ENOUGH: Eating Toast and Talking about Sexual Assault

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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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Eating Toast and Talking about Sexual Assault
Katherine Polles

Usually the TVs lining the walls of our favorite sports bar displayed games, plays of the week, and final scores, but this time, as the hostess led us to a booth, we were surrounded by images of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

From where I sat with my sixteen-year-old son, Jake, it was nearly impossible to avoid the screens, but I was trying. I’d been following the hearings all day and I didn’t want to think about it over dinner. I didn’t want to think about it at all. Another story of sexual assault in the news, each headline and video clip making me feel angry and helpless. In that moment, I just wanted to think about waffle fries and seasoned sour cream. When the waiter put the giant platter on the table, Jake reached for a fry and asked, “Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

“Dr. Ford?” I said, not because I didn’t know who he meant, but because his question caught me off guard. Jake doesn’t typically initiate what could be a complex conversation. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, like, why wouldn’t she tell someone? Someone could have helped her. She could have gotten him arrested or something.”

I was surprised that he thought telling would have mattered. Grateful that he thought this is how the world works. And, heartbroken because I would have to tell him the truth.

“When I was a teenager, for a girl to share that something like that happened at a party would’ve probably made it worse for her. That’s how it was in the 80s. Maybe it’s a little bit better now, but I understand why she didn’t tell.” He shifted in his seat. Looked back at the TV, but not at me.

“Can we not talk about this now, Mom? I just want to have dinner, okay?”

“Okay, but sometime I’d like to explain why I think she didn’t tell. We should talk about that.”

We’ve always had a philosophy of “if he’s old enough to ask, he’s old enough to know.” Of answering his questions honestly. But how do I help my son understand something so far outside of his own experience?  He didn’t ask if anything like that happened to me. If he did, would I tell him?

Jake continued to look at the TV over my head, as I looked at the one over his. I thought about how media could be common ground. We share a love of movies and television shows. I thought about how media often mirrors society. Maybe I could use the warped messages about rape and romance that I grew up watching in movies and on television shows to help answer his question.

 

The first time I heard the word “rape” was on General Hospital. I remember watching the disco ball spinning. I remember hearing Laura begging Luke to stop. I remember Laura’s husband making her go to the police; she tells them she doesn’t know her rapist.

I remember asking my mother, “What’s rape?” I don’t remember her answer. Maybe I asked her why Laura didn’t tell them it was Luke. Maybe my mother told me it was because Luke and Laura were friends, and she didn’t want to get him in trouble. Maybe my mother didn’t tell me those things, but the soap opera did. Luke raped Laura and she protected him. She fell in love with him. She was his “angel.” She was an angel, he was a rapist, and theirs was the greatest love story of daytime television.

I faked a stomach ache so I could stay home from school to watch Luke and Laura’s wedding in 1981. The rape was no longer part of the storyline. It wasn’t talked about. Laura didn’t tell, and she got her happily ever after. That was the message I received before I was ten years old.

 

It’s 1978. I’m six years old. I’m inside watching TV (probably General Hospital). I don’t know where my babysitter is. She’s sixteen, and her job this summer is to make me lunch and make sure I don’t get lost. I watch a lot of TV.

Suddenly she runs in the house. “Didn’t you hear me screaming? Why didn’t you help me?” she yells.

I stare at her in her bikini, her hands on her chest. “They tried to hold me down and take off my top! I was screaming! Why didn’t you help me?” She starts crying and locks herself in the bathroom. I cry because I didn’t hear her. I didn’t help her.

When my mother gets home, my sitter tells her that two teenaged boys who live across the street came over while she was sunbathing in the backyard. That one of them offered to put lotion on her back, and then tried to untie her bikini top. She stopped him, but then he held her arms and told the other one to do it. She doesn’t think they saw anything before she got away.

When we leave the house later, the boys are sitting on our front steps like nothing happened. My mother tells us to ignore them, but I stomp by to show them I’m angry. They laugh at me, which makes me angrier.

My mother doesn’t speak with their parents about what happened. She doesn’t tell my father. She doesn’t talk about it with me. Maybe she thought, these things happen, better not to make it a big deal. What would she say if we talked about it now?

