ENOUGH: Who Really Holds the Power

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Tales My Mother Never Told Me
Susan Fisher

My mother never told me that my body belonged to me.

She never explained that I had a right—a moral obligation on behalf of all sisters, aunts, girlfriends, and mothers—to scream like a stuck pig when a boy or a man fondled my bum, slapped my ass, grabbed my crotch, suggested a game of strip poker, told me to pull my pants down, spread my legs, showed me dirty pictures, or waved his dick at me. Unless I wanted him to. Which mostly I didn’t, especially before I reached puberty.

My dear mom forgot to mention that these events would start early in my life. That they would happen often, and would include men my father’s age in tailored business attire or uniforms, and/or boys and men in dungarees, pajamas, and, once, a kilt.

Mom did teach me to be polite, to only wear suede shoes with evening wear, and to flutter the hem of my taffeta skirt just a bit at dances to reveal the pretty crinolines beneath. How was she to know that my first ‘inappropriate’ and thoroughly unwanted demand-sortie-advance-raid upon my very own sweet and holy body would happen around my eighth birthday. In my own home.

At least the perp was not a relative. Lucky me. At least I was never raped, beaten, or had to disassociate myself from my soul, i.e., cut off-bury-obliterate memories of incest, like some of my friends did.

It would have been helpful if my mom had explained that these events happen everywhere—in shacks, bungalows, and mansions, as well as places of education and worship, and probably on desert islands, too, and in space shuttles. The sky, in this case, is not the limit.

I blundered lonely as a cloud through the 1940s and 50s, where denial and wildly mixed messages about sex flourished like goutweed; where even slim teens like me wore panty girdles—one pimply swain who tried to get a grip on my backside asked me if I was wearing armor—and Maidenform bras pointy enough to stab your date with. (Remember those ads? I dreamed I was made over in my Maidenform Bra! I dreamed I was wanted in my Maidenform Bra!) To wit, one friend of mine was having lunch with her father in an upscale Boston restaurant in the early 60s. A man at another table had the waiter hand her a note, with his card, which said: “I dreamed I took you to lunch in your Maidenform Bra.” Both she and her father regarded this as a compliment. So did I. I secretly felt like a loser because nothing that classy ever happened to me.

Now I’m seventy-five and nothing has changed.

Even though we are more aware. And women have rights. Mind you, a lot of this awareness and those rights had to be legislated, but I guess we had to start somewhere.

A close friend’s dear twelve-year-old daughter recently had her first encounter on a busy sidewalk in broad daylight. No, she was not wearing anything short-tight-provocative-flashy-tempting-unsuitable-alluring, not that that should matter and I hate that it does. Her parents are now considering martial arts training. Fabulous. (Too bad the perp isn’t sent off to Effective Human training, but that’s not about to happen.) Still, not every family can afford self-defense classes. So, at the very least, I urge all parents to tell their daughters and sons to never hesitate to overreact/make a scene/get kicked out of class/ruin an elite fundraising event/wedding reception/rock the boat/get fired/be branded unreasonable whenever this happens.

If the youngster is by herself or the perp seems deranged/on drugs/might be armed? I don’t know what I would tell my child. Run? Fight? Bargain? Submit? Possibly this is where martial arts can save the day. If that’s not an option, I guess it’s a case by case scenario. When two hoodlums in a deserted parking lot sprang out at someone I knew decades ago, she pretended she was keen for hot sex. Confounded, the perps knocked her down in a greasy puddle and left in a cloud of curses.

I am not blaming my mom. Or my dad. I know their hearts would break to read this. They were well-trained by their parents and cultures back to the dawn of time. Nor do I blame the pathetic perps. They, too, have been groomed and enabled by our confused, repressed, sex-mad culture.

No use blaming anyone. Nor do I have any solutions, really. I can only examine myself, and ponder the tale of a sparrow lying upside down on a forest pathway. A traveler asked the bird what on earth he was doing there. “I heard the heavens are going to fall today” said the bird. “You’re kidding!” responded the traveler. “You think your spindly legs are going to prevent this disaster?” “Well,” said the bird, “one does what one can.”

