#MeToo Essay 1st Prize Winner: It Starts with Blood by Emily Finn

It starts with blood. Mine.

So red and stickysweet that my jean shorts catch to my chair in band class. This is womanhood spilling over, me tying a sweatshirt around my waist and faking being sick so I can hide the stain and get home.

Mom picks me up from school because she’s sober today and she’s not even mad. She gives me a look I cannot understand, drives me home, and makes me eggs. I am a woman now, and there are things a woman must know.

She is passing me the salt and she’s crying. I am too as she tells me the thing. Break salt down and sodium as an element is sensitive, reactive: my mother walking around the house on her tiptoes in her night dress, drinking her lips purple from coffee cups secretly full of wine, her fingers curled so tightly they dig half-moons into the soft of her fists.

After she leaves the kitchen, I stare and stare at my plate, suddenly disgusted at how soft the egg is, how easily a knife empties it of yolk.

This is my first lesson. Within me, the cycle of ripening and releasing eggs has just begun.

Character Development:

When I am little, Grandpa is my favorite person. He is the best Skip-Bo partner and makes sure to show me every tool in his workshop next to the garage when I ask, even though I’m a girl. One time he asks me, his favorite little artist, to draw him something. Anything. He would make it for me. I draw a bird on a piece of yellow notebook paper, watch him sketch my drawing on a small block of oak, put it up to his loud band saw, and carve wings from the wood.

Scratch this out and start over.

  1. When I am young, I have a maternal grandparent (X).
    1. Use formal language to create distance between the subject and her relative.
    2. Avoid making the grandparent a second subject; instead, use appropriate grammar to keep him the sentence’s object.
      1. Here, emotional detachment hints at coping mechanisms.
      2. Coping mechanisms indicate past or present trauma.

After I learn the thing, I pretend Grandpa is dead. I visit X with my parents and want to cry when I realize he’s going to see me in a bikini on a family trip to the beach.

  1. I do not know how to name this feeling, but I turn its sharp edges inward.
    1. How could I have let myself get so carried away—to feel excited, pretty even, at the store in the two piece with flowers and butterflies.
      1. I’m 14 and the fault, I’ve learned, must be my body’s. Again, I am disgusted. This time solely with my skin.
        1. I’ve lied already. I’m constantly aware of flesh, but also of weight. I don’t mean mine: I’m talking of the small spare heaviness of mom’s pills in the pantry—medication to relieve anxiety, depression, adult hyperactive disorder, what may be this week’s, last week’s, this month’s pills in orange prescription bottles because Mom is not taking them again. But
          1. that is beside the point.
          2. No, it isn’t.

We get home and Mom is telling us how much she loves her parents, how she wishes all her siblings and their families would visit X and Grandma every year the way she does. There is something dangerous about this wish, something that stretches out my mother’s frame so that she towers over us, drunk and ceiling-high.

Sequencing:

Every reality has its reasons. When my Uncle James is just a teenager, he tries to tell a pastor about the thing in an attempt to protect his five sisters. The pastor confronts X, who denies the accusations. James runs away, changing his name and disappearing to his family for over two decades. Years later, one of my aunts dies of breast cancer while her father, who loved her with his hands, is again at her bedside. Another aunt moves across the country and refuses to see X ever again. Another commits suicide; her son, a cousin I’ve never met, kills himself too. Uncle Simon tries to commit years later, but fails.

Mom is survivor, alive(!), but sometimes when I’m growing up,  I think she wishes she weren’t.

Plot Holes:

There are terms Mom wouldn’t like or use herself to talk about her experience.

A list of words to avoid:

Sexual abuse

Sexual predator

Victims

Blame

Penis

Vagina

Shame

Guilt

Depression

Suicidal thoughts

But I can use them to talk about my own:

***Look at the list again and say the words aloud as though you mean for them to be heard.

Because I mean for them to be heard.

Before I was raped, I had only ever been with one man.

  1. This does not matter.
    1. This would matter…in court.
  2. I am 19 and I am taught to believe other things would hold more weight, though: the
    1. tank top I was wearing,
    2. The number of beers I had drunk. The
    3. number of beers he had.
      1. Form an equation louder than my NO had been. This has always been easy.

