Today is my birthday. So much has happened since I exited my mother’s womb those many years ago. The story of my birth and my mother’s labor are lost forever. All I have are a few hazy details.
“Oh I had twilight sleep,” my mother told me. “No memory of any of it,” she said, shaking her head each time she mentioned it, as if trying, again, to summon the experience that her body had, to shake it out somehow. “They told me I said really awful things,” she confided once. “The drugs make you crazy.” She also said it was good thing, of course. She’d felt the pain of childbirth before; I’m not sure how many of her births were “twilight” but I’m pretty sure at least one of her preceding birth experiences had happened too fast for many interventions. Maybe she really chose twilight sleep, willingly. I don’t know, and I cannot ask her. Why give birth with pain? Twilight sleep was the modern way. Like formula was modern, better than anything a woman’s breast might produce. I can see how she would choose that, or maybe feel there were no other options.
I read up on twilight sleep. From the distance of the years (it was abandoned in the late 60s/early 70s) it sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like some kind of awful date-rape drug, a mixture of Morphine and Scopolamine. It erased any memory of labor and birth, but did not eliminate pain. Often women became panicked, or even psychotic, and attempted self-harm. They were routinely restrained to their beds with lambskin-lined straps, to prevent bruising as they thrashed, a common thing when the dose was wrong.
But the body remembers even when the mind forgets, and a shadow always crossed my mama’s face when she talked about my birth, about the twilight sleep.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said. She seemed to disappear as she said it. Her face misted over, like a mirror fogged.
“In twilight sleep, sensation is still present though in diminished degree; the patient feels the pains of uterine contractions, frequently she moans, draws up her legs, and in other ways shows that she is suffering, but these painful sensations are not recorded in the memory cells… if asked a question, she will answer often in a dazed and confused fashion.”1
Today, on the anniversary of my birth, I’m thinking about pain, about the necessity of feeling what you feel—emotionally and physically—in order to move toward wholeness and health. Of course, seeking pain relief is not a bad thing. But there’s the issue of agency. Who is deciding that this is the best thing? (The same people who decided midwives and unmedicated births were a menace, that’s who.) Even if it was what Mama chose, I struggle with the issue of awareness, and the idea of not having a loving advocate while in a state where you will not remember what is done to you. (Remember, husbands paced in the waiting room back then, banished). I imagine having twilight sleep presented as the only ‘sane’ option available. Of being railroaded and gas-lighted.
While my own birth-giving experiences were not without interventions, I remember them all and I consented to each one. I felt tremendous pain, which I lived through and processed. No shadows cross my face when I remember the births of my children. I’d do things differently now, given the chance, but I made my own decisions, and had my then-husband with me the whole time.
Reading about trauma taught me that what is not processed, felt and released properly becomes trapped. I think of the trauma of being split from your body as you give birth. Far from being forgotten, unprocessed trauma lies in wait. Perhaps it was the cause of my mother’s battles with depression. Perhaps it was the cause of mine, too?
Suppression of feelings is what leads to deep despair. But I’m not depressed anymore.
Now I hunger to feel what I feel, in real time. Still, I find myself retreating into old patterns of escape. Patterns so fine I cannot even see them. Perhaps they were died into the wool of me, during my twilight birth? Knitted in during childhood experiences that divided my mind from my body? Unraveling takes time.
Last summer, I worked with a life-coach in her final months of training, as her test-client. The coach asked me lots of hard questions. Questions like: “and how do you feel, right now?”
I often answered in meandering, rambling ways, embroidering. She’d cut me off. “Where are you? I’ve lost you,” she’d say. “Just tell me how you feel, and where you feel it.”
Often, I didn’t know. This stunned me. Really? I didn’t know? How could I not know?
“Say you don’t know,” she coached. “Say you feel confused.”
Slowly I wake. Reams of paper, hours of walking and thousands of sun salutations later, that “where do you feel it?” question still often makes a shadow pass over my face, still frequently dazes and confuses me, still makes me shake my head as if that will help the right answer emerge from the fog of disconnection.
