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Episode #16: Inspiration from Elizabeth Lesser’s “Cassandra Speaks

Part 1 of the book opens with a quote from author, lecturer and activist, Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner, who was also awarded one of the first doctorates in this country for work in women’s studies. Dr. Wagner’s quote is this: “History isn’t what HAPPENED. It’s WHO tells the story.” WHAT?? MIND BLOWN ALREADY. I realize IMMEDIATELY that this is a very PIVOTAL and perhaps CONTROVERSIAL episode for Audacious Freedom, the podcast and for MY REPUTATION. I have to get up and pace around and CRY to help find the words that have been BUBBLING UP – BREWING – inside of me since I was an adolescent. An adolescent whose SOLE GOAL in life was to be free and to throw cocktail parties when I grew up. I’m NOT joking. I had no idea WHAT I wanted to do for a LIVING, to support myself. I just wanted to be a grown-up and that meant COCKTAIL parties and FUN. The adults I looked up to – neighbors, family, family friends and those I saw on TV and in the movies seemed to be in CONTROL of their LIVES and FREE to do WHATEVER they wanted – the best part to me seemed to be when they opened up their homes for PARTIES. My OWN family even did that once a year – a big KEG party for all the July birthdays in our family – my father, a couple of his brothers, plus at least one cousin. I was just like how all the holidays were celebrated at my grandparents’ house – where it was all about FOOD and DRINKS and people just having fun, without a care in the world, as it would seem to me. I didn’t know about any MARITAL or FINANCIAL problems or WORRIES or what happened BEHIND CLOSED DOORS of the adults around me, even my own parents. During all the parties, the adults made life look so easy and fun and there was so much to look forward to: the next holiday, the next summer BBQ or Sunday football game in the fall or winter – weather even my own very hard-working entrepreneur parents used to slow down for 3 hours, inviting over a couple of my father’s high school friends and we’d eat snacks and my father would get little “pony” beers for my sister and me! Do they still make those? They were literally SMALL CANS OF BEER – maybe ¼ or ⅓ of the size of a regular can of beer – and THAT was our Sunday football treat while my Dad shot the shit with his friends over PBRs and even my Mom would yell at our football team on TV. She always seemed to yell either “Go, go, go!!!!” or “No, no, no!!!!” I’m not sure my Mom could explain what the PLAYS were, but she knew when our team was winning or losing! ANYWAY, all the holiday parties and RELAXED – sort of OFF-DUTY moments where adults weren’t WORKING or doing YARD work or LAUNDRY or FOOD shopping or washing CARS – all of those OFF-DUTY moments were how I wanted to live my life as an adult. My goal was to play and have fun with as few responsibilities as possible. NOT because I didn’t want to work, I just wanted to be IN CONTROL of how much JOY I could have in my life, instead of SUFFERING. I wanted to be in control of how much FUN I could have in my life instead of BOREDOM. I didn’t mind some quiet time in my life – like reading in my room as a kid. I could read in my room forever, getting LOST in the CHARACTERS and THEIR lives. When I became an adolescent, I looked more and more outside of my bedroom, my books, myself and my parents and sister on a regular basis to escape BOREDOM. The MUNDANE. The routine, day-to-day activities and weekly responsibilities. Doing HOMEWORK and CHORES around the house was BORING and LONELY. Going to school – middle school and high school especially was FUN because I got to be around my friends and it seemed I was always making new ones. Even though the actual classes and lessons were mostly boring, I was bored ALONG WITH my peers – I WASN’T ALONE. And we had time together walking TO and FROM classes, AT LUNCH and on the school bus together. And when I got older and my friends were driving – we had time in their cars driving around and smoking cigarettes. The simple act of smoking a cigarette made me feel free and independent and a little reckless and like an ADULT who didn’t have a CARE in the world. This was the 80’s and while the surgeon general had LONG BEFORE issued his warning on the labels of ALL packs of cigarettes, we as consumers were getting mixed messages because we still saw ads for cigarettes in magazines and newspapers and even on TV commercials. We saw CHARACTERS in MOVIES smoking cigarettes and many of my OWN FAMILY – both here in The States and in SPAIN – smoked, some even heavily and until their deaths. Some still smoke today, if only socially or less often anyways. So, the cigarette ads for WOMEN that I remember while growing up were for VIRGINIA SLIMS and their slogan was, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I