Now that we’ve seen backlashes to the #MeToo movement—quibbling about women who’ve complained about awkward dates while overlooking their right not to proceed with them, princess-and-the-pea types who seem to expect men to read their minds. Such arguments tend to expose our human capacity to blame others for our own failures of choice or communication. They can distract us from the true complexity.
Sexual trauma runs deep, and generates scar tissue that can stay impenetrable for most of a lifetime. Anyone who gets annoyed, asking, Why didn’t these women speak up long ago, when less time had passed since they were assaulted, terrified, abused as children, bullied into accommodating domineering persons in positions of power, threatened with death when they were victims of incest, or other forms of molestation, should ask themselves, Am I really paying attention? Am I considering how people bury memories in order to focus on their own survival?
For the annoyed scoffers out there, I offer an example of how long an experience of sexual abuse can stay buried—in my case, most of my life—and how it emerged from the dark recesses of my memory after 60+ years. For the purposes of this website I’ll describe it from the standpoint of attention.
As children my brother and I lived across the road from a farming family and often played with their two sons, one my brother’s age and the other several years older, entering puberty. I was 18 months younger than my brother, a tomboy who enjoyed jumping into haystacks in their barn and running from bulls in the field like the boys did. One day our neighbors’ older son asked me to go with him behind their barn, and I did so with the trust and openness of a five-year-old. I knew nothing about sex and had no idea what he had in mind. He asked me to show him a part of my body if he showed me the same area of his body. It sounded simple enough, so I agreed. The exchange was brief and involved no touching. It seemed to satisfy his curiosity, and I forgot about it—until a couple years later when our own farm went out of business and we had to leave the area.
When it came time to say goodbye to our neighbors, I remember only one thing. The two brothers stood before us and the older one would not look me in the eye. He stared grimly at the floor with an expression I instinctively recognized as one of shame. Only then did I realize that he felt bad about what he’d asked me to do behind their barn, and it was affecting the way he related to me. I wanted him as well as his younger brother to show they were sad to see us go, for we’d been pals and would most likely never see each other again. It hurt that the older brother would not meet my gaze, and left me with a visual imprint of his remorse. In retrospect, one could say that I was denied the acknowledgement of what I’d believed to have been a real friendship—some sign of sadness on his part that my brother and I would no longer live across the road from them. In other words, it damaged the quality of attention he was able to give me at this poignant time of parting. Any genuine display of sadness to see us go and well-wishing for our future was blocked because he felt guilty for doing something that—until that moment—I had not realized had been wrong.
That was what I remembered, not the reality that this boy had taken advantage of my trust and ignorance to have asked me to participate in what grownups considered a sexual offense. So I buried the memory as one childhood disappointment among many, including being shunned by my brother when he started school two years ahead of me, and bullied when I entered school because I was pudgier than many classmates. Its meaning in my life as an experience of sexual abuse did not register.
…Until I found myself arguing with an old friend who was annoyed at the dredging up of old experiences in the #MeToo movement. “I don’t know anyone,” he complained, “who would hide such an experience for so long.” Incredibly, he’d had a long career as a spiritual counselor. Who did he know well enough to believe, who had not spoken up? Me. He became first person I’d ever told about the above episode in my childhood. And only because it decided to resurface in my memory in response to his annoyance.