It started with a Hashtag.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the tributary streams of our modern world flowing into the big river of awareness. Then the conventional media outlets caught on and before we knew it, the Weinstein dam broke and it was Land Under in Hollywood.
I’ll admit, my brain went into ‘white noise’ mode after the first few hundred Tweets. It seemed yet another sad, frustrating déjà vu moment in history – I’ve already seen this, and not once but twice, three times … it’s like we’re forming a brave bucket brigade on the Titanic, shouting encouragement to each other while that sad, lonely SOS echoes over the frozen Atlantic. If anybody out there really gave a damn, wouldn’t they have answered by now?
So, I was resigned to have another talk with my teenage girls about why life isn’t fair,
about politics and the legal system, and that there really, really still are good men out there. I thought about calling my dad – the guy who always has, and always will top that list for me – and tell him I love him. Not in those words, maybe. He’s a sardonic, oft taciturn fellow who shows you how he feels rather than prattle on about it. I thought about checking in on an old friend, who struggles to this day with the aftermath of an abusive relationship. Offer support in case her Facebook feed had her puking and crying. Keep bailing water while the band plays on. And tomorrow we’re on to other news. Again.
Only it didn’t stop. Not this time.
When the Bough Breaks
Encouraged by the sudden, inexplicable shift in the winds, that unexpected turn of the tide, women told their stories. One after the other. A great many of them no doubt felt like having stumbled into a kind of Narnia – a magical land where suddenly the laws governing the world no longer applied and women were believed instead of dismissed, ridiculed, silenced.
But it was the stories you don’t find in newspapers that stood out for me. While the
reckoning that caught the rich and powerful like a tide was important, even crucial, it was a glimpse at the ocean from a sandy beach. Or an iceberg, as it were.
Among those stories from the depths of the ocean was one one of my favorite bloggers who broke her long silence, making a quiet but powerful statement about the “Silence of The Abused”
Like my friend, this sweet, funny, generous lady was and is suffering. Yes, even years later. Like my friend, she struggles against the dragnet keeping her down, keeping her silent, every knot made of fear and shame and dismissal.
This one hit me hard.
I have amazing parents, loyal friends, and have never been described as a shy girl, or timid woman (rather the opposite – I often have to convince people that I’m actually quite a sweetheart). And I still have #MeToo stories. Stories I don’t like to tell, because of the “Naaaww, you? Get outta here!” reactions. Because of the “You just want some payback on a guy who ditched you!” bulldung. Because it’s tiresome. Because bucket brigade.
But for my friend, and that blogger whose posts I’ve always enjoyed, and for anyone whom it may help, I’ll take my skiff out and hunt marlins (pardon the shameless Hemingway reference). Because even women who kick arse and take names know what it’s like to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And because you need to know we have your six if you need it. All you have to do is ask.
Damn right. Hashtag Me, too.
I was 16, and had just grown from the cute tomboy into your “All American Girl Next Door” – though with the vestiges of the tomboy still clinging to me. That, combined with the facts that I was a late bloomer and that my interest in boys was still mostly limited to how well they could shoot a hockey puck, had thus far saved me from much unwanted attention – in school and elsewhere. Well, that, and Billy’s black eye after he pulled my hair in 7th grade (guess who got detention).
Mother nature caught up with me eventually, and though I never saw the point of overly highlighting my figure which suddenly resembled a 50ies pinup girl rather than a baby giraffe, it did attract notice. Like most girls, I put up with the catcalls, swatted away hands attached to grabby teenage boys and employed the occasional strategically placed elbow if the gentler methods had no effect. I gained a reputation as a “mean bitch” for not responding well to what to my mind was just plain rudeness.
But life in a small town in Northern NY, with a well known and respected veteran for a father and a veritable firebrand for a mother has its advantages – and granted me a reprieve I now know many women never had.
Until it didn’t.
As sexual assault tales go, my first is almost embarrassingly brief and undramatic. Just a young woman working a summer job at the hardware store, trying to save up a few bucks for that old pickup truck I had my eyes on. Jeans and a tshirt, some solid boots – simple, sturdy clothes for when an elderly customer needed help hauling stuff around. I was as oblivious to the men’s weird “hardwood flooring” jokes as a gerbil to quantum physics. And as stunned as a hockey player who takes a puck to the head when one of those men cornered me behind some shelves and slid a hand under my tshirt to yank at my bra.
I remember the smell of sawdust. I remember freezing like a deer in the headlights, trapped between a guy who outweighed me by at least 50 pounds, and the wood. And I remember that it hurt, worse than stupid Billy pulling my hair, and then the rush of fear followed by pure anger.
