The Strength of A Woman
Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a man who was in the audience at the Ohio event I did last weekend. The email struck a nerve in me for several different reasons, mainly because it equated vulnerability with strength and secondly because it came from a man. The e-mail has haunted me all day today, staying in my mind even as I’ve taught my girls school and played Barbies with them during lunch. It has stayed with me even as I’ve prepared my family something to eat for breakfast and lunch and it will undoubtedly still be with me tonight as I put them to bed.
Whenever I am blessed with the chance to do an event, I am always cognizant that the interactions I might have with the people who may share the same space as I are what is most important. Those connections are why I do the events in the first place, and they contribute more to my emotional healing and well-being than I can express in words. They tell me I’m not alone, that I’m not really crazy, that I can heal; they tell me that I have nothing to feel guilty for, they tell me that the shame is a lie; they remind me that scars aren’t something to hide but rather victories to claim. After every event I’ve ever done, I’ve received a least one or two e-mails or Facebook messages from perfect strangers that have touched my life and stirred my soul. I’ve received these messages from men, too, although the majority of those who contact me are female readers.
Although I usually relate more to the stories shared by the female readers, the male readers’ messages stir my interest. I’m not sure why. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s because I’m looking for signs of vulnerability in the faceless men who, for whatever reason, decide to share parts of their past with me. I’ve always seen men as strong, almost invincible. In the movie, Steel Magnolias, Sally Field’s character says, while describing the last moments of her daughter’s life, “Drum left… couldn’t take it. Jackson left. I find it amusin’…. men are supposed to be made outta steel or something. But I just sat there.” Although I know men aren’t “made out of steel”, what I think of when I think of men is iron strength.
My father wasn’t really physically very strong, I don’t guess. He was of average weight, height and build. He seemed and acted unassuming. He made “fitting in” a priority. He could have just met you and, within moments, you’d think he was your best pal. For years, I was terrified of my girls’ dad ever meeting him because I was afraid that my father would convince him nothing had ever happened. I was afraid of this not because I doubted, really, J’s love but because I was all too aware of how cunning and expert manipulator my father is. He convinced a man to give him thousands of dollars, promising him he would build him a house, even though my father had no contractor’s license to show, any employees or even any tools for that matter. All of his strength lay in his speech and his mannerisms. No one in our family really thought he was very strong… except me. I saw how he ran. I saw how he walked a tightrope of lies… but I thought that was just a face he wore. His real self was revealed with me and, with me, he was very strong. Or at least, he seemed like it. I never tried to get away but, even if I had, I wouldn’t have had a chance. Compared to mine, he was physically powerful. So I grew up believing that men were “made out of steel or something,” that no matter how hard I might try, I could never match them in physical strength.
But I wanted to.
I wanted to be strong.
I remember trying to move entire china cabinets by myself, just to prove I could. I would unbox entire U-Hauls of boxes by myself because it made me feel strong. I would carry box after box up flights of stairs without complaint because, no matter how tired it made me, afterwards, I could say, “I did that. See? I am strong.” With everything I had, I worked hard to become “strong.” In the deepest parts of my heart, I thought men controlled the home (and every other environment) because of their sheer strength. I thought that if I could become physically strong then, eventually, I would gain emotional strength, as well. I cried silently because doing so prevented me from getting “in trouble” as badly but I wasn’t afraid to cry. I cried at the drop of a hat. I didn’t see crying as a sign of weakness. I saw it as a sign of being a girl, and since there was no way I could change my gender, I didn’t see the sense in refusing to cry. But I only allowed myself to cry silently. Someone could be lying in the bed beside me and not know I was crying. No loud displays of grief—that was weak. Silent tears was strong because you weren’t asking for help.
As I grew older, I tried hard to “prove” my strength by refusing to ask for help and by never acknowledging the past. Keeping silent meant I had to deal with the nightmares by myself and that was a sign of strength. Although I might never match a man in physical strength, I was determined to become his equal in emotional strength. Why? Because, if I was really honest with myself, I saw women in general, and myself in particular, as weak.
I was a teenager the first time I hid a hammer under my bed.
I put it there in the afternoon after I got home from school. I pretended it meant nothing. But I comforted myself all day by reminding myself that if it got to be too much that night, or if he ever really tried to hurt me, I could fight back. Night fell and he came. And I forgot the hammer was under my bed. On subsequent nights, the hammer was still there, and I remembered it during the attacks… but I never wanted to get it. I never wanted to get it. I’ve never told that story because it’s one of the things that haunts me in my nightmares…. what kind of person would lay dormant on a bed, being hurt in mind-numbing ways, and not even want to use the threat of a weapon to make it stop? What would have happened had I said to him, “If you touch me, I have a hammer in this room.” I don’t know because I didn’t want to find out when push came to shove. Instead, I did whatever he said. I never screamed. I asked him to stop… but I don’t remember doing so very often. Instead, I rather accepted it as my lot in life. While a hammer lay under my bed. The memory of that has haunted me. I know I wouldn’t have actually used the hammer and revealing its presence would probably have only served to make things worse for me but, in my head, it’s served as proof of how embarrassingly weak I really was. It was a reminder of the “real” Tiffini. The one who couldn’t do anything at all, even when she could have at least tried.
As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I still sleep with a hammer under my bed. It makes me feel safer, even though whether or not I’d ever actually use it, or even reveal it, is something I pray I never have to find out. Its presence under my bed these days is a subtle reminder that, no matter how much I try, I’m really just a girl, one who isn’t very strong at all. If an intruder happened into my bedroom, how easy would it be for him to snatch the hammer out of my trembling hands? I guess the bottom line is that, for me, strength has been an unobtainable goal. It’s something I strive for. I want to be strong because I think strength represents worthiness. I want to be strong because I want to be protected and, if I’m strong, then I can protect myself and my daughters.
