On Silence (or, Speak Again)
Elissa Bassist breaks her silence about everything she’s not supposed to talk about and comes out alive.
A version of this essay was originally published at Longreads in 2019, and another appears in Elissa Bassist’s memoir, Hysterical.
He knew I’d write this. He said so years ago. He was a well-known author and editor — at least in certain major cities — and I was an unpaid volunteer for his literary magazine.
I remember we were at a mutual friend’s book party when he told me what I’d do: that I would, one day, “take him down.” Six thoughts banged into my mind: 1. He thinks the worst of me. 2. So he admits he’s done something to me and to others worthy of a public takedown. 3. He knows I am so desperately hurt that I would expose him. 4. How much dirt does he think I have? 5. This is why I shouldn’t go to parties. 6. I won’t be the one to take him down; he’ll take himself down, eventually.
“I’ll show you!” began the imaginary one-sided conversation I had with him later that night when I was alone in my apartment. “I’ll never say one word! To anyone! About anything!”
His was an effective silencing technique.
Yeah, sex is cool, but have you ever dared to work for free for male geniuses with zero boundaries? For 40-something-year-old men who entice you to admit that you burn to say something, then offer you the platform to say it? For emperors without clothes who don’t have to be great on their own because a woman’s mind can make a giant out of a grain of sand when her heart’s in it? I’ve done it a few times.
No one sent me the anonymous “Shitty Media Men” Google Sheet that measured out in spreadsheet cells the many cis-male writers, editors, et al. and their alleged misconduct that ranged from inappropriate lunches to rape. The list — a ladies’ locker room organized virtually — was for women to warn other women of men whose behavior was sexually inappropriate or abusive, unlawful or icky. The writer Moira Donegan later revealed she started the list. If I’d had access to the link when it was live, to the 70+ names on the list – names I knew and had worked for and had been with alone – I would have added some more.
Yeah, sex is cool, but have you ever dared to work for free for male geniuses with zero boundaries? For 40-something-year-old men who entice you to admit that you burn to say something, then offer you the platform to say it?
But to Emperor #1’s cell, where there were already allegations of sexual harassment, coercion, and rape, what would I have added? That he’d keep his hand in my back pocket whenever he wanted or would ask me to take naps with him or yell at me in public or wear me down until I dropped whatever I was doing to spend time with him?
About the shitty media men, I didn’t tweet #MeToo or #WhyIDidntReport, not about Emperor #1 or Emperor #2, the one I worked for prior, who would ask me questions like “Are you as bad at your life as you are at your job?” after I missed a FedEx cut-off. Nor did I tweet about another shitty media man who’d once toasted to date rape and peed with his office bathroom door open when it was just the two of us.
I had no single tweet — I had thousands. If I started, then how would I stop? And why should I start?
Silence is for the best, I thought as I scrolled through stories of abuse — and abuse itself — that were favorited and retweeted, or quoted and interpreted and criticized.
But was it for the best? This was an embarrassing question, so I didn’t ask it. When is saying nothing required to survive the day, and when is it being selfish or apathetic or self-vanquishing? The millions of #MeToo tweets quantified the silence we live in, in a historic display of misery loving company. The revolution was being tweeted, and I stayed up all night doing nothing much, just flinching and metabolizing tweets and trauma that aggregated into a kind of internal tornado of every voice but my own.
I didn’t post because I’d written about sexual harassment and assault online before and learned my lesson to never do that again. Commenters on those pieces told me to die in a fire; they called me a sperm dumpster, an idiot, someone who deserved everything she got. Trolls debated if I was, in fact, assaulted and if I should be and why and how and with what. A girl always remembers her first comments section.
Or maybe I didn’t tweet #MeToo because social media is a vehicle for fame, obviously, but when social media collides with social movements, trauma becomes a vehicle for fame. Then it’s a question of who gets their suffering recognized, and how much, and who it helps. Especially since it has become some people’s part-time career to let us know on social media that we’re right or wrong or lying psycho-bitches.
Also, when social media is known for inciting social comparison, bulleted self-esteem, anarchic mood, and lethal misogyny, how does this affect reporting one’s own pain? What if people “liked” my wounds, or worse, ignored them, or even worse, salted them? Contributing to the discourse felt like relinquishing control of it. And how to keep my wounds to 280 characters when no characters are characters enough when it comes to trauma? Or nuance?
