|Kitt, me, and Chloe, one of our safe, true friends.|
In the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings, there have been a lot of articles on the Internet about our culture of misogyny, sexism and male entitlement, and a lot of retaliatory articles about how that culture is just a story fabricated by feminists to further an agenda with the intent of harming men. I’ve read lots of the former and several of the latter. You may be aware of the #YesAllWomen Twitter phenomenon. I spent a lot of time in bed with my sick kiddo recently reading women’s stories of harassment, assault, rape, discrimination and sometimes even death…all told in 140 characters or less. It made my stomach hurt. So many women…so many stories.
And then, I started thinking about my own experiences as a woman that have been examples of hatred, discrimination or entitlement due to gender; things that other women may have experienced, too. So I wanted to tell the following story. It is a story about all of those things.
Before I begin, I have to say that this is not just a story about me. This is a story about me and my best friend Kitt. I have asked her permission to tell the story, and when she consented we sat down and went over it in detail together before I wrote anything down. I wanted to be sure it was as accurate as possible, because it happened long ago. I also have to say that there are bits which remain a little fuzzy for both of us, because we have spent many years trying to maintain as much distance from these events as possible, to the point of intentionally blocking certain things from memory. Finally, I want to tell you that the places are real, but every name with the exceptions of mine and Kitt’s have been changed.
The story starts in the summer before our 7th grade year in school. We’d left Zilker Elementary with a very positive school experience. We had both been there for many years, we had a comfortable group of friends who had all known each other for a long time, and in general it had been a sweet and nurturing environment. We’d had our first boyfriends of the “will you go with me” variety, and then in the summer after 6th grade we met a group of boys through another friend with whom we got to be very close.
That summer our new little group spent hours and days and weekends together. Most of the time not doing much of anything…hanging out at the mall, sitting around someone’s living room, going to a park or a pool or whatever we could find to do that was free and accessible to a bunch of kids with little transportation. We got to know these boys really well. We knew what their interests were, we knew their families and family problems, and they knew all of those things about us. We were all best friends…I told Kitt today that when I look back on those days they have a real “Wonder Years” feel to them. That summer felt like an eternity. Ultimately, we paired off into boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, and Kitt and I had our first real kisses from those boyfriends. It was sweet, and safe, and pretty innocent.
We didn’t go to the same schools as those boys, and just like summer, those relationships came to an end with the start of the school year. I will say, in case this finds its way underneath the eyes of one of those boys, which is entirely possible, that we all stayed good friends for years after that. They were excellent people.
We started 7th grade at Martin Jr. High School. At our elementary school we’d been big fish in a small pond, and now we were small fish in a big pond. We were being bused across town after recent efforts by the district to diversify certain areas. There was another school in our area being sent to Martin. Barton Hills was a neighboring elementary school; it was a more affluent area than Zilker. It happened that Kitt’s house was very close to Barton Hills and we could easily walk there if we wanted, which we never did. Kids from Casis were being bused over, too.
The kids from Barton Hills and Casis wore designer clothes and had nice backpacks and just generally looked classy, so the pecking order was quickly established with the “haves” being on top, and the “have nots” trying to play catch up. There were also groups of friends who lived near the middle school and had known each other for a long time, and there were gangs…whose members you’d pass in the halls, making sure to avoid eye contact. We had lots of different classes to go to with lots of different people and suddenly, we had no place that we belonged, and so we were going to have to find our places.
We were pretty trusting back then. We were decent kids. We wanted to be liked, and to be popular, just like I’m sure most people did at that age. So we started to branch out.
I sat next to a boy from Barton Hills in my Latin class. He was cute. He was popular. I wasn’t either of those things, but I was smart, and funny. We started talking. Sometimes we’d talk in class. Sometimes became every day. One day, we decided to hang out after school. We were going to meet at Barton Hills Elementary. Naturally, I asked Kitt to go with me because we did everything together.
There was a huge, steep hill leading down from our neighborhood to the school. Wilke, maybe? I can’t remember the name of the street. It was the kind of hill you told stories about when you were hanging with your buddies. How some kid your brother’s best friend knew died on the hill in a horrible skateboard or bike accident. You know, a hill of legend.
We wound through the streets, walked down the giant hill, and approached Barton Hills in the late afternoon. I was excited. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I was happy to get to know someone new. When we reached the playground my classmate, James, was there. To our surprise, he wasn’t the only one. He’d brought two friends along…Michael and Thomas. We hadn’t expected anyone else to be there, but it was alright. We had been included in a good group of boys before, and these boys were all popular and one of them was even a grade ahead of us. If we made friends with all of them, surely we were headed down the path to a comfortable social life.
James and I split off from the larger group. I figured we were going to walk, and talk, and just get to know each other a little bit.
*I’m going to stop the story here to interject a thought from Kitt. She had a conversation recently with another girl we’d been friends with during those years, and explained that I was going to write this piece and then recounted what she recalled from that day. The friend was incredulous that we had felt comfortable parting company at that time and wondered why I would leave and why she felt alright alone with two boys. We agree that when we look at it with adult eyes, it seems like an unwise decision. But we were neither adult nor wise, and we had had a brief, but very safe and sweet history with some truly good boys. In our adolescent world, that’s how boys were. Nice.
