Feminism: Nan

Today I’m going to tell you a story. Because that’s what writers do, right? They tell stories. But I’m going to preface this by saying that for the five or six of you who know me in real life, this story is not for you. Don’t read it; go back to reading Narnia posts. This is a story that I’m telling to the internet, and not to face-space people, and I need you to respect that. Thank you.

[Content Note: Rape, Homelessness, Religious Abuse]

I will tell you a story. It is neither true nor false. It has no moral, no lesson, and no point. It simply is.

This story is about a little girl named Nan.

Nan was raised in a conservative Christian environment by her moderate Christian parents. Nan’s parents had both been raised in conservative Christian environments, and they’d turned out alright, so they thought the experience would be good for Nan. Plus, everyone knew that Christians got less conservative as they got older, so it was best to start Nan on the really conservative stuff to begin with and she’d naturally ripen and mellow out into a moderate Christian. Not one of those Christmas-and-Easter folks, mind you, but she’d probably ditch the Sunday evening and Wednesday night services and just stick with the weekly Sunday morning ones. And she wouldn’t grow up to be a pastor’s wife or anything hard-core like that, but Nan would at least marry a nice Wesleyan boy and not any of those Calvinists from across the street.

Nan was raised to believe that the Bible was God’s literal truth, dictated to people with parchments and feather pens. She read the Bible from cover to cover on a two year cycle, and she remembered the things she read. Nan got to eat bacon (though very rarely) and shellfish (though she didn’t like it), because those rules were only for God’s people when they were in the desert, but she knew -- because the pastor at the church said so -- that the rules about sexual behavior were true and absolute. Nan didn’t realize that the pastor was only talking about the homosexual bits, and accidentally memorized all the rules about not marrying your wife’s sister.

When Nan went to a conservative Christian college, she got her first boyfriend. She liked her boyfriend, and stayed out late with him and held his hand in his car and watched the stars. But her parents didn’t like her boyfriend: he was the wrong kind of Christian, and he preferred blue-collar jobs to white-collar work, and they didn’t get along very well. Nan’s parents told her to break up with her boyfriend.

Nan didn’t know what to do. She loved her parents and wanted to respect their wishes. But she was also enrolled in psychology courses at school and had heard about things like “boundaries”. Nan thought that maybe it would be better for her relationship with her parents if she didn’t leave her boyfriend just because they said so. Nan wasn’t trying to be rebellious, but she did want to have a healthy relationship with her parents and it seemed like this was something they would all look back on and laugh. So Nan told her parents that she wasn’t going to leave her boyfriend.

Nan’s parents were surprised at this, and maybe a little panicky. Nan had never disobeyed them when she lived at home, but now that she was in college, she wasn’t listening to their advice. They started calling Nan four or five times a day, crying, pleading, shouting. Didn’t Nan love them? Didn’t Nan care about them? If Nan really cared, she would do what they said! But the more they explained this to Nan, the more she resisted. They didn’t understand how uncomfortable they were making her by crying and shouting at her.

Nan’s parents went to their pastor. They went to their prayer group. They went to their family. They went to the conservative Christians who surrounded them and were part of their life. And the conservative Christians shook their heads and clucked their tongues and said that this was what happened when you were a moderate Christian parent. And they told Nan’s parents that if they really loved their daughter, they’d show her Tough Love. Tough Love, they said, was the only way to save Nan’s soul, and the only way to preserve their relationship with their daughter. Otherwise, without Tough Love, she’d be lost in sin forever.

Nan’s parents called her. They told her that if she didn’t leave her boyfriend, they would never talk to her again. That she wouldn’t have a home anymore. That she wouldn’t have a family. Nan’s parents thought that this would finally convince Nan how serious they were. They thought that Nan, who loved her parents very dearly, wouldn’t throw away her relationship with them for some boy she barely knew.

They didn’t realize how deeply they had hurt Nan. They didn’t realize that from her perspective, it was they who were throwing her away. They didn’t realize that their ultimatum made Nan feel unloved, made her feel like the boy she barely knew loved her MORE than her own parents, because at least he had never thrown her out on the street. And so Nan sadly hung up the phone and moved in with her boyfriend’s family, because where else could she go? She had no home. She had no family. Her family hadn’t loved her enough to not throw her away.

