Friday, 24 December 2010

Polly Samson, Perfect Lives

Cover image by Chloe Firouzian
Polly Samson’s latest short story collection is the literary equivalent of an ivory-handled backstab by a genteel killer – and all the more enjoyable for it.

WARNING: PLOT-SPOILERS AND REVEALED TWISTS AHEAD.

Perfect Lives is Polly Samson’s third book, following a wildly acclaimed and bestselling debut story collection, Lying in Bed, and an equally well-received novel, Out of the Picture. It’s being published in a year of tremendous quality short fiction: collections by Michele Roberts, Helen Simpson and Salley Vickers have all come out to great fanfare and admiration. Samson’s latest more than holds its own. It hides its power behind a polite smile – the smile of a woman trapped in a terrible marriage, pretending that everything’s okay. Beyond the neat beachfront facades, the good clothes and wine, great haircuts and artistically hand crafted rugs that fur up the surface of these stories is tragic disappointment and emptiness. The characters’ inner lives grate with misery and it is a sign of Samson’s intelligence that she can recognise how misery is not charming but often makes people mean, petty, grasping and selfish. She is too realistic to be sentimental. There is nothing poignant about her work, because poignancy is the stuff of romantic novels and crocodile tears, not the existing world of weakness, damage, intellect and hypocrisy.

Perfect Lives is, furthermore, beautifully structured. Many of the characters appear as background players in other people’s narratives and this connectivity enables Samson to explore everything from the lonely life of a gangling bachelor and ex piano prodigy to the woman whose piano he tunes – a seemingly perfect ‘lady’ whose cheeriness and grace are, we realise, just a front. It also gives her the opportunity to show just how many masks people wear, a different one for home, for parenthood, for work and for the neighbours.

Samson is also a supremely gifted prose writer. There is readiness and joy in her imagery, like a travelling companion whose thick grey hair “leapt from his crown in a single whirl like a Viennese Fancy”, a bad bottle of “flinty wine”, a camper van that has “the soft contours of a patisserie, icing the exact colour of Parma Violets with cream fenders.” A comically gloomy Nosferatu-like piano tuner visits a house in which a cheap piano “stood against the wall of a small sitting room like an old bore.” There is brilliant sarcasm and mockery, like the young woman whose mother is politically active and principled, but whose virtue is lost on the sulky daughter: “I grew up in a house where above the kitchen table was a poster of a poor African child with a distended tummy and flies in his eyes. SAY NO TO WORLD POVERTY! I sometimes suspected that the better-dressed parents of my school friends, the ones with lots of scatter cushions, were the ones who said ‘Yes!’ to world poverty. All those wicked people with their pot-pourri and lovely soft sliced bread.” And there is just gob-smacking honesty and unflinching frankness: a new mother dreads a day alone with her baby because it’s like “being left in charge of a nuclear power plant, lonely and bleak, slightly nerve-wracking, with lots of servicing and safety checks required.” A woman whose boyfriend wants to leave demeans herself in “a river of tears washing over a fortnight’s dismal blow jobs that failed to make him stay.”

But in many cases it goes much deeper than that. Samson’s imagery is stark and apt and often reveals a devastating hidden meaning – a significance beyond its own stylishness – at the end of a story. So in The Egg, the first story and one of the best, a loveable old husband is said to have had a winning smile, “lips almost like a handle hanging from a deep dimple in each cheek.” As the dimples have deepened with time, “In brackets was how she thought of his smile now.” How cruel and utterly genius that phrase, “in brackets”, looks when one realises that this charming and yummy cosy hubby is actually just a cheat and liar who has another daughter somewhere, whom he’s been going to see and taking to school when he’s “on business” in London. His love isn’t as simple and accessible as it seems, at all; it’s enclosed, parenthetical, circumscribed. It’s a smile delivered in quotes and hedges and special conditions, just like his promises. The Egg is really the story of this man’s wife, Celia, and her utter terror as she carefully makes this jerk’s breakfast while, outside, his love child delivers him a Father’s Day gift of an egg, which smashes on their floor when she posts it.

In Barcarolle a piano tuner (this is a running gag in the collection – there are a lot of different pianos and pianists and tuning opportunities) visits the home of a woman who irritates him. He bitterly dislikes her wispy and desperate personal style, her house that’s full of tacky marionettes and an abusive parrot shouting obscenities from the corner of the room. His irritation, as is obvious, is the reflection of his own depression and self-hate. Tellingly, he takes her family photos off the top of the piano and puts them “face down on to an armchair with all the tenderness of a man stacking bricks.” His own family memories are of being a prodigy who lost out, at his prodigies’ music school, to two peers of his: a far more gifted Eastern European genius and a beautiful female friend. Those two eventually got together and (with typical Samson precision) did not live happily ever after. They appear in later, equally excellent stories.

