you and me

We Women Just Can’t Take a Joke, Can We?

 

It’s cold and bleak today, and my allergies are in full swing for some inscrutable reason. I just sneezed 17 times in a row, and tripped over a stuffed Rudolph.

I’m a bit down because as the holidays approach, my ex-husband has somewhat preemptively entered this year’s episode of seasonal shitty antics disorder (it’s not even December, man! Put that tattered old tree back in the attic!).

I’ve always been one to thoroughly enjoy Christmastime. I go so far as to decorate the beds and cover most household items in tiny bells, the thought being that this will alert Santa (who, let’s be honest, is a bit old) to our present whereabouts.

Yet the wholly unnecessary pain my wayward ex causes our children is a source of sorrow that has distorted this previously joyful season almost beyond sentimental recognition.

I try my best to put on my smiley face, drape my flailing spirit in fairy lights and tinsel, and jingle-bell on with the rest of them, but it is daunting to say the least. I worry that my contorted face will freeze in a version of holiday glee gone awry. Thanks, mom, for the your face will freeze that way thing.

I’ve been reading the first pages of a journal I’ve kept since arriving in my new country, an enchanting place I’ve dreamed of since childhood. The account begins about this time of year. At first its purpose was to record the many happy adventures I’d be having, but it very quickly became something else.

It morphed into a testament to my shock and horror, helplessness and paranoia, struggle with depression, insomnia and altogether too much wine, and thankfully my eventual determination to return to a place of albeit compromised joy. I occasionally read through the first year for the boost of seeing just how far I have come.

The entry from today eight years ago is particularly jarring. It marks a turning point, from unwilling incredulity to bone-chilling comprehension. It is written with an obviously shaking hand, and recounts the telling of a joke in my kitchen. It was told with snidely exaggerated guffaws and a roiling smugness by my hulking then brother-in-law to my husband while I fetched coffee for the two men.

I googled the words I remembered from the joke on the off-chance I’d find it, and sure enough, there it was, among the deep and boundless dregs of the internet.

***

Dead Wife joke

A bloke’s wife goes missing while diving off the West Australian coast. He reports the event, searches fruitlessly, and spends a terrible night wondering what could have happened to her. Next morning there’s a knock at the door, and he is confronted by a couple of policemen, the old Sarge and a younger Constable.

The Sarge says, “Mate, we have some news for you, unfortunately some really bad news, but, some good news, and maybe some more good news.”

“Well,” says the bloke, “I guess I’d better have the bad news first?” The Sarge says, “I’m really sorry, mate, but your wife is dead. Young Bill here found her lying at about five fathoms in a little cleft in the reef. He got a line around her and we pulled her up, but she was dead.”

The bloke is naturally pretty distressed to hear of this and has a bit of a turn. But after a few minutes, he pulls himself together and asks what the good news is. The Sarge says, “Well, when we got your wife up, there were quite a few really good-sized crays and a swag of nice crabs attached to her, so we’ve brought you your share.” He hands the bloke a sugar bag with a couple of nice crays and four or five crabs in it.

“Geez, thanks. They’re bloody beauties. I guess it’s an ill wind and all that… So what’s the other possible good news?”

“Well,” the Sarge says, “if you fancy a quick trip, me and young Bill here get off duty at around 11 o’clock, and we’re gonna shoot over there and pull her up again!”

***

This joke was told with an unmistakable purpose. It was meant to convey how little I was worth as a human being. It was a cowardly, passive way to articulate how much violence could oh-so-carelessly be carried out on my body, which existed to be exploited for the entertainment of these men. The dead body drove home how little value or recognition my person, my soul, my essence possessed.

The menace and obvious relish with which the joke was told was stunning. I will never forget the shock, then the sickening numbness of realization creeping its way up my spine and settling into a terrified, rock-hard lump in my throat.

After the joke, I could no longer ignore my sense of foreboding. That dead body grabbed me by the neck and shoved me into understanding into just how helpless a position I had landed myself.

I was at the mercy of not one but two deeply misogynistic, dangerously abusive men. They controlled almost every aspect of my life. I had no money, no transport, no viable resources, knew only a handful of people, and I had three young children to protect and nurture.

These were men who gave each other wife-management advice like “You’ll need to get a stick,” a phrase I heard the joker growl to my husband a few minutes later when the sugar bowl for the coffee was found to be empty.

My ex was a man who would not heat a house with three children in the dead of winter, who isolated and neglected us and rarely spoke to me except to cajole me into unwanted sex. But that joke? It was innocent, meant only as some fun between the lads. My holly jolly arse it was!

I was repeatedly warned — by the guys who had just suggested my life was worth less than my dead body — how well-connected and influential they were.

