Saturday, February 15, 2020

How My Insurance Company Used Rape Culture to (Almost) Defeat Me

Have you ever believed the prejudiced things people have said about you? Have you ever believed that you deserved it when others treated you poorly because you're a woman, or disabled, or a rape survivor? Have you ever felt that it was your fault when someone abused you? I have. 

When this happens, people's prejudices have taken root within us. We have internalized their prejudices.

This is the story of how I internalized the sexism, ableism, and survivor victim-blaming that my workplace, union, and insurance company used to victimize me. Yes: victimize.

What is a victim? A victim is "someone [who]... has been hurt, damaged, or killed, or has suffered... because of the actions of someone ... else." That's me. Maybe that's you. There's no shame in being a victim. Why would there be? It's not like it's the victim's fault. 

So why, when my insurance company victimized me, did I feel that I was to blame? They knowingly profited off my oppression and vulnerability as a woman, as a disabled person, and as a child sex trafficking survivor. To save money, they used the fact that I am a victim to victimize me once more. 

And yet, somehow, I blamed myself.

I "won," sort of. I was offered a settlement, and I took it. But I'd gone through so much emotional and physical anguish to get there, and I was given such a tiny fraction of what they owed me, it felt like I'd lost. It felt like they had punched me in the gut.

I blamed myself. I believed I'd somehow "let" them demean, degrade, humiliate, and hurt me. And then I'd "let" them buy me off with so little money, it was a spit in the face. I felt like a prostituted child whose latest rapist throws her beaten body on the floor, and tosses money on her prostrate body as he walks out the door. And I felt like I'd let them do that to me.

I felt like a whore for the first time in my life. 

It sent me into an emotional tailspin that culminated in suicidal thoughts.

I was victim-blaming - myself

If I'd done better, I thought, tried harder, made better decisions, the outcome would have been different. But it wouldn't. It still would have been degrading, cruel, prejudiced, and unjust. Calling myself a whore was easier than admitting the truth: Despite the illusion of choice I'd had in the situation, I'd had no real power to create a better outcome.

I was a victim. 

Dress: Eloquii; Coat: Torrid; Boots: Ecco; Scarf: Old Navy; Gloves: Reitman's; Opal ring: Turquoise Kingdom; Earrings and brooch: vintage
Sexism, ableism, rape culture: They are systemic, supported by every aspect of our society, from the institutions that educate us, to the medical industry that is supposed to heal us, to the legal system that is supposed to protect us. The convoluted, impersonal, bureaucratic path that led to my own predicament is a stellar example of how this sort of systemic oppression plays out in real life. 

You see, my tenured contract at a reputable college guarantees a disability pension to faculty who become too disabled to work. The college hired a slimy insurance company (the only kind) to fulfill its obligation to provide disability pensions. The insurance company hired a sleazy, macho, bullying psychiatrist to "evaluate" my condition. When I said I wanted to record the session for my protection, he yelled at me while physically looming over me in and extremely intimidating, almost violent way, and then he refused to proceed with the evaluation. He then lied and said that it was I who had refused the evaluation. The insurance company, in turn, lied and said that my supposed refusal meant that they now had "insufficient evidence" that I am too disabled to work.

They cut off my entire income.

I turned first to my college for help. They were "sorry I was frustrated," but, they told me, "There is nothing we can do." This was a lie, of course. They knew I was more merely than "frustrated," and there was a lot they could do. They simply didn't care. I should have expected this, given their shoddy, non-compliance with my workplace, disability accommodation needs, and their bullying demands that I "work on my stamina" instead. In the entire time I taught there, I only saw one, visibly disabled employee. He was cleaning toilets.

Since the college was now in breach of its contract with me, I turned to my union for help. I received none. I told my union representative how I'd become disabled: child sex trafficking. That was a mistake. He grew cold. I turned to a union member who was supposed to help disabled faculty. I told her how I'd become disabled, but asked that she keep this information confidential. She then told me that I had no right to expect confidentiality, and shared the information, including facts about my vaginal scarring, with all of the other union officials. 

The last time I heard from the head union representative, he was on his yearly, several weeks long, paid vacation. Knowing I was receiving no money whatsoever, knowing I was desperate, he responded to my pleas for help with the glib, "I'm sorry you're frustrated. There's nothing I can do."

That was a lie, of course. He wasn't sorry. He knew I was not merely "frustrated," and there was a lot he could have done. But I was disabled, disposable. He simply did not care.