I imagine she’d tell me that she’d been raised to think “boys will be boys.” She’d only been in her late twenties that summer. She hadn’t yet gone to college. She hadn’t yet become a psychotherapist. My mother then and my mother now are two very different people. My mother now would tell those boys to get off her steps. She would march across the street and tell their parents what they had done, how upset her babysitter was, how scared her little girl was. That she would not tolerate that kind of behavior. My mother now isn’t afraid to speak up. What different lessons would I have learned about telling if that had been my mother then?

 

After the Friday night football game, Jake sat behind me as I drove a car full of his friends to the sports bar. To avoid the appearance of eavesdropping, I talked with my husband, Matt, who sat in the passenger seat. These were the moments where I might get a glimpse into our son’s life, a life in which I was becoming less and less an active participant. I was still the chauffeur and go-to source for money, but he spent most of his time at school or playing football, and when he wasn’t with his friends in person he was with them on social media. Our conversations had been reduced to a series of questions (mine) and one-word answers (his). I’ve been told this is normal, and have resolved not to resort to guilting him into talking to me.

The kids had a way of talking just quietly enough that most of their words were unintelligible from the front seat. I caught the names of a classmate or two, and complaints about homework. And then I heard my son say, “So she was Kavanaughed?” He laughed, but his friends didn’t. I didn’t know what they’d been talking about, what he’d meant. One of the girls changed the subject. Matt and I exchanged a look, agreeing to bring this up later. We didn’t get the chance to, because after dropping his friends off at the restaurant Jake said, “So, the Kavanaugh joke fell flat.”

“Yeah. Why did you say that?” I asked.

“I thought it would be funny.”

“Honey, there is nothing funny about any of that. It’s really upsetting. You shouldn’t joke about it.”

“Yeah. But making jokes is how I deal.”

“It’s too offensive. Don’t do it.”

“Sorry,” Jake said. I believed he was sorry, but I wasn’t sure he understood why he should be.

I turned up the radio and let the subject drop.

 

I was too young to watch Saturday Night Fever when it aired on television in 1980, but I did anyway. I remember Annette chasing after Tony even though he’s condescending and cruel to her. I remember the only thing he likes about her is that she’s a “good girl,” but it’s also what makes her unattractive to him. I remember she tries being sexier, and he lets his friends rape her in the back seat while he drives the car, and then asks her if she’s “satisfied now that she’s a slut.” I remember she’s traumatized but she isn’t angry. She still “loves” Tony. The boys are still her friends. They raped her, but they aren’t bad men.

I’m sixteen and passed out in a bedroom at a house party. I open my eyes when he opens the door, but I’m too drunk to talk. Too drunk to move. He’s my friend. He sits next to me on the bed in the dark and puts his hand in my jeans. Finally, someone else opens the door and he stops.

I think I shouldn’t have gotten drunk. I shouldn’t have been at the party. I’m not angry; I’m terrified people will find out. That they’ll think I’m a slut. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, and I don’t think I’ve been sexually assaulted. I think it’s my fault.

Decades later, I watched the Brock Turner story play out in the news. I listened to the description of the assault he committed on an unconscious woman and I couldn’t deny the similarities. All those years later, it was still painful to accept the truth. The truth that I had been assaulted. Not because I was at a party, not because I was drunk, but because it’s not always the bad guys who do bad things. I finally was able to feel angry with my assailant instead of with myself. But I still struggle with saying I was sexually assaulted. I still struggle with telling.

 

The next Wednesday night, Matt and I were sitting in the kitchen having a cocktail before bed, and Jake was packing up his things for school the next day. The TV was on, I was thinking about my to-do list, not really paying attention to what my son and husband were talking about until I heard Jake say, “That’s what Kavanaugh said.”

“What did Kavanaugh say?” I asked.

“Never mind. I was just kidding.”

“Seriously, Jake? I know that you use humor to diffuse situations that make you uncomfortable, but we’ve covered this.”

“It’s just you guys.”

Matt stepped in. “Yeah, but we don’t think it’s funny. Think about how women are feeling right now. Your mother doesn’t want to hear that crap.”

