Pleasing

When do we first become aware of the need to be pleasing? To be grateful it wasn’t worse, to hold still and smile?

Mary Milstead
Jul 9, 2019 · 16 min read
Illustrations by Syan Rose

ItIt was four o’clock in the morning when my mother and her kidnapper reached the intersection of Highway 620 and Ranch Road 2222, where he would finally let her go. Early January, 1972. My mother was not yet my mother; she was nineteen. No light in the sky, and quiet but for the hiss of the wind through the trees. She wasn’t bound and he no longer had his hands on her. They’d been walking for eight hours, starting just after dusk at the top of Mount Bonnell and snaking their way through the west side of Austin until they reached this deserted intersection in the blue-black stillness several hours before dawn.

He bought her a coke from the vending machine in front of the dark gas station. She wasn’t a soda drinker, but of course she took it and said thanks. “Guess this is where our ways part,” he said. Then he pointed back the way they’d come, down 2222, and told her she could get a ride from a farm truck in an hour or so.

He walked off in the same direction they’d been going all night. She stood and watched him walk away, aware of every breath and every nerve on the back of her neck. Before he reached the line of trees at the edge of the road, he turned and looked back at her. She lifted her hand, and waved goodbye. He waved back.

That’s the part of the story that always stuck with me: my mother waving. After eight hours of trauma, of thinking that she would die, she was freed by the same man who’d taken her in the first place. In that moment, like in so many other moments she’d already lived, she had to perform gratitude. On a deserted highway in the middle of the night, after all she’d been through, she was still required to be unfailingly polite, to be pleasing. She waved.

I probably would’ve waved too, in a similar situation. I might’ve squeaked out a thanks. When do we first become aware of the need to be pleasing? To be grateful it wasn’t worse, to hold still and smile?

After she waved, she watched him disappear into the trees that lined the road, and then instead of going in the direction he’d told her to go, she turned onto 620 and began to run. She told me that it was the most surreal part of the whole night, running down the middle of the two-lane highway, her bare feet slapping asphalt, alone in the middle of the night.

First she came to a trailer, but there was no one home, only a dog barking in the dark. Just up the road she came to a small house, ran up onto the porch, and pounded on the front door. When no one answered, she began pounding on a window. She saw a light go on and a man in boxer shorts running toward the door with a shotgun. She remembers thinking after everything I’ve survived tonight, this is how it’s going to end? She shouted, “Don’t shoot! It’s only me!” as if he knew her. He quickly recognized she was not a threat, just a girl, so he opened the door and let her in. The man’s wife and his seven-year old son were awake too, of course, and they were upset. Despite everything that had happened to her that night, my mother remembers being worried about that little boy, about how scary this must be for him. She called the police. She held it together as best she could, doing everything she could to act as normal as possible. She sat at their dining room table, making small talk while she waited for her ride. She didn’t want to make this worse for the little boy. She wanted him to know that everything would be okay.

It began early the evening before, just after dusk. My mother was on top of Mount Bonnell, a popular look-out spot in Austin, with her boyfriend, a young man named Michael. They weren’t formally engaged, but they’d been talking about marriage and children, making plans. Earlier that evening they’d been at a potluck, and had stopped at Mount Bonnell on the way home to spend a little more time together. They sat on a low stone wall, talking and looking down at Lake Austin, at the lights twinkling on the water. Nothing noteworthy about that particular Sunday night. Until a voice came from behind them, saying turn around, don’t make any trouble.

Two men, a gun.

