Recently the poet Annie Finch posted on her blog a piece called “Things I’ve Been Ashamed to Share About Being a Writer Until Now,” in which she gets specific about what men have done and said to her in the context of the literary life. At writers’ conferences, post-reading dinners, during professional conversations about writing, these aggressions caused fear, hurt, and shame. Even worse, Finch, like so many, also feels some shame about her response, which was to freeze. Contrary to popular belief, there’s a third ingrained human response to threat–it’s not just fight or flight, but fight, flight, or freeze. While we’d all like to believe we’d react with “fight” if faced with being grabbed, touched inappropriately, or if we were the butt of a “joke” about gang rape, the truth is that we don’t usually get to choose that instant response. Often, it is chosen for us as children, which is when many people face their first such sexual aggressions.
It’s not entirely new for a woman to name her abusers, though it is rare enough to incite controversy. And given the potential repercussions to one’s career as well as concerns about safety, it’s even rarer for the victim to say so openly, under her own name. The organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, felt strongly enough about this issue to provide a space for victims to anonymously tell their stories about one writer who has been widely accused of abuse in the literary world. Although there is a lot of pressure to be silent about sexual aggression, there is growing support for the telling of our truths. In doing so, we empower other women to speak up. The goals are many, but they include healing, and changing the culture of sexism.
What’s particularly interesting about Finch’s post is that she has already followed up with another post that takes this issue to the next step–when the named aggressors apologize. She prints an entire apology by one of the men she named, and refers to another apology that she says she will talk more about in a future post. Personally, I’m really heartened by the entire exchange–not merely Annie Finch’s courage in telling her truth, but her courage to continue the dialogue, to listen and respond, to take the next step towards changing the culture. Taking that next step, it seems to me, could be even more terrifying than the initial disclosure, because it gives the power back into the hands of the abusers, with all the potential to continue the same story we’ve heard over and over, most recently from a presidential candidate: the denial of the woman’s truth, of her pain, of her right to speak at all.
But that’s not happening. Yes, the printed apology wishes that Finch had spoken up at the time, and that’s disappointing because it reinforces the assumption that it’s the victim’s duty to say what’s appropriate and what’s not, to be the gatekeeper, to makes things easier for the abuser by speaking up at the moment of the abuse. However, in speaking back to the piece, in a thoughtful way, the men Finch named have taken a step, too, towards changing the culture. Maybe their responses aren’t perfect, but we need to keep talking in order to get anywhere.
Of course, to do that, victims need to keep speaking up. Finch says, “I am now convinced, through this experience of speaking out, that keeping secrets about sexual abuse is the bedrock on which all other forms of sexual oppression rest—and that only by speaking out, and no longer being complicit in protecting people who have done these things, will we ever free ourselves (and free men as well) from the terrible burden that has been keeping our literary voices muted and robbing the world of our true words. One person, out of hundreds, suggested that it was cowardice for me to speak out because I hadn’t done so at the time. I disagree—and I need to disagree, because the survival of our voices is at stake. It’s never too early nor too late to speak the truth that as humans we deserve to tell–and in so doing, to get our voices back. We don’t owe anyone silence–not anymore. We don’t owe silence to the intimidators, attackers, or abusers, to bosses, editors, or publishers, to mothers, friends or sisters, to lovers, husbands or children, and least of all to those who are clueless about sexism.”
Finch is committed to thinking through this issue, to following the path towards change and wholeness. She writes, “But after the truth was spoken, and some other things happened in the aftermath that I will write about soon in a followup essay, it was as if for the first time in my professional life I felt like a full human being.” We all deserve to feel “like full human beings” in our lives, professional and private. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of what Finch has to say as she leads the way on this journey.