It starts over a decade before your first job. It begins with the oldest boy in the neighborhood. He’s the neighborhood’s baseball hero who chooses the baseball teams, always hits home runs, and cracks his man-sized knuckles so they sound creepy cool. You try to crack your own knuckles to imitate him, but you’re only four, and your hands are still toddler chubby.
One day when you’re playing outside alone, he invites you inside his house. He’s so much older his request feels like a grownup’s. When you find yourself playing Hide and Seek in his bedroom, you’re amazed. You’re the youngest girl in your neighborhood. Always taking your cues from the older kids, especially him. On the baseball field, he either ignores or ridicules you, but now you feel indebted to him for his undivided attention. Your mind already fast forwards to him choosing you first for baseball as he stands on the manhole cover which serves as first base. Maybe that’s why when he unzips his pants, though you don’t want to, you obey.
The next day when teams are picked, you stand, as always: The unchosen kid.
Another day he stands at his front door holding a cookie and calling your name. It sounds like how your Mom calls you for dinner when she’s cooked your favorite meal. He hasn’t talked to you since what happened inside his house weeks ago. Maybe you just imagined it, so you walk toward him and the Toll House cookie he’s offering. After you play cards on his living room floor and win, he grabs your hand and pulls you toward his bedroom. He puts a Beatles 45 on his record player then turns and says, “Striptease.”
You stand motionless because you don’t know this game.
“Take off your clothes!”
You begin to undress like you’re changing into your pajamas.
“Slower and dance,” he snarls.
You try undressing at some unknowable speed as he holds his man parts. Standing in front of him naked feels worse than not being chosen for a team. Worse than striking out when the bases are loaded.
When you eventually realize he’s neither going to treat you well in front of the neighborhood kids nor pick you for baseball, you ignore his invitations (even though you’re a welfare kid and damn those homemade Toll House chocolate chip cookies taste good).
Years later, when you are 10 and at your best friend’s house, you’re playing Barbies in her older brother’s room when he notices your Barbie’s cherry print dress.
“I’ve popped my sister’s cherry,” he says. Your best friend is also 10. You visualize maraschino cherries floating in grownups’ Manhattans, and you and your sister plopping them into Shirley Temples. You don’t realize that your mind drifting away from the present is a coping mechanism.
“Know what that means?” he asks jolting you back into the present.
You shake your head No, trying to block him out, and picture those floating maraschino cherries.
“Boys make fun of girls who are virgins. They walk funny,” he adds. “Take off your clothes.”
You hope he adds Just kidding and laughs, but he doesn’t.
You’ve already learned from the baseball hero that undressing in front of boys won’t improve how they view you or how you’ll view yourself. “No thanks,” you politely decline. Politeness has been stressed by your mom and is intertwined with your need for approval. You hear his mother’s footsteps in the hallway and are relieved she’s returned early from work. “Fuckin jump!” he says opening his window and pushing you out. You fall onto a prickly shrub. Though it hurts, you know this hurt is better than what lingers from the baseball hero. As you walk home—and for years—self-consciousness brews.
Are you walking correctly?
When you’re 13 and a freshman, you attend a football game. With your late December birthday, you’re the youngest girl in your high school, and you’re eager to make friends. Someone’s older brother buys alcohol for you and your freshman friends.
You drink too much. You go to a party. You make out at a kitchen table with a boy you take piano lessons with and end up in the backseat of a car.
You throw up. You pass out. You lose a shoe. Your friends drive you home. Your face your mother, who is angry but concerned. Convinced you have alcohol poisoning, she drives you to the hospital. Fortunately, you are fine.
The following Monday an upperclassman who plays on the soccer team meets you at your locker. “You’re a slut,” he says as you twist the silver padlock, eyes glued to numbers you can’t now remember.
His breath smells like toothpaste. “I fucked you when you were drunk,” he adds. You want to create a barrier with your locker door, but you can’t remember the combination.
“Slut, Whore, Sleaze,” his spittle sprays your neck as he accuses.
When homeroom bell rings, you bolt toward class hoping you imagined what just transpired.
Soon enough it’s clear he’s hellbent on spreading the rumor he fucked you—or is it fact? He’s a good athlete from a good family and he’s headed off to a good college, so the other kids believe him when he brags about fucking you. And you’re a nobody. You’re worse than a nobody. You’re a 13-year-old freshman who drank a pint of Southern Comfort, blacked out, and can’t remember if you had sex with an upperclassman.
