The Goat

I’ve seen the goat.

This, my father would repeat to me when I was a young woman, a story that ended before it even began. He never elaborated or explained; I never asked its meaning. In the context of the conversations—always sex or relationships—I dimly understood that it was a warning of sorts, as if he were a mouthpiece for a Sibyl that the voices of women throughout the ages spoke, that it was left as a deliberately cryptic statement because only I could interpret it. If he had gone further, it would become nothing more than a fatherly decree: a way of exercising control over my developing sexual agency, a handful of ancient dust I would have blown away with the laugh of the all-knowing young. And so, the story of the goat remained four words until time and experience started to write it.

How do men talk to daughters about the patriarchy when they are patriarchs? By default, they possess: some see fatherhood as a guardian-mentorship, others as complete control over thought and voice—chattel to be filled with the correct behavior and ideas. Beyond the desire to protect one’s children, is the problem of how men deal with daughters knowing what lies in wait for them out in the world, knowing that they themselves have been the one lying in wait for others like those young women. Do you hold them back in cowardice and shame, or arm them with your knowledge, trying not to frighten them from what should be new experiences? Sometimes wisdom is imparted in silence, or near-silence—because part of agency is space: to interpret, to divine, to navigate. Your daughters are ships that you do not captain; you are merely a compass they may choose to overlook in favor of guidance by a separate star. If your north is not the same as theirs, allow them the trust of making their own journey.

Hurt and pain are inevitable in life, a truth we fantasize as false even while we are capable of doing damage to ourselves. A father can protect but should not wrap his daughter in such a blanket that she does not know what life is without his shadow. She will come to know the shadow of men regardless: the gaze and the breath, the touch, and the scrutiny which intrudes on space and thought. Give her clues that she will use as secondary instinct: to discern those who would treat her well, and those who would not. But the shadows will always be there, and there is little you can do but advise where they are. Even though a father knows what satyr-shape the shadow will take, he can never know all its nuances. These are for daughters alone to reckon with, whether it be through instinct or in understanding the inevitable hurt.

My goat first came in the form of men who declared themselves dazzled by an unfamiliar exoticism in my looks, my Japanese name strange on their lips. The irony of that name is that it belonged to a woman who once rode and fought with samurai: “she was a match for 1,000 warriors, fit to meet either god or devil.”[1] It was given as another kind of protection, but sometimes we do not realize those are the very things that will be used against us. The ideas of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ are fallacies in the context of being safe or deserving in the world of sexual relations, too connected to reward and punishment—good and bad—so much the easier to wash one’s hands of the rich complexity of women. I read easily enough in my father’s mysterious phrase that he had seen too much of men, but his wish was also that I could hold myself, whole, within the packs that they form. He never shied away from preparing me for what the world was—teaching me with silences meant I had to consider what was not being said, and why. At times he appeared overwhelmed by my sister and me. She was fierce and argumentative; I was quiet but with an explosive temper when I felt injustice. Maybe he planned to raise us differently, shelter us in the way some feel small things should be. If so, early on he saw different fires burning, knew that they would grow and blaze and require tending so they would not die out.

There was a wary eye on me as I grew, in those high school days when boys are more animal than human, when girls form in their groups, ripe for being taken away from the safety of crowds where their voices cannot help them. My father’s presence sat in an old leather armchair, never questioning the ones who dared come to the door—precious few that they were—he only exhibited a cool politeness, pipe in mouth, and a studied glance to the doorframe, above which hung a decorative spiked blackthorn shillelagh made by his own hands. His silence allowed me my agency, but it never once disregarded my situations. That stillness was enough for my suitors, too: if there was ever a dream of violence, it remained dormant. The irony of that silence was that he abhorred violence; having to be the stereotype of a man yet knowing the gesture of it would mean more than any action. That in order not to be a possessive father, he had to be a caricature of those who would possess me in a similarly stereotypical manner. The time came when I passed through the doorframe with its shillelagh hung close by: now on my own, but not out of the home; adult enough to go to men with the agency of my desires. But the appetites of some surprised me, and the animals they took the form of, even my father had not considered.

Just as the goat eats everything, so too does its human counterpart attempt to gain sexual advantage wherever it can. Maybe that was what my father meant all those years ago when he uttered that brief sentence for the first time. In Henry Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy, there is a scene where Miller eats scraps from the waste bin, having just given all his money to a prostitute. This was once described as animalistic to me. But another scene made me think of Miller as the goat: where he and his flatmate repeatedly share a girl that the latter picks up in the street, one we would consider underage now, who reads as if she would be classified as having developmental issues—according to Miller, “the dull-wittedness of a heifer,” but voracious in sexual responsiveness, the perfect combination of “obedient as a slave, attractive as a doll.” Here, her agency cannot be considered such due to her issues, but these are ignored because she is willing. The goat as wolf pretending to be human, adept at stealing his advantage in spaces of trust: shelter and kindness, yet all the while thinking of the ones he devours as trash. In the end, the girl is returned to her guardians, and Miller and his flatmate come across as protectors. Is it conceivable that the girl ever comes to realize her time with them as anything but an experience indiscernible from any other due to her state? Is the goat only a goat when you recognize it as such? I have read this twice at most, but it resides in the crawlspace of my mind, its presence disturbing and sticky-webbed: their laughter.


For all this, women have come to represent the goat as much as men, not in the way my father meant—although it is for some—but one that left damage I could not heal myself of. The particular cruelties of neo-patriarchal female rejection can be more elaborate: its excluding silences, its dismissals of you as someone identifiable or desirable (I have been looked through and over, not at), in the way I have never felt at home in a culture—am I white enough to pass, or Japanese enough to be embraced as the different some so loudly claim to seek? The truth is, I am so torn between the two identities this world wants me to choose between, I often feel neither woman nor human. If there have been kindnesses, they came from individuals, not groups. And yet it is the irony of un-belonging, that someone like me should still desire some small sense of rest in such a place, especially one of women. Instead, there is nothing but restlessness—the endless traveling from one end of the self to the other in order to find something that might be offered to, and accepted by, others. To say one has experienced both rape and kindness from men is a paradox not of the sex but of humanity: sometimes I think my only acceptance with women would be to offer myself as the victim I was but no longer am, for then they might see me as someone, anyone. It is a thought that does not stay long but appears often. I wonder what it is about me that does not qualify for a certain kind of womanhood. Then I close my eyes again and think of my name: its gift, its curse, the legacy of the in-between.

My father is gone now, but the blackthorn shillelagh is still in my childhood house, present in the way the items of the dead often are: inanimate markers of life and memory. In my head, I sometimes hear his voice, those words that materialize as if plucked from an unspoken longer sentence: I’ve seen the goat. I hear how they emerged from a cloud of sweet, thick, pipe smoke, only to disappear back into another, like Alice’s Caterpillar—One side will make you grow taller—the goat as Janus, the Caterpillar’s mushroom, how they emerged as experience and its consequences, the transformation from girl to woman, child to adult, the past to the future, the goat as man, woman, the world: fat and starved from its experiences, but eating, living, unable to stop. I have grown taller and shorter in perspective. I have lived in feast and famine. I have been seen and invisible. I have listened to others and grown deaf to myself. Is this the goat? I ask. There is nothing but his grave to respond. But I think there is no answer, for his could never be mine, just as mine can never be another’s. This is my legacy instead—four words, a name; the goat, a woman warrior.

[1] Hoffman, Michael. Women Warriors of Japan. The Japan Times, October 9th, 2011.