Until my stepmother’s #MeToo post on Facebook recently, I had no idea she’d been almost raped after poker one night in college; that since adolescence, strangers had exposed their penises to her; or that she’d been scared away from her community pool because of a child molester who wouldn’t leave the girls alone.
My heart broke for her. And for our relationship.
If I thought she would have understood, I would have confided in her earlier about my own experiences. Instead, I suffered alone like her, using humor and denial to survive, while secretly blaming myself. I feel closer to her now because of our shared experience.
As a daughter, though, I’m crushed by it.
According to Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of a book about mother-daughter relationships called “You’re Wearing That?!: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation,” it’s quite natural for daughters to see maternal figures as invincible mama bears. For Tannen, that all changed one day as a child when a guy on the subway masturbated in front of her and her mother. Until that moment, it never occurred to Tannen that mothers can’t protect their children, or even themselves, from the violence of men. They “might not know how to handle this stuff any more than we do,” she says.
Many daughters might not know their mother’s stories of being harassed or assaulted because it’s not information they easily volunteer. “Mostly out of fear, shame and self-preservation,” Tannen says. “The impulse to protect your daughter is just as strong as the impulse to protect yourself.” Mothers desperately hope their daughters never have to experience something so horrid. “By avoiding the topic entirely, mothers often feel they’re saving their girls from painful truths they themselves can’t bear to look at,” she adds. But this silence leaves daughters “ill-prepared for reality,” Tannen says, “therefore feeling all the more traumatized when and if it happens.”
As a teen, I was warned not to drink. But no one told me it’s because I might wake up with my friend on top of me, unzipping his pants. I was told to beware of strangers, but they left out the part about those strangers showing me their penis. I knew carrying keys between my fingers might fend off rapists in parking lots, but no one warned me rape could happen in the safety of my home . . . by my boyfriend. Because no one told me how common sexual assault was, or even spoke of it at all, my shame kept me both captive and quiet each time it happened.
The only heads up I got came from my dad, who used to say that men were awful people. “Just a bunch of rapists and murderers!” Since I was a tomboy, most my friends were guys, though, and they didn’t seem like rapists. Plus, my dad’s warnings seemed to be coming from his outdated, warped views of women, especially given how much he slut-shamed women on TV and thought it was hilarious to call my sister and me hookers. On some level, I was determined to prove him wrong because I believed men were good.
My friend and fellow comedian Samantha Jane Gurewitz had a father who regularly called her a slut, too. So it’s no surprise she didn’t tell him about her rape at 17. “I figured he’d accuse me of somehow provoking it,” she told me. Last month he finally found out via Gurewitz’s #MeToo post. “It never occurred to him before now that I might have been using drugs heavily because I was dealing with trauma and not because I was a screw-up trying to make his life hard.”
Despite Gurewitz’s father respecting his daughter more since she told him what she’d been through, she already sees him wanting to do what she always feared: go after the guy. “Dads just want to fix it somehow,” she says. “But they can’t.” That’s another reason she didn’t tell him originally: “The last thing I needed was yet another man imposing his will on me at my own expense,” Gurewitz says.
This fear of how our fathers will react can keep us from telling our mothers. Unlike me, Gurewitz told her mom, Ellyn Polay, about everything she experienced growing up, even her extensive drug use. She kept the rape part to herself — until the #MeToo campaign took off. Looking back, Gurewitz and her mom both think her father’s sexist views contributed somewhat to them silencing themselves. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence she and I got much closer once I divorced him,” Polay admitted.
My stepmother tried opening up to me a few years ago about her own attempted rape, but was shut down immediately by my dad’s victim-blaming questions, such as: Well, what were you doing alone with this guy anyway?! It wasn’t until her #MeToo Facebook post that I finally got to hear the whole story.
Talking to her about these stories made me realize there’s another factor at play here: generation gaps. Each generation of women acquires more freedoms, and more dangers, the previous generation doesn’t quite understand. I knew I’d go to college, while my stepmother had to fight her way there. My stepmom can’t imagine having casual sex, but she probably can’t imagine what it’s like to receive unsolicited penis pics and how easily rape threats fly on Twitter. Because their generation broke so many glass ceilings, they had few mentors to protect them as they navigated all the boys clubs their mothers had been shut out of. My stepmom remembered having to take her boss’s clients to a strip club. “Saying no could have cost me my job. And back then, there was no one to complain to. Women were completely on our own,” she said.
What would it look like if mothers did prepare their daughters for harsher realities of being a woman? Amber Drea, a fellow comedian, knows. Her mother, Andréa Vicari, withheld nothing; she used her painful past as a cautionary tale to help her daughter steer clear of danger. Vicari told her daughter how she had been gang-raped in a crack house and sexually assaulted in a treatment center and then again in a halfway house. “Almost every choice I made growing up was based on doing the opposite of what I’ve seen my mom suffer through,” Drea says.
While it made Drea a bit of a cynic, she believes it kept her from ending up in the kinds of sketchy situations that her friends would blindly walk into. While I can’t imagine hearing my mom tell me about being gang-raped, I do wish experience hadn’t been my only teacher. “If my daughter did experience this stuff,” Vicari says, “I thought telling her might keep her from blaming herself like I had.” Vicari believes that sheltering her daughter, like her own mother had, would only harm her.
Which brings us to the final big hurdle: a mother’s shame. Our culture still holds mothers accountable for all of humanity’s problems. Over the years, Tannen’s interviews found a common theme: Regardless of their accomplishments as human beings, women almost always judge their worth by their shortcomings as mothers. “Blaming themselves for everything that happens to their kids is as pervasive as original sin,” Tannen says.
Tannen believes these conversations are important between moms and daughters because only women understand the female experience and know what to look out for. However, she pointed out, my next article might want to ask dads why they aren’t having these conversations with their daughters (and sons!), since it’s just as much their responsibility as the mother’s to educate and prepare their daughters for reality.
Considering the pressure every generation of women has been under to stay silent, it’s no wonder this #MeToo moment feels so revolutionary. Now it’s time for fathers and husbands step up and join the conversation. To do so, they have to see us as women first, instead of daughters onto whom they project their fears, shame or old ideas.