With the #MeToo movement gaining in the world in which I am bringing up my teen and preteen daughters, they want answers I don’t always have.
Report it immediately, I tell them. Listen to your instincts. Fight back. But why should we have to develop these strategies at all? And why does reporting harassment often bring more injury than healing? These things are harder to explain.
What I haven’t told my daughters yet is that I stayed at my first “#MeToo” because I needed the job too much to quit, and I’d been taught that good girls are quiet and make nice.
I’d graduated college ― the first in my family to do so ― but I didn’t know what was next.
I’d grown up in a family pest control business, and my older brothers were already scuttling into crawl spaces in search of termites and baiting rodent stations as they fought for succession.
Dad offered office work suitable for a girl. “We’ll pay your car insurance for three months, until you get on your feet.”
It was a reasonable plan, but I was unreasonably in love. The year before, on a semester in Washington, D.C., I’d fallen for a boy who lived in Florida, a thousand miles from my Missouri home. The day after graduation, I packed my car to drive south.
My boyfriend’s family helped me get the interview. The small family business was much like my own: a front office with stained carpet and worn leather chairs. They made soups instead of insecticides. I already knew the rules: Do what needs done, cover for each other, the customer is always right.
I sat at the front desk and directed incoming calls to the sales manager, or took messages for the factory foreman. I designed advertisements and package labels. I managed spreadsheets. I even took home their product recipes on the weekends, and gave feedback as an average grocery customer might. Joe and I were grateful for the pots of free soup, even as we choked down the least popular: lima bean.
We found an affordable apartment next to campus: “One bedroom. Light and airy. $400 per month.” I promised Joe I’d get Dursban for the roaches if I could have the sun-filled front room with built-in bookcases and a desk for my writing. We pretended our landlord was just quirky. I bought bright blue floral bed sheets and we made the bed with a white quilt handmade by my grandmother.
One month into the job, my boss invited me to his beach house while his wife was out of town. I couldn’t imagine he meant just me.
“Anytime,” he said. “Come by anytime. I’ll be there. The ads you did last week were very promising. We should talk brochures next for the trade show.”
It sounded friendly, fatherly even, in a way that made me homesick for late work nights that turned to family dinners, and weekends taking inventory in our company garage when Mom brought donuts.
“Joe loves the beach,” I said, but I never called, even though he’d tucked his phone number into my back pocket as I was leaving work on Friday ― a move my gut warned me about, but I dismissed.
The office manager, Barbara, was his daughter and we became friends. She taught me Excel and showed me how to calculate sales margins based on the price of spices. When she went north for a family wedding, I offered her my winter coat. She replaced the missing button, resewed the torn pocket, and brought me a tin of my favorite Earl Grey. “Maybe we could go out for tea some time,” she said, “you know, off the clock. I promise not to talk business.”
One afternoon at work, I mentioned that we were getting rid of a futon and my boss asked for the material. “You want our futon?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine what a 60-year-old man with his own company and two houses wanted with our discarded furniture.
“I use it for the canvas,” he said. “I strip the futon and stretch the fabric.” I’d been to his house for the holiday company party. Nude portraits he’d painted himself were on every wall. I assumed the model was his wife.
“I’ll pick it up,” he said, “what’s your address? I can even take your picture while I’m there. You’re such a pretty girl. Maybe I’ll paint you.”
I told Joe my boss would be stopping by for the futon, but I made sure I wasn’t home.
Our landlord got louder. She blamed us for more bugs and broke into our apartment to inspect our kitchen. She yelled at her kids and we could hear their crying through the walls. Joe applied for two part-time jobs at the mall in addition to his coursework so we could afford to break our lease.
Then my boss began leaving the door wide open when he peed. The bathroom was across from my desk, so several times a day I had to look away or pretend an errand in the factory to avoid his exposure. I told myself it was clumsy, the way families forget boundaries when they work together.
But if I returned to my desk too soon, he’d tease me about a tattoo he was sure I had. He leaned over me and pulled up my shirt sleeves, once my skirt, pretending he was looking and that I was simply hiding it. “We can’t have our front girl looking trashy,” he said. “Come on, let me see it.”
At first, I was too embarrassed to tell Joe. I cried too much after work and woke both of us with nightmares. “It’s just my boss’s way of joking,” I said, playing down the details. “But sometimes he takes it too far, you know?”
“You need to quit,” Joe said. “It isn’t worth this.”
“I can handle it,” I said, as if enduring harassment was a badge. “You can’t tell your parents. It’s not their fault.” We were young and neither of us really knew what to do.
Every morning as I dressed for work, I changed my outfits again and again and strategized how my clothes might protect me. Joe begged me not to go. “Just don’t show up. He’ll know why.”
“Where would we live? What would we eat?” I asked, calculating rent, utilities, food. “We’d have to sell my car. Then how would I get to my new job? How would I even get a new job?” I didn’t want to go back to Missouri and admit that my plan ― the one my parents doubted ― had failed.
Joe took on more hours, staying at the food court until closing, when he could barter CDs with other mall employees for leftover cinnamon rolls: our breakfast.
My parents surprised us with a visit. By the time I came home from work that day, they’d decided our living situation wasn’t suitable and shouldn’t involve bugs. They packed our few boxes and moved us. They’d found a vacant attic apartment in a building owned by their bed and breakfast host. My parents paid a month of our rent because we’d lost our deposit.
“Thank goodness you have a job,” Mom said, “it’s a blessing.” I was grateful, especially because my boss wouldn’t know our new address.
On the morning I told Barbara that her father had gone too far in his tattoo game, that he’d reached down the front of my blouse and touched my breasts, she said, “Please leave immediately,” not looking up from her screen. I offered her two-weeks’ notice, as my parents had taught me good employees do.
“I mean now,” she said. “You need to leave now.”
It stung; I thought that she’d be appalled and that she might want to protect me, as an older sister might, but her panic felt like blame. I manually punched my time card at the machine on my way out. Payroll was due the next day and I knew Barbara would need the numbers.
“What are you going to do now?” Mom asked, when I told her I’d quit. “I hope you have another plan.” I was too ashamed to tell her what had happened and too shocked to admit I didn’t.
It’s taken me 20 years and many more jobs to find my voice and write my truth. Speaking up, as the characters in my novel and stories can attest, isn’t always welcome and the consequences are often punitive. When my daughters read my #MeToo story, I’ll tell them I hope they never have one, but if they’re faced with fight or flight, run as fast as you can, even though neither might keep them safe.
Next to protecting others from sexual harassment, the most powerful thing I can do is to listen, empathize and put it on the page. My daughters see that the #MeToo rebellion is being led by the silence-breakers, but it’s an opportunity for the silence keepers ― men and women who protect perpetrators ― to do more and allow less. Our collective courage must be amplified so that our daughters and sons don’t have the same stories and the burden of telling them.