Here’s to all those boys and men who called me frigid-prude-cock tease-no fun-party pooper, and who suggested that what I needed was a good screwing to loosen me up. Here’s to all the girls and women, who, along with me, kept quiet/blamed ourselves/played victim/didn’t rock the boat. And let’s not forget the legions of enablers who turned a blind eye or claimed they couldn’t change anything. Which role have you assumed in the past or present? If I look closely, I can see at times I have played all three.

Bless moms everywhere who are able to teach their children well on this subject. Most of all, bless those who can’t or won’t or those who tried and failed. For who knows what Body Snatcher Tales shaped them.

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All That Schooling
Jenny Klion

Childhood:

My camp counselor, the one that everyone loved and called their “uncle,” was obsessed with me. For three summers, he chased me around in my sun-backed playsuits, taught me how to swim, and invited me into his carpool. On the very last day I went to camp, because my family and I were moving away, he dropped me off at the end of my driveway, and told the other kids to wait in the car. Then he, a thirty-five-year-old man, took me, a nine-year-old girl, under a tree, swept me into his arms, and kissed me fully on the lips. I did not know what was happening, or how long it lasted, or what transpired afterward, but suddenly he was gone, and my family and I moved to the suburbs of Boston. Soon after, I received what seemed like an enormous letter from him, scrawled in script on yellow legal pad paper, ten pages long, telling me how much he missed me.

Decades later I found that same letter while cleaning out my mom’s house. I barely scanned it before chucking it in the garbage, but that long ten-page letter of him telling me how much he missed me… It was written on a miniature yellow legal pad. The pages were tiny.

 

Middle School:

It wasn’t till afterward, when I was in high school, lunching with a friend and her friend, that I realized it had happened. The man with the skinny arms and legs and completely spherical stomach, the father of another friend of mine, had jumped into the pool where we were playing, gotten behind me, pulled me toward him, and stuck his hands between my legs, landing them directly on my bathing-suit-covered vagina. Instinctively, at only thirteen, I kicked this person in the balls and swam away.

The moment was fleeting and dreamlike, though, and I never knew if it had really happened. But turned out, this exact man with the scraggy legs and spherical stomach was the uncle of my friend’s friend who I was having lunch with. She said the same about him, only worse.

 

High School:

My boyfriend and I were about as well behaved as you could be. Possibly our biggest risqué move was driving around to different make-out spots after dark and kissing passionately for hours. The first time it happened—a blaring flashlight in our faces and a cop’s mug at the window—the action of being caught and forced to explain ourselves seemed reasonably embarrassing, even possibly exciting. But the next time it happened, and the next, and the next, suddenly I was the only one who had to get out of the car—my boyfriend was told to stay inside—while this cop blared a flashlight in my face and screamed at me over and over about what a slut I was. I tried telling him I was with the same guy each time, and asked why wasn’t he talking to him as well, but the cop would have none of it, raging even more before sending me on my way.

I couldn’t understand what the problem was, or why my boyfriend was exempt, but years later my sense of violation was validated when I read in the town’s paper that the cop had been kicked off the force for harassing teen girls.

 

College:

I knew no one would believe me; he was a famous musician from somewhere, and directing the musical part of a show I was in. Being a performer, I was used to co-ed dressing rooms, but this musical director was annoying: he wouldn’t stop staring at me while I changed. I kept moving my spot in the room, but every time I’d turn around, there he’d be. The dressing room is a sacred space for performers, and it was hard for me to prepare for the show with this disturbing man breathing down my neck and person.

One night after the show, he followed me to the parking lot, to my car, and asked me out.

“No,” I said, and kept moving.

He wouldn’t stop describing how great we would be together sexually, wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I had to rush to my car and drive away to escape him.

The show ran for two more weekends, and I never went into that dressing room again.

 

After all that schooling, the harassments didn’t stop—including one incident of date rape after a party in Paris—and they still haven’t stopped. The ripple effects continue, though, like when my guard is up regarding my daughter, my beautiful nearly twenty-one-year-old daughter, and I wonder about her life, sexual assault and harassment statistics, and what she hasn’t told me…

But I loved unearthing that letter the camp counselor wrote, because the reality of that missive helped clarify my memory—I thought that document was written on huge paper, but it was tiny. In my mind, the counselor was huge; really, he was tiny. Finding that letter helped me flip my interpretation of that event, and others, to see who really holds the power. Me. My mind. My body. My psyche. Me. Me, too.

