I graduated high school in 1995, not long after a boy scrawled crude, sexually charged ramblings all over one of my spiral-bound notebooks. "Lesbian" was the nicest thing he wrote. I wonder what he did with his life. I'm not ruling out elected office for him, but then again some of his lines showed a certain creative flair, such as "stick a fist up your ass." So, maybe he went into the movie business.
The teacher who caught him in the act didn't punish him. Instead, she wrote me a pass to the library to sit out the rest of class and said nothing when I stayed there for the rest of senior year. She thought she was helping. I got the only C of my K–12 career on that last report card.
I was a chubby girl, dressed like Blossom in floppy hats and bolo ties. I wasn't the "type" to "court trouble," so I didn't understand where the aggression was coming from. Just like I didn't understand why another teacher in my high school was inexplicably hostile to me, day in and day out. A friend and steadfast boy ally called him out once, asking: "What's your problem, man?" The teacher didn't answer, but when he re-appeared at my summer job after my freshman year at college, the pieces came together. He asked if I liked wine coolers and invited me over to watch a documentary. No thanks, buddy.
There was another teacher at my high school who'd quiz me in front of everyone on my lipstick application technique and whether I was wearing perfume. And not in a fun, frothy, Friend of Dorothy way either. More like the ghost of Strom Thurmond. I started to think something about me brought out the creep in people. Was it the bolo ties?
Graduation came around and when the principal called my name I scurried to the stage to grab my diploma, praying hard that the notebook vandal and his lackeys wouldn't boo me. There were no boos—none that I could hear anyway—but I skipped the graduation parties. I couldn't get out of there fast enough.
My high school troubles were a prequel to Harvard, where a boy from a fancy family slipped a roofie in my drink at a party where I'd been hired to sing jazz standards. He called my dorm after, promising his dad would ruin my life if I spoke up. He needn't have been so rude. I wasn't going to say anything anyway. I'd already done the math: If I reported what he'd done, it wouldn't go well for me. At best, I'd be humiliated in front of the college's shadowy disciplinary board and asked to take a leave of absence. At worst, I'd be a tabloid sideshow, marked for life. By then, it was the late '90s, prime time for victim-shaming as political theater, from Nicole Brown Simpson to Monica Lewinsky. I could identify the makings of an American tragedy when I saw one, and my story sounded like an episode of "Law & Order" called "Assault in the Ivy League." One of those special ones, where Sam Waterston doesn't win in the end.
I couldn't define sluttiness but I suspected I had markers of it: I was wild; a drinker with self-confidence issues and big boobs. I'd also had a real crush once on the boy who drugged me, and there were emails and Van Morrison mixtapes out there to prove it. I could see it all playing out, so I chose to opt out of the narrative altogether, never telling a soul at school. My roommate, an Oberlin transfer named after a women's suffragist (those wacky feminists and their crazy ideas!) figured it out and confronted me. She said the word "rape" and I instantly cut her out of my life. I was so determined to distance myself from what had happened that I clung to the delusion that none of it actually had. I was no victim. I was not R-worded. Nope, not me.
I hit cruise control after that. I went to class. I wrote papers. I sang. I managed to graduate with honors. But I don't remember much about the rest of college, other than faking a case of mono so that I could take a break from seeing the drugger and his cohorts around campus.
After graduation, I got on a plane and hitchhiked solo around the Irish countryside for several months, writing hotel reviews for a travel book. I accepted lifts from some very sketchy motorists and engaged in other risky behaviors that summer because I wasn't afraid of winding up dead in a ditch. I'd already crawled out of a deep, dark one. With the monsters safely across the Atlantic, I thought I was putting it all behind me.
Back over the water, I stumbled through my 20s and 30s. The vignettes get less dire but more frequent during these years. They get more familiar too, almost homey in their inevitability. Gallows humor says that if there's nothing you can do about your situation, you might as well laugh. So, I tried it, trotting out my anecdotes at cocktail parties and milking them for chuckles.
Like the one about the trio of merry gropers who worked in the kitchen of a restaurant where I waitressed: the cook, the prep cook and the dishwasher. The general manager I reported the kitchen groping to didn't blink before saying: "Deal with it, honey." He quoted Corinthians and said my choice to live in sin with my boyfriend sent mixed messages to men. It was the middle of a shift, and there were burgers and sweet potato fries sweating under heat lamps, waiting to be delivered to tables, but I untied my apron and walked out. It's hard to argue with the word of God.
There's also the one about the bar owner in St. Barth's who drove me to his house in the middle of the day to retrieve money he owed my band. The reason for moving to a second location seemed plausible and he'd always been professional, so I went with it. I waited in his kitchen, not the least bit nervous, studying photos of his wife and kids on the fridge while he presumably went to his safe to get cash. (I bet you can guess where this is headed, right? We've all seen this movie a time or two.) I turned around and there he was, stark naked, boner waving in the air. I laughed out loud, a nervous tick. He flew into a rage. I was a fat, untalented slut, he hissed. Who did I think I was? I had him give me a ride back to the bar, though. No sense wasting money on cab fare. I dealt with it, honey.
There are more. Countless catcallers, ass grabbers and unwanted dick-pic senders. Like the random guy in a suit who slapped my rear end and yelled "Community ass slap!" as I walked through the lobby of a hotel. And the ad guy who sent me links to fetish porn at work just to see if I was easily offended, his litmus test for "coolness." And the other ad guy who cornered me to say I'd never work in this town again unless I sat my fat ass down and fell in line.
These things kept on happening to me and I kept on doing my weird math, coming up with myself as the common denominator. I was too this or too that. But looming just beneath the surface of my self-deprecation was a growing, gloomier suspicion that it might not be my fault. I swaddled myself in self-blame and secrecy because they were safer than raw fury.
I've written about almost every other hard experience in my life to date. Grief. Breakups. Body image. Breast cancer. But I've never broached my most painful stories in print before. The weight of them has always seemed too big and unfixable; better left alone. I've watched countless other women come forward, never joining them in the fray. I've been too scared of retaliation, lost opportunities, pity, and disappointing the people close to me.
But not today. I've hit my lifetime quota of baptisms by misogyny and I'm done biting my tongue. I'm through ducking and disassociating. I'm tired of laughing on the outside, gallows on the inside. Nobody owes the world their story but I'm done dancing around mine. By staying quiet for half my life, I've fed shame and fear. I've been the rape culture. I don't want little girls—or boys, for that matter—to grow up thinking harassment and assault are just the way of the world. It's time to do less dealing with it and more talking about it. A hashtag might not have the power to upend the dominant paradigm but our stories can help kick a billion holes in it.
So, yeah. Me too.