This has been a long week. I have thought about this post and whether I would be able to write it. Much of what has been in the news brings back memories of my own life, as a female child, a teenaged girl, and a grown woman.
Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony today brought everything to a head. Perhaps what happened to me was not as devastating as what happened to Blaisey Ford. Who can say what is more traumatic?
When I was five years old and living in New York City with my parents, I was allowed to play outside during the day. It was 1958, and things were different back then. My father worked nights and slept for a good part of the day. On one sunny, spring day I was outside on the “stoop”, the steps that led up to the front door of our apartment building. The block was strangely quiet, deserted for the most part. I had my Patty Play-Pal doll and a yellow paper umbrella decorated with drawings of swirling colorful flowers. I had propped the umbrella over the doll’s shoulder, so she could keep the sun off her face.
A young man, possibly in his late twenties or early thirties, approached me. I recall he asked me if someone whose name has been lost to time lived in my building. I politely told him I wasn’t sure, but he could look at the buzzers. He went into the entryway and asked if I could help him look for the name. I innocently followed him and stood nearby as he scanned the buzzers. He tried to open the inner door, but it was locked, and he couldn’t go into the building.
I went back outside, and he followed me. Then, he said he might have the wrong building. Maybe it was in the next building. Could I help him look? Once again, I followed him into the entryway. He stood a few seconds, looking at the names on the buzzers. The inner door was open in this building. Looking into the dark interior, he suggested the name might be on the mailboxes further inside. Once again, he asked if I could help him.
I can’t say what warning bell went off in my innocent brain. But I suddenly felt scared. Something was wrong. Without responding, I ran outside and returned to my doll. My strongest memory was finding the umbrella had blown off my doll’s shoulder and was now lying on the sidewalk. As I picked it up, I glanced back and saw him come out of the building and hurry down the street.
I never told anyone. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. But, more than that, I had the odd feeling something bad had happened. No, I was not molested. But to this day I wonder what might have happened if I had followed him into the dark recesses of that empty hallway.
That is my earliest memory of being in danger. Over the years I pushed the memory to the back of mind; until I was in the sixth grade. My parents had separated, and I lived alone with my mother. I would walk home from school with my friends every day. On another sunny, spring day I was walking home alone. It was a mere three city blocks from the school to our building. This was the same building I had lived in those long years past.
Halfway up the one-way street, I lived on I noticed a white van driving slowly, keeping pace with me. The male driver began to make suggestive noises at me. That little warning bell went off in my head again. Some sixth sense triggered the memory of that earlier spring day. I stopped at the stoop in front of my building, and the van stopped as well. I believed if I tried to go into my apartment building, that man would jump out of the van and follow me. I had reached the age where I had no doubt he would rape me and kill me. Faced with the dilemma, one would expect I would go to a neighbor. Instead, I felt ashamed. Although I had done absolutely nothing wrong, I felt as though I had somehow drawn this attention to myself.
I chose to walk all the way up the block to the corner of the next avenue. The van followed, the noises continuing. I turned the corner onto the one-way avenue, and as soon as the van followed, I spun around and ran all the way back to my building knowing he could no longer follow me. Once inside, in my apartment, I locked the door and ran to make certain the window blinds were closed. I peered out, certain he would return and somehow find me. I never called my mother at work. When she called me a few minutes later, I did not tell her what had happened.
The same year my mother and I had gone to see a recently released popular movie. I do not remember what movie it was. What I do recall is the theater was crowded. We managed to find two seats together in the middle of the row. At first, I didn’t notice the person sitting to my right. I was wearing a yellow summer dress. It was not revealing. I was at the most twelve years old. Midway through the movie, I reached down to my knee. I have no idea why. I was stunned to find a man’s hand resting on my knee. He immediately drew away. I felt trapped, as though I couldn’t breathe. Without any explanation to my mother, I got to my feet and struggled past the other in people in the row and fled to the ladies room. After several minutes I managed to calm down. As I made my way back to my seat, I was certain he would be gone. He wasn’t. I made my way back to my mother and asked her to change seats with me. Without asking me why she moved over next to the man who had touched me. Within a couple of minutes, he got up and left the theater, going the opposite direction of where I was seated. I never told anyone. I believed I had done something to encourage the event.
That summer a friend and I went to a local public pool. She knew how to swim, but I had never learned. A young man came over and began to talk to us. He teased me about my inability to swim. After insisting he could teach me he had me lay on my stomach and placed his hands under my body. At first, his hands were on my stomach, and he told me to kick my legs. Little by little his hands moved until one was squeezing my breast, and the other was rubbing my crotch as he tried to slip his fingers inside my one-piece suit. I immediately stood up in the water and told my friend I needed to leave. She hurried after me to the changing room, repeatedly asking what was wrong. Embarrassed, I said I was getting my period. I could not admit that the friendly young man had touched me.
