Rape Culture Puts The Final Nail in the Coffin of High School Best Friendship

“You looked like a dirty, little street kid”

Our friendship goes back to when the three of us were high school best friends

Facebook has claimed the life of another friendship. It was a friendship on life support, but it had longevity. It was over 25 years old. We’ve been friends since I was in 8th grade and she was in high school. We’re almost 50 now.

She wrote a Facebook status update something like, “I am so over seeing posts about sexual harassment and sexual assault. Why do women have to complain years later?”

It was exceptionally bad timing. The night before I had finally gotten up the nerve to act on my own past bad experiences. I had just written to the supervisors of men who had mistreated me — despite a non-disclosure agreement — and I told their supervisors I would come forward if there were other reports of abuse.

I don’t even know what I wrote under her status update about sexual harassment, but it was something like this:

“Saying things like this explains why we are not as close as we used to be.”

She wrote me back in a private message on Facebook. She said she had raised boys and worked around men, so she understood their perspective. And she was so sorry that I had bad experiences, but oh well, that’s just too bad. She typed the following words. Put on your big girl panties and get over it. She called me very pathetic. I didn’t respond. I just unfriended.

She was the Homecoming Prep Princess and I was Little Miss Squirt in our off-campus high school program’s mock Homecoming Dance. I didn’t like being Little Miss Squirt, but she said it was because I was younger than the rest of the gang

She has told me what she thought of me since the very beginning of our friendship but I did not listen carefully. She hid her true feelings behind jokes. I laughed at the insults she aimed in my direction.

It is absolutely true I was playing at the curb of my street with my brother and sister when she met me. I probably did look like a dirty, little street kid. It never occurred to me to wonder until much later why she started our friendship off by telling me her negative thoughts of me.

The second time she met me, she laughed and said, “Nothing personal, but it was so funny when we were introduced. You had on those suspenders. You were playing in the dirt right there on the street. You just struck me as a dirty, little street kid.”

Funny people go for the gut, right? They get laughs based on your weaknesses. That’s okay, it keeps you humble. Everyone wins, because the funny one is making you laugh. Damn, you need to laugh so bad. If it is at your expense, that’s okay. It’s your turn.

Because next, she’s going on and on about how sexy your legs are. That’s a true friend. Only a best friend would emphasize how sexy your legs are. She even got me an award for it at our college prep program after I lost weight. There is an actual certificate that says I have sexy legs because of her.

I earned that sexy leg award. I worked out at the YWCA almost everyday to lose weight.

We made a plan together. I would go into ROTC for the Air Force. I applied for a scholarship, and I got it. But it required that I major specifically in engineering to accept it, and I had my heart set on other pursuits. I wanted to find a cure for mental illness. Lofty goals for a kid. She intended to go into the Air Force directly, then attend college.

I got a scholarship for ROTC, but I ended up turning it down; She went into the Air Force, became a Veteran, and got married

She was in the military during the first Iraq War, stationed in Britain. I flew to Heathrow, and met her. We took a bus north some distance to an American Air Force base. That is the limit of what I have seen of England. The base. But I loved my best friend more than sightseeing.

I was able to visit her because I was already in Europe. I was studying for a semester in Germany, so my host family helped me arrange a ticket on Lufthansa to fly over to London.

I envied my best friend for her husband, her newborn baby, her dog, and associated stability. She was harping at me for making the wrong choices in men. She knew I was in love with a man in the Navy who ended up stringing me along for several years. Hearing her rag on me about how I could find a man if I didn’t focus so much on school was depressing.

There I sat with her baby and her dog full of envy about how she had accomplished her Mrs. Degree while I pined for a man in the Navy

But back then when I visited her in England, I was in my third year of college as a girl from the poverty class, and I was caught between two cultures. My family was pulled into crisis when I left for college, and my mother continually called me 75 miles away to drive home and put out fires. For example, three of my brothers were getting into trouble with the law.

College life was miserable for me, because I wasn’t fitting in. Luckily, I had the help of my Upward Bound mentor to help me with navigating college. Upward Bound, a college prep program for low-income or first generation students, was a federal anti-poverty program that had changed my life.