With another birthday comes new threads of silver hair and some bit of wisdom. I see one thing, anyway: the heart of anxiety, or my anxiety, anyway, is avoidance of feeling what I am feeling.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is not feeling safe in your own body.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is being told how to feel, to having your lived experiences denied.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is feeling your body is not yours to control. To have men in power who want to take away your birth control, free your rapist/harasser (if you dare to speak up at all). On a day when we have an overt misogynist in the White House and many, many other such men leadership positions, when social media is filled with #metoo hashtags denoting individuals who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, I think of the assault of not remembering the day you gave birth. Of the men that decided that was a good idea, and the women who really didn’t get a lot of choice about their birth experiences, as men made those decisions for them.
“Even if I had been asked what I wanted during childbirth,” one woman who was given twilight sleep shared, “I wouldn’t have known what to say.”2
I think of the islands of memory that were considered a ‘side effect’ of twilight sleep. Of the women I read about, laboring alone for hours in a drugged haze, feeling the pain with their bodies, who afterwards could only recall being shouted at to be quiet. Of women with eyes bandaged shut, ears stopped up, so as not to have ‘sensory memories’ to latch onto. Of the fear their bodies surely remembered, while their mental memories were magic-erased by scopolamine, a drug made from deadly nightshade. I think of the breach of trust inherent in this treatment. Birth? Oh, who’d want to remember THAT? I read about a woman, surely not the only one—who didn’t believe the baby given to her was her own, and subsequently had no attachment to her baby. I read of children born as perhaps I was, struggling to breathe (a side effect of twilight sleep), whisked away from their mothers for hours because the mothers were under the influence of dangerous drugs that made their behavior unstable, and robbed them of memories of their own experiences. Of the fathers who were also robbed of the experience of being there during birth. Of the way misogyny wounds women, and also men.
I think of my mother’s obstetrician, the same one who told her twilight sleep was the way to go, the man who weighed her at each visit, insisting she keep her weight gain under 25 pounds, and berated her when she gained too much. Because he was watching out for her, so she could “regain her figure.”
That’s a whole other layer of #metoo.
How am I feeling? Grateful for my mother’s incredible strength. Wistful that I can’t ask her more questions about how she felt. Angry at the continued denial of cultural misogyny by so many. Happy for another year of feeling what I feel, and saying what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart—or doing my best to learn how, anyway.
Better late than never.
This morning, there’s a fresh breeze, carrying pollen and dreams of what tomorrow might hold. It’s Easter, which is the day before my personal “rebirth” day.
Tomorrow is my fifth rebirth-day.
Five years ago today, I was dragging. I had woken in the night with yet another charlie horse in my right calf. I felt tired and old. I just wanted to crawl back into bed.
I was married then, and my best friend and her family lived a couple blocks away. My youngest was still at home—it was a different lifetime, and that day was the eve of my bonus lifetime. It seemed to me that my troubles had begun with the arrival five years or so before of the dreaded state called perimenopause. Reading up on my mounting list of problems, it was clear: insomnia? Perimenopause. Irritability? Perimenopause. Weight gain? Perimenopause. Marital disconnection? Sure, that was perimenopause, too, because I was freaking crazy. I was feeling discontented with our lifestyle, or rather mine—I worked all the time, and felt under tremendous pressure constantly. Life felt like an endless race to get more. But more of what? I began to question things. Yet perimenopause had robbed me of my former calm exterior, on top of everything else. I felt angry. I was a mess.
I was broken, and it was all the fault of my waning uterine cycles which had ebbed and flowed me right into the edgy throes of perimenopause. Which on reflection seems an awful lot like the modern-day equivalent of “hysteria,” the age-old catch-all diagnosis for pretty much every malady a woman might suffer from—especially maladies like being strong-willed, asserting her way, or having sexual ideas.
All the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, men believed that misbehaving women were being led astray by their wombs, which were wandering in their bodies. The cure was to be dominated by a man, made to submit. Later this was dubbed “Hysteria” by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. Making women defective by design makes women less-than, makes us inferior. When you’re told something often enough, you internalize it. It’s called brainwashing.
