Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me Too

Hard to believe, I know, but at 13 years old I was a fairly shy kid. I had my pals with whom I’d let loose, but it wasn’t uncommon to find me sitting alone at the kitchen counter or in my bedroom doing artwork. Charcoals were my medium, and I loved creating portraits of others from photographs. 

My bedroom was best for privacy, but on Saturday nights I preferred the kitchen because that’s where our one small black and white television was stationed. Art-making and Carol Burnett went well together, I'd found, so if it was a Saturday night and I had the house to myself, that’s where you’d find me. I adored Carol Burnett. Funny and kind-hearted, she was my celebrity idol back then, followed closely by Cher. 

On one such particular evening I was home alone, my siblings each out and about somewhere, as was Mom. Without warning, I heard the clomping of footsteps coming through our rickety back porch and then the backdoor swung open and my older brother and his gaggle of pals tumbled in. Too late to grab my art supplies and dash upstairs to my bedroom, I sat staring at the television, feigning nonchalance. (Did I mention I was shy?)

It seemed obvious that the boys' evening thus far had involved alcohol. They shuffled past me where I sat,  all wearing goofy smiles (on second thought, it might've been weed), muttering "Hey, Little Wilt" as they passed. 

(Yep, Little Wilt, later amended to just Wilt, was my nickname because even back then it appeared I might one day rival Wilt Chamberlain in height. Unfortunately, when the moniker was spontaneously bestowed upon me by the same boys filing through the kitchen that night, I had no idea who Wilt Chamberlain was. I spent days moping because, after looking up "wilt" in the dictionary, I assumed my brother and his friends saw me as a droopy, well, wilted girl.)

The five to seven boys, all 16 at the time, moved into the dining room, where the stereo was immediately turned on, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run album placed on the turntable. After all, this was Jersey in the '70s. Need I say more? 

No regard was given to the fact that I was watching television a mere twelve feet from the stereo, but as one of four children growing up in a single-parent household, I was used to this. With Mom often away at work or night school, we Wards were among the original latchkey kids, left to figure out social graces – or the lack thereof – on our own. If Mom wasn't home, might made right in our world, whether it regarded who got the last soda in the fridge or who had run of the tiny first floor of our home. 

In addition to being shy, I was also stubborn – too stubborn to simply stand up, collect my belongings and move upstairs. Instead, I sat in the kitchen pretending I was okay with the shift in my surroundings. I wasn't. Yet I stayed in place, staring at a television I could no longer hear. 

The boys mostly kept to the living room and dining room, except to return to the kitchen for more cold beer, which one of them had stocked the refrigerator with upon their arrival. About fifteen, twenty minutes in, the son of one of my former Girl Scout troop leaders came into the kitchen and plopped down on the stool next to mine. He was clearly drunk or high, maybe both.

"Whatcha doing, Little Wilt?" he asked, his face too far in my personal space for comfort. 

"Nothing," I replied. Again, that feigned nonchalance.

Suddenly, and with zero provocation, he grabbed my crotch, hard. As if making a surprising discovery, he exclaimed, "You have a pussy!" 

I smacked his arm away, my face burning, my eyes drilling into the television as if my life depended on it, willing this jerk to go the hell away with every ounce of my being. Just then, another of my brother's friends, Mike, strolled into the kitchen. 

The first boy – let's call him The Pussy-Grabber because hey, if the shoe fits – turned to Mike and said, "Hey, Mike. Look what I just did. I grabbed her pussy!" And then he grabbed me again. And again I smacked him away, this time managing to spit, "Dick!" under my breath at him as I did. 

"You shouldn't do that," Mike admonished his friend. And with that, the moment passed. I gathered up my art supplies from the kitchen counter and stormed upstairs, angry, embarrassed, and ashamed. Ashamed! 

Too embarrassed and ashamed, in fact, to tell anyone – not my brother, not my mother, no one. Except my diary. And rereading that particular entry decades later, I can still feel the palpable anger and disgust, can still recall that sense of powerlessness all over again. 

What the hell was that kid thinking? Where did he get the idea that it was okay to grab a girl's genitals against her will? Certainly not from his mother, whom I, in hindsight, consider one of my girlhood mentors. This is one of those uncomfortable childhood memories that, even with the passing of 42 years, I can't – and won't – turn into a quick joke to be laughed off in hindsight. Because no girl, no woman, no person, should ever have to slap away an uninvited groping hand and swallow her shame like vinegar. 

I look back on my 13-year-old self and want to give that girl a hug, to tell her that she did nothing – NOTHING! – to warrant an older boy, or anyone for that matter, groping her crotch. And now, with the "Me Too" hashtag going viral on social media to bring attention to the sexual assault, abuse and harassment epidemic so ingrained in our culture, it's long past time to say enough is enough. It's long past time to speak up, to share our stories, to teach our daughters – and sons – that they don't have to endure or stay silent about this bullshit. To teach our sons – and daughters – that it is not okay to sexually assault, abuse or harass others.

I wish I could say that was the only Me Too experience I endured, but it was only the first. The next would occur when I was 18 at the hands of my boss, a man 20+ years my senior and, obviously, in the position of power within our working relationship. To say that this experience disgusts me even more than my very first Me Too would be a gross understatement. And I will write about that one too when I am ready. Because, like the young girl I was at 13, the young woman I was at 18 will not be silenced anymore either. 

#MeToo indeed. 
* * *

Postscript: Two things. First, as I edited this story for publication on my blog, I wondered if I should remove the specific detail that might reveal my perpetrator's identity to those friends and acquaintances who were around in my early years (namely, his mother's role as one of my Girl Scout troop leaders), worried that perhaps it would embarrass him if this story traveled across the internet and made its way to his laptop. Because, after all, he was young. And drunk. And let's throw in stupid for good measure. But you know what? No. Not my problem. If you wish not to be embarrassed, ashamed or – better yet – appalled in the future by your behavior in the present then perhaps you should think twice before acting. #neverpissoffafuturewriter

And second, I wondered if, despite the shame he caused my young self, I would forgive him if he picked up the phone or sent me an email to apologize. From having looked at his Facebook page, I see that he has a daughter. Would he forgive an older boy who, hypothetically, groped her against her will at age 13? That one I can't answer. I can only answer for myself. And that answer is yes. Because, after all, he was young. And drunk. And stupid. And we all make mistakes. And I recognize that his offense was not as "unforgivable" as, say, rape.

But believe me when I say, forgiveness does not equate with tolerance or approval. And even with forgiveness, there must still be accountability, if simply to say, "I'm sorry. I acknowledge how wrong my actions were. Please accept my sincere apology."