Standing still to move on

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I was enquiring after a mutual friend, whose husband had just deserted and betrayed her.

“How is she?”

“Distraught. She was asking how long it lasts.”

“What? The pain?”

She nods.

“The ‘it-hurts-so-bad-I-don’t-want-to-live-any-more’ pain lasts, erm, well, for me it lasted about 6 months. All she can do is concentrate on getting through the days, and congratulate herself for it. Then it gets easier, but it takes time. Two years later and I’m only just beginning to feel like me again, as opposed to someone who is surviving something.”

And then I realised. That was the first time I’d said it out loud, that I was really ready to get on with being myself rather than having every thought and action overshadowed by what I used to be, and am no longer. That’s taken two years. Two years since my (ex-)husband told me he no longer loved me and wanted a divorce.

We all heal from grief, pain and tragedy at different rates, and those emotions specific to divorce are no different. My ex has already sold the former family home and moved out of the area to set up a new home with his fiancee; within a year of decree absolute, he will be married again. If he is the hare of divorce recovery, I am certainly more the tortoise.

I’ve lost track of the well-meaning mentions of the need to “move on” and “get over it”, even “forgive”, but this isn’t something I can rush. The aching void of pain began to close over some time ago, and the razor’s cut of rejection only clips me occasionally, when I am brave enough to again experiment with trust and take the risk of vulnerability. What has taken so much longer is working out who I am and how I live now I have lost my life partner, my family unit, my home, and in the process, my home church and many close friends and family members. I couldn’t move on because I didn’t know where I should move to. Aside from the blessed necessities of work and parenting and setting up home, I had no idea how to gather the fragments of who I once was and what I once had into a new identity, a new life. So I stood and waited. I paid attention to what was left and nurtured it as best I could. I let what had gone slip quietly away and wished it a silent farewell. I carried on, I continued, I coped as best I could. And I stood and waited.

Now, two years later, I am finally ready to kneel and gather the fragments into a cohesive whole, to sift through the remnants and decide again what goes and what stays, and to add to them the new, and the rediscovered. I am ready to let what has happened to me shrink into the distance in my rear-view mirror, to choose who I am now rather than be defined by losing who I was.

Again, this will take time. The assumptions on which I had founded my adult life now seem to have all the solidity of drifted sand. Even my faith in God feels threadbare, tenuous, forever stripped of the somewhat arrogant certainty of blessing and provision for those who believe. I feel like the blind man waiting for healing whilst Jesus plays with spit and dirt.

My “moving on” is consequently a hesitant shuffling over the threshold, rather than a purposeful stride. I weigh my decisions more cautiously now, trying to do the right thing, aspiring to wisdom. Each choice defines my new identity and shapes my new future and the future of those now dependent on me. Just me. If this all goes wrong, I have no-one to fall back on, no-one is on-hand to catch me if I fall and fail. Each day is a series of moment-by-moment choices, each day lays the foundation for a week, a month…another year. I live thankfully, carefully, tentatively. I rest as much as I can, and forgive myself often. There is no clearly-defined route to where I am going, there is no map and my compass isn’t what it was. I speak comfort to myself that it is hardly surprising if I feel and act “lost”.

I shuffle on. One day I trust I will be able to make another public admission – that my life is finally coherent, sensible, balanced, and that I feel fully at home in it.

I will have “moved on”.

But I will never “get over it”. The scars will fade but they will never vanish. I will never be the same woman I was 2 years ago. The intervening events can never be erased from my history and their effects on me and my circumstances are indelible. There is no going back, no possibility I will “get over it” and revert to who and how I was before. But if I am careful enough, prayerful enough, and brave – I may eventually become someone different, someone I can be proud of. I am hopeful that, like a kintsugi vessel, my ugly breaks will one day be rendered beautiful joins.