That was two and a half years ago. Both the college and my union knew I was receiving no pay, yet neither has contacted me to see if I'm alive or dead in this entire time.

I guess they didn't really care. If I was dead, what did it matter to them? At least it would shut me up.

We disabled people really are a nuisance, aren't we, with all our pesky insistence that we be able to stay alive and stuff.

This is the state of institutionalized, legal oppression.

When I think about what my employer and union did to me, what they forced me to endure, I get so angry, and so hurt, I can't breathe, or think.

A quick aside about the Canadian health care system. In Canada, in theory disabled people receive a monthly disability pension on which we can live. Applying and officially qualifying for this pension is very complicated and difficult. All my disabled friends told me to expect to be turned down the first time, and to have to apply again, not because my claim was weak, but because the government wants to save money - at disabled people's expense. 

But I had no other options, so I applied.

And then I waited... and waited... and waited - all the while with no pay, not a single penny. 

A year later, I was finally informed that my claim had been approved. I was going to have an income! 

$890 a month. Canadian. 

Absolute bare minimum rent for a scuzzy, bachelor, basement suite in my city? $1200 per month. Never mind if it's accessible.

Here's the thing: The disability pension guaranteed by my tenured contract? That was supposed to top me way up - from so little money, I would be destitute at best, and dead at worst, to a relatively comfortable income.

And I had been refused that "top-up."

So I sued my insurance company. I felt that I'd been left with no choice.

My lawyer told me that my case was extremely strong, and he was sure I would win. He warned me that there's no such thing as a justice system, that we were just going to get me what I needed. He warned me that it would be tough. 

I understood that, I would be put through innumerable psychiatric and physical exams to yet again "prove" that I wasn't "faking it." (Do not ever suggest that a disabled person "just get a doctor's note" to get disability benefits.) I understood that I would have to go to mediation before the court date, at which time I would probably be offered a settlement. I understood that taking a settlement was highly preferable, as it was less physically and emotionally painful, and would cut all my ties to the insurance company. I understood that, if I went to court, I would be subjected to a great deal of abuse, and, if I won, I'd get more money, but it would be dribbled out in monthly payments for 18 years, during which time the insurance company could continue abusing me. I was advised to avoid court if I could. I understood that a settlement would be somewhat less than what they owed me

At least, I thought I understood. I thought I was prepared. I wasn't. Not even close

For one thing, what my lawyer didn't tell me, or what I don't remember him telling me anyway, was how very little money I could expect to get in a settlement. I was naive, or was I uninformed? 

I had no idea what was to come. 

From start to horrible finish, it took two and a half, brutal, hellish years.

There is absolutely no doubt that my back pain and mobility worsened during these past few years. I used to be able to walk a little bit with only one cane, and I generally got around the house with no mobility aids. Now? I use a walker all the time, except when I use my mobility scooter and bring two canes.
I did have the good sense to ask my local rape crisis centre for emotional and practical help through it all. They assigned a very nice, very young worker to be my point person. She was someone to check in with, to give me procedural advice, to accompany me and be my witness during some of the more terrifying appointments, and to help me debrief after them. I also found myself calling the centre's crisis line from time to time, when it all got to be too much and I felt I just could not go on.

At its core, my disability claim was about rape. Remember: my claim was for the crippling lumbar pain, and severe PTSD caused by the people who sex trafficked me throughout my childhood

My decision to ask for the centre's help suggests that, deep down, I did know that what I was going through was part of rape culture. But I didn't really let this truth sink in until a few weeks before my mediation, when my rape crisis point person talked about how helping me through this process was very similar to helping women through reporting rape to the police, and taking their rapists to court.

After what she said, I looked back on the last few years, and forward to mediation and court, and saw clearly that the insurance company was using institutionalized rape culture to shame, bully, and intimidate me. They used the systemic culture of disbelief of sexual assault victims as an excuse to demand that I endure a series of unnecessary, humiliating, degrading, and invasive exams to "prove" what they already knew: I wasn't lying. 

It's always up to rape victims to prove we're not lying. Anyone who's been raped knows that.

Many of us get so beaten down, we do just what people want us to do. We shut up and stop seeking justice. That's what the insurance company was hoping I would do.

So what went on in these exams? 

Before they even got going, most required an absurd amount of paperwork, asking me to answer complex questions in tiny spaces, itemizing my life like I'm a robot. They were maddening. They were impossible.

