I am young. In my very early twenties. Long, blonde locks cascade down my back flowing toward earth in gravitational pull. My natural hair color swinging back and forth as I walk. Covering up a bit of my curvy spine when let loose. Creating messes in my hair brush and shower drain.
Garnering me attention. Not wanted. Hurtful. Whistles, cat calls, and sexualized verbiage making my body tense up, harden like a brick. Avoiding certain streets at certain times of the day. Approaching working construction sites with stomach churning. Embracing winter. Muscles finally free within my wrappings. Years and years before I learn phrases describing my almost daily experience then: Sexual harassment. Specifically street harassment.
Yesterday my friend from long ago days texts me. Asks me if I’d seen the article in a well-known newspaper. The one naming famous classical music people as sexual abusers. Reminding me of one. A guest opera director in our opera prep program at one of the top ten music schools in the country. A man who openly bragged about the thousand women he slept with. Taunting student listeners with his sexual promiscuity as the AIDS epidemic ramped up, eventually killing beloved friends involved in our program.
This man singles me out. Me, a chorister in La Boheme. Begging for a dinner. Eating alone on the road so very lonely he said. Me, finally saying yes for the adventure of it. Being propositioned at the table. Turning him down. His retort delivered in French accent. Words meant to cut deep. “You know, you are not so very beautiful.”
Soon after this dinner maybe a day later in front of a crew of stage hands, he slams me against the brick wall of the theater’s backstage. Grabs my chin. Forces his lips on mine. Pins me with his body. Between solid brick and anger.
No one helps me.
At first stunned. Body shutting down. Mind not comprehending. Then frantic. Wiggling. Somehow pushing him away. Screaming something at him. Walking into the hallway. Wringing with adrenaline, anger, disgust, and contempt.
Later, maybe that day. Maybe the next. I call him out of rehearsal. Something not done. Ever. Not by a mere chorus girl. Demanding a moment with a big director taking up his precious and well-paid time. But in the wide corridor of the performing arts complex I say, “What did you think you were doing?” My words echoing off the walls. Words I have not been taught but somehow absorbed into my sense of right and wrong. “You ask first. You ask and then I either say yes or I say no. BUT YOU ASK FIRST!”
It helps in this moment that I am taller than he is. But the power differential is not lost on me. I play now with fire. His strength is not in his height or physical prowess. It is in his ability to make or break my future career. We both know this fact. The incensed anger within me however pushes out into the atmosphere. This time, I scare him. He leaves me alone from then on.
Like most women, I grew up eating, sleeping, and breathing this communal disinterest in how often our bodies are commented on and attacked. As if our bodies are fully extracted from our hearts, souls, and minds. Not of our doing. But of others. A right of unasked for cultural passage. No matter how wonderful our homes were, are and our fathers, friends, and partners.
Culture teaches. It molds. Keeps the harassed and abused silent. Then and now. As victims push memories away. Forced into our stomach aches, migraines, depressions, and autoimmune disorders. Into our bodies because until recently there has been no place for these facts to be embraced in the air around us. Lifted up as truths to be told. Unless we are blessed with incredible therapists who understand what sexual trauma does to our bodies over time. If not healed. If ignored like the greater culture minimizes and ignores our pains, no matter the extent of the abuse.
Hearing the news about this man of long ago, brought from the depths of my sinews what it felt like to be pinned against that hard, rough, brick wall. The panic of my breath when forcibly shoved. The being alone or on my own in front of a slew of witnesses. The tightness of my jaw. The pain radiating in the back of my head. The many times since when stressed or angry feeling someone or something pinning me down. Pressing in on my capture. Escape not insured. Sensations whose origins I could not fully place ricocheting within me. Creating emotional and bodily havoc. Until now.
That’s what naming these wrongs out loud in any form of the public square allows us. The many of us. The more of us than others. No matter our birth sex, preferred pronoun, race, ethnicity, religion, neighborhood, town, state, region, income, education. No matter what. Except our category as human beings. Naming begins healing. Allowing us to feel, recognize, remember in our bodies once again these unasked for and unwanted sensations. Connecting sensations with emotions. Realizing how sensation and emotion work together, either for us or against us. But in doing healing work, freeing us from the perpetuated evil of what first occurred. Saying “no” to this ongoing, unasked for payment living in our bodies.
Healing builds strength. An upholding and embracing of inner and outer resources. Mine, my words. Even then before I knew I was a writer. My words providing safety. Breaking me free. Now joining the words of others. Making known to all the narrative of our tragically universal experience wrapped in story, verbal exchange, essay, and in communion with one another. Words tearing down this sexual harassment, abuse, and violence wall. Destroying its silence with language brick by brick by brick by brick.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
For more information on how the human body absorbs trauma see the following books I found on Tony’s shelves after his death:
Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine.
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.