The Terrible Weight of “Almost”

Image: Getty Images

The Kavanaugh hearings are over, but I can’t get them out of my head.

Like so many Americans, I live-streamed Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony on September 27th. For hours, I watched an anxious but determined woman detail her story of sexual assault to a room full of politicians. As she spoke, however, I forgot about the politics. My jaw clenched; I felt butterflies in my stomach. I found myself standing up and sitting back down, unable to stay still. My body was reacting to her words, even if my mind didn’t understand why I was flooded with emotion.

After all, I have never been severely assaulted or raped. In our dichotomy of “survivor” and “everyone else,” I was squarely on the safe side. When a concerned friend texted me after seeing my #MeToo status last October, I rushed to assure him that I’d never experienced anything “big,” never anything so terrible that it would alter my life forever. I’m no longer sure that’s true.

Like every woman I know, my story is full of close calls and near misses. “It could have been worse,” we repeat in a mantra. “I was lucky; I got away.”

I think of how it could have been worse when I was fifteen and lost with a friend after a night game at Fenway Park. A man pulled up in front of us, opened his door, and growled, “Get in. We’re going to a titty bar.” He disappeared when a rowdy group of Red Sox fans turned onto our street, but I’ve never forgotten my fear in that moment. I don’t know if he was making a sick joke or a serious threat, but I still think about it when I’m in that area at night.

It could have been worse when I was twenty-one and studying abroad in southern France. Very late one night, I was making my way home from a bar and saw a man in my otherwise deserted path. I hurried past him, adrenaline spiking, tying my best to be invisible. I was forty feet down the road when I heard the unmistakable, heart-stopping sound of him running after me.

He couldn’t have run for more than a few seconds, but I spent that time wondering if I was about to die. My heart was pumping so fast that my limbs felt electric, and when he reached me, he slowed to a walk. Then he began flirting with me. He tried three different languages and trailed me for several blocks as I maintained terrified silence. I didn’t know if one wrong move would push him to violence. I didn’t want to encourage him by talking. I was afraid that if I tried to call the police, he would take my phone and attack.

Just before reaching my apartment, he said “I know you live around here. See you soon, neighbor,” and peeled away. My relief at his departure was erased by his words. Shaking, I dug out my phone and called a friend I’d left at the bar. I could barely speak, but my friend stayed on the line with me as I tried to breathe and let myself into my place. “It’s okay; you’re alright,” he soothed. “Nothing happened.” But something had happened; it just didn’t end in a rape or a murder. There’s no language or lasting sympathy for an “almost.”

It could have been worse that night. It could have been worse each time I’ve been harassed while running. It could have been worse when I was groped at a college party, hugged for too long by an acquaintance, or asked out by someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer. It could always have been worse. And I spend too much of my time worrying that next time, it might be.

Women live in an in-between zone, a liminal space between security and active danger. We hear the message that we aren’t safe from a young age, and our experience teaches us to believe it. I learned how to escape a chokehold when I was eleven. My tenth-grade gym class was replaced by Rape Aggression Defense, a girls-only course led by local police officers.

They told me that shouting attracts more bystanders than screaming, that I should wet myself or vomit if I’m being assaulted in order to appear less attractive. I now know that if my attacker has a gun, I should not put up a fight, even if I’m being raped. I’ve internalized endless statistics and warnings, and I carry this knowledge with me wherever I go.

We all do. We learn to bear its weight, to pretend it isn’t there, but it never leaves us. When we walk down a street alone and see a man, we speed through a mental checklist: Is there anyone around? Can I run in these shoes? Does he look aggressive? Is he drunk? Is there anyone with him? Do I have keys to use as a weapon? Can I call 911 if this goes badly?

We learn to be safer by restricting ourselves — don’t wear that, don’t go home by yourself, don’t take public transportation at night, don’t jog after sunset. I remember a party last year when a male friend and I left at the same time for the same neighborhood. I was ecstatic that I could enjoy the night air for a change, and he didn’t understand. “This is a safe part of the city,” he told me. “You’d be fine on your own.” Maybe. Maybe not.

Last week, a friend of my dad’s went for her evening jog in an upscale neighborhood in DC. A man she did not know stabbed her to death on the street. She died in the arms of strangers who were trying to save her. She had gotten engaged only a few days before; somehow, that made it worse. She was guilty only of being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, and my father’s grief is compounded by the fact that her story could have been my sisters’ or my own.

And still, we have enormous privilege. We are white and have never lived in a dangerous area. If we were women of color, worked low-wage jobs, or had a home in the wrong part of town, our chances would be drastically lower. Harassment and assault affect all women, but some of us have it much easier than others.

However, “easier” is still far too hard. I am tired of carrying the weight of my fear with me, and I am not alone. Women’s hearts are heavy with a collective pain that is rapidly boiling into rage. Indeed, I was too angry to finish watching the Kavanaugh hearings, in which privileged white men defended another privileged white man they had vowed to support regardless of what “the lady” had to say. Nothing about this spectacle was fair or just, even though national standards of fairness and justice hung in the balance.

But when has being a woman ever been fair? We live in the shadow of fear, our little traumas accumulating into something more difficult to deal with. Yet when that something becomes too much to bear, I am going to remember Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I will remember a woman with nothing to gain and everything to lose, telling her story to men who swore that it wouldn’t make a difference. I will remember her terror and her decision to do the right thing in spite of it. I will remember walking away from her testimony still aching, still angry, but also deeply inspired. She knew what it would cost her to share this darkest part of herself, and she did it for us. I believe her.