Column: How #MeToo Broke a Silence in Our Home

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For the Valley News
Friday, October 05, 2018

The #MeToo movement and the fraught Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination have brought us revelations as my wife and I try to skate gracefully together on the thinning ice of our 80s. Her uncharacteristic reaction is a sign of how powerfully these cultural changes influence us. This is a very private woman. She talks easily about our grandchildren and people who once were her students, but seldom talks or writes about herself. But she encourages me to write down and share her #MeToo stories.

A few weeks ago, Nancy spoke for the first time of something that happened 1952, when she was 15 and a serious swimmer who held the New England AAU women’s backstroke record. Her swimming coach moved east toward Boston, and in the summer of 1952 she went to live with him and his family. One night, after she had gone to bed, her coach came into her room and kissed her hard on the mouth.

Her 66 years of silence about that jarring kiss are understandable. Nancy admired her coach, as did other girls on his team. They called him “ADad” for “Adopted Dad.” She sympathized with the coach’s mother-in-law, who glared when the coach danced with his girl swimmers. But the coach helped Nancy achieve a level of success she’d never imagined while growing up on the other side of the tracks. Saying something to him or to anyone else about how much his nighttime kiss frightened her seemed as though it could ruin everything. She wanted to forget it.

A few days ago, Nancy recalled for the first time something that happened eight years later, shortly before I arrived in Pittsfield, Mass., from Oregon for our wedding in the summer of 1960. She was standing in the kitchen of an older neighbor woman who had volunteered to bake our wedding cake. The neighbor’s husband walked up behind her and began to grope her. Nancy broke free, left the kitchen and never mentioned it to anyone.

It isn’t hard to understand this long silence either. She was grateful to the neighbor, determined to make our wedding a time of unalloyed happiness. So she wanted badly to forget this incident, too.

Nancy once was able to break out of the silence that often shackles women who have been sexually assaulted. This happened a year before her neighbor groped her. She was climbing a staircase on her way to see her doctor in Pittsfield when a man came after her, exposing himself. She ran upstairs to her doctor’s office. His receptionist saw something was wrong, and asked if she could help. Nancy asked if she could use their phone to call her mother, and the receptionist heard her tell her mother to send her father to get her, explaining briefly what had happened.

When Nancy got off the phone, the receptionist and then the doctor talked with her about how important it was to try to find the man who had chased her, how another girl might not be able to escape, and how difficult it might be to press charges. They said she needed to think of those other girls, needed to be willing go to court if the police could find this man. And as it happened, they quickly found him.

Instead of her father, who was at work, Nancy’s older sister came to get her, and the man was still on the staircase. They called the police, who soon arrived and revealed he’d been arrested before for sex crimes.

The trial was not as ugly as the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, when senators asked Hill to repeat in front of the cameras and millions of people the things she’d written that Thomas said to her. But Nancy remembers being asked in court whether the defendant could have been holding a cigarette in his hand when he came after her instead of what she claimed he held.

The man was convicted, and friends and relatives praised Nancy for pressing charges and going to court. You could say she was fortunate. Most women accosted by sexual predators can’t escape quickly into a doctor’s office, where professionals trained to help frightened people are there to comfort and advise them. Victims are more likely to have to go back to work or take care of a child or lock themselves in a bathroom. And as time goes by, it probably gets harder to talk about it. Women know how they are likely to be treated as accusers.

We’ve talked about these matters a lot recently, and I understand why Nancy’s ready to go public. She believes if the silence predators and abusers depend upon is increasingly disrupted by the words of their victims, our culture can begin to foster greater understanding and kindness for those who have been hurt.

Supreme Court nominations have enormous consequence. And, many might agree, this one is especially significant. But maybe the national conversation about how we can treat each other with decency, dignity and kindness is even more important.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.