Monday, May 2, 2016

He is NOT mine

I love figures of speech, euphemisms, whatever you call them; those cute little phrases that simultaneously explain and confuse a complex topic. I find them fascinating. You can often tell where someone is from based on the figures of speech used. For instance, my teaching friend from Pennsylvania once asked a parent to assist with a project, and the parent enthusiastically replied "I don't care to," with a smile. My Pennsylvanian friend came to me confused, upset almost, not sure what she had just been told. I laughed. I know I've used that very phrase a blue-million times, but I suddenly understood how confusing it sounded. If you aren't familiar with that particular response, it means "yes."

I have a German daughter-in-law, and we sometimes exchange colloquialisms. This started when I told her "do not put the cart before the horse." She looked at me like I had three heads until I explained the meaning. Then she threw down her German equivalent, which roughly translated states, "you can't fall in the house through the front door." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

They are pretty ridiculous, when you think about it. I mean, why in the world would someone swing a dead cat? And I never saw my mammaw wear a checkered apron, although on many an occasion she threatened my cousins and me that she would turn us over hers if we didn't straighten up. I personally like to mix my euphemisms and say things such as "he is not the sharpest crayon in the french fry drawer." My sons inherited this trait, as a popular saying in my house now is "You have to learn to count before you can fly." Don't try to understand. You had to be there.

I'm no grammarian, but there is a method to my madness here. Words express thought, at times more clearly than others. The words we choose when we speak do not simply tell the listener a story, but often reveal the speaker's emotions or motives, an inconvenient truth for many an elementary student attempting to manipulate a teacher. Word placement and verb tense imply tone, can create a sense of urgency, or lull the reader into a peaceful dream. Simply put, words are powerful.

Twenty-four years ago, when I placed Emily for adoption, I came to understand the power of a small simple phrase. In fact, I've already used it, and you probably didn't even pick up on it. Let me repeat the first part of the first sentence in this paragraph, "Twenty-four years ago, when I placed Emily for adoption..." Do you see it now? Do you notice the one word I used that most people do not use when referring to adoption? Do you see how I use a single word to change the implication of that sentence?

You will never hear me say that I "gave up" a child for adoption, I PLACED Emily. It is an action verb with a clear object, not passive voice, not a passive tone. Assertive.  I gave nothing up. I am clear that adoption was my choice and not a last resort decision after attempts to make other solutions work out failed.  I was in complete control during the entire process. It was my decision, and I still stand firm in that decision.

And now I use that same thought process when I speak of my experience as a victim of sexual assault. The bastard who raped me does not belong to me. He is not mine, nor will he ever be mine. I don't want him. I will never call him "my rapist." I will not use a possessive personal pronoun to refer to him. Ever.

But what does it matter?  Does that minor grammatical change impact anyone? I think it does, and I'd like you to follow me here.

Several months ago I conducted a not-so-scientific experiment on Facebook. I posted two statements, differing by only one word, and asked folks* to react to them, to tell me how they were the same or different. The two statements I posted were:
  • I was smacked by the pygmy marmoset.
  • I was smacked by my pygmy marmoset.
The reactions were just as I suspected. All of the respondents stated that while being smacked by any animal is not pleasant, being smacked by YOUR pet is even worse. The pronoun "my" denotes some sort of relationship. Some felt that "my" also implied some sort of back story, that perhaps I did something to provoke the marmoset thus causing the smack in some way. And one person felt that the random attack by some unknown monkey invoked a shock value (comedy in this case) that was not present when using the possessive pronoun. Given that random people notice the shift in meaning in the above ridiculous statements, what does that imply with the following pair of statements?
  • I was assaulted by a rapist.
  • I was assaulted by my rapist.
I'll let you process that for a moment.

In my post-experiment discussions with the respondents, I explained my theory, that both victims and non-victims unintentionally imply a relationship between the victim and the rapist. I believe that the crime of sexual assault cuts so deeply into the fiber of a being's soul, that a victim will create a bond with the rapist, a bond that is rooted in silence. Using a possessive personal pronoun only serves to tether the two together. One of the respondents called it a kind of (paraphrased) mind-screwing that victims do to themselves. Again, I believe all of this is unintentional.

I felt this most profoundly in the days after Mr. X l was convicted. I received many  well-wishing messages and comments, and a few spoke of "serving justice to your abuser." I'll be honest, the first time I saw the words your and abuser together it stirred something inside of me. I don't want to be responsible for the bastard. It's not my job. It was like someone handed me something I didn't want, like giving me a stone when I asked for bread.

Even in the article for the Outlook I edited the word "her" out of a couple of sentences, explaining to the author that an article (a, an, or the) must be used instead. Being told that somehow Mr. X belonged to me put me in a position of obligation to him, kind of like when you've reached your wits end with a child, and you look at your spouse and say "will you please do something with YOUR son?" (Don't get me wrong. I was not offended or upset by any of the comments. I only corrected two people, people very close to me who I knew would want to try to look at things from my perspective.)

I think most folks are just lazy when it comes to grammar and sentence structure period, and using possessive pronouns is easy. It takes a little more work to formulate my thoughts and avoid using personal possessive pronouns. I have to be creative.  Assertive. Controlled. At times I've had to rewrite entire paragraphs to accomplish that goal. But in the end it is worth it, because it sets me free. The use of articles creates space between me and the abuser (order intentionally flipped to place the importance on me here). It depersonalizes the assault. It places all of the responsibility for the assault on the abuser.

By choosing my words very carefully I do two things. First, I communicate to the listener that I in no way have any relationship or feel any obligation to the one who assaulted me. Second, and more importantly, it is a reminder to me that I in no way have any relationship or feel any obligation to the one who assaulted me.

If you are a victim, I encourage you to STOP using possessive pronouns when referring to the one(s) who abused you. Separate yourself from that abuse, mentally, because you are more important than that. Detach. Listen to yourself as you speak about the abuser with words that minimize him(her) and elevate you. Don't (unintentionally) continue the victimization by tethering yourself to the abuser. You owe the abuser nothing.

And those of you who love and support victims, help them by learning to use impersonal articles when referring to the abuser. Help him/her by putting the emphasis on the assault, rather than (unintentionally) assuming a relationship of any sort. It is a small way to help a victim find his/her voice.

*All but one respondent in my not-so-scientific survey on facebook were women. The one male response did not address the semantics of the sentence, but instead made a joke.

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