[Edit 3 (7/25/13): I speak to some of the more common comments, questions, and criticisms I've recieved in this Mailbox article.
Edit 2 (7/18/13): Continue comments at the dedicated entry for the continuation of comments if you want a reply from me.
Edit 1 (7/16/13): This post has gone viral and it now accounts for over half the traffic that this blog has ever received since I started it in February of 2012. Unfortunately, that means it's starting to show signs of conforming to the laws governing the "bottom half of the internet." Some really brave and touching stories have come in under Anonymous comments so I really don't want to change the comment policy mid stream; however, rest assured that I'm actually quite okay cheerfully deleting anything that drifts into the territory of abusive or incendiary in its hostility (especially to other readers) . Feel free to disagree with me, critique the writing, call me out, whatever (not all the comments below are congratulatory), but I'm going to ask that everyone play respectfully if they want to do so here. I'm sure you can find forums about this article if you want to be a meanieface.]
So a thing happened to me yesterday on the BART as I was coming home from work. (Not sharknado, sadly.) I want to tell you that it happened because I'm a writer--I want that because then I can write about it here in a blog about writing, not because I think writers are more awesome than other people. If I tell you this happened because of a unique set of insights I got from being a writer, then I can totally write about it here, and it's okay. But the truth is, awareness can come from many places, and I hope that a lot of plumbers and architects and beekeepers and middle managers and stellar cartographers would do what I did. But just for this article, so I can put it here in this blog about writing, let's pretend it's not what anyone would have done. Writers are good at pretending.
You see, as a writer, I am also a reader--a big crazy, prolific-as-shit reader. I've read two or three dozen articles my friends have linked over the years on women's experience with creepers on public transit--usually with some sort of commentary attached to it by said friend along the lines of "ZOMG THIS!!!!" or "SO FUCKING TRUE!!!!" I've read Schrodinger's Rapist, Rape Culture 101, Jezebel articles by the dozens (perhaps hundreds), and even my own friends' tribulations on BARTs and busses. I even read that article (which I can't find now) that lays out a well reasoned case that our culture's entirely fucked up sense of consent and rape culture exist naturally as an extension of the same mindset that cause women to be afraid of being blunt and honest when they get cornered in public by someone they're not interested in. [ETA- One of the commenters knew the piece I was talking about. It's called Another Post About Rape.]
Could "non-writers" have read all these articles and more? Of course! (But I had to shoehorn a personal story into a blog about writing, so work with me here.)
And in reading all these things I've come to be aware of a narrative. An everyday narrative almost as common for women as "the train pulled into the station, and I got on." It's not that no one but a writer could be aware of this narrative it's just that in a world where tragically few are, that was my gateway.
It is the narrative of how men hit on women in public places.
A tired old story if ever there were one. A story where consent is not a character we actually ever meet, and where the real antagonist is not a person, but rather the way she has been socialized to be polite, to be civil, to not be "such a bitch"....no matter how much of a Douchasauras Rex HE is being about not picking up the subtle clues. Yes, a human being might fill the role of the immediate obstacle--and in doing so personify the larger issue, but the careful reader of this tropetastic narrative knows the real villain is the culture that discourages her from rebuking him in no uncertain terms lest she be castigated, lest he escalate to anger. (And that's the best case scenario; the worst is that she angers someone with much greater upper body strength who has been been raised in a culture where every emotion distills into anger, where violence is strangely revered, and where his sense of entitlement is seldom hip-checked.) The real antagonist is a society where she is actually discouraged from being honest about what she wants...or doesn't want coupled with the society that socialized him that he is entitled to comment on her...corner her...pressure her....be persistent to the point of ignoring the fact that she has said no.
I saw the heroine of our story sitting on the BART. The train wasn't busy in the afternoon along the "anti-commute" line, so it was only a few of us spread out far and wide. She was thin but not skinny and wore one of those wispy skirts that always make me want to send God a fruit basket for inventing summer. The kind of woman my step-father would have gotten distracted by and then grudgingly called "a real looker."
|So under Google images as available for commercial reuse,|
I searched for the keyword "creepy guy."
This isn't him, but surprisingly, it's not TOO far off.
