Women and the Global Imagination: The True Story of My Grandmother’s Breasts

by Maureen Langloss

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Maureen Langloss moves through cultural texts and her family history in an important meditation on sexual assault. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

The True Story of My Grandmother's Breasts

You can’t write about my maternal grandmother, Shirley Fredricka McKay, without first mentioning the kids.  She had eleven of them.  Three died before the age of one.  Her last two came out twins.  So that left her with eight.  Imagine the size of the pots of oatmeal each morning, the pile of cloth diapers at the end of the day, the letters of the alphabet taught, the shoes tied, the boo-boos patched.  Imagine the noise.  The noise when my grammy must have been exhausted and sometimes grieving.

Robin’s was certainly the hardest death.  A “blue baby,” he lived almost a year with a heart full of holes.  Loss was not new to Grammy.  Her first fiancĂ© died in World War II.  Tragedy sent her searching for meaning, which she ultimately found in a church.  Raised as a Lutheran, Grammy converted to Catholicism because my grandfather was about as Irish Catholic as a man can get.  My grandmother then became about as Catholic as a woman can get.  She was the whole fourteen Stations of the Cross.  Sunday Mass, clergy in and out of her kitchen, a son whom she raised to be a priest, relics at her bedside.  Grammy was so Catholic that her wonderful, gay hairdresser once saw fit to give her a nearly life-size portrait of Jesus Christ for her birthday.  This was not a gag gift; it was from the bottom of his heart.  He probably knew her better than almost anyone.  His was the only house of worship she visited more than St. Petronille’s Church.  Twice a week for decades, she sat in his chair for blond ablutions and her unflappable hair helmet.

On the outside, my grandmother was a model 1950s homemaker.  She kept an impeccably clean house.  She sent her husband off each morning with fresh-squeezed orange juice, and he made them both a cocktail each night.  She had homemade oatmeal cookies in the pantry and casserole in the fridge.  She wore pastel suits and matching robe/nightie numbers.  She took food to the sick and granddaughters to tea.  She was warm and soft and kind to strangers.

But on the inside, Grammy was steel and surprises.  She could play the accordion with the best of them, became a speech therapist while her own kids were still in diapers, wasn’t afraid to smoke a cigar and continued to have children even though her husband’s heart condition made her likely to become a single parent.  She survived breast cancer, and then survived it again a decade later in the other breast.  She endured aggressive chemotherapy and radiation that nearly killed her, radical mastectomies and gelatinous prosthetics.  I have vivid memories of her concave chest, of her letting me play with her fake boobs before she tucked them into her brassiere.

My grandfather, the sparkle in her eye, died in 1989.  For many years, she was simply waiting to meet Joseph Patrick McKay in the afterlife.  In preparation for that end, she kept right on going to church by herself.  Church was her home base, her balm, the place she went to pray fiercely to the Virgin Mary.

But it was quite another place for an old man who started chatting with her at Mass.  To him, church was a pick-up joint – a veritable smorgasbord of lonely widows.  Grammy ignored his attention, for she had little interest in starting something new at this point (or maybe she did, we’ll never know).  I’ve pictured him lots of different ways – grandfatherly and bespectacled, damaged and scarred, straight-backed and mailman-ish.  But the image I usually come back to is bald and rubbery, like a plucked chicken before you cook it, with a dash of ex-football player thrown in.

Eventually, this seemingly religious man showed up as a guest at a neighbor’s dinner party and pressured Grammy to let him walk her home.  I have pictured this moment many times, too – Grammy’s warm chitchat, the enormous cross on the California hill behind her little house, the necklace my grandfather gave her around her now-stooping neck.  My grandmother didn’t have the slightest idea what her escort was planning.  I picture him, the last dregs of his testosterone churning, as he tried to steal a kiss.  I imagine her, shocked and panicked, when he proceeded to lay his seventy-something hands on her seventy-something breasts.  What a relief that these breasts had no sensation, that no nerve could telegraph the experience to her brain.

My grandmother responded by reaching her hands into her brassiere, retrieving her gelatinous prosthetics and nailing him with them.

“You want them?” she yelled. “You can have them!”

