By now you must have read many true stories, and perhaps an all-too-real fictional one that went viral, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person, about the #Me Too movement. Maybe this avalanche of long-withheld accounts of trauma mixed with too-easy punditry on the sexual abuse and harassment of women has pricked your suspicion that deeper levels of this crisis are being overlooked. Metaphysical ones.
Some observers did not miss the fact that only abusers in certain lines of work have been identified for their transgressions—with firings and loss of reputation. While many of their victims are finally being taken seriously, we can be sure that there are countless others in different fields who do not dare talk.
An obvious category would be victims of incest who remain dependent on the emotional and/or financial support of their family, who cannot bring themselves to cast shame on their family name. Another would be survivors whose rapists threatened to kill them if they said anything, or convinced them that no one would believe them if they told the truth. These categories would likely overlap.
A less obvious group of victims would be those unwilling to speak out because they’ve suppressed various gender-based traumas in order to get on with their lives, deciding that focusing on those terrible memories would cause them more trouble than it’s worth. Without public credibility and moral support—that only recently the #Me Too movement has brought about—they chose survival over seeking justice.
Problem is, unspoken and suppressed pain tends to surface in other ways, such as physical and psychological afflictions. Healing from trauma requires full attention to the experience itself, so that the victim can reassert her sense of self, wholeness and agency.
There are deep reasons, I think, why people who’ve experienced sexual and gender-based abuse have mixed feelings about exposing their experiences to others. Some, I suggest, are metaphysical—involving how we give attention to ourselves, and how we perceive our personhood in relation to others.
Plenty of us have been persuaded to do things that only later we realized we did not have to go along with. We were too young, immature, frightened, or lacking in awareness of ourselves as beings worthy of respect—especially self-respect—to refuse to participate. Nowadays too many young people are drawn into the “hook-up” culture of super-casual, even anonymous sex, because they fear the alternative may be not having a social life. Too many are obsessed with social media, fabricating self-images of hoped-for likeability for the world’s consumption, while unsure who they really are. Social media “friends” don’t materialize when one is faced with a real-life attacker.
There are so many individual stories and social forces at work that no one can generalize.
Except for this. We all have the human capacity to put ourselves into our own field of attention, to become the object of our mind’s eye—a fly on the wall observing ourselves as actors and agents of influence on life’s stage. Let’s call it self-attention, by which is meant something more focused than routine self-awareness and the calculation of one’s image to others.
In contemporary culture, as various commenters point out, many adults have grown up under the influence of virtual role models in movies and television. While assuming that all we’re getting from screen characters is harmless entertainment, we’ve learned to categorize men as heroes or bad guys, cowards or lotharios, wise or weird old geezers. We’ve accepted that women can be portrayed as either desirable or plain, matronly or spinsterish, servile or conniving, charming or bratty as girls, with little room left over for other kinds of female characters other than those trying to act like men. Until recently these stereotypes have seeped into our consciousness without much critical editing. One writer has claimed that watching movies taught her that a woman of her size was ugly. A gay critic noticed that men in classic movies who insisted they knew better than women what women wanted in love and romance have been perceived as savvy he-men rather than bullies.
The main character in the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” is a 20-year-old college girl living in a dorm. She meets a man in his mid-30s at her part-time job selling tickets at a nearby movie theatre. The man keeps his cool, does not directly flirt, but returns to the theatre several times then asks for her phone number. She surprises herself by giving it to him, and a text dialogue ensues. The story’s narrator lets readers in on most of her thoughts, so we watch this girl hesitate, persuading herself that her classmates will think she’s cool to go out with an older man. When he asks if she’d like to see a movie, she cautiously suggests they not go to the theatre where she works. As he drives her to a movie in another town he is so quiet that she begins to fear him. He breaks the silence by saying drily that he’s not going to murder her.
