By Kaye Murdoch
I grew up being told I was “too much.” I was too much trouble because I had eye problems that required a lot of trips to the eye doctor. I was too much trouble because I was an energetic kid who always wanted someone in my family to play with me. I was too much trouble because I was good at school and my teachers wanted to meet with my parents to discuss what to do with me, to give me more challenge.
I learned early on that I didn’t like feeling in trouble and the best way to avoid feeling in trouble was to try very hard to be good, which meant to be quiet and play alone and do extra chores around the house; it meant not to bother anyone.
I felt like I had to earn a place in my family, that I wasn’t wanted, that I was tolerated, regardless of how small I made my footprint.
Later I learned that it was true that I wasn’t wanted, I was the product of an affair that my mother had for over twenty years, and both she and my biologic father took that secret to their graves. I found out after they each died and I could not ask either of them about it.
I also learned later that my mother had grown up in such poverty, with an alcoholic father who abandoned the family, that she and her younger sister were in and out of the local orphanage and also fostered out, which was better than the fate of the next youngest sister, who was given away to adoption and never spoken of again. In my mother’s family, you could be so much trouble that you could be sent away.
My mother told me and my sister that men “only wanted one thing”, and that we were not to walk in isolated places, like along the rail road tracks, and when we were walking anywhere, we were to walk “like you mean business.”
I later learned my mother had been molested (to some unspoken degree) by at least one foster father and one step father.
I learned at a young age, twelve, that I was a lesbian, although I didn’t quite know what that meant (it was the early seventies), and consequently I did not draw any boy attention (I did not try and they did not look), which seemed to please my mother. As the school years went by, I increasingly stood out, in my jeans and t-shirts and lack of make-up and my “funny” walk, and by high school I was ostracized for being presumed to be a lesbian, although I wasn’t out and was still trying to figure out what it all meant. I was rendered invisible at school, with no one speaking to me, except in class if they wanted my help with their homework. I had no friends.
My home was alcoholic and I could not talk to my parents. My sister had run away in junior high school.
I got through high school and left home and went to university, because school was what I was good at, and because I believed that anyone could do anything if she or he tried hard enough. I liked feeling brave, breaking a new trail by being the only person in my family to go to university, living in an adventurous new city, and I found friends. I felt like I could breathe and my life was finally starting. I went into science and then into medicine. I felt like I fit in. I felt I belonged.
Years later, as I failed to gain promotions or positions of leadership, as my income paled in comparison with my male colleagues, I realized that I had not blended in but was tolerated, even invisible, again.
It wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to have relationships, and most of them were short, which I thought was part of learning to date.
In my forties I met a woman who I felt was my true love and I spent almost ten years with her, or, rather, trying to be with her. It wasn’t until the last few years that I figured out I was invisible with her, that I was always scrambling to earn my place with her, always trying to be good and avoid trouble. She played near and far with me, broke up with me at any frustration many times, and sent me away or disappeared from me often; she encouraged me to move into an expensive apartment that she would join me in, only to put off moving in with me for six months then a year then forever; she pretended at work that she was straight and divorced, period. I kept believing it was up to me to make up for my deficits, and she knew, albeit unconsciously, how to trigger that in me, rather than stand firm that it was up to us together to build a healthy dynamic. I had trapped myself in the familiar terrain of my childhood relationships.
I assumed in my younger years that being a lesbian was enough to be a feminist. It has only been in the last year that I’ve seriously read and discussed and thought about radical feminism and its refutation of patriarchy, and with this I have learned how deeply patriarchy has molded my life, externally and internally.
Patriarchy made me fear being in trouble for being a playful, rambunctious girl who liked to build forts and play games, who wanted everyone to join me. Patriarchy made me go into my head to survive, go to school and ignore my physical body, become a walking brain. Patriarchy made me believe that I could accomplish anything if I tried hard enough, without telling me that tenet only applied to boys, without telling me that my few accomplishments came at the price of playing the game of complicity. Patriarchy made me a low-ranking token in the hierarchy, not only below men, but below most women. Patriarchy did all this and it set me up to be bullied, because it taught me I was “too much” and had to avoid being in trouble, that I had to be quiet and play nice and not complain and try to blend in or I would be sent away; it taught me my survival depended on being invisible.
Patriarchy taught me at a young age that suicide was an option, that if I could not fit in, killing myself was the logical final step. I thought I learned this in the face of my helplessness and despair in my chaotic family home, but I came to believe I was merely learning the lesson my mother had been taught, who had tried to kill herself, a woman who had had to play the patriarchy game herself to survive, the daughter of an alcoholic father who had killed himself (patriarchy can be hard on men, too).
Every time I am ignored by someone I love, every time I am bullied, every time I am walked through on the street as if I don’t exist, every time I am made to feel invisible and at the same time too much, I feel myself collapse with imbued shame, and the old suicidal thoughts flare up, because if everyone is treating me like I am unwanted and invisible and worthless, then what is the point of my existence? I might as well send myself away.
Radical feminism has taught me that this suicidal thinking is not mine, that it is what patriarchy wants me to think, what it wants me to feel about my life. Patriarchy wants me out of the way.
Radical feminism has taught me the best response is to refuse to give in, that the best response is to be defiant with anyone who dares to declare me worthless and too much trouble, and to stand my ground firmly and insist on being accepted and respected and granted dignity for exactly who I am, rather than for who I pretend to be or what I try to do to gain a pleased nod. Radical feminism taught me not to be invisible, which means to speak up for my true self and to speak up for others.
Radical feminism has taught me that some women are as much against me as any man is, and that I cannot assume any woman is my ally, no matter how well-versed she may be in radical feminist theory. Instead, I have to look to her actions, because I believe the point of radical feminism is putting it into practice: does she stand up for herself? does she stand up for me?
Patriarchy is about doing. It is about the myth of earning your place in the world, that if you try hard enough you will succeed, and if you don’t succeed it is because you aren’t trying hard enough.
Radical feminism is about being. It is about offering a place of belonging for who you are, not what you do or how you costume yourself. Radical feminism is about not being punished for asking difficult questions, it is about encouraging energy and curiosity, it is about visibility.
Patriarchy admonishes you for being trouble.
Radical feminism encourages you to cause trouble.
I lived the first fifty-plus years of my life living under patriarchy, working very hard and struggling, and I feel like a failure. I am alone, I am anxious, I am not financially secure, and I am exhausted from meaningless busyness.
I want to spend the rest of my life living with radical feminism, and to stop feeling I have to earn approval and acceptance and belonging which, under patriarchy, will never be granted. Radical feminism welcomes me to pull up a chair and belong; it welcomes me home.
Patriarchy is impersonal and systemic. I do not exist.
Radical feminism is personal and individualistic. I exist.
Patriarchy has tried to kill me.
Radical feminism is saving me.
Coming Saturday: Rebecca Whisnant on Pornography and Humiliation, and Vliet Tiptree Asks About Teh Menz.