprised if that’s the next step).”

      – If people lose the capacity to move far away from the parents (as a result of the economic crisis), these patriarchal structures do have a chance of getting restored.

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