“I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I now know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.”Elizabeth Alexander
I joined the movement and hashtagged #metoo on social media but did not share any particulars. I still struggle with my old WASP reflexes — do not share, do not assume that your story is of any interest to anyone else, and by all means maintain appearances — whatever that means. But as an artist, I know better and try to override this indoctrination to plunk down my own narrative. I want a very different story for my own daughter and all the young women in my life and decided to link in with the collective for their sake and mine. I was deeply moved by all the testimonials on social media and the courage it took to expose the raw stories, the anger and pain. And I think this movement will have positive consequences for future legislation and make the world a little better for our daughters, even with a sexual predator currently in the Oval Office.
I was seven when an employee of my parents’ began touching me, and this inaugurated a long passage of harassment that at times escalated into incidents of assault. Even in the post-Gloria Steinheim era, there was still a prevailing attitude that our vulnerability as women was part of the female inheritance. I heard men, and some women, say dismissive things like: “She is asking for it when she dresses (or drinks) like that.” “She should know better. ”Girls exaggerate the extent of the problem because it serves their vanity.” “Is it really that bad?” “Shouldn’t you be flattered?” “Boys will be boys.” When I shared one harrowing incident to a friend who I thought might be sympathetic the reply was: “At least you’re not a supermodel, can you imagine the attention they get?” I second guessed myself. Maybe I was the one who was too sensitive or was inflating the problem. It felt indulgent to mention this part of my life, so I shut up and repressed my outrage–and a great deal of the memories.
Age has granted me ease of passage in a man’s world, at least physically, but the cascade of #metoo stories jolted me back to a different era, and I have been telling my stunned husband about all the transgressions I thought I’d forgotten. I mourn for all women, for all the energy it takes to maintain vigilance over our own safety, from ignoring catcalls, to the constant requests to smile, to fretting about poorly lit and spooky public spaces, to the steady intrusion from strange or familiar men, to dodging workplace harassment and insinuation, to surviving sexual assault. I think of all the squandered time we expend navigating these climates and of all that noise that distracts us from doing something else, like finding a little peace.
And I remembered a story of kindness. I lived in New York for many years and always in gay neighborhoods. This was a deliberate choice– I felt safe, there was a solidarity that I loved, and I preferred a community that was not dead at night. One evening I was headed home around midnight from a concert uptown. I did not take a cab because I was spooked by an aggressive cabbie the previous week. He kept asking me out on the long ride home and though I bailed out from the ride when I could, I was not keen on being trapped in a car again. So I descended the stairs to the an empty subway platfrom save two pairs of men, each on opposite ends. I centered myself between them and hoped for the best. It was the dead of winter, and I wore a hat, a voluminous scarf, a long overcoat and boots. One pair moved closer and began to comment on my appearance, wondering what I would look like without all my layers. I moved toward the other pair. My aggressors followed. As I grew closer, the other men broke off their own conversation and hustled toward me. I recognized them as men from my neighborhood. Both were strapping, and though I did not know their names, we frequented the same coffee shop and exchanged pleasantries. As they approached, the other men retreated. We boarded the train and they walked me home, even though it wasn’t their stop. When they delivered me safely, they gave me a hug and the name of a car service and waited until they saw the light on in my apartment. Here is a thank you to all the decent men, and there are many, who have kept us out of harm’s way and pushed back with us. I was lucky enough to marry one such man and am lucky enough to be raising one.