The chorus of voices chanting “Me too” keeps getting louder. Hearing people finally speaking out against sexual harassment has been great, stressful, and long overdue. But hearing all of the allegations may also stir up deep feelings within those of us who have harbored traumatic memories for many years.
Public allegations of sexual harassment against celebrity figures like Harvey Weinstein have opened a floodgate of revelations, making it safer for people to finally speak up about the sexual harassment or misconduct they’ve experienced or witnessed.
We’ve been waiting for years to be safe to speak out. Twenty-six years ago, I witnessed what could happen to a woman who publicly spoke out against a man in power. Watching Anita Hill testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Testimony about her experience being sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was excruciatingly painful. A brave, educated, beautiful, competent African-American lawyer was being publicly slain by Congressional incompetents with mean, ill-intended questions, while millions of women nation-wide knew exactly what Anita was talking about.
ALL of my professional friends believed Anita, because all of us had experienced some form of sexual harassment, dramatic or small, or knew someone who had. Yet we were powerless to stop the process of what was later called a “high tech lynching” on camera. She paid too high a price for speaking out.
She wasn’t the only one to pay a price for speaking out to power.
Years ago, I began a project listening to the stories of female Iraq veterans who had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time in the service. One vet called me, desperately needing someone who would hear and believe her story. She described being drugged and raped in Iraq. When she complained to her superiors, they covered for her assailant, one of the “good old boys,” and refused to believe her. Not being trusted by a superior officer is what some servicewomen describe being like a second rape. After her superiors dismissed her, she left the service, went to work in a fast food restaurant, and tried to kill herself. It was heartbreaking. All I could do was listen and encourage her to seek professional help.
What do you do when you are carrying a difficult story?
All of the me-too stories circulating over social media can potentially trigger difficult memories of trauma. Guts resonate in sympathy with the stories told, old wounds are revealed, and feelings of fury and frustration kept under wrap for years bubble to the surface. We deal with what we’ve tried to forget. We remember the toll it has taken to be confronted with so many micro as well as major aggressions over so many years.
In safe company, we may share our stories, although frankly mine aren’t suited to parties or dinner table conversations, and I usually prefer to keep them private. Our memories are often complex providing good fodder for self-judgments. (such as How did I ever think saving a few francs by hitchhiking by myself in France was a good idea?)
Here’s something we can all do: write.
One suggestion is to write about your memories, privately, in conversation with a page that can gracefully hold whatever you chose to write. Research, by Dr. James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin has shown that writing, in the wake of a traumatic incident, is even more effective than using on-the-scene crisis counseling in lessening the effects of trauma.
Write to the page as if it were your best friend, who expects nothing, does not judge, has empathy and loves you. Or just write for yourself. The page is willing to catch whatever you chose to share. It is for you, only you.
Then as you put events, emotions, interpretations on the page you can begin to examine your own narratives and edit them, as all good writers do. This is where the healing really begins. One caveat: the research suggests that this writing process works best after you’ve had a little time between you and the trauma. Like remembering the time you were harassed years ago that still sticks in your memory like a burr in your side.
I don’t know the mechanism that makes this writing healing, but I do know that being able to edit your own story is powerful.
At the same time, we can show compassion for others by listening to difficult stories without judgment. Our job, thankfully, is to be a friend, not to be a court of law sorting out the facts. Stories may be messy with complex emotions interwoven into what happened. Doesn’t matter. Our job is to be human, present, and empathic. Deep sharing requires safety and kind attention.
There are so many dimensions to the “me too” words. We need to acknowledge and say “me too” to where we also have used our power inappropriately to hurt, dismiss, or discriminate against another. And who, frankly, hasn’t done that?
We’re in this together.