Thursday, August 1, 2013

When I wasn't that kind of a person



I was 23, working at my dream job teaching writing at an alternative outdoor high school, when I experienced sexual harassment.

I did not think that I was the type, whatever that means. I was too smart to be manipulated, too tough to be tormented, too well-liked for anyone to want to mistreat me. I was so clever and quick on my feet that I could diffuse any situation before it became unpleasant.
And if what happened next hadn't happened, I bet I'd still be walking around with those same ignorant ideas in my head.

 Out of the seven teachers at the school, only two of us were women. We all lived together, along with our 13 students, traveling to different rivers each week, and driving up the spine of South America at night, camping out in the woods or living in cabins in tiny surf towns. We had no space from one another and very little time to ourselves. It was tough, and unusual, but I was used to the challenges of communal living, and right away I figured out how to thrive.

 The key was to like everybody. If you do, then everybody likes you. So no matter what came my way, whatever stresses occurred around me, I'd just grin, shrug, make a joke out of it, and stay out of the way. I never got flustered, angry, or terse. I was strictly agreeable and cheerful.

 It wasn't just the desire to be popular that made me adopt this attitude of affable till death. It was survival. It's much easier to live together if everyone gets along, and if you let a few things roll off your back. It's basic group dynamics that every guide and camp counselor has to study at some point in their lives.

 It worked in the beginning. I was well liked by my co-workers and my students. And when I started to observe another teacher harassing the other woman on staff, I stayed well out of it, grateful that it wasn't me.

 He invented stories and rumors about her that he spread to the students, who were eager to be let in on staff gossip. He eroded her confidence and credibility with skill.

 Yet I knew the way he treated her was wrong, and the way he treated the students like frat brothers was inappropriate. I never questioned him, though, and I never stood up for her, because I was so hell bent on remaining passive and pleasant. In fact, that he could emotionally annihilate her in public, then turn around and want to be friends with me, seemed like more proof of my rank as a person.

 So, guess what happened next?

 Over two months, I watched this man’s behavior became increasingly volatile and bizarre. I observed from a distance until one day I woke up, and it was me he was harassing.

The things he said to me were off color, then cutting, then abusive. He told me he was so sexually frustrated that he should be allowed to hit me just for the release.

 The other woman complained, but nothing much was done about it. We were so isolated, in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country, that it would have been difficult to do anything without completely disrupting the entire program. I was afraid of that happening, so I refused to complain. Being one of the few women in a work environment can make one do anything to avoid seeming dramatic or emotional.

 One day I was alone with him in the attic of the staff cabin. He yelled at me that all of my students hated me. I remember his snarling face leaning into mine as he called me "a selfish bitch, a selfish little girl." As he left, he ordered me to stay in the attic until I "got my shit together -- even if it took a week."

 Five years later, I still don’t understand how I let it get this far. But truthfully, I just could not believe that I was being harassed, as if there is a type who attracts this treatment, as if it only happens to the weak, sensitive, and dramatic.

 I held on to this belief so tightly that by the time I realized what was going on, I thought it had to be my fault, that I hadn't stopped it early enough, so I had to endure it for the rest of the semester. 

On the airplane home from South America, with the kids sleeping in their seats, this man sat down in the seat next to me, waking me up. He was drunk. I straightened up and told him he needed to leave. He didn't. He threw himself into another diatribe against me, threatening to spit on me.

It finally dawned on me that this was a dangerous person. This wasn't just an annoyance. I was not safe around him, nor was I safe at work.

 When the plane landed, I made the phone call which kicked off mediation, lawyers, documents, insults, and frustration. I've never felt so confused and isolated in my life. In the end, he refused mediation, and this was the official reason why he was fired. Another staff member quit in protest.  Just as I'd figured, the entire school was disrupted.

I learned a lot during this time -- specifically that any incident that occurs on an airplane becomes a tedious legal no-man's-zone. I learned that we'll never know anybody's full story. There are too many factors, legal and otherwise, that prevent us from telling it.

