On the last day of a summer music camp I direct, I ran into two of my counselors, whom I call Elsa and Anna. They were out of breath from running, wearing uncomfortable smiles, and Elsa’s face was tear-stained.
“What’s going on?” I asked. Elsa covered her face with her hands. Anna, still grinning strangely, said, “We just saw a guy outside — I don’t know, maybe he was going to the bathroom — it was so gross … .”
“What do you mean? You saw too much?” I asked Anna, looking at Elsa’s shaking shoulders. Crying or laughing, I couldn’t tell. Anna kept talking.
“Oh, yeah, we saw way too much. Everything.” Then the two girls, 14 and 15, looked at each other with red faces and began laughing/crying again.
When I told the girls’ mothers about the disturbing event, I found myself telling them about a childhood memory.
I was about 10 years old and browsing at a Waldenbooks in my hometown mall. I knelt down to find a book on the bottom shelf and noticed a man next to me, also kneeling. It was summer and he was wearing loosefitting cotton shorts, hiked up, his hairy, white thighs exposed. In that glance, my childish brain could barely comprehend what I was seeing: his penis protruding from the hem of his shorts, in a state that was unrecognizable to me — how embarrassing, he doesn’t realize his private parts are showing. I glanced up and saw that he was looking at me. Alarm bells went off. I stood up slowly and left in a haze of terror and shame, and breathed not a word about it for the next 30 years. Until I caught the look on Elsa’s face through her trembling hands.
Hard as it might be to believe, I didn’t understand the encounter from an adult perspective until I told it out loud. For 30 years I had felt caught between the voice telling me I had been violated and the irrational voice rebutting: it was your imagination, it was an accident, you shouldn’t have glanced over. I never had a chance to sort that out until I heard my adult voice banishing any doubt of a 10-year-old’s innocence.
In retelling, I have discovered that every woman was approached as a girl. He called me over to ask directions. I went to his car window, and he wasn’t wearing pants/He was walking past me and opened his jacket/He lived near me/Twice. It happened twice, in this neighborhood/I was 10/I was 12/ I was 8/I never told anyone/I never told anyone.
Thanks to Harvey Weinstein, the “Me, too” status updates are popping up on Facebook, and my distaste for oversharing is battling my disgust at these thousand tiny daily assaults on girls and women. Picturing that man in a bathrobe wielding sex like a weapon, disgust wins. “Me, too” is not oversharing. It’s required reading.
Recently, I was sitting at the park with two friends, watching our five boys run wild over the playground. My 7-year-old son and his buddy wrestled, hands pushing down on each others’ shoulders. They made growling noises, sweated.
“I thought I’d have girls,” said my friend, “and I’d be able to teach them how to be strong women. Instead I have two boys. How do I stop them from becoming those kind of men?”
Nearby, my daughter and her friend, 10 years old, bent down and collected chestnuts into a neat pile for the squirrels as they talked. I don’t know what she has seen already. But I’m going to ask. I can’t stop sick men from finding her on the playground, sidewalk or corner store, any more than my parents could stop it in a Waldenbooks in 1986. We can only tell our stories out loud, to our girls, and to our boys, fathers and husbands. Maybe then we will overcome the demons of fear and shame that are given life by those whispers: I did something wrong, I deserve this.
Rena Kraut, of Minneapolis, is the founder and executive director of the Cuban American Youth Orchestra, as well as a professional musician and music educator.