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I Have Always Been Afraid Of Men

When I was a child, I wrote “I hate Daddy” on the flowered yellow wallpaper above my bed in my room in Baltimore. When my friends asked why and how I'd gotten away with this, I would shrug. Neither my mother nor my father had ever mentioned the graffiti. As to why I'd written it, I couldn't remember. It might have been my reaction to something routine and innocuous, like being “docked” my weekly allowance because I'd hit my sister during cocktail hour, or it could have been motivated by some more sinister event.

At one point, I'd tried to erase the words, but the pencil marks were too deep, the grooves pressed too angrily into the soft wallpaper to be removed, so they stayed up until I was fifteen. That was the magic summer I'd spent driving across the country in a school bus with forty other teenagers to a camp in New Mexico. While I was gone my sister and mother painted my bedroom a soothing ice yellow and converted the neglected spare room on the second floor of our house into a kind of lounge and study for my sister and me. I loved that room, with its dusty blue walls and pale green trim, its couch that was also a bed and the huge, flat desk painted blue and green on which I could spread out my school books and file cards, my notebooks and typewriter. That room was a step toward adulthood, a glorious release from our tiny children's desks and a world that seemed in all respects controlled by my parents.

What was strange about the words on the wallpaper was that I'd always adored my father, or thought I did. He was a smart, handsome, good-natured, central casting physician to whom neighborhood kids brought baby birds fallen from nests or wild bunnies roughed up by local dogs. But like Wilde's picture of Dorian Grey hidden in the attic, the more handsome he grew, the uglier and angrier I seemed to become.

My father gave us medical exams every year until I was twenty-two and a psychiatrist whom I'd consulted because I was afraid I was a lesbian suggested that this practice of my father examining my naked body once a year should stop. As a girl, I'd been happy to stay at home for the required school physical exams, thereby avoiding the unpleasant trip to the family doctor to which other kids had to submit. But as I got older, I didn't like my father's hands pressing my breasts and my groin for lumps, or his otoscope probing my ear as he breathed heavily next to me. But I was used to it and the ordeal was fairly brief.

In my thirties, I beat on pillows with a bataka bat in a bioenergetic therapist's office, underwent hypnosis, attempted past-life regressions, and finally asked my father directly if he had molested me.

He looked very sad and serious as we sat in the family therapist's office I'd insisted we see after my mother's death, and said, no, he had never molested me and would be happy in the future to follow my rules of decorum, which he printed neatly in his small leather appointment book: He was never to undress in front of me, never to tell sexy jokes to me and never to discuss with me the women he was dating.

“What about the physical exams?” I said. “Why did you do them?”

He thought hard. “I didn't want other physicians to have to treat my children as a professional courtesy. In those days doctors we didn't charge each other.”

“But other doctors sent their kids to pediatricians.”

His brow furrowed. “I'm sure I thought one's father could treat one's children more effectively than another physician.”

This explanation seemed weak to me. I imagine my sister would have thought so too, but she hadn't spoken to me, my parents or anyone else from her past in twenty years.

“Where was your mother when these exams happened?” the therapist asked.

My mother stayed at home to take care of her family, which meant that like so many women of her class in the 1950s and 60s, she was gone much of the time, leaving my sister and me to the care of maids and nurses while she volunteered for agencies that helped poor children, unwed mothers, women voters and her church.

My mother wasn't what people call nurturing. Her own mother hadn't been nurturing either. She didn't have time. My grandmother rose at 10 a.m., long after her kids had gone to school, and headed down to the orphanage over which she presided in the small Delta town in Arkansas where they lived. She sang alto in her church choir every Sunday. My grandfather was reportedly more affectionate and outgoing, but he, too, was very busy running his medical practice and the family cotton farm.

My happiest childhood memories of my mother were the periodic summer hikes she would lead through the rugged, tree-covered creekside park near our house. My sister and I and a dozen or so neighborhood kids would march in step behind her as she strode through the woods, gaily chanting in her booming Southern accent, “I left my wife and forty-nine children, down in the kitchen in starving condition without any gingerbread left, right, left.”

She would have made a great phys ed teacher.

What does any of this have to do with my fear of men? I'm not sure.

I do know that when I was eighteen and was expected by my mother to come out as a debutante and start showing an interest in boys, my fear grew worse. Boys were as foreign to me as bull moose and belly dancers. I didn't know what to say to them. And if you couldn't make conversation with a boy, you might be forced to give them what they really wanted, which was sex.

What I really wanted was sex, too, but not with boys.

My dream was to stroll hand in hand along the beach with Mary or Peggy or Elissa to the Tymes' 1963 tune, “So Much In Love,” waves rolling in beside us.

But how did I get to a beach with these beloveds? My house was a long way from the ocean.

When at last I came out as a lesbian at twenty-six and realized I didn't have to sleep with men, I started to like them more.

I never completely lost my fear of my father. Until his death, I found it difficult to be alone in a room with him although I spent the last three weeks of his life at his bedside. I was fifty-seven when he died. He was ninety-three.

A life coach I know believes that shortly after creation the universal masculine energy began to abuse and take advantage of the universal feminine energy. The earth and all her people — men as well as women — continue to suffer today as a consequences of this mythic, gender-based exploitation. The good news, she and her teacher are convinced, is that the universal masculine energy has realized the error of its ways, healed itself and is available to apologize to anyone it has harmed, assisting all sentient beings in healing from the fear, violence, oppression, self-hatred and shame we have suffered.

This explanation for why I live in fear of men is as good as any I've explored.

So in meditation now, I meet regularly with the universal masculine energy. We are trying to work things out.

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