TIME MAGAZINE has named the female whistle-blowers on sexual harassment, sexual assault and/or sexual abuse the Person(s) of the Year and I, for one, am immensely pleased. Reading their stories, beginning with Taylor Swift’s, made me conscious not only of the extent to which some men seem to view women as their own personal prey, but also to the courage that each of these women and the thousands that now stand behind them, needed to come forth. It also made me think of my personal experience in this matter.
I was in 4th grade and one or two of the boys seemed to think I was fair game for their habitual torture, which consisted in lifting girls’ skirts and showing their panties. Suddenly it seemed they had chosen me for their victim and at every chance they got they would sweep by pulling up my skirt and whistling or hooting. I remember feeling embarrassed and helpless (our uniform obliged us to wear skirts). It didn’t occur to me to tell on them (fear of disapproval and rejection was stronger than shame) but I did finally come up with a solution: I began wearing shorts under my skirts so that when they pulled it up, there was nothing to see and that gave me the last laugh. That ended their game, and I don’t remember them ever trying to do it again.
My second experience of ‘sexual harassment was nowhere as innocent as this. When it happened I was probably younger than any of the women who have spoken out. I was 13 and had just begun to develop breasts –something that I tried to hide as best I could. What happened was during our vacations in Acapulco (Mexico) at a house my father had bought in Las Brisas, overlooking the beautiful bay. My grandparents were visiting. That day, my parents, my grandmother and probably my little brother had gone shopping. I stayed home with my grandfather who I had always loved very much. He was one of the persons I had most fun with and we always played gin rummy when he was visiting (he almost always won as the card shark he was, but occasionally I would win and that would feel wonderful).
I was in our swimming pool just fooling around and my grandfather, who had been sitting in a deck chair sipping a highball, stood up and slipped into the water. For a while he floated on his back while I continued swimming and diving (playing dolphin). Then suddenly, I felt a pair of hands come around me from behind and cup my nascent breasts fondling them roughly. I struggled free, scrambled out of the pool and ran to my bedroom where I locked the door. When my mother came home a while later I was huddled on the floor next to the bed still crying. She asked what had happened.
“Arthur” –I had always called him by his name- “grabbed my breasts and squeezed them,” I blurted out. I think my mother hugged me (I don’t remember and she never was very physical) and what she said was, “Don’t pay any attention to it; it’s not important. Old men get that way sometimes.” When I stopped crying, she added: “And please, don’t tell your grandmother; it would make her feel terrible.”
At that time I didn’t see the contradiction between me –the victim- not taking it seriously and my grandmother ‘feeling terrible’; I just did what I was told and said nothing. However, not taking it seriously was not in my power; I simply hid what I felt, but I didn’t ever go near my grandfather again, not –at least- until I was 21. Today I can see that the price I paid for that was to lose my grandfather, my love for him and the fun we had together. Today that makes me sad. However, in the long run, I was fortunate because I was able to forgive him before he died.
At 21 I was married and expecting my first child (who would be born within a month). On our way to Massachusetts, my husband and I spent the night at my grandparent’s apartment in Larchmont (N.Y. State). In the morning, I walked into the kitchen. My grandmother was cooking something on the stove and my grandfather was sitting at the table, hunched over. I immediately saw how old he had gotten and my heart softened. I came up behind him, leaned over and hugged him for the first time in 8 years. I put my cheek next to his and whispered ‘I love you, Arthur’ and kissed him on the cheek. We left shortly afterwards and I never saw him again: he died one week before my son’s birth.
Years later, when I was studying to become a writer, one of my first stories would recall this childhood incident. I titled it: “A Time for Sunset”. When it was finished, I sent it off to several magazines but they all returned it without comments, so I put it away and forgot about it. Today, I have no idea where it is, perhaps in a folder stashed away in a closet, or maybe it has gotten lost during one of my many moves. No matter; today it is not an issue and I can even believe that he truly thought I wouldn’t notice. I know in my heart he would not have wanted to hurt me, but a man like him –with multiple addictions (alcohol, gambling, women)- was not the ‘master of his soul’.
Today I can look back and understand better because I no longer believe my thoughts, such as ‘he shouldn’t have touched me’ when it was obvious that that was exactly what he did. I do not know what story my grandfather told himself that permitted him to do that to his young granddaughter (perhaps he thought I wouldn’t notice, that I would think he was playing, I can’t know); I only know that it cost him her love and closeness. I do know, however, the story I told myself: in my innocence, I judged him and found him guilty; it was righteous of me, there was no room for forgiveness or even giving him a second chance. If –as probably was the case- he had judged me too innocent to be aware of his intentions, I had judged him too evil to be forgiven. So, in the long run, it was my judgment that cost me my grandfather.
Years later, I had begun working as a translator to earn money –I was still married- and upon finishing my first translation I went to one of my teachers at the University to ask him to look over it for me and help me correct it. He was a known writer in Mexico at that time and he seemed like the perfect candidate to help me do a good job. When he had finished, he asked straight out if I was going to pay him. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would want to be paid and I was taken aback (besides, it was going to be the first money I had ever earned and I didn’t want to share it). He saw my confusion.
“Ok. You can pay me with a kiss, then,” he said, looking me directly in the eye. I felt flustered and uncomfortable, and when he took my arm to pull me towards him, I quickly leaned in, gave him a peck on the cheek and then sprang back and free from his grasp. Standing up, I lamely thanked him for his help, swung around and walked out. Once more, I felt ashamed, in this case because I had acted like such a child never thinking that he would want something in return for helping me. If my thought at the time was that he had been ‘abusive’, I must also see that in thinking he should do my work for free, I was being abusive. So it is interesting how everything turns around perfectly and teaches me the lesson I need to learn.
This is not to say that harassment, abuse or any other sexual manipulation of women by men (or of men by women) should be tolerated. Action must be taken and the wrongs righted both for the victim’s and for the perpetrator’s sakes. An abuser allowed to continue cannot love himself, just as a victim who allows the abuse to continue cannot love herself. Yet the judgments of the abuser that the victim holds to be true will –until questioned and understood- stain his or her view of the world. In my own experience, it is not the punishment of the perpetrator that sets us free, but rather the sincere questioning of our own judgments and beliefs.