I remember vividly the first time I cried over a book. I don’t recall precisely how old I was, but I remember it was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I was young enough still to believe that most books should have happy endings, so when the truth was revealed, I remember how I sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom, leaning against my bed as tears began streaming down my face. I remember thinking how stupid I was to cry over a book.
I remember vividly when I began embracing the experience of crying over writing (and movies and tv shows and other creative works). I was reading tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed. It was my last couple months of college. I had recently gotten out of a two-and-a-half-year relationship with a man I thought, fleetingly, I might marry one day. Strayed, as the advice columnist “Sugar,” offered tender words of affirmation and threw open doors and windows to let in the rays of hopeful futures to letter writers who asked how to navigate broken relationships with sexually abusive fathers or whether they should leave relationships that were just fine but not great.
On the cusp of so many of my own transitions and changes, I sobbed as I read. It only felt right to release these tears of fear, relief, heartbreak, hope, and laughter. The tears were reminders that I was alive, a whole human with real and valid emotions that could be moved and transformed by the real and valid emotions of other whole humans.
I remember vividly reading Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement on Buzzfeed. It was a Saturday morning just a few weeks after I’d graduated from college, a few months after I’d finished tiny, beautiful things. I was living back at home with my parents, in the same bedroom where I first cried over a book. That morning, I had been getting ready to leave to go on a date with a man who would later become my partner and eventually my ex. Once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. I kept scrolling, taking in every word and feeling every punch and twist in my gut as emotions fought their way out.
I was mad. I was distraught. I was wrenched apart. I wanted to embrace this woman and protect her from whoever, whatever was hurting her. I remember rapidly blotting away the tears with Kleenex. I pleaded myself to not dwell over the emotions because I had a date to go on, and I didn’t want my parents asking why I was sniffling at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, why I was so emotional even though I knew and believed these emotions to be valid. When I got to his apartment around 10:30 a.m. that day, my emotions were still at the surface.
“Did you read the victim impact statement from the Stanford rape case?” I asked him just moments after I walked into his apartment.
“Oh, not yet. I’ve been seeing a lot of news about it on Facebook though. Did you?”
I remember feeling let down, but unsurprised. I remained undeterred, still angry. “Yes. You have to read it.”
I remember feeling a deep urge to talk about those words and emotions with someone who wasn’t a woman, someone who perhaps wouldn’t empathize so viscerally with the trauma and innate fears that women have internalized. Someone whose voice I sadly believed would have a greater impact than mine when it came to changing the hearts and minds of the men who were a part of this corrupt system.
“Okay, I will.” (He did.)
I read Miller’s memoir Know My Name this week. It was the first time in years that I’d stayed up too late reading a book. I had work the next day, but I couldn’t bring myself to shut the pages on the flood of emotions Miller’s words had released until I was done. (I went to bed at 2:30 a.m. that night.)
I, like many, knew exactly how the trial ended before I opened the book’s front cover. Turner was released after three months, former Judge Persky was recalled. Everything that was too little. And yet, as I stood reading the book at my kitchen counter, leaving my soiled dinner plates to sit for over an hour, I was more distraught than ever. My fingers gripped the edge of my counter, tears constantly pushed at the corners of my eyes, my breath tightened at the back of my throat. Who does this to another human? How could they have done this to her? Why would they do this?
Miller is half Chinese. She includes this mention of her identity throughout her memoir. She describes the significance of her name; she includes stories about her Gong Gong, mentions her mom’s mom passed away in China on the Mid-Autumn Festival. When her identity gets white-washed, she recalls how she screamed in protest, “I’M CHINESE! I’M CHINESE!” As I read those words, I screamed with her.
Miller writes about how she and her little sister once got locked in a room at a pool facility in China. She didn’t know how to say “help” in Chinese, so she instructed her sister to scream “hello” instead, to get someone’s attention.
I remember I stopped reading for a moment because I realized I also didn’t know how to say “help” for that specific scenario. I knew how to say “help me”—like “Can you help me carry my groceries?”—but that didn’t seem to fit the situation. I remembered only the morning after I finished the book another way I knew to call for help. The words translate to “save my life.”
I couple days before I read Know My Name, I had a couple conversations about systems of oppression and the ways people could feel oppressed or experience privilege over others. Someone mentioned, the more ways a person identifies with targeted or excluded groups, the more likely they will regularly be aware of their identity and how their identity affects how they interact with the people and world around them.
The emotions that Miller captures in Know My Name and her victim impact letter sit with me constantly. I am not a survivor in the sense that Miller and others are, but I am familiar with the reality of how women have been conditioned to carry out their interactions with men. So when a close male friend called me out on a politically incorrect comment I made about male and female interactions—as I was reading the memoir—guilt immediately rose within me. How could I have been so insensitive? How could I have overlooked this? What was I thinking?
Two days later, I reached back out to my friend to apologize, again. The day he called me out, I recognized my mistake, backtracked, apologized, and berated myself. But the more I digested Miller’s words, the more dissatisfied I became with my initial apology. I wanted to follow my words with stronger corrective action, address my need to learn and grow from my misstep.
After my second apology, he asked, “Have you been thinking about this since it happened?”
Perhaps my words hadn’t been such a big deal to my friend because he knew they hadn’t come from a place of bad intent, but oversight. Or he knew I would actually be more careful with my words in the future as I promised. Or he didn’t think about male-female dynamics as often as I did.
I didn’t ask. I only knew that if a man had said something similar to me, I would have made it a Big Deal because my past experiences with men—even men who I thought were good men—led me to believe that men often don’t realize just how much of a Big Deal these comments are.
As Miller writes, words are heavy. They carry weight. They reveal intention and patterns of thinking. If a man had said something off-color to me, I would have wanted to know that his realizations would change him, prompt him to think and do more about the issues and fears that women live with daily.
This want was the same reason I often challenged my ex—the man who I’d only been dating for three months when I stormed into his apartment mere minutes after I’d read Miller’s impact statement and demanded he read it—about his perception, approach, intent to address the issue of sexual harassment and assault. When I asked if he ever got annoyed by my persistence, he said no and added that my questions actually encouraged him to consider these important issues more, so he appreciated my efforts.
He and I are no longer in each other’s lives, so I now sometimes wonder, does he still think about these issues? Is he still part of this fight?
I hope he is.