By R.R. Marsh
It took me several moments to post the words on my Facebook account. I had to think through my past—a place I generally prefer to avoid—and consider events I had ignored for quite some time. Had I been a victim of sexual assault? Or was I fashioning mere slips of male behavior into real offenses?
Sure, I’m a feminist, but I also live in the South. Around here, if you really want to insult a woman, you call her “reactionary.”
I was in tenth grade, on the newspaper staff, and walking around the school selling our latest edition. When I reached the vocational wing, where mostly boys learned automobile repair and woodworking, I timidly knocked on the classroom door and asked if anyone wanted to buy a paper.
One of the boys, I’m not sure who—only that he was big with a deep redneck accent—shouted, “no, but we’d sure like to buy you.”
Now at 5’7” and 85 pounds, I made beanpoles envious, but there I was on display before a dozen boys, all laughing at me—assessing me—thinking of what they might do if they bought me. The teacher, the only other female in the room, ignored the comment but commanded the class to shush. “Boys, boys,” she said. “Quiet down.” Once she regained their attention, I slipped out the door, shaking.
Still, I was a reporter, goddammit, and I couldn’t keep that story secret. By the next issue, I had detailed my experience and spoken out against the sexual harassment occurring in our school. My column fostered a discussion amongst the staff and faculty, who passed new rules for the following year—a tiny feather for my cap.
There’s one thing I didn’t include in that article. You see, when I returned to the newspaper office and, in a fury, recounted what had just happened to me, my editor—a senior, one of the most popular boys in school, privileged, desired and, at the time, dating one of my peers—well, he just chuckled. I would have to get used to it, he said. That was the way of the world.
I knew lots of girls in school who called themselves feminists, who read their Virginia Woolf and would have gladly marched for reproductive rights. But even in their eyes, my editor was a shooting star. It was one thing to talk about those other boys—you know, the kids who come from the wrong side of the tracks (or, in this case, the wrong side of the cow pasture). But speak out against him? Even if I dared, who would listen? And besides, I didn’t want to be that nerdy girl crashing everyone else’s party. My social standing always did fall short.
So, I chose to uncover an ugly truth while hiding an equally ugly secret, congratulating myself on affecting some measure of change, at least on the books. I was convinced those five minutes in the classroom followed by those five minutes with my editor had been worth the fear. The humiliation. The intimidation. The vulnerability. The powerlessness. The loss of a piece of myself.
Unfortunately, instigating a new rule against sexual harassment couldn’t erase the scar on my soul. Those ten minutes taught me to fear men, not just the few random individuals, but the world of men buoyed by its structures and supporters. Sure, I had manipulated my pain into some form of positive action (compromised as it was), but I never took the time to grieve the pain. Instead, I buried each and every one of my feelings, telling myself I was empowered. People (including me) appreciated the champion but didn’t care much for the girl. I don’t remember anyone asking if I was okay. I know I never posed the question.
Those same, dark emotions would come to haunt me in later years, when I stayed much too long in a psychologically abusive relationship and worked under multiple, controlling male bosses. In each episode, I reverted back to that scrawny 10th grader, only in greater degrees of anxiety and inward rot. My mother, and later my husband, would find me on the floor, curled up in agony, panicked as if I was under attack. Neither them nor I understood why the situation at hand was affecting me so. I had always seemed so strong, so able to tackle the hard times. I could turn lemons into lemonade.
Yet deep inside, I kept reliving the same horror, one tragedy building upon another. I was back in that classroom, isolated, without an advocate of my own. My editor kept patronizing me, and I had to keep pretending to like him. Only now, the stakes were higher, and I didn’t have a journalism teacher to ensure my voice made it onto the page.
Sexual assault isn’t about sex. It’s about power. Those boys in that classroom? They had the numbers, not to mention a teacher steeped in a “boys will be boys” philosophy. How did that editor keep himself out of my article? The reverence of his peers, who scapegoated the undesirables while maintaining their own place on the social hierarchy. What about that bad boyfriend, whose family gave him porn as a Christmas gift (right in front of me)? Hey, any red-blooded American male’s whipped if he sticks to only one woman. I was irrational to think otherwise. And those insecure bosses who wanted a “yes woman”—who belittled and threatened and undermined in a “I’m the boss, you’re a … bug” kind of way? Well, they had long-established organizations backing them, not to mention my job in their hands.
Besides, I was only being reactionary.
Sex—or any hint of it—didn’t have to exist. The helplessness feels the same. Today, I look back at that 10th grader and wish someone had validated her experience as life shaping, not merely a blip she should power through. I have to wonder, had that girl gone through all the steps—the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—maybe she would have seen the warning signs, stayed clear of that destructive relationship, chosen different jobs or at least quit before requiring years of therapy and recovery. Did ten minutes set her up for decades of heartache?
Americans love a superhero. Someone who can swoop in and save the day. Change the law. Elect the right president. Make things happen. This really isn’t much different from the “pull oneself up by your bootstraps” ideal. A woman is assaulted. She should talk. She should make a difference. As if the burden of changing the system rests upon her shoulders.
But this push—this pressure—negates her need to grieve. Our need to grieve. As I’m reading all the names of the women (and men) who are posting, #MeToo, I am thinking of their stories. Not just coverage of “the event,” but all the subsequent chapters flavored by trauma that, in the majority of cases, remains unspoken and never processed. Those boys, that editor—they never even touched me, yet I see and feel their paws all over my life, and I am still working toward my freedom. Imagine carrying the memory of rape.
Sad to say, I have other stories—some more terrifying, others I would only ever reveal to my closest confidants—but this tale, this tiny moment in a small town at some insignificant high school during the 1990s, encapsulates so much of what I’m observing today.
Each #MeToo—each person crying out against the Weinsteins and Trumps of the world—these are people in pain, which neither a firing nor an impeachment can assuage. Don’t get me wrong. We should fight for justice. We must demand integrity, especially of those in power. But the #MeToo confessors need something more. Listening ears. Permission to feel. Time to pick up all the pieces and heal.
R.R. Marsh is a writer and a mother currently living in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo credit: Amparo Torres O. via a Creative Commons license.