Grammy raced in the front door and locked it behind her.  She fumbled a moment with the dead bolt, afraid of what might happen next.  We’ll never know how long the man waited outside her door with the breasts in his hands.

I have always loved this story about my grandmother.  I was so proud of her for saying “Take that!” to the senescent pervert.  It captured my imagination so deeply that I immediately started writing a short story about it.  I wrote about it from all different angles, setting it here and there, using first person and then third, having friends read it and comment.  I wrote about it for two decades.  But somehow it never came out right.

One of the worst versions was the comic one – told from the point of view of the horny bastard who was then stuck with the prosthetics.  The story followed him as he tried to find a use for them.  I was drawn to his point of view, because I wanted so desperately to understand it – to figure out how he thought it was ok, at his ripe old age, after surely having lived through so much, to grope a stranger’s breasts.  Hadn’t he learned anything in life?  I wanted him to have some catharsis, some come-to-Jesus moment.  And I wanted to make people see that Grammy got the last laugh.

But as I was sitting on the couch reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist this fall, it finally dawned on me, after all these years, why I couldn’t ever finish this story, why I couldn’t make it good fiction.

In her collection of essays about race, gender and popular culture, Roxane Gay’s develops a wonderful level of intimacy with her readers, something she has perhaps perfected over her active social media accounts.  She let me just deep enough into her world and the way she understands it that I started to feel like I had been having coffee and chatting at the office with her all my life.  I had the urge to confide in her, to ask her opinion.  Along the way, Gay keeps alluding to something bad that had happened to her in the woods as an adolescent, but she kind of glosses over it, so I kind of did too.  She is so smart, letting us get to know her before, midway into the book, she shares the heart-breaking, gruesome story of how a group of boys gang-raped her in the woods when she was a teenager.

It was one of the most visceral moments I’ve ever had reading any book.  Roxane Gay had become my friend, and I was watching her get raped.  It was hard to take.  I felt my body recoil.  It’s a story that, sadly, has been told many times.  Gay herself talks about how desensitized we have become to the violence against women story as a result of all the TV shows and newspapers that harp on it to sell and entertain.  Rape has become a popular, ratings-grabbing story line, the stuff of sweeps week.  “We live in a culture that is overly permissive where rape is concerned,” she writes.  “While there are certainly many people who understand rape and the damage of rape, we also live in a time that necessitates the phrase ‘rape culture.’  This phrase denotes a culture where we are inundated, in different ways, by the idea that male aggression and violence is acceptable and often inevitable.”

And yet despite our “rape culture,” Gay’s own rape story is raw and new again.  It sent my mind and heart racing in a million different directions at once until, suddenly, unexpectedly, my thoughts hurtled right into my own Grammy.  And not just Grammy, but the whole time in my life when she was attacked, twenty years ago when I was a college kid, attending Take Back the Night marches on the one hand and keg parties at all-male clubs on the other.  (I, too, am a bad feminist.)

Before my senior year, just before Grammy was sexually assaulted, I had volunteered as a telephone counselor at the Women’s Law Project – an inspiring organization in Philadelphia, filled with lawyers and social workers committed to using the legal system to work for women’s rights, on both a collective and an individual level.  During this time, I talked to dozens of women about all sorts of legal problems from paternity to divorce to sexual discrimination.  It was my job to explain the legal recourse available to them.  During these few months, I listened to countless tales of domestic abuse and gave lots of explanations of how to obtain restraining orders.  Countless.  Lots.

At the phone bank, I sometimes sat side-by-side with a recent college grad named Laura Houghteling.  Laura was articulate, put-together and smart.  She was tall and strong.  She exuded confidence, and I admired her, even felt intimidated by her.  I remember having the distinct impression that she was going somewhere important in life and I should pay attention.

But in the fall of 1992, an itinerant man who did gardening work for her family entered Laura’s home and killed her.  It turned out this man was a serial killer of women.  Police eventually found her body buried in the woods.  Perhaps you heard about Laura.  She became another story in the news.

Laura happened to have gone to the same high school that I did, to the same college.  We happened to have shared this deeply intense experience of hearing story after story of violence against women, stories that made us question a lot of things about gender, human nature and the limits of our legal system.

