The Women Who Carried Violence In Their Bodies
My life-saving friendships with the female characters of Alice Walker, Ayn Rand, and Zora Neale Hurston
When I was six years old, my family lived next to a man rumored to be a pedophile. Back then, the word meant nothing to me beyond hush-hush talk about him touching his female pupils inappropriately. I didn’t know what made some touches appropriate and others not. My parents must have heard the rumors too because they banned me from interacting with him longer than it took to pass customary greetings.
The glory of childhood is in its transparency, the not-so-black and white lines, the non-sinister imagination and untainted morals. This innocence will lead me to run errands for this man against the dull ringing reminder of my parent’s warnings. I couldn’t see the wrong in helping him buy items from the store two houses away, especially as I got to keep whatever change was left.
Innocence will lead me to run errands for this man against the dull ringing reminder of my parent’s warnings.
On one such errand, he handed me back the extra change, thanked me and tapped my bottom as I walked away. I thought nothing of it. My mind was occupied with the thought of the melting chocolate cubes I’d buy with my hard-earned money. But my brother witnessed what had transpired and told my parents who thought plenty.
Later, my father called me into my parent’s bedroom, where I was met with the unforgiving leather of a belt and a statement leaving no room for response: I heard you went to Mr. Tola’s house today.
I was whipped until my wails stuck in my throat and I choked on my own saliva. The brown of my skin was crisscrossed with red, blue and black welts. Blood trickled out of torn flesh. My mind swirled with questions for the belt and the hand that brought it down. I knew I was being accused of something. I’d been found guilty and this beating was my punishment, a loving attempt to purge me of the evil that sponsored the crime. The injuries I sustained took at least a decade to heal.
Over the years I grew reclusive, terrified of beatings. I blossomed into a teenager and headed to university, elated to be away from the transgressions of family and heady with the scent of freedom. I unfurled my wings and flew off into the sunset — but too close to a man with lava for hands. He raped me, left me flat on the ground with melted wings, and I wished my next breath would not reach my lungs.
Surrounded by a culture bounded by shame and sewn heavy with silence, the key to surviving was to leave no footprints stained with blood or traces of trauma that could lead back to: I heard you were in his house that night? What were you doing there?
I borrowed several pages from the book society hands all girls at their christening, whole chapters filled with rules: what to do, what to say, how to behave, how to be a good girl, how not to bring disgrace to your family. Where I come from, a person’s strength is directly proportional to how much suffering they can endure and still do what is expected of them. I have good practice from watching my mother do it. I believe I am very strong. Look at me hold it all in.
Where I come from, a person’s strength is directly proportional to how much suffering they can endure and still do what is expected of them.
Reading has always been an intimate experience to me. Books provided a sacred companionship no one could desecrate. I had a tendency to assume the characters’ lives — their triumphs were my own, my secrets were theirs. I have lived meaningful lives this way. This communion has helped me walk over a thousand hills and made sure I made it down. Somehow.
When I plucked The Color Purple by Alice Walker from my shelf and first met Celia, she was writing a letter and the raw confusion in her voice was palpable. Like me, she had been abused. She was only a teenager and could not tell anyone about her pain, didn’t know if anyone would listen. She decided to write to God, the one person she felt was close enough to know, and distant enough to not create problems. Her first letter opens:
Dear God, I am fourteen years old. I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.
I understood the exhaustion one must endure in order to bleed on paper. I kept a journal. I filled it with all the questions I was too afraid to ask out loud, not from fear of not making sense, but something deeper: shame at needing to ask at all. My brother found the journal and was about to read it aloud to my parents before I wrestled it back. I decided to keep my words in my chest, so they did not shame me.
My brother found the journal and was about to read it aloud to my parents before I wrestled it back. I decided to keep my words in my chest, so they did not shame me.
Celia was two years younger than me when we met, yet she embodied a lot of the things that I was. We both were afraid of our own voices. We both believed that the world would automatically be good to us if we did what we were supposed to. The world was never that pragmatic. Much of Celia’s frustration flowed from her perception of herself through the lens of others. People called her ugly, she believed it. They treated her badly, she judged herself worthless.
Society sees women that are raped as dirty and ruined, and I believed it, and I wanted desperately to be clean again.
My body was an ocean I could not cross, and floating around were pictures of men who had taken things from me: my father, random men on the streets, friends, relatives, the man with lava hands…
Men took things away from Celia too, but when she began to ask for those things, so did I. Together, we verbalized independence, resistance. We stood a little more upright. By the end of the novel, my face was streaked with tears.
A book club suggestion introduced me to Dominique Francon, one of the most complex characters to ever come into my life. We struck up a slow, unpretentious friendship filled with questions. The Fountainhead quickly became my favorite book. I was grateful to Ayn Rand for bringing Dominique to me.
A stark contrast from Celia, Dominique was an intelligent, opinionated, and eccentric woman. She was most things I wanted to be. She shunned societal expectations and criticized opinions she found to be lacking substance. Dominique was the ruler of her own world; she dictated the course of her life. She had what women everywhere in the world wanted: freedom.
Alvah Scarrett asks, “What do you want, perfection?”
She says, “Or nothing, so you see I take the nothing.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” he says.
She says, “I take the only desire one can really permit oneself. Freedom, Alva, freedom.”
She knew what she wanted, demanded it, and refused to apologize. Alvah says, “Dominique, it’s abnormal to feel so strongly about anything.” She responds, “That’s the only way I can feel or not at all.”
As I read, a new conversation began with myself. I wanted to be this woman, I wanted to be in control of my body and life, I wanted the world to stop taking things away from me. I discovered feminism.
As I read, a new conversation began with myself. I wanted to be this woman, I wanted to be in control of my body and life, I wanted the world to stop taking things away from me.
