Taking Liberties

It looks like we need to have a conversation about Rape Culture.

Still.

Again.

The truth is that I shy away from calling Rape Culture by name, despite my usual candor, because I find that the term makes people irreversibly defensive and unwilling to hear–much less examine— any point that follows. I find myself sugar-coating my explanations and experiences of daily misogyny and objectification simply to be believed and heard. Frankly, I’m tired of it. I’m exhausted and I’m bored. And you know what? Rape Culture should make you recoil because it’s disgusting.  Instead of protecting the people who are put off by the term we should take more action to dismantle the thing itself and protect those who are affected by its existence.

This weekend the White House announced that President Trump named April 2017 as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.  My Facebook feed was suddenly filled with posts by outraged women and comments by oblivious men asking, “Isn’t this a good thing?”

Because so many people don’t seem to understand, let me give you a cursory overview: Donald Trump has repeatedly sexually harassed and assaulted women, even to the point of alleged rape. He has openly bragged about some of these instances. He has unabashedly commented on and criticized women’s appearances and equated their value and skill to these physical evaluations. In the face of all this, he has insisted upon his superlative, unmatched respect of women. Tell me: would Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold be an appropriate person to announce a Gun Safety Awareness Day? Would  Richard Spencer or Stephen Banning or literally any KKK member be an appropriate spokesperson for Holocaust Remembrance Day  or Black History month? Should we support people who feign to champion causes to which they are directly opposed?

When you refuse to acknowledge Donald Trump’s past actions and their direct conflict with this cause you are perpetuating rape culture. You are allowing a sexual predator to move on with no accountability, claiming he has done something good and right. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are common in Rape Culture and so is your unwillingness to see them.

A few months ago I was assaulted by a friend outside a bar just down the street from my job. I knew I was too drunk and I knew that I was in over my head. I managed to leave during the few minutes he was in the bathroom, but not before we kissed and he choked me so hard I thought I was going to pass out.

I spent the next few days emotional and unnerved. Other than a few close friends, I told no one. Despite knowing otherwise and my consistent advocacy to women in this situation, the truth is that I felt like I only had myself to blame. I was in this situation with someone who was much stronger than me and who made me fear for my safety; his choice to pin me down and wrap his hands around my throat until I couldn’t breathe was his own. Rape Culture tells me that I was Asking For It, and despite all my advocacy to reject this, I still find myself internalizing it.

I broke our month-long silence and told my ex boyfriend about this encounter. I sought our old familiarity in an effort to comfort myself after a harrowing experience with a new man. He suggested I go to the police and seemed impatient when I tried to explain the nuances of my hesitation and the complications that course of action could present to me. Finally he gave up saying, “I don’t know, Marie. You’re smart and have a good head on your shoulders. That’s why I always liked putting my balls on you.”

A couple weeks ago I told a new romantic interest about the night outside the bar in preparation for the possibility of the two of them meeting at a social outing. I looked for outrage in his face and found none. If there was concern in his voice I did not hear it. We didn’t talk about it further.  I didn’t press it, suddenly anxious that I was overreacting.

These are symptoms of Rape Culture.

A month or so ago I was talking with a friend about various sexual experiences we’ve had in previous relationships. I mentioned that my most recent ex had a habit of “taking liberties” when it came to certain aspects of our sex life. I expressed this casually, as though it were acceptable for him to assume access to any part of a lover’s body at will. My friend stopped me: “Taking liberties? You mean partner rape?

And he was right. He named the thing I had been silently mulling over but had been unable to admit. For months I thought back to the instances of anal sex I didn’t want and wasn’t prepared for and that caused me pain. I thought of the countless times he woke me up by mounting me or jabbing me with his erection in pursuit of a late-night fuck and how much sleep I lost because of it. Then there were the times I was made late for work because he insisted I perform oral sex, even just for a minute, before I left. I thought about how irritable he got when I resisted, sometimes inconsolably so. I thought about the times he posted pictures of me during these acts that showed my face, despite agreeing not to. I thought about the times he broadcasted us having sex without my knowledge.  But mostly I found myself wondering, “Was that rape?” 

Sexual abuse is been wholly accepted by our culture and the blame placed squarely on victims. I am not the only woman who, after months of being violated by the men we love, have tried to package it up tidily with a cute bow and a nice name: Taking Liberties. I don’t want that job anymore.

This is a symptom of Rape Culture.

