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Vol 2-1
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Lies, Secrets and Silence, Oh My!

Starting from Where We Are

It's been 25 years since I read B.F. Skinner's utopian novel, Walden Two. I've forgotten most of the theory he was pushing. But I still remember one telling moment. While giving a visitor the standard tour, the founder looks with longing and anger at a woman who's obviously interested in someone else. The visitor is startled by such jealousy, so out of place in this evolved society. The founder says something like, "What do you expect? I started the place, but I wasn't born here."

Remaking as Best We Can
As women, as feminists, as witches, we weren't born into the world we want to live in, though we started remaking consensual reality as soon as we could. Of necessity, it's been a patchwork effort. No wonder we have:

  • conflict transformation skills and cruel feuds
  • best friends we never see any more
  • organizations built with passionate commitment and abandoned in smithereens.

I've spent my fair share of time stumbling around the ruins of this or that group, wondering what happened. It was a strange relief to find the literature about hidden patterns of aggression in girls, and to perceive that those patterns are repeated as trashing among women. (See "Imperfect Love, Imperfect Trust" in the Lammas issue of Matrifocus.) Finally, some puzzling and hurtful experiences had a meaningful context. In fact, the girl-group patterns hit me somewhat as feminism did, then lesbianism, then eventually the craft: "Aahh, that makes sense. That's what was missing."

Ideas do change lives -- our lives are the proof of that. But an idea isn't an instruction manual. The hard part has always been figuring out what to do with the idea, day by day. I've been trying to come up with some practical ways to use these insights about girl-groups -- not just to understand the past, but to take small steps toward a healthier future.

Running, Shunning, and Boundaries
"Lying is done with words, and also with silence," Adrienne Rich wrote.* This is girl-group behavior in a nutshell.

An honorable human relationship -- that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word 'love' -- is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

This truth-telling is not the emotional striptease, the baring of the heart as a ritualized signal of vulnerability, that some girls and some girl-groups require of new "friends." Rich is speaking of the true peril and potential of friendship, with nobody knowing how it will turn out.

The fear of that risk underlies a lot of girl-group behavior. Over and over, the researchers quote girls as saying it's too dangerous to confront directly, to be honest (especially about hurt feelings), when the truth could end the relationship. A girl's world is her relationships, the researchers say, so the danger is great.

Not true for every girl, or every woman. There are solitaries, in and out of the craft. But those of us who are drawn to community can risk losing that community if we tell too much truth within it. Paradoxically, if we don't tell enough truth, we wind up not really being present in the community, hiding isolation at the core.

These risks give rise to a whole set of cruel subterfuges. Consider the statements that begin, "I feel I ought to tell you," or "It's only fair that you should know…" or the ever-popular "That's not what she told me…." The speaker may be making a praiseworthy effort to bridge the gap between two people, let a little more information flow between them. But even if her motives are ethical, does that hold true for the originator of the message? There's no way to tell, since more than half the meaning we absorb comes through nonverbal channels, which may be interpreted but can't be repeated. The best-intentioned middle-woman can't help muddling the message.

Yet we do so love to talk with each other about each other. It's the glue of community, as well as the solvent. The best course, probably, is to refuse to be middle-woman.

An Interruption: Getting Some Practice
I had just typed that sentence when the phone rang. A woman (let's call her Ann) wanted me to repeat what a woman (let's call her Bee) had said about her in her absence. I confirmed that Ann and Bee had spoken directly, and suggested that Ann talk more with Bee if she needed to know more. I said that as a listener I couldn't help screwing it up if I tried to quote. Ann seemed frustrated as she hung up, and I wondered she would interpret my refusal as part of a Bee-led conspiracy, instead of my individual effort to stay out of girl-group behavior.

This time, it wasn't a hard decision for me. But these situations can be horribly complicated:

  1. What if Ann sounds unbalanced and makes threats aimed at Bee? Is it my responsibility to warn Bee?
  2. What if Ann's my inmost friend and I can't stand Bee? Or vice versa?
  3. What if I know Bee's telling Ann one thing and the rest of us another?
  4. What if I know Bee's right, but Ann's in no condition to hear it?
  5. What if Bee is saying what we all know but haven't had the courage to tell Ann?

Eeeeek. If I stay out of absolutely everything, I'm staying out of community. But if I get into any part of the abovementioned mess, I run the risk of causing more trouble, more anger, more side-taking. No matter what I do, I run the risk of Ann and Bee deciding I'm the one who caused the trouble between them. Such situations lead comparative strangers to write each other off because of what one heard about how the other acted toward Ann (or Bee) that time.

