When I was sixteen, and spending a few weeks of summer with a family in Paris in order to learn French, I was attacked by a man in broad daylight. I like the phrase ‘broad daylight.’ It sounds so lovely. Like a room with all the windows thrown wide open. Inside and out, and no line between them. Or, rather: no boundary one must watch out for. But the phrase ‘in broad daylight’ is often used in stories about something bad. Anyway, I was attacked in broad daylight on a pedestrian mall in Quartier Latin, right out in the open. A man had been following me; he asked again and again if he could buy me a cup of tea, and I said no just as many times. When he began to touch me, his voice growing louder and more insistent, I stopped, looked him in the eye, and said, ‘Fuck off!’ I thought I was brave, cool, worldly. I didn’t think of myself as particularly young. The cuff on the ear came a second later. I was thrown against the building façade and from there slid into a cowering crouch. I looked up at him. He stood there with his arm raised, ready to deal another blow, asking what I had said and if I would repeat it. I said sorry, sorry, sorry. I was shaking uncontrollably. I begged him for forgiveness. Not a single person stopped to help me. No, not even out of curiosity. Maybe it looked like nothing but a drunken fight, like maybe the man was about to fall over too; maybe from the corner of an eye it looked like I was a beggar and the man was about to give me a coin. But, that raised hand? My trembling body? In some ways, I was still a child.
After that I thought of myself as ‘a woman with a past’ for the first time. I had been attacked and I had survived unscathed. I repressed the memory of my shaking body and the way I begged him not to hit me again. What remained was my tough reaction to his propositions. ‘Fuck off!’
Another episode, this one from Paris as well, one year later, took place in a photography studio with a squat photographer. He wanted to have sex with me. I said no, and my ‘no’ provoked him – but also made me exciting in his eyes. I took on a role that suited me very well: the desired. And being the genderless colleague. At least, that’s how I thought of my role. I’ve held tight to it all my life. Sure, it’s both an exaggeration and an oversimplification. But in order to manage the actions and attitudes of men, and their atmospheres and jargons, I have, subtly and a bit furtively, renounced my ideas about being a woman. That’s not a good thing. But it’s not always bad, either. The fact is, sometimes it’s fun! Alter egos, role-playing, putting up fronts, wearing masks . . . this is the sort of thing that can lead to a false image of the self. We can act ourselves out of existence. We can end up in dead ends, become shallow, unreachable, repetitive, unfeeling. But it can also be the other way around: all of the above can make us braver, more exploratory, and playful. We can experiment with light and darkness. Surface and depth. That is a good thing. The tricky part is not to let one preclude the other. One can be both playful and shallow. Wear a mask of bravery while being a coward in denial underneath. Our consolation: as long as we are capable of self-reflection, nothing is written in stone. As long as we can still see ourselves, the mask will not take root in our skin. If our bodies and souls take root in the façade we or others have built up in front of us, we’re done for.
Back to the French photographer. He wanted to take test shots of me for an ad campaign to sell lotion. I think he made his living more from softcore porn than skin-care products. And even if I made for charismatic, amusing company, I was a pretty average, slightly chubby teenage girl in jeans and Stan Smiths, with my diary and paperbacks, pens and lipstick in a canvas tote slung over my shoulder. He asked me to undress. I didn’t want to. He pulled the metal grates down over the window and the door to the studio, which must have once been a shop and, perhaps in some sense, still functioned as such. He said he couldn’t take my picture if I didn’t show him what I looked like without clothes on. He said I might have scars on my body, rendering me unsuitable for nude shots. I responded that I didn’t have any scars, but that I had a lot of birthmarks. I suddenly thought of my mother. Her body and skin. Her withdrawnness. I thought I was a daddy’s girl, a real adventurer. Okay, I said, then check this out, and I pulled my shirt up to my chin. Happy? He said he wanted to kiss me. He said he only wanted to kiss me, and once I let him he would buy me the Vanessa Paradis album with ‘Joe le Taxi’ on it. Kiss me, he said, and grabbed me. He had to stand a little bit on tiptoe. ‘Reach me if you can!’ I responded. He turned around and pulled up the grates. We ate dinner at a restaurant in Bois du Boulogne. The same restaurant I’d been to with my parents and brother a year or so back. I missed my brother. Twenty-five years later I wrote about Marc and the restaurant in Bois du Boulogne in my autobiographical book, Om man håller sig i solen (If You Stay in the Sun). I also wrote that, for a little while, I felt like something terrible would happen in that dark forest. And, well, in the end something truly terrible did actually happen, but I quickly recast it into an anecdote. An interesting experience.