In the early days of social media, whenever I posted something — I’m thrilled! I’m humbled! I’m traumatized! — underneath the characters pulsated “BEAR WITNESS, PLS.” I prayed that my posts would reach someone/anyone/everyone anywhere/everywhere, and I’d await positive feedback or viral acknowledgment of my pain. There was nothing to it, just sit in front of a screen, open a vein, and wait to see how many times you’re seen. This appeared to be the point of social media: vulnerability in exchange for visibility and dopamine, to show that what we think/feel/go through isn’t for nothing, even as the feed moves on and our words disappear as quickly as they arrive, dying out in tragedy aggregation.
I didn’t post because I’d written about sexual harassment and assault online before and learned my lesson to never do that again. Commenters on those pieces had told me to die in a fire; they called me a sperm dumpster, an idiot, someone who deserved everything she got.
But posting was no salvation. Because you can’t list the Internet as your emergency contact.
“Punchlines need trauma,” comedian Hannah Gadsby says in her Netflix special Nanette. It’s the reason she supplies for quitting comedy.
At any given moment, a hashtag trends that demands, via subtext, women bleed for the masses, just as some religions have demanded human sacrifices.
Social media seems to be playing a long con. It encourages women to speak up and that we will be heard, but also that we should kill ourselves for posting and for posting basic points like “believe me” and “don’t attack or rape or murder us” and “restricting reproductive freedom is restricting women’s freedom.”
In calling out this phenomenon, the speaker, writer, and former manager of social events for the Obamas, Deesha Dyer tweeted, “I think you mean white women because black women aren’t afforded the luxury, privilege or platform of just telling our abortion stories. Hell, we still trying to persuade folks that just being born makes us deserving of human rights.”
Part of the con is our (white woman) complicity: Women are acclimating to self-immolation and to online rebuke and retaliation — because that’s what having a woman’s voice requires.
There’s a “state of emergency when it comes to the female voice,” declared Joey Soloway in 2015, referring to the ruthless discrimination and disappearing of more than half the population’s perspective and subjectivity in media — which has a history of stuffing silence down non-men’s throats.
Judging from the screen, you’d think (white, heterosexual, young, thin, flawless) women were partially mute. Men talk more than women in three-quarters of Disney’s princess movies, like in Mulan, where Mulan’s male protector dragon Mushu has “50 percent more words of dialogue than Mulan herself.” Even rom-coms — billed as chick flicks made for women, starring stick figures known as women — “have dialogue that is, on average, 58 percent male.” Meanwhile, the Ghostbusters reboot was dubbed a controversial comedy because it stars women.
And when women do talk in complete sentences on-screen, it’s about men. Fewer than half of the 89 films named Best Picture at the Academy Awards from 1929 to 2019 pass the “Bechdel Test,” so in the majority of our “best” films, there is not one single conversation between women that isn’t about a man.
Low statistics sink to new lows, a report called “Boxed In: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television” shows, for black characters in TV speaking roles (19 percent of all characters who are women from 2017/18), and lower for Latinas (7 percent, a historic high), and still lower for Asian characters (6 percent), who usually appear to support a white person or to ruin their day.
Like entertainment, news media privileges one point of view that solidifies its privilege, and the story matters as much as who tells it. In a 2017 survey of TV news, the Women’s Media Center found that men reported “three times as much” as women at NBC, CBS, and ABC.
Although when we say “women,” we have a smaller group in mind (white women). Per 2018’s Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media study, “Women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 6.2 percent of local radio staff, and 12.6 percent of local TV news staff.”
What do men report? News that concerns women. More than 50 percent of content about reproductive issues and rights had male bylines in 12 newspapers and newswires. And in all articles men write, men quote more sources who are men — 48 percent (versus 27 percent sources who are women) — anointing each other as thought leaders to tell us the truth.
When is saying nothing required to survive the day, and when is it being selfish or apathetic or self-vanquishing? I’m asking honestly.
Which is an epic problem because reporters covering violence against women are also more likely to be white men. And these white men are more likely to use quotes about the “impact on the alleged perpetrator” than on the alleged victim, framing violence against women in ways that discredit victims, protect alleged perpetrators, and reify a cultural ethos where men get away with murder and women are blamed for being murdered.
