“All the women knew: you don’t go to that house ever.”
I am having lunch with my friend. We are munching gourmet salads. This woman is smart and bold and incredibly strong and I have seen her bring a room to tears with her courage. She is remembering what it was like to be a young female lobbyist in Olympia: how you didn’t take meetings with certain legislators alone. How having your ass cupped in the hall was par for the course. And how you never, ever, went to that house a few blocks from the capital where a certain organization’s all-male lobbyists lived.
“There was something that happened to guys who worked there,” my friend tells me. “They were regular, even decent guys… and then all of a sudden, they get south of Fife and they just morphed into assholes.”
(At this point, I feel I should register my objection to using parts of the body as expletives, even though I do it all the time. But I love what Dan Savage has to say about this: Could we not, he posits, when we are in need of an expletive, use “pustules” instead of “dicks” or “assholes’? Or something else? Aren’t dicks and assholes really lovely things when in their place, and wouldn’t life be awful without them? Yes and yes. At least, I think so. Also, don’t get me started on how making the body and pleasure evil is the beginning of a contorted catholic conspiracy to mistreat the earth, animals and each other...)
When I worked in Olympia, I didn’t know about the house. I lobbied, but I wasn’t a full-time or contract lobbyist. I was an activist, a nonprofit staff person, and then later a consultant. I didn’t get the memo on the house.
But I did smell it… The sense that there was a predator around at all times. That I was prey if I let this one stand so close without moving away. That I had to have a firm handshake, a direct gaze, a smart deflection and an escape route at all times.
And I was recently asked to be one of more than 200 women who work in Olympia who signed this open letter to the leadership in the Capitol, demanding that the dangerous and predatory nature of the workplace must change.
It’s funny to use the word “predator” in this way. Ordinarily, I’m a big fan of predators, from ladybugs to mountain lions. I have sung their praises over and over. I understand how spiders hold back the hordes and how wolves change rivers (True!! Really! Click here to see an awesome four minute video on wolves healing the rivers and land in Yellowstone.)
I love natural predators for all the ways they keep the system balanced, healthy and whole.
Plus, to be honest, I’ve been eating a lot of meat lately and I feel terrific.
But what we’re talking about here aren’t natural predators but patriarchal ones (Men, I am not villainizing you when I use that word! Really. As Bell Hooks says, the Patriarchy assaults all genders!) What we are talking about here aren’t mountain lions but people pretending to be benign and ambushing asses in the hall.
This went on for so long.
I remember my first non-profit boss repeatedly calling me a “ignorant slut“ in the middle of professional meetings. He did this because Dan Ackroyd was getting a lot laughs for doing this to Jane Curtain on SNL and because I was 29 and a woman in a room full of fishermen and wonks. I remember that I laughed it off, and I told him to cut it out and I smiled. I remember that it was totally consistent with the way I had been treated for years when I was waitressing and bartending. It was the air I breathed.
I knew about the predators, even if I didn’t know about the house.
I was thinking about all this last night as I read the opening of the myth of Bluebeard, in which a woman marries a man in spite of her spider senses telling her not to. She ignores that tiny voice, and his telltale blue beard and she goes and lives in his house by his rules.
But the day comes when she breaks the rules, as women do in fairy tales and in life. She breaks the rules and uses the forbidden key and she finds the room, full of the dead bodies of his previous wives, of all the women who went before who also broke the rules.
When I was 29, I knew about what happened to the women who broke the rules before me. I knew it instinctively and I have known it every moment of the almost 20 years since then.
That is why, when I read the opening of the myth, it sent shivers down my spine.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ version in “Women Who Run with the Wolves” (Good predators!) begins with:
“There is a hank of beard which is kept at the convent of the white nuns in the far mountains. How it came to the convent no one knows. Some say it was the nuns who buried what was left of his body, for no one else would touch it. Why didn’t answer keep such a relic is unknown, but it is true. My friend’s friend has seen it with her own eyes.“
I read that last sentence over and over.
I have known, for all these years, what happens to the rule breaking women. In spite of that, I have been, slowly, becoming one of them. And I know there is more before me. More to name, more to unsilence, more to see.
My friend’s friend has seen it with her own eyes.
I have known what happens to the women. Maybe that's why it's so hard to believe that this movement, this moment is here. And yet I know it because a friend has seen it with her own eyes, thousands of friends have . We know now what it feels like to have evidence that the once impossible is impossible no more. Yes, this is what it feels like now, this reckoning, the #metoo, #timesup times we are in, where everyday, we are living that sentence, we are seeing the evidence of defeating a predator.
My friend’s friend has seen it with her own eyes.
Bluebeard. It is bloody, creepy, full of potent symbols. It is the myth I have chosen to work with for the year, because it is about recognizing and confronting the predator, without and within. It is about the inner voice, and the ways that voice is bribed, threatened and silenced. It is about what it’s like to find and hear and listen to that voice again, to rescue one’s own capacity to be the champion and to know something and never be able to unknow it again.