On Being Scared and Being Brave

In a recent interview with Jessica Hopper, Claire Boucher (alias Grimes) revealed that the song “Oblivion” addressed the constant sense of dread women deal with as they embark on a “masculine world associated with sexual assault.” Boucher was writing from her own experiences as a survivor. This was highlighted in Mark Richardson’s write-up on Pitchfork’s 2012 Top 100 Tracks list, on which “Oblivion” was named song of the year. On Slate’s Music Club 2012, Lindsay Zoladz put “Oblivion” in conversation with Angel Haze’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a harrowing song about the rapper’s personal history with child abuse.

Much like Zoladz, upon reading Boucher’s response, I heard “Oblivion” with new ears. Or rather, it confirmed my suspicions. Stripped of its robotic sheen, Boucher reminds me of Roy Orbison, an alien with an arrow in his heart, particularly with lyrics like “when you’re running by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” and Boucher’s phrasing on the line “I will wait forever.” But I could never take these words at face value. The menacing, queer-masculine Casio chorus that overwhelms the song’s second half wouldn’t let me. Nor would the lyrics that bookend the song. Boucher begins with the admission “I never walk about/after dark/It’s my point of view/that someone could break your neck/Coming up behind you always coming and you’d never have a clue” and concludes with the foreboding promise to “see you on a dark night.” Nor would the video, with Boucher in a football stadium and a locker room amid a gaggle of sweaty, undressed young men. When I read Boucher’s interview and processed her intimation, I didn’t say “aha.” I nodded silently to myself. “That makes sense,” I thought. “I knew it.”

Misogynists might hear an erotic thrill in “Oblivion” and surmise that women like being caught. What’s powerful about this song–indeed, why I kept returning to it–is the unsettling juxtaposition of romantic longing and looming endangerment. But the presence of both elements doesn’t mean Grimes is compromising her need for consent. Rather, she’s expressing the constant negotiation and reconciliation women and girls have to do as sexual beings who are treated as objects and marked as easy targets by people who wish to do them harm simply for existing. “Oblivion” is about what it means to desire–often an ongoing internal debate–while keeping your guard up because of what your gender or sexuality represents to others–often a forced external battle. In Molly Lambert’s excellent review of Mad Men‘s “Mystery Date,” which uses the Speck murders as a thematic linchpin, she questions one character’s rape-fantasy pitch by suggesting that the woman in this scenario “wonders exactly what terrible, violent, and life-altering things would happen if she stopped looking out.”

Lambert identifies with Sally Draper, linking the character’s fear with her own recollections of the Polly Klaas abduction. Though she doesn’t address this in the piece directly, Lambert has probably felt the evil of assault in her adult life. I know I have. And I need to be careful with my language, because these aren’t my stories. I also need to be careful that my words don’t reinforce the myth of strangers lurking in the shadows, because statistically people are more likely to be hurt by friends and acquaintances. But I’ve had friends who were harassed on the street. I have friends who don’t feel safe on their own university campuses. A roommate cryptically implied an attack over a solemn brunch at Denny’s after a night out turned into a nightmare.

Of course, I have my own stories. I’m a survivor too. And as an adult, I’ve had multiple experiences of men barking at me (often from the safe distance of the passenger seat) while I walked to the grocery store, went out for a jog, or headed to a show. I remember yelling “don’t touch my fucking hair” at a stranger while I was outside of a bar with some friends in New Orleans. I remember being proud that I had the instinct to articulate my rage. Likewise, I remember being grateful that I had people around me while I did it. I also remember being furious that my guy friends who were chatting inside about Eastbound and Down had the luxury of walking to their hotel after 2 a.m. with minimal threat of harassment. What I remember in all those incidents–especially as I get older, the stories pile up, and I clutch my coat tighter–is that I was lucky.

In fall 2006, two family members were assaulted. The effects of this trauma were catastrophic and far-reaching. During the early stages of the aftermath, my partner’s mother gave me Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I didn’t read it. At 23, I thought I was immune to pop psychology. As I get older, I keep thinking about the relationship between fear and bravery. I used to think bravery meant fearlessness. Last year was the first time I lost a friend in an assault. Esme’s murder was the defining moment of 2012 for me, and most likely one of the most significant events in my adult life. It’s hard to articulate the influence of Esme’s passing. I struggled with coming up with ways to express my grief. There weren’t words for it. I couldn’t write about it. Any attempt to turn it into something else felt shallow and opportunistic. As a feminist, I know that intersectionality is both an essential yet volatile framework. Esme’s murder brings up unresolved issues with gender, race, and mental health. I didn’t know what to do with people calling the African American male suspects “monsters.” I didn’t know what to do with the identified assailant killing himself. I didn’t know what to do with knowing that my friend would most likely be alive if she weren’t a small, attractive young woman. I didn’t know what to do with believing that Esme was brave for walking home from a show in her neighborhood instead of entitled to such freedom. But Esme was brave in so many ways, perhaps especially in her kindness.