figured it was something about if MEN could smoke cigarettes, so could women. I don’t know, if men could VOTE, so could women. Just for kicks I looked up one of those old Virginia Slims ads and about FELL OUT OF MY FUCKING CHAIR. It was from 1968 and I ask you to IMAGINE a FULL-PAGE ad with the image of a BEAUTIFUL woman dressed as Wonder Woman – not Linda Carter who portrayed her in the Wonder Woman television series – but the familiar face of a powerful and gorgeous woman I’m sure we’d seen in make-up or hair product ads around the same time. At the BOTTOM of the page is the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” And at the TOP of the page in the LARGEST font of the ad, it reads, “We make Virginia Slims especially for women because they are BIOLOGICALLY SUPERIOR TO MEN.” “Well, FUCK YEAH,” I think and read on to find out what THEY KNOW and have to say about that, which is – and BRACE YOURSELVES, “That’s RIGHT, SUPERIOR”, the ad goes on to say. “Women are more resistant to starvation, fatigue, exposure, shock, and illness than men are. Women have two ‘X’ chromosomes in their sex cells, while men only have one ‘X’ chromosome and one ‘Y’ chromosome…which SOME experts consider to be THE INFERIOR chromosome. They are also less included than men to congenital baldness, Albinism of the eyes, improperly developed sweat glands, color blindness of the red-green type, day-blindness, defective hair follicles, defective iris, defective tooth enamel, double eyelashes, skin cysts, shortsightedness, night-blindness, nomadism, retinal detachment, and white occipital locks of hair.” Finally, the ad ends with, “IN VIEW of these and other FACTS, the makers of Virginia Slims feel it HIGHLY INAPPROPRIATE that women continue to use the FAT, STUBBY cigarettes designed for MERE MEN.” OH. MY. GOD. I was simply thinking that women are biologically superior to men because we MAKE, DELIVER and FEED babies – WITH OUR BODIES – and during pregnancy and childbirth. We often withstand some DISCOMFORT at the LEAST and PAIN at the MOST. And I’ve had many a conversation with women over the years that if men had to “ENDURE” pregnancy and childbirth instead of women, that there just might be easier access to birth control and perhaps even abortions around the world. The general sentiment is that men are big babies when it comes to discomfort and pain and that women are stronger mentally and physically at least when it would come to pregnancy and childbirth. YEAH, I get it that men are often physically larger and therefore stronger than women. But NOT all MEN, for sure. And I know FAR more women than men who exercise regularly, eat well and who are physically fit. Many men I know and have known don’t exercise regularly, don’t eat well and are out of shape. Many women I know could LITERALLY RUN PHYSICAL CIRCLES AROUND OR UP AND DOWN MORE STAIRS THAN THESE MEN. And the FUNNIEST thing to me about these men is their CLUELESSNESS and LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS – or you know, even what I can only imagine is their LACK of MIRRORS in their homes – to see their BEER or SCOTCH bellies, especially as they compare to the women right NEXT TO them: their wives, their girlfriends, their Tinder dates, the women they are flirting with in the bar. And – by the way – their WIVES and GIRLFRIENDS will say to me privately that they wish their husbands or boyfriends were in better shape. So, the WOMEN NOTICE. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen it occasionally the other way around, too, when you see a man who is RIPPED and the woman next to him is out of shape. And maybe in her confidence in herself and in her relationship, she doesn’t care what we might think and HE is with her because he cares more about what’s INSIDE of her than what’s OUTSIDE. I GET all that. I DO. I’m just saying there seems to be an imbalance between the number of women who feel they need to look good to attract and keep a man and the number of men who feel they need to do the same to attract and keep a woman. I mean, how many MEN are getting botox and plastic surgery – especially as they age – compared to women? For the record, I think everyone is entitled – OF COURSE – to their own choices. I am 55 and stay fit for my own health and wellness. I have never had any kind of procedure in a dermatologist’s office other than to remove precancerous cells and I’ve never been to a plastic surgeon, not even for a consult. Yes, I DO see the wrinkles on my face and neck and I DO see the cellulite on my thighs. I’m just not gonna DO anything about them for myself or to attract anyone else. Also for the record, I have been self-partnered for almost 6 years now and I have no interest in changing my relationship status, to be in a relationship with a man. Or with a woman. Or anyone otherwise in the LGBTQ+ community. 

