EDITOR’S NOTE: These stories are not sanitized in any way. They are graphic accounts of hideous acts against women. If you believe you will be offended by the content, refrain from reading.
#me too, Part 1
by Charles McGuigan
The day after Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag ‘me to’, my Facebook page lit up like a nuclear Christmas tree. Dozens of Facebook friends responded with their own stories, and each one was more appalling than the last. They didn’t stop popping up either, not for a couple of days, at any rate. So I put out a request, and, within a few hours, five women had agreed to be interviewed. I offered anonymity, and told them that I would put their voices through a filter for an audio documentary component to their stories. They wouldn’t have any of it. They wanted me to use their real names, and, what’s more, photographs of them. In the course of two weeks, we would meet for long and intensive interview sessions in Stir Crazy’s conference room, and around the table in my living room, or the peninsula in the kitchen. Some of them were group sessions, others one-on-one. These women are now friends, and I can’t think of a better group of friends. For one thing: They tell stories well. This too, though. They are beyond a doubt the bravest five people I have ever met. And I have met cops and soldiers, daredevils and street thugs, extreme athletes and flyboys. I don’t know the textbook definition of brave, and I’m not gonna pull that cheesy trick of quoting the dictionary definition as a lead. These women’s stories will reveal their courage. When I think of someone who is truly brave, my mind immediately goes to endurance, and the ability to reclaim a life, your own, or someone else’s. The truly brave stand their ground, defy their assaulters, embrace life, tell their truths, and challenge even those perceived as powerful. What’s more, they have marched into their battles alone, without the support of artillery or cavalry. They do this every day, and pretty much everywhere they go. But what separates these brave souls from others is that they held on to their humanity through it all. They refused to hate, even when it seemed that most of the male world was out to demean them or view them as property. Through it all they just kept standing tall, and they never allowed their hearts to be crushed.
Melissa Gray lay flat on the hospital bed, dressed only in her underwear, the white sheets crisp beneath her. The lights above her were bright so she squinted her eyes. Three doctors looked down on her. They sported pale blue scrubs, latex gloves, and one of them wore a stethoscope like a necklace around his neck. She knew these men, had heard their titles—anesthesiologist, cardiologist, cardiac surgeon—but didn’t know what those words meant. What Melissa did know is that her heart had been operated on. This was in the days before non-invasive surgery, so after carving a deep incision, the surgeon and his assistant cracked open her chest then spread the sternum apart to get to the girl’s heart surrounded by ribs like a bird in a cage, a small pulsing thing. The girl didn’t have any memory of this, of course, but she enjoyed the hospital stay, all the pre-op stuff, and the nurses and the doctors and the hospital gowns, and was very proud of the shiny purple scar, a bolt of lightning under the skin, running down the center of her tiny chest. It was a badge of honor, a mark of distinction. Because her eyes were almost squinted shut she couldn’t tell which doctor said this, but one of them, clear as day, said in not quite a whisper, “Oh well, it’s such a shame, she’ll never wear a bikini.” The words perplexed the girl, and settled into her brain to be examined later when she had the knowledge to decipher their meaning.
“That was the first time I distinctly remember a man commenting my body, and I was just five years old,” says Melissa Gray. She pauses for less than a second, her timing impeccable, and then adds, “And of course I love wearing a bikinis, any chance I can, and I love my scar.” Laughter erupts around the table.
It’s a Friday, the night before my son’s Halloween party, so there’s a cauldron of chili on the range, a vat of rum-rich planter’s punch in the refrigerator. The women eat and drink and reveal themselves at this table which is clad in a seasonal cloth inscribed with hundreds of Calaveras, those colorful Mexican skulls announcing the Day of the Dead. Rich orange lights bathe every room which play host to illuminated clay skulls, bats, jack-o-lanterns, an animated Gorgon with rippling snakes for hair, activated by the slightest movement. It seems to set the tone for what we are about to hear. The women gracing this table, which is really just a sheet of plywood over a base, announce their full names, one at a time. Melissa Gray, Didi Tremblay, Terry Menefee Gau, Mary Carpenter and Kathi Shiff.
As Kathi begins her story the room grows quiet, all ears trained on the words that spill from this woman’s mouth. You could hear a pin drop, and this is not hyperbole.
Just after Memorial Day in 1970, Kathi got her first job. She was a lifeguard at a community pool, and her parents had coached her on how to be a good employee, how to follow the orders of her supervisor. And that’s what Kathi did.
In late June of that same summer, Kathi and her boyfriend were on the brink of physical intimacy, but they caught themselves, deciding, even in the excitement of the moment, that they would remain virgins until marriage. It was a sweet thing, a loving thing to do. They were sixteen years old, and there was all the time in the world.
Just two weeks later, on July 15, as she blew the whistle at three o’clock sharp to clear the pool for a fifteen-minute rest break, her supervisor called her into his office. In less than a quarter of an hour, this girl’s life would be utterly changed.
