Outrage Fatigue – A Tooth in a Button Jar

Editor’s Note: Today we present another new columnist to you, our loyal readership, entitled ‘Outrage Fatigue.’ Lindsay Ness will write on topics of the day and give us her unvarnished take. Do not always expect Lindsay to toe any specific line or conform to any certain dogma. In her own, (usually) civilized way, Lindsay will explore the world through her own lense. We are thrilled to have her on board as a regular contributor to The Next Ten Words.

The author in a simpler time

I had an eccentric professor in one of my early English classes. One afternoon, she told us a story from her past about a family member who had been a hoarder. When the relative passed, she was asked to help clean and sort through piles of garbage he had accumulated in his house. She described the home just as you’d imagine. Stacks of newspaper, clothing piles, trash and old canned foods etc. like you would expect of a traditional hoarder. Toward the end of the cleaning session she found a mason jar filled with buttons. She held the glass up to her face and turned the jar side to side to get a look at the buttons through the glass. Big buttons, square buttons, shiny and dull, buttons for shirts that needed fixing and buttons that could be used as eyes for dolls and buttons for coats and extras for sewing boxes. Of all the treasures she found in the hoard, this was the one she wanted to keep. She wanted to keep the button jar.

The jar sat for years on a shelf in her home before she finally stumbled upon it once again. She thought it was high time she dumped out the buttons and admired them in all their different colors and sizes and shapes. When she did this, when the buttons fell free on her living room floor, she made a discovery. There amongst the buttons, was a wisdom tooth. A gigantic, gnarly, twisted root, fully intact wisdom tooth. She was horrified but fascinated and she kept it. It was a unique experience, she decided, to have found a dead person’s tooth. She didn’t know that she had ever found anyone’s tooth before, save for her own child’s as the tooth fairy. Finding one again seemed unlikely. Certainly not in a jar full of buttons.

So she put the tooth back in the jar and put the jar back on the shelf. She couldn’t discard it, it was too strange. There was a piece of her family that had been surrounded by trash, tucked in a jar, disguised within the ordinary and pushed aside with hopes that it would blend in.

When you are telling a story, she told us, you need to find the tooth in the button jar.

In 2018, I think I found one.

*

I grew up in “Midwestern Catholic” home. I use the quotes because we weren’t traditional Catholics the way you might stereotype them. There were only four kids in my family including a set of twins. My parents didn’t drink much, we didn’t wear uniforms or attend private school. We went to church most weekends, I went to Wednesday night Catholic Education, we said a prayer before dinner and my mom swears that a prayer to St. Anthony brought back her passport after it went missing. My sophomore year of high school I went through the motions of being confirmed in the Catholic faith. Other than a couple of weddings, I haven’t really been to church since.

If you had asked me in my 20s about my Catholic upbringing, I likely would have told you it was relatively uneventful. Not much of it stuck, aside from one shitty tattoo, and I probably wouldn’t be attending Christmas Mass this year. Jesus sounded like he had the right ideas, but organized religion wasn’t the thing for me. I didn’t think about the lasting consequences of rhetoric surrounding women and sin and sexuality. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I realized how damaging it can be to drill shame and judgement into young girls’ minds. Trying to clean up the mess that drilling made, well, it’s like cleaning the oil soaked penguin with Dawn and a dishcloth. You can clean most of the mess up, but let’s be honest, that penguin isn’t going to be the same.

As you can imagine, we didn’t talk about sex in our house. Sinners had sex. Mary was a virgin. Jesus probably was, too. There was no need to talk about it or ask questions about it because we were allowed to have it. There is a long standing joke between my sisters and I that if you walk into a room with my mom and say: “I have a surprise,” she will respond, “You aren’t pregnant, are you?” That was the closest thing to an acknowledgement of the existence of sex as we would ever get from her.[1]

To be fair, the oldest daughter in my family welcomed the first grandchild at the age of 17 during her senior year of high school. At 19, I followed suit and toted a baby around all through college. The third one of us had babies with the man for whom I believe the term “deadbeat” was coined. The fourth one? She doesn’t have kids. She is a lawyer.

