The half growl/half crow of Eddie Vedder has long been a part of my own, personal war cry. It both fed and poured out my teenage angst—my frustration with the things that were senseless, wrong, and unjust in the world, and my desire to be free from all of the pain and confusion and devastation that those things caused me. I felt deeply. Eddie did too. You could sense it. And you could echo it as you sang along.
Better Man was one of the songs that I connected with on a spiritual sort of level. There were others. And some even more deeply felt than this one. But this one came to mind today, because I still feel the same angst at times. I still know the challenges of being that one in the song—that one who can’t find a better man.
If you don’t know it … well, if you don’t know it you are either too young or too old or just plain Amish, I suppose, because Pearl Jam has been around for longer than my child has been alive (21+ years), and they keep putting out new music and touring the world with old favorites in their sets as well. But, in case you have decided to go the way of Patrick Star and you live under a rock, I will let you know a bit about the lyrics, and the basics of the song.
She lies and says she’s in love with him; can’t find a better man.
It’s a woman, waiting alone in bed for some man who clearly sucks at being a partner. She practices what she will say—what boundaries she will set, and what angry rant she will set forth when he finally dares to come home in the wee hours of the morning—but when he actually arrives, she pretends she is sleeping. She keeps his failure and her misery to herself. It feels like her fault that she chose him, and she does love him. And somehow, they have this symbiotic, albeit unhealthy and unfulfilling, relationship that they both continue to choose. And she echoes over and over: Can’t find a better man. Can’t find a better man. Can’t find a better man.
If you’re like me, you can’t help but sing those words instead of simply read them. They come to life in your head, in Eddie’s voice. And if you are even more like me, you remember singing those words and meaning them with so much truth that it pained you, and you weren’t entirely certain how to feel when the song came on, because the pain of the truth and the release of the singing it were also tied together in this strange way that worked so well. Turmoil and beauty connected in a way that only the most broken of us can see, acknowledge, appreciate, and even love.
I felt Better Man so deeply not because I was in a relationship with someone at the time who mimicked the song’s poor partner, but because I was somehow already identifiable, before the terrible partners started lining up in my life and experience, with that woman. Can’t find a better man. Can’t find a better man.
Like a fish knows swimming is his mode of transportation, I knew that I deserved to struggle through bad partners—I would live this out, and this would be my pain.
How did I know that?
Pearl Jam, Ten, was released on August 27, 1991. Twenty-eight years ago, I was still in high school, and I hadn’t had a “real” partner at all. I would start a relationship with my first “boyfriend” not long after this album’s release and have sex for the first time about six months later—if you could call it that … it was more like awkward penetration with mutual dissatisfaction. And throughout that year, even though I was coming of age and starting to figure out that sexuality was even a thing, sheltered in extreme ways from all its forms and expressions, I had no concept of bad partners the way I would just a handful of years later. Yet, before it happened I knew. Eddie sang it the way I felt it, and I still understand it as deeply and with as much truth today. Can’t find a better man.
Part of the challenge in my own situation, I think, is that Calvinism and the last bits of Dutch puritanism were so pervasive in my little sub-culture. I knew, even when my conscious mind had repressed every single synapse of sexual abuse, that I was “damaged goods”, impure, unclean, sinful, tainted … you could say it a hundred different ways and it all hurt the same way. Something in me knew that there was this stain on my reputation, according to the religious and cultural views that were held by those around me. Of course I would not be worthy of a better man. I was sullied by debaucherous sins. “Good” men want “pure” women. Obviously!
The other part of the challenge was the terrible partners that did start to line up in my life. They only reinforced the idea that I deserved crap partners who treated me with disrespect, put hands on me in violence, didn’t give me the option of consent—either by force or by coercion and manipulation—and generally just acted like assholes.
How did I end up with this line of losers? It’s a chicken/egg conundrum that we may never solve. Either my low esteem attracted the sharks, or the sharks lowered my esteem until I was weak enough to pull under and drown. But the how and why don’t matter a whole lot, unless you are an anthropologist of some sort. What matters more is the effect, which was proving to me the stain on my reputation must be evident to all, and I am being punished for it, and given what I deserve.
I can’t find a better man. I don’t deserve a better man.
And eventually, having remembered the abuse and having been flooded with images, feelings, flashbacks, nightmares, and all of the confusion, rage, and fear of childhood trauma returning to my memory from the deep recesses of my mind, I didn’t want better men. I wanted dirty, dangerous men who would offer me the opportunity to use sex as a tool for inappropriate coping—reliving traumas through promiscuity and increasingly risky sex. Better men didn’t pull your hair and pound their pelvis against your ass and call you names and do all of it while another couple had sex in the same room—the other man getting off on watching your face as you were being ridden like a bronco and his own partner looking on, infuriated that everyone in the room was focused on your pleasure and pain. Better men didn’t pass you on to their friends after they had finished so that another could take advantage of a woman still in the throes of passion when the first man was already spent. And I happily climbed atop another penis, grinding my pain into men as if my hips were a confessional and thrusting organs were penance I needed to endure until I felt clean again.
