Nonfiction: American Sons by Sarah Eisner

 

O lord, he said, Japanese women,

real women, they have not forgotten,

bowing and smiling

closing the wounds men have made

-from “The Japanese Wife” by Charles Bukowski

 

 

When I became a mother I didn’t think, now my son is all that matters in my world. I will stop working and be omnipresent for him. I thought, now what I do matters more, because I am his world. I will work hard at things I believe are worthwhile, do the right thing, and set a good example for him. He will be my witness.

Now, thirteen years later, my high tech career is over and I am omnipresent at home. I watch my son in the morning as he group texts his friends and gels his hair, and I wonder: What kind of culture—in me, in school, in athletics, on round the clock social media—does my Silicon Valley son see? What sensibilities have we lost—have I lost—in this “utopian” land of capitalism and technology; this male dominated cult of the extreme?

“Does my hair look O.K.?” my son asks me, and I swell, grateful he still wants my opinion and displays this small vulnerability.

“It does,” I reassure him, after careful consideration. I want to try and tell him what’s true. I also want to protect him from it.

“Bye, love you,” my son says, as he does every time he goes off for school.

“I love you too,” I say, and I hope he is living. But I worry about the way he will learn to define alive. I want him to know he is allowed to be confused and complex, that he does not have to be in control all the time, or invulnerable. I want to inhabit this definition for myself too, but I don’t yet, not really.

*

A mile from our house, at Stanford last year, freshman and star swimmer Brock Turner sexually assaulted a drunk woman on the ground behind a dumpster, during a fraternity party. Two graduate students rode by on their bikes and saw him thrusting on top of the unconscious, half-naked victim, whom he’d finished penetrating repeatedly with a glass beer bottle. Turner ran, but on land his fast swim times didn’t matter. The men on bikes caught him. Then they pinned him down, as they cried over the trauma of what they’d seen, while the woman lay still, as if dead in the dirt, until police came.

*

There are many ways in which I am lucky, and many ways in which I love men. I have a gentle husband, and two sons that are kind, healthy, intelligent, and praised for their speed and grace on a soccer field. In college, will they be stars?

I can no more imagine one of my sons sexually assaulting a woman than I can imagine myself doing so. Of course I can’t: my heart is their heart.

But oh, my worry.

In Silicon Valley, our culture idolizes two specific types of people above others: white male entrepreneurs, and white male sports stars. Joe Lonsdale—whose house I have been to, whose mother I have met briefly and thought about hauntingly long after, whose iron spiked throne purchased from the gory set of Game of Thrones I have posed in for selfies, who may or may not have brutally raped Elise Clougherty, his mentee and accuser at Stanford—is one of our celebrated entrepreneurs. Brock Turner was one of our celebrated Stanford sports stars.

As a mother of boys, I am lucky I don’t have to worry about my daughters being raped. But as a mother of boys, I have a responsibility to worry about other people’s daughters being raped. When our sons are grown, will they be gentle?

Oh, my worry, our boys.

*

The best metaphor I’ve heard for having a child is having one’s heart walk around outside one’s body. The comparison is eloquent because it describes two hearts that once beat inside a single body, in tune with and controlled by the mother’s rhythm and pulse, that are now untethered and open, (only the mother knowledgeable of how vulnerable the child has become), and because it illustrates the ridiculous—imagine, your heart walking around outside your body!—intensity of a mother’s love, which is both euphoric thrill and shameful terror, and finally, because a mother often blindly believes, often erroneously, and often for a lifetime, that she knows her child’s heart. But there is only one way for a mother to try and know the progeny of hearts she lets loose into the world. It is a constant operation: She must listen carefully and, above all, know the history of her own.

Oh, my heart.

*

I have never been raped, and there is only one explanation for this. Just like every woman who has not been raped, I have been lucky.

I could tell you ways in which I have been lucky, and similar ways in which other women I know have not been lucky, for every day of my life. All but one or two of them would have nothing to do with drinking.

