What’s wrong with you, anyway?

Image by Dorin Vancea

I have an assault story too. And like so many women, I blamed myself. I have several actually. In not all of them do I blame myself. For the ones that occurred when I was 12, I don’t blame myself. But, wait. That’s not true. I must have, to a degree, because I remember the shame I felt. And I didn’t fight very hard for my position when my parents dismissed my claim.

That was Dr. Matthews, my orthodontist in Berkeley. I was in eighth grade. The year was 1981. I was 12, and for the two or so years I was under his care, he had the galling habit of resting his hand casually on my breast while I was prone and tilted back in his chair.

For the longest time, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. It embarrassed me incredibly. I would squirm and contort myself so the hand wouldn’t accidentally land there, to save him embarrassment, of course, but somehow his hand always honed in on the same place.

I told myself it must be an accident. He was an old man already. He wasn’t aware. Sometimes he’d increase the hand’s pressure, prod with it, mimic something akin to a caress, creep to the other breast. Rage, powerlessness, and shame welled up in my chest. Tears stung my eyes. Every bone in my body wanted to flee that chair. Yet, I did nothing.

I did however finally tell my parents. I told my mother. She sort of murmured or tittered. She looked off in the distance, checked her hangnail. Anything but look me in the eye. I saw that she didn’t believe me, first of all, and that she didn’t want to talk about such a thing, second of all. It was taboo, it made her uncomfortable. I was in the wrong for even suggesting it. Later, I learned he did the same to my sister throughout her orthodontic journey.

When I was 13 and still in eighth grade, an acquaintance of my parents at a “Harvest Party” thrown by some wealthy Piedmont people — old friends of my parents — coaxed me to his car, ostensibly to hear some music, as I recall. I don’t know why I went. Didn’t I know better? I don’t recall him flirting with me beforehand, and I had no thoughts in that direction whatsoever.

Somehow, though, I found myself in the passenger seat of his car, parked away from the party under some trees. We were in some kind of wild setting on a small lake. All the kids were carving pumpkins on the silvery weathered dock that jutted into the lake.

I was in this man’s car. He asked me if I wanted to get high(!). I was shocked, but I wanted to seem cool, aware, in the know. I declined, but tried to act unfazed. I was confused and afraid, increasingly so by the minute. But, he was a friend of my parents. I didn’t want to embarrass him, them, or the hosts of the party. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. The atmosphere grew thick.

He turned in his seat toward me and shimmied closer. I remember his fleshy, deeply creased face inches from mine. He was probably in his mid-forties. He looked at me like I was a candy he wanted to pop in his mouth. I put my hand on the lever of the door and waited for my moment. My body was hard with halted muscle tension.

I was lucky. I made some hasty excuse and got myself out of the car before he lunged. I walked as nonchalantly as possible back to the party. I surveyed the laughing adults and turned away with a shiver.

The one I blamed myself for was the one that occurred when I was sixteen. I blamed myself on many levels. I was 16, and I was dating an 18 year old. That 18 year old lived in a fraternity at UC Berkeley. I went to the fraternity one weekend night to wait for him. He never arrived. I drank beer with his fraternity brothers. A lot of beer.

Eventually, one of them offered to walk me to the bus stop. I was very inebriated. I said yes. The next thing I knew, we were in a dark, quiet place. It was an empty football field in the middle of the night. There was a kind of embankment or hillside. He steered me into the slope.

I was embarrassed and confused. I said, Wait, where’s the bus stop? I said, can we go to the bus stop? The next thing I knew, he was on top of me. When it was over, he brought me back to the fraternity house. I woke up in his bed. Sick from alcohol, but sicker from my position, my situation, the knowledge of what I had done, what I had allowed to happen to me. I crept from the bed terrified he would wake up and slipped away.

I felt panicky and out of control at the bus stop. I was skittish, sad, and confused. I wrestled with gaps in my memory. I knew we hadn’t been flirting. We had never flirted with one another. I really had thought we were walking to the bus stop. I had no recollection of when or whether I realized we were no longer on our way to the bus stop.

At the football field, I sort of gave up. It was happening. If I fought it, what would happen then? I didn’t want to know. It was easier to pretend it was consensual than to create a “problem.” I didn’t want to incite him, embarrass him, embarrass me, make him actually attack me, or worse. I don’t know why I went back to his room with him. I guess to normalize the situation somewhat, for his benefit or mine, I don’t know.

For the following days and weeks, I was appalled and disgusted with myself. I knew vaguely he hadn’t done right. But I never called it rape or assault. It wasn’t, in my mind. I must have somehow invited him. Right? I didn’t blame him.

And judging from things I’ve heard myself saying to my daughter recently, I still don’t. A part of me takes responsibility. But, when we take responsibility for this, we are also in effect saying, “Men are boors, unable to control themselves. Everyone knows that. If you put yourself in a precarious situation with them, they will take advantage of it. You will have only yourself to blame.”

