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"I Don't Want to Be a Girl"

A young girl’s questions about the Boko Haram abductions reveal an increasing consciousness of a misogynist world. How can her mother—a survivor of kidnapping and abuse—respond?
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In my dream I hear the dog barking. I’m rushing down a hill in the forest and looking over my shoulder. I’m rushing and hiding and afraid for my life and all the while the dog is barking. He barks as I open my eyes and adjust to the darkness in my bedroom, and barks as I rise from the bed, and barks as I shuffle to the other side of the house, where I find the dog barking with his slick black nose inches from the door leading from the kitchen to the garage. My husband is out of town, and the dog has heard a noise outside, in the driveway maybe, and now his bark is a deep, frantic alarm. I place my hand on his head, rub his ears. I tell him, “It’s okay, buddy. Come back to bed.” I rub my thumb through the soft hair on his temples and speak to him in a soft voice even though I know he doesn’t understand a word I say. The dog barks and growls, his hair standing up on end. I rub the underside of his ears and say, “It’s okay, buddy. It’s okay.”

Back in the bedroom, the documentary I was watching before I fell asleep has continued to play. Werner Herzog is leading his camera crew down a ladder into the limestone cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, in the Ardeche Region of southern France, where the oldest cave paintings in the world have been discovered. The French Ministry of Culture has given Herzog and his crew special permission to film the cave, which has been sealed to all visitors except for a select group of scientists and art historians, and even they are watched closely by guards. The film crew is making its way down the cave single file, dressed in sterile boots and suits. They are instructed not to touch anything, to not even step off the two-foot wide metal path. They walk very slowly, sometimes crawl on hands and knees, eventually coming to the deepest chamber of the cave, which they must leave quickly due to the poisonous carbon gases emitting from the chamber walls. The camera focuses briefly on a hanging stone outcrop, where the black pubic triangle of a female has been etched with black charcoal; a forceful cut through the pigment and the yellow surface of the rock marks the white slit of her vulva. Her plump thighs come together to form a V, but her feet and all of her upper body are missing.

It’s the oldest painting ever found.

I wake up when a hand grabs my nightgown and pulls. My son is climbing into the bed next to me, insinuating himself under the covers, laying his head down on my arm. It’s bright outside the window already, and we nearly drift back to sleep before I sit straight up and then we are all rushing to shower and eat and dress, then racing out the door. We are driving too fast to school, a talk show playing on the radio. My son is singing a song he has learned; my daughter is talking over him about the lessons she will have today. It’s not so much the attacks on the villages but specifically the abductions of girls is telling them that they should not be going to school, a woman on the radio says. My daughter stops talking to listen, says, “Wait. What happened to the girls?” The woman on the radio continues: They’ve also attacked the schools for this reason. They say girls are supposed to be married and in the home, the guest says before I turn off the radio.

At coffee, I tell my friend about the painting in the farthest deepest chamber in the Chauvet Cave in southern France. He knows the image, The Venus he calls it, and tells me also about the so-called Venus of Hohle-Fels, a 40,000-year-old figurine carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk, found in a cave in a low mountain range bounded by the Danube and the Neckar rivers in the German Alps. He talks while I pull up a photo of the figurine on my phone: a pair of giant breasts balloon above a round belly; the elaborately carved labia gape open. She has no head, no hands, no feet. “My wife has a figurine like that sitting on our dresser,” my friend says. He calls it an image of the “sacred feminine.” Sacred: the head missing, the arms and legs missing.

The word “sacred” comes to us from Old Latin, saceres, a word that has been connected to the base word *saq, “to bind, restrict, enclose, protect.” It first appears in English in 1380 in the works of John Wycliff, a theologian, philosopher and religious reformer who translated the Bible from Latin into English. Its antonym, “sacrilegious,” comes from the Latin sacrilegus, which means, literally, "one who steals sacred things.”

Not long after, a video surfaces; it is fuzzy, out of focus. The leader of Boko Haram, stands in the center, a machine gun slung over his shoulder. He is flanked by two armed soldiers, both wearing masks, both standing still as stone. There’s an armored vehicle in the background. The leader of Boko Haram is laughing and scratching his head: “I repeat, I took the girls,” he says, “and I will sell them off.” Subtitles scroll at the bottom of the screen while news anchors provide commentary: what the Nigerian government is and isn’t doing, the ways in which the Nigerian military is and isn’t corrupt, the role the United States government does and doesn’t play in all of this. The subtitles continue scrolling across the fuzzy video while the man laughs and gestures and scratches his head: In this world there is a market for selling girls.