SO, what has HAPPENED to women in the decades since the Virginia Slims ads, which capitalized on the WOMEN’S LIBERATION movement? The Phillip Morris ad campaign of the sixties and seventies for its Virginia Slims brand SPECIFICALLY and UNABASHEDLY targeted WOMEN. Every one of their ads put a beautiful woman FRONT and CENTER, equating smoking Virginia Slims with being INDEPENDENT, STYLISH, CONFIDENT and LIBERATED. The women’s liberation movement is defined as a collective struggle for equality that was most active during the late 1960’s, the 1970’s and 80’s; it sought to free women from OPPRESSION and MALE SUPREMACY. The movement refers to a series of political campaigns for REFORMS on issues such as REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, MATERNITY LEAVE, EQUAL PAY, WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE, SEXUAL HARRASSMENT and SEXUAL VIOLENCE. Okay, so since then and very recently we’ve had the #MeToo movement, a social movement against sexual abuse and sexual harrassment where people publicize allegations of sex crimes. The phrase “Me Too” was initially used in THIS context on social media in 2006 by the amazing sexual harrassment survivor and activist TARANA BURKE. In October 2017, the movement began to spread virally as a hashtag on social media following the exposure of the widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein. [American] Actress ALYSSA MILANO had posted on twitter, “If all the women who have been sexually harrassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” A number of high-profile posts and responses from [American] celebrities Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman, among others, soon followed. Widespread media coverage and discussion of sexual harrassment, particularly in Hollywood, led to high-profile terminations from positions held. I’m PERSONALLY relieved for this movement – and in another podcast episode, and when I’M READY, I will share what this means for ME – and now I want to say that I feel the COLLECTIVE RELIEF for all the women – and some men – who have bravely come forward with their stories of pain and suffering. Of having previously told what happened to them and for not having been BELIEVED. For having NOT previously told their stories because they were AFRAID they WOULDN’T be BELIEVED. Or WORSE, that they would be BLAMED, that it would have been THEIR fault for having had too much to drink or for having worn an OUTFIT that “ASKED FOR IT”. As if a woman intentionally drinks to excess and at least loses her inhibitions and good judgment and ability to CONSENT or at worst completely passes out/goes unconscious and thinks, “Well, I did this to myself, so any man can take advantage of me in this state and besides, also, I wore this fashionable outfit which I’ve seen in magazines or in movies and it makes me a target. AND ALSO, all men are ANIMALS and can’t possibly control themselves and PREVENT themselves from VIOLATING a woman, regardless of her inability to provide consent, or even to be able to OPEN her GODDAMNED EYES”. No, women don’t think that. And, by the way, many men don’t think that way and I, personally, know many men who don’t think that way and who, in fact, are wonderful men – fathers, sons, husbands, brothers – and friends of mine who advocate for women and girls. But many men aren’t – haven’t been – advocates for women. In fact, they’ve told many of the oldest stories – in the bible, in Greek mythology, ancient Greek poetry, Western theology and even in writings from the Mishnah, a sacred Jewish compendium of laws. 