But one night during my freshman year of college at UC Santa Barbara, I was lucky in a particular way. It has to do with fucking a swimmer whose name I didn’t know or ever ask, while I was drunk at a frat party in Isla Vista.

I played on the soccer team, but I was no star. I felt a lot like the team failure. I was technically weak compared to my teammates, and when that first season ended, I quit. I said I wouldn’t come back the next year. And I felt like a quitter. There wasn’t much I had ever quit before: I prided myself on being diligent and punctual, in control and hardworking, and I had learned to base most of my self-worth on what I liked to consider my invulnerability and toughness. And so, when I left that strong team of women, I was ashamed. For a while I let the shame of this seep into other areas of my life too.

I went to the frat party that night with a mission: to be wanted, and taken, by that fast, strong swimmer. His wingspan was impressive. His deltoids were smooth and tan, and his hair was slightly fried by chlorine in the messy, chic way I liked the boys with edge, who weren’t too pretty or careful. I wanted him to prove to me that I was capable of losing control, which of course he couldn’t. Or at least I wanted to prove that I had the power to lure him, which as it turned out, I did.

When I look at it now I think maybe I went to the frat party—my first, and not my normal scene—to show myself just how weak, how desperate I could feel. I think maybe I did that so that I could begin to feel strong.

Oh, my luck: he let me.

I remember with a particular embarrassment what I was wearing: overall jean shorts (it was 1990, forgive me) and thigh high black nylons with Doc Marten shoes, a tight black tee shirt, and blond hair curled and sprayed in place. I don’t know how much beer I drank from the keg, but it was enough to approach the swimmer a number of times during the night and to make my intentions known. I hung nearby until things were winding down. I don’t remember how I did it, but I know I said “yes,” or even “let’s go.” I wanted him to take me upstairs. If I remember correctly, he did so with as little interest as it is possible to show. He was drunk too.

I don’t remember the sex but I know it was bad. I remember a deep disappointment, a tiredness and disconnectedness on both our parts, and the lack of any kind of joy or satisfaction. But he was gentle. I never felt threatened. After, I fell asleep next to him in his top bunk bed. He fell asleep too.

At first light I leapt over his roommate below us. And then I walked the mile or so back to my dorm room with my stretched nylons, previously meant to look bad-ass, now pooled like an old man’s dark business socks, by my ankles. But this didn’t feel shameful to me. After all, I’d gotten what I thought I wanted and seen it through with agency. It just felt pathetic and distasteful.

*

Brock Turner’s victim writes that after her attack she wanted to zip herself out of her body and leave it behind, like a pile of clothes. She says she learned to keep spoons in the freezer through the night, to press against her face in the morning, so she could see well enough to go to work through sob-swollen eyes. She says she felt worthless.

Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault, which carries a maximum sentence of fourteen years in prison. But he was drunk, and so was his victim. So, the story went, perhaps they were both victims, chained by the culture of binge drinking and promiscuity, a promiscuity I suppose that “slut” was complicit in while she was out cold and let him assault her.

Turner was sentenced to only six months in jail, though he got out after three. So I guess his fast swim times matter after all. Success matters. It always does.

Oh, my naivety!

*

I wonder about Brock Turner’s mother.

“Why him?” she writes in a letter to the judge hoping for sentencing leniency, “Why HIM? WHY? WHY?”

One hopes she is asking the universe how her son could have grown into a violent man. But is she? The letter reads as if she is instead asking why her son had to be “the one” who got caught. In her letter she does not address the victim’s suffering, but does mention she is too bereft about her son, and his loss of ability to swim and attend Stanford—his failure to bring her the joy and success she felt promised—to decorate her new home. She makes herself into the victim.

In any way, is she? Could it be that she did all she could, but has always suspected he was a bad seed?

I don’t know if Mrs. Turner will ever see her son the same way, or whether she will still love him as much as she did before, or differently. But I do know that deep down, she will likely blame herself for his actions. We will, even if we don’t admit it, blame her too.

We always blame the mother.