My roommates say the man who raped me was just drunk and at least he stopped when you started crying and bought you Plan B.

  1. Not everyone is so lucky, they remind me.
    1. They are right and I can’t
      1. i can’t i
      2. can’t

     breathe.

Writing Exercise 1:

Make a list of every woman you’re close with.

Make a list of every woman you know who has suffered sexual harassment, abuse, or violence.

Are there any outliers?

How has it gotten to the point where a woman who has not been a victim of some form of sexual abuse is considered an outlier?

Plot Development:

After I am raped, I can’t sleep for weeks. I barely go to classes and fail two of them. I tell Mom I’ve had a hard semester and she tells me not to manipulate her. I’m too ashamed to explain; how can I without using the words I’ve been taught not to say?

Before long, I stop dating men completely. For the next three years, I only have relationships with women. It is not because of the rape. That explanation would be too easy. It would not not be because of my rape. A complete dismissal would also be too easy.

Thematic Elements:

Salt again, but

this time not at breakfast but of bodies: Lot’s wife turning back to catch a glimpse of her burning Sodom, unsatisfied with accepting ash for ash’s sake. Kurt Vonnegut wrote tenderly on how human that moment was—the looking back. Sodom had been her home, a fact unchanged by fire. I could never decide whether, in the end, I found her transformation a brilliant catharsis or consequence.

Salt once more.

This time, Michigan. See the Crystal Salt factories toeing the river’s edge in Saint Clair, my knuckle of the thumb Midwest hometown; the dark current, luring just beyond steel rails. This is where I learned the borderless physicality of water, then of my flesh which at one time had been mine and yet not mine.

I look back and I look back and I look back.

My heaviness is not my mother’s. My heaviness is my mother’s.

 Vignette #1:

Summer. A 17-year-old in a sundress. She is setting the table at her grandparents’ house, walking from kitchen to dining room in a large arc around X. Watch her with the forks and knives, the glasses of milk. She is careful.

That does not matter; she still has a body. X grabs her elbow.

Have you been practicing kissing lately? Give your grandpa a kiss.

Her parents are in front of her, quiet at the table. Light pours in through the windows. Beyond the back porch, poison oak crawls from the woods on its belly.

Condensation from a glass drips to the floor. The girl’s face strains.

Vignette #2:

The same girl—this time at home and in her pajamas, getting ready to go to sleep. Her mother enters her room.

She sits down next to the girl on the bed. Notice the space between them. The similar slope of their spines. You know, I love you so much (name). Thank you for…not making a scene earlier.

The girl watches her mother fold and unfold her hands.

She silently decides never to see X again.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why the sudden switch from first person point of view to third-person narration?
  2. Who is the girl?
  3. If the girl is 17, why is she not referred to as a woman?
  4. Why does the girl stay quiet when she is uncomfortable?
  5. What is implied by the mother’s “thank you”?
  6. What is the significance of silence in these situations?

Repetition

Or maybe conflict (again) is what I should call this section but it really doesn’t feel like either of those things because I feel nothing. I am empty as I find an English-speaking gynecologist in my home abroad eight years later, visit her office, and spread my legs Oh, there is a bad tear here. Abrasions. You didn’t feel the pain? You and your partner need to be more careful.

This is the consensus: that it is as much my fault as my partner’s. Is it wrong? I am an adult, I was drunk, I had wanted to have sex. I did not want a stranger I had met at the bar to hurt me so badly during the act that I struggle to sit down or go to the bathroom for the week afterward. But still, I had initially wanted it, right? I had let him buy me the drinks. About US$30 later and a man should be able to collect what he is owed, shouldn’t he? Why should I feel so entitled to my body that once the act begins, I can ask for more humanity than to be an object to be ripped into. For a man to stop after I tell him I can’t, i can’t ican’t PLEASEi’m sorry.

I resent this apology now. I resent everything that had led me to believe I was the one who owed him an apology even as he ignored me, hurt me so badly blood collected beneath us, a jagged red pool on white bedsheets.

Doctor’s Instructions:

  • Apply cream every three to four hours.
  • Continue use for two weeks to ease pain and prevent infection.
  • Keep affected area dry and avoid wearing tight underwear and clothing until healed.