So James and I went off, and Kitt stayed, and it didn’t last very long. As soon as we were out of sight of the others, James grabbed me and kissed me. It was a little fast, but I liked him, and so I let him kiss me. He very quickly escalated things. He put his hands on me. He tried to get to places that were uncomfortable for me. In a very short period it became clear that what we were interested in were two different things. He did not want to get to know me. My feelings were hurt. I remember pushing him and quickly walking toward where I’d left Kitt. There were these playhouses there. I found her in a small house, being tightly restrained by Michael, while Thomas was on top of her, sucking her neck and ripping her clothes. I screamed at them and it broke their focus and Kitt wrenched her way free and out of the house.
*Kitt felt that it was important to say that at that time she did have a boyfriend. She wasn’t interested in meeting these boys from a flirtatious perspective, but from the perspective of friendship and possible social advancement. Her boyfriend was black, and during the time that she was being restrained and abused, Michael and Thomas were also insulting her boyfriend with racial slurs and epithets. She said she felt that they wanted to mark her intentionally, as an insult to her boyfriend and so that he would “think that I was a slut”.
We didn’t pause. It wasn’t safe. We ran. Off the campus. Up the hill, as best we could. Kitt had marks on her neck and her shirt was torn. She kept saying that she didn’t know how she was going to explain the torn shirt to her mom. When we reached her house, she threw it in the back of a closet. We did not discuss, and perhaps neither of us recall, anything else that we did or spoke of that night.
The next day at school, it was as if a bomb had gone off. When we walked in there were stares. And whispers. People with whom we’d been friends or forged new relationships wouldn’t speak to us. They literally turned their backs to us. Although it sounds like a scene out of a bad movie, it was exactly that dramatic. We also don’t recall who the first person was to tell us about the rumors. We both know that after we’d heard it once, we heard it several times and each retelling was worse than the previous. By the time we’d left first period, we’d heard over and over that we’d had sex with those boys. Willingly. Maybe all together. And if you do the math…well, the math is bad. We were mortified. Not only was it not true, it was the absolute opposite of our intentions and the reality of what happened. But we were nobodies. And they were somebodies. And there was no room for the truth, which was that I’d been scared and uncomfortable and Kitt had been assaulted and we literally ran home in terror.
My second period was science. I had one of those teachers who tried to be “cool” with the students. She’d been told by a couple of the popular girls what I had allegedly done. She was very nasty to me in class, and for the rest of the year. I think that was one of the things that hurt me most. Adults were supposed to be safe people you could turn to. Not Ms. White. She was not safe.
Things blew up in between classes when Kitt was at her locker and her boyfriend rushed up, having heard the rumors, and started yelling at her. By that time, she’d had too much. She tried to explain, but just crumbled and dissolved in tears in front of him. This exchange happened to be witnessed by a female gym coach. She pulled Kitt out of the situation and took her into an office and made her talk.
The rest of the events of that day get blurry. I was pulled from class by the hall monitor and security guy, Jimmy Berger. I was taken to the vice principal’s office and questioned, and then questioned by a police officer. Kitt only remembers telling the story to the coach and then a female police officer.
We think what happened next was that the police contacted our parents. I have a vague memory of the two of us trying to explain it to Kitt’s mom, and it was night time. We BOTH remember being asked about pressing charges, and emphatically declining to take the matter any further.
I remember thinking that once the school and the police were involved, surely the truth would come out and everyone would know that we hadn’t done the things we were rumored to have done. But I also remember, and so does Kitt, that pressing charges would have made life difficult for the boys; any hope we had of belonging anywhere would be shredded. They could hurt us even more than they had already. So we had to protect them. They had all of the power, and we had none.
It didn’t matter…we should have proceeded with some sort of action. Inaction didn’t save us anything. In a matter of hours, we were ruined. Utterly irredeemable. The people we didn’t know well shut us out, but the greater betrayal was that people we did know well, people we’d gone to school with for years, shut us out, too. We were pariahs. Kitt says she remembers the daily experience of walking into a room and knowing exactly who was looking at her and who wasn’t. We lived in a constant heightened state of vigilance and panic. A world of whispers and stares.
Sometimes, there would be someone who was inclusive. Someone who demonstrated a little kindness. We remember clinging to those moments of charity. There was one girl who was part of the “in” crowd. We had several classes together and although she was good friends with some of the people who were absolutely awful to me, inexplicably she was not. She was nice. She’d engage me in conversation. She was smart, and she was funny, too. She was the exception. Regardless, the shame and exclusion were interminable. The stress was tumorous. It was the first time in my life I wanted to die, and it lasted all year.
Sadly, that wasn’t the only thing going on in my life at the time. I had had a falling out with my dad and stepmom. I felt like they wanted me to be someone I didn’t want to be. At the same time, my mom and my stepdad were fighting, and ultimately separated. Except it was separation on steroids. My mom went to West Texas. Not to the other side of town, or someplace close where I could reach her if I needed to. She was literally in her own world. I was adrift.
