The price your silence pays

Death to the Stock Photo

I was raised to believe that my voice should never be the loudest sound. One didn’t speak unless spoken to, and when it came to dealing with discomfort one sucked it up. One shut up and let it go. One dealt with it. One certainly never kicked up a fuss. One learned to not make things worse than they already were. Dress the wounds and keep moving. Cry in private, if you dare cry at all.

Because no one likes a difficult woman. And isn’t that we want? To be liked? As Patrick Bateman says, I want to fit in.

When I was bullied at school, I retreated behind books and ate my lunch alone. When I was hurt at home, I wrote stories about small girls with big mouths who were dead and free. Death gave you the voice you couldn’t use in life, or so I thought. So I wrote about girls hanging from trees, which alerted concerned guidance counselors, who asked if anything was wrong, and of course everything was wrong, but I sat silent and smiled, earned my good grades and hid my face in my locker. When the dozens of college brochures that I had ordered arrived in the mail, I perused them as if I was planning the purchase of my first home. I held the brochures close. College meant freedom.

In reality, college was about conformity and synchronized binge drinking. We found our tribe through freshman roommates and dorm assignments, and we traveled in packs, wearing our tight thin shirts in the cold. We were young women who’d been fed a steady diet of rape culture and sexism from John Hughes films, television, politics, advertising, etc., etc. This was a time when Amy Fisher was the wanton, homewrecking whore and Joey was the victim — second to Mary Jo, of course. This was a time when murdered Jennifer Levin’s sex life was put on trial when the accused plead not guilty to strangling his girlfriend. The press painted Robert Chambers as the gorgeous altar boy. Back then, we didn’t have Facebook or the internet, only a book of photos freshman received at orientation, which everyone soon referred to as The Scan and Screw. Bars were for introductions and classrooms were reserved for silence and recovery. I came to drinking later than most and thought bars an odd place to meet people. It felt strange to me to be in a place where everyone knew that the women were on display, but no one talked about it. The social contract was implicit. In response, I got blackout drunk for four years and only found my voice in the moments before I passed out.

No one wore jackets to the local bars because we would probably lose them.

The majority of students in my small liberal arts college were white, affluent, and reared by suburban families. For a generation that didn’t want to be anything like their parents, they were nothing if not the proud legacy of all their close-mindedness. My “friends” made snide homophobic comments about a roommate of ours, a star basketball player who was gay, but dating guys because that’s the sort of thing you did when everyone around you was raised to believe that being gay was an atrocity. I knew the horrible things they were saying were wrong, but I never spoke up lest I be labeled her “special friend.” I was complicit and a coward. When I asked my best friend at the time if she would still be friends with me if I was gay, she said no with a swiftness that was chilling, and the coward in me continued to be her friend until the 2016 election.

Senior year, I didn’t say anything when my Future and Options professor, an embittered former investment banker, told me that women who pursued a career in finance were wasting their time. Except for you, he said. You’re actually not one of the dumb ones. I smiled and nodded. You’re! So! Funny! When! You’re! Being! Sexist! He reminded me of my AP Biology teacher who told me that I was so stupid I’d be lucky if I got into a community college. He called me a dunce so many times it became the joke of the classroom. After I graduated college, with honors and a job offer from Chase, I went back to Long Island to confront him and he had no idea who I was. He couldn’t remember my name. What you said to me…I couldn’t even finish the sentence because bewilderment had washed over him. I left, mumbling to myself that I remembered, five years later, what he had said to me and how much it had hurt.

I know his name and remember it still: Neil Sirignano.

Years later, I didn’t say anything when the students in my MFA program gossiped about my leave of absence or my drug addiction. I didn’t stand up for myself when I saw two of my former friends stalking my apartment building, laughing, just to see if I was home. And I said nothing when one of them tried to friend me on Facebook a decade later.

When I was a child and my mother’s boyfriend sexually assaulted me, I complained, but we still lived with him. I said nothing, years later, when his daughter reached out to me on Facebook, after she had been washed in the blood of the lamb, telling me I should forgive Father his sins. Like she had. Forgiveness had cleansed her while my willful forgetting allowed me to survive. I deleted her note, closed my laptop, crawled under my covers and fell asleep.

For four years I said nothing when I helped build a man’s business — at the expense of my health and well being — until his relentless emotional and psychological abuse had become too much to bear. I resigned and he insinuated to everyone in a file-mile radius that I had been fired. Holding company executives phoned me, nervous, taking my temperature. Was one of the only female partners going to file for harassment? Point blank, I said, that man is many things but a sexual harasser he is not.

I was polite, but cold, when I ran into my former boss on the street. He leaned in to hug me and I pulled back and away. What part of you’re dead to me did you not understand?

It took me five years to get my confidence back. Now, I feel unstoppable.

Five years ago, I was assaulted in my home and I said nothing. Even the next day when I was hungover and shaking and Angie, a friend of mine at the time, asked if something else was wrong, and I shook my head no. I even made a joke saying, other than the obvious? I said nothing when the man who attacked me kept viewing my profile on LinkedIn. I blocked him and moved on. Although I’ve witnessed brave women speak out about their assault, some of whom are dear friends of mine, my experience will be something I’ll never talk about. With the exception of this paragraph right here.

Everyone has their one thing, right? Their red line? I suppose my rape is my red line. I’m someone who lives for words, but I can’t find a collection of ones that come even close to describing the mark that man left on me.

Last year was one of the worst I’ve known. I resigned a lucrative client because I couldn’t bear the continued humiliation I felt when someone who had less experience than me was given preferential treatment because he was a man who could bro around with an important client, a client who liked his scotch and his bros. Even though the business was being run by capable women. Even though I had written the word sexism in an email to HR. But I was a freelancer, expendable. I spoke up and defended myself when another man was behaving like a petulant child, stomping his virtual feet when he didn’t get his way. I spoke up when the women who surrounded him gaslit me, erased me from their website, and now pretend I don’t exist.

We’re living in this incredible moment — one I never thought I’d see — but there’s still a charge, a very large charge, for opening your mouth and speaking out. What you said to me was not okay. What you did to me was not okay. What you’re doing to others is abhorrent. The big bold headlines of bad behavior shamed into obscurity or unemployment are still the exception, not the norm, and I find myself in this strange, precarious place of wondering when I should open my mouth and when I should bandage my wounds and shut up.