By Laura Goode
Nov 19, 2018 @ 12:30 pm
Photo Illustration. Photos: Getty Images

A poet friend who has always impressed me emailed me to say she’d had a stroke of luck. “After untold numbers of submissions,” she wrote, her first book of poems was finally going to be published.

Marring my happiness for her was confusion. I looked on my bookshelf, in the poetry section, and found two slim spines with her name on them: Yes, memory had served, and this friend had in fact already published two previous books of poems. How could she be emailing me to claim her third was her first? Had she forgotten? This friend is also a lawyer, so I trust her with the facts more than I might most poets. I was unsettled.

Women casually diminish their own accomplishments like this all the time. One casts her eyes downward as she whispers that she’s been admitted to a Ph.D. program. She says she’s gotten a book deal, but a really small book deal. She’s been promoted, but no biggie; there probably wasn’t anyone else for the job. But how are YOU? She changes the subject, anxious not to talk too much about herself.

This tendency, the casual diminution, goes the other way, too. Have you ever noticed a woman introduce a legitimate complaint while asserting how lucky she is? A friend tells me she’s so lucky — she loves her reporting job — but she’s grossed out because a man she interviewed just asked her for nudes. She's so lucky to have a wonderful husband, but Jesus Christ, the man refuses to clean. She's so lucky she's never been really raped, but a random guy once fingered her uninvited on the dance floor. She knows other people have it so much worse.

No doubt many other people do have it worse than the women I know, here in the richest country in the world. But they chafe at me, these conversational modes of making ourselves smaller, less impressive, less credible. They connect, of course, to the broader ways in which women are instructed to make themselves small, pliable, agreeable; to the ways women are discredited and disbelieved. Women have been discredited and disbelieved all the way to the highest offices of this country, where they have been cast as punchlines instead of presidents, liars instead of leaders.

It can be humiliating simply to exist as a woman in America, 2018. As for me, I’ve had more panic attacks in the last six months than the last 10 years: the political assault is relentless, and toxic in the air. A human stain, a tyrant and a scoundrel, besmirches our halls of power, mendacity seemingly his only mandate. An ethnic cleansing imprisons thousands of children in American concentration camps. The earth threatens to give way under the mounting pressure of our arrogance; the air where I live in Northern California is literally toxic now with wildfire smoke. Women’s agency over their own bodies hangs in the balance. Our most electable female presidential candidate endured the nastiest campaign in American history and lost anyway. The survivors are shamed and the rapists are in power.

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Why do we keep emphasizing how lucky we are? Is it a survival mechanism, as much as an acknowledgment of privilege? Are we forced to believe we are lucky so as not to collapse? Gratitude is good for the health, but is it possible that our deference to luck blunts our insistence upon a seat at the table? Is it possible that our accomplishments have been more impressive than we’ve estimated, especially because our traumas have also been more damaging?

“In the tunnel where I was raped,” Alice Sebold writes in her memoir Lucky, “a tunnel that was once an underground entry to an amphitheater, a place where actors burst forth from underneath the seats of a crowd, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky.”

Lucky. Lucky is an insult in compliment’s clothing. Lucky is something wonderful you didn’t quite deserve. Lucky is the second-worst thing that could have happened to you. Lucky is the success you can’t fully enjoy because you know how many women are shut out from it. Lucky is getting raped in college and not in prison. Lucky is surviving damaged but alive.

“You’re so lucky,” my mother once told me, “because you’re pretty, but not too pretty. You’re smart, but you’re not too smart.”

What was she implying? What happened to girls who were too pretty? They were not taken seriously. They were harassed. They were raped. What happened to girls who were too smart? They were hated. They were not taken seriously. They were disappointed. Girls who had the audacity to be superlative, even in ways they did not choose, would suffer for it. The world would never reward the extremities of female potential. This is what my mother taught me.

But I was still harassed, and raped, and not taken seriously. I was, and still am, very disappointed. For the woman who strived to enlarge herself, there was suffering; for the woman who shrunk, there, too, was suffering. And for all these women, there awaited the wide chorus of those who would laugh at her suffering, who would deny it, diminish it. Who would call it luck.

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I live this era of my womanhood in a white-hot ream of pain, in the vibrating cheek-sting of humiliation, in unremitting rage, in desperate gasps for air at the surface. I entertain thoughts of doing violence: to the despots in power, to men who call me dear, to myself.

All that keeps me from violence is contained in the soft bodies of two boys under the age of five who sleep in the room next to mine. I have always felt that giving me sons was God’s way of testing my feminism, the forces of the divine having a little fun with me: So you think you’ve got your ethical code figured out? Now try this.

But children, regardless of their gender, distill the truth. I tell each of my sons that I’m proud of them, every day. I’m proud of my older son for describing to me what he dreamed last night for the first time. ("There was a big fish going to bite me and I say STOP!") I’m proud of my younger son for pushing himself up to all fours, wiggling his little butt in the air, grunting un-self-consciously as he learns to move. I am proud of them for voicing their inner lives and moving their bodies, a tiny bit more each day.

Of course this means I have to be proud of myself too: they would not, could not do their work if I had failed to do mine. The work of raising children has no time to waste on pompous men screaming into microphones. The work of teaching pride cannot pause for humiliation to abate. The work of growing bigger cannot be confused by poisoned directives to shrink. Children make the work of living urgent, and unstoppable, and refreshingly simple. They show us what we would do if we were too innocent to be distracted by the nonsense talk of ego. The tiny ones who live with me cannot name the president.

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My older one says it back to me now: "Mama, I’m so proud of you, too." This plain assertion makes me feel ridiculous for conceding any time to humiliation. I have no cause for humiliation. Why should I be humiliated? I have refused to be silent and in doing so, have shown others how to speak. I have published two books and birthed two sons. To qualify that the children or the books are small, by any measure, denies them all the ways in which they are vast. Have I been fortunate, privileged, supported? Of course. Have I been lucky? I have withstood the barbs and blows of adversaries and emerged damaged and alive. My achievements are my own. 

I wrote back to my poet friend: “I am delighted to hear this news, but I must object to the way you have declared it! You have published not one but two previous books, and I know because I have them on my shelf.

“Please don't try to convince me that they were too small to count,” I wrote to her. “You are a mother. You know how much small things count.”