I don’t remember what I said, but my boss later told me he’d never heard such language from me before. I don’t remember kicking the guy hard enough to make him yelp, though apparently I did, earning me an ‘attagirl’ from bossman’s wife. I don’t even recall said bossman pulling the sonofabitch off me after he heard the ruckus, only that shaky feeling you get after being slammed into the boards at a hockey game. Adrenaline, fight or flight.
It stuck with me in such annoying detail not because it was horrifying (I was more angry and disgusted than frightened), but because it marked a sad end to innocence. And because of the aftermath, which is a story every victim and survivor can tell like a litany
in Catholic Church, the same old song, over and over, only the singers change.
“Are you sure you did not encourage him?” YES I’m sure!
“Could you have misunderstood?” Hard to misunderstand being pinned and groped to the point of pain!
“But you were leading him to that secluded section” It’s where the oak wood is
“You claim you did not understand the … hum hum … hardwood jokes?” I did not. I do now.
“But you realize how it might have seemed you were…” NO.
“But we never had any trouble with him” How nice for you.
“Well, no harm done, right?” Are you f*ing kidding me right now?
Believe it or not, I was lucky. Though that police officer had me doubt my own sanity for a minute, my boss’s testimony was convincing enough (a fact which didn’t much help my anger – why do you believe him but not me?). The guy walked away with a slap on the wrist, but he was no longer welcome at the store and at several other local businesses. I had to put up with some whispers about being a tease, and the already familiar “mean girl” as well as “probably a lesbian”. The fact that it required another man – in this case my dad – to silence most of those with some well placed, gruff comments and his trademark calm, no-bullshit attitude …. it should have bothered me, but didn’t. I had better things to do. Like buying that truck.
And just when you thought it was safe…
Older, not much wiser, with still a bit of that sweet naïveté but thinking I knew it all … you guessed it. College.
And of course I was asking for it, working as a barkeep in the evenings, right? Wearing those snug, comfy old jeans and v-neck shirts that let you see just enough cleavage to leave the girl a nice tip. Never mind said girl is a margarita wizard and plants your Bud Light in front of your nose before you finished the ‘ght’. Never mind it’s hot and loud and she’s working hard, and already sweating worse than Sidney Crosby in round seven of the playoffs, she should have worn a baggy turtleneck.
Don’t get me wrong – I met some awesome guys at that bar. Sports fans shooting the breeze, appreciating a girl who knows a linebacker from a left winger and can rattle off her favorite players’ stats rather than gush about their cute behinds. Quiet guys, talkative guys, sad drunks, happy drunks. All of them fine men.
I learned to handle the unpleasant ones. The octopus who seems to grow more arms every time you smack one away, the would-be poet who’ll croon odes to your female attributes and switches to crude insults when you explain you have other customers. Or don’t give him your number. Or politely decline a drink.
Again, it often took one of my ‘regulars’ to step in and remove those guys. Because a woman saying ‘stop that nonsense’ was not enough, it needed another man. Vexing, but you deal with it. Paying customers waiting. Four Molsons, coming up. Down, boy, I ain’t got time for this.
Until the night two men decided to wait for that “Cocktease bitch” and teach her a lesson. With any other crime, this would have been called ‘premeditated’. They had planned it well, scouting out which car I drove, where it was parked, when my shift ended. The forced nonchalance of “Who do we have here?” wouldn’t have fooled a blind goose wrapped in cabbage leaves. It didn’t fool me. But until they actually put their hands on me, I remained in that “they’re rude assholes, but they wouldn’t cross the line to criminals” state of denial.
I’ve never been tiny or frail. I thank my father’s Scandinavian blood every day, not only for a lovely, gravity-defying rack and legs that won’t quit, but a 5’7″ frame of sturdy bones, and a left hook that will make you hear the Valkyries sing. But I had no hopes of outmatching the weight and muscle of two grown males. So yes, I panicked. The moment my arms were wrenched behind me and I was shoved behind a large SUV, the moment that hand went for the waistband of my jeans, denial took a hike and survival instinct roared to life. Complete tunnel vision. I cared about nothing but getting those guys off me. By whatever means. Kicking, scratching, biting, slamming my forehead into a nose. I still hear that sound, and the guy’s howl. The curses. The “You’re gonna get it, bitch”. Still feel the backhand blow that made stars dance before my eyes.
I was saved again by other men attracted by the yelling – they thought it was a bar fight spilled out onto the street and went in to separate the combatants. Go figure.
And just like that, the litany started once more. Nursing a swollen, bleeding lip and more bruises than I could count, I got to explain to a dubious law enforcement officer that I had neither invited, instigated, nor sent mixed messages. That I hadn’t broken a poor man’s nose for a harmless butt-pinch. That I hadn’t flirted with the poor besotted guys and then changed my mind. That I wasn’t a college girl gone wild who then couldn’t handle what she had coming.
