Germaine Greer, I have something to say

Please be aware that this post deals with sexual assault and rape. Please take care of yourself and if you find this subject triggering, please scroll on.

Against my instincts, I attended your session at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival On Rape. I was going to ask a question and during the session began scribbling on an envelope to see if I could come up with just one question out of the many that clamoured for attention as I listened to you. I almost felt obliged to speak into the space and add a countering view to some of those you expressed. I looked at my envelope with its scrawl, saw the microphone too far away, tasted the stress chemicals from the creeping anxiety that comes when contemplating asking a question in a public session, and then the session ended.

Impact

It is now a week later, and exactly 17 years to the day since I survived a home invasion and sexual assault. I wrote a memoir about the experience of recovery as well as trying (and failing) to make the victim services system better. I called it Not My Story because I am a complex and varied human being and this is just one experience I have had. As Sohaila Abdulali said in her excellent book:

rape doesn’t have to define you…it is terrible but survivable…you can go on to have a joyous life

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, p. 10

You declare that healing from rape is a must – a sort of requirement of a good feminist. You puzzled over the discrepancy between the number of war veterans who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared to rape survivors.

I still remember the moment when I learned that women who had been victims of childhood sexual assault are much more likely to go on to be raped as adults. Doesn’t that account for at least some of the discrepancy?

Or is it just important that we remember that rape is a horrendous thing to endure? Back to Soulali Abdulali:

I have one terrible fear about this book…that, in my hopes of contributing to the conversation in a level-headed manner, I will appear to be saying that rape is no big deal. It’s the fear that in saying it does not have to be the end of hope and light, I will appear flippant and not honor rape victims’ terrible suffering and trauma.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape p. 95

Rape and Justice

There were some key parts missing from the discussion on the justice system. The justice system embodies the status quo and lags well behind changing social mores. I found it puzzling that you thought sentence lengths were too long. I know someone who was repeatedly assaulted by her father from before she could remember until after she reached adulthood. Four years he got. Four years.

The section in your essay when you say “an elbow, a thumb even, can do you more harm that a penis” bleeps over the reality that the United Nations recognises rape as a weapon of war. Tell a woman raising a child who is the product of a rape that it would have been just as bad as if she’d been elbowed in the eye.

Healing

Someone in the audience asked you how you heal from rape, and you acknowledged that you didn’t really know. You acknowledged that to this day, if someone even lightly touches your face, tears can spring from your eyes. In other words, its still there. That, right there, is post-traumatic stress.

I spend quite a bit of my memoir talking about healing, and I am convinced in the importance of the body – it holds traumas, and it can release traumas.

I describe a moment not long after the rape when I found myself in a similar physical position – in the dark, scrabbling to open a door, my daughter on my hip. This time, I was quite safe, in a suburban cafe with one of those old toilets in the garden, and I had just mis-timed turning off the light and plunged myself too soon in darkness. I was able to consciously unplug the trigger (darkness, trying to open a door, daughter on hip) from danger. Bringing conscious thought to the incident was like magic, and I was able to do that over again with other triggers. I moved out of the place where it had happened, in order to tame those triggers, and I taught myself to sleep again.

I also used the nurturing touch of trusted practitioners – masseurs, energy workers, acupuncturists to name a few. I could feel the trauma being massaged out, the safe touch laying down new memories in my body. The first time I was massaged, I cried a lot. The second time, a little, the third time, not at all.

I’m going to finish with a vision to celebrate this, my seventeenth year of surviving and thriving since the assault. Imagine if we nurtured survivors of gender-based violence much like people who have a breast cancer diagnosis. We could offer a range of natural therapies and offered them a lovingly crafted quilt as a comfort measure and a strong sign from our society that we see the suffering and offer support and healing.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Seeing Mrs Aylward

It’s a lifetime now since Mrs Aylward taught my then pre-primary aged child. Her green eyes are just the same, overflowing with kindness and empathy.

