By Lynne Nugent
One morning, years ago, the major landmark in my town caught fire. A relic of the town’s glory days in the nineteenth century, it dominated our modest skyline, and I’d been used to passing it every day on my walk to work. I had not heard the news yet that day, and I glanced toward the monument as usual. The top part of the edifice was now a charred stump; it may even have been surrounded by wisps of smoke. But oddly, I registered nothing unusual. My brain projected normality—what it “knew” to be real—onto what I was seeing, overlaying it like a private movie. When I heard the news later—only then did I believe my eyes.
All of this is to say that I didn’t recognize I had been sexually harassed for seven years, despite having been a self-professed feminist since I’d learned what the word meant, despite having learned feminist theory at the feet of leading scholars in college, despite having been supportive of friends who had gone through sexual harassment and assault. And even after I allowed myself to understand what had happened, despite knowing of the importance of breaking the silence, and despite having been grateful to others for breaking their silence, I kept silent.
Back around 2009, I was looking for answers for some minor but annoying medical symptoms. My usual doctors seemed out of ideas, so I made an appointment with a local alternative practitioner. As I sat in his office, I noted that he didn’t have on a white coat, nor did his office seem especially clinical, but as “doctor’s appointment” was a category of the landscape of my world, as fixed as that monument in my small town, I only hesitated slightly when he asked me to remove my shirt as part of the exam. There was some plausible reason, which I now can’t remember—visual inspection of a rash, perhaps?
After the exam, he suggested that I do a patch test for some vitamin deficiency on a two-inch square of my “lateral breast tissue.” Then he added, “If you can find enough.” Then he chuckled: “Heh heh.” Trying to remember what “lateral” meant from way back in freshman biology, I must have looked confused. He repeated himself: “Lateral breast tissue. If you can find enough,” gesturing to my on-the-smaller-side (but well-formed, I had always thought with some pride!) breasts. And then he chuckled again, as if to drive home what he was saying: “Heh heh.”
If he had had spinach between his teeth that day, I wouldn’t have said anything. If he had farted during the exam, I wouldn’t have said anything. Because another fixture of my world was the personal code of conduct of a Nice Girl: always be polite and never point out when someone does something embarrassing to himself. So I ignored his comment, and then I convinced myself it had never happened, that it couldn’t possibly have been what it sounded like, a creepy evaluation of my breasts’ sexual appeal or lack thereof in the context of what had been billed as a medical examination.
I didn’t get up and walk out in outrage. I didn’t even stop seeing him (well, I did after a while, when I got sick of buying all the vitamins he prescribed). I didn’t alert the community; I didn’t expose him. And once I finally allowed myself to admit to myself what had happened, I didn’t tell anyone then either, not my close friends, not my husband, no one. I merely quietly unfriended him on Facebook.
Why? Because I was ashamed—at my silence, at my acquiescence, at my gullibility for going to someone who wasn’t a medical doctor, at my agreeing to take my shirt off, at the overall triviality of the event in the larger scheme of things (after all, he didn’t touch me; I was a grown woman; it wasn’t ongoing; it wasn’t some terrible work situation that I had to endure to keep my job—was it really sexual harassment?), even ashamed of, well, my breast size, which would have become part of the discussion if I had ever told the story. Embarrassed, too, for him, for saying what he had said. Worried about his reputation, about his livelihood. Because these are the unquestioned edifices in our society: a man’s honor, a man’s work, a man’s understanding of what happened (he’d surely deny that his intent had been anything other than innocent). I didn’t want to believe these monuments were on fire even as they burned right in front of my own eyes.
I finally told one person. This summer. And then in October, I wrote “me, too” when the #metoo hashtag went viral. Still, my doubts persist. Will I be criticized for doing everything I criticized myself for above? Will others hold me as responsible as I held myself? Above all, I think about the women throughout my life who’ve told me about being sexually harassed or assaulted: fellow undergraduates when I was an undergraduate; fellow grad students when I was a grad student; work colleagues; friends from every era of my life. I did not seem—I desperately hope—unsympathetic, but “this happens to others and not to me” was part of the landscape of my world, solid as any building, so I’m sure my empathy arrived, if it did, as if from a long distance. Today I’d look them in the eye and say, “I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, and thank you so much for having the strength to talk about it.” I’d listen, listen, listen some more, as long as necessary, forever. One of my favorite quotes, ever since I saw it on a greeting card in college, is a haiku by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” As what separates us becomes a wisp of smoke—has always been a wisp of smoke—what I see are these women’s faces.
LYNNE NUGENT’s personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Tin House blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, and elsewhere. Her previous essay for Full Grown People, “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.