But no amount of sex brought me to a place where I felt clean. I still felt undeserving of the love of a better partner. So, I settled for partners who claimed love but offered insecurities, control, abuse, lust, addiction, avoidant behaviors, and a plethora of negative and damaging behaviors that reinforced the idea that I didn’t deserve love, and a soulmate was somehow outside of my reach, while everyone else around me was allowed to find that “perfect” lover.
Can’t find a better man. Don’t deserve a better man. Unworthy of a better man. Incapable of a better man. The list of disordered thoughts goes on and on. And the disordered thinking continues to this day.
I’m still settling for a man that needs “fixing” and babysitting and diagnosing and repeated forgiving for the same error. I’m still not taking my own good advice, and I’m dating “potential” instead of finding a fully actualized man who exhibits the fullness of his potential in his current circumstance—he doesn’t have the potential to get his shit together; his shit IS together. I still date men who aren’t the men I want to have and hold as lifelong partners. And in some way, this must be tied to the idea that I don’t deserve that partner. I cannot achieve that relationship. I don’t get to have the better man.
Can’t find a better man.
Some part of me longs for the better man. Some part of me has all sorts of desire for being in relationship with a loving partner who treats me with respect and equity—a person who offers me compassion and kindness and honesty and love. And then there is this other part that cannot shake the Dutch Reformed purity bullshit that says I am not white like snow with an untouched vagina and therefore cannot find happiness with a partner who offers me those things. The dirty of Calvinism doesn’t wash off, and the damage of childhood sexual trauma isn’t something that I can recover from with my PTSD diagnosis, so I sit in the muck of disordered thinking nonstop. I sit in that muck and I get sucked into unhealthy relationship after unhealthy relationship, because my conscience is a liar and my good advice extends outside of myself and not inward.
The fact is, I won’t find a better man until I find the better in me.
It is here—the better in me.
In fact, good and better and best should define me. They probably do to most others—the non-Dutch Reformed ones—who encounter me. I’m not covered in stains, as Calvinism would have me believe, but am a woman who does now, and has always, fought for equality, love, goodness, kindness, rights for all, life, grace, freedom, justice, and all sorts of positive qualities. I’m overflowing with love and compassion and care for others—all sorts of others, and not just those who look like, act like, and believe like I do. There is so much better in me. And such better deserves to be met with better. This amazing woman definitely deserves a better man … or a better woman, as the case may be, because letting go of my early religion also let me grab hold of the truth that my sexuality is extremely fluid and not fixed. Regardless, a better man or woman belongs in this picture. The previous pain that Pearl Jam helped me express is not a pain that I should have ever felt, and I should always have believed that a better man or woman was waiting just around the corner for me, and we would share a beautiful life.
But I didn’t believe that. I wasn’t taught that. Eddie Vedder saw or knew or related with women like me, who didn’t believe that and were not taught that, and he sang our pain. If only he could have offered a correction instead of a correlation and showed me that this wasn’t my anthem but a lie to which I was listening. Maybe he did mean to show me that, but I didn’t see. Instead I held the belief that this was my plight and my burden to bear. I didn’t have people who were correcting my error or replacing that lie with the truth. I had more and more affirmation that I was a stain and stains deserved to be tossed to the trash bin and left there with the rest of the unclean things.
Can’t find better. Can’t be better. Am not better—ever. No amount of goodness can transcend the one bad thing, even when the bad thing was your victimization and far beyond your control. Give up now, Christy, because there is no redemption here. There is only purity and not purity here, and you are not pure.
I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit with a young woman who is living in a situation near to the one that I grew up within. She mentioned to me an abuse that she suffered, and then said something along the lines of not letting it ruin her. “Some people let it mess up their life.” She said she wasn’t one of those people. But later in our conversation tears welled up in her eyes and she told me of challenges with feeling unheard, and like her parents were not dealing with issues affecting the family, and a number of other things that I felt after suffering abuses as a child. It is messing up her life, whether she intends to let it or not. And part of why it is messing up her life is the same reason it messed up mine—the inability of others to find empathy, compassion, and understanding, and their insistence upon seeing the world in black and white, instead of recognizing and honoring the fact that we all live in complex circumstances and hard and fast “rules” or dichotomies of good/evil, or virgin/whore, or right/wrong don’t make sense. Beyond not working, those strict dichotomies harm innocent people, and reinjure those who are already victimized. They mess up lives. They destroy lives. They convince young girls (or boys) that they will never find a better man (or woman), because they are not deserving … because being a victim has left them stained for life—dirty, bad, and impure.
Not only do I deserve a better man than the ones that have been in my life in my history, but I deserve an amazing man or woman as a life partner. I deserve that because I am not stained and dirty and impure. I am an amazing woman, with talent, grace, empathy, passion, perseverance, love, and beauty that are unmatched by most. I don’t say that to brag or because I am egotistical and narcissistic. I say that because it is a truth that was hard to learn and needs to be remembered. I also say it because it is something that many others need to hear and accept.
