“Wild Swans” is one of my favorite Alice Munro stories, from her collection The Beggar Maid (in Canada, the collection’s title was Who Do You Think You Are? but the American publishers thought Americans wouldn’t appreciate being asked that question in a book title). In the story, a teenaged girl taking the train to Toronto for the first time finds herself seated next to a minister (or, at least, a man who claims to be a minister) who chats with her. Later, he opens the newspaper, and while he’s reading, Rose begins to notice something going on: “But what if it really was a hand? She shifted slightly, moved as much as she could toward the window. Her imagination seemed to have created this reality, a reality she was not prepared for at all. She found it alarming. She was concentrating on that leg, that bit of skin with the stocking over it. She could not bring herself to look. Was there a pressure, or was there not? She shifted again. Her legs had been, and remained, tightly closed. It was a hand. It was a hand’s pressure.
“Please don’t. That was what she tried to say. She shaped the words in her mind, tried them out, then couldn’t get them past her lips. Why was that? The embarrassment, was it, the fear that people might hear? People were all around them, the seats were full.”
In this passage, Munro gets at the complicated set of emotions and impulses the victim of sexual harassment negotiates, especially when that victim is a child. In Munro’s story, the victim is a girl on the edge of womanhood. She is frightened, but she’s also self conscious, confused, and curious about what’s going on. People like to think that harassment is a clear-cut matter: you touch me, I scream bloody murder and elbow you in the groin. But as this passage so subtly demonstrates, the mind can play tricks on itself. What’s real and what’s imagined? What’s intentional and what’s accidental? To accuse someone of harassment is to put yourself on the line, for the victim immediately opens her/himself up to the possibility of having wanted or instigated or invented the behavior being perpetrated upon her or him. Look at the recent Jerry Sandusky pedophilia case. The children he abused and raped didn’t come forward at first for fear that they wouldn’t be believed. To accuse someone of harassment or rape is to risk being publicly tainted by the very act that violated you privately. You risk being called a pervert, crazy person, slut, tease, liar.
I remember people saying some very cruel things about my mother after she came out as a lesbian in her 50′s. That she was selfish, self-indulgent, destroying the lives of her daughters just to have a little mid-life crisis. We went for a walk one evening when I visited her and discussed this.
“Wendy,” she said, “Do you think I would have CHOSEN this life?”
I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but I now understand: to be gay means to give up all our culture’s heterosexual privilege, especially when you’ve lived the better part of your life as a married heterosexual woman. To be gay means that you have to think twice before kissing your partner in public, lest you get the crap kicked out of you. To be gay means you might have to hide key details about your personal life when you’re at work. To be gay means family and friends might reject you, that people might keep their children away from you, that churches or certain business establishments might not welcome you. I could go on and on.
I know that the issue of sexual harassment and abuse might seem tangential to the issue of coming out as gay, but in both cases, the culture puts immense pressure on people not to speak the truth. I’m not equating being gay with being sexually abused; rather, I’m seeing a connection between the refusal of the culture to see and listen to people who are gay and to see and listen to people who are sexually abused. So often we just want to sweep things that make us uncomfortable under the rug and not think about them. And that is wrong.
The Jerry Sandusky case got me thinking about these issues, but I had a bit of an eye opener yesterday that forced me to confront (just a little) how complex issues of power and harassment are. I went shopping at a Family Dollar here in Tuscaloosa. In just the first few minutes of looking for my Visine for Contacts and bug repellant, I kept glancing up to see a man standing at the end of whatever aisle I was standing in. He was a tall black guy with one striking milky blue eye. As I moved through the store, he seemed to be following me. Over by the pet treats, where I was loading up on Busy Bones and rawhide chips, he asked if I needed a buggy (buggy=cart, for you Northeasterners). Then he asked what kind of dogs I had. A few moments later he came over again to tell me that he was cleaning up a bleach spill in the next aisle, so if I smelled something bad, that’s what it was. I was cordial with him, but I did notice that his attention seemed a little beyond what I was used to in a retail establishment. And then he walked by me again, this time brushing close, and I felt his hand graze my rear end.
It took me a moment to put together what had just happened, but I sort of “knew” it emotionally before my brain had registered it. This guy was on my case in some way that I didn’t like. I hurried up to the register and paid, orienting myself so that the customer behind me was literally standing right behind me. Already my brain was beginning to do the work Munro represents in “Wild Swans.” Was that a hand? Was it merely an accident? You must be crazy. That didn’t really happen.
But it did really happen. I know the difference between an accidental brush up against someone’s arm and a hand running along my bottom. There’s a difference between deliberate and accidental touch. And much as I’d like to think I’d whip around and confront the guy, I didn’t. My brain was already too busy telling me I’d imagined it. Then my brain told me it was no big deal, though my cheeks were burning and I couldn’t meet the cashier’s eyes. And then, when I got to my car and sat in the Tuscaloosa heat waiting for the air conditioner to get going, my brain told me that no one would believe me anyway: all the employees in the store were black, and I am white, and there’s way too much fucked up racial history in Alabama involving black men accused of harassing white women for me to even think about complaining about some Family Dollar employee who’s being paid $7.25 an hour to clean up bleach spills giving my ass a little feel-up.
The thing is, if I had my druthers, I wouldn’t even want to get the guy in trouble. I’d just like to ask him what he was thinking to do something like that to me while I’m out at the goddamn store just trying to buy some rawhides for my freaking dogs. I mean, really? I’m not going to perish or anything, but it’s not the greatest feeling in the world to be followed around a store and groped for a second like a piece of fruit.
I’d like for him to look at me with his one good eye and tell me the truth.