Trigger Warning: This essay contains firsthand memories of sexual molestation and harassment.
From my memoir, Perfectly Flawed:
“It was during one of those occasions I lay napping on the guest bed at my maternal grandmother’s house, on the chenille bedspread under the picture of the geese taking flight from the marsh, Charlie came into the bedroom to wake me. As I struggled to gain consciousness and understand what was happening, I could feel Charlie’s beard stubble scrape my cheeks like sandpaper. His beer and cigar-soaked breath was at my ear, breathing heavily.
I could feel an unfamiliar wetness between my legs and I didn’t understand what was happening as he pulled his finger out of me. He yanked up my underpants that were gathered above my ankle socks as he lifted me off the bed, squeezed my buttocks, and set me on the floor. He took my hand and walked me into the kitchen. As he left the room, he signaled with his index finger at his lips, ‘S-h-h-h-h!’
I remember this moment as if it happened an hour ago. I left my body. I was floating above me, or some essence or spirit connected to me. I looked down on the four or five-year-old me standing on the red and white checkerboard kitchen linoleum staring up at the ceiling, perplexed, afraid, in stunned silence. I felt a dread in the pit of my stomach, a lingering wetness in my underwear and fear and shame that gripped me. I never told anyone what happened even when it happened again, until many years later when I was an adult. That’s a story for another time.”
Unfortunately, this is not the only memory I have like this, growing up as vulnerable child in the 1950s and 1960s and later as a young woman on the job, in relationships, and as a victim of strangers. Some of the memories I’ve never shared with others until now. Many of the memories, and yes there were many, I only told those people I trusted and loved and believed would not judge me as being at fault, or somehow inviting, or provoking the assaults and harassment.
One of the people I trusted died, just this past Thursday. It was my first AA sponsor, Jane R. As part of the 12-Step recovery program we take a fearless inventory of our life and when ready, share it with a sponsor or trusted member of the program. Some people say we are only as sick as our secrets, and for those with addictions and compulsions, our secrets don’t serve us.
In fact, they contribute to our addictions, often causing us to “numb out,” to use substances or behaviors to push our memories down and to deny them, because we have not yet found the tools to address them. This was certainly true for me. I will share more later in another essay about my inventory-sharing with Jane. It was both a healing and humorous experience, and I’m grateful that Jane was a gift in my life.
For the past ten days, following the release of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment news, more women who were victimized and sexually harassed by him came forward with their stories. The news media began to report on the details and frequency of the incidents and the pattern of his criminal behavior that went back decades, plus his weak admission of guilt and responsibility, blaming the culture of the 1960s. Women, and later men, using social media as #MeToo went viral, after actor Alyssa Milano shared the idea based on the Me Too movement, started by Tarana Burke.
The past week, first one or two friends took a risk and posted Me Too. Then there more each day, soon men joined in too, victims of molestation as children or sexual harassment as adults. My initial reaction, of course, was empathy, followed by resistance. “I’m not going to post my story!” I’ve learned to pay attention to what I resist, and I asked myself, why I didn’t want to share my story publicly.
I realized I was angry. DAMMIT! Why did this, and why is this still happening to people I know and love? Why did this happen to me? Why do I need to replay these memories and deal with it again?
I posted Me Too on my Facebook feed, followed by DAMMIT! I’m angry all over again. Finally, I wanted to acknowledge that this happened to friends and family regardless of their gender or how they identified. I was sad and angry, and yet it didn’t seem like enough of a response for me. I read other’s comments and soon essays started being published online.
Women and men began taking risks and telling their personal stories in hopes that by bringing this behavior — these crimes — out of the closets, shadows, or dark where they’ve been hidden — perhaps we can begin to end this secretive abuse of power that thrives in our homes, our families, our churches, schools, our workplaces, on the streets and in our relationships.
I’ve made the decision to tell my story as best as I can remember, to reveal the secrets that I’ve kept silent out of shame and some misplaced sense of personal responsibility. I’m going to reveal the perpetrators by first names only, since most are dead, and in most cases, I don’t remember or never knew their names. Important for me is to break the “don’t talk” rule. I also want to thank and acknowledge all the women and men who have written about their experiences and shared their stories publicly. You are my heroes.
