My mom was 6 months pregnant with me the first time The Oprah Winfrey Show aired. We watched it together, and never stopped. I would rush home down roads in whatever state I lived in, from whatever school I attended that year, just to catch the show at 3 o’clock (and then I watched Ellen, of course.) Oprah stuck by me through 25 different schools in 3 different states, in and out of the murky waters of my 20s. Long before I was able to speak my truth, I watched her live hers. Her choice to lift up the stories of others, and to share her own, has been a source of inspiration for me that has only grown deeper through the years.
On Sunday night, I listened to Oprah speak her truth once again, while I wrote around a huge hole in mine.
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”
I was writing about the impact PostSecret had on my life, but I was leaving out the most important part. I mentioned I attended a PostSecret event at UCLA with a dear friend of mine. What I didn’t say is, afterwards, we sat on the steps of Royce Hall, and something rose from us that would change my life forever.
“Do the work that comes straight from the soul of you. From your background, from stories that you’ve grown up with, from stories that bring you passion, from stories that you don’t just yearn to tell, but if you don’t tell them, they won’t get told.”
–Oprah, Golden Globes, Backstage Interview
The power behind “me too” has caused me to look across my life, the lives of the women I know and love, and to wonder at the patterns of vulnerability followed by betrayal, over and over again. To wonder at the sickness in our midst.
There was the youth pastor in Iowa when I was 17. My best friend and I spent the spring at his house, barbecuing with his wife and kids. He felt safe. He was an elder at the church. I’d spent the spring before in a homeless shelter, so I felt like I’d come a long way.
I was anxious about an upcoming trip to California. I hadn’t seen my parents in a year, so he sat with me and listened. He suggested I get baptized before I go. He offered to do it. I wanted my friend to come, so she got baptized too. By the end of that summer, my friend called me in California to say that he had admitted to “sexual relations with a minor” in our youth group.
I thought about the night we stood poolside in our bikinis, arms crossed against the cold. How he led us in one after the other. How he held us as we confessed our faith, and we were submerged. It would take me years to uncover how uncomfortable I was that night by the pool. Even longer before I thought of who she was, the girl in our youth group, the “minor.” I was the most vulnerable I had ever been in my life. She must have been too.
Then there was Hair Puller. That’s what we called him at the diner. He was in his 80s, tall, with a pinched face, and a wad of cash in his pocket.
He tipped really well, but he had a thing for ponytails. I wrote about it for the first time in my journals in 2010. Just one sentence about a big-tipping old man who complimented my ponytail. He asked me if he could, “tug it.” I wrote, “I let him. Haha.” We all did. We laughed about it and vied for his table so we could get through school, and pay our bills, and live.
I became his favorite waitress. But when he asked me to lunch with he and his wife, I hesitated. I called my favorite woman, Babbi, and I told her. She didn’t think it was a bad idea, but she suggested I remember the phrases, “I’m offended,” and “I’m uncomfortable.”
That’s what I repeated to myself as I walked into El Torito. His wife couldn’t make it. I settled in with an Arnold palmer and some nachos, and listened while he told me about growing up in Ohio. One winter’s day, when he was a little boy, he found a postcard in a book with a picture of a beach that read, “The sun is always shining in California.” He knew then he wanted to live in California. He headed west the moment he could, and lived as a successful businessman for 50 years.
I wanted to believe so badly that he was a nice guy. For one moment, as I thought of him as a little boy, freezing his ass off in Ohio, warmed by his dreams, I thought, this is okay.
And then he got to why he’d really asked me there—could I do with an extra $500 a month?
“See, my girl just graduated,” he said.
He must have seen my face because he laughed a little, trying to put me at ease.
“It’s nothing like that,” he explained, “nothing sexual. A couple of times a month, I’d like to caress your body.”
I froze, but just for a moment. A sound came from the inside of me, and rose out, it was my new voice.
“I’m offended and uncomfortable,” I said.
The smile never really left his face. Even as I picked up my bag, and got the hell out of there, he smiled and scoffed and sputtered his sorrys.
