The impact of cultural blockage on women’s lives cannot be underestimated. For to the degree that we accept—and abide by—the rules of socially invasive, and false, doctrine about who we are and who we ought to be, we will continue to suffer from low self-esteem. The formation of self will be drastically, perhaps irrevocably, compromised.
There is, however, a power-laden alternative: to disabuse ourselves of shame and fear by outing its secret lair inside us. How? By first growing conscious of the emotional and spiritual hold these host energies have on us. This is exactly what Stephanie Gonzalez did after she was raped, as, little by little, her attitude, then her actions, began to change. For two and a half years, Stephanie kept her rape a secret. Meanwhile, she was reading about case after case of rape in the newspapers—and gaining strength and resolve. “Finally,” Stephanie said, “I made a decision that turned my life around: I would no longer live with the crime—or the secret. Instead, I would tell the public about my rape.”
Stephanie called Barbara Goldman, the executive director of the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center, and volunteered to tell her story on TV. After the program aired, Stephanie was inundated with calls from women and men who wanted to offer support and share their own stories. “They would say, ‘This happened to me several years ago, and I’m going to get help.’ Or, ‘This happened to my mother, and my father hasn’t been able to deal with it, and we all need to get help.’ A woman who is now a district judge told me it had happened to her. The outpouring was incredible.”
The experience of outing her secret transformed Stephanie. ‘‘I’m not the same person,” she says. “I don’t feel ashamed anymore.” By admitting to and uncovering her own invisible wounds, Stephanie went through a profound educational process. She was no longer content to accept a dysfunctional mode of social “behavior”—that of the nice, obedient, and voiceless woman—by silencing herself, or turning suppressed anger into self-disavowal, or allowing feelings of shame, guilt, and anger to translate into depression. Such acquiescence would have only created more inner emptiness. Instead, Stephanie’s therapeutic work allowed her to confront her own secret shame in solitude. Indeed, that act was itself a form of self-assertion, and it permitted her to give a name to hitherto unknowable and inchoate feelings that had been choking off her sense of personal freedom. Most of us do not have to endure such terrible misfortune before embarking on the journey to selfhood; yet whatever circumstances bring us there, this is the same path every woman alone must travel. Indeed, once we step foot on it, we will savor the solitude that transforms our lives.
A Woman’s Self
A woman’s self is a strong, yet delicate, thing. I know this firsthand from the privileged space of my office, where I have a panoramic view of women’s selves. Their appearances vary: outside, some are broken, tough, wispy, empty, hungry, ravaged, or ravenous; inside, all shine with the same hallowed light. Appearance isn’t important. What is important is that no matter how faint the silhouette, these selves stubbornly persist. For the self insistently shows up, shape changing according to its need for camouflage and the degree to which it feels brutalized or neglected: in a word, unseen. To be unseen is, frankly, an intolerable form of aloneness. It means that we are invisible to others, or, if even vaguely visible, that we simply do not matter. Nothing is more devastating to a woman’s self than that: for to be unseen by others means that we are truly unable to see ourselves. This is surely how Stephanie felt after the rape and before she was ready to come to terms with what had been inadmissible knowledge. But it is also a looming reminder to the rest of us who are quick to cast the first stone—at ourselves.
The diminished self-esteem that leads us to fear, and then turn away from, the solitude we need for personal and spiritual nourishment, is a river fed by two tributaries. The first is the social and cultural tributary I explore in the first three chapters and that creates the climate whose air woman alone must breathe in every day. The second, equally important tributary concerns the development of our personal identity, which I will turn to next. It is important for a woman alone—indeed, all women—to understand how some of the fundamental experiences of growing up female—from childhood through young adulthood—affect the way a woman’s sense of self evolves—specifically in relation to our early experiences of being alone.
When we take into consideration the many cultural messages that encourage a woman to think of herself as less than—to not accept herself as she is—together with the many assaults to the self that are personal and individual, we can begin to understand why the uncomfortable feelings we carry make us veer away from aloneness. The challenge to women alone is to confront these feelings so that we can enjoy the creative rewards of solitude.
The above is an excerpt reprinted from On My Own by Florence Falk
Published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc.; March 2008;$13.95US/$15.95CAN; 978-1-4000-9811-8. Copyright © 2007 Florence Falk