The last week has been excruciating. With tears in my eyes, I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, an outstanding professor and psychology researcher, testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee of her gut-wrenching story of being sexually assaulted when she was 15 years old by President Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. When she was asked what aspect of the assault she recalled most clearly, she said it was the laughter between Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge who was in the room watching. Yes, her memory returns time and again to the uproarious laughter of the two inebriated, 17-year-old boys of privilege shared as the would-be Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh lay on top of her trying to remove her clothes.
Dr. Blasey Ford explained how she escaped Kavanaugh when his pal Mark jumped on top of them and Kavanaugh fell off of her. She was terrified that day, the trauma has never left her, and she was terrified again on Thursday as she had to tell her story to the Judiciary Committee and, through the broadcast media, to the world. She and her family have been forced to move several times and hire bodyguards due to death threats against her life.
For Kavanaugh and Judge, that day when they were 17 years old was just another day of drunken revelry on their way to bigger things. Of course, it would not be too surprising if they can’t remember all the details of their drunken escapades. Drinking to excess was the kind of behavior that was encouraged among their prep-school, alpha-male peers who were being groomed for the top echelons of American society and governance. Mark Judge went on to write several books about his alcoholic life, and Kavanaugh became a federal judge on one of the most powerful courts in our country: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. circuit.
Interestingly the chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals is Merrick Garland, the prestigious judge with unblemished credentials who was lauded by conservatives until President Barack Obama’s chose him as his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. Since the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to hold a hearing on Garland’s nomination, the court seat remained empty for over a year. If the Republican leader of the Senate had done his job and allowed his peers to seat Merrick Garland, Kavanaugh might never have been considered for the Court.
For me and so many other women who have been sexually, physically, and mentally abused, this unfolding national tragedy had caused us to relive our own traumatic experiences of being American girls and women.
I have a hard time figuring out how to characterize what happened to me when I was 5 years old. It was fall of the year and my parents were raking leaves and preparing the house for winter. How Daddy hated raking leaves and the trees that made gathering them necessary. I have always loved them. The leaves smelled wonderfully pungent and my sister Lisa and I loved to jump into a pile of them.
Although I was only 5 years old, I had just begun first grade because I would turn 6 before January 1st of the next year, which was the cut-off rule. I was the smallest in my class, as well as the youngest, and I was very shy.
My memory is of being in the basement of the house next door with a neighbor boy who was a little older than me. We were alone in the basement. He said he was the doctor and I was his patient. I was lying on a work table made of wood when he stuck a stick inside me and asked if it hurt. I do not know why I said the stick did not hurt, because it did. Perhaps it was because I was brought up not to be unpleasant with anyone, but to always seek approval from others.
Although I had no context for what had happened, I knew it was a shameful thing. I felt guilty that I had allowed this ugly thing to happen to me, and I instinctively knew my parents would have blamed me as well–so I told no one. I could not understand the experience and buried it deep inside. I am sure, however, that it affected how I felt and acted toward boys, and how I felt about sex.
I was in my 30s when I remembered what happened and sought therapy to talk about it. At that time and since then I have thought about how the event affected me as I developed from a young girl to a teenager. Most especially I wonder if it had anything to do with my decision to marry at the age of 18 to a man I had only known for three months.
No one in my family had ever attended college and I was only able to do so due to my freshmen-year-only scholarships and the federal Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG) that was given to poor students who wanted to go to college, but had no means to do so. I lived at home with my parents while going to the University of Tennessee so naturally I met no one during my freshman year.
After my first year of college, my one-year scholarships ended and I only had the funds from my federal grant. Growing tired of never having enough money, I got a job at a financial services company checking credit. A couple of the bill collectors asked me out, but one was quite insistent that we should date seriously. Being sheltered, lonely, poor, and, yes, a virgin–I took his solicitous attentions at face value and thought he was a good man. I desperately wanted to get on with my life and stop living in my parents’ house. Daddy, who never finished high school and grew up without a mother, was constantly losing jobs. The uncertainty and helplessness in the household was an awful load to bear, so two weeks before my 19th birthday, I married this man who was divorced and five years older than me.
On our honeymoon I met an altogether different man. He was brusque, brittle, angry, demanding, and stiflingly possessive. He did not want me to have friends or spend time with my family. Most especially he wanted me not to have a relationship with my sister who I was very close to.
His cruelties were so numerous that I have blocked most of them out of my memory. The ones I do recall include the time he attempted to teach me how to drive a manual-transmission car. When I couldn’t immediately get the hang of the clutch, he told me to get out of the car and walk home.
When I ran out of gas on the way to work early in our marriage, he refused to come help me so I walked to a gas station and the attendant drove me back to my car with a gas can.
When he couldn’t find a parking place at McDonald’s, he blamed me and drove to another McDonald’s a few miles away. He ordered food he knew I did not want to eat, and said if I didn’t eat the food, he would not take me back to work.
