When I first bought my van, I remember driving and trying to merge into heavy traffic on my right side. Given the geometry involved and the lack of side windows, I simply couldn’t see sufficiently. I managed to navigate by getting out of the van, watching and waiting until the road seemed clear, hustling back inside and then merging slowly with my fingers crossed. It was a huge blind spot. At that moment I realized I would need to add a window further back on the passenger side of the van to eliminate that blind spot.
While vehicular blind spots can be very dangerous, the blind spots that truly interest me are those of being human, and in my case in particular of being a man.
While traveling in the van this summer, I pulled into a rest stop in Washington. It was a beautiful spot right on the Columbia River as it nears its emergence with the ocean – hard to imagine a more scenic rest stop where I might spend the night. I put on a pot of rice, pulled out my guitar and set up at the concrete picnic table between my van and the nearby river. As I adjusted the tuning of the guitar, a man approached with a bit of a hitch in his getalong and asked me to play him a song. “I know what I sound like,” he said with a country twang, “but I haven’t heard djou yet!” Since he was wearing a vest, a big silver belt buckle with an eagle on it and a couple of mini sheriff-like star pins, I opted for more of a country lilt and gave him a heartful rendition of Blaze Foley’s Clay Pigeons. Apparently I passed the “audition” because he got his guitar out of the back of his truck and we spent the next three hours or so sharing song with each other.
This has been hard for me to write. I spent several hours working on a very different article about this same experience which I had to scrap when I started to see something that I had blindly chosen not to see. The first version had me writing about the transformational powers of love. I now find myself writing about abuse and the blindspots that I, and men collectively, have when it comes to men and their treatment of women.
First I’d like to acknowledge that life for so many is hard. “Wild Eddie” (stage name) aged 65, and his partner Deb live on government subsidies in their pickup truck and pretty much call that rest stop home. And, yes, I’ve changed their names here – probably out of some degree of cowardice and partly because I’m not really sure what the right thing to do is here. What I am writing is based on speculation and gut instincts and not thoroughly vetted facts. Deb, an inward woman with a guardedly beautiful soul, sadly bore mannerisms that reminded me of a dog that had been kicked a few times too many, and then not a few more for bad measure. Hesitant, fearful, sensitive, quick to tears, jittery, tactilely defensive, insular – in all the many hours we spent near each other she never once said a single word to me, although in no way was that out of meanness or rudeness. Trust and safety is something so many of us, especially men, take for granted. In some people’s lives, the ability to trust and feel safe is something that has been taken away from, and sometimes even beaten out of them.
I really wanted to see the good in this story with these two characters. The story initially portrayed by Wild Eddie was that Deb had come from an abusive childhood and also a marriage where her husband had let everyone in the family treat her abusively. Given that he talked about this while she was present, I believed this to be true. He also told me that he hadn’t been a good husband earlier in his life and that the breakup of that union was “entirely on me.” He spoke a lot about trying to be a good man in God’s eyes, making it to the kingdom of heaven, and how helping Deb heal was his most important mission.
I then did something of which I am not proud, but from which I am learning the lessons that are inspiring this article. I chose to not believe my eyes and ears. Since Wild Eddie was an interesting character, I decided the following morning to record an interview of him. I had to close the door on my van while I readied and tested my recording equipment since he wouldn’t stop distracting me through incessant talking (one of his less endearing traits). After about 10 minutes, I overheard him speaking to Deb in a notably challenging tone: “If you keep behaving this way, I might have to leave you on the side of the road somewhere.” After this continued for a minute or so, I came outside to find Deb crying and said “Eddie, you’re losing me here! You’re not exactly practicing what you preach.” He explained “I’ve been trying sugar with her and sugar doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes you gotta use tough love.” He had used a similar tone with her the previous night when she was chilled and wanted to get his permission to hang out alone in their truck: “I told you you weren’t to be interruptin’ us while we was playing music!”
