I was not allowed to say on Vermont Public Radio that it was my grandfather who abused me — in a commentary about how hard it is for women like myself to speak up about past sexual abuse.
Like many women, I was inspired to speak by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I found it entirely credible that she would have remained silent for over 30 years.
I’ve been silent for 50.
For those years I have lived with a stone in my throat, unwilling to tell my truth for fear of being disbelieved.
Everything in our culture and my experience led me to fear that it is I who would be held suspect, not my grandfather, even though he’s long dead.
And my recent experience having a script turned down because I wanted to identify my abuser as my grandfather proved those fears to be well founded.
While it was exposing sexual assault in the workplace that started the #metoo movement last year, it’s not just actresses in swank Hollywood hotels who suffer this unconscionable behavior. Ordinary girls and women suffer abuse at work, in school and at home — but without celebrity, we are even less likely to believed.
* * *
I’ve been a VPR commentator for a long time. I thought the recording booth would be a safe place to say what I never expected to reveal: that when I was a young girl, my grandfather repeatedly stalked me, cornered me, and crossed my boundaries.
I never got to the recording booth, because my script would be approved only if I changed the word “grandfather” to something benign, like “close male relative.”
I was then given a series of ever-changing reasons why this rewording would be necessary.
First, they claimed it was to uphold journalistic integrity: “revealing the identity of someone said to have engaged in criminal behavior would routinely oblige [the station] to engage in efforts to verify, corroborate or fact-check with multiple sources.”
Not to do so, I was told, would expose the station to “ethical or legal liability.”
My grandfather died in 1972. The dead can’t sue for defamation of character. Besides, I wasn’t identifying this man; I was identifying his relationship to me.
Moreover, a commentary is an opinion piece, not a news article. I’ve also signed a contract in which I take responsibility for what I say, not VPR.
Next, several versions of “male relative” were proposed as suitable substitutes for “grandfather,” including “beloved,” “close,” and “long dead.” I objected to them all. Not only were they less specific than “grandfather,” they all threatened to tarnish all my male relatives in some convoluted effort to protect the one.
Thankfully, only one particular male relative has ever sexually abused me: my grandfather. To identify my abuser with any version of “male relative” would cast aspersions on the many decent and truly beloved male relatives who bless my life.
When I refused this editorial suggestion, I was asked to answer a series of questions: Were both my grandfathers dead? Was there any chance that listeners who knew these men might blame the wrong man? And were any of my grandmothers, aunts, or uncles from that side of the family still alive who might have strong objections?
Answering these questions left me feeling drawn and quartered, with my entrails exposed.
Nevertheless, I submitted my answers for scrutiny because I wanted either to understand VPR’s position or to influence the station to change whatever policy prevented me from saying “grandfather” on air.
But neither happened.
Ten days after submitting my first draft, my producer emailed, “We have complete trust in your personal integrity, but [...].”
With intense regret, I withdrew my piece.
As much as I have been honored to work for VPR, and as much as I’ve grown to love the producer with whom I’ve worked and from whom I’ve learned so much for more than a dozen years, I knew that I was not willing to protect my abuser.
Nor was I going to allow this impasse tosilence me.
I would tell this story of an ordinary woman revealing a long-held shame being interrogated as if I were testifying before hostile politicians when, in fact, I was taking a personal risk to speak to my community about a dirty secret that is not unique to me.
* * *
As our email debate about whether I could name “my grandfather” as my abuser entered its second week, Connie Chung wrote her open letter to Christine Blasey Ford in The Washington Post on Oct. 2. In it, Chung revealed with graphic detail how her family physician assaulted her during a medical consultation.
The next day, I received an email acknowledging the importance of my commentary, which would “provide many listeners with a new, compelling and valuable perspective.” All I had to do was “take out the word ‘grandfather’ and instead use the term ‘someone close’ to you, or something similar.”
Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that somehow I’d be immune to the shaming that so effectively silences victims of abuse. I certainly didn’t expect it from an organization for which I’ve worked for years, despite its expression of “complete trust in my personal integrity.”
Or perhaps one of the results of being abused when I was so young is that I’m fairly slow to catch on when I’m being jerked around.
But I’d finally had enough.
I was no longer interested in telling another story of a survivor willing to speak up; as a writer, I now had a professional interest in telling a story about using words that match meaning.
It would have been Orwellian to pervert my story by substituting “someone else.” I had no interest in being vague when the English language already provides a perfectly good, accurate, and specific word to name my abuser.
He was my grandfather.
* * *
Now, my story is one about who gets to speak and what we are allowed to say. It’s a story about the importance of having multiple news sources, especially independent ones. It’s a story that has helped me understand better both why I write and why I cry when I speak in public.
I have a lifelong habit of dissolving into tears when challenged by authority; I’ve learned to expect not to be heard, and not to be believed if I am.
I learned early that “I’m only a girl.” Some of this is cultural, some an accident of birth. I was born in mid-century suburbia, where it was normal for my mother to defer to my father and for my three brothers to enjoy freedoms and privileges because they were boys.
It was in this noisy crucible of male dominance that I concluded a female’s only hope to be heard was to write and be read.
So when a family injustice occurred, I’d write letters of protest to my parents. But I never wrote about my grandfather feeling me up or keeping me in his sights through a crack in the door while he jerked off.
For years I couldn’t speak of it or write it down, at least not as fact. But I have written a novel that draws upon that experience. Predictably, it’s proving a hard sell. Editors routinely praise the story and the writing; ironically, many say the story is too quiet for their list.
Meanwhile, as my agent continues to look for an editor willing to risk publishing a story about the extreme outcome of a young girl’s enforced silence in 1958, the case of Christine Blasey Ford demonstrates that speaking out in 2018 is still dangerous.
* * *
The national narrative around sexual politics shames women who speak up — even when their stories are believed — and guarantees that our motives, character, and personal history will be dragged through the streets of public opinion.
By contrast, we ignore and even protect abusers, especially if they’re men seeking or serving in public office. They may be captured on video bragging about assaulting women or discovered to have paid hush money to a sex worker for extramarital sex, yet their status and power remain largely intact.
It gives me no satisfaction to tell either the story of my abuse, nor the story of the impasse with VPR. Nor does the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court auger well for the welfare of women in this country. It points to the entrenched attitudes of gender privilege of those in power.
But I do see a connection between telling these stories and changing the current narrative of sexual politics. It’s already happening.
The current outpouring of traumatic stories is clearly triggering buried memories for many. I expect more ordinary women will tell their stories, if not publicly, then to family and/or friends. Sadly, some will stay silent. Fortunately, there’s something both women and men can do privately and without disclosing their sexual history: vote.
Change is slow and unsteady but in process. Never in my life did I expect to tell this story as I have here. In all the turmoil of finding an outlet for my voice these past two weeks, I’ve been astonished and supported by allies old and new, and I’m learning how to speak without watering down my words with tears.