That pre-primary year was the first time I realised my daughter was going to be socially ostracised by her peer group. She didn’t know it yet, but it was so horribly obvious to me, a pain worse than a broken heart.

I did actually have a broken heart in my own right at the time too, because the man I had fallen for, hadn’t fallen for me. Yet.

And then there was the small matter of the person who had broken into my home nearly a year and a half earlier had finally been apprehended, and the frightening juggernaut of the legal system had suddenly kicked into gear. I was dodging in and around court commitments with school pick-ups.

And there was Mrs Aylward. I could tell her what was really going on and get her kind, wise tips on how to minimise the impact of all the drama on my girl. I could hope for the best that things would resolve with the school (they didn’t) and just try to put one foot in front of the other knowing that my girl had such a compassionate guardian for the hours she was away from me.

All of that is now long gone. Eventually, how I wish I had done it sooner, but eventually, I moved schools, and it changed everything. Sometimes there is just a year that doesn’t quite work for your child, and you need to find them a new year group.

The object of my affections eventually realised the error of his ways and we have been partnered for many years.

The perpetrator was sent to prison, and I didn’t even have to testify in the end because thank God, he changed his plea.

And there, this Easter weekend, was Mrs Aylward. All these years later, when I have crossed the river to a kinder, milder time with a well-adjusted adult daughter and a happy home.

Mrs Aylward’s eyes are exactly the same kind green. Nothing has changed, and we stop and chat. But to my surprise she wanted to talk about me, about my day-job, and what I have been working on. I would have been more than content to talk about my daughter. But it is somehow so special and affirming, that she is keen to talk about what’s going on for me.

Everyone needs at least one Mrs Aylward in their life.

Things that I realise, forget, then remember #1

This could become a very long list… How often does it happen that an insight you once really “got” – something that was so clear and right – somehow drifts away? And then, a reminder will suddenly come, and you once again know an insight’s truth, right down to your bones?

Back in January, I had a moment of inattention. Well, I have many of those, but at this particular moment, my hand was wet, and the plate pictured above slipped from my grasp, fell to the sink and smashed. This plate still very much sparked joy every time I used it. Boiled egg with soldier toast breakfasts for example. Feeling forlorn, I took a photo of the smashed plate and posted it on Facebook.

“I have a cup and saucer in that pattern,” said one. “It’s the last in the set.” My joy sparked for that cup and saucer too, possibly enlarging my sense of forlornness. See left for joy-sparking.

Another person said, “Turn it into a mosaic.”

Good idea, I thought, but it would be another six weeks before I took any action. And then, one Saturday in February I took to the remaining intact plate with a hammer and turned it into a spiral mosaic, pictured above right.

It wasn’t until I had finished the mosaic, that I recollected that I had put a picture of the mosaic on the front of my memoir Not My Story and explained why Please note, the subject matter of this memoir may be triggering.

To quote myself:

“The mosaic image that appears on the cover was inspired by an excellent radio program on Post-traumatic stress I happened to catch one day. The interviewee noted how important it is for trauma survivors not to think about putting the pieces of their lives back together, like a broken vase where the cracks and weakness are all too apparent. Far better to create something beautiful, special, strong but different – a mosaic that uses all the broken pieces but rearranges them in a sturdy, transformed, stunning new framework which is stronger, beautiful, and different from before.

Stronger, beautiful, and different from before. I’m almost glad I broke my favourite plate in order to have this reminder. Almost.

Complexity of doing good work…

This week, like many weeks at work, has got me thinking about the complexity of trying to do good work. Because nothing can be achieved without the combined effort of people, working together. If only it could be one person, striving valiantly in the arena as per this quote – but usually, the work that not for profit organisations do requires co-operative effort.

 

And that’s where it all goes wrong.

People have different ideas of what will work, and what’s important. And in the not for profit sector, often these ideas are dearly-held, they’re personal. Commitment to a cause often comes from experiencing something adverse, a permanent, life-altering consequence which could have been avoided. It can create an almost universal sense of T not wanting others to suffer as they have.

