Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Small Victories: Riding the Wave Between Hope and Despair

--> When it comes to the environment and all that we face today, many of us are dogged with doubt—are we doing it right and can we really turn this ship around?

We work hard, mostly in the dark. Hoping our work will bear fruit. Trusting, because there is no other way.

In my own case, as much as I wave the hope banner-–there are private moments of doubt and despair.

As if to answer these questions, I was recently sent a much needed positive sign.

It’s not often that we get to see our activist efforts rewarded in concrete ways and certainly not within twenty-four hours.

Here’s what happened:

Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden, was scheduled to visit my campus at Stony Brook University, on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.  The plan was for Kristen to meet with my class in the morning and, later in the afternoon, she would give a lecture to the university at large.

The night before Kristen’s visit, the plans changed.

At 10 p.m. on Monday evening, I received an urgent message from my friend, Patti Wood, co-founder with her husband Doug Wood of Grassroots Environmental Education. The Grassroots team works tirelessly on many environmental causes including Fractavism.

Patti’s urgent plea: Would I, as the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University, speak before the New York Suffolk County legislature on behalf of the bill being proposed banning the importation, sale or use of all radioactive and toxic fracking waste in Suffolk County the next morning at 9:00 am in Riverhead?  Patti was concerned that the gas lobbyists had won over too many of the legislators and my presence was needed. Here was the hitch: my class was scheduled to meet at 10:20, and Kristen Iversen was visiting for the day.  Riverhead is almost an hour from campus and who knew how long the event would last at the legislature. 

What should I do?  The schedule with Kristen had been set months before. 

Yet, what was most important? Keeping the schedule as it had been set, or saving the place where I live from poisonous fracking waste?

How could I not go and try to stop the polluting of my county? This is everything I work for.  The gas industry intended to push our local politicians into applying radioactive radium 226 and 228, radon and other toxic material onto our roads as de-icer and dumping it in ill-equipped and unsafe waste locations.  The material would inevitably end up in our water, soil, and farmland. Radium 226 emits gamma rays that travel long distances.

So I wrote to Kristen about my predicament and asked if she might want to go with me.  Kristen immediately said yes. She wanted to speak, too.  After all, Full Body Burden is about the dangers of plutonium pollution and the nuclear weapons factory Rocky Flats. I then wrote to two students who are very well versed in the subject of fracking waste and asked them to join us. They eagerly agreed.  My class would run with my TAs and co-teacher, a visiting filmmaker, Dave Chameides. The students would come see Kristen’s talk later that afternoon.

Kristen, Andi and Cory (my students), and I met up with Patti Wood and many others. We were each given three minutes to speak.  This was one of the most empowering moments of my life—speaking directly to politicians who would vote on our fate, about the need to preventatively protect our children and future generations from exposure to radioactive and toxic waste that would last thousands of years.

The next morning I got the message: the bill banning all fracking waste in Suffolk County had passed. A few weeks later, the same bill would pass in Nassau County.

Before putting Kristen on the train to New York City, I shared this stunning information.

We were both ecstatic.

Over the next few days Kristen spoke at New York City High School Hibakusha Stories events honoring Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and educating young people about the dangers of nuclear weapons, waste and power. Kristen told the students about our radioactive and toxic fracking waste victory and they clapped wildly. I chimed in, too, and students reacted the same. Seeing the young peoples’ joyful responses made our small but important action so worthwhile.

Yes, activism makes a difference.  Yes, all those drops together add up to an ocean.  Yes, cast your seeds and they will grow.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Another Plain


It was a rainy day, but the sun came out by the end of our walk. The clouds were vast and billowy, and the water on the sound became flat, shiny-- like one big mirror. I lay down on the ground, turned my head sideways and looked at the meeting of sky and water. The angle was so different: I might have been dead or something or at least on another plain. I made my friend do the same. We were like children, exploring the light and seeing the world in a different way.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I developed breasts and my life changed.  Thirteen years old.  Life was never safe again.

This writing is a long time coming.

It's something I don't speak easily about.  All that harassment. It's embarrassing.  It's humiliating. Best left forgotten.  I'm so well trained to please men, to not offend others; I have tucked it under and swept it under. Still it seeps out. 

Nobody likes an angry person--especially an angry woman.

This is it. Here goes. Here goes the explosion.  Will I post it?  I don't know.

Thirteen years old. I got my period. I got large breasts. They appeared. I don't even know the moment it happened, but all in the sudden, my breasts were big. As one teenaged girl informed me--and this was the moment I first knew, "Your boobs are HUGE."

I looked down at my chest and would never feel the same about myself for the rest of my life. 

Men on the street knew before I knew.

Summer of my thirteenth year, walking with my brother and Dad in Athens, Greece, I was wearing shorts and t-shirt. It was 1970 something and a hundred degrees outside.  My shorts were too short but nobody warned me that in Greece, girls shouldn't dress like that. What did I know: I saw myself as a child--who would care about me?   I suddenly felt the violence, the onslaught of attention, and it terrified me.  Men stared. Men grabbed. Men tried to get at me, even with my father and brother there.  I put myself between my father and brother, holding their arms. Still, the men jeered with hostility.  My brother and father didn't see--or if they did, they were silent.