As we walked home, I repeatedly looked over my shoulder to see if we were being followed. I never went back to the pool. In fact, I never went anywhere with that girlfriend again.
The following fall I entered a prestigious New York all-girls high school. I had to travel on either the bus or subway daily to get there. I have lost count of the times I was groped by men, had men press up against me, and was followed by men. I never told anyone. But I began to develop fears. Every man was now someone I had to be wary of. I eventually left that school, despite the wonderful education I was receiving. I had to get away from public transportation. I entered a near-by public junior high school. Within the first few weeks, as I walked up a flight of stairs between classes, a boy behind me began to touch my backside. I turned around to find he was with a group and they all said something I have long forgotten. What I do recall is their laughter. I eventually dropped out. There was nowhere left to go.
A young male neighbor had come to our apartment to speak with my mother who was the building manager. I was sitting at our kitchen table writing. I wore a dark green, corduroy skirt. While they were speaking the telephone rang, and my mother went into the other room to answer it. Suddenly this man, a man I had known for many years, began to poke at my fingers and laugh. It wasn’t until I looked over to tell him to stop that I caught him staring openly at my breasts. I was twelve. Now it wasn’t only strangers who were dangerous. Even males I thought I knew were dangerous. I almost told my mother. Almost.
At fifteen I had begun to grow a bit more confident. I went to concerts with friends and had a limited social life. I dated one boy for about a month until he tried to slip his hand down my pants. After that, I simply refused to see him.
One night I was on my way home from a concert. At the corner of my street, my friends went on and I started up the street to my building. It was a no more than half a city block. For reasons I can’t explain I looked back over my shoulder. A teenaged boy I didn’t recognize was walking rapidly behind me carrying a baseball bat. By this time my mother and I had moved to a ground floor apartment. Standing on the sidewalk, I called out to my mother. When she came to the window, I asked her to come outside with our dog. As I waited for her, I watched the boy duck down the steps to the basement at the building next door; the same building where the man had led me many years earlier. When my mother came outside, I hurried up the steps and we went inside. As we entered the building I watched the boy come out of the basement and run down the street. Once inside I told my mother someone had been following me, but he had run away. It was the only time I said anything.
All of this lead up to my first sexual experience. I was secretly dating a boy. I was sixteen. So was he. He was the second boy I had dated. After a few months of “making out, ” he persuaded me to have sex. I didn’t want to. I was terrified. He had a band and kept his drum set in the basement of the building where he lived. He made me lay down on a blanket on the floor and pulled down his pants. I had never seen a naked male before. As he began to enter me I asked him to stop. He didn’t. I begged him to stop, saying I changed my mind. He did not stop. I lost my virginity on the floor of that dirty basement. Thank goodness he pulled out before ejaculating. I stared in horror as his semen dripped down my thigh. Afterward, we went upstairs to his apartment and I hurried to the bathroom. Blood stained my panties. Later, he walked me to the bus so I could go home. He told me I belonged to him. Now, I was his and could never date another boy. Two years later I married him. After ten years, three children, and spousal abuse that grew in violence, I left him.
Was this the end of my experience with being molested and assaulted by men? No. But, it was the end of my submissiveness. There were moments when I gave in to inappropriate behavior. I worked in a restaurant in LA where my employer pressed me to go on a date. He attempted to fondle me in his car, and I fought him off. He fired me. When I went to collect my final paycheck, his younger brother approached me in the back of the restaurant. Uncertain at first, I grabbed my money from his hand and fled. Somehow, I found myself. I found strength and courage. I learned to fight back, defend myself verbally and any other way I had to. I hit a mugger on the subway who had approached me with a knife.
After my divorce, I got my GED, went to college, put my life together. I have had therapy on more than one occasion. To this day, despite being able to work, getting remarried, and finding success, I do not like crowds. I am prone to anxiety attacks. I am wary of where I go. I have raised four children; two boys and two girls. They are now adults. I have grandchildren, two of them are girls. I am fearful for them.
I am sixty-five years old. These memories are as vivid to me as if they happened days ago. I haven’t even listed all the incidents I where I was approached for sex. But, every one is as clear as glass in my mind.
There has to come a time when we women MUST fight back. We are not property, should not have to fight for our dignity. But, if a fight is required, then dammit, let’s fight. Let’s fight for ourselves, fight for our sisters, our daughters, and all women who have been subjected to the humiliation of violation.