This morning/afternoon, I spent a couple of hours chatting with the folks who run the Refugee Foster Care program in San Jose, California, a program of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. I’m writing an article profiling their work for Revista Maryknoll. Can I say that their work is impressive? They’re small but growing and they’re truly helping refugee teenagers from war-torn areas as well as undocumented teens from Central America by placing them in foster care. This charity is centered around so many of the issues I care about–kids (but especially teenagers), refugees, undocumented immigrants, the problem of sex trafficking, issues of torture, issues of hunger, homelessness, families and–the biggies–healing and social justice. Like always when I finish these interviews, I’m envious of the people getting to do this kind of work. Kudos to you guys….
Yesterday as I walked to my doctor’s appointment, some random dude leaned out of his car and screeched something at me that I couldn’t understand.
But I definitely understood his final epithet: “BITCH!!!”
His scream startled me so badly, I jumped and tensed, the pain from a day of hunching over my computer shooting through my shoulder blades and one sudden, hot tear smarting my right eye.
It’s a small thing, really, that some stranger would get their rocks off calling you a bitch as they fly by in their small white car, insulated from any real retaliation, probably horsing it up with their buddies, not really meaning it in a personal way. For that guy, I’m a bitch for reasons that have no real bearing on who I am. Maybe, to him, I’m a bitch because I’m a woman, or because I was walking down Portola Avenue at 4:15 in the afternoon, or because I was wearing jeans and a sweater, or because I have long brown hair that reminds him of his ex-girlfriend.
And while I know that, like gays with the word “queer,” some feminists have reclaimed the word “BITCH” as part of their self-description, I also know that when someone hurls it at you as an invective, it’s a violation. A small one, but a violation nonetheless. You can reclaim terms for personal use, but you can’t dictate how others use those terms.
It got me thinking about other times I’ve experienced small, but important, violations with complete strangers. One of those moments came to mind right away and it’s amazing how much it smarted to remember it several years later. Unlike the stranger calling me “bitch,” this one seemed more personal, even though I had never met the woman who violated me.
I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time, and I had recently come to the conclusion that I no longer wanted to use the Mirena IUD as my form of birth control. The conclusion had come pretty quickly after it was inserted, for a variety of reasons. 1) The way my uterus cramped and bled for two days after it was inserted convinced me that it’s not a good idea to have a foreign object camping out and having a party in your uterus. 2) I suddenly started having skin problems that hadn’t bothered me for years, skin problems that started occurring within two days of the insertion. 3) While I’m pro-keeping-abortion-legal due to some complicated reasons that don’t belong in this post, I am not pro-abortion, and the realization that the IUD is, essentially, an abortifacient was keeping me awake at nights. 4) My sister-in-law, who had never had a miscarriage in her life and had already had two healthy children, suffered 3 miscarriages after using the Mirena IUD for only a few months. Coincidence? Perhaps. Worth the risk to my personal health? Absolutely not.
Anyway, the point was, I wanted the IUD out. And I wanted it out now.
So I went to my friendly Student Health Center on the Stanford campus, Vaden Health Clinic, where I know many of the staff by name (and they recognize me by sight as well) because I spent so much time going there after that truck hit me while I was crossing a street in downtown El Paso. They were all very good to me and I love them very much.
My nurse practitioner at Vaden, Carolyn, is a wonderful, kindly, caring woman, in her fifties I think, who teaches yoga on the side. She reminds me of one of my sisters-in-law who is a medical doctor. She takes her time with her patients and always listened to what I had to say and, the next visit, would remember it. I felt well cared for her in her hands.
I dressed in that little flimsy cotton gown that opens in the back (or the front, if you put it on wrong, as I have on occasion) and she did my pap smear and we chatted about this and that, joking about how I was getting wrinkles and acne at the same time, which somehow seemed really wrong and unfair to me. She needed help to remove the Mirena IUD, so she left the room to fetch another nurse.
The other nurse came marching in to the room, Carolyn on her heels. “Now, exactly why do you want to remove the Mirena?” she asked, her voice busy and important.
“Well, I’ve been having some skin problems ever since it was inserted and I’m not convinced it’s entirely healthy for the body,” I said vaguely.
She peered at my face, one of her hands on her hip. “Your skin problems don’t look bad to me,” she announced.
“Well, they’re bad for me,” I said. “For what I’m used to.”
“Well,” she said, “a lot of women in their thirties start having skin problems.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You might regret having the Mirena taken out,” she said.
Carolyn interrupted. “Jessica and her husband are talking about starting a family,” she said.
“But you’re going to Africa next week,” the nurse said. Everything she said came out forceful, almost like an accusation.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what her point was. I was, in fact, leaving for South Africa a few days later.
“You don’t want to get pregnant when there’s a chance you could get malaria,” she said.
“There isn’t any malaria in South Africa,” I said, beginning to feel frustrated and defensive about wanting to remove the Mirena IUD, “at least, not the areas I’m going to. And my husband won’t even be with me while I’m gone.”
“Still, that’s a risk you don’t want to take,” she said, the little wagging finger in her voice. “It would be very very bad for your baby if you got malaria.” She stared at me, strongly concerned, and waited for me to agree with her.
“I’m not in danger of contracting malaria,” I repeated. “And, anyway, I’m not in danger of getting pregnant while I’m there either because my husband won’t be with me.”
Did she think I was a floozy and would be getting it on with a bunch of strangers while I was overseas?
“It’s not a good idea to remove it right now,” she said.
I don’t even remember what else she said, I just remember that I was holding my tears back as she talked me out of removing an IUD that I no longer wanted inside me just in case it was fucking up my reproductive system.
And Carolyn pressed forward and said to me, looking me directly in the eyes, “If you want the IUD taken out, we will take it out, right now.”
