Monday, June 9, 2014

Life with the Lost Boys

I begin with a warning.  This writing pulsates with hostility for which I do not apologize.  I started with a desire to acknowledge the recent discussions of the ways in which women in 2014 are still harassed, disrespected, molested, raped, and generally brutalized. The #YesAllWomen movement has raised these issues powerfully and revealed what most women already know, but seldom descry so loudly – that this abuse of women remains widespread, constant and socially condoned.   The personal exploration this invited was one that has brought me to a place of long-held anger, and some of the things I have to say are not befitting of the socially-accepted “nice” girl image we women are taught to maintain.   In some places, you may feel that I am painting with too sweeping a stroke, making the reviled “broad generalization”.  That’s your prerogative. 

I remember the first time I became aware of the brutal male treatment of females. It was way back in Paxon Hollow Junior High School, a suburban school in Marple Township, Pennsylvania.  Every morning, the boys would line up at the entrance door and yell out their “grades” for the girls’ attractiveness as we entered.  They would also yell out why the girl got a “low” grade:  “Fat butt!”, “Moustache and body hair!”, “Flat chested!”  or “Falsies!”

None of the adults tried to put an end to this.  Not the teachers, not the vice-principal, not the principal.  No one suggested to these boys that such behavior was unacceptable. 

This caused more anxiety and humiliation than I could bear at age twelve,  because although I was gifted academically, and considered intellectually “advanced”, I was painfully shy and timid, and extremely introverted.  I walked the circumference of the school every single morning and entered through the gym doors in the back, which were always open because of the early-morning practice sessions of whatever sport was in season.  After this went on for a while, my gym teacher, Miss Kostenbader, pulled me aside one day to question me about it.  I told her the reason, and she was incensed.  She tried to make an issue of it, in order to put an end to it.  But Miss Kostenbader had no influence.  She was not a “gym-teacher-cutie”.  She was what one of the male gym teachers called a “She-Man Jock” – which was reason enough for her voice on this matter to be entirely ignored.  It showed me something more disturbing than the freedom of those boys to humiliate the girls on a daily basis.  It showed me that even adult women had no voice or power that wasn’t gifted to them by men, and only then if those men deemed the woman “worthy” by their own standards of measurement. 

Thinking about this episode in my young life, I then traced back the way this message -- about the importance of beauty and appeal -- existed much earlier.  Even when I was in elementary school, my parents were approached about how “cute” I was, and told that they should “model me” because there was lots of money to be had.  At our swim club in the summer I was badgered because I wouldn’t join the yearly “beauty contest”. 

My father didn’t understand my reticence, and asked  “Why? Are you afraid you won’t win?” 

It was beyond my ability to articulate at that time, and clearly beyond his ability to comprehend, that my refusal had something to do with my innate sense of dignity rather than a fear of failing to meet some external standard of beauty.

Women move through this atmosphere, enduring this message from cradle to coffin. And far too many men feel that it is their inalienable right to remind us of just how well or poorly we are doing adhering to their standards of attractiveness, or to their demands for our acquiescence to their attentions. 

#YesAllWomen has shown us that this is still widespread and sadly pervasive even in 2014. 

I married relatively young, but that didn’t stop the inappropriate attention of other men.  At first, I was stunned at how there was a continued kind of “tree pissing” activity that went on – how men at parties, even at family events, would place their hands on me, or stand too close, and how my husband either would, through body language, lay claim to me, or how he wouldn’t.  I began to realize that there was a kind of wolf-pack activity that went on in public situations….an alpha-male contest that took place constantly.  This went on even as we got older, and as my husband started practicing law.  At cocktail parties, bench bar conferences, other social/professional events, while he was still a young associate, some of the partners of his firm, or elders in the legal community, would behave inappropriately – putting their arm around me, or doing that thing that men do – sliding the palm of their hand all the way down a woman’s back while talking and acting as if they are doing nothing out of the ordinary.  I began to notice that my husband’s “claiming” behaviors altered, depending on how much more “senior” the lawyer who was groping me was.  I honestly don’t think that he was conscious of the way in which the alpha-male/wolf pack behavior was operating.  But I did take notice that his anger about the situation would sometimes, then, be aimed at me, as if I weren’t the one who had personally endured the disrespect, but I had somehow brought dishonor to him.  He began to be more controlling about what dress I wore, or how much makeup I was wearing.  Being in public, then, even as a married woman, didn’t guarantee protection or respect; in fact, it was fraught with the complications of the never-ending male territorial struggle that extends to a woman’s body as terrain.   

