Throughout the recent months of accusations of sexual harassment against celebrities, politicians and corporate executives, I got the point: The culture has changed. From here on, relationships between men and women will not be the same — and that seems good.
I did, however, have a lingering question. I understand why the victims were reluctant to come forward, fearing retaliation from their powerful abusers. But how, I wondered, could their memories of the abuse be so vivid, so powerful, so clear, after so many years — decades in some cases.
Then I heard a woman in her 80s recently read a short story to a group of her fellow seniors about a night 60 years ago on a lonely country road in southern Minnesota.
She was being driven home from a friend’s wedding, where she’d been the maid of honor.
She remembered the night with detailed clarity: The wedding went off without a hitch and was followed by a reception where people talked, danced and drank. As the party waned, the bride’s brother offered to take his sister’s attendant home, a farmhouse about 20 miles away. He’d been drinking, but seemed all right to drive. On the way to her home, he pulled off on a side road and parked the car.
He leaned over and put his hand under the 19-year-old’s dress. She shrieked. Her mind was racing, her head spinning, wondering what was happening — and why. She told him to stop. He didn’t. Then, in a moment of calm, clarity and courage, she ripped off the wedding corsage from her dress and drove the pin into her attacker’s thigh.
He let out a yelp, took his hand away and said he was sorry. He’d drive her straight home. On the way, he begged her not to tell anyone, especially her brothers.
And she did not. She didn’t tell anyone. But here she was, six decades later, reading her short story to about a dozen of us sitting around a table in a “retirement village.”
Her story of the evening and the unfolding event was as vivid as if it had happened a week ago. She read it slowly, softly, calmly and carefully. It was spellbinding. Now I truly understood. She hadn’t been raped. Or threatened. But she HAD been humiliated, traumatized. And that kind of experience does not go away.
Her story shocked and surprised me. I don’t think any of the women sitting around the table felt that way. They knew at once why that night hung in her memory forever. I think sometimes guys, including me, tend to think: What’s all the fuss about? Nothing much really happened — a wayward hand on the thigh, an unwanted kiss on the cheek.
The truth is, women don’t do that to guys, at least in my experience. Oh, there was the sloppy kiss on the cheek when I went to my grandmother’s and she hadn’t seen me in awhile. That was merely embarrassing.
The recent revelations, recollections and reactions are more than embarrassments. What’s encouraging is that our society has taken a step forward — toward respectful equality and soulful enlightenment. I can handle this new world, with its changing rules and rituals.
It turns out that the 19-year-old girl, now a senior woman, could handle what happened to her on that country road.
She finished her short story with this observation: Apparently I didn’t do any serious damage to him with that pin. He went on to get married, moved away and had five children.
She smiled. The story was finished.
Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.