Attachment Erasure: Identified through Relationships with Men

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“This is X, she is Y’s [sister/ daughter/ girlfriend/ wife/ ex-wife/ former lover/ colleague/ barista].”

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“Oh, I know you—you’re Y’s [sister/ daughter/ girlfriend…].”

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“Who’s that?”
“Oh, that’s Y’s [sister/ daughter/ girlfriend…].”
“I mean, what is her name?”
“Oh. X.”

 

In a climate wherein men are still implored to care about women through the lens of their relationships, women remain fractional. Still not whole, not people. This mode of thinking is pervasive and robs the individual woman of her autonomy. Effectively, it is erasure by attachment.

I understand that we naturally strive to find connections when meeting new people. We are curious to learn how we all came to be in the same space for the same event and share similar interests. I do it myself—I find it helpful at conferences and other large gatherings where there are more new people than my brain can rightfully parse. I get it. Association is a learning technique.

Yes, we’ve all been someone’s sixth degree of separation, but this is different. It runs deeper. This is a systemic worldview. Or, un-view. A denial of individuality. Consider this: When you’ve been introduced to a man, has the person making the introduction ever revealed—in that moment, in his presence—who the man used to be sexually involved with? Or emphasized his wife’s profession instead of his own? Or imparted his sister’s position on the board of a given firm? I have not seen this, but it routinely happens when I am introduced to women. So often that, though we might exchange a glance, we dismiss it as acceptable.

Recently remarried, I am continually reminded how frequently such erasure happens in traditionally binary marital partnerships. People regularly address my husband instead of me—both in my absence and my presence (i.e., they respond to him when I ask a question, ask his permission to hug or otherwise greet me, apologize to him after offending me, etc.). Most cab drivers acknowledge only him—even when I’m the one who gives directions or pays the fare. At restaurants, hosts greet him first—even when it’s my name on the reservation, and wait staff offer him the tasting wine—even when I’ve placed the wine order (and despite his glass of whiskey). It is a constant invisibility. Often one of us will make a comment or otherwise call it out, but honestly, I tire of needing to do so.

Imagine this: You have published two books. You’ve performed and facilitated workshops across North America. You’ve won a few literary awards, you’ve been nominated for others. You do the work. You produce. You’re smart. You’re dedicated. You’re generous. You’re YOU. But still—you are introduced or recognized through a filter of men with whom you’ve been associated in one way or another. You studied with professor A. You were roommates with B. You were in theatre with C. You succeeded D. Your father is E. Your ex-husband is F, Esq. Or, my favorite, you used to have sex with E. When it is this ubiquitous it is no longer about degrees of separation but about a fundamental negation of worth.

I recently fell upon a quote from playwright Henrik Ibsen in regard to his play, Hedda Gabler, titled for its dangerously flawed and powerful protagonist. Throughout my years in theatre, I understood Hedda to be one of the most compelling women in literature, and a pinnacle role for women actors. She was dangerous, deceitful, jealous, and immoral—but powerful, fully self-actualized. As such, and by her mere existence as protagonist, I perceived the text as a rather feminist work for its time. However, when I came across Ibsen’s summation, I felt foolish:

“The title of the play,” wrote Ibsen in a letter, “is Hedda Gabler [rather than ‘Hedda Tesman’—her husband's name]. I intended to indicate thereby that as a personality she is to be regarded rather as her father’s daughter than as her husband’s wife.”

Arguably, Ibsen was establishing Hedda’s independence, but—inarguably—he still stripped her of it by identifying her only through relationships with men. Here, one of the most powerful female characters ever written and even the author himself could not conceive of her as autonomous.

Further to all this is the greater toll of being erased by attachment to men who have caused us trauma. Once, when I was director of a poetry reading series in New York City, a position I had held for several years, upon meeting a young man, he said, “I know you, you used to date my coach, [Z]!” He identified me not by my name or my role, not by my work as writer or organizer, not even by my longstanding association with the poetry community as a whole—but through a man I had only briefly dated. And who, unbeknownst to the young man, had raped me. Because I knew he was unaware, I omitted the matter of assault when I confronted him—though I was not impervious to the hurt it sparked. I hoped that he might learn to do better—he apologized, but I sensed he still misunderstood—seemed he felt it was about my ego, not his slight.

Further still, when people become aware of such abuse, their perspective of the survivor often shifts. The survivor’s identity becomes abridged. Rather, they are branded. In recent years, I have been routinely contacted for interviews or panels or dialogue as Z’s victim. Not as series director, survivor advocate, feminist, thinker, writer, rule-changer, noise-maker—but Z’s victim. It’s still erasure-by-attachment, but now—salt in the wound—attachment to HIM. Personal merits evaporated and I have been whittled down to a singular, ruthless moment. Even less than E’s daughter or D’s successor, for many I have become, in total sum, Z’s damage.

I would ask us all for vigilance. Stamina. Let’s work to eliminate attachment erasure in our own interactions and point it out when engaging with others—even when we are our most tired. Be conscious of the possibility of unknowable hurts (which is really just civility). Be aware of who you see and why—and who might be invisible beside them. I am discouraged when I still can’t execute simple social transactions without being rendered invisible. I am discouraged to understand that while I—one who bears a host of variable privileges—can go unseen, there are multitudes of more marginalized people struggling against more vast erasures. Let’s do better.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

New York, NY

JEANANN VERLEE is author of two books: Said the Manic to the Muse and Racing Hummingbirds, winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal in poetry. She has also been awarded the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry. Her work appears in failbetter, Rattle, Adroit, and BuzzFeed, among others. Verlee wears polka dots and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her at jeanannverlee.com.

JEANANN VERLEE is an author, performance poet, editor, and former punk rocker based in New York City.

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