For those of you just tuning in, this is the third part of a series about leaving a life of “should”—I should be this, I should do that. In the last segment, I explained how I studied classical singing and became a professional opera singer largely to please an absentee father who was never happy with me. Like most life stories, there is more to tell.
Around the same time that I started taking voice lessons in junior high school, I experienced something else that solidified my already profound sense of should. This single event further instilled in me the unshakable idea that I had to live my life according to what other people wanted from me, not what I wanted for myself. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that incident molded and controlled me for decades. It not only dictated my role as a wife, it permeated every part of my life. At every turn, this one thing determined what I should do to be the person I should be. Admitting that to myself has been instrumental in freeing me from my life of should, and I hope that sharing my journey can help others do the same.
I work in an industry dominated by straight white men who largely look alike and act alike. They wear similar suits, drive similar cars, and live in similar homes. When I come across one of these men, I often end up referring to him as “Chad.” For instance, if someone asks me who just walked by, I would jokingly say, “I don’t know, I think it was Chad #3.” I’ve known for some time that I have a bias against straight white men, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this piece that I realized an important part of the reason I feel this way about the men I call Chad.
My mind took me back to my first summer music camp at 14. The thought of being away from home by myself for the very first time terrified me, but my father had just started me in classical voice lessons and wanted me to go. So I went. Once I got there and settled in, I felt better. I was surrounded by music nerds like me, and that made me feel at ease. Living and studying music with my new friends made me feel like I was finally home.
In choir, I met a boy who was quiet and withdrawn. We started talking and he quickly began to pursue me. I had never dated anyone, and he was both older and more experienced. He started to take me on long walks away from everyone else, and when we were alone, he would kiss me aggressively. It didn’t feel right, but I thought he cared about me. I thought I should let him do this to me.
One day he pulled me into a soundproof practice room and raped me. All I truly remember is feeling frozen—completely numb. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened to me, but I somehow knew what I should do. I should tell no one. I should blame myself. I should pretend like everything was just fine. Put simply, I should let men dictate what I do and who I am no matter what. And that’s exactly what I did for many years.
I went on to study classical voice because my father wanted me to. I dated a number of men because that’s what they wanted me to do. I became an opera singer and a Lutheran pastor’s wife. For a long time, I lived a life that was not mine. It was a life of suffering. A life of shame. A life of should. I finally understand a big part of how and why that happened.
At 14, I was at a pivotal stage in my life. My father had pushed me toward singing, but, like most teenagers, I needed more to determine who I would be when I grew up. I might have chosen to pursue classical singing. After all, summer music camp had been a wonderful experience at first. It would have been my choice after a summer immersed in music. I also may have chosen to become a history or German major. Instead, I didn’t get to choose anything for myself because a man intervened and shattered my ability to do anything but what I should.
My assault at camp programmed me to believe that I was not in charge of my own destiny. It was my duty to please men, whether it was my father, my rapist, or any of the innumerable Chads that I’ve encountered in my personal and professional life. I have worked hard to free myself from the prison of should that held me for so long, and I’m finally living the life that I want as an out and proud lesbian who fulfills her true passion for helping people by working as a financial advisor and professional speaker/writer, and raises money for underprivileged kids in Madison. I even sing occasionally—anything from Pat Benatar to Verdi.
I have come far, but my work is not done. And it’s complicated because I have to navigate a culture that is dominated by straight white men. They’re still in charge, and that is a problem for women in general. #metoo. Not all men are rapists, of course, but there is a lot more to misogyny than sexual assault. And now I know why I call so many of them Chad. My rapist was named Chad.
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.