Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Switchblade Knife Against My Neck and Other Horror Stories

"Would you like to meet God?"

Before I could respond, I had a switchblade knife pressed against my neck. Stunned did not begin to describe what I felt at that moment.  Scenes in movies or crime shows often involved a woman being accosted by a stranger in a dark alley. But I wasn't being pushed against garbage cans  in an alley in the inner city.  We were standing  in the English Department chairman's backyard at the annual pig roast.    Although the yard was very large, we weren't even that isolated.  The only similarity to those scenes was that it was dark. 

This man, a PhD candidate with whom I had interacted occasionally, used the cover of darkness to attack me.  Did he intend to drag me off and rape me?  Did he just mean it as a bizarre practical joke?  Regardless, I was terrified.  I was couldn't utter a sound.  Thankfully another PhD candidate came along and very calmly removed this man's hand from my throat. 

"I will be forced to rape you."

That's what my friend's boyfriend told me when I refused to have sex with him.  He then went on to explain that, because he was of Scandinavian descent, he wouldn't fare well in prison.   

When I didn't react to the implication that he'd commit suicide in prison, he left.  I reckon I lucked out. 

"Let him drive you home."

When I began my graduate studies at Northern Illinois University, I was still a virgin.  Some members of the department had a goal:  corrupt Debbie.  I was the straight laced one. I didn't sniff coke. I didn't smoke.  I dressed modestly.  Even during happy hour I would nurse two, three drinks over several hours.     

Even though this TA (teaching assistant) invited everyone to a  party that was on the same night as Erev Yom Kippur, I still wanted to attend.  I went to services  carrying a bottle of wine.  After services were over, I walked off campus. I just had a bit of the wine, and left the rest of it for others. 

I played card games.  I kibbitzed with other members of the department.  After a while, I wanted to go home.  The woman who had invited all of us decided to play a joke on me.  She insisted that I not walk back to campus. It was obvious that the Director of Graduate Studies was drunk, yet she insisted I accept a ride from him.  I tried to beg off, but she would have none of it.

His driving made me so nervous that I decided to have him drop me off several blocks away from where I lived.  Just as I was opening up the door on the passenger side, he yanked me over to his side of the car. He tried to kiss me on the lips.  I turned my face away, so he only kissed my cheek.  As he tried to grasp me a second time, I managed to get out of his car.

The following Monday, I told the other TA what had happened.  I could tell from the horrified look on her face that her joke had gone too far.  No doubt she thought I'd just be frightened by the professor's driving and that would be it. 

Not once did it occur to me to report these incidents. The PhD candidate who helped me out never suggested that we call the cops or at least tell some authority figure at the pig roast.  Because of my misplaced loyalty to my friend, I didn't tell her about how her boyfriend had threatened me. I was afraid that she wouldn't believe me, and would stop speaking to me.

Neither the woman who had thrown the party nor our mutual friend suggested I report the Director of Graduate Studies.  Perhaps it didn't occur to them.  Or, perhaps, like me, they were just plain scared.  Perhaps none of us really knew what was the proper and necessary thing to do. 

My impression is that only recently has the broad definition of sexual assault been put forth.  Or perhaps I hadn't been paying attention.  When it finally dawned on me, I could no longer be in denial about what had happened to me.  And lately my mind has been screaming at me, "tell people about this.  Do it NOW!" 

Silence is NOT golden when it's used to cover up rape and other incidents of sexual assault.  A woman's credibility is always questioned.  And yet men on my Twitter timeline are wondering why it took so many years for women to come forward with these accusations.  When men are in positions of authority and can either make or break a career, it's clear to me that that alone would cause a woman to hesitate. 

In my case it was simply that I wanted to forget all about these incidents.  For years I had managed to block the switchblade incident.  I don't know what caused that memory to come flooding back to the forefront of my mind.  To this day I cannot remember that man's name.  I remember more or less what he looked like. I even remember liking him, and that is what makes what happened all the more jarring.

That brings me to the heart of the matter: not tarring all men with that same insidious brush.  I love men.  The menfolk whom I consider friends I know I can trust implicitly.  The menfolk I count as friends are mensches.  We may disagree about various issues, but I know that they will have my back.

To all you honorable menfolk out there:  Thank you.  We need more men who will believe women, stand up for women, and encourage us to fight our own battles by speaking up about injustices we have experienced and to support the many other women who have had similar experiences. 

