“A Catch in the Spokes” by Maggie Harrison

Issue 17 / Spring 2019

 

For years, I was silent. I told no one. Today that changes, partly because of you, moving your eyes across this page, participating in my liberation. Or my re-traumatization. Or elements of each. I won’t pretend it’s just one or the other.

While I didn’t speak it, I didn’t ignore it: I learned about sexual assault; I completed rape crisis training and worked on a hotline; I got trained in self-defense. But I never disclosed. I thought I didn’t need to. What good would it do to talk about it? Whom would it serve? I didn’t see a beneficiary.

The spectacle of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony changed my mind. In her opening statement to the U.S. Senate Judicial Committee in the hearing on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she testified:

“Brett’s assault on me drastically altered my life for a very long time. I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone these details. I did not want to tell my parents that I, at age fifteen, was in a house without any parents present, drinking beer with boys. I convinced myself that because Brett did not rape me, I should just move on and just pretend that it didn’t happen.”

Why should a fifteen-year-old girl be too afraid and ashamed to speak of an assault? Because she broke the rules—underage drinking, just like the boys from Georgetown Prep were doing. She understood the double standard excused them and blamed her.

But the seventeen-year-old Brett had grown up to become a judge and was poised to become the most powerful judge in the nation. She felt it was her civic duty to share this with her government. She was present and certain. And there was a witness—a second attacker.

A U.S. Senator asked this survivor of sexual assault, in the hearing on the fitness for office of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, “What is your strongest memory of the attack?”

“The laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense.”

“You have never forgotten that laughter, forgotten them laughing at you?”

“They were laughing with each other.”

“And you were the object of the laughter?”

“I was underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.”

The Supreme Arbiter of Justice. The most powerful post in our country. Drunk as a skunk, gleefully pulling the clothes from and violently quieting a girl from another school—not from one of the Catholic girls’ schools with whom they usually socialized—when she showed up at his friend’s party in high school. The experience didn’t rate as significant enough for him to remember it.

How would it mark a man to have behaved that way to a woman? Would such behavior disqualify him for the lifetime appointment? If he successfully forgot, what does his capacity to forget reveal about us? If he remembers even a twinge through the stupor, are we worse off, with a Justice who knowingly lied?

*

proof, n.: the action or process of establishing the truth of a statement.

Imagine, if you will, a high school junior, an athlete with a broad chest and a dirty-blond mullet. Let’s call him Charles.

Our Charlie is a student at a private prep school that served only white boys for about seventy years before admitting white girls and an occasional person of color. He’s a day student at an institution that boards students from wealthier families whose parents don’t want them to live at home.

The school is in the South, but it’s not a simple “seg school.” Though it was founded long before school segregation on the basis of race was recognized by the highest court in our nation to be unconstitutional, this institution certainly benefitted from the ruling, representing as it did an alternative to public high school for middle-class families in the region who didn’t want their children in classrooms with Black students.

*

proof, syn.: Authentification. Confirmation. Verification. Validation.

This particular seventeen-year-old kid is not from one of the moneyed families in Floyd County, Georgia. His father runs a pair of automotive shops; his mother is a caregiver for the elderly. They see an opportunity for their son to advance.

He’s not particularly smart, but he’s charming and devious, and he’s an asset to the football team—a point that secures his position in the school and social pecking order. He prefers baseball, but he understands the priorities of the place.

*

proof, n.: a series of stages in the resolution of a mathematical or philosophical problem.

On the baseball team, he befriends a senior and inserts himself as the negotiator between this shy teammate and his crush, a freshman cheerleader with whom they’d both been trying to flirt. The three of them begin to spend time together on weekends. She is flattered by their attention and embraces the adventure of traveling aimlessly with them on country roads as they put their new driver’s licenses to use, the two boys bantering playfully with one another, the girl seated in between them on the front seat. They chose her. She feels protected.

*

proof, v.: knead (dough) until light and smooth.