And meanwhile, there's a lot of work and play and magic the world needs, and we're distracted from whatever we'd been doing about that. We're cut off from some of the people who are our natural allies. We're wasting our time and breaking our hearts and chasing healthy productive people away from our community because there's too much psychodrama. Eeeeek, indeed.

Telling as Much Truth as You Can
It's awful to speak your truth and be ostracized, so there's a huge incentive to speak the acceptable lie. It's also awful to be afraid to speak your truth to the people you're closest to. The dissonance between "these are my most trusted friends" and "I don't dare tell them" is too hard to maintain -- so some of us manage to forget our own, unspoken truth, and lie convincingly to ourselves, making it impossible for any challenge to reach us. We can withdraw energy from someone when her reality is too far out of sync with our own. We may make this choice privately, reluctantly, grieving, after many attempts to come into harmony. Or in a righteous buzz we may spread the word, get everybody involved in a shunning.

As somebody once said, argument is only possible between people who are in 80% agreement. But when we identify as feminists and witches, surely we are in 80% agreement. This may explain the bitterness of our arguments, but it also suggests that we are in our natural community and we'd better learn how to live here, even though we weren't born here.

Relearning Reality
Girl-group aggression and its adult counterpart are all about projection, misunderstanding, manipulation, malice… and lousy communication skills. These patterns have grown up as a survival strategy in a nowhere-near-utopian culture. The best solution would be the benign and sudden end of sexism, racism, classism, looksism, and all the other isms that express our species' habits of us/them perception. Even if that happened (okay, I enjoy science fiction), we'd still have to relearn to perceive ourselves.

Short of alien intervention or homegrown apocalypse, we have to remake our consensual reality the old-fashioned way: attention, intention, and action, person by person, day by day. But how do we do that?

Refuse to play the girl-group game. This approach requires consistency over time (not to say stubborn will, armadillo hide, and a gift for solitary replenishment). Don't listen, don't repeat, don't mediate, don't interpret. Don't defend yourself when you're a target; reject the rules. Keep listening to yourself, and do what you believe is good. Depending on the community, you may be considered a woman of honor, an eccentric, or a hermit.

Push the envelope. Let everybody know that you always repeat everything and name your sources. When a woman is speaking maliciously, write everything down, including her sources, get her to sign it, and give it only to her target. When a woman tells different versions of the truth to different people for reasons of manipulation or malice, gather them all together and ask her to tell the story again, or publish all the versions to all the participants. Depending on the community, you may be considered a woman of honor, a lunatic, or a defendant.

Really considering either of those extremes makes the little hairs rise up on the back of my neck.

Get better tools. Commit, in your friendships and your organizations, to use conflict transformation techniques when problems arise. Learn the techniques, then do your part when it's needed.

When a friendship, lovership, or organization breaks up, encourage each person to find a confidante who's willing to hear everything without judgment, pass nothing on, and allow the person to change her opinion by the minute. And here's the hardest part: If you're not one of the confidantes, don't pry for details.

Consider picking up a vocabulary that actually helps you think about these issues. English is a lousy language to express our reality. We have "friend," "best friend," "close friend," "old friend," "just friend." But how much help are these distinctions when we're trying to understand what's going on in a relationship? (At Imbolc, I'll write about a language invented by a woman to reflect women's realities.)

The simplest, hardest approach comes from Adrienne Rich's words a quarter-century ago: "When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her." The effect is concentric and, I believe, limitless. We weren't born to it, and most of us were raised otherwise, but the more of it we manage, the more our reality will transform.

* "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," spoken by Adrienne Rich at the Hartwick Women Writer's Workshop, 1975; published as a pamphlet by Motheroot Press, Pittsburgh,1977; published in Heresies: A Feminist Magazine of Art and Politics, vol. 1, no. 1, 1979; published in French by the Québecois feminist press, Les Editions du Remue-Ménage, 1979; and published in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1979.

Graphics Credits
+ Lies, Secrets and Silence, Oh My, Mini Pics Little Critters (font) graphically enhanced by Sage Starwalker
+ See, Hear & Speak No Evil, "Have You Heard," Woman at Wit's End, Armadillo and "Taking Notes", courtesy of Microsoft Design Gallery Live
Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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