She was trying to repair the damage that the other nurse was creating. She was, subtly and kindly, reminding me that this was my body and my choice.
This was precisely why I always chose Carolyn as my primary health provider. And I was glad in that instant—and ever since then—that I had never before or since encountered that other nurse in my many trips to the health clinic.
Nevertheless, as I write this, my throat aches with unshed tears. Why? Because despite Carolyn’s reminder that this was my body, the pressure from the other nurse—a perfect stranger, but one who had some power over me—was so great that I backed down and decided against removing the Mirena that day.
Later, it made me angry. Later, I wished I’d made a scene and told that nurse to shove off. Later, I wish I’d asked her, “Why do you have such a personal investment in preventing me from getting pregnant right now? What fucking business is it of yours?”
Later. Later. Later.
But at the time, I let myself be violated.
A small violation? Sure, small, though it won’t seem so small in ten years when a group of women come together in a class-action suit against the makers of IUDs because of some health problem that’s occurred—like they’re doing with Yaz and Yasmine right now.
A small violation? Sure, small. I went to another doctor a few months later and, two seconds later, it was out. “Do you want to see it?” he asked, and I said, “Yes,” and the reason I said yes was borne out of that encounter with that nurse, with the sudden fearful stabbing thought that a doctor could say he’d removed something like an IUD from your uterus but, in fact, leave it in. That’s a paranoid thought, I know, but not so paranoid after my encounter with that nurse who really really really wanted me to leave mine in, wanted it so badly that she applied considerable pressure and used manipulation, even to go so far as to suggest that I’d be putting my as-yet-unconceived-child in danger if I didn’t leave the IUD in. And not so paranoid when you consider all the violations of human rights that have occurred in the medical profession since the profession was created.
I love doctors and nurses, I do, and this is not an invective against them, though it does point out the ways they have power over their patients in ways both large and small, and the very fact of that power makes violations so easy to occur. The jerk that yelled “bitch” at me as he passed didn’t have any power over me because there was no relationship but he managed to violate me anyway.
The only thing that connects these small violations is the fact that both of the people who initiated them were perfect strangers. I’ll never see either one of them again. And I suspect that the other thing that connects them is that I’m a woman. I’m not saying that perfect strangers don’t try to do these kinds of things to men, but I suspect they occur less frequently, and that most men respond differently (both at the time and after the fact) because they’ve been socialized differently. I could be wrong. I’m curious to hear from men about it.
Why do perfect strangers have such an investment in us that they would behave in these ways? And how should we deal with these kinds of small violations, when they happen so often?
I don’t really know how to end this blog post except to invite you to give your thoughts.
I still intend to write a blog post or two about this trip but wanted to post some pictures first. Last month, I took an eight or nine day trip with my dad from Denver, Colorado. We headed up through northwestern Nebraska, southwestern South Dakota, and southeastern South Dakota before we looped back down to Denver. The purpose of the trip was so I could record my dad’s memories about growing up in South Dakota, the first sparks that indicated he would become a geologist, his college years, and, well, anything else that he remembered on the way.
I think my favorite moment was when I asked my Dad, “What was Mom like when you met her?”
He paused a moment before he answered, as if was hesitating about whether he would really say what he was going to say or not. Then his mouth quirked up in a grin and, for a few seconds, he looked forty years younger as he said, “Unbelievably sexy.”
They’re celebrating their 40th anniversary next January.
Dad shows how the soil where you can find agates near Fairburn, South Dakota is so dry that it just soaks up moisture, any moisture. When he stuck it on the end of his tongue, it soaked up the moisture and then clung there. Dad’s first foray into rocks and fossils occurred here in these agate beds in around 1962, when he was approximately 16 years old and a friend’s dad took them agate hunting. He found a fossil turtle shell that I’m hoping he still has around our house somewhere.
Though it might not look like much, beneath the top soil are layers and layers and layers of thousands upon thousands of fossils. Northwestern Nebraska was a place where animals roamed millions of years ago and they became particularly rich fossil beds. Dad spent a summer here collecting fossils in, I believe, 1963 or 1964.
Here’s the old barn, now falling apart, on the land where my dad grew up. The house burned down a few years ago in a freak fire. The land here is flat, with none of the little ravines and ponds that make the landscape interesting just a few miles away. Dad says the view here was so boring that he never even considered coming back. He’d spend hours on the tractor, thinking about other places, in particular, other worlds like the ones he encountered in the Isaac Asimov novels he checked out from the public library and devoured on a regular basis.
Dad says the entire area in this part of South Dakota is an ancient lake bed from millions of years ago, and much of the land reveals the slow movement of glaciers across the surface.
We also went to Dad’s 45th high-school reunion. Here are two pictures, one of his classmates (notice how uniformly Anglo they are! a real shocker to this girl who grew up in El Paso and who now lives in California!) and one of the two of us.
Yeah, that’s my dad and I sure do love him!
For my hundreds of screaming fans who live in the Washington D.C. area, please come to my workshop on birth stories at the Perinatal Birth Symposium taking place at George Mason University this coming Wednesday, October 7th, at 1 p.m.
You don’t have to have given birth to participate. Why do I say this? Because I haven’t given birth and I’m the workshop leader. Birth stories are about so much more than just “giving” birth. They’re about belonging, about being linked to a particular set of people, about women being linked to other women, about humans being linked to other humans….They’re about life and death and healing and religion and spirituality and, well, EVERYTHING. But of course, I have a few more specific things to say than that.
And I expect participants will have lots of wise and wonderful things to say as well. I can’t wait.
I’m on at 1 p.m. in Mason Hall, D13. Bring your brownbag lunch.