Sunday Morning ~ Our Own Words
Sunche adati: kamve a pansi. ~The anteater said: go and listen to the words down below.
~ Chewa proverb
January 15, 2023
At times in my life, my words have been taken and twisted into a story that suited someone else. It is infuriating, and depending on my investment in the relationship, my reaction and the incurred damage varied. A lot depends on what’s worth fighting for. What price is worth paying? Do I let it go? Rise above it? Walk away? Sometimes. But what about when my life and livelihood is at stake? I have survived sexual assault but never reported or went public about it, fearing maybe it was my fault, or my story wasn’t worth telling. But every untold story has a consequence.
I am teaching the History of Women’s Health Care at the local college this winter. The term started this week and in my introduction I highlighted how little we know about women healers as they were not formally educated, couldn’t read or write, and were defined by men. Burned women did not leave us their stories. How different would women’s lives be if we learned about historical female healers through their own voice? What role models would we have aside from the few who were wealthy and educated? When women did speak their truths, they were often not believed when their stories didn’t fit the male narrative. Punishments were severe. The legacy lives on.
For a writing exercise I asked the class to write about a time when they did not feel heard. I wrote about when I’d broken my leg skiing and the cast was too tight. My toes were swollen and the doctor made a cut down the side of the cast to loosen it. A timid six year old, I told him he was burning my foot. He continued cutting saying he was not cutting my foot. My mother told me to be quiet. For weeks afterward I complained my foot hurt because it was burned. She said it wasn’t possible. Three months later when the cast was removed, there was a burn scar on the top of my foot. I yelled, “I told you!” and everyone in the room chuckled. No one apologized for not believing me: not the nurse, not the doctor, not my mother. My leg healed, the doctor got paid, and my mother never mentioned it again. The scar on my foot and my psyche are still there. At times in my life when I don’t feel heard (my husband’s infidelity, my boyfriend’s abuse, my boss’s neglect) I would point out facts and evidence while screaming to myself “My foot is burned!”
I finished watching The Crown a few weeks ago and, still in a royal mood, watched a bit of the Harry and Meghan documentary. I didn’t expect it to be something I’d stay engaged with but it had a visceral impact on me almost immediately. I hadn’t heard any reviews about the show, it only popped up on the screen because I’d just watched The Crown. I ended up binging the whole thing, surprised at how it affected me. I thought it illustrated deeply seeded racism, an attempt to call it out, and a struggle to have a story heard. My foot was burned.
I was on a flight from Abu Dhabi to Washington when Harry and Meghan got married. Since it was a seventeen hour flight, I watched the entire thing: celebrities arriving, the gown reveal, the ceremony, the music. A captive audience, I barely noticed when a meal was served. I love weddings. And, from what I knew about this couple, I loved them. I was in Malawi when Harry was there to see the over-populated elephants moved from one game reserve to another. On our great end-of-service road trip, George and I met people in Botswana who’d met them. We stayed at a camp where they got engaged. The staff referred to William and Harry as “The Boys” who treated the staff with respect. Harry’s advocacy, given the privilege he was born into, fascinated me. I could not imagine losing a mother in such a public and violent way. How do you ever heal from that? She was horrifyingly hounded to death. Then to live within an institution that neither comforts nor acknowledges the brutality? How anyone comes out of that with their sense of humanity intact is beyond me.
When Charles and Diana were married I bought into the idea that the monarchy was good for tourism. (I made this argument to one of my sons recently and his response was, “Oh yeah, like no one goes to France anymore now that they don’t have a king?”) The British economy was in trouble in the early ’80’s and the cynical side of me thought pulling this young beautiful bride out of a hat and planning a royal wedding was an economical booster shot. I didn’t buy the story that the prince was “Marrying For Love” as one headline said, but who knows in these weird arranged compilations of power. At least she was British and they weren’t trying to annex another country through marriage. That was progress, I thought.
I remember reading in TIME magazine about a reporter who said he was dragging a camera with a lens the “size of a bloody Howitzer” to hide from a distance and shoot photos of Diana putting sunscreen on Charles’s back when they were on their honeymoon. I turned to my husband and asked, “What’s a Howitzer?” “A gun”, he said, “a really big gun”. I remember looking at those photos, which seemed harmless to me then, not understanding how they would destroy her. Her story was always told by someone else, and when she did speak, the final ax descended.
So this flaying of Harry and Meghan for telling their story is getting to me. People who have not read Harry’s book nor seen the documentary somehow feel entitled to take their words and twist them. Some (paid?) commentators frame them as privileged people “whining”. I didn’t see it that way. I admire them for speaking out against an unfair and exploitive institution. Does their privilege mean they must remain silent? Meghan’s story of her experience being black is her story and I’m glad she told it. I’m glad I could hear it. For those who don’t think she’s black enough, you are entitled to your story, too.
Those in power will define you in a way that keeps you in their power. I tell my class we must practice telling our story because we have not been taught to do so. We must practice listening to others tell their story because we have not been taught to do so. Hopefully, someday the words down below will save us.
Love to all,