Let me now share some examples that Elizabeth Lesser highlights in “Cassandra Speaks”, the book that led me to record this podcast [episode] to begin with. “Here’s a mini-refresher of our prevailing origin story,” of Adam and Eve. “In the beginning, life was great in the garden of Eden, until God noticed that Adam needed a helpmate, and so he made Eve, the first woman. Then Eve got curious, listened to a snake, seduced Adam into disobeying God, and everything after that went downhill. The fall. That’s the foundation, the one that sets all the others up, the first story to paint womankind as ‘second in creation, and first to sin’. That tag-line,” Lesser goes on to write, “brands our culture – it’s in our DNA, informs our daily lives, it lives in our bodies. To give you a taste of the legacy passed down to us from Adam and Eve, here are three quotes from writings I explore in greater detail in Part 1,” Lesser writes. BEFORE I share the three quotes, my listeners, I want to tell you I’m still having a reaction to – reeling from even – that womankind was painted forever in time as ‘second in creaton, and first to sin’. Jesus. Didn’t Adam have any free will? Wait – was it REALLY so bad that they – BOTH Adam and Eve – disobeyed God? Well, the author takes us there later. In the meantime, I’ll tell you now the three quotes she wanted her readers to know: 

“From Tertullian, an early Christian writer, often called the founder of Western theology: In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. Because of you, even the son of God had to die.” 

[Pause]. Oh my God. There’s more. Here we go. 

“From Ecclesiasticus, an early biblical book of MORALS:

“A gift from the Lord is a silent wife. 

And nothing is so precious as her self-discipline. 

Charm upon Charm is a wife with a sense of shame. 

And nothing is more valuable than her bound-up mouth.” 

[Pause]. SERIOUSLY? And, 

And THIS one, from the Mishnah, a sacred Jewish compendium of laws: 

“To the woman God gave nine curses: the burden of the blood of menstruation and the blood of virginity; the burden of pregnancy; the burden of childbirth; the burden of bringing up the children; her head is covered as one in mourning; she pierces her ear like a permanent slave; she is not to be believed as a witness.” 

I can’t possibly agree with Lesser MORE when she writes – in a much more calm and eloquent way than I ever could – “THAT one really gets me – how menstruation and childbirth and parenting are all seen as BURDENS as opposed to EXAMPLES of STRENGTH, WORTHINESS, and POWER, whereas the physicality and roles granted to MEN are vaulted to be God-like ATTRIBUTES. This is where it all started. And that last bit: ‘she is not to be believed as a witness’ – this ancient indictment is echoed throughout history.” 

Yes, this indictment HAS been echoed throughout history. Lesser explains the Greek myth of Cassandra, the title character in her book. “Cassandra was a princess from the city of Troy. She was the most beautiful of King Priam and Queen Hecuba’s daughters. As such, she had many suitors, both mortal and immortal. Zeus, King of the Gods, was after Cassandra. And so was his son, Apollo. To woo her, Apollo gave her something only a God could give – the coveted gift of seeing into the future. But when he tried to seduce her, Cassandra refused his sexual advances. This ENRAGED Apollo. Instead of just TAKING the gift of prophecy AWAY, he grabbed her, SPAT into her mouth, and put a curse on her. ‘You will remain clairvoyant, Cassandra’, he said, ‘but now, no one will listen to you, no one will believe your predictions’. So, no matter what she foresaw – from the sacking of Troy, to the death of her brothers, to the multiple tragedies that would befall her people – no one believed Cassandra. She was eventually driven mad by knowing the truth and being doubted when she spoke it. Her final indignity came at the end of the Trojan War. As her city lay in ruins – just as she had prophesied – she was abducted and raped by a Greek warrior.” Holy shit, people. What a horrible story. Lesser goes on later in the book to say, “Cassandra’s curse in an ancient example of gaslighting, and it is re-lived on a daily basis by women around the world: We know the truth of our own experiences, yet we are told that we are lying or overreacting; we can see consequences on the horizon, but it’s still ‘COMMON KNOWLEDGE’ that women’s emotions cloud their vision, that we tend toward hysteria – even madness – and therefore ‘are not to be believed’. THIS is how we ended up with the trial of Larry Nassar.” Lesser reminds us that he was “the doctor who sexually abused hundreds of female athletes under the guise of medical treatment. For almost THIRTY years, he perpetrated the same pattern of abuse, offering faux medical treatments, using his paternalistic power to molest and silence young women. And if his own behavior wasn’t bad enough, the adults in the institutions that HIRED him – universities, training camps, USA gymnastics, the US Olympic Committee, and even some PARENTS – did not believe the girls and women. Year after year, they did NOT report the stories of abuse; they did not REMOVE Larry Nassar. They took the word of the doctor over the work of THEIR GIRLS.” Guys, I fucking can’t stand this. As she watched the trial on TV, Lesser thought, “These girls are our Cassandras. They knew what had happened to them, and they saw what would happen to others if Dr. Nassar wasn’t stopped. They had spoken the truth, but no one believed them and no one had acted on their behalf.” 

