I suppose this article has been sitting on a shelf in my mind for some time. Many months ago when I first read reports of women coming out and talking about their own battles with unwanted sexual advances and assault, this post came to my mind, but I pushed it away. My first, knee-jerk reaction to these stories was an eye-roll one. They just want attention! Check out this snowball effect! And then, of course, thoughts of blame. They asked for it. Did you see how she dresses?! I was embarrassed [by] my own mental reaction to these allegations, and I wondered why I responded that way. Was it because society had groomed me to think like that? Probably. But also, I realized I thought this about other women because I had thought it about myself.
It was my fault.
Again this morning when I saw a story of a woman speaking out I responded the same way. I began to play the blame game. My mind traveled back in time over 20 years, but then I shut it down quick. Easier to do that. I went about my day, taking a trip to the salon where I saw a magazine that brought the topic to my mind again. As much as I didn’t want to think about it, or write about it for that matter, there it was.
It had happened to me too. I think it’s happened to more women than you’d want to admit. Many of us have a story we keep in the back closet of our minds.
For me, I was 21-years-old living in Florence, Alabama. Amusingly, I was working as a game room attendant at the local Chuck E. Cheese while I attended nursing school. Of note, it was the only job that would hire me when I was first looking and didn’t yet have a local address. I was a rare “adult” working there with a lot of high school students. You wouldn’t believe how many of them asked me to buy them beer. But anyway, as a legal-aged employee I was asked by my manager one day if I’d be interested in working a booth at the county fair. He told me it was a lot of fun, and they let loose while there, having a few drinks to make the work more bearable. They were paying me for the time in cash, and as a young woman struggling to make my rent, I said yes.
He was right. It was a good time, much more laid back than the arcade environment we normally worked where I occasionally wore the mouse costume and got haggled by pre-teens. There was good music playing and plenty of cold beer while we sold pizza by the slice to carnival goers. We laughed and had a blast, me, my manager, and the female assistant manager who was about a decade older than myself at the time.
Towards the end of the night, the owner of the local franchise showed up to check on how things were going. He was an older gentleman, with balding, white hair, a friendly smile, and a jovial, southern drawl. He laughed along with us, and even had a couple of drinks himself. Towards the end of the night, he offered to take me to my car on his four-wheeler since it was dark and possibly dangerous in the parking lot setup outside a large field where they had erected the fair. He even showed me his handgun he had tucked in his belt that would keep us safe.
He was nice enough as we drove along, inquiring how I was liking the job, and laughing at my answers of how it felt to work kids’ birthday parties. As he stopped at my car and we sat alone in a dark, abandoned parking lot on his ATV he suddenly reached his hand down and placed it firmly on my crotch. He rubbed it there and asked in a gravelly voice, “does that feel good?”
It’s hard to explain my feelings at that time. What had moments before been a happy buzz suddenly became a strikingly sober fear. I looked around and realized we were all alone. I thought about the gun he had shown to make me feel safe. I didn’t feel very safe, though. I felt like I had fallen into a very treacherous situation that could take any turn it wanted, and I would have no choice in the matter.
My boss, a man my senior by 30 years or more, was touching me in places reserved for an intimacy we didn’t share. I could smell the whiskey on his hot breath as he whispered in my ear, and I felt out of control. We were all alone in a field, he was bigger and stronger than me, and with a firearm. In a moment of fight or flight I quickly pushed his hand away, uttered “no, it doesn’t,” and jumped quickly off the back of his four-wheeler.
I ran to my car, got inside, locked the door, and I sat there for a while waiting for my racing heart to slow down. Nothing had happened. Not really. That’s what I told myself. So why did I feel so frightened and dirty?!
I didn’t know if it was because I was shocked by the audacity of this man to think he could touch me without my interest or consent, or if it was more the thoughts of what could have happened. In my confusion of what had occurred, I relayed it the next day to a friend who worked there with me. He was aghast and suggested I go to the manager and let them know what happened.
I ended up going to the female assistant manager first. I felt comfortable with her, I guess because she was a woman too, and I felt she would understand my feelings better.