There’s more we could say about this story. I could tell you that when Nan’s boyfriend raped her, she had nowhere else to go but to continue living with him. I could tell you how Nan went to the government health clinic after her rape because she was afraid of STDs and pregnancy, and how the nurse told Nan that she was a “slut” and wouldn’t need to worry if she would just keep her legs closed. I could tell you that Nan’s school counselor decided that rape and sex were the same thing, and he tried to have Nan expelled from the school for sexual immorality. I could tell you that Nan remembered all those passages from the Bible -- especially the one about marrying your rapist -- and how she believed for a long time that God wanted her to marry her boyfriend because she wasn’t a virgin anymore.

I could tell you how Nan nearly died from a combination of depression and anxiety-based eating disorders. I could tell you how Nan’s doctor medicated her for severe depression but never once asked about her home life or tried to determine why she was depressed. I could tell you how Nan’s boyfriend dumped her -- possibly the nicest gift he could have given her, since now she couldn’t marry her rapist no matter what the Bible said -- and how Nan left town determined to drive until she ran out of gas, but thought she would call her parents one last time, and how her mother cried and told her that she really could come home again, now that she’d left that boy they didn’t like. I could tell you how Nan's parents never wanted to talk about all this, especially not the rape, because it was all in the past and such an unhappy time for them, and how Nan never, ever received any closure.

But I won’t tell you those things because they hardly seem worth mentioning. I will tell you that even though Nan went on to graduate from college, to have a loving and deeply meaningful relationship with her parents, to leave her religion and find one that suited her better, and to marry a kind and loving man, she still -- more than a decade later -- sometimes cries at night into her pillow, wondering how her parents could so easily throw her away, and what that says about her self-worth. And I will tell you that Nan quails inside when she sees or hears stories of other teenagers being cast out on the street just because they didn’t live up to the wishes of their parents, because Nan knew, for a very short time, what it was like to live at the mercy of strangers, to be abused by the people she trusted, to be hungry and thirsty and lonely and frightened and lost.

That is the end of the story, the story that is neither true nor false. It has no moral, no lesson, and no point.

Take from it whatever you will. I'll see you all on Monday.

36 comments:

Asha said...

*joins in the throng offering hugs*

Jeff Lipton said...

Chris, I felt the same way -- that I don't see the parents as Bad People, just people who are confused into acts of "astonishing unthinking cruelty". That maybe, just maybe, we can show them love, they can see that love can, and should, be unconditional. It will be hard for Nan, and those who know and love her, but we should try.

A wise woman (hapax, for those who know her) once said that the hardest thing in the world is to picture your worst enemy (the person that you feel has wronged you the most) in your mind and love them. But it's something we should all strive for.

Ana -- please feel free to delete this if you feel it's off-track.

hf said...

But it's something we should all strive for.

Technically I disagree, but I do see revenge as a pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation. And I could see myself telling Nan she's a better person than her parents for loving them.

Generally, trying to understand your enemies seems like a good rule for getting an accurate picture of the world. But that doesn't mean it will pay off in every case. I could try to fan-explain Nan's parents by pointing to the research on RWA scores and how they tend to increase with parenthood -- I could go further with armchair reasoning about the effect of fear -- but I don't fundamentally care that much about these characters' motives.

Anna said...

Beautifully and heart-rendingly written. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Jeff Lipton said...

I cannot add more than the above

hf said...

Gah.

Also: that would be the third trigger. Oops.

graylor said...

That's horrible. And, unfortunately, reminds me of some Nans in my family. Religion. It's enough to make me a New Atheist (tm). Hugs if you want them, hon.

depizan said...

:(

*offers hugs*

Anonymus said...

all the hugs

Silver Adept said...

Nan's story is horrible, and I wish it wasn't as common among the Nacirema as it is. Stories like Nan's are the kind that make me want to find a way so that they don't happen again to anyone.

Thomas Keyton said...

Oh gods.

*hugs offered*

robotxorange said...

I wish I could give all the hugs. I hope that if I'm ever in a position to witness someone I know experiencing abandonment, that I'll have the sense and presence of mind to do something about it.

More hugs. <3

Naomi said...

Stories like this make me cry, both because I feel so angry on behalf of the Nans of the world, and because I love my children more than life itself and can't even conceive of treating them this way.

Bificommander said...

Hugs to Nan (if wanted, of course).

And yeah AnonaMiss, I noticed that one too. Not gonna make too detailed judgements based on a general story but that... didn't sound like the best possible welcome message.

fairyhedgehog said...

Oh wow. I don't know what to say.

I do know that the "unconditional love" offered by Christians can be very, very conditional indeed.

This deserves a wider audience.

Gelliebean said...

All my love and hugs to you.... :-(

AnonaMiss said...

her mother cried and told her that she really could come home again, now that she’d left that boy they didn’t like.

