Writing feels like concrete, wet and sloppy when it is poured, still malleable as it settles to fill corners, then turning into an immutable solid. If you remember it and write it, you make it stick to the world. You can’t take it back. It is real now. I tackle one memory at a time, the good and the bad.
This memory: I am 40. I am in the high-rise office of a successful businessman, a patron of the arts, asking him for money to keep my arts magazine going. I sit on the long, curvy couch because there are no office chairs.
He wants to know how important art is to me. Very, I say. It is everything.
He tells me to take off my clothes. I am wearing the fanciest work outfit I own, something black. Definitely a dress. I can’t remember what exactly but I can’t think of taking it off—not my black heels, not my hose; I couldn’t unzip my dress here in front of a stranger, hundreds of feet in the air. What does he mean, Take off your clothes?
My face flushes with shame. I am speechless. I am ashamed by my own shame and confused. I stand up and walk to a window. I stare out at the city; the river looks stitched together with bridges from this height. The glass is too thick to break.
I say no, of course. He tells me I am prudish, unlike the others who felt comfortable in their own bodies. Comfortable and proud enough to share with him. I don’t know who these other women are. Free-spirits? Younger, braver women who smack inhibition in the face and make it sting.
It is Friday, noon. There is no one else on this floor, no receptionist greeted me. The hallways are gray with moody lighting. I survey the office and its views of the city, west, north, east. I don’t sit. I scan for escape routes as casually as I can. A large, old-fashioned tintype camera sits in the middle of the room. I noticed it when I first walked in but dismissed it as some kind of artifact on display. Now I see it is pointed directly at the couch where I had been sitting. A large lens on a stand, behind which he would likely lift a cloth over his head, seeing me without being seen, a peep show. One angry eye.
So you don’t want a donation?
• • • • • •
A decade earlier, I had been invited to happy hour by a client, an executive of a major grocery store chain. I was in sports marketing then and it was my job to sell corporate sponsorship. The executive was important, boorish, and a coke head. I had to say yes. My boss would have expected it. I was the only woman sitting at this large round table of men. After the first drink, the grocery chain executive pointed to me and said, “Let’s count the buttons on her blouse.”
It seemed like such an innocuous thing to say. I was wearing a white shirt that had a single row of dozens of tiny buttons down the front. Then I looked up and saw six sets of leering eyes on my breasts. I excused myself to use the bathroom. I was humiliated, ashamed, but also embarrassed for being so offended. All he did was point to the buttons on my blouse.
The next day one of the men called to apologize, saying he wouldn’t have treated his dog like that. On the one hand, I was glad that my shame was validated; on the other, it was as if he said, “Here, have some more shame.”
• • • • • •
It isn’t rape. I’ve been raped; I know the difference. The similarity is this: a sinking powerlessness in that moment where you become object instead of human being. For a nanosecond, you glimpse humanity’s darkness, standing on the top step of the basement stairs that lead to the most fetid hearts of men.
No. I won’t take off my clothes for your fucking $20,000 “donation.” I will not be bullied into this. It takes a half hour—30 full minutes of panic and fear and self-doubt racing around my brain—for me to walk the 30 steps out that door.
For the next two weeks, I tell every woman I know in the arts community about the incident. I tell museum curators and patrons and gallery owners and artists. I want to shame him. I tell women I know who know his wife. There are others, I learn. They said no too.
Although I would end up losing the magazine a few months later, my rampage across the city’s rumor mill felt like Godzilla, flinging, smashing against buildings this tiny man in my fist.
And I no longer remember his name.
After I read this (in the middle of the night after too few hours of sleep), I was thinking how you should call out this guy again. I guess you could say the last line didn’t quite sink in. When I read it again, I realized that you had the power to forget his name. He couldn’t buy that.
Exactly, yes — he ceased to have any weight with me. Thanks for reading, Cyn. Great to see you around these parts.
Thank you for taking the experiences of many women and putting in such a strong, beautiful way. I have felt that helpless anger before, but the way you put into words was very helpful, making me understand the times I have been so angry about things like this. Your writing is so vivid!!
Thanks so much, Katie! This happened 15 years ago so I have a lot of distance from it, but it still made me angry as I was writing it.
Powerfully written. Many women have felt this but it’s not easy to speak or write about eloquently, or at all.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Dana. Yes, sadly, too many women can relate to this.
You’re such a strong woman to have gone through so much. This was a very powerful account, and I applaud you for telling it.
Oh, not strong at all — unfortunately, it is a common thing for younger women. Now that I’m older, I am blissfully untouched by overt harassment. Thanks so much for reading.
Thank you for sharing. The shame is on those men, but why as women do we take on their shame and make it ours? I’m so glad that you were able to have a rampage!
Thanks, Ellen. Yes, it seems for me, anyway, that shame was a default setting. I’m guessing part of that was how I was raised. However, men of this sort seem to zero in on women who are vulnerable this way — I think psychopaths are very perceptive. I do hope that women today have a stronger sense of self than I did when I was that age. I also hope more men are enlightened.
What a powerful piece, sadly I don’t think I know even one woman who couldn’t relate to this, who hasn’t been shamed or belittled like this. The awful thing is most men would brag about being in comparable situations…
I agree, Nancy. I know so many women who have stories. The men in my life today are much more aware of the things they say and sensitive to others. Man, though, from teenage years until my 40s, it was rough out there.
I could certainly tell a few.
I’m sorry it happened. The fact that this is unfathomable to me speaks to my naivete. I just, I can’t…who would…how could any of that behavior be acceptable? Ever?
Kudos to you for writing such a powerful piece, Meg. To have gone through this and to re-live it and write about it shows what a brave lady you are! Virtual Hugs!
Aww, thanks. I was seriously inspired by Rowan’s essay last week — I need to stick my neck out a bit more and write about the hard stuff. I was angry for 24 hours after writing it, which I didn’t expect, but I’m glad I got it out of my memory. I think each time you speak or write about something painful, it loses its power over you. Anyway, many thanks for reading and commenting!
You have such a way with words. I’m sorry that happened. I’m sorry that it happens to so many women. Thank you for writing this.
Mwah. Thank you, Michelle. You are sweet and kind and true.
Although I would end up losing the magazine a few months later, my rampage across the city’s rumor mill felt like Godzilla, flinging, smashing against buildings this tiny man in my fist.” Hells yes!
Hah! Hells yes, yes!
I agree with Cyn K about you being so much more powerful for forgetting his name. I found myself thinking “this is real writing” when I read it. Thank you for sharing. Your work is clear, precise, and thought provoking.
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Fudge, Meg… I am incensed for you and anyone who has been in that situation.
And this was masterful. I could feel your words landing like a mallet on a taught drum.
Love you, lady.
Thanks for putting the voice out there for women every where who react with shame, and disbelief. For me that is part of the whole experience, anger directed at myself for feeling ashamed over something I did not cause.
No… So you don’t want the donation? …No
That about sums it up for me. Donation, could refer to so many lewd things. Assholery knows no limits.
xxoo dear Meg