One of the joys of my life is listening to the sublime Terry Gross conducting her stellar, intelligent, thoughtful and deep interviews on NPR’s “Fresh Air”. To me she is the gold standard of interviewers and I want to be her when I grow up.
Sometimes when I listen I notice how brilliantly she handles people whose views (probably) conflict with hers. She remains respectful and curious. I like that. (Note to self.)
A few months ago I listened to an interview she did with a Mormon author and Harvard history professor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, about plural marriage in early Mormonism.
Ulrich was asked a question about why she viewed plural marriage as both empowering and subordinating. In her answer she framed it (and I simplify) as a good thing, because it strengthened women.
She said plural marriage “… added to the complexity and the adversity they experienced. And we can argue that women who deal with tough things – or a man – develop certain strengths and aptitudes.”
Yes, we can discover/uncover our strength in adversity. Yes, we can grow in empathy, compassion, clarity about who we are and what we want and what we don’t want. I know this is true – I’ve done it. Abandonment, betrayal, neglect, rape, violence – I’ve known them all and I CAN see how they contributed to the depth I have now.
But the assumption that these things can be empowering to women, so they are justified – no.
To me that is a clear glaring example of rampant patriarchy and rape culture.
It says that if adversity doesn’t kill us, then what is abusive and marginalizing and against our desires must be good for us.
“No, it’s not ideal, but look at the way they’re bonding and supporting each other!”
I’m not debating the merits or otherwise of plural marriage, or any other kind of relationship entered into freely and wholeheartedly (as plural marriage in early Mormonism was not).
I’m saying that it’s deeply patronizing to discount women’s suffering, or think it’s justifiable, because it will “make them stronger”.
The bigger picture is this – it’s only because those women were living in a society that so completely devalued women that they could find plural marriages, which are described here as adverse, desirable.
It begs the question, and confuses causation with correlation; women are in plural marriages, and it’s ADVERSE, and they survive it, so it’s probably the marriage that makes them stronger, ergo, it’s empowering.
Here’s the thing: those women were already strong. They were already resourceful. It is so profoundly condescending to assume otherwise. They had nothing to prove – none of us does.
It’s telling that it was Ulrich who coined the phrase “well-behaved women rarely make history”. It turns out she didn’t mean it as it’s been taken.
She meant her work as a historian is made harder because ordinary women don’t make waves, so there is no record of what they do (or, rather, don’t do).
But we thought she meant – don’t be ordinary! Don’t be well-behaved!
I remember after I was raped people watched me – I was aware of it – to see if I’d survive it. If I did, that meant that they could, too. Kind of a lab rat scenario.
Understandable, I suppose, but I remember feeling pressure to be the poster girl for rape recovery – to model a rapid, thorough and impeccable recovery, in order to calm the fears of others.
Later it went further. I was asked if I would like to be accompanied to visit the rapist in prison, as though it was assumed a strong, recovered woman would do that. I was invited to participate in a very challenging event, to “prove to myself I was all better.”
But I knew I had nothing – nothing – to prove. No test of courage was required.
I know exactly where I was – having faced severe trauma and the very real prospect of death, in deep grief over what had happened, in a state of frangible resilience, knowing where my strength and security lay, and feeling not a single shred of need to explain or justify myself and my degree of recovery to anyone whatsoever.
Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. I don’t know if that’s always true. It is possible to live in a half-life of grief and trauma.
But something I do know is that we stand the best chance of once again inhabiting our strength when we are allowed to do it in our own way and our own timing.
So it’s a really great idea, in my view, for all of us to get out of the emotional business of everyone else.
For those women confronting adversity in plural marriages, it’s up to them to decide what it means to them and how they’ll choose to handle it.
For rape survivors, it’s their business to determine what they’ll do and when, and to manage their own recovery. Support is great, when it’s asked for. Otherwise, no.
And our opinions about what is empowering and disempowering for others, what is formative and what is not, what is good for others and what is not – let us keep them, dear people, to ourselves, while wholeheartedly directing this line of enquiry towards ourselves.