I’ve spent some time watching the news lately. Far too much time, to be honest. And I can’t help but be outraged by what I see happening on a number of levels.
Lately, as I’ve watched the drama surrounding SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, I’ve been swarmed with many thoughts. Watching her testimony was difficult; I found myself in tears as I witnessed her pain. It was obvious, visceral, leaving no doubt that she had experienced a great trauma.
And it helped reignite my own.
Sexual assault. Two words that spark a violent, twisted image.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve never experienced sexual abuse in my life. But I have. More than once. It didn’t have the violent connotation that sexual assault does, but as an ongoing experience, those of us who have been abused at the hands of a relative or close family friend know that it doesn’t need to be to create trauma. But that’s another story, another discussion.
I’m talking about the atmosphere of high school during the 80’s. I hear the stories about Brett Kavanaugh and his friends, and I flashback, remembering all the moments I endured, the daily trauma and abuse I suffered at the hands of other students.
You see, the kind of goings-on described at Kavanaugh’s Alma mater weren’t exclusive to private school. My small town, po-dunk high school was full of entitled, thoughtless kids too. Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about.
Examples like the gang of girls who cornered me in the bathroom and tried to shove my head in the toilet. I fought back until they had to be content with pushing me in the garbage can instead. I never said a word.
Or the girl who shoved me into her locker every time she walked by me. I never said a word.
Or the senior who came up behind me in the library as I sat working at the computer and rubbed his denim clad penis against my head repeatedly, bumping me hard enough each time to push my head forward. I remember his laughter each time I tried to move away. He only stopped when another student walked up. I never said a word.
Or the kids who broke my glasses. Multiple times. I never said a word.
Or the girl who I thought was my friend until I told her about the things my step-father was doing to me. She was the first person I ever told. Two days later, the entire school had great fun walking by me and calling me a “daddy fucker.” For weeks. I never said a word.
Or the countless times that the kids would actually talk to me at a party, but pretend like I didn’t exist in the school hallways. I never said a word.
Or the boy at one of those parties who waited until I was drunk and alone to try and take off my pants. I struggled against him, pushing him away repeatedly. Only when someone else knocked on the door did he stop. I wonder to this day what would have happened if they hadn’t knocked. Would he have been successful in the end? I never said a word.
Or the way the boys in gym class would store up all the balls during dodge ball and heave them all at my head at the same time. It was a game for them, to see who could nail me in the head, knock my glasses off, or even better, knock me over. It happened day after day, every time we played that wretched game. I never said a word.
Or the time I peed myself in the locker room. No one cared that I struggled with bladder control my entire life because of a birth defect, one that required major reconstructive surgery as a child. They called me “piss pants” for weeks. I never said a word.
Or Freshman Initiation. Yeah, good times for most. Humiliating for someone as painfully shy as me. It put me into a forced spotlight, one that stirred up hideous anxiety. I never said a word.
Or the other girl I hoped was my friend, who convinced me to go drinking with a couple migrant workers one day. I went along with it because I desperately wanted a friend. Of course, we ended up getting caught while we were completely wasted. She twisted the story, laying all the blame at my feet. While I was assuredly complicit, I wasn’t responsible for her actions. We were both young and stupid, and any number of things could have happened to us. Fortunately they didn’t.
The end result? I spent the next couple days getting called “beaner fucker.” I never said a word. That is, until the day a girl said I was a loser just like my mom, and I told her off. I was actually proud of myself for finally speaking up; until I walked into my next class to find “Mommy Shababy does Beaners” emblazoned across the chalkboard.
I slunk to my seat and slumped over, my head in my arms on the desk as I tried to fight the tears. I’ll never forget what happened next, the pinnacle of all my high school humiliations: the teacher walked into the room and asked me to erase the board. Tears streamed down my face as I walked the aisle to the front of the room as my classmates laughed audibly, delighting in my misery.
I dropped out of high school the next day. It was still my freshman year.