During the years when I was working from home, raising two children and running our household, I was also constantly fending off the attention of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, landscapers, roofers.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I write this, not as an indication that I was some sort of femme fatale who had a kind of irresistible allure to all men.  I write this to say that no matter what the conditions, no matter what the circumstance, women are not safe from the unwanted attentions of men, even in their own homes.  Even when they are the “boss” paying the invoice.   The term “entitlement” has entered our vocabulary, and has clarified my thoughts on this matter.  Why does a total stranger, called to a home by a woman in the midst of a plumbing crisis, a woman who is simultaneously dealing with two sick children, wearing old jeans and a t-shirt, no make-up and probably some mismatched pair of 1980-style slouch socks, feel that he has the right to be “flirtatious”, or to say inappropriate things like, “I bet when you dress up, you are really hot.” 

This is a business transaction, and I’m writing the check, you asshat.  So, fix my fucking plumbing, buddy, and get the hell out.

In other words, Know your place.

And no, I don’t mean “your place” in the patriarchal socio-economic hierarchy of money and status and power.  I mean know that you have no right to make personal comments or overtures of any kind to a woman you do not know.  Didn’t anyone teach you that you should respect a woman the way you would want your mother or sister or daughter respected?  Know your place.  That place is one of a stranger who should practice courtesy and respect and deference to another human being; it is what we should all practice in regard to each other.  There are levels of intimacy which have to be earned, and you haven’t made it through the first gate.  In fact, you are in the far distant field, so much an outsider that you are barely visible.  Know your place.

And yet, as women, we often don’t even register the inappropriate behavior; or, if we feel it, we don’t reveal our anger.  Instead we smile that perfunctory smile all women know.  We change the subject, as many times as is necessary, since most men don’t “get” that we are not willing to entertain the conversation they want to initiate.  We endure the unwanted, untoward, inappropriate.  We endure the public bullying.  That gauntlet we junior high school girls had to pass each morning at Paxon Hollow Junior High is exactly what we endure for the remainder of our lives, walking past a construction site, or any gathering of men – whether it’s at the office coffee maker or at a train station or bus stop.  The menace grows with the men who follow us, verbally harass us, try to paw at us, or threaten us with attack or rape. 

Some of the more radical feminists of the second wave claimed that all men are inherently rapists.  Ti-Grace Atkinson once wrote that marriage is nothing more than accepting a permanent relationship with your rapist.   I understand her point more and more as the years go on.  It’s not only about the physical act of rape.  It’s about our rape culture which sees everything you are, everything sacrosanct about your self, your being, as that which can and should be plundered.  It’s the way those in positions of dominance treat everything and everyone who comes within their reach.  It’s suggested that this is the permeation of capitalist values, or as some would now call it, neoliberalism, or free market fundamentalism.  Everything is commodity, everything is there to be pillaged.  It begins with the patriarchy, which has found its full flower in the vicious brutality of unchecked capitalism. 

It’s there, at the very earliest stages of our culture.  For instance, the Iliad begins with Achilles storming off the field of battle, not because of a dispute about a war that raged senselessly for ten years, but about Agamemnon’s claim of Briseus, the woman Achilles saw as his rightful war booty. 

Does this behavior, this objectification and commodification of women, have its roots in the earliest stages of the hetero-patriarchy, or as a friend of mine recently suggested, the kyriarchy (meaning a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission)?

If so, then we have to address the socio-cultural issues of these entrenched values of domination, oppression and submission in a larger sense in order to begin to successfully undo the treatment women in 2014 still endure.  We have to dismantle and rebuild our socio-economic systems entirely.  I’ll use the term hetero-kyriarchy here, to indicate that the issue is with straight men, largely, who see it not only as their right to abuse women, but also to abuse men whose sexual orientation is not the same as their own.  (That extends, sadly, to the male-identified women who absorb and imitate those values.  You know who they are.) 

Or, I wonder, do the roots of this behavior go even deeper than a socio-economic system?  Is it possible, with the patriarchal cultures that gained dominance through their wars, their weapons, that the primordial roots of male behavior were given free rein?  In other words, is it possible that this is inherent nature, encoded somehow in the hetero-male dna?

If that is the case, then we have to acknowledge something even more dire.  We can no longer allow the heterosexual male a place in the halls of power -- not in the legislature, or in the gleaming towers of finance, or in the rooms where war and peace are measured and weighed, or in the palaces of commerce.  If the primordial hunger of the hetero-male is for domination, oppression and submission, then they can’t be trusted to share governance over a society of peace, shared prosperity, social good, high culture.  Consider this.  We see evidence of what I’m saying in the ways in which women’s bodies are treated as male territory by (primarily male) lawmakers and judges, even sometimes by doctors themselves. We see a rampant disrespect for the earth, for all forms of life by corporations run by these men – a rape of our environment and of nature.  We see the actions of the plundering culture in the behaviors of Wall Street, again largely run by this same sort of men.  It exists in the domination practiced through imperialism and colonization, through these endless, devastating wars.

