Thank You to the Chorus
My “Me Too” Story
Imagine with me, if you will, that you are a teenage girl waking up on a beautiful May morning of your senior year. You throw the covers off of your scrawny teenage legs, splash some water on your face, run a comb through your hair, and make your way downstairs for some time with the morning newspaper and some frozen waffles. You can actually hear the sound of birds outside as you make your way towards the front of the house to pick up the paper — it’s that kind of spring morning. The air feels just the right amount of cool — the sweet spot, before it turns into muggy early summer weather — and the breeze blowing in through the window smells fresh. You’ve had a crappy month so far — you and your boyfriend broke up not too long ago — but today is going to be a good day. You’re probably giving yourself a pep talk as you go about your morning business (kids have been mean lately), but today is a new day, and the air smells like spring, and you’re going to graduate in a month, and everything is going to be okay.
You open up the front door to retrieve the newspaper, but stop short. Something is standing between you and the outside, and that something is a gallon-sized ziplock bag of somebody’s urine, leaning up against the screen door and threatening to spill out all over your morning paper.
The sight of it sends a shock through you, and your skin all of a sudden feels so hot — hot with shame, although you don’t know to name it that, yet — and a lump grows in your throat and you are paralyzed. After a few breaths, you compose yourself. You gently open the screen door so as not to tip over the pee-bag, and you pick it up, and you deal with it. You can’t bear the thought of telling your mother, because then she would know, like you now know, just exactly how much you are hated.
When the conversation about sexual assault and harassment comes up, this is usually the moment that my memory leaps to. I had pushed it out of reach for a couple of years, and then one day it came flying back to me as good as new, totally fresh. I have, for years, wondered why that particular moment was so incredibly traumatic to me. It was a bag of pee, not a severed finger. Nobody had spray-painted “whore” on my house, or “slut.” But it sure felt like they had. I had been marked. Even my own home was not my own territory. Nowhere was safe, and nowhere was mine.
In college, things were not much better. I was removed from all situations of personal drama — after the ostracism of those final few months of high school, my personality had totally changed. Once a social butterfly, I withdrew from people. I would binge eat three dinners and go to my dorm room and sleep instead of making friends, or even doing homework. I never went to parties. I was too afraid to be seen by anyone. I felt like I was marked, too, by this shame of mine — I felt like people could smell it on me. In fact, it felt so much a part of me that I almost wanted to introduce it to the people I met, like a friend at a party. So, I just stayed home under the covers. I knew I needed to reject people before they could reject me.
By sophomore year, any sense of wonderment at the novelty of school had worn off, and I quickly became disillusioned and disabused of the notion that this liberal institution of higher learning, which challenged us to engage our highest selves, was exempt from the guilt of perpetuating the oppression of women and minorities. We whispered about this amongst ourselves, my classmates and I. Why have we been cast in the ensemble three times, while each of the men gets to play a speaking role on the mainstage? Why won’t our professors engage in a conversation about the whitewashing of the show they are demanding we perform? Why did the teacher say that inappropriate thing to my classmate about her legs? Is it just me, or does it make you uncomfortable when that classmate tries to give you a massage during warm-up, too? I heard so-and-so was really pushy at the party last weekend — I don’t relish the thought of intimate scenework with him at rehearsal tonight…
Enough of those whispers added up and became a bigger sound, and soon we started encouraging each other to push back. You don’t feel safe? Me neither. Let’s see how we can ask our faculty to be our advocates. Let’s see how we can address these concerns in a productive way. You don’t feel comfortable in that rehearsal room? Let’s see if there’s an alternative.
For those three years, each time we felt distressed by the sexism happening in our school, we expressed it and were immediately gaslit and shut down, threatened. Euphemisms like “making waves,” and “burning bridges,” were spoken to us in the negative, as if we were petulant children who were creating drama for its own sake.
I can’t and I won’t get into the details of those three years now. I don’t have the energy, and it involves far too many people for whom I do not wish to speak. At the time, I felt like these things enraged me more than most women in my class, and I wondered about that. I wondered why I felt so angry; began to invalidate my own experiences; told myself I was crazy for being so hell-bent on my own sense of justice.
And then one day the memory of the bag of pee came reeling back to me. I felt the memory all through my body, that same wave of intolerable, shamey heat. The feeling of a reputation ruined. The feeling of a sacred safe space being defiled. The feeling of being hated, when all I had done was speak my truth and try to heal.
Years after the fact, I still struggle to remember what is truth and what is fiction in my own personal account of my high school relationship. Sometimes when I go home, I look over my old journals to see if they bring forth any pearls of wisdom. What I know of that relationship is that it made me feel awful. It made me feel used and degraded. There were some brilliant moments of true bliss when I was swept up in that all powerful phenomenon of first love. But there were so many day-to-day heartbreaks. So many boundaries crossed. So many ways I was taken advantage of and humiliated.
All of that is its own exquisite type of pain, which, paradoxically, is both unique to my experience and also all too common. But the type of pain that left me breathless, that literally kept me bedridden for a year and a half after, and that fundamentally changed who I am as a person — was actually the pain of what happened afterwards. It was the pain of telling people there was something wrong in my relationship — that I didn’t feel valued, that I, dare I even write it — wondered if I’d been assaulted — it was the pain of asking my trusted peers for help and guidance and empathy and being met with total scorn. He was not a big, tall stranger, and nothing happened in a dark alleyway at night, and therefore I must be a lying heretic witch who deserved to be burned at the stake.