Why I went all quiet all of a sudden

On 26th September 2014, my marriage ended. My husband, father of my two sons, divorced me. It wasn’t what I wanted but there’s not a lot you can do when the person you’ve been with for 15 years decides they don’t love you any more. We’d been separated for 14 months.
I’ve been thinking for some time about what to say, if anything, in public about this biggest crisis of my personal life. I’ve tried not to use social media as an outlet, the cauldron of high emotion (on both sides) really didn’t need me to stir it. Neither did I want my children to find mounds of ill-considered seething vitriol if they explored my online history in years to come.
I also don’t feel the need to share my story. That’s a degree of revelation and vulnerability too far, even for me. Also, everyone’s experience of divorce is probably as unique as their marriage, and the people in it. For example, I imagine mine would have been a very different experience if we didn’t have children or if either of us had been unfaithful. There are common strands to those individual stories but there are plenty of those stories online already (I know, I’ve read a lot of them) for someone to perform that analysis…what do I have to add?
One of the things I wasn’t expecting in the process of divorce was how many people I would lose. I’m very sociable and well-connected, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference between a close connection and a genuine friend. Until you go through something like a divorce, that is. Some took sides against me, but most honestly didn’t know what to say, so ignored me. I can understand both, but that doesn’t make it easier. Through these mechanisms, I have lost touch with many of those I once called my family and friends.
A few responded to my dramatic change in circumstances and status by trying to correct it, like my picture on their wall was suddenly out of line and needed straightening. I know they meant well, but some responded by telling me what I had done to cause my marriage to fail and others gave me dubious advice on how to fix it. I know these people were largely just thinking aloud, trying to make sense of something that had totally blind-sided them, but those thoughts would have been so much better staying inside their heads. I couldn’t change the situation I was in, or the things I’d done which had contributed to it, so these kinds of discussions only served to make me feel more wretched and powerless.
The most helpful response was to be quietly present. I kept going because I had to, I had two small boys depending on me, and (way down in distant second place) my colleagues at work and within ScienceGrrl. But there were many days where I dragged myself out of bed, in tears, to do that…and ended the day in a similar state. On those days an e-mail to say ‘stay strong’ or a text saying ‘thinking of you’ was the chink of light in the dark that gave me hope. I’m so grateful for those who kept that link, who gave in a way I could receive when I couldn’t talk about it and was stumbling, numb, through the days. On the whole, they were the ones I later invited in, who hugged me and held my hand, who listened over tea and wine, who took me out to show me the good things that existed beyond my current experience and even – surprisingly – in it, who I felt able to turn to for practical help with cooking meals, childcare, DIY, buying a car, and moving house three times. These people came from all corners of my life, male and female, old and young, of all faiths and none, family or not, friends for decades or months. What they all have in common is that they couldn’t let me go through this on my own, and I’m eternally grateful for them.
I guess this is what I wanted to share, out of it all. If you want to help a friend in crisis, let them know you’re there. And don’t let them forget it.

Postscript:
That said, there did come a point where what I was going through became too big for all but my very closest friends to bear, and even too much for me to comprehend and process. I got to a stage where my thoughts and emotions were so fragmented and tangled and frayed that I knew I needed professional help, and I found my mental health A&E in Elli Keavey. She has been my counsellor for over a year and has helped me understand what I’ve been through and my response to it. With her help I have arrived at a place where I know who I am, and what I need, and can look at the future with tentative hope rather than grim determination. If you’re going through a crisis and feeling like you’re really not coping, please, don’t go under – get help. Coming out of it sane is worth every penny.

On the importance of supportive parents

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On graduating from Nottingham University with my first degree – with my Mum and Dad

The preface of my PhD thesis features two quotes from eminent physicists who have inspired me with their childlike wonder and delight in discovering the world through science:

“Three great challenges

remain for modern physics:

the big, the very small, and the complex.”

Sir Martin Rees

Astronomer Royal, tea drinker and dog lover

“In summary,

the idea is to give all of the information

to help others judge the value of your contribution;

not just the information that leads to judgement

in one particular direction

or another,”

Professor Richard Feynmann

Nobel Laureate, lock picker and bongo player

I expect many of you have heard of them. I certainly expect you’ve heard this quote, with which I opened my two-page list of acknowledgements:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton

Great quotes, from great men. But that’s just it. When I look at my heroes in science, that’s what I see: men. Lots of them. White, middle-aged (or older) men. Several have crazy hair, occasionally they also have a beard to match. It’s not hard to see where the children’s stereotype of ‘scientist’ comes from.

It’s never been an issue for me, as my parents always encouraged and supported my scientific ambitions. My Dad worked as a Packaging Technologist and would spend hours on Sunday afternoons building and making things with me; that was probably where my skills as an experimental physicist began to develop. I do wonder though, what would have happened if my parents held a different view: that physical science wasn’t for girls, that I should concentrate on looking pretty rather than working with my hands, and I would be better off investing my intellect in something that made serious money and avoided contact with machinery and hard sums.

