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Naomi Shulman: Me too, Christine Blasey Ford

  • Naomi Shulman is shown May 31, 2017 in her Northampton home.



For the Gazette
Friday, September 28, 2018

The news cycle has been hitting women hard these past couple of weeks. I know survivors of rape and assault who are avoiding radio and TV right now, the better to protect themselves from accounts of sexual violence in the news. And then there are the rest of us, those of us who never would have described ourselves as survivors. Some of us have been listening to what Christine Blasey Ford alleges Brett Kavanaugh did to her back in the 1980s, when they were both high school students, and suddenly experiencing a shock of recognition. For some of us, the trigger hasn’t been an old trauma, it’s been a new realization: Wait a minute, something like that happened to me at that age, too, and wow, I never thought about how messed up it was. In other words, it’s a constant reawakening: Me too.

I was a high school student in the 1980s like Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford. I went to parties like the one Blasey Ford describes (and Kavanaugh claims he would never have attended, a preposterous statement that doesn’t pass even the most basic smell test). I remember these gatherings as poorly contained, chaotic, alcohol-soaked events that were obviously not legal— we were minors — and yet no one expected anything different from us, because we were kids! This is what kids did. We arrived at these parties in overstuffed cars with less-than-sober teen drivers and left them stinking of wine coolers and weed. And as I listen to Blasey Ford’s story, a particular party rises up in my memory, ripe for reassessment.

Here’s what happened. (Skip this paragraph if you need to; it’s mildly explicit.) Late spring. I was at a graduation party. An older boy — a new graduate, and a friend, I thought — walked with me away from the house. I went willingly; he was my friend, why wouldn’t I? I had known him for years. Once we were a little too far away for others to easily see or hear us, I found myself pinned to the grass. He was trashed, but surprisingly strong. I said no, clearly and repeatedly.  He kept pushing. I couldn’t get away but managed to keep my pants on, maybe because he was too drunk to manage a button fly. He ejaculated on me, and then, finally, rolled off and let me go. I went home, showered, and counted myself lucky that I had not been raped. I told my best friend and no one else. (She remembers my account today, too.) He didn’t come back to school because he had, after all, just graduated, so I never had to see him again, and I was relieved. It was over.

Things like this happened to girls I knew all the time. It was to be expected, and as long as we weren’t literally raped, it was okay, within the bounds. I was not raped, ergo I was okay. I was not raped, so he didn’t do anything wrong. I was not raped, so there was nothing to report (and even if I had been, maybe I still wouldn’t have reported it). It was just a close call! Phew. I bet many women reading this are nodding their heads as they think of their own “close calls,”  and I’m also going to bet that most of us have never thought to describe ourselves as assault survivors. But do not mistake my point: I’m not saying I don’t think Blasey Ford was assaulted. What I’m saying is her story is definitely a story of assault, and that in retrospect, I understand that mine is, too, as are countless other women’s stories. It’s not just a case of  #metoo; it’s #yesallwomen. It’s truly systemic, so much so that a lot of us haven’t even been able to see our place in the system.

I did not tell either of my parents. What would have happened if I had? I’m pretty sure the response would have been a concerned reminder to watch myself more carefully so as not to be in a risky situation like that again. The culture that didn’t recognize the nuances of consent and the gray areas of assault sees both more clearly now. If my girls came home and told me something like this had happened to them (please God, they’d tell me, wouldn’t they?), I’d be up in arms. But that’s me going into protective Mama Bear mode. What if the boy who pinned me to the grass in the mid-eighties were now on the cusp of winning real power? Would I have the wherewithal to risk my own standing, my career, my family, my very life, the way Blasey Ford is doing?

I’d like to think yes, but I have to consider it a moment. The culture has indeed changed insofar as many, many more people understand that what Blasey Ford describes is sexual assault, even some of the oldest-school dudes in Congress. But cultural shifts happen slowly, and there still seems to be a very strong difference of opinion about whether Blasey Ford’s story really matters. Or rather, sure, it matters — no one seems to think it’s okay — but what matters more? To put it simply: Who counts? Does a girl’s struggle, and a woman’s subsequent trauma, have as much worth as a boy’s potential, or a grown man’s career?  Or is it just normal, understandable, what we should come to expect? Don’t answer too quickly; the answer might surprise you.

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Yankee Magazine, as wellm as on NEPR and WBUR. Follow her on Twitter: @naomishulman.