Every woman has a #MeToo story. It just depends on how she tells it. On who asks her, on why they enquired, on what triggered the memory, on what she knows now that she didn’t at the time – on a hundred different variables, in short. No, scratch that – every woman has #MeToo stories. Two or twenty. The count varies, for the reasons already mentioned and more. It’s just that she may choose not to frame them all that way. Or that she would rather put some or all of them behind her. Or that this new vocabulary may later liberate her, but for right now it overpowers her in so volcanic a way that she would rather not feel the things it brings up. She’d rather put them away again – hopefully not in their old hiding-place of shame, but in some new site where light slants on them in a different way, and perhaps over time she’ll know what to do.
Harassment that’s cut short through a slap, as recounted by several women in viral-friendly videos and tweets, also constitutes a #MeToo story – not the avoidance of one. Because the weight of the story lies not in the response, but in the intended outcome that the perpetrator had (and always, always – an unwelcome advance is about power, and a non-consensual action is about power; desire is never the main factor). So, in some of our #MeToo stories we’ve slapped our way out of a situation. In others, we’ve sweet-talked our escapes – the screenshots will not reveal how we gritted our teeth as we said mollifying things because we’d been raised to be diplomatic, or because we were afraid. In still others, we kept sleeping with our oppressors because we’d been gaslit into thinking we were loved. And in so many more, we’d diminished our presences so we’d seem to be unthreatening (read: unattractive) wallflowers, nodded or smiled and said as little as possible, or cut our losses and quietly left. A slap and a clean getaway are only possible if you don’t have a salary on the line, are assured that you can leave both the location and the context easily, do not have other kinds of politics and dynamics in the environment that convolute it further, and most importantly, aren’t at risk of retaliatory physical or other violence.
Over the past few weeks, as the #MeToo movement experiences its second wave in India, I made space to reflect on why I’ve yet to publicly out anyone, even though I’m fully supportive of the courageous people who’ve done so. My reasons are partly circumstantial, partly circumspect, and entirely complicated. I know this to be true for many people, because beneath the public wave are countless, powerful small ripples – private conversations and reckonings. I wish those who claim they’ve never been harassed or abused would reflect too. Open declaration is only one way of parsing trauma. If it doesn’t suit, pure denial or abject shame are not the only options. Slowly, we must teach ourselves new ways of healing and standing in our truths. Slowly. Because we aren’t just recalibrating our stories, we’re remaking the world.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 25th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.