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 runs every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
First Do No Harm
Liane Kupferberg Carter
On the heels of the 2018 conviction of sports doctor and serial child molester Larry Nassar, other rogue doctor stories broke. Two lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment were filed against disgraced former University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall and the school. Days later, the late Dr. Reginald Archibald, esteemed endocrinologist at Rockefeller University Hospital, was accused of multiple acts of sexual misconduct with child patients over the course of thirty years.
These reports got me thinking yet again about how much power doctors wield over vulnerable patients. We trust them to treat us appropriately, to heal what ails us. In exchange, we allow ourselves to be poked, prodded, and intimately touched. We forge a social contract, trusting our doctors take seriously the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm.”
The story that personally cracked me open was a searing admission by broadcast journalist Connie Chung. In a public letter last fall addressed to Christine Blasey Ford in the Washington Post, Chung revealed that as a college student, she was molested by her trusted family doctor. I was suddenly flooded with the memory of a doctor I saw when I, too, was in my twenties.
I’d been a newlywed. I’d met my husband Marc in a whirlwind, rom-com cute way; we dated only two weeks before he asked me to marry him. One evening, a year into our marriage, my husband suddenly developed chills and spiked a fever. There was blood in his urine. Suspecting a UTI, our internist sent him to a urologist, who prescribed antibiotics. Marc’s symptoms quickly resolved.
Soon after, I started to have burning pain during sex. Our doctor referred me to an OB-GYN at a major medical center in Manhattan. An acquaintance had recently seen the same doctor, and assured me I’d like him. “He’s funny,” she said.
I was sitting on the exam table wearing a flimsy paper gown, bare legs dangling, when the doctor entered the cubicle and introduced himself. We chatted. He seemed affable. I confided my problem, and asked if it could be related to the infection my husband had recently been treated for.
“How did he get that? Where’s he been?” the doctor said.
Was he implying my husband had an STD I didn’t know about?
“He hasn’t been anywhere,” I replied.
The doctor snickered.
I bristled. “I know my husband.”
“Right,” he smirked. “Let’s have a look. Lie back and slide down.”
I hooked my heels into the stirrups and stared at the white acoustic panels on the ceiling. He draped a sheet over my lower body, then called a nurse chaperone in, who silently positioned herself behind him where I couldn’t see her.
I breathed deeply, willing myself to relax. “Does this hurt?” he asked.
“What about this?”
“Okay, we’re going to simulate intercourse,” he said. He began vigorously pumping his gloved hand inside me. “What about that?”
Embarrassed, I stared harder at the ceiling.
“Does that hurt?”
Finally he removed the intrusive hand.
“So what do you think the problem is?” I ventured timidly.
“Maybe you’re in love with my hand and not your husband’s penis,” he said.
I bolted upright, clutching the sheet to my body. Words failed. Finally I sputtered, “That’s… gross!”
I looked at the nurse, silently pleading for an ally. She didn’t make eye contact with me.
I don’t remember getting dressed. I don’t remember speaking to the doctor afterwards. I don’t remember paying. I must have done all those things, but I’ve blocked them out. Everything except the warm ooze of K-Y lubricant jelly leaking into my underwear.
My husband met me in the lobby. “Are you okay?”
“I just want to get out of here,” I said.
We drove home. It was easier to talk in the car; I didn’t have to look at him as I repeated what the doctor had said and done. Marc was outraged. “If I’d been there I would have slugged him!” he said. He reached for my hand and squeezed it.
“And for the record: I have not ‘been’ with anyone else since the day I met you.”
“I know that,” I said, with utter certainty.
I was too embarrassed to tell my internist who’d referred me. All I said was, “I didn’t like him. Could you recommend a woman doctor instead?” Which he did. She immediately diagnosed me with a subclinical yeast infection, and prescribed medication that solved my problem.
Connie Chung began the confession of her abuse by saying, “I have kept my dirty little secret to myself.” I felt dirty, too. I berated myself. It must have been my fault, I thought. Something about my demeanor must have given him license to treat me that way. Maybe I’d seemed too friendly. In truth, all I’d done was seek out medical advice for a problem. Thrown off balance by the uneven power dynamics of our respective roles, I’d been defenseless. Moreover, I’d been—quite literally—naked.
