Introduction: The Way It Was
Why was that? How could that be? Those of us who are over 60 know the answer. Because that was the way it was. The morality we all learned back then went like this: Men would be men. Boys would be boys. Men just had those sexual urges that couldn’t be denied – not by themselves, not by the women they took their lusts out on. And women (we were all called girls then, or, at the most, ladies) were in the world to be looked at, admired, lusted after. And nothing else. No did not mean no: it meant I’m a “good girl” so you have to ask me two or three times – and then I’ll give in. There were truly good girls, girls who were expected not to give in, but they were, by definition, not attractive – or they were married.
Recently, I’ve had occasion to listen to an endless number of radio mystery dramas from the 1940s and 1950s. You probably remember the names of the Private Investigators (PIs): Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Richard Diamond. Every one of the episodes is its own little window into the sexual mores of the times. The PI is always a guy. There is always a female assistant, and she is always cute, gorgeous, sexually available to her boss. And dumb as a post (which is a big part of her charm). There is always a female client, or a female witness along the way, and – what a surprise – she, too, is always sultry, sexy, gorgeous, and sexually available to the PI. Sometimes, she is not dumb. But all the worse for her.
And what did that mean for all the good girls – good women – who got manhandled or assaulted or raped? Who had their boss’s penis rubbed up against them, or his hand down their dress? Who suffered through the middle of the night waiting for a father or uncle or brother to make his unwanted appearance in their beds? It meant: put up with it. It meant: nobody will believe you. It meant: even if your friends and colleagues do believe you, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, he’s like that. You want our advice? If he invites you into his office, don’t go.” It meant: the priest got quietly moved to another parish; the cop got the usual promotion; the professor moved on to the next year’s class of ever younger blondes.
It is interesting to me that even the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s did not put a stop to it. Nor did any of the later attempts to speak out. “Take Back the Night” swept college campuses in the ’80s. And yet, Harvey Weinstein ruined the lives and stunted the careers of a couple of dozen young actresses, all since then. Hundreds of young gymnasts have been doomed to a lifetime of sexual doubt and disgust, all since then. And those just happen to be the more famous cases. Even as women gained the right to education and equal work, even as we came into a measure of respect for our brains and tenacity, still, the meme of the woman as available sexual object has clung to us.
So, I guess the more interesting question is: why is it working now? Why are women at last being listened to? There are, I think, at least two possible answers. One is that the ascendancy to the Presidency of a man who is so patently a narcissistic misogynist, who acts as if every woman he comes across, even his own daughter, is nothing but sexual prey, has so disgusted so many people that, unable to deter or punish him, we take out our rage on the others who are like him. The other possible answer is that it is not working; we only think it is, but in fact, women aren’t actually being listened to. Yes, sure, a number of the mighty have fallen. But they have already hired PR firms to orchestrate their way back. Give it a while, and it will all go away again. The interest, I mean, the responses. The predatory sex will, of course, continue.
Do let us know if you have other answers to the question I just posed. Or if you even think it is the right question to ask. And, in the meantime, read these moving, brilliant short takes. Each contains an aching question of its own.
Three weeks before Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder and proclaimed, That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, I held my grandmother’s hand and said, “Nana, I’m going to America to study. I got a travel grant.”
Her eyes dimmed. “Why? Don’t go. Study here.”
“No, Nana. I want to. American astronauts just landed on the moon.”
She sniffed. “Why? It’s not their moon. Already the monsoons are drying up. Now it’ll get worse.”
I climbed down to the tarmac at JFK airport on August 15, 1969, India’s Independence Day, a girl of 23 who’d never before seen the inside of one airplane, let alone two. I was en route to St. Louis. Nor had I ever seen a moving staircase! My God! What a country. I rode up and down that escalator three times.
A few weeks later, I was struggling in physics. I didn’t have the necessary calculus background. Nor had I seen test papers with little circles, and no space to explain why I chose my answer.
I needed extra help. Walking across campus, I saw trees splattered with vibrant colors I’d never seen on trees before – chili red, turmeric yellow, kesar orange. A cool breeze caught my sari and lifted it like a hot air balloon.
We met in his office. I sat across from him. I began doing better.
One day, he said, “You can’t read upside down. Come around.” He set up a chair against the wall, waved me in, and moved in close. His eyes seemed to sear right through my sarias I solved problems.
Another day, he lifted my hand and looked at my ring.
“Beautiful,” he said.
“It’s my grandmother’s. She gave it to me when I left home.”
Another day, his hand rested on my thigh, like the dead carcass of a giant spider.
Another day, it awakened and started moving. I placed my hand on the creature and held it down. Often, it flipped on its belly and carried my hand along.
One day, I got up the nerve to ask. “Sir, I’d like to work at the board.”
He consented. Still, his eyes climbed down the rungs of my vertebral column, lingering on my buttocks, the silhouette of my legs under my sari.The instant I hesitated, he jumped up, put his arm around my waist, and let it wander. I stopped going for help.
