You are the princess we feed to the dragon.
A male coworker once said this to me out of the blue. It was a strange thing to hear (or say for that matter). Was it supposed to be a compliment or a thinly-veiled threat? Or both? Should I say thank you that I’m the princess? That you haven’t fed me to the dragon…yet?
Whatever he meant by it, the phrase stuck with me. I felt there was a prescience to it, like the smallest invisible string had been pulled ever so slightly, one connecting the past to the future. “You are the princess we feed to the dragon.”
At the time, I was a frail nineteen-year-old cashier hauling heavy buckets of ice cubes to fill the drink station in a fast-food restaurant. My coworker had been silently watching me carrying out this sweaty task as he stood at his burger station. He blurted this out as I came by to fill another bucket with ice. He was a macho, arrogant guy I didn’t like very much, he had a nasty habit of giving people derogatory nicknames behind their backs. I always wondered what mine was. From his odd comment, I guessed it was probably “virgin-princess” or “dragon-feed”.
Later, when we were alone in the break room, he confided in me that he liked to sit in his car alone with the windows rolled up, in a cloud of pot smoke, contemplating life. He had a very nihilistic, cynical view of the world; he didn’t think highly of anyone except his mom. He never knew his biological father, she had raised him alone. He was just a few years older than me and had had a hard life: in and out of schools, in and out of gangs, in and out of drug dealing. His mom later married and relocated the family up north to try to put distance between him and the gangs. He had a younger half-brother, whom he was clearly jealous of and enjoyed picking-on. “Someone needs to toughen him up.” he explained, “So I rough him up, punch him whenever I can. I try to give him a hard time. He needs to get tougher.” I shook my head in disapproval, I hate bullying. “C’mon, I’m just messing with you!” he said, but I knew he had been telling me the truth the first time. He had let his guard down with me, told me things about himself that he didn’t tell most people, things he normally kept in the dark.
In all my interactions with people, I often think I can see a pattern, at the very least, a common thread: Generally, people are not intimidated by me. You could say I have the opposite of the “resting bitch face”, you could say I have the “innocent and completely harmless bitch face”. Publicly, I have only two settings: cheerful and polite, or quiet and polite. My parents believed the best virtue was humility and made sure, a bit overzealously, that I never ever thought I was better than anyone else, that I remained humble at all times. It makes me especially great at customer service jobs, something I’ve always gotten praised for. Complete strangers ask me for directions, sometimes to look after their children for a moment. Don’t get me wrong, this not something I’m proud of, nor is it something I’m ashamed about. It is, in all honesty, a very painful quality to have. I’ve been told to “get some confidence” more often than I’d like to admit (and still do) in the most snub-nosed, condescending ways. Being perceived as harmless has even threatened my life several times. When traveling alone, I was occasionally approached by strange men who wished to take me on “special private tours”. I have been groped and sexually harassed by men I worked with and by complete strangers. I was once in an abusive relationship.
However, I do not feel sorry for myself, nor do I want to be pitied. To put it simply, this is the experience I have had, it informs my worldview. I do not exist in isolation, how others define me also draws the parameters of the world I inhabit—the world as I know it, the world I also actively create and strive to improve. Most importantly, I don’t think that this is a particularly unique quality in a person. There is always someone in a group, no matter how small, who is perceived as having the weaker role, often it is a woman, a child, an elderly person, a racial or religious minority—a person generally assumed to have less power.
But the truth is, no one is completely powerless, no one is insignificant, it is simply a persistent illusion. “You want to know my superpower?” I suddenly asked two astonished friends I shared a taxi cab with recently, I had had a little too much to drink, so the question was not only awkward and absurd, it was also slurred. Amused and intrigued, they asked, “What is it?” With enough drama for an imaginary drum roll, I exclaimed, “I can always find the sadist in every party! Actually, they always find me!”
It’s the sad truth. Which is why my mantra has always been these two quotes: “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” (Abigail Van Buren) and “Be the change you want to see in the world.” (Gandhi)
It’s not necessarily that I’m a great target for bullies, though I’ve certainly experienced bullying, it’s that people tend to overlook and underestimate me. They often reveal things to me that they would normally hide—coarser, darker aspects of their character. I call it “backdoor treatment”. Everyone has a front door, a pretty façade they want most people to see with all the bright, polished trophies. But everyone also has a backdoor, often hidden, reserved for those less-guarded moments in life: The moment when you’ve already worked a 40-hour week and your boss demands that you do overtime right now. The moment when you’re alone with a screaming toddler and there is no one to see you and judge you. The moment when you’ve accidentally struck an animal with your car and you must decide what to do next. That “backdoor” is the part of people that I have seen. As you can imagine, it can be incredibly ugly—though not always, I have also encountered beauty there. It is unrefined, animalistic, raw.
