Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ripples of Doubt

I have been writing about media, leadership, and culture, and the ways in which Gaslighting and similar   are used to maintain power and control. Much of the recent conversation about Abuser Dynamics and their connection to 'isms, is owed to the black women and women of color who began that hashtag.

Yesterday's conversation with Astro/Physicists and Science Communicators brought up 2013's  conversation (Storify by Karen James). Trigger warning for sexual harrassment in the post below.

While I read and re-Tweeted from the hashtag in 2013, I didn't share my own experiences. One of the reasons I didn't share my own experiences, is that my experiences in undergraduate and graduate education and my experiences with work have been TAMER than what I grew up with.

[2:36 pm Update] In case the relevance of my experience is not readily apparent to those who wish to promote gender diversity in STEM, AAUW has a report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, which discusses statistics and similar experiences for 21st-Century adolescents. [/Update]

I went into college knowing I wasn't physically attractive. Therein, lies the story.



In kindergarten, on the bus to school, we kindergarteners had this game we played, seeing how many of us could stack up sitting in laps. In kindergarten, the kids I was playing with didn't want me to sit on them, they insisted I needed to be on the bottom row. Already in kindergarten, the kids thought I was heavy compared to the rest, even though my pediatricians said I was in the normal range.

In 2nd grade, my sister and I walked about a mile to the pool, to catch a bus that would take us and two ~7th grade boys to our school. The boys would often stop by the Shoppette in the area, to pick up magazines. On the bus, they would call my name, and have a Playboy centerfold open to show me when I looked.

These same two boys had a tendency, whenever I talked, to pretend they heard only the wind. Or if I said something serious, they'd crack a blonde joke and pretend I was stupid for saying it. Some other, standard bullying tactics (holding something of mine above my reach, or keep-away) were not gender-related.

We rode the bus like that, just four of us and the driver, for two years. The boys thought my little sister was sweet, they liked her, and wondered why I was so prickly.

For fourth grade, the routine switched. Now my sister, brother 1, and I walked to/from the nearby public school to be bused to the public school nearest our Catholic school, then walked from that school to ours, and back again in the afternoons. We had to leave ~10 minutes before the bell in order to catch the bus.

I'm not sure I can remember all the distinctions between what teasing happened on the bus, vs. what teasing happened at school. On the bus, there was some teasing for our uniform, and I'm pretty sure they thought we were some kind of holy rollers.

In the aftermath of the Columbia re-entry, I felt as if my childhood was split into two. There was Before Challenger, and there was After Challenger.

Before Challenger, my home life was... okay. I mean, "no sassing" was rule, and that included not telling my parents "No," and they did spank with a belt. But Before Challenger, from an adult's point of view, most of the chores and expectations of me were reasonable.

After Challenger, I got my Military Dependent ID. I learned how to mow the lawn, and clean the bathrooms. Within a few years, I was old enough to babysit my younger siblings. As is often the case with large families, the oldest daughter became the secondary child-minder.

Before Challenger, wanting to be an astronaut was a reasonable dream. After Challenger, my classmates and the newspaper articles all openly questioned why human spaceflight was necessary. I learned to hide my dreams in order to fit in.

In 3rd grade, I started looking for something I could be good at, to prove my worth. Between my own dreams and what I knew about myself, I picked school. I thought it would help me, but in some respects getting good grades just set me up for more teasing. Somewhere in the next few years, the idea was planted that I could either be pretty, or I could be smart, but not both. I rejected femininity so that I could be a scholar, and be taken seriously for what I said.

Around 7th or 8th grade, one of my teachers asked us to write the story of our lives. I finished mine up with how badly I wanted a pet. I was struggling, between my own expectations for school grades ("You've got to be smart to work for NASA."), and my parent's expectations for school, housework, childcare, etc. The teacher talked to my parents, and we got our next pets.

Also during junior high, our school nurse began coming in to talk with the class. She suggested that we might write and perform a play that could help other children. And she made available a number of books on alcoholism and dysfunctional families. Stories that- while my parents were not alcoholics- felt familiar.

I've been aware of / paying attention to abuser dynamics for more than 20 years. I think Mercy continued the conversation about what healthy relationships look like. What respect looks like.

I remember catcalls and street harassment, as not-uncommon when my sister & I walked along busy streets. Usually drive-by yells, or whistles.

After we left Omaha... Dad commented once that he worried about me, moving in high school. But by then, trust was broken.

After we left Omaha, dear brother #1 picked up where Dad's questions had left off. As my high school graduation approached, my brother seemed to sense that college would be my escape. I can't even remember what he said over those 6-8 months, just that it was relentless.

For me, going to college was a relief. I mean, I still took extra steps to stay safe. But I actually had a dorm room free of a loud, screaming family. Free of expectations to take care of other people. Chores for one are much easier than chores for 8.

Finding my husband, was also a "stay safe" strategy. As a woman in engineering, being engaged kept me "off limits," and away from the "meat market" of dating. I could join the group projects, make it clear that I'm already taken, and we would just focus on the homework.

For a time, I'd have my fiance walk me to & from evening finals, in the dark. Eventually I decided to walk alone anyway, especially once I no longer lived past Fraternity Row.

I didn't join a sorority. In part because at that time I was actively rejecting femininity, in part because I was too serious about studying (engineering was a time-consuming pursuit), and in part because I didn't feel like I had the money to pay sorority fees & live up to expectations.