I can hear the yowls of protest even as I type this.  The cry of “not all men are like this” rings through the air.  I know; yes, that’s true.  But far too many are like this. So even though there are “good guys” out there (I even know a few), I suggest that these “good guys” in a patriarchal/kyriarchal/capitalist world are as weak, powerless and without effect as the liberals and progressives of both genders are in our current society.  Without clear identity, sinking into the shadows, lacking a powerful narrative or plan, you guys may as well not exist at all for all the good you do to redeem your gender or help the rest of us save our world.

So, what is to be done?  I admit:  my personal response to these issues has been somewhat unusual.  I’ve entirely withdrawn.  This year marks the tenth anniversary of the night that I decided to go solitary, and to, essentially, marry myself.  I even performed a private ceremony.  It was sometime around the Summer Solstice of 2004.

Yes, I have been happily man-free for nearly ten years.  Women have been doing this for centuries.  In the Middle Ages, aristocratic women would retire to abbeys after their children had grown, to live out their years in peace.  Eleanor of Aquitaine did it; in fact, many of the Plantagenet women did it.  And can you blame them, given the brutality of the Plantagenet men?

It wasn’t as if I didn’t try to find a healthy and positive relationship.  When my marriage ended, I attempted to date, even had two “long-term” relationships which I ultimately ended.  But it hasn’t been until this decade of my life, where I have chosen to be a renunciate of the so-called “romantic relationship”, that I feel as though I belong fully and completely to myself.  During this time, I’ve shepherded both my beloved children into their successful adulthood years.  I’ve completed an additional graduate degree.  I’ve taught Humanities courses to thousands of undergraduate students.  I’ve grown my arts organization (Hidden River Arts) so that it now includes live arts events, cultural outreach programs, workshops, classes, tutorials, and an independent small press.  I’ve written and published a collection of short stories. I’ve completed the first of a trilogy of historical novels and “roughed out” the other two parts. I’ve written a contemporary novel, and am half-way through completion of a suspense novel and another novel of historical fiction. I’ve started a second collection of short stories. I’ve revised two full-length plays and written a new one; I’ve written three short plays.  And yes, they’ve all been performed.  I’ve written two short screenplays which have become short films.   I’ve been working on a documentary and companion book, both of which should be finished within the next few months. I’ve traveled the country giving lectures, readings, screenings, conducting interviews.  I’ve formed wonderful, creative, productive, joyful friendships with truly magnificent people.  I’ve moved from the suburbs back into the city, where I’m enjoying the vibrancy, the energy, the opportunities of the arts, culture and society.  Life is very good. 

I’m not saying that this is every woman’s best choice, but it has certainly been a good choice for me.  I’m an artist, a writer, an educator, an activist. And this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to be those things without any pushback from some guy telling me that I’m not giving him enough time or energy.  It’s been my experience that the men with whom I enter into long-term relationships all have the same things in common: a genuine alpha-male profile with entrenched narcissism and self-absorption, and a side order of dictatorial tendencies.  They are charming and romantic and exciting, until they don’t get their way.  Then they became bullies and wardens.  Their needs were more important than mine.  Their schedule more important than mine.  Their work certainly more important than mine. Their bank accounts were bigger, which was offered as proof of all those other assertions. 

I wondered: was I just attracted to the wrong sort of man? The alpha-male of the neoliberal capitalist world is hardly the most enlightened choice. Maybe the fault was with me.  But, I don’t think so. I scanned back over the other men I had dated after my divorce.

They were Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.  All of them. 

There was the one who brought his ten-year-old son on our dates, and talked about how his “other girlfriends” couldn’t stand the fact that his ex-wife lived in a cottage on his property, and vacationed with him.  Another who ripped my blouse and whipped out his penis at the end of our “date”, and said, “Wouldn’t it feel good if you sucked this?”  A third who showed up for a dinner date dressed in the sweaty t-shirt and shorts he wore when he mowed the lawn, who proceeded to get stinking drunk as he told me how much he couldn’t stand shiksas like his ex-wife and was happy to finally be dating a Jewish woman – completely oblivious to the fact that I was raised as an Episcopalian. 

There were those who wanted a harem of women in competition with each other over that golden male attention.  Those who thought buying a woman a cup of coffee entitled them to sex.  Those who assessed your weight and age, out loud, despite the fact that they were paunchy, slovenly and at least a decade older than you.  Or, on the other hand, those who wanted to immediately plan a life together.  (Sometimes during the initial exchange of emails.)  Those who assessed the size and status of your home, the value of your job, even the model of your car.

