Friday, November 30, 2007

Verbally Abusing Women: What if she really does ask for it?

This morning I had the most surreal experience of the past month, if not the last year. A friend who's taking a speech class asked if I would help her in Friday's class. I said sure, while thinking I would probably be asked to chance slides or something while the main speech was going on.

How wrong I was.

She explained that she was going to have a skit to proceed her speech, and I was to be the other half. Yay! A fun scene. I haven't had much of that in the past 10 years, since leaving behind the drama classes and play productions. But this dialog was different. In it, she played herself; at least, herself as she was a few years ago, at the height of her struggle with an eating disorder. I was playing the personification of the eating disorder. I was the nasty disparaging voice she heard that always told her she wasn't good enough.

This isn't going to be the fun lark-in-the-park I first anticipated.

My part consisted of being relentlessly cruel and abusive towards her for ten lines or so, with her meekly acknowledging the verbal abuse I pile on. I called her fat, called her a bitch, and showed general disgust for how much of a "fucking fat-ass loser" she is.

You may or may not know this, but I'm not a person who swears gratuitously. I know many people who use "colorful metaphors" as flavor text, using them as the only operational adjective in the vocabulary. I'm not that guy. If I have to resort to swearing, I've kinda admitted defeat; that's the way I perceive it. I should be able to make my displeasure or disbelief completely apparent without using words that may shock and offend some people. I suppose that would make me prim, by some people's standards.

I hesitated accepting this role, because I wasn't sure I wanted to be berating one of my friends. It's not something I'm comfortable with. When I asked her if she wanted to have an image of me berating her in her mind from now on, she responded with confidence. She said that one of the reasons she asked me to do it was BECAUSE she knew that I was not the sort of person who would ever say these words and mean them. That's a fine compliment which humbled me, so the least I could do was call her a fat bitch in recompense. I think I got the better end of the stick.

Anyway, we went to class this morning and I stood towering over her, raining invective on her. It's acting, at it's very finest. I never doubted that I'd be able to say the words, but I did doubt whether or not it was a good idea. I had another flash of that as I was throwing scorn at her. Right about the time I was telling her she was a waste of space and friendships, she (having had downcast eyes since the beginning) subtly tucked her chin towards her shoulder in an even bigger display of submission and self-worthlessness. And all the warning lights in my brain came on again. Brightly flashing.

I started shaking with a combination of adrenaline-fueled exertion and quasi-yelling, and a giddy sense of the entire room starting to roll clockwise. I stopped holding my index cards with both hands, but with only a single hand, it was shaking too violently to read. Back to two hands.

In a half-second, my superego came back and calmed me a little bit, reminding me that it was just make-believe. We finished the dialog and I sat down while the actual speech occurred. I had to grasp hands with myself just to keep the anxiety from making me drum my fingers.

I'm still of two minds on it. The actor in me loved the chance to get to be something I'm not; to embrace a character who is completely outside my experience. That's what draws me into acting in the first place, and this was an outstanding exemplar.

But the friend in me gets nauseated from saying those things to a friend. Or anyone at all, really, even in fun. I can be hurtful. I can say hurtful things. I certainly have before. But each time, it leaves me hollowed out. Each time, I broke a little something inside of me. I felt that little twinge that happens when you go contrary to your nature. And being asked to do it on demand fills me with an initial reaction of "no way." Because on some level I can't set it aside.

After I finished, my friend instantly raised her head, smiled, and said "Thanks." That was enough to break the pall. I remembered that it was all water off the proverbial duck. Hateful words, but not heartfelt from my end, and of (hopefully) little-to-no impact on her end. Thank goodness she smiled, or I'd have been trapped in a self-designed prison of compromised principles.

She offered to buy me dinner as a thank-you, so you can be sure this episode ranks right at the top of the most bizarre and disturbing things that have ever earned me free food.

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