“God, it was just a joke.” The look on his face was defiant. He thought we were overreacting.

“Jake, are you getting this? I don’t think there is anything to laugh at, and you cracking jokes makes me think you aren’t taking this seriously.”

“I am taking it seriously.”

“How can I know that when you don’t act like it?” In that moment, I glimpsed what I feared he could become. Insensitive. Self-absorbed. Entitled. This boy with the soft heart. This boy whose teachers have told me is kind to everyone, who can be counted on to stick up for other kids. This boy who never forgets to say “I love you” before saying “goodbye” or “goodnight.”  This boy who I am so proud of because he is so good. What could I say to guarantee he’d never become one of those other boys?

I looked at the clock and at my empty martini glass. I decided not to have the discussion, again. “I don’t really want to talk about his now because it’s late, but know we are going to get into this soon. I know you don’t want to, but it’s my job as your parent and as a woman to talk to you about it.”

“Great,” Jake said in that tone that always accompanies an eye-roll.

I looked at Matt. “Do you want to be there when I talk to him?”

“Sure, if you want me to be there.”

If I wanted him to be there? I know he meant, “I don’t need to be there. You can handle it.”

And he’s right, I can handle it. But should I? Shouldn’t he be there in solidarity? To show what a man looks like when he gets the seriousness of these issues. I know Matt has talked to Jake about sexual assault, and about consent. About respect and boundaries. But I feared what he’d heard this time was, “I don’t want to talk about this either. It’s your mom’s issue.”

I had said it was my job as a woman to talk to Jake about this, that he needed to hear this from me. Why was I putting it off? I asked myself this question over and over until I realized I was afraid. Afraid of not saying the right thing. Afraid that he’d ask me if anything like that had ever happened to me. Afraid of telling.

I knew I couldn’t have helped my babysitter when I was six. I knew it wasn’t my fault that I was assaulted when I was sixteen. Still, I didn’t want my son to see that girl in me. The girl who got drunk. The girl on the bed. I didn’t want to disturb the boundary between “mother” and “woman.” As a mother I’m a protector, not a victim. As a mother, I’m wise, always careful. I was afraid of falling off the pedestal of motherhood.

 

The next Sunday, I called Jake down to dinner. It was just chicken noodle soup from a can at the kitchen counter, but I had made garlic toast. I don’t often cook, so even buttered bread sprinkled with garlic salt and warmed in the oven is a treat. Jake sat down at the counter and said, “So Kavanaugh got confirmed anyway. We just suck so bad. If I had the money, and I was older, and I didn’t have family and friends here, I’d totally move to Canada.” I knew how he felt. Recently, I’d imagined scenarios in which we’d have to flee to Canada. We’ve gone so far as to keep our passports current, just in case.

“Yeah, it does suck,” I said, “But we all knew this is how it’d shake out.” But, Jake hadn’t known. He’d still been holding on to a belief in justice. Here was my chance to have the conversation I’d been avoiding.

“Actually, I’ve been thinking about your question of why women don’t tell. I think I can answer it now.”

“Did you lure me here with toast just to have this conversation?”

“I did,” I joked. “I made garlic toast so you’d have to sit here and listen to me while you eat it.”

He grabbed two more pieces of toast as I started talking. What came next was a waterfall of words. Something about General Hospital and Saturday Night Fever. Something about societal shame and the re-victimization of women who tell. Something about women being told again and again that they don’t matter. Was I saying anything right? I kept talking. Jake kept eating toast, and I found myself rephrasing things I’d already said in the hope that this time it’d be clearer. In the hope of guaranteeing understanding.

“You get it, right?” I asked him.

“I do, Mom. I totally get it. Can I please just eat my toast now?”

He didn’t ask me any questions, and I didn’t tell my own story. I didn’t say everything I wanted to say, but it was a start. There would be more news stories, and more discussions. Maybe next time, I’ll lure him into talking with more toast, but I’ll also make the soup from scratch, and we’ll sit down at the table. We’ll talk about the latest terrible incident, about how most women have stories to share about assault and harassment. Maybe I’ll say it’s time for him to hear mine. Maybe I will tell.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original 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. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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