On Speaking Up

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I ran into my own Harvey Weinstein at the supermarket last week. He stopped me in the vegetable aisle with a “hey, I know you . . .” His brow furrowed as he tried to work out the connection. “Weren’t you so-and-so’s roommate?” he asked. I was. His face didn’t look familiar, but then he said his name and the memories came flooding back. The basement. The beer breath. The weight of his body.

“How are you?” he asked. “Do you live in the neighborhood? Married? Have kids?”

I answered him. I stood in front of a pile of avocados and had a very polite conversation with a man who once sexually assaulted me. And then I tried to politely end it. “Well, better get going. Nice to see you,” I flashed a wan smile. Then, I stuck out my hand for a handshake. He bypassed my hand and enveloped me in a bear hug. And I let him.

I did what women have done—what women have been told to do—for generations. I shut up. I grinned and bore it. Because if you can’t say something nice, why say anything at all?

Then I spent the next 20 minutes wandering around the store. My shopping list was only a few items long, but I had to check it again and again. “Eggs. Eggs. Eggs.” I told myself. Moments later staring into the refrigerator case, I had no earthly idea what I was looking for. I felt unmoored.

I last saw “Harvey” in college, nearly twenty years ago. I’ve thought about him often in recent weeks because of the flood of sexual harassment stories in the news. But I never imagined those thoughts had the power to conjure him. I never expected him to reappear in my neighborhood grocery store, acting like a long-lost friend. “This is my market too,” he said as we parted. “So I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.”

Days later, I’m still trying to process what happened. Yes, #metoo. So why didn’t I have the guts to say something? Why was my default Midwest nice? The very morning of that chance encounter, I contemplated buying a coffee mug emblazoned with Ruth Bader Ginsberg giving everyone the bird. Yet hours later I couldn’t manage to muster even one unkind word for the man who once pinned me down and did things I asked him not to do.

I didn’t speak up then either. A bunch of us were sprawled out drunk in a friend’s basement. We’d gone to see a concert in another city. The plan was to sleep there and drive back home the next day. Harvey couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I could have yelled. There were other people sleeping nearby. But my voice never rose above a whisper. I didn’t want to make a scene. I so desperately wanted everyone to like me.

Days later I broke down and told my boyfriend about the incident. He was furious. So furious he had to go take a walk to cool off. But when he came back to the apartment, his anger had morphed into suspicion. He wondered if maybe I had cheated on him and invented the story as a cover. In fact, the more we talked, the surer he became. We broke up. (And then a few weeks ago he tried to connect with me on LinkedIn. What in the actual fuck?)

His suspicion was contagious. I started to doubt my story too. What had happened? Was it something less sinister than I imagined? Perhaps he didn’t hear me say ‘no’ and ‘don’t.’

A month ago, our very own Rose Eveleth told men to stop being shocked by stories of sexual harassment. One commenter responded, “How about instead of blaming men for not paying attention to what you ladies are whispering about in the toilet, you actually…..oh I don’t know… go to HR and make a complaint?” Another added, “The simple fact of the matter is that not speaking out is an act of cowardice.”

And it’s true I feel like a coward. I should have said something back then. I should have tried that crowded subway trick where you hold the man’s hand up in the air and say, “I found this hand in my vagina. Does anyone know who it belongs to?” But I was embarrassed and scared. I didn’t have the strength. And if I had spoken up, they would have assured me that Harvey is a really good guy. Or they would have said that this is what happens to girls who like to party.

Now I am stronger. But there is no roadmap for confronting a neighbor in the grocery store about a sexual assault that happened twenty years ago. Sitting in the car with my groceries, I felt like I had flunked a feminist litmus test. I tried to think of ways I could have ended it. Was I supposed to give him the silent treatment? Make a scene? I could have said, “You weren’t very nice to me back then, so I don’t really want to talk to you.” But would he have accepted that? Or would he have demanded an explanation? Would he have made me recount the whole sordid event there in front of a tub of cucumbers?

I thought about what the brilliant Alexandra Petri wrote. “I am sick of having to suffer so a man can grow. What is this, every Hollywood movie ever made? I am tired of having to confess to someone else’s crimes. I am tired of showing up at the banquet dripping blood like Banquo’s ghost. This should be your ghost, not mine. I am not the one who should be ashamed that you have done these things. I am not here to make you see the error of your ways.”

So I’m going to give myself a pass. While I worry that my silence back then might have caused other women harm (did it happen more than once?), speaking up now isn’t going to bring me anything but pain. I wish I were the kind of woman who could give men like Harvey a tongue-lashing in the middle of the supermarket. But I am not. That’s not how I was raised.

