It was late September, just after the Blasey-Ford vs. Flanagan story broke when the #MeToo wave finally crashed on me. I was listening to The New York Times Daily podcast as usual, in the dark, in the morning car—the only time I’m alone really— on my way to and from the gym. This particular episode featured journalist Caitlin Flanagan telling her #MeToo story. Her story sounded a lot like the Blasey-Ford story, in an all-American way. It’s the high school boy being a terrible boy story, the predator and prey story, the jock story, the pretty younger girl story, the internalized dominance story, the story you’ll learn one way or another as a girl, even now.
Flanagan resisted and the boy who assaulted her didn’t physically penetrate her. He actually stopped. But I can imagine the residue of shame he left all over her skin. How it lodged itself in every place she felt his fingers, how she absorbed it like we all absorb it, how she carried it like we all carry it, in the darkest parts of ourselves: Pelvis. Hip joint. Sacrum. Womb. The sacrum called sacred because it was the animal bone our ancestors offered in ritual sacrifice. The womb given names that endow it with cosmological and mythological power for a reason: hara, dan tian, cinnabar field, celestial gateway, jade palace.
Caitlin Flanagan was the new girl in school the year she was assaulted, a Berkeley transplant in a small Republican Long Island town. She was primed for a breakdown when the older boy assaulted her. It happened in his car at a deserted wintertime beach. She pushed him away while he ignored her no, her stop, her hands, her wide-eyed shock. She tried to commit suicide later that year.
She was only seventeen.
When I heard Flanagan’s story I fell apart. First, in the car—the best place to cry for its audio seclusion. Next, in the shower—the second-best place to cry, both for its audio seclusion and its psychospiritual benefits: warm water and steam and soap and shampoo washing away the snot and the salt and the sadness about what must have happened to me as a little girl that made me accept sexual assault as a rite of passage in my teens and twenties. Our basement shower, with its bright blue, garish octopus and seahorse-print curtain, became a modern-day ceremonial bath.
After the shower, I pulled myself together and got through the day at work, where a client wept and shared her #MeToo story: how an older boy had touched her when she was only five and how her family didn’t believe her even though she told them right away. How he still was invited to her house and how, every time a man touched her after that, she disassociated and got anxious.
Later that night, when we were getting ready for bed, my 10-year-old son asked out of the blue, “What’s a sweet sixteen?”
I was setting my alarm and handing him his bedtime milk and banana. He’d been watching too much tween TV, like Fuller House and Bunk’d. He must have heard the term Sweet Sixteen on one of those shows, I thought.
“It’s a special birthday, especially for girls. I think it’s just for girls.” I immediately worried about why, biting my lower lip and picking at my thumb nail, unsure.
“Why isn’t it thirteen? That’s when you become a teenager.”
“It’s a special birthday because it’s when a girl becomes like a woman, or when she is grown up, or . . . ” I trailed off without really answering. “Let’s listen to a sleep story and go to bed, buddy. It’s late.”
The truth: sixteen is around the age when men start to see a girl as an object they can fuck. That’s why she’s so sweet. Pink and sparkly and lip-gloss shiny and prom-dress tulle and satin and spray-dyed carnation pretty.
Fifteen or sixteen or seventeen happens right when we could be sinking into our softer flesh with a sense of kinesthetic delight, an earthy sensuality, an embodied agency. Pelvis. Hip Joint. Sacrum. Womb.
Can you imagine what it feels like to find yourself in a body that has suddenly become prey? When a girl is fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, sometimes before she even realizes it, she has become an object. And that’s when the shitty thing happens. It usually takes her by surprise.
Some of us get to middle age before we can even speak these experiences into the shape of words. But when we hear how that other boy also wouldn’t stop, how he turned up the music to muffle her screams, how he covered her mouth with his hand, we become sixteen again: awash with shame, wrong for some reason we can’t put our finger on, certain that we got what we deserved.
My shitty sixteen thing involved a lot of alcohol.