*

The great poet and maternal theorist Adrienne Rich describes the patriarchal institution of motherhood as one that assumes women are “natural mothers” who have “no further identity” beyond that of nurturer to their children. This ingrained cultural belief has paved the way for widespread maternal oppression; for mothers to be blamed when they fall short of acting as perfect, self-sacrificing beings who never fail to put their children first, and thus raise “good,” successful, or at least not “bad” children.

Society blames mothers, and we blame one another. “Of course that kid’s acting out, his mom works full-time,” or, “She’s a bad kid; her mom indulges her every need,” are slights I hear slung between moms all the time. We do this even though we know mothers don’t have a monopoly on this responsibility; that schools, friends, extended family, religion, plain old genetics, and perhaps especially media and culture influence our children’s behavior too.

The great American fairy tale has always instructed that the most beautiful princess earns the prince, but today even very young girls know that the hottest selfies earn the most likes. Social media offers more, and more public ways for our girls to sexualize themselves in pursuit of this male-as-savior American Dream, even as they are objectified by one another, and by the boys they desire.

Our achievement culture and culture of violence presents infinite new ways for all of our children to succeed or fail, and thus for mothers to be held responsible. We persecute mothers for everything from an eight-year-old’s lack of proficiency in reading, to a high schooler’s average GPA, to horrific crimes committed by adult offspring. It may be more difficult to be a mother now than ever before in terms of sustaining blame.

In her heartbreaking memoir, “A Mother’s Reckoning,” Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, attempts to come to grips with her own self-blame for her son’s sins, though she was, according to every account, an average suburban loving mother, who noticed virtually no warning signs that her son was more than an everyday-teen type of troubled.

“This wasn’t a kid we worried and prayed over, hoping he would eventually find his way and lead a productive life,” Klebold writes. “We called him ‘The Sunshine Boy’—not just because of his halo of blond hair, but because everything seemed to come easily to him.” It took her a long time to want to speak out and begin to reckon with what her son had done, and with her own mourning. For years she feared being attacked verbally and physically, in light of threats she received. She also felt suffocated by guilt. She writes, “I know how telling these stories here exposes me to further criticism.” She knows we blame her. She blames herself. She wonders: “Could I have stopped him?” But she has also come to understand something most of us don’t want to look at, or know.

“The ultimate message of this book is terrifying,” Andrew Solomon, world-renowned authority on mental health and parent-child relationships, writes in the introduction to Klebold’s memoir, “…you may not know your own children, and worse yet, your children may be unknowable to you. The stranger you fear may be your own son or daughter.”

Good mothers in fairy tales, it is worth noting, are rare compared to mothers that are bad, or just dead.

*

Freshman year in high school, Sean (not his real name) was my unofficial track coach. He didn’t work for the school then, though he had recently, as my JV basketball coach. For track season, Sean just sort of hung around to help a kid named Trevor Sandowski (not his real name either). Trevor’s mom paid Sean for the training.

“You should run. You’re hella fast,” Sean had said to me between baseline sprints. “Meets are fun. And it’ll help with soccer. I’ll coach you extra. Your folks don’t even have to pay me.” They wouldn’t even have to know.

“Okay.” I agreed easily. I couldn’t resist.

I was thirteen, or a month or two into fourteen. Sean was twenty, or twenty-one, or twenty-two—I never quite knew—and had gone to our high school just a few years before. He was athletic—tall, statuesque and buff—he took care of his body, and was also well spoken. Sean spent a good deal of time at Gold’s Gym, and owned a few properties in a “bad area” nearby. He carried a gun—a “gat,” as he liked to call it—when he visited his properties. This never scared me. Sean would never expose me to harm. He was too reliable; he never missed a workout. He never seemed weak or unsure, so I trusted him completely. Or maybe trust was irrelevant. The high school boys I knew had no clue what they wanted to do. I, on the other hand, wanted to concentrate on proving I was normal and good. I wanted to be seen for who I wanted to be. It seemed Sean could help me.