In the end, she is safer with the two of them than with just one. When the older boy graduates and disappears and Charles becomes a senior, he courts the girl, now a sophomore, inviting her to parties with upperclassmen and eventually his senior prom.

He’s Chuck when he’s drinking with his teammates, and that year he engages in plenty of drinking: watery yellow beers in cans he would crush after he drained, but also inexpertly mixed drinks—plastic Dixie cups filled with Coke or Fanta and whatever grain alcohol he can get ahold of. Girls are more willing to sip the sweet stuff; he likes to have soft drinks on hand at parties. As soon as she swallows, she is complicit in the misbehavior, and their evening activities are a secret from the adults.

*

proof, v.: activate (yeast) by addition of liquid.

Before his senior prom, he poses for photos with the girl. His bowtie and cummerbund match her dress and her lipstick. She has chosen the one-shoulder, slanted-hem number and allowed her hair to be teased up. It complements the white tux and the mullet and the shiny ChapStick he shows up wearing.

*

proof, n.: (archaic) a test or trial.

She has set the limits thus far, in terms of her physical intimacy. A playful slap and a smile from her; puppy dog eyes from him. He stops.

In the car after the prom, she makes out with him, and doesn’t mind his pawing at first. She can still his hand when she grabs it, but as soon as she lets go, he resumes the invasion. She tries to say, wordlessly, Kiss me, yes, and I’ll kiss you tonight, but I’m keeping my dress on. He ignores her protest. His hands are too big. His arms are too numerous. The affection and admiration she was led to expect in the front seat of his car at the end of this evening is so distant from the animosity of a wrestling match that she struggles to mentally process what is occurring. He is the person charged with protecting her—her date. His friend’s former girlfriend.

He won’t stop. The taffeta bunches up in a wad beneath their weight. She cannot keep his fingers out of her crotch, in spite of the pantyhose which create for him an obstacle, and for her a possibility of escape. She despises the physical pressure and show of his strength. She struggles to keep her vagina to herself, away from his mouth and chin, away from his stubby fingers, away from his swelling penis in his trousers that she won’t touch and refuses to see.

Is it her protests or his conscience that keeps that vulnerable part of him away? That tiny victory allows her to exit the car and enter the house quietly in her wrinkled dress, to go to school and avoid him, to pretend she can ignore the truth, which seems infinitely simpler than saying it aloud.

*

proof, adj.: able to withstand something damaging. Resistant.

Like Dr. Blasey Ford, she makes a rational decision to tell no one, to try and forget, to remind herself it could be worse. But he had raped her. She knows it. With one hundred percent certainty. And now, nearly thirty-five years later, she recognizes that she will never forget.

Trauma, like poverty, is a condition. The human condition. It’s not pathology or disease. We have mechanisms to cope in its face, to learn to avoid it when possible, to heal from the injury so we can carry on.

I was the girl.

*

proof, v.: proofread (a text).

Who can forget? Who must remember? Whom do we tell?

Kavanaugh swore under oath he’d never been so drunk that he didn’t remember his actions. Dozens of classmates offered testimony that Kavanaugh was repeatedly “staggering from alcohol consumption,” “belligerent and aggressive” when drinking to excess, and “sloppy drunk.”

Dr. Blasey Ford passed a lie detector test and offered her memory for the FBI—and the world—to investigate. The President of our country, at a rally in Mississippi on October 3, 2018, mocked her testimony by interrogating himself: “How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs—where was it? I don’t know—but I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.”

This President turned to Brett Kavanaugh at the public swearing-in on October 8, apologized for his suffering, and said, “I must state that you, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent,” a factual inaccuracy. A confirmation hearing is not an adjudication of guilt.

*

proof, n.: the strength of distilled alcoholic liquor. A measure of the percentage of alcohol in an alcoholic drink, equal to twice the actual percentage of alcohol. Liquor that is 50 proof is 25% alcohol.

A survivor doesn’t deny something by ignoring it. A perpetrator doesn’t escape it by evading it. He carries the crime in his blood and bone marrow.