Samson is the master of the switchback, the double twist in the tale which gives each character due karmic justice, but not in the way they expect. In Morganna the faithless ex of a hippy woman is reduced to babyish dependency after a bike accident. Samson writes dryly, “Perhaps it was simply a niggled ridge of karma that sent his front wheel spinning.” One laughs horribly at the scene in which she patronisingly bathes him in a hospital bathroom while his foxy new girlfriend cries aggrieved tears of jealousy on his hospital bed. In his reduced, mumbling and befuddled state Morganna gets the ex to sign off on health insurance for their daughter, something he’d been refusing to do because he enjoyed the sense of power it gave him. As he signs she realises she’s over him.

Samson’s wit flourishes when she is setting light to romantic folly – sometimes literally, as in A Regular Cherub, when a hideous giant teddy bear, a vast and tacky slogan of  maternal love, catches fire in the country house bedroom that a woman’s baby is sleeping in. Until the baby’s in danger, the woman hadn’t thought she loved it. It turns out she does, and the reader is just as happy to see the final embrace as they are to wave goodbye to the dreadful bear.

All this obvious greatness and skill makes me puzzle at the reviews Samson has received for her work. All have been positive, of course, but they have been typically belittling. Samson is billed unfairly as the distributor of secret pages from a ladies’ home journal, domestic, pained, small. On the cover of Perfect Lives is a quote from Ali Smith, one of the UK’s most talented and cutting edge writers: “An unexpected combination of romp and classical: thought-provoking, sassy and comforting.” But the stories are not comforting in any way at all. The characters do not romp and neither do the plots. Instead they skulk, they simmer, they brood. They are brittle, not sassy; in fact one wishes that some of Samson’s doormats would get some sass. Equally, John Banville, famous for writing the dullest Booker winner ever, describes the stories, with typical patronage, as “silken.” What does this mean? It doesn’t mean anything. Silken is the hair of a My Little Pony or a Regency girl’s embroidery cloth.

Perfect Lives is set in the world of lifestyle adverts made flesh and given a midlife crisis, wrinkles, a paunch and a desk drawer full of unfulfilled expectations. Samson’s ageing and bored lovers are surrounded by things, stupid gorgeous things that they hate, yet they covet still more things: the piano tuner loves to perk up the beautiful instrument of a rich family, a woman married to a dullard covets a Leica camera by Hermes. Many of the characters have no real jobs. Instead, they tinker and dabble and potter and craft. Many are bad parents: in At Arka Pana a young woman meets her renowned concert pianist dad, and he’s an arsehole. In The Rose Before The Vine a terrible mother tries hard to reach her daughter, by turns wheedling and sentimental. In Remote Control a dreary woman with a shit husband forges an emotional bond with her sarcastic back-chatting cat.

It is not just that these ‘perfect’ lives are secretly imperfect and the collection’s title is sarcastic. The characters are often actually genuinely contemptible. Their relationships are traditional and repetitive. There is no true friendship between anyone. The men’s selfishness and abusiveness and the women’s submission, weakness and passive aggression are equally risible and cruelly enjoyable to read about. The men cause pain but it doesn’t occur to any of these essentially rather stupid women to tell the men to get lost. They are like dogs, whining around their owners no matter how hard they’re kicked. But Samson sees all this and shows it.

The most powerful story is the one that, on the surface, seems the simplest. The Man Across the River is about memory, violence and consequences. A woman recalls an afternoon spent idling in some local fields. She is avoiding her mother, a political activist whose commitment irritates and embarrasses her. You think the story is about mothers and daughters misunderstanding each other but it is not at all. The girl realises that she has been spotted and is being followed by a strange man holding a branch like a club. The man is on the opposite side of the river but, as she tries to get away, he jumps in and swims across to reach her. She escapes, in panic and embarrassment, hearing him shouting behind her. Afterwards she tells herself that she made a mistake and that what she felt, instead of instinct, was daft panic. She was silly, she scolds herself, the man was harmless. Years later her mother remarks in passing that the man, who had worked locally as the meat deliverer from the local butcher, has been imprisoned for the murder of a young girl.  

The Man Across the River is a standout story in a collection of standouts. It’s all the better for being inspired by the rather unsubtle thriller genre and by its gory, predictable but no less horrid twist. Still, whether blatant or subtle, nobody gets off lightly in Samson’s stories. There’s a little bit of punishment and pain for just about everyone, though no more than they deserve. The men are uninteresting, up-themselves wankers but when Samson strafes them with her highbeams they don’t look like monsters at all, they look bored and boring and pathetic. Equally, the women have no spirit, force, wit, courage or anger, although they do notice small details. But they lack the willpower to do anything about their own pain. I want to dunk nearly all the characters, both sexes alike, into a cold river, haul them up by the collar and slap them. But that is part of the smartness of the work. Samson sees straight through the illusions, delusions, lies, decor and outfits to her characters’ weakness and hypocrisy. It makes for excellent, wincing, recognising reading.

