For 32 years I’d never spoken of the incident. And then, as I heard a presidential candidate dismiss all his accusers as liars—over and over—it all came flooding back, an unwelcome intruder if ever there was one.
On a chilly March afternoon in 1984, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my boss’s Mercedes, in the parking lot of a restaurant we’d just visited for a “working lunch.” We’d discussed marketing strategies in general, the speculative office building market in particular, the ins and outs of the Washington, D.C., engineering and architectural community, and the lucrative new market for asbestos abatement—just the sort of topics a marketing manager would discuss with her boss, a mechanical engineering principal in a large, multi-discipline practice.
As I fumbled for my seatbelt, his hands cupped my head and pulled it, forcefully, toward his crotch. I hadn’t noticed he’d already unzipped his pants. I instinctively pulled my head away, only to have it jerked back toward the soft folds of his ample belly, and to his semi-erect penis.
“No!” I screamed, closing my eyes, as though not seeing it would somehow help. “No,” I screamed once more, full of anger and fear.
He loosened his grip, and I immediately returned to an upright, seated position, staring straight ahead, contemplating my options, my body shaking uncontrollably. “Look,” I told him, “Ill do any work task you ask of me, but not that.” As the divorced, 26-year-old, single mother of a 2-year-old son, still reeling from the physical and emotional effects of a violent former spouse, my options were limited. I couldn’t make any rash decisions, as I needed the steady paycheck, and the health insurance coverage for myself and my son; I needed to pay the rent on my tiny apartment, and the subsidized fees for my son’s child care. But still I’d managed to assert myself, in no uncertain terms, that his advances were unwelcome.
“I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly, as he hurriedly zipped his pants.
Before I could act on my first instinct—to jump out of the car—the diesel engine was rumbling and he was checking the mirrors before backing out of the parking space.
We drove the 10 minutes back to the office in silence.
Over the several months it took me to locate another job, we never spoke of the incident, nor did we ever spend any time alone again. When male clients suggested meeting over lunch, I’d ask a male colleague to accompany me. I cropped my hair, wore as little makeup as I could get away with, and purchased bras that squashed my breasts. My wardrobe choices were strictly of the Salvation Army variety, two sizes too big, and offering full coverage. My shoes were clunky and sensible flats. But still I questioned what I’d done to provoke such a thing. Had I smiled too much? Had my eye contact lingered just a little too long? And that questioning led to chronic migraines, stomach pains, and sleepless nights until I left his employ.
Within just the last few weeks, after suffering those same horrible physical manifestations I’d felt so many years before, I Googled his name. At the top of the search results were several obituary excerpts from 2005, some more detailed than others. He was survived by his wife of 65 years, five children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. He’d served in the Navy during World War II, and earned a Bronze Star. He was a registered professional engineer, and the author of a definitive work on engineering design, and numerous professional journal articles. He was preceded in death by one daughter. His wife would be gone two years later, I learned, from a separate search of her name.
As I read the glowing words summarizing his life, I knew I’d made the only decision I could make at the time: I told no one. It was a pragmatic choice, made by a powerless woman. He was a well-respected pillar of the community, a family man, a war hero; I was a young, broke, single mom, with a failed marriage under my belt. Who would have been believed?
But I’ve been questioning myself anew, as the presendential candidates accusers come forward, one after another, telling their stories. They’re scrutinized, as one would expect, but a general theme has emerged from those who seek to shut them down: Why now? Why didn’t they speak up at the time, if what happened to them was so horrible?
And the answers have come forth, not just from the accusers of the candidate, but from all corners of the world; voices, long silenced, are silent no more. They speak of fear, lack of power, potential loss of employability, insufficient funds for a protracted legal fight, embarrassment, humiliation, shame. And I feel buoyed by their numbers, and empowered by their collective voices.
As the details have come back to nag at me of late—the wood-grain trim of the Mercedes, the coolness of the leather seats, the lingering, masculine smells of stale cigar smoke and Old Spice, the shock of silver hair, the Coke-bottle glasses, the looming physicality, the ease, the confidence, and swiftness with which he grabbed me—I wonder about the others who came before me, and, most especially, the others who came after me. Were they able to say “no”?