Every exam was at least two and half hours long. Some extended over two days. You know my body can't handle that. During each one, I had to describe, in great, gory detail, what my abusers did to me. The rapes, the torture, the druggings, the beatings, everything

I was also forced to talk about my body in intimate ways. I was asked about my sex life, my bowel movements, my pain. I hate to rate my pain levels on a scale of one to ten, sometimes in an impossible, overall way, sometimes in an impossible, minute to minute way. I was asked in minute detail about my physical abilities: how much can I lift, can I bend, can I twist, can I wash my hair, how do I bathe, do I go out, how do I get dressed... On and on. I was also required to itemize my daily routines in ways that no-one can. 

There was seldom, if ever, any acknowledgement that a disabled person's abilities, pain levels, and routines alter greatly depending on they're doing each day, even each minute. I had to be incredibly careful because I knew, for example, that if I said I could lift x amount on a good day, the insurance company would claim that I could lift x amount every day, repeatedly - and could therefore work.

In each of these exams, I was also expected to talk about my PTSD, my nightmares, my panic attacks, my triggers, everything.

And I was poked, prodded, rubbed, tapped, inspected, and tested, all to prove I was in pain. I had to let them cause pain to prove that I am in pain. If I didn't, I wouldn't get my money. 

This reminded me so much of being a sex trafficked child, I didn't know if I could go on. When I was a child, adults physically tortured me and paid my pimp/smother for the "pleasure." If I didn't earn enough money, I would be thrown out into the freezing cold at night, or starved, or beaten, or raped some more. My physical pain was my payment for my survival.

And now it was the same.

Me, around the time of the last physical exam, wearing a mezuzah as a sort of talisman at the doorposts of my own body, to say, "Keep out!! This is mine!" But I had to let the examiners in if I wanted my money, if I was to have a way to stay alive!
The worst physical exam was last September: a "physical capacity evaluation." I was forced to lift, twist, bend, stand, walk, climb stairs... do things I can not do - to prove I couldn't do them! The evaluation was supposed to take one full day, an impossibility for me. By 2:00 in the afternoon, I was in so much pain, and so much emotional distress, I was crying. The "expert" sent me home. But my lawyer said that if I didn't go back another day and complete the evaluation, he wouldn't be able to get as much money for me. So I went back, and was further brutalized. 

It took me two months to physically recover - just in time for mediation.

As you can well imagine, I spent weeks and even months dreading each exam, and the dread itself took a terrible toll on my physical and emotional health. And it took weeks or months to physically and/or emotionally recovering from the exams too. This left little to no time to live a normal life, whatever "normal" is for someone like me.

During this entire time, and in the many years leading up to it, my insurance company could and did read all of my confidential, medical files and test results. This included all my discussions with my GP, discussions about PTSD, nightmares, vaginal scarring from the abuse, perimenopause, my sex life, my digestive system, my bowel movements, my life plans, endometriosis ... everything. They could and did use this material against me. It hampered my willingness to speak freely with my doctors, and therefore hampered my treatment.

Same goes for all notes taken my therapist. They could read all of those too. And use them against me. You can imagine how I behaved in therapy.

My disabled friends all warned me that the insurance company might be spying on me, in person and online. Some had had this done to them. I knew that nothing I was doing contradicted the fact that I'm too disabled to work, but I also knew that the insurance company could claim otherwise. What if, for example, they said that this very blog proved that I could work full time? What if they got wind of my taking a Jewish conversion course and said that meant I could work? What if I'd said I could only sit up for X amount of time, but, on one very good day, I managed to sit up for Y amount of time?

What if I smiled too much? 

I had to think carefully about what I did and said, in person and online. I thought about doing a little bit of volunteer work at the refugee centre, maybe just an hour a month, but I'd read articles about disabled people being cut off their pensions because their insurance companies said, "If you can volunteer, clearly you can work full time." I never referred to "working on" my blog, but only to "writing" it, because I thought they might seize on the word "work." I got a few nibbles about publishing my writing, but I knew that, if I did that, and received a bit of pay, however little, that would work against me. I removed advertisements from my blog, from which I was earning less than a dollar a month, because that made it look like a money earner.

Beaten down
This was how I lived my life, for two and a half years.

My insurance company knew, knew for sure, that this process would be physically and psychologically torturous.  

What's that expression that insurance companies use? 

"Delay, deny, wait for them die." 

And don't kid yourself: They're perfectly happy if suicide gets you out of their hair. It happens, more than you'd think.