At the end of this word perfect, clever, cruel and beautifully curated selection, I am certain of two things. I will never marry. And I will always read Polly Samson.



Perfect Lives by Polly Samson is out now, published by Virago


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Women for Refugee Women

Christmas is a time of celebration for many families and friends, but imagine being in a foreign country with little support and no loved ones.

So many asylum seekers are in this position. Many people who have sought asylum in the UK have been made destitute and receive no financial support and have no right to work.

Women Asylum Seekers Together London provides a safe space for women refugees in which they can meet women in a similar position and help one another. They can also access activities such as English language classes, photography, yoga and advice sessions.

With your help and generosity the WAST London group can continue to grow, providing support for those most in need.

This Christmas it couldn’t be easier to donate, simply follow this link to make a secure online payment and all donations this December will go directly to fund our work with Women Asylum Seekers Together London.


To learn more about Women for Refugee Women and their work with WAST London, you can follow them and keep in touch on Facebook.


Please note that this text is taken from the latest Women for Refugee Women news release. The copyright is therefore theirs, not mine.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Nil limit on lap dancing clubs?

The latest campaign from Object brings together ex lap dancers, Hackney residents and leading women’s rights and equality organisations to urge Hackney to set a nil-limit for Sexual Entertainment Venues in the borough.

Hackney council is currently consulting on whether to set a nil-limit on Sexual Entertainment Venues under new licensing laws introduced in April this year. This would mean revoking the licenses of the four currently operating strip clubs in the borough. The deadline for the consultation is Monday December 13th and local residents, women’s groups, and councils across the country are awaiting the decision in anticipation as a nil-policy in a central London borough like Hackney would set a precedent for other councils to follow.

Human rights group OBJECT is leading a coalition of support for the nil-policy and hundreds of Hackney residents and visitors of the borough have been emailing Hackney Council this week providing personal testimony of their negative experiences both inside and outside of Hackney strip clubs. Stories of sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, ‘no-go’ zones for women and children, and links with prostitution and trafficking have dominated responses to the Hackney council consultation which closes on Monday. Dozens of leading women’s organisations and equality groups have already signed up to a joint statement of support calling on Hackney to set a nil-limit for strip clubs, to take a stand against the spread of commercial sexual exploitation.
“Lap dancing clubs are not harmless fun. They are often sites of sexual exploitation, they make sexual harassment seem normal, and they create no-go areas for women and children who feel unsafe walking past themat night. Setting a nil-limit on seedy and exploitative strip clubs is an issue of equality, it is taking a stand against the negative messages that lap dancing clubs promote about women and putting a stop to the sexual abuse which takes place inside and outside of clubs.

OBJECT, along with all of the other leading women’s rights and equality groups who have signed the joint statement of support, urge Hackney council not to cave in to pressures from the sex industry and to stand firm in its commitment to stop commercial sexual exploitation in the borough by setting the limit at zero for lap dancing clubs."
Anna van Heeswijk, Campaigns Manager OBJECT


Sample consultation responses from Hackney residents:
“I am a mother of young children. We pass advertising hoardings for lap dancing clubs when we are going about our daily business. My 3 year old notices everything around him. What sense is he meant to make of the explicit posters which are designed to be sexually provocative and which so comprehensively degrade and dehumanise women? Does he begin to see women differently? What happens to the slightly older children who can read the degrading messages? And the teenagers who are beginning to explore their own sexuality? And what should I do as a mother? I want my boys to grow up respecting women and girls. These establishments and their advertising undermine this.”
“I work in the evenings and often have to walk home late past these places which are intimidating even in the day time. I've been harassed repeatedly and one time a man blocked my path and attempted to physically pick me up.”

“Earlier this year whilst waiting for the bus on Shoreditch high street at about midnight, a group of men who were leaving one of the lap dancing bars (The Rainbow Sports bar) verbally harassed me using language of a highly sexualised and offensive nature. Why should I have to put up with that? What is more, how did this group of men then later act towards other women they happened to pass by or meet, especially after a couple more drinks?”

“I and many other women in the borough have effectively lost out on career progress because we are unwilling to socialise and network in places like these”

“I run and perform in cabaret nights and no aspect of my work will be compromised by this nil policy - however as a women living in Hackney I will be safer and freer to walk the streets with the nil policy in place.”

“I would be so proud to live and work in a borough with an overt "nil" policy and believe it would pave the way for boroughs around the country to follow suit, saving thousands of women from daily sexual abuse.”
For more details or to arrange an interview contact Anna van Heeswijk, Campaigns Manager at anna@object.org.uk or 07783 887 154

This data is taken from Object's latest news release; copyright is therefore theirs and not my own.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Emotional violence and social power

Edited in Dec 2012. The follow-ups to this piece are From Despair to Hair (Huffington Post) and Triggered: Trauma, Survival and Perpetrator Impunity (Huffington Post).

In 2009 I survived an abusive relationship.

No, that’s not right.

I was emotionally attacked.