Within just a few months of leaving that job, I learned, from another colleague, that my former boss was suffering from macular degeneration. It was making it difficult for him to read the blueprints that were a mainstay of his profession, and it was also making it unsafe for him to continue driving. So when word of his retirement party came just a few short weeks later, in a call from that same former colleague, it wasn’t surprising. He lived another 20 years, entirely dependent on his wife for mobility.
So, in the crazy logic of my mind, so many years removed from what was, undeniably, a sexual assault, I feel less guilt, less shame, for my silence. For he was, in the last twenty years of his life, at least, reined in, his every move controlled by a woman. And that, in a word, is satisfying.
But that satisfaction is short-lived. As I sit here, feeling awash in the cathartic grace of freeing these memories, and adding my voice to the ever-growing chorus of others—at least in writing—I am still burdened. The potential consequences of going public with these words paralyzes me, and makes me feel small once more. While I’m in a far more stable position than I was three decades ago, in a loving marriage, and with a grown, independent son, I still work in a male-dominated profession. My LinkedIn profile is out there for all the world to see, and a search of my name would reveal the very public details of my work history. He would be outed. And although he is dead, and his wife is dead, he is still survived by so many who loved him—and who wouldn’t recognize the man he was in those few moments on that day in March of 1984.
There is no other woman I can protect at this point. So I have to protect myself, my workplace reputation, and—most important—the sanctity of my family’s privacy. While the facts, as written, are entirely true, I must maintain my anonymity. It isn’t lost on me that the power of a man, long dead, still guides my choices. But they are still, ultimately, my choices.
Part of me wondered whether a post-election postscript was in order, but to what end? Would that offer any further insights? Here’s what was left unsaid: two months prior to the incident chronicled, I’d left my home in California, with my then-2-year-old son, his teddy, his blanket, and the clothes on our backs, and fled to a women’s shelter. My jaw, and my spirit, were broken. I managed to move back to Virginia, land the job with this fine gentleman, find a tiny, barely affordable apartment, and secure a spot for my son in a subsidized preschool. Two months after this incident, my son was abducted from his preschool’s playground by my ex-husband. Because my ex was was Eastern European, I feared he’d fled the U.S.—back to his home country to rejoin his family. After four months that felt like four years, when I camped out in a family friend’s house to avoid going home to an empty apartment, when I routinely marched down to the consulate of a foreign government to beg for their assistance, when I visited the State Department for a “welfare and whereabouts” check that yielded nothing … the ex called my mother out of the blue to say, “She can come and get him. I’m back in California.” What I learned, during a court case that lasted months, and cost me $20,000-plus, was that he’d been assisted—in both planning and execution—by a father’s rights organization, and had hid out in one of their “safe houses.”
He was afforded telephone visitation by the court, which came to an end after the third call, when he decided he wanted nothing further to do with us. He’d done his damage, though. It took my son a full year to sleep until morning without night terrors.
I met my current husband during the horribly painful time my son was missing—when we were both volunteering on a political campaign. He kept pestering me, telling me I looked like I needed a friend. Over and over again. I kept ignoring him … until I finally blurted out the whole story, hoping that would scare him away. It didn’t. We’re entering our thirty-second year of marriage.
So … I’m a survivor, and this incident was but a blip on the radar. But it came raging back, along with the memories of my ex berating me, belittling me, dismissing me, and finally breaking my jaw. I could leave that behind, but the scars are still with me, physically and emotionally, though stashed away; their hiddenness allows for normal, day-to-day functioning.
I can’t, however, escape the current climate of misogyny, where harassment, degradation, and assaults are dismissed. Many of my co-workers, customers, neighbors, and friends voted for a man who personifies, to me, every man who ever got away with bullying, assaulting, insulting, demeaning—and, yes, perhaps even raping—those who were powerless to stop such behaviors, or to even speak openly about them without fear of repercussions or threats of bodily harm.
So, here I sit, finding my voice silenced once more, watching women friends share Breitbart posts on Facebook, and listening during conference calls as my work colleagues sing the praises of “making America great again.” This is juxtaposed with seeing so many examples of hate in action. Daily.
I feel shattered, and more convinced than ever before that anonymity is the only path I can take in sharing this piece. That resolve is unbroken.