I have rarely met parents who express these views explicitly, but I have had several conversations at careers fairs over years of being a STEM ambassador that have made me realise these preconceptions are often bubbling under the surface. They leak out in a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle cues which add up to convince many girls that science, and certainly physics, isn’t for someone like them. That’s before you add in unhelpful messages from their peers and wider culture, often based on the same preconceptions, and patchy access to accurate information on the range of satisfying careers open to those with science qualifications.

Alongside working as a Senior Medical Physicist in the NHS, I now direct ScienceGrrl, a network celebrating and promoting women in science. We began by producing a 2013 calendar, showcasing the work of diverse mix of female scientists from a wide variety of fields, alongside their male colleagues. In the process, we have  gathered a host of women (and not a few men) who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation. We’re in the process of working out how best to connect with school children to convince them that science is for everyone, by introducing them to a host of friendly role models in STEM careers – aswell as making female scientists more visible in wider culture, and several other things! To find out more, please visit us at www.sciencegrrl.co.uk or follow us on Twitter, @Science_Grrl.

The XX Factor

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Saturday’s Times Magazine featured an article by Janice Turner, about Prof Alison Wolf’s new ‘controversial’ book, “The XX Factor”. I must make a confession, I haven’t read the book. I don’t think I need to, judging by what Janice’s article did to my blood pressure.

According to Alison, there is a new, elite class of women – XX women – who make up 15-20% of the female population. These women are highly educated, marry their peers then have babies late (if at all), work throughout their children’s infancy and primarily because they want to rather than needing the money, employ domestic staff and spend a fair bit of their money on their kids’ education. They also have less sex than their peers.

Reading the rest of the article, it’s clear that XX women also tend to have an unhealthy disdain for the other 80-85% of those with the eponymous chromosomes. The article praises the 15-20% as an elite, driven, striving, tenacious, high profile supergroup (Janice’s words, not mine). According to them, bonding with other women – and particularly other mothers – is a waste of time, being a stay-at-home mother isn’t a full-time job but a waste of education and talent, as is setting up a ‘girlie’ (cupcake-making) business. For them, their joy and satisfaction is in a job well done, and home and motherhood are additional items on the ‘to do’ list. The majority of womankind lacks drive and ambition, and are milkily content with serene enjoyment of the nuturing years of domesticity, child-rearing and housework (yes, she really did say that).

I groaned. Now, everyone who’s read that article or the book will think, “Ah, that’s Heather”. Alison has now defined me as an XX woman. Thanks for that, Alison. For starters, they’re going to think I have a chip on my shoulder about graduates who make cupcakes for a living. Just because I’ve spent 10 years of my life collecting 3 degrees, married someone bright, got married before I had kids, work primarily because I love my job, and employ a cleaner, part-time nanny and a string of occasional babysitters so that my leisure time isn’t crammed full of housework.

I appreciate I’m very very fortunate to have this, and all by the age of 35. But for the record, I also love being with my children, an enjoyment that truly began as soon as I realised, whilst still on maternity leave with my first, that they are fascinating little individuals and not projects I can manage. I like being at home and making it a comfortable place for my family, and some of my happiest working days are spent with my laptop at the dining room table. I enjoy the company of women and men from a wide range of backgrounds – including the mothers of my children’s friends. And as for my sex life… well, we won’t talk about that.

There is a lot of this about, this filing people under headings and categories. Yummy Mummy, Chav, Socialite, Fashionista, Earth Mother, WAG, Domestic Goddess, Career Woman, Sloane Ranger, Hockey Mom…just a few, to which we now add XX Woman (and, presumably, non-XX Woman). Janice seems to feel liberated by the thought that she fits into the XX category, that she is not alone in needing something more than motherhood as an outlet for her energy, intellect and creativity. I feel restricted by any single label; as soon as it is applied I feel it contracting around me like a tubigrip bandage. Reducing me to an XX Woman denies the other aspects of my personality, character and chosen lifestyle that don’t fit Alison’s 8 ‘signs of an XX woman’. It feels no less limiting than measuring me against the antiquated stereotypes of successful womanhood my mother and grandmothers grew up with.

I reckon Alanis Morrisette was on to something when she sang “I’m a little bit of everything all rolled into one…I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

How much more liberating would it be if we were to resist these labels and celebrate the diversity of our individuality? How about we just get on and make the best of our lives, and be able to make the decisions that optimise the happiness of our families (including ourselves) without being burdened with one badge or another, and all the expectations that come with them?

And really, honestly, no-one needs to know how much sex anyone else is having.