Sean, Trevor, and I became our own team, doing our side workouts, eating together afterwards, hot-tubbing at Sean’s house, and traveling to meets together. Some of my best friends ran track too. But soon after the season started, I stopped hanging with them. I didn’t mean to. But my life with Sean soon became so sensual that it overwhelmed everything else. I didn’t even notice my parents planning their divorce.

Sean showed me how to measure my caloric intake for maximal output in the 440 and 880-meter dashes, and also how to sip pastel colored wine coolers in track meet parking lots while he kissed me in the sun. He showed me how to lie back on the hood of his white Datsun 280Z, in which we sped around the hot brown hills of Concord, how to let him feed me green grapes, how to be adored. He kissed me, daringly, in deserted public lots, on top of the car, while Trevor was racing, or inside the car, on my street, during days I faked illness so I could stay home and lie out on the porch and get tan.

Sean would come by my house for an hour; we’d talk in his car and then kiss. I don’t remember ever initiating these kisses, but neither do I remember resisting them. What I remember is the feeling of being held just slightly beneath water, holding my breath, even as I reminded myself that he was training me to rise up and run. I loved what he did and I hated it too. The adoration and attention and encouragement—the excitement and abandon—were thrills at first, but after a while the touch of his lips against mine—the neediness and invasion—were insults that just crossed the line.

When Sean kissed me, and I said stop, or even just pulled back slightly, he did. When I raced and he said, “Try to run it in 1:15,” I did. When he said “Now 1:14,” I did that too. What we did may have been inappropriate or “wrong,” but Sean was tender with me.

Sean asked me to sing Janet Jackson songs for him in the car, because he loved my voice, and said Janet Jackson, “was the second most beautiful woman in the world” next to me. I didn’t correct him or say that I was a girl. No one before or since has asked me to sing, or compared me in any way to Janet Jackson. I thought I could sing then. I thought maybe someday I’d be famous. I thought I could run.

Oh, my need and my thrill.

We did 100 mph in Sean’s car and listened to Whodini’s “Freaks” and Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh and we knew all the words to “La Di Da Di” and we sang them loud. We pumped up “Rapper’s Delight” and we yelled across the seats to one another while we sped, and we blasted “The Message” through open windows in the parking lot between races. We yearned for things openly.

But when the starting gun cracked and I ran in those races we trained for and drove to and from, I didn’t hear The Sugar Hill Gang or Grandmaster Flash or even Janet Jackson in my head. I ran as if haunted, everything eerily silent outside my body, and inside a song I couldn’t identify played. The song, too, was silent. I hadn’t liked running. I ran anyway.

I have only now, thirty years later, begun to wonder whether what I gained with Sean—that thrill, that sense of Lolita-like power—was worth what I lost, which still seems so little. I know what I could have lost if Sean had chosen to take it. Because he didn’t, I’ve always felt lucky.

Was I lucky? I wonder whether Sean’s mother knew what he was doing with me. Sean still lived with his parents in their house, and they’d known me from the neighborhood since I was two. I wonder what the fuck his mom thought was going on when she saw me at her house at night watching movies, or in the afternoon in the hot tub, and whether it caused her any pain, or worry, or if she just thought that was part of the usual track coach / track runner relationship. Or if she didn’t think of it at all.

What about my mother? She simply trusted me, and my coach. How could she have known?

Only when I think of it that way—of the shame I wonder if these mothers should feel—do I get angry. My anger is not toward Sean. And this fascinates me.

Oh, mothers. I worry.

Always though, I let the anger go. I wanted to do it. All of it. Didn’t I? I cherish those memories even as they make me squirm.

Oh girls, I worry.

*

After my single night of binge drinking and promiscuity in Isla Vista, I walked home feeling dirty. I was not afraid, or hurt, or confused. This was my dirt—on my eyelashes in clumps of dried mascara and in my mouth in the remnants of beer and between my legs in the stench of dry rubber—that I had taken on with intention. It was something I could look at and accept, and eventually reckon with, and if I so chose, wash away.