The problem melts the room when men in news media who cover violence against women are accused of same. Well-known secrets about shitty media men are kept secret because reporters who are men don’t report them and because editors who are men silence reporters who are women by killing, censoring, or rejecting their reports.
Which is to say: The reasons behind the ratios are as important as the ratios themselves. And some men want the truth to be what they invent.
Elsewhere, print is dying, and certain voices are deader than others. In print in 2017, per VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, “the undeniable majority, 8 out of 15 publications, failed to publish enough women writers to make up even 40 percent of their publication’s run.”
Again, ratios widen in marginalized communities. As only one example, per VIDA, in 2016, “8 out of 15 publications published at least 1 piece of writing by a nonbinary person.”
This tracks. Often men in media are in charge of everyone else’s voices, and as part of their job they edit and erase us, publish and promote us or don’t, boost or squash whatever we have to say.
When I worked as managing editor of a bestselling American anthology in 2008, there had been no guest illustrators who were women and so few contributors who were women that I had to call special weekend meetings to find more than one. In the same office where I worked, cis-male writers and cis-male editors sometimes published using female pen names and pen names of writers of color to cover the fact that so few actual women and fewer actual writers of color were published. The excuse went like this: “But nonwhite, cis men aren’t submitting to the white-male publication.” But as a nonman writer and editor with access to submissions, I know they weren’t published because of a choice, not because there weren’t any nonwhite men to publish.
Author Sonya Huber figured out that “the average number of women in Best American Essays between 2000–2018 is … 37%.” To a lot of people, 37 percent seems pretty good. People who then question the necessity of women’s voices, as if because women have more opportunities than ever (and because in 2023, women comprise 28.7 percent of Congress instead of 20 percent a few years before, or because Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel weren’t bad), we can shut up already.
But the disparity in the number of voices is reflected in salaries, too. In the Publishers Weekly 2018 Publishing Industry Salary Survey, 86 percent of respondents were white, while “the average salary for men who responded to the survey was $87,000, compared to $60,000 for women.” Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool.
We are reminded over and over that the voice that matters and that’s worth more is male and white. This is drilled in until it turns subconscious. It’s safe to say that we’re less in danger of losing our cis-male geniuses than of never hearing (or adequately compensating) our nonmale ones.
Whomever we hear out wins our empathy. As such, print and news media, along with TV and film, are empathy generators for men, many of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct. Here’s the trouble with loving the work of monstrous men: Consciously or not, we fall in love with the monster himself, then recast the woman as monster, and it happens on a level deeper than deciding.
Whereas men can pretty much say whatever they want and get away with it (for every Charlie Rose who’s fired, there’s a Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the United States Supreme Court), women’s voices are heavily regulated, from volume to vocabulary. On social media in the fall of 2017, lady comics were kicked off Facebook for posting “Men are scum,” while another lady comic posted on Facebook to warn women about alleged serial rapist Aaron Glaser, who then sued her for $38,000,000 for “defaming” him. (The lawsuit has since been dropped, but a dropped lawsuit is not the same as a lawsuit rewound and erased.)
A former cop once gave me a tip: do not accuse anyone on social media because you can be sued for defamation; accuse assailants properly, which is, unfortunately, through a police report.
If, as women, we use our voices “inappropriately,” then we are reminded/threatened to readjust and regulate what we do or don’t with our mouths.
And women of color receive the biggest counterblast for using their voices in male-designated ways. Like in 2019 when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar referred to 9/11 as an event “some people did,” and countless people, including the president at the time, took the clip out of context and reframed her comment as a brush-off of the terrorist attacks and, in turn, terrorized her. Or when Serena Williams was penalized at the 2018 U.S. Open final for “verbal abuse” for talking back to the umpire and acting a little like men do all the time, which served as an advisory to women everywhere that if we react to shitty treatment, then we’re asking for it.
“Who gets to speak, and why, is the only question,” wrote Chris Kraus in her 1997 novel I Love Dick. Which was coadapted by Joey Soloway and the playwright Sarah Gubbins for the small screen in 2017, and was written entirely by women and gender-nonconforming writers, and was canceled after one season by Amazon Studios. (The former head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, who was notorious for canceling women-led vehicles, resigned in 2017 after an accusation of sexual harassment.)
