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I grew up in estrogen overload, in a house filled with difficult women, the only son of a harridan who’d sent her husband—my father—packing for love of another married man.
We were poor — not ghetto poor, but borderline white-trash Jewish poor: my mom, my three troubled sisters, and me, in our three small underfurnished rooms. For a long time — truthfully, my whole life — I’d convinced myself that this single fact of my boyhood, this isolation with too many women (picture a lost sperm circling an ovum), was the most formative piece of my story — hands down — the twist that made me me and formed my sperm-headed view of the world.
Then one day I realized that this was a lie — or should I say an incomplete truth.
I was in my shrink’s earth-toned womb of an office. Martha was asking about my mother, who looms like Medusa over my insides, turning traitorous thoughts to stone. She knew about Ida already, of course, but not till that day had the question of rape been on the table. Ida was raped many times in her life — as a big-breasted girl running fast with Italians, as a teenage bride bartered to a sadist (to save what was left of her reputation), as a woman whose integrity, such as it was, pivoted in her own mind around being first and foremost an excellent fuck. These were the painful details I was sharing with Martha when she scrunched up her face all of a sudden and stopped me.
“You mother was raped?” she asked.
“All of the women in my family were raped,” I told her.
Martha seemed shocked. I was shocked myself, not because the information was new but because I’d never said it out loud, which meant it had only half existed.
Now that it did—now that I’d said it—a truth (so obvious that I’d missed it) blasted a hole through my story line, the version of things I’d believed to be true. It wasn’t being trapped in a house filled with women that had made me the very strange person I was, but growing up in a houseful of raped women.
The nightmarish reel of flashbacks began, looking into Martha’s eyes, pictures of naked female flesh, the pornographized landscape of childhood. But these pictures revealed themselves differently now, not as women whorishly wasting themselves (as others described it to me when I was a boy), not spreading themselves uncontrollably, prompting despair and abandonment; but as their bodies probably were, accosted, betrayed, and chewed up — discarded — largely against their will.
The images came back to me in a rush: my mother locked in the bathroom, weeping, hitting her head against the tub, whispering “I want to die” as I beat on the door and screamed till it opened—then her staring at me with dead eyes, a trickle of blood sliding down her neck from hitting her head against the enamel;
My beloved eldest sister, Marcia, escaping the husband who beat and degraded her, bound and gagged her, then dumped her for another woman and prompted her suicide at twenty-nine;
My other older sister, Joyce, being chased outside my bedroom door in the middle of the night, a strange man’s voice coaxing, “I’m not gonna rape you,” then disappearing at fifteen to a home for unwed mothers;
My baby sister, Belle, in hysterics at ten, crying to me that the neighbor whose child she babysat had been touching her in the bad place, wrong, and me confronting him (age thirteen) with a barbecue skewer on his patio.
These memories were just the beginning. There were more, there were echoes, the rapes continued — by men and soon enough by themselves, as my mother and sisters sold themselves short, raped their own choices, potential, respect; forced themselves into too-small, tawdry lives with men who used them as pleasure mules. The pictures came back, and as I described them — revealing so much more of the truth — a disturbingly different, more accurate picture began to emerge in myself of myself.
It wasn’t estrogen overload that had turned me into a rescue artist; it was rape overload, abuse overload, an excess of feminine self-mutilation — an absence of innocent love toward a woman. Nowhere in retrospect was there a memory of woman adored, exalted, or blessed; nowhere an image of feminine eros protected, beloved, refined, rendered precious; and nowhere an entry for me to love in the way a boy (or man) needed to love in order to free himself of guilt: the guilt of not saving what he cannot save. The shame of needing to run away because he can’t face the unsavable women. The disgrace of being forced to choose between himself, his life, and the women whose sacrifice freezes his heart, the heart he needs to survive—with despair.
Because these women were all I had. I loved them (in spite of everything) beyond words. For a long time this love was too much to face in light of the safety I could not give them. This was the actual bone-true story, I realized after that day in Martha’s office, the kernel of mourning I’d buried in rage. I hadn’t run away out of hatred. I’d run away from an excess of love.
This was shocking to me — this unmasking of grief. My armorial manhood began to unclench—forced me to share in their violation, to feel the assault on these women I cherished. Far easier to blame the victims than share their helplessness, I realized. But, telling this secret, I had no choice. There was nothing to hate now but violence itself, nothing to despise but men out of control, which plunged me into the heart of the matter. If men were rapists, then so was I (my childish black-and-white logic had told me long before I even had words for these things). As a fatherless kid starved for any male virtue to believe in—for faith in this sex I was born with, this stranger — I’d blocked the truth to save the faith that men could also be good and trusted, that I would never inflict such pain.
We do this, we men, very often, I think, mostly without knowing it. Every day in every country for every reason the mind can invent for why the violence is deserved. If Eve isn’t guilty somehow, we wager — bringing the blood upon herself — Adam cannot rule the world. And so the blame-shifting lie continues till one day — if we’re lucky and ready — we men drop the story, we start to grieve, and the cycle, the ignorance, comes undone.
I’d tell my story differently now if anybody wanted to hear it. I come from a family of raped women, but that no longer makes me a rapist. It makes me a man with a broken heart. I come from a family where cocks were weapons, but that does not make me a war machine. It makes me a man with a dangerous power (women have their own dark ways), equally fierce and beautiful. Now that I’ve grown into a man — now that I know I’m able to love — I can say what men do without hating myself or mistaking my power for violence. The tenderness of wolves, they call it — the exquisite absence of blood among killers. This is the tenderness men can give women. This is the story when shame finally ends.