Five years ago tomorrow, I posted portions of my own #MeToo experience.
I did so nearly a decade after activist Tarana Burke first used the words “me too” on social media, but a couple years before #MeToo become a movement.
I didn’t hear the phrase “me too” until late 2017, but I was absolutely guided by its sentiment when I wrote in January 2015. Infuriated then by something I’d read from an advocate of Bill Cosby, I began writing about my own experiences.
I wrote because I didn’t want anyone to suffer the aftermath of assault alone, whether after assault at an individual human perpetrator’s hands or subsequent assault by the United States
injustice system, or both.
I’m currently reading She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.
As I read about the authors’ journey to breaking the Harvey Weinstein case this early morning, I was inspired to search my email for a particular phrase that showed up several times in posts on my old blog.
That phrase? “I believe you.”
These words, heard by a much younger version of myself in an Oregon courtroom decades ago, were–are–some of the most magical words I have ever heard.
Even before rereading my old blog posts this morning, I knew I was going to write a post weaving together my personal experiences with the many aspects of She Said to which I personally connect.
As I read the posts, I saw that my as-yet-unwritten post will benefit mightily by my being able to reference the older ones I reread this morning. So I’m posting them here, now, knowing I will be drawing on them soon.
And, just so you know:
I believe you. Still.
Forget Phylicia. Remember my mom.
Originally posted on TMiYC
January 8, 2015
“That man is following us,” my mom whispered as we left the corner market.
My prepubescent self waved her off. I was irritated how paranoid she’d become as our court date loomed.
“Whatever. He just wants to get something to eat,” I whispered back as we began walking toward the courthouse. “Just like us.”
When we reached the courthouse, the man walked in right behind us. I ate my words outside the market when he handed a thick envelope to the defense attorney.
He had been following us. But why? Why would anyone investigate the victims?
More than 20 women have brought allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby.
I didn’t mean to write about that, not even when I read he’d hired a team of private investigators to discredit the women.
I didn’t mean to write about that even when I read how Phylicia Rashad, the actress who once played his TV wife said, “Forget those women,” expressing the opinion some unknown enemy is trying to smear Cosby’s legacy for reasons she can’t understand.*
I didn’t mean to write about it when I woke up this morning. But then I saw another choice quote from Phylicia, and my heart plummeted.
Whenever I thought about testifying against a pedophile as a child,
I thought about my terrible, terrifying experiences as a child on the witness stand. If I had any room left to remember it, I recalled my little sister’s tears as I watched her testify just feet away from the former family friend who’d molested her repeatedly.
This morning, my heart leapt from my usual recollections to my mom. I wondered what the experience was like for her, having to defend her self and her fragile heart while also tending to her children. How on earth had she found the courage, the strength, the energy to bundle up four kids and walk us to the courthouse where, as our attorney had promised, we were put on trial? How had she endured each of those terrible moments on the stand herself, and–worse–each of the moments she had to sit and withhold comfort as her young daughters endured the same outside her reach?
The defense strategy was to discredit my mom. Had the pedophile really repeatedly assaulted my sister, and once placed his hand upon my barely formed breast to suss out whether I’d permit it? Or had an impoverished woman discovered a friend came from money, and concocted a way to get herself some of that money?
The verdict? Hung jury. The jurors couldn’t agree. The only thing they agreed on unanimously was that they would never, not ever, subject their own wives or daughters to court were they ever assaulted. They would not let their loved ones know the agony of testifying feet from the perpetrator, nor having their good names smeared as part of a defense campaign.
Our courtroom experience so horrified them from the outside that they never wanted to face it from the inside.
My mom went to court knowing we’d almost certainly lose. It was the right thing to do.
More than that, she hoped doing it would give the pedophile pause the next time he contemplated the possibility of victimizing someone else’s children. Similar accusations had been brought against him before, after all; they were inadmissible in our case since he hadn’t been convicted.
She went to court knowing some of the jurors would be Phylicias, more willing to believe some vast conspiracy against one outwardly genteel man than that the man could do such horrible things. More willing to believe that two little girls or dozens of women would lie through their teeth for some unknowable personal gain than that one man’s affable smile could conceal countless assaults.
