There was a framed picture of me as a baby that stood on our family’s coffee table my entire childhood. I am a year-and-a-half old, having just learned to walk, and am standing nude as a newborn with my hand on the head of a little cherub statue in my grandparents’ garden in Kansas City. I seem to be contemplating the cherub, who could be my carved twin as if life was meeting art in a lush, green suburban Eden. My grandfather took the picture, and it won an award. I was mildly proud of it, pleased I had somehow been a part of something special and beautiful.
Ten years later I was back in that garden over summer vacation. It was a steamy July afternoon, and I was drinking lemonade with my grandfather. He was my only living grandpa, my mother’s father had passed away when I was six. I didn’t really enjoy visiting my paternal grandparents. They prayed before they ate, and I was always afraid of making too much noise in their perfectly tidy, perfectly ordered home. Every idea I had for how to have fun seemed like it would break one of their rules.
I finished my lemonade and my grandfather asked if I remembered that photo of me with the cherub. Of course, I said. He had his camera with him and suggested we reenact it. I shrugged and got up. I had nothing else to do. I marched up the garden path and put my hand on the cherub’s head.
“No, no,” he said. “It needs to be the same. You can’t be dressed.”
I had just turned twelve, and puberty was making its way rapidly through my body and mind. I was self-conscious about things I hadn’t cared about the year before. One of those things was who I felt comfortable being naked in front of, which was exactly nobody.
“No,” I said.
“It’ll be okay. Just for the picture. Go ahead.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Go ahead,” he insisted. “It’ll be fine. Go ahead.”
He just kept saying go ahead. I didn’t like saying no to people. It felt like disagreement, and I didn’t want to disappoint people, and I didn’t want to seem afraid. It was hardest still to say no to adults, whom I had spent most of my life more or less obeying. There was a sense of safety and security I derived from this obedience; they clearly knew more than I did, so better maybe to do what they said.
Maybe I was just being fussy, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t care since he didn’t. I got undressed, struck the pose, turned away from the camera, looking back over my shoulder. He snapped the shot and I dressed quickly. That was all that happened. He didn’t tell me not to discuss this with anyone else. In fact, he sent my mother a copy of the photo. I think he was proud of it. I glanced at that picture only once. It was my expression, my pure discomfort and uncertainty, that I hated most of all in, not my nakedness.
I don’t actually know much about my grandfather. I don’t know why he thought badgering me into that photo was okay. I don’t know why I knew so clearly at twelve what he at seventy-whatever did not. But I do know that at some point I was going to have to learn to draw the line I tried and failed to draw that evening, would have to learn how to say no in way that stuck.
When I read about the #MeToo movement, and it’s antecedent “No means no,” I was reminded of that photo of me. I certainly meant no, and in an ideal world, a world where no one needs to learn anything, a world every adult knows everything they need to know boundaries and what and what isn’t appropriate by the time they have children or grandchildren, that would have been the end of it. It would take me years of saying yes when I meant no, or saying no then begrudgingly yes, to finally understand that if I can see a boundary that another person can’t if that is the reality, then it is up to me to draw that line clearly, brightly, and unequivocally. This can be done with love and without any anger, though for me, it took much practice to learn just how.
I was helped along, I must say, by the woman I married, who made an early name for herself for how often she said no. She even ended up writing a book about a girl who could say little else. Yet one night, shortly after she learned how to say Yes to me, we visited my mom and were going through her old photos. There it was, buried in a box. We wondered why she still had it.
“I think it’s time we just got rid of it,” she said.
For a moment, I almost told her not to, that in some mysterious way it would be hurtful to that old man who was still alive in a retirement home in Kansas City. Except that expression wasn’t mine anymore, I knew now what that twelve-year-old didn’t, and I didn’t need to remember a mistake.
“I’ll do it,” I said, and happily tore it to pieces.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo courtesy iStock.