It makes perfect sense in hindsight why, after a lifetime of being conditioned to believe that being female was a curse, a failing, the cause of any weakness or trouble, that I bought right into the notion that perimenopause was an awful trial to be endured. Not to say hormonal shifts are a cakewalk, by any means. But in adolescence, there seems more acceptance of the shift. Then, it’s a hopeful one, I suppose. Perimenopause, we are meant to believe, signals a looming expiration date, a natural transition which is to be endured with drugs and/or surgery if you are to survive it.
That Easter I did what I always had done, since childhood: I sucked it up and put a good face on. I was just tired, after all. My allergies were worse than ever (also attributable to perimenopause, of course). I was getting short of breath. And my leg was sore from the cramps in the night. But I got dressed and went to my friend’s for Easter dinner.
My friend still feels guilty for suggesting I eat more bananas. “They say leg cramps mean low potassium,” she mused. And that’s true, about potassium deficiency. I was willing to try anything, and that seemed as good an idea as any. My primary care doc had just last week prescribed an inhaler for my allergies, and it seemed to do nothing. Maybe potassium would help. I was so disconnected with the reality of my body that the alarm bells hadn’t gone off yet.
We ate lamb, I think (that day is a blur) and took a walk after dinner. The short block loomed long. I limped along, unable to do anything faster than a saunter. But it was a beautiful day, the dogwoods in bloom. I smiled and made conversation, but inside, I worried: Am I getting depressed? On top of everything else? The last time walking a block had seemed impossible was when I was depressed. Perimenopause causes increased depression, I’d seen an article on that in the doctor’s office waiting room…
For a couple years, I’d been an avid walker. Walking was the only thing that took the edge off my irritability. Three months earlier, at my routine gynecologist visit, I mentioned my surprising surges of anger to my doctor. “I thought PMS was a myth!” I said. “But now I wonder…and I have insomnia still. I’m trying to kick the Ambien now, but I barely sleep without it.”
“Very common in perimenopause,” the doctor said. “Insomnia. PMS. It could get worse before it gets better. You have a while yet…have the hot flashes started?”
Panic surged. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Two choices,” she said. “Anti-depressants or low-dose birth control. Most of my patients your age are on one or both.”
Fearing the effects of anti-depressants when I was not depressed, I opted for the low-dose birth control pills. I did ask though: “Aren’t I kind of old for birth control pills? Isn’t being over 40 a risk factor?”
“Well, not for you,” she said. “You don’t smoke, and you walk —what—4 or 5 miles a day? You’ll be fine! It’ll just take the edge off. You need help getting through this time,” she consoled, writing out the prescription.
Easter night, I went to bed exhausted, and feeling very low. But I drifted off to sleep, desperate to escape the prison of worries over my failing body. After all, everything that was happening to me—the distance in my relationship with my husband, the years of chronic insomnia, my new sluggishness and shortness of breath, the five pounds I could not lose despite dieting, my scattered focus—it was all perimenopause. It was all me, falling apart. Hippocrates would have called me hysterical.
Alone in my bed, I was sleeping with the enemy.
The future narrowed like a closing aperture or the point of a funnel. I’d arrived at the stage of life any woman past child-bearing age knows will be a trial. Full of aches and anger. Full of complaints, and losses—loss of vibrant sexuality, loss of love, loss of joy, loss of adventure—such riches, it seemed, were for younger women, and if I hadn’t had my fill, I was out of luck and out of time.
Considering I nearly died twelve hours later, I almost was out of time.
(tomorrow: my rebirth-day)
(I’m writing a mini-novel with flash-length chapters over on Medium.com. Following is the first chapter of my tale of a dystopian future. Check out the rest if you like—it’s a work-in-progress, which I’m hoping to finish before year end. It is a work of fiction. I hope. Access the chapters by clicking here.)