Catharsis:

Until healed. This part takes time. I stop dating. I stop having sex. I’m in bed, wrapped in a blanket, Googling “how to stop having a panic attack”

  1. Breathe deeply.
  2. Recognize that you’re having a panic attack.
  3. Close your eyes.
  4. Practice mindfulness.
  5. Find a focus object.
  6. Use muscle relaxation techniques.
  7. Picture your happy place.
  8. Take benzodiazepines.

I follow the steps, then memorize them.

See it is OK I’m OK.

Almost a year passes and the steps broaden. Self-love slowly replaces self-defense and, what is hardest,  self-blame. I resolve not to let a whole part of my life become an absence and turn myself inside out. This starts with writing and then talking. I share my story with my sister and then friends, with women I don’t know well and then, after I share, know very well. I learn to speak without shame and I watch as another and another and another woman in front of me nods in understanding. Me too.

You are now a part of that group. You have been patient while I have stuttered over words and structure in my retelling. I cannot write on sexual assault in a traditional format because I refuse to accept what has happened and what continues to happen to every woman I know as tradition.

The first steps to breaking this practice are ugly.

  1. Identify the wound.
  2. Don’t look away.
  3. Now, dare to believe your body and the voice it produces.

YOURS.

The sky that once sat upon my chest breaks and changes form. Here is my mother attending AA meetings and nine months sober. Here I am telling her plainly I won’t visit her father. We are in the kitchen, in the same place where she once stood when she recognized my womanhood and then tearfully told me what hers had cost her. She won’t meet my eyes, but I love her bent posture, the flour in her hair, and she loves me enough to listen. I’m determined neither her experiences nor mine will be in vain.

This boldness becomes louder and louder in living rooms, at coffee shops and over meals, online, and in our senate. Nevertheless she persisted and so will we. I stand inspired by the women who have come before me and who have made this easier. I look back and then forward. I no longer feel powerless but a responsibility: to speak out until I have done my part to shatter a structure that silences.


Memoir Magazine | Discussion Questions for “It Starts with Blood.” These questions were conceived of as a tool for teachers to discuss this essay and sensitive subject matter with their students. But we welcome replies from all readers in the comment section below.

1. What is the significance of the soft eggs in the first part of the essay where the narrator states: After she leaves the kitchen, I stare and stare at my plate, suddenly disgusted at how soft the egg is, how easily a knife empties it of yolk.

  1. How does this relate to the narrator’s next line? This is my first lesson. Within me, the cycle of ripening and releasing eggs has just begun. 
  2. What do “Coping mechanisms indicate”?
  3. The narrator states: I do not know how to name this feeling, but I turn its sharp edges inward. What does she mean by this?
  4. Why do you think the mother drinks and takes medication to relieve anxiety, depression, adult hyperactive disorder?
  5. What role do you think parents and guardians play in protecting children from sexual abuse? What if the parents or guardians are themselves a victim of abuse?
  6. In the second half of the essay, the author talks about her encounter with a sexual assaulter who she meets at a bar. In certain parts of the piece, what do you think prompts her to partly defend his behavior and blame herself instead?
  7. Do you think women are more prone to self-blame than men? What do you think is the reason behind it?
  8. In the essay, the writer strikes up a dialogue with the reader when she says that the first steps to break the practice of sexual assault is to:
    1. Identify the wound.
    2. Don’t look away.
    3. Now, dare to believe your body and the voice it produces.

What do you think she means by this and what role would these action steps play in the healing process of someone who’s been sexually assaulted? What role would these steps play for society as a whole?

The Memoir Magazine #MeToo Essay First Prize winner, Emily Finn, is a Midwest native currently based in Taipei, Taiwan. In her home away from home, she writes on current events issues for AMC Publishing Company’s three monthly magazines. Living abroad for the past five years has greatly impacted her, and Emily strives for the experiences she's had within different cultures to inspire her to be more mindful of her worlds, both old and new.

2 Comments

  1. Congratulations, Emily. The essay’s innovative structure and powerful imagery will stay with me for a long time. Continued strength and healing to you.

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