I worked with Eddie a long time, telling him that I wasn’t buying his claim that tough love was what was needed. “I’m a pretty smart guy,” I said, to which Eddie agreed, “and if sugar isn’t working, what’s needed is more sugar, not tough love.” Deb was crying and sniffling at a distance, but certainly listening all the while. Eventually, he acknowledged that what I was saying was true, repeatedly calling me his guardian angel for helping him “see the light.” When he stood up and tried to reach out to hold Deb, I remember very distinctly her recoiling from him, saying, “don’t hit me.” My mind which still wanted to believe that Eddie’s overarching intent was to help her heal from her previous wounding chose to interpret “don’t hit me” as a flashback reaction to her childhood or her previous marriage and not from her current relationship with Eddie.
This particular phrase brings to mind a very challenging experience in my life, one in which I still bear some shame. In my early 30s, I had been living with a woman named Dawn whom I loved very much, but with whom relationship had become challenging. One morning as I was lying on the bed, (I honestly don’t remember any other particulars about that morning) Dawn was upset and began to physically hit me which had never happened before. I defensively placed my feet against her torso and launched her through the air a few feet across to the opposite wall. When she landed she instantly switched from her aggressive tone to the voice of a small child, tearfully saying “don’t hurt me.” Hearing the tone of Dawn’s voice in my mind all these years later still breaks my heart. I in no way wanted to bring fear and hurt upon her, but that is exactly what I did in that moment. Hearing Deb say “don’t hit me,” in that same childlike tone instantly reminded me of this earlier moment in my life, yet something in me still didn’t want to believe that Eddie was someone that Deb actually had reason to be afraid of.
There is something in me that wants to see the good in people. I think it brings me comfort and a sense of safety seeing the world and the people in it as good. Bad people agitate my nervous system. If I can see even the bad ones as good, or at least simply wounded themselves, my experience of life gets to be more enjoyable. Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, however, also keeps me from seeing the truth of whatever might actually be arising.
“You know, it’s funny; when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.”Wanda the Owl, BoJack Horseman
Through my talking somewhat firmly with Eddie, he softened his defense and eventually tearfully agreed that he had been wrong in choosing “tough love” with Deb. As Eddie is somewhat frail, I had to catch him to prevent him from falling backwards as he got up from his chair. He then went on a long tearful soliloquy with Deb, apologizing to her profusely. When he first tried to hold her, she physically recoiled from him, placing her arms tightly to her torso with her hands contracted toward her chin. Again, I didn’t even read his tears to mean any more than that he had been mean to her, not that he was regretting having actively been her abuser.
Most all men have giant blind spots when it comes to the experience of women, and I can without question be counted among them. Had I been a woman, I would almost certainly have recognized the presence of abuse. I would have known first hand what it feels like to be abused, to be the one without the power, to be in fear for my safety, and to be the target of unwanted sexual advances or abuse. I, on the other hand, see the world from the vantage point of being a man, and while that chromosomal manifestation is not something to be shamed or vilified, allowing the continuation of that XY blind spot is something that is important for myself, and all men, to take conscious steps to avoid.
What I am most curious about is actually why I missed this. Why did I want to see Eddie more as her savior than her abuser? I didn’t finish writing this for months in part because the answer wasn’t quite clear. I now understand that I didn’t see this for a very simple reason.
Because I am a man.
The Invisible Hand Up
We often hear of “white male privilege” but even as a person who sincerely wishes for all women or people of color to be safe and have all the opportunity that white men have, as a white man it is challenging to see. It’s much easier to see what is visible than what is missing, and as a white man, I pretty much have nothing missing. If you want to check my boxes, I’m in pretty much every class that enjoys advantage in this world:
☑ male cisgender
☑ reasonably attractive
☑ able bodied
☑ wealthy – while I may not have a lot of money in the bank, I have managed to create a life of freedom from time clocks and paychecks.