Many Good Men have said to me that they’ve isolated the #MeToo problem: “One false accusation jeopardizes the movement.” If one woman speaks wrongly, then the entire movement is compromised. Speaking up is a hopeless double standard for women, an eternal conundrum that damns us if we do and don’t, where we must speak perfectly or not at all.
Before I published an essay about sexual assault in an anthology, it was vetted by the publisher’s lawyer to avoid liability and to prevent the contributors from being sued. Among her edits, the lawyer suggested I delete “he hurt me” and replace it with “I hurt.” She suggested I delete “get hurt” and replace it with “feel hurt.” I could hurt and feel hurt, but for legal reasons, I could not allege anyone had hurt me or that I had gotten hurt by someone, somehow. In effect, “he” was deleted in what happened to me. And with “him” gone, what “he” did became what “I” did.
The edits made me rethink my experience and wonder if it wasn’t as bad as I’d worded it. The problem, perhaps, was in my wording. Along those lines, should I not have said or written anything at all?
In the same office where I worked, male writers and male editors sometimes published using female pen names and pen names of writers of color to cover the fact that so few actual women and fewer actual writers of color were published.
And what if, by expressing my feelings, I hurt the feelings of the person who had hurt me, so much so that he’d hurt me again?
In learning how to write about shitty (and litigious) men, now I know to say, “I remember this happened, and that, in my opinion, it happened like this.” I know to acknowledge the possibility that what happened, happened only to me. I also know that only two of us were there, that one of us gets to be believed, and that no matter what I say, someone else can say I’m lying and sue me for libel.
I’ve tried to tell this story before, many times. But I didn’t try to publish it because my former agent said I shouldn’t and the MFA faculty said I shouldn’t and mutual friends of the emperors said to not ever.
Besides, “They were never sexually weird with you, right?” people inevitably double-check. Is this another way to ask if a story’s worth telling?
None of what the emperors did to me was criminal. But is not-rape the bar? Is that why too many of us don’t say one word?
Still, the distinction is an essential one, one I have to make again and again — between rape and harassment and coercion and verbal abuse and boundary annihilation and and and and and.
The not-rape I weathered was more like “death by a thousand cuts,” a torture technique and psychology term that refers to a significant negative effect that occurs incrementally, imperceptibly, slowly, so that no one reacts to a cut or calls it an injury. Each cut, although part of the thousand that lead to death, appears normal and is normalized — it passes as conversation or constructive feedback or funny or flirting or heated debate or passionate defense — despite its violent implications. This is how millions of women die by a thousand cuts.
Cut No. 10: On the day we moved the desks around the office, I was asked to sit at the front desk, to be there to receive the mail, direct traffic, and field phone calls. “But I’m an editor,” I clarified, “not a receptionist.” In the end I took the desk in the basement, next to the Ping Pong table. That night, like most nights, the staff left together and locked the doors. Another way to phrase it: They forgot about me and locked me in the basement.
I’d wanted — as women are charged with wanting — to make a scene. Instead, I said nothing. Because “feminine rebellion was visible, if at all, as personal pathology,” as Ann Douglas sums it up in the introduction to Minor Characters, writer Joyce Johnson’s memoir about the women poets who dated the Beat poets.
Cut No. 23: My first-ever psychiatrist prescribed Prozac and tranquilizers for working for men in media. Cue the benzo habit that ended with Narcotics Anonymous.
Cut No. 997: When I quit, I remember Emperor #2 said he was going to fire me anyway. I remember I asked to speak privately, and he said we should speak in his car. I remember that he drove without purpose as I delivered the lines I’d practiced with my psychiatrist, “This job is not a fit for me.” I remember he wanted to know what was wrong with me, then suggested what it might be. “Are you having boyfriend or girlfriend problems?” (Yes, always, but how was it relevant?) “This job just isn’t a fit for me,” I repeated as it was the only line I had prepared. I remember that the car was stopped, either at a red light or because he’d pulled over, and that he pounded the steering wheel. I hate what an asshole you turn me into, I remember he said. I remember he used the cliché, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” though I don’t remember if he said “life” or “career.”
He said it, and it was true: I hated what an asshole I turned him into. I’d made the biggest mistake. What was wrong with me? I was always having problems.
If men are right — and they are, automatically, right — then I shouldn’t feel how I feel, and I shouldn’t speak up about how I feel, I said to myself with the words and ideas he and other men had put into my head that then I thought and repeated.
