It’s been two weeks since my social media feeds were overtaken by the hashtag #metoo. As hard as it has been for me to read articles about sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by and against strangers, it was so much harder seeing friends, relatives and colleagues shine a light on their own pain. I watched quietly, knowing that I had my own story and wondering if any good would come from sharing it. And, more importantly, whether I would be brave enough to bring the words to life.
Two weeks later, the answer is yes.
Unlike many of the women who have come forward, I have not experienced sexual harassment in my career. For nearly 20 years I have worked in male-dominated functions in male-dominated companies. Now, as an executive, I am routinely the only woman at the table. I have worked long hours in empty office buildings and traveled regularly where it would have been easy for someone to use their power to harm me. They haven’t. Yes, I’ve worked with my share of power-hungry jerks, but they were equal opportunity in their actions. They treated men and women badly and, as far as I can tell, never for sex.
I’ve had long moments of reflection on my own good fortune in this regard. When I am feeling self-conscious of my appearance, I wonder if I am simply not an attractive enough target. When I am feeling strong and powerful, I believe that I exude the air of someone who would be unlikely to keep quiet. When I am feeling pragmatic I know that being married early in life created a kind of natural barrier for predators and that I have worked in companies where the culture was inclusive and intolerant of harassment behaviors. I have been lucky and I know it.
I wish I could say that I’d always been lucky.
It was thirty years ago, give or take, that I learned the heart-numbing feeling of being powerless. I have spent many years working to move beyond that feeling and so I can’t get any closer to the timing. I can triangulate the timeframe because of the house we lived in and the fact that I was young enough that my parents wouldn’t have let me stay home with my brothers alone, maybe I was 12 or 13. They went out for errands on a weekend and they wanted us to have a baby sitter, someone to take care of us.
He was an older boy, high school or college maybe. I was a studious, serious bookworm who could be generously called awkward when it came to the idea of boys. When he suggested that we play poker, I thought it would be fun. When he suggested that we play strip poker I felt uncomfortable but didn’t want to seem childish. When he started to touch me I was paralyzed, completely unprepared to deal with the situation. I only remember (at some point) standing and running to the small half bath, locking the door and sitting on the floor waiting for my parents to come home. I could have sat there for 20 minutes or two hours, I don’t know. I just remember that when they walked through the door I pretended that everything was just fine. I was certain that what happened was something that I needed to hide — it was something shameful and bad that would make me less, would make them love me less.
That feeling of shame and guilt is what has kept me nearly silent since then. I told my mother eventually, years later when I was a mother myself. I told my best friend on a quiet night when you feel like your darkest secrets can come out for just a few minutes before you tuck them back away. I told my husband when, in a discussion around why women who have been raped don’t say something, I blew up and told him he had no idea what it was like to face that kind of stigma and that I for one would believe anyone who had the courage to come forward and be judged by the world. The whole story spilled out and he held me while the wave of nausea slid over me. None of them blamed me. None of them loved me less.
I don’t want to have to write these words. Thirty years later I am still physically affected by sharing my story. If this happened to my own daughter, now a teenager herself, I would assure her that she had nothing to be ashamed of and that she was a victim of circumstances beyond her control. But, I have no such forgiveness for the young girl that I was. For her, I have judgement and condemnation: You should have known better. You should have avoided the situation. You should have fought back. You should have said something.
You brought this on yourself.
You deserved it.
I know all too well why people stay silent. I spent two weeks wrestling with whether I had the courage to bring my adolescent self to life in one of her lowest moments and — let’s be serious — on a good day my blog gets 40 hits. It’s not like this is the New York Times. But, it is important for me to love that young girl for the bright shining person that she was then and for the amazing woman that she has grown to be. I want to be the kind of person who can, once and for all, stop blaming her and support her the way I would support any girl, woman or person in the same position. Yes, I know why people stay silent but I’m finally ready to sit down and say something to my adolescent self, something I should have said a long time ago.
You didn’t do anything wrong, sunshine. I forgive you.