☑ You name it: _____________________
We don’t always see the forms of privilege in our lives because what privilege does is simply keep doors open. Those of us with privilege often feel like we have earned that which we have. In many cases that is fully true. What we often fail to see, however, is that if one doesn’t have privilege, if some of those check boxes aren’t checked, then the doors of opportunity are often closed. Doors should be open, so their openness is something we don’t take much note of. When doors are closed, their presence becomes much more palpable, and the opportunity to earn success becomes markedly more difficult.
Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.Peggy MacIntosh
Having privilege is not something to be ashamed of, but it is something to be aware of. If you’re a man and having a hard time understanding this, imagine that you wish to travel to another country. You buy a ticket, take your passport to the airport and get on the airplane. Privilege is very much like a passport. You take its existence for granted and enjoy the perks which come with it, yet if you don’t have that passport/privilege, suddenly the opportunities for navigating travel/life successfully are significantly hindered.
In the year 2000, after nearly ten years of concerted professional work effort, my friend and business partner Gary and I sold our technology consulting company. To this day, I am convinced that we would not have sold that company, at least certainly not to the “good old boy” network of men who were running the company that bought us, had Gary and I been any of the following: women, black or hispanic, disabled, or gay. My life would have turned out very different but for the list of checkbox privileges that I have been lucky enough to have been born with. Those kinds of impediments to success are hard for men to see. In this culture, we’re taught to believe that if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps that we can be successful. True, yes, but what we with privilege fail to see is that many classes of people may not even have bootstraps on their boots, so hitching their boots up and being successful becomes unquestionably more challenging.
While at that same rest stop in Washington where I was spending time with Wild Eddie and Deb, a younger attractive woman arrived in her white van that she was apparently living/traveling in. Most everyone else who arrived at this rest stop walked along the sidewalk and said or nodded hello as they passed. This woman kept to herself and avoided any eye contact with me and other men. I instantly interpreted her insular bearing to be driven by the safeguards that a solo female traveler needs to adopt in order to avoid getting herself into challenging situations. While I had a great time exploring in my van this summer, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it was much easier and safer for me to travel as a white man than it would have been as a woman or a person of color.
So blind spots. We all have them. And with Eddie and his abused partner Deb, I had a big one. I had wanted to believe in a certain story, in the goodness of love and the possibility of human redemption, yet I sat up in bed from a deep sleep a day later with the clear realization that I had missed the boat. In looking for confirmation, I got online to research Eddie and I found that he had been arrested just three months prior for 4th degree assault and harassment in an area near to where we were staying.
Learning from Women
In closing, I also can’t emphasize enough how important it is for us men to talk to the women in our lives about their experiences. My dear friend Celeste was invaluable in helping me to truly see Eddie for who he is and for helping to open my eyes more about what women go through. I had called her after having met Eddie to talk about my experience and what had transpired and she helped me see that things may not be as rosy as I might have wanted to believe. She followed up our talk with this text the next day: “A vulnerable female who is shrinking away from her man is an abused woman – plain and fucking simple.” Men don’t generally see that. Women do.
This writing lay fallow through my travels this summer, but my friend Sherry spurred my picking it back up when she courageously talked with me about her concerns that I hadn’t fully been recognizing my “white male privilege” in simply having a trip like I had this summer. I so appreciate having brilliant, powerful women like these in my life who aren’t afraid to speak their truth to me in the name of love, growth and friendship.
Since opening this exploration again, I’ve been feeling a little uneasy. I believe it has something to do with having lived my life with a degree of blindness that I hadn’t been aware of. There is a rattling of my cage of confidence that the accomplishments in my life have been perhaps in no small part ushered through by the invisible hand of privilege.
“Your front row seat is right here, Mr. Seymour.”
Kind of unsettling.
Men, we all have blind spots. Trust me. Talk honestly with other men, but perhaps most importantly, talk with women. Ask questions about their experience and perspective as women. Resist the urge to speak defensively, or even think defensively. Listen. Don’t talk much. Just ask and listen and learn.