Poet Penelope Scambly Schott was the featured writer at last month’s First Draft Writers’ Series, this time bringing her new chapbook “Serpent Love.” The poems were about a difficult subject: a mother’s strained relationship with a troubled adult daughter.
“Can you write about such things?” Penelope asked us. But she had — a whole chapbook of poems about how much she loved this daughter and how her attempt to rescue her had made things worse rather than better. Maybe, one of the poems suggested, she should rename the daughter. Call her Dahlia, a word that “lies on the tongue / like darling daughter,” “because if I called her Dahlia maybe we could start again.”
“I want to be named Dahlia and start again,” the daughter wrote back. Her essay is included in the book. The mother-daughter relationship is better, Penelope told us — partly because writing about a difficult subject helped each of them focus and articulate their feelings, but mostly because, Penelope said, it also helped her realize that though she deeply loved her daughter, she hadn’t respected her. Now, she said, if the daughter calls to talk about a problem, she does the same thing she would do for any friend. She listens.
Respect. It’s what all of us want, isn’t it? Respect for our autonomy, our lives. But it’s not a given, even between people who love each other. Respect requires conscious intent.
And lately, the news has been filled with stories of deliberate disrespect — for others’ religion, for their ethnicity or sexual orientation, their financial constraints. And of course, disrespect for the bodies of others, especially vulnerable children.
Can we talk about this difficult subject? Suddenly we are. Big names are in the news, some fallen and disgraced, some stubbornly defended. And there’s the #MeToo movement of women (and men) acknowledging that they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, a movement spreading world-wide.
How common is it, this lack of respect? Every woman I know — every woman, period, I suspect — has experienced sexual harassment and behavior that pushes right up against the boundary of sexual assault.
When the Access Hollywood tape was aired during the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign, I was shocked not by what was on the tape, but by the fact that it didn’t matter — even, according to the people who would soon be measuring these things, to 53 percent of white women. It was just “locker room talk.”
I felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. Despite the progress made in my lifetime — Title IX, the fact that women are now admitted to Harvard (no, Virginia, this was not always so) and are no longer barred from competing in the Boston Marathon, our bodies still did not belong to us. They were quite literally up for grabs.
In our shock and grief, my friends and I began to tell each other what had happened to us, stories we had long suppressed. Maybe they were our fault, our younger selves had whispered. They had happened, after all, because we existed.
Not every woman has been raped. But every woman has to live with the threat of rape. We have to carry it with us, an invisible barrier between us and every decision we make about what we can do, where we can walk in the world.
When I was 14, my friend Ann and I planned an overnight horseback trip to the lookout tower on Huckleberry Butte. It had seemed like a magical place to us, a small white momentary glow in every sunset of our childhoods. Imagine sleeping in a lookout tower, watching the sun rise!
No, my parents said. Because we were girls, and they didn’t trust two men who lived on the road up to the tower. The world should have been opening for us, but instead it was closing. I felt as if a cage was settling over me.
Aretha Franklin spelled it out for all of us: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, letters I saw again on a sign in the Pendleton Women’s March. My small brown-skinned granddaughter held my hand, taking it all in. Imagine it, I thought. A world where she could walk anywhere she wants.
Bette Husted is a writer and a student of T’ai Chi and the natural world. She lives in Pendleton.