At the time, I didn’t recognize Cut No. 997 as the near-bottom of the rape culture iceberg, the unlegislated gray area of #MeToo. If you imagine rape culture as an iceberg, then the peak is murder; below that is rape, sexual violence, and abuse; next is verbal attacks and threats; then emotional abuse; then entrenched power imbalances and systemic dehumanization.
At the bottom level is the gray area:
sexual pressure, misogynistic bravado, transferring all emotional labor, refusing to acknowledge any reality but one’s own, and routinely: not listening to women, not believing women, not taking them seriously, talking down to women, talking over them, talking them out of their own feelings, cutting them off, laughing them off, brushing them off, telling them who they are according to you, and acting on deep-seated subconscious or conscious animosity toward women who need only be women to earn men’s dislike.
But most of this doesn’t seem worth mentioning. Like nothing worth mentioning happens to women, and nothing that happens to women could be worth mentioning. It’s just not worth it. It hijacks our days and our one wild and precious life, but it’s just not worth it.
Yet, the iceberg illustrates that abuse — whatever kind — is connected and is its own point, and that “minor” is not synonymous with “acceptable.” The word “rape” in “rape culture” is the terminus, the end point of silencing women, of convincing us to hate the sound of our own voices and to speak in voices that don’t sound like our own and that say unspeakable things.
Cut No. 998: After many unemployed months, I wrote Emperor #2 a handwritten letter of apology and atonement, and I hand-delivered it, along with this favorite food. As I remember it, he asked what I’d been up to, and I said Writing. He asked, About what, if you don’t mind me asking. I told him, A novel about a lesbian who drowns herself in the bathtub. Then he asked me, quietly, Are you suicidal? I told him, It’s hard to be unemployed, I guess. If that’s what you’re asking. I guess I am.
I had felt so obliged to always tell him what I thought he wanted to hear that I agreed to be suicidal, to admit that I regretted leaving and wanted to die having left.
He offered me a freelance project but did not hire me again.
Cut No. 999. When I worked for Emperor #2, we had an unspoken, unpaid agreement that I was on call; I felt safe from the phone and his criticism only when he slept. If I didn’t answer, or if I did and it was to say that FedEx closed earlier than when he thought it should close, then he would speak to me in the tone of a disappointed dad using the language of an abusive dad and might hurl an unending metaphor at me, one like, You’re the type of person who sees someone on the side of the road dying of thirst, and walks in the opposite direction, gets in your car, and calls 911 as you drive away and drink a bottle of water.
One weekend I wasn’t working because it was the weekend, I traveled to St. Louis to see George Clinton / Parliament Funkadelic, and I went without telling him. He called when I was on the tram, but I couldn’t pick up or he’d hear the automated tram announcer. He called when the plane was boarding, but I couldn’t pick up or he’d hear my row being called. You must call back, you idiot, I heckled myself.
When I called back, near feral with fear — How would he roast me? Would he threaten my job again? Fling verbal acid? — he didn’t pick up, so I left a message. Because he didn’t know I was at the airport, and because every sound around me was of an airport — I had to lie, and I didn’t plan to say it, did not mean to, but —
I said I wasn’t available, although it came out deranged and in these words: “My mother has cancer.”
“I am flying to Denver to see my mother,” someone who sounded like me said, someone in survival mode who’d say anything. “Who has cancer.” I inhaled deeply, as if to suck the sentence back in. I’d so lost my voice by then that it had a life of its own.
My mother did have breast cancer, but at the time of the voicemail she was in remission.
I called my mom, who asked for his number and then called him. She left a voicemail explaining that she had cancer years ago and that her doctors thought it had returned but that it was a false alarm.
Some forms of disease are hereditary; empathy can be hereditary; and lying may be hereditary.
A poll funded by the British insurance company Privilege found that women are twice as likely as men to lie — sometimes up to “twice every waking hour” — for very good reasons like “to make someone feel better,” “to not get in trouble,” and “because life is complicated.”
When he and I did speak, he didn’t mention the cancer. As far as he knew my mom had cancer, and he didn’t mention it?
Cut No. 1,000: Years later, Emperor #1 called me a liar, told me I lie to such an extent that I lie even to myself, and said it in front of a small crowd after a bookstore reading. Another time, a male writer friend reminded me, Emperor #2 is a philanthropic thought-shaper. And who are you? Whoever I was or wasn’t depended on men believing, as I did, what they believed about me.