There are two things I want to note here. One, our place in the world at that time was completely decided by a group of boys. This would not be the last time my fate was decided by a group of men, although thankfully future experiences would be in the workplace. Second, this was my first time experiencing the absolute viciousness that was possible with groups of girls. The instigators? Boys. The payoff? Boys. The reason? Their fate was decided by boys, too. Who was hot, who got a date to the dance, blah, blah, blah. Who had the most worth. To boys.
In retrospect, I see that Kitt and I had been “defined” by others. Ultimately, we internalized the definition and began to feel like we were exactly what they told us we were. Cheap sluts, trash, worthless.
At the end of the year I moved in with my dad. I didn’t want to. As much as I’d felt like I wasn’t somebody my parents approved of at the beginning of the school year, by the end I felt less than nothing and certainly not someone of whom they’d ever approve. But I was thrilled to change schools. It was like going into the witness protection program. I was getting a clean slate and a new identity. Kitt wasn’t so lucky. She had to suffer through another year at Martin. She got out as soon as she could, though, choosing to go to a magnet program at another high school. And both of us tried to erase that time and the shame of it permanently from our memories. The problem is that the body remembers and the heart remembers and you can’t ever erase those memories, even if you can heal them.
*I want to tell you that at separate times two of those boys (James and Michael) made efforts at apologies. Kitt thinks the motivation for that was fear of legal action. I don’t know. I think at least James was sincere, and he tried to be kind to me in class. The third, Thomas, never did. We heard years later that he had been in trouble with the law for violent crimes, but we don’t know that for certain. After a year of going to school with him we agree that he was downright mean, and it seems likely to be true. Regardless of private apologies made, it didn’t mean anything in terms of our being ostracized on a larger level.
I have talked in this blog before about doing things way too early; having sex being one of those things. I never really connected it until now… I always thought that being sexually active earlier than most girls was a conscious choice based on early maturity. But I can see now that it has plenty to do with a definition I didn’t earn, then felt subconsciously I should live up to. Damned if I don’t, so might as well do. What decisions might I have made, if not for that day meeting those boys and the definition that followed? I can’t say things would have been different, but maybe they would have.
I spoke of not being able to remember certain things from that time. Even so, I have had therapy, talked about it some, and just lived with it. It was a large part of a larger picture. Kitt has experienced the same. Every now and then, there are ambushes. Once, I pulled into the Finish Line to get my car washed and I saw James through the window. I had a panic attack and drove out as fast as I could. When I was a Realtor, I stopped by an office one day and there was the Girl Who Had Been Nice. She didn’t see me, but I had to leave as fast as I could. I was supposed to go back for a presentation with my boss, but called in sick because I couldn’t stand to be seen by her. Because she knew my secret. Kitt has experienced the same panic. In the last year, one of “those girls” appeared without warning as a client at her office. She’d married and her name had changed. Kitt freaked and had to leave work. We couldn’t take these surprise encounters because these people knew our “secret”…which more than anything is the level of shame we experienced, which is still instantly accessible to us.
So that is my story. Our story. And it’s only a part of our story. The beginning. Ish. For me there’s an awful prelude as a child to that awful beginning. For Kitt, there’s an awful second chapter. And you know what? There can be several chapters in a woman’s sexual history. After sharing my experiences with my close friends, and reading over hundreds of what appear to be thousands, of women’s tweets, it seems to me that women’s sexual histories, more often than not, are winding roads, often venturing into dark, twisted and painful places. I start to wonder if most women have these sexual “skeletons in the closet”. A docket of pain versus pleasure. The one who drugged her. The one who raped her. The one she didn’t say “no” to, because she was afraid. The one who said she was a slut. The one who never called again. The one who thought she was good enough to fuck but not to date. There are more.
That episode was my first lesson in not trusting men, and also not trusting women, my first lesson in what boys wanted most from me, which ultimately taught me to manipulate with my body to achieve a goal, my first lesson in sitting down and shutting up, my first lesson in classism, my first lesson in male entitlement. Those boys felt entitled to take what they wanted, and that’s not something a person is born feeling; that is learned behavior.
I have women all over my house. Paintings. Sculpture. Ceramics. Art of all kinds. Virgins. Saints. Martyrs. Why these particular women? I think it is because I have a deep love for the woman who suffers. And history is rife with suffering women. But I’m done with this type of sexual, victimizing shame and suffering. Is misogyny real? Is it pervasive, culturally? All I know is that an event when I was 12 hugely determined my behavior and feelings of self-worth for most of my life. And my “secret”? For Kitt, her “secret”? We know that this might be read by some of those who bullied and shamed us. We are alright with that. For ourselves, we are shining a light on those dark places. Exposing the skeletons.
And for those of you who have the dark, twisted and difficult sexual histories, we want you to know:
You are NORMAL. This has happened to somebody else. Lots of somebodies.
You get to SAY NO. Anytime. Ever.
You are not DIRTY. Or ruined. Or a slut. Or worthless.
You can do, be, have and love anytime, anything, anybody you want as long as it’s consensual.
I think about my past and want differently for my daughters… with so many conversations happening right now about these entrenched cultural attitudes, they actually just might have a brighter path ahead.