Essay Contributed by Maggie Baumer, Esq. Ms. Baumer is a licensed attorney and the Event Coordinator for the spring 2014 Celebration of Speech at Women’s Voices Worldwide, Inc. In this powerful personal story she explores the tension between speaking your truth and honoring your right to privacy.
October is my favorite month. It epitomizes more than just a season, but a turning point. Suddenly you circle around and all the leaves have changed. Even though I have finally completed my law degree, I’m still moved by this sense of back-to-school excitement. It whispers in your ear that things may never be the same. Last October, the whisper came true.
I was deep under the spell of Fall then, dressed as Pocahontas and painting the town red. It was Friday night and I came home to find myself locked out of my Manhattan apartment. I decided to shimmy down the trash chute to get into my basement. To my horror, a trash compactor hid near the end of the chute. My arm got stuck in its motion detector vice and I had to be freed by the fire department. A month later, after many surgeries and prolonged hospital stays, my left hand and forearm were amputated.
One moment, one fateful decision redirected the entire course of my life and punctured my veil of privacy. It is pretty easy to be anonymous in New York. And in a city where most people are constantly craning their necks to stand out, slipping into that wearable pant of anonymity can feel so good. After working long days trying to get your boss to notice you, walking out onto the streets of Midtown and assuming your place as another dark shadow is blissful. Unfortunately, in part because I am an attorney, my accident was deemed “news.” I went from being just another law school grad, unremarkable on paper, to an infamous daredevil. Several articles were published in news media and picked up by many other blogs seeking a salacious story. Not only had I lost my privacy, my identity was scooped up and spewed out with all sorts of venom. Readers, clinging to their own cherished anonymity, flung insults at me behind the safety of screen names. I had two choices: 1. Keep quiet and hope that, in time, the story would fade and be forgotten; 2. Speak. Tell my story myself. Reclaim my identity. Not be forgotten.
I chose the latter.
I spent the first nine or ten months after the accident focused on my physical and emotional recovery. I knew about the bad press, but avoided it until I felt strong enough to face it. Once I did, I felt angered but also motivated. With some help and encouragement, I decided to tell my story on a radio broadcast and my chest immediately felt lighter. I had spent many days prior to the interview feeling crushed by shame and anger. After the interview, as I jaunted out of my house to go for a run, I laughed at my own giddiness. Even if I got no positive feedback, it didn’t matter. I was free again. I was finally able to make myself known for who I am, not the caricature of me published by the media, but myself, as I know me to be.
Since the interview, several other opportunities to tell my story have followed. I have pursued each and continue to expand my confidence in my speaking ability, which boosts my own sense of resilience. In part, what has sustained me through my struggles with shaming and limb-loss is self-awareness. I am the only person on Earth who knows every challenge I have faced and every opportunity I have been afforded. I know what my motivations were and what they are today. I have seen myself change and grow. I am comfortable with who I am. The best way to honor myself, and my story, is to tell it. Through the process, I have also been able to help others who have been bullied or shamed feel supported, which, in turn, has enabled me to become a part of a lasting community. Feeling connected to this forward-thinking group of people has brought so much more meaning to my life.
Now that I am an amputee, I also have to face a new issue with privacy: the sight of me. My injury was complicated and severe, so I still haven’t been able to get a prosthetic hand. As a result, my appearance invites inquiry, wanted or unwanted. I walk around facing strange new glances on a daily basis. Some people don’t address my injury directly. Some flat out ask me “What happened to your arm?” Some even say, “I figured I would just address the elephant in the room…”
Trying to balance my sense of privacy in the face of these questions is an ongoing task, much like any balancing act. I’ve realized there is no set rule that will allow me to navigate every situation and that I get to choose the terms of my own privacy. Just because I shared my story for the public to hear, does not mean that I am obligated to tell it during every personal encounter I have. Sometimes I am comfortable sharing details of my accident with others, sometimes I’m not. When I feel like sharing, I do. When I don’t feel like sharing, I tell people that I’d rather not.
Once I did the radio interview, I think a part of me secretly wished that the questions would stop. But, of course, they didn’t. So I learned another lesson: even after going public, there is still a space and a need for privacy. I have as much a right to it now as I did before my accident and before the interview. The terms are just a little different. Each of us has to manage our privacy in our own way, which can be hard to do in today’s digital world.
To quote one of my favorite musicians, Bruce Springsteen, “there’s a secret garden she hides.” We all have a secret place inside of us that is only ours. It doesn’t imply that the secrets are bad, just private. A place that no one else can see, where we can retreat to contemplate and recharge. Everyone, regardless of public profile, needs to maintain this place in order to keep a measure of dignity and integrity. I’m working hard to nurture mine.
Some days I miss my old friend anonymity, but most days I am more grateful for the authenticity I get to live in now. I guess I could hate October, but that seems shortsighted. I’d rather face October head on, embrace all its beauty, and be thankful for the past transformative year. This year, I can still hear that little whisper in the leaves. Perhaps things will never be the same again.