The Kingdom of the Blind

 

Sometimes, after waking up from a troubled sleep, it occurs to me that I live in a world to which I have become so accustomed that I wander down its streets like a horse with blinders. I see those things at which I am pointed and accept what I am told about the rest –even about the other horses… And they, like me, process their separate realities as if they were representative. Common grounds. All, no doubt convinced of the uniqueness -the appropriateness- of their own interpretations. Certain that what they see is what we all see –should see- otherwise we are mistaken and groping. Remember, in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

But we miss a lot unless we stand back and consider what passes for reality. And why. The other day I was listening to an archival podcast from BBC 4 entitled Body Count Rising –a thought-provoking and insightful documentary about how we have come to watch- and accept- crime programs that seem to glorify violence against women. Rape, murder, abuse –all common themes that, had they no fascinated audience, no prurience, would never have gained the popularity they seem to enjoy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07wtggz

To me, only an occasional crime show adherent, the trend was largely invisible. And yet, as a man, maybe even a steady diet of such programs would have slipped past without a comment. Without a conscious recognition that perhaps the overly realistic depictions of female abuse, the preponderance of rape as an important component of the plot, and the salacious depiction of the female corpse was actually a not-so-covert titillation. A not-so-disguised form of necrophilia.

Another component of the podcast documentary that I had not considered until then –and one that I found powerfully compelling- was not so much the increasing demand for these kinds of stories, but rather the effects on the female actors who had to play the role of the victims. I suspect that most of us become so enmeshed in the storyline, so enveloped in the plot that we forget that to be convincing, the actor has to become the character she is playing. Those kinds of victim roles must be devastating -especially when the story purports to depict what is actually happening out there in real life to real women. And yet for the rest of us, we experience it vicariously and from the safety of our living rooms.

Where does the fault lie? The documentary makes an honest attempt to dissect it –from the writers who decide what species of story is saleable, to the networks and producers who pander to audience demand, and even to the actors who, despite their reluctance to glorify the ugliness they are asked to portray, dare not risk declining or criticizing the role for fear of subsequent unemployment… Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t another form of abuse. More subtle perhaps, more deniable, and yet one more gossamer-thin thread in a web of denigration so easily ignored in our society. So readily dismissed. So invisible…

We are all to blame, aren’t we? There are blind spots in each of our lives.

I walked into in a crowded restaurant for lunch the other day, and the only table left was uncomfortably close to one where a man and a woman sat arguing. To be fair, they were initially discreet about it, never raising their voices, nor gesturing suggestively with their cutlery, but nevertheless, I felt almost as if I was a guest in their kitchen and forced to witness a family squabble.

“… Whatever!” the woman hissed sotto voce, as she glanced at me sitting so close to them. She was young –maybe in her mid-twenties- and looked as if she had just come from work. Dressed in a grey skirt and a white now-creased blouse, her auburn hair once pinned on top of her head, escaped strand by strand as she tossed her eyes back and forth from the leftovers on her plate to her partner’s face.

He was probably in his forties, and dressed in a brown suit with a red tie loosened at the neck. Staring intently at the woman, a patient smile tattooed on his face, he was leaning forward on the table when I sat down. He made several desultory attempts to touch her arm, but she withdrew each time. “Sheila asks for it, though, Janice…”

Evidently, this was not the response Janice wanted to hear and she sat up stiffly on her chair and glared at him. “Asks for it! What kind of an animal are you, Jeff?”

“Come on, Jan. Get off your high horse!” he sat back on his chair and his facial tattoo expanded sardonically. Cruelly. “She flirts with every man in the office… Including me,” he added, as if this proved his point.

“Flirts?” Janice’s voice rose unintentionally, but she glanced my way and subdued the rest of her words. “Sheila is just friendly; that’s how she interacts with people.” She shook her head sadly, and several more strands of hair tumbled to her shoulder and danced as she spoke. “You’re so shallow!”

“Friendly is one thing –you’re friendly, but you don’t stand as close as she does when you talk. And you don’t start fondling people to make a point. Sheila bores into your face with her eyes, like she wants to peer inside, or something…”

“You mean she actually listens when you talk…?”

Jeff frowned at the remark and shook his head. “No… it’s more than just listening, Jan. It’s… seductive.”

The skin on Jan’s face tightened, and her eyes tore a strip off his face. “So that’s why Jason gropes her every chance he gets? Because she’s asking for it?”

“Gropes her?” His voice rose unpleasantly loud and people at the nearby tables turned to see who was yelling. He dropped his eyes to his plate again, and lowered his voice. “Janice you’re so bloody naïve! He’s just responding to her. Stimulus-response –it’s not groping! You make it sound so… so damned lewd.”