But still....he tried.
He sat right behind her--already a warning sign on such an empty train.
The real antagonist may have been society, but our personification of it was well cast. He had a sort of Christian Bale look about him, if Christian Bale were playing a role of a douchecanoe. Revisionist memory is always suspect, but I'm telling this story, and I'm going to stand by the fact that I thought he looked like a creepy guy long before he started acting like one.
He waited until the train was in motion to make his move--a true sign of someone who knows how to make the environment work to their advantage. Then he leaned forward. "Hi." "How you doing?" "What are you reading?" "What's your name?" "I really like your hair." "That's a really nice skirt." "You must work out."
It was painful to watch. She clearly wanted nothing to do with him, and he clearly wasn't going to take the hint. Her rebukes got firmer. "I'd like to read my book." And he pulled out the social pressure. "Hey, I'm just asking you a question. You don't have to be so rude." She started to look around for outs. Her head swiveled from one exit to another.
The thing was, I had already heard this story, many many times. I knew how it would play out. I knew all the tropes. I probably could have quoted the lines before they said them. I wanted a new narrative. Time to mix it up.
So I moved seats until I was sitting behind him. I leaned forward with my head on the back of his seat.
"Hi," I said with a little smile.
He looked at me like I was a little crazy--which isn't exactly untrue--and turned back to her.
"How are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm fine," he said flatly without ever looking back.
"I really like your hair," I said. "It looks soft."
That's about when it got.....weird.
He sort of half turned and glared back me, and I could tell I was pissing him off. His eyes told me to back the hell away, and his lips were pressed together tightly enough to drain the color from them completely.
But no good story ever ends with the conflict just defusing. He started to turn back to her.
"Wait, don't be like that," I said. "Lemmie just ask you one question..."
"What!" he said in that you-have-clearly-gone-too-far voice that is part of the freshmen year finals at the school of machismo.
And I'm not exactly a hundred percent sure why I didn't call it a day at that point, but.....maybe I just love turning the screw to see what happens. I gave him the bedroomy-est eyes I could muster. "What's your name?"
Right now I'm sitting here typing out this story, and I'm still not entirely sure why I'm not nursing a fat lip or a black eye. Because that obviously made him so mad that I still am not sure why it didn't come to blows. There are cliches about eyes flaring and rage behind someones eyes and shit like that that are so overdone. But it really does look like that. When someone gets violent, their eyes just kind of "pop" with intention--pupils dilate, eyelids widen. And his did. Even sitting down he was clearly bigger than me and I was pretty sure he was kind of muscular too, so at that moment I was figuring I was probably going to need an ice pack by day's end.
"DUDE," he shouted. "I'M NOT GAY."
That's when I dropped the bedroom eyes and switched to a normal voice. "Oh well I could see not being interested didn't matter to you when you were hitting on her, so I just thought that's how you rolled."
(Of course later, I thought of a dozen cleverer things I could have said, but, I'm going for honesty here. I was tripping over my own words due to the adrenaline dump. My voice was probably shaking too, and I'm guessing the line above was more shouted than said with even, level, movie-caliber cool. I am in no way a badass.)
But whatever I said, or however I said it, it did the trick. I don't know if he "got it." I don't know if he just thought better of committing assault in front of the BART cameras. I don't know if he just didn't want to escalate past bravado. But whatever went through his head, he turned back in his seat, sat back (away from her) and muttered "asshole." And that turned out to be this story's climax.
What I do know--and this made almost getting my clock cleaned worth it--was that the denouement was quite nice. She mouthed the words "thank you" to me as she stepped out the door of the Rockridge station.
Obviously better bystanders than writers intervene every day; I'm trying hard to write about writing not suggesting we've got an edge in the being-a-decent-human department. Many others could and more men in particular should. But what I do sort of think is that I was aware of that narrative because I am a writer. I knew the tropes and the cliches and the tired old lines. I was aware of how to create a role reversal in the "typical characters." I'm aware that most men don't know what it's like to be hit on by someone they're not interested in who won't take their hints. I look at things differently–tried to see the world from another angle. I think what would happen if we told this story from another point of view. And sometimes, a bystander willing to intervene can change a narrative completely.