I am a writer and I see now, halfway through my life, that my writing is a record, in myriad ways, of what it is like to be afraid of and defined by men. To live every hour of your life that way, and to know no other way of being. I have longed to get out from under this fearfulness, this lack of autonomy: it feels like a failure of imagination on my part, that I cannot imagine myself unafraid, undefined. It feels dangerous, sometimes, even to think of it – surely to be unafraid, undefined is the life of a man.
There is no one incident which I can blame for this. By this I don’t mean they are a vague mass. I mean there are so many I cannot count them and they are the fabric of my life. My experience of men is both distant and overwhelming. I am unfamiliar with men – my father left before I was born, I didn’t grow up with brothers. I have been sexually assaulted, bullied, harassed, blocked in my career, threatened, abandoned, hurt, insulted – and loved, desired and generously helped by individual men. Further, I have watched and listened as my culture, the stories I am surrounded by, are flooded with the perspectives and priorities of men. I have lived my life in the State of Man, and I have become an artist inside its propaganda.
Individuals I have turned to and the wider culture both urge me to consider each negative event, each moment of erasure, in isolation, so as to reduce their importance in my mind. Superficially I have done this, but my mind has rebelled against it, for the truth is that they are all connected, that male behaviour towards females is not individuated, it is always an expression to a greater or lesser degree of the power they wield as the dominant force. My ‘public’ behaviour (and I mean this even in a private relationship) is always an expression to a greater or lesser degree of my place in relation to that dominant force. My authentically private responses to being alive, my truthful reactions, are only expressed in my writing. To admit this is to admit how lonely my life as a woman has been. And now, halfway through my life, I see how lonely my mother was for the same reasons, and my grandmother, and I despair that so little has changed.
And thus, my need for anonymity, my division of self was born. It’s not a decision taken lightly. It’s a survival strategy, and it really works. It is imaginatively impossible for me both to tell the truth about my life in my work, and simultaneously speak the truth publicly. I know I would be silenced, criticised, dismissed and my truth denied if I spoke it aloud as myself. It can exist to its full extent in my work, however. It is my greatest joy to be able to be myself, express my life, and reach others unimpeded in my writing. Were I to be silenced in my work, I would, quite simply, be unable to carry on living.
When I first came across the challenge being made to definitions of ‘woman’ and ‘sex’ a few years ago, I saw it for what it was straight away. It was a new, even more insidious way that men were enacting their power to name, control, and author women’s lives. What scared me most about it is that the threat to language, to fundamental meaning, is a threat to imagination itself. Without words and agreed meanings, I can no longer even write. It is hard to express how frightening this is to someone like me. It is worse than anything else that has happened to me. It is annihilation of my private self.
For a year or two I watched as gender ideology marched from the outreaches of incel hinterlands, through the fringes of Twitter and into the mainstream. I could not believe what I was seeing. In real life, I noticed that the social cues among writers and among women that I had previously taken for granted had gone. Perhaps sensing my reluctance to embrace gender identity (though I didn’t ever voice any direct opposition) fellow writers began to press their views upon me, and became angry when I could not show enthusiasm. My connection with writers – our mutual devotion to meaning – evaporated. I had one conversation with a young woman writer whom I admire greatly. When the subject of ‘trans’ came up, her whole demeanour changed, and our common way of viewing the world collapsed. We had to stop talking about it, because it would have meant falling out. There is, I realise, no greater gulf that can arise between writers – and perhaps between lovers – than a disagreement over meaning. In addition, I simply could not bear to watch a young woman collude so thoroughly in her own erasure.
Meanwhile, I had been unfollowed (in one case with some fanfare) by a number of writers, according to the new Twitter etiquette of unfollowing those who follow those you don’t agree with. Following the likes of Graham Linehan and @boodleoops was enough to be publicly discarded. I was blocked on Twitter by some people I had never interacted with and didn’t even know, my name apparently already on blocklists reserved for those described by activists as TERFs – ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists’. So even though as myself I had not uttered a single word against gender ideology, I was already being categorised.
It was clear that ‘live and let live’ was dead as a concept. When at last I saw that colleagues in the arts, those in charge of funding, those who had a direct hand in my career, were voicing gender activist views in public, I realised simple anonymity was not enough. I had to split further, and my pseudonymous identity must do the speaking I could not do. The end result of gender ideology is the annihilation of women as meaningful human beings. I cannot stay silent in real life because if I do pretty soon I won’t be able to speak in my writing either.
I have no fame or platform to devote to this, as others have done. My real self will not help this cause right now. But my alter ego, @JeanRhys1, I find, has guts and balls and nothing to lose. She isn’t going to shut up. Taking strength from the sheer prescient truth-telling force of the great Jean Rhys herself, my pseudonymous Jean has made friends and found allies. She won’t stop until this misogynistic advance has been not only resisted, but turned back. Even if you hate her, even if you’re a young woman who wishes she would shut the fuck up. Even if you’re a young white male who hates women and is determined to have everything he thinks they have for himself.
Shortly before the pandemic struck I attended the Women’s Place conference in London and, along with all the other 800+ attendees, ran the gauntlet of the young women demonstrating outside. How tidy and pretty in their make-up they were, standing politely with their neatly painted signs, doing the dirty work for men. I realised this protest was, like the ideology itself, a reworking of old tropes. I had been not unlike that myself once, thinking that feminism was an old woman’s game, and really the future lay with pleasing men. Older feminists had marched on in spite of our ignorance and lack of sisterhood. And now… I am that older feminist and it is my duty to see what they cannot see, and I hope protect them. Seeing them confirmed in me the urgency of the task. I cannot and will not watch another whole generation of women live their lives as I have lived mine: afraid of and defined by men.