I’ll start with just a couple, for now. The earliest ones. Nothing too dreadful, or too early–I was raised in a family of decent people and well shielded. I knew not to take candy from strangers, but what designs those strangers might have had on me were a mystery. Art Linkletter was on the tube, not Girls Gone Wild.
No, my introduction to the peril of being female began only when I’d just started to develop. Eleven, maybe, or twelve. It’s not a good time of life. It’s the beginning of the end of innocence, and by that I mean the condition of being whole in oneself, the pilot of one’s own consciousness, the skinner of knees and the collector of caterpillars. If you’re as lucky as I am, you get to be that child for a good while, rowing your own boat in a protective flotilla, allowed to drift at will with a cargo of your own imagination.
Then things start to change, and it becomes ever clearer that navigating the world and its demands and betrayals is going to require some compromise of the spirit, some deceit and pretense. And that’s just to keep your head above water among your peers. But there’s a wider world.
The first time, I was walking down the block to Robertson’s Five and Dime, as I had done for years, every time I found a few pennies in the sofa cushions. I was nearly there when a man, a grown man, pointed at me and grinned. “Hey, I know you,” he said.
I probably looked perplexed, and I probably smiled back. As one does.
“You work at the bar, right? That’s it! I’ve seen you dancing at the bar. Oh, yesss.” He was really grinning now.
I can’t remember what used to be on that corner next to the dime store, but now it was a topless joint. That was a new thing then, and a scandal in the neighborhood. The man grinned harder and his eyes traveled down my body. My new body. I smiled again, probably, and told him I didn’t work at the bar.
“You sure look like her though. You could.”
I ducked into the dime store, bought a Maryjane, and peered through the window to make sure the man was gone before I walked home. Not that he wasn’t friendly. He was real friendly.
It’s a mild enough story, but as poor as my memory is, it stands out. What’s interesting about it is not the man’s ploy, his game, his easy, casual assertion of his own power. There’s nothing special about that. “When you’re famous, they’ll let you,” a powerful man says, but even those with nothing going for them will play up any edge they can conceive of, and that edge is often over women. All women, any woman. We’re all in the same lower caste and they’ll make sure we don’t forget it. There’s nothing more mundane than that story. What’s interesting to me about this story, and the next, is my own reaction.
First, a sense of menace, accompanied by the first realization that I would have to negotiate life more carefully from now on, and take other people into account in a way I’d never had to do. I was suddenly not a little girl anymore, but a little girl in costume, in drag, and people were going to look at me in a different way, and at the same time no longer see me at all. So I felt menace, and loss. But also something else.
Do I really look like the dancer at the bar? Could I really be mistaken for the dancer at the bar?
[No, eleven-year-old little Mary B., no, no, no. Christ on a stick. That man knew you were not a dancer at a bar.]
And so I felt as though I had dodged a bullet, but also that I might have some power of my own, something that made other people notice me. That I had some new currency in this new world, something from the props department I could use as I climbed the big stage and learned how to act.
That night, I took my shirt off, threw my shoulders back, and examined the progress in the mirror. It’s a strange bit of business to witness on yourself. I did not want to grow up, but as long as I had to, I wanted something I could work with.
This is how it starts. If you ever wondered why some women accept this situation as normal and consider unsolicited attentions a compliment, become accomplices in their own subjugation, this is how it starts.
That’s not entirely fair, of course. Most people, anywhere on the sexual spectrum, try to attract. It’s all part of the game. The unfair part is that men can really mess you up. They can kill you.
Story Two, not long after. I’d been in the church choir since I was little. I’d graduated to the adult choir with my dad, and Ronnie Oldham was acting different. Mr. Oldham was old and fat and had never paid me any mind at all, but now he was waggling his eyebrows and making low whistles at me as I walked past. “Oh, brother, George,” I heard an adult say to my father. “You know your little girl is growing up when Ronnie starts taking an interest.” Everyone chuckled. It was general knowledge.
I’d gone into the empty rehearsal room to retrieve something when Mr. Oldham came in behind me and put a hand on my shoulder. When I turned around, he covered my mouth with his and forced in his tongue, squeezed my breasts with both hands, and backed me into a wall. One of the women in the choir came in and said, “Now, Ronnie, you know better than that,” and he left the room immediately. My reaction? I was really relieved that lady came in when she did. And I was also as embarrassed as I’d ever felt in my life. Absolutely humiliated, eight shades of crimson, paralyzed, incapable of speech. Exactly as if I’d been caught doing something wrong. What else could I have done? I had never been given a script in which I could say “no” to an adult.
But somehow I was partly to blame.
I don't think that even little girls are safe anymore in this world. We need to teach our daughters to be a little less "nice", and a lot more assertive. A wristband that shoots a hidden dagger into a groin would be a nice touch, as well. Seems a lot more useful than a FitBit.
I think young kids are being given more tools now than they were when I was little. Maybe not that one, exactly.
