To say that the past week has been difficult is the understatement of the year. Likening the election results to the death of a loved one is an apt comparison. Although still present in their flesh, I mourn the loss of many in my own family, the divide between us becoming too large, ugly, and unwieldy to ignore.
Even before the election, around the time of the leaked tape, on which an individual supported by the Russians to overtake our government was heard claiming liberty to grab women by the pussy, I started to feel long crusted-over wounds again become raw.
Like many others expressed around this time, I have countless stories of experiencing sexual assault and abuse of power by men. Too many to cover here, so I’ll stick to three.
I’m forty-five years old and one incident in particular is seared in memory, many details intact. So vivid are the sounds, smells, sensations of parts of this incident that I find myself peering into my memory like I’m watching it through a window, wanting to bang my fists against the thick glass and cry out to my four-year-old self and implore her not to follow him, my supposed godfather, to the front of the house opposite ours, our two backyards facing across the narrow alleyway. To go back to the comfort of the picnic. But she can’t hear me, so she walks on, her small hands clutching the too-thin paper plate, already collapsing under the weight of its hotdog and corn-on-the-cob.
As she settles onto the porch, little more than a square concrete platform with steps descending off either side, she can feel the roughness of the surface scratching the backs of her thighs. He takes a seat beside her. For a few minutes, the two sit there in silence, eating from the plates on their laps. She can hear the reverie behind her: her mother’s laughter, the faint sounds of the stereo, a dog barking at the end of the block. Her own house is so close, and yet here, on the front porch of the house across the alleyway, it is quiet. No one else is around.
Just as she is noticing this, her godfather leans over, presses his mouth—which smells of beer— against her ear and says, “I could snap your neck right now and no one would ever know.”
Recalling that moment now sends a chill through my spine. Again, as if merely hibernating, the panic bubbles to the surface. My heart still pounds, forty-one years later.
Suddenly, as if being sucked back into a worm hole, the field of view narrows and goes dark. I can no longer see the girl. I don’t know what she did after that. Maybe she ran home to tell her parents.
She didn’t. At least not right away.
It was many years later, when I was a young woman in college and my godfather was a pile of dust in the ground that I finally told someone what had happened.
I was home for the weekend and out at a local diner having lunch with my dad when the adult son of my godfather stopped by our table to say hello. I hadn’t seen him since childhood and didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion one way or another about the sort of man he had grown into. Despite this, I was repulsed by the sight of him. I remember fixing a fake smile on my face, nodding at his words, without really listening, exhaling deeply once he had gone.
While my father pretended to look for his wallet to pay the bill, I told him about the picnic and what my godfather had said to me.
“That never happened,” he said, dismissively. When I insisted that it had, in fact, happened, he shrugged and said, “Well, it was a long time ago. And anyway, he’s dead.”
And that right there is why I’m telling this story…fractured and fragmented though it will be. Because I was never able to confront my godfather while he was alive. And because at twelve years old (the age my daughter is now) when I did confront the mother of my best friend the morning after a sleepover to tell her that I had awakened in the middle of the night to find her husband naked from the waist down, sitting on the edge of my bed with his hand between my thighs, I was told, “it couldn’t have been him,”and that she “didn’t know who it could have been.” Despite telling her I had seen his face illuminated clearly in the streetlight that shone through the window as I kicked him square in the chest.
These and many other incidents came flooding over me after hearing that the next leader of our country is a man who believes that it’s okay to treat women like this. A man whose own son has said women who can’t hack being harassed in the workplace have no business being there. Who was being investigated for reportedly raping a thirteen-year-old until she dropped her case, not because her case was without merit, but because she had received so many death threats from rabid, hate-filled supporters. I had hoped that, finally, this woman’s case would bring the retribution that this narcissistic, misogynist deserves. Even though many years had passed, I needed to believe justice could be served.
Out of curiosity, I turned to Google to search the name of a former math tutor who, at the time, was also a teacher at the high school I attended. I had failed Geometry in 10th grade and needed to hire a tutor to help me retake exams so that I could bring up my grade and have any hope of getting into college. He had agreed to tutor me in the school library a few days a week over the summer.
In the beginning, our sessions were related to math. After several days, however, he began engaging me in conversations about my personal life, my musical interests, my aspirations—things that had nothing whatever to do with Geometry, the subject I was paying him $600 of my own money to help me pass.
Toward the end of the summer, after our last session, he suggested that he take me out to lunch. As a sort of “celebration” I guess. I didn’t really feel like I could say no, especially since I needed him to submit the change of grade for my class. Especially since I didn’t yet have confirmation that I had, in fact, passed. So, I agreed.
We rode in his car to a town about twenty minutes away, to a deli-type place where he ordered us sandwiches. He also picked up a bottle of wine. One of his students, a boy I didn’t know, was working behind the counter. As the two exchanged greetings, I remember standing there, my cheeks burning with shame, wondering how this must look to the boy: a fifteen-year-old girl out to lunch with a teacher. A bottle of wine on the counter. But the boy didn’t say anything, so neither did I.
We ate the sandwiches sitting in his car. He opened the wine and offered it to me. I can’t say for certain whether I drank some, but it’s likely I did. I wouldn’t have wanted to offend him, after all, and it’s not like I had any other recourse. He held my passing grade in his grasp.
I recall the cool feeling of the tan leather seats in the air-conditioned car. And just like the younger me on the porch across the alleyway, I remember feeling entirely powerless. Hidden, and yet so exposed and vulnerable. This was well before the age of cell phones, before I had a driver’s license or a car of my own. I was in another town, a bridge away, on the side of the road in a grown-up’s car, drinking wine with a man twice my age.
Thankfully from what I remember, he did not physically assault me. Nonetheless, his actions were inappropriate. Criminal, even. They are the hallmarks of someone “grooming” me for a future sexual assault. Luckily, I thought, now that our tutoring sessions were over, I would never have to see him again.
I was wrong.
Several months later, while working in the nursery of the evangelical church my family attended when I was in high school, I saw him again. He was with his wife and two young children. He didn’t acknowledge me at all. He pretended not to know me, even with our many conversations about everything but math. And our lunch in his car on the side of the road. Perhaps he was afraid I’d tell his wife. I never did tell. And the possibility that my silence enabled him to do the same—or much worse—to other young girls over the years has haunted me.
So when I Googled his name a few weeks ago, I was expecting to read newspaper headlines with allegations of assault attached to his name. I was not expecting he would still be teaching at the same high school. No longer a young newish teacher, but now a beloved elder, firmly entrenched in the school and community at large. His face staring up from numerous articles offering effusive praise of his leadership in the community. I felt sick.
I thought of the countless numbers of young women who had sat in his classes over the years. Girls who may have dismissed inappropriate comments or intrusions of privacy, like me, because…who would have believed them anyway? Even now, I tremble at the thought of printing his name and am drowned out by the din of my own doubts: So what if he tried to get me drunk, he was just trying to be a “cool” teacher. He didn’t sexually assault me, so is what he did so bad?
Yes. Yes, it is. We have to stop excusing men for their bad behavior. Staying silent when men abuse their positions of power over women is NOT okay. Putting someone in the White House who believes he’s entitled to treat women with contempt and disrespect sends a message to our daughters that they need to keep silent, too, when misogyny wraps its hands around their throats, trying to choke out their voices.
Because she understands, I’m still with Her. And I’m with the four-year-old sitting on the stone-cold porch too small to fight back. And the twelve-year-old who did fight back, but whom no one believed. I’m with the fifteen-year-old who once felt powerless to speak up.
Well, I’m a grown-ass woman now, Mr. Matthew Oster. And I’m about to ROAR.