2017: Chapter One
The sirens blared. The President’s voice boomed, an audio clip in an endless loop. “…then I grab em by the pussy,” he crowed, again and again and again, the way he did every morning at wake-up. “She’s a pig, I mean, look at her! Miss Piggy. Call her Miss Housekeeping, why don’t you?” A laugh track — or possibly a recording of hyenas howling, it was hard to tell — ran between bursts of his “boy talk.”
She’d heard it so many times now. It was designed to make her go numb.
She let the guards believe it was working.
Dear Judge Ruehlman,
I’m a registered voter and I’m not going to mince words here. I’m going to be straight with you. It’s time for you to go home, Judge.
You’re drunk— drunk with judicial power, that is.
Maybe it’s a side effect of how our justice system works, or doesn’t work? Maybe some counseling would help? It’s addictive stuff, power. The Ohio Supreme Court agrees you’ve gotten out of hand.
In June, the Ohio Supreme court said “[Judge Ruehlman] has repeatedly acted to shield Chesley and his assets from creditors, despite a patent lack of jurisdiction,” referring to your interference in a multi-million dollar settlement that (the now disbarred attorney) Stan Chesley was ordered to pay to his legal clients.
Kentucky courts ruled that Chesley owes his clients at least $25 million dollars, which he’s apparently holding in some kind of perma- limbo by filing twisty lawsuits that make it difficult for the case to be moved to Federal court. The Ohio Supreme court scowls at such shenanigans.
The court’s opinion said Chesley “has turned to the courts of Ohio to thwart collection of the judgment and re-litigate the case. Chesley has found a receptive audience in (Ruehlman).” The opinion also said you gave defendants in the case—Chesley’s clients, who were awaiting their funds and puzzled over why their lawyer was suing them—“patently false advice,” by telling them they did not need legal representation, advice that shows how tipsy you must be on that 100-proof power. You told a senior citizen from rural Ohio in danger of losing her home due to financial struggles that she did not need an attorney, when, according to the Ohio Supreme Court, “A judgement in favor of Chesley could have a dramatic effect on how much money Ms. Boggs and the other creditors are able to recover, and when.”
If the Ohio Supreme Court says you’re doing things you have no business doing, that’s enough to convince me as a voter, as a citizen, that it’s time for a new judge.
But there are more reasons to boot you out of court, reasons that resonate deeply with me.
You remind me of another judge recently in the news. Aaron Persky is his name. Everybody’s heard about him. I imagine you can’t see why people are so upset by his hand-slap sentence to Brock Turner.
After all, you did the same thing—worse, actually—delivering a not-guilty verdict while expressing your sympathetic concern for a young man “facing 20 years,” after repeatedly interrupting the prosecutor’s questioning of the victim to badger her by suggesting you thought she “kind of liked” her assailant, and suggesting that maybe she decided to cry rape out of disappointment that her assailant didn’t perform well. Suggesting that “sometimes girls like that when a guy pursues them a little bit.”
I wonder if you can even fathom why anyone’s so darned upset about Donald Trump’s pussy-grabbing talk. If you can victim-blame a woman in open court as she testifies, instead of listening respectfully and deeply to her after a grand jury and prosecutor have deemed her case worthy of being heard, it seems to indicate you might think women “kind of like” being demeaned and abused. Let me explain, Judge, why women do not speak up. Because when we do, we are blamed and shamed and re-victimized by men like you who demonize us as liars for daring to speak, even when we have rape-kit evidence, even when there are multiple victims coming forward.
Do you ever ask male victims who run from an assailant if they “liked being being pursued a little bit”? Or if they like being hit?
Back to Judge Persky. I hear he’s not going to be hearing criminal cases any longer. I don’t think you should either. I imagine along the way you served up some actual justice. Very little is black and white in this world. So for whatever clear-eyed service that I hope you rendered, thank you.
Still, in the end, there are some lines you don’t cross and you’ve crossed them every which way, zig-zagging all over the place. Maybe the power just got to you? Addictive stuff, that.
I’m going to play my woman card on election day, Judge.
Dear Judge McKeon,
A 40-year-old Montana father raped his 12-year-old daughter. Repeatedly.
