See, I was in plays since the third grade. I loved it - everything, the smell of the pancake make-up, the paper-mache sets, the elaborate costumes. In fifth grade, our class did a play based on Free to Be You and Me, and I was cast as the "Lady's First" girl. While I was getting ready to go to the show one night, I got a phone call from a boy in my class. He was breathing heavy. He used the "c" word. Mentioned pubic hair. Giggled. He gave me a name, which even at the time I knew was not the correct name, but that didn't stop me from feeling weird around a kid named Matt for the rest of my school career. (Sorry, Matt. Not your fault, dude.)
I remember feeling my heart stop, feeling all the fluid in my body run to my feet. Then feeling my heart start up again, fallen sparrow fast. I had to go perform that night, thinking all the while that this guy was watching me. Had to go to school on Monday, knowing he was somewhere, maybe sitting next to me.
Here I was in a play celebrating the goodness in each of us, and on the inside I was growing smaller. Growing afraid.
I've never told anyone this story. Including my mother, who I'm sure will immediately upon reading this respond with indignant horror on my behalf, followed by sadness that I'd kept it a secret, followed by the guilt that claims all mothers, that she wasn't able to shield me.
The reason that I did not tell her is because I was ashamed. Embarrassed. Sheepish. These emotions are not at all logical. What on earth does a little girl have to be ashamed of when a boy makes a call like that? And yet that shame hung on me like a prophet's hair shirt, tucked away underneath so no one could see.
My friend, producer and host Katy Sewall, just recorded two remarkable episodes on assault for her lovely podcast The Bittersweet Life. All of the episodes are sublime, but the recent ones on her and her co-host Tiffany's experiences of assault abroad struck a strong chord. It was not just my empathetic anger, it was how admittedly embarrassed Katy was to share her story.
And yet, she, we, have nothing to be embarrassed about. Nothing to apologize for. These men and boys should be the ones feeling shame, feeling degraded, feeling fear...(of course, many of them do and that is why they act out in this fashion, but that's for another blog post).
So why? Why do we feel this way?
Katy and Tiffany touched on it. I think we feel shame, because in some deep place within us we feel we have failed. Failed in our "duty."
Western culture, and probably others, teach girls to be people pleasers, to stuff their own wants and desires in order to serve the greater good, to serve others. We are taught to be helpers, not to make waves, to give others the benefit of the doubt. To above all, be polite. These attitudes are so deeply engrained we often don't realize them until we're in a place where, by God, we should damn well be much more than impolite.
What?!?! How in hades was I concerned that my response to this jerk was polite or not? How did that even enter my head?
So, first, we're to be polite people pleasers, but second, we are also to be vigilant of our own safety. This too, is ingrained in girls. I remember as a kid creating escape plans if I ever ran across the Green River Killer. No matter that he killed prostitutes and generally plucked his victims from the street a good twenty miles from my house. In fact, I tried so hard to be safe AND polite, when my parents weren't home and I had to answer the phone, I would turn on the faucet as high as it would go and say my mom was in the shower. Creative, yes, but also ridiculous. And no, my brother didn't do this. He wouldn't have had to. He's a boy.
There is nothing I can do about the criminals and just plain a-holes of the world. But what I can do is not allow the bastards to get me twice. I will not be ashamed. To go for a run alone, to wear a swimsuit, to have breasts, to expose these self-lies for what they are, to have a voice.
I will tell my story, and those of my sisters. And I will take what was meant to degrade me to make me stronger. Will you join me?