Grow up!

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Over Christmas, my cello teacher invited me to come over and talk to a friend of hers, who’d been brought up a Christian but was now struggling to reconcile his faith with the science he had studied at University. She promised me home-made mince-pies, so I was definitely in. I ended up chatting to this young man for over 2 hours. I was expecting a detailed argument against the existence of God, allegedly supported by a whole host of scientific research that I knew little about; but what I actually got was something much simpler but no less difficult.

He had been brought up in a church that dismissed the theory of evolution as a work of the Devil, designed to distract Christians from God’s work of creation, as described literally in the Biblical account. His church expected him to just ‘have faith’ and ignore the conclusions he came to by applying his rational, scientific mind. He was growing up and, it seemed, growing out of his faith.

It won’t surprise you what I told him: that evolution and Christianity are not in opposition; that evolution doesn’t explain what makes us distinct from the animal kingdom, bearers of God’s image; that God had given him his rational, scientific mind and expected him to use it, and not take over-simplistic arguments on trust; that faith is not a static thing we inherit from our parents, but a dynamic relationship with God that grows up with us.

It’s that last point – of what it means for our faith to ‘grow up’ – that has stuck with me over the last few months, and that I expanded on in this sermon at Stockport Family Church today. The audio download will soon be available here.

Growing up is essentially about gaining independence. As soon as you teach a child to walk, you teach them to walk away from you. Good parenting is as much about letting go as holding on, about equipping children for life independent of you. I have great parents, and they did their best to equip me for independence by teaching me a whole load of stuff – a ‘toolkit for life’.

I’d say the tools they’ve given me fall roughly into 2 categories: how to do things (eat, wash, cook, clean, read, write, build flat-pack furniture, tie knots, revise for exams, choose a good partner, stay calm under stress, wire a plug, look after my friends, ride a bike – but not knit, my Mum did try); what to think about things, helping me develop Biblically-based opinions (on money, my own relationships, career choices, the structure and operation of churches, family responsibilities, homosexuality, alcohol consumption, creation, charitable giving, and other things!).

The fact that I am the fine figure of health and sanity that you see before you is largely because I’ve stuck with most of their advice. But not all of it. As you grow up you realise there are other ways of doing things equally well, that suit your personality and circumstances better than the solutions your parents would recommend. You also find yourself in situations and facing problems that your parents could never have predicted – I have never had any advice from them about how best to conduct myself on the internet, because in the days before facebook, Twitter, blogging and being able to comment on newspaper articles online, there really wasn’t anything for them to warn me about. Texting hadn’t even been invented.

The ‘what to think about things’ also has to come under question. Those of you who have children will know what children want when they ask a question. They want a clear, short, answer. They want certainty, something to help them make sense of their lives and the world around them. As we get older, we realise that the world is much more complicated, more grey than black and white; our simple answers can seem naïve and inadequate. The questions also change – the questions we face as adults are often more complex, they involve more people, and delicate situations, unforeseen circumstances. The questions of our adult lives require longer, more involved, answers – if indeed an answer can be found at all.

It’s not surprising that many of us find that a lot of the tools we were given in childhood don’t work for us in adulthood. The question is how to respond to that – do we chuck out everything we were given and, if we were raised by Christian parents, the Bible from which they are derived and the God who gave that Bible as a guide for life? The young man I spoke to over Christmas seemed to think so. He’s not alone in that.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We should expect our faith to grow with us, expect our relationship with God to change as we do. Even if we’ve come into relationship with God later in life, we still need to go through our mental toolbox, turn over the instructions we were given as children and ask how they relate to us now. What was the truth our parents were trying to teach us? Does that agree with the truth God tells us in the Bible? How do I apply that truth to my life now?

This probably sounds terribly introspective and serious, like a DIY therapy session. But it is essential if we are to make the transition from being children to being adults, if we’re to know who we are, what’s important to us and what God is teaching us and doing through us now. This is a transition that our culture resists – taking responsibility for yourself, who you are, what you do and think and why you do and think those things (i.e. growing up) is seen as boring; maturity isn’t esteemed, it’s seen as staid, overly-sensible, old-fashioned and often associated with grey hair and wrinkles rather than a state of mind. It’s much preferred that we stay young, footloose and fancy-free, just having a laugh, it’s much more fun.

