(note: this post contains descriptions of situations (including alcohol use) in which there is a risk of or actual sexual violence)
I met my first husband while I was lying on the bathroom floor of his fraternity house. He shook me into enough consciousness to stand me up and then carry me into a quiet bedroom, away from the jam-packed party. I was nineteen years old. I was drunk. I’d passed out for some brief amount of time.
I was in a relationship with him for eight years. After the first month or so, I didn’t even think about that evening. He didn’t live at the frat house. I never went back there for another party. The bathroom floor of that frat house passed (surprisingly quickly) into the nether reaches of my memory.
Until I watched A Promising Young Woman, the Carey Mulligan film about a woman (Cassie) on a mission of vengeance for the rape of a drunken friend. When the film initially ended, I got caught up in a conversational critique with my partner around the unease and discomfort the film created in us (as well as the movie’s flaws). My partner didn’t like that Cassie was portrayed as crazy, when it was the men’s behavior that was so horrible. One of the sticking points, for me, was that all of the men were portrayed as complicit, compulsively predatory and irredeemable in the face of a seemingly vulnerable, drunken woman. That long ago frat party wasn’t even in my mind. Then it was. As I slept, the film knocked on the door of that memory. I woke up. Remembering.
I went to the party with a friend. I was wearing a black and white striped, thin, jersey knit mini dress. We drank a lot of everything. At some point I felt like I was going to throw up and my friend and I went upstairs to an out of the way bathroom. I didn’t throw up. I begged my friend to leave me there and let me “rest” on the cool, tiled floor. The next thing I remember is male voices, joking with each other about what they should do with me. Then I heard one man’s voice rise above the others. Did I notice the slightly nasal twang then, or is that something I came to be familiar with later, when his was one of the voices I’d recognize anywhere? He propped me up enough to get me into a bedroom. I lay down on the bed. He settled in on a chair. The guardian. His Finnish roommate was also there. They chatted, while I swirled around in nauseous, alcohol-soaked whirligigs. Sometime later, I heard my friend outside the door, asking around for me, worried and insistent.
This is the story of a near-miss, something too many women have experienced. Of course, another too many women have experienced the well-aimed, shot to the heart of sexual coercion, abuse and assault, including myself (Tracy wrote about #metoo here). I was so lucky that night. I didn’t even notice my luck at the time. I didn’t really recognize it until watching the movie, just a few weeks ago. I was filled with retroactive terror for the way that long ago evening could have gone wrong, but did not. I cried tears of relief in 2021, for something that happened in 1985. I felt a wave of fear, too, for my lack of respect for the lesson of that close shave and my lack of gratitude. How near did I come to being the absent girl in the movie? Stripped of my physical integrity and mental wellness?
Despite my almost-immediate forgetting, the party’s impact clearly lingered in my subconscious. I cut back on my drinking, swinging way in the other direction to a level of constant vigilance that’s only ever been disrupted by precarious drunkenness a handful of times since then. I experienced a moderate uptick in my drinking in my 40s, which I considered a positive development. I was relaxing the reins of control. I felt safer, though I wouldn’t have named that then. Until menopause put her foot on the brakes again. Now my body will barely tolerate more than half a glass of wine.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now, for the first time, how I reclaimed agency over the safety of my body by controlling my intake of alcohol. I also see how, years later, discovering running helped me claim even greater sovereignty over my body. Running (and other sports) transformed my relationship with myself (I wrote about that in my very first post here on Fit Is A Feminist Issue, as well as in two books). When sports came into my life, I was no longer only concerned with my physical safety, but also my body’s strength and how I wanted to use it. Through that fresh lens, I looked around and saw other things I wanted to change. I left the practice of law. I left the relationship with that decent and kind man. We weren’t right for each other. There were many reasons. One big one was that he wanted us to have children. I already suspected that I wasn’t interested (I’ve written about being childfree here). Bearing children was not a dream I had for my body or for my life.
If I was still in touch with my ex, I might have reached out to him after watching the movie, just to say thank you. I do know he has a daughter. I’m glad.
I did reach out to my younger self, that promising young woman in her second year of undergraduate studies at McGill University and gave her a hug across time. At first, I could feel her cowering in shame. I don’t deserve a hug. At the same time, I could feel defiance flaring in her. You’re blowing things out of proportion, nothing happened. Don’t be such a drama queen. If you write about me, people will laugh at you. I acknowledged her shame and defiance. She softened. What else was I going to do? Scold her for her sloppy carelessness? She sees it. Oh boy, does she ever. She feels the wind of that stray bullet whizzing past her ear, missing its mark. She sees a life that could have gone another way.
All the younger versions of ourselves live on inside us, inextricably intertwined with our current self and the seeds of our future promise. And yes, there are seeds until the very end. Can we be gentle with all the outdated selves? Protect them, but also give them space to have made mistakes and still come home. After all, they are the water and sunshine for the promising women we continue to be (even if we are no longer young). Finding a peaceful accord with our past selves is the key to finding peace in the here and now. We claim ultimate agency by building our relationship with ourself (in all its different parts) and taking on the responsibility for who we are. Is it easy? Not a chance. It’s the work of a lifetime.
Welcome to sovereignty.