“You have an opinion on everything. You have something to say about everything,” an old roommate, who I’ll call Deadhead, said to me as I stood over where he sat on the couch, with my house-keys in my hand and my arm raised.
“You hate men, don’t you? You hate me, don’t you? You want to cut off my penis, don’t you?”
His voice was calm and taunting. I was furious. I struck him once, twice, three times on the forehead—not hard enough to really hurt him, but enough to cause him pain. I’d already thrown his Pelican Shakespeare anthology at him when we were both standing, hitting him in the back. I hadn’t thrown it with much force, afraid even through my rage of doing something stupid, like killing him.
I’d been living with him and a few other roommates for five months, and it hadn’t been going well for a while. They were all still in college while I was in my first year in the real world, which made for some friction. Deadhead had been on a months-long drinking and roofies binge, which though they are known as the date-rape drug, he took for his own pleasure. He brought home all sorts of people and stayed up all night. He played his music so loud that people on the TV shows I watched appeared to be lip-synching. He threw up on my bedroom floor after randomly passing out in my bed when I wasn’t home. He pushed me out of a moving car when I dared to call “Stella Blue” “cheesy.” (“This song can bring a crowd of thousands to its knees!” he screamed.)
That day, the day I’d lost control, I came home from work to find him sitting on the couch, alone and silent. Later, I would understand that he was jonesing because he couldn’t take another pill until after his theater rehearsal that evening, and I’d walked into a bad situation. I was listening to the answering machine when I realized out loud that I’d forgotten to bring home the dish soap I bought on my lunch hour, and we were going to have to go another day without doing dishes. Our house was so messy, and the dishes such a bone of contention between the male and female roommates, that people made fun of us. That week, Deadhead’s little Deadhead sister and boyfriend were visiting during their spring break, which they were spending drinking beer and leaving a trail of English muffin crumbs all over the house.
“That reminds me,” I said, “can you ask your sister to clean up after herself when she makes food? I know the house is messy, but we’ve reached a whole new level.”
Deadhead rose from his place on the couch and was quickly in my face. “Well, if you’d ever do your fucking dishes!” he screamed. That’s the last thing I remember being said until he started talking about how I wanted to cut off his penis. I remember throwing the Shakespeare book, but everything else is a giant memory hole. Then I was standing over him, hitting him with my keys. But my aggression had no effect. He sat there and I stood over him, at an impasse, until I remembered his balalaika, a little Russian mandolin that hung decoratively from a hook just over our heads. I would never have smashed it, but I knew that if I touched it, his creepy calm would shatter. And it did. I just reached up and touched it, and he leapt off the couch, screaming. After that is another memory hole. We both went to our rooms, and eventually he left. I think. It’s possible I was the one who left.
When I tell people that I started learning about the patriarchy in the womb, I’m only mildly exaggerating. By the time I was five, I favored the term “male chauvinist pig,” and was known to utter it while stomping my foot with my little hands on my little hips. My dad and mom thought this was hilarious. My mom was a self-described feminist. When I was very young, in the mid-1970s, she participated in consciousness-raising groups, and she complained bitterly, nightly, about the sexism inherent in being a secretary. What no one told me when I was young was that my mother was unstable. I thought her mood-swings, paranoia, and manipulative behavior was normal, and adjusted everything about myself to accommodate it. Her understanding of feminism was heavily tinged by suburban housewife regret. She believed she’d been conned into the life she was leading, that she hadn’t properly understood her options until it was too late. She didn’t have to say that I was a choice she wouldn’t have made, but she said it anyway.
My mom came out as a lesbian when I was 11. The night she told us what was going on, I was told I could accept her, or choose that I didn’t love her. She and my dad got a divorce and my dad moved across the country. She stopped wearing makeup, stopped shaving her legs, started making jokes about living in a society without men. Her girlfriend lived with us on the weekends. They made-out front of me and my brother a lot. They had a lot of inside jokes that made them laugh uproariously, but secretively. If we asked what was so funny, they’d just look at each adoringly and roll their eyes. I wasn’t allowed to have friends sleep over all during junior high, lest any of their parents figure out there were lesbians in the midst. At a sleep-over in the beginning of seventh grade, staying up late and telling each other our deepest, darkest secrets, we got on the topic of our parents’ divorces and/or affairs. I wanted to tell so badly, but I knew it was a risk. I kept quiet as the other girls confessed and cried. Everyone was so supportive of each other. Finally, I felt like I could tell them the truth.
