Mixed Legacy


The death of a loved one always reminds us that life is temporary. None of us have forever to fulfill our desires, to tell others in our lives how much we value them, or to ask them what we want to know about them.

On March 13, 2009, my ninety-year-old mother passed away, surrounded by her three daughters, our father, our partners, my daughter, her husband and their 18-month-old son. When we all gathered to plan a memorial service, it was clear that we each remembered different aspects of her.

I remember my mother as a puzzling combination of avant-garde chutzpah and a refusal to see reality as I saw it. Born in poverty in Pennsylvania two weeks before the Armistice of 1918 which was supposed to end war forever, she moved to New York City with her family during the Great Depression.

As a teenager in the 1930s, my mother found the “bohemian” crowd that had a formative influence on her adult life. Her friends were mostly Jewish, leftist and artsy-intellectual. They all agreed that capitalism was a failed system. They loved jazz and modern dance, as popularized by Martha Graham. According to my mother’s stories, her old posse was about as sexually liberated as possible for their time. Several of them “came out” as homosexuals before the term “gay community” meant anything other than a group of happy neighbors.

In 1940, my mother spent five days on a train to the west coast of the United States, to enter graduate school at the University of Oregon, where she met my father. Before their wedding in 1944, my mother taught some of her radical city ways to her adorably innocent (by her standards) farm-boy fiancé.

When I was a teenager, my mom worried that I might rebel against her by becoming perversely conservative, since she couldn’t imagine how I could outdo her in iconoclastic freedom of thought. Mom told me with some pride that she and my father were “liberated” enough to have a sexual relationship before they were married. The time-gap between their wedding and the birth of their first child (me) in the 1950s showed me that birth control must not have been a mystery to them. I grew up understanding that I could have responsible, monogamous sex without being disowned by my parents.

Yet my mother never acknowledged the reality of sexual abuse or harassment, or a woman’s right to say no. When I was eighteen, a repulsive old man (by my standards) groped me in my parents’ living room while suggesting that I was such an irresistible young lady that I needed to be sexually “awakened” by an experienced older man as soon as possible.

The man was my father’s academic colleague. He and his younger wife had accepted my parents’ invitation to dinner.

On that first occasion, I evaded the man’s hands and his questions about my sexual feelings as well as I could without telling him off. The man had insisted that I sit beside him after the meal, and I didn’t see how I could stand up and move away from him without having to explain why. When the man and his wife were saying goodbye, he gathered me into a full-body hug and kissed me on the lips. There was an awkward silence until all the adults resumed their conversation about university life.

I insisted on a debriefing with my parents afterward. I told them that I usually enjoyed the company of their intellectual friends but in this case, I was humiliated to the core. I told my father I thought he should tell his colleague that his behavior toward me would have to change if our two families were going to remain friends. My father flatly refused. He said he couldn’t have that conversation with a respected member of his own department, someone he saw every day.

My mother’s advice to me was to “Rise above it.” She said that if I didn’t like what the man said or did, I should simply ignore it next time. According to her, this would inspire his respect.

I asked my mother if she thought I could simply ignore sexual harassment that escalated to rape. She said, “I don’t think he would do that.” She made it clear that if I wasn’t gracious to my parents’ guest, my lack of hospitality would embarrass both of them as well as the man’s wife, and possibly jeopardize my father’s career.

I already had a sense of what I wanted and what I didn’t because I was sexually “awake.” I was having relatively safe sex with my boyfriend, who was also my classmate in an innovative Fine Arts program in high school. We were like younger members of my mother’s old crowd.

My relationship didn’t last beyond high-school graduation, but it brightened my life for awhile. It taught me that I liked playful sex with a lover who was my equal when it counted, not a coercive authority figure. I knew what it felt like to have sex that didn’t leave a poisonous residue of self-contempt. Compared to what I had, what my father’s colleague had to offer was not tempting.

I refused to spend another evening trying to fend the man off with a smile. My parents offered me a compromise: next time, they would let me go to my room right after the meal was over. I soon learned that the only way to resist being pressured to sit close to the man was to leave the house altogether.

A pattern was established: for years, my mother would warn me in advance that Dirty Old Man and his wife were coming over for dinner, and I would arrange to have a social “commitment” somewhere else right after I had wolfed down my food.

Dirty Old Man was clearly unhappy with this arrangement. On several occasions, he asked my parents whether they really thought it was acceptable for me to leave when guests were present. I always left quickly, before I would have to hear my mother make excuses for me to him.

The Ivory Tower where my father taught until retirement became my own alma mater and my employer. I teach there to this day. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of faculty gossip.

I learned that in Dirty Old Man’s heyday, no young woman (under age thirty or thereabouts) was safe when he was around—at least on social occasions. I’ve never heard anything about his treatment of female students, but this doesn’t mean it was good news.

A woman in my own department told me and my mother that a young faculty member had forced herself not to react when Dirty Old Man, as a guest of her and her husband, approached her from behind in her kitchen and squeezed her breasts. Apparently the rest of the evening was torture for the woman, who felt honor-bound to remain gracious.

I was glad to hear that one faculty couple, dear friends and mentors to a dear friend of mine, confronted Dirty Old Man about his treatment of their teenage daughter, and told him to leave their house, never to be invited back. His circle of friends seems to have shrunk considerably over time.

For years, I resented my parents’ refusal to defend me from a predator or even to admit what he was.

Yet my mother’s influence enabled me to recognize a bad touch when I felt it. Thanks to her, I had discovered good sex and learned that it wasn’t simply a degrading service that women offered to men in a desperate hope of being accepted. When I “came out” by going alone to the one gay bar in town, I knew I was following in the footsteps of some of my mother’s best friends, and that she wouldn’t be shocked.

Now that my mother’s story is complete, resenting her for anything feels pointless. However, I can’t help wondering what events in her life led her to advise me to “rise above” sexual harassment. I can’t believe that technique ever worked for her as a means of self-defense. Was she convinced that dissociation, or stoic resignation to sexual abuse, was every woman’s fate? Did my father’s more conservative values dampen her spirit of sexual independence? I’ll probably never know.

My wise partner has advised me to remember what my mother gave me, and not what she didn’t. I remember her acceptance of new ideas, new clothing styles, new types of music. (She loved the Beatles when most of my friends’ parents responded to their music by saying, “Turn off that noise”).

I remember my mother doing an improvised version of modern dance while cleaning house when I was growing up. She was small and slim all her life, and remained incredibly agile until her mid-eighties. Joy in movement seemed to be part of her nature. I like to imagine her dancing with Martha Graham in some better world than this one.

I’m grateful to my mother for showing me that sexual self-determination is possible, at least to some degree. Her influence encourages me to work for a world in which no one will have to accept anything less.

Jean Roberta
April 2009

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2009 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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