I carried that shame a long time. For decades, that doctor loomed outsize in my imagination. Recently I looked him up online. He’s prominent in the area he specializes in, treating women at their most vulnerable. I read three recent patient reviews. One was laudatory. The others detailed his mistreatment of them, describing him as insensitive, rude, and “one of the most arrogant doctors I have ever known.” In photos, he looked smaller than I remembered. Maybe it’s the fierce power of telling my story that has finally shrunk him back to life-size.
Patients often imbue doctors with near-mystical power. It’s crushing when one of them betrays that trust. I was humiliated. Verbally abused. Physically violated. I didn’t call what happened to me any of these words at the time; I didn’t yet have the vocabulary.
But now I do.
The word for what that doctor did to me is assault.
You have a john named John, at least he swears he is. He looks like your oldest ex-boyfriend, which is to say he’s the youngest of the men who pay you. He says he is a good man while he unties your dress, that he was there when the towers fell. He tells you how many millions of dollars he’s donated to charities while he presses your face into the floor. He tells you about the powerful people he knows while his hands separate your legs. Every time he pushes inside it hurts and he likes that and so he becomes your regular, biweekly meetings at hotels downtown and twice at his house in the suburbs. You prefer the hotels, the lines between your lives clearly delineated in coded keys and check out times, the sidewalks outside always a full, fast stream of lives that carries you to the top of the subway station stairs where you pause to exhale, still like an eddy in their current.
The john named John promises to marry you after his third purchased hour. You laugh and slide the banded bills into the zippered pocket of your purse. Men have been promising to marry you since you were fourteen but this one never asks you to spend the night and pays well and so you continue to answer his calls, taking Adderall and smoking cigarettes in the hours before you see him so he can finish in your ass, his grand finale. There’s never much to cleanse. You can’t manage to eat before dates anyway, paid or unpaid.
Two months in, he invites a third. She is a surprise, a present for you, he says. Wonder if he saw something in your face or felt it in the way you touched him, or if it was just your online profile—open-minded, into couples. She is late and he is on top of you on the hotel room floor before you have a chance to wash your hands. Think of making a bet, stain-resistant carpet chafing your cheek. If it’s over before she arrives, you get her money. Decide to hope instead. Maybe she’s the kind of girl who likes getting fucked in the ass so you won’t have to pretend to be. Last time you bled for three days, after. You left your bathroom and pulled the safe out from underneath the bed, held his bills in your hand until they felt like your own.
The new girl knocks, a light enough sound to make you press damp palms to the cold skin of your thighs like you can wipe the cellulite from its surface. Her face is not what you expect. She looks younger than you think you ever have. Her eyes glow without liner and her smile is a fluid thing and she is wearing sandals and tight jeans, like she’s on a family vacation, like she walked into your room thinking she’d find her sisters whisper-laughing and painting her sleeping father’s toes. John weighs her ass in his hands.
She tells you her name is Tara. When you laugh, she asks why and her curiosity surprises you into honesty. You tell her your first fake name was Kara. And then you laugh all together, the three of you, a john who wants you to believe his name is really John and two women who will pretend to believe anything he says for the next hour.
Kara was born long before your job required her, on a sidewalk, too scared to remember your real name and so you said the name of a girl you used to want to be instead. And for years after, whenever a strange man made eye contact and wanted to be your friend, she was who you became. Kara with the boyfriend. Kara late for work. Kara with somewhere to be. Kara who took care of you when you shrunk beneath their stares. Kara who smiled and laughed at everything because she could be hurt by nothing.
You free the final leg of your jeans from your heel and join them by the bar. Slip your fingers beneath cloth to skin in perfect synchrony, tracing the paths you know to cave him. He pushes you both down before him, eyes closed and hands on your head like a man of God and he is in her mouth before he has time to notice the sapphire line rimming her left iris, the dark mole on her collarbone, the steep bow of her upper lip. She blinks slowly, moving like she’s practiced, her glued lashes in time with her mouth, her tongue, her neck, her hands. Her voice volleys with your own, her ability to hit the high moans with his dick in her mouth impressive. You bob for balls and his palm falls to the mattress, trembling bicep keeping his torso upright.
