Last week, in the middle of the Supreme Court hullabaloo, I took a break from my computer and walked down the street to get lunch at a fast food taco place in my neighborhood. I put in my order and stepped out of the way to wait my turn when suddenly there was a young man in my space. He stepped toward me and put a piece of paper in my line of sight and said, “Hey, this is for you.”
I flinched. I was startled by the lack of introduction or transition of any kind and tried to avert my eyes, but then realized what I was seeing was a glossy professionally printed pamphlet with a picture of Jesus and the letters “LDS” across the top. “Oh,” I said, placing my hand to my throat and catching my breath. “No, thank you.”
The man gave me an expensively orthodontured smile and a quick nod of his blonde and blue-eyed head and went out the front door. For a second I almost went after him. I didn’t know what I would say. “Don’t do that!”? How could I possibly make him understand why? Did I even understand why? “Hey, haven’t you heard all the women in the nation are ‘triggered’ right now? Well, we are. So don’t jump out from behind Coke machines and Guerilla-Jesus them, maybe?”
Then, and every day since this incident at the taco store, I have returned to this thing that happened to me many years ago. It was the summer of 1997, before my 20th birthday. I was working on campus at the art museum and I had walked across campus to get change for the gift shop cash register. I was heading back and a man in a beater car pulled up next to me with the window down and asked me what time it was. I told him and he thanked me, but didn’t drive off. I didn’t think anything about it when I walked away but quickly realized he was following me. I picked up my pace, but before I could go far he plowed the car into a driveway in front of me, blocking my path. His window was still down and he was yelling at me. His penis was out of his shorts and in his hand. With his other hand he held up a pornographic magazine and asked me what I thought about it.
At the time I joked, “I think it was a photo of Pamela Anderson. That was the worst part.” But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was looking up at the parking lot in broad daylight on a beautiful summer afternoon and seeing lots of cars but no people. The worst part was knowing that my path forward was blocked and that if I ran back the way I came he would be able to follow me with his car and overtake me before I could get away down a path the car couldn’t follow. The worst part was knowing that this could and might get a lot worse, and that I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
It was such a long time ago. I can still remember what I was wearing. I remember some general things about what he and his car looked like, and I remember feeling a sense of rising panic. I don’t remember deciding what I was going to do, but I do remember hopping over the hood of his car and running toward the stairs between the library and the Behavioral Science Building that led up to the art museum. I remember yelling over my shoulder as I ran, “You are sick! You need to get help!” and then later thinking, did I really say that? I’m so sure he went straight to a phone book to find a therapist, you Dork.
Maybe if you know me and you love me, you are thinking ‘she got out of the situation because she kept her head. She is smart. She is X and that that protected her from winding up like one of the girls who are Y.’
No. Wrong. I wasn’t physically harmed because I was lucky. That was all. But he still got what he wanted from me. He got off on frightening me. If he wanted to shock me with the photo or just scare me by reminding me that he could hurt me if he wanted to, it worked. It scared me. More than twenty years later, I picture that empty parking lot and it still scares me.
I’ve heard a lot of stories this week about women who did not report assaults or harassment in their past, and I did not intend to report this incident. But I got back to work and the security guard, who was watching the shop for me while I was gone, immediately saw from my face that something was wrong. I told her what had happened as a friend, not really thinking about it anything coming from it. She was the one who called the police. She had to; it was her job. They came and took a statement. A week later, an officer came back with postcards of photos (which I later learned from Harry Bosch novels is called a “six pack”) for me to look at to see if I could identify the man. I told her before we sat down in the main gallery of the museum to talk that I only saw him briefly and wasn’t sure if I would recognize him, but when she laid out the photos I was shocked by my certainty. There was no doubt in my mind as to which man had exposed himself to me.
The police officer did something like a joyous fist pump and shouted, “Yes! We got him!” I was surprised because I always watched too much TV and expected her to have more of a poker face, but she was elated. She told me that the same thing had happened to several women on campus and that they now had multiple victims identifying one suspect.
This next part is the hardest part of the story for me, the part that I’ve been grappling with for the past few days. For the next few months, I spoke with the officer a few more times on the phone. She was always very kind and sympathetic toward me, so much so that when I told her I didn’t want to testify, she just said, “I understand.” She didn’t even ask me to explain, even though I had prepared an explanation. I didn’t want to testify, because I was afraid. I was afraid that then he would have my name and he would know how to find me. I was afraid because I figured that there was a low chance that he would get “help” as I had urged him at the time and a high chance he would get no more than slap on the wrist from a judge. And I was afraid that this was a sick person who was working up the courage to do something much worse than what he had done so far. And I was in the phone book. But like I said, she didn’t ask. She hung up the phone I never heard from her again.
I remind myself now that I was very young when I made this decision. And that there were several other women who were willing to testify. My account probably wouldn’t have made a difference, even if it had gone to court, which it probably didn’t. If it had come down to it, if they had needed me, the officer would have called back and tried to talk me into doing my civic duty, right? But she didn’t. And maybe that guy did get some help. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he went on and hurt someone else, even if he didn’t get a second chance to hurt me. I will never know. I just know that when I see someone like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford tell her story in front of the world, I feel like a coward. And when I hear other people (men and women) speculate about what she could possibly remember, or how she could possibly still be affected by some bad behavior a few decades later, I shake with rage.
I walked home with my bag of tacos last week with my mind awash in emotions and angry thoughts. I was still trying to think what I could have told that young man with the rich-people teeth. The thing that really stuck in my craw was that I had said, “Thank you.” He frightened me – unintentionally and maybe with good intentions – but he frightened me. And I fucking thanked him! I’m so programmed to be polite and unburdensome that at forty-one years old I still treat every man I meet with deference and respect even when they get in my face uninvited and ruin my day.
I can’t articulate how angry I am right now. I can’t articulate to others in my life or even strangers what I need. I don’t know what to do with all this anger that I am feeling. And I know it isn’t just women who are angry, so please don’t bother reminding me. But I also don’t want men to read all these stories about ‘why I never reported’ and get too comfortable with the idea that they have been too sheltered to be an ally, either. I told the men in my life this story back in the 90s. I’ve shared many other stories about things that I have happened to me over the years with my partners and male friends. These are not secrets that the men in the world are just now finding out about; I don’t believe that for a minute. Many of them seem to be listening with new insight right now, and I am so grateful for that. Many are not and don’t seem to understand why we are suddenly changing the rules on them.
We aren’t. Nothing has changed. But we are angry. And we are insisting that everyone pay attention. I am changing one thing, though. I’m no longer thanking men just for not hurting me. That part of my life is done