This is one of my favorite stories, but I don’t get to tell it often. Its not a favorite because its happy (its not), or it left me feeling liberated (it didn’t). When I tell it I feel like I have to root around in my insides, scrape it off my rib bones and piece it back together. I love it because it is a story that truly changed the way I saw the world. It happened in only a few moments, but it really remade a part of me.
I had a friend back in college named Sarah. She lived in a big old victorian, the kind that has an endless stream of students flowing through its doors. She and I went out a few times, but we worked best as friends.
The neighborhood had always been mostly white but was beginning to get more diverse. A Latino family moved in next door, Sarah said they didn’t speak much English, but she’d met the mother. They seemed to be dealing with the crazy collection of students pretty well, they hadn’t called the cops on any parties yet.
I remember the day it happened, it was Autumn like today. Sarah was curled up on her bed, flushed, looking she’d just cheated death.
“I just called the fire department.”
“Why?” I couldn’t smell a fire.
“The woman next door screamed ‘FIRE’.”
“So the fire was next door?” I looked out the window, nope, nothing there either.
“No no, you don’t understand.” That was when Sarah told me what yelling FIRE really meant.
When she was very young her mother took her aside and explained to Sarah what rape was. She told her that if she ever found herself being raped, to never yell “RAPE.” If she did, she told her, it was almost certain that nobody would come to her rescue. Instead she needed to yell “FIRE”, as loudly as she could. Then people would come.
When Sarah heard the woman next door scream “FIRE” at the top of her lungs, she knew what she was really screaming was “RAPE”! After the fireman came, the police came, and a man was lead away in cuffs. Sarah said she and her neighbor exchanged looks, but no words. Despite their cultural differences, a woman’s understanding passed between them. Sarah had helped stop a rape and, for the time being, a rapist.
I couldn’t wrap my head around what she just told me, I didn’t know it but I just been submerged in a great truth, one that still holds me in its depths. I think I stared blankly out the window at the house next door for what felt like forever.
Three waves submerged me. The first was the understanding that my dear friend had grown up knowing that she was not safe, and in a way, might never ever feel truly safe. It was the understanding that though she may be surrounded by men who tell her they cared for her (and many of them did), some of those men did not care for her. In fact they were dangerous to her. She grew up with the knowledge that her own community would not come to her rescue if one of those men tried to rape her.
The second wave was the understanding of how universal this knowledge was in the Western world. A woman who grew up in another part of the world, who barely spoke our language, who’s culture may be radically different from ours, understood the same truth Sarah did. She barely spoke English, but she knew how to stop a rape by screaming “FIRE”! Now I understood that all over the world little girls were carefully listening to their mothers, understanding they must yell FIRE if they had any hope of stopping a man from raping them. Like ALL OVER THE WORLD. The woman next door could have been from China, Germany or it could have been Sarah herself.
The next and final wave was the realization of the magnitude of my own ignorance. How had I lived those 20+ years, with a mother and sister, not knowing that FIRE also meant RAPE to many women? I think I’ve always prided myself on being close to the women in my life and treating them with caring and respect. While my sister was out playing softball, I was learning how to cook and sew at my Mothers apron strings. When most boys were showering in gym class for the first time I was away at dance class surrounded by girls, grinding my slippers into the resin box. When boys harassed my sister I had her back. I found myself in women’s worlds more than mens, not realizing I was always in the world of men.
Not only did I not know that truth but there were an infinite number of other truths I was completely ignorant of. The landscape of unknowns opened up before me, and I could not see any end in sight. I understood I still didn’t fully get it, and I probably never would.
Muriel Rukeseyer said “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” We men don’t get what its like to be a woman in this world, we really don’t. This great truth does not diminish the suffering of individual men, or ennoble all women in some grand way. Its just a fact of the landscape, like rivers and sky.
This post was inspired by a recent flurry of social media around sexism spawned by some sensationalism. A professor teaching a lit class on Love, Sex and Death was including only white male authors, a young feminist blogger took him to task for it. Anne Theriault makes her own points well, using quite colorful language. The professor, David Gilmore makes his point as well, that he is most passionate about stories that resonate with his own experience as a white middle aged man.
As someone interested in alchemy, fire always has intrinsic value and beauty for me. “Anything can be transformed,” I mean that – IF you have the right elements and enough heat. Because of Sarah, fire will also mean something else to me as well – an accusing finger pointing at our inability to create a rape-free world, at our inability to fully receive the presence and power of the Feminine.
The kind of fire you need for transformation just doesn’t come if you spend all of your life in your comfort zone, I don’t think we should be teaching that approach to future generations. Sarah’s story allowed me to strip away a little bit of the shell I lived in, to set it ablaze. That is an incredibly valuable thing, not just for the wisdom I gained (and I am truly grateful for that), but because of the surge of transformative fire it unleashed. I am more vulnerable before the world, less sure of my own bullshit, more hungry for truths outside of my own experience, more able to grow.
I hope you’ll let this story chew on you for a while, let it dog you. Good stories don’t always play nice, but they’re always worth the ride.