Me Too: Childhood
Charlie was married to my maternal Grandma Holly who I loved, and who loved me unconditionally, yet this was a secret I was being asked to keep by an adult, her husband. We were not related by blood, only by marriage. I was the eldest grandchild and sometimes stayed overnight at my grandparent’s home with my younger sister, Roz. See my reminiscence, Good Morning.
Charlie presented himself as a smiling, friendly, adult, always offering to make popcorn for us when we visited or give us treats, like the Hershey chocolate bars we loved. Sometimes he would nap with us, and that’s when the molestation would occur.
My mother called him by his first name only since she didn’t consider him her father. Her father died when she was young, barely a teen. I followed my mother’s lead and only referred to him as Charlie. He so desperately wanted me to call him “Grandpa.” I resisted. In my eyes, I only had grandmothers, four of them, two grandmothers and two great grandmothers.
All the men who would have been grandfathers either abandoned their spouse or had died. Growing up I bragged in elementary school that I had four grandmas and no grandpas. I was proud of being raised in a matriarchal family, most likely because they were women who nurtured us and to the best of their ability kept us safe and protected.
Charlie on the heels of his sexual abuse, began to bribe me. I had envied this sky-blue Murray Champion pedal car I had seen it at the hardware store toy department. He began promising me, “I’ll buy you that car, if you call me Grandpa!” I continued to resist for a while. My parents were young and just starting out in life, and was told when I asked, that they couldn’t buy me the car. When that option failed, I finally gave in and told Charlie we had a deal.
He in fact bought me the sky-blue, Murray Champion pedal car with the airplane hood ornament and the large white wall tires. When I saw Charlie, coming down the street with my brand-new pedal car, I ran towards him, yelling “Grandpa Charlie, Grandpa Charlie.” If my memory serves me it was the only time I ever called him that name to his face, though I referred to him by that name when talking with my sisters and mother. As an adult, I’ve had to forgive my childhood self for giving in to my abuser because of the desire for my first car.
Years later, when my two youngest sisters, Kelly and Tami (I had four sisters total) were living at home and were not yet teens, our grandmother had died, yet Charlie would periodically stop by my parent’s home, often with pockets full of items, treats he would shoplift from the grocery store and offer to my parents or the kids. My two sisters, Roz and Cindy started expressing our concerns with Mom about Charlie being around Kelly and Tami unsupervised. We took a risk and for the first time revealed the stories of our molestation.
Mom was extremely sorry and saddened that it happened to us, and in the end, was not surprised. She told us how Charlie would unzip his pants and approach her, exposing himself. My mother, when she was young, was quiet and submissive to a degree, yet she told us, “I looked right in Charlie’s eyes, and told him, you better put that away and zip up, or I’m going to cut it off.” That day, the four of us made a pact to protect Kelly and Tami. I can only hope that we were successful.
Me Too: Adolescence
When my parents were young, they often headed out to the neighborhood bar on Saturday night to have some adult time and fun with friends. Alcohol abuse was a problem on both sides of my family. We had a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Two maternal aunts died as a result of drinking, my paternal grandfather’s sexual addiction (including statutory rape and bigamy) was compounded by alcohol abuse.
My parents were binge-drinkers when they were young and often engaged in risky behavior staying out all night with people they had just met, driving while drunk, and my mother became a victim of rape after night out drinking at a bar. As the eldest child, beginning at the age of eleven, I was responsible with the help of my younger sister Roz with caring for my siblings. There were four of us.
On a January weekend when I had just turned 13, my parents didn’t come home on a Saturday night. It was cold in the morning when I woke up and discovered they were absent. Like a parent, I was both concerned and angry that first, they didn’t return home, and second, didn’t call. They never called when they stayed out all night, so I worried, yet pretended for my siblings that everything was okay, that Mom and Dad would be home soon.
The house was frigid, so cold you could see your breath. It was 1963 and we still had a coal furnace. My main responsibility regarding the furnace was periodically clean out the ashes and dispose of them in the ash bucket. I did watch my parents build and stoke a fire. Mom was the most motivated to build a fire, since growing up my memory of her was that she was always either cold or tired. More so than my father, she knew how to stoke the fire and get it roaring hot. I did my best that morning. I made sure the rest of the kids got breakfast and dressed.
