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Critical Voice Origins: Men in My Family

Growing up around several of the men in my family, I was taught that my body needed to be protected.

It was constantly criticized for not being small enough or touched just inappropriately enough to make me uncomfortable but not necessarily “qualify” as sexual abuse or molestation. I felt ashamed of my body but also disgusted by the way these men made me feel as a female, especially as I matured into puberty and beyond.

Most of my childhood was spent around my mom’s family, my great-grandfather Brophy and uncles Robert and Charles. Charles was a convicted sex offender and thanks to June, never got a real opportunity to make me one of his victims. Both he and Brophy still managed to make me feel uncomfortable as they ran their hands up my thighs while I watched television lying on my stomach on June’s bed. As gross as that was, nothing compared to the constant comments they made about my body, especially my weight and size.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was a chubby child who became very overweight as a teenager. Brophy was always quick to point out what I ate and how much and often glared at me whenever I got a bowl of ice cream after dinner, which was highly encouraged by both June, who had a sweet tooth of her own, and my great-grandmother Lib, who often accused me of starving myself if I didn’t eat seconds.

Charles was the worst, however. His wife, my aunt Pat, was very overweight. She had bariatric surgery in the 90s and lost about 200 pounds but regained it and then some and died after complications from a second bariatric surgery in 2003. Overweight himself, Charles gave her so much grief over her weight and size as well as me, whom he often accused of being as big as Pat when I was nowhere near her size.

When I lost weight in junior high school then began gaining weight in high school, he commented, “You were getting such a nice little ass and now you’re almost as big as Pat.” At my heaviest, I was 275-280 pounds. At Christmas after I graduated from college, Charles, Mama, and I were sitting at Lib’s dining room table. He visually compared my thin mother to a fat me and asked her, “Why is she so big and you so small? How did that happen?” I don’t even remember if she responded or if she did, how.

He never failed to have jokes about my broad shoulders and large frame either. When my brothers and I went swimming at his house over the summer when I was in high school, he often joked, “How are you here? Did they let you out of football practice early or something?”

Though I always disliked my uncle Robert who lived with Lib, Brophy, and June because he would terrorize Lib until she was in hysterics, he didn’t begin really creeping me out until I moved in with June and Lib after Brophy died and after I graduated from college. Because he was often off on gambling trips or just out all night doing God knows what and I needed my own room when I moved in, I got his bedroom. He slept on the couch or in June’s room during the day.

He was always incredibly touchy. Always wanting a hug and to kiss you on the cheek. I got so fed up with it one night that I told him the area around me was my personal space and he was not allowed in it anymore. I did not want him touching or kissing me. He told June I was an asshole and ungrateful because he’d given up his bedroom for me. Right, this gives you the right to touch me when I don’t want you to.

Once before June died, I was watching the news and on my laptop in the back bedroom when he went into his bathroom to shower. He saw me there before he went in and knew I was still there when he got done showering. It was my bedroom at the time and the only place I had any privacy.

By the grace of God, I had my laptop propped up on my knees when he came out of the shower naked and stood in front of me. Everything from the waist down was shrouded by my computer. He initially acted like he didn’t know I was there but then joked, “Well, it’s not like there’s anything to see anyway.” When I told Lib and June what he did and Lib confronted him, he said he didn’t know I was there when he came out of the bathroom. Instead of arguing with him, she told me to leave the room the next time he went into the shower.

After June died, I became paranoid that Robert watched me through the blinds of the bedroom window. When I locked the bedroom door to work out one night, he asked me what I was doing and then what I was wearing. I locked the bedroom door when I slept at night. I did everything I could to avoid being around him. I moved out after a huge fight with him, but at Lib’s funeral, he forced himself on me, hugging me with his sweat-soaked, unwashed for God knows how long body. I wanted to light myself on fire after that.

While on summer breaks in college, I lived with Daddy, Adam, Ben, Caleb, and my uncle Steve, my dad’s youngest brother who is 10 years older than me and more like an older brother than uncle.