Movies laid the foundation for what we know about sex, romance and the way boys and girls interacted. We took information learned at sleepover parties and entered into relationships with boys who held clear expectations. Expectations that lined up with what I had watched in Scream and Cruel Intentions and Porky’s.[2] Sex ed had simply taught us that we weren’t dying when we first got our periods and that boys had something called a vas deferens. What it didn’t teach us was this: It isn’t acceptable for boys to prey on girls to use sex as entertainment. It is not funny if boys sneak a peek at a nude woman without her consent. Those are simply stories from Hollywood. If a boy makes you feel uncomfortable, you have the right to say something.

No one really taught us that. They taught us to measure our tank top straps and skirt lengths. The boys might be uncomfortable.

*

In high school, after a juvenile breakup, a group of boys wrote a letter with the intent to post it on my locker by the end of school day. They called me a slut, they created some absurd nickname for me (and I think there was a song to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), they drew a picture of me that likely wasn’t very flattering. Word got out, the boys involved had their plan foiled and had to turn over the letter and the picture and apologize. My dad came to school and collected the boys’ artwork.

I accepted their insincere apology and we were all told to move on with our lives. Not to talk about it again. I never did read or see what was in store for me.

I hadn’t thought about this incident in years. I don’t keep in close contact with anyone from high school and it was treated as a “boys will be boys” incident. I moved on with my life.

October of 2017, this memory weaseled its way out of storage. Alyssa Milano’s tweet revived the “Me Too” campaign of 2006 when activist Tarana Burke wanted to shed light on ‘the pervasiveness of sexual assault and misconduct in our society’ using this phrase. Milano’s tweet reignited the movement and #MeToo started trending across social media.

*

I have a twelve year old son, a pre-teen, if you will. The kid cracks me up. His frustration at my lack of tech knowledge is hard to hide. The questions I ask draw out some powerful eye rolls and he often takes devices/controllers out of my hands while letting out an Are you kidding me, Mom under his breath. Still, he always helps.

He also half-listens to NPR while it provides the background noise in our kitchen. His basic knowledge of technology mixed with his peripheral news intake actually makes him a pretty powerful ally. You see, I hate hashtags and my son uses them in speech. #Annoying.

One night after a particularly upsetting segment on NPR, I complained about “kids these days.” They would rather join a protest Facebook group than take to streets and demand real change! They don’t realize that social media movements will stagnate! This was when my greatest ally, a twelve year old boy, was able to explain something many others had tried, and failed, to do. My son was able to talk to me about the importance of a hashtag in the most simple of terms. He told me (and I’m paraphrasing here): “It doesn’t matter what you want, Mom. That’s the way it is now. Now, you have to click on the hashtag if you want see what other people think.” #Blessed.

But he was right. My hatred of social media trends wouldn’t change the fact that #MeToo was trending and, despite my kicking and screaming, I wouldn’t be able to decide how society would collectively speak out or react. I needed to accept it and see where it was heading.

I was (am) skeptical about the success of movement that has so many moving parts. Can a movement that is expanding faster than the Game of Thrones universe, a movement that impacts so many people so differently, be successful when reduced to two simple words?

Sexual violence has always been an issue in our society. That isn’t a secret and shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Just read YouTube comments on a video about feminism, you’ll see what I mean. Remember Brock Turner? The rapist who got six months because his dad wanted him to get out of jail to eat steak? Bill Cosby ring a bell? Roman Polanski? I wasn’t sure how the phrase “Me Too” was supposed to bring awareness to something people already were aware of.

Then I realized, Me Too isn’t about rape. It is about silence. I think it is dangerous to reduce the complex nature of sexual violence against women down to a simple hashtag. A woman being catcalled on the street carries a different weight than a woman who has been raped or assaulted. Not better or worse, but a very different weight. Using the hashtag as a catch all doesn’t serve anyone’s individual story with dignity it deserves.

