A friend and I walk, at night, down a street of closed stores, to a tiki bar on her last night in town. A man on the sidewalk asks us something forgettable. We don’t answer, we stop our conversation, and our steps fall with a different determination. The man follows us, saying more forgettable things (I only remember that he seemed belligerently entitled), getting louder and louder. One of us says “cross at the next” under her breath and we walk through the intersection, under lights, leaving the man behind.
TRAUMA: a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. From Greek, literally “wound.”
I have experienced instances that to many people would be No Big Deal, but thinking about them is briefly paralyzing and thinking about them willfully feels like a form of mental mutilation. The brain tries to protect itself from the same brain that pokes at its own wound. The traumatized brain is not always rational.
Here, I call them “instances” rather than outright “traumas,” because I am unsure if I have a right to that word. What is the spectrum offered within it?
At my old apartment, the smoke alarm would sound off even when no smoke curled out of the toaster. Sometimes I think it’s possible I am a quiet, flesh equivalent of that alarm, only I don’t know how to dislodge my battery temporarily, to risk letting the house burn down without waking.
GENTLE: as a noun: a maggot, especially the larva of a blowfly, used as bait. The blowfly typically lays her eggs on meat and carcasses. Meat made gentle, spoiled. Spoil as trauma: root in the Latin spolium—“plunder, skin stripped from an animal.”
A blowfly lays eggs gently in the wound, although any birth is traumatic to all bodies involved.
Here I am, feeling compassion for parasites.
At my old apartment, nearly empty, a man hands me two twenties, straps a dresser to a red dolly, and doesn’t let me help him move it down two flights of stairs. It’s surprising that: the dresser doesn’t bust, the concrete stairs don’t shatter from any of the repeated impacts as he whumps the load down one by one, and that the man thinks this is an okay idea. This does not disturb me. Am I passive or active in this moment and what does that mean? Is there a boundary between display and behavior, performance and action?
A few days later, at my new apartment, I meet the maintenance man who comes to replace my torn window screens. He is unexpected. He is a giant. When he comes in, the cat cowers and I carry him down the hall to shut him in the bedroom, saying, “He doesn’t like people,” thinking really he doesn’t like large men but not wanting to say this, not wanting whatever reaction or conversation it might prompt.
The screens are old and it takes a few long minutes for him to wrestle them from the windows. I stand far away and my palms sweat, my body tenses, I think of what tone of voice I will try to use if I need to tell him to leave. He tells me about building rabbit hutches that morning. I think of Steinbeck’s Lenny, a large man without intention.
The frames are practically bent in half, tossed on the floor. I don’t know when I’ll be able to leave the windows open (without fear of the cat going out or other creatures coming in) while I’m gone, again. It’s summer. It seems like this man did not think this through. He leaves and I feel violated but I don’t know why.
VIOLATE is a spectrum: break or fail to comply with (a rule or formal agreement); fail to respect (someone’s peace, privacy, or rights); treat (something sacred) with irreverence or disrespect; rape or sexually assault (someone). With each definition, it escalates, gets closer inside, dilates the trauma.
I see a woman being followed by a guy, a regular looking guy, who says he’s not following her after she tells him to stop. I call him a guy because I don’t feel threatened by him, because we are about the same size, because he is not running after her or yelling, because he’s not displaying violence or aggression; “guy” is more relatable than “man.” The word “man” can be like a fist.
She’s walking fast, about ten feet ahead of him, telling him to stop, telling him she doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. I follow him for a bit, while he continues walking behind her. We all walk past a car that’s had a window broken, glass all over the street. What can we say about violations? About boundaries and breaking them, who sets them and who does that breaking?
DISTURB: to interfere with the normal arrangement or functioning of; cause to feel anxious; interrupt the sleep, relaxation, or privacy of. From Latin disturbare, from the roots for “utterly” and “tumult.” As a noun: Disturber.
That which raises HACKLES (variant of HATCHEL, related to HOOK).
I trust my instincts but often second-guess what I feel is sensitivity. What is this difference? Is an instinct a sense on its own; an internal alarm; a hidden proboscis that unfurls itself when a stimulant is in the air? Is there such thing as a healthy fear?
Sensitivity to: sudden loud noises, speeding objects, disruption of stillnesses and familiarity, especially without warning, displays of aggression particularly when displayed by men, alphamale personalities, fireworks, other things I am not yet aware of.