Ask Beau how many times I fell apart in tears, gasping for breath, crying out, "They're trying to kill me!" It was true. They were.

Of course they knew I wasn't lying about my disability or its cause. That wasn't the point. The point was saving money. They were hoping I'd give up and they would owe me nothing. If not that, they were hoping for the next best thing: I'd be so terrified of going to court, I'd settle, and they'd save a lot of money.

Treating people like this? It's legal.

Think about that.

It's perfectly legal to do this to disabled people. It's perfectly legal to do this to rape victims.

All this time, I held on to one thing: "At the end of all this, I'll get a lot of money, enough money to live on. I'll be free. I won't have to worry about money anymore."

And then, a few weeks before the mediation, my lawyer told me how much money I could expect to get in a settlement. He said it in an offhand way, like I'd known all along. I had not.

It was virtually nothing.


I've been forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't tell you how little it is, but I think I can say that I'm quite sure that several of the people involved in this process, those experts and lawyers and beurocrats? They earn more per year than I would get to last a lifetime.

And that's not taking into account the 33% of the settlement that would go to my lawyer.

I burst into tears in my lawyer's office. What was the point? Why had I bothered? What had I put myself through all that for? 

He did not seem particularly moved by my grief.

As soon as we left the office and were back in the car, I sobbed, violently, desperately, painfully. 

But what could I do now? 

If I walked away from the whole process? I'd have to pay for all those experts who had tortured me!! 

That was tens of thousands of dollars.

And I would get no money whatsoever - except for that $890/mo from the government.

So I didn't walk away.

The 14 victims of the sexist massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. This does not include the victims who survived but were badly injured and/or later committed suicide.
It was not lost on me that my mediation date was on December 6th, the 30th anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre of 14 women in Montreal. The male killer walked into a mechanical engineering class, separated the men from the women, and said, "You're women. You're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists."

Then he opened fire.

I was a university student in Montreal at the time, but these were the days before the internet and I didn't know about the massacre till I got home that evening to find a message from my high school boyfriend on my answering machine: "Charlotte! Are you dead?!" 

Misogyny. Sexism. Rape culture. Sex trafficking. They're all part of the same overall system of patriarchy that has beaten me down all my life, and was continuing to beat me down now.

On December 6th, the day of the mediation, I wore the plainest outfit I could come up with. I wanted to look sexless, cold, hard. I was so afraid the people from the insurance company would look at me and see a whore. I didn't want them to see a whore.

But, if, after reading all those files and notes about what my abusers did to me, and how much I've suffered as a result... if, after reading all that, they still felt justified in stealing my pension from me? Well then I knew they wouldn't see anything but a whore. You can't respect a person and treat her that badly. You just can't.

I wore a fierce brooch, to make me feel fierce, but I did not feel fierce.

I felt dead. Worse than dead. The dead don't feel pain.

The mediation process was awful. Because of that fucking, non-disclosure agreement, I'm not allowed to tell you about it. If I do, they could take my money away from me.

They all seemed to think it was a game, a day's lark, a day at the casino - except they would win, no matter what. Me? I was just the poker chip they threw into the game. 

At the end of it all, the mediator, who had been extremely condescending and patronizing to me throughout, rushed off to catch the ferry to her weekend home on one of the Gulf Islands. You know, as one does, when one earns a great deal of money off the backs of the suffering and the oppressed. As one does.

Me, I went home numb, half dead, traumatized.

Till the very last, I'd been a victim.

And I'd been paid off with a pittance. They'd washed their hands of me, cut ties entirely, and gone off happy and satisfied - while I was left to nurse my wounds.

I'm still nursing them. I'll be nursing them for the rest of my life.

I hated myself. How could I have let them do that to me?! Why hadn't I refused the settlement and taken them to court?

I had had that choice. 

But had I really?

Up till now, the experts I'd had to see were the ones my lawyer had chosen. They were nice enough people, but that didn't change the fact that what they had to do was tortuous. It goes without saying that every single one of their reports said that I was far too severely disabled to work. One even said that the insurance company had abused me. So, yeah, they were not bad people; they were just part of a bad system.

But if I'd taken my insurance company to court, they almost certainly would have sent me to their own "experts," experts like that lying, bullying psychiatrist who'd set this whole process in motion. What I'd gone through to date would have been nothing compared to that.

Then I would have had to be in court for nine days. Just the one full day in mediation had destroyed my body. What would court do to my body?

