Neural Pathways and the Patriarchy

9 Apr

In case you didn’t already know this, I am the co-host of an almost famous podcast called Welcome To My Vagina with my good friend Jessy Caron. You should listen to it. It’s great. And Jessy and I aren’t the only ones who think so. My brother and sister-in-law agree. And a bunch of our friends. And some people we don’t even know. So, you know, we’re basically crushing it. The reason for informing you of this is that I have been trying to up my feminist game by doing some more focused reading so I can speak from a place informed by more than my personal experience. And so as part of this project I recently bought the following books (and am open to suggestions if you have any):

  1. This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins
  2. When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  3. Headscarfs and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
  4. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
  5. Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti

I decided the best plan of attack was to start closest to home and read Jessica Valenti’s book. I have been reading her writing since its early days on Feministing, the website she cofounded with her sister, and then followed her over to Jezebel and now read her at The Guardian. I like her. I relate to her. We are both white women who grew up on the East Coast at roughly the same time. We both write (although she far more successfully than me.) We both hate the patriarchy. Also, the other books on my list haven’t arrived at my house yet. (Shoulder shrug.) Anyway, the strangest thing happened. So yesterday during the afternoon I was casually thinking to myself about the possible connection between female victimhood and neural pathways. I have always been of the understanding that neural pathways are created as we gain knowledge and that

(a) those pathways are part of what allows us to retain that knowledge and then                       build upon it and
(b) that then allows us to learn how to interact with the world in which we live.

So then I started thinking about this article I read a while back about trauma. The article basically summarized a study that had been done involving veterans of the Vietnam War. Scientists interviewed the soldiers upon returning home from the war, and then interviewed them again a number of decades later. They found that for the men who suffered from PTSD, their memories of their experience in combat did not change over time. They still remembered all of the events in the same detail and had similar feelings about them. The men who did not suffer from PTSD had a change in feeling between the initial interview and the one carried out later. In the first interview they might have had complicated feelings about their time in combat and in the army, but decades later they remembered it mostly positively, as a time of camaraderie amongst buddies. (Obviously I am over simplifying this in a HUGE way.) I have thought about this article a lot. I’ve thought a lot about the memory of events in my life that have changed or grown muddy over time and those that I remember in intense, unchanging detail. I wouldn’t say that I have PTSD relating to the latter events, but that perhaps they qualify as trauma. Perhaps those memories have been burned deeply enough into my brain that they cannot be altered.

What does this have to do with Jessica Valenti? Well, while I was on this little adventure of mine, I began thinking about women’s experiences. I started thinking about the ways we are treated in our day-to-day lives and how we internalize those experiences, how they shape who we are, how we behave and the ways in which we live in, and relate to, the world around us. I started thinking about how our subconscious understanding of our status as women limits us and causes us to limit ourselves. I wondered when those neural pathways are initially formed and who we could be if we weren’t constantly living in fear for our safety and under the ever-looming presence of the patriarchy. I wondered about how much this world has missed out on because of the way women (and POC and the LGBTQ community and Jews and Muslims and, and, and) are disenfranchised. And then, a few hours later, I read this passage on page 15 of Sex Object:

“We know that direct violence causes trauma — we have shelters for it, counselors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighborhoods are more likely to develop PTSD, the daily fear changing their brains and psychological makeup so drastically that flashbacks and disassociation become common. We know people who are bullied get depressed and sometimes commit suicide.

“Yet despite all these things we know to be true — despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments — we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.”

And if we wonder why it is that we have no name for it then let me put forward an idea. It is because we cannot name what we cannot separate out and study. Not all children grow up in the midst of violence; not all veterans develop PTSD. We can study the difference amongst people in society but we cannot, not even with all that we know, study something which is all-pervasive, something that exists everywhere and is so instrumental to every single aspect of our culture that it cannot be separated out. We cannot create a control group and a test group because we are all part of the same group. Our personal experiences might vary by degree but the over-arching system that makes those experiences possible is shared by all of us. And perhaps this is what makes it so difficult for many people, men and women alike, to acknowledge the existence of the patriarchy. We know what water is, but we cannot separate the elements – the hydrogens from the oxygen – that make it what it is. It would cease to be water and we would no longer have a context in which to understand it.

In our 7th episode of the WTMV podcast Jessy asked me what I would change using science if I could choose one thing. And I said I would like to somehow create an environment free from the patriarchy. Not the environment in which we live now, where we try to figure out and unravel one aspect of it at a time, finding lined up behind that partially solved issue a never-ending cavalcade of injustices. I wanted to see what women would be like, what women could do and achieve and dream and be, without the shroud of patriarchal culture that we live wrapped up in. Because let me tell you right now that I have absolutely no idea what that would look like. Every time I try to conjure it, I realize that the pathways in my brain are burned too deeply to be able to even imagine that world. The pathways in all of our brains are etched beyond repair.

We all have our own experiences and we all react to them, and handle them, in profoundly different and personal ways. We as women spend a lot of time being afraid, even when we don’t actively realize that we are. We spend a lot of time wondering what might happen if we walk down this block instead of that one; what we might encounter if we comment on that Tweet; what house we are walking into when we go home with a new partner; what ways our bodies and minds might be used against us. It is a hard world to navigate, some of us managing it seemingly more easily than others. But I believe it is true that we are all traumatized by the patriarchy and I think that Jessica Valenti agrees with me.

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