New Book Explores Womanhood In Ten Voices
New Book Explores Womanhood In Ten Voices
By Jennifer Hersey Cleveland
Published Friday, Oct. 10, 2014
When an innocuous looking man holding a puppy needed a ride, I stopped to help him. He rewarded my decency by pulling a knife on me and telling me to take my clothes off. When I said no, he appeared completely baffled, as if this outcome had never occurred to him.
And frankly, it had never occurred to me either.
Never did I believe I would go after the knife. And I certainly never thought I had the physical power to snap off the blade.
What that man didn’t realize was that he represented every single person who has attempted to harm me, every idiotic magazine article telling me to be thinner or to do more to please my man, every person who told me I wasn’t smart enough or good enough or pretty enough to deserve respect, every man who thought my body was his property.
It all came to a head that very moment – 30-some-odd years of living as a female in America. The fear of walking alone at night, the pervasive importance on physical appearance, the opportunities missed because of one’s genitalia.
And I broke that knife.
Unfortunately, my experience with sexual violence is not unique.
“You Are Not Alone – Stories from the front lines of womanhood,” a new book conceived and edited by Leah Carey of Littleton, N.H., explores the experiences of 10 women through a writing workshop.
From the first glimmer of an idea to publication, it has only taken Carey and the writers 16 weeks to accomplish. But urgency was in mind when the women began this process, in the wake of a Twitter phenomenon that spread the word about the shared experiences of women – #YesAllWomen – while also awakening the beast of a virulent and violent backlash.
“#YesAllWomen – because awareness and fear of rape is just a normal part of being a woman. Like breathing and eating,” a Tweet from Twitter user TheRyPepper, opens the book.
Carey’s inspiration was a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California, in May. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured 13 before killing himself, left behind a manifesto and YouTube video.
“Taken together, these two documents offer a glimpse into the mind of a disturbed young man who believed that women are incapable of rational thought and ‘haven’t evolved from animal-like thinking,’” Carey wrote. “He blamed his misery in life on the fact that women refused to be intimate with him. He vowed to punish them for that refusal.”
This resulted in a massive social media conversation involving probably tens of thousands of voices, Carey said, and because Tweets must be 140 characters or less, the responses were “very short and very profound.”
Then the trolls came out. Men threatened to rape and murder the women who shared their feelings.
“They attacked women’s right to speak, to walk down the street, and to choose their own sexual partners,” Carey wrote.
“At first I was really angry,” Carey said.
Carey’s background is in the theater, and over ten years she has used writing workshops as the impetus for stage productions.
This time, she extended her call for writers to Twitter and conducted it via video conference.
She got the attention of nine amazing women from age 17 to 53, from as far away as New Zealand and California.
She gave them specific writing prompts and only five to 20 minutes to write. There was only one rule – no apologies.
And their stories are powerful.
“They were willing to be raw and vulnerable,” Carey said.
Carey said she’s never studied gender or women’s studies, and earlier in life thought, “Oh that’s just for militant feminists, and I’m not that.”
But she’s learned that feminism isn’t about hating men, but rather about “making a world where we’re all respected.”
Carey respected the choice of two participants who wished to conceal their true identities, but the irony was not lost on her. “Even in a book about women standing up and being seen, there is still a fear of standing up and being seen,” Carey said.
In contrast, in the ten years she’s been conducting these workshops, she’s never had a man ask to leave out details.
Carey said she does not judge the women who wish to remain anonymous. Part of the goal of the workshop was extending genuine respect to all participants, letting them know, “It’s okay to be where you are.”
The stories that came out explore what it means to be a woman in a “rape culture,” what advice they would give to themselves at 12 years old, and the damaging messages they received from their parents.
They wrote about feeling helpless, about being taken advantage of, about “slut-shaming,” about being controlled.
But as the workshop progressed, and the women felt like someone was actually listening to them, the tone moved to one of progress, of feeling powerful enough to create positive change.
The book does not blame men, but rather takes a big-picture look at the societal constraints and beliefs that perpetuate misogyny.
And part of the blame lies at the feet of women.
One participant – whose name is also Leah – wrote a letter to a woman. “Dear girl at the luau: First, I want to apologize. I wasn’t kind that day.”
In front of 300 people, a girl wearing a very short skirt was brought on stage. Not only did Leah not tell the woman her bum was on display, she yelled, “Nice ass!”
“As women, we get enough from male strangers. You didn’t need it from a woman too.”
Leah expresses her hope that the woman was able to “emerge unscathed and unscarred from our encounter.”
“I still feel conflicted over the memory. I feel guilty and have a lot of regret. But sometimes it still makes me giggle – and that is what I fear about myself.”
While Carey, who is my co-worker at the Record, and I spoke about the book at a local restaurant, we were pretty loud and we giggled a lot. A woman approached us and told us we were annoying and rude and that we had bothered other patrons. Carey apologized, but said she didn’t think the sound of laughter was a bad thing, and I told the woman I hoped she was able to find joy.
That seemed to enrage her even more.
She was unable to quell our joy, and we couldn’t help but laugh at how timely her comments were. Here we are talking about the ways in which women damage other women, in the context of a book called “You Are Not Alone,” and this woman finds it offensive that we are having the conversation in public.
We wondered if she would have felt compelled to castigate two men having a loud conversation.
But that’s the beauty of “You Are Not Alone.” It explores the solutions – educating children, identifying the men who actively work toward a more equal future, realizing that women must stop punished ourselves for perceived shortcomings.
If we want to teach men that they must see us first as humans, not as sexual objects, we must do the same ourselves, Carey said.
“It is our job to educate because it ain’t happening anywhere else,” Carey said.
“We need to create the literature,” Carey said, “because there are so few role models to show us what better looks like.”
“What I really want people to know is they’re not alone,” Carey said. “There is a way forward.”