Author with her mother at age two
It happens even before you know you have a body.
When you are just a whirl of running and plucking earwigs from rotting tree trunks and kickball and laughter without knowing how you sound, how you look.
Before you know you are to be an object, you are told.
Before you can understand your hips, the new shape of you, an expansion beyond the body you’ve always known and believed to be your true body; before you understand your breasts, could come to accept them as belonging to you, you’re told what they are to the world: too small, too big. It’s how you come to know yourself: through the words of boys and men.
There is a Catholic way of talking about puberty in my experience is this:
Do not wear shorts that are too short, even at home. You have older brothers.
Do not try to tame your frizzy hair with Vaseline and put your curls in a side ponytail and then try to leave the house because your mother will tell you could be mistaken for a prostitute and raped.
Given your neighborhood, this may have been a credible fear: rape. There is a van that sits by the park with blackout windows where prostitutes work. You fear more than anything disappearing into that van. You do not know what sex is, but you instinctively know what a violation would do: erase you.
How can a mother shield her daughter? When women transmit these messages to their daughters it feels like an act of desperation, reflexive, a recitation of what they were told when they were young. Do mothers wonder, if I had really heard what my mother told me, would I have been kept safe? And what of the lessons mothers neglect to teach their sons to shield their daughters?
These catechizations come at the same time your body is changing and your emotions a torrent. Gradually, a girl’s body starts changing into a woman’s body. But these surging hormones can also make your mood go up and down — and sometimes it may seem as if your body is out of control. But no one told you the reason for your mood swings, or what they were even. You just thought you had come to the very real knowing that you were falling apart, losing your mind to a darker, expanded reality.
You know so little about the physiology of your own body that when you are fourteen and backstage at play practice and a boy says something to you about babies and vaginas, you blurt out, But babies come out of your butt, don’t they? He bursts out laughing. You are fourteen years old and you do not know the evolutionary function of your vagina.
It is withheld from you, the why and how of your body changing. This takes something from you. It isn’t something you can necessarily recover once you do understand what is happening, because while your body transformed you only knew the messy shame of it. Shame becomes part of the change of your body, becomes part of the new you. The biological explanation for what is happening to you is as unknown and mysterious as transubstantiation.
You are not told the physiological reasons for your breasts and menstrual cycles and pubic hair, only the risks your new body poses to your soul and the souls of every boy and man you come into contact with from your father to your brothers to the men and boys at mass, at the pool, on the playground, down the block, on the bus, on the L train, at the dog show, at the Museum of Science and Industry, at Church’s Chicken, at the laundromat. Your body is not an organism and its living parts. Instead, you are an unwitting trap, a parable of temptation. You learn that these changes mean your body has become a thing of danger.
As you grew up, there was a war coming at you from within and from without.
There is a Catholic way of talking about puberty in my experience and it is this:
Your changed form is a thing you must restrain.
But how can you command a body when it has morphed from something unnoticeable into something you don’t even recognize? And it’s awkward and uncomfortable, the hairy legs and arms and armpits and worst of all the wiry, stubborn pubic hair that refuses to clear away even with persistent shaving. The stubble and ingrown hairs plague you and you don’t ever want to go to the pool but it’s so hot, the Chicago summer, and so you run from the safety of your Strawberry Shortcake towel to the pool’s edge in a flash. You pray all anyone saw of you before plunging into the deep blue pool was just a blur. You prayed to be just a blur.
There is a Catholic way of talking about puberty in my experience and it is this:
Do not go from the pool to five o’clock mass in shorts and a t-shirt and sit alone when you are twelve. You do not know yet that a boy might be drawn to you, let alone find you desirable. After all, what is desire to a girl who is scandalized by Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Do not go to that mass. After you have stood and sang One bread, one Body, one Lord of all and kneeled and prayed and wished peace upon your neighbors with a handshake and taken communion, a teenage boy with shaggy brown hair who is two heads taller than you will walk up to you when you are leaving your pew and say calmly, I wanted you to know that because of your outfit I had impure thoughts and couldn’t take communion.