So, with all that in mind, for National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention MontI’d like to say this: I am intimately aware of sexual assault and of Rape Culture. We all are, including those who benefit from it. We know well to be suspicious of both lovers and authority figures who attempt to tout their desire to protect us but act otherwise. So if you’d like to prevent it? Please stop assaulting us.

 

 

 

I didn’t ask for it

I never meant to be an activist.

Even now, I have trouble thinking of myself in the light. The word activist has always conjured up a certain image in my mind: someone in the thick of the battle, shouting, unwavering. All I’ve done is write.

A couple weeks ago I was honored with an invitation to speak at a summit for the Restaurant Opportunities Center in Boston. They are currently campaigning not only to raise the minimum wage, but to abolish the substandard minimum wage for tipped employees. I was there to add my own testimonial to the ways in which server’s incomes are unreliable, citing my own experience with sexual harassment and the effect that had on my tips. Despite having written extensively on this subject, I had never spoken on it publicly, save a few phone calls with local reporters two years ago. This time my voice shook.

There is a difference between the carefully crafted words I can lay on a page, chosen for their power, and the words I try to speak, my voice trembling, to a room full of people including lawmakers and press. As I stood among my allies, I realized that my story no longer belonged to me. And perhaps, in some ways, the specificities of my experience aren’t even important. Instead, I have unwittingly taken on the burden of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry as a whole. The details of my account matter – but only as a corroboration and testament to the existence prevalence of such a culture. My story isn’t about me; it’s about everyone who’s faced the same hardships.

I have begun to feel this pressure immensely. I felt it especially as I recounted my history as a server, hoping to play a role in changing the laws and tradition of an entire industry. What I was doing was activism.

The issue with being an activist is that it is so much messier than anyone realizes from the outside.

When the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office announced its plan to pursue litigation against the Route 9 Diner, it initially felt like a victory. After nearly six months of late nights; tearful, exhausted skype calls; a barrage of personal attacks; and a move back to my home country, I exhaled thinking I could rest easily for the first time in months.

But within days the owners of the diner closed their business without warning. They gathered their employees in the dining room to break the news, where they insinuated that the AGO had forced them to shut down. Cruel messages on social media from the diner’s most recent servers began to pour in, attacking me and the others who had shared the abuses they endured at the diner.  Soon, it became to difficult to feel uplifted by the progress we had made since writing our initial blog posts.

From the other side of the world my ex boyfriend told me, “This may not feel like it from the frontline, but from home, we see this as a victory.”

The problem was that the diner was more than a building; the consequences were reaped by more than the owners. We were not all immune to the struggles we had caused our former coworkers; people who, despite their aggression toward us, were people for whom we still cared. Fierce debates broke out within families and many of the girls began to quietly delete the blog posts that had garnered so much attention. Though the community rallied behind us, it was impossible to ignore the fallout. As Elizabeth Adams, former coworker, wrote: justice doesn’t always feel just. The aftermath doesn’t always feel like a triumph; there is almost always collateral damage.

This became obvious even among the women who had once so bravely spoken out against the treatment of women at the Route 9 Diner. While we were once a closely knit group of endless support, our individual ideas of what justice should look like began to clash, and slowly we unraveled. I lost friends on both sides of this fight. Some hated me because they had convinced themselves I was overreacting to the trauma I had endured and blamed me for the accidental and unfortunate consequences they now faced.  Others told me I was weak when I gave in to the need for self-care after an emotionally charged fight I never truly intended to start. Was this what justice was supposed to look like?

Now, two years later, I have picked up the fight again. Whether or not I want it, I have a platform to advocate not only for victims of sexual violence in the restaurant industry, but for those who have experienced it at any point in their lives. It is my good fortune that people have been willing to listen to my words and hear my voice, small and trembling as it may be, and have continued to give me the opportunity to speak on the issues about which I am so passionate. It is both humbling and gratifying that despite the backlash and self doubt, more and more women have said, “me too,” and added their own cries to the ever-growing chorus of resistance against a culture and society that allows our experiences and our stories to be considered negligible and normal.

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of posing for Anja Schutz’s photoseries #GrabHimByTheBallot. It is a response to Donald Trump’s casual lewd remarks about sexually assaulting women without consequence. Like me, Anja stumbled into activism accidentally. I cannot speak for her, but I can identify with the overwhelming feelings of gratitude and validation that come with numerous women standing beside you, gratefully empowered by your work.

My own empowerment doesn’t always emerge in the form of the written word. My activism is not always a battle cry.

