I was 11 years old the first time I realized it was happening to someone I knew. Walking home from school on Thanksgiving eve, my best friend told me a secret she’d heard: that our classmate was being molested by her stepdad. I didn’t want to believe it. Later that afternoon, when my mother asked me, “What’s wrong?” as I stared blankly at the festive dishes laid out on the dining room sideboard, I didn’t know how to explain why my joy in the coming holiday had vanished. I couldn’t understand why I felt so heartbroken for this girl I didn’t even know that well.
I had no idea in that moment that my knowledge of such stories would accumulate exponentially over the coming years, like a stockpile of heartache. To be a woman is to know a lot of upsetting stories. Hearing and knowing the stories, offering comfort, finding ways to protect others from the majority of predators who never face justice for their crimes — it’s woman’s work. Few of us were ever told how to do it right, but we do it anyway.
We know so many because we occasionally talk to each other about these haunting, humiliating episodes. There’s the weight of our own experiences. All told, I don’t consider my set of stories to be so bad: From the construction worker who catcalled me at age 14, to the various strangers and acquaintances who’ve groped me, to the nonprofit group board member who suggested we have sex to celebrate submitting a grant proposal, I’ve been dealt my share of sexualized degradation. I recall those nauseating memories every time the news cycle forces me to reckon with the specter of sexual harassment and assault, how it seeps into our everyday lives — sometimes predictably but oftentimes not. But it isn’t the thought of my stories that overwhelms me and ruins my mood for a few days. It’s the collective heft of all the tales I know, mine and those of others.
I don’t often hear about it immediately after the incident. It could be years later, when an adult friend tells me what their relative, family friend or neighbor did to them when they were a child. Or sometimes decades after the fact, I piece together a grotesque truth that was under my nose when I was too naive to know better (“so that’s why he snuck back out of his daughter’s bedroom when he realized I was still awake at the slumber party . . . ”) But there were times I was privy to the horror when the trauma was fresh. In that situation, it’s so hard to know what to say. Curse the assailant. Offer assistance. But usually, I feel just as useless a listener as I do when the incident is long past.
Other stories come second- or third-hand, via friends who acted as confidants to the assaulted. When a woman tells me someone else’s story in confidence, it isn’t to gossip. It’s because she needs to get that ugly knowledge off her chest without burdening the survivor. Knowing the details of someone else’s assault is obviously nowhere near the trauma of going through the experience itself, but holding that knowledge can wear us down.
This is also an issue for women who work professionally with assault survivors. In a 2014 Western Michigan University doctoral thesis about the lived experiences of nine counselors (all women) who serve sexual assault survivors, author Carrie J. Tremble writes, “Several participants noted that clients who have been sexually assaulted can be particularly challenging to work with because hearing the stories of hurt, assault, and betrayal can elicit similar feelings of hurt for the counselor.” Several participants said they found themselves thinking about assault survivor patients after treatment had ended. One counselor said, “We talk a lot in our profession about having to leave work at work, but there are so many times where I will think of a client or what we were discussing and then, after the fact, I will think of different things I could have said or done or different avenues that I could have tried.”
When I review my vast collection of stories, I sometimes cringe upon recollecting the things I said or did after a survivor told me their tale. In my attempt to console, I may have minimized their sense of pain by saying something such as, “Oh, that happens to a lot of kids.” Or I’ll wonder whether I should have shown more anger and acted in vengeance. I give myself a hard time for failing to comfort enough, but then I was never trained for this role. Most of us aren’t.
As confidants, we try to glean helpful information from our story collections to protect ourselves and others. Whether warning friends and colleagues about known predators via “whisper networks” or simply running interference between intoxicated women and less-inebriated men who are trying to get them alone, many of us are practiced in the work of trying to prevent assault. I never thought of these efforts as actual “work” until I began researching age-appropriate ways to discuss consent with my preschooler. I bookmarked Web pages, sought friends’ advice, practiced the words I’d say so as to appear firm but not frightening. It felt like any other first-time parent’s research project, like figuring out which stroller to buy or when to transition to a booster seat.
But when I told my husband we’d had our first parent-child talk about bodily consent, his confused “Thanks for taking care of that,” took me by surprise. He didn’t foresee the necessity of having that conversation. Because even though he isn’t oblivious to the specter of assault, he doesn’t carry that vast collection of stories in the back of his mind.