My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.
Nonetheless, this whole notion of “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.
Let’s start with my father, who was illegitimate, rejected by his own family and adopted by someone named “Leimbach” whom I never met. He was complicated in every way, moody and depressive and dissatisfied with life. He’d already left one marriage and child before marrying my mother. He paid no attention to me unless I threw up or hurt myself, perhaps because he was so unhappy. When I was about four years old, he took one of the many guns he kept in the basement and shot himself in the head. We were all in the house, ten o’clock in the morning. My sister and I were told to go to our room and stay there. Then, we were moved to the neighbour’s house, where I was given an egg salad sandwich and told not to look out the windows.
He left my mother with three tiny children and no life insurance payout. This was the 1960’s when women working was unusual and they were badly paid. My mother had to arrange for someone to look after us for the months she sought work wherever she could find it. “Wherever” turned out to be Holyoke, Massachusetts, hundreds of miles from our home in Maryland. She drove us all there—kids and dogs and parakeets—in a car with a dodgy axle and no idea what she would do if it collapsed. We arrived to a house in the middle of nowhere on a street where we knew nobody. My mother went to work. The “housekeeper” sent us outside to play—all day. We were not allowed inside unless it snowed or rained. I wasn’t allowed to go to school because there was no kindergarten available. So, I played by myself or with my brother or with whomever I could find.
My mother didn’t “raise a family” because she wasn’t there to raise us. She was too busy working as a reporter and a medical freelancer. I understood— kids always do—and I fell asleep every night to the sound of her typewriter. Sometimes she told us how difficult her life was. Once, while we we so small we could all fit in the bath tub together, she threatened to drown us. But often she did her best to bring laughter and not worry into the household. We had enough money for the things we needed. We were doing okay, in fact, and returned to Maryland where my mother got a better job, now with the Washington Daily News. Finally, at age six, I was able to go to school. I was put in the lowest groups because I did not know how to read, or so they thought. In fact, I’d taught myself how to read years earlier at a house we rented in which there were children’s books, but had then had little access to books and so forgot what I’d learned. I did try to explain this to the teachers at the outset, but nobody believed me. They were correct that I did not know how to count. Nobody had taught me.
My mother developed a brain tumor when I was twelve, then an endocrine problem that made it difficult for her to work. She was preoccupied, unwell, but carried on at her job. It was a “good job”, too. She was now a desk editor at US News and World Report. A really good job, except for some reason she hated it. She told me this all the time, those exact words, “I hate my job. I hate my job…”
I was sexually abused when I was aged thirteen to fourteen. This happens even when parents are around, let alone when they are not. It wasn’t the worst case of sexual abuse, but there it was. Not good for me. I ran away for a year too dismal to describe and about which I have no interest in writing. Suffice it to say that every bad thing happened that year.
I returned to discover my mother had given up her job without telling us. Maybe she’d been fired, who knows? She was depressed; we lost our house. My mother, now bankrupt, went to live with her own elderly parents in another state in America. I finished high school while living in the basement of someone else’s house, looking after their young son. At school, I had to pretend that everything was “normal.” You aren’t allowed access to a state school if you aren’t resident, you see, and residency is established by where your parents lived. My parent lived in Illinois. I didn’t see her for months on end. When my wisdom teeth impacted, I convinced the dental school at Georgetown to let the students take them out (under supervision). When I had strep throat, I begged for a lift to a doctor from the woman whose child I babysat for.
I had no money. None. When I saw that it cost $50 for an application fee for college, I nearly decided not to go. Harvard didn’t make you pay if you were poor enough, so I applied there. I had a sister in Boston and the idea of somehow reuniting with her was a goal greater than a college education. By a stroke of luck, Harvard accepted me. When I opened the envelope, I saw there was a whole other world from which I’d been, until now, excluded. I’d been a busgirl, a waitress, a McDonald’s worker, and now I was a Harvard undergraduate with a scholarship, financial aid and a small loan.
But even so, there were difficulties. My mother began to die of cancer, slowly, painfully, in her fifties. Where do you go during term breaks when you have no home? I would scrape together plane fare to go see her at my grandparents home. They were dying, too. Then they were dead, all of them.
But there is another story and it is one of remarkable privilege. Let me tell you this one, which I prefer telling and in which I overcome no great hardships. Let’s start with what I looked like: I was born white, healthy, and clever. In fact, even better, I was a pretty child. I grew up in a household in which women were seen as strong, independent, capable people who worked in the “real” world alongside men. I never saw my mother defer to my father or any other man. There was no man to defer to, which I found absolutely wonderful. It made my mother sad that my father had died, and it forced her to work, too. But there were books all over the house, and three or four dogs lying around at any one time. Anyway, it turned out she liked working, at least at first.
We had the animals, we had the books, but we didn’t have a great deal of money (my mother was dreadful with money). Even so, there was all sorts of non-monetary capital around. I had ponies—my mother became something of a collector, in fact—and each morning I threw hay into the small paddock behind our house. I rode bareback through woods. Nobody kept track of where I was going, so I disappeared for hours. Sometimes, my mother warned us we were low on cash, but it always felt temporary to me. Even the way she said it, “We may have to decrease our expenditures or else we’ll find ourselves in the poorhouse,” was wonderfully articulate. She had a college education, herself, and wanted something out of life. Other mothers seemed dutiful and kind, but she was more fun, if a little frightening.