Both Daddy and Steve were very overweight back then. All three of my brothers were chubby as children but mostly grew out of it in their teens. I was again reminded how much I failed as a woman because I was fat and told how no man would ever want to be anything more than friends with me unless I lost weight.

Adam called me “fat” like it was my name for over a year. Whenever Ben and Caleb got angry at me, they called me a “fat whale” or “Shamu.” They all told me I had a pretty face but would be much prettier if I lost weight.

In my early twenties, Steve was single and working in local radio and felt it was appropriate to tell me stories of the women he hooked up. Though he was critical of my weight, he preferred overweight women and once commented that if I wasn’t his niece, I would be his type. Needless to say, I never felt comfortable around him again. I covered this discomfort by constantly joking on and pranking him.

Tim, Mama’s second ex-husband, felt comfortable discussing their sex life in detail with me and had friends who tried to look up my skirt and asked him if I was 18 yet when I was in my late teens.

Throughout my life, I never felt like I could occupy my entire body. It was too large, loud, and emotional and a giant dartboard for commentary, insults, and criticism. With my height, broad shoulders, flat chest and butt, I have often struggled to feel traditionally feminine in my body. I listened to the men in my family discuss female celebrities in such crude ways that I didn’t want to be noticed as a woman. I wanted to feel sexy and attractive but at the same time, the thought of any of them noticing either of those things in me made me shudder in disgust.

I don’t like to be left alone with men. If I get on an elevator and it’s just me and a man, I will often get off or move as far away from him as possible.

I don’t pay attention to men around me because I don’t want to see them looking at me.

It didn’t help that I had older male coworkers who made inappropriate remarks about me or what they wanted to do with me or what they did with their wives. The sense of humor I developed in lieu of being sexy or attractive wound up being both to the men I relaxed the most around because I was not attracted to them.

So often around men, I shut down and close off as a means of protection. I had to do this growing up around Robert because with the mental issues he has, I was not encouraged to fight back or protect Lib or June because it only made things worse. I holed up into a tiny corner of my body and endured that dysfunction. The manipulation and gaslighting I endured makes my stomach turn just thinking about it.

Mama asked me a couple of years ago if I was ever sexually abused because I react to men like I have been. I do not recall ever being physically sexually abused, but I have rarely felt safe in my skin and body around men.

I have felt both wrong for not being thin or curvier and protected by it.

I exist in my own little world when I’m out in public and have created a resting bitch face and stiffness to my broad shoulders that makes me often unapproachable.

In college, I envied by then best friend for all of the male attention she received constantly, but was also relieved I did not have to deal with it.

When the men in my family couldn’t attack me for my size/weight/body, they went after how outspoken and emotional I was. With Daddy, Steve, and my brothers, my response to them making jokes about me was often to joke back harder and with funnier jokes, which they didn’t like. I also developed the art of self-deprecating humor because I said, “If you’re going to joke on me, at least have funny jokes.” This backfired on me because it didn’t protect me from the hurt I felt from the comments my brothers and uncle made and gave them permission to continue.

The older men on both sides of my family were often very self-righteous, judgmental, condemning, and absolutely hated to be confronted on any of their wrongdoings. Growing up in a conservative, nearly fundamentalist, Christian family, I was taught it was wrong for me to be anything but subservient to men. I was to do what I was told and keep my mouth shut unless spoken to.

With Brophy, Charles, and Robert, it was never worth arguing with them because of how angry they got at being confronted and because they always had to have the last word. Lib and June would argue back to some extent, but were quick and fierce to defend them when I felt our safety was at jeopardy and called the police on them, especially Robert.

With my dad, Steve, and brothers, I was always “on my period” or “acting like a girl” if my feelings were ever visibly hurt, but if I made similar remarks to my dad when he was moody, I was threatened with physical abuse.

They were never at fault for the things they said and I was always at fault for how I reacted. I was always being crazy or emotional or silly or ridiculous. So often in my life I have heard, “It’s so funny to watch you get so worked up about stuff.” No, it’s not.