Today, they look like this:

 

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#PussyGrabsBack

 

The Shaman

I recently came across an open letter to a man I once thought I knew. His name is Colin Garland, the owner of Raven Adventures/The Global Classroom.

The letter, written by a woman only two years my senior, details the multiple encounters she had with Colin, all of which were manipulative and abusive, and many of which involved rape.

It was a challenging read. However, the difficulty did not lay in struggling to believe the author’s account of her experience with Colin. Instead, I was forced to sit with the pain that came with remembering my time with this man and how all of his actions fit so neatly into the pattern of abuse described by the author. There was no relief in the realization that my gut instinct over our last few interactions had been correct.

I met Colin through my highschool ecology teacher Will Kiendzior. We dedicated a class to showcase the myriad adventures Colin had been on in Costa Rica and Mexico. We were invited to embark on his annual trip with students from my highschool to Central America to explore and learn about his conservation efforts.

Yesterday, before his website was taken down, I scrolled through all the pictures of former students, all about 16 years old. Some I knew personally. I wondered how many have had similarly alarming and abusive experiences with him. I felt sick to my stomach.

Admittedly, it was not my time spent with Colin in Mexico that makes me uneasy. Though tainted now, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Still, I have a distinct memory of affection and praise with which he showered my best friend. He marveled at the symbols she drew in the sand, saying they were rich with meaning and that she was clearly in tune to something greater. After we got home, she spent weeks corresponding with Colin through email. I was envious of the attention she received. I was frustrated that he didn’t see that I too felt I had something deep, primal, and attuned to something beyond myself.

Six years later I was in Israel when I received a message from Colin, telling me that I had been on his radar. He told me that he had been thinking of me for a long time but had hesitated to reach out. We made plans to see each other the next time he was back in Massachusetts.

In the time before he made his return I began to confide in him about my history of depression and the difficult childhood that had led me there. In fact, I later posted a short series on this blog entitled “Letters to Colin” that I copied from those letters that unreservedly and unapologetically detailed my disjointed upbringing and early introduction to mental illness. It was clear that I sought to heal in some way and Colin appointed himself the one who could do it.

It wasn’t long after that that he told me I was a woman coming into my power. He told me tales of my psychic ability. He urged me to travel with him, to allow him to teach me the ways of a healer. He spoke of Native American customs, of the medicine wheel, of shapeshifting. He told me that I simply hadn’t made love until both me and my partner had shifted into the form of a dolphin. He of course, was the one to teach me.

I remember that he was hesitant that I wanted to bring my boyfriend the night I agreed to come to his house for a healing session. I remember that up to that point, and for some time after our messages on Facebook somehow made me uncomfortable. In nearly every message he told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was. I pushed my misgivings aside. After all, Colin was a Healer and wanted to help me. I was certain that the issue lay within myself; I wasn’t used to being loved so purely. I wasn’t being open. I needed him to heal me. I thought of the time I had heard that Colin had slept with a former classmate of mine, nearly 30 years his junior. I pushed the thought out of my head, convincing myself I did not understand the experience or the depth of Colin’s love and shamanic powers.

Now, when I reread our messages and see how I exposed my vulnerability to him I am uneasy. I realize now that this was not a safe place; his intentions were more sinister than I initially knew. While I thought I was seeking solace in a wizened old friend, I was playing squarely into the grooming tactics of a well-rehearsed predator.

I believe that as humans, we all have a deep-seated desire to be seen. We feel that there is something more we can offer the world, if only we had the means to let that part of us out. And I imagine this is particularly true of women, as we frequently have to prove ourselves as worthy and capable in ways that men do not. Colin Garland, pseudo spiritual leader, has found the perfect way to prey on young women and girls via this innate human condition. He fancies himself a shaman and uses his influence to create a harem of women to exercise his manipulation, abuse, and assault.

There are countless women who have had similar experiences with this wannabe cult leader. I am fortunate that my own did not escalate past this degree. Please consider the ties you have to this man and others who exhibit this behavior within your community.

 

A page has been set up as a platform for other victims and their supporters. Please share widely.

UPDATE: Another woman has written of her abuse at the hands of Colin Garland. TW – sexual assault

 

Note to self.

When he posts those kind of pictures –yes those ones— the kind you asked him not to, he is the person you were afraid he could be.

When he tells you to forget him and find someone new, only to punish you for weeks and weeks and months and months when you try to follow his advice, to relieve yourself of the heartache and ashes and rubble he has left behind, he is the person you hoped he was not.

