In Retrospect I Realize – Cassidy Grady

Dear Mom,

This is both a confession and an apology. I was about eleven when you found out dad was cheating on you, right? Yeah, I think I was about eleven. Anyways, I found out about Meaghan before he confessed it to you–or was forced to confess it to you–once you confronted him about the late night calls you saw on the phone bill. That was my first big secret. You gave me the child-appropriate explanation (or as close as a hurt mother can get to a child-appropriate explanation of her husband’s infidelity to their daughter) of why dad was going to live with his parents for a little while. I feigned ignorance. That was my first big lie.
You see, weeks earlier, I was sneaking around the house late at night, as I often did, for no reason but to feel the thrill of not being asleep when I was supposed to be asleep. This allowed me to feel like an outsider in my own home, which I enjoyed. There was something so exciting about it. It felt like an adventure, almost like I was in a different place, as if my bed were some sort of portal that transported me once everyone else was asleep; there was something almost magical about it, about feeling like an intruder. I was always obsessed with the idea of intrusion. Did you know that I used to lie awake thinking about what I would do if somebody broke into our house in the middle of the night? I used to think about how if I heard an intruder coming in, I would go into the guest bedroom (the one that was my nursery), wiggle down the laundry chute which lead to the laundry room which was attached to the garage, slip out the garage door, then run to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to dial 9-1-1 and save our family. Anyways, like I was saying, I was obsessed with intrusion, and sneaking around made me feel like an intruder, so I’d do it sometimes.

Once, on one of those nights when dad got home at, like, four in the morning after being out with his friends, I was sneaking around. I’m not sure why, but I had the urge to look at his cell phone–maybe it was simply because it lit up as I was crawling around the living room where he was passed out on the couch. It was 4:30 in the morning and he got a text. Weird. I knew his passcode from looking over his shoulder as he typed it in, not because I cared what was on my dad’s cell phone, but because I have always enjoyed collecting information. Anyways, the message was from an unsaved number, and the texts were always late at night, and used a bunch of flirty emojis, and I only scrolled for a few seconds–for some reason my curiosity ceased. It’s funny… I got my hands on something truly interesting, but it didn’t take long for me to put the phone down. I wasn’t collecting details, I was collecting stories. I already understood this story.

I’m sorry I never told you that dad was cheating on you. It’s weird, I didn’t really think about it after that. It wasn’t something that ate at me–perhaps it should have. I’m also sorry that, when you found out, I still never told you I already knew. I even remember being so mad that I Facebook messaged Meaghan. I called her a fat whore homewrecker, which was the meanest thing I had ever unabashedly said to anyone at the time–Grandma helped me type out the message. Through all of this, nobody knew I already knew. Granted, I didn’t know she was fat. Anyways, since then, I’ve been addicted to lying. I have become addicted to the feeling of knowing things that others don’t, because it doesn’t think other brains will see the pieces of the puzzle the way mine does, they will distort the image, so for the sake of the image I keep it to myself. It feels very good. I was so good at lying that I was able to create a hierarchy of lies and choose which low-stakes lies to be a bad liar about. You always said I was such a bad liar, you really believed that I was.

I’ve ironically told my boyfriend that I could easily cancel him without even lying. Like, I wouldn’t need to lie, I could just word things in a particular way to make it seem like he did something wrong. It wouldn’t be difficult. “I realize in retrospect that I was coerced into the sexual interactions.” “There was a power imbalance that made it impossible for me to truly consent.” Of course, I don’t actually believe any of these narratives, but they are narratives that I could definitely convince people of if I wanted to–enough people, at least. Could I ruin his life? Maybe not. But I could get a significant amount of people to agree with me, enough that it would, at the very least, become an inconvenience for him. He’s about a decade older than me, and successful. That’s enough for me to feign victimhood.

What I’m getting at is… (1) A lot of women had untold stories and we finally created a framework through which they could be shared. (2) We have created a framework through which women are able to retrospectively reunderstand a situation to their advantage if they want to. Both can be true. I guess I know that both can be true because I am a woman and I know that I have the ability to lie, not even outright lie, but tell a story in a way that makes me seem like a victim of a situation that I never felt like a victim of until I wanted to. It’s possible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “manipulation.” What’s funny about manipulation is that it’s something we are all constantly doing: manipulating. Are we not constantly working towards desired outcomes for the situations we find (and put) ourselves in? Are we not doing and saying the things that we do and say so that people have the interpretation of us that we prefer that they have? Is all of this not a form of manipulation? “Manipulator” is on the list of terms and phrases (along with “racist,” “abuser,” “sexual harassment,” etc.) that make you feel a pit in your stomach when you’re even remotely associated with them–why? Because there’s no way to logically defend yourself against these claims, and there is nothing more anxiety-inducing than being villainized without having any ability whatsoever to defend yourself. You are guilty until proven innocent, and the innocence becomes increasingly difficult to prove.

Manipulation–definitely one of those words that is used in retrospect. “They manipulated me into sleeping with them.” But is that not what flirting is? Where is the line, in the moment, between flirting and manipulation? Flirting is simply flirting until someone feels wronged or sees an opportunity to feel wronged, at which point the flirting, in retrospect, was actually manipulation. Flirting with your boss and fucking your boss was initiated by you and was all fun and games until you felt wronged, probably for something completely unrelated, and saw an opportunity, and then the situation, in retrospect, was not actually consent, there was a power imbalance. There is a hyper-obsession with “consent,” with this very black and white, almost academic version of consent, where “yes,” the magic word “yes,” is a “yes,” and anything short of a verbal “yes” is possibly the R word. There is, then, an elimination of any sort of ambiguity without evoking anxiety.

