Why we don’t say anything when there’s so much we could say

Let’s just get this out of the way—this is not a lighthearted, inspirational post. There’s plenty of that here in this space, but this ain’t it.

This is something I started writing almost a year ago, when the #MeToo movement was gaining traction and every day in the news we heard about some new “hero” being felled by claims of inappropriate behavior.

That’s what we call it, right? Because it’s more polite, it’s easier on the ears than calling it what it is: harassment, assault, degradation, molestation, rape.

We’d rather lump it all into one category and call it ‘inappropriate’ than to get specific.

Well, I’m gonna get specific. Because I’m all done with not saying anything. And I’m rankled by blamers and shamers who complain about not telling soon enough, or wanting justification for holding our stories close to us.

This is my story. Or part of it anyway. I didn’t say it before because I didn’t feel like adding my voice to the chorus. But now…I do. This is what I feel like saying right now.

It started a long time ago, I think. I grew up on a steady diet of fairy tales and happy endings. I bought into the Prince Charming theory wholeheartedly, and by 14, I was pretty sure I was going to meet him any day. But even at 14, I had already learned to be careful with boys, let alone men.

I had been followed around by the kid who lived next door for a few years by then. He was a big, tall kid whose only friend was the school janitor. Whenever he’d see me in the common area at school, he’d tail me to wherever I was going. Once, he came up behind me and slammed me into a locker, whispering, “I’ll get you, you bitch.” I kicked up my heel and caught him in the balls and he left me alone after that.

At 14, my best friend was a guy who was often my defender and confidante, but also memorably told me I’d never get a boyfriend if I didn’t lose some weight. He was already having sex, sometimes with other girls who were my friends, and they were all ostensibly thinner and prettier than me. I definitely didn’t fit into the norm in my school, and I guess he was just letting me know–don’t expect too much looking like that.

At 14, a family member I considered a brother molested me, while telling me repeatedly that he was in love with me and we were meant to be together. He was 17 years older than me, and married. It started off innocently enough, with him saying I was so pretty, and asking what was wrong with the boys at my school and why didn’t I have a boyfriend because who could resist me? Once he grabbed my ass. Once he kissed me on the lips. Warning bells went off but I told myself I was being ridiculous and I truly believed he would never hurt me. Until he did. Even after I talked him out of raping me, the next day he grabbed me and shoved his tongue in my mouth. I tried to beg off family gatherings after that, but there was one party where he tracked me down and shoved me up against the kitchen wall. He grabbed my shoulders and asked, “Why are you being such a bitch to me?” As if the whole thing never happened. But it did.

Years later, when I told my family what happened, I was deemed a liar. I was told his side of the story was that I had tried to seduce him. That I had asked for it. At 14. Which I guess in the eyes of some family members, meant I deserved it. The most common question from family members was, “Why didn’t you ever say something before?” as if that somehow meant that because I didn’t speak up at 14, I was making it up. He said I asked for it, but he also said nothing happened. The reason I came forward was because I agreed to testify against him in his trial. He had been arrested for raping his daughter. She was 5.

At 15 and 16, my body started to develop and I finally got the attention of some of the cute boys in school I was interested in. They used to ask me if I could touch my elbows behind my back, or they would knock my pencil out of my hand and then watch me bend over to pick it up so they could look down my shirt. I laughed right along with them, even after I caught on to the joke. It felt good to have them notice me.

As a grown woman, I have been ogled, catcalled and groped in public. It has been fairly common for me to have to redirect a man’s attention, even in the boardroom, back up to my eyes to break his unwavering stare at my cleavage. At one corporate job, my male boss (and former mentor) screamed at me about my incompetence until I cried and then he told me I was trying to manipulate him by crying. He once said to me, “I guess you hurt the ones you love the most” as a form of what I suppose he considered to be an apology for his ‘inappropriate’ behavior. In many executive meetings, I have been called “sweetie” and “honey” in front of an entire room and have had everything from rate discrepancies to profit margins man-splained to me.

And that’s not all of it. Of course, there is more to my story. But it’s enough, don’t you think? And that’s not even considering the experiences of my female friends, and colleagues, and family members. It seems every woman I know has some version of this story. Any of it, all of it, is enough.

Maybe it’s because of what’s been happening in the news lately, when each day reveals another man we held up has crossed the line, but I have noticed how often older men feel comfortable getting in my physical space. Cutting in front of me in line, cutting me off in traffic, or practically stepping on me to get where they’re going, as if I don’t even exist in the space they are trying to inhabit. I have no patience for it anymore.

We have to do better than this. We have to teach our young men not just to respect their female counterparts, but to speak up when they see that others are not. Yes, we also need to teach our young women to respect and defend themselves too, and that it’s never funny when the joke is on you—so you don’t have to laugh along.

I suppose what gives me hope is that I have been fortunate to also have so many good men surrounding me in my life, especially my incredible husband. He was raised by a strong woman who taught him so much about respect. Because of him, I know it’s possible for men not to just claim what they want and assume it’s theirs for the taking. I live with a considerate, respectful and deliberate man who is just as outraged about all of this as me.

I guess that’s my happy ending. And I’m more than grateful for it. But I’m still pissed off that it took all of that other bullshit to get me here.

So why don’t we say anything when we could say so much? I can only speak for myself. I’ve said some of this to some people, over the years. I’ve told my story when it felt right for me to tell it. Not to damage someone else’s reputation or create drama. But because what happened had real consequences, for me and for my life. I hope somehow it gives someone else comfort, or pause, or cause for contemplation.

I am the writer of my own story, and I choose when and where to share it. There is certainly good intertwined with the bad; lessons learned all mixed up with fear and and anger and sadness. Let’s give space to those who want to talk, and respect to those who don’t. There is room for everyone’s stories, all in good time.