Updated: Apr 23
My mother called Marisol ‘a doormat’ because she tolerated verbal abuse. I learned never to be one.
Wipe your feet here. Photo by Zipnon on Needpix
My mother was a radical feminist before it was cool. Not ‘radical’ the way we know it today. Her radicalism stemmed from her uncommon conviction that on some level, women possess a certain amount of control over whether they’re abused.
Mom never suffered physical abuse herself, nor do I know of any friends she had who did. They sometimes suffered what today we recognize as psychological or emotional abuse. Including Mom, who could deal it herself if Dad provoked her enough. If men possess the physical edge over women, one can argue women possess the same between the ears. We’re better wired to understand and process feelings, we express language with greater precision, we understand better the value of relationships and how to manage them, with which we’ve refined our darker powers of emotional manipulation.
Men can kill us, but we can still destroy them.
It wasn’t just the lessons Mom drummed into me growing up, making it crystal clear I had the power to decide how a boy or man would treat me.
It was all those dinner conversations about Don and Marisol.
Dad met Don, a fellow engineer, at the large U.S. government contractor where they worked in Orlando. Don was from France and a fast friendship grew with my American-born French immigrant family father. Mom and Marisol, both young mothers, hit it off.
Sometimes we’d visit Marisol. I played with her two youngest while the moms chit-chatted.
Mom regaled Dad over dinner with Marisol’s stories. Don was a real pain in the ass — dismissive, combative, rude. Once he called Marisol’s mother ‘a big fat cow’. Other times, he insulted or criticized Marisol or the way she handled their four kids. There’s no reigning expert on parenthood quite like a man in an office five days a week.
“So I said, ‘Marisol, why do you put up with this? Why do you let him talk to you that way? I told her, ‘He treats you like a doormat.’”
Later, I asked Mom what she meant. She replied, “Mr. V mistreats Mrs. V and forgets about her. It’s like he wipes his feet on her and she doesn’t argue. Neither does a doormat.”
In the 1960s, women didn’t often recognize abuse for what it was. But Mom recognized the power Marisol wouldn’t claim.
It wasn’t, and still isn’t, an unrealistic view. We’re responsible for ourselves, always, and in a modern world we possess far more agency than women had over fifty years ago. We have more power to decide who to allow into our lives, and how we’ll let them treat us.
One can argue 1967 ain’t 2020. True. Marisol had her reasons for staying with or tolerating Don. But Mom didn’t tolerate crap from my father, a product of the same generation that produced Don.
I sometimes wonder how many men — and women — would be more abusive if their partners allowed it.
Respect. It starts at the beginning. Thanks to Harli Marten for sharing their work on Unsplash. The ones who disrespect women, who try to control and dictate their choices, who insult and condescend to get their way, need to depart forthwith, and never darken her doorstep again.
Before the beatings begin.
I’ve finished a book on the psychology of abusive men and the author, a male counselor who’s worked with them all his life, notes how difficult, almost impossible it is, to root out the entrenched sense of ownership and entitlement these men feel. Mom knew then what we’re only beginning to understand today: You can’t change another person, but you can change yourself. You decide how you’ll be treated. The sooner, the better. Prevention, etc.
Her words of wisdom defined my life, even if she didn’t always take her own advice. I repeated her words back when she railed years later about how my emotionally remote father needed to change for her.
Marisol may have not had as much choice with four kids, but today she would. She met Don at her dream job working for a cultural attache in a foreign country. Single motherhood today is no picnic, nor an option for all, but with 60% of divorces initiated by women, it’s not the entrapment it once was, either.
Every child she bore for Don was a choice to stay, and to further tighten the bonds with him.
Mom never liked Don. She told me years later she put up with him because of Dad’s friendship, and because she liked Marisol. Don once put the moves on her when Dad and Marisol were out of the room. Mom demanded my father never leave her alone with him again.
His kids seemed to react against him. Mom believed they committed deliberate acts of rebellion. Once they crushed an Easter marshmallow bunny in Don’s workbench vise. It solidified before he discovered it, making it even more of a devil to fix and clean.
I complained that Mr. V hugged me too hard. Mom said Mrs. V complained he was sometimes too harsh in his punishments with the children. I don’t know if it was abuse or not. I don’t remember the details.
In one of our hoary old family movies, Don is at a 1968 Christmas party hosted by my parents. I love it for the sheer kitsch/camp value of a bunch of ‘squares’ celebrating like the party scene in The Graduate. Don is on the couch. When the camera points his way he makes a few silly, rude gestures, then a Seig Heil move. It wasn’t his only expression of racism according to Mom.
She got mad one year when the avowed atheist blasphemously referred to Jesus as ‘That cat on the cross’. She didn’t say anything, of course. Good ’60s wives didn’t call out their husband’s friends.
I don’t remember all my parents’ dinner conversations. Most had little to offer a preschooler. Dad talked about work, Mom about friends, church junk, boring adult stuff. I knew, though, anything involving the V family was bound to be engaging, even for a four-year-old. Don was a source of endless drama and Marisol an abject lesson in how to be a doormat.
I didn’t realize how ingrained was my notion that women have control over their own lives until I caught a badly-imagined passage in my first dark fantasy novel.
The main character, Samantha, has just broken up with her more-casual-than-she-would-have-liked boyfriend. She flees to a friend’s house after a demon set upon her by a frenemy almost beats her to death after she resists its sexual advances.
A young male friend comes over to give her something and sees her bruised face.
“Samantha,” [he says, assuming her ex was responsible], “how could you let him do this to you?”
It took six or seven drafts before I realized how horribly misogynist it sounded. Especially from a male character who treated women well.
But that’s how I thought. Still do. How can she let him treat her that way? The revision reads:
“If it was that movie Indian asshole, I’ll kill him.” Dunham leaned back against the door and crossed his arms, leveling me with his own steely gaze.
Samantha is a strong, powerful character. Her sort-of boyfriend Andrew isn’t an abuser, but he has a wandering eye. When she finds out he had sex with a friend who didn’t know about her own involvement with Andrew, she breaks up with him. In my mind, Dunham saw her the way I see women like her: As someone who, whether her trust or body was abused by a man, would never allow it to happen again.
I realized how screwed up the passage was, and I changed it.
Old thought patterns die hard. One can’t obliterate millennia of patriarchy, female ownership and entrenched male privilege in one century since the advent of modern-day feminism. Toxic beliefs and values permeate our beings as they do men’s, including women’s greater willingness, I believe, to accept victimhood and tolerate abusive behavior. Our brains are wired by our biological sex along with our evolutionary social conditioning, although we always have the power to change. Our neural pathways connect in malleable brains, not cement. We can change our thinking patterns, values, beliefs and perceptions. We can decide not to be slaves to our cave brains.
If men need to uproot their entrenched toxic patriarchal belief systems, so do women. Men don’t have to abuse. Women don’t have to be abused. We can choose not to be victims.
But first we have to recognize that power.
Then seize it.
This appeared on Medium in September 2020.