Kathi wore a one-piece bathing suit with watermelon stripes, and she was slightly built. Her supervisor was a combat Marine who had served two tours in Vietnam. He was tall and muscular, maybe three or four times Kathi’s size. As she entered the office where he sat behind a desk, she smelled that familiar pool odor that was so thick in the small room because the chlorine tanks were stored there. And then her supervisor approached her.
“The only way I can describe it is the manager put his mouth on my face,” says Kathi. “He started feeling me up and I was trying to squirm away from him, but I couldn’t. He pulled down my bathing suit, and shoved me backwards, and I remember the edge of the desk digging into my back.” Her parents’ words about work ethic came back to her. “I don’t care what mom and dad say, I don’t care if I get fired,” she thought.
“I started to fight him, but it was too late,” Kathi recalls. “He ripped my bathing suit off, and it ended up down at my ankles.” And then this pedophilic Marine raped a child.
“And so,” says Kathi. “That’s how I lost my virginity. Not to my boyfriend.”
The silence in the room becomes denser as if its swathed in cotton. I am looking through tears at the woman who sits to my immediate right, but I see her as the girl she was.
After the brutal rape, another whistle blew, and Kathi climbed back into her bathing suit, wrapped a towel around her waist, and returned to her post. “I walked out to my station, and I know, now, that I was in shock,” she says. “Obviously the pain was very real. But I know that I was in shock, and it’s a good thing nobody drowned on my watch because I’m not sure I would have noticed them.” After a brief inhalation and a pause, Kathi mentions that she is a retired mental health clinician. “Shock,” she says. “But it’s actually more like disassociating.”
Kathi would keep this event locked away in her own psyche until she was thirty years old. ”I didn’t tell anybody when I was sixteen because this was in a small town and it would have been headline news and it would have been my fault and they would have spelt my name right, which they never did when I won swimming contests,” she says. “Not to mention my dad, my boyfriend, and my brothers. They would have ripped this guy to shreds and I would have ended up visiting them in prison, so I still would have been paying for this event that was not my fault.”
While she was in the old city of Jerusalem, a very young woman, just eighteen, she would be assaulted in public by a man she had never met. She had won a travel study grant and was with an American named Bill. There were hundreds of people because someone had seen Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister, enter his favorite potter in the old quarter of the city. Quick and agile, Kathi began scaling a fence to get a better look at the famous Israeli leader. Halfway up, she stopped.
“I felt this hand go up my shorts right through my underwear, and the fingers struck the mother lode, so to speak,” she tells us. “I was penetrated. I looked down at him and he was giving me such a crazed look that when I took a kick at him and I missed where I was aiming.”
Kathi takes a breath. “When that happened there was nothing that I could do to feel clean again,” she says. “You could have dunked me in boiling water and scrubbed my skin with sandpaper, and I wouldn’t have felt clean after that.”
Just out of college, Kathi landed her first professional job, teaching employment skills at Goodwill Industries. One day her supervisor called her into his office. “He basically said, ‘If you don’t—he used the term sleep with me—you’re going to get fired, and so I had sex with him. You can call it what you want, he was my superior I had sex with him under duress. It was a threat that he made to me. I left as soon as I could after that to another job. I never told my parents ever while they were alive.”
Kathi will tell more stories about further sexual abuse later, and in other settings. But what she says now should bring shame and remorse to all men who do not call sexual predators out in public.
“The micro-aggressions,” she says. “The, ‘Hey baby come and sit on my face,’ or, ‘Show us your t**,’ or whatever. Men do that to women on a daily basis, and it doesn’t matter how old a woman you are. It happens. All. The. Time.”
Terry Menafee Gau glances around her, fixing her gaze for a moment on each woman at the table.
“What I want to say is that I’m sitting in a room of women who have all been raped, and I am lucky to not be a woman who has been raped,” she says. “I should not have to say I’m grateful to have gotten through my life without being raped, but I am. And I am still very afraid to walk into spaces by myself. How I was raised as a female effects where I go, what I do, the work I choose, the partners I choose, the friends I choose.”
Terry mentions a gym where she used to work out. She stopped going there because a man came on to her, and when she told him she wasn’t interested, he just stared at her. Every time she went back to the gym he would stare at her.
Because of these unacceptable micro-aggressions, women are forced to be constantly on their guard. “It effects how I manage myself at my office, choosing to not be around when a certain person is there because that certain person, who is three times my size, wants to come in and massage my shoulders when no one else is around,” she says. “And this has happened several times. And how do you, when no one else is around, talk your way out of that, so that nothing else happens.”
It’s as if certain men think it’s their right to do what they want to do with women, which, of course, is assault. Just consider what the current occupant of the Oval Office was captured saying on video when he was a fifty-nine year old man.
”It’s, ‘I want to touch a female, so I’m gonna come and touch you because you’re nice,’” says Terry. “And what happens when you say, ‘You know that makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t really want you to massage my shoulders.’ What happens when you say that? Suddenly you’re the one with the problem. ‘I was just being nice. You’re misinterpreting this. I don’t even think you’re pretty.’ I was the one misinterpreting it, he was just massaging my shoulders to be nice. I should be grateful I didn’t get raped.”
