“Don’t worry,” he wrote, “you’re not a bad person, just an emotionally damaged one.”
Oh gee, thanks.
Like all human beings who roam this earth, I have a past. My past includes some good things, some bad things, some sad things and, sure, some traumatic things. I don't think I'm any worse off than the average woman -- certainly I'm luckier than many -- but yes, I have baggage.
So when I royally fucked up a potential relationship last summer by sleeping with someone entirely inappropriate under the circumstances (committed or not, one probably should abstain from bedding a relative of the person one is dating), I blamed my past.
"I'm messed up," I said. "I've been through some shit -- some not good shit."
Having made the smooth transition from a relationship with a sociopath to a relationship with an addict, the last five years had been… Let’s say unstable? Let's also say painful. Those relationships had chipped away at my self-worth and my ability to trust people. Maybe I just wasn't ready to date. At very least, I wasn't in a solid enough place to respect what should be obvious boundaries. At most, maybe I didn't think I deserved to be with someone I really liked.
I didn’t know what basic respect looked like in an intimate partnership. Like, stuff that might seem normal or obvious to others: Trying to make plans shouldn’t result in psychotic meltdowns and the kicking in of doors; that it's fair to expect your partner not to get drunk before dinner with your parents; that expecting your boyfriend not to either steal money from you or try to strangle you is a reasonable expectation.
If you aren’t treated as a valuable human being worthy of respect, that will eventually sink in a little bit.
It’s not great, but it’s me. It’s my life. And I'm not ashamed of my past. I appreciate everything I learned from those situations. I can make better choices today in a way I never would have been able to without having gone through what I did. So why do people act like having baggage is a bad thing?
I'd written a sad-sack email to the victim of my self-destructoid behaviour, listing off a number of possible excuses for my lapse in judgment. ("Wah! I'm the worst" didn't win him back, alas.) I read his reply: “You’re not a bad person, just an emotionally damaged one,” as “FUCKED FOR LIFE.” My face burned. Tears came. Then I was livid.
So I have some issues. I don't consider myself “damaged.” It wasn’t as though this was my m.o. I’d made a mistake. At worst, I just need a little more time and therapy before I am ready to try dating again.
Now I was that woman. The sad, neurotic, desperate, angry woman. The "victim." I recoiled at the idea of being turned into a trope.
Women are so often painted as caricatures -– the crazy spinster, the slightly-too-old single woman with a nervous laugh from romantic comedies, the embittered divorcée, the angry, man-hating feminist. These women may not be real, but they serve a purpose in this world –- they teach us what to fear who we must avoid becoming.
Men don’t like complicated women, we learn. It’s why dating advice columnists always tell women not to talk about their exes. Stay positive! Keep it light! We’re supposed to go into relationships as blank slates. Like girls, not women -- Pleasant and bubbly, with perky breasts. Real women with complex lives and emotions are the undesirables.
Me, before heartbreak. I was probably pretty perky. Also I smoked then.
And so we’ve become afraid of the “victim” label. We’re “survivors.” We’re empowered. We have agency. It feels like an all-or-nothing deal -- as though we can be either broken or intact. We’ve turned "victim" into a judgment. “Don’t be such a victim,” we’re told. As though it’s our fault.
Perhaps we feel more comfortable with the “survivor” narrative, but we need not erase the victimization that took place in the process of empowering women. The “victim” identity is not a flawed one, as it is neither all-encompassing nor is it an insult.
A “victim” isn’t something a woman becomes, like a mother or a doctor or a Canadian. It isn’t a fixed identity. Rather, as Catherine MacKinnon wrote: “[victim] is descriptive: who does what to whom and gets away with it.” It shouldn’t draw the line between pity and respect. It describes the truth of another’s actions.
I may be flawed but I’m not broken. No more than the emotionally stunted man who is nonetheless allowed to remain rational and strong and stoic and respected while filing me away into neurosis. “You’re damaged,” I imagine him saying, closing the door. “Stay in there so I don’t have to look at you.”
I want to live my past, my present, and my future, all at once and not be judged or stigmatized due to the actions of others. I don’t want to either have to erase or ignore the victimization in order to be respected.
I saw my squandered romance at a Halloween party last year. “I wrote you into my play,” he told me. So I’d been turned into a caricature after all. For the purposes of theater, I suppose that works. For the purposes of life, we can do better.
Left to with live with my own messiness, I feel defiantly human -– baggage and all.