“We Say the Silence Has Been Broken” by Carol P. Christ


We treat the physical assault and the silencing after as two separate things, but they are the same, both bent on annihilation. Rebecca Solnit

When I was in my twenties and in therapy I had a recurrent dream in which a strange man was chasing me and caught up with me and started to strangle me and I could not scream. I was asked to act this dream out by my therapist, who told me that this time I would scream. I could not. She got up and came over and put her hands around my neck and started to squeeze. I still could not scream.

Two decades later I had a dream in which I was a baby and suffocating in my crib. I asked my current therapist if she thought someone had tried to suffocate me when I was an infant. Her answer was simple: “There is no need to think about this happening when you were an infant. You have been silenced all your life.”

When I was a child, my father used to punish us by taking off his belt, sitting down, asking us to pull down our pants and lie across his lap, and then lashing our bare bottoms with his belt. This was typical child-rearing practice in the 1950s and 1960s. Rita Nakashima Brock was the first to name it for me as child abuse. Nonetheless, when we got older, my brother and I preferred to be spanked, rather than to have our 25 cents a week allowance taken away from us. At least, we thought, being spanked was over in a minute, while losing your allowance was something you would suffer for a long time.

The punishment that hurt me the most was not physical. It was my father’s method we came to call “the silent treatment.” I am sure it happened in my childhood, but the first time I remember it was when I came home from college and excitedly told my parents in the car that I had changed my major to a subject I really loved and that my advisors had told me I could get a scholarship to graduate school and become a college professor. My father had earlier advised me against this idea, saying that I would never get a job as a professor and thus would be wasting the money he had spent on my education. I thought the idea that I could win a scholarship would allay his fears. When I told him this, he did not respond. Instead he refused to look at me, to speak to me, and even to pass the butter during the entire two weeks of my spring break.

The next time I remember the silent treatment was the day before the reception for my wedding my parents were holding at their home. My father had invited me and my husband and two couples who were family friends out to dinner. I was a feminist, but I had learned to hold my tongue about it when I was around my father. One of the women had recently been elected mayor of our small town. I congratulated her on what I saw as a victory for all women and asked her quietly and obliquely about her experience. The next thing I remember is that her husband who was smoking a cigar, interrupted, and I responded to him. Hearing our interchange, my father intoned from the other side of the table, “That will be enough, Carol. That will just be enough.” Words I had heard many times in my childhood years.

When I protested that I hadn’t done anything, my father called for the bill and after he paid it, he and the other men got up from the table and headed for the cars. The women, who were meant to follow them, instead followed me to the bathroom where they said that they would not get into any car if the men intended to leave me and my husband behind. A few minutes later, when we got into my parents’ car, the silent treatment began; it continued through the reception and until we got on the plane to go home. Several months afterwards, when I told my mother that my husband and I were hoping to spend Christmas with them, she informed me that unless I apologized to my father, I could not come home again. She said that she knew I was not in the wrong, but she would not confront my father. I apologized.

Two decades later I took a one-semester teaching position in Claremont in part because I wanted to spend time with my father and brothers who lived in the area. On the night of his birthday my father and his wife picked me up on the way to my brother’s house where we had been invited for dinner. In the car, my father told me that he had a card for my other brother’s second wife who shared his birthday. “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I responded. “Well you should have!” “But Dad, my brother’s wife probably doesn’t know my birthday either. Times have changed from the way it was when we were kids and Mom and the aunties knew everyone’s birthday.” On ride home, I received “the silent treatment” once again and did not hear from my father until I sent him an Easter card, shortly before I was due to go back to Greece.

What would women’s lives be like, what would our roles and accomplishments be, what would our world be, without this terrible punishment that looms over our daily lives? Rebecca Solnit

Some might wonder why I make such a big thing out of being punished with “the silent treatment.” Many women have suffered much worse: they have been beaten; they have been raped; they have been killed. Others might choose to view my father as an exception. But what if he was more or less typical of men of his generation and not entirely atypical of the ones that followed: a man who expects his will to be law, especially in relation to his wives and daughters. And what if most women in our culture have been treated as if what they say and and who they are simply do not matter–at some time or another, most probably more than once, by one man or another.