Alcohol affects the encoding process of memory-making. Because we don’t register or interpret incoming stimuli properly, memories of that experience are lost to us forever. For years, I was haunted by what I couldn’t remember: faces and sounds and sights and smells and the pressure of fingers on my skin on my lips on my belly on my breasts.
My shitty sixteen thing involved a Southern university and frat boys and drinking games and almost getting punched out by a drunk guy and escaping the girls’ dorm barefoot (the feeling of running on cold wet slippery grass) and kissing someone in a forest and leaves under my head and my hair mixed with the leaves and the cold dewy ground on my neck and the crackling of the leaves under the weight of my skull and being lifted up.
I am certain only about the leaves. And about waking up in someone else’s shoes.
What happens to stories that are encoded in the body but not in the brain? We go on living a normal life on the outside but move through the world with the shitty thing on the inside. It entrains us into strange and unnatural rhythms. We leave our animal bodies and hover somewhere above our skin most of the time.
We start willing ourselves up and out of our own flesh like an act of contrition. We sacrifice ourselves at the center to survive: Pelvis. Hip Joint. Sacrum. Womb.
We fall out of our bodies and into lockstep just like that, marching to another man’s drumbeat, no matter how discordant, no matter that we’re bone-tired of its demands: being fifteen, being sixteen, being seventeen, being girls with the shitty thing hidden inside. We take diet pills and wear Minizimer bras and lose weight and gain weight; we cut off our hair and dye our hair and pull out our eyebrows one by one; we cut our forearms and our thighs and slouch our shoulders and measure our wrists and our calves and our waists; we binge and purge and wear baggy man-shirts; we drink cheap booze and we smoke Marlboro Lights and we suck Mexican dirt weed out of pipes and cans and apples; we snort cocaine and get fake IDs and start dressing in only black or brown or grey; we hate our butts and our thighs and our boobs and our bellies and our noses and our chins and our cheekbones and our teeth. We try to force our bodies into specific shapes, dripping with shame if we can’t.
We start having sex, we stop having sex, we start fearing sex, we start hurting from sex; we start laying ourselves out before boys who are not as pretty as us because they are older, or cooler, or richer, or we don’t even know why sometimes. We find ourselves uprooted, unmoored, adrift, numb.
Some inaudible beat in Flanagan’s story resonated with my story, reawakened my girl-body, reminded me of what I’d lost. At forty-nine, I see my shitty sixteen self under the harsh florescent lights of a college cafeteria, her cold fingers tight around the edges of an orange plastic tray. It’s late on a Sunday morning in the fall in Tennessee and her head hurts and her eyes hurt and she’s afraid of meeting anyone’s gaze and her face is washed out and her long brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail and she’s probably wearing Guess jeans and a button down shirt and white Keds and she still smiles at her high school friends who drink the orange juice she cannot stomach. She smiles even though she knows something happened, and they know something happened, and she’s looking down so she doesn’t see whoever it is she doesn’t remember from the night before.
And the hum of her story and her story and her story and her story and #MeToo and #MeToo and #MeToo rises up, becoming its own rhythm, and I walk back to gather up the parts I lost then: Pelvis. Hip Joint. Sacrum. Womb.
I want to quietly whisper these words into the ear of my sixteen-year-old self like a healing mantra, lulling her back to herself, “Pelvis, hip joint, sacrum, womb. Pelvis, hip joint, sacrum, womb. Pelvis, hip joint, sacrum, womb.” Maybe it could save her.
I’d watch her walk out of that sterile cafeteria, hungover and shaky and scared, but with her body recovered, her natural rhythm restored: Pelvis. Hip joint. Sacrum. Womb. Hers.
Jane Gregorie is a clinic owner, acupuncturist, fertility expert, mother, spouse, activist, and writer. She is inspired on a daily basis by the hundreds of women who have braved their family-building struggles with her over the past two decades. She is soon to be published in Nailed magazine and is working on a memoir about her childhood, adoption, and race.