Is it a question of why am I so sensitive or is it a question of why does everything else have an obvious potential violence?
This time last year, I had different neighbors, college boys in their first apartment, day-drunk and shirtless, making rounds at the apartment complex trying to let themselves into the doors of female tenants. After pulling on my locked knob, they thumped on the window. I opened the inside door (why?), leaving the screen door locked between us. I said, “What?” They said something about having a beer with them, I said “No thanks,” and shut the door. They turned ninety degrees and tried to talk up the women sitting outside the apartment next to mine. What is it like to be oblivious to: your own entitlement, others not buying that entitlement, the fact that you are making an ass of yourself and disturbing others? What if my doors had been unlocked?
Later, talking to the women next door, I found out that one night the boys tried to break into the apartment of the woman below me. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard them do this. There was no desire to be friends. It’s not like any of us were hanging out with them. Maybe that’s how they made friends with each other, by walking into each others’ apartments in the middle of the night.
After complaints were made, the landlord confronted the boys, and the most alpha tenant employed the same tactic of scaring off a mountain lion—chest puffed, arms raised, voice loud—while advancing toward the landlord. I avoided that side of the complex until a week later when they moved out, less than a month after they moved in.
Sensitivity manifests itself, often, as fear, during and after the incident. The traumatized brain remembers what specific cues caused the fear, makes note of them for the inevitable Next Time, displays signs of paranoia that the cues are constantly happening, perhaps at a lower pitch, or are just about to happen. The traumatized brain sits in the corner of the room, furthest away from and facing the door, sweating and shaking.
The place I lived in before that was underneath a different group of college boys who had loud, ceiling-shaking parties until three or four in the morning. I moved out before they did. The police in that neighborhood didn’t do much about noise complaints. When I worked up the nerve to pound on the door myself, the music was so loud they couldn’t hear me, and I was the one letting myself in to a stranger’s apartment. The only light was bright blue and people looked at me with neither recognition nor surprise. I don’t think they heard anything I said. An older, male neighbor in the house next door finally yelled at them in a way that got them to break it up. My joints shook for a couple days; I hated them so much my head hurt. The fear felt irrational—it wasn’t a fear of being harmed so much as a fear of needing to show a certain aggression.
IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER.
—Jenny Holzer, Times Square Marquee, 1993.
TENDER: easy to cut or chew; not tough. A tender: a person who looks after (from Middle English shortening of ATTEND). As a verb: To offer or present something formally (from Old French tender, from Latin tendere—to stretch, hold forth).
The danger, the risk in being tender is that it turns you into an opened oyster. The internal sum of you, quivering with want to stay living, is exposed and being drawn toward the mouth of someone else.
In her novella Agua Vivá, Clarice Lispector wrote: “Could the oyster when torn from its root feel anxiety?…I used to drip lemon juice onto the living oyster and watched in horror and fascination as it contorted all over. And I was eating the living it.”
This is the possible consequence of being tender. The benefits: feeling more, exponentially. Feeling tender begets tender feeling.
Back to gentleness: a maggot as bait is useful. A maggot as a living creature is useful in an ecosystem perhaps, or to eat away dead things like you hear about, saving limbs or lives in medical marvels sometimes. Other than that they repulse. Male displays, the way antlered or horned animals locking together can be horrifying to watch—is it horrifying to me but titillating for the doe or ewe? But bait also means a trick, a decoy, a trap, a snare, a hidden pit, under the illusion of normalcy, of safety.
On the train to work I find myself sitting between an older man and 5th grade boys on a field trip. The man wears a t-shirt with cartoon characters on it and has white hair. He opens his backpack and takes out a gigantic deck of Pokemon cards, makes a slow-motion Vanna White display of them. Bait. I hold up my book in a way I hope is casual yet blocking the line of sight. But the boys notice, I hear them talking about the cards, comparing the ones in the man’s hands to their own decks. They don’t talk to the man. I don’t say anything. I try making eye contact with their female teacher. I feel scared and useless. Maggot. My brain is full of sirens. I think this man knows what he’s doing by not actively and aggressively approaching the boys. I think this man has done this before. I am too stunned by this situation—and here I feel this is instinct, this is actually happening, a predator setting his trap—to make my mouth say words and what would I even say? The teacher engages the boys in conversation so they have to face away from the man, and eventually I stand up to completely block him from their sight. I can hear the man muttering things, but not the specific words. Isn’t his speech at all a kind of proof, that I foiled his plan?