It could have been me.

I started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in my life.  I got a prescription for sleeping pills.  Suddenly the senior thesis I’d been writing on imagery in Virginia Woolf novels seemed completely beside the point.  I dumped it and started studying women’s rights in Latin America instead.  I applied for a fellowship to go to Chile to work with domestic violence survivors.  I was moved by hope, full of the youthful hubris that I could help put an end to global violence against women.

The story I told in my fellowship application essay was that of Sarah May – my great grandmother on my father’s side whose husband abused her badly enough for her to run him off the property with a broken bottle.  She divorced him, in a time when one did not divorce.  Indeed, her actions were so shameful that they were kept a family secret for decades.  We only discovered them because of a few paragraphs of newspaper and a divorce decree carefully hidden underneath virtually all the family belongings in the very bottom of a trunk in my grandparents’ home after they died.

I arrived in Chile in 1994 on the heels of the passage of the country’s first domestic violence law, and the two women’s centers I volunteered at were dedicated to assisting violence survivors.  It should have been an exciting time for women’s rights in the country.  But for all the press the law was getting, it didn’t have teeth.  It did not criminalize the behavior.  Divorce was still illegal.  Chile is such a Catholic country politically that the law’s goal was family reconciliation and therapy, not protecting and helping women to leave bad situations.  A perpetrator would be slapped on the wrist and told to go to therapy if a woman brought a domestic violence claim against him.  Hardly worth the trouble or shame.

I vividly remember one woman in particular who came to us for help after her husband had badly hurt her.  She could not look us in the eye.  She spoke in a whisper.  Indeed, her whole body seemed to whisper.  I will never forget her posture – curved in about herself like a question mark.  A Chilean social worker and I met with her in a small, dank private room.  After she told us the outlines of her experience, my initial instinct was to find her somewhere safe to stay.  But, before I could say a word, the social worker put her hand on the woman’s hand, and said, “But I know you love your husband.  I can see that you love him.”  I was ready to run that husband off with a broken bottle, to pelt him with breast prosthetics, but this was, unfortunately, not an option.

A couple weeks later, a man I didn’t know came up to me on the streets of Santiago and slapped me on the ass.  Months after, another male stranger approached me in a public square and kissed me on the cheek.  I started teaching creative writing to adolescent girls in a group home in Melipilla that cared for victims of abuse and neglect.  Some of the girls shared their own life stories with me.  Tragically, there were quite a few men who had invited themselves to these girls’ bodies without permission as well, and in ways that were much more life-shattering.

In the mix of Sarah May and Laura Houghteling and the callers at the Women’s Law Project and the teenagers in Chile, Grammy’s story became the comic relief.  In this ocean of violence against women, her story was a life raft that made me laugh.  Her experience with male aggression felt so small in comparison to all these other bigger offenses.  It gave me a mental break to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and write something “light.”  So I wrote a comedy about it.  I told friends the story over Pisco sours.  I recall one male friend telling me he thought my grandmother had acted in poor taste.  I laughed about his comment, too.  “God forbid someone be impolite in a moment like this,” I said!  Ha, ha.

And then I read the essay entitled “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” in Roxane Gay’s book.  Here she criticizes the The New York Times for its article, “Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town,” about a gang rape of an eleven-year-old by eighteen men in Cleveland, Texas.  Gay attacks the article for focusing on how the males who perpetrated the rape suffered as a consequence of their actions, rather than on the horror that the victim endured.  She convincingly argues that, while there has been a proliferation of rape stories in our culture, care has not been taken with how we tell those stories and for what purpose.  “The way we currently represent rape, in books, in newspapers, on television, on the silver screen, often allows us to ignore the material realities of rape, the impact of rape, the meaning of rape… [W]e need to be vigilant not only in what we say but also in how we express ourselves… about violence and sexual violence in particular.”

