Shining Like Fireworks

When Taylor Swift was 19 she was in an abusive relationship. Statistically, most women will experience these kinds of destructive relationships. It may come from an intimate partner, a family member, or in my case– a guy you had the extreme misfortune of working with.

Most abusers want power. Most abuse is about power. Rape isn’t about sex; it’s about power and control. While abusers are clearly mentally unwell, they’re often intelligent and charming. They’re clever manipulators and will often use tactics like gaslighting to make the people they choose to abuse doubt themselves. If you’re able to speak out, they may try (and unfortunately may succeed) to portray themselves as innocent, as the victims of vindictive slander. It’s a terrible situation that virtually every woman has experienced more than once in her life. I don’t know a single woman who can’t recall such a situation.

What do you do when someone is trying to take control of your life, wants to turn people against you, and engages in stalking behavior patterns in an attempt to assert power? Well if you’re Taylor Swift, you don’t take it sitting down, that’s for damn sure. When Taylor Swift was nineteen she wrote a song that clearly says, “You’re trying to make me into a victim and I’m not going to let you.” She did that when she was 19! Of course, the media used this to further their narrative of her as boy crazy and vengeful, not realizing that she’d just given young women of the 2000s what Kathleen Hanna gave young women of the 1990s: a clear path out of that media narrative of victimized women.

Thanks to Tumblr user Monica-Geller, we can all take a moment to appreciate this perfect moment in the song Dear John:

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The lyrics of that song beautifully capture what it’s like to have a mentally unwell man try to control you, and then what it’s like to decide you won’t be victimized, to reassert power over your own life. The man referenced in Dear John tried to manipulate the situation by releasing (a truly pathetic) song trying to deny his abuse, to make people feel bad for him. That’s what abusive men do. They’ll never take responsibility for their actions. And if you have the added struggle of dealing with an abuser who has sociopathic tendencies, you’ve got even more to go up against.

You probably can’t prevent abusive people from showing up in your life. And the very real and volatile, often deadly, fallout should never be ignored. But you also don’t have to resign yourself to a life of fear and mistrust. The person abusing you is sad and empty. You are not, which is probably one of the reasons you were targeted in the first place. An abusive person might stay in your life for a long time, because they’re sad and empty. But that doesn’t need to get you down, because you should be so busy shining like fireworks that when that pitiful abusive person tries to pull another stunt you pause and laugh and think, “You? Still?” and then get right back to your amazing and fulfilling life.

I’m so grateful that Taylor Swift was brave enough to write and share this song, to give young women this incredible example of owning your truth, speaking out, and living fearlessly. I’m so glad I got over my internalized misogyny, stopped exclusively listening to sad white boys, and became the conductor of the Taylor Swift Defense Train.

And I’m especially glad I did all of that before that sad empty guy I had the misfortune of working next to decided to start sexually harassing and stalking me. It’s a truly disgusting situation and it’s always disappointing to see how thoroughly wretched and actively malicious people can be, but that’s his lot to live with. All I’ve been doing in the months this has been occurring is casually achieving all of my personal and professional goals.

My world and life keep getting bigger and happier, and while it’s aggravating to still be dealing with a person who is so clearly and dangerously unwell… my fireworks are shining so bright I barely even notice.

I decided to climb my career ladder and was able to juggle multiple job offers, and then choose to accept one that makes me happy and pays more than I probably deserve. I wanted to brush up my web development skills, so I learned Sass and Javascript and all kinds of frontend and backend tricks. I go out on dates because somebody else’s unwanted infatuation isn’t going to prevent me from having a rich life. I’ve been living with incredible people. I go on runs and every mile feels better than the last. I decided to learn how to cook fancy meals, and most of them have been stellar. I get to cuddle sweet dogs.

All of my relationships are flourishing.

My friends are all shining in their own lives and making me better as a result. I love that I get to catch a plane, just because I want to drink wine with Madelaine. I can drive around with Whitney, screaming, “Testify!” Sam sends me mail addressed to “Bagels” and it gets delivered. Megan and Sarah meet me for Lady Brunch. Lindsay and I discuss the books we’re reading as if we’re living in the stories. Jennie wears silly cat ear headbands around the house with me. Taylor reminds me that our kind of love is immutable. Sue thinks I’m capable of performing and presenting alongside her (!). The coolest 11-year-old girl lets me goofily dance around with her. Lydia inspires me to do no harm, but take no shit. Vani reminds me that even small acts of resistance can have a big effect.

All of these things would be happening even if I never had to deal with being harassed. But abusers want to crush all the good things in your life and, like Taylor Swift, I soundly reject that kind of manipulation. This angry feminist killjoy is shining like fireworks.