That's it.

I was targeted and attacked by a stranger - an industry peer who is well known in his field.

“It’s so horrible what happened to you,” said a friend to me at lunch.
“Why, what happened?” asked a new acquaintance.
         Ten second pause.
“I was tricked.”
         The most humiliating sentence I've ever spoken in my life. I had found out, by that point, that the perpetrator is a serial, simultaneous abuser.

A very close friend of mine was played for over a year, her body used, lied to her face by her partner. She described it later as “emotional violence.” I watched, over the following six years, as my friend’s trust and happiness were replaced with something wired and watchful. It’s called cheating not because specific rules have been broken but because the lover has been cheated out of their good faith in the world, their trust, their judgement, their delight and their peace of mind. Of course, in time, she recovered and rebuilt herself. But she lost the career that she loved: she had been a gifted film-maker working in equal partnership with her ex, in the company they created. When the revelation came it was too humiliating to go to meetings, knowing that everyone knew. There was a particular look people had - of revolting open-eyed pity for her, but no censure for him. Seeing that 'liberal' industry for the abuse protection racket that it really was poisoned her career. She was punished for being a victim and he was rewarded for being a perpetrator. The perks and job offers went to him and she was frozen out. Her ex’s career flourished. He was awfully embarrassed, though not remorseful, and it was all rather a mess, but he enjoyed himself, the affair and the special tang of betraying his partner so much for so long. He is now rich, famous, thriving, happy and busy. She left the country and lost everything.

The phrase “emotional violence” stayed with me. At the time I thought she was talking out of her immediate devastation, but I now understand. The pain is physical. When I saw the abuser for what he was I didn’t realise that for a year afterwards my skin would crawl night and day, that I would feel nauseous, that food would taste like ashes, that my muscles would be tense and that, if I heard the perpetrator being praised as an unbelievably lovely guy (as I do often), my heart would pound and feel as though a metal vice was squeezing it, I would go hot and cold, then start sweating, shuddering and retching. I realise now that these are trauma and stress responses. I didn’t know there would be a feverish restlessness and that my skin would feel as if it was being cut across the surface. I remember standing in the shower, feeling my back burning, certain that it was running with blood, slashed in a diamond pattern. I accepted every invitation, every work offer no matter how pointless and exhausting, because whenever I was alone, my skin crawled in one piece.

After that I felt numb and heavy for a year, as if my limbs were made of lead. I only wanted to be alone. My skin crawled when I was with people.

And then it was all just cold, and grave, and realistic, and even. I see clearly. I was abused by a perpetrator. I see him thrive. I see that I have fallen; at some point in the last three years I hit the glass ceiling. And the oppressors there, and his apologists and allies and champions, they were all the same people.

“I’d say it took ten years to get over.” “After six weeks, when I phoned to check she wasn’t dead, she said, ‘I’ll live. Just.’” “I’d say it took…five years?... to feel like myself again. It’s just the thought that I didn’t even figure in his thoughts. What it would do to me…” “Even now, five years on, I wonder if it’s something I did.” “Don’t be embarrassed. I still talk and think about what happened to me, five years later.” These are all quotes from women I know, all strong, all different, with different lives and personalities, none of them stupid or na├»ve.

My own quote was, “It’s like taking a life.”

The last few years have been good for infidel pickings: Gordon Ramsay, Vernon Kaye, Wayne ‘john’ Rooney, Avram ‘john’ Grant, Sting/john, Hugh/johnjuncter Bonneville, David/johnjuncter Schneider, Ashley Cole, Tiger Woods, Mark Owen, that blaring red chap from the One show. Whenever a story breaks I feel my skin itch all over with the desire to out the ones I know. All are well known in their industries, fawned over by slavish women, promoted and aided by other men, said by all (including themselves) to be decent, liberal, ‘lovely’, stand-up, caring guys.

A colleague of mine cheated on his pregnant wife but was described as “a dear” by a female colleague when I, instinctively rattled by his vibe, privately asked her if he was “a good guy” or not. Later he helped his own image by talking about how much he loves his baby; if a woman did that in the workplace she’d be dismissed as a lightweight who couldn’t keep her mind on her job. Indeed, at a NUJ conference last year one woman recounted how a female colleague had been slandered heavily when she answered a family emergency call: “They said, ‘That’s a woman who should be producing a programme, not dealing with her kid.’’” Yet a male colleague in the same situation was cooed over: “They kept saying, ‘He’s such a great dad.’”

There are three poets: one is O, an erudite, high culture young Turk type, a kind of young fogey, short, wordy, with pretensions to greatness. The second is L, a wily Londoner, loose and warm and friendly, a little buzzed, streety and voluble. The third is S, a salt of the earth type, accessible and germane, frank in manner (though not actually honest, obviously), who, like all philanderers, writes marvellous odes to his wife. There was another colleague, a handsome radio producer and writer whose mistreatment of women was so well-known that once, when reception called and said there was a courier downstairs with a package, a couple of (male) colleagues laughed and said, "It's a lawyer with a briefcase full of paternity suits." Not knowing this, I complained to this same guy during a friendly conversation about one of the poets, who had repeatedly betrayed and used a friend of mine (and all the women he betrayed her with) for years. The guy laughed immediately in easy dismissal. "Owen? Owen's a fuckin' lovely guy."