The Bible talks about maturity as a natural transition, not only in terms of physical and mental growth, but also in terms of our faith growing up to match. Here are a selection of verses which talk about growth and maturity, which give something of an overview of these two overlapping themes:

Growth – Romans 12v2, 2 Peter 1v5-8, 2 Peter 3v17-18, Romans 5v3-5

Maturity – 1 Corinthians 13v11, Hebrews 5v12-14, Philippians 3v15, 1 Corinthians 14v20

You may already be thinking of your own mental toolbox, going through some of the things you were taught by your parents and wondering what to keep and what to chuck out. Maybe you’re not sure. Not sure is ok. There’s still an awful lot I haven’t made up my mind on, and I don’t know if I ever will. And even if I do, I might change it again.

But where do we stop? What are things that aren’t open for discussion or debate? Is there anything permanent, some ‘ground truth’ that never shifts, no matter what happens in our world or in our own heads?

The early church, in the 4th century, wrestled with the same questions in order to set out a list of truths than define what Christianity is really all about. They came up with the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen. 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end. 

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen. 

These are astonishing truths: who God is, who Jesus is, what He did for us and will do for us; who the Holy Spirit is; the work of God through the unity of the church… Notice that the creed is not about us. These truths are all about God, and how he is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The benefits of faith to us personally are great, our own experiences of God can be very profound and moving, but they aren’t the big story here. They aren’t the core truth, on which we build our lives. That’s God, that is.

The earliest Christian creed, even before this, was very simple: ‘Jesus is Lord’. Being a Christian is acknowledging that is it God that calls the shots, He is the boss. It is all about Him. The pursuit of Him and surrender to His authority is what really matters. As John the Baptist said, when hearing how people were listening to Jesus and flocking to hear Jesus rather than John, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3v30).

Growing to maturity as a Christian is letting God become more and more important in more and more areas of our lives. It isn’t about having lots of clever answers to everyone’s difficult questions. It’s not about turning up to lots of meetings and knowing the words to all the songs. It’s not about being able to quote suitable Bible verses, one for every occasion and situation. It’s not about having lots of powerful, emotional experiences of God. It’s about our perspective on life becoming more and more consistent with God’s perspective on life, our character becoming more and more like His.

I said to that young man, over tea and mince-pies in Rebecca Whettam’s conservatory, that as I get older I get more and more sure about less and less. And at the core of what I’m sure about is that there is a God, He has made me to seek a relationship with Him, and He has revealed who He is in Jesus. In Jesus, He has shown me the right way to live, He calls me to follow Him and as I travel in the right direction, He gives me the power to do so.

Working that out will take the rest of our lives, but as God gets hold of more of us, and we gain more of His perspective and increasingly see the world as He does, we will in turn be able to make more sense of our world and our place in it, and how we should live our lives in a way that honours Him as Lord.

This prevailing focus on Him as our Lord is at the centre of this re-telling of Ecclesiastes 3, which I’d like to leave you with. It’s by my favourite Bible storyteller, Bob Hartman:

Yeah, everything keeps on changing
And everything has it’s place.
And everything keeps on changing,
Everything but you.

We greet our newborn children
And say goodbye to our dying parents;
We settle into the new neighbourhood
And move away from our old friends.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

We kill off our rivals and our passions and our dreams
And try to put a plaster on the pain.
We wreck the ones we care for
And erect a monument to our ambition on the ruins.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

We weep like drunks for the love we have lost
And laugh like drunks for the love we have found.
We weep and we mourn,
we laugh and we dance.

And everything keeps on changing,
Everything but you.

And we throw away what we later stoop to gather;
Embracing the sacred stones of wisdom that dropped from our hands in youth.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And we look and we look and we look and we look
For purpose and value and meaning
Until we’re too weary and and worn out and wasted
To want to look any more.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And we keep what’s precious
And dispose of what’s not,
Except for those of us
With big attics or garages or sheds,
Because surely we’ll find a use for it someday,
Mending what’s torn up and broken.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And sometimes we just have to be silent
And stare
At the face of a lover
At the place of wonder
At the grave of the one who is gone.

And sometimes we just have to speak
And say
I love you.
I praise you.
I miss you.

And everything keeps on changing
Everything but you.

And we love and we hate
And we fight and make peace
With our friends
And our neighbours
And our husbands
And our wives
And our parents
And our children
And our churches.

Because everything has its time
And everything has its place,
And everything keeps on changing, Lord,
Everything but you.