When you are suffering and cannot leave your bed, researching lethal dosages of household medication, and he will not come — when you put down your best friend’s dog and are choking on your tears and you beg for him, but he refuses, he is not the person you loved.

When you plead for him to call you for some reason – any reason- except to feel your lips wrapped around his dick, and he resents you, gaslights you, he is poison.

He is not who you believe he might be.

He is not who you’re sure he could be.

There is nothing to read between the lines of,  “Are we ever going to get another guy?” and days of silence.

He is not your fantasy.

He is only what he does.

 

 

An Open Letter to Johnny’s Roadside Diner

To the Yee family:

My name is Marie Billiel. You have perhaps seen my name sprinkled in the local media throughout the last couple of years in correlation with the criticism and closing of the Route 9 Diner. I posted the original blog post Tales from the Diner that led to many other women sharing their own grisly experiences with the former staff and management during their employment. As I’m sure you know, the details we shared were so appalling that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office took notice. Because of the negative publicity,  the owners made the decision to close, thus allowing your family the opportunity to broaden your horizon within the Pioneer Valley’s restaurant scene.

I know well that the Route 9 Diner’s closing was a loss to the community. During my tenure there I grew to know and love many familiar faces: the many late-night fraternities and sororities who would stumble in at 4am and never seemed to know the size of their parties; the early morning regulars who listened with rapt attention to the goings on of my personal life; the elderly people who enjoyed the ease and comfort in the routine of eating lunch at the Route 9 Diner and taking their leftovers home for dinner.

Because of this, I have routinely championed the opening of Johnny’s Roadside Diner. I was grateful that the building would no longer stand vacant in the Stop n Shop Plaza as a reminder of its quick and sour ending. I was confident that your family would breathe new life into the tired old space.

It is because of this that I am concerned with a piece of information I was given recently. About a week ago the Attorney General’s case against the former owners and management of the Route 9 Diner once again made headlines. As with every bout of media attention, I received hateful messages from former coworkers. At this point  they have become less painful and I recognize that although they are sent my way from a place of anger and hurt I do not have to engage with them. However, one of these messages revealed something to me that makes me feel as though I would be neglecting my due diligence were I to ignore it: I learned that you have chosen to hire some of the former cooks of the Route 9 Diner.

As I’m sure you know, there are many public recitals of the atrocities we were subjected to by the Route 9’s cooks. Some of us were forced to show our tongue before being given our tables’ orders; were regularly accosted in the walk-in coolerand were pressured for dates and sexual favors. Of course, that’s hardly the tip of the iceberg.  It is because of this that I am admittedly uneasy about your decision to hire anyone in their former Back of House.

Allow me to make clear that I in no way attend this to be an attack on your business or your integrity. I do not claim to know who it is you opted to hire nor what your terms were. I was downright ecstatic when I learned that you hired some of the diner’s former waitresses. They were undeserving of the fallout caused in the aftermath of the Route 9 Diner’s closing and I was grateful they were able to once again find a place in that chrome community staple.

It is in this same vein that I must acknowledge that the cooks and dishwashers also experienced their own hardships with the sudden loss of their jobs. I am putting my faith, albeit hesitantly, in the idea that these men, though previously consistently inappropriate and sometimes predatory, have learned that this behavior is unacceptable. I trust that the change in management and corresponding shift in culture sees that the work environment is no longer a toxic and hostile one, but one of growth, opportunity, and safety.

I am leaving behind my dismay and anxiety in favor of hope.

Respectfully yours,

Marie Billiel.

What’s in a name?

Last month I received a comment from someone named Tara Kroes, the writer of The Traveling Waitress, letting me know that I was unintentionally stepping on her toes with the name of my blog, Adventures of a World-Traveling Waitress.

In truth, I was defensive. How could I change the name of the blog in which I had poured myself so openly and explicitly? But as much as I tried to ignore it, something Tara pointed out nagged at me: Adventures of a World-Traveling Waitress doesn’t really describe the content of this blog anymore. It has been over year since I have traveled; it has been at least two since I have written about it.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I am no longer a world-traveling waitress. I am a cafe manager who writes brutally honest pieces as a form of unapologetic feminist activism. I am a 20-something woman trying to reconcile an unstable upbringing by smashing stigmas about mental illness.  The light-heartedness of “World-Traveling Waitress” doesn’t suit me any longer.

So, then. What does?