The root of VULNERABLE is a different Latin word for “wound”: vulnus. A different root from TRAUMA, but a same meaning. A cause and effect.
Susceptible to a disguised barb tearing through soft cheek flesh, and then, maybe later, scar tissue.
These instances are low on the spectrum of trauma and violence: is aggression on a different scale? My body has never been assaulted. I have never witnessed a body being assaulted. I know owners of bodies that have been, in different ways, with different effects. These are not equal, but a traumatized brain is not necessarily rational enough to accept that, to behave with that understanding. I don’t want to call my low place on the trauma scale a privilege because it should not be a privilege to simply not be extremely traumatized. But is it?
Tennessee Williams wrote in a notebook: “Keep awake, alive, new. Perform the paradox of being hard and yet soft. Survive without calcification of the tender membranes.”
The aggression is not always proportional to the trauma (and/or: the trauma is not always proportional to the aggression). Some dogs will happily go belly-up under the snarl of another. Some snakes can kill with a single strike.
When I was young enough my mother was still tucking me in at night, I remember—in a moment of consolation after I cried about something—her telling me I was tender hearted. I have always imagined fork tines pressing into smooth pink muscle.
FEAR: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. Archaic: a mixed feeling of dread and reverence. The likelihood of something unwelcome happening. From Old English for “calamity,” “danger,” “frighten,” also “revere.”
Experiences are ultimately internal, infinitely nuanced within themselves, perhaps to the point that we can never fully understand what someone else has been through. But shouldn’t we try? Otherwise: a reverence for an individual’s trauma to the point I don’t even try to touch it because something about it is sacred—a side-effect of gentleness is a refusal to get close, rather to allow too much space. A blind spot here, an effect of this, is neglect and abandonment.
The definitions of PROVOKE and PROVOCATION do not mention being a woman or femalebodied. And yet.
I have this idea that The Goal is to be impenetrable, unshakable. But this is accepting someone else as being in charge, accepting the rules of someone else’s territory. And this feels false, like submission, without agreeing to the circumstances. Like needing permission to assume autonomy.
I feel like I have to choose between this vigilance and being emotionally open (and this second option I’m less skilled in)—the faucet is either on or off, depending on how I’ve gauged the safety of the situation.
INTIMIDATE: frighten or overawe (someone), especially in order to make them do what one wants. From medieval Latin intimidat—“made timid,” from the verb intimidare based on timidus, “timid.”
TIMID: showing a lack of courage or confidence; easily frightened. From Latin timidus, from timere, “to fear.”
A man doesn’t like that I walk past him without responding to something he says, and calls behind me, “Nice haircut—you look like my dad.” It’s not until a few blocks later I think I should’ve said, “Then call me Daddy.”
I remember being very young when my mom told my sister and me that a man had driven through our neighborhood, pulled over, and exposed himself to a girl. When you are told that so early on, you expect to see that man, to confront him, eventually.
SENSITIVE: quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences, easily damaged, injured, or distressed by slight changes, kept secret or with restrictions on disclosure to avoid endangering security.
In my experience, girls become sensitive in the way of feral dogs, and often keep this hidden under a docile exterior. Guarding a precious invisible thing (attention, body, life), constantly gauging surroundings and taking in information. If you must snap, aim for the soft parts (tendernesses).
Maybe if you are confident in your own soft parts, you can better target your aggressor’s when necessary. An expansion, a broader understanding in the human condition.
Some things I see becoming realized: girls are taught to protect themselves from getting assaulted, as if we are moving targets from the start, faced with the inevitable that a certain number of us will be hit; that girls are taught this rather than boys being taught to not assault anyone; that when the assault is attempted and escape happens, a girl should be thankful that “it wasn’t worse.” Who exactly are we thanking?
A risk in being gentle is being seen as the weakest of a pack, regardless of safety in numbers, being exposed as the punctured worm on the hook, perhaps even being oblivious to this. You can’t blend in with who you are trying to be invisible to once you have been marked by your own blood.
