No One Makes This Stuff Up

For the past couple of years I have had the singular power to immediately make people uncomfortable at whatever social event I’ve been invited to, particularly parties. I’m talking to the point where the host and hostess might think they’ve made a mistake inviting me.

“What are you writing these days?” Someone asks in that polite way you do when you’re trying to look like you’re interested.

“Oh,” I say in a vague sort of way because I hate this question. The correct response is “I don’t know,” even if I’m on the third draft. That’s the thing about writing–your job is to figure out what’s spinning in your head but don’t clearly know until you’re knee deep in rewrites.

But I’m polite and don’t want to seem rude. I say, “it’s about my friends in high school growing up and what happened to them.”

“What happened to them?”

“The usual things.” Here would be the part where I pause because I’m not insensitive to the fact that we are in a social setting and supposed to be having fun. Then, again, they asked. “How all the sexual harassment they got affected them.”

If it’s a man, inevitably struggling to come up with responds settles on something like, “oh.” I try to ease them by assuring them it wasn’t every boy and man–we had a lot of good male friends, just like they probably were/are! But all they want is to be talking to anyone else and, as soon as possible, drift away.

Women snap their heads, grimace, ruefully smile, followed every time–and I mean every time–by some version of, “you ain’t kidding.” They want to know more about my friends so I explain how one’s rape triggered her schizophrenia while the other–the one the story centers on–overdosed at 28. A lively discussion ensues, diving into their our own experiences. The thing that always gets me is the women’s tone of voice. Well into their 5th decades, they’re eager to tell their own stories in a “I can’t believe this happened” cadence. Even the ones who haven’t encountered abuse have been touched deeply by someone close to them who has. It is clear none of the women want to see their attacker again, unless it’s in a situation where they’re getting their comeuppance. A couple mentioned they’d be happy knowing they’re in hell. Not a few hope they already have.

I’m telling you this because it puts in perspectives how I felt last week when I read this tweet from Geraldo Rivera:

Where to begin? The most obvious place is “embarrassed by shit.” While rape and harassment does make the victim feel like shit and worse, if perps are merely embarrassed by what they did (and their youth isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card) then they are sociopaths and don’t deserve sympathy.

And then there’s the “distant-hazily or inaccurately recalled events” line. The women I speak to vividly recall the most pertinent details of their own “events.” Think of these memories as having branded their character and become an unwanted part of who they grew up to be. These are strong women I’m talking about who have fruitfully outlasted heaps of troubles. Yet the persistent sense of violation always makes them flinch in pain.

Women of my generation who are, as Rivera said are deep in middle age, weren’t brought up to complain. In writing the book I had to face the fact that, when my friends confided in me, I had no clue what to do and did nothing, beyond saying I was sorry, maybe hugging them, never mentioned it again. Since no one talked to us about sexual threats, seeking out an adult, let alone making an accusation, seemed infeasible. On top of that, our Catholic upbringing taught us that, as vessels of purity, we had the responsibility to control sex from happening. Also, the boys we sat next to in class or met at parties and dances were labeled safe, certainly not dangerous as those in public schools. We knew we faced the risk of not being taken serious, the strong possibility we’d be blamed (you dressed provocatively, went willing with him, drank to much, let him horse around until it was over the line). Better to bury it, move on.

I cringe at a lot of things I have done and said from my first steps to yesterday’s stumbles. But the only damage and embarrassment they caused has been to myself. No one else. It’s horrifying to think there are Riveras out there with such abysmal character as to defend the likes of all the Kavanaughs, (notice all those hearts?). These men who have the additional power to legitimize through their words and actions the conviction that women should silently suffer their long-ago violation.

If you meet me at a party, you can ask me about what I’ve been writing. I’m finished with the book and now know what it’s about–telling my friends’ stories. I worked hard to honor them and hope it opens up this singular moment in our culture when it might be possible to understand the real repercussions at the center of the #MeToo movement. I hope the book will challenge the Geraldos of the world, bring the Kavanaughs to task, though I’m not fool enough to really think the book possess this power considering how self-righteous indignation has worked out for them. At the very least, though, I hope the women at the many parties I’ve ruined over the past years are happy I at least tried.

But first some agent has to believe in this story and then find a publisher who will, too.

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