This story has been trying to escape for a while now, but I kept pushing it down. It felt at once too distant (events too long past) yet too close (too personal) to have relevance to others. Then a few things happened; an unthinkable number of my fellow citizens took Candidate-then-President Trump’s casual and consistent debasement of women as signaling open season on us; Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court; and ButcherBakerToiletryMaker published a stunning and affecting story from his life. From Butcher’s example I drew courage, and from current events I gained rage.
After consulting with site management about whether this post belonged here [obligatory trigger warning – sexual assault forms a part of this story] their main concern was whether I was comfortable linking these events to “Elliecoo of DeadSplinter”. I am. The shame should not be mine, and I will carry it no longer.
Forty-five years ago, my first job was as a beauty consultant (glorified shop clerk) at a cosmetics store. I was 15 years old, and thrilled to have a “nice job”, to earn my own money, trusted to work alone, and entrusted with a set of keys and the responsibility to open up in the mornings and close the store at the end of the day. The store was in an unenclosed strip mall; each store had an individual entry from the sidewalk. This store was the only one on the small stretch leading from a surface parking lot to the main intersecting boulevard of stores. It was isolated, and often the sidewalk was poorly lit, but the store was bright and welcoming, and full of “girly” things.
I’d worn my best late 1970’s look that evening: flat, shiny Mary Jane shoes, a high-necked, long-sleeved, loose midi dress, very hippie chic. My hair was in a curly perm à la Barbara Streisand, my nails were polished, and my makeup was color coordinated. Even now, I am justifying that my attire wasn’t asking for it. It wasn’t too short, too low cut, too tight, too bright, too anything that could be used to excuse a poor, helpless male at the mercy of his masculine instincts. It never occurred to me then that I shouldn’t have to prove that my clothing was “un-assultable.” After all, the public school I attended, in the northeast, had only allowed girls to wear slacks to school six years earlier. Until that time, the patriarchy (and it was a patriarchy, no women held elected positions, including seats on the school board) had judged that girls in pants posed a greater threat to society than thousands of little girls freezing on the way to and from school each winter. It was just the way things were…and continue to be…in communities and police stations and judicial courts.
Near closing time (9:00 PM) a dark-haired fellow came in and walked around the small shop, even peeking into the backroom. I was young and dumb and had no clue that he was casing the place. “May I help you find a gift?”, “Just looking”. “Oh, there isn’t more shop space, that’s just the backroom, what may I help you find?”, “I don’t see what I want.” And out he went.
A few minutes later, keys in hand, I went to lock the door and he shoved his way into the shop, with a gun in his hand. He forced me behind the counter and made me remove the money from the cash register – less than $200. Then he twisted my arm behind my back and forced me into the backroom.
By then I was out-of-body, as if observing everything from a distance. No shaking, no screaming, just preternatural calm. Now here’s the thing about that long, narrow backroom – it was shelved floor to ceiling on both sides, leaving a two-foot path, with a small bathroom at one end, and the owner’s desk at the other. Each shelf was crammed with open, clear bins full of cosmetics, boxes for the fancy gift items sold there, and a total mishmash of retail detritus. Overall, it was a bit disorienting, and there was little room to maneuver. I remain convinced that my life was saved by disorder.
I still had the keys clutched in my hand, having never locked the door. He pistol-whipped me about my body and head and told me to undress. As I was unbuttoning the many buttons on the dress front, I dropped the keys in one of the bins. This wasn’t some quick-thinking smart move made with any foresight; I couldn’t manage the tiny cloth-covered buttons and loops and hold onto the keys at the same time.
He pulled his cock out and began to stroke himself, moving the gun over my body and between my legs. He asked sexual questions, stroked faster, touched me and hit me. After he came, he demanded the keys, but I couldn’t find them. He cocked the pistol at my head and said to find them, but even he could see that they were nowhere to be found. I told him my boyfriend worked nearby and would be coming to get me (not true, but a good lie). He gave me a final whack with the gun, took the money, and ran.