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How You Know
Leslieann Hobayan

When you open your eyes
When you panic
When you realize it’s not a dream
When you slip out of the frat house before he wakes
When no one believes you
When the mutual friend calls it a lovers’ quarrel
When he tells you to kiss & make up
When a counselor tells you to forget about it
When he tells you to start anew: a clean slate unblemished
When you tamp it down
When you box it up
When you tuck it in a corner
When you speak of it
_________________to no one again

When you change your name
When you start anew—at least you try
When you put pen to paper
When you scrawl the burn on the page
When you scrawl to purge yourself
When you write terrible metaphors
When you don’t know how to write it any other way
When you stop writing:
______no one wants to read coded poems about rape
When you go to therapy
When a therapist tells you to follow Cosmo’s advice:
______perk yourself up with a new wardrobe!
When you buy miniskirts & halter tops, bright lipstick & cigarettes
When you start to act like a promiscuous woman
When you leave therapy
When you go back to therapy
When you think you’ve had enough therapy
_______________________________________you’ve had enough
When you think you’ve healed

When, decades later, you go to a yoga class for trauma & healing because you are curious
When, afterwards, you break down uncontrollably in your car
When you learn the body keeps the score
When someone calls you by the Old Name
When your body seizes—
_______________________anxiety: a sharp-toothed comb raking your insides raw
When you can’t shake it
When you can’t name it
When you only feel the shaking, the raking
When you go back to that yoga class
When a presidential candidate rakes in accusations like chips at a casino
When his electoral win clutches you & you cannot leave your house
When no one understands this

When #MeToo explodes all over your newsfeed
When anxiety’s sharp-toothed comb scrapes again, hot as coal
When you cannot say me too
When you want to
When you crawl under the covers for days
When the whispered chorus of women becomes the embrace you’ve longed for
Me too
Me too
Me too

I see you
I believe you
I love you

Know this.

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Rationalizations
Magin LaSov Gregg

Because he said, “You need to drink more,” when I didn’t want to drink more, wasn’t drinking at all. Because he kept watching my Shirley Temple and following me around the bar while my husband slept in our hotel room. Because I thought this other man was my friend. Because I trusted him. Because I invited him to dinner with my husband and me, and he came and talked about his wife. Because everyone loves him. Because I accidentally brushed my hand against him and said sorry. Because he said, “You can touch me anywhere.” Because he followed me from the bar to the hotel where my husband slept. Because he was crossing lines and crossing a street after me. Because he followed me into an elevator. Because in the elevator he asked me to hug him twice and I did because we were friends, right? Because compliance is my default when I’m scared. Because we were celebrating a graduation. Because when the doors opened, I got out, and I felt like I’d escaped something.

Because a few years later I had an academic job and I presented at my first national conference. Because at this conference a man I didn’t know pointed to another man I didn’t know and said, “Are you with him?” Because it happened twice. Because I guess in order to be at this conference I had to be in a sexual relationship with a man. Because at the end of the conference I went to a bar with my co-presenter. Because we met a colleague from across the country who showed me pictures of his daughter. Because he kept grabbing my hand and stroking my skin as we looked at the photos. Because when he danced with my co-presenter, his hands went lower and lower. Because she grabbed me and said, “We need to run.” Because we ran. Because he asked the front desk for our room number. Because we never told. Because who would we complain to? Because who would listen? Because he was drunk. Because we were drinking. Because who cares?

Because I’ve heard men laugh about Title IX training. Because so far only one man has attended an employee book discussion about domestic violence this semester. Because when I asked my father why he beat my mother he said, “You’ve been brainwashed.” Because there’s a police report but he still says they were wrestling. Because I have zero fucks left to give.

Because a man in my workplace looked at my boobs and said, “You look springy,” as if he was talking about my dress. Because of men who push right up against a boundary and go unpunished. Because when women report they are shamed, blamed, dismissed. Because men get second and third and fourth chances to fuck up. Because locker room talk. Because it’s not a compliment. Because I was six and thirteen and sixteen and twenty-two and twenty-six and thirty-three and thirty-four and thirty-six. Because I’m done with doubt. Because I’m done with fear. Because I’ve survived the worst things. Because silence is my prison and I’m breaking these bars. I’m walking free.

