Yes, I am about to make a belated confession.
But I am ashamed it took the tsunami of ignorant, misguided, malicious, mean spirited partisan innuendo and character assassination against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for me to find the courage to speak out.
(For anyone who has managed to avoid last week’s news cycle, this letter from Dr. Ford, a Palo Alto Professor, to Diane Feinstein, her Senator, opened a growing controversy in Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.)
Dr. Ford’s articulate statement of her experience of sexual assault at the age of 15 year old at the hands of a 17 year old was a painful read, one that, to me, rings totally true. And though I have some serious questions about how Diane Feinstein dealt with the letter, penned in July, Dr. Ford’s reluctance to go public with her experience and her plea for anonymity are totally understandable.
Who does not remember the spectacle of Anita Hill, who first shone the national spotlight on sexual harassment decades ago, savaged by a table of men on national television? (The next election cycle brought a “pink wave” of new elected representatives, including Diane Feinstein.) Who didn’t hear accusations against and character assassinations of the victims of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein? Given the power dynamics behind sexual harassment and sexual assault, victims who speak out are likely to be assaulted again- by being silenced, doubted, threatened, fired or attacked with smear campaigns. And it is that very same power dynamic that allows both to continue (think #MeToo).
(I am not conflating sexual harassment with sexual assault. But they are part of the continuum of sexism, and similar attitudes underlie both. And sadly, both provoke similar reactions from dismissal to doubt to condemnation of the victim.)
Yet Dr. Ford found the courage to pen her confidential letter, pleading for anonymity but begging for her experience to factor in considering Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Before her name was known, her statement was widely discredited: “It didn’t happen”, “This is made up,” etc. But once she stepped forward, and put her name and a face on it, the conversation shifted. Here was a private person, a well-educated academic professional, respectably married, with a documented history of having told others, including a therapist, about the assault over the years. Dr. Ford’s reputation and circumstance made it impossible to simply dismiss and deny her, as so often happens. In place of the usual dismissive or blame narratives: “It was a joke.” “She was asking for it,” “She was a slut,” “She was wearing a dress,” "She was drunk," the conversation shifted. “Ok, it happened, but she’s mixed up about who”, “Boys will be boys,” “If we’re all responsible for what we did as 17 year olds, we’ll all be in trouble,” “Tell me what boy hasn’t done this in high school?” etc, etc.
(So do we as women have to have premier educational, professional and lifestyle bona fides to be heard? Must we be beyond reproach to be believed?)
I can’t even begin to address some of the comments above, though many op-ed pieces have and likely will continue to, except to say what they all have is common is dismissive denials of both her experience and of the lifelong repercussions of sexual assault.
But this one I must :
1/6 women and 1/33 men in the USA are victims of attempted or completed rape, yet, it is well established that sexual assault is the single most underreported crime , under prosecuted crime, and the crime with the lowest conviction and incarceration rate of prosecuted cases. More than 2/3 of sexual assault victims never go to the police. If reported, rarely is the report “timely”. And if timely, may or may not be reported to the “proper authorities”, and, then, may or may not be investigated. Besides personal considerations, there are institutional obstacles to "reporting"- think the scandals with the Catholic church and college campuses.
Two recently publicized cases of sexual assault stand out for me, both involving high school girls. The first sub titled her piece, When I Was in High school, I Faced My Own Brett Kavanaugh. The second, a piece of investigative reporting, describes an egregious, frightening and cautionary reported rape case.
So, with all this swirling in my head, my confession:
I was raped.
It wasn’t a stranger. It wasn’t at the other end of a weapon or in a dark alley. It was in a college dorm, by someone I knew. Date rape is the official name of what happened, though there was no name for it back then. Now, we know that is the most loaded, most underreported and difficult to prosecute or convict type of sexual assault, the “He said, she said,” scenario. But those thoughts were nowhere in my mind.
No, I wasn’t drunk or under the influence, nor was he. I said no, but he was bigger and stronger. I won’t go into details. Mostly because I don’t have that many. I didn't scream, bite or kick; never really occurred to me. The party that occasioned the invitation was right outside his door. I remember the smells, a shard of light through a crooked venetian blind, and watching my self being assaulted from somewhere close to the ceiling. I remember the sound track; noise of the party in the background, but close to my ear, in my head, it wasn’t the sounds of breathing. It was the admonitions of a lifetime: “Men are only after one thing.” “You are responsible for protecting yourself.” “Never get in a car with a man.” “Never go into a man’s room.” “Keep your legs crossed.” “Never look like you’re asking for it.” Those mingled with more self castigating voices, specific to the circumstances.