Not a worthy man among them, in my opinion.  So, okay.  I’ll admit that my idea of a worthy man these days is Liam Neeson, as Rob Roy.  Unless you’re exceptionally good at fighting with medieval weaponry and look hot in a kilt, that’s hard to live up to.  But these guys? It doesn’t matter how old they are.  Far too many are pathetic cases of arrested development, stuck in some adolescent stage where navel-gazing, self-importance, tantrums and frat boy behavior seem perfectly acceptable to them.  In fact, they are damned happy with themselves. 

These Lost Boys try to wow you with their income, their professional position, their new Mercedes (or their Harley and its straight pipes), their ability to bench press some ridiculous amount of weight, their summer share in Antigua.    They never wake up to the fact that acquisition is not the same as achievement. That material success is not the same as maturity.  That wealth is not the same as wisdom.  In fact, it’s been my experience that these things are actual deterrents to real growth.

Pull the lens back further and you realize:  These men don’t know their place because they don’t know themselves.  They mistake all the things our culture has told them give them privilege, their heterosexual male-ness, their assets and acquisitions,  for the stuff of real value. Yes, this is a culture that provides men with far too much entitlement; but it is also a culture which has denied them a working knowledge of their souls.  It is that combination which is truly deadly.

So, even when they aren’t following you down the street, cat-calling, or groping you in an elevator, or saying “Smile, honey!” as you walk down your block, the Lost Boys are behaving like boy-savages, ravaging our society. They veer from one pursuit to another, never satiated or satisfied, never recognizing limits, or understanding that there is a soul’s hunger beneath the faux-hunger created by Madison Avenue or Wall Street.  A growing need for ever-more high-risk behaviors characterizes the “dominant” men of our culture; and our culture rewards their actions by protecting them from the ruinous consequences of their behavior, “externalizing” the cost of it onto those less powerful. On a personal level,  it's been my experience that, when you attempt to enter into actual relationship with men who operate within this value system, their callous risks and endless demands threaten to overwhelm your life.   

For years, I’ve been convinced that the karmic reason so many marriages of my generation failed was so that a whole generation of second wave feminist- enlightened women could raise their sons free of the daily Lost Boy influence.  But I wonder, now that our sons are young adults:  have we succeeded?   I hope that we have, but remain unconvinced.

Reading the #YesAllWomen stories, seeing the way that campus rape is rampant (and oh so protected), hearing the stories of my female students, watching how women are still portrayed in movies, tv shows, talk shows, commercials, print ads – I’m feeling as though my generation of women may have failed. 

Or, perhaps “failed” is too strong a word.  Obviously, it takes many generations of effort to change a deeply entrenched acculturated “reality”.  We’re talking about something older than the works of Homer, for God’s sake.  We’ll continue to work toward goals of equality, of respect and courtesy, of safety. But, if #YesAllWomen is any indication, we're not going to be so polite about asking for those things.  Really pissed off, determined women are rising around the world, not only to push back against the physical brutalities we endure at the hands of men, but to fight against the corporatization of our larger lives, against the pervasive war-mongering that ruins our economies, our cities, our children’s safety. In other words, we fight against the wide-spread suffering caused by the hetero-kyriarchy in the broadest sense.  There are signs of progress.  But we have a long, long way to go; we can’t stop now. Neither should we worry about modulating our tone.  The generations of frustrated, angry women who are out of all patience – from grandmothers to middle school girls -  have to come together to demand more sovereignty over themselves and their lives, to refuse to endure these miserable conditions for one more moment.  Whether it is the continued brutality of a hetero-kyriarchal culture, or a more deeply ingrained core hetero-male behavior, we need to see this Lost Boy behavior and the culture that encourages it for every horrible thing it is, identify everywhere it is, and continue to shine a harsh light, exposing it in all its many forms until we can overcome its pervasive existence.


  1. Thanks, Debra, for remembering events and scenes like this one from junior high school. I remember my eighth grade friends doing almost the same sorts of things, and I remember how pervasive and powerful the awfulness was. I think these sorts of things are the MOST important moments that we live through in a lot of ways. This is where and when we are collectively "sorted" into the tracks (or under the tracks) of society. We learn who our tribes are and are not. We are asked to join or ostracized or outcast.

    This is where and when enlightened, mindful teachers should have taught us about respect, equality, compassion, communication and nonviolence. Instead we had raging nutjobs half the time and perverts the other half, and a few nice people tossed in trying to not get fired by everybody else. But thanks for this!

    1. Thanks, Jeff, for the kind remarks. A male friend of mine, who went to the same junior high school with me, says that he doesn't remember this - which tells me that not ALL the boys were doing it - but that there was a very vocal, very cruel group of them who were doing it, getting away with it, and enjoying the humiliation they were inflicting. You are right, that teachers and principals should be mindful, and should use these moments for opportunities to talk "off book" about the way we treat each other.