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Bar Conversation
Sarah Appleton

Sometime in the middle of summer after I graduated college, I stood in a bar with my dad talking about rape on college campuses. The US Department of Education had recently released a list of colleges with open Title IX sexual violence investigations. I’m not sure if my dad could hear what I was saying, but he nodded along, looking engaged, like he always does when someone talks to him, despite what he may really think.

I was continuing a conversation I’d had with other parents, parents I’d met a few months back in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They were all graduates of the same East Coast liberal arts college, a world unto itself my father knows nothing about. He comes from a small farming town, where boys go away, maybe, to big state agricultural schools or else skip college and take over the family business. Girls sometimes never go; become young, stay-at-home mothers instead.

That first conversation was something I’d never experience before. The parents were incensed by a recent rape case at their alma mater. The offender had been allowed to return to campus a year after he was convicted of the crime. The girl had transferred by this point to a college where she wouldn’t be known as that girl. “Who was punished?” one of the parents asked. Another shook her head and said, “What an injustice,” her voice both defeated and enraged. To make matters worse, someone pointed out, the rapist’s sports team welcomed him back with open arms, forgave him if they ever held anything against him, celebrated his return. These parents were incensed by the wrongness of this justice. “Alcohol was no excuse to doubt what this girl claimed,” one of them said. “Alcohol does not make his actions okay.” They shook their heads at the societal punishment she had incurred, the sadness that would sit inside her forever and probably never leave, and the guilt this boy might never feel.

The passion and politics of this conversation is unlike any conversations I’ve had with my parents and their friends. But I tried it in the bar with my dad anyway. It’s a mess, I said. Some schools allow student governing bodies to deal with these cases; others turn them over to the police. There’s just no consistency.

My father gave no sign of what he was thinking. Did he know why I cared so much? Could he guess for himself? Latent panic didn’t register on his face. He nodded, and I realized the conversation’s heat was all mine.

 

Boys only want one thing, my mother told me at eighteen. Another time my father told me in the vaguest terms possible that my grandmother’s lover had traumatized my mother when she was a girl. Implication hung in the air, Dad said, Grandma kicked him out for a while before letting him back in. She didn’t protect Mom. The closest my mother ever came to disclosing this trauma was when she said, devoid of context, I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you. I was in college then, and in my head, I told her, It’s too late. We’re already the same.

It’s a memory I only let come to me in fragments: his parents’ bed, the limpness of my body, closed eyes as if that would make my body stop splitting in half. I’d thought we were friends. In response to my mother I was stoic, said nothing. What was the point? Why disillusion parents?

 

In the bar, I brought up rape on college campuses because I saw that the tide of the media had shifted away from it, and I wanted to hold it there a moment longer. A college campus shooting—at my college no less—put the rape conversation to bed, tucked it to the bottom of the current issues pile. During the conversation, I’d been animated. Did my dad notice? Did he attribute my enthusiasm to beer? He let the conversation peter out, and it never came up again.

What I didn’t say was that I could identify with these girls who, statistically, never come forward. I could identify with the girls who tell a close friend or two, a violation of a secret with the self that makes the aloneness not so alone but makes the shame grow. How do we want to be known? When do we want to lay our souls bare?

Then there’s the alcohol. It complicates everything. I remember the second time I’d ever been drunk, the sickly-sweet taste of Blueberry Cheesecake Smirnoff Ice, throwing up in his parents’ bathroom. They were away on vacation. I was at his house with a few friends, all male. I didn’t know my body’s limits then, and I’m not sure now whether it was the alcohol that made my limbs heavy or the loss of agency as I choked on a slurred no. He had a girlfriend, and the thought kept pounding through my head: How could he do this to her? He left the room to grab a condom, a surprising gesture, and my inability to move my limbs in that interim, to make known this is not what I want, leaves me with the unshakable feeling that it’s my fault, that the alcohol deadening my body cannot excuse me. It’s never your fault, advocacy groups say. But is this true? Whose fault is it, then? Isn’t this just a dangerous version of the blame game, a bartering of life sentences: you carry the conviction, and I’ll live with this eternal shame.