Most of all, I learned just how complicated these situations can be. My previous assumption about the 'type' of person to be harassed, offended, ignored, and even abused, were so ignorant, so massively and entirely wrong, I think this had to happen in order for me to understand.

 At least, that's what I tell myself.

(Thank you to Anna Lola)

This post is part of BlogHer's Women@Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.

6 comments:

Anna V said...

Oh, honey. As a teacher of gender and women's studies (aka feminism), this story enrages me because I can see the systemic abuse of power manifest in your desire to brush his abusive behavior off and/or accept blame at first (because, as one of only 2 women on staff, you were made to feel like you had to "take it" in order to keep your job... because you felt like you had to earn your right to be there by putting up with it, by not disrupting things). This is how abuse continues in a vicious cycle. This is how victim blaming begins. I'm proud of you for breaking out of this situation, my love. You know I know it isn't easy.

As your friend, the fact that you had to experience this breaks my heart. But the fact that you're brave enough to tell the truth about your life is why I love feminism, and why I love you. Because that's the point of feminism in my humble opinion -- being first brave enough to recognize the truth about your life ("this is not okay; I will not let him treat me like this; I did not ask for this and I do not deserve this") and then to tell the truth about your life in no uncertain terms. You are a kick-ass woman, and I love you.

Anna V said...

Oh, honey. As a teacher of gender and women's studies (aka feminism), this story enrages me because I can see the systemic abuse of power manifest in your desire to brush his abusive behavior off and/or accept blame at first (because, as one of only 2 women on staff, you were made to feel like you had to "take it" in order to keep your job... because you felt like you had to earn your right to be there by putting up with it, by not disrupting things). This is how abuse continues in a vicious cycle. This is how victim blaming begins. I'm proud of you for breaking out of this situation, my love. You know I know it isn't easy.

As your friend, the fact that you had to experience this breaks my heart. But the fact that you're brave enough to tell the truth about your life is why I love feminism, and why I love you. Because that's the point of feminism in my humble opinion -- being first brave enough to recognize the truth about your life ("this is not okay; I will not let him treat me like this; I did not ask for this and I do not deserve this") and then to tell the truth about your life in no uncertain terms. You are a kick-ass woman, and I love you.

Erin said...

Thank you for sharing, lady. Funny what we can see when we're on the other side.

Susan S said...

If this guy had started off by round-housing you, the fact that you were being abused would have been unavoidable and you would have taken action to protect yourself right away. It's like that story about how to boil a frog: If the frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out immediately, but if the frog is placed in cool water that is heated gradually, it won't realize that it's being cooked and will be boiled to death. That's a horrible story, but your story is also horrible and they have frightening similarities. I'm very glad you survived and also glad that you are speaking out about it. Thanks for your bravery!
Susan

ahoy.jenni said...

Good story..
It just sucks that this type of thing happens...he definitely had a problem. I wonder where he is today and what sort of damage he has done along the way...maybe we don't want to know...
An old psychologist friend I know was telling me the other day that there is 0.01% of each society that has persons of psychoid personality, aka sexual predator, and if a sexual predator is not attractive enough to the other sex (or same I suppose) to get his sexual needs fulfilled then he becomes a predator. Sounds like your guy certainly had some predatorish behaviour going on. Good thing you got away, far away...

Britta said...

Beautifully written. So clear. I can feel the emotion. I remember thinking similar things about myself- I'm not the type to have this happen to me. And guess what, it never did happen to me. But around the same time you woke up from your belief, I did too. I am ever grateful maturity made me see otherwise and not abuse. So sorry your path was rougher.

But your observations about not standing up for the other teacher? Not confronting? Hits home. It wasn't until I became a mother that I really started standing up when something around me was wrong. Words. Behavior. Action. Still working on it. My first instinct is always to flee. Then I hold steady and speak, move, confront. Most of the time.