She could smell the liquor on their breath. What did they want from my mom and Michael, a young couple out on a date? Was it a robbery? That wasn’t my mother’s first thought. The first was well, that’s it — now I’ll be raped and murdered. As she stood to face these men, she became hyperaware of everything around her. Every tiny detail sprung to life and she felt wide awake. Later she would learn she missed some things in the periphery, but in the moment she was flush with the bright light of clarity. The men said something about the car parked nearby, a VW bug that didn’t belong to my mom or Michael. She watched Michael walk over to the car. He and one of the men had a conversation she couldn’t hear. The man lifted his gun. Michael fell. My mother remembered thinking that the gun must have a silencer, although later she learned that there was no such thing for a gun like that. Then they took her. She’d lost one of her flip-flops, and they made her give them the other one, so she was barefoot as they led her down the side of the hill toward a waiting pickup truck, where in addition to the rifle, they had stashed a machete. The two men had a conversation she couldn’t hear, and then the one without the gun took off on foot. She was a college sophomore, and her kidnapper, the murderer, was a stranger.

WWomen are taught early to be pleasing. We are taught that the men will treat us better if we make things nice for them. If we make them feel good. If we purr and soothe in response to their growls. If we make it easy. If we say yes, sir. If we don’t push back. My mother was in no position to question this man’s authority, and she was going to do everything he told her to do.

Before he told her to get in and lay on the floorboard, he made a point to show her the machete. “Do you know what this is?” he said, as he held it up. “Yes, sir,” she said. And then she curled up on the floorboard, as nice and quiet as she could.

She didn’t think she would survive. She was comforted by her belief in God, and in a spiritual practice she shared with Michael, who she still believed to be alive. She’d seen him shot, and she’d seen him fall, but her brain protected her in the middle of this most dangerous moment by not quite making all the connections. She told me it was like the word “dead” didn’t exist. At least, not as it applied to Michael — she was very aware of the possibility of her own death. She told me it was like she could almost see her own body, as if from above. She climbed into the truck and made herself fit in the space provided, the big metal floorboard of a big old truck.

The man at the wheel was Elvoy Musgrave, an escaped convict whose last known victim had been abducted from a lookout near a lake, raped and dumped from his car, naked but alive. There was no way to know what his plans were that night with my mother. Things had gotten complicated, and she was a witness.

It’s easy to imagine how that could’ve been the end of the line for my mom, and for me, and for my brother, and our happy childhood in suburban Austin, for everything that came after. To imagine this whole lineage drying up, my mother just a faded picture of another missing girl. But soon after driving away with her in his truck, my mother’s kidnapper hit a mailbox, and he couldn’t get his truck started again. Wherever it was that he’d been planning to take her, he wouldn’t be able to get there quick.

I can point to all the things my mother did or didn’t do, the puzzle of choices we attempt to connect in order to make sense of a defining moment, but I feel sure it was that mailbox that truly saved her. Rooted in the ground and unmoving, unbending. In that way it was so unlike my mother herself, whose survival had always depended on pliancy. That mailbox met the front of the truck with a smack and changed the possibilities. Now on foot, my mother’s kidnapper had to leave the machete and the rifle behind, taking only his pocket knife.

She was barefoot and small, but her kidnapper had fewer weapons and no transportation. Her primary strengths — to endure, to please, to disappear — would have some time to find purchase.

PPleasing is how smaller creatures slip away to safety. We flatten and wiggle, if we have to, to get away. We can’t charge or block, we must deflect instead. We must be a little slippery.

During the wide stretch of night as my mother walked alongside this man, in his custody, she made friendly conversation. Despite the horrors of the night. Despite her fear. She had always been friendly and outgoing, having moved around a lot as a kid, and she told him stories about her life, about growing up in small towns across Texas, California, and Hawaii. She told him about her brothers. She told him her real full name — because he asked, and she had been taught to always tell the truth. They talked about all kinds of things. After a while, she said, it was just like talking to anyone, because you can’t remain terrified for hours.

