The last couple of weeks have been hard to stomach. The ugliest presidential campaign in history has gotten even uglier. It’s hard to imagine that what was already excruciatingly painful could get even worse, but it did. Oh boy, did it ever.
When I was a young woman of 22, I worked as a counselor in a group home in a small rural community in Montana. My job was to care for the 12 kids who lived in the house. I made them breakfast and helped them with their homework. I talked to them and took them on field trips, but my favorite thing to do was to listen. In the evenings when the lights were dim and the sky was dark, they would open up about life, about their hopes and dreams and about the things that had happened to them along the way. These were kids who had social and emotional problems, kids who came to us because life had been hard and their homes and communities had become too dangerous for them to stay. It was our job to help them to heal from the trauma they had experienced in their young lives.
It was an important job and a very difficult one.
It was also my first “real” job, the first time I was on my own and trying to make my way in the world. After taking care of the kids all day, I would spend the night there, sleeping in the staff office while another staff member came in to do the “overnight” shift, the shift that required you to stay awake all night to make sure that everyone stayed safe.
The night shift person was an older man who lived in the community. He was a grandfatherly presence in the lives of these kids, in this constructed community the kids called home. After a long day working, he and I would sit and talk before I would head off to bed. I liked talking with him. He would share stories about his life, a life that was very different from mine. He seemed kind and gentle and he cared deeply about making a difference in the lives of the kids.
One night, when we were talking, he told me that he was attracted to me and he asked me if I would go out with him.
I sat there frozen in my chair. I turned my eyes away, unable to look at him. Had he really just said what I thought he’d said? I felt the color drain from my face and my heart began to pound in my chest. I was stunned. Embarrassed. We were alone. It was late at night. I was scared. I tried to figure out how to word what I was about to say.
No. I’d shout. Absolutely not! You’re 40 years older than me! What have I done that would make you think that I would be interested in going out with you? Why would you think it was ok to even ask me that question?
But I didn’t say any of those things. “I’m flattered,” I lied, pausing to compose myself, “But I’m really not… I can’t… “ The words stuck in my throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, embarrassed. “I understand. I’m hoping you’ll keep this just between us.”
“Of course,” I said.
A few days later, my supervisor asked to see me.
I stepped into his office and sat down. Across the table, he and his boss looked serious. I had never been called to the office before. This must be important.
“We need to talk,” he started.
I looked at them innocently. “Ok,” I said. What’s up?”
“We’ve received a sexual harassment complaint about you.”
“A what?” A chill ran through my body as I listened to him tell me that my “friend,” the night shift guy, had reported that I had come on to him at work. That, of course he had refused me but because of this he no longer felt safe working with me. They were going to need to let me go.
He was an elder. A man. He was a respected member of the community. He had power. Who was I? A young “kid” just trying to get my footing. A victim.
I was stunned. “No,” I said, my voice cracking. I could feel my face flush and the tears beginning to come. “That’s not the way it happened at all.” And I proceeded to explain what had really happened. I spoke my truth.
Thankfully, they believed me.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” they said.
The truth was, it had never occurred to me. I had taken him at his word. He was sorry, he’d said, and I didn’t want to cause him embarrassment. I didn’t want to cause him any pain. He had made a mistake. He was sorry. It was over.
Or so I thought.
I thought about him before I thought about me.
It’s been years since I’ve thought about that moment but discussions of inappropriate sexual behavior these past few weeks have brought these memories flooding back. I didn’t know enough back then to understand what could happen, what does happen, when we don’t speak our truth. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be believed. I didn’t understand, back then, what it meant to blame the victim.
But now I do. I am no longer naïve. This wasn’t an isolated incident. These things happen every day to women all over the world. In the classroom my students share heartbreaking stories of times when they have been victimized. When they have felt unsafe. When they have been threatened. We cannot continue to pretend that this doesn’t happen. We cannot pretend that we have moved beyond this. We cannot continue to blame the victim.
I've spent the last twenty plus years raising two young men that I am very proud of. Despite attending more sporting events than I can remember, I have to confess, I've never been in a locker room. But then again, you didn't believe that anyway. I hope that I have instilled in them the values that I hold dear. I hope that I have taught them to be honest and truthful. To treat others with kindness and respect. I pray that I have taught them to be loving and compassionate to others and I hope they will always have the courage to speak their truth. But most of all, I hope that I have taught them to listen.
Because that is the only thing that will save us from ourselves.