#MeToo, to me, is about acknowledging that women and girls have felt shamed into silence. Once that is established and acknowledged, there can be a push for societal change.

I was slut shamed by boys in my high school and told to move on. Now, to my knowledge, none of those boys are convicted rapists. They didn’t ruin my life and they probably learned their lesson. They probably grew up, matured and they likely have forgotten about the incident. The boys from my memory are the least upsetting piece. Sitting across the desk from our cross-armed principal (who looked just like Russell from Wayne’s World), and having to explain what my part in this whole mess was, that was piece that stuck with me. He wanted to know why would these boys want to call you a slut?

That guy was a fucking asshole. Pardon my language or go read Kevin Krein’s piece about cussing. But there is no other way to put it.

That is #MeToo. Humiliated and intimidated into feeling silent.

I wasn’t a saint. I was probably a little asshole for a large portion of high school, too. But I can tell you after that experience, after explaining to a grown man, behind a closed door, why it was possible I could called a slut…well, it wasn’t an experience I’d go hunting for again.

I am in so much trouble if my mom finds out about this. I am going to have to talk about this with my Catholic mother. She is going to think I’m a sinner.

This wasn’t the worst experience of my life, not by a long shot. Shitty things happen in high school, I get that. After 2017s resurgence of the #MeToo movement, I thought about experiences that shaped me. Experiences that altered my choices and decision making ability. Experiences that will shape how I parent my children and this was one of those experiences. It helps answer the questions: Why don’t women come forward earlier? Why don’t women go to the police? Why don’t girls tell a teacher or their principal? Why don’t women report this to HR or campus security? I remember how I felt sitting across from that man, in that office and knowing those boys would be sitting next to me in class the following morning. If you don’t think that experience would shape your future decision making, then I am happy you’ve never had to sit in that chair. That was just the first incident and I am just one person. Keeping our mouths shut was taught to us at a very young age. #MeToo.

*

Raising three children was the best excuse I could find to call myself a writer and still manage to avoid doing any actual writing. I don’t have time. The house is too distracting and I have to work. Every now and again I would read something that would put a little pep in my step and I’d scribble out a few self-indulgent paragraphs in a notebook before giving up tossing it on a shelf. What I am trying to say: I got really lazy, fell out of practice and writing was suddenly something that frustrated me. I went through draft after draft of this essay trying to find my voice.

I had a witty and completely unoriginal opening about Pepe Le Pew setting the tone for behavioral expectations for young boys and girls. That was scrapped. There was an intro summing up a few of my personal experiences working as a bartender in a college town during my early 20s. Those stories are also gross but they landed on the cutting room floor. I had a draft that was super angry. It was therapeutic rage vomit on paper. I cleaned that up, too. Those stories, while true, were just buttons in the jar. They still weren’t the story I was looking to tell.

Women are telling their “tooth in the button jar” stories. I implore you to go read these stories. There are countless essays better than mine and beautiful stories, even bits as simple as tweets out there covering the many aspects of this movement. Read about Abby Honold, a U of M student who was raped in 2014, criticized by paramedics and police, then harassed by a fraternity. Read about her Bill to help survivors of rape. This Bill was championed by Al Franken, until he resigned over sexual misconduct allegations himself. Read “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker. Find essays with a different opinion or a different point of view. Read pieces with which you violently disagree. Read it all. Then find your voice.

*

There are so many questions that I fail to address, I acknowledge that. This topic is too big for one voice. What about false accusations? How far back in time to we go when looking to hold men accountable? Is it right that women have to rip open old wounds in order to prove we are telling the truth? What about men who are abused and assaulted? These are all reasonable questions. I encourage you to read about these issues, answer these questions and write more essays, research papers or opinion pieces on these topics. Everything out there said and written by someone else, that is a button. Find your tooth and hide it amongst the buttons where they can all sit safely together.

