I remember it clearly—my surprise and growing sense of horror.
Somehow my mother being unable to speak honestly to her doctor of many years awoke in me a deeper understanding of how I was raised. She wouldn’t speak that day about all the problems and discomforts with her heart, her appetite, her body.
I had accompanied my mother, who was in her 90’s, to the doctor. He had been her doctor for years, knew her well, was a caring and careful man yet that day, when he asked how she was, she smiled with awkward shyness and replied, “Just fine.”
I realized that, I, too, wasn’t raised to speak my truth. My father would open family dinners with the question, “Does anyone have something pleasant to share?”
Luckily, I am a rebellious sort.
Watching woman after woman speak out about the sexual abuses they experience at their work places makes me light up with hope.
Isn’t the ability to speak our truth in the world at the very core of climbing up to a level of true equality? The training—the habit of silencing ourselves—is old, outdated and destructive. Crushing a dream of a world where equality reigns supreme.
Fighting for the women in South Africa helped grow my voice and my ability to speak out encouraged the women of the Mapusha Weaving Coop to speak in ways they had never spoken before.
One day, a young woman came to me in the weaving studio. She asked to speak to me and then carefully closed the door of the store room behind us. She couldn’t look into my eyes as she told me in a soft voice that she smelled bad and felt too embarrassed to be out in public, to get on the bus, to stand in line in a grocery store.
I could feel her shame in my own body and searched for the right response.
I told her I couldn’t smell anything but she shook her head and blamed my old nose. I bought her some deodorant and spoke with my friends, David and Neil, because they knew so much about the body. Perhaps they had some nutritional advice.
The young woman was brave that day.
She has gone on to be brave, speaking out. She continues to speak out and break barriers in a world with many cultural taboos especially for women, especially around speaking up.
I came of age in the 70’s when women’s liberation was all the buzz. We stopped shaving our legs and wearing bras and called ourselves free but, truly, it was just one baby step on the road to equality.
My mother was born five years before women got the right to vote. She worked hard to gain her voice politically. She went to marches for peace during the Vietnam war and advocated for women to have the privilege to become ministers in the Episcopalian church. She even worked as a volunteer in her 80’s to help former prostitutes restart their lives.
And she never gained the power to speak her own more personal truths.
To speak of sexual abuse is a deeply personal, vulnerable territory. It seems now, in 2017, the time has come to open our mouths and speak and speak and speak some more. To take another giant step forward.
The sad shame of silencing ourselves does not serve us and it will not help to create the world we envision for ourselves and our children or grandchildren.
So, next time I feel that inhibiting urge to keep my mouth shut, I will fight it. I’ll remember that look of shy shame on my mother’s face and then I will say what I have to say. I’ll resist that uncomfortable contraction of shyness, risk being humiliated to say aloud whatever personal truth needs to be said.
Each small step makes a difference within and without.