A woman I know from the US wrote to me and asked me how one knows whether or not one’s gym situation is severely messed up. She then told me about a very alarmingly abusive power dynamic between the owners/managers of her previous gym and how they treated female gym members, as well as their more physical power trips over male and female members during sparring. She wanted to write about it, to help women who might be in similar situations realize that this is not okay. In the way you can change any love song into a Christian Rock song by exchanging “baby” for “Jesus,” you can switch out the words “trainer” and “manager” with “boyfriend” and you have a classic abusive relationship with numerous women involved. But then she didn’t want to publish it because this past gym is clearly still bullying her and holding power over her with the threat of retaliation and “backlash,” in a verbal form I’d imagine. The part that really set me off was a reasonable enough explanation that “[she] still has to see these people at fights.” They’re in the same social network, so to speak.
The Muay Thai scene in the US is incredibly small. It is a goldfish in a shot glass kind of small in terms of running into each other on the east coast, especially. So I get it. But the framing of the problem like this shows that the gym power dynamics are exactly the same with her, even though she’s no longer at that gym. These guys have the power and they use it to bully her into silence and passivity. What I want is for her conclusion to be that she will write about this gym and then the embarrassment is on the persons who have actually done wrong and the problem is then that “these people will still have to see me at fights.” Let them figure out how to deal with it.
I truly believe that composing one’s narrative as a woman is life-saving, and I don’t mean that figuratively. I am obsessed with the story of Bluebeard, in which a young maiden is taken as the new wife of the horrible pirate/robber/general scary man named Bluebeard, for his horrific blue beard. She is given free movement about the castle when Bluebeard has to go on some villainous mission but she is forbidden from looking in one particular, locked room. But she’s given the key to this room. There are a few versions of the story, but all of them are to some variation of the maiden’s curiosity getting the better of her and she looks in the chamber, which is like looking into Bluebeard’s horrible soul. It’s full of dead women – in some stories including the maiden’s two elder sisters, who have previously been wedded to the villain and disappeared – and the floor is a pool of blood. In some versions the maiden drops the key and stains it with blood, in other versions the key itself begins to bleed. But just as she cannot unsee what she saw, the key’s bloody betrayal cannot be wiped clean and thus Bluebeard discovers her transgression. He swears to murder her and add her to the room, but first they have to go have their pre-wedding dinner or some other such awful thing. While everyone is at dinner and Bluebeard is being terrible, the maiden is surrounded by a large audience of people, including her (remaining) family of brothers and her father. Bluebeard tries to torment her by saying she looks glum, to which she politely responds for everyone that she had a strange and terrible dream the night before. Bluebeard smirks and invites her to regale the dinner guests with her frightening dream. She basically tells the whole story of what she saw in grotesque detail and then at the last moment pulls out the key and exclaims, “and here is the bloody key!” This allows everyone to realize it is no dream at all and that the villain Bluebeard is going to kill his new bride, so instead her brothers leap over the table and cut off Bluebeard’s head, saving their sister. She is saved because she told her story. The key betrayed her actions, silently, and she was doomed. But she opened her mouth and used words to tell the truth of her experiences and that was her weapon, her salvation.
I realized that no matter how much I tell this woman how important it is to write about her experience, so that she can help other women in the same position – maybe even in worse situations – that I’m still asking her to be vulnerable. So here’s where I’ve arrived: I have to be vulnerable. I’m going to write about something I never talk about. I’m going to use words as alchemy to change the horrible experiences that make me feel weak into metals that may form swords or shields. One of my favorite linguists once wrote, “You must be either Anvil or Hammer.” (”Du mußt Amboß oder Hammer sein.” – Goethe) Today, I am the Hammer.
When I was 11 years old I begged my mother to let me stay over at my friend’s house for a sleepover, despite having a violin “group class” early the next morning. Probably as a way to test me, my mom told me that I could stay but I had to be home in time for her to drive me to the lesson at 7 AM. My friend’s house was within walking distance, little more than a mile, and I promised to be home in time. This meant, of course, awakening at dawn and starting the walk home as the birds were still too sleepy to chirp in the trees.
It was the summer between fifth and sixth grade, the transition time between elementary and middle school, of being the seniors among children or the new faces among proper teenagers. It was exciting. I would once again be at the same school as my brother who is closest to my age. He was the fish under the water that I chased tirelessly, watching it disappear out of sight and waiting eagerly to catch its movements and track it wherever it may go, my eyes the kind of tether that could never restrain nor draw the fish to me, but a connection and affection all the same. We would walk to school together again.
On that walk home that early summer morning, while my friend still slept in her lofted bedroom above a baby grand piano, I passed by a playground of a rival elementary school. There were four figures on the basketball court, standing in a circle. They were tall and lanky, perfect silhouettes of teen boys around 15 years old. We looked at each other facelessly, the dim of the morning obscuring anything other than the cut of our shapes. One of them called to me. I don’t remember what he said but I remember I didn’t respond and he called again, to which I said something brilliant, like “fuck off.” There was a murmuring of voices that grew a bit loud for a second, then they were following me.