Come on, people. This shit fucking KILLS me. This is MODERN DAY. This was just a few years ago in 2018. WHAT. THE. FUCK? Fortunately, this story ends with justice: “Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years behind bars and before the actual sentencing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina – a fucking BADASS woman! – allowed time for 150 women to deliver impact statements. Lesser writes, “No longer alone in their truth telling, bolstered by strength in numbers, and treated with respectful listening, the young women spoke with so much LEGITIMATE FURY that it felt to me as if generations of Cassandras were speaking through them and being vindicated.” 

Yes, justice was served in the Nassar case. After getting away with his heinous crimes for almost thirty years. And you know what that fucker said in a letter to Judge Aquilina, that she read aloud on the last day of the trial? That he blamed the girls for being two-faced and vengeful and he quoted a famous proverb from English literature directing it to his accusers: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” What the actual FUCK, listeners? And while I recognize the quote, I had to look up – just to be sure it’s meaning is as bad as I thought, and it’s actually WORSE! Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned means, “A woman who has been rejected by a man can be ferociously angry and vendictive.” SERIOUSLY, MOTHER FUCKER?? These hundreds of girls over decades of violating them, of YOU using your power and position over them and quieting them and convincing them, their parents and the institutions that hired you that you were performing MEDICAL procedures – they were SEXUAL ACTS, FOR FUCK’S SAKE! – you think THEY are VENDICTIVE because YOU REJECTED them?? HOLY FUCK. THEY REJECT YOU and your abuse, YOU SICK MOTHER FUCKER. You’re saying 150 women came forward to read their impact statements DID so because they were VENDICTIVE and not VICTIMS? VENDICTIVE because they were – each and every one of them – in some way, in ANY fucking way – wanting you to CHOOSE them and not reject them?? I can’t. I fucking can’t. I’m so sick and angry I fucking cant stand this. [Pause.] I turn us back to Lesser’s book. She writes, “In the classic book The Power of Myth, the venerated scholar Joseph Campbell and the journalist Bill Moyers have an extended conversation about origin stories from many traditions. In one chapter, Moyers asks Campbell: ‘Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?’ Campbell answers: ‘No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. The closest thing to it would be perhaps Pandora with Pandora’s box, but that’s not SIN, that’s just trouble. The idea in the biblical tradition of The Fall is that NATURE as we know it is corrupt, sex in itself is corrupt, and the female as the EPITOME of sex is a corrupter. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam and Eve? Without that knowledge we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life. Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this

TEMPORAL WORLD. Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden – no time, no birth, no death – no life.” 