Perhaps it was for all these reasons that the email from the man gripped my heart so intensely. With his name omitted, but everything else exactly the same, his e-mail reads:
I was at the Arts Center for something unrelated to you but you were at the table. You were so gracious and friendly that I decided to stay for a minute to hear you speak. I am so glad I did. When you finished speaking, I was stunned. We all were. Stunned at how vulnerable you let yourself be in front of us. I’ve been taught since I was 4 that vulnerability is a weakness but even after needing a few minutes to stop yourself from crying, you stayed in that room. And then you told us you would answer questions. I can’t think of anything stronger. I bought The Character and just forced myself to finish reading it after almost a week. I guess I’m writing to say thank you. Your event was powerful and inspiring and very needed.”
“Stunned at how vulnerable you let yourself be in front of us…. I can’t think of anything stronger.”
He equated vulnerability with strength. Anytime I speak, I feel exposed, and very vulnerable. I’m always waiting for the unkind or critical comments. This week in India, a woman politician said that women “invite rape” based on their behaviors, dress or location. The article made me very angry…. and I was almost angrier at the fact that such an ignorant, cruel thing had been said by a woman as I was that it had been said at all. If an adult politician can say such nonsense, what is there to stop someone in one of my audiences to say something unkind? Although no one has yet done it, I always expect the “why didn’t you tell” question to pop up and make me come completely unglued. Although no one has yet done it, I always expect something along the lines of, “That’s all? He raped you? That’s it?” which is what the voice in my head has screamed at me for decades. When I feel exposed or emotional or scared, I shake. And not just a little tremble. My entire body starts to shake, and it did that night, too. My hands shook so much the paper I held fell backwards. I was on the spot and I knew it, and I was having to say things to which a negative reaction could traumatize me. So yes, I was vulnerable and it probably showed…. particularly when tears clogged my throat, making it impossible for me to continue speaking for about a full minute.
I did not feel strong. Not even in the smallest way. I did not feel strong at all. There was no “brave face” that night. There was just raw truth and pain and it echoed in the Arts Center for all to see and hear. I have never been unable to speak due to tears for more than a second during a speech. That was the longest I’d ever been choked up for during an event. Finally, at the conclusion of the speech, I wanted to run and hide. I lingered instead because there were books to sign and people with whom to speak. But, as soon as the last word was said, walls began climbing inside my heart again. I was very afraid of rejection and, truth be told, I’d have rather hid for a few minutes before facing interaction with those strangers. But I didn’t. And this man says that I was strong to let others see me at my weakest point, strong to continue to sign the books, strong to share.
That begs the question, what is strength?
No one wants to be vulnerable. But why? Why is it so awful to admit to fear or embarrassment or pain? These are the emotions behind events that shape our lives and mold our personalities. These are the emotions behind events that drive our motivations and create our philosophies. Being vulnerable isn’t shameful. Being vulnerable doesn’t imply you’ve done something wrong. It just says you’re not a superhero; you’re not “made of steel or something.” Allowing others to see you cry isn’t degrading yourself. It isn’t proof you deserve to be shamed. Needing affirmation, a hug or reassurance isn’t putting a “WEAK” sign on your forehead. And, even if it did, so what? What are we “supposed” to be: gods? Even Christ experienced pain. Even Christ experienced anger. And even Christ experienced temptation. If we never allow others to see past the smiles and “strength”, then how are they supposed to get to know what really matters to us? And if they never get to know what really matters to us, then how can they be expected to really love us for who we really are?
I used to think that, if I asked for help or told others my story, I would be a “baggage” in their lives. I thought asking for help would mean burdening others. At first, it sounds doable. You tell someone you love the truth and they wrap you in a hug and swear they don’t care, that you’re still beautiful and desirable. But then, when reality hits and the past prevents you from responding in desired ways, the baggage becomes too heavy? In today’s world, if the baggage becomes too heavy for someone, well, he can just leave. Eventually, see, I’ve been afraid that that’s what would always happen. So that’s why I’ve resisted confiding in even those closest to me: instead, I’ve just plowed through, done the best I could do and hoped it was enough.
But really… confiding your secrets to another human being is the most nerve-racking thing we can do. Admitting that I did not want to grab that hammer, not even while I was being violated in deep, deep ways is one of the most shameful things I can say. Admitting that I’m still unable to directly ask for anything remotely related to intimacy makes me feel immensely vulnerable. But…. When we make ourselves vulnerable, we are opening our hearts up to rejection and, if we were rejected, that would pour additional pain onto our hearts. Intense pain has the ability to paralyze you. It has the ability to stop time—-everyone else moves on, but, when you are really hurting, the only thing you see are doors slamming shut in your face, the only thing you hear are the echoes of goodbye. Pain has the ability to change your life. So why then is being vulnerable—opening yourself up for that rejection and pain—-considered weak? Isn’t that one of the strongest things we can do—to hope, to trust someone else enough to share our shame and confusion and pain? Isn’t that stronger than moving a china cabinet by yourself? Isn’t that stronger than physically overpowering someone else?
Today, I am humbled by this stranger’s e-mail and thankful. I am thankful for the reminder that strength really has nothing to do with physical ability. Rather, strength resides in maintaining faith when the sun doesn’t ever seem to shine; strength resides in saying important things when the rip the doors to your heart wide open. Strength resides in seeing the good in men even when their physical strength sometimes scares you. Strength is in trying to move from the past’s shadows into the light.