A piece by artist Mark Aguhar, a question I continue to turn over in my mind.

A piece by artist Mark Aguhar, a question I continue to turn over in my mind.

Last fall, I read Circuits of Visibility, an anthology edited by Radha S. Hegde about gender’s relationship to transnational media flows. Hegde contributes a piece about Indian Hewlett-Packard call center employee Pratibha Srikantamurthy, who was raped and murdered by a cab driver on her way to work in Bangalore. As I read this piece, I understood why a feminist academic like Hegde felt it necessary to write about it (and why it’s still relevant). I feel the feminist impulses of lending visibility and articulating rage in my bones. But I felt like any effort to use my work as a platform or outlet for my confusion, anger, and sadness over Esme would be self-serving and almost as hollow as the UT’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ awful co-opting of Charlie Chauvin’s Esme logo. It wouldn’t bring her back. The act of writing a proper conclusion was especially vexing. I didn’t want to paper over the reality of her death by focusing on her bright, young life, nor did I want to dwell on the brutal facts of her murder. Furthermore, the case was open at the time. But drafting a conclusion felt like lying. Even if the Austin Police Department closed the case–which they did in late December–it couldn’t make some of my friends feel safe to walk alone at night. It never could. The damage was done. Words were useless.

That last sentence is only a half-truth. As a writer, I recognize that the right words, persistently shaped by thoughtful research and personal insight, have tremendous healing properties. Summer Anne Burton’s “The Year Without Esme” found the words I could not and, importantly, shifted the grief outward to focus on how other people mourn and remember this miracle of a person.

Last year, I had trouble finding an outlet to express my feelings and turn them into something else. I fell out of the habit of writing. Well, this isn’t exactly true. I wrote. I completed revisions on an anthology chapter. I contributed reviews for Bitch Magazine and The Moving Image. I wrote four posts for Antenna and a post for In Media Res. Last week, I submitted an article for review. Next month, I’m due to submit another one. And then there’s all of the writing I didn’t share–term papers, weekly responses, notes, presentations, student feedback, marginalia. I channeled my creative energies elsewhere. But I questioned the validity and utility of my words in ways that I hadn’t before. In the past, I always savored conjuring sentences from my laptop like a sorceress manipulates the sky. But now, it feels like a luxury. Now I recognize the immanent critique’s connection not only to self-indulgence but to writer’s block.

Hopefully, such questioning leads to personal growth. Last year, other people’s words resonated where mine could not. I was struck by Angel Haze’s bracing candor, Fiona Apple’s poetic violence, THEESatisfaction’s off-hand introspection, Lower Dens’ muttering, Marisa Paternoster’s bellowing, Nicki Minaj’s blatant disregard, Santigold’s pop genius, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s incantations, Cat Power’s maturation, Grimes’ relentless shapeshifting, Icona Pop’s maniacal glee, Signif’s real talk, Yoko Ono’s couples therapy, Crystal Castles’ icy protest songs, Purity Ring’s heartfelt odes to abjection, and Julia Holter’s celestial hymns. I was particularly taken with the music and words that forced me not to look away, even when it scared me.

What I learned last year is that fear and bravery are usually connected. Fear is the manifestation of uncertainty over unknown entities or prospects. Bravery is the resolve not to be thwarted or to harm out of fear. It doesn’t mean we lose the fear. It just means we don’t let the fear consume us. It’s a difficult commitment and it never resolves itself. As Ann Friedman points out, we can’t guarantee social progress with premature proclamations that we’re moving forward. But let’s try to be brave this year. And let’s be good to each other so that we don’t have to be afraid.

4 comments

  1. Corinne Wilson

    I am so moved by this piece. I can identify so strongly with the emotions you describe and the torment of all the issues you raise. It is still difficult for me to find words but your piece has made me feel brave Thank you Peace :)

  2. Flo me la

    Great blog post! I feel stupid for commenting on this considering what came after in the post, but I think it’s great that you were brave enough to yell “don’t touch my fucking hair” at that stranger. Too often I’m afraid to tell someone when they’re standing too close, touching me without my permission or violating my private space in any other way that I’m not comfortable with – either because I’m afraid of being mean or simply because I’m afraid. Because men can feel threatening just by being men.
    And it’s really hard to break that unwritten, stupid rule that you don’t tell people to back off unless they’re being really rude and obnoxious. To defend your right to your own body, in every small way. So kudos to you!

    I’m sorry about your friend.

  3. Pingback: Women at work | Feminist Music Geek

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