That’s how I met my high school best friend. Through Upward Bound. When she came around the corner of our street that day in the summer, she was visiting another Upward Bound student who was my neighbor. She had come down from her rural Iowa farm.

This best high school friend inspired me to drive forty-five miles north from my hometown to hers many times to visit. I even went to her high school one day with her and she went to my high school one day with me. She was with me when I got drunk for the first time.

Our college prep program finished a class that earned us three college credits in college writing. I got drunk for the first time and my friends had to take care of me from overdoing it

Written in 1999 to my high school best friend

I found an old letter written in 1999 to Loren. I was asking her not to call me an “ungodly Christian” or a “sinner.”

Dear Loren,

Whenever we get off of the phone, I feel hurt. I have asked myself why this happens, and I realized besides the differences between us, there is also this unpleasantness that haunts every conversation. Being misunderstood is one of the hardest aspects of my life, and coping with it must be in my karma. What has become clear to me is that my oldest friends do not understand me. That would probably be okay, but this lack of understanding is coupled with critical judgment. I’m not sure what I have done to warrant it.

I looked over the words that came from me since I was a young girl by browsing through old diaries, and my values, my ambitions, and my style of interacting have not changed much. I have been shaped by a life of poverty. …From being poor, I learned to be thrifty. From being homeless, I learned to be responsible. And from being traumatized, I learned to be accepting. … So why must I feel defensive when I talk to old friends? Why is it that after talking to an old friend, I spend the next day on the phone with my current friends analyzing what exactly happened?

How did I get to be seen as spoiled? Where did my opinions become meaningless? So many questions that I suppose I can only turn to you or to Rosie for the answers. I want to maintain my friendship, because friends are the most valuable part of my life. I am good at being hard on myself, but I am getting better at being fair with myself. My qualities are mostly apparent to me. For example, I adore my friends and I can be loyal to a fault. Loyalty is a good quality, and yet it can be bad for me. I have to consider what is best for me, and now I am not sure what that is.

Possibly you don’t know what I am talking about, and you will say, where is this coming from? Let me explain. I found a letter I wrote to my best friend, Mary, in 1995. I was sharing with her my upset feelings about a pattern that started around 1993. I told her my old high school friends were consistently telling me I needed to get out of school and “face the real world.” They were telling me I made lousy choices in my romantic life. These friends were telling me that I changed and they didn’t like the new me. I was told that I act like I am better than other people. I was too intellectual….too liberal…I was too status conscious. I told her how it seemed my old high school friends thought there was nothing right about me or at least nothing they thought to mention.

Fast forward to last night, and the scenario repeats itself…”I don’t mean to insult you, but…”. “This may upset you, but…”I am apparently all of the things I was in 1995, plus I am also a sinner, ungodly, a bad Christian. I am also not a hard worker.

It’s all just fun and kidding around, but the words reflect honest feelings. Where does it come from? Why are the conversations with old friends so tense? Is it because our friendship has simply run its course? Is there nothing left there to resurrect? The only thing I have heard complimented about me is that I stayed single, and that never felt like a choice I made. It was just something unfortunate that happened to me, while meanwhile it was painful to lose the men in my life. I never felt support for that.

I am not sure what all of this means. But at a time when I struggle with a nasty chronic illness, I raise two of my younger siblings, and I make people around me laugh and smile, what is earning me your disdain? My mental health is always tenuous so I need to surround myself with those who love me. Happily, I managed to find such people in an environment where cutthroat competition is more everyone’s style. My closest friends support my decisions, no matter how stupid or self-serving. I think I return that favor to all of my closest friends. I have friends who actually compete with me for the same jobs and we come through it knowing that when one of us wins, we all do.

Something that happened in 1995, a full four years ago, is regularly raised as an issue in our conversations. I said that my friends were working class, like on Roseanne, from TV or like me. I said that my present circumstances were more like living with the sitcom Frasier from TV without any of the humor. It was never about you or about Rosie. I was proud of being working class, of working myself through college while getting pretty dirty at my difficult jobs. It was my personal demon in graduate school to interact with strangers who were truly strange to me culturally, something that I needed people in my life to understand. Instead, I feel that describing my most painful life experience in years became about my friends and how they felt about being described as working class.