Each individual action may be driven by an individual man’s hate or entitlement or both, but those actions are not isolated. Their cumulative effect is to diminish the space in which women move and speak, our access to power in public, private, and professional spheres. Rebecca Solnit

My father’s behavior toward me was repeated when I went to graduate school at Yale. My ideas were dismissed or ignored, my questions were considered peripheral, and I was told that even if I finished my degree, I would not be offered a job that could be offered to a man with a family to support, and anyway, I would soon marry and have children and abandon my career.

We treat the physical assault and the silencing after as two separate things, but they are the same, both bent on annihilation. Rebecca Sonit I repeat: “both bent on annihilation.”

On the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete we have a ritual in which we repeat these words from a poem by Patricia Reis:

We say the time of waiting is over.
We say the silence has been broken.
We say there can be no forgetting now.
We say,
Listen.

We are the bones of your grandmother’s grandmothers.

* * *

a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover designCarol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

Join Carol  on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Sign up now for 2018! It could change your life!

Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger

 

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Categories: Activism, Domestic Violence, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Violence, Violence Against Women

Tags: , , , , , , ,

46 replies

  1. This really resonates with me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear oh dear… Carol, this resonates deeply… I grew up in the 50s and 60s on a farm in the South African Free State, a dry and barren area of the country where my father eked out a living for his family — my mother four girls and my baby brother. My father was always in a bad mood. Did not go much for talking, particularly at the dinner table. At meal times we had to be silent, from the time he said grace until he said thanks at the end of the meal. This also meant we could not speak when my mother loaded each plate with a mountain of grey, greasy food. We could not ask for her to make the serving smaller. If we dared speak, he barked “silence!” from the head of the table, his belt at the ready over the back of his chair. And if we did not finish the food on the plate, he would force-feed us, a method he called “making turkey”, which meant the child would get red in the face from struggling to get the food down. My one sister became bulemic as a young adult. No surprise here. If any of us would talk during meal time, we were sent to eat in the kitchen. I did not find my voice until I was in my mid-forties. There is a great watery place on the south coast where the mouth of the Storms River empties into the Indian Ocean at a place called Tsitsikama… the turbulent waters from the river and the ocean churn together turning the rocks into large smooth pebbles, and as the tide goes in and out the large pebbles clunk together… making a beautiful guttural sound. I wrote this poem about that place and about finding my voice…

    SPEECH

    a thousand
    polished pebbles
    rattle in rhythmic
    tidal measure
    up inside my larynx
    honing and planing with
    every wave until
    sleek as stone my voice
    slips from my tongue

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “bent on annihilation” what pain what abuse and what sense of hatred and entitlement caused him and him to be like that!
    love the poem.the stones sound like that in Lesbos often.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think growing up with Calvinism in the 20s and 30s on a barren farm, took its toll as much on women and children as it did on the men who were charged with being little tyrannical gods on earth. My father wasn’t even particularly religious in those days… he only became so later in his life, but the patriarchal message was swallowed hook, line and sinker…. until he could no longer speak…
      He oddly became beautifully verbal in the last few months of his life, after my mother had passed. He made up rhymes and was actually funny and creatively verbal… the poem actually is as much for him, now that I think about it… from a place of abundant waters… so different from the arid landscape that ever thwarted his best efforts to “subdue” it.

      Like

  4. This resonates with me too-albeit not to the same degree you experienced Carol. My thoughts voice were not valued and I was regularly ridiculed subtly and not so subtly. I was told I was immature and iirresponsible.

    I still struggle to formulate my thoughts for speaking although I’ve come along way. It’s still extremely difficult in situations when there could be debate in the conversation.