*

Outrage fatigue is the slowly boiled frog. With each passing day, the temperature rises a few degrees. The heat becomes normal and frog forgets to act. The frog doesn’t realize it needs to jump out. I get mad about the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, but I forget because a minute later Trump is saying that some Neo Nazis are “good people.” But who can remember that when he is describing women as dogs and calling other countries “shitholes” and asking for more white people to move to this country and deregulating the poisons that can be dumped into our food and making it more challenging for women to report sexual assaults on college campuses!? My attention is being pulled in so many different directions and the fatigue kicks and I think: it is all fucked. There is nothing we can do. I have nothing left.

The water is boiling. The frog is dead.

So we can call it quits or we can practice self care and get focused! (Note: drinking excessively is not self care.)

So how can I cope with the outrage I feel in regards to the #MeToo movement, Lindsay? Good question! Let me tell you what I do! I focus on the positive now and then. I try to remember what keeps me fighting. Then, I come up with a list of changes I’d like to see. Change marks progress.

I have two sons and a daughter. They will be the greatest challenges of my life. Hopefully, I am raising three powerful humans who will go into the world with kindness. Boys who will be allies as well as leaders. A daughter who will use her voice for herself and if necessary, for others. I will teach them that silence is not an acceptable solution. They will stand up when something is wrong and insist that they will not keep their mouths shut. These are the adults of the future. They are strong and kind and accepting and intelligent. And I am just one mother. My children keep me fighting.

It is important to remember that not all men are monsters. Remembering this helps me to stay positive. Not all men are morons. Not all men make creepy advances or look for an opportunity to slip a roofie into your drink. Not even most men fall into those categories. There are men, alongside the women, who have encouraged me to run marathons and race mountain bikes. Those men appreciated my body for what it could do, not what it could be used for. They treated me with respect as a peer and they pushed me as an athlete. There are men who keep me fighting.

To stay focused, a movement must have goals. These are mine:

Goal 1: We continue to elect and support women at all levels of government. Women make up just over half population of the United States and yet makeup only 19% of the House of Representatives and 21% of the Senate. This is legislation without proper representation.

Goal 2: We reevaluate the statute of limitations of rape and sexual assault cases. With proper evidence, justice should be sought regardless of how much time has passed. Refusing to charge an individual with rape simply because they temporarily got away with it is reinforcing the culture of silence.

Goal 3: We start to talk. We talk to our children. Our friends. Our loved ones. We need to talk to people who disagree with us. We need to share ideas. We need to change the way young boys and young girls learn to interact with themselves and interact with others. Support conversation, even if it is challenging. Fixing this requires an entire socio-political shift and it is going to take a lot of work.

That is where I start. Three goals. Three things to work for, three letters to write and suddenly the fatigue I feel over the vastness of this issue becomes a little more manageable.

Then I go to yoga and drink coffee. That too.

*

I will leave you with this. Our stories, collectively, they are buttons in a jar. They are different. Some are damaged and some are fresh and some sparkle. But they sit together amongst a hoarded mess. Together they make something more beautiful than single damaged or mismatched button, they form a collection. A woman can pick from that collection and she can find a button that might help to mend a torn piece of clothing, or give an eye or two to a damaged doll.

Your stories surround me. This was my story. I found my voice. This is my tooth hidden in the button jar.

Find your story — find your ugly, gnarly, unexpected wisdom tooth — and share it. We’ll be your button jar to keep your story safe.

 

 

[1] My mother is wonderful and compassionate and funny and did a phenomenal job raising four girls. She was a Catholic raising Catholics. While we may have all been somewhat sexually clueless, we are now independent, brave, fierce, strong and funny because of her. I won’t let it get to my head.

[2] I assure you, my taste in movies has improved greatly since 1998.

 

 

Lindsay Ness is a thoughtful, independent writer who prefers to see the world as it really is instead of the way it’s presented to her. She can be contacted at lindsay.ness2@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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About Lindsay Ness

Lindsay is and animal and human enthusiast. She enjoys the New York Times Crossword puzzle, but only on Mondays. She has a gaggle of children and probably drinks too much coffee.

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