ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
White Lab Coat, No Face
A two-part audio loop: the harsh ring of my cell phone’s dot-dot tone for incoming email, then gravel grinding under my car tires as I brake. The loop repeats, steady as a heartbeat, as I read the reply from my gynecologist: I cannot think of a reason for a vaginal exam in an asymptomatic seven-year-old patient. I’m so sorry. It is January 26, 2018; I am sixty years old. I’m so sorry inserts itself into the audio loop. The loop plays in my ear all day. Decrescendo morse code, gravel, I’m so sorry.
On January 25, 2018, the day before my gynecologist responds, Olympic gymnasts and Michigan doctor Larry Nassar are front-page news: Nassar’s sexual abuse incidents grow to twenty-six. His medical license is revoked and he is serving sixty years for possessing child sex abuse images of children. A 40-to-175 year sentence after 160 women testify to being molested by him.
I want to confront my doctor. But how to track him down? Is he even alive?
How many times did I doubt myself—had it been my imagination? I daydreamed as a child, and later as an adult, of my escape from evil men that I would always overcome just as certainly as a new moon arrives every twenty-eight days.
What I remember from July 1965: the woman at the front desk’s caked coral lipstick. Her smiling, her telling my mother that my surgeon, let’s call him Dr. A, was called away on an emergency, and that a different doctor, let’s call him Dr. B, would conduct the pre-op exam. My mother asking if the doctor who conducted her own thyroid surgery would be operating on me. The coral-lipped woman reassured my mother this was so.
What I remember in the exam room: the wooden tongue depressor, the call and response of the doctor’s Ahhh and my subsequent Ahhh, his neatly trimmed nails, the lunula at the base of his nails white as raw meringue, the lack of ragged cuticles. His Let’s have you lie down, as if he were what people referred to as the good doctor. His stark white lab coat, so crisp I could smell the overladen starch particles. Him asking me to place my feet on the exam table. The sensation of the soles of my feet on the linen, the spartan upholstery of the exam table beneath the clean linen. Wishing I had underpants on.
Memory is an odd creature. Some things you never forget: the Halloween you lugged the over-filled white pillowcase lumpy from candy, soggy as a cotton-knit swimsuit fresh from the lake; the births of your children; your first shooting star; the smell of August rain on parched asphalt; the nausea and grogginess that comes with anesthesia leaving you. Some memories you let rise, let twirl on the surface. Others you push down in the memory barrel.
I cannot remember the kind of chair my mother sat in that day, only the assemblage of her arms against her ribs. Her right elbow cupped by her left palm, her chin cupped by her right hand, the fingers that covered her mouth. The same way she held herself when she contemplated grocery lists, laundry piles, monthly tuition for six children in parochial school.
What I remember: turning my head to my mother when I felt the doctor’s fingers on a part of my body I did not have a name for yet. Part of my bottom, that general area that I only knew to have two holes: one for GG (Good girl!) and one for BMs (bowel movements). An area that my Catholic upbringing told me should always be covered unless I was bathing or changing my clothing.
What I remember: my mother’s tight-lipped smile, her perusal of the bone-colored purse in her lap, her working the gold clasp with no apparent objective.
What I remember: the starkness of the doctor’s white lab coat. Was there a window behind him? I have put a window behind him. I have put cherry trees in late blossom behind the window, and dappled sunlight filtering through the trees. I have erased his face.
A fingertip inside me. Utter silence in the exam room. Had I heard the word vagina the summer before third grade?
What I remember: the insides of my knees that sought each other; my face that flushed hot, my knotted stomach that was cold as a calf’s heart in an icebox. This felt wrong, but what did a seven-year-old raised to respect her elders know?
In a small bed in the children’s ward I worry if another doctor will have to touch me there before surgery. No one does. The next time I feel a physician’s hands on my vulva is thirteen years later when I’m fitted for a diaphragm.
In fourth grade we are given a mimeographed drawing to color. The drawing is of a man dressed in a trench coat, trousers, and a fedora. He is holding a bag that must contain penny candy towards a small boy. The teacher talks to us about strangers who want to hurt us. She doesn’t use the word molest. Hurt can mean a lot of things. She tells us we should pray to Saint Nicholas, protector of children. She reminds us that we can always pray to the Virgin Mary for anything. Perhaps I do not pray enough.
When my youngest daughter is in kindergarten and plays at a classmate’s house, the boy’s mother calls to let me know there has been an “incident.” Some “playing doctor.” The two of the them were “examining” each other when she walked in to call them to have a snack. My first response is rage, is disgust towards the boy. The words of the boy’s mother, a woman I trust, snaps me out of my panic. There’s nothing sinister here; they were both touching each other. They’re six years old. He’s a good kid but if there is nothing shameful, why am I shaking?
