Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Posts tagged ‘me too’

Bullies in Office

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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?

Sure.

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 wretch, 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.

 

A Friend’s Story: When You Tell

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I’ve sat on this for two weeks, but I’m ready to wade into the fray. With the permission of a friend, who feels it is now safe to share her story because most of the people are dead and she is mostly away from their influences, I will tell you why people wait decades to come forth with their tales of abuse.

My friend was accepted into a selective graduate program in a prestigious university. She was ecstatic as it furthered her career path. So, she uprooted her life and moved to another state with her husband to attend the program.

She did well in her master’s program – earning all As and making friends but her husband was jealous of the time she spent studying. She invited him to come to department events and tried other ways to include her husband, but he declined. She kept going to classes and making connections with her fellow students and her teachers, an essential part of the graduate school process but didn’t attend the informal events where many connections are made and strengthened.

Her husband left her in the middle of the degree. Cleaned out the bank accounts and moved to the Midwest with another woman. She was heart-broken and thought of school as her refuge enough to spend her summer camping on a friend’s dorm couch. She spent more time with her classmates and teachers, going to some of the more informal events – a cookout on the dorm steps, a beer after class with peers and teachers to follow-up on class concepts.

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One teacher noticed how sad she was looking and invited her to talk during office hours. He was sympathetic and laid an arm across her shoulders in a fatherly way. She struggled out from under it. He suggested they have a relationship. He had admitted to her that he had done this before with students – he had an “open” relationship with his wife. She said no as gently as she could – he was on her thesis committee. Without his support and his signature at the defense exam, her master’s thesis would be rejected and all her work from the past two years would be wasted. She started avoiding him, and her work suffered. She had nightmares and panic attacks. She couldn’t concentrate. She turned in lousy work for her master’s thesis barely meeting specifications, but her goal was to get out from under him, literally and metaphorically. Somehow, she passed the defense of her master’s thesis although the lecherous professor made it known that he was unhappy with her work. Lots of grumbling in the halls that isolated her from her peers and professors.

Knowing that the master’s thesis would not get her a job and that her master’s thesis would not get her into another university, she applied and was accepted into the doctoral program. But. The professor picked her as his teaching assistant, and he signed on as her graduate advisor for the doctoral dissertation. The nightmares got worse over the summer. She picked fights with other teachers, lost weight, and would jump at every noise or sudden movement.

When she started school in the fall, the reality of her situation worsened. The lecherous professor stood over her in meetings and looked down her dress. He sneered at her ideas for a dissertation delaying her progress. Her shakes increased. The other teaching assistants made fun of her, calling her variations on teacher’s pet. Her peers noticed and avoided her. She tried to talk to the professor, but he laughed saying she was misinterpreting his words. As head of her graduate committee, he could stall and even derail her doctoral program.

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She lasted two semesters before the head of another department took her to lunch. She was scared to go – what could she say that didn’t sound whiny or defensive? And the department head was male. She wore a shapeless dress to the lunch. Had her hair cut by a barber in a flat top to look less feminine. But he was kind. He asked what was going on. After hemming and hawing, she told him. He assured her that he would take care of transferring her to his department.

Emboldened from being out from the direct influence of the man, she decided to make a complaint. Following the university’s protocols, she contacted the woman administrator overseeing sexual harassment cases for the university. She did not know that the university’s first objective is to protect its own. The university’s harassment ombudswoman did not prepare her for the proceedings. The student did not know what would happen or if she would have to speak.

The predatory professor brought a legal representative. A group of her peers and professors watched them file into a conference room. She heard their whispers. She was aware that her career in the university and beyond would be affected by the outcome of this mock trial. When called upon to present her side, she stuttered. The professor sat across from her blatantly holding her gaze, a folder in his lap, his department head on one side of him and his legal representative on the other. The woman remembers feeling outnumbered.

At the end of the meeting, it was decided that he would receive a sealed letter in his personnel file to be removed after three years and that he could not give her any reference. She was under legal constraints to be silent about the entire incident. This sounded like blaming the victim to the woman. No one would know what he did. She went home and cried. Her academic work suffered. She was distracted and hostile in classes, due to sleep deprivation, wariness, and being ostracized by her peers and university faculty. She was untrusting and distressed by any male attention including her new husband’s concern.

When she attempted to get together another graduate committee for her thesis, she needed professors from the lecherous professor’s department. Her top choices, based on her dissertation topic, turned her down.

When she needed a teaching reference, the department head of the lecherous professor smirked and said he could not give her one. She had put him in “a bad position.” She didn’t get the job.

Eventually, the woman completed the dissertation in a program that was wonderful but not her first choice moving her into a career path that was not her first choice. She did the minimum amount of work to get her dissertation, not trusting the predominantly male faculty.

She brushed off other women’s attempts to talk to her about their harassment by the same professor.

All this time, she shielded her body in baggy clothes, kept her hair short, and avoided men in places of power. She made herself small and invisible. Hid her face behind big glasses. Didn’t go places alone.

No one knew what he did to her. What he cost her.

After over two decades, she put this behind her, but it still comes up. She told me about the years of therapy for the PTSD and feelings of betrayal by the university and her peers. She told me about the moments of panic when she thinks she sees him in a crowd or on the street. She had to learn to approach men as human beings.

Even today, after the professional awards and personal accomplishments, she can’t –

Account for a gap on her resume

Works in a field that was not her first choice

Has moments of panic when a man, a boy, or anybody looks at her body

Feels uncomfortable in meetings and minimizes her accomplishments/ideas

Why would she want to expose herself to betrayal and ostracism again unless she knew she had the support of other women? So as women come forward with their stories, she started to feel emboldened. She wanted her story told and believed.

That’s why you are seeing a great many women come forward; finally, there are enough of us talking for a woman to feel safe telling her story.

Please, when a woman tells you her story, say ‘thank you.’

She has probably told it before, and it has been dismissed or silenced.

Don’t do that to her. Ask her how you can help.

 

(Images courtesy of morguefile.com by PEDROJPEREZ and JELTOVSKI.)

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