I wanted to believe that her charms played some role in saving her. I wanted to write about pleasing as a superpower, one of women’s under-appreciated strengths, how we don’t even recognize it as strength because of its femininity. But the more I wrote and thought about it, and the more the caveats piled up, the more I had to reckon with the idea that while it is a strength, it isn’t one to be celebrated. The cops told my mother that she was right to go along with the kidnapper and do what he said, but they also told her it was a crapshoot, as to who survived and who didn’t. My mother doesn’t think she saved herself. She did what she could, but it wasn’t up to her. And so the need to be pleasing is just another burden, another weight piled on our plates. Not only do we have to endure, but we have to be nice about it. Because if we’re not, it will be worse.

If pleasing was a superpower, it would actually protect us. Perhaps instead it only makes us easier to swallow.

After being forced to abandon the truck, my mother and her kidnapper walked through a residential neighborhood, through yards and along fences. She recognized that it was the same neighborhood where her friends lived. She’d been there earlier that day. That was not a comfort, though. She actually hoped that they wouldn’t walk past the house, because she knew if she saw the same place she’d been that afternoon, there was a chance she’d run screaming for it, and then it would be her fault when the monster followed her. For a while, she tried to remember street names, but soon she lost track. There was one she remembered forever: Pin Oak. In one yard, they came across two dobermans. Elvoy threatened to slit their throats, and my mother, who would normally be frightened of two big dogs like that, didn’t feel any fear of them at all. Instead she begged him not to hurt them.

There are parts of this story, which is my mother’s story, that I won’t include here. They aren’t mine to collect and report. It’s enough to say that he assaulted my mother, but he stopped short of raping her, likely because he was too drunk. And that she was grateful for that small mercy. It could’ve been worse. In so many ways, she felt lucky.

He listened to her pleading, and left the dogs in their yard where he found them.

They reached a busy street, and he put his arm around her shoulder, holding her tight like they were a couple. They came to a church parking lot and he tried unsuccessfully to steal several cars. My mother’s heart was in her throat, afraid someone would come out of the church and be hurt. She was grateful that he couldn’t get any of the cars started, and they moved on. They kept walking and ended up on 2222 headed west out of town. It was late by then, not too many cars out on the road. Every time he saw headlights flashing off in the hills in the distance, he would make her lie down in the ditch on the side of the highway until the car had passed. She didn’t fight him, or try to jump up and wave down a car. She did exactly what he said. He had the knife, of course, and had been telling her stories all night about his aim and strength, war stories from Korea. My mother wasn’t athletic and never played sports. Yet that night she was able to walk for seventeen miles, over eight hours, barefoot.

Enduring is a kind of pleasing. Hold still, smile. Keep moving, smile. We’re taught not to complain, and so we keep walking and keep doing and keep going and keep holding whatever it is we’ve been given to hold, no matter how heavy. And we never say a word, not if we can help it.

I’m a mother now. One night I took my 10- year- old son to a concert and we decided to leave a few songs before it was over. He was tired and I didn’t think much of it until we pushed through the big glass “Exit Only” signs. Everyone else was still inside, listening to the encore. Outside it was nothing but oceans of empty concrete, my son and I, and a huddle of men in big coats near the bus stop. For an instant, I considered trying to get back inside. But I decided it was fine. It wasn’t that late and the show would let out soon. We were only parked a few blocks away.

As we walked toward a crosswalk, a man broke free from the huddle and headed in our direction.

“Hey,” he said, big grin. “How ya doing?”

The interaction that followed was pedestrian, and intimately familiar to all women and female-presenting people. The flash of menace in his smile, overly-familiar and imposing. My son and I weren’t quite to the crosswalk, but he’d stepped into our path. He held his fist out toward me, low for a fist bump. I smiled and gave him a fist bump back. He held his fist out to my son, who looked up at me quickly before following my example. I waited for the walk signal, hoping to get out of there as quickly as we could. Hoping he wouldn’t follow us.

“Oh, hey hey hey,” he said. “I don’t want to bother you.”

He leaned toward my son conspiratorially. “I just wanted you to know that your mom is amazing,” he said. Looked me up and down.

I kept a smile plastered on my face. Tried to nod like thanks, but made no eye contact to encourage no further communication.