Then there was the time when my son Justin was a baby and my ex-husband started a fist fight with a gay couple who shared our duplex. Understandably the men who lived downstairs from us called the police and more might have come of that horrible altercation if the policeman who answered the call had not been a boy I went to high school with. When I finally left my first husband–with our 2-and-1/2-year-old son–he broke into my apartment, followed me on dates, and stalked and terrorized me for 8 years–even after I had married a second time and moved from Tennessee to Texas.
When I worked as a secretary in the vice president’s office at the University of Tennessee, an administrator who had an office on our floor came into work early one morning when I was only one in our office. Saying nothing before or after, he came right up to me and kissed me on the mouth. Again I had no context for his behavior, we had only said hello and made small talk in the past, so I had no idea why he would think I would welcome such an action. I was a single parent, full-time employee, going to school part-time, and if I had told anyone about this unfathomable kiss, I knew I would not have been believed and might have been fired for causing trouble. A little later this married man had an affair with his secretary, left his wife, and married his secretary.
After I earned my degree and worked my way up to a director-level position at the university, the UT president hired a new vice president for our department. He came with excellent credentials, and we assumed he would have high expectations. When he visited our office, he met my co-workers and me, and sized us up for the plans he had in mind. He asked me to consider applying for a promotion to lead a new communications team to provide material for our next fund-raising campaign. I applied, and won the position. However, he had decided that my two co-workers–both men–would not be a part of this new communications team. I fought to keep them in our department, making a good case that we needed them, but my boss was adamant and sent them to work in another department. The two men were, understandably, upset. And, I’m sure, they blamed me.
I put together a great team of three, we worked together seamlessly, but our communications team was placed on the organizational chart under an unrelated administrator’s command so he could receive a large salary boost by having more people report to him.
Worse was to come as our vice president came up behind me in the office and hugged me in front of mid-level male administrators in our department. I would be talking with my colleagues and my boss repeatedly undermined my credibility by hugging me in public. He hugged me in private too, but that was more measured. Still I knew I was being placed in a situation where my co-workers could construe that we were having an affair, which was not true, but perception is often stronger than reality.
During this unfortunate time in the university’s history, we had a string of ineffectual presidents who were forced out of their positions due to scandals. When the latest president was set aside, his vice presidential choice–my boss–was endangered as well and left the university for a position at an academic institution in the Southwest.
After the vice president who promoted me left the university, the interim team of male administrators decided to take revenge and force me out of my job. I have never completely understood their motivations, and they certainly did not explain them to me. However, from their actions, I came to the conclusion they must have thought I had slept with my former boss in order to get a promotion. Further they must have erroneously decided I engineered moving my two co-workers to another department. In any event, they wrote me up on trumped-up charges two weeks before Christmas–and nine months before I was to reach 30 years at the university and full retirement. They hounded me incessantly during my final months at UT and nearly ruined my health.
I’ll admit it: I have been angry about the cost of being a girl child and a woman in America. Most of the time I can do nothing about my anger except push it down inside where it grows into depression. Why try, why fight the forces of injustice? That’s what the powerless feeling brings to mind: soul-crushing sadness.
When the winter of my soul takes over with wave after wave of desperation, I fight for the surface to breathe again because people need me. My husband, my sister, my mother, my son, my friends, and most especially my 11-month-old grandson and his baby sister who is due to join this world in February of next year. I cannot give up being my joyful self and wallow with the forces of evil, no matter how strong they are.
Last week I rewatched the award-winning Netflix mini-series Godless which tells the story of a 1880’s town in the American West full of women who have been widowed by a mining explosion. The women in this story are strong and resourceful as they battle a murderous outlaw gang of 30 men and the gang’s mercurial leader bent on revenge after the town sheltered his adopted son who abandoned him. This is one of the best series I have ever seen about the power of women working together to save their lives and the lives of their children.
After the climactic showdown, the remaining townspeople mourn and begin burying their dead. As they stand around the grave of the teenage boy who was their deputy, the town’s new preacher arrives in time to say a few words about the risk of living and loving in the face of evil and death.
It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing to love, to hope, to dream, to be.
To be, and, oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this.
And a holy thing.
A holy thing to love.
For your life is lived in me.
Your laugh once lifted me.
Your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love.
A holy thing to love what death has touched.
~ Scott Frank in Godless
To live beyond the dark veil of sexual assault and to somehow find a way to forgive ourselves, for being human and vulnerable, is a hard life’s journey. To witness injustice and be dragged back to the physical and emotional pain of the past is real and can be debilitating. To risk loving again is indeed a painful joy.
Please may our country find a way to heal itself enough to allow its women to rise to their full height and live full lives without fear. We won the right to vote some 100 years ago, but we have not come far enough, not by a long shot.
~ Anna – 9/30/2018