I want to write about being sixteen. I know. Many women are doing this just now. It’s an epidemic. But this is how it works. It’s 2018. You’re plodding along with your mother down the normally peaceful beach where you live in Tamil Nadu. You see three men in the distance. One of them brings his phone out and shines it against his shirtsleeve as you approach. He steps in your path, ‘Sister, one selfie?’ he says. The other two hang back, holding beer bottles, leering. ‘No,’ you say. You keep walking. Mother quickens her pace as well. The man shouts at you. ‘Koodhi, dai, koodhi,’ he says, again and again. ‘Cunt, hey, cunt.’ Never have you escalated so quickly from sister to cunt.
Cut to a few months ago, at a literary festival in England with women’s rights activist Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. We’re on a #MeToo panel and Helen is asking the women in the audience a hypothetical question: Would you rather be sixteen now or sixteen whenever you were sixteen? Over 80 per cent decline to be a present day teenager. Nobody wants to go back to the dark ages of girdles and laudanum obviously, but vagina mohawks and Snapchat seem to induce an equal amount of terror.
I think back to when I was sixteen, growing up in the conservative coastal city of Chennai, then Madras. I was in a relationship with a boy called Anand Jon Alexander. He’s now serving a 59-years-to-life imprisonment in a California prison. In 2008 he was charged with 32 counts of rape, sexual battery, and lewd acts on a child. The women and girls who came forward had all been aspiring models, aged 14-23. When I heard the news I remember feeling no surprise, and thinking only that he’d stuck with the age group he knew to manipulate best.
I wanted to write something then. To speak in solidarity with those girls. To say I believed them. I knew their testimony wasn’t part of a conspiracy to keep a brown man down, as his family and lawyers were suggesting. Because I’d known him before he was a mid-level fashion designer in New York. I’d known him when he was an arrogant teenager in Madras, with holes in his jeans and Jon Bon Jovi posters in his room. Even then, there had been many girls. I was one of them. He liked to tell me about the others because I had the ‘maturity’ to handle it. I wanted to tell all these girls that I know it wasn’t just what he did physically that hurt, but the never-ending psychological desert of it. But speaking aloud would have meant addressing my own shame and guilt, and having moved so far from my past, did I really want to dredge it up?
How many years did it take to shake him off? Ten? Fifteen? I hoped to start a new life as an undergraduate in the US. He tracked me down and got his sister to drive him all night from Florida to North Carolina just so he could tell my then-boyfriend that whatever he thought he had, Anand had had first. Years would go by with no contact and then an email would land, or a phone call. By now I’d realized that love, sex, relationships – these things could be nourishing, that what I’d only been able to vaguely articulate as wrong when I was sixteen was a damaging and abusive experience of first love. Even now that he’s in jail, I get a Facebook friend request from him. I ignore it. His sister writes from his account: ‘Message from Anand: sends you only love and was surprised at your recollection and portrayal of him as a permanent ghost . . . In any event those phases are done. Don’t let misguided anger distort the incredible experience you’ve had together . . . here’s something you can do to help get him home. (petition attached).’
If I could, I’d choose to be sixteen today. Possibly, I would make different choices. Certainly, I’d have access to more information. There are new fears of course – cyber-bullying, the sexualization of young girls’ bodies on the Internet, how social media fixes any unhappiness into a kind of permanence. But the truth is that even before the Internet, Madras was a kind of World Wide Web. Everything you did was recorded and remembered for perpetuity. Things you hadn’t done (fake news / gossip) were also remembered for perpetuity. For the people who were around then, I will always be one of Anand Jon’s girls.
Cut to recent news. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, the Catholic nuns in Kerala speaking out against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, and the #MeToo explosion of stories that women in India have been sharing these past few months. Men who have been allowed to stand on tall mountains. Girls and women coming out of the woods with their testimonies. Why does a woman decide to speak when she does? The answer is that there can only ever be dormancy. No death, no closure. You are never finished with these stories. You thought you buried that shit? Here it is again. It won’t go away until you speak it, and even then, it’s never really done.
You don’t know what will resurrect those volcanic layers in you, but something will. You’ll be walking down a beach just fine, and suddenly you’ll have to confront that girl who was you. Part of you still judges her, wants to ask her what the hell she was thinking. Your story takes its place in a web of other stories. You feel less alone. You think of the poet Adrienne Rich, diving into the wreck with her body armour of black rubber, the flippers and mask: ‘I came to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail.’ There is no end to being sixteen. In a flash, you are back there again.
Girls are Coming out of the Woods, Tishani Doshi’s latest collection of poems, is published by Copper Canyon Press and Bloodaxe Books.
Photograph © photosofdelilah