From the other side of the glass ceiling I watch them collect all the awards the world has to give. I watch them act craftily to gain the assistance of women and also help and excuse and cover for other men. I see women grovel and defer. There is the columnist and film-maker, J, who, again (spotting a theme?) has helped his own career through writing about his family life, as though he’s some hapless dad just bumbling along delightedly in the realm of the women and the babies. He has been cheating on his wife since their son was little. There is the publishing guy, Jamie, who went straight up to a friend of mine at a reading and said the following: “Hello! I’m Jamie Grope, my wife lives in the country, my mistress lives in London. Do you want to be mistress number two?” Ten years later, not knowing this, he contacted me for a work project and I sat through the meeting, the bile rising in my throat, as he sat with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest and a load of hairy uncooked-pastry wan skin oozing out and talked about his ‘fantastic’ wife, who always looks as miserable as shit whenever I see her. Oh, and his ‘great’ daughter too, of course. Sometime between those two days he sacked an incredibly competent friend, who had been rising steadily in his publishing company, when she was on maternity leave.

Everyone knows about this guy; nobody does anything. If we all withdrew, he would have no career and he would rightly be reduced to nothing – since he has treated his wife, daughter and countless other women as nothing. But he flourishes. He called a meeting at which were present two close personal friends of his: one of the cheating poets I mentioned above, and a colourful British Asian broadcaster who has had a sexual harassment case proven against him and whose wife left him after he betrayed her – although, thinking back, I realise that when he was actively betraying her I met him and he made the entire room look at him lovingly, as if he was a good man, as he described the birth of his daughter: “I didn’t even care what happened to the baby, I just couldn’t stand you see my wife in that much pain.” Well – you’d know about inflicting pain, right? Being formally reprimanded for sexual harassment and being divorced for betraying a woman has not taught this man any respect for women. I was speaking on a panel with him at the Southbank. I walked in and he said, "Love the gloves! Can I - ooh - can I just smell one?" We were being briefed by the chair of the panel, an extremely eminent woman, and halfway through he interrupted, "Now, Jill*, don't pretend you don't want us to notice you've had a haircut. Very sexy." She took a deep unsmiling breath, paused for a few seconds looking flatly at him in silence, then continued with what she'd been saying. He didn't notice or care. When I complained about the man to a colleague later they said, "Believe me, that's the very least of what Jill's had to put up with." This sexual harassment, belittlement, patronage, objectification and derailing of women, often by so-called 'liberal' men is completely common.

Now that the scales have dropped from my eyes I’ve been horrified by the hypocrisy and protectionism which surrounds these people. They are abusive men, nothing more, acting with forethought, secrecy, control, coldness and multiple simultaneous victims. Their victims are women, not men. The fact that the perpetrators pretend, at the same time, to be feminists, in order to attract then attack the women who will give them the greatest humiliation-kick, compounds the unspeakable nastiness of their misogyny. Meanwhile, the misogyny of the beholders runs so deep that they just don’t care how much these men abuse, because their women victims are not human, it seems. Women are not even animals, for if any of these men had been witnessed mistreating a dog or a cat, people would be appalled. I have sat back in astonishment as ‘nice guys’ easily, happily praise and defend abusive men, in comically identical language. In fact I have never heard any man describe another man as 'wonderful' except when the second man was abusive towards women.

Chap: “George Best, what a wonderful, wonderful footballer. My father [who was a doctor] treated him, you know.”
Me: “For alcoholism, or for wifebeating?”
Chap (reddening): “Oh – for alcoholism.”

About V S Naipaul, who I witnessed at a book reading openly jeering at any woman who asked a question about his work, a male colleague said, “Yes, he was a rotter to women wasn’t he but my God, what wonderful, wonderful books.”

Of course I have witnessed messy situations in which neither sex comes out well at all: sordid affairs that cause ‘everything’ to fall apart, both sexes behaving in humiliating and cruel ways, various pickles too predictable to go into. I’m not talking about making one little mistake, or a mess, or a tangle, or a casual and comical error. I’m talking about serial and dedicated two-facers, sexual abusers and exploiters, backstabbers, double life livers, gameplayers, deceivers. I'm talking about callous deliberate ongoing repeat abusers. As for those who, desperate to excuse these men’s abusiveness and blame female victims, argue that the women ‘must’ know, ‘on some level’, no, no, they don’t know. They are decent human beings who act in good faith, demonstrate sincere love, give time, attention, affection and labour to those they love, and trust them.