The best way I can describe it is to share an experience with a coworker I once had, let’s call her Rebecca after the psychotic Daphne du Maurier character. Rebecca was in nearly all outward aspects the perfect career woman: she was smart, had movie-star good looks, impeccable taste in clothes, she was quick and capable. Men were attracted to her, women wanted to be her, she was the very picture of poise and confidence. She was especially good at kissing-up to bosses and avoiding lots of work—all while making it seem like she was a team player and a hard worker. I was hired by Rebecca’s company, a reputable international firm, at the age of twenty-four (I won’t divulge the name of the company and the work details for anonymity’s sake). Rebecca and I were assigned two very lucrative, high-maintenance clients and therefore had to work closely with each other every day, that meant daily meetings and constant communication.
The first time I met Rebecca, I immediately sensed that she was both confused and unimpressed with me. We had both graduated from good colleges and were close in age. On paper, we had a great deal in common, there was no reason why we could not have been friends. But whenever I spoke to her or sat with her in meetings, she treated me like an inanimate object, like a lamp or a chair. At first, she was very cold and quiet. Since I had experienced a situation similar to this before, when a coworker “didn’t know how to treat me” (didn’t know if I was her equal or superior based on my qualifications), I initiated small talk with Rebecca and made every effort to be as kind and polite as possible, as the popular expression goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”.
But it soon became apparent that Rebecca had very little respect for me and there was nothing I could do to earn it, even though I excelled at my job and was constantly praised for my work by the clients and management. During our daily meetings, which were often just the two of us in her office, Rebecca began to criticize every aspect of my appearance, my personal life, my bearing, the way I spoke, my “lack of confidence”. She often did this at the end, like a finishing touch, adding a rueful laugh to assert that my shortcomings and oddities were an endless source of amusement for her. When I tried to change the subject or steer her back to work-related issues, she would give me a malicious smile or start giggling.
This soon became a daily occurrence. My first reaction was to criticize her back, but I immediately saw that she wanted me to do exactly that. “Look at you! You’re ridiculous. What’s wrong with you?” She said to me, shaking her head, at the end of our meeting one day (she would often repeat this). “You don’t have to disparage me to feel better about yourself! Work on improving yourself!” I wanted to fire back, but I didn’t say it out loud. I had the strong feeling that if I did, I would go down to her level, to somehow condone her behavior as “normal”, that she would just laugh loudly and elbow me like we were two sorority sisters mocking each other amiably as we guzzled beers on a couch.
So, I held myself back, although I didn’t want to show any sort of acceptance of her put-downs, I chose to try to ignore them. I chose to remain silent. I loved the job itself and the clients too much to quit or request a reassignment. My other coworkers soon began noticing how terribly Rebecca was treating me, but they also noticed that I never responded to her insults or fought back. Some of them even began to think that there was something actually wrong with me, that I had in some way incited her indecency, or that it was my fault for not defending myself. They began to call me, jokingly, the office “gimp”—the masochist to her sadist. This made me feel even worse. But what they didn’t know was that I had hatched a plan to fight back. To fight back viciously.
The truth is, although Rebecca was always crude and condescending to me when we were alone (never in front of superiors), there was hardly anything she said that ever surprised me. As I said about myself before, she wasn’t the first person to perceive me as weak and I was already very critical about myself without her input. I could even predict what hurtful thing she would say next and sometimes made a game of it to amuse myself. I was surprisingly good at it, one day I had a bad cold and the medication I took for it made me groggy, I guessed correctly (to the letter, in fact) that she was going to make fun of me for how drowsy I looked that day.
What I felt was simply anger. Pure anger. I was angry that she thought she could get away with it—that they always think they can get away with it. I was angry that she believed she was better than me. I was angry that my feelings were of no significance to her or to anyone who had witnessed her terrible behavior towards me, who did nothing, who blamed me for it. Most of all, I was angry that the respect and kindness I always showed to Rebecca and to others was not reciprocated, not at all acknowledged or appreciated.
What no one knew was I had been meticulously recording every incident with Rebecca in a journal and I had befriended the head of the HR department. After nearly four years of working in the company, I finally decided I had had enough, it was time to move on. I wrote a long complaint letter, citing the ugliest, most racist, most demeaning things she said to me. I then submitted my notice to leave and proceeded to give copies of the letter to every person in management, HR, and, secretly, to every employee in our branch. In the end, nearly every person in the company had read the letter except for Rebecca. She was the last person to read it.
I wasn’t there when it happened, but I was told that she broke down in tears in front of our bosses when the letter was read out loud. She had been admonished in front of everyone, humiliated and humbled. And I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for her to blame or to incur her wrath. I wasn’t there to hear her weak apology, or her many excuses, which would all be meaningless to me anyway. I was, at that very moment, basking on a sunny beach in Italy sipping a cold drink as I read the email from a coworker describing how hurt she had been, how unsure and sheepish she had subsequently become. Revenge is sweet.
