It shouldn’t take the Harvey Weinstein story and the ever-growing list of allegations against him to purge forever those predators and perverts and power-crazed men from Hollywood or Washington DC or my hometown in Northern Ireland – but perhaps it will. Such men are around every corner – on Wall Street and Main Street, in the White House and the schoolhouse, in our churches and our universities, in the military and the media. And given the response on social media of thousands of people who are sharing their own sexual harassment experiences with the #MeToo hashtag, such men have been there for too long, their abuses of power and women camouflaged by the sad and systemic complicity of others.
The first time it happened to me, I was walking home from school with a friend. It was dusk when a young man emerged from the shadows at the end of the Dublin road, pointed to his open fly, and asked us if we wanted to play with his furry friend. My friend and I ran home. We were afraid, but we laughed as though we weren’t. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone until right now. All these decades later, I remember the chill in the evening air, the sneer on that stranger’s face, and the panic over not being believed if I told anyone. So I learned to keep secret the fear that it was my fault or that nobody would believe me.
As the Weinstein story unfolds, I also find myself recalling, with some disgust, the time a male supervisor, a public educator, conducted his annual employee appraisals with all his female subordinates in a local coffee shop. Except for mine. His assistant, a woman, scheduled my evaluation in the bar of a nearby Holiday Inn. It shocks me now to admit – even to myself – that I showed up. Even though I knew he was out of line, I was afraid. I was too intimidated to confront him, to ask why the different venue for me. And I was too scared to tell his superiors or to confide in the other women – my peers. I didn’t even tell my husband, afraid of the consequences he would deal out to this misogynist. While this man did not touch me, he succeeded in demeaning me, making me feel different and uncomfortable, seated with his arms behind his head, comfortable in his own skin, talking quietly to me presumably to make me move closer to him. Worse, he got away with it just as he had previously (I later learned) got away with similar behavior towards other women.
Such an experience taught me to run when I was afraid, a lesson that has been reinforced during the course of my adult life. Looking back over my first twenty-five years in America, I remember how I used to spend an hour each weekday afternoon, watching Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. It was Oprah who taught me about Gavin de Becker’s “Gift of Fear” – a book written the year my daughter was born – and how to predict dangerous behavior and how being nice does not pay:
Niceness does not equal goodness. We must learn and teach our children that niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction. It is not a character trait. People seeking to control others, almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning.
Later, if ever I were kidnapped, Oprah taught me that I should remember Sanford Strong’s Rule #1: to never let myself be taken to the second location. These and other such lessons I passed down to my daughter, hope burning internally that she would never need them.
My daughter sometimes tells me that when faced with a challenge, she copes by weighing it against the worst thing that has already happened to her – the death of her daddy and the missing constancy of him. Other men, good friends of mine and my own father, have tried to fill the gaping hole. Kind. Watchful. Funny. And – perhaps afraid that I might fall apart as her only parent, more aware than I of my own fragility – they are there for her. Just there.There, sitting under a Jacaranda tree with her as she held her dying cat; there, cheering her on as she strode across the stage to receive her high school diploma; there, teaching her to drive; and, there, making a day in December feel almost like Christmas.
Between us, we provided a safe and soft place for her to fall. Prior to milestone moments – Father’s Day, his birthday, the holidays – we are extra vigilant, more active on her Facebook page with supportive comments and ‘likes’ and jokes we hope she will appreciate. Stupidly, however, we do not expect to be broadsided, as we were by a moment in a department store fitting-room where she works part-time.
My daughter is kind and warm with a personality made for retail. She’s good, but she is also nice. A college student, she has worked part-time in a local department store for two years, and often the managers have assigned her to the fitting room. Patient and pleasant, a pleaser, she is the perfect store associate to calm customers harried and in a hurry to find something that fits. To her embarrassment I’m sure, I went into the store one Sunday last year and – worse – I even tried on clothes, so she could not avoid me, the way we avoid our parents when we are so “over them.” I didn’t notice the numbers scrawled on her hand, I was too busy embarrassing her the way I used to do when I dropped her off at junior high. Mortified that her friends might hear “my music” on the radio, I remember she would turn it down before getting out of the car. Then I would wait until she was on the sidewalk, turn up a Tom Petty tune and yell out the window for all to hear, “I love you.” It’s what mothers do, right?
Mothers also usually know when something’s wrong. I can tell by the first syllable of “hello” when she calls if it is, for example, a day when grief has her in its grip – ‘a grief day.’ I can sense it. But I somehow missed it in the department store. I missed it. How could I miss it? It wasn’t until she came home from her shift a few hours later, that she told me. She had written on her hand 4:30 – 4:45, the time period during which a middle-aged man – a customer – had inappropriately touched her in response to her telling him she was sorry the red shirt he was returning hadn’t worked out. She was alone. Vulnerable. Frozen after he put his hands on her, but somehow she thought to inform security of the time so they could check the videotape and “just keep an eye on him in case he came back and bothered anyone else.” Then my darling girl worked her shift for four more hours and told herself that because she was “alright,” management would probably minimize the situation. Nobody came to check on her. She ended her shift, walked to her car alone, and came home to me.
