When Harassment is Closer to Home

By Kelly Swartz

For the past year, I have watched the #MeToo movement get stronger and angrier. I have been part of it because of the simple fact that I was born a woman. I have gone back in time to identify the acts of assault and harassment I have been the victim of, counted and recounted them, de-normalized them.

house_womensmarchcanada_twitter.pngBut I’ve always looked outside, to the men who wanted to hurt me, who didn’t see me as anything but a piece of meat. I never looked inside, to the men closest to me—to my family.

(To be clear, I am not a victim of sexual abuse by a family member, so that’s not what this story is about.)

I was brought up in a loving, modern orthodox Jewish family with very clear values. I am and have been a victim of harassment by my patriarchal family for as long as I can remember.

I have long denied that fact, because my protests have always been dismissed. Whenever I complain or react to aggressive behavior towards me, the reaction from male and female family members alike includes: “You’re crazy,” “You’re too dramatic,” “You’re overreacting,” “He didn’t mean it that way,” “Just don’t react,” “Didn’t you provoke him?” and finally, “You are too sensitive.”

But, am I too sensitive?

I am sensitive, proudly so, because it allows me to be the kind, empathetic human that I am. But, am I too sensitive?

I grew up with three brothers. They always thought I was less than them because I was female. They were brought up that way. Growing up the eldest were allowed to talk about my body, the fullness of my thighs, the roundness of my butt, the amount of body hair I displayed (and how I would need a wax factory for its effective removal), and my flat-chestedness (I developed later than they expected me to) in a very critical and aggressive manner.

I was ashamed of the body they kept talking about. I hid my full thighs and round butt inside oversized skirts, I hid my flat chest inside XXL t-shirts; and then they criticized the clothing, calling it a tent.

They also thought it was perfectly normal to slap or pinch my rump, because I was just their sister and as such, in a subconscious patriarchal way, they owned me.

My mother is a wonderful human I am grateful to for giving me the wings she was never allowed to have, but she didn’t think this behaviour was so bad, or only tried to stop it in a half-hearted kind of way. She was a lukewarm feminist who did her best within the straitjacket of the patriarchy she was born into.

So her blindness to see how problematic this behaviour is, to actually see what has been going on forever, well, it’s been imposed on her since her childhood.

My father wasn’t around very long during my upbringing and when he was, this whole situation seemed normal to him. I should have just buckled up and taken it, as I have because that’s just the way things are.

One of those brothers has never ceased to talk about my body.  I am currently pregnant with my third child and he keeps harassing me about how many more children I will be having and how I can reach a half dozen if I just hurry up. Because, you know, the only thing that actually gives validity to my existence is my capacity to reproduce. (Oh Handmaid’s Tale, not so far off from the real patriarchy.)

He’s just joking

Does he mean ill? My mother would say he doesn’t. He’s just joking. I shouldn’t react. Especially now, because I’m too sensitive, and oh, did I mention I’m pregnant? So any sort of reaction I can have to his comments are invalidated by my existence itself.

I was brought up to be educated and somewhat self-reliant, but that marriage and reproduction was the ultimate goal. The pressure to look and act a certain way so as not to ‘scare the good matches away’ was a constant pressure on my back.

I broke free, I chose a different path, and yes, that path took me to the man I love and to have children with him, not because that is the only thing I can do in life, but because I chose to do so. I am also a published author and the founder of my own company.

Anyway, I digress.

This whole post came to fruition after a very disappointing family vacation. My mother has the illusion that her three remaining children will enjoy each other’s company and that their children will grow to love each other, as they are so close in age.

I have a daughter who isn’t even three years old. She is a spectacular human being. She is absolutely incredible. And somehow, genetics, chance, or pure, wonderful luck, gave me a daughter who is extremely similar to me. We look very much the same and our personalities are exceptionally close.

That week of vacation, anytime my toddler acted out my brother would turn to me with a glint in his eyes, point a finger and say, “Karma...” The first 30 times I ignored it, until I didn’t anymore.

I got a gift

Perhaps it is karma in the most wonderful way. I got a gift, I get to raise my daughter the way I wished I had been raised, I get to give her the things I felt were lacking. I get to teach her and her brother that they are the same, and can be the same, regardless of gender.

But he doesn’t see it that way. He has always seen me as less than a person. After all, I am female. After all, I am his sister and I am not even worth a very sick camel to marry me off, as he used to joke.

When he says “karma,” pointing out difficult behaviour of a toddler who is acting out after four days of a very bad fever, he means, “You deserve this!” In his eyes, I was not a great child or teenager, so I deserve the worst, and hey, since my daughter is such a mirror of me, then she is the worst. Karma!

Oh, but I am too sensitive, he didn’t mean it that way…? Did he?

Hasn’t he been diminishing my every action, every word, every friendship, every fashion selection and my body for as long as I can remember?

I know he loves me

I love my brother. And I know he loves me. I know he is a good, decent man. I have sought out his approval and his friendship for as long as I can remember, without any fulfilment. And yes, he has been a good brother in many ways; he’s always had my back, to a certain degree.

He has also been a terrible company to have my entire life. It’s really hard to grow up with someone that makes you feel like less, all the time. I don’t think I have ever felt he respects me as a person.

When I was thinking about writing this piece I thought, maybe I am being too dramatic, maybe I am exaggerating. When you hear something so many times, you start to believe it. So, not only has my existence been invalidated, but also all of my feelings and thoughts.

My brother feels he has the right to talk about my body, my reproduction, my actions and yes, how badly it will go for me when my daughter becomes a teenager since I was a terrible one, and she is so like me. Yes, he has every right to talk about it all because, you know, he is a man. And he can judge and make claims and have all the truth because as a man he has the power of the narrative.

The last few times he said, “Karma,” I told him he has had his share of karma since he has two very girly daughters and he is a misogynist. He took it badly and felt it was an attack on my part, not a reaction to his constant attacks.

He probably doesn’t see himself as a misogynist, since he most respects the other women that surround him. He would never talk to any other woman the way he talks to me, not to a colleague or a friend, to an acquaintance and probably not to his other closest relatives, his cousins.

It only takes one

But he does talk to me this way and he always has. How can he not be a misogynist when he has never respected his sister, purely because of her gender? You don’t need to treat us all badly to be sexist, to be a misogynist—it only takes one.

You see, #MeToo is not only about what happens outside or in relationships with men that come into our lives, I believe it is even closer and more harmful when we are blind to see the pain and harm that our siblings, fathers, uncles, grandfathers cause us.

It saddens me to think that if ever this writing fell into his hands he would not understand since this has been his way his whole life. This has always been the manner. #MeToo is about changing the “way things have always been”.

It saddens me to think that if ever my mother read this she would also not understand and assign blame, as per usual, to the victim. Because I overreacted. Because I was too sensitive. Because he never meant to…

#MeToo speaks to how much of a person I am seen as in a modern Jewish family, in a loving family that sticks together through thick and thin but doesn’t place the same value on all the genders.

Because it’s not only his actions and words that harm but the justification of them by the rest of the family.

He didn’t mean it that way, it’s just the way it is, it’s just his sense of humour, don’t take it so personally.

Showing 11 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.