And in court, well, I would have been raked over the coals yet again. They would have used every ploy of rape culture to degrade and even decimate me. They'd accuse me of lying, they'd talk about "false memories," they'd shame me with questions about the appearance and causes of my vaginal scars, they'd force me to talk about my sex life, they'd make me describe the rapes in gory details - and then they'd tell me I'd somehow contradicted myself, and everything I'd told them was a lie.

I could not go through that. I couldn't! It would kill me.

And they knew it.

And then, if I'd won, which I almost certainly would have done, what would I have won? More money, yes, a lot more money - but as a reinstatement of my monthly income, and all the attendant strings that come with that: they'd continue to have access to all my medical notes, including those of my therapist. They could abuse and bully me whenever they liked. 

And they could put me through this very same process all over again at any time. 

I couldn't. I just couldn't!

And they knew it.

They counted on it. They banked on it. This is what they do, over and over and over again, each time forcing their victim to sign a non-disclosure agreement, to keep us isolated from each other, each thinking our failure is individual, not part of a larger, institutionalized pattern of oppression and victimization.

I'd thought I would sue my workplace, and my union, at least for the 33% of the settlement that went toward my lawyer's fees. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. 

My college and union were probably banking on that too - that is, if they even remember I exist at all, which is doubtful.

I walked away from that day feeling as compromised and degraded as I'd felt when I was a child. More, because, in this case, I'd had a modicum of choice. 

I kept berating myself: I should have fought harder!

And this is why I've felt like a whore. I believed that I had sold my bodily suffering, and given up fighting, for their gain, their pleasure. I believed that I had sold myself - for a pittance.

This insurance thing? It's an industry profiting off of other's pain. Just like child sex trafficking. But I blamed myself

I internalized victim-blaming and rape culture. I guess it was better than admitting to myself that I'd been a helpless victim.

When I'd thought I was going to get a large settlement, I'd comforted myself with plans: I would buy this, or I would buy that. So much for that. 

But, after the settlement, I did go ahead and buy one thing I'd wanted: this opal ring. This ring, I thought, is like me: genuine, natural, always changing, full of depth - nothing like those lawyers who flayed me. 

But I didn't really believe it. I didn't feel that I deserved that opal at all. Opals are vulnerable stones and have to be cared for properly. I was sure I'd fail at that. I would ruin its beauty, just like I'd ruined myself. 

I kept telling Matt, "I'm a whore! I sold myself! I let them do that to me!"

I sounded exactly like a rape victim blaming herself.

I was suicidal. 

My life has been so difficult, all my life, that I have always wanted to die. I've wanted that release and relief. But, strangely, I've very seldom been suicidal. 

So what was it about this adversity that made me hate myself so much, I felt I should die? Choice. The difference was choice.

When I was a child, I had no choices. They drugged me, they raped me, they beat me, they starved me, they bound me... all against my will. I had no choice in the matter. Obviously. They may have told me I wanted it. They may have told me I chose it. But that was a lie.

There was no way I could blame myself for that suffering.

But in this case, in this fight with my insurance company? Well, I had been given some choice. I could have walked away before it all began. I could have taken them all the way to court.

But I'd chosen to settle. That was on me.

I felt complicit in my own oppression.

But was I really? 

I have always tried to live a life of integrity, and I have tried to make my life choices according to what I believe is right and wrong. For the most part, the ethical choice was fairly clear to me. Even if it would lead to hardship, poverty, and derision, the choice itself was easy. Don't take that job with the logging industry; do work for that gay newspaper. Don't study advertising; do study communications.  Don't live in the suburbs, despite the cheaper rent; do live in town where I can shop locally and don't need a car.

But, with my insurance company? I'd made the wrong choice. Right?

But, you know, sometimes oppressors give you the illusion of choice to gaslight you into thinking you have power in a situation where, in fact, you are powerless. I'd been given three "choices," sure, but they were all awful, all degrading, all oppressive. There was no winning option, not for me. For them, sure. But not for me. I was the victim, no matter what choice I made. 

What kind of choice is that?

The system was set up that way. As a disabled person, as a trafficking survivor, and as a woman, I was beaten before I even began.

And, honestly, within that unfair system, I guess I really did make the best "choice" possible.

I was a victim. And that was nothing for me to be ashamed of. All a person can do in that situation is her best.

One part of my South African family branch
At the very same time that I settled with my insurance company, I found a long-lost family branch in South Africa. I found and made contact with a cousin in this branch who was excited that I'd found her - and that I'd confirmed a family story no-one had ever believed: her close ancestors had been photographers to the Czar of Russia! (You can see a few of their photographs of royalty here.) 