I am not impure, dirty, damaged, and stained. I am a victim of horrific and terrifying crimes against my person. My brain was literally malformed as a result of childhood sexual trauma that was ongoing and created captivity-like conditions, making my brain nearly identical to that of a holocaust survivor. My hormones, my stress responses, my gut health, my brain chemistry, my bladder and bowel control, and more were harmed by this trauma, and more trauma happened as I was retraumatized when people didn’t believe my claims of harm, doctors broke confidentiality, I was forced to interact with my abuser, my family refused to allow me to speak about or address the abuse, gaslighting and victim-blaming became commonplace, violent abusive relationships resulted from my deep need for connection tied with my inability to form healthy connection due to my complex post-traumatic stress symptoms, and more.
All of this was me being victimized. None of this was me being impure. If there were lines that were crossed and bad things that were done they were done by my abusers, the people who didn’t listen when I cried out for help, the doctors who didn’t know how to help and didn’t refer me to someone who could, the family who refused (and still refuse) to address the issues afflicting me and us, the church that pounded the drum of purity so loudly that a young girl was shamed into silence about sexual assault and rape, the “friends” who chose to support the denial of the perpetrator and not support my claim of abuse, the people that told me to “give it to Jesus” and it would be gone who made matters worse by not getting me the help that I needed from medical professionals, and the many people who refused to give up their dichotomous thinking in the face of my pain and struggle and confusion and help ease my suffering.
But if you are one of those people, I don’t judge you, and I don’t blame you. You were likely (and perhaps still are) stuck in a space where that black and white thinking was affecting your judgment. You didn’t mean to wrong me, I am sure. You didn’t know better. And when you know better you will do better.
I hope that what I write here today will help you know better. I hope that it will help you move toward doing better.
I don’t want a young woman to come to me and tell me her secrets because she can’t be heard in the space where she lives, just as I couldn’t be heard in the space where I grew up, and where the worst possible things happened to me. I don’t want that beautiful woman to be holding on to those secrets until she is 40 years old, because she feels impure and shamed by a community that sees things in such black and white terms that it cannot give love to the wounded and the wronged.
I share my story, in part, to heal my own wounds. It helps me to get it out on “paper” and to release it from the places where it has been hidden for all of these years. But I also tell it for all of you. I tell it so that if you are the young men and women who have also been harmed in this way, you can know that you deserve a better man, or a better woman. You are not impure. You have no stain. You are perfect and pure and good. Someone did something terrible to you. You deserve justice for that wrong, not shame. And if you are one who hears of a person or from a person who has been harmed in this way, listen and support that person. Fight for justice on their behalf and be certain that they receive the aid that they need. Never support the perpetrator because it is easier than supporting the victim. Never place blame on the victim. Never treat a victim as though they should carry some shame. They do not. They have been wronged, and they deserve better from you than what I received.
I’m dating someone now. I’m not always certain that he is my better man. He has a lot of challenges. I have a lot of challenges. It makes things volatile at moments. But I don’t see things in black and white, and I know that he was a victim of lots of wrongs, just as I was. So, we work at loving one another, the best way we know how. He cares for me and he tries very hard to be the best he can for me. And he is open, honest, and working very hard to be the man that I deserve in my life, because he knows that I am an amazing woman. That is much more than any man has done for me in the past, so I am happy in this relationship now. If that changes, I no longer feel tied to shame and insecurity and the idea that I am not enough, so I can walk away without reservation and seek out a better man or woman. And that is miraculous, given all that I have been through.
I still love to listen to Vedder croon out the words to Better Man. I still sing along with my teenage angst somewhat intact, but it is more a memory of what was than a feeling of the moment. I know that I have a better man. I know that I can find and that I deserve better. I am not the unclean and impure that should be shamed. I am the overcomer—the strong, the determined, the loving, the understanding, the one who learns and shifts and grows and fights and finds life, no matter the circumstances she is offered. And no matter the circumstances you have been given, you can fight to overcome in numerous, amazing ways as well.
We don’t win every fight, of course. I’m still disabled and suffer from PTSD. I still have several family members who refuse to discuss the events of the past. There are many who would still shame me for my actions—like having sex outside of marriage, or smoking weed to manage my fibromyalgia pain. But what other people want to consider shameful doesn’t matter much to me anymore, because I know my heart and my intentions. I know that I am a good person who does all that I can to promote equality and justice. I love deeply, I seek to respect all, I honor the beliefs of others as long as they do no harm, and I work toward creating a better world in any way I am able. That is what matters. Lines in the sand, black and white thinking, and rules that shame and harm the innocent do not matter. Your heart matters. Your intent matters.
So, let go of shame, call out victim blaming, call out gaslighting, and speak your truth. Bring evils to light and bring justice to every situation you are able. Don’t hide. Tell your story. And, of course, find a better man—with or without the Pearl Jam album in the background. (Just kidding—definitely with the Pearl Jam album in the background!!)
Thanks, Pearl Jam. Thanks, Eddie. And thanks to everyone who helped and still helps me to step outside of Calvinist shame and to step into the love and light of who I am over and above the victimization that I have experienced. I am a better woman every time I take that step.