 

Help me decide!

It Never Stops

Two things happened this month.

Two things happened  that reminded me that as much as I speak out, as much as I push back, as much as I try to stand my ground, my body does not belong to me. Indeed, my desires are often irrelevant and my pleasure decided for me. It seems I was created for consumption.

Unsurprisingly, one of these things happened at my job. The restaurant industry continues to be very successful in reminding women that we are mere objects to lust after and harass while breeding men to perpetuate this construct. The restaurant at which I work currently is one of the safest places I’ve been employed. Still, it has its flaws, and it is no exception to the standard Kitchen Culture, despite the owners’ best efforts.

I was confronted by one of the cooks in April. He glared at me out of the corner of his eye as he hunched his gaunt frame over itself to tie his shoe.

“So you’d really never go out with me?” he spat impatiently, as though this was a discussion we’d been having for hours.

What?” I asked, taken aback.

Chris continued his rant bitterly, explaining that he had asked around regarding the state of my romantic life and found displeasure in the results. I stood by and mumbled an apology to his rhetoric.

This interaction marred our relationship, which had previously been friendly, if a bit superficial. As his vitriol refused to wane, so did my discomfort. I was frustrated, not only by being the recipient of such unwarranted venom simply for having a life and relationships outside of my workplace, but by Chris’s manner of ascertaining the details of my life. Never did he speak to me about my feelings or ideas or aspirations or experiences. To him, I was not a sentient being, but a plaything that belonged to someone else.

Over the course of the next few weeks his anger did not subside; it reared its head when I checked my phone for texts or mentioned Matthew near him. But as Chris’s resentment refused to wane, so too did his unwelcome advances. For every scowl there was a plea: “I’ll be good to you. Come on. I’ll treat you right.” The irony was lost on him.

Soon his words and glances no longer satisfied him. One day he came up behind me and begged in earnest for me to allow him to grab my hips. His hands pinched the air as I quickly moved away and gave him a sharp, impatient, “No!” Not long after this incident I found myself trapped by the ice machine as he rubbed his ass on my waitressing apron to the beat of the song playing in the cafe. My threats were immediate and fierce. Still, as he ran to the other side of the kitchen, I was left alone by that ice machine, overtaken by my sense of powerlessness to these situations.

 

*

 

Last week I woke up next to my boyfriend. In the dim morning light our still-sleepy hands found each other’s bodies as we kissed the night from our lips. Slowly, but not without certainty, Matthew worked his way from my mouth, to my neck, to my breasts, and continued downward.

“No, babe. Not now,” I whispered.

“Why?”

Annoyed: “I don’t need to give you a reason.”

He looked hurt. Still, it was too early to have an in depth discussion about consent. I relented:

“Because I haven’t showered, I need to shave, and I don’t feel sexy right now.”

“That’s the reason?” He was skeptical. But after a pause, “I just wanted you to communicate with me, Marie.”

“I don’t need to communicate that to you! I don’t have to fucking explain why I’m saying no!”

Matthew rolled over, taken aback by my sudden fury. I sat for a moment, aware that his questioning stemmed from a place of naivete and not one of dominance or ill will.  I knew his eagerness and commitment to my pleasure and that this situation, poorly handled as it may have been, was a result of that. I sighed, softening a bit, as my hand traced the the curve of his back.

“Babe, listen. Here is my typical day:

I go to work, where I get harassed. I am leered at all day by my some of my coworkers. Then, I walk down the street and get catcalled and harassed in Central Square in Cambridge. Isn’t this supposed to be some sort of fucking liberal bastion?

Next, I go home, and my own boyfriend doesn’t want to take no for an answer. Tell me: when do I get to have autonomy over my own body? When?!

He turned to me, his brown eyes wide and intense, “You do!”

“Do I? Then why should your desires override my consent to my body?”

Pause.

Regret filled his eyes and his apologies were the heartfelt words of someone who has gained new understanding. He laced his fingers through mine as he voiced his last concern, “But babe, that stuff about work? I thought that had stopped.”

It wasn’t often that I spoke to him of the harassment I encountered at work and on the street. The days I came to him, sputtering stories of encounters I had, were the days that I had reached the end of my patience and could no longer ignore it.

“No, Matthew, it never stops.”

 

 

Apparently I’m writing a series on sexual harassment. Bummer.

Related:

Fea

Tales from the Diner

Kitchen Culture: Why I won’t Stop Talking about the Route 9 Diner