Saturday, March 2, 2024

“Take a Step Back” by Barbara Crompton


Image from Canberra Times

“And,” Hazel wrote,” my three brothers are all closet misogynists in liberal clothing.”

Her email hit me like a fist in the face; I froze on the word misogynist.   

We had been in a short email exchange about some news regarding her sister, and buried in the correspondence, she had – almost blithely - tucked in this parting shot about her brothers. Not that I knew two of her brothers all that well, it had been years since I had participated in anything remotely familial with her family. But I’d known one of her brothers very well. He was my ex-husband.

“Jamie is not a misogynist,” I wrote back. “I think I need to take a step back from this conversation.”

Jamie and I had one of those marriages that had just petered out after thirty years as a couple. There had never been a single incident of misogyny – ever. If anything, Jamie had been overly affirming of everyone, including women. Even with our two girls, he couldn’t raise his voice without becoming wracked with guilt.

I closed the lid to my laptop and stared out the window. I felt the flutter of anxiety deep in my chest, like moths bumping up against a porch light. My mind raced in a non-stop loop of scenarios, one no more satisfying than the other. Hazel and I had been in a causal relationship since my divorce, and by casual, I mean Christmas cards, Facebook birthday posts and the odd email update.

Her use of the word misogyny felt as though she had crossed a line. But I had doubts.

Maybe she didn’t mean that word …maybe I should have asked why she said that! Maybe my final line was too snippy. Was there a nicer way I should have ended the email?

But … the word misogyny is a pejorative that describes someone who “despises” women. Other definitions include “hatred of women,” (typically shown by men but not exclusively) or having an “aversion” to women.

I wondered at the casualness as to how some people use the word misogyny, as if it were a close cousin to the word chauvinist. I’d heard it used to describe an opinionated co-worker, an ornery husband or difficult salesclerk. At the very worst, these people were guilty of being disagreeable, not women haters.  

“Your experience, not mine,” Hazel emailed back, not backing down from her accusation of misogyny.

Hazel had been estranged from her siblings for a while now and her grievances had been piling up. The falling out in the family had been triggered by the burial of her mother or rather the re-positioning of her mother, whose ashes had been on Hazel’s property.

The other siblings decided mom needed to be interned, yet again, alongside their father in a non-denominational cemetery. Everyone was in favour of the plan except Hazel who saw this as her hill to die on, and no, I’m not making this stuff up.

Accusations and age-old grievances erupted, and Hazel found herself alone. No one in families are spared in these sorts of falling-outs, except those few who prefer to let sleeping dogs lie and share holidays behind wooden smiles and careful conversations.

Sitting across from me on the couch, holding his thermos of morning coffee, my partner considered my posture.

“Where have you landed in regard to the whole Hazel email?” he asked.


“You’re not used to crazy,” he said.

I considered the comment. It was true. My upbringing was the furthest thing from crazy, my partner’s experience was very different. His mother had all the right instincts but little of the maturity needed to understand herself or her growing children. His father was irresponsible and prone to drink.

The household was more chaotic than calm. My partner’s early years were marked with running feral and unrestrained through his boyhood town, collecting friends for their nighttime prowls. He was fortunate to have a sharp and curious mind along with a healthy dose of self-reliance to weather a more hostile environment. They were “that family.”

“True, I’m not used to crazy,” I said. But I’ve processed this. I’m just unsettled.”

“Then you’re not processed. My take is you’re not seeing the situation clearly.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, now annoyed.

“She was looking to co-opt you into her grievance,” he explained. “I’ve lived this”.

I felt like smacking my forehead. Of course.

I hadn’t been paying attention. My correspondence with Hazel was never an easy back and forth. Her emails inevitably slipped into a slow bleed of discontent that I tried to either ignore or steer in another direction. My stock answer was always “that must have been hard,” a vague response that says, “I’m listening” with a pretense of empathy.

Hazel was looking for a partner to bear witness to the perceived horribleness of her family and I was to be the co-conspirator to her narrative, the confidant to her indignation. Her complaint was deep and twisted. She was telling me that it was all their fault, and her malice was seeping through.

“And my three brothers are all closet misogynists,” she had said.

No, I thought, they weren’t. And it was time for me to step back from my relationship with Hazel.


Barbara Crompton is a retired business owner, yoga enthusiast, backcountry explorer and mother of  two beautiful intrepid daughters. Her passion is travelling the wilderness of Canada with her partner Ian and gathering stories from those experiences and the people she meets. Barbara lives in Oakville, Ontario. 

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