Nonetheless, I apologized for my comments. Still this was not enough to be forgiven and forgotten. Instead, it is evidence of my “problematic self.” Do you or Rosie, to this day, have a clue what I meant? I never felt it was acceptable to try and explain. I guess I never felt like it was right to assume I understood another person’s life experience unless I have lived them. I have no idea what the military is like, and I won’t try and tell you I do. I would ask that others do the same for my graduate school experience.

There is a price for working hard to raise yourself out of poverty. That price is sometimes people you knew and loved do not like you anymore. I can’t describe how I feel because the pain is too raw. Nonetheless, it is not legitimate pain to some of my friends. Which leads me to ask, are they my friends? How can it be that Mariko, my Japanese bisexual friend from a continent and a social class away will only speak well of me? She is so different from me but I never leave our conversations feeling like less of a person. Instead, she acknowledges that my road was not easy, and she admires my strength. How can Deborah, my best friend who left graduate school after becoming hopelessly depressed and sometimes suicidal, find it in her heart to listen to me vent about graduate school? The other people who do seem to care what happens to me: Shara, a beautiful black bisexual woman, Warren, a working class Southern black man, Barb, a chain-smoking German teacher with the mouth of a sailor, or Kristi, the tough-as-nails parole officer with seventeen tattoos, and Diane, a Cher look-a-like with a tendency to love men too much and researching sexuality. So different, and yet I love them all, because fundamentally…differences don’t matter to me. Only feeling loved and respected matters to me. But my oldest friends don’t respect me. Instead, I feel patronized, made to feel like a child.

My values have not changed. I do not care if my closest friends get abortions, work in factories, get divorced, date within the same sex, have a different skin color, join the Salvation Army, or speak only in intellectual terms. I am happy to be full of self-doubt. I am never quite sure whose points of view are right.

What is a friend? It matters so much to me that I can’t even get back to work on a critical academic assignment I have had since I began college. It has overtaken my work as my mind drifts back through the good old days and then that same question chills my heart as I consider the present state of these relationships. The past was pretty good, but what positive things are to be gained from strained phone calls, accusations, and criticism? Would I enjoy this reunion you are proposing? Would it be more of the same mistreatment? Would I have to be converted? In other words, would I have to change to be accepted?

I have enclosed a number of writings that demonstrate who I am as a person. As it turns out, these writings show who I have always been. The changes have only been to the development of the core me. Perhaps, if you or Rosie, do not like me now, you never knew me or you never liked me to begin with. I guess I believe there is something there. Perhaps you will become angry, thus never speaking to me. Perhaps you will dismiss my thoughts and feelings, only to shake your head in disgust. I’m willing to risk this rejection so that we might try and rescue this friendship. I can’t fool myself anymore into thinking we have one now. In fact, I feel real friends would think about extending an apology for being so critical.

As a final thought, please ask yourself if this letter is a surprise. Did you know that I have been feeling this way for at least five years? If not, perhaps you would like to get to know me better and love me for who I am. If you do not want to do that, at least I want you to know that I did enjoy the happier years we spent together.

Standing by,

Jordan

She wrote back to the letter. Everything she wrote was abusive. We had a reunion anyway.

She criticized me even more in her response to my letter. She took the symptoms of my mental illness, which do include rumination about my past trauma, and she drilled down on it as a weakness.

Who does that? The way I analyzed it, a hurt person. She had lost her mother when she was eleven years old. She had been molested by older siblings. Her stepmother was emotionally abusive or at least she said she was. Now that I have been a stepmother, I question whether this hostile person I had called my friend was actually the source of the problem.

Due to her experiences with trauma I excused the way she treated me. When she wrote cruel things about how I dwell too much on my feelings, I ignored it. Since I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and binge eating disorder, I do think about my feelings enough to make them a central part of my writing. Apparently when I wrote letters to her, I talked about them enough to give her ammunition to slam me.

If a person knows anything about the treatment of these disorders, experiencing your feelings authentically is one of the things you spend hours working on to heal and recover from your mental illnesses. If she had ever truly read anything I wrote, she would have had a sense of what mental illness was, how it was treated, and most of all, things you should not say to a person with a mental illness.