In a way, this discovery saved me. It was something exciting, something to focus on other than the settlement, something to research and explore.

I was still depressed though, and suicidal.

But, over and over again, as I thought about my own situation, I found myself thinking about this family branch, and the hard decisions they'd made within their own oppression as Lithuanian/Polish Jews. No decision would pull them out of oppression. There were only bad choices, and less bad choices.

They'd been well-off, for a while, when few Jews were, but their prosperity was at the mercy of the Czar. Jews were not allowed to live in St. Petersburg; this one branch of my family were only allowed to live there because the Czar had given them special permission to do so. He'd only done that because they could provide a service for him: their ability to photograph his family, flatteringly, when photography was still a new and highly skilled profession.

This must have been a strange and conflicted position for them, working for the man who enforced the laws that oppressed Jews, taking photos of his pampered little daughters while their own relatives were far from comfortable, living in St. Petersburg when their families could not, never knowing when their family would be hit by another violent, antisemitic pogrom, a pogrom condoned by the Czar.

Tough decisions.

And then there was the Communist revolution. The protection of the Czar was gone. The pogroms escalated. What should my family do? Stay with the people, culture, and land that they knew and loved? Or run to almost certain poverty in a strange land, with a foreign culture and language. No flight would rid them of antisemitism. There was just the choice between having a community but lots of antisemitism, and being alone with a little less antisemitism.

They ran. In hindsight, it was obviously the right decision. After all, less than 20 years later, the Holocaust destroyed everything and everyone they had left behind. But they'd had no way of knowing that was coming when they'd made their difficult decision, their decision that did not offer an escape from antisemitism.

So what did I think of this new-found family branch? Did I blame them for making choices that did not topple every antisemitic system, institution, and attitude? Did I blame them for making choices that did not completely liberate themselves and other Jews from the yoke of antisemitism? 

Of course not! That's ridiculous!

They didn't have any good choices. They did what they could. 

So did I.

Rabbi Tarfon told us that we must work to end injustice and suffering, but we are not obligated to complete that work - because we can't. As a Jew, he must have meant not only injustices against others, but injustices against Jews too. Just as we are not obligated to complete the task of liberating others from systemic oppression, we are not obligated to complete the task of liberating ourselves from it either. 

Because, often, we can't. 

And you know, after all, I didn't abandon my work toward justice. I simply didn't complete it. Because I couldn't. I'm just one person! 

I can't end systemic rape culture and ableism all by myself. That's ridiculous! I did what I could, and that's something.

I've been amazed by how many people, especially disabled people, have praised me for having the strength and courage to have fought at all. Many have even thanked me! To them, even my partial win was a win for all of us. I need to hang on to that.

And I have to remember that, on a practical level, I actually am going to be okay. 

I want to find a way to celebrate what my settlement does bring me: more financial contribution to my marriage, less financial dependence on my husband, and, most exciting of all, a down payment on a home!

I want to learn to enjoy all of that. Taking and using what you can get from a deeply prejudiced system? It does not mean that you think that system is okay. They have not bought you off. They have not paid for your consent to being abused. 

Rather, you are raising yourself up as much as you can, despite a system dead-set on keeping you down. 

So, yes, I took the settlement money. It was my money after all. Was it all of the money that was rightfully mine? No, not even close. Is that okay? No! But, though it stings terribly, something is better than nothing at all. 

And you better believe I'll fight so that, in the future, people like me will get more. I might even be able to fight a little harder for them precisely because I took the settlement. If a little less of my energy is going toward worrying about money, I might be able to do a little more good.

I also have the right to relax, to take a breath and really feel this truth: I'm going to be okay.

After all, my
 ability to enjoy life within injustice is not a measure of how much I capitulate to that injustice. It's a measure of my spirit

If I laugh and smile, even in oppression, I am not saying that I am okay with being oppressed. 

I'm just doing my best. 

I've begun to look at my opal differently. Look at how, even in its fragile vulnerability, it glows and flashes with beauty and strength. It endures ...

... like my soul endures.

My whole life, I've worked to preserve my soul in the face of horrific degradation and oppression. Not everyone can do that. Some opals don't survive. Some of my relatives, well, they were broken by oppression. 

But, somehow, I'm not, not quite anyway.

What is there to do but my best?