Why is it that we always felt guilty when some guy forced his attentions on us? Even when we were too young to know what they were doing?
I keep thinking about that, and I still don't have the whole answer.
My two girls have similar stories. I'm so sorry, Murr.
Pretty stinkin' common.
Oh Golly, Murr. The second story took place in that nice-looking church, right on Washington Boulevard in Arlington? We had no idea back then that things like that were happening in little ole' Arlington — maybe "downtown", maybe where there were "coarse people". But of course we didn't know about incidents like that because no one talked about them….
I know, right? Right there in front of the Lord and everyone.
Sometimes, those men are wearing cassocks and back-to-front collars.
That is the rumor, yes.
Ronnie got away with it. Everyone knew he was a creep, and they let him get away with it! Everyone knew my uncle was a creep and no one warned the kids. No one did anything to protect the kids. But once it happened, you were commanded not to talk about it. To anyone. For any reason.
Ar we teaching girls to defend themselves, since obviously we can't teach men to behave decently?
I think people are working harder on both fronts. But what a weird thing, to sweep all that under the rug! Without being explicitly told, I knew early on what was not to be talked about.
All the girls in my Catholic high school knew to stay away from the pastor of St. Suzanne's. I was pretty safe through 8th grade, because everyone knew my dad, who was the building engineer. And most of them were terrified of him. When I was 12, I was walking home from confession one Saturday, and a guy on a bike, probably about 20, asked, "Can I ball you tonight?" Lucky for me he kept going, but yeezus.
Eww, I haven't heard that particular expression for years. I always hated it. Bleah. It would be cool if we could come up with some kind of thing like a pink slime super-soaker to brand those men for weeks.
Isn't it amazing how little girls are always to blame and always made to keep the secret… like a female right of passage…
I doubt that my folks would have thought I was to blame, but it was still not something that would have been pursued, if I HAD talked about it. Weird indeed.
Yes. Been there. Felt the guilt.
I've been there, too, & felt the guilt!!
Isn't it peculiar? We know it's dirty and icky and those things are not to be discussed, so they make us feel dirty and icky too.
I am so sorry for you and for ALL of us who have put up with this s**t for so long. Let it stop now. Let us protect our grandchildren from anything even remotely like this!
"#MeToo" is a start, I think, to what used to be called consciousness-raising. But there will be a backlash, if there isn't already!
I was raised Catholic, so I felt guilty almost all the time. That didn't mean I wouldn't resort to stuffing Kleenex in the bra I didn't need. Not so much to attract boys, but more like wanting to be grown upper than I was.
Also, you always had a stash of Kleenex. That would have been very important to me as a child.
I am in my 70s.I've done a lot, seen a lot, had to deal with some unpleasantness.
But I must be one of not very many who was never molested or threatened by a man when I was a child.
It happened, of course, and sometimes we might half-hear adults' conversations, broken off quickly when children came in.
But my early childhood was never tainted by grubby gropers.
My EARLY childhood wasn't either, for which I am very grateful.
Mine was. And at 4 years old, I still managed to feel guilty. I didn't know what for, but I "knew" that somehow what that man did was my fault.
I too am one of the lucky ones, even tho my father exposed himself to young girls (I found out at 4 when he did it to one of my girlfriends and then she wasn't allowed to play with me again). My mother must have laid down the law and never left me alone with him as he never so much as even looked at me in that way. But I know that I wouldn't have had the defenses needed to know what to do if anything had happened. Thank heavens my daughter and my granddaughters do.
This has stayed in my mind since I read it this morning. Everyone knew; no one did anything. Same as it ever was.
Makes me sad and furious at the same time.
Men like Mr. Oldham were not admired for this behavior, but I think it was considered just one of those things that can't be helped. Boys being boys, and all.
I would like to go back in time and give Ronnie Oldham a good knee to the balls. And then again. And again. I bet you would, too. But when it's actually happening and you're so young, you're a deer in the headlights. This makes me sooo mad. Reminds me of the ultra-creepy old "hall monitor" who used to lurk in the darkened hallways of our middle school, who kept trying to grab me as I ran by, and one day succeeded. Everybody KNEW he was a molester. SO WHAT WAS HE DOING THERE???? Harmless? Too old to do much? The answer is probably: He was a man. And we defer to men. We let them do what they want to. Or we DID. I'm sorry, Murr. Grown-up me wasn't there to beat the shit out of Ronnie Oldham for you. Long may he twist on his spit in Hell.
It's odd: you made me realize that if someone HAD come in and not only chased him off, but had him hauled off and dealt with, I might have been even more humiliated. Having "caused" it and all. It would have been very cool if the same woman who chased him off had stopped to commiserate with me and assure me I was without blame.
How sad that families even today blame the female for the male’s improper behaviour. Some how we women need to work harder on youmg males to repect all females. I do not see many educational tools that teach guys to be respectful.