How and what you implement prevent tragedies is not usually simple. Many things can sound good on paper, and when you try to make them happen, it doesn’t translate well in the real world. You realise you have accidentally overlooked a key group’s ideas on the matter. People who will need to implement the change don’t share your perspective, and if they won’t or can’t change, then nothing gets better.

So, what to do? For me, I have finally understood that principle of working on yourself in order to create change in the world. Resisting other’s resistance to change just creates, well, more resistance. I have been reading plenty of Eckhart Tolle in the last few weeks, enjoying the debriefing of the book A New Earth on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday podcast. I think that the saying below is provocative and true.

So I am practising the art of being absolutely OK with what is, and then seeing what happens. Sometimes, I can keep this up for minutes at a time…

In praise of yoga

Let’s start with praise for the idea of domino habits – one habit creates a chain reaction of better behaviours which lead to a better life. For me, it’s been yoga.

I was nearly 30 old before I ever did any kind of yoga. I was living in London at the time and was well and truly into an exercise-averse adulthood. I can’t remember now what it was that attracted me to the yoga studio – I walked past it every day on the way home from the train in one of the lesser known suburbs of South East London, Deptford, as it was being set up. The building was beautiful-that surely must have helped. When it opened its doors, I became one of the first students. The teacher was Glenys Shepherd, a strikingly attractive 50-year old who looked almost no older than I was at the time, and had begun Iyengar yoga with scoliosis that had initially made some poses almost impossible for her to get into. Yoga had transformed her body so she now had a straight spine and exuded wellbeing. To say she was an Iyengar enthusiast was a vast understatement. I learned all the poses so well, and that excellent foundational knowledge has stayed with me. Thanks to the internet, I can see that the yoga studio is still there although Glenys has finally given up teaching (although she is preserved for posterity on Vimeo!)

When I moved to Greece to teach English as a foreign language two years later, I took yoga with me, and it saved me from the horror that is an early teaching career. When another two years passed and I found myself back in Perth and pregnant,  pregnancy yoga provided the perfect foundation for a wonderful experience birthing my daughter.

And then, as with so many things that require spare cash and time, it fell by the wayside in the early parenting years. In fact, my daughter was well into high school before I took yoga up again in earnest. I had had one try at Iyengar again and knew it was not for me, when my niece recommended her vinyasa flow yoga class at Momentum Coaching and Yoga. I have featured a photo of my current yoga teacher Natalie Snooke who established this yoga studio. And no, Nat doesn’t know I’m writing this and there are zero kickbacks for me. I think it’s good to acknowledge those who have really helped us on our way to a better life.

What changed everything for me was doing the 21 Day Yoga Challenges that she offers. The first year I was a student, Nat posted it on Facebook and I clicked that I was going and she rather uncertainly private messaged me. My practice had been patchy at best, and I had to come clean and say it was a Facebook yes, not a real yes. The next year my practice was more consistent and I took the 21 Day Yoga Challenge in earnest. You commit to doing either a class (classes are unlimited for this period) or to practice at home -in which case you text that you have done your practice. You get a star on a chart that is displayed at the Yoga studio for every day’s practice. I will do almost anything for a gold star, and all of a sudden, I could make yoga classes which previously had been too hard to fit in with my demanding job. Having unlimited access to classes also removed the cost barrier and the challenge provided the impetus.

But what I learned from this, and the subsequent 21 Day Yoga Challenges that I’ve done, is that the actual purpose of the Challenge is for you to develop your home practice. And that is the domino habit that I think has changed everything for me as a human being. I use the Yoga Download site to practice at home, and I can take yoga anyway, so when I go away for work or holidays, I take my yoga mat and keep up the regular practice.

Once, I wanted to do Uttanasana with straight legs (the pose where you bend forward as per this image) I have very tight hamstrings. Now, I’ve abandoned that ambition. What’s much more important is turning up on the mat, day after day and giving yourself that wonderful experience of yoga, bent legs and all.

And every time you come back to yoga, it’s always there, waiting for you just like Glenys told me it would be.