Like many people these days, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the problematic stories I was raised with, and I keep coming back to the role of context and framing. As I was raised in a very religious environment, top of my mind has been the biblical story of Esther.
“Be like Esther,” I was taught as an 8-year-old. “This story has important lessons for you!”
In case you are unfamiliar, let’s do a quick recap. Xerxes (or Ahasuerus), king of Persia, throws a feast and gets very drunk. He then demands that his wife, Queen Vashti, come and dance for him. Vashti, enjoying her own party, declines, and Xerxes banishes her after consulting with his advisors (who fear that all the women in Persia will follow her example and rise up). However, the wine and rage wear off and Xerxes starts to have regrets.
Xerxes’ advisors once again have his back - this time with the suggestion that all of the most beautiful virgins in the land are rounded up. Xerxes will try each of them, one by one, night after night. And thus, we get introduced to the beautiful, virginal, orphaned Esther, who is taken from the house of her relative Mordecai to the palace, where she must undergo a year of beauty treatments in preparation for one night with the king.
Esther is beautiful, charming, compliant to all that is asked of her. Her night with Xerxes leaves him wanting more, so much more in fact that instead of having her join all the other used-up virgins in his house of concubines, he decides to make her queen instead of Vashti.
But things go wrong. Mordecai offends one of the king's advisors, Haman, and Haman decides to take revenge by getting Xerxes to sign a decree allowing him to kill Mordecai and all his people (the Jews). Mordecai learns of this plot and convinces Esther to break the court rules in order to ask the king for a favor to save the Jews.
To build up to this request, Esther throws several dinner parties for Xerxes and Haman, and they culminate in a big scene where Esther tearfully accuses Haman of trying to kill her. Xerxes is shocked that anyone would want to kill his beautiful queen, and demands that Haman be killed and have his head put on a spike. Furthermore, he writes another decree which allows the Jews to kill those against them (which they do - in vast numbers). The happy ending comes in the form of Mordecai rising to power and esteem - second only to the king.
It’s an ancient story, likely written in the 4th century BCE, and in that context, Esther’s story is arguably about her finding a way to survive and helping her people survive at great personal cost in a brutal and terrible society.
“Be like Esther,” I was taught in Sunday School as an 8-year-old who was desperate to understand the world after a sexual assault a few years earlier. "The story has important lessons for you!"
Be brave at the right times, but follow the rules at all other times. Others will tell you when it’s the right time.
Your ability to charm, your winsomeness, your sexual desirability is your power.
Fight against those who threaten the lives of your people, but bend to those who demand your body.
The greater good demands that you live a life of deep personal sacrifice.
These lessons have not served me well.
The problem of “being like Esther” is that I’ve tied my power and worth to my sexual desirability. The problem of “being like Esther” is that I’ve obsessed about rules and look for some Mordecai to tell me when it’s right not to follow them. The problem of “being like Esther” is that I see myself, my body, my sexual wholeness as secondary to some greater good.
The problem of “being like Esther” is that it’s set me up for surviving, not thriving. The problem of “being like Esther” is that the story has a happy ending only for Xerxes and Mordecai.
And for me, the problem of “being like Esther” is that I was given a terrible model for working through childhood sexual trauma.
I know the story of Esther has deep cultural and religious meaning for many people, but when we tell it to our children (to ALL children, but especially to those who have experienced sexual trauma), we need to give it better context, clearer framing, and please, please without some shitty expectation that they follow in her footsteps.
Precious, beloved little girls and boys, you don’t need to be like Esther. Esther’s story is unbelievably sad. It is an ancient tale from a very, very long time ago, which is interesting, but does not have deep insights into how you need to live now. You have the right to more than survival. Anyone who expects you to sacrifice your wholeness, your sexual being, is the villain of your story, and they deserve to have their heads on spikes.
Be like Esther, if you need to, for a while. Sometimes we are in situations where we need to follow along to survive. I understand. You certainly don’t need to feel bad about that. But be like Jael when you are ready, tent spike in hand, to reclaim the power that was always rightfully yours, which is not dependent on your ability to follow rules or to charm or to seduce. Set your own structures, say “no” to unfair demands, and above all, thrive.
Of course, I say this most of all to myself, as I look through the stories that I learned in childhood that are still whispering through my adult subconscious. It’s time to re-examine, reframe, recontextualize them. Stories do have power; even more so the stories we learn as children.
“Be like Esther” is proving to be difficult to dislodge, so for now, I’m penciling in an alternative ending for Esther. One where, having overthrown the fucker who made unfair demands of her just-emerging sexuality, Esther joins forces with the banished Vashti. Together, they use the strength built through their healed trauma to heal their kingdom, and they rule with courage, kindness, and respect.
This is the Esther I want to be like.