I look back on it now, unable to understand. I see times where I brought some things on myself; to be sure, I was an awkward misfit. I was too smart. I was an only child with limited social skills. I was weird. I peed myself, for goodness sake! Of course I was going to get teased.
But that doesn’t explain the abject cruelty of those kids. It doesn’t explain how they felt okay with making someone a daily target for their ridicule.
Which leads me back to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s trauma. I felt her pain as she talked because I’d experienced it myself. Over and over.
She never said a word.
Because that’s what you do when you survive such traumas.
At first, you don’t say anything because you’re in shock. You can’t believe what’s happening to you, and hope maybe it’s just a nightmare. At least you can wake up from a nightmare.
Then, you don’t say anything because you can’t help wondering what you did to deserve it. It becomes a strange cocktail of shame and guilt. What 14 or 15 year old knows how to deal with those levels of shame and guilt?
Then, if you can get past the shame and guilt, you don’t say anything because no one else said anything. So many students and teachers witnessed what was happening to me. If they weren’t willing to defend me, maybe it meant I was indefensible. Maybe it meant my shame and guilt were justified. In Dr. Ford’s case, I can imagine her face as she left the house where her assault took place. I can imagine the wild-eyed fear that must have been present; I can imagine it because I saw the same look on her face as she described what happened to her, as she relived each moment. Her fear was very real, and I felt it with her, reliving my own trauma in the same moments she relived hers. I recognized her face as my own.
I’ve cried her tears, relived those moments over and over. And I’ve often wondered about those kids, just as I’m sure Dr. Ford wondered about the ones who hurt her.
Where are they now? Who are they? Do they have any idea how much it affected me? Have they ever even thought about it? Do they even remember what they did? Do they feel any remorse at all?
Nothing that happens now can take away the decades of trauma Dr. Ford has lived through, just as nothing can take away mine. It stays with you, becomes a part of you, something to deal with and live with. It can never fully go away.
It’s often been telling to me that I have suffered more trauma, more anxiety over my experiences in school than because of the sexual abuse I experienced. Both have hurt me, both have damaged my psyche, but the actions of adults are somehow easier to accept as not my fault. I can compartmentalize it better.
But my fellow students, my supposed peers? To be rejected and abused by those people somehow tears you apart, diminishes your personhood. You become persona non grata. Not even worthy of common decency. Stripped of your dignity and self-respect.
To be honest, I don’t know if I can ever fully recover from the trauma I experienced. It has affected almost every aspect of my life. Being able to move on and live a happy life is gratifying, but those moments when you think on events, relive a moment, still shake you deep inside. They stay with you forever.
For the record, I believe Dr. Ford. To do otherwise would mean that she missed her true calling and is the best actress I’ve ever witnessed.
These recent events have also made me wonder something else. As Brett Kavanaugh denies any wrongdoing, I can’t help but wonder if he really doesn’t recall those moments. Or, is he remembering them in a deep, secret place inside himself? If he does, is he sorry?
There are many people who are saying we can’t hold him accountable now for his actions then. And there isn’t any legal ramifications for him either; he can’t be tried and convicted in a court of law, in part because it happened so long ago, but also because he was underage. Not to mention the burden of proof. I mention these things only so people know that while I believe him to be guilty, I am aware of the reality of the situation. I know that in some ways, this is as it should be. I wouldn’t want to be held in judgement now for all the stupidity of my youth. Yet… were those the actions of a stupid youth? Or a callous, self-involved,entitled, drunken young man? Someone that neither valued, nor respected women as autonomous human beings with real thoughts and feelings?
I find it hard to disregard sexual assault as the stupidity of youth.
Perhaps he really is a changed person, not that young man he was all those years ago. He has been able to move on with his life and find great success. And good for him, I suppose. His entire life hasn’t been reduced to these tiny, yet powerfully traumatic moments.
But I wonder the same thing about him as I do about those kids who tortured me all those years ago.
Where was there humanity then, and does it exist today? Did they actually grow up into decent human beings? Or are they still the bullies and sadists of yesteryear?
I suspect Dr. Ford will wonder these things for the rest of her life, just as I will.
And the trauma continues.