Janice’s eyes grew to the size of the plate in front of her and her face reddened as the veins on her neck grew fat and swollen. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. “Suppose Sheila kept grabbing his ass –what would you call that? Or his crotch…? I saw him trying to finger her in the corner, Jeffrey!!”

Jeff rolled his eyes and guffawed. “He’s just playing the game, Jan… And anyway, Jason wouldn’t do that unless she was okay with it.” He toyed with the bit of food left on his plate and then chose a large, dripping piece and put it in his mouth –but slowly and carefully. I could tell he thought he was being seductive.

From where I sat, I could see Jan’s fists opening and closing. She seemed momentarily speechless, although I suppose she was actually trying to calm herself down before she exploded. “Jeffrey, you’re missing the point!” The words came out between clenched teeth, her eyes locked on his. “Jason is her boss, for god’s sake! She feels she has to take it…” She tried to soften her face for a moment as she explained the obvious, but it was a losing battle. “Don’t you understand…?” she said quietly while shaking her head. I could tell she wasn’t far from tears.

But Jeff’s face stayed blank. It was as if Jan hadn’t explained anything. “Sheila could just tell him to stop, if she wanted to.” It was so obvious to him.

Jan glanced at her watch and stood up. “I’ve got to get back now, Jeffrey…” He smiled again and pointed to some food still left on his plate. “Wait till I finish this, Jan,” he said, and not kindly. It was an order, really, so she sat down again and leashed her eyes obediently.

But not before they strayed briefly to my face in apology –a silent recognition of the way things were. An invisible shrug.

 

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The Serpent’s Egg

We all see the world through our own experiences, paint it with our own colours, fly our own flags. They seem real to us –unique and even necessary to our identities. As if it’s enough to be simply what we wear; as if we are only what we’ve been taught to show. But sometimes we need distance to understand that there are other equally compelling ways of defining ourselves. Other less travelled roads.

I say this, of course, as an unwitting member of a large club in which I was enrolled without being required to read the rules. But I guess most of us say that, don’t we? Male privilege –it’s something that’s hard to see if it’s all you’ve known. Easy to deny –and certainly easier to excuse- if you’re the privileged one. Especially if you can’t even understand the claim; to a sock, everything is a foot. It’s why we have them…

I worry that it is a learned attitude, however –like assuming all girls want to play with dolls, and all boys want to play with cars. A self-fulfilling prophecy if it’s taught early enough –valid only because we know it’s how it should be. Harmless, perhaps, if it does not disadvantage either side, but untenable unless dispassionately assessed. Unfortunately, we all tend to bring our own agendas to the analysis. Our own talking-points. Our own pasts…

A state in Australia is making a brave attempt to bring some historical context to the issue, and create some early awareness of the challenges of gender perspective and gender stereotypes: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-37640353 ‘Students will explore issues around social inequality, gender-based violence and male privilege.’ This is not to suggest that Australia is any different in its treatment of women, but it is a welcome departure from many countries that don’t even acknowledge the problem. ‘Primary school students will be exposed to images of both boys and girls doing household chores, playing sport and working as firefighters and receptionists. The material includes statements including “girls can play football, can be doctors and can be strong” and “boys can cry when they are hurt, can be gentle, can be nurses and can mind babies”.’ And it doesn’t stop with primary school education. ‘A guide for the Year 7 and 8 curriculum states: “Being born a male, you have advantages – such as being overly represented in the public sphere – and this will be true whether you personally approve or think you are entitled to this privilege.” It describes privilege as “automatic, unearned benefits bestowed upon dominant groups” based on “gender, sexuality, race or socio-economic class”.’ Good on them!

But I think we have to be careful to walk the middle path. Accusations are seldom neutral; they often engender anger and even retaliation from those accused. So, perhaps predictably, in Australia ‘a report on a 2015 pilot trial accused it of presenting all men as “bad” and all women as “victims”.’ It’s one thing to illuminate the entire stage for a play, but still another to spotlight only one particular area. Decontextualize it…

*

Jeannette seemed like a fairly typical young woman as she sat relaxed in her seat and talking to several other women in the waiting room. Her long auburn hair danced lightly on her shoulders when she laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she leaned over to accept a toy from a little boy who had toddled over to her on a whim. Dressed in a loose grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, she wore a fresh, newly-pregnant smile that every woman in the room could see. And even the older ones followed her with their eyes –memories of bygone years. Her joy, theirs to enjoy -if only vicariously, and for too brief a time.

But her smile faded as soon as she sat across the desk from me in my office. Her eyes were predators shackled for the moment, the cage doors open nonetheless.