He will walk away, and you will stand there alone in St. Edmund’s church, as the late light of the afternoon pools rich purples and greens around your bare legs. The church is your favorite because of the music and the huge stained glass windows depicting the story of Lazarus rising and the Wedding at Cana, because its walls are covered with tiny squares of gold leaf and if you stare at the flecks of gold and then press hard on your closed eyelids the gold covers your vision until the whole universe inside you is shining.
Standing there in St. Edmund’s you will not have said a word to the boy. The lesson he has taught you is one you will hear again and again until you leave the Catholic Church: your body is at fault.
After you start middle school at the Opus Dei school for girls that fall, you begin going to the Opus Dei Center on the weekends. There the numeraries in their ankle length jeans skirts and pale Laura Ashley blouses lead talks detailing the Opus Dei take on everything that might concern a young Catholic girl on the precipice of womanhood.
In Opus Dei, female numeraries are celibate like nuns, but don’t wear habits and can leave the Center and marry if they are called. To assist in the goals of the ultra-conservative body of the Catholic Church, a numerary submits to plena disponibilitas, or full availability.
You got to the Center because you had been invited and someone picked you and your sister up and drives you there. At twelve years old, you don’t know much of the small but storied organization, not that Pope John Paul had recently favored it as a personal prelature, not that the numeraries were rumored to whip themselves as penance. Was it at the Opus Dei Center that you told one of the numeraries about the day you temped a boy into sin? Or was it on that long car ride to Washington D.C. to the March for Life?
There may be a seamless way to ask how whiteness factors into your upbringing, but you cannot find it. What a mother values, the lessons she teaches a daughter, what the women of a community asks of its girls are part of a larger structure that underpins a girl’s life.
Your family, the core of your religious community growing up was white. As you grew into a woman, all that you learned of this new stage of life was fear: the threat to your body by men who would rape you and the threat to your soul and the souls of men should you provoke them into temptation. And it was the women in your life who shored up those lessons. What you wonder now is, how much were the lessons you learned shaped by something that was so long invisible to you, your whiteness?
In September 2018 Dr. Christine Blasey Ford comes forward and accuses Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in 1982. Sexual assault takes over the news, your thoughts.
I text my sister, What did Mom tell you about when we had a fire in our house and went to stay with the cousins? I used to have this weird scar tissue over the middle of my vagina.
She sends me a link: “14 Things You Never Knew About the Hymenal Ring.”
I send her back a link: Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
For some of us, it happens even before memories form. There is someone in your family, an uncle, who drinks himself to sexual violence against his sons, against his daughters. You spend some weeks at your cousins’ house when you are two years old and your mother is in the hospital and there’s been a terrible fire in your house. You come back home with an infection in your vagina. The infection goes unexplained or is explained away as neglect. What did your family doctor say, the same doctor who treated all your cousins after their assaults? Did a tear in your hymen occur then? Did something happen during those two weeks to form the strip of scar tissue over the middle of your vaginal opening?
Hymen from the Greek word for thin skin, membrane. A hymen can break easily, when a girl does the splits, when she is horseback riding, speeding down her block on her pink banana seat bike, colored tassels streaming from the handlebars. These hypotheticals belong to a girl who is not you.
The story of the electrical fire in your house will be told again and again all throughout your childhood until the flames, the escape down Mr. Freeman’s housepainter’s ladder becomes something like a memory. Even walking barefoot through the heavy frost in your cousin’s yard, a memory your older sister relays to you, will come to feel like a memory of your own. But it is not.
Along the edges of a damaged hymen a process known as re-epithelialization can take place. Epithelial cells migrate across the new tissue to form a barrier between the wound and the environment.
All through your childhood, what no one will tell you is, you came home from your aunt and uncle’s home with a vaginal infection. It’s another silence. But when you are fifteen, your sister tells you you might have been sexually abused by your uncle when you were two years old, and your uncle’s home, that time becomes rebuilt in your nightmares.
Did my body, after it was violated, build an obstacle to protect itself from future abuse?
In those dreams the bedroom you and your sister shared with your cousins is too dark to see. Your spirit leaves your body as your uncle squeezes you until you can’t breathe. You get out of bed and watch the sunrise again.