You sentenced him to 60 days, of which he will serve 43. For good measure, he must pay $80 and “future medical care for his daughter.” You mean, I think, for his victim?
Forty-three days in jail for raping his 12-year-old daughter. Repeatedly.
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl tries to sleep and never will sleep the same again.
There’s a call for your impeachment now, but you’ve made your decision and moved on. You mention it was a hard decision for you.
Forty-three days in jail for raping a 12-year-old. Repeatedly.
Yes, it would be hard for anyone with an ounce of humanity to come up with a sentence like that. But you know, girls and women—incest victims, domestic violence victims, women who have had a drink or worn a tight skirt or did something to anger a man—there’s always some kind of “exception” for that. Because deep down, Judge McKeon, you and a lot of others still believe women are the property of men. I’m sure you’d swear that wasn’t true. But your actions reveal your real feelings. That girls and women are not truly deserving of protection and equal rights when it comes to what happens to their own bodies.
Under Montana state law, your sentence to the rapist should have been steep:
“A person convicted of the offense of incest where the victim is 12 years of age or younger and the offender 18 years of age or older at the time of offense shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a term of 100 years and fined an amount not to exceed $50,000. The court may not suspend execution or defer imposition of the first 25 years of the sentence.”
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl tries to sleep and never will sleep the same again.
These things—things like incest, things like raping your own daughter—these things happen in the night, usually. Hand over mouth in the dark, whispered threats from a man who is supposed to love you and take care of you.
You’ve made your decision and moved on, Judge McKeon, but that little girl will never be the same.
The victim’s grandmother made a plea that shatters my heart, and apparently justified your joke of a sentence. She said: “What [the defendant] did to my granddaughter was horrible, and he should face consequences. But his children, especially his sons, will be devastated if their dad is no longer part of their lives.”
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl tries to sleep and never will sleep the same again.
Maybe the little girl never really knew trust, even before the rape. I can’t decide if possessing pure, innocent trust and losing it is better or worse than never really having it at all. I fear for her. There seems no one she might trust, and you, too, failed her—utterly, miserably, unforgivably.
I bet you’d point out that her own mother asked for a reduced sentence, citing the rapist’s sons “need to know their father.” These are words, Judge that should have set off clanging alarm bells in your head.
She cannot sleep the way children should be able to sleep. She cannot relax. Her body, like that of all trauma victims, is now rewired, set to red-alert. To sleep well again will take years of love and therapy. To trust again may never happen. I hope she will find peace and healing. But it’s a hard road to go alone. And she is alone, it seems to me.
Perhaps her mother can sleep well? I wonder if her father can? Can you?
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky, a little girl is all alone. Her father raped her, repeatedly, and no one testified on her behalf. No one.
No one testified on her behalf, Judge McKeon, which should have told you something. Your empathy, your humanity—should have roared to life when no one testified on her behalf.
Instead, you say you gave it consideration. The fact that no one testified on her behalf was “weighed in” to your decision.
Experts and friends of the rapist noted that the accused was employed and had a supportive community and thus was, in their opinions, apparently just the sort of pedophile that could be magically rehabilitated without a lengthy sentence.
I’d like to ask a question of the court. Why is there “leeway” in an incest case?
If he had raped his neighbor’s 12-year-old daughter, would you be so casually lenient? If he had raped a 12-year-old related to you, would you feel he could be rehabilitated, would you agree with his wife if she said he’d made a “mistake?” Would you think him being in the lives of his sons was a good idea, a good reason to suspend his sentence?
Somewhere under the wide, wild Montana sky a little girl is crying, and thinks no one hears her.
I wonder, Judge McKeon, how many other girls you have sentenced to life?
For make no mistake, she faces a life sentence. I hope that little Montana girl somehow feels the love of the millions of women and loving, kind men who are with her in spirit, and that it gives her some small amount of strength.
A million signatures on a petition to impeach you is not enough to help her heal. But I think impeaching you would be a start. It would be a start towards a world where a little girl has the right to sleep deeply, trusting those around her to love her, and keep her safe in the night.