For me, that means many things. Writing this post, for one, feels like the best I can do toward justice when justice is not available. 

And this is me we're talking about, so you know that doing my best is going to include having fun with fashion. 

For me, style is a form of creativity and joy, and, God damn it, I deserve some joy!

I love working with each individual element of an outfit to create a  beautiful whole. For example, yes I did buy these gloves ...

... to go with this coat. 

For me, this particular outfit was meant to exude the poise and confidence ...

Lee Meriwether, at about 40, in Barnaby Jones
... of an educated, accomplished, middle aged woman, with a great blow out ...

... in the 1970s ...

... because, you know, seriously, the colours scream: Rhoda's room!

And that means: the 70s! 

If anything, the bright colours of my own dress are actually a bit understated for the 70s.

Despite the rather daring pattern mixing, I felt that I could pair the dress with this coat, even though its cut...

... is more 1950s than 1970s ...
... as are its colours ...

... which I love in their understated subtlety.

I have three coats with this 50s cut now, because they keep me really wonderfully warm and dry on my mobility scooter, and they look kind of elegant while doing so.

Besides, this coat isn't so terribly different from some from the 1970s. Plaid was big in the 70s. Remember those wonderfully garish, polyester, plaid blazers men wore in the 70s? I do.

In fact, my coat is part of a line of clothes for fans of the TV show Outlander! I confess, I've never even seen it, but it must be good because my friend who's a professor of Medieval studies just loves it.

But, yeah, the colours here are much more understated than ...

... the 70s look ...

...  I was going for. No blending into the background for me!

And, you know, there's a terrific amount of defiance in choosing not to blend in. 

Photo by Andy Sweet
This is part of why I so admire the aesthetics of the Miami Beach Jews of the 60s and 70s.

My grandmother (far right), and her friends
This was my own grandmother's social set. She retired to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, right near Miami Beach.That's her on the far right, with her fashion forward, 70s style glasses, while her two friends are still wearing 60s style, cat's eye glasses. Check out her brooch. Check out the guy on the far left, gold medallion and all. That's what I'm talking about!

I have heard a lot of negative things about my grandmother, and I imagine they're true, though that's not how I remember her. It does bother me, though, that everyone criticizes her for having loved fashion. Having researched my family's past, and learned the extent of my grandmother's childhood degradation and poverty, I think Grandma may have dressed like she did to give herself a sense of pride and dignity that she had not had in her childhood.

I can relate to that.

Hester Street, Manhattan, around 1900
This is Hester street in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the heart of the Jewish ghetto for many decades, starting around 1890, right about the time my grandmother's family arrived in America. My Grandma was born just around the corner from here in 1902. Her parents were Ukrainian Jews who probably ran from the violent, antisemitic pogroms, and certainly ran from the extreme poverty and degradation of institutionalized antisemitism

They too had made one of those impossible choices, neither of which would leave them free of oppression or poverty.

My grandmother's first home, on Suffolk Street, in Manhattan's Lower East Side.
They all lived behind their tiny, dairy business in this tenement building. My grandmother's niece, now 88 years old, tells me that, every morning before school, Grandma and her sister had to deliver milk up all five floors of their building.

A typical tenement building in the Manhattan's Lower East Side. Circa 1920s
It was not a glamorous life, to say the least. It was overcrowded, dirty (despite the tenants' best efforts), and unhealthy. The summers were unbearably hot, and illness flowed like waves through the tenement buildings. My family lost their six month old baby boy, Louis, to pneumonia in 1898, and two year old Annie in 1903, a year after my grandmother was born.

Bayonne, New Jersey, as it looked when my grandmother moved there
Grandma's Jewish family were shocked and thrilled to learn that, in America, Jews were allowed to get mortgages! They were not used to this. The family got together and managed to get a mortgage on a little property in Bayonne, New Jersey. 

There, they built their future: a poultry store on the main floor, and their living quarters above it.

My great-grandmother. I'm assuming she's sitting outside the family's poultry store in Bayonne, New Jersey.

Customers would come to the store and pick a live bird, which the family would slaughter then and there. If the customer wanted a kosher bird, someone would get the rabbi next door to come over and do it.

To be perfectly honest, it sounds disgusting. The stench alone would have been awful.

This was my Jewish family moving up, from antisemitic oppression in the Ukraine, to the Jewish ghetto of New York, to... well, this. 

Was this what they wanted for themselves in America? I doubt it. But they did the best they could. It's all any of us can do.