But I also refuse to be bullied by the memories of that night. I will keep going to that grocery store because it is my grocery store. And if I see him again, I will fend off the goddamn hug. That much I can manage. And maybe one day I will be able to do more.

Better watch out, Harvey.

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Image credit: Linsey via Flickr

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8 thoughts on “On Speaking Up

  1. I recently returned from a business conference where the year before, five attendees including myself had piled into a taxi cab after an event and one of the men next to me thought it was perfectly acceptable to, well, put his hands where they didn’t belong – repeatedly. I’m usually pretty confrontational but I froze up for the entire cab ride home. The only coworker I knew, another woman, was in the front seat of the cab and aside from my assaulter, there were two other men and a male taxi driver. I kept thinking, “We’re outnumbered…” or “What if no one believes me? What if they think this is my fault?” I spent fifteen minutes barely breathing, not moving, certainly not saying anything while this man assaulted me out of fear that if I did, the situation might become worse. It was easier to let it happen and flee afterwards.

    I spent the night sobbing in my hotel room, angry that somehow by virtue of sharing a cab ride to save money, this man thought that meant he could do whatever he pleased to me. I was angry at myself for not speaking up. I was afraid to tell my fiance, ashamed, afraid he would be angry at me. (I eventually told him and he WAS angry though not, to his credit, at me.) I slipped into despair over the following days – maybe it was my fault. Maybe I had somehow given him the impression by sitting there, chatting about the conference, that his assault was welcome. Was that even possible? Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal. Sure, I got nauseous and angry every time I remembered but maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal.

    Time moved on, life moved on… and yet, a year later, wandering the conference, I found myself wondering if he was in the crowd, if he recognized me. I wouldn’t recognize him. The cab was dark, I had deliberately avoided looking at his face while he was assaulting me, as if not seeing him meant he wasn’t there, wasn’t doing anything. The conference passed without incident but it was a stark reminder that this was a big deal, that it still affected me. In the wake of the allegations peppering the news these days, I’ve been wrestling with this. I’m a badass – why wasn’t I a badass then?

    It’s not easy to answer that but it is a relief, however dearly bought, to know I’m not alone. I hope our society can get to a place where these conversations aren’t necessary but in the meantime, thank you for taking the time to share this.

  2. I am trying to understand? It has happened to me… A boss… Who had given me a raise before I stopped laughing….A man flashing in park who I screamed at and chased telling all who passed about his perversion….as he ran with his pants around his knees. Others who I loudly called out, no matter where. They, every one, ran, were humiliated….knew they were wrong because I didn’t allow it. I hoped they thought twice before testing those waters again. I have felt fear, wanted people to like me, was raised by a Mother who felt all men were far superior to woman. I don’t think I’m a bad ass. I simple refused to let anyone abuse me. I must be missing something. I feel compassion for the pain but do not understand why wanting to be liked trumps being violated.

  3. How do you want me to respond, Patricia? We are different people. People respond in different ways. I’m happy you’ve been able to speak up. I don’t know how to make you understand why I didn’t.

  4. I think I can answer that, Patricia, though I don’t know that my answer would also be Cassie’s. An obviously disturbed flasher in the park is easy to see as a threat. What Cassie (and I and innumerable other women) experience was a physical attack on our own personal bodies by someone we didn’t see as a threat. As Cassie says, the first reaction is surprise, shock, that the relationship has taken such a fast turn from the social into the sexual and the person is indeed a threat. And the second reaction is fear because this guy is bigger than you. And then you say no and the guy doesn’t stop. And all this takes time to get your head around but meanwhile the guy isn’t stopping. The “wanting to be liked” is simply part of the first reaction and it in no way outweighs being violated. To make the turn from “I want to be liked” to “I’m going to kill you if you touch me” on a dime — that’s the instinctual survival strategy of a street fighter and I’m not there yet. Almost though.

  5. Just like you don’t need to confront your attacker, you don’t need to make Patricia understand anything. As you said, everyone reacts differently to assault – the same person may react differently in different situations. I know that I have. And at base, we all should be more concerned with his responsibility for his crime than how you or any victim reacts.

  6. You were caught by surprise in the grocery store. Forewarned is fore-armed. Now you can plan (just a little; don’t let him take up too much space in your head), and know if you’ll ignore him, or if you’ll say something to him if he approaches you. And definitely avoid the hug. Have a plan, and then put him out of your mind.

    Peace to you.

  7. I think you’ve told your story well. Women are socialized to be “nice” and not create a scene. Times have changed some, thanks to many strong people taking risks some of us didn’t and don’t deserve to be condemned for thinking about, not taking. I feel as if we’re walking a tightrope these days. All men are not abusers and all women are not victims. Keep feeling your feelings, telling the truth about it and being kind to yourself. That’s all each of us can do and it’s the journey we’re all on.

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