For thirty years, I have been a therapist helping people heal from horrific experiences. Then things, people, events, happen to reactivate traumas. The current political environment has opened old wounds, wounds that we thought had healed. Wounds like mine.
When I was a teenager, my family didn’t have much money. Mom was a single parent to three expensive kids. As a teenager, I wasn’t very forgiving nor understanding of my mother’s struggles to keep me in clothes, clothes that my friends were wearing, and clothes for special events. So, when I had an opportunity to go to a winter formal fraternity party, I wanted a new dress. I had applied to this university; in my mind, it was important to make a good impression. So I pestered Mom.
She bought a dress for me. It was soft gray with a slight Japanese flavored print of a bird on a limb floating across the long skirt. The top was gathered into a modest vee-neck. I felt beautiful in the dress. I have a vague memory of standing before Mom, twirling around with my hands spread. Both of us were smiling. The dress got packed, and I tootled off with friends to the university. The car ride moved along highways flanked with bare twigs for trees, but nothing dampened my excitement.
Saturday night, I put on the dress and went with my assigned escort to the winter formal. My long hair was pulled up to show off another gift from my mother, a pair of dangling pearl earrings from my namesake aunt Trudi. The night was chilly, and I draped a swirl of ruffled material around my shoulders.
This is where the memories become strobe-like. I remember drinking with my escort. He seemed nice and quite gentlemanly. We danced – I loved to dance, and he was willing to have fun. We laughed at nothing in particular. When the dance was finishing, he said he would take me back to the dorm where I was staying with my friends, but first, he asked if I wanted to stop by an after-party?
We walked into his frat house. The room was silent but filled with a group of men from eighteen to their early twenties. I watched my date look at a man who was sitting in a chair, the oldest male in the room. I had an urge to throw up. I remember feeling so small in my long party dress. My escort turned to me, reached to touch my breast, and I punched him. He went down and stayed down.
The summer before my senior year, a friend taught me how to lift weights and throw a punch. I will always thank him for those lessons. I wonder if he knew they would be useful.
Trying not to retch, I looked at each young man in turn. “Anyone else want to try this?” I asked. The man in the chair got up and left. The others followed him. To this day, I have no idea how I had the nerve to do this.
Suddenly woozy – drunk on alcohol and high on adrenaline, I ran back to my dorm. My beautiful dress and my aunt’s earrings stuck to my body with sweat, I banged on the doors to have someone let me in. I can’t remember who let me in or what happened next. I can’t recall the date but I’ll never forget some details – the smell of beer in the room, the picture of the fraternity house on the wall, the perfect nails of my escort. Trauma memories are laid down in the brain differently, piecemeal, from our pleasant memories, which can unroll like a movie.
Before getting in the car for the drive home on that Sunday, I told a friend what had happened. He said, “Are you sure? He seems like such a nice guy.” I didn’t say another word for the six-hour drive home. Grabbing my bag, I burst into my home, dropped my bag by the stairs, and looked for my Mom. I was proud of myself, terrified of what I had escaped, and confused by my friend’s response. I have a distinct memory of saying, “Mom, I punched a guy. Knocked him out.”
Mom looked at me with her mouth open as I demonstrated my fighting stance. “What are you doing?”
With that question, I picked up my bag and stumbled up the stairs to my room. Unpacking, I threw the dress in the corner.
At school on Monday, I kept my mouth shut afraid if I opened it that I would start screaming or throw up. After the last school bell, I walked very carefully, placing one foot after another, fighting the bile rising in my mouth and trying to remember the way home. In the solitude of my bedroom, I took a pair of scissors to the dress. I took apart every seam. I cut every bird to pieces. I ripped it into pieces so small that no one would be able to tell what it had been. It took hours. The room was dark when I finished.
A couple of years later, the disbelieving friend asked me out. The memory of that dress flooded me, and I stood him up. I’m not proud of my behavior. I wish I had told him why I couldn’t go out with him. I wish he had believed me.
After watching the Kavanaugh hearings and seeing the president ridicule a rape victim, I feel as scared and vulnerable as I was that weekend. (I refuse to capitalize the office when inhabited by trump.) We have elected a bully, without respect for women, who is filling the highest offices of the country with his morally deficient cronies and family.
Whether or not you believe Dr. Ford, know now, women and men received a powerful message. Assaults on women will be tolerated, even rewarded. Victims will be mocked, and their stories will be used against them. The strong can hurt you without repercussions. Funnily, we don’t tolerate this behavior in kindergarten, but the group in power thinks they are above kindergarten rules.