I remember the first time my boyfriend at the time belittled me. We sat with two of my favorite people in the world: my stepsister, Emily and her husband, Aaron. The ocean crashed beautifully below us in Laguna Niguel, California, where they lived. The sun rose a perfect day, leading us into lunch, laughter, and Bloody Marys.
I started telling a story. My boyfriend interjected, “Alice doesn’t have a very good memory.” I was taken aback, but let it register no more than had he said, “Look at the bird.” It was the interruption to my story that momentarily perturbed me.
Emily and Aaron defended me. Aaron said, “Dude, what are you talking about? Alice has a phenomenal memory.”
Emily followed with, “I think she has a great memory. Have you heard some of her stories?” The detour passed like a salt shaker across the table.
Aaron laughed and said, “Come on, Alice! Tell us the rest of your story.” I did—because that’s what mattered to me.
Now, fifteen years from that scene, twelve years after marrying him, three years after leaving, two years after divorcing, it registers.
What was I thinking? Why didn’t I stand up for myself?
Why didn’t I question why he made such a statement? Based on what? Why didn’t I kill the monster while it was small? Set a more enriching tone for our communication?
I didn’t do any of those things because I’d been letting comments like that slide my whole life. They slid from my father, another man who loved me and was mostly good, but without evil intent could make words cut like a scalpel into a lemon.
Like when I took a summer job across the country and he told me if I failed he’d buy me a bus ticket home. Like when I headed to my ten-year high school reunion and he told me not to feel bad about my lack of success, as my peers were likely in the same boat. After all, he informed me, mine was the first generation to be less successful than our parents.
When my sister landed a job with a software company, my dad said he was concerned for her because to do well in the position one would have to be smart and learn about computers. (She rose to the executive level in that company.)
My father once told me, of course he chose my stepmom and her kids over my siblings and I; we’d grow up and leave, but she’d always be there.
Later, I chose a man’s condescension to mirror my father’s arrows. Comments I long since resisted registering, but that never stopped stinging on an unconscious level. That’s why I didn’t defend myself.
Now, at almost 50, I’ve learned to call my father on his insensitive remarks. He’s learned to apologize. We’ve come to a place of peace and pardon. But that husband?
The worst part wasn’t that I didn’t defend myself. It was that I ingested his unintended insults like one takes in negative news—like he revealed the fucked-up facts of life I had to deal with.
I didn’t have a good memory. I wasn’t good at math. My humor hurt people. Business wasn’t my forte… There was just enough truth for me to trust, especially early on when I believed that his was the love I longed for my whole life.
Truth is a funny thing. What I told you here possibly paints a false picture of the man I spent a big chunk of my life with. He wasn’t mean or malicious. He was kind, giving, generous, and certainly delivered as many compliments as hurtful words.
He’d just learned to point out the “facts” with the confidence of his father, who had put his own ploys on his seven sons. And so it goes. Or, so it did.
One can’t do better until she knows better. Now I do. Not in a 20-something defensive way. Now, as I near 50, I know myself better.
I know my faults and my weaknesses. I don’t need someone to shine a light on them. Nor do I need to hide, deny or defend.
I know my strengths, starting with my memory. I remember men insulting me, approaching me inappropriately, or dismissing me with male superiority, while their words whittled away my self-worth.
My self is worth more. I can see what’s mine and what’s yours. If you’re mine and you can’t see that I’m more, I remember how it hurts to let that shit fly. So, I don’t.
I’m not a child anymore. I’m not obligated to agree. I’m a woman. If you don’t get that, you don’t get me.