Mom and Dad did make it home late morning with a strange man in tow. They had met him the night before and partied all night. He was divorced and had visitation rights with his daughter, who they picked up and brought with them. She was about two years younger than me, my sister Roz’s age. This man, a stranger, started touching me, caressing my back as the family sat together talking. It felt good, and it felt wrong at the same time. Though my parents were present in the room, like that vulnerable four or five-year-old child, I was silent.
He suggested he’d order some pizzas as a thank you for my parent’s hospitality. Yes, they were drinking again, including him. He asked me, since I was the oldest (and his targeted victim), would I ride along and help carry the pizzas. The front seat of the car was a bench seat. He asked me to sit closer to him. on the pretense that he wanted to show me something. Before I could realize what was happening he had slipped his hand beneath my skirt and underwear, and inserted a finger inside me. After extracting it, he grabbed me tightly and asked if I was enjoying his touch.
I was momentarily frozen in fear. My mind raced, as I recalled all the warnings my father had given me, and all the news and crime stories he would read out loud to my mother about a rape that occurred somewhere in our hometown. In that moment, I thought this man, this stranger, was going to take me some place and rape me.
I found the courage to tell him to stop, and fortunately he did. As he did, like Charlie so many years before, he told me not to say anything, that if I did, someone might get hurt, that my father would get angry and they would get into a fight. He reminded me that he was bigger and stronger than my father. He also knew intuitively that I would be inclined to protect my father. I did. I remained silent.
The most difficult part of this story follows. After eating pizza together, he grabbed his daughter, said his goodbyes and thank you’s, and left. I still didn’t say anything to my parents. I was ashamed and believed that somehow, I was responsible for not saying anything earlier when he was caressing my back, and later for agreeing to ride with him.
That night as I laid in bed, I masturbated. As a young teenager, 13-years-old, I was beginning to have sexual feelings and explore my body and its responses. Though my mind said it was wrong, I was aroused by his touch, which made my shame even more profound, yet I continued to pleasure myself. I never told my parents what happened.
Me Too: Adulthood
It was the spring of 1969, and I was attending the University of Wisconsin – Parkside campus. I had moved out of my parent’s home and into an apartment downtown. One day, walking to class, a man drove by me and stopped. He asked if I could help him with directions. He was looking for the campus. I said that’s where I’m going. He said perfect, “Get in, I’ll give you a ride, and then I’ll know how to find the college campus.” Once again, I was trusting, and foolish.
As we drove the few blocks to school, the older man asked me some questions, which again, I foolishly answered. He was chatty and the questions seemed innocent enough, yet what he was doing was gathering information to use later. He asked me my name, both first and last, did I live in a dorm, with my parents, or in an apartment. Where was the apartment? He thought he knew the street. Which building? We arrived at the campus and I quickly exited the car, breathing a sigh of relief.
About a week later, there was a knock at my apartment door. I looked through the fish-eye lens in the door, and it was him. I didn’t open the door. He knocked again, louder and repeatedly. I was sacred, frozen in place, not knowing what to do other than to not open the door. He was persistent and wasn’t leaving, knocking one more time.
I saw some shadowy figures enter the hallway behind him, and one of the two tall figures said, “What the fuck are you doing, man?” In response the man at the door said, I think I have the wrong apartment, and quickly scurried out. I looked through the lens again, and it was two, tall, basket player, dashiki-wearing friends, sporting their afros, popular at the time. I had forgotten that they were coming over to hang out. They were my heroes.
I married my first love, Frank, who I met at college. When we couldn’t find jobs in Racine, we moved to Kenosha. It was 1971, and we each found blue-collar, working class jobs. Frank at Anaconda American Brass, and me at Jockey International. We were just starting out. We had left the hippie lifestyle that followed our campus activist days. Frank described the changes attributed to increased drug use by some of our friends as “psychedelic, rock-a-rock-bullshit.” We decided to be middle class and anonymous for a while. These were happy years for us.
Unfortunately, as we tell our stories of sexual assault and harassment, we learn how prolific they are and can happen daily and to different degrees. I was working at Jockey International (it’s okay to laugh, the irony is apparent). My feminism was beginning to evolve, as my awareness grew.
Jockey employed mostly women, except in a few key positions which were generally higher paid, managerial, or representatives of the union (I hope you see the problem here). I worked in the lay-up department where we inspected fabric and “layed it up” on long tables, powdered a pattern, and a “shaper” cut out the pieces of the garments.