With time to reflect on this, to raise hell, to broadcast it all over social media and report it to management, to confirm that, yes, detectives were looking into it, and to ensure that a policy would be enforced to require at least two employees in the fitting room at all times, the lingering issue remains. There are menacing men who move among us every minute of every day and that women who look just like my daughter – my mother, my best friend, me – continue to be sexually harassed in public places. My girl is now one of those women. #MeToo
I know she is vehemently opposed to “mommy fighting her battles.” I don’t know if she understood I wanted to find that stranger and tear him apart until there was nothing left of him. Nothing. She didn’t hear Gavin de Becker tell Lena Dunham in response to a question about how young women can best protect themselves against violence:
. . . Do not accept the scam that violence is a strategy only understood by men. There’s a universal code of violence, and that’s not a code you have to crack; it’s all inside you. When I used to give more speeches, I would ask audiences, “Is there anybody here who feels they could never hurt anybody?” A bunch of people would raise their hands and say, “I could never be violent under any circumstances.” If it’s a woman, I would say, “Well, what about if somebody was hurting your child?” “Oh, oh, oh, well then I could rip, burn, bite, scrape, scratch, poke, shoot, stab,” and so the resource is in all of us.
That resource is in all of us. Except, we don’t really believe it, do we?
One evening last year, I went to a local bar to play pool with one of my best friends – like me, an older woman, or as we like to say of ourselves, “women of a certain vintage.” For reference, a bad thing had happened to me the previous summer, and playing pool became the good thing that lifted me up and out of it. It was a perfect distraction. We found the quintessential dive bar – a hole in the wall without windows, and oddly smoky even in the absence of smoke, three pool tables, a parking lot aromatic with weed, Bob Seger on the jukebox, and bartenders who tell stories and listen to yours and call everyone ‘sweetie.’ You get the idea. I had never played pool until last August, but because of Paul Newman in Color of Money, I had always wanted to. I didn’t even want to be good. I wanted just one time to make that sound – the crack of a great opening break. At the time, I was a long way from doing so. I didn’t know how to hold the cue and could barely make contact with the ball. Now, I love my friend, but she is a lousy pool teacher, so we would resort to watching YouTube videos on our phones or we would ask the advice of guys who brought their own sticks to the bar on League Night, which also happened to be Ladies Night, or on Sundays when it is still free to play. After months of practice and time spent with the man I had recently met, the man who still quickens my heart and teaches me how to make the shots he makes me call, I grew less embarrassed by my game. In fact, now that I have a bridge he deems acceptable, I win more than I lose (just not against him).
He wasn’t with me that evening when I put up my quarter. Oblivious to my surroundings as I sometimes am, I was only vaguely aware of the young man seated at the bar behind us. Remembering him now, I recall shorts, T-shirt, flip-flops, receding hairline, slightly overweight. There was nothing remarkable and no hint of danger. I remember half-noticing him talking to my friend, but I thought he was only asking about the boxes from a local pizzeria stacked on the bar and if anyone could have a slice. (Yes. Anyone could.) She didn’t tell me until later that he had rubbed against her and asked if she liked playing with balls. She froze the way so many of us do, later telling me,
Yeah, he hit on the old broad first.
Subsequently, when it was her turn to play, he sidled towards me, and said quietly to me, “Hey, hey, pretty lady. Your friend says you like playing with balls. Is that true?”
Typically, this would have rendered me frozen as I had been every other time something similar has happened, but this time I felt an approximation to violence. A foreign and empowering feeling, it made me neither fear him nor ignore him. Nor did I run away. I don’t know what shifted in me, but something did. Clutching my cue – and wanting to break it over his head – I eye-balled him and never looked away as I told him, coolly and quietly, “Yes. Yes, I do. I love it. But you will never know since you don’t have any. Now get the f**k out of my space.” I almost scared myself.
Now I am no stranger to profanity – I’m Irish after all – but the words came out of me like razor blades, and before I could turn away from him, I watched him slither out the back door. Still, I felt guilty about cursing at him, about losing my cool, and – even worse – wondering if perhaps it had been the way I had smiled, the silky summer top I was wearing, the cut of my jeans, the length of my legs – if it had been my fault. Was it because I was in a bar on a Friday night without a man? He would not have said it had I been with a man, would he? Had I asked for it? Well, had I? And, if I am honest – mindful that I am middle-aged, postmenopausal and most of the time most likely invisible to men on the make – should I have been grateful for the attention? This is the maddening and shameful contradiction that sends me, recoiling and ashamed, to the disconcerting reality that I am no longer the proverbial spring-chicken, therefore, attention from a young man must mean I’ve “still got it.” Really? Yes, really. This confounds me and makes me want to cry.
Now what? Well, today and tomorrow, I will step out into the world, and I will dress the way I always do. I will “sparkle and enchant” the way I do and risk being called flirtatious which sometimes sounds very much like “you’re asking for it.” My daughter will continue to be good – but perhaps not as nice – to strangers, because she and I have been altered.
Like a thief in the night, those men – and every other entitled man who has ever touched me or taunted me or told me I smell good when I’m standing next to him in line at an electronics store or called me a stuck-up bitch and told me to suck his dick because I didn’t smile back – has taken something from me, from all of us – and we are not sure how or if or when we will get it back. Men like Harvey Weinstein know this. What are we going to do about it?