Letter to my Readers:
I write because I grew up white lower-middleclass in the South—where black people never let their eyes meet mine—unless they were the loving eyes of those women who took care of me. Even now, whenever I visit the South I’m aware of those eyes that don’t meet mine—in the chambermaids of hotels, the busboys. I write because of the shame of my family name—the shame I can’t escape and don’t even try. The shame I never fully understood until I was an adult.
At age 10, I was introduced to racism for the first time in Macon, Georgia while staying with my grandmother. The blessing was that I didn’t understand it. I was an Army brat and had lived with and gone to school with people of all ethnic backgrounds all my life. I had not been raised to discriminate against anyone. Back home in El Paso, Texas I stood in my backyard and gave impassioned speeches out loud to imaginary audiences—about the rights of everybody, about all of us being the same.
As a child, I also railed against Christianity. I never understood or accepted that God would not let people go to heaven unless they believed in Jesus Christ. Over and over I questioned, “What about the babies in Africa and China who die and don’t know about Jesus?” At 13, I was confirmed into the Methodist Church and determined to be a missionary when I grew up. Although I still didn’t accept that my god would let babies and children or anybody go to hell if they hadn’t had a chance to know Jesus, I had been so indoctrinated that I felt the call to go do something about it—JUST IN CASE.
But then I grew up and started working all day and attending junior college at night to study art. Over the years, I experienced sexual harassment—and all the advantages and SOME of the disadvantages of being a woman in our society. I had doors opened for me because I was a beautiful woman and I had doors closed on me because I was a beautiful woman.
When I was 29, I went to a woman psychologist who smoked during our sessions and drove a silver Corvette. I decided I wanted to do what she did and began the long journey toward becoming a psychologist. Along the way, I marched for the ERA with a baby strapped to my chest—and so thoroughly taught my sons that women could be anything they wanted to be that one them, at the suggestion that he be a doctor, said, “I can’t be doctor! I’m a boy!”
Through it all, I’ve always had a man in my life to support my dreams, or tear me down, or tell me I couldn’t have it ALL. I even had women professors discourage me from even trying to get into the male-dominated field of psychology—suggesting social work instead. But I kept on thinking about my psychologist and persevered until I made it all the way to my doctorate. And then I learned I had to downplay my beauty (and my Southern accent) in order to be taken seriously in my hard-won profession.
Early on, I realized that people have difficulty truly empathizing with others who are different— even if they sympathize with them. I learned that about myself when, as a psychology intern working with drug addicts and prostitutes, I was shamefully surprised to recognize their pain as my own. My first experience was when an extensively tattooed, heroin-addicted, Harley Davidson-riding, tough-guy totally broke down in his session with me. As he cried and talked about the many losses in his life, I truly felt his pain—and held him as I wept with him.
Since I’ve always been able to make things happen for myself, whatever the obstacles, I never knew what it felt like to not have power as a woman—until I went to Saudi Arabia. When I wound up in the concentration camp that was the Aramco compound of Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia I truly understood the gut-clenching terror of having my identity and power torn away. Of being totally dependent on a man and a company and a Kingdom to give me permission to leave—forget driving or going sleeveless! It was then I knew empathy for those living under the veils.
And so I wrote and wrote and wrote about women and oppression, because I finally knew what I was writing about. I realize now that I had to go to Saudi to understand it. I had to experience it to know it. And now I know I write for all of us, not just for the women in Saudi and China and Africa and Afghanistan, but for women everywhere. I write for women in this country—from Appalachia to La Jolla—who are in real danger of having their rights ripped from them in the November 2012 elections.
I write for me, I write for you, I write for all of us. We are all the same. And I cry because I know it will never change where human life is not valued—where women and children and men are chattel for those in power. I cry because all we can do is scream as loudly as we can so that those in power hear our voices and maybe someone responds. And one person at a time can do whatever she can, and one baby girl and child and woman can be rescued at a time.
I write so I can enlighten and inspire and empower others to action. All the characters in East of Mecca are fictional, and all their stories are true. This is the mission I have been given—to write for all of us.