Yet it doesn’t come to you as a fully formed idea until decades later that if he had sex with you when you were 13 and unconscious, he raped you. You’ll be in your 40s by then, and it will be too late to say anything.
In the beginning weeks of #MeToo, you’ll see women in their 50s come forward on television to unburden themselves of the shame they’ve carried for decades. Their stories will resonate, and when their timing and motives are questioned, you’ll understand their delay because now you’re in your 50s.
You’ll not #MeToo because your sexual abuse and harassment wasn’t from a boss and didn’t happen in the workplace.
You’ve known so many other women—too many—who’ve endured far worse than you. You’ve felt those true victims were entitled to tell their horrific stories, so you kept your stories, admittedly less horrendous, to yourself. But something clicks—a realization—as you watch those women on tv. You were never in danger of falsely claiming the title of victim. You were a victim. And being a victim isn’t a choice. Nor is it something to be ashamed of, though your perpetrators counted on your shame perpetually silencing you.
You’ve thought of yourself as a coward for hiding from your abuse and your abusers, but now you sense it was a survival tactic. Repressing your abuse was the best you knew how to do then. You needed to build yourself into a successful young woman. A woman with a respectable job, a woman a man could fall in love with, marry, and have a child with. You’d overheard too many crude conversations from guy friends in college pubs and male coworkers at sports bars: Abused women were easy joke punchlines. Some version of Daddy Issues or She had it coming.
So, you decided you weren’t going to be the kind of woman who’d been abused and convinced yourself that was possible.
I saw our neighborhood baseball hero when I was in my early 40s at a funeral for one of the neighborhood dads. After the service, he sauntered over to me while I was talking to one of the former neighborhood moms. “It’s so nice to see you,” he said with a smirk. “Do you remember me?”
“Yes, of course. Nice to see you too.” My mind was hijacked by my ingrained female politeness. Here was my chance to confront the teenager who’d molested me over four decades ago, and as a grown, married woman—a mother, yet—I was instead exchanging niceties.
I realized how frightened of men like him I was. How paralyzed I became in their presence. And how silencing my voice was part of what I’d felt I needed to do as a respectable woman. Standing across from him, I felt like I was going to pass out, so I excused myself and shakily walked away.
A few minutes later, I noticed him standing alone. On still wobbly knees, I walked over to him—sure I’d trip and fall—and unsure of exactly what I’d say. “Actually, it’s not nice to see you. You did some very un-nice things to me when I was young,” I said, voice tremulous, mixed with fear and rage. I wish more profound words had come, but they didn’t. Are there any words which can equal the abuse and the feelings of fear, shame, and self-loathing one carries for decades?
“Would you like me to leave?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied then watched him walk toward the church parking lot. It was over as simple as that.
Or was it?
Had I somehow prevailed?
After all those hideous images I’d replayed in my mind from when I was a toddler, what had just happened?
I didn’t feel like a victor. I didn’t feel any sense of victory. I didn’t feel vindicated. I felt another level of horror: the realization he’d likely been confronted before and learned to deescalate situations and prevent his victims from making a scene. I wondered how many of us there’d been.
I walked inside the church reception hall and quietly told my older sister what’d just happened. It was the first time I’d shared with her that I’d been abused. As we stood in line for the buffet, she whispered that he’d gotten her too and the daughter of the neighborhood mom who he’d been conversing with earlier. We hugged, but the funeral reception neither seemed the time nor the place to say much more. Maybe our whispering was yet another way to suppress the abuse we’d endured.
It struck me that my sister had been a tomboy who seemed on equal footing with the neighborhood boys. I’d thought I’d been targeted by my molester because I fit the typical victim profile. I was a quiet, shy kid, much younger than my abuser (not to mention I sucked at baseball). But my outgoing sister was one of the oldest girls in the neighborhood, and she could clock homeruns off his fastballs.
I also assumed because I was fatherless and my family had been on welfare, that my molester had sensed my vulnerability. But the other older neighborhood girl he’d abused was raised in a solid middle-class family whose dad worked a steady 9-5 job. I’d spent a lifetime pinpointing all the deficits in me which had resulted in my abuse and why I’d deserved to be abused. But now I was faced with evidence which suggested something else. There was no typical victim profile. We’d all been in harm’s way.
