Survivors of sexual assault and harassment have shared their stories with the #MeToo hashtag millions of times since October, when an exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial harassment of female employees and performers was quickly followed by similar disclosures about actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., and numerous others. #MeToo was coined 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke, the program director of Girls for Gender Equity, a Brooklyn-based organization that empowers young women of color.
Closer to home, in late October my high school alma mater sent out a mass email to current and former students, parents, and faculty, saying that the school was investigating alleged inappropriate sexual contact between “former employees” and students in the 1990s and earlier. (I attended from 1982-89.) This probe was reportedly sparked by an alumna’s #MeToo post. What followed was an amazing, heartfelt outpouring of personal stories on our alumni Facebook page–so many of us finally breaking through the walls erected by our school’s competitive culture and by the general pressure on urban teenagers to seem sophisticated and invulnerable.
Our school was an amazing place to be a talented maverick, and gave me a better education than Harvard. But if you want to understand its shadow side, read Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I remember being assigned to read it in 9th grade and not understanding it at all. As David Foster Wallace said, the fish asks, “What is water?”
I reread it out of curiosity last year after I heard that it had queer subtext. Now the title character’s narcissism is blindingly obvious (though I still find Sandy’s religious vocation unconvincing). But as a teen, I must have thought it was normal for teachers to play favorites, track their students into single-issue identities as “the singer” or “the poet” or “the math genius”, and tacitly encourage us to outdo one another in specialness instead of finding solidarity with our peers.
At times I benefited from this system, with life-changing mentors in poetry and theology. At other times I felt crushed by the inability to break into the inner circle of the performing arts departments. Either way I grew up with an unhealthy sense that my fate, and my talents or lack thereof, were mostly unchangeable.
I was bullied a lot, but never sexually harassed or assaulted at school, unless you count the time that the other smartest kid in 7th-grade Latin class looked up all the swear words in our dictionary so he could call me a whore (meretrix). However, the sexually charged atmostphere felt unsafe to me, and I resisted growing up too fast, even though this made me terribly lonely (and led to some awful fashion choices–Laura Ashley fabric should be only for sofas). My mother supported this choice for the self-serving reason that she wanted me to stay childlike and enmeshed. So I’ve spent all these decades feeling ashamed and angry that my peers had a real adolescence while I hadn’t dared.
Our #MeToo Facebook thread dramatically revealed that I wasn’t so different after all. Many of those “cool kids” felt equally out of their depth, and pressured to be too sexual too soon. Poor boundaries between adults and students played a big role here. Many alums on the thread agreed that our teachers and administrators often forgot we were psychologically still kids, despite our intellectual precociousness.
The then-headmaster and school founder, a notorious womanizer, set the tone. He made a pass at my mother during the admissions process: “Your daughter is so smart, you and I should make genius babies together.” Luckily she thought he was gross, and the world was spared the supervillain offspring of two narcissists. Another story: For a profile in the local paper, he told them he was a “libertarian”, but they misquoted it as “libertine”, which he shrugged off by saying they were both correct. Yet this is the same person who first told me I was “A Poet!”, introduced me to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, and reassured me that someday I would be “bien dans ma peau” (fit well in my skin). As Rene Denfeld wrote in The Child Finder, her gorgeous recent thriller about intergenerational trauma, the good in a person doesn’t hide the bad like a costume–the good and bad are inseparable, somehow both true.
It’s been a very emotional experience for me, with these belated waves of compassion and affection for my former classmates (well, maybe not the Latin guy), the grief that we didn’t know how to let our guard down sooner, and the refreshing validation that I wasn’t just a prude–I was right that there was something predatory and boundary-blurring about the environment where our sexual self-discovery was supposed to unfold.
I’ve already made one new/old friend from this group conversation, and hope we will keep up our momentum to share what we’ve learned with the current generation of students. Telling survivor stories changes lives.