This is not about the confusions of sex or love; it is about abuse, power and hate. Even when I have outed abusers to colleagues, the colleagues do not then refuse to work with the abusers. Yet these men and women would, I am sure, hate to be treated in the way I have described. Meanwhile, the gratuitous slandering of innocent women is endemic in public life and general conversation, as is the silencing, attacking, punishing, disbelieving and blaming of women victims.

When I have confronted the abusers myself they have laughed in my face because they know that their abuse is not only protected but rewarded. To them, women are groupies, admin assistants, maids, enablers, geishas, secretaries, cleaners, free prostitutes, caregivers and other types of exploitable, efficient and uncredited labour. We are not artists, intellectuals or equals. If they respected us and thought that we were human beings, they would not abuse us. These media types, politics types, arts and culture types, they're never going to play any role in fighting discrimination against women, or marginalisation, or the double standard, or rape culture, or 'domestic' violence, or mental abuse, because they are perpetrators and apologists themselves, in broadsheets and in bedsheets.

After that first discovery I discovered many more, the majority perpetrated by those who sit in offices and give interviews talking in a nice, liberal, egalitarian way, while constantly sabotaging women in the most intimate, savage and destructive ways. It was devastating to learn, through experience, the ubiquity and connectedness of professional discrimination, personal abuse and cultural excusal, of perpetrators covering for each other and assisting each other’s careers. These men don't "love" women, as abusers forgivingly say of themselves. They hate them. If you spend years playing women, coercing women, tricking women, setting women up, using women's bodies, tricking women, duping women, lying to women, exulting in women's obliviousness, you are an abusive man.

I could never look my ‘friend’ in the eye again. That was the most painful thing – the speed with which the person I most wanted to see became the person I least wanted to see, the one I dreaded seeing, the one whose name made me feel physically sick. I feel ugly and haggard, physically dirty, tainted, because of what he did to me. I am braced in fear at all times. When I walk down a street or enter a party I scan it to check he's not there. Once I worked my way down through all the various layers of deceit - the shifting storylines, fudges, feints, conditions and tales a liar has to tell to keep themselves steady on wobbly ground - there was nothing left. He lied about everything and all I knew, in the end, was his name. Everything he did was part of the game, step by careful step, move by move: the first email, the first letter, the first gift, all came from him. Done with expert ease. It is dizzying to contemplate the massive distance between that kind, beautiful and intelligent face and the incredible sadism behind it. How could anyone do that - be so abusive yet so careful, so nasty yet so systematic? And how is it that apart from some surface static electricity, there was no consequence for him in the outer world? He flourished. Women and men flocked to serve and enable him, to invite him onto projects, shortlists, trips, commissions, jaunts, perks, jobs and events in which he was one of eight men (with a token lady of course). Everything was given to him and he took everything he could use.

There is the appalling knowledge that he is doing it to many other women and I cannot warn them because no-one believes me. There is the horror of knowing that, across months and years, a perpetrator can deliberately create and then enjoy pain and torment in another human being, for fun. There is the steepness of his hypocrisy and the psychosis of his pretence, in which the mask doesn't slip for one moment. Serial killer by night, pillar of the community by day.

When I am triggered by the mention or image of the man who perpetrated against me, the physical reaction is immediate. To describe it literally and in order: I feel I have been stabbed deep in the heart with something thin like a knitting needle; I feel a sour poison slip down my throat and into my stomach and curdle there; a sizzling shock spreads from my heart through my veins, running outwards in thin lines until it reaches the surface of my skin, where it burns out; the blood drains out of my face and my lips go numb; I begin to pant and feel light-headed; I start shaking; having gone completely cold and faint I then get a wash of heat over my skin from the inside out; my limbs and stomach get heavy; my head aches; my stomach turns over and I retch; finally, extremely hot-faced, the heat and adrenalin rush back to my face and I cry thick tears, shaking with horror.

The obscenity resides here: how can he laugh, talk, joke and socialise with such clear-eyed cheerfulness? How can he deceive, plan, abuse, enjoy? How can he say all those things? How can he write love letters he doesn't mean? How can he pretend to be a good person? How could he set up, mentally rape, sexually exploit and deceive those women and make it look like they were mad when they - we - instinctively sensed something was wrong? How could he groom and use women, pretend to cherish them, pretend to feel it mutually, use it as a smokescreen as he abused them, then throw it back in their face?

The effects go far beyond the incident and are enmeshed in a wider culture which does not punish abuse but excuses and even rewards it and attacks victims when they speak about having been attacked.

There is CM, the award-winning science fiction writer whose entire public persona is built on his ‘great’ women characters, his leftist politics, his fairness, his niceness, his strength, his gentle manner, his intelligence, his articulacy, his decency, his feminism, his integrity and the way he mentions his sister, partner, niece and late mother in interviews and acknowledgements.