When we got back to the U.S. from our European trip that summer, my older sister, who hadn't traveled with us, immediately noticed the size of my breasts and that I wasn't wearing the right-sized bra.  She gave me one of her larger ones to wear.  I felt like a baby who had large breasts strapped to her, oddly marking her. I didn't identify with them or see myself as any different, but now I was all BREASTS.  I wasn't me anymore, not to others.

For years, I couldn't walk anywhere without being whistled at, hissed at, or without having strange and disgusting oral sounds muttered at me on the street.  This was/is just part of being a young woman.  Once, when I was fifteen or so, when a guy in a truck drove by and made a lewd comment,  I yelled, "fuck you," at him and flipped the bird.  I told my mother afterwards and she said that it was wrong of me to be so rude.

At seventeen, I lost a career in the theatre as an actress. I was a member of one of the most prestigious theatre companies in the U.S.  It was my big break.  In acting, you rely on breaks such as these. Backstage, during the production of Our Town, this big breasted little sister Rebecca (me), wearing a little girl dress, waited with her big brother George  (over 30), in a small side area just off the stage. It was cramped and dark and we had to sit quietly and right next to each other until our entrance (all through rehearsals and six weeks of performances--seven days a week, with two matinees). While we waited for our scene in this dark little corner (where the audience could hear everything), George's hand would go up my thigh under my dress. George had bad breath and bad teeth. I would slap him away, but the next day/night, he'd do it again. After his hand crawling, we'd make our entrance, and do our oh so sweet sister and brother scene together, where I would talk about my friend's (Jane Crofut's) strange letter that she'd received from her sick minister-- how it was addressed to her street address and then to the universe and the mind of God, and how it got to her house anyway.  It's a speech I will never forget. Not because it was my grand moment on the stage in my small part, or that it bought me good reviews; but because good ole' George was there with me, breathing his nasty breath, raining on my parade.

Big brother George from Our Town and his hand.  I told no one. Who could I tell?

Then there was Lorenzo, in the next play called, Rep!. A play about the theatre company itself. Written by a famous author.  We got to schmooze the the local theatre elite in making this one. It was so exciting. I was the "Intern." Our parts were all true to life. I even had a scene where the "Director" tried to kiss me. The guy playing "the Director" could tell I didn't like him at all (he smelled, never took off his make up and had a coating of it perpetually on his neck and the edge of his face).  I hated the stage kiss, would do it reluctantly, and once herr Director yelled at me after the scene because he could tell.  Then there was Lorenzo the heroin addict in his forties, married with children. We had a scene in which we were supposed to face out and look at the audience. Lorenzo had to stand directly behind me.  Day after day, night after night, through rehearsals, and in performances, as we stood in position, facing the audience, he would whisper closely into my ear, "I want to fuck you. I want to fuck you." He said it in such a way that really meant, "I control you."  I couldn't move. I was told to stand in that spot by the director. It's called "blocking." An actor has to stand where they are told. Who could I complain to?  Lorenzo was the serious and well respected actor.  I was the lucky teenage girl, lucky to be in this play.  He did this one night with his wife directly in front of us as we faced the audience. "I want to fuck you," he whispered with his wife looking on.

In real life, off stage, when the show was over, the real director and founder of the theatre company would ask me to come over to talk at his apartment.  I would go.  I never drank and nothing ever happened. He would drink and talk and talk. He would tell me about my talent. He said I was "green" but would one day be like the leading older actress whom everyone admired. Sometimes he invited another actor, an older man to come with us. They would talk shop.  I never wanted to go, but I felt I couldn't say no. Wasn't it an honor that the director of the company invited me over?  He never touched me. But it was clear that he was offering me a choice: become his girlfriend and become a star, or ... I didn't know what.  Nothing.  I would be nothing.  He was an old man to me. Grey beard, grey hair.  A drunk. He was important. I was seventeen.

The women in the theatre company scorned me. I wanted to turn to them for help, but they didn't like me. They saw me as what--a potential competitor?  It became so difficult to navigate these waters--drunk famous actors, non-drunk ones who looked at me with scorn for being trapped in others' nets, constantly saying no, and yet feeling dirtied anyway, as if this were all my fault--even though I had done nothing. I just wanted to act.

It was my big break. I left this theatre and my big break because of those men. I never had such an opportunity again.

*           *           *

There was high school and a rape.  I told my girlfriends.  They were so used to hearing these stories, they didn't blink.

There were the teachers and the affairs with students.  Everyone just took it for granted.  The attitude was, "so what." People involved  begged me to never write of it.  I complied.  I still comply to save face for others. I am complicit.

*           *           *

The man in the subway in Paris. I was sixteen. He walked right up to me, put his hand on my breast and stared angrily into my eyes.