Her first words in response made my stomach do that drop thing.
“Brie,” she said, “we were all drinking a lot that night.”
As she continued my ears filled with blood, making her voice sound muffled, and I listened half-heartedly as she explained the situation away. It wasn’t really a big deal. He hadn’t raped me, after all, and with me being under the influence of alcohol, perhaps I was thinking more of this situation than it had probably been. In a he-said, she-said situation, a respected businessman would have the upper hand. These were her summations. She reminded me he was married, that he held all our jobs in the palm of his hand, and that this was a minor incident that really didn’t need further pursuing in her opinion. It was best for me to just forget about it. She added cheerfully that he rarely came by this location, so it wasn’t like I would see him much at all.
But I saw him the next day, it turns out. He had come by our store, and he was waiting for me alone in my manager’s office. After being summoned I remember the long walk to that office, I recall how uncomfortable I felt when he asked me to close the door, and how despicable I felt as he smiled sickly at me and told me what a good job I was doing for their store. Then he held out his hand and gave me a folded bill.
“This is a bonus in addition to the cash payment they gave you for working the fair,” he said with a large smile, his false teeth beaming like a street sign.
Later I sat on the step in front of my apartment with my friend from work. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the folded money. I held out the hundred dollar bill to my pal, and I tried to smile like it didn’t matter that I had just been paid for my silence. The hundred dollars would go a long way to help pay my bills that month. My friend put his arm around me, and I leaned into his shoulder in surrender to the fact that this situation would be swept under the rug sufficiently. I never spoke of it again until now.
Over the years when I’ve thought about this incident I have played the part of that assistant manager.
I shouldn’t have been drinking so much.
What was I thinking putting myself in a situation like that? I should never have gone off alone with a man I didn’t really know.
Be grateful. It could have been worse.
Were my shorts too short?
Did I give him the wrong impression?
A lot worse things had happened in my life! This wasn’t that big of a deal. Just forget about it.
Besides, you took the money! You stayed silent for a hundred bucks. Cheap.
But I don’t guess I ever have, forgot about it, that is. I think this incident had only served over the years to further diminish my self-esteem and feed feelings of inadequacy. I wondered, as a mother of three girls, how I would feel about this had it happened to one of my daughters. So this morning as I was reminded about it I prayed, and I felt God bring to my mind the verse from the Bible where Jesus heals the crippled man.
Jesus had said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”
I think there’s a lot of women out there where a part of them is paralyzed. They’re paralyzed by fear of what others will think, crippled by lies of this world that say, “it’s your fault this happened. You’re the one to blame.” I look back on my own life and I know I could have made wiser decisions, but I also know I am worthy. I am worth something, and I never deserve to be treated like I don’t have a say in what happens to me. Whether my shorts were too short or I had too much to drink, I didn’t deserve to be put in a situation where I was afraid.
Picking up your mat and walking can mean something different for each person. For some, it may mean finally telling your story. Or perhaps it means standing up to the lies of this world that you caused whatever unspeakable things happened to you. It might mean that even if it wasn’t the worst case scenario, it was still terrible for you, and it’s worth acknowledging that it happened. Maybe picking up your mat and walking means you can open up, hold your head up high, and walk tall knowing that you didn’t deserve the bad things that happened in your life, that you’re not going to let them hold you down to suffer in silence anymore. That from now on you can feel free from the past, free from feelings of inadequacy and failure to stand up for yourself at the time. The crippled man at that pool had laid there for 38 years before Jesus convinced him that he could be healed! If anything, I suppose that teaches us it’s never too late to be healed from the things that have paralyzed you.
And then it also reminds us of this. You may ask, why wait 30 years to speak out about abuse? I’d answer back that sometimes it takes a lifetime to realize it’s okay to pick up your mat and walk forward bravely and in confidence to find the healing your heart needs.
I’m humbly reminded that I can never assume how someone should feel about something that happened to them nor how it has been affecting them through the years. Sometimes picking up your mat, for some of us, may actually mean laying down your presumptions of what another person has been through, and how they should respond to it, so we can all walk forward in humanity together.