Flames and Storms
Edited by Faustas Norvaisa
Sunday at Copenhagen’s Human Library: stories of women.
The Human Library offers a unique borrowing experience where living people, representing marginalized groups, serve as "books" with personal stories and experiences. These individuals come from various backgrounds and face prejudice and discrimination based on factors like identity, lifestyle, occupation, social status, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, and more. By challenging existing prejudices, the Human Library provides an opportunity to safely verify beliefs about others and promotes the core principle of meeting one's prejudice and unjudging someone. With over 80 Human Libraries worldwide, the Nørrebro library is open every Sunday from 12 pm to 4 pm, operating between April and October. These libraries play a crucial role in a world where tolerance and acceptance are often threatened. While visitors to the library may already demonstrate mental openness, it is important to recognize that even they can hold biases. To extend the library's impact, events are organised in schools, universities, and companies to engage involuntary and "stubborn" readers, fostering connections and encouraging the unjudging of prejudices. This approach aims to address inclusiveness and civil rights opposition in society effectively.
Once I arrived, I could choose my first reading from a blackboard outside the cottage, displaying the full list of books available for that day. Then I was invited to sit on any preferred spot in the garden.
a. Marianne. Putting a child up for adoption.
A blue-haired lady in her 70s (the one that you see in the photo above) walks toward me.
Marianne was born and raised by a wealthy family in Strøget, the old town of Copenhagen. When Marianne was 15, she met a 34-year-old van driver working for the same postal company as she did. They had a few consensual sexual intercourses during, what she perceived as, “a juvenile adventure". Marienne did not know he had a wife and two children. She confirmed she did know how one could get pregnant when I asked tho. The first time she visited the doctor after missing her period, they told her it was due to a metabolic malfunction. When they finally got the pregnancy diagnosis, it was too late even for an illegal abortion. That was in 1965. At that point, the doctors told her to keep the pregnancy secret, so ultimately, for almost all her life, no one knew about it: youth friends, nor even her brother, except her parents.
When the baby came into the world, they did not give her the chance to hold him. If she had held the baby in her arms, she would not have been able to go for that decision. That made me question for a moment the answer she gave me when I asked whether it was her free choice to give the child away. It was. Her parents would have supported her with the baby, but she felt too young for motherhood and wanted to act in the child's best interest. It made sense, but I still wondered to what extent she was put in the condition to believe she would have been a decent mother for her son in a context where she was forced into silence during the pregnancy and forever after.
After the hospital, they banded her breast full of milk. What in many women manifests itself as postpartum trauma, manifested in Marianne as unfulfilled motherhood feelings. She probably managed to make up for it by taking care of a little turkish boy who used to attend the community canteen for immigrants that her parents had started. As well as, later in life, by having two children from her husband. Marianne confessed that if she wasn't able to have her two children, she would have repented heavily of giving his firstborn away. When her children tried to find out about him, It came out that the boy died at 21 and very little they managed to know about his life.
Marienne has lived with her secret for almost all her life. Her children were the first to know, when in their 20s while only in recent years she opened up to her lifetime friends and emotionally, despite the long time, they told her they would have supported her if they knew. During their conversation, it also came out that in her class, six other girls went through teenage pregnancy while being forced to keep the secret. That gives a sense of how common cases like Marienne’s were at that time while society still “stigmatised” and isolated young women, without questioning their desire, dignity, and right to motherhood.
b. Lone. The social worker.
It was the time for a second book. Lone, a 57-year-old, has been in the job for six years and felt frustrated with the stigma of being “lazy and uncaring” that social workers receive from society: both public opinion and the people that they are directly helping. She is now working at a job centre in Copenhagen. Lone opened up about her inner struggle to enforce laws that she does not recognize as fair for the majority of the unemployed, those who are not in the physical and mental conditions to perform a job.
She has the spirit of a fighter. Before the office job, she had experience from the streets - approaching homeless people and drug addicts, explaining the forms of help the state could offer them. The reactions were often unpleasant but the winning strategy was persistence and “talking their own language” so as to build trust. A tough job, not for everyone. I saw in Lone a vocation for being a social worker that built on a fundamental value that only a few people are persuaded from to the deepest extent - all lives have value and dignity!
c. Lise. The polyamorous.
The last book for the day. Lise, 41 years old. She is a mother of two kids (nine and ten) within a 13-year-long marriage with his ex-husband that about one and half years ago decided to divorce her and become monogamous with another woman. Lise was still in love.
A few years into the marriage she proposed to his husband to open their relationship to other partners, both romantically and sexually. They started giving each other a set of rules and boundaries that in time become looser and looser. For many years the equilibrium has been such that she had two-long term relationships (two boyfriends) and her husband had the same but with another woman (girlfriend).
When I asked about how they managed the situation with their children, she told me about the time that her daughter asked why Mary (fantasy name for the husband’s girlfriend) used to sleep in mommy’s bed while a family friend slept in the guest rooms and at that point, the child’s father explained that Mary was a special friend while Rasmus just a normal friend. It was in the sixth year of his husband’s relationship with his girlfriend that he decided to divorce Lise. The decision came soon after a period in which Lise had limited ability to help the family in the aftermath of a surgery.
She moved out of the apartment and Mary moved in with Lise's two kids and her newborn from Lise’s ex-husband by now. After the divorce, Lise felt the need to terminate the relationships with her two boyfriends to elaborate on the pain from the failure of her marriage while today she is again in multiple relationships.
My biggest question to Lise was how to refrain from unconsciously building a hierarchy within her own circle of lovers. “I follow where my mind goes” says the lyrics of an 80s song, “Love my way”. Lise gave me a sensical perspective on this. Each lover can give you something different and unique, and for that, the relationship deserves to be cherished. No need to make it into a competition.
It is maybe a more democratic and moment-focused way of living through relationships. We agreed that it requires a higher degree of awareness and to some extent, the reward of multiple partners comes also with the risk of losing balance when it comes to time and energy allocation in nurturing each relationship. Imagine going through a honeymoon phase with your partner, and now imagine going through the same with the three of them. Then, also imagine going through turbulence with one against three. Again, it is a risk-return tradeoff.
When I asked whether she could have travelled back in time and rather not proposed to her husband to open the relationship and maybe have saved her marriage, she looked firm in her answer; she would have never given up who she was and her desire to experience multiple dimensions of intimacy with other humans. If Lise’s family situation was not something to be jealous about, I could definitely admire her confidence in “coming out” and living the way she likes. Despite the fact that I believe I won’t be able to go through the same experiences, what is not to respect in someone who is happy in her own skin and lives her polyamorous life in the sunlight?
Walking home from the library, I realised that all the books I happened to read were women and all in a mature stage of life. It takes time to build self-awareness, elaborate feelings and situations, and in the end, find the courage to fight stigmas by means of your own story. Thank you to these women for that!