*           *           *

The man with the gun who got off the bus in Oakland, California, tapped on the window and aimed the weapon at my face.  The look on his face frightened me for years. I would dream of his anger, his steely eyes.

*           *           *

The owner of the restaurant where I was a waitress in New York at South Street Seaport. Three handsome young male Italian owners. Some said they were Mafia, what did they know of restaurants? This one had a wife who appeared occasionally in a mink coat. He had a waitress mistress, too, whom he kept in an special apartment. She told me about it. He'd come up behind me when I was picking up dishes, and slip his hand across my breasts.  If I said anything, he'd fire me.

*           *            *

The man at the party with the live-in girlfriend.  A neighbor of my friend.  I was nineteen.  He walked up to me. Put his hand full-on my breast.  Walked away.  No one saw.

*          *            *

The men (mostly married) in my building in Soho when I was in my early twenties (they were in their forties, with children) who hit on me endlessly. It was a cooperative artists' building. We painted our own hallways, put up walls in the basement. I had to pass them every day as I walked up four flights and they never stopped hastling me.  They were not so different from the men in trucks who hissed and yelled obscenities.  One, who wasn't married (yet), a well-known architect, never mentioned his girlfriend or impending engagement; he asked me on a date only a few days before the celebrations.  It was summer.  I could hear his party from my apartment.  Loud music.  What was the party for, I asked a female neighbor--"oh, he's getting married, didn't you know?"

*           *           *

There is more.  I will stop here.  Every woman and girl must have this list. 

*           *           *

Years later, I went back to college, and in graduate school became a scholar of 18th-century literature. I focused on women writers (as well as on race and colonialism). Lost women writers. Important women writers in their day.

Dale Spender, a feminist scholar, says: there are a '100 great  English novelists before Jane Austen'.

That was the work I entered into in graduate school--to recover these important writers---to give them voice.  Yet, despite years of hard work among many scholars, do you know their names?

Of course you don't.

Here are few of that 100: Aphra Behn (very prolific and popular playwright in her day, probably wrote the first English novel, and the first English woman to earn her living by the pen), Eliza Haywood, Frances Burney, Frances Sheridan (mother to the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Scott and many more.  There were playwrights, poets, and nonfiction writers of political essays, too.  These women writers influenced Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, they deeply influenced the canonized male writers of their day--but they are rarely taught in college today (I had to fight to teach them) and their work is hard to locate for the layperson.  We have brought back some of their books back into print, but these are published mostly by small independent presses, ones you don't know about unless you're a scholar.   

The vast majority of their writing is not available to buy anywhere.



These 18th-century women writers wrote openly about rape, abortion, forced marriages, abusive husbands, fathers and brothers, forced prostitution, venereal disease, death from childbirth, fathers who sold them off to men for profit, violence against women. These women authors were honest, real, and very popular in their day, and they were a major part of the new genre at that time: the novel.  I have plenty of research and evidence to prove that the novel is a female form and a female form that expressed the real condition of women. They have important stories to tell.

These women writers were silenced.


*           *            *

This is my story, or part of my story.  I don't pretend that my own tales are unique or special.  I tell these vignettes to break the silence and perhaps this will help others.  There are far worse stories than mine: childbrides, girls dead from rape, gang rapes, wife beating, child beating, women and girls shot at, strangled, kidnapped, and locked away, girls forced into sex trafficking, mass murders, women shut out of education and equal treatment in the workplace, women hating themselves because of misogyny, and living failed, broken lives, and of course the insidious self-hatred, and self-repression brought about by the beauty myth.

In my case, I have conquered sexism to a large extent.  I'm not a girl anymore and I have the tools learned from years of feminist study.  I have a room of my own, a checkbook of my own, legal status of my own.  Nobody "owns" me.  That's huge.  I stand on the shoulders of the feminists before me.

Still, I carry the wounds.  What damage has misogyny done to me, to my sisters, to my daughter? How has this sexist world impacted my/our relationships, heart, soul?  What joy or creativity has been lost?

Who can say?

Sexism permeates us all so deeply.  Sexism silences fifty percent of the population. Sexism is a future denied, cultures vastly diminished.

*            *            *

I have a teenaged daughter.  She loves acting and the theatre.  She's in France right now, performing in a play.  No surprise, I have strongly discouraged her from pursuing an acting career.  "Go into the sciences," I tell her.  "But I hate science," she quips back. "Okay, well, if you go into the theatre," I insist, "be the director or writer, not the girl who is chosen for her looks, who is at the mercy of others telling her where to stand and how to move."

Be the girl who does her own directing--that is what I wish for my own daughter.

Don't be at the mercy of men or anyone for that matter.

*           *            *

I will publish this after all. 

These stories must be told and violence against women must stop.

Instead of being like those actresses in the theatre company who did not stand up for me when their support was direly needed, I will speak up now, as millions, no billions, suffer worldwide.

I must speak out against misogyny, violence, and oppression in any form.

#YesAllWomen. All women.