A wealthy white man with power—who is notorious for using his power to assault women without consequences (“when you are famous, they let you do it”)—selects another wealthy white man—who is known to use his power abusively, to demean and degrade, and then not even have the common decency to notice he has hurt someone, and remember it as something he participated in—for a position of absurd power.

*

proof, v.: treat a surface with a substance that will protect it against something, especially water.

Systematic violence—violence directed against members of a marginalized group by members of a dominant one—is a means of social control. It works to traumatize and terrify. Rape and the threat of rape are not merely individual crimes and transgressions—Brett’s and Chuck’s and Donald’s actions are spokes in a grand, quiet, constantly turning wheel of male privilege.

What gnaws my soul is the way silence greases the axle.

*

i.e., Bullet-proof. Waterproof. Wind-proof. Frost-proof.

Why do you need to know? Why do I need to tell?

If I continue to cover up the crime, to consider it a private injury, I turn my back on Dr. Blasey Ford, who offered her memory to us as her civic duty, whose memory has been challenged and questioned, whose reluctance to speak up was used to discredit her. She felt shame at fifteen, and now, a grown-ass woman, a professional, they want her to feel shame again. Let’s refuse. Me too.

For years I turned away, disinterested in Charles’s life path as long as it did not intersect with mine. After watching Dr. Blasey Ford inform the Senate Judiciary Committee of Brett Kavanaugh’s behavior thirty-five years prior, I questioned that choice. Even now that Judge Brett Kavanaugh has taken his place on the U.S. Supreme Court as the nation’s 114th justice and his decisions increasingly impact our lives—even now, as the futility of the truth seems more apparent—I need to tell it.

Does it make a difference if I do? Maybe or maybe not to you. Maybe or maybe not to Charlie. But for me, speaking it aloud, putting the words on the page, serves to verify—as if you didn’t already know—if your memory has failed you again, America—that no, I didn’t want your aggression; I did not deserve this violence; this is not my shame to bear.

*

proof, n.: evidence or argument establishing or helping to establish a fact or truth of a statement.

I’ll never know what Charles remembers, but I know what’s in his blood and marrow. He’s never been held accountable for his assault. He’s never been “proven innocent”—my silence does no such thing—and no one has suggested we try.

As Kavanaugh sits every day, and will for the rest of his life, with the power of a Supreme Court Justice, Charles runs an insurance agency in Polk County, Georgia. Risk management. He identifies, analyzes, mitigates, and monitors other Southerners’ risks for pay.

What if a client approached him with a case: I can make loads of money for questionable behavior—potentially criminal. How much can I make and still get away with?  What piece of this can I insure? How would he answer? Would you trust him to recognize what is at stake?

*

proof, n.: the spoken or written evidence in a trial.

If you are a potential client evaluating his services, I recommend you hesitate at number one: identify.  Did he set a limit on his own willingness to force himself, to fight with me? Did he believe the fact that he didn’t penetrate me with his penis would protect him from being a rapist?

This one nags at me: The vast majority of his clients, the men who pay him, are white straight men. Would he treat us differently, us clients who are women or Black or queer or otherwise hold less social power, than he would an old teammate from high school baseball? He might say we’re all individuals—a benefit of his service. But would he expect us to share risk differently, or advise us to retain an unwise relationship to profit? This suggestion is completely conjecture, I’ll have you know. No basis in fact.

*

proof, n.: a trial print of something in particular. A page. A photo. A coin.

Take note: If he recommends a gag clause in your contract, it’s not legally enforceable. Threats evolve. Vulnerabilities change.

Charles knew I’d likely tell no one. His insurance was that if I did, you’d hold him harmless. The risk he faces is that our truths will catch in the spokes.

 

Maggie Harrison’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Green Hills Literary Lantern, New Letters, Blithe House Quarterly, Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly, and Sinister Wisdom. Her unpublished manuscript, Molehills of Mississippi, was named as a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and the Lee Smith Novel Prize. She holds an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University. She is a professor at City College of San Francisco, where she chairs the department of Women’s and Gender Studies. This piece originally appeared in Entropy.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *