Speaking Truthfully, Shedding Shame
Written in December 2011
I just arrived home from a beautiful trip to Aspen, CO. My girlfriend and I spent the last week sinking into comfortable couches, making conversation and new friendships over delicious food and wine, dipping in hot pools, drinking and dancing the nights away, and savoring breathtaking views skiing down the sides of mountains. It was abundant and blissful.
At Chicago Midway baggage claim, I sat on my pack recounting the highlights of the trip. Mary was gone for a minute and asked me to watch for our bag. I stepped up to the conveyor belt and as I reached for the tag on the suitcase, a man behind me said, “Excuse me. Excuse me.” twice before I had the chance to respond. In an instant, he grabbed my arm, forcibly moving me out of the way, picked up his bag, and brought it back to his cart before ever looking me in the eye.
I stood still. I lost myself in the crowd and the noise. My heart pounded. I was reminded of experiences I had written about almost two years ago. All in crowded public places, being touched without consent:
An intoxicated crowd filled the Metro station as I navigated my way through the commotion. Baseball fans, mostly white men, making their way home from a game, they were impatient and loud, stealing the calm that usually proceeds my long work days. I already felt violated by their presence.
Waiting in line for the escalator, people surrounding me, my heart pounded and my chest felt tight. It was just a month ago that a man on an escalator leaving another station attempted to lift my dress and touch me from the step below where I was standing. A hand just barely grazed my thigh and I turned to find him surprised and guilty. “Dude, that’s not okay!” was all that I managed to blurt out and I hurried up the steps before he had a chance to respond. I’d woken that morning to a warm spring day and I felt beautiful. I put on one of my favorite dresses, eager to live the day fully. In a single moment, my joy and enthusiasm were stolen.
A week later, I was attacked again in another crowded station. A man brushed himself against me and grabbed me as he walked by, as though running into me caused him to reached for something to hold onto. He was ahead of me before I realized what had happened and I watched him employ the same tactic on another beautiful young woman. I explained to my girlfriend what I’d just experienced and she kept me from running after him. “That scares me,” she said. “What if he became violent?” I responded, “That is how he is able to get away with it. He asserts his power over someone and they become too afraid to defend themselves. He never has to deal with the consequences.” By then, the attacker had disappeared into the busy crowd. I approached the other woman I saw him assault. She seemed confused and embarrassed. “Are you okay?,” I asked. She didn’t know how to respond. She managed to explain, “I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t sure if it was an accident or..” “No.” I said, filled with anger.
In the tightness of this drunken crowd, these painful memories resurfaced. I felt threatened immediately. On the platform, people swarmed the train. They were careless, tripping over themselves, laughing. I was strategizing – where to sit, how to stand. In the shuffle to find my seat, I heard a man shout, “Get you some!” and his friends laughing.
Now over a year later, in another city 700 miles away, my thinking was clouded, my heart again was pounding, and my vision blurred. I wasn’t just irritated that this person had been in such a hurry that he physically moved me to get to his bag. The encounter once again triggered more painful memories: the public assault of anonymous sexual predators in Washington, DC, the man who stalked me walking on the street while he got off in his car, a college friend’s roommate who got into bed with me uninvited…
I stopped myself from digging deeper into my history. I scanned the crowd for the man at the conveyor belt. He was by his cart waiting for more luggage. I remembered the disappointment I felt after letting each of the men who touched me before without consent walk away without pause. Though this man hadn’t sexually assaulted me, he had been forceful, violated my space, and triggered painful memories.
I picked myself up and approached him. “Excuse me. Some people, especially women, have had traumatic experiences being touched by strangers. It can be very triggering to be touched without consent, like when you grabbed my arm. It was very uncomfortable and I thought you should be aware of that.”
He stared back, stunned. “I apologize. No ill intent.”
“Okay,” and I walked to my luggage and sat. My hands were trembling. I took a huge breath in and let out an incredible sigh of relief. The tension, anxiety, and pain of my past escaped, at least temporarily.
There is power in the simple act of speaking truthfully. In that moment, the words came freely and fluidly. I didn’t hesitate. I was unwavering. I was vulnerable. I faced this man who had so casually moved me aside and I told him truthfully how I felt and listened to his response. In that moment, I felt strong and powerful. I reclaimed my space respectfully, with integrity and shed myself of shame.