Talking to my dad in the bar, maybe, is the closest we’ll ever come to this conversation about something neither of us ever want to think about. How could I tell my parents anything when I still can’t forgive myself, still can’t believe that I am not to blame, not even a little bit?

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What You Need to Know
Ginny Taylor

Dear husband of my best friend,

This is what you need to know about your wife’s sexual assault, a case of molestation that happened when she was ten. Yes, I know she didn’t tell you until long after you were married. Yes, I know that when she did tell you, you really didn’t know what to say so you said nothing. And then she said nothing for years, because she thought you didn’t want to talk about it, or she didn’t want to talk about it. She hopes you have forgiven her for keeping this secret a secret, the way she wishes she hadn’t been the one to walk into a church camp cabin on a hot afternoon in the summer to find Uncle Joe going through little girl things before he decided to then go through her little girl thing.

This is not what she wants to explain to you now, though the story of what happened replays in her head every day of her life.

What she wishes you to know now—that she can’t quite explain to you herself—is that no matter how many years have passed, no much how much time spent in therapy, no matter how many anti-depressants taken, this single incident of sexual assault still assaults her. In her college years, it assaulted her every time she felt she had to have sex with men because she hadn’t been able to say “no” when she was ten. It assaulted her every time she had sex with you and cried for no apparent reason. It assaults her now every time the news erupts with the latest sexual assault allegation: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Jerry Sandusky, another Catholic priest… there have been so many. These stories reopen the wound that never really closes, never really heals beyond a scab that gets picked open and bleeds with every word, words like “sexual penetration,” “rape,” “assault,” “molestation,” “groping,” “finger fucking,” “ass-grabbing,” “breast brushing.”

The really sad part of all of this—and this is the part that’s so hard for her to say to you—is that now, decades beyond age ten, she doesn’t care about sex. Not with you, or with any other man or woman, for that matter. Sex just doesn’t mean anything more to her right now than another patronizing gesture, and there have been so many such gestures in her life: the look, the eye roll, the flirtation, the “let me buy you a drink” gestures that build one upon the other until she often wonders what’s the point of her body even being here when her soul has become invisible.

The invisible feeling happened again today when she awoke to all the #metoo posts and stories and press. And suddenly what she thought she had boxed up, placed on the highest shelf, far out of reach, came crashing down on her head. Again. And while #metoo brings awareness to a social and moral crisis that has been happening to women for thousands and thousands of years, she’s weary because it takes so much energy to go through what the stories, again. Because even to say #metoo is to remember. To remember what happened, what didn’t happen, what resulted from what happened, and what continues to happen after what happened so long ago. It’s mind- and body- and heart-extinguishing. Forget the being-hit-by-a-truck metaphor; it feels like you’ve been crushed on the truck grill, stuck in place while riding on a rut-filled road, feet dragging. Heart racing, breath coming in shallow, sweating as you wait for your heart to explode.

All of this is what she wants you to know, but will never tell you. Why? Not because you’re a misogynistic pig. You’re anything but. She will never tell you because she can’t risk your saying nothing again.  She can’t bear to see you look at her and struggle with what to say and in the end, say nothing. She can’t bear the thought of more silence. Because there’s been so much of that, especially lately.

Here is what she proposes because her heart is going to explode one these days. She proposes that when the news stories break about the latest pig sexually assaulting women, girls, or boys, that you bring it up. She wants you to be the first one to say, “I heard about this great athlete/celebrity/politician who raped his date in the elevator. I know how upsetting this news it to you. Do you want to talk about it?”

And you know what? She just might. Or she might say “no, I’m fine.” And your job at that point, because you still love her and she still loves you, is to look at her with compassion and say, “It’s okay. We’ll get through this, again.” Why? Because just for today, she might believe you.

Thank you for listening,
Your wife’s ten-year-old self

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change.

We received over four hundred submissions to our initial call and will not be accepting additional pieces at this time. We may reopen for submissions at a future date. We also must acknowledge that the submissions we received overwhelmingly came from white, heterosexual women. While we are actively assessing how we can do better in our next call for submissions, we also believe this points to systemic inequalities that need to be addressed: who has access to healthcare and to therapy, who has been taught to speak up and who has been taught to be silent.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

Visit the archives here.