Do you mind if I call you M?
I don’t want to waste too many keystrokes. Never fear. I’m not going to be mean, or unfair. I’m just going to tell a story.
Someday, some far-off wonderful day, you will be remembered like a princess in a fairy tale. (Yes, I think you will be famous, even in the future, though I imagine your name may be lost, M.)
You will be be the hapless one who drank a potion that blinded her to truth and made her say crazy things, like “every assault should be taken care of in a court of law,” with a dismissive flick of your wrist, as if a woman who alleges assault is like a mosquito buzzing too close.
Every nine seconds, a woman is assaulted in our country.* Try telling all of them they will find justice. Try telling that to the woman Brock Turner sexually assaulted, who had eye witnesses, physical evidence, a jury conviction and a prosecutor seeking a nine-year sentence, a woman who penned perhaps the most moving victim statement ever written and bravely read it out in court, then heard the rapist’s father dismiss what happened as “twenty minutes of action” and watched as the judge said a long prison sentence would ruin Mr. Turner’s promising young life. As you undoubtedly know, M, Mr. Turner served three months, and his victim got a life sentence in which she will I hope heal and grow even stronger than before, but will always have to endure those who still say things like, “well, she did get drunk, after all.” And she has to endure people like you who would pretend there is justice for women who are assaulted, in brutal, demeaning ways, even by someone far less powerful than the prince you married.
Try telling it to the women who, even right now, are held as sex slaves at truck stops in middle America. Or to the women, like me, who were as teenagers raped by much-older men who seemed kind and interested in us as humans, men who took what they wanted and then threatened unspeakable things if we spoke up. Tell that to the sisters and mothers and friends of women who have been preyed upon by men. To the 400,000 women whose rape-kit evidence languishes for years, untouched by police.**
And try telling it to the the many men—the kind of men I love—who are strong enough not to need to oppress women to feel powerful. And the men who have said things they regret, and woken up to how damaging that is to them and to us women. (C’mon guys. Join me here in saying this is not okay.)
None of us are buying it anymore, though societal change is painfully slow.
Your saying “every assault should be taken care of in a court of law,”reminds me of another “M” from history. The one who said, “No bread? Well, then let them eat cake.” Remember how that turned out?
It’s “boy talk” you say. Your then 59-year-old, rich businessman husband was “egged on,” you insist, as if he was and still is a powerless, poor little boy. It’s bad enough when men dismiss reality, but it’s so hard to watch those women who tear out their own hearts to follow them into the jungle of misogyny. I almost begin to lose hope. I worry women won’t keep speaking up, out of the fear that has kept us silent so long.
I think of words attributed to Margaret Atwood:
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them.
Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
These words ring true.
Still, it’s hard to know, in the middle of a tale, what might happen next. All I know is that for centuries, millennia— the unlistened-to voices of women have gathered in the ether. The voices of those who have been raped, abused, groped, bought, sold, used and discarded, grabbed and then shamed and shunned and silenced—their voices float around still, like tumbleweeds of truth. The winds of our time and the hot air of your man and those who hold him up as a paragon are blowing those unheard voices together.
Yes. The true tale: it’s being told. The truth is now, I think, I hope—unstoppable. That’s why everyone is so unsettled right now. That truth is heading toward the flaming egos of men invested in guarding their powers, and toward the women who cling to them, out of fear or denial or both. Men in boardrooms and bedrooms. If you look you can see those egos, burning like gas flares on a dark oil field, as the truth swirls closer. Something’s going to blow up.
I do not imagine you will read my letter, but I had to write, anyway. I wonder.
Maybe underneath all the denial, you knew that your words would be a call to action for women to speak. Maybe underneath it all, you are just scared, too, and dream of a better world, where the assaulted do indeed see justice.
I like to imagine that is who you are, at heart.
* iBachman, R. & Saltzman, E. (1995). Violence against women: Estimates from the redesigned survey. Retrieved from http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/FEMVIED.PDF