At the end of that relationship, my stories poured out of me with such force that I couldn’t stop them. It was almost like projectile vomiting. I didn’t want to hurt anyone — I just wanted someone, anyone, to make it better. But the other person in question was by all accounts a popular guy and a Good Guy — I still think so, too. He’s not That Bad. That meant that some of my friends told me to shut up, others turned their backs on me, and still others listened to me, told me they believed me, and then used my truth against me. One close friend wasted no time in striking up her own relationship with him, and assuring people how wrong I’d been.
One day, I woke up and everyone was gone.
The summer volleyball team, made up of friends I’d had since pre-school, told me not to show up. “Can I sub in if someone else gets sick?” I asked, looking around at them to see if someone would acknowledge how unfair this was. They looked at their hands, they looked at each other. No one spoke for what felt like an eternity. “We’ve got all the players we need.” “Can I come to the games, and cheer you on?” I asked. They looked at each other again, to decide who was lowest on the food chain among them. She would be the one to deliver the news. “Um. I don’t think you want to come,” said one of the girls. What she meant was, “You’d better not dare.”
I heard that a lot, alongside the whispers in the hallway. “She’s fucking crazy.” “What a bitch.” Years later, an old friend confessed to me that she had heard I’d slept with several boys that I’d Never. Even. Kissed. “I heard my mom talking about it with one of the other moms,” she’d told me offhand. Sometimes boys from school would come to my place of work and try to guess the color of my thong by waiting for me to bend over when they knocked things off the concessions counter I worked behind. They’d ask me to do things to them in the broom closet because: “You’ve done it before! Don’t lie to me. You’re a dirty girl, aren’t you?” I pretended to think it was funny. I didn’t know what else to do — I didn’t want cause anyone’s hatred of me to intensify. I didn’t want to give anyone a new reason to spew rumors about what a crazy slut I was, out to destroy reputations.
That summer, I got disinvited to more parties than I could keep track of. Someone would always tell me, “It’s better if you don’t come. He’s going to be there.” Or, more simply, “Sorry, you’re not invited.” And then one or more of the girls would send me snapchats of themselves at the party. It still hurts when I think about waking up on summer mornings to see new pictures on Facebook of all of my lifelong friends having a grand old time without me — that precious summer before college, that last glimmering chapter of childhood, the final time in your life you are truly at home, it’s all supposed to be one glorious sunset that only appears for a brief and irretrievable window of time. I ached every living moment of it. One day, my mother walked in on me scrolling through a fresh set of Facebook pictures. I began to cry when she came in the room. As she came closer to embrace me, my grief surged through me so powerfully that I threw myself on the floor and began to shriek and she had to restrain me. I didn’t even feel human anymore. The shame and anger and grief had taken over my body and mutated me into some kind of a monster.
There were things that I could have handled better, as a teenager. I could have been kinder, more gracious, more discreet. I was not delicate in the way that I processed my anguish. Even so, I still return to these memories with such confusion because — although I have the written record of the things that happened during that relationship, I still question whether I imagined it all. The older I get, the more that angers me. I think about that period of my life, and how I learned, in a matter of a few short months, about the importance of reputation above all else. I learned that nobody wants to hear you speak about injustice — especially if your finger is pointed at a well-liked man. I learned that I am helpless. That I can cry to the high heavens what has been done to me, and all it will lead to is the agony of ostracism and disbelief.
So fast forward to college — I am groped by a former childhood teacher, who continues to make inappropriate advances towards me for several months afterwards — and I let this information burn inside me, too. I never “go public” with it. I can only think of how that would ruin my life, how I would never be able to go home again because no one would believe me. I would be treated, again, as the petulant child trying to create drama purely for the thrill of it. To speak about my own, individual experience, could, I feared, be fatal.
But presented with the larger systemic issues of my college campus, and empowered and enraged by the chorus of “Me too,” coming from my classmates, I began to believe that my voice mattered in the fight. I began to see an issue bigger than myself, and so I began to believe that speaking out could set off a wave of change. I had hope for the first time in years, that things could be different, and that men abusing their position of privilege could be held accountable. I felt fellowship, sodality, and I even trusted it, almost. Maybe someday I will even be able to hit backspace on that word, “almost.” Progress is incremental.
As far as I know, the system is still fucked. Devos wants to roll back Title IX protections. I was still sent the message, loud and clear, by many if not all of my faculty, that my truth was not much more than a nuisance to them. At peak significance, it was simply an inconvenience.
But I still feel that — if we stand with each other, if we speak whatever truth we can to power, even if it feels like we are shouting into the void — if we know that the chorus is there and ready to listen and then sing out with us, that it has no stones to throw — then perhaps we can gain momentum. Perhaps we can find safe. Perhaps we can find home. I am learning, as the philosophers have been telling us for years, that home is not a place. It is not a pile of bricks and mortar and steel, it is not a sunset phase of life, it is not a tangible something that can be marked or defiled or made by another person. Home is within ourselves — it is built by the truth of who we are and not what happened to us, and it is shared with those who receive us unconditionally; ready to hear, see, believe, and love.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to the chorus.