I had been, of course, mistaken in thinking that fucking a nameless fast swimmer at a frat party, like kissing my track coach in the parking lot, would improve my sense of self-worth. And it’s true I may have lost a bit of self-respect for a week or two. But in the process of my misguidedness the swimmer had not taken anything from me. What might sound like a bad night was in retrospect, beautiful and lucky. I took something precious home, some knowledge and a feeling of assurance and (perhaps false) safety. After that night I did not have to look at all the men that I loved with a twinge of disgust, or underlying fear. I did not have to freeze spoons or wish I could zip out of my skin. I did not have to feel how could you because the men I had loved or put myself in the way of didn’t. I carry it still. Do I owe it to that swimmer’s mother, or was she irrelevant? Why does it matter? Isn’t the truth somewhere in-between?

No one has ever taken that feeling of safety from me. Until I became a mother. And they didn’t take it. I gave it to them. My heart walks around untethered and raw. I will never feel safe again.

I will work hard to try and raise gentle men. But I cannot control them or know them completely.

I am lucky, I tell myself. I will be lucky. I wish I didn’t need luck.

I wonder if Mrs. Turner is to blame, and in which particular ways, for what her son did.

I wonder how I am to blame for any missteps my sons will make, and how I would be.

Oh my worry. Our boys will become men.

*

While I was at Stanford for graduate school decades ago, I played on the rugby team. I loved the intensity and aggressiveness of it—the speed—like soccer, but also the fact that there was no finesse or serious technical skill needed. We had no coach, just a group of strong women. No one told me what to eat, or drink, or how fast to run. There was no flow to break. Noah, who would later become my boyfriend and then my husband, came to watch me.

One day after rugby practice I was roller blading (CA circa 1994) home along the busy, four lane El Camino with my helmet stealthily strapped to my backpack, and my toes hit a pothole. I head dove into the crevice and split my forehead pretty good. There was blood everywhere, and also pain. The nice folks at the sperm bank I crashed next to brought me a frozen pack of…something. We pressed it to the cut to stodge the swelling and stop the bleed.

At the hospital I got stitched up around my eye socket, which was purpling quickly. In 1994, no one checked for a concussion. That night Noah and I went to a bar to have a beer and the bartender asked Noah what I’d done to get such a beating. He was joking.

It felt like a joke, because although I had been seduced and had seduced others, although I loved men but knew to be slightly wary of them, I had no experience being assaulted or even, I thought, asked to do anything I didn’t want to do.

My face looked like I’d been in a car crash. The bartender bought my drink. We all laughed.

Oh, my regret.

*

Nearly 20 years later, on May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others near the campus of UC Santa Barbara. Three of his victims were women standing in front of a sorority house down the street from my old apartment.

In a YouTube video titled “Eliot Rodger’s Retribution,” he outlined the reasons he wanted to punish women for rejecting his advances, for the crime of denying him the love and sex he so richly deserved. He also wrote out his grievances in a lengthy manifesto, and shared this with a dozen acquaintances, and his parents.

Rodger’s mother had alerted police to his twisted behavior and requested a welfare check, just a month earlier, on April 30. When they met with him, the deputies did not have a legal right to search Rodger’s room, where he kept a stockpile of weapons. He wasn’t caught. His mom’s gut was right, but she didn’t push it. Was that her fault? We never really think it will be our sons that kill or maim.

*

I tell my sons my roller blade crash story, and other similar lucky near-miss injury stories because I want to warn them of danger, and help keep them safe.

I also tell them about the time I went to have a beer with their dad and a battered face, and the story of Brock Turner and his victim, and of Elliot Rodger and what he did in my old neighborhood, because I want to help keep other women safe.

These crimes would also ruin my sons’ lives. I want to keep them safe in this way, too.

I don’t want to have to ask, “Why him?”

Would I ask it?

I don’t know when, or whether, to tell them what I learned with my track coach or the swimmer.

