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.
Image credit: Linsey via Flickr