Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Empty Chair and My Life

[Content note: rape, rape culture, abuse, victim blaming]

A few days ago, the latest cover of New York Magazine sparked a lot of discussion. It depicted 35 of Bill Cosby's rape victims seated, with an empty chair at the end to symbolize the 11 other known victims, but also the women all around us who are survivors of sexual assault.

#TheEmptyChair was a following discussion on Twitter, that was both chilling and unsurprising. As a woman, I am all too aware of the prevalence of rape. I mean, I can throw all kind of statistics at you, but none of that is as real to me as the stories that I know from my own friends and family. Hearing that a sexual assault happens every 107 seconds in the US or that 1 in 6 American women are survivors (a conservative figure) means very little compared to the deeply personal stories shared to me by those I love most. But these statistics are important because, still in the face of all the evidence, our rape culture continuously shames, silence, and blames survivors and victims.

The Bill Cosby story highlights this better that perhaps any other in recent years, both because it is high profile and because of the sheer volume of victims who have spoken up. So it has rightfully gotten some attention...although not always positive attention. "Jokes" about it run rampant and, as others have pointed out, many people didn't even believe the women until Cosby admitted to it himself.

With the magazine cover and discussion and the tweets I read by following #TheEmptyChair, I decided that I want to share something I have learned about my own life.

Fortunately, I am not a survivor myself. But I have learned that I am the product of rape.

It's weird, disgusting, shameful, and sickening to admit, but it's true. As I'll expand on in a moment, I believe we MUST talk about these things and bring them into the light so that we can change them.

My dad was adopted. He never knew much about his biological family, except that the had other kids and they "couldn't afford" him. The people who were my grandparents adopted him at birth in 1954 and were the only concept of family he ever knew. We were all aware my dad was adopted, but my grandparents were the "let's not talk about it too much" type.

My grandfather died in 1996 and my grandmother in 2002. In 2003 my dad was contacted about his biological siblings looking for him. Had this happened any earlier, I'm sure he would have ignored it for the sake of my grandmother, but the timing was right and I know my dad wanted to better understand where he came from. By the fall of 2003, some of his bio siblings had come to visit us in Indiana and we had made a trip out to a huge family reunion in Missouri to meet "everyone." It was all very surreal... although I was 19, I don't remember much of the trip because it was overwhelming and a blur. But all in all, they were kind, friendly people who wanted to get to know us. Several of them even came to my wedding in 2009. I remember the biggest take away I had at the time was being around several of my dad's sisters and realizing that my body type suddenly made sense, which was oddly comforting.

One conversation stuck with me in particular, but because of my age, my lack of awareness in this area, and my general "wtf is happening, who are all these people?!" I didn't really reflect upon and examine it until much later. My mom is the kind of person who asks potentially invasive questions and doesn't really get why that's not always OK. She was probing some of my dad's sisters about their memories of childhood. Both of my bio grandparents were long dead (they would be well over 100 by now) so she wanted to ask the older siblings as much as she could. In the order of birth my dad was the second youngest of 8. He and his immediate older sister (numbers 6 and 7) were put up for adoption because the family was "dirt poor." My mom was trying to find out why that happened and the two oldest sisters were old enough to have remembered my dad being born.

They told my mom that their mother never wanted to give up any of the kids. In fact, she didn't want to keep getting pregnant. But they described their dad (my biological grandfather) as a terrible, abusive drunk who "did what he wanted" to their mother who they all were clearly very fond of.

I remember feeling sick as they described this...just as I feel sick talking about it now.

They didn't get into much detail. After all, we were practically strangers at this point and I'm sure they wanted to focus on the happiness of meeting their brother they never knew. But I could certainly tell something terrible was at play.

Years later, probably around 2011, after I had really started to think critically about rape culture and the prevalence of misogyny, abuse, and sexual assault, this conversation drifted back into my brain. I realized with total clarity that my grandfather was a rapist, my grandmother his victim, and my dad (and therefore I) are direct products of marital rape and reproductive coercion.

As I think about it now, my eyes fill with tears for the grandmother I never knew. I honestly can't imagine her life...I can't imagine not feeling freedom over my own body in my home, being under the total control of someone in that manner, and then having children taken from me because he said that's what we had to do. It makes me so thankful for progress and my life now, but not so naive to think that this doesn't still happen to people.

I really don't know much else about my biological grandmother. In fact, I don't remember her name. (Since severing ties with my father for his own abuse, exacted upon me through control and emotional torture, I don't have much of a connection to those biological family members.) But what I do know is that I feel a spark inside me to try to make the world better so that less women know an experience like hers. I truly feel guilty that my life was made possible through her pain. If she would have been treated right, my life wouldn't even exist. But since I do exist, and it is because of her pain, it reaffirms my commitment to work on these issues, educate as many people as I can, and continue to my work with feminist nonprofits.

And I am determined to let the abusive genes I carry from those men whose blood courses in my veins to die. That will not be the legacy I will leave for my hypothetical future children or anyone else.

This story is an insidious fact about my genetics. But I don't want to brush it under the rug. And to make it clear--your ancestors or relatives might not be that different from mine. Because of that prevalence of rape and abuse I mentioned above, ALL of us are connected to someone who is a survivor or rapist. If you don't know someone who immediately comes to mind, then that's just because you haven't been told yet.

So when I look at the Empty Chair, I see so many people, some of my dearest friends among them...and I see my biological grandmother who's face I don't even know. No matter how disgusting it feels to say, "I'm alive because of rape" I know that we owe it to our friends, family, and ourselves to put this issue in the light. It is our duty to look clearly at the world we exist in and try to change it. Rape is 100% preventable. It just takes NOT RAPING.

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