Because of you, C, I can no longer say I have never been in an abusive relationship, although the word 'relationship' makes my stomach turn as it hints at some kind of dynamic or mutuality instead of a perpetrator targeting and victimising a stranger. I have been happily and naturally celibate nearly all my life, for 10 years before 2009 and ever since 2009. I do not flirt, date, tease or play sexual games with anyone, ever. This was not some romance but a drive-by shooting, a hit and run, a hard lesson taught to a stranger, a knifing by a passer-by. I told my mother about you and showed her the thousands of words of sly texts, endless coercive lie-filled emails and even carefully crafted handwritten letters you tried to coerce me with (Do you use a template for your letters? Or does it give you a bigger abuse-kick to tailor each one to the recipient? How do you remember what you have sent to whom? Is that why you had three phones, an ancient Nokia and two iPhones?), including the classic line, "You ask if I am playing you. No defensiveness intended, but how would that work exactly?" C, it would work by teasing, coercion, compulsive and pathological lying, mercenary professional exploitation, manipulative mental games, sexual exploitation, emotional exploitation, hypocrisy, control, sadism, repeated and sustained deception. My mother, a writer and academic, said, "He writes fantasy stories, doesn't he? He created a fantasy persona for himself: the little boy lost. He uses it to trick women. And he targets the clever ones. He uses his looks to deceive women - not a good look but a hurt, vulnerable look. I used to think there was something more to it with him but now I think he's just a piece of rubbish."

C, you ....I can barely write this... you pretended to be shy, unworldly, innocent, hesitant, awed and delighted. And while you did that to me, you did it to many other women. You wrote that when I gave you compliments, you read them "with a kind of stuttering shy delight." You wrote that it was "life-changing, when that door opened." "Your worst fears about me are not true." "I have never, in my life, so enjoyed waking up with someone." "I like how I am with you. I play when I'm with you. I never usually play." "I love that you notice me - I love that you notice things about me." "That column was the most affecting present ever and no-one can take it away from me." "The way you kiss me..." "I'm not a sadist, I'm not a sociopath. I'm not a sadist, I'm not a sociopath." "Just got your letter. I cannot even believe what you are. Brace for comeback." "Oh my sweet thing, oh my gorgeous girl." "Well for a start you're heart-freezingly, heart-killingly beautiful." "The taste of you...." "I crackle in your company." "I love your crackling energy. And I love that you've read books and have opinions on things." "I'm trying not to get obsessed with you." "I can't believe you asked me what colour your eyes are! Tch. I see your eyes everywhere." "I know I have been charged with finding you a nickname but I just keep repeating your real name to myself, over and over." "I feel filled up with you. You fill me up, Bidisha." "Have a good day, my taut-skinned doe." "I have been going around my room smelling all the places you've been. I caught myself breathing through the T-shirt you wore like a diver breathing through a regulator. I even considered tying it up in a plastic bag to preserve the smell." "I'm sorry, I'm smitten. I'm gone on you."

I participated, responded, initiated, invited, answered, with absolutely equal ardour, but for one thing: I meant what I said, and you did not. You were lying, but I was not. You were using me, but I was not using you. You played a game, but I did not. You know me, but I do not know you. You are a stranger. When I think about how I behaved with you, with such open-eyed delight and interest, when I think about what I wrote to you - "It's as though Rodin and Michelangelo fought to make you" - the things I said, the pet names, the gifts, the endearments which were wholly meant, the ridiculous party, the idiotic outfits, the stupid poem, and how you acted, as if with with absolute reciprocity, I am corroded by coarse inner humiliation and regret.

When I finally confessed to a friend about what you did she blanched and revealed that this was your method with all the women you trick and use simultaneously, and has been forever. We matched the dates to all the other cases she knew of and I realised that I and all the others had been tricked. How crushing to know that your satisfaction came from setting up the trick, using my body, playing with my feelings and then seeing how tormented I was, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, asking you and going back and forth a million times, while you gazed at me in gentle puzzlement, blinking. How crushing to learn years later that this is what you were doing and are still doing, not just with me but with countless other women, in addition to the groupies you use everywhere. Because of your sadism, C, I fear you. Because of your hypocrisy and impunity, I fear you. Because of your strength, I fear you. Because you target, use and attack women, I fear you. Because you are such a good actor, I fear you. Because you can play women, I fear you. Because you pretend to be a feminist when you are a man who abuses women, I fear you.

I do not understand. Surely it takes much more effort to abuse women than to be a decent human being? How can it be that everything you have claimed about yourself is a lie, everything you do is part of a gigantic game and every way you present yourself is a front to facilitate your abuse? You know exactly what to do to advance yourself publicly, how to abuse women and make sure nobody finds out and how to ensure that the women themselves don't find out that they are being abused at the same time as other women. You know how to give feminist quotes for female friends' books on gender and female colleagues' articles about women's rights. You know how to charm those you want to charm and abuse those you want to abuse, and when, and where, and with what actions and words, repeatedly, over time.