“I understand congratulations are in order, Jeanette,” I said, looking at my computer screen, and missing the change in her face. “Your family doctor says this is your first pregnancy…”

“The father doesn’t want me to keep the pregnancy,” she said tersely, her lips thin and tight, and as I looked up, she sent her eyes to savage my smile, and her forehead seemed to pucker as they left.

I had never met Jeannette before, although I had apparently seen her mother as a patient several years ago. That was all the GP said  -maybe it was why he had sent her to me for her pregnancy. I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair. These are always difficult conversations. “And how do you feel about that, Jeannette…?”

I could see her face relax a bit, as if my response had caught her by surprise. “I… I don’t think it’s fair!” She searched in her pockets for something, and then grabbed a tissue from my desk and dabbed her cheek. “I mean he’s blaming me for getting pregnant…” She took a deep, stertorous breath and sat back on her chair. “He refused to wear a condom –he said it would show I didn’t trust him…” I could see her squeezing her hands. “I didn’t, actually… I mean we’d never slept together before, but we were good friends… and…” Her eyes had softened with tears so she dropped them onto her lap and grabbed a handful of tissues. “Well, we were both drinking –he kept filling up my wine glass and…”

I remained silent and waited for her to continue.

“And he doesn’t even believe it’s his anyway… I was too easy he said!” Her face hardened again and her eyes dared me to agree. “I got really angry. ‘You were pretty easy, yourself’, I told him. And that’s when he punched me in the stomach and left…”

I have to admit that my mouth fell open. “Did you report him, Jeannette?”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “He’d just deny hitting me, doctor!” she said through gritted teeth as if it were obvious. “And he’s already telling my friends it was consensual sex…”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my expression neutral. “Did you tell your GP all this?”

She shook her head. “He wouldn’t understand. I just said I was pregnant…”

I sat quietly for a moment, wondering how to proceed, when she suddenly smiled warmly at me. “Can I ask you something, doctor?”

I nodded with a smile –sometimes it’s all you can do.

“If I were your daughter, what would you say to me?”

I thought about it for a bit, then looked at her and sighed. “When you do dance, I wish you
a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that.”

Her face brightened even more and her eyes sparkled in the sunlight from the window behind me. “That’s from Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ isn’t it?”

I nodded, surprised both that I quoted that line of all things, but also that she knew what I meant.

“Better start filling in that antenatal form on your screen, don’t you think?” she said, barely able to contain her face.

And we both laughed. Sometimes poetry has the privilege, I realized –not gender…

 

 

The Grief that does not Speak

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!

Like Hamlet, we all recognize this mood: the black dog lying in the noonday sun, the cloud that even hides the moon. It is the tear that defeats the wavering smile –and yet… And yet, there is often something more behind the grief, something that is hidden beneath the first impression. Shakespeare, again, understood this over four hundred years ago: ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.’

I suppose we all impose our own reality; we all see the world through our own experience. But, sometimes we see through that glass darkly. Things are not always what they seem.

Alethea looked calm and happy as she sat in my waiting room. In fact, she was smiling and talking with a little child who’d toddled over to her in his diapers with a toy. She was bending over in her seat, her long black hair almost reaching the little boy, as she tried to make him laugh. Her full-length black, cotton skirt and her blue silk blouse contrasted sharply with his bulky white diapers –a chiaroscuro worthy of a picture, but he waddled off to another woman as quickly as he’d arrived. The waiting room is like that here: a work in progress; an evanescent scene of fleeting beauty.

Alethea smiled again when I greeted her, and examined me with friendly eyes. I had anticipated avoidance, or at least timidity from a woman referred to me with recalcitrant depression. A woman, according to a rather extensive explanatory note, who seemed refractory to multiple attempts at treatment. But I’m a gynaecologist, and although we’re sometimes involved on the edges of depressive illnesses, most of us lay no claim to the territory. We’re adjuncts –often last-minute guests- invited to the therapy just in case; we’re seldom primaries.

But in my office, she seemed less at ease, her eyes flitting from the plants in their pots to the eclectic pictures hanging on the walls. They spent some time inspecting a terra cotta sculpture of a woman begging with a bowl that I’d positioned on a little oak table.

“You certainly have wide-ranging tastes, doctor.” I don’t think she meant it as a criticism, so I took it as the long missing compliment I have yet to hear from my staff.

I smiled, and opened up the computer.

“I’m afraid my GP wrote a rather long note justifying the referral to you; she seems quite worried –or maybe frustrated with me.” Alethea rested her eyes on me for a few seconds. “I asked to see you rather than a psychiatrist.” And then she chuckled. “She was not happy about that, I’m afraid.”

I pushed the computer to one side and sat back in my chair. “Do you mind if I hear your version, first?” I asked.

