#31Books: Black and Blue

I’m running behind; I’ve missed a few days. fullsizerender-54

I’m not beating myself up over it. Life happens.

No pun intended, but I’m back in the thick of it today with Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen. This is, frankly, not the sort of book I tend to purchase; I generally save this type of fiction for the library, as they serve more as entertainment than what I think of as a legacy book. I’m a Quindlen fan, but I’m still not quite sure what prompted me to exchange my hard-earned money for this novel.

But I did. And I’m glad I did, because as events of the day swirl through my consciousness, finding this novel on my shelf provides a way for me to coalesce and point my thoughts in a particular direction without saying a lot of things that might be better left unsaid.

Black and Blue is a story of domestic abuse. The plot line, the peaks and valleys of the drama are compelling and engaging. Abuse is bad. The abused’s path to salvation is worth cheering.

But like anything, even situations that we believe or want to believe are clear cut, black and white, right and wrong – like most of life, it’s complicated. Quindlen weaves a story of survival and digs deeply into the psyche of the victim, but she also lands squarely in the middle of the mess, and we’re not really left with a clear victory. It goes without saying that very little of life challenges are wrapped up as neatly as what we’ve come to expect in a 60-minute tv show.

But in the midst of stories and messages that are bleak and hopeless, dark and seemingly without redemption, Black and Blue successfully tells the truth and reflects our faith in the human condition that something good can come out of the worst situations. And yet – like life – there are always consequences.

Often, there is loss. Great loss.

Black and Blue is about abuse and connection, weaknesses and attractions, unrelenting hope and desperate brokenness. As a woman and as a mother, I naturally identified somewhat with Fran, the wife and mom who suffers at the hands of her husband. I’ve not been in the sort of abusive situations described in this story, but I am a female.

And a culture in which some men lean hard into their physical and sexual power is something I understand, because I am a woman living in the United States. I’ll speak only to that, rather than contemplate worldwide issues or something broader; I will use this blog series and this book to springboard into writing down a few things I have been thinking about today.

First, there is this: I have known men that act in a way I would characterize as obnoxious, tactless, crude, and vulgar. Every woman I know has met a man like that. Some say that when men get together, a sort of ‘locker room mentality’ relaxes them and allows conversation to be looser, more ‘fun’; a sort of ‘harmless banter’. I know that happens. I know that men who are capable of acting obnoxious, tactless, crude, and vulgar are also sometimes capable of behaving like gentlemen when the occasion requires.

For the record, I know women who could be characterized as obnoxious, tactless, crude, and vulgar as well. But I’m not setting up a binary argument here; I’m talking specifically to this point about men and women and language and power, and the inherent dignity of a human being.

And while I am not implying that someone who acts obnoxious turns into an abuser, there is a connection for me in terms of how we live – how we are connected – as people. Here’s the thing: When a woman knows that a man sees her not as a person, but as body parts that titillate or arouse, respect is eroded.

(To be completely honest, many women realize early in life that men like this can be ‘manipulated’, for lack of a better word; but for a woman to do so also erodes respect.)

When a woman knows that a man sees the possibility of sexual interaction with her as some sort of accomplishment or trophy, respect is eroded. And even if it is not personal – if a man is speaking or thinking that way about other women, it demonstrates something revealing about his character and perspective – and respect is eroded.

And regardless of the ease with which our culture tosses around words that were once considered vulgar and crass, used only by the basest, most classless of people; when a woman hears those words coming out of the mouth of a man who is asking for support as he seeks to represent her and all of her fellow citizens as their leader, and those words refer to parts of her body that are private, intimate, and personal – well, again, respect is eroded.

Women experience this frequently, right? Many of us are fortunate to have brothers and sons and husbands and friends who see us as more than something sexual – but I don’t know a woman alive who doesn’t have a ‘Creepy Guy Alert’ that is intuitive and protective. Whether it’s eyes that linger too long, a full frontal hug that presses too tightly, a sly joke, coarse comment, or something subtly suggestive, we walk through these interactions all the time. And we know that in the locker room, behind the closed office door, in the bar, on a bus, they might be talking about us in coarse, crude ways. And on the street, in the store, at the gas station, in the atrium at church (Yes. Even there.) – in any and all of those places, men are looking at us.

Not all men; not all the time. But it happens.

They check us out; they look us over. They rate us; they evaluate our bodies. Some we notice; others, we do not.

And it’s complicated, truly, because we are wired to be attracted to one another. Our yearning for connectivity is strong, and we are sexual beings, and to some degree, we are obeying our nature. I would never castigate a man for being attracted to a woman. However: as civilized, respectful citizens of this world, we learn to manage and mitigate our desires in order to honor one another.

At least we should.

I thank God for the many men in my life who are gentlemen, who have shown me respect and dignity, who honor me as a person above and beyond my role as a female object. I used to think that because I wasn’t a ‘pretty girl’, not the attractive, popular cheerleader type, that this would never be an issue for me. But simply by virtue of being female, I am not exempt. None of us are.

Black and Blue is about the kind of abuse that leaves one battered, physically and emotionally. But I believe that in these days we are seeing very real evidence of a soul battering of sorts; one that runs amok in our country, on social media, on the tv screens, in casual conversations. The words I heard coming out of the mouth of the man who wants me to vote him into the highest office in the land bruised me. Not because he was talking about me; but because when he talks about any woman in that way, he reminds me that at our worst, our words do damage. And what is worse is the ongoing vitriol from those who find themselves on different ends of the political spectrum, unable to see past the binary. If I am right, you are wrong. If you are wrong, I am right. There is no in between. There is no nuance.

I feel black and blue tonight, bruised by the slinging arrows of offense and defense by so many who are unable or unwilling to hold this tension in their hands.

We are broken; we can be better.

If we are not willing to allow this pain to be fleshed out, to live and breathe and stand; if we continue to batter one another, then our collective soul as a nation will continue to ache. We are black and blue, and of course bruises can heal; but not if we keep walloping one another over and over and over again.

Battered people are changed people; they struggle to stand upright and walk without fear. Bruises are outward evidence of deep pain. God, help us all. Help us to stop hurting one another. Help us live in the tension, to admit where we have failed, to pray for strength to be better, for our bruises to be left alone long enough to heal.

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3 Comments

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  1. Love this, Beth. Very well spoken.

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  2. Your writing is so civilized. And I mean that as a compliment. You capture my thoughts and feelings pretty well exactly in this case. Here’s hoping civilized society prevails in all things.

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  3. Yes. I can’t speak for most women in this country, but for myself: I want a leader who can at least use the language of respect for all people. Thinking further, I guess I want a leader with a strong moral core, one that would know how to put the brakes on thoughts, language and actions that are impulsive. An adult. The stakes are too high and the consequences too grave for our country to have anything less.

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