When I see women coming forward months or years after an alleged assault, I don’t usually think, “What’s in it for you?”
I think, “I wish you the best in the days ahead, because the days ahead are going to be exhausting and terrifying.” That was so for me and mine even when the man we faced wasn’t powerful and nationally beloved for the roles he played.
My mom was torn apart in a quiet, musty Oregon courtroom far from the merciless eyes of a public that wants to believe the people it loves are infallible. For, indeed, if even the man with the widest grin and the merriest laugh could drug women and assault them, what would that say about the world? What would that say about the men in their neighborhoods and, worse, in their own homes?
So they go on believing conspiracy is likelier than assault because it’s comforting. Because they have never read Gavin de Becker and fail to understand that, per de Becker, “the solution to violence is acceptance of reality.” Because they don’t understand–or willfully disregard–that the misbegotten “truths” perpetuating their own comfort comes at the cost of the weak and vulnerable around them.
That disbelief is the carefully tended pathway pedophiles and other perpetrators dance along gleefully, trusting it to keep enabling them as it did those who came before them.
Phylicia said, “Forget those women.”
I say, forget Phylicia.
Forget convenient disbelief.
Forget favoring dishonest comfort over honest discomfort.
Forget denying assault, and thus being complicit in all future violence worked by the perpetrators (inevitably) around you.
But please don’t ever, ever forget the image of my mom escorting her four small kids to the county courthouse, doing so not for personal gain–and despite great personal pain–but because she knew our silence would make it easier for one pedophile to keep on molesting children.
It was my mom, my sister and me then, but if we keep on denying individually and societally, it will be your sister, your niece, your cousin and/or your daughter tomorrow.
* Phylicia contends her “forget those women” was taken out of context, but there is no appropriate context for those words here. Either way, she’s insisting the real focus here should be the defendant’s narrative/destruction of legacy, not the victims’ narrative/sexual assault. Sounds familiar. #ByePhylicia.
I believe you
Originally posted on TMiYC
January 9, 2015
WARNING: POSSIBLY TRIGGERING
(also an apology)
I believe you.
Those three plain words have stuck with me for two and a half decades.
My younger sister was ten years old when she testified against the family [friend] who had molested her for three years.
I was not allowed to be present in the courtroom while she testified lest my own testimony be tainted by hers. I, her older sister and should-have-been-protector, watched helpless through a window as she sobbed through her testimony just feet away from the molester.
I hated him then. I hated my inability to comfort my sister. I hated the narrative that turned my mom into the de facto defendant. I hated damn near everything about the trial except those three words.
A law student watching the trial followed my sister out of the courtroom and knelt down in front of her.
I believe you, she said. I believe you.
I have loved her ever since.
I believe you.
Those three plain words were missing from my blog decrying Phylicia Rashad’s “forget those women” response to Cosby’s accusers. They were likewise missing from my comments on the post, which comments haunted me throughout the day.
I’d missed the mark. I knew it. I just couldn’t figure out how.
I believe you.
The real world is not a tidy academy of feigned neutrality. It is a messy, terrifying, lovely, aching jumble of contradictory inputs and responses, yearnings and learnings, stumbles and hurdles occasionally leaped gracefully.
The real world is one where, according to the U.S. Department of Justice pursuant to its annual National Crime Victimization Survey of 90,000 households,
- Almost 300,000 victims (age 12 or older) are raped and sexually assaulted each year
- The “offender was known to the victim in about 80%” of such assaults
- An average of 68% of sexual assaults are not reported
- Only 3% of rape cases are referred to prosecutors
- 2% of rapists spend even one day in prison
There is nothing tidy or academic about these numbers. They reflect the heartbreaking truth that, while hundreds of thousands of American lives are brutalized by sexual assault annually, only a few thousand perpetrators will even be tried.
I believe you.
Some accusers do lie. But I believe you. Because here’s the thing: most accusers do not lie.