This memory of the doctor’s fingers on me surfaced in random occurrences, sensed emotionally and physically as if the pressure on my labia was being repeated. I can’t tell you when the doctor’s disembodied hand on my labia, his finger in my vagina, finally fell away. But I can tell you when they rose back up: January 25, 2018 with the detailed testimony of another doctor’s hands, the fondling of breasts, the ungloved, digital examination of young women’s anuses and vaginas who were there only for osteopathic work.
In a vertiginous moment my own doctor memory shot back. I asked myself: Did this really happen? I wished the memory had remained submerged, not spinning here on the surface like rotten leaves stirred from the bottom of a pond.
Had anything happened while I was on the surgery table? Would the nurses have stopped it? The image of nurses in their white uniforms made me feel safe. I can only resolve what I know is certain.
I send a request for a name of the unknown doctor with the only facts I have:
1. The surgery occurred at _______ Hospital.
2. The doctor who performed the surgery was Dr. _______,
3. The doctor who performed the pre-op exam was not the surgeon.
4. The date of the examination was sometime in July 1965.
How did the doctor examining me know I wouldn’t object? Had I said something to reveal a submissive nature? Did my mother say something that would lead him to believe she would assume my exam was routine? Or was this how women in the mid-1960s were, all too trusting of clerical collars, government uniforms, and white lab coats? It would be five more years before Our Bodies, Our Selves was published. Five years before I heard any proclamation that my body was sacred, my own.
I study neck illustrations from Gray’s Anatomy. I note how indeterminably close the thyroid gland is to the larynx nerves—the voice box.
I wonder: Could a doctor be posthumously stripped of his license?
I receive my request form back from _______. There is a check in the box next to: We are unable to find the information you requested. There is no suggestion for how I might find the name of the doctor. There is no, I’m so sorry.
I console myself knowing much worse abuse has occurred: the girlfriend raped at knifepoint at sixteen, a friend’s aunt whose skull was cracked with a hammer by her husband when she complained about his affairs, students molested by their own teachers under the guise of love. Who am I to complain?
So what’s going on? my OB/GYN of over twenty-five years asks in 2009. How are the girls? How old are they now? I’m here for my annual check-up with the doctor who cared for me during both pregnancies. We catch up on the babies he delivered, now young women. We talk about my journey into menopause. He calls a nurse into the exam room—now standard operating procedure before any woman scoots her bottom to the edge of an exam table or sets her feet in silver stirrups. This doctor, the doctor who wraps lambswool around the hard metal stirrups, who warms up speculums, who decorates the room with tiny teddy bears. The proverbial good doctor. He laughs gently and asks, Could you relax your knees please?
Frank Warren, author of PostSecret, encourages telling our secrets, advises that [w]hen we keep a secret, that secret’s keeping us. So I tell my younger sister and I tell one close friend. I tell my husband, who says, It’s not your fault, who wants to confront the doctor I cannot find. I write about it in my writing group. I write about it at my kitchen table every day for a month trying to find the heart of the hurt. Does the hurt come from a violation of trust? From my mother not protecting me?
What if I’m wrong? What if my current gynecologist doesn’t know that in the mid 1960s it was common practice to do a vaginal exam on adolescent girls with enlarged thyroids? What if the exam was meant to err on the side of caution? I decide that there is a difference between checking for abnormalities and rubbing the outer and inner vaginal area of a seven-year-old. Why didn’t he just ask if I’d noticed anything unusual?
Did the doctor examining me ever experience guilt? Did he ever toss and turn in the middle of the night over what he had done? If there was me, there were others. Do they want to confront him? I realize I still call it examining. Why do I not call it molesting? I need to name it, to say: A doctor molested me when I was seven.
My mother might say: Past is past, spilt milk. I take heart that I’ve talked to my own daughters, have told them they can say no if it needs saying—that they are the ones who decide, not others, no matter who it is they are saying no to. An ounce of prevention, my mother would say.
One morning I walk my garden, listen to sounds of the towhee in the brush, the rumble of frog. The memory flies back to me as a goshawk flies to the rabbit in the field, I wonder now as a grown woman: Did he have an erection under his white lab coat?
I touch the pink scar that runs eight inches just above my collarbone, from the incision I sometimes dream goes all the way around my neck—the same dream where my head begins to slowly tip, then tumble off exposing raw flesh, snapped bone. And, as if in a dream, I close my eyes. In my imagination I stir the rotten leaves at the bottom of the barrel until they whirl in a wet vortex. I stir until leaves rise up in a spiral like some Kansas tornado. The muck soars skyward until the water evaporates; the leaves desiccate then shatter into the smallest of particles and mostly scatter out of reach.
Will this memory ever come back? Probably. When it does, maybe the blade of it won’t feel as sharp, the worry of it won’t be a small millstone around my neck, won’t bind my ribs, won’t sound the same. Maybe.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary 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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