Every time I steel myself, prepare a growl to give back, put on a tougher persona as defense, is this a form of aggression turned inward? When I tell myself I have to do things I’d rather not or else—building an internal callous over all my sensitivities. Because it may be dangerous to show fear. How do I know if I’ve crossed the line between self-protection and self-destruction?
All of this hyper vigilance, this constant awareness of one’s own body in relation to others’, the constant appraisal of behaviors and energies—does the brain learn to never stop its calculations? What is getting caught in the trenches of these neural pathways? And—god—imagine what else we could be doing with all this mental and physical energy if we weren’t always on alert, if we (the other we) relaxed the grip on aggression and realized how soft and vulnerable the inside of a fist can be.
Part of me wonders if I haven’t felt threatened by female displays of aggression, or if I am skeptical somehow, because of some buried-deep internalized misogyny—that part of me believes women are harmless, at least relative to men. Or maybe the feeling of non-threat comes from assuming that because I am also female-bodied, I won’t be targeted by them (as if this type of violence does not exist). But I wonder how and when female aggression is threatening to men, and how they process that emotion. Because men are certainly told they shouldn’t feel threatened by women (to do so is to be a pussy and thereby reduced to a (further reduced) woman—weak, vulnerable, penetrable). Here, also, is how women are told not to be women—lest you be taken advantage of (in terms of body or dignity and however they may be linked).
There is no denying female anger. Because there are moments of feeling akin to Judith Beheading Holofernes, as she takes the matter (neck of the oppressor) into her own hands. Moments of taking down the threat, sometimes more outwardly, sometimes only existing as the look on one’s face, sometimes only later imagined with an amount of regret and a perverse longing to be in that situation again and now armed with a proper comeback, a more confident physical force, the strength of an ancient rage. In Caravaggio’s painting, Judith’s brow furrows, she looks somewhat unsure, sad, yet resolute; in Gentileschi’s version, she is more determined, leveraging her body for more power in her work. In each painting, she doesn’t work alone, but with another woman.
Theory: Judith beheads Holofernes as self-protection and as an act of righteousness; whatever she does to his body afterwards is revenge.
Another time, a year later, taking the train back to my apartment from that same tiki bar, that same friend and I witness a distraught man, expressing aggression by way of air guitar. He makes his way back and forth down the length of the car, sometimes falling into an empty seat, hitting the high notes in the guitar solo. Moments of levity perhaps add confusion, but are possibly a small reward for this hyper vigilance.
Is there a scale or spectrum spanning from compassion to rage? Can rage nest inside compassion, or—when gentleness is finally allowed in, does it swell so much so as to push out all rage emotions?
On her blog, the poet and artist Lora Mathis posts two photos of a circle of jewelry surrounded by a triangle of knives. In the pink background, letter beads spell: “RADICAL SOFTNESS AS A WEAPON” and “EMOTIONALITY AS A TACTIC.”
In the caption, she writes: “This softness and unapologetic vulnerability is a tactic against a society which prioritizes hardness and a lack of emotions. Strength doesn’t have to mean turning off emotions. It can be sharing yourself openly. It can be choosing to share those difficult emotions in-order to make others feel less alone and to create a space of healing. It can be refusing to be sorry for how you feel.”
Thinking again of Clarice Lispector’s writhing oyster—is there any chance the oyster-eater changes their mind, carries the mollusk back to the water, rinses off the citrus, closes up the muscle?
But you can’t unshuck an oyster.
Be human by letting yourself be seen as human. Does this mean more tender emotions need to be accessed by both sides? That the aggressor needs to see themselves as human with full range of emotions, too, in order to realize “I am treating someone in a dehumanizing way,” and maybe fear is a great dehumanizer—knocking us out and inciting animalistic responses.
“Radical softness as a weapon” still implies combat and harm. But couldn’t it also mean the opposite of a weapon? A complete rawness in the face of violence and aggression, a blatant admission of being unarmed, perhaps even mentally, emotionally. Openly fearing, but with an awareness of that fear, a way of placing that soft, shivering fear between you and someone else. Maybe fear or vulnerability is what makes room for gentleness. To flinch without flinching.
Colleen Burner is a Midwestern-raised writer and artist, co-editor of Shirley Magazine, and Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient. Their work has appeared in Quaint Magazine, Permafrost, and Black Candies: Gross and Unlikable.