In fact often the opposie is most likely to be shown.
Sadly many girls I met in life all have their own accounts of inappropriate touching. In my case when it told my mom my bad encounter with a perv she was angry with me. My father was far wiser and took the time to explain that the guy was wrong and any time such stuff occurred he would be there for me as it was not to be seen as my fault. I am glad for his understanding.
Bet your mom was afraid for you and reacted badly. Good for your dad though.
My first was the preacher at the Baptist church my piano teacher invited my family to attend. He felt sorry for my mother, who walked on crutches, or so he said. So he offered to drive my brother and me home after vacation bible school that summer. He had me sit next to him and my brother by the window. As we drove toward home he said something about that I must be tired and shy don't you lay your head on my lap. At which point he reached over and guided my had to his lap. While nothing "happened" I instinctively knew this was kind of creepy, and so when I arrived home I told my mother. To the church's credit, that perv wasn't there much longer.
But…where did he go? Another parish?
It's interesting how we know what's creepy, isn't it? We have antennae that work, but we don't always know how to attend to them. You did.
Unfortunately he probably went to another parish. 🙁 Certainly wasn't reported to the police, which he should have been. I can only think my ability to do what I did came from my trust that my mom would verify that this wasn't right.
I guess I was lucky. The only untoward thing that happened in our village was that a mentally handicapped fellow whose father was a leering old man became a leering young man. I just made sure I stayed out of reach. But really, he didn't know any better. His father was his example.
I do know that the boys chased most of the girls at our school, put them down and "felt them up" but when one came after me I told him he better not try it or he'd be sorry. I was the smallest and youngest kid in my grade but he, and the rest of them, left me alone. Maybe that was just luck too. I don't know.
I didn't get harassed at school, that I can remember. It was always the older dudes. But I think your attitude served you well. Maybe more about THAT later…
That reminds me of a time in elementary school, when a handful of boys surrounded me in class before the nun arrived and were standing much too close and laughing and harassing me. They didn't touch me, but they were close enough for me to feel their breath. So I reached up and scratched one of them across the face, hard enough to draw blood. I didn't have long nails, but they were long enough, I guess. They dispersed, the lead boy with tears in his eyes. They didn't bother me for a very long time after that, and always kept their distance. The verbal harassment never really ended for my entire elementary and high school days.
I have to admit I don't really remember any harassment from classmates. Just adult strangers. So that's a bit of luck.
I was 9 when I was raped by my aunt's husband. I didn't tell anyone. He weren't to Vietnam. I prayed he'd die there. When he came back I finally told my mom, to protect my little cousin (his step daughter) mom called her sister, a she kicked him out…but mom made me promise not to tell my dad "because he'd kill him, then Dad would go to jail, and it would be because of me. So that's when I started gaining weight and stopped being able to talk to men…
Wow, that story got complicated, didn't it? "Don't tell because Dad would kill him." Wow.
Yep. Dad's been gone 27 years this month and I still hesitate to talk about this as he'd be so angry… Molesters dead too. Not sorry.
I think I'm glad you didn't tell him. That would have put him through the wringer. No sense everybody going through the wringer.
That is one of the worst feelings ever. Feeling as if somehow you yourself had done something wrong. I received similar attentions when I was around 16 and in my first job. Before that, at 11-12, older boys and sometimes men would offer me rides in their cars, which I never accepted after one incident where the boy said he would drop me at my friend's house, where I was going, but instead drove past the end of the street and into a paddock, where I right away got out without realising why I suddenly felt awful and squeamish, and ran back to the street and to my friends house. To this day I'm glad he didn't chase after me.
You had good instincts. I'm glad he didn't either. (If I ever get into a situation where I have to run away from somebody, I'm doomed.)
As a father of daughters, I am at one ever so slight remove from these situations, but this shit is no less real to me. My brother and I were brought up in a fairly matriarchal household, we have both gone on to marry partners with several sisters, and both had two daughters. We have all striven to raise girls who know where the boundaries should be, have the self confidence to say so and, if things escalate, know that we will listen. Some days, when reading the news, I simply can't apologise for my gender enough. Maybe that should be every day :o(
You're not responsible for your entire cohort, of course, but isn't that interesting that you feel apologetic? I guess feeling guilty over something you have no control over is a universal thing.
I'm sorry this happened to you and to so many of us. For me it was a doctor, a boss, two co-workers (one a gay man, go figure), a guy who walked me home to "protect" me, and more. Now that I'm older, it doesn't happen much. For once I'm glad I'm seen as invisible.
Really, the only bad part of being old is the closer-to-dead part.
Over the last couple of weeks I have learned that "me, too" is nearly every woman. As a man I know it is ingrained in our culture. It shouldn't be. I will do what I can to change that.
I think it can be changed. I'm basing that on having felt safer in other countries, one, and two, I never thought I'd see people pick up dog poop, either.
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