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To The Men In My Life: On Facing Reality
Chimene Suleyman , October 26th, 2017 17:05

Shared stories of assault and harassment continue to pile up, overflowing and exhausting. We've denied reality for so long that, when it begins to pour out all over us, it seems unreal. By Chimene Suleyman.

There is great familiarity and comfort that comes from the London tradition of sitting at haggard plastic chairs in a chicken shop, once the pubs have closed, and picking at the outer shell of chicken wings. I am doing just this when the stranger who had physically assaulted me some months earlier walks in.

I slammed my food in the bin as though it were now poison, and walked away as if all I had ever known to do was keep walking. The friend I was with reacted as quickly as I did - if she did not recognise him, she recognised my reaction.

You will perhaps be surprised to hear that I’d not felt much emotion towards the attack before this time. What we call numbness is a kind of expectation, a recognition of truths that should not draw breath yet do. But I will tell you, on this night after I walked away, I cried as though the crying itself might become its own violence. Here, against a north London bus-stop, was a recital between me and my friend: each assault, every abuse, harassment, a catalogue of aggression and coercion. You will know by now that a sisterhood is called as such because a family is raised alike. That our bodies have been lusted after, mocked and terrorised as though we are one mass.

The men in my life, I chose you. From a place of abject fear, I told you stories and watched how you would respond to them. I challenged you and hoped you would accept it. I met your girlfriends and boyfriends and hoped I could decipher from the way you held a hand, or spoke after their words, if you were good or not. I tried. If I couldn’t be safe in this world, at least I would be safe in the bars and homes that our friendships would play out in. I had seen how men abused their friends and partners. I would, I thought, learn to see who those men are. I came to you with stories of my own partners, thought perhaps I had found a formula. When you fell out of line I spoke with you, negotiated, shouted if I had to, for I would stand for the woman who suffered from your actions. But, no less, I had decided upon you - I believed we weren't quite so unalike, you and me. I hoped you would change. Some of you did. But brutality does not belong to mythical creatures, it belongs to us. To be human means to know how to present an unassuming life as just that, not as the imagined monster but as a man - you hide in plain sight.

The men no longer in my life, I loved you. That is to say, I took everything I knew about the patriarchy, the brotherhood, and demanded you understand that the only way I could believe you weren’t a part of it was if you acknowledged that you were. I needed you to know that you are not one man in my life, but every. You do not come alone, you see. That is the method of the establishment. Every time you held my hand, you were part of all the other men who’ve held my hand. You would not be able to withdraw the order of manhood simply by being someone new; I am not someone new. Nor was my experience of suffering, or that of the women I know and don’t. What was not important was whether you had been the one to hurt me with your body, but that mine had been. It was the history of my existence that mattered, not the individuality of yours. You failed. And so on to the next woman, and the next. If it is a woman that you are looking for who does not know what it is to be abused, you will not find her.

And so, I sit in my local bar in the corner of Brooklyn that has now become my home. I will not tell you in detail that harassment feels pronounced here, that summer in this city is a raptorial manifestation of machismo which I have never quite experienced before. It will excuse your behaviour elsewhere to hear it as such. The man who works behind the bar is a friend. He will slam shots with you and dance to terrible songs. His father is Turkish, as mine is, as my mother is, and by now I know that when he speaks to me in this language it is a code - our code - and it is a warning. He tells me to take my glass of wine and move to the other side of the bar, and I know it is because the man to the left of me is a threat to my safety. I mention this because it is worth hearing. It is also of value to say that I could not see it first for myself, because in that moment it was already all around me. At this time I was reading, lost to an email from a woman I do not know. This woman was describing to me that she had been raped by a man who I do know, a man who was my friend.

This was not the first email of that nature that day, nor the last. In 48 hours, after revealing my own stories of harassment, I work my way through a mountain of messages from women I have met and women I have not, each confiding that they have been assaulted by men I have worked with, men I have dated, men I have admired, and trusted. For most of this time I stop eating. I sleep long hours and wake to respond to the women. What is the process for hating men that moments earlier you loved? I do not know it yet. I cry sporadically and the tightness in my stomach belongs to the chorus of those hours in which a bus-stop outside a chicken shop in Camden once played audience.

I cannot tell those of you - the men in my life - that I now know who among you are abusers. I would first need to rewrite the language of mourning to find the words. Perhaps you are in your homes reading this, or working the jobs we have since left in order to keep distance from you. Perhaps you are eating, or drinking, watching television shows, as the chaos of masculinity unravels around us. Perversion is as such that it is still the women in your lives who are taking care of this. Let it be known that when a woman carries you on her shoulders, it is practice for when she must hold up her sisters. For the nature of oppression is as such that only those of us who have suffered it will find any worth in solutions. That is to say, you will kill us then stand back and watch us remember how to breathe.

I have spent much of these last few days wondering what is real. What has always been fact is that the way of the streets meant they were never much safe with many of you on them. Nor our homes, offices, the bars we love, the restaurants we eat in, the schools we send our children to. Perhaps you think if you have never raped a woman you have succeeded in the face of entitled maleness. Perhaps you do not know what rape is - nor, for that matter, harassment and the way it twists our bones. Often, I have come to realise, the way you as men have conducted relationships and consequently the manner in which you part from them, reaches into the vertical drop of abuse. For there are many faces of it, where complicity is another such face. If you are not reflecting during these times, you must. You failed. You failed. And there may be only so long that we relive your inadequacy before there is evolution and revolution alike.

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