I found a yellowing collection of poetry in the shelves. “Do you absolutely love T.S. Eliot?” I asked my mother.
“Ah,” she said, as though she’d always known this moment would arrive. “So you have found him.”
People would tell me it was sad my father had died, and I nodded because I knew that it was sad, though not for me. I liked being the child of a single parent. When I came across the fathers of my friends, I saw disgruntled, tired, large individuals impatient for me to go home. Fathers interrupted our games, making us do chores instead. They made demands on the much nicer people (the mothers) and never seemed very nice to them. They were seen sitting on lawn mowers or in cars. They were seen doing nothing (presumably because they were tired from work?) while the women scurried around them. I saw no attraction in these fathers. They were a liability, as far as I could tell. They wanted a tidy house, no noise, dinner on the table. Specifically, they did not like pets or wild artwork or late games or sleepovers. They sat and they read papers and if they were the one driving the car you said nothing. Not. A. Thing. I was glad I grew up without a father. They were full of “Otherness” to me, horrible, demanding and lazy. I never even saw a man do the dishes until I married.
Away from the menace of men, I was raised to believe women could do anything, that I could do anything, and I was given the independence to do so. I got a job at aged fourteen, bussing tables at a restaurant. I hitched lifts, rode the night bus, punched time clocks, figured out how to open a bank account and file tax returns. The schools were good, the libraries well stocked. I spent whole afternoons at libraries when I wasn’t working. And when I was working, I found it thrilling to learn how to stock a walk-in freezer or slice through enormous, catering trays of Jell-O. The freedom was delicious.
I was lucky—smart, resourceful, unfettered by adults. School wasn’t difficult. Having experienced real work it seemed easy, in fact, and because my mother demonstrated to me the power of words, I started writing early in my life. I was pretty; boys liked me (or were deathly afraid of me, or both) and while there was one horrendous experience with a man who took a shine to me, I was mostly okay. I wanted good grades and I got them. I was mouthy and exhausted and sometimes I worried about what was going to happen to my mother, who had been ill, but mostly I bloomed into young adulthood with ease. In fact, I got into Harvard and became part of the class of 1986. Why? Because I was enterprising and nobody had ever told me no, because nobody had been there at all, which turned out to be a good thing.
Is that privilege? I’m not sure. It sounds like it to me. And now, as a middle-aged white woman with plenty of advantages, I am certainly privileged.
But while some people have told me my childhood was a disaster, that I was the victim not only of sex abuse, but also neglect, I don’t feel like a victim. I think my husband, with his private schooling and music lessons, had a far less privileged background than I did. Let me say now that he is white and beautifully spoken. He plays the requisite games of the British elite: golf and tennis and cricket. He is polite and correct and entirely presentable at all times. Indeed, he is “privileged” in the way one can easily discern upon meeting him.
But he grew up with ultra-religious parents who were anti-intellectual, sexist, racist, conservative, and disapproving of everything that went outside their idiosyncratic notion of “godliness.” His mother had been an excellent musician but gave up any serious practice once she married. She gave some lessons at a nearby school and was paid in what his father described to me once as “pin money” as though it weren’t real money at all.
My father-in-law felt men were “head of the household” and voiced this openly. Had I been born into that family, a girl living with people who mirrored society’s notion of women as inferior to men, I would never have achieved the things I have. I would have had hot dinners and ironed clothes and heaps of security, but what would have been the result? A very boring life in which I wrote nothing at all for fear of upsetting people, or upsetting my parents or being un-ladylike. Give me the bloodshed and high stakes of my own childhood over the suffocating, dispiriting mediocrity of a 1960’s and 70’s “privileged” middle class English family any day.
As for childhood sex abuse, my husband’s family didn’t fare any better there. I don’t even know how many of the siblings were abused, but my husband was used for sex at by a man who taught at the prestigious, elite boarding school his parents paid a small fortune for. He was desperately homesick and begged his parents to let him return home but that was met with a resounding no. By the age of eleven he was being regularly abused by the teacher. He was too scared to tell anyone and certainly not his religious, dogmatic, judgemental parents. Nor could he have appealed to the headmaster, as the headmaster was also having sex with boys (and is currently serving an eight-year sentence).
Does that sound like privilege? Do you think that we should judge the amount of “privilege” my husband enjoys because of what he looks like or sounds like or his background? Should we dismiss his thoughts as those of privileged people who could not possibly understand what it is like to be disenfranchised and powerless, at the mercy of those in authority? I don’t think so.
But I do see that he is privileged. I don’t deny it. He is a mature white man, an educated man, a man of a certain “class”. But if you think he doesn’t understand powerlessness and voicelessness, I can promise you he does. Imagine living inside an institution in which you are an object, a sex toy, and having nobody you feel you can turn to for help.
I do not write this to dismiss the pain of others but to embrace it. I can’t know what it is like to be black in a country that seems determined to see black skin as inferior. I am a feminist–of course, this is obvious–and we need feminism now more than ever. I was “helped up” through Harvard, that outrageously moneyed, privileged university that occasionally pays for lucky people like myself. We need to help up others, in all sorts of places. I am not exceptional.
But I do think I’m lucky that I grew up the way I did. From what I can tell, girls who lived lives of “privilege” in Britain during my childhood era didn’t stand a chance.