Bad Feminist Reading List

I’ve always considered pop culture widely, deeply, extensively, obsessively. My friends and I used to spend endless hours analyzing Harry Potter, building detailed backstories and predictions. This habit was encouraged in graduate school, where critical conversation is always given more weight than the artifact being considered. When Serial was airing, I devoted more time to the podcasts about the podcast than I did considering and consuming the official episodes.

Now that you know this about me, it makes sense that Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, a book brimming with detailed essays analyzing pop culture and our lives, would become an instant favorite. I’m excited about Roxane Gay– and that’s only partly because her PhD is in the same unknown-beyond-academics field I staggered through for my MA. (I feel an absurd connection to Rhetoric and Composition/Communication people because, and I’ve tested this considerably, nobody knows what it is unless they’ve personally been involved in it.)

My favorite part of Bad Feminist was how generative I found it. It made me want to learn more and to create on my own, which are the two greatest gifts a book can give. So, here’s a list of books, articles, and other media referenced in the essays of Gay’s “Gender and Sexuality” section. These are things I want to read for the first time or revisit in a new context, but this is not a comprehensive list of all the media you’ll find referenced and discussed in Bad Feminist. This should keep us all busy for a bit though, especially as we all Resolve to Read More This Year.

From “Garish, Glorious Spectacles”
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Kate Zambreno, Green Girl
Helene Cixous, “Laugh of the Medusa”
Joan DIdion, Play It as It Lays
Richard Brantigan, The Abortion
John Irving, Cider House Rules

From “Not Here to Make Friends”
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs
James Wood, How Fiction Works
Sara Levine, Treasure Island!!!
Pamela Ribon, You Take It From Here
Megan Abbott, Dare Me
Lydia Millet, Magnificence
Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Marguerite Duras, The Lover

From “How We All Lose”
Hanna Rosin, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women
Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman
Kate Zambreno, Heroines
Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her

From “Reaching for Catharsis”
Diane Spechler, Skinny

From “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll”
Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
Dawn Tripp, Game of Secrets

From “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”
Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver, Rape and Representation
Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Your Friends and Rapists”
Margaret Atwood, “Rape Fantasies”
Laura Tanner, Intimate Violence

From “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories”
Garret Keizer, Privacy

From “Beyond the Measure of Men”
Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf”
James Salter, Last Night
Elizabeth Strout, generally.

From “A Tale of Two Profiles”
Katheryn Russell-Brown, The Color of Crime

I hope you’ve read Bad Feminist or plan on finding it soon. Find a good lady friend who will mail it to you after she reads it—thanks Madelaine! In the mean time, check out The Butter, edited by Roxane Gay. I’d suggest starting with my friend Sam’s brilliant and wrenching “Highlights from the Apocalypse.”

Love Letter to My Best Friend

Madelaine, do you remember the night we met? It was right after I graduated college and we had both ended up in that underground ‘music venue’ which wasn’t anything more than a sweaty concrete room with bad acoustics. The people who’d dragged us in had abandoned us both and though neither of us actually said it, we both thought, “Wow, she looks like she wants to be here as much as I do. Which is not at all!” You handed me a green-labeled Session and a pair of earplugs. We’ve been friends ever since.

I don’t know how to summarize or highlight what makes you so great, Madel. How can I condense your multitudes into a single blog post? How can I write about how remarkable you are without producing a laundry list of clichés? I feel about you the way Leslie Knope feels about Ann Perkins. Oh, Madelaine. You magnificent middle school marching band.

You moved away a few days ago and I’ve been handling it by having crying jags on your green couch, which now lives in my apartment. In fact, I’m sitting on it now, wrapped in that blue blanket, watching my window well fill with hail. Actually, here’s a picture of the reading nook you helped me create.Apartment Story

I love that I can sit on your couch and look up at the balloon mobile we found in Albuquerque and the book mobile you made me. I just checked and the inscription you wrote says, “For my dear friend Lydia, I absolutely cherish you. –Madelaine, Christmakkuh 2012. So maybe I should stop here because that probably says everything, doesn’t it?

A few weeks after we met, we had this totally heartfelt and hilarious rooftop conversation about how we had the first really real friendship that either of us had yet had in our strange White Yuppie town. People kept calling for us to come in and I remember you saying, “You can wait! WE ARE BONDING UP HERE.” I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from you: to put friendships first, that everything else will keep. I’ve always admired how self-assured you are. You ooze confidence. Sometimes that gets us into trouble, like when we accidentally lit your entire kitchen on fire because we were… perhaps a little too confident. I’ve always known that caring about what other people think is a waste of time, but I’d never known anyone to really and truly not care what other people think until I met you. You’re so you and so comfortable with your own person, but you’re not mean or cocky in any way. You’re thoughtful and loving, and go out of your way to do nice things for people. I really wish some of the idiots we’ve known along the way would recognize and appreciate those traits more.