Lesser goes on to write, “Many scholars have gone back into the earliest translations of the book of Genesis and noted that in the original Hebrew text ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ meant the knowledge of how things really work for human beings, here in the realm of time and birth and death. To be human often feels as if we arrived here without an instruction book, longing for direction, aware of our better angels and, at the same time, vulnerable to our own ignorance and fear and greed. Isn’t this the crux of human life and the lesson of every great teaching tale? That we are lost, but we can be found. That we suffer, but we can grow wise. That if we take personal responsibility, we might grasp the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ and chart a noble path home. But taking responsibility so as to grow wise is often not our first response to suffering. A more common, knee-jerk reaction is to look for someone else to BLAME…blame your partner for the problems in your marriage, blame your boss for the problems at work, blame a group of people from a different race, religion, nationality – for the problems in the world. Blame the snake! Blame Eve for her wanton and witchy ways. Blame Adam for being a CUCKHOLD, a SISSY, an EMASCULATED snowflake. Blame God, as Adam did, for making the woman in the first place. But in truth, there is no one to blame for the conundrum in which we find ourselves. Life is full of challenges, humans are full of desires, and each one of us is faced with daily choices, between good and evil. We long for Eden – that state of being where the opposites are united, where peaceful abiding is the norm. But what if the whole point of life is to find Eden WITHIN and, in doing so, to create heaven on earth? That is what the awareness of good and evil really means: to recognize that all the light and all the darkness in the world also dwells within your own heart, and instead of blaming the ‘other’, our task is to become like gods – self-aware and responsible for choosing goodness over evil. THIS is what EVE did. She woke up; she grew up. I think of the story of Adam and Eve as a classic hero’s journey tale – word mature self-responsibility. But somewhere along the way in the storytelling, blame set in. Someone had to take the blame for why life was so difficult and humans so vulnerable. Cue: the Fall. It’s important to understand the significance of how our society’s origin story is based in blame. It’s good to contemplate what our culture would be like if the first woman had not been branded as ‘second born, first to sin’. How would things be different if humankind’s first big mistake WASN’T to follow the lead of the woman? And if Eve’s punishment HADN’T been subservience to Adam? Each morning, Lesser writes, “I say a little prayer for all of us. That we become less blameful of others and more responsible for ourselves, for each other, and for the Eden we must protect. That we become less like lost children and more like wise seekers.” 

Well, listeners, that’s the last I’m quoting Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, The Human Story Changes, EXCEPT for this one last bit, a QUOTE from Polly Young-Eisendrath, the American psychologist, author, teacher, speaker, Jungian analyst and Zenn Buddhist, which is: “Both Eve and Pandora bring death into the world. This is a curious reversal of the FACT that women bring LIFE into the world, but it says something about the meaning of ‘woman’ within a religion dominated by male Gods!”

What if, listeners, what IF? What if the Harvey Weinsteins and Larry Nassars of abusers of the world had grown up with stories told ABOUT WOMEN – BY WOMEN – that women are to be WORSHIPPED for their strength, worthiness and power BECAUSE they bring children into the world and they raise them. That women are to be RESPECTED as EQUALS. Or even that women are biologically SUPERIOR to men as those old Virginia Slims ads told us. What if the story they were raised with was that Adam was a PUSSY and Eve wore the PANTS? WHAT IF the first women who were abused by Weinstein and Nassar told their stories and they were BELIEVED and these two fuckers immediately lost their jobs and reputations AND NO MORE WOMEN WERE ABUSED? 

What if I didn’t read Elizabeth Lesser’s book and been inspired – very EMOTIONALLY inspired – to record this podcast [episode]? I guess I won’t ever know. I DO expect that many men and even some women won’t BUY that “History isn’t what HAPPENED. It’s WHO told the STORY.” Many won’t believe that there is another way to tell the story of Adam and Eve. Many will cling to the branding of woman as “second born, first to sin.” Because that’s what we’ve always been told, so it’s what we believe. Well, I DON’T BELIEVE IT and I’m so grateful for Elizabeth Lesser and her research and for this book. I’ve always felt so strongly in my core that women and girls ARE NOT LESS THAN men and boys. And yet, I’ve spent much of my life – mostly only in my professional life – deferring to the men in the room. I don’t like knowing that about myself or admitting it to you listeners. I did NOT defer to my husband when I had one of those many years ago though. I can remember being told by some people that I wore the pants in that family and they tried to make me feel bad about it. But I didn’t feel bad about it and I didn’t stop wearing the pants either. Over the years after my divorce I was engaged two more times and I tried to be a little gentler with the pants-wearing, but I couldn’t hold myself back for long before I told them – the men, each of these two fiances – to get the fuck out of my house. I just couldn’t step back and make room for them to feel important. I don’t know, I guess in the new version of our origin story I was Eve and they were Adams.

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