Gentile: non-Jew. In other words, this sign says, "NO JEWS" just as it says, "NO DOGS."
Don't forget: They were not free of antisemitism. In the early 1920s, America changed their immigration policies to keep out "racially inferior" Jews. (This is when my other family started moving to South Africa and Argentina.) Many of the best colleges had a quota system to restrict the number of Jews who could attend, no matter how good their grades were. Country clubs (where people could network to improve their careers) often prohibited Jews from joining. Employers often preferred not to hire Jews. 

My grandmother must have faced a lot of antisemitism in Bayonne. Her niece, a generation younger than my grandmother, has told me stories of classmates telling her she must have horns on her head because all Jews have horns, or of being banned from birthday parties because she was Jewish. I imagine it was even worse for my grandmother.

In other words, though things were better than they had been in the Ukraine, though my family now had more choices than they'd once had, those choices were still limited and hampered by systemic antisemitism.

Do I blame them for making choices that didn't smash through the glass ceiling of antisemitism all at once? Of course not! That would be ridiculous.

They did the best they could.

With the whole family working in these two poultry stores, they slowly raised the younger generations upwards. Now, my family included doctors and lawyers, who put themselves through school by killing and plucking chickens.

One of these buildings was my family's home in Astoria, Queens, in the 1930s. I took this photo when I lived nearby in 1999.
My grandmother married a man who wore the marks of antisemitism on his body: he had a scar on his forehead from the kick of as Cossack's horse.

Together, they moved to the firmly working class neighbourhood of Astoria, Queens ...

One of my grandfather's stores in Queens, 1940
... where, eventually, Grandpa owned two haberdashery stores. Yes, my grandfather worked in fashion. It runs in the family. 

Forest Hills, Queens. My family's home has been demolished, but this is like the street they lived on
Grandpa did well, and managed to move the family to the very Jewish, upper middle class neighbourhood of Forest Hills, Queens. It was fancy. It was spacious. It was green! My father went to high school with both Simon and Garfunkel!

They had arrived.

My grandparents, probably in the early 1960s
Is it any wonder that my grandmother was prideful? Like me, she showed that pride and dignity on her body, in her clothing and jewelry.

My grandmother's, David Andersen butterfly brooches
No more hauling bottles of milk up all those stairs in a tenement building before school! Celebrate with colour!

I can't remember if she wore bright, crazy colours like her Miami Beach friends, but, judging from some of the jewelry I've inherited from her, I'm guessing that she did.

Her story was on my mind when I put on this ring before taking my computer to my local cafe to work on this blog post. It's a cocktail ring, darling.

Photo by Andy Sweet
And so, it was women with stories just like my grandmother's who wore those crazy outfits I found myself emulating as I tried to shake my self-loathing after taking the God damned settlement from my insurance company.

Photo by Andy Sweet
And let's not forget the many Holocaust survivors who were also members of this community. They wore defiantly joyful colours too!

They didn't dress in celebratory colours because they'd beaten antisemitic oppression. They wore them despite the fact that they hadn't beaten it. They kept their joy, their spirits alive, despite it all. Their colours had not been dimmed.

American Jews had known what was going on in Europe, and they tried to stop it. No-one listened to them. Their families had chosen America, and now America was failing the family who had chosen to stay behind. And American Jews couldn't stop it.

Do I blame them for that? Of course I don't! Do I blame them for continuing to try to raise their families up, even as their European families fell? Of course not.

With heavy hearts, all they could do was their best.

We must honour those who fail to heal the world, but never cease doing trying to heal it. This includes trying to heal themselves, with bright colours, metaphorical and real.

We can't always overcome oppression, including our own oppression. But we do what we can, and we hope that includes thriving, even in injustice. 

It is said that every Jewish holiday boils down to this: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat."

I'm going to try to take that approach to what the insurance company did to me. They tried to kill me. I survived. Let's thrive!

So, despite them, I'm keeping my colours alive.

Photo by Flip Schulke
I'm working on banishing my internalized ableism, rape culture, and self-blame. I'm working on embracing joy. I may not finish the work, but nor will I stop working. 

I deserve it!

So do you.


  1. This is amazing. I had a friend who was injured in an accident and also took years to get a settlement. Of course it wasn't enough and she suffered a lot.

    I'm glad that you wrote this and that you've been able to have some healing. 💖

  2. Dear Charlotte, once again I sit here with tears running down after reading your story. Thank you for your inner and outer work. Just thank you. Juliane from Germany