Other women bundled up the individual garment sections. We weighed trucks (large rolling carts), filled with the waste to be recycled, sold, and made into paper, and other trucks with the bundled garment sections were carted off to the sewing rooms. Our manager, a male, of course, had a habit of never making eye contact with the women staff. He would stare at our breasts every day, every time he talked to us.
We began talking with each other and devised a plan. Every day for less than a week —because that’s all it took for him to get the point — every time he talked to us, ALL the women in the department, regardless of age, or politics, stared at his crotch. He became so uncomfortable, without us every saying a word to him, his manager, HR, or our male union reps, his behavior changed. He was hopefully ashamed, and I imagine he felt as violated as we did. Soon after, he found another job elsewhere. Here’s another story from Jockey International. Maria from the Sewing Room.
In Public (The Male Gaze)
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, mini-skirts were popular, made famous by the model Twiggy and London’s Carnaby Street. Throughout my life, like many others, I embraced the fashion trends of the time. I had a lavender and purple mini-dress with a vest that I wore with my floppy leather hat, my saddle-bag sized purse, and my platform heels.
One weekend, Frank and I had traveled to Chicago with his duplicate bridge-playing partner for a Regional Bridge Tournament. Frank was a bridge phenom, and sometimes I would travel to tournaments with him. We were staying at the luxury Palmer House Hotel. While he was competing, I would be a tourist, go shopping, explore a museum, or just see the sights.
I was returning from one of my tourist excursions in my purple mini-dress and platform shoes riding the elevator back to my room. I stepped into the elevator which had three or four men in suits, wearing fezzes (they were Shriners attending a convention). One of them sized me up from head to toe and asked, “Are you a working girl?” The other men all smiled, waiting for my response. I didn’t answer, or make eye contact, but watched the elevator get closer to my floor, and when it did, I exited and ran as fast as I could without falling from those ridiculous platform shoes.
Alcohol, Blackouts, and Repressed Memories
After becoming an active feminist, in the mid-to-late 1970s, I attended, then facilitated Feminist Consciousness-Raising groups. I learned, unfortunately, that my experiences of sexual molestation, harassment on the job, and objectification by men in public, were not unique to me, but instead common for all women. We talked about what changes we could make. In Madison, friends became involved in the Rape Crisis Center, Women’s Transit Authority (a free ride service, by and for women), and organizations that supported Domestic Abuse Victims. Women were taking self-defense classes and we were seeking help to deal with childhood trauma and victimization.
I also left my husband and came out as a lesbian during this time. I had always had an attraction to women, and in fact my move to Madison was an effort to quell my desire for Gloria who I worked with at Jockey. I wanted to protect my marriage, but also, I was afraid to take the next step and come out.
This was a time that my alcoholic drinking increased. I struggled most of my teen and young adult years with both alcohol and my weight. I found that when I was thinner, I was more vulnerable to the male gaze, and as my history has shown, I had difficulty protecting myself. Adding weight, unconsciously added protection, while excessive drinking blocked or pushed down memories I wasn’t ready to confront.
During what I would describe as my lesbian adolescence, I acted out more sexually than I had at any other time in my life, making poor or risky decisions when I was drinking or in a blackout. A couple of times it was sex with men too. Looking back, because some of those experiences were during blackouts, or the memories of those encounters were repressed, I’m not sure if I always said yes to the sexual act.
I’m grateful that I’ve been sober and in recovery for over 30 years. I still struggle with my weight, which was compounded by a genetic predisposition to adult-onset diabetes, weight gain after quitting smoking, and a lifetime history of compulsive overeating beginning in childhood.
Me Too: What’s Next?
This seems like an opportunity for change. It’s my hope that the more we tell our stories, forgive ourselves for our vulnerability and victimization and take action to protect children, especially at-risk kids, LGBTQ people, and women victims of domestic violence, we will begin to empower ourselves. Sexual molestation, assault, and harassment are all abuses of power. We need to end this culture of victimization of children and women.
We need to expose, prosecute, and prevent future crimes. It’s past time.
Additional Related Reading
Lastly, let’s never be silent, or censor our voices. The following is a poem I wrote that seems like an anthem for this issue, and more.