Kimberly A. Lonsway, Sgt. Joanne Archambault and Dr. David Lisak assessed this with great nuance here, concluding that the “realistic and evidence-based estimate of 2-8% [of false reports of sexual abuse] thus suggests that the American public dramatically overestimates the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false.”
It’s probably not hard to imagine why. For example, we have all seen how victims are portrayed in the media accounts of rape accusations made against popular sports and cultural figures. These media accounts show us just how easy it is for us a society to believe the suspect’s statements (a respected cultural icon) and both discount the victim’s statements and disparage her character.
In ten pages of tight, succinctly expressed analysis I couldn’t begin to summarize justly, they explain that few sexual assaults match the stereotype of a “real rape” and that, unfortunately, it’s only the rare stereotypic “real rapes” that tend to be prosecuted. What’s a “real rape,” anyway? It matches most/all of the below characteristics:
- Perpetrated by a stranger using a weapon
- Reported immediately by a hysterical victim who exercised no poor judgment
- All details are perfectly consistent no matter how hysterical the victim, how many times she’s questioned and who does the questioning
- The suspect seems like a rapist
Unlike these “real rapes,” data reveals, real rape and sexual assault is much more often than not perpetrated by friends and acquaintances. Victims often don’t physically resist, for reasons ranging from confusion, surprise, shock, dissociation and self blame to fear they might be killed for resisting. They come forward reluctantly days, weeks, months or years after being assaulted, again for a range of understandable reasons. Weapons and serious physical, non-sexual violence are uncommon. Accounts might vary between tellings due to trauma, cultural beliefs, discomfort recalling or revealing certain brutal details, and other factors. The perpetrator doesn’t really strike people as the raping type.
So in this not-textbook world, we measure real sexual assault against an unreal, stereotypic standard and dismiss that which deviates too far from our understandings of “real rape” to be valid. We take women already violated in ways they will spend years trying to recover from and violate them again with our seemingly neutral but loaded to bursting questions.
Why did you wear that? Why did you go out at night? Why did you go out alone? Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you wait so long to report?
What did you do wrong enough for us to discount you?
I believe you.
You might not have felt it based on my academic reflections yesterday.
Sure, one woman could lie. Ten women could lie. Twenty women could lie.
But that’s the academic bullshit of an armchair spectator. I will not be among those who insist neutrality is believing it’s 50/50 you’re lying on a scale tipped so dramatically against you, when only a small handful lie. I will not be among those who make you wonder if you’re crazy, weak or in any way deserving of assault.
I feel for those falsely accused, but do so emphasizing their agony is a footnote in the shadow of tomes of overwhelmingly more prevalent sexual assault. One crime reflects the personal moral failures of a handful of false accusers; the other, systemic injustice we on the outside help perpetrate from our armchairs every time we say or imply that you’re likely just another liar with her own agenda.
I believe you.
It’s not my job to adjudicate. In any case, I’m not interested in weighing his guilt, threatening or cursing him. That doesn’t change anything–not for the better, anyway.
In fact, I believe focusing so keenly on all the details of any one him, speculating about him or castigating him hurts not only you but all of us. We blind ourselves to the whole picture because it’s easier to speculate on one lurid detail: one him. We’re so busy ogling the accident on the roadside, we don’t see the crumbling bridge ahead of us. Nothing gets changed that way because we can’t change something that’s already happened.
I’d like us to stop talking about any one him and start talking instead about how to help you. How to lift you up in healing. How to let you know we are here for you, listening to you, believing you.
I’d rather focus on building than destroying.
The sooner we can learn to give our all to lifting you up instead of wasting life tearing him down, the closer we will be to a gentler world worthy of your light.
I believe you.
Portrait of a Pedophile
Originally posted on TMiYC
November 30, 2013
Note: I do not mean to incite a witch hunt, nor any kind of hunt whatsoever. What inspires me to share this is not the desire to identify any particular perpetrator–for, indeed, many truly gentle men may fit the broad portrait below–but to enable readers to see, as I do, what can lie concealed behind certain carefully crafted kindnesses.