“But you talked to them. In the bar.” I’m serving the drinks, talking is required!
“If you saw them waiting by your car, why did you keep approaching them? If you felt threatened, why not go back inside?” I underestimated the threat. Next time I shoot first and ask questions later. Would that suffice?
“How much have you been drinking?” Nothing
“You tend bar, and no one bought you a drink?” I don’t drink alcohol at work.
“Why didn’t you call for help?” I don’t know. I thought I did.
“You realize broken nose guy is pressing charges?” Oh? What paragraph covers ‘I was prevented from raping a woman’?
“There is self defense, but you really went after those guys.” I. Was. Scared.
“You don’t look scared.” Tell it to the mother-effing Marines. I want to go home.
Again, it was the testimony of other men that changed the tune. My regulars at the bar, explaining patiently that I was not in the habit of beating up men. That those guys had shown some issues with boundaries before. A man saying “If those *%&#$ers show their faces again I’ll bury them” was shrugged off as chivalry. Me saying “I wish I had broken more than his nose” was considered vicious and vindictive.
And again, don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the cavalry charging to my aid. I’ll never forget the guy who gave me his jacket to cover my torn and bloody shirt, and I’ll never forget the police officer who finally barked a “You shitting me? The girl is bleeding. I’m taking her to the hospital. Get the statement later!” Much of the rest is a blur. There was a soft spoken nurse, and bone deep exhaustion. Simmering anger and frustration, more questions. Always more questions.
In the end, I was cleared of the charges – but the mere fact I had to defend myself for, well, defending myself, left a bitter aftertaste. That I was once more the mean girl who had tempted upstanding citizens into rash actions, and now was crying rape – and they didn’t even get to do it, the poor guys. Punished without getting a piece of the action. What a bitch.
Cry me a river, cry me a sea
Not at all surprisingly, the pushback in form of “Feminazis want us all oppressed” and “What about Muslim women? You don’t care about them, do you? (newsflash: I do) – bitches don’t know how good you have it” and other agonized cries of “I’m being punished for being a man!” and “I’m afraid to be chivalrous now, they’ll misunderstand and make me look bad!” is already in full swing.
Never mind that if a guy so fears being hated by women, he just might have a reason. Never mind that the horror of ‘politically correct libtards’ is all too often identical with your own nana telling you to mind your manners or there’ll be no cookies. Never mind that physically opening doors and slamming metaphorical ones into women’s faces is not chivalry.
This post isn’t about blame. Do I hope those guys learned something in the end? That maybe their grandmothers gave them a good ding behind the ear and their fathers sat them down and rehearsed common decency 101 with them? I do, actually.
But I wrote it for the women. The ones who still feel somehow their SOS calls are disappearing into the void because they’re not important enough, because their stories are not horrifying enough, because their tormentors are too close, too powerful still. The ones who are still scared to speak up. The ones who think their pain and fear makes them weak. Who still believe in some corner of their soul that they share at least part of the blame.
I hear you.
You’re not alone.
And the good guys are out there.
Any Port in a Storm
It feels as if women are navigating an ocean where not all boats are equal, and some seem to stumble from storm to storm while others sail cheerfully across the seven seas, only bumping into the odd reef here and there. It’s neither fair nor right that I got my start as a well armed frigate straight out of a fine East Coast shipyard, while others have to brave the roiling waves with a leaky dinghy. It’s neither fair nor right that I have a solid home port to put in for repairs if and when I do run into trouble, while so many others are still frantically searching for a welcoming light, and harbor. Any harbor.
What does one do with such privilege? For now and always, never less than the best I can do. I’ll keep patrolling the seas, answer any and all distress calls I can reach, and keep my guns at the ready. And right now, I’ll make that call and say thank you to my dad.
Thank you for teaching me to stand up for myself. For teaching me right from wrong, and to fight for those who can’t defend themselves.
Thank you for showing me how a good man treats his woman (and yes, I know that over the past 50 years your wry comments drove her up one wall and down another so many times, there’s a groove in the ceiling. She loves you anyways. I know. She told me.)
Thank you for having my back, again and again, even when it looked to all the world that I might have been in the wrong. Even when I myself was not sure. Thank you for telling those gossiping biddies “I taught my girl to never start a fight, but to damn well finish it. So bring your beef to me.”
Thank you for teaching me it’s OK to sometimes not bother with the bastards because I’m tired of the drama, and that I’m not weak for calling in the cavalry.
Thank you for letting me fall on my face sometimes, so I could learn to get up. And for being there with the band-aids and an attagirl.
Thank you for showing me that a hard-as-steel veteran can sniffle away tears when his first grandchild is happily dozing off in his arms. That you learned how to bake for your grandchildren (and after you retired took over the kitchen completely – mom loves your cooking!)
Thank you for being you.