I failed physics. I could get a master’s degree, which I already had, or get out. I was alone in this country. My Fulbright grant report was due. If they knew I was out of school, I’d be shipped back to India. I was admitted to another university, retook physics, and earned my Ph.D. My advisor was a woman. I’ve lived here for 49 years.
As a young Legal Aid attorney, I represented many women seeking court orders to stop their husbands or partners from abusing them. It was important but brutal work. On good days, court orders were effective, especially for those men who seemed truly baffled to find official papers in their hands, reprimanding them for smacking their wives in what they viewed as their “own private business.” They were humbled, or shamed, into compliance.
One man violated every court order faster than I could bring him back before the judge for contempt, his young wife continuing to appear every few days on my office doorstep with fresh bruises and a growing sense of despair that matched my own. Her husband continued to evade service, couch-surfing and sleeping in his car at unknown and ever-changing locations.
He was known to local law enforcement. A fellow attorney suggested I contact a particular sheriff’s deputy for help in locating the husband and serving the papers. “The deputy knows him and where he likes to hang out,” my friend told me.
I found the deputy in a deserted courthouse long after the close of business. He seemed sympathetic to my frustrations in failing to locate the husband. “I know him,” he nodded, “and I can find him and serve him with the papers tonight.” I smiled with relief. He moved closer to me, too close, moving aside the papers I was trying to give him. A gun on his hip. He laid a sweating palm on my arm.
He didn’t leer, or look away, just breathed his words into my face. “What’s it worth to you?”
this last day of July collared
in Queen Anne’s Lace, bracelets of clover.
You regret the lilac bush outside our father’s house
has had an early bloom.
As children, we’d pick the fallen clusters
off the ground, press them
in his heavy books, then forget.
Years later, when I turned a page
a resemblance of lilac fell
on the blanket covering him.
At the funeral, you murmur,
I’m only here because he’s dead.
And once again, the creak
and stir of your bedroom door wakes me.
All those years, I wanted to scream for you,
for both of us, but what good
would it have done?
I couldn’t imagine what could save me
from his open, hissed kiss,
that chapped palm against my lean body.
I never warned you of his approaching step
always echoing heavily through feigned dreams.
We don’t speak of this or the dead,
but walk from the gravesite
among all we can name,
milkweed, tiger lily, bloodroot,
the path overgrown, since childhood,
when we played with wild snapdragons,
your hand pressed over mine,
just the right pressure, where to pinch
and the yellow tongued flower
parted its lips.
Notes From the Past
At 25, I got my first real job, at a small magazine in the Midwest. My boss, “James,” had been one of my professors. He was the editor of the magazine.
Our administrative office was cozy: his wife, the accountant, sat in a small front room while the other editorial assistant (also a former student) and I shared the larger middle room. James had the back office, the only room with a door.
We three women got along great, often going out for lunch, while James ate alone with his door shut. One day, however, James’ wife told us she was leaving. “Retirement,” she joked. Like a small “family,” we were sorry to see her go. We threw her a going away party.
Not long after, James asked me to read a story he’d written. As a former student, I was surprised, yet honored. All I remember about the piece is that it had rain – lots of rain. Moist, slick, erotic metaphors. Still, I thought all he wanted was what any writer would want, feedback. I stood in his doorway, praised his use of strong verbs, his pacing, and some other bullshit. Did his eyes twinkle with some kind of erroneous recognition?
A few weeks later, I came back to the office after lunch, sat down at my desk to start editing a manuscript, and opened the drawer for a red pen. Taped inside, a yellow Post-it note:
I stuffed the note in my purse and carried on as if nothing had happened, waiting for the day to be over. Once home, I showed it to my feminist mother, who was appalled. A few days later, a Friday afternoon, another note appeared in my drawer:
My coworker was on vacation, which meant James and I were alone in the office. At the end of the day he came out, sat down in the chair beside my desk, put his leg up blocking me in with his pointy cowboy boot. He seemed shy as he spoke in double-entendres.
I looked at the clock: ten long minutes left. My heart jackhammered. He started to say something. The phone rang. It was my friend asking if I wanted to meet her for a drink after work. “I’m just leaving,” I said, relieved.
I told James I had to go. Surprisingly, he moved his leg. Once inside my car, I locked the door.
On Monday, I marched into James’ office, closed the door, gave my notice. He tried to tell me he and his wife had an “open marriage,” an “agreement,” which I knew wasn’t true.
For the next two weeks, time dragged.
On my last day, the women employees gave me a going-away party that felt ridiculously ironic. James’ wife showed up. She brought the cake.
“Balloons! I have balloons. I’ll be right back.” And my drunk boss, Al, toddled across the hotel hall to his room to get condoms. I shut and locked the door and refused to let him back in. The next morning, he wore sunglasses during breakfast and did not speak on the four-hour drive back to Milwaukee.
A friend had helped me get a job as a research assistant on a statewide grant. Al was the project director. I did not know that he’d been fired from Alverno College for improper behavior with students or perhaps staff, or that in his typical Boston-Irish bluster he’d filed a countersuit accusing the college of sex discrimination in the firing. I did know his girlfriend, Carol, who was my best friend and I thought she should know what a philandering jerk her boyfriend was.