C, I think that you yourself would not like to be targeted and abused for months alongside dozens of others and hundreds of use-once-then-discard groupies, in addition to a permanent subordinate groupie spouse. Why do that to women, while talking softly, blinking gently, standing diffidently and pretending that you are a decent human being, a charming colleague, a principled thinker on the side of equality, a supportive brother, A Marxist Socialist blah whatever, a good teacher, a loving uncle, a feminist, a stalwart friend, a doting partner, a Boycott Israel movement activist?

It's funny. I used to pride myself on my shrewdness but now I realise how naive I am, how stupidly trusting, how innocently attackable - how easy to knock down and infect with fear and horror. I have written about these issues throughout my career yet when it happens inside the circle of my own life, I am devastated.

"How did he get away with it?" I asked my mother. "He's cleverer than you, in that regard," she said sadly, "there is such a thing as the perfect murder." And I recall, when I found out what you were, you jeered at me and then you snarled, "You know nothing about me, my sex life, what I do." Yes, I realise that now. And I realised, when you said, "I never told you I loved you. I was very careful about that. I said I adored you - but that's not love," that I had been set up. And I realised it too when you snarled, "It's none of your business what I do with my dick."

C, I am tormented by the horror of what you did to me - its specificity and its malice - and to all the others, and what you continue to do. In the years of the aftermath I have confided in too many women who then paled and told me that you had done the same to them, or to a close friend, or colleague. I have learned, with a sickness I cannot put into words, that you are not just a serial abuser but a simultaneous one: there is a mass, a morass, a mess of abuse.

I feel humiliated, yet I have done nothing wrong. You may make every single one of my own responses and communications public with my full permission, C, but they reveal nothing. I do not lie about anything, ever, and am exactly what I appear to be. I believe that I deserve to be treated well, as I treat others and indeed as I treated you. I do not co-betray other women or stand by while other women are abused. I have never been abusive to anyone in any way for any reason. And I don't cover for perpetrators, or practice diplomacy with them, or speak well of them as though their abuse of women is somehow separate from the rest of their activities, nor do I help their careers - although I helped yours, C, and you took this help and used it.

C, do you realise that where sexual attention is procured under false pretences, consent cannot be freely given? Know that I would rather be punched in the face once than chosen out of a crowd then methodically used and destroyed from the inside out with that unspeakably evil combination of alternating kindness and cruelty, teasing come-on and marginalisation, only to discover years later that this is your strategy with all your victims except those grovellers you use once like wank tissues and the industry figures you court to utilise.

I know, C, that I was nothing to you, just another victim to be killed alongside the others. And there is some humour in realising that I am not the star of a story but another faceless dupe, set up and used by a con artist. But I am something to myself: a kind, strong, clever and decent person who was light on her feet, open and affectionate. That person is dead. You offered many gifts, which I see now were carefully selected props and that I was one recipient among many. I have returned these of course. But the two greatest presents are ones I cannot return and do not want: they are sadness and fear, extreme fear of you and of a world in which perpetrators are helped and victims are punished. Now when I see your face I do not see beauty there, but the silent gloating of a corrupt abuser. Wherever I go, I am riven with fear of seeing you or seeing or hearing your name. Whenever I am invited somewhere I check the roster to make sure you will not be there. When I walk on the street I am afraid of bumping into you. When I am with colleagues I am braced in anticipation of someone mentioning you. When I see or hear your name I feel as though I have been stabbed. This used to be my world too, C, but I can no longer survive in it. I have been defiled by you.

C, you do not live in Purgatory, but I do. I am caught between the memory of a sweet and happy past, which turned out to be an abusive trick, and a disillusioned future in which anything anyone says to me is met with suspicion and uncharacteristic mistrust. It is a warped reality in which exactly those 'family men' who go on about being male feminists are the biggest abusers. And they can be assured that their actions will be condoned by apologists and that women who speak out will be said to be (let me get my medieval misogyny dictionary out) mad, bad, petty, malicious liars who are overreacting or have made some kind of pathetic interpretive mistake. As if any woman, in a million years, would drag her own name through the muck to make up a lie as humiliating as this.

C, I want to congratulate you: you wanted to be successful, and you are. You are goal-orientated and indomitable in both your abuse and your career, and there has been no karma whatsoever. You are a genius not only in science fiction but in romantic fiction too and in all cover stories, untrue justifications and complex hoaxes. Bravo. How easily you abuse. How little kickback there is. How assiduously you take. How smoothly you lie. How well you act. What skills you have. You wanted to deceive, sexually exploit, professionally use, emotionally eviscerate, mislead, sabotage and betray women, and you did. You thought you would be assisted and protected by countless other men and their geishas, and your own self-hating groupies, and you were. You wanted to be an abusive man, and you are.


Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Shame on you, Bristol City Council

Female misogyny, male skepticism and hypocrisy, ignorance, bigotry, derailing arguments? You can find it all, here, in this stunning and angering article about End Violence Against Women Day, at the F Word.