(Ironically, is it not easier to take advantage of someone when things are forced into this completely utilitarian binary? When yes-means-yes, as soon as yes is said–begrudgingly, as many a woman including myself have said yes to sex, while my body is saying no no no no no–but the responsibility to read body language, to read between the lines, disappears. The box has been checked off… but I digress).

This check-off-the-box mentality has both given birth to and been perpetuated by dating app culture–a swipe is a swipe, a swipe is, in a way, a form of consent, or at least step towards a sterilized version of consent. When people go on a dating app date, there is already a preconceived level of interest. It eliminates the moment of ambiguity, the (in my humble opinion) most fun, most erotic moment: wait… are we flirting right now? Is that what’s happening? Of course, a priori consent is a safer option, especially for the ostensibly “dominant” party, the one who could get in trouble for making the wrong move. But with “safety” comes its consequences: we’re killing a certain sensuality in the process–that moment of ambiguity is where eroticism is born, where it festers. As it becomes less and less acceptable to hit on people in “real life,” that moment is becoming more and more antiquated; the “falling in love at first sight when we make eye contact from across the coffee-shop” trope almost feels like something of history, something you would only read in a novel that doesn’t take place today. There is an anxiety surrounding an embodied flirtation–a learned anxiety, not an inherent anxiety–and there is a neurosis surrounding each and every sexual interaction. Women are taught to analyze each and every sexual interaction with the question: am I ceding power? Men are taught to analyze each and every sexual interaction with the question: am I exercising too much power? The result is that people who are actually having sex are entering sex situations thinking about power more than ever (therefore the power narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy), all the while most people are never actually fucking (the neurosis and anxiety surrounding sexual interactions become so pervasive that it doesn’t feel worth it). But as it is the body’s instinct to desire, cutting ourselves off from that is not only incredibly boring, but psychologically damaging, dehumanizing, disembodying–as a result, we are inhabiting a subliminal inhuman space wearing puffy, repressed, Pillsbury-DoughBoy-style human skin suits. It’s really not hot.

So I guess the question is: now what? How do we eliminate that latent anxiety that is counterproductive for everyone involved? Is ambiguity possible without manipulation, but furthermore, is manipulation always bad? Is it fair to say that sometimes the things we realize in retrospect are worth self-assessment, but do not need to become a socially supported, normalized truth? What are the implications of being able to “realize something in retrospect,” especially something punitive? Anxiety is not a feeling, it’s a state. It’s a neutralizing state that cuts off feelings, cuts off sensation. Fear and anxiety are not the same, fear is a productive feeling. Being scared is good, being scared invokes the fight or flight response, it’s visceral. Fear leads to action, anxiety leads to inaction. Right now, people are very anxious, and the collective sense of anxiety is simply taking atomization and turning up the reverb on it (not just the volume, you can feel it in your chest). Fear is butterflies in your stomach when you want to talk to a cute girl at a bar; anxiety is freezing in place because you see the horror stories in your head before they even happen–then you (at best) open Hinge on your phone or (at worst) go home and masturbate. What I will emphasize one more time is this: I’m not saying men aren’t creepy at bars; I’m saying that the current narrative is making it much worse for everyone.

Much of the problem lies in the ability to punish in retrospect. As long as we are able to decide after-the-fact that something was more cruel or more wrong or more unjust than we “realized,” and that claim can give us the power to punish, people will live in fear of their actions, and they will close each other off as a defense mechanism, and anxiety (atomization’s favorite weapon) will win. There were things to learn, and they were learned. That means that men became (for better or for worse) aware of a certain “power imbalance”–but women learned as well. Women have the prerogative to use sensuality to their advantage. This is a prerogative they have always had. But I think it is too late to feign ignorance about using this, we have learned too much to be able to claim that we “realize in retrospect we were taken advantage of,” and this is important because if you don’t have responsibility you don’t have agency. I think that’s what a lot of women don’t realize, that giving up responsibility means giving up agency, they’re quick to cede power for the sake of identifying as a victim because we have found ourselves in a sort of paradox where there is power in victimization and the only way out is through [the body].

There is something deeply regressive and puritanical about all of this–despite the “progressive” packaging, it invokes a sense of feeling weird or guilty when analyzing sexual interactions in retrospect, and the logical conclusion is an increased level of sexlessness.

If I’m being completely honest, I never really blamed dad. There was that whole fucked up situation with his family, obviously, but I think I resented you for forgiving them without ever really forgiving them–for refusing to cut them out of our lives, but keeping the situation in your back pocket to use as a weapon whenever it was convenient to do so (not very Catholic of you). You know, that was really emasculating for dad, and I think that’s probably why he cheated on you with a fat woman. Men cheat on their wives when they feel emasculated—at least when they’re punching down, which he was. You were hotter even though you were a lot older. But my point is, I didn’t keep the secret because I was on dad’s side. Maybe I was, but it doesn’t matter. I would have kept the information to myself regardless because I like it–no–I love it. I love knowing things that people don’t know. That’s why I keep secrets. That’s why I lie.
The point is, I know how to lie. Maybe this is not so much an apology as it is an accusation. It’s easy for the two to become conflated. Am I sorry? I suppose I am. Do I blame you for the way that I am? I suppose I do. I guess nothing is ever just one thing.

With Love,
Your daughter