Though you have no memory of this time, you discover what you think is a scar. The strip of flesh stretches over the middle of your vaginal opening and causes tampons, once expanded with your menstrual blood to become stuck inside you. You sit on the toilet in the bathroom for what feels like hours crying quietly, desperately, painfully trying to extract the fattened wad of cotton. The toilet tank drips and drips, you re-read the Morning Offering glued to the bathroom mirror. Oh Jesus, I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day. That cord of tissue does not break. Not then. Not years later when you try to have sex for the first time.
The hymen has variations on the theme. The microperforate hymen completely covers the vaginal opening and an imperforate hymen has only a very small hole and the septate hymen has an extra strip in the middle that creates two vaginal openings where there should be one. “The extra tissue (of the septate hymen) can be torn during tampon insertion or sexual intercourse.”
At sixteen when I move away from Chicago, I tell my mother, I won’t go to mass anymore. I am tired of how guilty Catholicism makes me feel.
Well, what do you have to feel guilty about? She retorts.
You have your own room in your new house, and you start to use a small mirror to look at your vagina. Think back to that age. Can you still remember what that tissue looked and felt like? It was ropey and thick. Like a vine of flesh had trailed down from your clitoris and firmly embedded itself in the inferior portion of your vagina. How could it have been anything but scar tissue?
179,000 search results for septate hymen. Think of the hymen like tissue paper. It can stretch or tear or easily rub away. You stare and stare at the search images on Google. This was not what you remember from all those years ago. Though it was it was smooth and deepened pink like the rest of my hymen, that flesh was too thick to have ever been broken by a tampon or sex. And it wasn’t.
When I tried to have sex with a boy for the first time, he couldn’t enter me, despite all his attempts. I went home that night and used a pair of scissors to cut the ropey flesh apart.
Here is another point of fear, another way your changed body could betray you and cast you into hell: abortion.
You grew up going to Pro-Life Action League marches in Chicago in the 1980s. Come January 22, your parents would bundle up you and your siblings against the freezing cold in itchy wool and corduroy and you’d all hop on L train to the Loop with enlarged photos of aborted babies, their limbs like tiny crushed wings, broken jaws, their tiny fingers glued to heavy duty poster board.
All you ever understood about abortion as a young child was that it was murder. Birth control was murder also, only the baby killed was tinier, almost invisible, like the soul itself, seen by God but unseen by the mortal eye.
Babies were killed by abortion doctors because the women having the abortions had been lied to by those doctors. And the murder of their unborn babies would haunt those women all their lives. You knew that much for sure.
Premarital sex was almost unthinkable, but abortion was far beyond that. Abortion was an unforgivable sin that cut you off from communion, from the Church, from Jesus himself.
The aborted babies were killed before they could be baptized, and so they were all waiting for the Second Coming in Limbo, a space somewhere between heaven and hell. Limbo was not hell, certainly, but beyond the Gates of Heaven, beyond the touch of God, and so the murdered babies had been deprived of that sacred grace by the abortion doctors.
As you got older, had your first kiss, a paralyzing fear gripped you. Would you become pregnant and have to choose between giving up the future you envisioned for yourself – making your way Ireland by working on a steamer ship, becoming a poet – and killing your own baby in a secret abortion?
One New Year’s Eve you and your first boyfriend keep to one side of his basement while your best friend and her boyfriend have sex on the other side. He kisses you and you tell him to take you home. He breaks up with you the next day. Years later you hear his next girlfriend has two abortions and all you feel is relief that it wasn’t you.
Here what a young woman who is you understood: The worst sins come from your body.
This is what the woman who has spent the past thirty years weeding out those lessons of shame is trying to wrap her head around today: the white, Catholic women who defend men and boys at the expense of girls and women.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Brett Kavanaugh bring you back to the lessons from your Catholic school days. The conservative Catholics you grew up with question Dr. Ford’s veracity, her timing, the motives of Democrats. Every aspect of the process is scrutinized except Brett Kavanaugh. You should have anticipated it, but you are most angered by how many women defend him and question his accuser.
This isn’t a conversation about sexual assault that should be guided by the “Me Too” movement.
We can’t believe her just because she’s a woman.