All of this plays into my marriage. I didn’t trust John for the first couple of years in our marriage because I believed he was going to be just like all of the men I grew up with. I still dream constantly of him cheating on, ignoring, or being mean to me.

I was afraid to be angry or upset for a long time because I thought he’d gaslight me too. I tried so hard to be appealing to him that I shut myself out.

Whenever he drank more than a few beers, I worried he was going to be Tim. I also worried this when he didn’t work while in school and I supported the two of us on my income, which wasn’t much.

Him touching me so much in the beginning of our relationship was both nice and also made me uncomfortable at times. I still often check out mentally during sex and struggle to really relax and enjoy it without feeling shameful.

Sex is still something I struggle to feel comfortable in doing because of how inappropriately and crudely it was discussed growing up. I can’t even have adult conversations with John about it, though I can make “that’s what she said” jokes all day long.

When John and I got into a huge fight after I ended my 14-year friendship with my college best friend last year and he messaged her on Facebook and said he didn’t know why I ended the friendship and basically apologized to her for it, I immediately interpreted it as “I’m sorry Amy is being so silly and ridiculous. She’s basically just having a fit now and will hopefully get over it soon.” I was so deeply hurt and angered by this because he’d seen me having an anxiety attack about ending the friendship the night I did it and I felt like once again, I was crazy and even my own husband was not on my side.

I am still learning to occupy my body just as it is. I’ve learned as an adult that “femininity” is a much broader term than I was raised to believe it was, but part of me still holds onto the sadness I’ve always felt over not being traditionally feminine. I see beauty in my strength, height, broad shoulders, and build, but still joke about being the Hulk because my hands are stronger than John’s and I’m clumsy.

I have found a style that works for me, lots of floral patterns and dresses and flats. I occasionally wear makeup but feel more comfortable without it. I started dyeing my hair red in 2002 and have remained a redhead ever since.

I am still discovering my voice. Still learning to confront injustices towards me even at the risk of being disliked, criticized, or insulted. Two weeks ago, a man called me a “fat pig” because I yelled back at him when he yelled at me for walking out in front of his car when he was supposed to stop and I had the right-of-way.

It stung a little bit when he said it, but I yelled back, “Aren’t you so fucking clever?!” because his reaction is nearly every reaction I’ve ever gotten for pissing off a man in my family by confronting their behavior.

I am still discovering how people react to me is typically not about me personally but about how they feel about themselves. I’m learning all I can control is how I react. I’m learning that some fights aren’t worth it even when my ego is wounded and I want the other person to know how angry they made me. I want them to hurt because they hurt me. I know this is how it often goes, hurt people hurt people.

When I was in college, June made me swear I would not get married right out of college. She wanted me to graduate, get a job, get out on my own, learn to take care of myself and be fine alone and only then begin to consider dating and marriage.

I did this and often my line of defense when angry at John is to shut down and snap, “I will not be miserable in this marriage. I was fine on my own before you came along and will be fine without you if it comes down to that.” Not healthy. Not loving.

I am still tearing the wall of protection I’ve built towards men throughout my life and often it feels like taking apart the Great Wall of China brick by brick.

I want to be better. Do better. Live better. Treat myself and others better. FEEL BETTER. Not be afraid to be wholly myself but also not so quick to disregard others or always be so protective of myself that others aren’t allowed to make a mistake and don’t feel comfortable calling me out on my own bullshit. Being so protective of myself has served a real purpose, but it has also made me quick to anger which doesn’t allow healthy confrontation or constructive criticism. It has also made me quick to claim all responsibility and blame in order to spare others’ feelings and a fight.

There are times where I think, I don’t want to write this blog. I am over all of this shit. I just want to move on and forget about it. How is this going to help me? How could this help anyone else?

That’s when I know what I am doing is important, as I am still afraid of facing and voicing my history, journey, struggles, who I want to be, and who I am today.

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