Over the years, my mind has circled back to this conversation whenever I voiced my opinions about women’s issues. There has always been someone eager to tell me what I’m allowed to be angry about and how far that anger can go, how passionately I can denounce actions that hurt me. I recognize this as an attempt to negotiate false middle grounds. I’m able to see the unfairness of having to fight on uneven ground while being expected to play by another’s rules, and reject it, because I was there when Dominique pointed this pattern out to Howard Roarke:
When I think of what you are, I can’t accept any reality except a world of your kind, or at least a world in which you have a fighting chance and a fight on your own terms. That does not exist and I can’t live a life torn between that which exists and you. It would mean to struggle against things in men who don’t deserve to be your opponents. Your fight using their methods and that’s too horrible a desecration.
My connection with Dominique meant I had to find myself in a way of my choosing, at my own pace. It was time to reclaim my battered body from my father, take back my sexuality from the abusers, seize my pride from purity culture, denounce the patriarchy in all forms for what it was, even if it meant sacrificing some of its benefits.
Benevolent misogyny is still misogyny. Benevolent misogyny is a foster child of patriarchy.
A moment of crisis occurs in The Fountainhead between Dominique and her love interest, Howard Roarke. This crisis has been christened “The Rape Scene” and the literary community is split into two groups, those who think a rape occurred, and those who don’t.
This crisis has been christened “The Rape Scene” and the literary community is split into two groups, those who think a rape occurred, and those who don’t.
The apologists in the literary community consider this scene symbolic because character traits and ideals suggest this is what Dominique wanted and the only way she could have given herself to Roarke. I find this argument problematic as the idea of cues, suggestive actions and character traits serving as concrete validation of sexual request can easily spiral out of control. Speech is the language of consent, especially between people with no prior sexual relationship.
What I got from the scene is how easily lines can blur when a thing is taken out of context. Desire for a person is not approval or a signal that it is okay to have your way with them. In reality, where there are no narrative motifs to help escape accountability, a smile can be pounced upon as implying sexual desire instead of vocal consent. There are way too many women who carry violence in their bodies already. We cannot make room for any more.
I realize how much this need to gloss over actions to make them more acceptable has permeated some of my past sexual experiences. I know violence can be subtle, creep under the skin like it belongs there. I too have called it a different name. I have wanted to absolve perpetrators of responsibility because I cared about them or was too embarrassed to call what had happened what it was. I figured piling makeup on the face of the experiences was the only way to look at myself in the mirror and not feel so ravaged. Otherwise the old pains would begin to ache and I was out of places to hide pain. I thought that if it didn’t happen, then I didn’t have to feel anything. I’m still finding myself. I am naming all the transgressions now.
And I wondered about the futility of ridding girls of innocence in the name of protection. Are female bodies cursed to be crime scenes waiting to happen? Can we ever keep ourselves safe enough to escape the violence if it comes bearing our names on its hands? On how many fronts can we fight this battle of preservation without losing whole portions of ourselves?
Are female bodies cursed to be crime scenes waiting to happen? Can we ever keep ourselves safe enough to escape the violence if it comes bearing our names on its hands?
I wonder what a safe woman looks like.
Early this year, I went hunting for books written by women of color and a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God found its way into my hands. I gulped down the classic coming-of-age story of a woman named Janie.
From the outset, I was confronted once again by the array of violence committed against the female body: religious, cultural, social, economic. It seemed they were all in a race to see which could subjugate women the most.
I read and bore witness to the female body used transactionally, bundled away in exchange for sex, family honor, marriage, fragile egos, respect. And I considered that what little joy we women win back for ourselves also carries grief. I am thinking of war-torn bodies, little girls forced to become veterans before they have the chance to live a little.
Janie is born after her 17-year-old mother is raped by the schoolteacher. She grows up under the watchful caring eyes of her grandmother, who, after she is caught kissing a boy, decides to marry her off to an old man.
I was reminded of my parents and the accountability they forced on my shoulders, the crackle of a belt dancing through air, my body punished for male transgression.
Can we ever escape violence, or must we merely tolerate it? How much do we owe it and how much is owed to us? Will the debt ever be repaid?
Jamie’s second husband, Logan Killicks, eclipses her voice and tries to control it. I’ve seen men in my life do same. I’ve seen men on television do it. I’ve seen men everywhere do it:
“Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.”
The idea of a female voice that is seen and heard is an inconceivable atrocity to some. The need to censor and police the female body is built on fear. But fear of what? A culture that rids the male body of responsibility and accountability while tattooing blame on the female body is dangerous and benefits no one.
The idea of a female voice that is seen and heard is an inconceivable atrocity to some. The need to censor and police the female body is built on fear. But fear of what?
Women are culturally engineered to be custodians of patriarchy as much as men are. The existence of these wonderful, rebellious, independent, audacious women characters opened my eyes to painful realities. I drew inspiration from their experiences, some of which had been mine. Like them, I did what I could to move against the swirl of transgression.
I am reclaiming my time. I am learning what freedom is. Coming into myself with the audacity of sunshine after a storm. I am verbalizing my defiance.
“The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there.”
This signifies Janie’s release from the shadow and control of her husband.
I, too, am crafting my freedom. I am saying my name again and again until I learn to trust it. I am rejecting the little things, like being called to make dinner for my healthy brother who can cook perfectly but would rather play games than feed himself. I am making my dissatisfaction known. And when someone says it is wrong to feel so strongly — it’s just cooking — I’ll remember the personal is also the political. I will stand my ground.
Every time I make these little triumphs, like Janie, I’ll pull in my horizon like a great fish net, and I’ll summon my soul to come and see.