“It’s going to an office training and suddenly finding yourself alone in a room with a man, and having him try to put his tongue down your throat,” Terry says, remembering. “And again talking your way out of it somehow, which not everybody got to do, I’m sure.”
Now in her fifties, Terry remembers that when was in her forties she was thankful that she wouldn’t have to put up with this kind of behavior any longer. “So I went on a job interview and I’m thinking, ‘I’m passed all this,’” she says. “This type of s**t is not going to happen to me again, thank God.”
But it did. She went to work for a media group in Tidewater Virginia, where she played an interviewer to a real estate agent. The producer was a massive man–more than 350 pounds, over six feet tall.
“He was huge, a huge guy, and he smelled bad, and he was big,” she says. “He was an uncomfortable man.” During a taping session he kept glancing furtively at Terry, and, of course, she noticed. All the while the producer was taking notes, and afterwards, he asked Terry to step into his office.
She was dressed in a tailored suit, the epitome of professionalism.
The producer eyed her.
“So, you’re an actor?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Terry. “I’m out of Richmond.”
“Do you do anything more exotic?”
Terry was angry, and said to him, “Do you mean like dancing?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking down, nodding.
“No, I don’t,” said Terry.
“And I never worked there again,” Terry says. “And I never worked for that media outlet again. Never. And other people I know did, but not me. Because I’m the bitch who said, ‘No.’ I’m the one who called him on it. I humiliated him, which is not always the safe route. Even though he put me on the spot and got into my space. Because I said no to him, suddenly the world is not his oyster, suddenly I’m not something he can have, therefore, I must be the one who’s got the problem.”
As Terry speaks, every woman at the table nods in agreement. They experience this every day. “It is daily,” says Terry. “These are micro-aggressions. It’s the walking to your car and getting catcalled, which may seem so innocent to the person catcalling. But, it’s so not, at all. It’s a bullying tactic that says, ‘You’re mine and I claim you.’”
“I really don’t know how else to put this,” Terry continues. “But the daily teeny tiny things that happen cause women to live in a different space than the men in this world live in. Someone might say, ‘Well, no one ever molested you?’ What do you do with that? I am grateful for a dad who taught me to fight back. I’m really grateful for a dad who taught me moves. I’m really grateful for a dad who said, ‘If anybody gets in your space, you know where the gun is in the house, and you will use it against them, and I will protect you no matter what.”
Kathi Shiff, a mental health professional, understands the need to talk about these constant assaults and degradations, which is why she want to tell everything she knows.
“It is to help people and to let people know they’re not alone,” she says. “The depression, the anger, the anxiety. Those are normal reactions to trauma. As is being suicidal because you feel damaged. And nobody understands that it’s worth hanging around, you don’t believe it, at the time. And the one thing that I really want to say, and I hope people get, is this, ‘Do you want to die, or do you want to stop the pain?”
“Because those of us who have been through this want to stop the pain,” says Kathi. “We still have a curiosity, however cynical we are, about what’s around the corner, but we don’t want to hurt, we don’t want to struggle, we don’t want to suffer. I just want people out there to know that it’s happened to a lot of us. It’s not your fault it happens. The most important thing is to remember you’re not alone, and to remember that even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, life can go on and life can be pretty darn good. So it’s worth sticking around and not harming yourself, not cutting yourself, not trying to kill yourself, not doing a lot of things that are self-defeating.”
Kathi remembers something she wants to share. “One thing that I didn’t say about the first time I was raped is that on July 15 in a lot of years following that episode I smelled chlorine,” she says. “I had olfactory hallucinations of chlorine because where the rape happened is where the chlorine tanks were stored. And I distinctly remember, after moving down to Virginia, asking two different people on two separate occasions, if they smelled chlorine and, of course, they looked at me like I was nuts.”
In the main those hallucinations have ended, though Kathi did experience one last July, possibly triggered by the past presidential election. “There is some trauma that sneaks in, given the right circumstances,” Kathi says. “Thankfully, they’re fewer and farther between. As long as I remember that life is worth living, and I can’t say that enough to myself and other people. That I don’t have to live this nightmare every waking minute and every moment that I’m asleep. I just hope this helps somebody out there.”
The stories move around the table late into the night, and on the following Sunday at Stir Crazy, and later still in the kitchen of my house. These are remarkable stories and need to be told and read, kept ever in mind. We will hear from Didi Tremblay and Melissa Gray and Mary Carpenter, and even more from Terry Menefee Gau and Kathi Siff.
Breaking with tradition, NORTH OF THE JAMES will feature “#metoo” on the cover next month, so that all of these very important stories can be told. An audio documentary of these stories will soon be aired on “A Grain of Sand”, my program on WRIR-97.3FM. This same documentary will soon be available on PRX.ORG.