Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Writers’ group

2018 . 07 . 19 - Comments / Commentaires (9)

CONTENT WARNING: sexual violence described in this essay.

He smiled at me. In response, my brain flashed a warning. Based on what? I couldn’t say. I’d never met this guy, so there was no reason to be wary of him. After a beat, I smiled back at him, berating myself for making a snap judgment.

He took the seat next to mine at the table, taking out papers and arranging them carefully, the nervous energy of a writer who was going to be reading that day. Then he turned to me, smiled at me again, and stuck out his hand. “I’m Frank.”

“Gwenn,” I said, shaking his cold old-man hand. The freezing flesh brought me back to my summer spent volunteering at a retirement home, and all the cold old-man hands that had touched me. It wasn’t poor circulation that was motivating those residents to grab my warm 16 year old thighs.

The meeting began as usual: announcements followed by rules for engagement. Writers were invited to share a 1000-word text, and the rest of the group would give feedback on the delivery only, not the content of the text—a rule that was mostly ignored as people enjoyed commenting on each other’s work in a more personal manner.

The first few texts were the routine mixture of first-person narratives, mafia movie rip-offs, and chapters of novels-in-progress. When we got to Frank, it seemed at first that it would be more of the same. He was telling of his adolescence in Jersey in the 1950s, spent mostly with mob-types at a bar. But his memoir quickly veered into the crass, with detailed descriptions of women’s anatomy piled onto confessions of sexual fantasies.

Still, the grossest part wasn’t even the words Frank was reading. It was the pleasure he obviously felt at forcing all of us to listen. In particular, it was the little smile that brightened his voice as he told the story of the tough guys who had all gotten together in the kitchen to jerk off into the alfredo sauce and then serve the pasta to their unsuspecting girlfriends.

His text had departed so thoroughly from the group’s typical fare that I was certain the table would erupt in disgust as soon as the comment period began. Instead, I listened as, one after the other, participants gave Frank variations on the “it’s well written” theme.

The only participant who spoke up was my friend Hope: “I wouldn’t want to be one of those guys’ girlfriends.”

woman's back

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on panel
10 x 10 inches
(To see a video of the making of this piece, go here.)

When it was my turn, I explained to Frank that he’d described sexual violence, making sure that he understood that the forced ingestion of body fluid is violence. And, I continued that, while there may be an audience for this work, I definitely wasn’t it, and I doubted that many of the people here were either. I said he should warn people before reading something sexually violent. I went on at some length. I was in shock, though I couldn’t tell you what shocked me more: Frank’s reading or the embarrassed passivity of the other participants.

The whole experience soured me on the group, and I gave up going for the most part, but Frank didn’t disappear from my life. Far from it. He’s friends with my in-laws and he goes to their church, so I run into him more than I’d like.

At every encounter, I think of the first time he smiled at me and of my reaction to it. I think of how society has trained me to put aside my intuition. I think of how that puts me in danger.

- Someone left their hand on my lap. Does anyone know who it belongs to?
- Free speech / La liberté d’expression
- Irreversible

CATEGORIES: - English - Feminism - Philosophy -

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(9) Comments / Commentaires: Writers’ group

-- libby fife -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --


That is a rather disgusting bit of writing that the man read to the group. And people gave him positive criticism for good writing? Incredible. I certainly don’t believe in censorship but really, there should have been some sort of warning given to the group prior to the reading. Who knows the history of anyone present in that group and whether that story might be some sort of “trigger”?

And you are very right to trust your instincts. It’s fine to give people a chance but it’s important too to pay attention to any undercurrents that you may feel.

Yuck on all levels!

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-- Cathy Hasty -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --

What a yuck experience for you and for the group.  You pay a price for being fierce and the world benefits from your sacrifice of the comfort that others chose.  Fierceness can be defined as anger that has been redeemed from a sole self focus to a determination to seek justice.  I chose my own battles and try to use my fierce energy as much as possible.  In a workshop someone defined compassion as a combination of tenderness, fierceness and mischievousness.  I have seen all three in you and cherish your reflections.  I love the portrait.

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --

@Libby: Ya, I felt a little betrayed by the rest of the group. I still do. But then I also live in a pretty “red” part of the country where people seem to think that free speech means you can say anything you want AND people have to listen to you or they’re violating your right to free speech. They don’t understand that the right to free speech is about the government not stopping you from saying what you want to say and nothing else…

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --

@Cathy: Tenderness, fierceness, and a dollop of mischief! That’s a good goal for any life! <3

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-- Stacey -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --

Thanks for speaking up. I know what it’s like to be a lone voice in a room full of people, pointing out things like sexual violence. It’s exhausting, and we shouldn’t ever have to do it alone. The other men in that room failed their duty that day (and that other day,) by their passive and active participation in sexual violence. Why is it always women, women identified and nb people who have to call it out? I’m so tired of always being alert for myself and a protector for my tribe of women.

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-- Lillian -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --

There’s a book that your story reminded me of called The Gift of Fear: Survival Signsls That Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker.  Very good book that stresses listening to your gut…ALWAYS.

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-- Michelle -- 2018 . 07 . 19 --

I applaud you for standing up to that man in front of a group of passive bystanders. That took a lot of courage on your part and I wish more people (including myself) were that courageous. I love that last 2 lines “I think of how society has trained me to put aside my intuition. I think of how it puts me in danger.” It’s so true. There have been many times I felt uncomfortable around someone for whatever reason, but was more afraid of coming off as rude than I was for my own comfort or safety. It must have felt pretty good to speak your mind to him that way.

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-- Lynette Yencho -- 2018 . 07 . 20 --

Might I say your take on it was well written! And you are right on.  If he needed to go into the depths like that, should warn others.  Rather, he used his passive-aggressive skills to entertain himself at other’s expense. Like…rape.

Love the art, as always

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 07 . 23 --

@Stacey: I watched a white man explain to another white man why the Black Lives Matter movement is important the other day. It gave me hope for men and especially white ones! But that sort of thing is definitely not common enough…

@Lillian: Thanks for the recommendation! I’m pretty sure I read it a few years back. It might be worth looking at again.

@Michelle: It did feel good! But we really do walk a fine line. Being seen as “rude” can also escalate things in potentially dangerous ways, so it can be hard to know when it’s safe to stand up. For example, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when I get honked at and catcalled in the winter time. I live year-round in a summer vacation community, so 90% of homes are vacant in the winter and walking down the street you are very much alone with your attacker when it’s not summer. I hate not giving these people the finger, but I’ve had a few too many aggressive encounters to feel safe doing anything but ignoring them anymore…

@Lynette: Thank you! I am grateful for what I did learn about writing from the group. smile

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