I’ve got the third in a new guest post series called “Listen, Learn and Listen Some More.” Every Tuesday you’ll be invited into story from some writers who have something to teach the rest of us about the subject – as such, I’m so excited for you to read the words of Catherine Hervey. If you’ve been around here for awhile, you might remember “Where Art Thou?” from December of 2018. As per her words today, I’ll just say this: we get to believe the stories, just as we get to believe the storytellers. Proceeds from today’s article will go toward RAICES.
One day when I was fourteen, standing with my classmates on an outdoor walkway before study hall, my middle-aged teacher scooted behind me to get to the door. It was twenty years ago and I can still remember that moment–he made full contact with my backside in a long, slow drag, his hips pressing flush unnecessarily against my lower back. This was a man who had always given me a vague sense of discomfort, but that day I felt an acute sickness and confusion, an inchoate shame that made every day following in his class unpleasant.
One night in college, I went dancing with a friend. A middle-aged man asked me to dance and I said yes, because saying no is rude and two-step is fun. He wrapped his arms around me and pressed my hips directly into his with one hand, and my chest directly into his with the other, then held me in that position against him for the length of the song. I could feel every detail of his anatomy, so insistently was he pressing against me. He asked me where I was from and where I went to school, and I answered, my neck craned away from him so that we could be something like face-to-face, and we stood like that, swaying slightly until the song was over. I felt sick, frightened, and desperate for it to end, but I didn’t try to leave.
There have been other, more clear-cut incidents of sexual violation in my life. But in the last few years of social upheaval surrounding sexual assault and harrassment, these are the moments I’ve thought about the most. At the time, I was aware only that I did not enjoy them, that I had somehow found myself in a sexually charged situation and was ashamed of whatever I had unintentionally done to get myself there. But recently, after the gift of so many other women’s stories, it occurred to me:
Maybe he… shouldn’t have done that?
And then I stand up and walk away from this piece I’m writing and don’t come back for several days. Because neither of these things was a big deal, because I might be exaggerating or making something out of nothing, because I didn’t speak up at the time so how could anyone know I was uncomfortable, because what are people going to think of me taking some accidental contact and some close dancing and turning myself into some kind of victim?
But I do come back and keep writing because that feeling is still there–how young I was, how nauseated, how much older they were, how my instincts told me exactly what was happening even if I was afraid to recognize it, even if it had been done in such a way that there wasn’t really anything I could say even if I did have the courage.
This is what matters most to me–that people understand the monumental effort it sometimes takes to simply say that something happened to you and it was wrong. And how vigorously people sometimes fight you once you manage it–all the ways they find to say “no it wasn’t.” How your very confusion, your youth, the years it sometimes takes to speak can all be used against you, if you aren’t already busy using them against yourself. My entire life I’ve followed a savior who was very clear on this subject (hint: it involves men gouging out their own eyes), and yet somehow it is still so hard for me not to turn inward and assign all the blame for my sense of violation in those moments on myself.
When someone tells you a story like this one, first imagine what it took for them to find those words and use them, what hallowed ground you’re on. Only then can this new world we’ve found ourselves together in get easier for all of us.
Catherine Hervey has an MFA in Fiction from the Sewanee School of Letters. She has written for Books and Culture and The Curator, and is currently a contributor for Ruminate. You can connect with her on Twitter.