The conversation went like this. My friend, Louise, had called me the day before my last day of work in my office. She wanted to see how I was doing with this change, with leaving the office building that was the home to my practice for 15 years. I expressed my relief at not commuting, of simplifying my life, how I felt sad to leave my long-time clients, but that I was ready. Then the words just came out. I said how relieved I was to not have to pass the security guard anymore, how I dreaded leaving every night. And then the tears came, taking me by surprise, letting out how long I had held this privately, how long I had held a much larger societal issue deep in my body and consciousness.
Louise held me and the conversation with love, sensitivity, compassion and support. She said the words I did not know I needed to hear. I explained how in the recent weeks there had been the “me too” movement on social media and though almost all the women I knew were saying “me too” I did not feel I had the right to say it. Intellectually I knew how ridiculous it was to feel as though I could not join the movement, and yet I simply couldn't write the words. I had never been raped or badly harassed. I have mostly worked for myself or with other strong, respectful women and thought I had no significant experiences to claim a man’s “wrongdoing” though I knew it was everywhere. And here I was dreading leaving my building for the too close of a hug and kiss that was demanded of me every night I was there. Me, in my friendly demeanor, my warm smile and easy laugh, my welcoming eyes unable to say, “no.” Feeling like I led him on because I said early on that I appreciated him or how nice it was to hear I was missed. It was nice…at first. And then it was taken too far for me to stop it. What started as a simple hug became a hug and a kiss as he would take my head is his long hands and kiss me on the lips, which I puckered tight. I hated it and could not find the power to fix it. The week before I was to close my city practice for good he asked when I was finished working. Confused by the question, I said that the next week was my last. He clarified that he wanted to know when I was finished that night because he wanted “to come up to my office and kiss and hold me.” Shocked and fearful I did say “no,” but I laughed, too, to make it all a joke. He must have seen my nervousness and with some astonishment asked if I was afraid of him. I gathered that he did not mean to frighten me as I backed away and brushed off his questions with lightness, a lightness I did not, in truth, feel. Oddly, I then felt concerned that I either offended or embarrassed him even as I was scared about how I would get out of my office that night. Would he actually show up? I didn’t think so, but I didn't want to be naive either. We all hear awful stories.
I felt shame as I shared all these words with Louise. The truth was I was afraid of hurting this man who greeted me so warmly at the front desk, a man who when he said he loved me I didn’t doubt he did. I did not want to disappoint him. And when I said that last word to Louise on the phone, I knew it was the word that was underneath a very old feeling. Never wanting to disappoint my father, always wanting to be the one that made him smile and feel at ease when it seemed everyone else knew just how to set him off. I was his joy, never causing trouble, and I loved being just that. And so when the words came from him in my teenage years, “why don’t you just put on a little lipstick” so I would look pretty going out to dinner, my insides started to turn and ask what does this mean? Starting much younger than that, I can easily recall feeling deeply embarrassed at his overtly playful flirting with women in front of us as if it were lighthearted entertainment. If we could bring ourselves to say we were embarrassed it was brushed off with humor. This is just a “normal healthy man,” right? I wasn’t old enough to have these thoughts, but what if I were that woman he was flirting with and I smiled and laughed because I didn’t know how not to?
I know now that from a very young age I witnessed that behavior and started wrestling with it. I have been wrestling my whole life. It led me to struggle with my muscular body, my athleticism which never could feel feminine enough. At around 16, I helped my father work at his restaurant one night in the city. He was short staffed and I worked the counter. It was him, me, the short order cook and the dishwasher. It was near closing time and two men had come in, one with a black eye. I knew it was trouble. I took their order and they kept calling me back over with a wink. I finally whispered to my dad that I didn’t want to help them anymore and he took over. He asked if there was a problem. They didn’t want him to serve them, obviously not knowing he was my father. The short order cook took out a large knife down low in case it was needed. I was scared. I felt somewhat responsible in my pale green, sleeveless dress and silver strands of necklaces, a dress I am sure my dad felt proud to see me in. Then in my early twenties I was being cat called as I waked through the streets of NYC, I finally stopped wearing dresses and skirts or anything particularly revealing. It wasn’t until I bought a gown for my wedding and felt beautiful that I took some of it back and started to wonder. Until then, I didn’t realize that there was another way until I had met men who were sensitive and respectful and didn’t use their strength to overpower me and make me feel like an object. It wasn’t what I had known.
These experiences changed me gradually. Repeatedly throughout my adult life this confusion came and went. It showed itself in the men who expressed interest in me because I was so pleasant, so easy to be with, so calming, so easy to make laugh. My nervous smile couldn’t come off my face. It seemed as though I had “available” written on my open heart. I felt responsible and ashamed when the experiences went too far. Confused and awkward and still not wanting to disappoint.
Louise reminded me that we are all victims of this. The men, too. The confusion, the overstepping, the passed on behaviors and the challenge to change it are here for us all. She said what I needed to hear, “you can still love them.” Because I do. I actually do care for and appreciate that security guard. He has a beautiful spirit. This is where the complexity lies. My love for my dad is huge. He absolutely did not mean to cause harm. He thought he was being charming. In many ways, he was. I am sure he made many women feel good about themselves. He certainly me feel good about myself. A dapper, handsome man from an American-Italian culture where adoring and flattering women was just what a man did. It is not that I think flirting or flattering someone is wrong. It is healthy and human. I love being adored. I do laugh easily. I do have an open heart. I just want it to be respected, as I believe most women do. I want men to not assume we like being looked up and down, or that we enjoy having their arm put around us, or kissed just because we smiled and laughed with them. I care for many of the men who didn’t realize what they were doing or, if they did, were suffering so much that they couldn’t choose another way. And my confusion over what is appropriate affection and what is not and how I can respond is not just mine. It belongs to our culture, to our society, to our families. It is a conversation that needs to be kept alive. As I hear the almost daily reporting of sexual harassment among public figures I am affirmed and relieved. Finally. This has been long overdue. Let’s have this conversation. Let’s look at this messy, complicated, painful place in all of us. I have made my share of regretful choices, stepped over boundaries, and caused pain that I continue to have to forgive myself for.
I still can’t write the words, “me too.” Louise says that’s okay. Her permission gives me permission. Permission to let this take its time in me and in society. My life experiences have demonstrated how different men and women are. We can find our differences and celebrate them. Let’s keep moving humanity forward. It is hard work, but what else is there to do. I will have these conversations with my kids. I will keep being aware of the errors I make in parenting, in responding to life in ways that are unconsciously sexist. I know I make them. In having the conversation with Louise, I got support I didn't know I needed. She generously offered to show up on my last evening to see me out the door on my terms. In talking with her, I was able to bring the whole story to my fiance who I was holding back from because I felt ashamed. Mike met me at the office that last night, too, to support me leaving on my terms. It opened communication between us, which is what we must all do. I do believe we will get to a place where we are not threatened by the other sex. We are painfully on our way. It takes courage to look at ourselves, to be honest with ourselves, and to see the suffering we all share. This takes true strength and genuine power. This takes a “real man” and a “real woman.” We need to be willing to look at our pain, our shame, our regrets and we need to forgive and begin again. I am on my way. I forgive myself for my own confusion and lack of clarity. I forgive the men who didn't know they were making me uncomfortable. I forgive the ones who did, too.