I was reminded how they could “pull in their wagons” and crush me, how people in “their territory” would despise and shun me at a mere word from them. Me, a small, quiet woman far from home and family with three small children to raise. Children these men constantly threatened to have taken away lest I forget my place as quietly obedient dogsbody and sex object.

But that joke? It was just slagging, a thing my little-woman brain just couldn’t grasp. Culture shock, that was it. Never mind my new country felt like soft fresh butter on warm bread from Day One, I just didn’t get why a dead woman as a lobster trap was funny because I was a foreigner. A free holiday meal is a free holiday meal, I guess.

The joke was part of a constant stream of aggression. The words were uttered in a decidedly unsubtle atmosphere of threat, then passed off as being in jest, so these men could avoid accountability and side-step morality for their own ends. Far from a joke, it was the callously-rendered truth of my situation.

This assault disguised as missive gives me nightmares until this day. My dead body pulled face-down through the mud by chortling men. My paralyzed body, face and eyes covered in glinting frost, dragged by the ankles, head bumping off curbs on the way to be gang-raped in the back of a lorry. But the joke was on me! I just didn’t get it. Until I did.

I was already careening about my new life like a zombie, wondering how the hell I was going to survive the disaster my longtime dream had quickly become. I was now a hair away from that dead body, my near-corpse mere fodder for these hateful, bullying men.

For all the clues that may have been there before I moved 3000 miles away from home with my husband of 10 years, I did not see this coming and I had no idea how I was to escape.

It sickens me how many people try to insist that the joker was just being funny. Funny while he laughed as the color drained from my face, while he chuckled at the thought of me getting beaten with a stick, while he watched me panic at his feigned-throwaway words. It amazes me how others insist my frighteningly vindictive, ever-plotting and vicious ex-husband is hard done by and wracked with grief.

“Oh, those crazy boys! That is just their way!” “His bark is bigger than his bite, he meant no harm!” “They just don’t know any better! They’re good lads at heart!” That the joker somehow meant nothing with such plottingly callous words is an unfunny and glaring contradiction to me. But what am I but a good-as-dead woman with no sense of holiday humor?

The joker also meant no harm when he told my then 12-year-old son it was a pity he was getting a pointy nose and squinting Jew-eyes like my father. There was nothing purposely menacing in that. I heard the breath of millions of people caught again in their throats by another harmless joke. It was lighthearted fun! A bonding moment between uncle and one slightly frightened nephew.

It was not meant to intimidate and infer a certain kind of sentiment. We just can’t take a joke for our own good, can we?

There are pages and pages of similar jokes in my journal. I included them hoping that one day I could read them from a place of wellness and safety, with a clear head, and see them for what they were. Weapons, not remotely amusing to their prey, near-deadly weapons. But such raucously funny fellows, those lads! They make me shit candy canes and snowflakes.

I am a woman with an almost pathological habit of looking on the bright side. I daresay this contributed to me moving 3000 miles away from family and friends with an obviously unsound man. I feel compelled to describe the overwhelming dread I felt after hearing that joke because I see it is a tool used not just by these lowly, frightened men, but by much more prominent and powerful, lowly, frightened men.

This sinister and dangerous joking is just another trait of the common bully. The bright side here is that the joke provided a red flag. I knew I was in serious danger, and it may have saved my life. For now, at least.

To be very clear, this joke was not the product of haplessly old-fashioned, harmlessly sexist men. It was not their self-conscious blundering at their own sad expense. It was purposeful, deeply misogynistic violence, flippantly passed off as joking. A splintery bludgeoning with the sharp duality of comedy. Gaslighting at its best.

These men use this method of joking both as a tool to control what they fear most and to afford themselves the relief some garner through laughing at another human’s pain. Our collective pain. Our soon dead but delightfully lucrative bodies.

These clowns are still out there, still side-splittingly, soul-snuffingly funny. They would rather see me dead than free from their twisted way of being. They imagine me strutting about their territory, making a show of their inability to control their women. Their territory was part of their warped sense of reality.

This is my home, filled with a love and warmth my instincts told me was waiting here the moment I arrived. I am not going anywhere. I’ve rebuilt my holly jolly life and feel strong and powerful for it, yet every single day I am plagued by a vague, nagging fear it will be snatched away. The joker made sure of that. Happy Holidays!

***

JenniferKimmelJennifer Kimmel is a writer, and mother of three wonderful children. She currently resides in a tiny magical town on the top northwest tip of Ireland, and hopes to stay there for the remainder of her days. She enjoys pairing mismatched socks, pretending sheep are mocking her hairstyle, and experimenting with her new waffle-maker.

***

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