When I was in Florence, I dreamt I saw her in a city square leading a group of small children on a walking tour. “No!” I shouted, “You shouldn’t lead, you’re a bad example!” But she only looked at me vacantly, like I had been the one to utter unprovoked insults. I never heard from Rebecca again. But my sweet revenge had a taint of bitterness to it. As I had been writing my complaint letter, it was as if a large weight had been lifted from me, there was a new spring to my step, I began to carry myself with more vigor and confidence at the office. And after I had submitted my notice, Rebecca must have suspected that I was gaining some kind of power and had nothing to lose at that point. Likely out of a gnawing sense of fear, she actually began to change her behavior a little bit. She even attempted to apologize for her crudeness in the weakest way, “I’ve been having these headaches, you know. So, I’ve been irritable, abrasive. I’m abrasive. I know I’m not the easiest person to work with.” She then confessed to me that she, in fact, loved me. I just smiled coyly, I didn’t say anything. There was an extremely awkward silence. I obviously didn’t love her back. For me, it was too little, too late. For me, there was only one reason why she did what she did. No, Rebecca. I thought. You did it because you could. Stop making lame excuses. You only did it because you could. You thought there would be no repercussions.
I often thought of myself as a hero back then and at many times in my life. Parallel to my humble demeanor, I have cultivated a streak of rebelliousness that has become recurrent. I have become very good at complaining, writing complaint letters and getting apologies from management. “You are the princess we feed to the dragon.” Well, I’ve learned to slay the dragon too. How I wish with all my heart that was true. Irrefutably true.
A few years after I had taken my revenge, an old friend of mine suddenly became very successful in his career. I went out to dinner with him and congratulated him. He thanked me and then admitted that I had hurt him in the past. One night in college when we were hanging out, I had repeated a silly joke that didn’t land well, I told him that a mutual friend of ours was exclusively “only my friend”. It was meant to be a dumb joke, but I had made him feel like he didn’t belong. It was only later, after he had achieved great success, that he finally told me how much he had resented me. I quickly apologized, in addition to being extremely embarrassed, I was shocked. I had no idea how much I had hurt him. Forgive them for they know not what they do. Indeed.
After my experience with Rebecca, the next company I worked for was a busy consulting firm in lower Manhattan. The view from my office window was the huge vacuous pit left by the fallen Twin Towers (construction on the Freedom Tower had just begun). If I thought my old coworker was the crudest person alive, this company had several people to top her. It would be one of the most toxic work environments I ever had.
When he wasn’t snorting cocaine out of his unusually long pinky nail, the CEO liked to yell at the top of his lungs at whomever he deemed unfit for the day or hour. His screaming echoed down the corridors, all the way to the bathroom where an employee could usually be found crying in one of the stalls. Although I managed to avoid crying or being the direct object of his fits of rage, I soon became as angry with him as I had been with Rebecca. The worse day I had at the company was when I was groped by one of the contractors. The man who had touched me inappropriately had done it in such a way that it seemed like an accident, he pretended to stumble, one hand found itself on my breasts and the other brushed up against my rear. I quickly lunged away as he laughingly caught a glimpse of my face, enraged red. As I regained my composure alone in my office, I stared out at the deep pit, gaping just below me, I wondered if I was being punished for all the stupid things I had done in the past, for not forgiving Rebecca, for humiliating her the way I did. I had spitefully and triumphantly left Purgatory only to arrive in Hell.
It was an exercise in endurance, in survival. The only thing that kept me going was I knew there would be an end. I decided to leave the following summer and I happily marked a cross on the calendar every day that brought me closer to it. After one particularly stressful workday, I visited the Natural History Museum with a friend. There, among the rooms of precious fossils, preserved specimens and bones, I felt inexplicably drawn to the dinosaur exhibits. I stood transfixed within the huge dioramas of painted prehistoric swamps, looming ferns and conifer forests where fierce plaster beasts emerged out of the muck, lurked in the undergrowth, in all the open spaces and nearly every dark corner. Scaly beasts of all sorts, of incredible shapes and sizes, with row upon row of sharp teeth, forked tongues, long talons poised to tear into the armor of another, to defend, to ruthlessly defend when attacked. “These are the people I work with.” I said.
It has always intrigued me what people do when they think no one is looking. When they think there will be no consequences for their actions—not immediately, not severely, anyway. Appearances are polished, crafted to deceive. It’s the mysterious creatures beneath the surface that fascinate me.
Among the multitudes of vicious beasts was a tiny, furry, mouse-like creature. One that didn’t seem to have the remotest chance for survival. The only one who had absolutely no armor. An emotional, timid, fragile creature. Of all the unlikely possibilities, the descendants of this creature would one day wield the most power. Ever. Would have the power to change the entire world, to change the order of things to suit their own imaginings. No matter how warped. And one day, this creature would become so powerful, so drunk with its own power that it would no longer differentiate itself from the primitive beasts it once outsmarted and bettered.
Why would it ever confuse inciting fear, doing harm with securing power? Why would it ever believe that power is permanent, fixed, immoveable?
The dragon may never be slayed, not while we exist, yet it can never be sated.
Thank you for not feeding me to the dragon.
Text and images by M.P. Baecker