It’s complicated what’s going on with girls my daughter’s age right now, and I have complicated feelings about it. When she came downstairs for her first day of ninth grade in shorts, I sent her right back up to her room to change. She said, “I can wear whatever I want. It’s not my problem what guys think about it.”

I say, “You have to be wise. If you dress scantily, you will attract attention from the wrong kinds of boys. You don’t want to attract their attention.”

This is true. But my daughter is also right. She says she should be able to wear whatever she wants without being made to feel vulnerable. I say, “Men are visually oriented. If you dress a certain way, it sends a message to them.” She looks at me, appalled. I shrink and wonder but stand by my words as best I can.

My boyfriend found out what happened. His fraternity brother told him, and he was none to pleased with me for “cheating on him.” He broke up with me, of course. I had been crazy about him. I felt something unfair had happened, but to my mind, technically, he was right. I had “cheated” on him. I never questioned that. Did it matter that I didn’t want that boy, didn’t invite that boy, didn’t consent to that boy, either verbally or physically? (And why do I keep calling him a “boy”?) It never occurred to me to ask myself that.

About three years later, I was walking along Fourth Street in Berkeley with a friend from work. I was 19 and working as a purchasing assistant at Peerless Lighting. The year was 1989. We were on our way to get pizza at Bette’s Ocean View Diner.

A car pulled alongside. A man stuck his head out the window and said, “Hey!” The man greeted me as if we were old friends. I don’t remember if he used my name, but he obviously recognized me and seemed to believe I wouldn’t object to his visage. I saw the glossy dark hair, the brown skin, the too-white teeth. He had the jovial, devil-may-care expression of a guy that likes to have fun.

I was immediately hit with a torrent of complex feelings, rage and vulnerability vying with disgust and fear. It was amazing, the waterfall of emotion that doused me. I was dripping in it, shaking, speechless, and incredulous. I looked at him in pure disgust and raised my chin. His face fell in mock hurt. He said, “Whoa!” and stuck out his bottom lip. I felt mocked. I wanted to flame him, burn him with the acid flowing out of me.

A few moments later, he was gone. I was a trembling mess.

That’s when it began to occur to me that maybe what had happened three years previous had been a violation.

I told the story to my daughter. We’d been discussing how to protect oneself in the face of predation from bad men. I heard myself saying things like, “Never get drunk with men. Never get drunk, period. Never let down your guard. Don’t ever enter a fraternity…” Don’t do this, don’t do that. The subtext all along was, and I’m afraid still is, “It’s your fault if something happens,” at least in these grey situations.

When the jocular, beefy man in his forties invited me into his car when I was 13, I went. That was my mistake. I’m lucky nothing worse happened than unpleasant and powerful insinuation.

When I was 12 and in Dr. Matthews’ chair, my fault was having grown inconvenient breasts that were in the way of the hand that he of course needed to rest sometimes. He was old. Where else was he going to put it? It was my fault if I was ashamed and embarrassed when he rested his hand there. Who was I to think the worst of him? Obviously, something was wrong with me to even go there in my mind. What was wrong with me, anyway?

I began this article saying that I had also, like probably all women the world over, been assaulted at some point — endured an unwelcome advance that was threatening or had gone too far, been tricked, been trespassed upon — and that not all of them were my fault. I end the essay realizing that actually I took the blame for everything.

It’s easier to take the blame. It gives the appearance of being in control. Oh, I could have fixed that, I could have stopped that. Why didn’t I? Why didn’t I remove Dr. Matthew’s hand? Why didn’t I turn on my heel when that man invited me to his car? Why didn’t I tell the fraternity member to stop? Why did I acquiesce? We acquiesce to save face, avoid awkwardness. And also, to protect ourselves. If I acknowledge something bad is happening, it might up the ante, and quick. It might get worse, much worse. If I go along with it, maybe it won’t be so bad. I’ll escape relatively unscathed.

Pretty screwed up thinking, don’t you think? Worse perhaps is that it relegates men to an inferior position to women. If women are socialized to think of men as vaguely or overtly threatening beings barely in control of their faculties who will take advantage of a weak animal, be that a woman or otherwise, whenever possible, rather than as a trusted shepherd who will nurture and protect them, that hurts men. It makes it clear why some women, many women, fundamentally don’t respect men.

Of course, these are vast generalizations, and therein lies the problem. The truth is, some men are shepherds. They do earn the trust of women and prove themselves worthy of that trust. The do not prey upon others. Other men are the proverbial wolves.

Men who are wise, aware, and attentive should realize quickly how much they stand to gain by being protectors of women. Because when a woman feels safe, honored, — worshipped, even — then, she will invite the man to devour her. And then, it’s a feast for both.

Need a writer? I’m available. Visit me at Mackerel Sky Media or email me at christy@mackerelskymedia.com.

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