I don’t especially think of myself as a woman who was sexually abused. I haven’t experienced rape or incest. But as I’ve read the #MeToo accounts, memories have come to me. They’re not memories that were so repressed that it’s a shock to remember them. They were just pushed to the back of my consciousness, resting among life’s moments, as if being groped, harassed, and exposed to men’s genitals was ordinary and uneventful.
Here’s one of my memories from when I was a teenage girl, working weekends and after school in a local mom and pop grocery store:
I got on the stepladder back behind the groceries in the storage room. I didn’t need his help, his hands holding my thighs as I pulled down the toilet paper stored on the top shelf. My head buzzed, flies swirling through my cerebellum.
The owner of the gourmet Italian grocery store was older than my father, his daughter my age, sixteen. His wife worked the front cash register. Each day at work, he caught me there, on the ladder. To myself I pretended it was nothing.
There was a narrow place in the back of the store, a small aisle with a coffeepot and mini-fridge. One day on my break, I was pouring coffee when I felt a sour breath on my neck. I turned around, but couldn’t move, pressed up against the counter by the weight of him. His hands, lifting my skirt, one hand sliding underneath, touching me between my legs through my underwear. The shock of sensation, intense, startling and unwanted. His wife was on the other side, beyond the partition, not so very far away.
It never occurred to me to yell or to threaten to yell or tell. He removed his hand, still pressing against me.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I shook my head.
“You’re not so bad looking. Come early tomorrow, before the store opens, and I will show you a good time.” He released me then. My break over, I returned silently to bagging.
How does a girl learn silence?
How does a girl learn not to tell her divorced mother, who might get even more depressed?
Why does a girl feel she must make up a story in order to quit, not feeling entitled to say, “Bastard, you owe me two weeks severance or I’m telling your wife!”
Instead, the lie: “We’re moving to California.”
I was sixteen in 1967, disempowered as girls were, never thinking we could assert ourselves or voice our rage against male aggression. Instead, we internalized shame and learned not to make a fuss. But I was lucky: three years later, I encountered the women’s movement. It was an immense relief to have my personal experiences given a cultural context, named systemically as sexism, patriarchy, male chauvinism. In discussion groups, our stories poured forth. Our anger shone in us, a light that overcame depression and shame.
We are in another historic moment now: women joining voices and speaking out, gaining power and solidarity.
At the grocery store, sometimes I did bagging. Once, a famous soprano from New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, who lived in this small New Jersey suburb, put her sundries on the counter. I began bagging her groceries.
“Please, signora, sing us something!” the grocer’s wife begged.
The diva nodded. The opening of an aria vibrated the air. I paused in my bagging, frozen with astonishment at the power and clarity of her voice, her woman’s voice, transforming the very air with its force and beauty.