...what.

Not "we were wrong to have thrown you out and you can come home again and could no matter what."

"You finally obeyed us and so you can come home again."

WHAT.

MaryKaye said...

Dan Savage ran a story about a lesbian who suddenly found herself with her 15-year-old gay nephew dumped on her doorstep that made me cry in a similar way.

I guess all we can do is try to show love to the Nan's of the world, whenever and wherever we meet them.

My adopted son has serious abandonment issues that screw him up on a daily basis. We don't know if he will ever overcome them. One of the things they lead to is his tormenting us to see if he can *make* us abandon him--then at least he'd know where he stands--so it can be very difficult to love him. Sometimes I wish for time travel so I could go back and commit some kind of violence on the people who got him into this state; but then I look at the evidence and realize I'd have to go back for generations, because the immediate problem people were themselves abandoned and abused.

JarredH said...

I have no words.

EllieMurasaki said...

:( :( :(

RedSonja said...

*weeps for Nan* It's terrible to feel that unloved by people who are supposed to love you no matter what. And I know I'll always wonder what I might do to make it happen again. It's scary.

unbeliever536 said...

Hugs and laughter to Nan and all who have lived her story.

Cynicism Follows said...

I'm so sorry that this kind of thing happens. Malicious, hurtful behavior is one thing, but somehow this kind of unintentional infliction of pain is worse, in it's utter pointlessness. No, it's all pointless. But still, this sucks. My best wishes for all Nans. I know from a (very different) personal experience how hard it can be when your own family betrays you and how hard it can be trying to put the pieces back together afterwards. You love them and you don't want to hurt them you can even grow to trust them again, to a degree. But there's always something fundamentally *broken* there and though it can be easy to forget that a lot of the time that just makes it all the more shocking when you're reminded of it...

storiteller said...

So much love and sympathy for "all of the Nans in the world" indeed. And MaryKaye, I so deeply respect your ability to adopt and bring up your son. I don't know if I would have the emotional capacity to deal with that and I have so much appreciation for those who do.

Karen said...

Nothing to add except hugs.

Chris Doggett said...

I like to tell stories, and to collect them. Thank you for sharing this story.

What's puzzling about a story like this is that it's not really Nan's story. Nan's story, I suspect, is richer and deeper, more personal and more profound. But this story, here, seems to be the story of Nan's parents. Make no mistake, it is a tragic story where the consequences of their choices are suffered not by them, but by someone else, and that should, in no way, make light of Nan's experiences, her pain and suffering, her challenges and her triumphs.

But this story feels like a tale of two people we thought of as loving and caring falling increasingly into tragedy. It's a story of trying to make the right choices at every step, but having those choices turn out horribly wrong. It's a tragedy where the consequences of bad decisions are borne out not by the choosers, but instead the sins of the fathers & mothers are visited on an innocent child. Like many figures in stories, Nan is a victim of forces beyond her control or knowing, while her parents are like Faustus and Prospero, knowing they call the whirlwind without fully comprehending.

It's an incomplete story (as many stories are) where we never get to know the how or why of those terrible choices. It's incomplete because our story-parents might have learned humility, or forgiveness, or wisdom, but if those lessons were learned, it was off-screen, out of our sight, apart from the story. There is a gap, between Act II and Act III, where love's labors are (somewhat) won, fences may have been mended, and hurts are (incompletely) healed. Because of that gap, the turn to tragedy and senseless villainy we saw in Act II is never really undone; these two parents might ever after act in love and concern, but the pitfalls and lures that led them down a dark path before remain still, both for them and for other parents like them. We know they are capable of astonishing unthinking cruelty, but we do not know if they have any awareness of their capacity, and that leaves them somewhat menacing.

It may not be true or false, it may not have a clear, easy-to-quip moral, but I think it is at least a cautionary tale, a warning to some whose decisions have consequences only to others, and a plea to all on behalf of those who suffer for choices beyond their ken.

Froborr said...

All the hugs in the world for all the Nans in the world.

esmerelda_ogg said...

Poor Nan. Oh, poor Nan. It's good that she's come out the other side into a better set of relationships, but that doesn't make the awful stuff unhappen. Poor Nan.

Lonespark said...

Yeah, I don't agree that we should necessarily strive to be that forgiving. But in cases like this, you already love the people, and want to maintain a relationship on some level. To do that without forgiving seems really impossible...but you won't forget, either way, and you can't make yourself heal, especially that much hurt. Urgh.

Hugs all round.

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