Big Bad Wolf
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
“That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
I’ve been thinking, lately, about all the ways I’ve given people permission to exploit me. All the ways I’ve said “Yes. Please abuse my love and my kindness and my time and my endless forgiveness. Please empty me out at your discretion. And please, please give me nothing in return.” I have allowed others to assault my humanness. And I’ve never been sexually assaulted, but I have experienced the violation of my inner being through the sexualization of my body. And I can only imagine that, in principle, they are the same. As a black woman, I wade constantly through the murky waters of judgment based on my outer appearance. However, I can think of one specific instance when I actually felt like an object. A physical, tangible, nameless thing. He didn’t penetrate me in the places between my legs or force me to do things with my mouth that I could never speak of. He didn’t even touch me. But he assaulted my mind, penetrated my thoughts, and made me do things with my self-esteem that until this day, I would’ve denied. He took the image of me, the individual parts that only make up a body, and used them to personify who I was. I was no more than the breasts, the thighs, the ass of a nameless black woman. My story did not exist. My words were insignificant. My pride was shuddered. And I was complicit.
The way it began, I couldn’t have known what I was getting into. You couldn’t have looked at it from the outside and said, “Yeah, that’ll be trouble.” It was like something out of a movie with an all black cast. We met in college. He invited me to church and we started attending together. He’d pick me up and we’d go to service at a local elementary school. A small, church community that his father pastored. A church where his brothers and other family members also attended. It was like every Christian girl’s dream. Tall, good-looking guy, who was family centered, and loved Jesus. He was respectful, opened doors, called to hang out at decent hours of the day, and never missed a Sunday at church. Looking back, I recognize that time together as something you’d call “grooming.” He said all the right things, was connected to all the right kinds of people, he was nice, he was well put together. And... he listened. I think it’s important to point this out because it caught me so off guard. As a black woman, it’s rare that people (specifically men) actually pause to hear what we have to say. Specifically when we’re passionate about it. It’s written off as “ranting” and “aggressive” and “emotional.” We were raised up to be strong and resilient and proud. Anything south of that is either insignificant or indulgent. So, when he would ask a question and then leave space for me to answer, I couldn’t help but release the dam that held my pride and resilience together. The level of vulnerability that can be uncovered in silence is impossible to fathom. In that silence, I let him into the secret spaces of my mind. I shared every insecurity and when I was done, he gathered them up and found ways to present them as truth.
His lies sounded so much like the truth because I already believed them. I had already told myself that I was unworthy, unwanted, unloveable. He just confirmed it by repeating it out loud in different ways. He wanted all of my time, but didn’t want to commit to a relationship. He’d get mad if I didn’t call him right back and then invite everyone to his place except me. He’d compliment me and then ask when I was going to start going to the gym. He’d hang out with me one day and then the next day, post a picture on Facebook with another girl. I was stuck. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I didn’t think anyone else would want me. And I didn’t have the courage to walk away and be alone.
One Sunday afternoon, we sat on my bed eating Popeye’s and watching tv, and he told me to take my clothes off. Although we had kissed before, we hadn’t been intimate, so I was immediately confused. I gave him a side-eye and laughed it off. He took another bite and with his mouth full, said it again. Still confused, I looked at him and asked “You want me to take my clothes off?” Without batting an eye or bothering to look in my direction, he said “Yeah.” Starting to feel anxious, I asked “Why?” It didn’t feel right. We’d left church only an hour before and even if we hadn’t, even if we’d been intimate before, it didn’t feel like that was what he wanted. “I’m not going to touch you. I just want to look at you. I want to see what you look like without clothes on. Just do it. It’s not a big deal.” I thought about it for a minute and said “We just left church. You’re not for real.” He repeated that it wasn’t a big deal, that he wasn’t going to touch me and then “Man, whatever. I got things to do anyway,” and got up to leave. As I recount this, I feel sick and ashamed that I ever thought so little of myself. That in an effort to feel even the tiniest validation, I did it. I pulled down my jeans and my panties, lifted off my blouse, undid my bra, and laid on the bed. And he watched me. Silently. Without expression. And then he sat back down to watch tv. “Stay like that.” And I did. For almost an hour I laid there, humiliated. Powerless. Until he finally left. You see, I gave him permission with the words that I omitted. With the actions that I didn’t take. And even some of the actions that I did. Or at least it felt -- it feels -- like I did. I allowed him into my space and onto my bed. I let him have it all. And greedily, he consumed me.
Not long after that, I stopped talking to him. I was too ashamed to face him. I kept thinking to myself that the reason he didn't try to take it further that day, was because he thought I was fat or ugly or pathetic. Now I realize that it wasn’t that at all. He wanted to prove that he held power over me. That he could abuse my humanness, my vulnerability, and that I’d say “Yes, please.” For years, I did that. I laid myself naked in front of my friends and my family and my husband. I put myself last by making their emergencies mine. I shouldered their burdens and pretended that I had none. And I did it all with a smile. “You’re so strong!” “I don’t know how you do it!” They’d say. And I’d just keep smiling because they didn’t know that I was falling apart. When I’d close the door. When I was alone. When the phone finally stopped ringing or I drove away after dropping off dinner for a friend or I’d encouraged that person or served at church or led the group and then cooked my own dinner and put my girl to bed. I fell apart.
But for the first time in my life, right now, I’m choosing to speak up. I have endured many heartaches; but in each of those seasons, I have learned things about who I want to be, that I couldn’t have learned any other way. I have learned, through loss, to let myself grieve. I have learned, through disappointment, that setting fair expectations is an ongoing process. I have learned, through waiting, that there is a time for everything. I am choosing to be complicit in my own joy. And that means softening the parts of me that were hardened by the ache of never feeling like I was enough. I’m choosing to do some really hard things for MYSELF. And it’s freaking terrifying. But somehow, that fear is propelling me forward. Causing me to reach out for connection with people who have depth. Causing me to be vulnerable from a place of strength, rather than fear. I refuse to be powerless like I was on that day as 20-year-old Megan. Laying myself down as a sacrifice for my worth. I have risen from that death and been clothed in strength and dignity. To THAT, I say, “Yes! Please.”