The story produces a queasy tension as young woman waxes bold—What is she telling herself?—after not enjoying the movie he’d chosen, by suggesting they go to his place when she really wants to be safely back in her dorm. But she’s also curious to see his place, having never gone out with an older man. Once there she is unimpressed but afraid of hurting his feelings, so she is the first to take off her clothes—aroused not by him but by thoughts of how he’ll respond to the sight of her young perfect body and breasts. Though turned off by his fat belly and body hair, she fears how he’d react—rage? violence? humiliation?—if she suddenly draws back from the process she has herself initiated. During and after sex she feels terrible, but shows no sign of this until safely back in her dorm, where fortunately her roommate is there to listen supportively. Too ashamed and fearful to answer the man’s persistent texts as to whether she’s okay and can he see her again, she lets her roommate take her cell and text a message on her behalf: that she does not want to see or hear from him again. By this point readers have picked up hints in the story that the guy has not gone to college (he says he chose a foreign film with subtitles because he thought it would appeal to a college girl), and there is an awkward class difference. The man responds to the brush-off with a string of texts asking why. Getting no answers, he ends their dialogue, and the story—having previously refrained from using any off-color language with her—with a one-word text: “Whore.”
Many commented how cringe-worthy the story is. That its main character took too great a risk with this man and put her safety in jeopardy, forced herself to go through with sex while revulsed by her date’s body, terrified of the consequences for changing her mind. More than a few men were offended by the girl’s revulsion at her date’s belly fat and hairy body. Given what seems like the character’s close to nonexistent sense of personal dignity and unwillingness to admit that she’d put herself into a situation she did not want to follow through with, I suspect many readers would be understanding but disappointed in her. They may actually feel more sympathy for him, possibly to the extent of not objecting to the harsh term he finally applies to her.
Compare this with the adolescent boldness of the movie “Lady Bird,” whose female lead is a high school senior who fantasizes about, and eventually gives up her virginity to, a young man who turns out not to have been equally virginal and fails to reciprocate her romanticized expectations. Yet she appears not to condemn herself (the audience most likely sharing her feelings of good riddance), moves on with her secret application to a top college far away from her home—against her mother’s hopes and expectations—and holds out for this choice when she is merely waitlisted. We root for her when she is finally accepted at Columbia—though her mother refuses to see her off at the airport—and begins her new life as a freshman in New York City.
Both the short story and the screenplay are composites of their authors’ personal experiences and those of people they knew or read about. Both works dramatize the hit-and-miss quality of self-image construction, deconstruction, and (potentially) perpetual reconstruction. Both are dramas of self-presentation. But underneath all those processes is a human that enables us to construct, and deconstruct and reconstruct the self: attention.
What makes “Lady Bird” an essentially uplifting story is the main character’s visible confidence in herself as a good person who can make her share of mistakes and argue frequently with the mother she knows loves her, but reserves the right to pursue her own dreams. She doesn’t like the name her mother gave her and insists she be called Lady Bird. But when her mother tells her that she was named after a much-loved deceased forebear, she stores this information away and uses her given name when she arrives in New York.
What makes “Cat Person” so cringe-worthy is the subject’s lack of attention to herself as a moral being, someone who would give her body to a man she found repellent, even when it was she who suggested they go to his place out of curiosity. She is someone who gives an older man her number because she hopes her classmates will think she is cool to be dating an older guy. She has to learn the hard way that putting herself at risk with a stranger is not worth the price of appearing cool. Yet her mixture of pride and self-assertion, taking off her clothes to show this older guy her young perfect body, aroused by the thought of his being aroused by her, is something most of us can relate to. We are almost all deeply affected by vanity—more than ever in this age of selfie photos and the sharing of digitally edited snapshots of ourselves.
It is so easy to see oneself as the star of our own movie, as it were, strutting and fretting our hour upon life’s stage. Plus, women especially have an age-old instinct to try not to hurt a man’s vanity, and a fear of his anger and potential violence if he feels rejected. Here is this girl, far from her college dorm, curious to see a working man’s home, dependent on him for a ride home, afraid to tell him that she does not want to go through with sex with him though she has put both of them on that path. She could have spent that time at a café or diner, talking about the movie, getting him to tell her more about his life, his background. Then she could have said she was tired and needed to get back to her dorm. There were other options, and he seemed ready to accommodate her.
But the Cat Person’s attention was at first on what her friends might think of her, then on what an older man would think of her, not on what she would think of herself. The latter, however, is what we all have to live with—the sting of conscience, the pain of selling ourselves short, disrespecting our own dignity. I suspect “Cat Person” went viral to so many people who don’t normally read The New Yorker because it touches a nerve deep within the #Me Too movement, and beyond.
As an attending metaphysician, I call it the nerve that registers pain for not giving ourselves genuine, caring, respectful, and eventually forgiving self-attention. “Lady Bird,” whose story is based on the screenwriter’s life, did just that, and earned the Academy Award for best movie that, alas, it did not receive.