And it dawned on me that what happened to my grandmother wasn’t the least bit amusing.  It couldn’t be turned into comic fiction, made part of the arc of some character’s story.  It was a real moment in which a strong, softie of a lady, whose body had already endured ten pregnancies, eleven vaginal births and two breast amputations, who had committed herself to a church that did not permit birth control, was sexually assaulted.  What would have happened had her breasts been real, had she not been able to use the fake ones to distract her perpetrator and get to safety?  Her mastectomies had left her with virtually no upper body strength; her own head sometimes felt too heavy for her arthritic neck.  How would she have defended herself against this attacker?  Rape culture had desensitized me to the gravity of her situation.

The reason my short story never felt quite right is that it’s deeply disturbing that, as a woman, you never fully outgrow the risk of sexual violation.  Grammy’s attacker was in his seventies, and, still, he hadn’t matured beyond his capacity to perpetrate violence against women.  The message became loud and clear: there is never a moment when you will be completely safe.  It could still be you or me or Roxane Gay, walking home from a dinner party as a little, old lady.

All these years later, The Economist tells me that sexual violence in the United States is down: “According to the National Crime Victimisation Survey, the gold standard for measuring crimes that are often not reported, the proportion of women subjected to rape or sexual assault fell 64% between 1995 and 2005, and declined slightly further by 2010, to 1.1 per 1,000 women per year…”[1] Laura Houghteling’s murderer is in jail.  Bill Cosby may have drugged and raped women in the past and those crimes might have been swept under the rug for decades, but the present isn’t letting him off the hook.  People want to talk about it, to learn the truth, to express their outrage.  Indeed, New York Magazine/The Cut has called 2014 “The Year Everyone (Finally) Started Talking about Sexual Assault.”  It is the year a book like Roxane Gay’s about sexual violence can make the bestseller list.  New laws have passed in Chile to curb violence against women, including a 2010 Femicide Law.  The country now allows divorce, and its female president, Michelle Bachelet, campaigned on a platform to beef up government prevention of violence against women.  I count myself fortunate to be in a loving, non-violent marriage and no longer attend keg parties where I have to worry about no meaning no.  I am happy about all these developments.

But we are still living in a time when Ray Rice can beat his girlfriend unconscious and his football league seems confused about how to react, a time in which his girlfriend chooses to marry him nonetheless, and organizations like TMZ report on it to make a buck.  The New York Times recently reported that domestic violence has “helped drive the shelter population [in New York] to a record high, with more than a quarter of all families in shelters citing abuse as the cause for their stay.”[2] Our radios bombard us and our kids with popular songs like Robin Thicke’s rape anthem, “Blurred Lines.”  Police were back in the woods again recently, this time searching for the body of UVA student Hannah Graham.  And it is hard to open the paper without reading about violence against women in every corner of the globe: bride burnings in India and Pakistan, stonings and rapes by mullahs in Afghanistan, sex trafficking in too many places to count, women disappearing in Mexico, sexual violence against girls as a result of the civil war in South Sudan.

The methods for violating women are still in full flourish, multiplying with diverse abandon, coming in too many different shapes and sizes and degrees.  All of these transgressions against women, the big and the small, exist in an inter-connected web.  They are part of the same societal disease that humanity seems unable to outgrow.  If we are ever to find a cure, we must continue to take them out of the buried trunks and the woods and the newspaper stories that obscure them.  Each and every one is important; each bears repeating and analyzing and learning from.  I can’t hide Grammy’s experience in fiction any more, because it no longer feels like she got the last laugh.  Twenty years later, and those prosthetic breasts of hers still have much work to do.

[1]“Yes Means Yes, Says Mr. Brown: Is California’s New Standard for Consent the Future for America?” The Economist, October 4, 2014.

[2]“Domestic Violence Drives Up New York Shelter Population as Housing Options Are Scarce,” Mireya Navarro, The New York Times, November 10, 2014.

Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer, mother-of-three, and book-lover living in NYC.  She was an English concentrator at Harvard, where she also received her law degree.  She has worked on women’s rights issues in Latin America for Human Rights Watch, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and as a Michael C. Rockefeller Fellow.  She now writes short stories and novels, and she contributes non-fiction essays to various blogs.  Her essays explore how literature can influence, motivate, and change us; you can find a selection of this work at maureenlangloss.com or connect with her on Twitter @MaureenLangloss.