He is tall and thin, his demeanor studiously unobtrusive.
His attire is stereotypically professorial–almost comically so. He lives by tweed.
He is vocal about his vegetarianism. He does not, he tells you, want to take part in harming living creatures.
This gentle giant is great with your kids. He is so great with them, he wants to give you a little time off from watching them. He will take them to shows and parks, and show them funny movies while you, a single parent, get a chance to breathe.
He is a trusted family friend.
He builds trust slowly, careful not to do anything that might alert you to his ulterior motives. As he builds your trust, he starts showing a different side of himself to your kids.
He tells them they are beautiful-more beautiful, even, than you.
He tells them it would wound you deeply to know this, and makes it their secret.
When he is sure he had laid a solid foundation for silence, he touches them.
He tells them he will kill you if they tell.
I testified against him.
He sat across from me with wounded expression, his shoulders ever so slightly hunched, his face set in a plausible cast of mixed defeat and bemusement.
Compared to him, the district attorney told me, I was unsympathetic.
In retrospect, this is hardly surprising.
I was but a decade old.
He’d had decades to perfect deceit, a skill reflected in the hung jury that–as with his previous molestation case in the U.S. South–enabled him to walk free and clear, with no restrictions whatsoever on his being around children.
Decades have passed. I have forgiven him, and no longer envision revenge scenarios. But occasionally, I google him.
And I am horrified, because his work grants him access to kids. He could be taking pictures of yours today.
He has a knack for photographing ballerinas.
I cannot tell you his name, but I can tell you about him so you know men like him exist in your community.
Men like him are around your children.
It’s a terrifying thought, but I do not share it to instill needless fear.
I share it so you remember to look. So you remember predators are not distinguished by pointy horns or overtly menacing behavior, but prey effectively by concealing their ill purposes behind kindly exteriors. That is the key to their success: that you would never believe them capable of harm.
Gavin de Becker’s book Protecting the Gift is an essential resource for child custodians. de Becker writes about protecting children–humankind’s most hopeful and magnificent gift–from predators and other safety hazards. He offers not academic reflections but clear guidance he has developed over decades as a safety expert. His chilling examples are offered not merely to chill parents’ hearts, but to inform and instruct.
I daren’t boil his exceptional book down to a few bullets, but I want to share a few points borne of my own experience.
- Trust your instincts. They are the aggregate response to data so complex you cannot process it all at a conscious level. You are giving yourself and your loved ones a gift by giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. The potential cost of not doing so, of instead acting on guilt for mistrusting the seemingly trustworthy though your instincts demand otherwise, is inexpressibly enormous and sorrowful.
- Know that there are predators among us. Believing otherwise does not change fact, but does increase susceptibility.
- Ask questions. Ask so many questions, especially open ended ones, that you feel a little uncomfortable. Listen to the stories told, the evasive or incomplete answers, the silences around the words spoken. Listen hard, and then listen to your instincts before leaving your kids with even the softest spoken of acquaintances.
- Most of all, listen to your kids, and tell them you trust them. Tell them and let your actions show that there is nothing anyone could do or say or threaten that could ever change that. The earlier your kids know this, the less effective predatorial ploys will be. The more confident all will be.
What is done cannot be undone, but what is undone can be avoided.
It is the thought of what could be avoided that compels me to write on this terrible subject.
My mom grieved for years, convicting herself guilty of crimes at least as grievous as the pedophile’s. I wish I could change the past and undo both the crimes and suffering transpired there, but I can’t. While I can influence the future, I cannot change the past. This is part of why revenge no longer interests me.
Knowledge does. Knowledge is power, and how we can change the future.
Our children are gifts that need our love and protection.
We cannot ensure their safety. Life happens. Accidents happen.
But by our diligent efforts as heir parents and guardians, we can avert some tragedies.
If my words can help avert even one, the agony of revisiting these memories will have been worth it.
Protecting the Gift – Gavin de Becker
The Gift of Fear – Gavin de Becker
“How are you raising him?!”