*

“Please read this,” I tell my son, and hand him Brock Turner’s victim’s eloquent letter, as I hand him other articles about rape, and about sexting and cyberbullying and the oversexualization of women and overmasculization of men in our media and culture, about race, about sexuality, about gender, and about love. Then I talk to him about it. The talks are not brilliant debates or tearful deep conversations. He doesn’t love reading these articles or answering my questions.

I recognize his reluctance to my instruction as my own to my mother when I was his age. But he is more generous than I was. He has the conversations. I keep asking the questions, no matter how much I annoy him or see his eyes avert. I worry that my overt feminism will turn him off. I do it anyway. Usually, he is patient with me. I know he hears me.

One day recently, I showed him a Facebook post by an acquaintance, a response to Trump’s claim caught on video that he feels entitled to the grab-pussy variety of sexual assault.

“If a woman lets him do that, that is on her. I wouldn’t let him do that,” my Facebook friend wrote.

I pointed to it and said, “check this out.”

“That’s good, right?” my son asked after reading. “She says be strong, don’t let him.”

I was shocked until I realized his response made perfect sense for a kid without context.

“No,” I said. “Protecting one’s self is good. Standing up for one’s self is good. And sometimes we can do that. Often we cannot, or are too young or naïve or scared to. Her statement, perhaps unintentionally, blames victims for assault. Trump clearly states that he can touch whomever he wants against their will, whether they ‘let’ him or not. This is how we define sexual assault, and when penetration is involved, it’s called rape.”

“Oh,” my son said, as he connected the open, bloody flaps of this messy but vital recognition. “Yah.”

“It’s not just women, by the way,” I said. “Men and children can be sexually assaulted, and raped, too.”

The line between right and wrong and how and why is often blurry, especially for young girls and boys. My boys will know their mother’s heart only as deeply as I am willing to reveal it. This is how I hope to draw this particular line down deep, not fine.

*

I wonder whose pain, whose nightmares, whose abject horror is worse: Brock Turner’s mother’s, or his victim’s mother’s? Elliot Rodger’s mother’s, or the many mothers of his victims? Or how about Sue Klebold’s?

I wonder whose fear is greater: the mother of a son or of a daughter? I don’t know if that kind of pain or fear can be measured.

I wonder how much pain this essay will cause my own mother, or my boys when they read it someday, or even Sean, whom I loved in my own way for the way he made me feel fast and powerful. I wonder if it’s worth putting this out there at all—if in the end this is just a solipsistic confessional that will make me look weak—until I talk to other women and hear them say: “Tell it” and, “me too.”

Oh, our worry, our shame.

*

I wonder if Turner had a bad swim practice the day he assaulted his victim, or was worried about something that gave him pain, pain he then shoved deep inside her forever.

I wonder what it was that made him feel weak, and made Elliot Rodger feel weak, and made Dylan Klebold feel weak, and what inspired each of them to have a desperate desire to feel strong. I wonder what it was that made assault feel like strength.

My sons will be men. I hope not like these men.

But all men have the unique power to let their pain open wounds in women (and other men), to take things from women that are not theirs and cannot be returned. Or even to gently open sores for girls (and boys) that will fester for years, feel like their own fault, and perhaps never be seen.

Oh, my heart. Oh, my American sons.

I am culpable, whether or not I’m to blame.

*

Sarah Eisner has published essays in The Columbia Journal, The Rumpus, Salon, Stanford Magazine, and Fast Company. A Bay Area native, mother of two, and recovering engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded multiple tech startups, Eisner is currently at work on a memoir in the form of linked essays about female shame and success in Silicon Valley. She studies creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University, most recently under the mentorship of Leslie Jamison. She has a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University and lives in Silicon Valley.

One thought on “Nonfiction: American Sons by Sarah Eisner”

  1. Steve says:

    Thank you for writing this. I fear so much for my boys. And my girl. I think revealing your heart is the only painful way forward. I’ve found a lot of strength from http://www.ACallToMen.org, and Tony Porter’s concept of the man box. Which, every time I think of it, brings tears of sadness for we boys and men to my eyes.

    I don’t understand it, but the way patriarchy closed the path forward for boys and men is so so sad.

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