To all the girls and  women out there who have been too frightened to come forward,  #MeToo is not a fading fad.  #MeToo is for all the girls and women who have come before us who didn't ever have anyone tell them that it was not only OK but necessary for them to speak up. We all need to make sure that no girl or woman will ever again feel shame, guilt or embarrassment for what happened to them.  We need to make sure that all girls and women will be believed whether they report these incidents right away or take thirty-seven years like I did.  We all owe it to those girls and women to speak up now.  Loudly and clearly.  And, above all, we need to refuse, once and for all, to let ourselves  be silenced. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Rest in Peace, Riotous Richie

My dear friend, RicHard Makepeace, passed away mid-July.  Why, you wonder, is the H capitalized in the middle of his name?  Because, as he explained it, it was HARD to be RicHard. This was especially true during the last two years of his life. He struggled with depression and PSTD on top of multiple health issues, including diabetes, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea and being on blood thinners.

Richie had an exceptionally difficult childhood. He was the eldest son born to a couple of abusive grifters. Both his mom and his dad used to beat him.  When Richie was about nine years old he had been beaten so badly by his mother, that he had to be resuscitated.

During the Vietnam era, Richie ran away from home and enlisted in the Marines. One day, when he was coming off the shooting range, he was told he was going to be sent overseas. He became a conscientious objector on the spot. He argued that he wasn't going to go overseas and shoot at people who had never harmed him.  Because he refused a direct order, he was sent to Leavenworth. His girlfriend contacted the American Friends Service Committee, and they helped him receive a general discharge.

Many years later, Richie  changed his surname to Makepeace, because it occurred to him that his calling was exactly that:  to make peace.  Prior to making that commitment, he  struggled with alcoholism.  He used to steal from people, much like many people who struggle with various addictions.  He regularly attended AA meetings which was essential to his recovery.

By the time our paths crossed, Richie had been sober for many years.  He became my mentor as well as my friend. He started me on a path towards peace and away from rage.  Although we only saw each other four times, we talked on the phone fairly often.  And, although I continue to have anger issues, I am much more able to get my outbursts under control.

Back when I first knew him, he referred to himself as Riotous Richie.  He had a great sense of humor.  Richie used to poke gentle fun at his upbringing.  Given that he was born and spent his early years in rural Ohio, he used to talk about what he called "hillbilly ebonics."

Richie had a way of putting people at ease. Making them laugh. He almost always had some interesting observations to share. Richie was probably the least judgmental person I ever knew.  He always had a way of seeing another person's point of view.  He helped me gain perspective on a number of occasions.  He did more than tolerate someone else's viewpoint. Regardless of where a person was on their life's journey, he accepted all people for how they were.

As Richie aged, he started to feel as if he was more of a burden and believed himself to be useless. I couldn't convince  him otherwise. During the last two years of his life, I ended up giving him a lot of emotional support.  When Richie and his  wife moved from New York State to Washington State, that cross country move took him away from friends, family and, more importantly, from his AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) community. Richie felt terribly isolated.

The work that Richie did for AVP gave his life purpose in a way that few other things did. Richie felt very energized in his role as an AVP facilitator at prisons. Because he spent his pre-teen and teen years living across from projects in New York City, he was able to cross cultural and racial divides in a way that most white people could not. Richie used to joke that he was really an old black woman trapped inside a white man's body.

When Richie finally connected with the Washington State AVP communities I thought he was going to pull out of his downward spiral, but it wasn't meant to be. Instead, Richie turned more inward. He started dwelling more and more on his abusive childhood.  Although he stood by his decision to separate from most of his biological family, there was still  part of him that wished things had been different.  When he heard that one of his sisters had passed away and that both his mother and father had also died, Richie regretted that he never had a more concrete way to come to terms with them.

Because of the shame he felt from the verbal and emotional abuse heaped on him by his wife, Richie could not bring himself to ask people for the emotional support he so badly needed. He felt that, as a former Marine, he ought to have been stronger and much more self contained. I couldn't convince him otherwise. I am grateful that, as his friend and chosen sister, he at least felt comfortable enough to reach out to me.

It was hard to watch him struggle. I understood implicitly that Richie had to help himself, and I felt, for the most part, that he was either unable or unwilling to do so. Because I had no access to the AVP community,  I was unable to do more for him. From fall 2015 until the end of his life, he was focusing more and more on just wanting to leave.  Not just his home but the planet.

One thing that Richie always said to me was, "love them more."  He always kept his side of the bridge open. He always kept a door open.  Regardless of what people thought of him, he always loved them.  Since then, I have tried to do the same thing.  There is always a path towards both forgiveness and redemption.

I wish that Richie had applied "love them more" to himself the way he did to other people.  He could not forgive himself for weaknesses he perceived himself to have. During a particularly tumultuous time he was having with his wife, he considered staying with us for a while.  He abruptly changed his mind. Later on, Richie told me that he was sure I'd end up disappointed with him.  It saddened me that he couldn't trust that our friendship was strong enough to overcome any disappointment or disagreement we may have had.

I repeatedly told Richie, he wasn't heavy.  He was my brother.  And, so, my brother, I hope that you have finally found the peace that eluded you during your lifetime.