    When I was to marry my now husband, my father basically told him how glad he was to have someone take me over. I feel my husband unconsciously took up my father’s *role*. It’s an ongoing struggle to change this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Carol. I am grateful for “We say the silence is over.” It is a risky and bold stance–and the only way it won’t be annihilating is if we have support once we stake our claim. It has been strengthening to see how FAR breaks the silence and then follows with support and affirmation. Generations of women took risks to get us here. I am grateful for the risks you have taken–and for the community you have helped to form for us here.
    Peace,
    Marcia

    Liked by 2 people

    • I liked this post a lot – it touches on something I am working on at the moment – noticing the times when I make myself small and give up automatically because of an old expectation of punishment that comes from childhood. It is amazing how the body can hold reactions that are no relevant to present life. Watching this can tell me a lot about what is actually going on within and outside of me!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree Tina, many women say “it did me no lasting harm,” but in many cases we are not aware of the harm that is still being held in our bodies decades later. For example, I might say the spankings did me no lasting harm, but I wonder…

        Like

  6. The form it takes for me is the expectation that when I speak, no-one listens. I am not forbidden to speak, but my words are ignored.
    My first reaction to this piece, however, was admiration that you continued to hold a relationship with your father. You did not follow his dysfunctional role model by accepting his edict that you not see him again, thus “silencing” you both, but rather consciously chose the more difficult path of continued interaction.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes and no. I kept in touch with my father by email mostly about my research on our genealogy and in 2x per year letters, but chose not to see him from the last incident in 2004 to 2017 when he died.

    Like

  8. Thank you for your courage in continuing to speak in the face of the silencing silent treatment.

    My father had different methods, but most definitely sought to silence me. Long after I was an adult and had left home, he tried to bully me into destroying my journals. In my youth he was actively hostile towards my writing, telling me I had nothing worth writing about, because I knew nothing. When I wrote a novel anyway, he told me I would never be published. Even though I appear to others to be confident, I still find public speaking torturous.

    Thank you again, Carol, for your strong, passionate, succinct, and brilliant voice.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This post has deep meaning for me, so thank you Carol for speaking of this. I too was punished in a very similar way, too many times to remember. My “crime” was usually that I was ‘being saucy’, which can only mean I was attempting to express myself and that was deemed worthy of punishment. While reading about your experience around your wedding, I suddenly remembered my own experience – my father yelling at me for being too loud hours before we were to leave for the church – I sat in stony silence on the drive down. Then for two years after getting married, he refused to speak to the man I had married. Interesting that he still chose to speak to me, but his form of punishment on my choice was to ignore the man I had basically found refuge with – who was, at the time, a refuge from the evangelical community I had grown up within. This issue of female silencing is one I am passionate about, and am currently writing a book – “Breaking the Spell of Female Silence: Restoring the wild earth voice of the feminine.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. The main thing I remember about my father, who died when I was six years old, is “the belt”. It was black leather with a silver buckle engraved with his initials. This was late 30’s – early 40’s but “obedience through threat and beating” seems to have been around a long time. And silence. “Don’t talk, eat”. My brother, 5 yrs older, seems to have raised his family differently. But with me, he expected he would speak and I would obey. Silly boy!

    A large part of my adult years was spent healing from my step father’s sexual abuse. I was in my mid 40’s or older before I started to think about the effects of the first six years. There was a doctor at that time working in Walter Reed Army Hospital who did a study of the similarities of PTSD in war vets and adult children of alcoholics. That was a real eye-opener to some behaviour…inability to speak when scared for example, hiding, hyper-alertness, trying to be invisible. I’m now 79 and think I’ll be trying to find balance until the day I die. It’s the task of a lifetime!

    The biggest step I took some decades ago was saying this out loud to another person. It was a big step in healing. I’m so glad that women are now breaking the silence. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. This made me incredibly sad for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks, Carol, a very important post here. I agree with Barbara Coopers’ comment too — “I’m so glad that women are now breaking the silence.”