“My mom had an affair,” I said, “but it wasn’t with a man.”
The room fell silent as my friends gazed at me. There wasn’t much discussion. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but this would have ramifications. As near as I’ve ever been able to tell, it was the reason I didn’t get invited to a single one of those girls’ bat mitzvahs, even though I’d known them since first grade, and my mom knew their moms. It could also have been backlash for not having been bat mitzvah’d myself, but that’s a story for another time. Later that year, all my friends turned against me with the stated reason that I was “too loud around boys.” They froze me out for months. I was kind of loud around boys, I guess, and I was emotionally erratic. I had the tendency to slap my friends when I got upset, although this propensity didn’t rear its head until after my friends started giving me the silent treatment, when I would go up to them at lunch and beg them to talk to me, and they wouldn’t. And they would just smile demurely as if I were absurd.
A few days after I told my friends that my mom was gay, I told her and her girlfriend that I’d told. They were not pleased. They accused me of playing “top this” with my friends, of needing attention, of wanting to have the “best story.” My mom’s girlfriend screamed at me at the top of her lungs.
After junior high (and after this), we moved to Chicago. The city. Where my mom could finally be happy, and she could finally be out, and I would have cool, smart friends who were sophisticated enough to embrace a friend with a lesbian mom. Although that turned out to be mostly true, many of the boys I hung out with thought I was a strident, “militant” feminist, and they would routinely give me all kinds of crap for it, very much along the lines of “You hate men, don’t you? You want to cut off our penises, don’t you?” They were losers—stoners and drunks, most of whom never graduated high school. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though, because nearly everyone I knew in that high school circle came from incredibly fucked-up homes. They were angry at the world and threatened by everything, and probably still are. (I was, and often am.)
Junior year, I grew out my leg hair. It wasn’t really a feminist statement, though I did like, on some level, that it made my mom strangely proud. It made her respect me and stay off my back about some things. Really though, it was more of a rebel hippie statement. It was 1991, the beginning of the Grunge era, and I thought I might be a Deadhead, though that turned out to be misguided. Those guys really bugged me, with their super-chill attitudes that I couldn’t read at all.
I was vocally anti-rape, even back then, and I’m sure I said all kinds of crazy things about men, about feminism. Lots of poorly understood and second-hand theory that my mom spouted at me. She’d gone back to school for a master’s degree in women’s studies, where she discovered Mary Daly and separatism. She said stupid things to my brother that hurt him. She told us that all heterosexual sex was “rape, by definition.” She said many mean things about my friends and how they were completely dependent on boys for their identities. I was admonished to forget boys and just “fool around with your girlfriends.” A lot of these conversations took place right inside the front door of our apartment. I hated coming home. I always had a sinking feeling in my stomach.
That year, I dated a boy who wasn’t so nice to me. He yelled, he pinched, and he pushed. He blamed and he chided. I was always unhappy, though I didn’t recognize that there was anything wrong with our relationship. I wasn’t blinded by love—although that’s probably the most blinded I’ve ever been—I just wanted to be with someone. He was very good-looking and we’d been friends for about year before we became a couple. For most of the three months we were together, he was homeless. His mother was mentally ill and couldn’t hold down a job. He lived in shelters or squatted with friends. I sneaked him in a few times. He broke up with me about a month after he found a job and an apartment.
In college, I was one of four female students in my major, creative writing. There were the two Carols and me, as well as Cat, who was a year younger. We had no female professors. Senior year, I was the only woman in my poetry workshop (which you can read a bit about here). I remember having long conversations with Cat about sexism. She was taking a class called Psychology of Women, and tended to get annoyed by some of the older female returning students, many of whom were coming off divorces, complaining about how men kept them from experiencing their true selves and fully living life. Given that we both suffered daily assumptions about the “femaleness” of our writing from our peers, who hated sentimentality and anything having to do with menstruation, we found this to be a bunch of whining. (Read a fictional account of a male-dominated creative writing workshop.)
As long as no one was telling us we couldn’t do something because of our gender, as long as they weren’t groping us or making a sex a condition of employment, we figured everything was pretty okay. Ironically, we both considered ourselves feminists, even though most of the other women our age we knew wouldn’t cop to that label. We had yet to understand that the dominating male sensibility in workshop was a problem in the real world, and that when we got out of college and out from under the gaze of our kind of professors, many men would act as though we weren’t speaking when we spoke up in the workplace. And that other women would call us “intimidating” when we spoke up again, and refuse to invite us to lunch with everyone else. Certainly we couldn’t have anticipated the current Republican backlash against our bodily autonomy or the internet blog-comment community that has brought out the seething misogyny that still exists in our culture.