The light changed and we were able to quickly step past him into the street. I listened for his footsteps but didn’t hear them.

It was different, having my kid with me.

I didn’t turn around. Listened to differentiate our footsteps. What was echo, what might be him? Like all prey, I knew there was a chance he would lose me in the tall grass and let me slip away without notice. It was always worth a try. Walk slowly so you don’t attract attention. I was pretty sure he hadn’t followed us but I didn’t look. Not yet.

“That was weird,” my son said.

“I know,” I said.

We reached the other side of the street and only then did I allow myself a quick glance. No one behind us but I kept walking fast, on high alert for anyone else who might be lurking about.

I began doing my best to explain street harassment to my son, and startled him with the news of how young I was when it started and how it still happened to me in certain places, when I was walking alone or at night or really just: not with a man.

He had felt the weirdness for himself, how not friendly the man’s smile had been. Then he asked me something that was harder to explain.

“But why were you so nice to him?” he said.

I felt the air leave my body. Felt complicit, somehow.

“Because I knew it would be worse if he got angry,” I said.

PPleasing is slippery, because it has to be. Talking to my mother about all of this, she says, “We’re forced to be duplicitous. To be friendlier than we want to be.” That’s what my son had seen, in front of the stadium — his mother wearing a different face. He saw me performing friendliness toward someone who had blocked our path. I didn’t like it, but it felt like my only option.

Women have been trained to resist our natural impulses. Choose to fight and you’ll be quickly outmatched. Choose flight and you’re prey. Instead, smile and pretend not to be scared. Be someone other than yourself. Please not for the sake of pleasure, yours or someone else’s, but please for preservation.

The two main police detectives who interviewed my mother were both fathers with nineteen year old daughters, and she remembers them being kind to her. But when she tells me the story, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that even after the kidnapper let her go, after she made it to a house with a phone, and was able to call the police, they never even came to pick her up. They told her on the phone that Michael was dead. Asked her to come in to give her statement. But she had to call her friends, and they’re the ones who came to get her, and then drove her to the station later. Not that she complained about it, then or now. She got a ride to the station and answered everything they asked of her. She typed up her own report, ten pages long, including every detail she could remember. Many years later, I’m angry about it for her. She asked for so little. I want to will her into an ambulance where they will wrap her up with blankets, check her pulse, clean the cut on her foot.

Imagine a world where women were socialized to be displeasing instead, to be the poison-filled gross-out that no predator wanted to eat. Imagine what access to power we would have in that world.

The other man with Elvoy at the start of the night had been his older brother Dewell. He had tried to hitchhike home that night, and had been picked up by the police. My mother was called in to view the lineup, and although she was 95% sure she knew which man it was, she followed their instructions to the letter and told them she regretfully could not be 100% sure. The man she thought might be him didn’t have as thick of a country accent as she remembered, and she didn’t want to be unfair. But she knew which one he was, and she was right. They had enough evidence to keep him in jail anyway, and a few weeks later, Elvoy turned himself in to save his brother. By that time, my mother had returned to school after a short visit home. She had no trouble picking Elvoy out of the lineup right away — she had spent hours studying his face just in case she lived and ever got the chance to identify him. Elvoy pled guilty to murder. My mother sat across from him in the courtroom and testified without smiling, and then she only had to see him once more in her life, as she walked down the stairs of the courthouse and he was led off in chains in a line of other men. She made eye contact, and held it, her standing halfway up the stairs and him below, and still she didn’t smile.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Mary Milstead

Written by

Writer, mother, teacher, student. Lover of stories, big and small. Published in The Rumpus, Gay Magazine & Shirley Magazine. Find more at marymilstead.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Mary Milstead

Written by

Writer, mother, teacher, student. Lover of stories, big and small. Published in The Rumpus, Gay Magazine & Shirley Magazine. Find more at marymilstead.com

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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