Let’s talk about this: could I have done with an extra $500 a month? I was busting my ever-loving ass at the diner every weekend, in school full-time, trying to write. I was walking through every room in my life in counseling, opening boxes. I’d recently joined the dog paddle of America’s youth in the Great Sea of Student Loans. Yeah, I could have used it.
I was privileged enough to be able to get by without it, and that’s my story, but what about the story of his girl? Who was she? Hair Puller was well into his 80s, just how long had he been doing this? Thirty years? Forty? Fifty?
The amazing grace of my life has always been people. I got by with the help of other people, but where were her people? How desperate must she have been? How was it that she reached out for help, and found Hair Puller?
On the steps outside of Royce Hall, my friend handed me the book of secrets she had bought me as a gift. I opened it, and a 3×5 postcard fell into my lap. Her truth. It read:
“I was date raped. The guy who did it moved to LA, and now I’m scared I’ll run into him.”
Fired by the power of the secrets still echoing from the auditorium, the secrets no longer echoing in her, she shared her story with me. This brave, beautiful woman. How she had been drinking, but she said no. How angry she was. How she still thought about it every day. My insides curled with every word. We walked together into those terrible moments of her life, and when I looked around, I wanted to tear the world apart for the senselessness of it. I wasn’t imagining how she felt, I knew. When I looked at her, there was a pain in her eyes my heart recognized. The pain felt like a bomb going off inside of me. Any shred of surety I had was obliterated, and I knew I, too, had been raped. When she was finished, I said the truest thing I’d ever said, me too. I said it to her the first time I said it to myself.
I was 22-years old when I broke up with my boyfriend of 4 years, the only guy I’d ever been with. A few weeks later, I went out for a drink, got drunk, and went home with a man. He wanted to have sex, I said no. He didn’t stop, so I asked him to put on a condom. I said, “please.” He ignored me. As I cried in my bed the next morning, I wiped the tears from my eyes and told myself it was the guilt from my “one-night stand.” And I told myself that for 7 years.
“I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
There was a period of gestation. An emotional aftermath. Instead of writing about it, I sat with it. Man, I was fearful. I was afraid the tears wouldn’t stop. I was afraid they would. I was afraid of the sheer strength my survival skills had developed over the years. For my denial to run so deep, to so perfectly gloss over and drag under one of the most painful experiences of my life, for seven long years. It had been a journey.
And I was afraid I was not equipped to handle this on my own. That turned out to be true. I got help. A friend recommended the counseling center at the Jewish Family Community Center in Long Beach. They took me on a sliding scale, because waiting tables didn’t cut it (still doesn’t), and I began to heal. I shared my story once again, this time with a professional.
I held my heart, and I cried, and I asked her the only thing I wanted to know: What do I do?
She gave a little nod.
“What you’re doing,” she said. “Talk about it. Write about it.”
Women’s voices, when they rise together, act like flint and steel. I am at the point in my life where I can write, and I can write from the place Oprah calls the “interior of my soul.” Like she says, I am tired, but I am not depleted. I made it through on the strength of women who have traveled this road before me, and know it well. The women in my family, the women I’m privileged to call my friends, my counselors, the professors who took the time to listen and encourage me. I made it, lifted by the words of great storytellers like Oprah.
But there are unnamed women in my life. Women who share my story with the same men, whose names I’ll never know. For a time, I knew them only in the periphery. The “girl who graduated,” the “minor” in Iowa.
I couldn’t sing until I heard the song. Now, here is mine. To every woman who has come forward, thank you. A few special words to those of you who have not—we’re singing to you, we’re listening for your voice. I shouted from the valley, and a chorus replied.
I remembered something else, just as I was writing this piece. It was the spring of 2015, and I stopped in front of a new art project, a wall, on campus at Cal State Fullerton.
The wall was tall and white, with markers hanging from strings, and there was a question written across the top of it:
“What’s the greatest act of love you’ve ever experienced?”
I answered it, and came back the next day to see what else had been added.