    The abuse I had to face as a child was by a stepfather, who thought if he had access to my mother then he should have access to me too. I brought the problem to my mother’s attention, and she took care of it. I don’t know what she said to her husband, but the abuse ended there. I think that my feminism, and the courage to speak out regards women’s liberation, is probably thanks to my mother protecting me so strongly.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Hi Carol and women, This post was resonant for me as well. Your father sounds very much like mine, Carol. He spanked me with my pants down until I was 12, which verges on sexual abuse, in my opinion. For particularly egregious transgressions I was made to go outside and choose a switch for him to use on me…the dilemma being “thick or thin?” His constant criticism of my appearance, my beliefs, my passions basically eviscerated any self esteem I managed to develop. He sabotaged my education. But I think the most abusive thing he did was to tell me, “I know you better than you know yourself,” and I believed him

    Liked by 1 person

  14. After reading all the above, I think I must have been incredibly lucky. I find this post and the comments horrifying. How could anyone, man or woman, who treats others so cruelly feel good about him or herself. My parents were not perfect, but no one ever told me to be silent, they thought belt whipping was cruel. Even though female, I was told I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. Perhaps it helped that I had no brothers and that my father adored my mother.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I meet families like yours Juliana, I feel disorientated and out of place. Like “this is so strange”. But it is an ongoing reminder that if one in three women are abused, two in three are not. So you remain a light of promise for what can be, and hopefully in the future, will be. Thank you for the reminder.

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Thank you for this article, Carol. I was spanked as child, also on bare buttock but not with a belt. I remember being very angry. Anger was not allowed. So I learned silence as a conflict-handling strategy. I still hear myself stumbling over words and being almost incoherent when I want to speak my truth. As if I first need approval before I can say what I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. After reading everything women here wrote, including your original post, Carol, I’m almost believing that I escaped the worst of the corporal punishment epidemic in the 1950s and 1950s. But of course, that isn’t true. I was spanked — by hand and with clothes on — and sent to my room at other times. Once I reached puberty, that stopped. Since everyone I knew was disciplined in exactly the same way, it felt normal. The good news for me was that my parents listened to what I said, even when they disagreed. In fact, during the Viet Nam War I almost looked forward to going home from college to argue with my father about the war. He was a patriarch, but since he had only daughters (and 4 of them), he was outnumbered.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I had one good argument with my father about Vietnam and Civil Rights and then was told by my mother I would not be welcome home if I ever brought the subject up again. Whether this command came from my father or from her, I do not know.

      Like

  17. thanks to all of you who shared and to those of you who sympathized but did not share. and thanks to all of those who treated each one of us with kindness and respect.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Carol, having experienced both sexual assault and SILENCING. I can tell you that out of the two I would prefer to be beaten. Silencing is how my mother controlled me throughout my childhood. I WOULD DO ANYTHING TO AVOID BEING SILENCED FOR DAYS OR A WEEK – sometimes followed by my mother’s sudden departure with me in charge of my little brother. By the time I was about 12 I no longer believed I was a person. Silencing erased me from my own life.

    I drew picture after picture of a child without an arm or mouth… it doesn’t take a therapist to figure out what these repetitive images mean.

    Silencing is a deadly form of abuse that destroys lives.

    Thank you so very much for addressing this terrifying and often invisible issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hm looks like there are 2 kinds of silencing, not being allowed to speak (your punishment) and not being spoken to (my father’s version). Both are about annihilation as Solnit says.

      Like

      • This puts me of mind of the remark my mother made one time. I had brought my boyfriend home to meet my parents, AFTER I had decided to accompany him back to his home in Aotearoa-New Zealand, to pursue the relationship (I followed the boy) and a career in the hospitality industry. This was the trend in the late 70s/early 80s. My father, about to turn 60, stayed outside in his shed: didn’t come inside for ages. I asked mum what was the matter with him.

        She said, under the circumstances, it was the “politest thing he could do”. I think that was a
        twisting of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’.

        Silent night, holy night,
        All is calm, all is quiet….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Carol, the thing I love best about FAR is that we are always learning from each other – and yes, unfortunately this also speaks to the extent of abuse so many of us suffered. When I read about being spanked with pants down some part of me dismissed it as being not that horribly significant – Forgive me – it was just that in my world spankings were so routine (always carried out by my father when he returned home – hours after the infraction) that they actually seemed insignificant in relation to everything else I endured – This remarkable forum that you have created has helped so many of us – and is a living testament to the power of “women with wings.” We are remarkable beings, and we are still here. Most important we refuse to stay silenced/dismissed and you make it possible for us to keep sharing. I simply have to express my heartfelt gratitude. Thank you.