Like, you’re so good at everything you do but you’re never haughty about it. You’ll get up at four in the morning and toss around hundred pound hay bales like they’re feather pillows but are still genuinely proud when I tell you I did nothing all day but run a super slow 5K. And speaking of super slow 5Ks, you’re always at least half a mile ahead of me when we run together. When we did that Sweaty Sweater race, you finished at least fifteen minutes before me (I’m the slowest runner, y’all) but you were waiting at the finish line, cheering me on and not at all disgusted by my snail’s pace. When I almost made you miss your flight because I forgot to take the airport exit on account of being wrapped up in a discussion about bagels, you weren’t even mad. When you got the single coolest job possible and embarked on your new jet-setting, world-travelling life, you didn’t ever brag or make me feel bad for being, um, super ambiguous about my future.

I don’t think anyone has ever believed in me the way you believe in me, Madel. When I’m uncertain, self-conscious, or super depressed, you’re always there to say, “But, you’re Lydia Bagels Page. You can do anything!” (By the by, I had the graduation announcer read my middle initial as B for Bagels mostly because I knew it would crack you up.) As you know, I am literally allergic to the sun. I’d always been self-conscious about how this makes me one of the whitest white people around, but then one time you said, “I never thought pale people could be pretty until I met you.” That is hilarious and also a highly treasured compliment. You’re really good at saying hilarious and meaningful things. I tend to speak in convoluted metaphors, like the time I rationalized a breakup via ampersands, or the other time I compared you to a bagel and cried.

In general, I cry approximately twice a year. The past few days bookending your move have been a total sob-fest, which is very confusing for me. Like, I can’t really comprehend where I’m supposed to put all these feelings?? I think you’ll get that, because you’re the only person who’s always totally understood my brand of extreme love meets low expression meets weird depression. I love that I can just say, “My fish are especially dead today.” and you’ll know exactly what that means and how it feels. I don’t like that we share some similar traumas (because we shouldn’t have ever had to deal with those abuses) but I do like that we can talk about them frankly. Having someone (you may be the only one?) so thoroughly and unquestioningly on my side has been a total game-changer.

There was that time I’d had a particularly virulent row with that dumb white guy who thought he was entitled to hang out, uninvited, on Native American reservations because “they’ll want to find common ground with me.” I called you because I was so mad I could hardly see straight and I desperately needed to vent. You said, “This is such good timing because I bought us a present and they just came in the mail.” A few minutes later, you were at my house with these matching bracelets, to be worn whenever we need to call upon the strength of 10,000 feminists. Speaking of dumb white people, you’ve helped me become less of one. I’ve learned so much from you just by listening to you talk about navigating your life and identity, about what it’s like to be both Hispanic and white-passing, especially in your labor-intensive industry. I’m a much better feminist because of you.

You never think it’s weird when I need to do an extensive critical analysis of TV shows. To this day, you’re the only non-family member who’s ever heard my impressive variety of accents and impressions. You don’t think it’s weird that I’m obsessed with your hometown. You don’t make fun of me for that chard/wine incident. You practically carried me home after my IUD insertion, then stayed and made me soup and let me whine about the sexism that landed me in such pain. You let me come over and write my thesis while you made me dinner. You cracked up when I gave you a sympathy card for graduation. You are right there with me on all our fangirl-ish Mr. The National feels. You don’t think it’s weird that I live in a land-locked state but have distinctly nautical sartorial impulses. You totally support my lady-blazer lifestyle. You were one of the first vocal supporters of this little blog. You just overnighted me a bagel, and it was the best bagel I’ve ever had. Madelaine, you’re every kind of wonderful, the very best friend I never deserved to have.

Knowing you has been such a pleasure. You helped me become an even shinier version of myself. These few days without you haven’t been great. I’ve been listening to even more of The National than usual, especially Santa Clara. I don’t want you to think that I’m okay with our separation, because I am not even close to okay. Not even in the same zip code as okay. But I also feel really okay. (???) I’m not worried, not even a little. It’s never not going to totally suck, but we’re going to be fine. All we’ve got to do is be brave and be kind, showered and blue-blazered, solid gold in our lemonworld. We’re gonna be happy genius heroes. (See what I did there??)

Yesterday, I was listening to This American Life. Toward the end of the “Call for Help” episode, Chana Joffe-Walt says, “Maya loves Charlotte. She loves her. She feels the feelings that come when you are a girl and you have a friend that makes you laugh, and thinks about you when you’re apart, and gets you. It’s not a romantic love. But if you’ve had this, you know it feels just as important.” And it does. It does feel just as important.

Madel Corner

I love you, Madel.