In my newly renewed effort to make something more of my writing than an occasional blog post, I have begun a course on Memoir and the Personal Essay on Coursera. In order to garner wider, more diverse feedback, I will be posting my assignments here. Please, if you are so inclined and have a moment, leave a comment with your reaction to it. My future published self appreciates it!
This week’s assignment was to write a letter to a “straw man,” someone who is not a friend or family member, but who was a significant figure in your life as a child or young person. This should be someone associated with a specific period in your life, a period long enough ago that you would not have a clear sense of events occurring beyond your neighborhood or region. Addressing your writing to an adult who would have had the social consciousness then that you have now will help you to maintain a mature perspective as you explore the memory.
In the letter, recount a specific personal event that had a notable impact on your life alone, and which occurred while you were, say, that teacher’s student. Incorporate references to what we’ll call a “global” event that made headlines in the newspapers at the time. In essence, your letter is an attempt to connect your childhood experience to a larger social and historical consciousness you may not have had as a child.
Dear Mr. Eagle,
It’s been some 45 years since I last saw you; truthfully, I hadn’t thought of you once before all the media coverage of the #MeToo movement brought your hawk-nosed, white-maned visage rocketing back to me as the purveyor of one of the more shame-filled episodes in my life.
As my eighth-grade journalism teacher, you must’ve been aware of the burgeoning Women’s Movement and the work of journalist Gloria Steinem, who had co-founded MS Magazine just three years earlier. It’s funny that you never mentioned her or the significance of her accomplishments in class, but perhaps that oversight should be blamed on the fetishistic hold my breasts seemingly had on your attention at the time. But maybe you did? The fact is, I don’t remember anything at all about the content of your instruction or assignments because of horrid emotional residue of that day, very early on in the year, when you chose to pull me out of class to discuss my boobs. Well – not to discuss, per se. Rather, you delivered a monologue to me, whilst staring at them, regarding their shape, size, and prominent visibility on my chest and the debilitating consequences those qualities held for the hapless men and boys forced to endure their proximity, whilst I stood, arms crossed furiously over them, red-faced and mortified. We were standing in the middle of the breezeway just outside the restrooms; I remember having the insane thought you were going to ask me to go into the restroom to remove my offending body parts and bring them out to you. I felt like a shoplifter caught in the act and confronted by the chief of security; how could I have imagined that I was entitled to the disposition of my own body parts?
Granted, I was rather scantily dressed that day in a crop top that was nothing more than a bra capped with sleeves which boldly exposed the tanned, golden-haired acreage of my stomach (I’d spent a great deal of time at the beach the preceding summer.) In my defense, though, it was my 31-year-old mother’s top. Surely it would’ve been her place – or at least some other kindred female’s – to instruct me on the inherent risks of a naive and ingenuous teen provoking titillation when she is wholly unaware of possible outcomes. Perhaps you felt it was your paternalistic duty, as a member of the provoked gender, to draw a lascivious portrait of those outcomes for me while we stood in that breezeway, causing a few of my hallpass-bearing peers to have to circle round us to enter and exit the restrooms
In 1974, I was thirteen and awash in the nebulous, naughty awareness that my sexuality could be displayed, that its inherent purpose was for display. This was the era of both Cosmopolitan magazine and the Pill; women now, finally, could have their cake and eat it, too. I had lifted Alix Kate Shulman’s sexually explicit Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen out of the family bookshelf, for heaven’s sake, shoving in between my waterbed mattress and frame to sate my budding masturbatory cravings. My whole family watched The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour religiously, my mom and I breathlessly awaiting the calvacade of skin-baring costumes that Cher would bring to our living room once a week. Goldie Hawn, who had a regular role on Laugh In, seemed the perfect representation of blond bombshell femininity; she was kooky, bubbly, and guileless without the overt sexuality of a Barbarella (Jane Fonda) or Loana (Raquel Welch), which I vaguely recognized to be a bit mature for my own aspirations.
My mother herself had recently transformed, from a Girl-Scout den mother who cooked all our meals, sewed us matching outfits, and arranged elaborate birthday parties for each of her five children, into a giddy, mini-skirted psychology student attending the local university who left the Catholic Church in a stream of fire works (pulling all of us out of parochial school, which is how I ended up in your public junior high school class) after having a spectacular disagreement with the head priest regarding the philosophy of Tielhard de Chardin.
Within the deep pool of my innocence, I was a strong swimmer. I felt both empowered and incredibly buoyed to be young and somewhat pretty. For me, “borrowing” my mom’s crop top was thoughtless, an extension of the zeitgeist, akin to borrowing her Coty face make-up, pancake mascara, chandelier earrings or Janis Joplin cassette tapes. I’d sneak these things after she’d depart for class, speculating that she might raise some personal objections regarding my treatment of her stuff, but never apprehending any disparity between what was suitable for her consumption versus mine. Until my little tete-a-tete with you, of course.
With your eyes gluttonously glued to my (barely) discernible nipples, you pointedly and efficiently branded my naivete otherwise. I was a hussy, you informed me, or at least I appeared to be, given my sartorial choices. Men would never recognize my intellect, you warned, when compelled to muster all their virtue to resist my brazen display of breast meat. You served me my introduction to the gelatinous trail of the slimy male gaze, with its protective coating of blameless virtue. I had forced you into this embarrassing position and should therefore submit graciously and humbly to your well-intentioned verbal thrusts.
Actually, I have no idea what your real intentions might have been; I was too blood-soaked in humiliation and embarrassment to register any hint of actual kindness or concern. I had spent the previous seven years within the sheltered confines of a Catholic school, where the primary authoritarian figures were habit-clad nuns whose disciplinary guidance involved rulers to the palm and rote sentence-writing. You may have been reacting yourself to the slights and push-backs of a newly liberated Mrs. Eagle. Perhaps you had a daughter at home who had emerged from the Summer of Love clad in hip-huggers and body paint. Sudden permissions were being granted to a traditionally cloistered body: the female of the species was in full parade And, even though I had only a dim appreciation of the larger context giving rise to my own sexual awareness, you did have a certain prescience regarding my future entanglements with the male gaze: I would endure my first abortion not even a year later. (So much for the Pill.)
Dear Mr. Eagle, I’ve become increasingly cognizant these past couple years of how deeply and profoundly your little five-minute lecture altered my perception of myself. Too early, I was handed the reins of my preternaturally voluptuous body and told I was in control. When you are informed, at the tender age of thirteen, that – just by virtue of your anatomy – you exert a terrifying power over half of the human race, you might not yet have the rational capacity to maturely exert it. What you engendered in me, instead, was an unquenchable hunger for dominance and revenge. If I, indeed, had such a magical, irresistible tool at my disposal, why not employ it to my own advantage? Thus, a decade of promiscuity and liberation commenced that echoed some of the fault lines being drawn on the wider cultural stage. Nothing has been the same since.