It’s a simple, unimportant event, really. Last Saturday a battered truck stopped on the street outside the house and one of the two fellows got out, came up the walk, and rang the doorbell. They were selling firewood and mulch—a common thing this time of year here in our middle-class subdivision.
I told him we didn’t need any—our fireplace has been broken for over a decade, and our flowerbeds require a whole lot more than mulch to set them to rights. They are overgrown with weedy wildflowers, tree saplings, and honeysuckle that will require digging out. “Well, let’s take a look,” said “Mike,” walking into the yard. Landscaping, it turns out, is his passion. He said he’s done some work for a few of our neighbors.
Mike seemed like a good enough sort: short, stocky, middle-aged, pleasant, well spoken. In Texas we’d call him a good ol’ boy, no different than thousands of other men. Certainly no alarm bells went off in my head. He obviously knew a bit about the landscaping trade. He knew about edging, about how hard it is to dig up a walnut sprout, what kinds of mulch were the best. He offered to give us a bid on rehabbing the front yard. It’s something my partner and I have been thinking about doing, so I followed him around while he talked about what he’d like to do.
Stopping under one of our bald cypress trees, he asked if there was anything in that bed that we wanted to keep. I leaned over to point out a big blue hosta hiding among the weeds.
“Hold on just a minute,” said Mike. “You have something in your hair.” And he reached over and very gently removed a leaf.
I froze. My mind was racing, but I did not move, or even breathe. “Wow. I really don’t like this!” said my mind. My body said, “Be still. Let him do what he needs to. Then we can move.” So I stood there as he slowly withdrew his hand and showed me the leaf.
I stood up then, and we continued our ramble around the front yard as though nothing had happened. And apparently, nothing had. He gave me the quote and his phone number, and I promised to call and let him know.
Hours later, I still couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was furiously angry. I wanted to punch him, to claw his face. But he hadn’t really done anything, another part of me argued. He was actually a very nice fellow. He’d said, just before getting back into the truck, “You girls can count on me to do right by you.” Nothing wrong with that! So why all this anger?
Worst of all, though, was the burning sense of shame that brought on floods of tears. Why, oh why had I just stood there and let him do that? Why didn’t I say anything, or at the very least, move away? Why on earth did I not react at all—just as though the incident hadn’t happened?
I’m 66 years old, and this isn’t my first rodeo, after all. I don’t get catcalls any longer when I walk down the street (thank goodness!), but stuff like this goes on all the time. But after all those years and all those experiences, with all that I know, and with all the conversations going on right now about sexual harassment and male privilege and the patriarchy—and I wrote my dissertation on patriarchal silencing of women, for goodness sake!—after all that, all I managed to do was freeze there while this man so blatantly invaded my personal space?!
I was shocked and ashamed. SO ashamed. Wow.
Well, I tried two things in response to this incident. First, I thought I’d blog about it. That didn’t happen. I just couldn’t do it. And second, I tried to forget about it. I tried really hard all weekend, but that didn’t work, either.
Then in this morning’s email a link to an article showed up, and that article contained links to two more articles that absolutely explain my reaction, and why I’ve always just frozen in place any time anything ugly like this (or much, much worse) happened to me. It’s a neurological thing called “the assault response” or “tonic immobility.” In animals, it’s been seen during encounters with predators; in humans, it’s been documented in response to situations that evoke extreme fear. Associated with this response is a dulling of emotional response.
That explains why I didn’t move the other day—why I almost never “fight back” when touched inappropriately. Fear is at the basis of it—mortal fear, whether justified in the moment or not—and that makes sense based on my experiences with my dad as a tiny child. While he undoubtedly loved me, Dad was in many ways pretty brutal in his behavior.
Now that I can quit blaming myself, other questions surface. The big one is why on earth would Mike have felt compelled—or entitled—to touch me in such an oddly intimate fashion? (“Intimate?” you say. Yeah. You had to be there, but yeah.) Why would he feel entitled to touch ANY woman whom he didn’t know? Different if, say, a branch were crashing down on me, or some other physical mishap seemed likely. But a leaf in my hair? Nope. No way.
Dunno, folks. But this stuff is so incredibly deep-seated in ourselves and in our culture. I have no suggestions at the moment on how to make it stop. When someone like myself who knows what’s going on and who talks such a good line fails, when the chips are down and it really counts, then I just don’t know what to say.
It makes me so darn sad….