Vocabulary word: Oppression


The year that I turned 50, a man in a position of power, immediately responsible for my safety and that of at least a hundred others, rubbed his hands across my ass after requesting a hug (this just after an exclusive tour that he gave me and my younger sister and her kids because of a family friend with whom he worked.)

A handful of years later, in the throes of the #MeToo awakening, I realized that it was negligent of me to remain silent about that incident, despite how much it paled in comparison to say… rape.

I took my time. I was afraid. Afraid of the response mostly. But also afraid to face how shocking and embarrassing the incident was, how shaming and surprisingly violating, how unforgettable, as hard as I tried.

When I took the leap and reported it in December of 2017, two days after my 54th birthday, I felt almost buoyant. And terrified. Launched into some dark unknown.

“In no way do I want to talk to this man, hear from this man, be connected in any way to this man,” I asserted. “I only want to be sure that other women in his proximity are safe because I am certain that I am not the only one.”

How am I certain?

Because I have lived my entire life female; which is to say that I have been engaged in a lifelong survival course–in noticing who is and who isn’t safe–uncles, cousins, strangers, colleagues, bosses, friends, doctors, repair & delivery personnel, teachers, lovers, coaches, practitioners, priests–MEN.

Why did I hug this man if I have such an acutely developed sense?

Because of the timing, the situation, the cultural deference toward men/toward authority/toward not rocking the boat too much/toward making sure others are safe and comfortable and at ease.

Because I thought by the age of 50 my boundaries/my body were impervious and I couldn’t believe/wouldn’t believe that this wasn’t true.

Why didn’t I say something right away?

Because my younger sister. Because her kids. Because he literally had our safety in his hands. Because I had agreed to the hug. Because I had missed the cues. Because I was humiliated. Because I feared this institution more important to my family (and to me) than the violation of my body. (I mean C’mon Kelly, is this really that earth-shattering; think of how many men take this liberty. This guy could lose his life’s work. You could tarnish this industry.)

But more than all that, I didn’t say anything because it never occurred to me to say anything (and to whom would I say it?), just like it had never occurred to me to report any physical or verbal assault until #MeToo although we women report, to one another, whispering, like we did as girls, as girls.

“That guy just rubbed his hands over my ass.”

“Oooh.”

Even more surprising is that until #MeToo, it hadn’t really occured to me that I had ever been a victim, so strong was I and so immersed was I in this culture entitled to women’s bodies.

NO MORE!

I’m sorry if you didn’t get the memo.
I’m sorry if you’re surprised to find.
That our bodies are ours alone.
That we decide who does and who doesn’t touch, and when, EVEN IN THE HOME!!

I submitted my report informally via social media, in large part because I felt most comfortable doing so there. I thought that my report of the incident might be ignored or dismissed. I was wrong.

I was immediately contacted by Human Resource personnel and that’s when it got too serious for me. Too fast. Too out of my hands.

I slowed it down.

I changed my mind.

I changed it again.

As the date approached for a formal reporting, I began to experience the strangest sensations. The phrases “crawling out of my skin” and “climbing the walls” comes to mind. My eyes swelled. I had constant headaches. I was unmanageably anxious.

On the eve of the interview, I called a hotline for support. I felt so stupid. (I don’t even call friends for support.)

In early January of 2018, the HR personnel flew up to meet me. Flew! They picked the time and location, but I countered with venues of my own choosing.

At every turn of this process, I had to resist the urge to be accommodating and considerate of their needs exclusively. (They were going out of their way to meet me. So much expense.)

To the meeting, I brought along a close friend and at the last minute, my husband, feeling foolish for needing support for something so simple.

When I arrived to the conference room and discovered that my interviewers were female and that the primary agent was a middle-aged woman of color, I exhaled.

No matter what their opinion of me and my complaint, we shared a history of marginalization, of eggshells, of a vigilance that no man, no matter how close to us, will ever comprehend. (See Gretchen Kelly’s, “The Thing All Women Do…”)

No one touched the cookies they thought to put on the table. Or the water bottles. Or the coffee.

While they scribbled on notepads, I explained that I was reporting this incident because I wanted other women to be safe in this man’s presence, particularly as women were just rising to enter this level of responsibility; and if they weren’t safe, neither were any of us—their passengers.

I was surprised to find myself tearing up when I relayed what happened that summer day and then to find myself shaking afterward.

Once the interview was complete, I descended the stairs at the Latchis Hotel, feeling unburdened. Yet almost immediately I began to wheeze (I don’t have asthma) and within hours I began to lose my voice (I wasn’t sick), and when alone, say in the bathroom at a performance that evening, I wanted to fall to my knees and sob (I barely cry at home.)

If you are a man, you cannot imagine what it is to be a strong, educated, and a necessarily fierce woman and still have your world rocked by a man’s hands, a man’s words, a man’s physical dominance uninvited, even at home.

You cannot imagine the permeability of boundaries a woman must navigate in order to be a lover, a mother, a colleague, a traveler, a survivor, a sister, a city-street walker, and how she might discover that her boundaries need to be fortified, even at the ripe age of 50, even among loved ones.

My oldest son was home this past weekend, and he corrected me about my use of the term: misogyny.

For the past handful of years, he and his brother and their father have accompanied me as an NGO representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

“Oppression is the word you want,” my son says.

He is a senior at the University of Vermont where he is currently taking a women’s studies class, a course of study that wasn’t available to me at my Jesuit University in the 80’s.

The words and concepts he strings together are so foreign to me, so heady and soulless, that I leave the conversation to him and his father.

They talk about women for some time until I interupt:

“Has either of you noticed that there is an actual woman in the room?”

They pause and laugh and attempt to include me.

I am surprised of late at how often the depth of my awakening, so very excruciating, gives rise to their amusement or dismissal.

Often, I have to recast myself–through the lens of race instead of gender–in order to be made visible.

“Imagine if a friend was here, a man of color, and you were discussing racism without him.”

In part, their ignorance is a result of the invisibility of women’s work, women’s ways, women’s suffering; while their resistance must be tinged with discomfort, especially for my son who has long experienced this woman–his mother–as powerful, only to discover that she is vulnerable (and excluded), not just personally, but culturally, historically, politically, and even and especially physically. Vulnerable and tired.

“Oppression?” I said, trying it on for size, but it felt much too big in my mouth (and too serious) for something as simple as being born female.

“Oh, Shit!” the family joke goes. This is what my father apparently said, just after one of my younger siblings came into the world (the one beside whom I had been assaulted after our tour) and with that, my mother knew, as she would come to know on each of the six occasions of labor & delivery–feet in stirrups–that she had failed to bestow upon our father–a son.

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