I was 16, the same age as the oldest of these missing school girls, when Nicole Brown Simpson was found murdered just inside the front door of her Brentwood home. A neighbor finds her body in the early morning hours after he hears Simpson’s agitated, blood-spattered dog barking and barking and barking. The neighbor looks down the dim pathway in front of the home to see a human shape slumped over itself on the sidewalk, part of the body sprawled under the iron fence. When police arrive, they find Simpson’s body with stab wounds in the head and neck, and a wound in her neck so gaping that her severed larynx could be seen through the opening. I remember coming home from my after school job each day to see a recap of the televised murder trial — the chief suspect is her ex-husband, the former football star and actor O.J. Simpson. During the trial, censored photos of Nicole Brown Simpson’s mutilated body flash across the scene, photos of the bloody crime scene, the bloody footprints on the floorboards of the Bronco O.J. Simpson drove through Los Angeles in a low-speed attempt at a getaway, which the networks also broadcast on television. I remember the insinuations about Nicole Brown Simpson’s relationship with Ron Goldman, also found murdered at the Brentwood estate, and relationships she may have had with the other men she was seeing or had recently seen. It could have been any one of these men, her lovers, we are told, who murdered her. I remember the day O.J. tries on the leather glove found at the murder scene, how he stands from his seat behind the wooden table, how he tries to pull the leather glove on his left hand, over a white latex glove he wears to protect the evidence, how the leather sticks against the latex, making it impossible for him to pull it fully onto his hand. How he smirks. How he holds his partially gloved hand up for the jury, the cameras. See? See?

Émile Durkheim argues in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), that all known religious beliefs have in common a singular presupposition, which is that certain things (people, places, actions, thoughts) are sacred, and other things are profane. Cleaving the world in this way is what distinguishes religious thought from secular thought, and Durkheim believes it extends to every religion: every sect, myth, dogma and legend, every form of worship. In every case, there is some perceived visual sign to simplify the separation of these two classes—the profane from the sacred. This separation creates a seemingly logical chasm between what is sacred from what is profane: “The sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not touch.”

No one is in the office when I arrive. I unlock the door and turn on the lights and put on a pot of coffee. I leave the lights out in the room where my desk is, so I can see anyone who comes in before they see me. It’s one in a set of self-protective habits I have, all of which I do without thinking. I drink a cup of coffee while reading email, and see that an editor has written to me to say she’ll be reviewing my new book—a memoir that recounts an abusive relationship, a kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment —for her publication. She says she identified so much with my book, and shares her own story of rape and abuse. It’s not the first email I’ve received like this; at least once a week I hear from someone new: A journalist writes to tell me about the two times she was raped, twenty years apart, once by a stranger, once by someone she knew. She thanks me for saying what she could not say.

A colleague takes me out to lunch, and when the soup comes she leans close to me and whispers her truth. I am invited to be a featured guest, to give a talk, a lecture, a major reading. My publicist forwards the clip of a glowing prepublication review. “You must be so excited,” my friend writes in an email. “So excited!” I respond. But that isn’t really true.

On the way home from school, my daughter wants to know what sex is. It’s not the first time. She’s in a mixed-age classroom and her older friends have begun to develop breasts and body odor, moving toward a border she hasn’t fathomed yet. I try to deflect the question. I say, “We talked about that the other day, remember? Dad and I said that sex is the part of your body that makes you a boy or a girl.” She says that isn’t what the older girls in her class say. I want to know what these girls say. She looks out the window, furrows her brow and says, “Something else."

When we return to the house, my son goes to the kitchen to get a snack; my daughter goes into her room to play with her dolls. She sits on the floor with her long legs folded under her while she changes their shoes and brushes their hair and moves them through a tiny beautiful house. In the tiny kitchen the dolls decide what kind of tiny cake to eat. In the tiny bathroom they apply makeup and look in the tiny mirror. I read the mail and water the plants in the garden and put the children’s dirty lunch kits in the dishwasher while my son crawls between my legs taking bites of his food and growling like an animal. There’s a torn piece of construction paper folded at the bottom of his backpack. Inside is a crude sort of drawing: a penciled figure partially covered by a broad cloud of black scribbles. He says, “It’s you and me mommy,” his smiling mouth full of apple and string cheese.

