A few years ago, my grandfather died.
He was an important figure in my life. He was someone who I looked up to. He was in my mind the ideal man. He was an immigrant farmer who built a house where he raised seven kids: five boys and two girls. My dad also had seven kids: five boys and two girls. I can remember vividly something my grandfather would say to us as we were growing up. If we got upset or we complained about something.
He would say, “Are you a man or a mice?”
I can hear the tone of his voice in my mind and I can see the half-serious and half-joking face he would make when he would say it. But I can also remember how I felt, a little upset, a little confused with just a hint of shame for not being manly enough. But I was just a kid. How can I understand this old man’s wisdom? Obviously I’m not a mouse, so I must be a man. And coming from a family with so many men, this wasn’t the only half-joke and half-serious thing we were told. We heard lots of this kind of wisdom every time for a different occasion.
I had an uncle who would jokingly say, “See my fingers. See my thumb. See my fists. You better run”
In every community, there exist an idea of who we are supposed to be.
Our environment, our family, our community, they shape us. They offer us an identity or at least a narrative for us to follow. Even at an early age, before a child is five, he/she will have a fairly concrete understanding of who he/she is with the broad stroke of identity starting to be formed.
Life however has a way of challenging and confronting those family narratives that we grow up in.
For me, it became present in form of sexual abuse.
Right at the beginning of my adolescence, a friend of the family took me to the basement of our home and raped me. This would continue over the course of that summer. And in those first few moments, my understanding of the world changed. My ideas about who I was, where I was from, the community that I grew up, they were all changed.
And my abuser started to offer me a new set of one-liners, a new narrative to follow. He would say things like “This is all your fault.” “Oh I thought you wanted this.” “And no one is ever going to believe you.”
What I had believed about myself didn’t match the experience that I was presented with. To make matters worse, I’d never heard of a boy being sexually assaulted.
You see, strangers were the ones who hurt kids, they were supposed to be driving sketchy vans and wearing ski masks or, not my older brother’s friend. My understanding, which came from books like Berenstain Bears and company, was that bad guys look bad. And they’re supposed to try and get you to steal something for them. But Boys are tough. We are not supposed to be victims. Real men are strong. Real men don’t get raped. When something doesn’t exist in your mind, when the possibility of it even happening is not a thought, who are you supposed to tell? This wasn’t the bad guy that I was prepared for. This wasn’t the life that I was supposed to be living.
“Are you a man or a mouse?” It echoed in my mind.
I’m not even sure I knew what that meant. You see, I believed that I was a man. At least I thought that was how the world needed to see me. But I felt like a mouse. Maybe even less than a mouse. I had no idea what was happening to me or how to even rationalize it. And this confusion took me into some dark and terrible places in my mind. My early teen ages were filled with suppressed emotions and with anger. I had no idea who I was. All I wanted was to be able to share my experience, what was happening to me with someone.
But I remember at age 14, having a female relative reveal that she too had been sexually abused. The response, the attitude, the posture towards her, the community had just decided that she was a mouse. And someone who had never told anybody abouthis own experience of abuse. The things I remember the most were the things that people were saying about her. Things like “she would never have a normal relationship” “she would be messed up forever” “What a shame, her future is gone” without ever giving the chance to counter it. A narrative was forced on her. Ideas that I was believing and accepting myself, all the while still believing that real men are strong. Real men can’t get raped.
But the reality is, sexual violence against men is not uncommon. Statistics say that 1 in 6 males will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. And the actual number might be very different, given the stigma while reporting sexual violence. A stigma, a narrative, a misconception. So I see in my own experience, a reflection of a greater issue in our society.
Narratives, broad sweeping narratives replacing our own individual stories, replacing our identities. There is a pressure to accept what our community says is true about us. The family where we come, the place where we grew up and when we give in to that pressure, we rob our community the ability to listen to one another. Primarily about us ourselves don’t know how to share our stories. As a young man and failing to share what happened to me, I lost the very idea of me. I was feeling the pressure to be a man, to not be a victim, to not acknowledge my pain and my grief.
Worse, I was unable to answer myself the two most important questions for any young person. “WHO AM I?” “WHO DO I WANT TO BECOME?” What had happened to me was who I was becoming. I was believing what my abuser said about me. That this was my fault. I was believing what I heard about other victims of sexual abuse. That I too had no future. And even though I didn’t mean to do it, I was believing what my community told me was true about me. That there was no other way but be a man. Be a man. You aren’t allowed to be a mouse. And this is the opposite of what happens in stories now. In story-telling, we are the narrator. We are not the characters just placed in somebody’s narrative. The earliest human artifacts we have, are stories or tradition, language itself, painting, religious and philosophical myths from across every civilization. They are stories embedded in the community to individuals. The core of any culture is story-telling. Honest story-telling. And losing the ability to share our own unique experiences in our own unique languages and understanding is the slow death of every community. I grow tired of being told who I was, of who I was destined to become and feeling this pressure to not embrace and acknowledge my pain. Call it foresight or divine intervention or whatever it was, but I just decided that I needed to take control of my life and I discovered that in sharing my story. Workingwith youth, I have seen the first hand the powerful misconceptions that surround young people. Especially with young people that grew up with fewer privileges. So often, their identities are simply replaced with their cultural contexts. Some misconceptions come from the family and community that we grew up in. some misconception come from someone who wishes us harm. Some misconceptions come from someone who try to sell us some products. Just like some young women believe that they need whatever that product is, in order to be thin and have self-worth. But misconceptions steal from our stories and rob from our identities.
For me, there was no healing without sharing. Learning who I was, who I truly was, was discovered in sharing my story. We exist here today as part of a community. A community is made up of individuals. And when we replace just a one unique individual experience with someone else’s narrative, we lose a part of our community. And as a part of a community, I want to recognize the importance of listening to indigenous people’s stories. Meanwhile never experiencing it myself, is the more reason to listen and to hear, because our stories are important, not just for the person sharing but also for the person listening. When we listen to stories of abuse, of pain and grief in our community, we are acknowledging that it happened. We are acknowledging that it is not okay. And we apply value to the individual importance of who they are. We open the door for a deeper level of connection. And we open the door for healing. By sharing my story and we open the door for a deeper level of connection. And we open the door for healing. By sharing my story and experience of rape, I hoped to regain a part of my identity. To not allow what happened to me, to define me. When I share my story, I include you as part of my community. And there are times that I share and there are lies and misconceptions confronted in the act of sharing. And it remind some of the truth of the situation. Even now, in this very moment. So, my challenge is that we share and we shake off those narratives that we feel pressured to accept and adopt. And we write our own unique stories and as we share, we become better listeners and we allow those in our community to have a voice. I believe, to create healthy communities, there need to be healthy people. And we need to provide safe places, places where we can share, where we can listen, places where we can embrace our identities, not simply based on circumstance.
So I wish I had the chance to sit with my grandfather one more time because I would love to hear him ask me again. “Are you a man or a mouse?” and instead of allowing those childhood feelings to take over, I would just love to tell him my story and I would love to ask him about his own. And as we share and listen to one another, we might see past our ideas and the misconceptions we have about one another, and see each other a little more clearly.
So my challenge is not to look at each other and ask things like “are you a man or a mouse?” But rather “what is your story?” And see and watch how it changes your value, your engagement, your perception in your community