Decide Tara is the sound wind makes at night, when there’s nothing competing with its breath. Except someone is, and loudly, commands as confident as the bills he’s set in two neat piles on the nightstand. He tells you both where to go, what to do with which part and how hard. Past johns have taught you this path is easiest. Clear directions towards a common goal, control a position in which you cannot find comfort. As soon as he is close enough to smell and taste and touch, you drift. Let him replace you, fill you up with the you that keeps him calling.
But this time, Tara is here and she is ruining things. She smells like vanilla sugar body lotion and moves like her bones are built of salt. It’s not fair really, she doesn’t even mean it. Her eyes are ratcheted upward, away from you, to him. Her hands wind around the backs of his thighs. Her sounds keep time with his grunting. She is here for him. It’s only you who keeps forgetting. Think maybe it is the warmth of her beside you, tricking your mind into believing the slight graze of her shoulder is something you want to stay on earth to feel. Remember how much it costs to love someone for longer than an hour.
When she touches you, you know she has not done it before. You try to show her how. It is harder with the john named John inside you, his one knee propped up on the bed for propulsion, each thrust smashing the top of your head against her stomach. In the end, it never matters—what you do to one another. He gets up for water and reminds you—continue.
Tara stretches on the sheets, head in a bony bent elbow, the edge of a laugh caught in her nearest eye, one thin knee locked in the crook of your own. When you kiss her, teeth hit and it’s like the first time you’d ever kissed a girl, during the last summer that stood between middle and high school, at Elizabeth’s birthday bonfire. You remember Alicia’s eyes like sparrows, brown and small and poised for flight, as if they feared contact might release a thing volatile. Faces warped by warmth chanted. You both leaned forward at the same time, too fast. Foreheads collided, teeth scraped, noses fought for terrain. At first, there was only hardness. You thought it was the end. But then the edges melted, gave way to something soft. You found a place within her. You kissed until she pulled away, until the sounds of boys grew into something more like men.
You try to kiss Tara like no men are watching, even though you feel the john named John standing naked at the end of the bed like you can feel the side of an eye on your skin in a crowded subway car. You feel it in her, too, the strum of something tense and writhing in her touch, her movements lined with coiled copper. You can feel it in her tongue, in the way she melts against you for his eyes, in the way his slightest touch elicits frantic moans. She takes a nipple between her teeth.
He bends you over one another, until the two become a single mass of easily accessible parts beneath him. You take turns with the hard parts. It’s easy to forget who makes what sound and why and none of it really matters anyway and so you all just try to keep a rhythm and not smack skulls. He pulls away and she falls beside you. He utters his command and walks into the bathroom once more, dick perpetually in hand. Keep going.
Your palm spreads flat along her scalp, fingers drawn in deeper by thick roots. She watches the cool light behind the bathroom door, like she is waiting for its death to press play. But then she takes your own face in her hands like it is something precious. She kisses you. Her mouth is a question, contact so light you know she can only half mean it, at most. You kiss her back just as gently. It is the kindest thing you can give to each other. It is enough.
He is back too soon and then it is time for the hardest part. He grabs Tara with one arm. Picks her up without pause, like she has been hollow all along. He flips her around and spreads her legs and spits into his hand and she screams and bucks across the bed like he has tried to break her open. It is decided, just like that.
You are on your knees before him, legs open like an offering. You bend and he says play as he pushes inside so the fingers of your one shaking hand find their way to her and the rest make a vice around clumped sheets. You scream too loudly to mistake for pleasure but you do not sway and he does not pause and you can taste blood between your teeth and when your tears fall they leave flecks of mascara on the sheets. But Tara is there.
She takes his face with hers so your eyes don’t have to pretend. She brushes sweat-heavy hair from your back. The lines of her nails embroider your spine in eternal ellipses, tips making a feather outline of each vertebra. She reminds you what softness feels like.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
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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