So I have this problem with memory, both long-term and short-term. I’ve discussed it with my psychiatrist and he doesn’t know why it is, but he’s told me if it causes me any problems we can look into it. His theory is that my brain just blocks out traumatic experiences. I could buy that, as most of my teenage years are lost to me… except that I don’t remember most of my childhood either, and I’m pretty sure that 99% of what I’ve lost there wasn’t traumatic. Anyway, the point of this is to say that for pretty much everything that’s happened to me in life, I have no memory until someone reminds me, and sometimes not even then.
This article appeared on BBC News about a dude from Canada who spoke to a woman in a café in Ireland and then years later, despite not even knowing her name, has gone back to Ireland to try to find her. The awesome Philippa at The F Word wrote an excellent post about it, explaining just why she, along with so many others, finds it creepy and kind of stalker-ish. I read the BBC article and her post several times with increasing degrees of discomfort before a really startling and discomfiting memory hit me like the proverbial sack of bricks.
I was seventeen. Maybe eighteen at the most. In fact, I need to go back further than that. I was fourteen or fifteen, in a second-hand book shop with a friend. I don’t remember much about it, I was probably scouting for additions to my Discworld collection. A young man – older than us, about college age so about eighteen – came up and started talking to us. My friend was startlingly beautiful so I wasn’t surprised. At the end of the very short conversation, he asked for our mobile numbers. My friend didn’t have a mobile. I did and, naïve in those early days of mobile phones, gave him mine. I forgot about him. Occasionally he would text me. I sometimes texted back. I’d bump into him sometimes in town, have a brief conversation, move on, forget about him again. He wasn’t a part of my life, wasn’t even a part of the periphery. He was just some dude I knew by face.
When I was seventeen I moved in with a man who I called my fiancé, but who, looking back, I was never going to marry. We lived in a tiny maisonette in the town I ended up settling in later in life. I worked in a local alternative therapy centre, doing a mixture of receptionist and cleaning work. Alan. His name was Alan. I’ve come this far into writing this and only now has his name come back into my head, though I could picture his face clearly – odd for someone who finds facial recall so difficult I can’t even picture my husband if I close my eyes. Alan.
Anyway, at some point Alan started contacting me again. He started appearing at the places I went to – the pub, the library. And somehow he figured out where I worked. To this day I have no idea how. By that age I was considerably more savvy, and would not have told someone I barely knew where I worked. But one day, a letter arrived for me. It was addressed to my full name, which I am also pretty certain I had not told him. I have a clear image in my head of standing in the reception of the centre, my boss looking bemused as I opened this letter, and there were reams and reams of scratchy handwriting. What it said, I couldn’t tell you now. But that was my first sign that this dude should worry me.
I had more letters after that, and a Christmas card, despite never responding to any of his correspondence. And then he started phoning me – at work, I presume because by then my mobile number had changed. My job was such that if I was there, I would be the only member of staff on duty except the therapists, and they spent most of their time in their massage/therapy rooms working, so I was pretty much by myself. So I would be pottering about doing my work, and the phone would ring, and my heart would stop because I had to answer it – it’s what I got paid to do! But what if it was him again?
I remember little of the conversations, if you could call them that. I remember making non-committal noises to his repeated requests that we meet up. I remember saying very little other than the “oh right”, “hmm” etc that passes for barely polite if one isn’t really interested. I was being polite. I was being polite for fuck’s sake, to a man several years my senior with whom I had no relationship. I was being polite rather than telling him I had no interest in his friendship and that quite frankly, he was scaring me. I had been taught all my life that the most important thing for a woman to be was NICE. And telling him to fuck off would have been NOT NICE and the thought of being NOT NICE went against everything I’d been told a woman should be.
Oh, if only mid-twenties me could go back and talk to teenage me. Tell her that she owes NICE to nobody. Tell her that she has the right to say “no”, the right to say “I’m not interested”, the right to say “leave me alone”, as forcefully as she needs to. That she has a right not to be scared when she’s at work, even when she’s alone. Tell her that sometimes, she needs to be NICE to herself, even if that means being NOT NICE to others. NICE is not an obligation if your feeling of personal safety is at stake.
Eventually Alan phoned one day while my boss was in. Here was my out. I said, very loudly, “I’m sorry Alan but my boss doesn’t like me taking personal calls at work!” while frantically gesturing at my boss to come and rescue me. I must have looked suitably desperate because my boss, camp as they come, took the phone from me and in his best Menacing Manly Man voice said something along the lines “Stop disturbing my employees and do not call here again” and hung up on him.
I don’t know why, but I never heard from Alan again after that.
I also don’t know why I just told the world all that. I guess because it could have gone so much worse. I had no idea how to look after myself. I had no idea how to protect myself. I had no idea that I didn’t have to be NICE to everyone. Isn’t it fucking terrifying that teenage girls feel this way? That they have to be NICE to everyone, no matter how frightened they might be by a particular person? And even more fucking terrifying is the fact that many of those “Must-be-NICE” teenage girls grow up into “Must-be-NICE” adult women, who put up with people frightening and abusing them because they’ve been told that to be a good woman, you have to be NICE. I even see it in the feminist community – this idea that if you don’t put your righteous anger across NICELY, then you don’t deserve to be listened to.
Me? I’m done with being NICE. But I’ve no idea how we get rid of this culture of NICE in the teenage girls of today. I was lucky. Many aren’t. How can we teach girls – and women – that they don’t owe NICE to anyone, and that they have the absolute right to say FUCK YOU? ‘Cause as far as I can tell, NICE hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Let’s try FUCK YOU.