My daughter cries out and I rush to her room to find that only the dolls are in danger. She has tied the tiny beautiful feet together with rubber bands, the tiny beautiful hands with long pieces of ribbon. She has put all the tiny beautiful dolls together into a box and placed it on a very high shelf. They call out with my daughter’s voice: “Help! Help!”

The term “sacred feminine” wasn’t coined until the 1970s, in a wave of New Age appropriations of the Hindu notion of Shakti, an ancient representation of divine creative power. Today, the notion of the “sacred feminine” remains popular among a certain faction of New Age feminists, and at its best mostly involves worship of the procreative power of the female body, and at its worst casts women as mysterious and mystical, enigmatic and intuitive, and girls as, somehow, holy.

The guests on the radio show agree that most likely Boko Haram has split the nearly 300 girls into dozens of groups of maybe five or six and that many of them, if not all of them, have now been smuggled across the border from Nigeria into Cameroon, Chad, or even further. Boko Haram might use them as ransom, asking for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for the girls’ return, and if anyone pays it, chances are they will use the money to kidnap more girls. Meanwhile, the kidnapped schoolgirls serve Boko Haram as human shields, preventing the Nigerian Air Force from attacking Boko Haram camps.

Another video has surfaced. In this one, the girls, dressed in gray and black veils, recite the first chapter of the Qur’an, eyes down, palms up, their lips barely moving. The leader of Boko Haram is joyous and exultant: These girls you occupy yourselves with ... we have already liberated them. The guests on the radio show agree that as days turn to weeks, which turn to months, and then to years perhaps—the greater the likelihood that the girls will be used as a form of twisted compensation for new recruits, at which time we will likely cease to refer to them as girls.

The dog shuffles with me toward the back of the house, where my son sleeps soundly in his room, one hand under his cheek, the other around his blanket. My daughter hears me passing her doorway and asks for a glass of water with ice in it. When I hand her the green plastic cup, she asks what a terrorist is—a word I am at first surprised to learn she has heard. “A person who does terrible things to make other people feel afraid,” I say.

“So he’s a bad guy,” she says with her mouth to the rim of the green plastic cup.

“Yes,” I say. “A terrorist is a bad guy.”

“Sometimes bad guys take girls,” she says, to show me she wants to understand the terrible story we have heard on the news.

“Yes,” I say, sitting down on the edge of her bed. “Sometimes bad guys take girls.” 

In the darkness of her tiny room I can see her eyebrows fold together as she hands me the empty cup.

I don’t want to be a girl.

Throughout the film, Herzog speaks with many specialists working to understand the paintings in the Chauvet cave, and the culture and people who produced them. One archaeologist says that, for him, the main goal in studying the cave is to create stories about what might have happened in that cave in the past. But we will never know because the past is definitely lost. Some specialists attribute the paintings to the drug-induced trance state of a few nomadic shamans; still others consider them the earliest form of nonfiction: a record of what paleolithic people either desired or feared. Or both, in turns. 

Standing in the very back of the farthest, deepest chamber of the cave, Herzog’s guide is saying that his crew won’t be able walk around to see the other half of the pendant—because the ground is too fragile—so they won’t be able to see the female figure’s other leg, which connects to a male figure that was also etched in black charcoal. This second figure, referred to as The Sorcerer, hunches above and to the right of the black pubic triangle of the female, incorporating her leg into his arm. In photos, he appears to be crossing over her, consuming her, taking her body for his own. His lower body looks human, but his upper body looks like a bison: part man, part beast. 

And here we are, says the guide, some 30,000 years later, with the myth that has endured until our days. Female and bull. Woman and beast.

The barking begins while the dog is laying right beside me on the bed, and grows louder and louder as he goes racing through the house, sliding toward the front door, sounding his frantic alarm. Outside, a man walks his dog in the darkness past our house. Tomorrow, it will be the man who comes to install the washing machine, or to paint the walls, or deliver a package; the man who delivers pizzas, or flowers, or offers to update our security system; the man who wants to bring us into the fold with his pamphlets and his skinny black tie. The dog growls, his nose to the window, his hair standing up on end. He listens for the threat he believes is still outside. I stand beside him, my hand on his back, listening also. 

 

Lacy M. Johnson is the author of THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House Books, July 2014) and TRESPASSES: A MEMOIR, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.
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