The scars don’t fade

October 8, 2018

My stories aren’t unique. Like virtually every woman I know, I’ve endured vulgar comments, flashing, unwanted touching, harassment and aggression. While I do not remember exact dates and times, I recall each episode vividly, beginning with the man who opened his car door to reveal his naked lower body and said to me, a 6-year-old girl walking home alone, “Want an ice cream cone, little girl?”

While welcome kisses and caresses have faded from memory, unwelcome touches remain painfully vivid.

And yet — I never complained or reported. Why? Because he disappeared. Or he was my boss. Or respected neighbor. Or my “boyfriend.” I knew I was unlikely to be believed and would likely be blamed. It was the culture I knew. Today I have some sympathy for men who grew up with those same messages and same lack of knowledge about healthy relationships between men and women.

Nobody told me what to expect from men or how I would feel about their attention. I do recall being warned not to go with strangers. But who was a stranger? The older teen who came to the hamburger joint where I worked as a 14-year-old? When he pulled up late one afternoon and offered me a ride as I stood in the rain at my bus stop, I barely hesitated.

When he drove past the corner where I told him to turn, I protested. When he told me he thought we should take a ride, I pleaded that I had to get home. I panicked and considered my limited options. As he reached for my leg, I realized I didn’t know his last name or where he lived or worked.

When his car suddenly broke down, I grabbed the door handle, opened it and promised God I would never be so stupid again. As I walked several miles home, I alternately castigated myself and felt gratitude for my escape. When my mother asked why I was late, I blamed the bus. She didn’t believe me but I was confident the consequences of the truth would be worse.

Growing up, curious about romance, I watched men and women on television — the brooding handsome cowboy who grabbed the saloon girl and carried her away from her seedy life or the silent, hardened detective, overcome with love who finally kissed the demure secretary — fade to black.

Today I think if those images told me desirable women get swept away by strong men, what was the lesson to the boys watching? The action-man takes what he wants? No need to know and like someone? Real men are entitled to the woman?

Little by little, sometimes clumsily, we learned better. We learned that desire coupled with affection and respect created the true relationships we wanted. We realized an authentic life was not the fantasy of a James Bond movie or a Danielle Steel novel. Or lurid hip-hop lyrics.

Today we may regret past behaviors; as adults, we apologize and resolve to do better. A man I knew years ago did just that.

So did New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. In a college newspaper essay, he acknowledged that he had been too aggressive, groping a teenage friend in high school. Such honesty can lead to forgiveness. However, denying such episodes or blaming the victim or worse yet — continuing those behaviors — is not forgivable. Those breaches of trust and violations of another’s sovereignty are far more damaging than perpetrators will ever know.

I and millions of others can testify that those wounds leave scars forever. We remember.

Karen Foss is a retired TV news anchor who moved to Santa Fe from St. Louis in 2010.

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