None of what the emperors did to me was criminal. But is not-rape the bar? Is that why too many of us don’t say one word?
Who are you? and You’re a liar replayed in a loop on the dark theater wall of my skull, and I let it take over, then blamed myself for letting it take over. (Fact check: I had not lied to him; I had told the truth, which was worse somehow.) If the shitty media men hadn’t gotten in my head about how shitty I am; if I hadn’t subscribed to their thoughts about me; if I hadn’t, as part of my job, written in their voice, in their syntax, in their POV, and adopted it as my own; if, in place of questioning myself, I had questioned the male prerogative and privilege to define and bestow all meaning — then who would I be?
“People who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner which undermines their credibility and thereby serves the twin imperatives of truth-telling and secrecy,” Judith Herman writes in Trauma and Recovery. People who have survived atrocities, including minor ones, may look like liars, may actually lie, may appear to be everyone’s favorite slur for women, “crazy,” may even become pathological.
“Far too often secrecy prevails,” Herman continues, “and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom.”
In 2016 I got sick, and I was sick through 2018. One doctor led to another, and I wound up at the Reeds Institute for, of all things, obsessive-compulsive disorder.
According to the Reeds Institute, roughly 6 million Americans have obsessive-compulsive disorder (this does not include the millions more who throw around the term because they’re very clean), and my brand of OCD revolves around my obsessive fear of “saying the wrong thing” and “fear of retaliation for speaking.” I call it spirit-stuck, permanently wishing I didn’t say what I’d said, or that I said exactly what I’d wanted. So, I edit and silence myself compulsively, as though every sentence tempts apocalypse or being hurt, and my silence, in part, made me sick.
OCD is a two-parter: obsessions that evoke distress, and compulsions, or rituals, that quell the obsessions and reduce stress (but do the reverse and validate obsessions to the brain).
The OCD literature says that the fear system is primitive and evolved before we had language, so fear is learned and developed through behavior and experience. Every time I compulsively revise one email for weeks (because if I don’t, then bad shit will and does happen), my brain clocks it and does everything it can to gauge if what I’m about to say is “right,” then lets me know that “saying the wrong thing” is “life or death” since I invest my whole being trying to elude it (to elude rejection or retribution), which supports my fear that my words could bury me, which further sensitizes me to any possibility of wrongness — so that the next time I’m about to type or open my mouth to speak, I don’t. Although mine is a mental compulsion, it hurts — it physically, really hurts, like treading water, like there is no stopping, like the ancient Greek woman Timyche who set herself apart from other women by chewing off her own tongue instead of saying something wrong.
With men, “no” seems like the wrong thing to say. Indeed, we live in a culture where men do not like hearing no, so women don’t like saying no. More than 1,000 wives, exes, and love interests are murdered annually for saying no to men, which makes no the hardest word, and when it’s unavailable, something else has to fill its void.
So when a shitty media colleague (have you lost track of them yet?) helped himself to a handful of my butt, instead of “no,” I said, “But you have a wife and a child.”
“It’s OK, the kid’s adopted,” he argued.
This spread to, or stemmed from, dating men. In place of “no,” I’ve said, “Ha ha ha ha ha” or “Thank you, I’m sorry, but I’m not up for another round, I’m so sorry,” only to come back from the bathroom to find one and to drink it because it’s inexcusable to not drink purchased drinks.
After the guy I met on Hinge asked me what scared me, and after I said “karaoke,” and after he dragged me, literally, to a karaoke bar, I managed to say, “There’s my subway stop,” just before he lunged at me and threw me (passionately) against a gate so hard it flew open, and I fell backwards on concrete and he fell on top of me, à la a rom-com based on an Ayn Rand novel.
The old camp boyfriend laughed as he pinned me down and did what he wanted to do, and I made jokes, actual jokes, to justify his laughter.
I didn’t say no to the boyfriend who said he loved me as he hurt me, because I was more afraid to say the wrong thing than to be hurt. And because I thought I should say what he wanted me to say, as if I could use the right words the right way and be a good girlfriend.
I couldn’t imagine saying no to the unrequited love who did the most damage without touching me. I did the opposite — I talked too much, felt too much, talked too much about how much I was feeling. I texted and emailed like my life depended on it, like I’d pass out if I didn’t … just … say … this … one … thing. I’d write to him until I bled, then I’d write with the blood. This wasn’t cute, so I said less the more I dated.
