I suck at it. Sucked. Getting better. Here’s a story about what it looks like when we politely flex that terribly important muscle.
I sat across from my coach, a man I’ve known for more than thirty years. HUGE personality, big successes, multiple New York Times bestsellers. You’d think he wouldn’t need to trample all over and hijack other’s work, but he does.
I know his personal history, which isn’t for publication. That’s his journey. Mine has ever been establishing a kind “no” when he’s stomped all over me with his Doc Martens.
Years ago we worked on a book together. I came to him in January 2010 with a very clear idea in mind, as well a title: “Wordfood.” My idea, my title, my new word. I trademarked it, and we went to work. He brought untold value to that process, and many ideas which ended up in the book. But not the title.
Some time later we were at a meeting of peers. In a group of folks we both knew, he announced that the title was his idea. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say. His claim went unchallenged. And I was righteously pissed off about it. That was eleven years ago. Lots can happen in eleven years.
In our various conversations, he’s done that several times, steamrolling me by taking credit for work I did. In particular he does it if there is an audience, which makes calling him on his shit a lot harder. Look, this guy is so supremely talented that he hardly needs to occupy my geography. But he’s a late-sixties White male with terrible insecurities, and that is what he does.
Until the last time we met.
Jeff (not his real name) and I were discussing his writing a memoir. He’d asked for my input, so I was recounting a story of mine that he was involved in, and which deserves its own article. As I recounted the incident, he snatched my story line from me out of midair and told me that he had written and given me my first few funny lines for my audience.
He had done no such thing.
This time I said, kindly but with great clarity, No. You didn’t.
He tried again, and I stood my ground. No, Jeff. This is what you did. You gave me three words. I did the rest of it. I am happy to give you credit but I did the rest of it. You did not give me my funny lines for my speech. I did that.
The conversation was long. For the sake of his book idea I reviewed a few other stories where he was of significant help to me in my career.
Again, he hijacked my story line, telling me about what he had done, which in fact had nothing to do with the truth. Again, I laid the borderline down.
No. That’s NOT what happened. This is what you did. This is what I did.
I had to do it several times because he argued with me. However, I’m the one who lived it. You can’t rewrite history that I lived. These days I have a backbone which has grown out of ten plus years of adventure travel. I own my fucking stories. You do NOT steal thunder that I created.
You do NOT rewrite history, making yourself the hero using MY brilliance.
He backed off. He can only be a bully if I let him. This time I didn’t. I was kind, but very, very firm. For with someone this powerful AND this needy, that’s what it takes. Clarity is power. I was very clear. You do not get to steal MY story, MY material.
My friend, without meaning to, tried hard to gaslight me but I refused to let him do it. That’s one of the first times I have absolutely, resolutely stood my ground in the face of a very powerful personality. It’s been my lifelong training to back down, and allow folks to run roughshod over my truth.
The patriarchy loves to steal, loves to hoard, and loves to lord it over folks who can’t fight back when their brilliance is ripped right out of their hands, along with all credit, royalties and historical accuracy.
As women, this happens to us all the time. History is full of talented women (and men, most especially of color) whose creations, inventions and scientific works have been hijacked by lesser White men and hailed as their own. While some of that is being brought to light today, there is so much of it, from symphonies written by the wives of great composers to great works of literature penned by women to all kinds of inventions such as GPS (please see this story).
Consider GPS. Think it was all White guys? Only White men could possibly…nope.
Dr. Gladys West, a Black woman. She finally got credit, in that lame, late-to-the-party acknowledgement that so many BIPOC inventors receive long after the fact. But that’s another article, for there are too many examples to list, celebrate and underscore this point.
Women were first in computers, and Black women were among the original reasons we even had a space program. But those stories don’t support the narrative. They’re coming out, and with them, more and more and more stores about who really invented what, when and how credit got hijacked, like my buddy, above.
The active theft of intellectual property is alive and well, and continues today. It’s patriarchal business as usual. It’s a hugely effective way of maintaining the narrative about women, people of color and anyone who isn’t male and White. It’s lame, but effective.
After all, since we women and folks of color are so inferior, we couldn’t possibly have had an original idea.
My tiny exercise in setting boundaries was just that: a tiny exercise. It’s been a lifetime of apologizing for my existence, for being outspoken, in the way and way too bright. Given that I was taught my worthlessness, when I did something that was worthy of note, of course I allowed others to steal and take credit for it. Who was I to say no?
People who have been brought up by addicts, those of us who were subjected to sexual assault or abuse, have difficulty with boundaries. Sadly, that makes up billions of us, which makes the subjugation of and pilfering from those people a hell of a lot easier. That’s why, when I have a small victory wherein I set a clear boundary, it’s a Very Big Deal. It’s not easy for me to do such a thing and not reflexively feel that I should immediately apologize.
Bet you know the feeling, too.
Um, sorry, that’s mine.
Stop saying sorry. That’s. Fucking. MINE. Back off.
Damn. That felt good.
This article’s title is taken from Gandalf’s challenge to the flaming Balroc in the first installment of Lord of the Rings:
That scene, that statement, reminds me of all the times that I’ve experienced physical, emotional and intellectual trespass. There’s been a lot of it in 68 years.
Unlike other muscles on my body, this one is underdeveloped. But it’s getting stronger with use. Funny how exercising a clear NO to people attempting to exercise patriarchal privilege builds strength. You may be in for a fight, but in this case it’s worth it. You do not become Gandalf the White by playing small and allowing others to take what is yours. I can’t even begin to address how this plays out on a world scale, but you get my drift.
To say no is costly. However, as Gandalf discovered, on the other side of setting clear boundaries lie growth, freedom and personal power. I fear censure. Above all, I fear rejection, for when we say no to people who feel perfectly entitled to us, what we own, our bodies and all that we create, we risk everything.
Which is why it’s worth everything to bloody well say,