Friday, October 27, 2017

Where Predators Lurk

"And will Thomas protect you?" my sweet friend Ann asked when I told her Thom and I had walked the perimeter of the cemetery next door at dawn. I laughed--not at her concern, certainly, but at the thought of Thomas getting all dog-tough and growly up in some cretin's face. Ann's concern was very real; she has a dear friend who was out alone and was assaulted.

I'm pretty sure Thomas would never be protective in an aggressive way, but I'm always conscious of where I am and my surroundings. Except for the dead, no one's much in the cemetery at 6:30a.m. And if someone were, I'd see him long before he had a chance to get close to us.

The truth is, though, in those moments walking with Thomas in the cemetery or in the quiet of the country, a mile from the road, I am the least on my guard. I've never felt the presence of danger in those times. Because I've only ever been assaulted or harassed in broad daylight in public places.

SeaWorld, for example. On a glorious summer day that had been nothing but fun for me and my children, I stood, both hands holding a kid's hand, in one of those underground tunnels that make you feel like you're inside an aquarium. We were completely focused on watching the beautiful sea creatures. Out of the darkness, a man's figure loomed, pushed past me--and groped my chest. I never saw his face or any features, not even his clothes. If I had, I would have chased him down. But he disappeared into the crowd of people behind me. His attack was strategically planned and perfectly executed. I was powerless to respond. I didn't even report it. My kids never knew it happened.

Then there was the time I'd gone to the emergency room of a county hospital with a severe bladder infection. I was five months pregnant. The doctor--or intern--hell, he could've been the janitor for all I know--who came into the room pulled the hospital gown from my shoulders, leaving me uncovered down to my waist. He proceeded to simply sit and gaze at my chest, finally running his hand along my breasts for no apparent reason, all the while talking matter-of-factly about prenatal care. I reminded him that I was there for a bladder infection. He tossed me a eerily smug smile that I'll never forget and left the room. I was eighteen, an inexperienced, naive teenager who was simply baffled by his behavior. It took a few years for me to realize exactly what had been going on.

Years later, when I'd been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, I sat in an exam room with two doctors and a close male friend. As the "specialist" described the surgery he might have to perform on my leg to fully excise the cancer, he reached over and slid his palm under my hip, cheerfully fondling my right buttock as he explained the procedure. Later my friend would tell me how uncomfortable it had made him. "Oh," I replied, "me, too," and then I slipped back into the trance I'd been in since I'd been told days earlier I might have a life-threatening illness. To my great relief, a second biopsy ruled out melanoma. When I could think clearly, I considered all the things I could have/should have said to the pervy doctor. But by then it was too late.

And let me tell you, arrogant, privileged men in positions of power or authority do this kind of shit all the time. And what do women do? Usually nothing. I have said this before on this blog, and will say it again here: For those who are thinking, "You should have said something," you've clearly never had a similar experience. Those who have know that our initial reaction is usually shock and disbelief. Then we question. ('Wait--did he just run his hand across my chest for no reason?') Honestly, by the time we make sense of it, the moment has passed. Predators know this. They are extremely subtle in what they do. (Consider the accusations against Bill Cosby. Or not so subtle--Consider the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.) That's how they continue to get away with it. And if women complain? It becomes "a misunderstanding." And you only need to hear the droning tone of a law enforcement officer remark, "Well, it's he said/she said" to know that no one is going to pursue the perpetrator.

And don't even get me started on the sexual harassment that occurs in public....

There was the new principal who, when I introduced myself, put his arm around my shoulders and told the student I was with he intended to "fire" me as the school newspaper advisor. When I called him on it in private, his response was, "I didn't grope you, did I?"

Twice I had male colleagues offer "hugs" in the hallway outside my classroom, only to lean in and whisper in my ear about being willing to "help" with any "needs" I might have since I'd been single for so long. Both men were married and, to my knowledge, still are, to the same women. I'd always thought the "I know you have needs" line was a creepy joke until I'd been single awhile. And it didn't take long....

A few months after my divorce, a "brother" from my former church called to encourage me to come back to church, to "stop screwing around" (because my husband had announced that we had separated due to infidelity on my part, which, I assured him, was not true), and that, by the way, if I had "unfulfilled needs" I should seek him out and he would "take care of" me. "I think you know what I mean," he said. My daughter used to babysit for this man and his wife. They're still married, and they're still attending church together.

All in all, I've been lucky. I've never been assaulted or harassed by one of my favorite teachers, as several of my friends have. I've never been injured by a man's assault as other friends--and family members--have been.

My friend Bob has told me that I "maintain an aura of 'Get away from me.'" This may be true; I do feel nowadays as if I'm constantly on my guard. But only when I'm in large crowds or around strangers. When I walk alone out in the hills, I have little fear. Wild creatures are far more predictable than humans.

But Ann, I do promise I will always be careful, and I will always have my wits about me, and I may or may not carry a switchblade in the pocket of my cargo pants.

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