In light of the Stanford rape travesty, I’d like to share three true stories about heroines, heroes, and villains, and the stories we tell our children about them.
On a sunny day in May, Sinead was walking to class when a friend materialized out of the crowd of students and began to walk beside her.
“Hey Mark,” she said. “Good luck this weekend.” Mark was Harper’s boyfriend, and because Harper was a good friend of Sinead’s, she considered Mark a friend. She’d always liked and respected him–he was funny, friendly, and as far as she could tell, a good boyfriend to her friend.
“Thanks,” he said. “Hey. I just wanted to ask you…well, you know Evan plans to go into the [prestigious government branch]?”
“What?” Sinead was startled. Hearing Evan’s name made her queasy. She was no longer a student, on her way to a class she loved. She was back in that frat house bathroom, not looking in the mirror, just trying to clean herself up and get out while everyone else slept late on a Sunday morning. Sinead had felt like trash and looked like trash, and the reasons why only made sense to her later. She pulled her jacket tight, not wanting Mark or anyone to look at her.
“Well, so,” he continued, clearly uncomfortable. “Sometimes they ask people who know Evan, you know, what those people think about him. You know, part of the vetting process. It’s just…he’s worked for this his whole life. I know we were all drinking too much that night…”
Little trash can, will you send the nasty stuff inside you quietly off to the dump?
“I’m late for class,” she said, and left Mark standing alone on the path.
Sinead knew she’d never say anything. Only years later did she understand why. She’d always thought of herself as the slut, the girl who had it coming, the girl who got too drunk. Teachers had taught her things she should have remembered. Don’t talk to strangers, don’t walk home alone at night. ‘Don’t get drunk with men’ should have followed naturally. Right?
Only years later, when she read the stories of other women, did she realize how common her experience was. How by telling the story, she might have warned other girls about Evan. Only later did she understand that someone had broken into her like a robber into a house. But instead of a house it was her own body, not just her body, but the part that was supposed to be private and safe, something she thought she had the right to control. Evan’s parents had taught him that if you steal, you go to jail. If you kill someone, you go to jail. If you break and enter, you go to jail. It doesn’t matter if you were drunk, or if you only spent a short time killing that person, or robbing them, or desecrating them. From the rape playbook, ladies and gentlemen: “The One Pump Chump Defense”
They never told Evan that if you invade someone’s body, you’re a criminal and you go to jail. Evan was a criminal, but neither he nor Mark thought of it that way. His desecration was much worse than if he’d broken into her house, worse than if he’d visited her childhood bedroom and smashed the mirrors and ripped up the baby blankets, the valentines she’d made for her parents.
Not only did Evan’s parents and the stories they told him fail to teach Evan about this aspect of crime, they also failed to teach him about love and sex. Like many adolescent boys, Evan learned everything he knew about the seduction of women, foreplay, and “what women like,” from his own male cohort, and from porn. Never from real women. Porn didn’t teach Evan what consent means. Evan wouldn’t know, when he took the next girl back to his room, that consent can be revoked–just as if he were spotting Mark in the gym, and right in the middle of a set Mark said, “I changed my mind, dude, I don’t want to do this anymore.” Evan wouldn’t have let go of the barbell and dropped it on Mark, no matter how “into” holding that barbell Evan was, no matter how much he just wanted to drop that barbell onto Mark’s neck. Evan never needed to learn the barbell lesson, never needed to learn not to question Mark’s right to decide what to do with his body. He had already learned, through the beautiful stories, sports and war movies, what it meant to be loyal, what it meant to respect your male friends.
Sinead took a shower after class, her third that day. It was no comfort to her that because she’d told no one about waking up in Evan’s room, it meant that Evan asked Mark to approach her. It meant that Evan knew what he’d done to her. He had used Sinead like a blow-up doll, like a receptacle for trash, like a house to pass by and break into, destroy, and forget. It took Sinead a long time to think of herself in a different way.
In the conference room, twelve men and one woman sat around a table. They were old friends and colleagues. They chatted amiably before the meeting started–about their families, their kids, the great weather Seattle had been having. The topic swung to company culture. One of the senior principals said: “Women just aren’t cut out for Exec level here.”
A stunned silence fell over the room. He backpedaled a little. “I mean I love women, I hire them all the time. But they’re just not tough enough for SVP.”
The men and woman, all talented people I admired and respected, were stunned. No one knew what to say. Someone quickly changed the subject.
The sole woman who was in the room at the time is a person I admire tremendously. When she told me the story I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I spent a week thinking about what I could have done or said, if I were her. What the other men in the room could have done or said. I just couldn’t understand why they had all let it pass.
Finally, I asked her. I sent her a long email explaining the reasons I wish she would have said something. She wrote back in a thoughtful letter. She said, “I understand how you feel but in that moment, I didn’t want to assume the role of the victim.”
I still think about this decision my heroine faced. There are arguments for and against replying to this senior principal. Is it a matter of principal, a matter of dialogue, a matter for good samaritans to step in and defend, to jibe, to shame? In the end, the moment boiled down to one thing: my heroine’s freedom to act, and speak or not speak, in any way she wanted. It was her story, and she had the right to tell it. Or, in her case, to not tell it, but simply to live it, by being a powerful and respected mover and shaker in the company.
Without taking away from the torture and dehumanization that marginalized groups experience every day, whether physically, economically, emotionally, and all of it insidiously, I want to tell my children stories that help us think about when we are victims, and when we are heroes and heroines, and the power that victims have to take back their own narrative. That we can be victimized, and we can also, with time, choose to own our victimhood, and make it our origin story. In any case, we all have the right to choose how to tell our own stories.
The Calling: Origin Stories of Heroes and Heroines
In our conversations about the Stanford rape case, and about the endless number of cases like it, there is one point we are not highlighting enough, and it relates to parenting and storytelling. We need to teach our daughters and sons the stories that:
- Reinforce that just as it’s a crime to steal a wallet or a stash of jewels, it’s an even greater crime in every diabolical sense to steal a person: their body, their identity, their sense of safety and self-worth.
- Teach kids that this crime is not something that just “happens.” (Darn it, I got drunk again and my penis/fingers/other appendages fell into someone else’s orifices! Oops, I’ll try not to drink so much). When they grow up, our kids should be able to own their own actions, be they heroic or villainous.
- Come from real life instances of crimes being recognized as crimes, and criminals receiving just punishment for them, regardless of the criminal’s protected social status. Sadly, we have few true stories like these to tell today.
When we don’t tell our kids these stories, we nurture in them a sense of entitlement to everything, including other people’s bodies. So whenever he’s old enough to hear it, I’m going to tell this story to my son. It’s about a heroine, her many sidekicks, and the villains who sought to thwart her.
As a parent with a son who loves to watch superhero stories, I’m thinking a lot about heroes, heroines, damsels, and villains. There’s one more story I’m going tell my son. I’ll think of as many ways as I can to tell it. Yes, it’s about good samaritans, those heroes who fly in with capes or bicycles to save strangers in distress. It is absolutely about them. But it is also about the people who have been wounded, who have been ripped apart inside and out, and robbed of their very identities. Like a great origin story, these transformation narratives are about the brave, ordinary people who have the courage to become heroes and heroines by rising from the ashes of their victimhood and fighting for the masses, until everyone who looks at them sees their superpowers.