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.
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:
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Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
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Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger