On a beautiful spring day in 1972, I was walking home from Pinecrest Elementary School (Hastings, MN), enjoying the sun on my face and what ee cummings called the “true blue dream of sky”. I was the kind of kid who, even in 6th grade, wasn’t very aware of my surroundings – always lost inside my own head. Eventually, though, the fact that someone was following me, and speaking to me, impinged on my awareness. I half turned, though I spun back around immediately once I realized that the kid talking to me was Randy – the guy I had a crush on.
“You better walk faster ,” he said. “Cuz if I catch up to you, I’m gonna rape you.”
I had only a vague sense of the threat in those words, but I sped up.
Randy and I lived in adjacent neighborhoods, so his group of boys and my group of girls had a tendency to circle one another, occasionally intersecting in a game of horse or some version of “kill the man with the ball”. My friends said his following me and taunting me were signs that he liked me. After that, I became aware of his presence and gaze on me during these neighborhood kids free-for-alls.
One day, a few weeks later, my friend Cheryl and I were walking the circumference of our subdivision, following the streets that bordered the cornfields that hadn’t been plowed under for houses yet. Randy and his friend, Shannon, were in Shannon’s front yard and called us to come over. We stood talking for a couple of brief minutes, “What are you doing?” “Nothing really. You?” Suddenly, Randy shouted “NOW!” and he and Shannon each grabbed one of my arms and began dragging me into the back yard. Cheryl followed, neither of us sure what was happening.
At first, we were all laughing and it seemed like just another, more intimate, version of “kill the man”. Then Shannon said, “Randy told you he was gonna rape you.” Suddenly, real fear replaced my uncertainty and I began truly struggling to get away. As I was dragged into the cornfield behind Shannon’s house, I managed to free one arm, then pull away by almost slipping out of my shirt (I remember it was my favorite t-shirt, the one with the peace sign on the front that I had taken from my dad’s closet). Randy let go as we heard the fabric rip and I took off running toward home.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what would have happened had I not broken away. I felt serious ambivalence about whether I had been in danger or if this was typical behavior when a boy liked you. What I was clear on, however, was that this episode was one to keep to myself. So I did.
In seventh grade Math class, we were often given time to complete homework problems at the end of the class period. At least once a week, sometimes more often, I would be diligently attempting to figure out the difficult story problems when one of the boys (my assigned seat was surrounded by them) would use something – a pencil, a ruler, even one time the point of a protractor – to reach around my arm and poke my breasts. Then they’d all laugh. Once or twice, the male teacher asked what was going on, but how could I have spoken up in that situation? In front of the whole class? No way.
Flash forward a few years, and I’m in high school in a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Randy (another Randy – the names have not been changed for the purposes of this post) lived across the street and I thought he was the hottest boy ev-ah! His parents were never around, and I killed a lot of afternoons hanging out at his house with Randy, his older sister Lisa and their kid brother. One afternoon, just Randy and I were in the house when Lisa came home. She appeared to be in a bad mood, and almost immediately picked a fight with Randy.
After a brief but intense shouting match between the two of them, Randy grew quite calm and told me to follow him to the kitchen. When we got there, he opened a drawer containing several large and clearly sharp knives and began fooling around with them. I said, “Hey, you’re gonna cut yourself! You should put those away.”
Randy flew into a rage, grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, holding one of the knives against my throat. “Do NOT tell me what to do,” he yelled at me. I tried talking him into letting me go, but before I got very far, Lisa came into the room and started yelling at him to “stop being such a fucking asshole”. Instead of letting me go, Randy applied more pressure to my arm, torquing it so painfully that I was required to bend at the waist to avoid it being ripped from its socket. Randy pressed the point of the knife into the middle of my back and said, “You’d better stay put. If this knife stabs you in the back, it’ll be your own fault.”
I was terrified. I can remember my breath coming fast and shallow, the feel of my heartbeat pounding in my chest. The utter and complete belief that he was capable of carrying through on his threat – both because of his superior physical strength and because of his rage.
He and Lisa yelled at each other while I kept still, focused almost entirely on the point of the knife and the degree of pressure with which it was pushed into my back. Eventually, Randy threw me to the floor and said, “Get the fuck out of here.” I didn’t need any other incentive to run.
Lisa stopped me halfway across the street and begged me not to tell my parents. She said, “You’ve seen what our life is like, he wouldn’t really have hurt you he’s just got problems that aren’t his fault.” Later that evening, Randy came to the door with Lisa. She said, “Randy has something to say,” and nudged him in the shoulder. He said, “I wouldn’t have cut you.” When my parents asked, “What was that all about?”, my reply was, “Nothing.”
At a dance in the student union, my senior year of college, a man I didn’t know grabbed me and gave me a huge hickey on my neck. Although I shouted at him to get off me, and beat at him with my hands, my friends looked on, laughing. When he ran off, I turned to my friends and angrily asked why they had done nothing. Their response was, “We just assumed you knew him.” I was speechless.
Like most women I know, I have a litany of such stories: from the almost mundane (inappropriately spoken to by strangers) to the truly dangerous (a naked man with a shotgun). These experiences have made my life smaller in many ways. They are the reason I am afraid to be alone in the woods – no Cheryl Strayed odysseys for me. They are the reason that I’ve never worn a bustier in public. They are the reason that, even though I don’t have air conditioning, I close and lock my ground floor windows when I go to bed. They are the reason I don’t go out alone at night. They are the reason I evaluate my safety at all times, why I can’t bring myself to sit with my back to the room or the door; why I sometimes feel like a coward who has given away my freedom in order to feel safe.
Many of these stories went untold when they occurred, due to my own immaturity or conflicted emotions about them. I thought that a boy threatening to rape me was unusual – until I saw almost the exact scene played out in a movie called, “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. As I got older and learned more about other women’s’ lives, I realized my experiences were hardly beyond the pale.
In fact, by comparison, they’d hardly register a blip on the misogyny scale. I’m one of the lucky ones – the men in my family, the men I’ve dated, hell even the men I’ve been shit-faced drunk with – have been kind, generous, respectful. They’ve been the type of men who don’t abuse women. The men I’ve trusted have not beaten, raped, or commodified me.
Even so, I HAVE been dissed: disrespected, disenfranchised, disregarded.*
Even so, I HAVE felt fear my whole life – and been made to feel that fear was my own fault. I was overreacting. I was dreaming things up. I had an overactive imagination. Reading the #YesEveryWoman tweets has been a moving experience, reminding me that I am first and foremost not dreaming, overreacting, or imagining. Second, that I am not alone – though it is hard to take comfort in that thought.
Hard to take comfort…because tonight I stopped by the coffee shop down the street. The young barrista who makes my order before I place it limped as she walked from the credit card reader to the espresso machine.
“What did you do to yourself?”, I asked, genuinely concerned to see her legs scraped and bruised.
“I didn’t do it to myself,” she said. “Be careful if you go out alone after dark around here. It’s not the best neighborhood. I mean I knew that, but then I thought, heck, its my own block. The police haven’t caught the guys. Seriously, be careful.”
So there is no comfort in #YesAllWomen. There is only (finally) giving voice to the truth of our experiences. If you are one of the people backlashing against the hashtag, that’s your right. I would just say that it is also our right to give voice to our shared experience; our right to say “enough”.
If that makes you uncomfortable, welcome to our world.
*Note: While this post focuses on the ways women are, from a young age, routinely physically and psychologically assaulted, the daily kinds of sexism we face – in school, relationships, on the job – are an important part of the #YesAllWomen experience and hashtag. Had I focused on these experiences, my post would have been beyond lengthy.