The things you wish you didn’t have to say

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image from http://humminggirl.deviantart.com

Last weekend, amongst the wonderful events of ScienceGrrl’s celebration of International Women’s Day, something happened that broke my heart. I’m a fairly resilient soul, so I don’t say that lightly, but it’s a long time since I’ve felt such gut-wrenching pain and anger.

On Friday night, I found myself sitting around the dinner table with three very good friends after the end of a long day, one that had been productive and tiring-in-a-positive-way. The mood was incongruously subdued. We were talking, with some difficulty, about the other girls’ experiences of sexual assault. Michelle had been violently assaulted only the day before, and had just returned from reporting the attack to the police. She was exhausted and still somewhat in shock. Ellie had been accosted by a frotteur on the Tube back in August 2011, but two days previously had returned to the very same train carriage to dance in protest against the casual sexual abuse she and so many women suffer on the Tube. She was worn out after a week of publicly protesting and dealing with the media attention and the comments of supporters and idiots alike on-line. Anna opened up about men touching her inappropriately as she travelled on the Tube, and whilst standing at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial (of all places!) when she was just 14.

I was inspired that these women felt able to speak, and had also done so publicly through social media. Toooften women feel shamed into silence when such things happen, but speaking out not only highlights the problem and rallies support for those who have suffered abuse (and against their abusers) but also puts the power back in the hands of the woman, who now feels able to share her experience rather than feeling it is a guilty, dirty secret she must take to the grave. Project Unbreakable is achieving similar things for victims of rape.

Yet I had nothing to say. No experience to draw on to summon the right words, the necessary empathy. I should have felt grateful that I’ve never experienced sexual abuse, instead I felt so deeply saddened that this is such a common occurrence. Three quarters of the women at the table that night had.

Society may look at us, look at them, and look at me, and draw its own conclusions. I’m older, less attractive, less jovial, married, Northern. But that would infer that these beautiful women are somehow at fault, have somehow encouraged this invasion of privacy, this theft of intimacy; that they somehow deserve what they have suffered and there is a set of circumstances that would justify their abuse. I stand solidly against that, and shoulder-to-shoulder with my friends.

The worst thing is that not only does society often blame women for abuse and rape, but the criminal justice system often fails to side with the victim. Too few abuse and rape cases ever lead to conviction, and the process of taking these cases to court can often leave the woman feeling like they have been abused and raped all over again, with nothing to show for it. Whilst I appreciate it is often difficult to prove these offences in a court of law, it is of no comfort to know that your country’s legal system cannot (or perhaps, will not) leap to your aid if you suffer in this way.

It could just as easily have been me. Pondering their experience, I couldn’t help but look back on all the times I’d walked home by myself, travelled solo, or chosen to trust a man enough to spent time alone with him. All the times I’d made myself vulnerable. I looked again at these freedoms, so innocently embraced and accepted, with suspicion and fear, and a feeling of intense vulnerability. I recalled the chapters from The Women’s Room (the feminist classic by Marilyn French) which tell of Chris’s rape, how the police and courts responded, and the reaction of her mother, Val – from fury, to detachment, to misandry and self-imposed exile from patriarchal society in an attempt rediscover her sanity. I realised the deep, raging sadness I felt for Michelle, Anna and Ellie that night could so easily poison me too, I could so easily descend into a paranoid half-life, avoiding any situation that could be considered risky, and looking upon all the men in my life as would-be abusers, would-be rapists.

Fortunately for me (and my friendships with those wonderful men), I didn’t spend too long in that dark place. You can’t afford to when you have sons. You have to believe that there are a lot of good men out there, and that your boys will grow up to join them. I can testify that there are plenty – those who have walked me home, shepherded me to train stations and into cabs, and kept a respectful distance when they so easily couldn’t have done. I will raise Lars and Bryn to do the same. Every boy should be brought up knowing that no matter how short her skirt is, how drunk she is, what you’ve already said and done, wherever she finds herself alone – a woman’s body is her own and no-one else has any right to it without her express permission.

Words of wisdom?

I have taken much inspiration in recent years from words attributed to Gandi:

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It speaks of being proactive, of not waiting for everyone and everything to somehow become the way you want, but getting on and living out what you want to see happen, embodying the desired way of life and demonstrating to others what is possible.

It turns out, though, that he never said it.

But he did say this, which is much more subtle but a thousand times more meaningful for it:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…. We need not wait to see what others do.”

It turns out the words of Thoreau have been similarly mangled into a catchy slogan – and the glib positivities of a self-help guru attributed to Mandela.

The lesson? Don’t believe every quote you see written on a coffee mug.