Afraid of my voice, I stopped using it. Each of my experiences with shitty men, across time and space, reinforced silence as my best option.
Under my own gag rule, I lightened up. I respected that there’s “a time” and “a place,” in which no time or place exists where I can say what I feel. I censored my wanting and wanted less.
Pro tip: Stop saying what you want to say, and soon enough you won’t know what it is you want.
Of course, silence is not unique to OCD. Women are raised to be our own first critics, then the wider world joins in to judge us, feeding a cycle of self-silencing where we dread what we might say out loud — what we might reveal, what anger, sadness, and violence might emerge, how we might disappoint, or infuriate.
But if anyone fears women talking more than women do, it’s men.
In Gift of Fear, male author Gavin de Becker writes, “I don’t remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”
He summed up and popularized and did not attribute the words of Margaret Atwood, who said it first in her collection of essays, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose:
“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. … “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. … Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.
It’s similar to the dichotomy that men fear being accused of sexual assault while women fear being sexually assaulted, which, put another way, means men are most afraid of what women will express, and that we will find the voice with which to express it, as if a woman’s expression, in and of itself, is violent.
“Nothing comes from nothing,” says King Lear to his youngest daughter Cordelia in words written by male playwright William Shakespeare. “Speak again.”
But how, exactly?
How to go against every instinct and societal directive in a world that prefers a woman’s death to her opinion?
One form of OCD treatment is exposure therapy, which is deliberately doing what your inner voice says, You cannot, no matter what, do. My OCD specialist pushes the “lean-in statement” method of exposure where you agree with your doubt and practice having a non-compulsive response. In my case, this was expressing myself. It was saying what I believed others didn’t want me to say. It was writing something unreadable that may inspire the vitriol and reprisal of shitty men. It was saying no. It was asking questions. It was coming off badly. It was opening myself to being misunderstood or ghosted or judged and criticized, to being disliked or disrespected, to being regarded as not nice, curt, aggravating, abnormal, loony. It was speaking awfully but speaking anyway, again and again.
In learning how to write about shitty (and litigious) men, now I know to say, ‘I remember this happened, and that, in my opinion, it happened like this.’ I know to acknowledge the possibility that what happened, happened only to me.
Speak again because who broke most of the national shitty media men stories? Investigative reporters who are women. Julie K. Brown at The Miami Herald (Jeffrey Epstein); Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the New York Times (Harvey Weinstein); Melena Ryzik, Cara Buckley, and Jodi Kantor at the New York Times (Louis C.K.); Emily Steel at the New York Times (Bill O’Reilly); Stephanie McCrummen and Beth Reinhard at the Washington Post (Roy Moore); Page Six TV and Variety reporter Elizabeth Wagmeister (Matt Lauer); Amy Brittain and Irin Carmon at the Washington Post (Charlie Rose).
Speak again because I guess we have to say it again and again until they hear it, until our voices are undeniable.
Speak again because those who speak the loudest rely on the rest of us to stay silent.
Speak again because, well, why not? Aren’t women raised to talk about men above all? Especially when our cultural mirrors have us do almost nothing but? When we’re taught that a woman’s relationship with a man is her identity, that only through a man does a woman know herself and feel alive? Men can’t train us to talk about them full-time but expect us to redact their crap.
But “speak again” with an asterisk. Why don’t I speak up, here and now, about all that I know, like the shitty men’s shitty names? Because speaking up is still not available to everyone about everything.
So if you’re able, speak again.
“Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and the healing of individual victims,” writes Herman in Trauma and Recovery. Saying “There’s another side to the story,” or “I’m not who you told me I am,” or “I’m the storyteller now, fucktacos” is survival. Speaking again is survival.
But if this seems like too much, then start by exhaling audibly. Start with one sentence or one word. Start by expressing something, whatever it is, instead of so much nothing.
Elissa Bassist teaches humor writing at The New School, 92NY, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and elsewhere. Her newsletter is Tragedy Plus Time, and her first book is Hysterical, an award-deserving memoir.
Fact checker: Matt Giles Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Check out Memoir Land’s interview with Elissa Bassist in The Lit Lab.
Memoir Land is a reader-supported publication that pays contributors for original essays and interviews. To support this work, become a paid subscriber.