My mother privately smashed plates in the basement when she was angry. I knew nothing of this until decades later when she was working on an autobiography. She told me then about the tremendous emotional pain and fear she experienced as a child when her parents fought regularly and furiously with raised voices, and sometimes more. She vowed she would never subject her children to such behavior. Hence the broken dishes.
As parents, we are prone to over-correct, hoping to avoid the mistakes we associate with our own parents. My mother, traumatized by her parents’ rages, didn’t consider the spectrum of expressions of anger or the need to distinguish between self-possession and self-deprecation. It took me years after my mother’s revelation to discern the source of my own aversion to confrontation. I had intuited from her self-restraint that anger shouldn’t be openly displayed. I expanded on this theme to avoid provoking anger as well. The two occasions when I raised my voice as a teen remain sources of remorse to me. Despite the sense that my anger was justified in both instances, I felt that I had threatened my relationship with my mother by lashing out. Confrontation was not just inappropriate, it was risky. Even in my adult career as a litigator, I shrank from one-on-one conflict. This is the context of the conduct of my life and relationships.
Taylor Swift shook me from this false sense of serenity. Her voice is beautiful, strong and inspiring. I’m not thinking of her songs, though they presumably fit that description too. I’ve got in mind her recent testimony about the experience of sexual molestation at the hands, literally, of one David Mueller.
When I was nine years old, a great uncle made a Mueller move on me on the stairs of my very own home. I told no one. I knew it was wrong of him. I knew I didn’t like it. It didn’t occur to me to doubt that I would be believed if I told my parents. But I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to create family discord, which I implicitly understood it would, so I said nothing. Decades later, I mentioned it to my mother and father, then in their 80’s, when for some reason my great uncle’s name came up. My father reacted fiercely – had he known, he would have killed his uncle, he said, and it didn’t surprise me. He might have come close. A revelation surely would have blown a hole in our family circle. And I would have been responsible, or so I felt at the time. But the uncle and his entire generation were now long dead, and so, with the danger of conflict in the past, I found my voice when it was inconsequential.
I was 15, crushed in a packed Manhattan E Train, when it happened again. This time it was a stranger. I never saw his face. He was wearing leather gloves – I think of them as black gloves, but I never saw them either. I know they were leather though, for I wrestled with his hands as they crept up my inner thigh. “Take your hands off me, you creep,” is what I imagined shouting, but I said nothing. I was shaken by the assault, as my girlfriend noticed, but I kept it a secret from her too. I didn’t doubt that I would be believed, but I knew I would have created a public ruckus that I didn’t want to be the center of. Rather than confront the anonymous miscreant, I’ve kept it a secret for 55 years.
I was 26 and a lawyer in a large law firm the next time. Seated at a dinner, next to the president of a large mid-west chemical company, I felt again, a hand – his hand – creeping under my skirt up my leg, hidden by the tablecloth. Outwardly, he was a model of propriety – didn’t even take a drink. I was appalled and firmly shoved his hand away. But without a word. The dinner continued, uninterrupted.
Remembering these episodes, I feel compassion for the nine-year-old, the fifteen-year-old, and even the 26-year-old that I was. I look at my teenage granddaughters now, running track, climbing walls and silks, playing soccer, dancing and swimming competitively: I haven’t a single doubt that all of them have a sense of physical integrity that has been honed since they were toddlers. Each one knows she is powerful and is unafraid to be her own advocate. They would be shocked, I think, to know that I did not feel that way too, that I, a civil rights advocate of some stature, blinked when it came to my own protection.
There are many consequences of conflict evasion, in many spheres of life. Taylor Swift, by tacking in a different, brave direction, has led me to reflect on them. I’m grateful that she spoke up, that she minced no words, that she called Mueller’s lie what it was, that she made it emphatically clear that grab-ass is not just boyish horseplay, that she didn’t shy away from confrontation. She acted and reacted in a way that she will never second guess.