With abortion at stake, it seems they will stop at nothing to preserve their unholy sacrament.
You find yourself spinning back into the orbit of the conservative Catholic world you left decades ago. How have these women stayed loyal to a way of being in the world, in a woman’s body, that so poisoned you?
In a Facebook thread with women who were also raised in the Opus Dei, you and your sister try to voice that Opus Dei Catholicism injected a toxic ideology and infected your understanding of female sexuality, of consent.
You sister writes: Girls (at the Opus Dei were) taught that they were responsible for boys or men having “impure thoughts” about them. We were often told a story about a girl who went to mass in a short skirt. She went to communion as usual but when she knelt down afterwards the boy/man sitting behind her tapped her on the shoulder and told her that he had not been able to receive communion because he had impure thoughts about her, and that she had made him sin.
: Who told the story?
: A numerary.
You immediately DM your sister to tell her the story was about you, your sister writes back, Some people are twitter famous, You’re Opus Dei Shaming Famous.
Your sister was a year ahead of you in your Opus Dei school. She went to Circle meetings that were only for the older girls. It was there the numeraries told her about the girl who made the boy sin, what she came to think of as a fable made up to scare her and the other girls into modesty and submission and deference to men. The numeraries knew you, they knew she was your sister, but they never told her they were recounting her own sister’s story.
Everyone has their own story.
Every woman has more than one.
As you grew up, there was a war coming at you from within and from without.
When you were seventeen you went back to a guy’s apartment after a poetry slam and he locked you into his apartment and pushed your face down to his crotch: “No teeth, now.” When you got away, you ran to the 7-11 holding the top of your cream-colored suit closed, all its buttons torn away.
Here is what you learn by walking through the wider world, too quickly:
To cross the street when the block is empty and you see a man and it is after dark in winter walking home from the bus stop after play practice.
To cave your chest in, slump shoulders, drop the light from your eyes.
To wear headphones meant to deter conversation, big bulky ones to cancel their voices but men walk up and peel them off you so you have to hear them, have to respond.
Always you must respond.
You cannot count how many men have catcalled and followed up your silence with Bitch, or the number of men who has assessed you, I’m usually a tit man but you have such incredible legs, you mighta changed that. There was the man who took a picture up your skirt on the 57th St subway steps. The way he stood his ground and stared and stared into your eyes when you yelled at him stays with you. These men are in your pulse that quickens at night when you walk alone; in the jerk of your head to check the back seat of your locked car. They have always haunted you, but during the week of the Kavanaugh hearing, their memories swarm about you like angry ghosts.
Polls always felt like abstractions in the past, but since Trump’s election, you’ve consulted polling numbers like bones thrown by an oracle to understand how we got here, where we are going. In 2016, 60% of White Catholics voted for Trump. Above all, Trump held the promise of Supreme Court appointees who could overturn Roe. But Trump was not so far afield from the worldview of white Catholics if they were able to check that box. In 2018, polls taken after Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified before the Senate revealed 70% of Republican women still supported Kavanaugh’s nomination. It adds up to a story about the community you come from.
Days before the final confirmation vote on Brett Kavanaugh, the conservative advocacy group Catholic Vote releases a video “Moms support Kavanaugh.” We are mothers. We give everything for our sons. In the video baby boys are cradled, bathed tenderly by their Catholic mothers. As the music swells, the boys grow into strong men glistening with virtue, integrity, and courage. Their babies have become soldiers and doctors; they have become Judge Brett Kavanaugh. It ends with this ominous warning: If it could happen him, it could happen to your brother, it could happen to your husband, it could happen to your father, to you.
As you watch the video you think, For some of us, it happens even before memories form.
Within a day of posting the Moms for Kavanaugh video on the Catholic Vote Facebook page, a stream of comments tallies the appreciation of mainly white women for video supporting Judge Kavanaugh. He has been smeared, they say, victimized because he is Catholic, because he is a white man in a time when white men are under attack, and because he would take away the Left’s sacrament, abortion.
For all the reasons they feel he is being demonized by the Left, these women support him, but a central reason they stand by Kavanaugh is rooted in the recognition that he is one of their own. We are mothers. We give everything for our sons.