I called the owner, I called the police, I called my parents, and after-the-fact chaos ensued. No one believed I hadn’t been raped. Looking back, I see that the trauma of the assault was heightened by the disbelief of the police, my parents, and my boyfriend. The implication was that if it wasn’t rape with vaginal penetration, it wasn’t that bad. It felt like one of those worker’s compensation charts that show how much a limb is worth, if lost. Assault without a weapon wasn’t as bad as assault with a weapon which wasn’t as bad as sexual assault which wasn’t as bad as….you get the idea. The bruises on my body hadn’t shown up yet, and I wasn’t about to allow another stranger, even a police detective, to see me unclothed, so I wasn’t scoring too high on their internal assault-ranking chart. I suppose that my lack of hysteria didn’t help my case. Good girls should be sobbing for a big strong man to protect them; little hussies should just deal with it. My reaction wasn’t the typical one expected by these men, and that cast doubt on the severity of the assault. I wasn’t taken to the hospital, and I wasn’t offered counseling, I just went home.
My parents felt it best to pretend it hadn’t happened, and decided that “let’s put it behind us and move on, you’re fine” was the best course to take. My boyfriend minimized the impact it had on me, and joined in the let’s move on chorus. There was an undercurrent of disbelief that such a thing could happen in our nice little town, in the nice little shopping area, and that I must surely have somehow provoked the attack. Questions like “what were you doing, what did you say to him, and what were you wearing” all served to shift blame away from my attacker and put it on me. As if were it my fault, then it wouldn’t happen to others, and their notion of what a nice place we lived in could remain unassailable.
This fellow was bad at being a criminal. I picked him out of the second book of mugshots the police showed me the next day. They seemed shocked that I identified the criminal, though they were familiar with him – he was only out of jail (for rape) a few months, but his wife was already pregnant. I remember the part about his family because he obviously was getting sex at home. So, his attack on me was out of anger or pathology or something else. He was taken into custody within days and jailed on revoked bail.
Justice moves slowly. A year and half later I was in college and had to come home for the trial. I was made to speak publicly about the assault, which was a shame-laden thing – particularly the grueling experience of being questioned by a defense attorney bent on maximizing my discomfort and embarrassment in an effort to excuse his client. He got seven years. I got an un-diagnosed case of PTSD and fifteen years of less than stellar life choices as I worked my way through the trauma.
College went about like you’d expect, filled as it was with fraternities happy to make up garbage pails of sweet grain alcohol punch to get the freshmen girls drunk and ready to party (but only those who’d passed the intra-fraternity thumbs/up down night of viewing their ID photos). Eventually I dropped out of school and by age 21 married a friend from college, unknowingly looking for protection. The marriage wasn’t great, but the rough edges were smoothed out by copious cannabis use. (I was probably self-treating the PTSD with it.)
I remember being scared to be alone in the old house we’d bought and having an epiphany that I was afraid of “the man”. I remember my husband neither defending me nor interceding when his friends made sexual innuendo-laced comments about me. I remember being heavily pregnant, in NYC for work, and being catcalled by construction workers on the streets while walking to an appointment. “Hey mama, I’ll do you right.” “Hey mama, you can’t get more knocked up” “Hey mamacita, I’ll get those titties ready for that bambino.” I remember being at a professional conference and having a respected attendee praise my skills to one of the firm’s owners. My employer replied, “Well, at least she’s nice to look at.” At no time did I think I didn’t deserve this type of treatment, because, after all, it had started to be my fault when I was assaulted all those years ago. So thoroughly had I learned the lesson to “be ashamed” that I had fully internalized this fundamentally misplaced judgement and the misappropriated guilt it brought with it.
I was divorced by the time son was two, and it took me another seven years of hard mind-work to emerge ready for a strong and supportive relationship. Lemmy’s Wednesday Steel column title always makes me smile, because I am steel. I have been burned and melted to my core, beaten & molded time and again but have come back harder and stronger – tempered like the toughest alloy. I’ve done the work to regain trust in people, conquer fear, and lead with kindness instead of defensiveness.
Forty-five years later, I’m still a work in progress. And I am angry. I am angry for the girl I was, for the women I know, for the women I read about, and for our daughters. The Kavanaugh hearings – his smirking face, his assurance that his frat bros would lie for him (bros before hos, amiright?), and the public degradation of Professor Christine Blasey Ford (including death threats) was my proverbial last straw. Ms. Ford has more honor and integrity than the “honorable justice” Kavanaugh can ever aspire to. We humans still act like the apes we descended from, where might makes right and protection is exchanged for control.
I’ll end with this warning – no woman is safe. Not one. Not your wives, partners, mothers, sisters, or daughters. That invisible bubble of safety, the three feet of personal space we all think is there? It is a mental construct, and we all need to be very, very careful.