“Thought you’d never ask,” she said as she made herself more comfortable in the sturdy, old wooden captain’s chair that I insisted on keeping across from my desk, her eyes twinkling with amusement at my suggestion, but still cautious.

“Well,” she started, obviously trying to place the events in their proper order, “A few months ago, I went to see my GP because of some problems I was having –you know, coping stuff,” she added when I wrinkled my forehead. “Anyway, I was in tears when I sat down in her office and had trouble even talking to her without crying.

“She got very clinical and I could tell she was trying to remain an objective observer.” Alethea rolled her eyes and sighed. “She does that sometimes when all I need is a hug or something.” She risked a quick glance at my expression. “But I realize that’s not what doctors are supposed to do…

“Anyway, she asked me all the usual questions about my work, and my home life…” Alethea blinked and looked away. “I think she felt a bit uncomfortable with that part because my partner also used to go to her.” Suddenly she stared at me and I could feel the anger in her eyes. “I really don’t know why that would matter…”

She quickly snatched a tissue from my desk and wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry, doctor, I guess my GP is not the only one who gets frustrated.” She took a long, deep breath and exhaled it slowly. “She said she’d never seen me like that before, and that whatever might be going on, I was seeing it through the lens of depression.” She glared at the begging lady statue for a moment. “She actually said ‘lens of depression’ for god’s sake! Like no matter what I said, or experienced, it was somehow misinterpreted through that bloody lens, or whatever.”

Alethea seemed uncomfortable and kept readjusting her body on the hard chair so I pointed to a more comfortable one nearby. That got her smiling again, but I could tell she was still angry.

“She insisted I go on one of those new antidepressant medications –you know, the ones that aren’t supposed to make you tired. The ‘no side-effects pill’ she called it. ‘Just try It for a few weeks and let me know if it helps,’ she said and escorted me to the door, all buddy-buddy.”

She brought the comfortable chair close to the desk and helped herself to a handful of tissues. “But it only made things… worse.”

I leaned forward on my chair, detecting something she was implying in the way she said that word. “How do you mean, Alethea?”

A tear rolled down her cheek and she dabbed it with the tissue. “I didn’t feel at all like sex, when I was taking it and…” She hesitated for a moment. “And that really made her mad.”

I was confused. “Made who mad?”

She was staring at her lap, but her eyes wandered up to my face for a brief look before she called them back. “My partner.” She sighed again. “So I decided to go off the antidepressants after a while and went back to the GP. She seemed upset that I had only given them a month, and said I was still acting depressed. At that point she said I needed to see a psychiatrist, but I refused. ‘You have a chemical imbalance,’ she almost screamed at me, and implied that if I didn’t get help soon, there might be dire consequences.” Alethea glanced at me again. “I suppose she thought I might try to off myself or something.” She giggled at the thought and when I looked puzzled, she smiled and continued. “Maybe it’s your birth control pill, Alethea. I don’t know why you insist on taking them anyway.’” Alethea’s face turned mischievous and her eyes twinkled like when she first came in. “Because I’m Bi, you stupid woman!” she said and laughed. “Well, I didn’t actually say that to her, but I felt like it…

“Anyway, I convinced my GP to send me to you.”

I squirmed a little uncomfortably in my own, soft chair. “Why me?”

A playful smile emerged. “My aunt and cousin see you… They said maybe you’d listen.”

I think I blushed. “And what about your partner? Did she think you were… depressed?” I hesitated before using that word. “Did she listen?”

Alethea’s face suddenly tensed. “She was abusive,” she said between gritted teeth, and sent her eyes to scout my face again. “She used to scream at me and throw things around. I hated going home after work.”

“Did you tell that to your GP?”

She shrugged. “I told you, she felt uncomfortable about it. And anyway, she had a diagnosis –and a treatment,” she added, with a wry smile. “That’s what medicine is about nowadays, isn’t it?” The smile disappeared, to be replaced by a sweet grin. “And once you have a treatment, it’s… Next!” she said, rolling her eyes, and we both laughed.

“And so what’s happening now? Are you still with your partner?”

Her face beamed and her eyes sparkled. “Now, I’m back with my old boyfriend -it takes a long time to get in to see you,” she explained with a chuckle. “We’re even planning to have a child soon, maybe.” Her eyes hovered under the ceiling for a second or two. “I guess I wasted your time, doctor, but my aunt was right -it does help to talk about it… And I thought I should meet you anyway,” she added, and decided to make eye contact again. “You delivered my cousin last year…” The twinkle returned. “Care to see me again –in a while?”

I think my smile told her I’d love to see her again.

And as she left, I couldn’t help but think of that wonderful metaphor of Khalil Gibran: ‘Sadness’, he said, ‘is but a wall between two gardens.’

It certainly is.