“Don’t look away from me! Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.” Maria Gallagher to Senator Jeff Flake 9/28/18.
I could barely hear the warning ding of the elevator door over Maria Gallagher’s voice. Senator Flake was trapped physically and metaphorically in a Senate elevator by the rage of two women. Yet it wasn’t Senator Flake’s awkward predicament that drew me closer to the radio. It was what I heard in Gallagher’s voice. A voice filled with outrage, pain, and frustration. A voice that carried me back to a summer’s day in Greenville, S.C. over 40 years ago. A day when I felt the same urgency, trying to explain to my young husband what happened to me that morning.
It was the beginning of summer when the days ahead seem enumerable to a young Kindergarten teacher. I was in good spirits having just finished a weaving class at the new Greenville Art Museum. Juggling my large cardboard loom along with my purse, I headed towards my car. I was so consumed with carrying my awkward belongings that I did not notice a young man’s approach. As I turned the corner, he seemed to appear out of nowhere. He walked beside me and asked if I had some work for him to do. Always friendly and polite but cautious, I told him, “I’m sorry we don’t have any work for you to do.” I emphasized the word “we” indicating that I did not live alone. Despite, my polite refusal he continued to hang around as I headed to my car parked on a side street. Once reaching my car, I turned to open the door, thinking he would finally go away. As I bent over to put my loom in the back seat of my small car, I felt hands on my buttocks. A chill of shock ran through me realizing who it was and that he had interests other than work. I snapped around and said as firmly as I could, “Go away!” He waved his hands as if to say, “no harm no foul” and backed off. I hastily got in the car and sped away.
As I drove home shaken and scared, the “what-ifs” ran through my mind like a freight train. What if he’d pushed me in the car? What if he’d grabbed my keys? Where would I be now? Those same hands that touched me could easily hurt and overpower me. After racing through the “what ifs,” I began blaming myself. Why didn’t I park in the front of the building? Why didn’t I turn around and walk back to the museum when he approached me? Why did I head to my car parked on an isolated side street? Why did I put myself in such a vulnerable position?
When I arrived home I called my husband, John. I spilled out my story still in a panic, hoping he would leave work and come home. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he made it clear that he couldn’t come home. I felt dismissed and then silly for being so upset. Yet I so desperately wanted to be heard. Like Maria Gallagher in the elevator, I felt I was being told that what happened to me didn’t matter.
When John came home that night, I don’t remember pursuing the issue with him. Perhaps because I was already steeped in self-blame and felt I somehow invited the attack. Also, my perception of John’s lack of concern made me feel I shouldn’t be terrified. After all, I hadn’t been hurt only touched and boys will be boys.
Now some 43 years later, I stood in my kitchen with tears streaming down my face. Maria Gallagher’s voice brought back vivid memories of hands touching me and the terror of turning around to find the abuser still standing there.
I realize now that I lived with this moment on and off for years. I think of it when young men approach me on the street; when a man enters an elevator with me; or when I am alone in a parking lot. I believed if I was cautious and vigilant it would not happen again. Yet, I am learning from wise and brave women like Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and now Maria Gallagher, that what happened to me was not due to some failing on my part. I have every right to park where I want to park, walk down a street alone, and to not be touched without my consent. Most importantly, I have a right to be heard, because what happened to me may seem inconsequential, and unimportant to some, it wasn’t to me. I needed to be heard at the time, and I need to be heard now.
The same day Senator Flake decided the Senate needed to take a pause and called for an investigation of the charges against Judge Kavanaugh, John & I also took a break and headed for the quiet of the mountains. Lingering over a glass of wine after dinner, we chatted about the events of the week. I began telling John about my tearful reaction to Maria Gallagher’s words and all the uncomfortable memories it brought up. Not surprisingly John confessed he forgot about the incident and likely thought it wasn’t a “big deal” at the time. Yet in my retelling something changed in both us. I was able to finally convey the fear I felt without shame or excuses. In listening, John was able to see the incident from my perspective. He recalled a time when he was involved in a dust-up with an older boy. There was a moment in the fight when he realized the boy could easily overpower him and hurt him. Happily the older boy walked away but John compared the fear he felt to my experience so long ago. It was in this moment of quiet confession that I felt not only John’s compassion but at last his understanding.
Now that the Senate hearings are over and Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, I can imagine Maria Gallagher’s disappointment. Disappointment in the investigation that she so desperately wanted and with the outcome of the Senate’s vote. While hope might be hard to summon in the halls of Congress, maybe there is hope to be found around kitchen tables? Tables where women are beginning quiet conversations with the men in their lives. Maybe it is in the intimacy of our homes that the nascent change of hearts and minds will happen. It will take courage for women to share what was kept under wraps for years, but I believe it is in such honest sharing that true change will come. Our stories do matter because they are a part of us. When you look at us and listen, you tell us we matter, too. ~c.h.