It took a long time to figure out that my anger issues were not because I was a “militant feminist.” There were a number of years where I didn’t think about feminism at all, or I tried not to. Let’s just say I didn’t talk about it to other people, because I was tired of the eye rolls, the sighs, and the uncomfortable squirming of other women. It’s quite true that I am angered—and triggered, in a PTSD sense—by injustice and untruth. When I see false information being perpetuated, or I see people denying a basic truth of experience, I have to say something. I stick my foot tepidly in the waters of the online feminist community, discouraged by what I often see as the same sanctimony my mother embodied. I know that many feminists are discouraged by the fact that feminists have been stereotyped as hairy, irrational man-haters. Unfortunately, my experience tells me this isn’t an entirely unfounded stereotype. My mom was that kind of feminist, although she has softened over the years. But it took me a long time to separate her psychological problems from her poorly understood feminist theory. (As far as I understand, Andrea Dworkin didn’t mean that all heterosexual sex was rape by definition, but that questions of consent and male privilege are so murky that heterosexual sex has the potential to be rape, because it’s possible that the consequences of saying no will be rape and associated violence. But that’s another post for another time.)
I’m a feminist because I don’t have any other choice.
I moved out of Deadhead’s house that weekend. I found roommates through the newspaper, a couple, a little older than me. I am not the neatest person in the world, and if you don’t love me, my mess is probably hard to live with. I leave shoes around. I like stacks of paper. I tend to put too much cereal in the bowl, so a few corn flakes fall to the floor when I fill the bowl with milk and walk to the table. I tend to step on them and forget to sweep them up. I take my bra off in the living room and forget about it, although that’s more of a married-life phenomenon.
My new roommates liked to have sex very loudly. The female half of that couple liked to tell me about it while she drank three glasses of wine every day after work, one right after the other. I didn’t really like living there. Me and the guy got into arguments about music and art. I remember having a long discussion with him about how dumb he thought “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers was. It took me a very frustrating hour to figure out that he had no idea what a metaphor was, and thought it was weird that I did. He’d never heard of Walt Whitman or Neil Young. He was kind of a racist.
One night, I was trying to fall asleep when they started going at it in their room. I have lived in a dorm. I am okay with vaguely knowing that sex is happening across the hall. But this was so loud that at first I thought the woman was crying, that something was wrong. When I realized that there was rhythm to her screams, I got up to turn on the swamp cooler, which is a desert-style air conditioner and is loud. I wanted to drown them out, but as soon as I got back in bed, one of them got up and turned it off. Then they started up again with the panting and the screaming, louder. Much louder.
When I lived with Deadhead, my other roommate told him, not unkindly, that she could hear it when he had sex in his room. He was horrified, disbelieving. He insisted he was very quiet when he had sex. He went into her room and commanded us to make quiet sex noises in his. We complied. He began to wail “Noooo! Noooo! This is hoooorible!” through the wall. “I’m having sex on the floor on the other side of the room from now on!” This was before the roofies binge. That anecdote still makes me laugh out loud every time I think of it. And I offer it here to provide stark contrast with what happened when I tried to tell my new roommates that I could hear them having sex.
I tried to tell her first, the next morning.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. “I’m just getting over a yeast infection and we could finally do it again. We were pretty into it.” I didn’t bring up that one of them turned off the swamp cooler. Instead, I went to him, after work. I truly believed that he would have a very similar reaction to Deadhead’s. I should never have approached him while he was whittling at the living-room coffee table. I should have thought about the fact that he had a knife in his hand.
I said, “So, I just thought you might want to know that I can kind of hear you guys when you have sex? I just thought you’d want to know, maybe realize there’s someone else in the house.”
And then he was standing over me, waving the knife, screaming. “You should love that sound! You’re a pervert if you think that’s anything but the most beautiful sound two human beings can make together! I would fucking kill you right now if you were a man. I’d fucking take your fucking life.”
I was sitting on the couch. I was silent while he screamed. My mind was all white noise. Finally, he stopped. When I spoke, my voice was very calm. “I paid my rent yesterday, so you can consider that my thirty-days’ notice.”
He stormed out of the house. I moved out that night, to a tiny converted garage with free local phone and stolen cable. He wrote me a long letter detailing all my flaws and put it through the crack of my open car window, when it was parked outside where I worked. I never saw either one of them again. Sometime later, I met my husband.