The same white, conservative, Catholic women who now stand with Brett Kavanaugh were once your primary instructors. They acted in chorus, teaching you to hold your tongue, keep your knees together, that you are to blame, to keep silent, to submit your body and your spirit to the service of God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirt, to your husband. To trust everything but your own voice. Can you understand a national trend by asking who taught you the shame and silence that became the most intimate impulses of your body?
When you watch Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify, you see her body is the focal point of the crowded Senate room. In this theater, ten Democrats thank her for coming forward. The eleven Republicans, all white men, sit silently, raised on a platform above her. They ask questions to punch holes in her motivations, her story, not with their own voices but through a female surrogate.
As Dr. Blasey Ford speaks, her voice shakes. Her blond hair wraps around an arm of her glasses and you have urge to reach through the screen and fix it for her. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school.
What must she reign in for her story to be heard? As she recounts her assault, she controls her volume. She makes her tone exceedingly gentle. She does not cry. She does not yell. She does not sob or sniff loudly or jab her finger in the air. She offers to be helpful. She asks for coffee but not a break. She apologizes.
Dr. Blasey Ford is picture perfect, her body cloaked in a navy suit. Perfect in her manner, in her patience and restraint. She surpasses what is required of her as a victim. She tells her truth in measured steps, and her monologue quietly sets the house aflame.
The wound she reopens before the world breaks open your own. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming.
You watch Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony but cannot face writing it. You do not need to quote him. His voice does not need to be heard again.
The only way Dr. Blasey Ford can be disbelieved is to believe that her truth is not the right truth. Which is what 50 United States Senators will say when they return to the Senate eight days later to vote against her truth.
What follows the Senate hearing is eight days of turning down the radio on assault stories. It feels like eight days of running.
On the eighth day, you open your laptop to the livestream from the Senate just as the last speech finishes and vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court commences.
On the Senate floor, the senators sit facing Mike Pence at his elevated marble rostrum. The legislative clerk calls the role for the vote. Mr. Alexander. Ms. Baldwin. Mr. Barrasso. Mr. Bennet. Mr. Blumenthal. Mr. Blunt.
The women there to protest are off camera. You picture them circling the Senate chamber like birds. Are they close enough to beat their hands on the ceiling, as blue as a September sky? As the senators’ names are called, a woman’s voice breaks through from the galleries above. I am a mother and a patriot! I do not consent!
As you study the pomp and circumstance of the Senate, it’s traditions and decorum, you think of the ancient Greeks and how paltry women’s rights were in the ancient Greek world compared to those of male citizens. You wonder how the women made themselves heard.
Barred from participating in the exclusively male public political scene, (ancient Greek) women…developed another mode of expressing their concerns and opinions about the world around them-through performance of ritual laments.
The Senate clerk covers the microphone with his hand to mute the women’s voices while Mike Pence calls for order. The Vice President strikes gavel to sound block. He remains impassive, his white hair perfectly combed. Sargent in arms will restore order in the galleries.
Another woman calls to the Senators, Where is my representation? I do not consent!
The clerk again smothers his mic to mute her words.
In these songs of mourning Greek women are empowered through their pain to address publicly issues of social importance; the most successful performers skillfully weave sometimes abrasive, often persuasive, and always highly charged judicial and political
Women in the Senate gallery rise one after the other throughout the vote. This is a stain on America. Do you understand? Each time their words are blurred by a hand on the mic, but the guttural anguish that lies beneath the women’s words is heard.
The words of the laments…mixed with cries and shrieks must not be perceived simply as sounds, but as actions displayed before witnesses in an open strategy of… “truth-claiming.” The laments are directed toward the doomed…the lament effects emotional.
You cannot see the women in the Senate galleries, but your body responds to their voices the way it did your newborn: immediately, with everything you are. Their voices command you to action. You are sobbing. And you begin to write.
Mary Catherine Ford has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens College. In 2016, she was a Writer-in-Residence in the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Mary Catherine splits her time between Queens, NY and Oran, Algeria with her husband and their two boys. Her writing has appeared in Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and the Mass Review.