He stormed up to me at a party at her house and said I should have kept my mouth shut. By Monday morning, he had me transferred to an office across town. He gave me no job responsibilities. For months, I pushed papers around a desk and pretended I had work to do.
I continued to be friends with Carol, always nursing a curse on the man. They had broken up; he’d moved to Texas. I decided to write a revenge story. In the story, Carol and I set Al up to meet a married woman he was romancing at an art gallery. We also invited the woman’s husband and sat back to watch.
Carol’s reaction to the story was beyond surprising. She still had a soft spot for Al and was offended by my efforts at retribution. At one point, she demanded to know if I’d ever called her a whore.
What if I had slept with him? My work experience would have been better. Or would it? He was a mean man, with little or no respect for women. If I’d slept with him, he’d have flicked me away like a dead fly on a windowsill. At least by defying him, I made him angry.
My shunning occurred in the early 1970s. Alverno is a Catholic women’s college, likely with a zero tolerance for teachers seducing students or colleagues. But I can find nothing on-line referring to Al’s firing.
His sex discrimination suit – he was not a woman or a nun at a Catholic girl’s school, so of course his firing must have been discrimination against a male – was closed in 1984 because he’d failed to follow up on a court document after moving to Texas. It petered out. Just like him.
Summertime Theatrical: Two Gentlemen of Verona
on the bare tent stage this August evening.
How long will it take Valentine to grasp
it’s rape? He watches Proteus grabbing
Silvia’s neck, the guy forgets to quit,
nigh undone by her sharp tongue, now is flung
by Valentine. This is drama, isn’t it?
Will the actress’s neck be bruised? Did young
Shakespeare detail the interrupted rape?
I’d ask him why these men keep their friendship
though no Me Too movement in that landscape.
Today’s director will end all courtship.
Silvia rejects both men’s base chorus
and joins female outlaws in the forest.
Let men keep their palsy-walsy kinship
True love just kicked the bucket for buffoons
Not Silvia or Julia in slip,
chemise or gown but dressed as male cartoons
in sash and pants thieved from men of privilege
their now colleagues intercepted briefly.
Happy outlaws disguised sultry cleavage
more pleased than poor pearls sent to nunneries,
only other place to avoid the scourge
of wifedom blotting out their female zest.
As Merry Dames of Italy they’ll purge
fate to save women from wedded distress.
What’s good for the gander, now for the goose.
No vows to brash louts, nasty ladies loose.
A Tyranny of Courtesy
He was a rabbi. You’re not surprised, right? I was 25, not entirely naive, but still young. I knew about sex in the context of love, but not as an overture from a superior in the work environment. As I recall, we were standing just inside the doorway of a small room, inspecting it for storage capacity.
Suddenly, he was right behind me, pressing against me, hard in every sense of the word. He continued his smooth commentary about storage even as he assaulted me with his brazen sexual tension. The shock emptied my mind. I could not comprehend, could not react, could not move. I could not believe the reality of his assault even as it took place.
He did not touch me with his hands or restrain me in any way, yet for a long moment I did not move away from him because I felt like it would seem rude. Yes. That was the thought that held me in place. If I moved, he might think I was angry about what he was doing, and it would be so embarrassing. Then I moved and he did not follow. Everything returned to normal.
I had a long career as a librarian, a female-dominated profession where I rarely had male coworkers. My other #MeToo moments were the ones that all women know about – on the street and in social situations, from strangers or mere acquaintances, where I knew what to do – ignore him, walk away, get angry.
But this was a co-worker, whose opinion could be important for my career, who was married with two small children, who was sexually neutral in my eyes. I had no witnesses, no recourse, no comprehension of the incident itself, no words to describe it.
I was innocent.
Three Odd Memories
“You better be telling me the truth,” my mother threatened as she hauled me into the yard and marched me toward the corner store.
I don’t know how old I was. Young, but old enough to have been sent across the street to buy bread. That was when an older boy pulled me close and reached up under my skirt and touched me through my underpants.
Now my mother was shouting at him; he was sitting on the steps of the store, looking away from her. I was crying. I wanted her to stop, but there she was, hollering, “If you ever touch her again, if you ever…”
And then she yanked me home.
She stayed mad for days, mad, it seemed, at me. I don’t think she ever told my dad.
He and I were together on a spotted horse named Roanoke, both of us, no saddle. He was behind me, holding the reins with both hands. His forearms kept rubbing against my nipples and it hurt because my breasts were brand new.
“Don’t,” I said, sounding whiny.
“Don’t what?” he asked and kept right on doing it.
Maybe he didn’t know he was hurting me. So I didn’t say it again.
Standing up on the subway, holding onto the pole. The car was packed and he was crushed up against me, maybe more than he needed to be.
His eyes were closed, but not scrunched up. But when I looked around the car, no one seemed to think he was pressed against me the way I was thinking he was.
When I shifted, he shifted. Three, maybe four times. All those people. Someone would see, someone would know, someone would say something.
Why would I think this was happening? Was this happening? Was I telling the truth?