        Like

  19. Me too!!! My father, whom I loved nevertheless, but more perplexingly and sadly, my brother and even my sister have taken up the silent treatment/annihilation defense/offense strategy. I have to admit I have done this as well; it was part of my norm and I so regret it. I feel so sad for my siblings, and for myself, and for their children . . . and for everyone reading and commenting here. All the lost relationship potential! I just try continuing love, even if from afar.
    Thank you, Karolina, for articulating and posting your analysis and Solnit’s. I never imagined so many others share my experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Karolina, Your dreams of silence remind me of the recurring nightmares I had for decades. They always involved a man cornering me with intent to harm me or a runaway car which I couldn’t stop. I always tried to scream but was unable to make my voice heard. I couldn’t fight back and couldn’t scream. I always woke in a sweat. I now live alone and the dreams have never come back. I think I allowed myself to be stifled by the men I lived with. I was supposed to be good and cooperative . A lifelong lesson. I feel more free to be myself.
    Thank you for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Carol, Every time any of us speaks of her “lived reality” we are making it easier for other women to reveal the secret humiliations of living as girls and women in patriarchy! Thank you for your courage. All those “little” slights and punishments are part of the effort to break our spirits! The process must start when we are young or it is not effective. We are taught to downplay and/or keep secret all the many ways we are discounted and our trust betrayed. Often our silences protect us from more humiliations and stronger punishments.

    Living with “a man who expects his will to be law, especially in relation to his wives and daughters” is unbearable for all the women involved. The patriarchal family is a prison for women and the patriarchal family is the training ground for “breaking our spirits”.

    I remember the dinner table conversation in the summer of 1968 when my father asked me (in front of my mother, my younger brother, and two younger sisters) whether I intended to accept the job as a flight attendant for Trans World Airlines. When I said “Yes”, he said “It [the job] was like being a flying prostitute.”
    I was shocked at his vehemence. I managed to say through my tears, “I can be a lady anywhere.” I took that job and flew for TWA for sixteen years. I was a union activist and became passionately involved in the women liberation movement. In 1974 I was one of the founding members of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights.

    Leaving home doesn’t mean we will be able to leave behind our childhood experiences. Allowing young women to choose a path of her own making is not permissible to the patriarchy or the individual patriarchs that we grow up with. Congratulations to both of us for surviving our girlhood training and becoming outspoken women!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Paula thank you so much for sharing your story. What a mean thing your father said!!! And yes, let us give thanks that we both survived to thrive! And to become leaders in the feminist movement!!!

    This line also touched me: Living with “a man who expects his will to be law, especially in relation to his wives and daughters” is unbearable for all the women involved.

    My mother almost never complained about living with my father, but it cannot have been easy for her either,

    Like

  23. Most women suffer silent punishment from husbands in the part I come from. These silent punishment most times leaves them in the dark of what their offense is.
    Knowing when the silent begins and finding a way to apologize to them even if u were right, Would make things aright

    Like

    • Yes, I too always had to determine for myself what the offense was. I was walking on eggs and somehow he always found a way to put me in the wrong, no matter how I tried. I finally came to the conclusion that my very being, tall and more-or-less self-confident, single (for most of my life), feminist and left was what offended him–I did not have to say or do anything at all!! That’s when I decided I never wanted to see him again, though we kept in touch via email about genealogy and annual letters.

      Like

  24. My father was a migrant from northern England, so when he gave me the ‘silent treatment’ it wasn’t the version practiced in melbourne australia, so it didn’t have the required effect on me (as a native-born white australian female). When I travelled to Aotearoa-New Zealand at the age of 19, on a one-way ticket, I had left my diaries behind, which I know my father read – and if I had died whilst away after he had savaged me during a phonecall – my adolescent high school remarks – may have served to treat the lonely years of his daughterless silence as he waited at the cross-roads. Goddess knows what forces were ushering me through those years of reckless men and social paralysis: one slip and I could have pitched everyone into a bottomless pit of complicated grief.

    I am so glad I didn’t misuse my personal power.

    Like

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