What happened is this:
After dinner we took his car to a night club close to Champs Elysées. Marc bought me a vodka orange and I felt elated and relaxed. I danced and flirted with another man, and then I was dancing on my own. I had so many thoughts in my head. Unwritten poems. I asked for a pen at the bar but then everything suddenly became blank.
I woke up in a tiny, white room with an oval sky light. I was wearing a white dressing gown, and I was on the floor. On a white fury rug. My right knee throbbed with pain. In the sofa behind me was Marc, fast asleep. His body barely covered in a dark-blue silk gown. Slowly he woke up and smiled. He said I was good last night. I don’t want to let him know that I can’t remember what happened, that I don’t know where I am. My only memory is of hitting my leg against something cold and flat. I also remember the sound of iron falling. A singing kind of echo (vibration). I’d had blackouts before but never like this. Marc asked if I wanted to see the video he’d recorded of me, and reached for the remote. And there I was, on the sofa, my left shoulder bare, revealing the strap of my black bra. But I was still too dazed to make sense of it clearly. I couldn’t tell what state I had been in the night before – whether the person on the screen was drunk, or drugged.
Was I harmed by my experience? Did it make me even more of a ‘woman with a past’? After all, I could bounce right back. I wanted to become an author. I grew up in culture where being rugged was a positive thing. Not hypersensitive, but hardy. Sensitivity was a tool for creation. But true pain was there to be manoeuvered away from. Perhaps it was all about class and the zeitgeist. Perhaps it was about guilt and shame within the family. A little of both. I felt that I returned home to Sweden with good material. An author’s greatest wish. Material for a good story. But I also came home drugged and with gaps in my memory. No one asked what was the matter. No adult took the time to help me work through my experiences. I wrote down my stories about Marc and Bois du Boulogne, and they were highly praised. I was the type of young woman who could endure dangerous ordeals without being harmed. I was so worldly and bold, full of self-confidence, able to step back and view myself from a distance and with a healthy sense of humor. Women like that don’t get hurt. They don’t need protection. Their motives don’t need to be questioned. And sure, there’s some truth in that. I was careless with myself. Somehow I had listened to a message that told me: what you are inside isn’t important. The creation of your exterior is everything.
I think about my eighty-seven-year-old mother, who was once an author, poet, and translator. I think of her diaries and what they say about what it was like to be a woman from the 1950s onward. Her relationships with power structures and men. There are sore spots, both from a general perspective and more specifically. She became a writer very much on her own, without any support from home. She struggled with her shyness, neurosis, fear of her fragile health. She had two kids with the man who’s my father and stayed with him for many years until they divorced. He was a successful, worldly, very ambitious writer. He had other women. Almost always there were other women. He denied her accusations, and with time she created a kind of limbo of denial for herself. She lost touch with both truth and language. She ceased to care for herself. Ignored the warning signs the year or two before the stroke.
Her stories are more important to me now than ever in the long, ever-clearer wake of the #MeToo movement. But clarity doesn’t mean one-dimensionality. The complex, the ambivalent – these, too, can be clear. There is room for contrast. My mother’s stories pose questions for the next generation of women: What do we allow? What do we ourselves do to our bodies, our souls? Why do we so often say stop when it’s already too late? Why these silent, desolate spaces? Spaces that, in the end, risk rendering us mute?
I have often pretended to laugh at rude, sexist jokes to avoid being seen as humorless. I have firmly and matter-of-factly turned down propositions. And said yes to others, of course. But we’re not talking about consent here. Consent is everything! And within the framework of consent, there’s still the possibility for a certain type of misunderstanding. I have done things against my will, or kept my own will at arm’s length. Sometimes because it was exciting; often simply to avoid arguments and awkwardness. Above all, it has been a matter of buying time and trying not to appear neurotic or difficult. Not being the one to throw sand in the Vaseline. But that sand is the very thing that makes reality real. Sand in the Vaseline is what makes good art possible.
I remember an afternoon two years ago, when I when visited my mother at the nursing home. I said, ‘Mom, it’s snowing outside the window. But there’s also a revolution going on. Yes, right here, right outside!’ Some of that revolutionary feeling is gone now. I tell my mother once again that it is snowing. She is so tired these days. I’m not even sure she is awake. The snow brings little joy. Instead a mute feeling of loneliness.
Sand in the Vaseline: a painting by Ed Ruscha, 1974. But also a song by Talking Heads.
Photograph © Jared Tarbell