Brokeback radfem: sometimes the metaphors write themselves

Did you know that a teenager can break her back, but not know it until after her 40th birthday when a neurosurgeon spots the break on an MRI? It’s true!

This means I traversed high school, college, and grad school; was married and divorced; came out; worked 23 consecutive jobs in a half-dozen careers; lived in 19 different apartments and houses; emigrated to Canada and back; and spent five years on a six-day-a-week Crossfit schedule – all with a fractured spine. Which is horrifying, but also…kinda metal, if I do say so myself.

My surgeon is going to take the vertebra in question and bone-graft it into a spinal tea cozy to protect the new manufactured vertebra, then attach the whole shebang together with screws that look oddly like what you get at Ikea. He said the break happened when I was between 10 and 16. A childhood spinal fracture is a bit like tree rings – you can pinpoint its age by the bone growth around it – and most people never feel the injury if the vertebrae settles far enough away from the nerves.

You can walk around with a broken back for a long time.

I didn’t start limping until about six months ago, but I always had a sense of some essential wrongness about my back. A crunched-up feeling; an urgent desire to pull the tiny bones apart and let air into the spaces. One doctor said it was a bulging disc; another said it was a too-pronounced S-curve, and both these things were true, but didn’t explain the abject dread I felt when pondering my own spine. A dissolving sort of feeling, as if one day I’d wake up in a pile of tiny ivory shards dust-layered upon one another. My back and I, our very own anthropological site.

It’s an easy feminist metaphor: All women know something devastating happens to us between the ages of 10 and 16, if not before. The culture tells us it’s because of this or that – sexual abuse; not enough access to sports facilities; bullying; dating violence, cyberstalking, too many magazines with skinny cover models – and as correct as all this is, it doesn’t go deep or far enough.

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) obsessed with individual stories and solutions, never says “broken.”

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) calls it all a misunderstanding that can be ironed out if men and women just listen to one another, the way my middle school headmaster was sure the bullying would stop if the bully and I just “talked.” As through the power structure was equal; as though the kid wouldn’t punish me tenfold the minute headmaster’s back was turned.

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) never admits that men as a class do not see women as a class as fully human.

Patriarchal culture (and liberal feminism) maintains that the theft of our labor, resources and bodies is a thing that…just sort of happens. The thief usually goes unnamed, or defended, because “not all…”

Radical feminism says: This situation is intentional: Men as a class benefit from our oppression in ways they really like.

Therefore, unless women find the right language in the right books (or on the right screens or in the right company) we don’t have the words to unlock and translate the WHY of what’s systemically as well as individually happening to us, as a class, in the world. That’s why there’s such an effort to obfuscate and control our language as well as our spaces.

We know something is wrong but we don’t know (or want to know) that it’s an honest-to-God break, so we limp along to chiropractor after chiropractor. We buy special pillows to align ourselves. We curl up into quiet balls, or we keep empowerfully deadlifting and squatting and taking fistfuls of painkillers to get by.

You can walk around with a broken back for a long time.

We live like this, and then we die without the language we need to say what’s true; to use a clean scalpel to rebuild ourselves and each other. We die quietly, like my grandmother Tess, who knew what a husband’s fist felt like, or angrily like my great-grandmother Toula, who was never allowed to learn to read.

We can only fix the break if we have the words to describe it. Only then can we walk without a limp.