I was dragged into a small strip of pavement between the chain-link fence of the schoolyard and the untrimmed hedges that lined a neighbor’s unfinished wooden fence. It would have been an alleyway if there were any walls around, but instead it’s a semi-open, semi-obscured shortcut between the public pool and the front side of the school. I felt all the air go out of me as I was pushed onto the ground and one of the boys sat on top of me. My shirt had ridden up on my back and the gravel bit into my skin. I couldn’t get the air in my lungs to say, “I can’t breathe,” something my brothers had done to me a dozen times, crushing me under giant rust-colored velour pillows. He must have shifted his weight because my lungs finally began to fill and I discovered I was panting. His voice sounded like I was listening through water, muffled and indistinct, and then the other three boys were holding my legs and arms down. The boy on my chest lifted himself to a crouch over me and pulled my pants down.
I remember a few things. The first is that every single part of my body that they touched no longer belonged to me. I mentally severed it, like emotional amputation. The hand gripping the right leg is too tight, it hurts, but it’s not my leg – it’s gone, it’s theirs, let them have it. I remember pain that I could not describe because it didn’t seem to be localized. As if pain was happening as an event that I was witnessing rather than it being attached to me. And I remember the boys switching places with each other, passing off the pressure against limbs like a baton in a relay race. The last thing I remember is the smell of cigarettes – that I remember because I actually associate the smell with my father, who was a smoker for much of my very young childhood; it’s comforting in the way anything familiar is comforting. One of them, who was now on all-fours over me, was stubbing a cigarette out on the skin of my groin. He leaned down close to my face and his acrid breath hit my cheek and left ear, a ray of chill across part of my face where I must have had tears. “Smells like pussy ashtray,” he hissed into my face, and then there was a chorus of laughter.
I have no recollection of getting home, but I walked. I put myself in the shower and changed my clothes, then my mom took me to violin class, which I don’t remember at all. That night I got a fever and stayed in bed for a couple days. One of my brothers remarked how “only Sylvie would get the flu in July.”
My parents found out about this – the fact of it, not any of the details – when I was maybe 19 years old. I had used my dad’s computer to respond to another young woman on some online forum for victims of rape and sexual assault. The young woman was at odds with wanting to use the term “virginity” when having sex with her current boyfriend for the first time but didn’t know if that was dishonest because she’d been raped. I assured her that my identification was such that I had “given my virginity” to my first love because it is a gesture of trust, something that is by definition absent from the act of rape. When she responded to that message it got sent to the email linked to the computer and my dad saw it. He showed it to my mom and never said a word of it to me. She cornered me in the kitchen and it was the worst moment of irony that I had not chosen how or when (or if) to talk to my parents about this. I felt bad for my mom. I had never told her because I feared she’d blame herself, take it personally. She did. But probably not being able to protect your 11-year-old daughter in something like this is a greater struggle when she’s now a 19-year-old standing there, refusing to look at you. I’d had some time with it but all those years were collapsing together for her right then. It must have been horrible.
One of my greatest fears in ever telling this story to anybody (and there are, prior to this writing, very few souls that know of it) is that it would define me. That everything I did would be in reference to something done. And maybe I still believe that a little bit, because I don’t talk about it. I refuse to believe that this is “why I fight,” for example, because in truth it’s the fact that I was always a fighter that I came through that experience, alone. But it had power over me; I couldn’t go past this elementary school without feeling severe panic. I couldn’t be touched without feeling fear and to this day I rage when there are moments of dominance that are infused with sexuality while training with men in the ring. (If you’ve almost drowned the difference in danger between a wading pool and the ocean collapse together – “harmless” doesn’t feel harmless.) I’m still scarred by it in many ways, including ways which manifest in my struggles with fighting. The instinct to dissociate from my body in order to protect my mind, for example – like a lizard discarding its tail in the claws of a cat – is still something I find myself doing. I will “take” a lot of pain or strikes or damage and not show affect, but I also shut down mentally and emotionally. I can’t act. I’m willing to accept it without returning it. And that’s not who I want to be, inside the ring or outside of it.
I think you come off sounding like a crazy person when you talk about wanting to hurt people, because it seems cruel. But it’s not – not if you know what that pain is for. I don’t want to hurt people just to hurt them, without meaning. It’s just as crazy to not hurt someone without meaning. You don’t get a pass – you’re not automatically “good” for being passive. And you’re not helping anyone by taking emotional pain and keeping it quiet because it might hurt again to make it known. You can share that pain – by talking about it and by physically sharing it as a teaching tool – and in doing so you are rescuing yourself. You are shifting the power. And when you share that with others you find people who give greater voice to that power, who make it real by amplifying it and that power can save people you don’t even know, who you may never know. You can either be the Anvil or the Hammer, but if you don’t offer something meaningful to go between the two, you’ll never forge anything.
For women who have had difficult times in gyms, I’ve created a Women Only section on the Muay Thai Roundtable forum with the idea that if women had a space that was their own, where only they could read and write, they could not only share their experiences but also offer support. The space is heavily moderated by both myself and Emma Thomas, so if you’d like to speak of your experiences, there is a place where you can do so safely.
If this was a meaningful post, you may like to read other Muay Thai Gendered Experience posts.
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