Though none of these teenage boys and men were my employers, they had power over me and the girls in our neighborhood, and they leveraged that power.
It wasn’t the baseball player’s responsibility to groom me to become better at baseball, but it was his responsibility not to molest me.
I was spared from my best friend’s older brother, but when we were 12, she’d telephoned me and said she’d run away and hitchhiked to Florida. When she’d added she’d taken rides from truck drivers, my heart sunk. Her ensuing years of addiction and prostitution should have been shocking, but they seemed inevitable.
It wasn’t the upperclassman’s responsibility to build my self-esteem, nor what it his right to destroy it. Only he knows if he raped me or just bragged about it. I know one is far worse than the other, but they both represent a heinous abuse of power.
Lately we see high-profile men being called out by the #MeToo movement. For those headlines, there are millions of men who remain untouchable because they’re not famous. They’re anonymous predators, and they’re everywhere.
#MeToo addresses how to handle our former and current workplace abusers. While the focus on the workplace is critical, it’s important to remember that girls deal with harassment and abusers well before we enter the workforce. It’s hard to imagine or understand exactly how that shapes us, but it informs who we become in the workplace and in our relationships.
Many victims develop addiction problems as a coping mechanism for the trauma they’ve endured. For others, it shapes whether we permit ourselves to strive for an education or build a successful career. The abuse affects our confidence and how we value ourselves in every area of our lives, including the workplace. It shapes who we choose to date and marry.
In my case, I pushed myself in my career and acted impervious to the nude centerfold which hung in the lunch area at work, or the coworker who flicked his tongue at me whenever I walked by him, or the boss who invited me to join him in a threesome after work (I declined). Those experiences coupled with my childhood abuse taught me to gravitate toward safe men. But I didn’t know how to choose the right men because I’d been wronged from such a young age. I knew I wanted a different kind of man than those who’d abused me.
My first husband seemed safe, like he’d never intentionally harm me. When I found out he was having an affair something about it felt like I had it coming. Logical in its own perverse way. I was damaged goods. Of course, my husband would cheat on me. Expecting otherwise, on my part, had been absurd.
Once I’d assumed I’d done the work to recover from the trauma of that infidelity, I felt I’d truly learned how to pick the right man. I realized that choosing a man because he was safe was an over correction for having been abused.
My second husband had been my high school sweetheart, someone who knew about my childhood abuse. I felt he accepted me for who I was and that included my past. I’d convinced myself I’d outgrown my childhood abuse, though I’d never truly dealt with it. Moreover, I felt inoculated against further marital infidelity. So, when I’d discovered his affairs, I felt like that naked 4-year-old stripteasing. That 10-year-old falling out of a window. That 13-year-old fumbling with her locker combination.
None of those experiences had ever truly left me. Though I wanted so desperately to shed them, they’d followed me into my marriages and haunted them.
Young girls are often robbed of their innocence and forced to deal with aggressions perpetrated against them—verbal, physical, or both—from teenage boys or young men hellbent on crushing them. The repercussions from that can take a lifetime to overcome.
I haven’t read the #MeToo stories in disbelief, nor have I watched victims in disbelief. Choosing not to believe might be an option for some. But victims don’t have that luxury.
The #MeToo movement allows women like me to move from silence to claiming our voices to speak for ourselves and on behalf of the other girls and women we know who were abused. I often wonder about my best friend from the neighborhood. My sister’s battled addiction issues, but she’s almost 60 and seems to have found some inner peace.
Today I’m a single mother, a writer, and an editor of a women’s magazine. I’m not dating. I’m perhaps once again in the over correction mode, playing it as safe as possible with men. Sometimes I convince myself that’s a conscious choice but opting out of romantic relationships might be continued fallout from a deep-seated fear of men.
I stand in solidarity with my sister silence breakers of #MeToo. I’m hopeful this cultural shift will continue to gain momentum. Instead of a culture where girls and women live in fear of being abused, or lead lives steeped in secrecy, or those hampered by shame, predators need to feel the fear.
We no longer hold ourselves responsible for politely safeguarding your secrets.