Sitting at the table, after a family lunch on any given day, when I was 12 years old –at the beginning of the 1980s– I received a lesson whose effects were very lasting, by the way; I could say that until today I deal with them. After lunch, my mother and sisters get up to clear the table and take the utensils and food scraps to the kitchen and proceed to wash the dishes. For my part, surprised, I look at my father. In that gaze –now I realize– there is a question: and what do we do? For a solid, concise, no-nonsense answer, he simply sips another drink of the liquid in his glass –probably soda– and continues watching television –maybe a newscast–. His response in his act is obvious: the women clear the table, wash the dishes and attend to such things; men are not affected by these tasks.
I have a clear recollection of what I thought as a subjective response to that scene in which I was involved: that’s so good. Until today I usually surprise myself taking advantage of the privileges that life gives me for genital and generic reasons, even when I don’t look for it.
I wonder why I am writing this in the week of International Women’s Day and some answers come to my mind. The most rational: because I love the women in my life (partner, daughter, sisters, friends); because I believe that in these times it is necessary for men –especially those of my generation, around 50 years of age or so– to review ourselves and exercise self-criticism on this issue. However, the main answer, the one that weighs the most for me, is the following: I find a series of anecdotes that are organized under the paradigmatic structure of memory that I share above incredible.
How is it possible that this was normal at a certain time for many Argentine families?! I also wonder: do these kinds of scenes still happen?
My mother, the adult woman in that memory, not only acted according to the script agreed upon by the prevailing discourses and, in that sense, correctly accompanied her male, but also, along with the designs that both acted -she and her Husband, my father– they raised and educated their male –who is the undersigned– thus introducing him to the world of privileges that corresponded to him simply for carrying the correct genitalia. At the same time, they educated her daughters, my sisters, of course, who were there acting the role reserved for them.
the silent gesture
From the anecdote, I am interested in noticing the silent gesture of my father, who did not even need to answer my inquisitive look with words: everything was clear and on the table, perhaps never better said. My corresponding interpretation was not far behind: the hereditary co-production of men at the service of the perpetuation of the same system was consummated.
I also remember a walk in my childhood with a friend and his parents. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, it was the late 1970s. We had dinner in a restaurant and then we walked carelessly through some streets of the city. On the opposite sidewalk, I suppose around midnight, a man’s wild screams are heard and perhaps, I don’t remember exactly, some muffled muttering of a woman. I look and manage to see something like a shake of him over her and in the semi-darkness a slap is heard and I guess defensive movements. In unison, my friend’s parents order both children: “don’t look, come with us, keep walking”. Then, in the privacy of the car, back home, they will explain to us that we should not get involved in other people’s couples because it is most likely that the third party will be harmed since she would also probably disapprove of the meddling of the restrained.
The silent gesture in this case was not addressed to the child that I was, but rather those adults taught him -that is to say me, also my friend- that to do the right thing was not to interfere. In this case, the silent gesture was not the means but the prescription.
I wonder what I would do today in a similar situation: would I intervene on behalf of women or would I maintain the “correct” neutrality that was instilled in me 50 years ago? I like to think that I would be able to intercede to protect the assaulted woman (hopefully comfort, cowardice or both won’t defeat me).
It seems to me that the hackneyed “don’t get involved”, the old saying “everything restrained goes wrong”, or the belief that in matters of a couple we must respect the ways of meeting, disencountering and enjoying each other, even when these three admonitions they continue, to varying degrees, retaining some degree of efficacy, however, we should be able to intervene when a woman is violated in public. The same if it happens indoors but by different signs we become aware of the situation. If violence occurs in public or if its signs become public (bruises, injuries, noises, screams, etc.) the situation calls us, involves us whether we want it or not. And we, of course, have to do something with that call.
Some public campaigns that call for all of us to commit ourselves in situations of these characteristics make me think that perhaps something is beginning to change. I suppose that distorting the violence, making the problem visible and not looking the other way or being complicit in silence are key elements for a possible change.
Martín Alomo is a psychoanalyst. PhD in Psychology. Master in Psychoanalysis. Professor of the Doctorate in Psychology and the Master’s in Psychoanalysis of the UBA. Co-director of the Master in Psychopathology (UCES).