In light of the recent but unsurprising allegations of sexual assault and harassment not only in Hollywood but in the workplace at large, the all too popular refrain from men attempting to relay their understanding and empathy has been somewhere along the lines of “imagine if it was your wife or daughter” or “believe me, I have daughters, I know how important this is.” And while I won’t say that these men don’t actually care about women, I’m sure they do love the ones in their lives, it highlights a far more troubling but well documented aspect of our society and culture which is our inability to recognize and value the humaneness and personhood of women outside of their proximity to men.
The fact is, you shouldn’t need to have a daughter before you understand the harmful ways in which we foster and perpetuate violence against women. You shouldn’t have to hear from your sister about the harassment she’s endured before you understand the world she walks through is far different from the one you live in. And you shouldn’t have to imagine your mother being assaulted to believe the women who tell us how pervasive and dangerous the problems facing us, them, really are.
The truth is that like sexual assault, like racism and so many of the other issues plaguing marginalized and vulnerable populations, is not a thought experiment, neither for survivors or their family members who live in the shadow of their strength to continue making a life for themselves in spite of the horrors they’ve faced, often times alone. For as long as I can remember I’ve known my mother was one of these survivors. I knew this because she made it her life’s work to help other women, and men, who had endured the worst this world has to offer and were trying to navigate their way through legal systems, medical systems, healing and the grief of trauma. As the executive director of a non profit for 20 plus years, my mom shared her story as often as she could, in elementary classrooms, in jr. high assemblies, high school auditoriums and football and basketball locker rooms. Anywhere there was space to stand you could find her, developing programs and curriculum that teachers could use to help educate on bullying and sexual harassment, sharing her own story, and helping to make our community a better and safer place.
“Your mom comes to class and gives those talks” kids would often to say to me. “Yep that’s her” I’d reply. I can remember in jr. high when she came and gave our class one of those talks. Everybody knew she was my mom and when it came time to share her own truth as a survivor, I could feel the looks, as subtle or brief as they may have been, turn in my direction, but what I felt the most in that moment was pride. I was proud because I knew the work my mother was doing was making a difference. I was proud because I’d been in the living room for the times she spent hours on the phone trying to figure out how to make a small budget stretch so she could serve as many people as possible. How to raise $100 for a woman who needed a motel room for a night so she could be safe from an abusive situation. I was proud because I’d heard the phone ring at 2 am so many times, heard her hurried and quiet voice say “I’ll be there soon” and know that when the front door closed she was headed to the hospital to help someone who was just trying to make it through a night that had irrevocably changed their lives.
And still, along with this pride there was often anger, and sadness. Anger that she had fight so hard and so often for those budgets that seemed to be the first on the chopping block whenever the city or state was cutting back. Anger that the value and health and safety of women could be reduced to spreadsheets and numbers that somebody might decide didn’t add up. Or cost too much. That if the grant requests for help weren’t well worded enough the funding could be cut, leaving those who need it most to watch the bottom fall out of a ship already struggling to stay afloat. Anger that it often took those schools and locker rooms to face problems or instances of abuse and harassment before they called or allowed her to speak. Anger that community systems and power dynamics allowed so many other instances to be swept under rugs or locked in file cabinets. And sadness…sadness that those 2am calls never seemed to stop. Sadness that while I was out celebrating another Halloween or basketball team appearance in the Final Four, she was waiting by that phone for the calls she knew would come. “Those are the worst days” she’d say. Sadness that it always looked like the hill she was climbing would never end, and worse, that so many were willing to believe, or refused to see and acknowledge, that such a climb even existed.
I’m 32 years old now and mom, Sarah Jane Russell, has retired from the work, though she continues to teach in the community and help wherever it’s needed. To be true, as a woman, I’m not sure one ever gets to retire from the work. From the emotional, and often physical, labor of leading others into the light of understanding. Of caring. Of empathy. Of giving a fuck. Some days I’m glad she’s stepped back, only because I saw the cost, and the toll it took day in and day out to continue the fight. Nine years ago one of her best friends and a woman she’d worked with and helped mentor, was murdered by an ex boyfriend who subsequently committed suicide. She was a wonderful, brilliant and brave soul taken by the same force and dark secret of society she’d spent her young life to that point, battling. It was the worst kind of reminder that it can happen to anyone and I thought then…I wasn’t sure if my mom could continue the fight. I thought maybe that hurt was too much. But for her, I’m not sure there was a choice to be made. Continuing the fight was the only way she knew how to continue living. And so she did. And so she does. But it’s not without the scars and tired shoulders of having carried such a heavy weight for too long. Of having lived her own trauma and that of so many others. A weight I wish I could carry for her. A weight I hope myself and others can learn to share going forward.
I don’t want there to have to be anymore #metoo campaigns. A large part of me is upset these have to exist at all. That it takes women the world around sharing their worst and darkest moments in an effort of being believed and recognized for the people they are. The people deserving of our love and support and good faith not because they’re our sisters and daughters but because they’re us. They’re human beings walking a path that needs to be protected by us at all costs. And it can’t just be on women to do the work. The problem may be facing sisters and daughters but it’s as much about fathers and sons. Uncles and husbands. The perpetuators and predators.
To all of the women coming forward you are loved and believed. To all of the women who choose not to, you are also loved and believed and your understandable silence says nothing about the strength you continue to carry inside of you and I thank all of you for your willingness to stand in the face of hurt and defy it’s power and limitations every day you wake up. Thank you.