So why did I keep silent?”
I blamed myself. I went into his room, didn’t I? Of course, the dorm was co-ed, and many of us were in and out of each other’s rooms. But still. I should have known better. And who would believe me? Who would not blame me? How could I live with the stigma? The finger pointing? The “she must have wanted it.” I was a brand new freshman, my whole college life ahead of me. He was an upperclassman, already comfortably ensconced in this world.
I pulled my clothes and my fractured self back together, went back to my dorm, and took a long hot shower (though the showers were co-ed, too). I did not go to the infirmary. I told no one, engulfed in fear, doubt, shame and pain.
The next day, he came by my dorm room, stood in the open doorway. “I’m sorry.” Silence. “And I’m sorry, but you must understand, I’m not in the position to do the right thing and marry you.” More silence. At least in my memory. Maybe I said something, maybe I didn’t. Marry me, I thought? What makes you think that would be a just solution to your assaulting me? What makes you think I would want to be harnessed to you? In my memory, I voiced nothing.
And with that, he left.
I avoided him for the remainder of his college days, breathing more easily once he graduated. I told no one, and went on with my life. I would not be derailed. It was my college, too, I would be a success here.
I didn’t tell my classmate the night she confided being raped by a football player. I didn’t tell my colleague when she confided being raped by another colleague. I didn’t tell when a friend confided her violent gang rape. I didn’t tell when a fellow performer confided her assault. (NOT ONE of the above were “reported,” each of us for our own, private, differing reasons.) And I didn’t tell my own therapist (when I had one).
I didn’t tell until Martha Rynberg’s Solo Performance Workshop 18 months ago.
The assignment for the first class:
Write a: “Personal Top 10”
Compile a list of 10 statements that you truly believe AND would never say out-loud.
Aim for statements that make your stomach squirm when you think of sharing them with people. Avoid statements that are easy for you say even if you think are unpopular.
Your statements can be deeply personal. Shock yourself with your own honesty. Push.
Let your gut drive. Find your edges.
Perhaps because both before and after my stroke, I have excavated so many aspects of my life, my choices, my experiences, I had a hard time finding things I hadn’t worked through before. But suddenly, the flood gate opened.
“I believe my relationships with men might have been different if I’d ever been able to admit and process that I was raped.”
Scary to write, scarier to read. But reading that was a release.
Of course, that was one of 10 things! And if you know anything about The Bay Area Solo Community, you know it is one of heart, openness, forgiveness and support. And of course, found that with that share.
But other things on my list felt like more immediate wells to plumb. And so I did.
That was 18 months ago. In the interval, took My Stroke of Luck to numerous festivals, had a 5 month run at the Marsh, done a bunch of one offs at Stroke Centers, Adult Continuing Ed and Living Centers, Hospitals, written first draft of new solo show, started on My Stroke of Luck: The Memoir.
Not until this last week did I return emotionally to the scene of the crime, compelled by the controversy surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination.
Found my him on Facebook. He also lives in the Bay Area. Thankfully, no intersecting circles. I scan his photos, feel anger, disgust, pity. What a pathetic excuse for a man. Does he have daughters? What did he teach them? How many other victims? Does he assault his wife? What would he say if our paths crossed today?
And what would I do? Probably, nothing. He's a relic with no power over me.
But suppose, like so many others of our alma mater and his ilk, he were a titan of industry? An influential newsman? A respected academic? A Senator? Court nominee?
Would I call him out?
Absolutely! He does not belong in a position of trust or of power. Too many lives and values are at stake. And the passage of time since the assault would make my accusations no less real or valid than if the incident happened yesterday.
So, to all my sisters, who have long since spoken out, kudos! I salute your strength and courage! To all who have shut up and put up, I invite you to join me. Speak your truth. But if you prefer to stay silent, I understand and respect your choice. Sadly, the truth comes with a price tag for victims, whether spoken or not.
But world: know those of us who speak are only the tip of the iceberg!
To all my male friends, ex lovers and sons: Be the best man you can be. If apologies are due, offer them. Respect and stand up for the women in your life, and for equality. Call out your misbehaving bros! Now.
Until those responsible for sexual harassment and sexual assault are more stigmatized, more afraid and more shamed than their victims, sadly, this scenario is likely to repeat.
And if you have a moment for one more story, read this cogent op-ed piece, My Rapist Apologized, from a woman recounting her senior year college experience, the memory of which was awakened by the Kavanaugh allegations.