When I reread all of Loren’s letters this past week, I thought about how our relationship reflects so much of what is happening in our culture at the present time. People are standing up to their abusers all over the world. Unfortunately, abusive people have created a backlash. They have double-downed on their tactics and strategies.

Instead of being willing to admit the things that have hurt us may have created problematic, troubling characteristics to our personalities, we just continue to hurt other people. I know I have hurt people in my life as a result of the pain I have experienced. To remedy this, I spend time in therapy, admit my faults, and try to do better.

A friendship spanning decades could not last. Why?

Many Medium writers have been telling us. My friend matched her disdain for weakness in people with her politics. She considered herself a conservative. She is not alone. Kaz Weida helps me to see this problem with my former best friend is a societal problem.

Kaz shared a number of insights. First, in general, women spend large amounts of their time thinking about themselves as objects. Instead of observing their environments, women are have a mental mirror for how they appear to others. I could certain see how Loren had objectified me since we met. She focused on my appearance from the start and she encouraged me to do to do so, too. Sexy legs, indeed. Eating disorder for me later. Mmm, hmm.

Kaz also discusses how conservative women internalize rigid gender roles enforcing them with things like purity balls. I just love the creepy pictures such balls produce. Kaz found one from the Internet. Here’s one from my family. My brother and his daughter:

From the Bray family collection

The same kind of behavior that always allowed Loren to be abusive to me is the same thing that drives her political orientation and her adoption of rape culture. She embraces Christianity as she told me in a letter she sent after being born again.

Julie Ruth comes from the same conservative Christian cultural background I come from and Loren chose to adopt when she was born again. Ms. Ruth generated the model of conservative Christian worldview that explains their ongoing support for abusive relationships.

The model below comes from the article above. Ms. Rath explains the model further by describing how Christian conservatives are conditioned to accept abuse by their moral hierarchy. You are taught that science is the enemy. Outsiders are always enemies of the faith full of lies. I was never supposed to challenge this way of thinking and when I did, my childhood best friends did not like it.

George Lakoff’s model of Christian moral hierarchy from Julie Rath’s Medium article

There it is. Loren’s worldview laid out on the page for me. It certainly underpins rape culture. All I have to do is keep reading Medium and the answers to why my relationships were ending are all laid out for me.

As long as women disrupt the social order by complaining about their sexual abuse, people like Loren are going to complain about it on Facebook. It disturbs their moral hierarchy. I was never going to be able to tell her about what happened with my employer because she just would have sided with the abusive workplace. Until I got married, she harassed me about being in graduate school too long.

She labeled me a wacky radical in one letter. This was because I was a “liberal” college professor at the time. I had never once criticized her or her life choices. This was before Facebook, so she didn’t even know my politics when she wrote that letter. “Liberal college professor” was just a phrase someone was spitting out in disgust in her conservative social circles, so it made it’s way into her letter. I let all that go without responding in the name of keeping a friend.

She goaded me in her private message. “If this message about sexual harassment is all it takes to end this friendship, I guess you are going to end up being the judgmental one after all.” Because she added, “I have tolerated all of your liberal viewpoints on Facebook for years.”

I’m pretty sure she muted me years ago given that she never interacts with my Facebook posts and I never see hers.

We just saw each other last month in person for the first time in quite a few years, because the woman who brought us together through Upward Bound died. Ironically, it took a black woman from the South side of Chicago to get two Iowan white girls from the country and the city, respectively, to become friends.

Phyllis could mend broken people, but they shut down her Upward Bound program in 2012 during federal budget cuts. They aren’t helping low-income and first-generation youth to complete high school and finish college anymore in Northeast Iowa. Somehow it seems fitting that when Phyllis is no longer helping kids to heal, Loren and I can’t make it work any longer.

I wore my “I love you, man” shirt to remind us of the old days, but I didn’t realize our friendship had a month left

Goodbye, Loren. I have had enough of abusive people.

Although he deserves no blame for poor quality, I want to thank my husband, Thomas Halsey, for flash-editing a draft of this.

Chances are I have a migraine. My spirit guides are Voltaire & Bierce. Considering making SJW into a religion. Genealogist

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