Despite all my skepticism for social media campaigns, this one felt important to participate in. To acknowledge the fact that I have struggled to say “me too” in the past, and never quite known how to.
9 years ago, a security guard groped me and pinned me against the wall before I could run away. Accordingly to the “morality” that had then been imposed on me, I had technically been somewhere where I shouldn’t have been, at a time I shouldn’t have been at with someone I shouldn’t have been there at. A fact that the guard pointed out before he used that situation to find me alone, and all of us, in that fear, had given in. I did not remember the face of the guard: I was in shock.
That night, I told one of my closest friends I had been molested. He was standing on the step lower than the one I was standing on, still taller than me, and with his body suddenly tightened, he asked me kindly: “what exactly happened?”. I described the event to him, still shaken up. “Oh! I thought it was a lot more when you said molestation. Thank God! That was just groping. I am sorry that happened to you, but it happens to women all the time. You will be fine”, he said. I liked to believe then that he was trying to make me feel better, and swallowed the “don’t be too dramatic, you will be fine” suggestion he gave, and shut up.
Thankfully, I had other friends who did not feel the same way. The friend that I was with remembered the face of the security guard and they complained. The guard was fired, and the issue was closed, right?
A gnawing feeling followed me though. Although still not sure of the nuances it entailed, I still called myself a feminist and had been for a while. When this incident, I was ashamed, more than anything else – this wasn’t how a feminist was supposed to react, right? The story of what happened was muddled with so many other stories that I wasn’t ready to own up to yet. I wasn’t ready to tell the story of why I was where I was. I didn’t want people to know that I was actually a coward who had not come forward to take action. I wasn’t even sure this was molestation (“groping”, as I had been corrected, remember), and I liked to believe I was strong for not letting that incident be important. I liked to believe I had “moved on”, because at 18, that’s the version of the stories I had heard.
I grew up, learnt how to say no more strongly and fiercely, and said so in the coming years. I evolved to find friends who didn’t think there was something wrong with it. I forgot this had happened and assumed that meant that I had “dealt” with it, right?Or so I thought until a few years ago. It was the day after my birthday, and I intended to recover from the last night by treating myself to a late morning and a beautiful brunch. I was woken up instead, early on a Saturday morning, by a friend calling me to tell me that he had been molested. By another male friend. Who I didn’t know was in the process of coming out. As I heard his side of the story of impulsive lack of control that he deeply regretted, sitting with all the other male friends who were present when this had happened, I struggled to find my objectivity and “balanced view” – how does one begin to reconcile the images of the “kind of people who do this kind of stuff” with someone I deeply respected? I was driving the friend who had been molested back to his house when he, still shaking, looked at me baffled and mumbled, “this wasn’t even a big deal, women go through much worse. I am terrified for my sister who goes through this all the time. I don’t even know why I am so affected! I just don’t know how I am supposed to respond as a man”. I tried to push behind all the triggers that were pounding at me then – all the other chauvinist comments he had made in the past that had pissed me off, and all the layers to what he was saying right now. I don’t remember what I told him. I knew I had to tell him he had every right to speak up, to feel everything he was feeling, but given how I had responded in the past, I remember feeling hypocritical. I remember trying to find, once again, the right language to help him describe what had happened – (“grabbed?” “squeezed?” “groped?”).
I work with stories, and thus, by default, I am hyper conscious about how we tell our stories: the language we use, the images we paint, and what that means in how we understand the world. Recently, as I drafted this story as a part of another speech that I was writing, I struggled to find the right words. On one hand, my speech needed to be powerful, and there were certain ways that stories like that become powerful; I had learnt enough of that. At the same time, I also needed to make sure I wasn’t painting myself as a “victim” – I needed to retain my credibility. I remember poring over the words again and again – would saying “groping” be too graphic? “Molestated” sounded vague enough but powerful enough. Am I coming across as less of a “feminist”? Is it too “dramatic”? And as I pondered over what all of this meant, it also hit me that for such a long time,I was so busy with not being the victim, so concerned with making sure the story fit into my larger narrative, that I hadn’t given myself the time to hurt, and thus, heal. I hadn’t forgiven myself for not remembering the man’s face. For not being careful enough. For not finding the courage to complain. I mean, if I had been scared then, couldn’t it be possible that I wasn’t as courageous as I thought I was? Every time I had visited what had happened, I had found ways to make myself worse, a skill that they teach the girls so damn well.
Like I said, I work with stories, and in working with people on drafting impactful stories and building toolkits for people to do so, I find myself coming back to these questions again and again. How do we narrate these stories of what we go through? What does it mean to share this, in a context where we know “powerful” to be only in a certain way? What happens when what is powerful isn’t that easily true for the self (not just in terms of what happened, but also how one tells that story) or worse, vice versa? What does it mean to be a “victim” of sexual assault, across the spectrum of that (I cringe as I type that)? Can I not be a victim and still allow myself to hurt and grieve and heal (and cope)? Can I allow myself to be “a victim” and still be empowered? Does changing the language from “victim” to “survivor” help, or do the connotations follow? How can I forgive for my healing, but still be angry enough? When does this constant portrayal of “powerful” stories that look and sound and end only one way normalise it, and what does that normalisation look like?
I find myself struggling with these questions again as I type “me too” into my facebook box (which I must also say, I did do, for I think it is also important our fact-obsessed culture to “empirically” see what this is): What does it mean to say “me too” ? What does it mean when our entire timeline “outs” themselves as survivors? What are nuances of the normalisation that it beings about? What kind of solidarity does it stand for? Who gets included and excluded in this narrative? What does it do to how I, too, experience it and thus, how I, too, respond to it?