How Mom’s #MeToo Rescued Me
My mother prepared me for the onslaughts of lustful and malevolent men. I was a girl, encased in loving cocoon, listening to how they had hit her. Tried to rape her. Tried to kill her.
She left her first abusive husband only to be abused by the second. He then poisoned her with arsenic. Later, a landlord’s son cut a window screen. He tried to rape her. Mom tricked him and escaped. Through the years, many men claimed superiority over her simply because they had different sex organs. As incidents of men brandishing power mounted, her courage grew.
And she became the mother I knew. She refused to be subdued.
Her stories didn’t teach me fear. They taught me bravery. Boldness. Nerve. But as a girl, I didn’t think any of the violence she’d gone through would apply to me. I was unaware that Mom was giving me valuable tools that would protect me. That might even save my life.
I think about Mom’s cautionary tales – her gift to me – as women flood the public stage with #MeToo stories of sexual assault and harassment. I think about her stories as a nation stands divided between a Supreme Court nominee’s good name and a woman’s life-changing tale of trauma. All the narratives ping pong in my head against the backdrop of October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
On the emotional, physical and sexual fronts, many women share an uncomfortable if not painful experience. I don’t have a #MeToo story like the ones that are circulating. But yes, I’ve been the subject of unwanted advances and tiptoed around the edges of dangerous encounters.
At a riot in Jackson, Miss., a young male exposed himself to me as I covered the incident for the newspaper. In the dark parking lot, thank God, I couldn’t see anything. I put on my poker face and hurried to my car.
I lived in a small apartment then, and crime prevention was hammered into me by cops I interviewed about incidents of theft, assault and murder. They talked of keeping your eyes open and carrying yourself confidently. Place valuables out sight. Appear as though you’d resist.
I was single and looking, but a new neighbor’s unsolicited overtures didn’t feel right. He’d begun putting my newspaper against my door with notes. One night, he knocked. I left the chain latched. He wanted to come in. I don’t recall his argument, only that he became angry when I refused entry. That told me all I needed to know about his intentions.
Refusing to acquiesce, I reported him to the landlady.
Dangerous Dates, Distasteful Advances
In 90s, a boyfriend knocked my locked doors off their hinges. Once he got to me, he didn’t know what to do. I had the portable phone in my hand and the sheriff’s department on the other end. I had practiced karate and self-defense years earlier, but didn’t need to launch any kicks. He grabbed the phone, and I ran past him. He quickly pled forgiveness, but I was done.
During a drive to either lunch or a reporting assignment about 15 years ago, a married, older co-worker suggested we slip into the woods. Repulsed, I laughed it off and other lurid comments later. We remained friendly, but I avoided future enclosures with him. Just in case.
In 2014, I learned of the suicide of the cop I’d dated before I met my wonderful husband. Through the writings of the woman he married after me, I discovered what I’d escaped. He’d berated her in public and once had hit her. He’d put a bullet in their wedding photograph. One bullet for himself, and one for her. He’d not only been suicidal, the police said, but homicidal.
He’d never hit me – no man has ever hit me – but he’d been verbally abrasive with me. And I had defied him. As he was on his way out figuratively, I told him literally don’t call me.
Not Just a Kiss
My most chilling encounter occurred when I was 8 years old. A 16-year-old boy who operated the Coke machine had been giving me free bottled drinks. One day while everyone was in class, I was near the principal’s office running a teacher’s errand when the boy called me into the snack room. He shut the door. He picked me up. He asked for a kiss.
I pulled away from him and shook my head “no.” He asked again. I shook my head again. And then, just in time, someone opened the door. The boy set me down immediately.
I never went near him again. And I never told my mother. I was too young to articulate what I felt. Uneasy. Afraid. As an adult, I reflected on what happened and saw the boy’s intention in the shutting of the door. Of hiding what he’d requested.
Carrying Around a Meat Cleaver
My mother is dead now, but I still think of her stories, several of which I discovered written among her belongings. I think of her audacity to say no. Her audacity to challenge strength and power and demand respect. My dad was her third husband, and he never yelled at her, never hit her. I didn’t grow up in that kind of home, and I believe that because of my mother’s cautionary stories, I escaped a #MeToo incident.
Because of her stories, I introduced an impressively large meat cleaver to every boyfriend who came to my house for the first time. It was part of the tour. I’d slip it out of the kitchen drawer, give it a little chopping motion, and say something like, “and this is in case you get outta hand.” I’d smile and laugh and sheath the knife. A joke – but not. It was my warning. Not that I’d actually use a meat cleaver, but that if I was threatened, I would resist. Fight. As my mother had.
I can’t help but believe that in same unspoken way, I have carried a “meat cleaver” around with me everywhere I’ve gone. I’ve telegraphed to strangers, to acquaintances and to boyfriends that I’m not going down without a fight – and you might be the one to get hurt.
Why Not Me?
I hurt for my sisters. I listen to them, and I hear fear. Not caution or concern, but anxiety. Apprehension. I see their posts on Facebook. A friend, she thought I shouldn’t walk in the park alone. In broad daylight. Or go to the store at night. My sisters are afraid of being victimized.
I’ve puzzled the question: Why not me? Why have I been able to fend off hurtful encounters while some women experience multiple ones?
I think that unspoken attitude, that cleaver-in-the-fist thinking, is a huge part of why I haven’t been assaulted, but it’s not the only reason. My mother put me on notice about what some men may try to do. Our daughters need to be informed. But so many factors come into play.
We can influence, but we cannot control other people, and thus, we cannot remove the possibility that we’ll be assaulted. Not victim-blaming here at all but suggesting that we can put attitude in our arsenal. Include it with buying pepper stray, locking our doors and bringing a buddy.
When I’m uncomfortable, I look straight into strangers’ eyes as we pass on dark sidewalks and nod or say in a confident voice, “How ya doing today?” As many women do, I avoid places that appear to too risky. I listen to my spider senses, but I will not lock myself into a prison.
I may yet be assaulted or attacked, but by God, I will not be intimidated. I will be cautious, but I will not be afraid. I will avoid recklessness, but I will not avoid a quiet, sunlit walking trail for fear a predator will confront me. I will live a free life.
That is the gift my mother gave to me.
What do you think? Can attitude repel a predator? Have you experienced a time that it rescued you from an uncomfortable or dangerous situation?
Copyright © 2018 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved. http://www.tonilepeska.com