On Burdens

I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance. -bell hooks

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night. -Bette Davis as Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950)

If I’m being honest, this is the blog I struggled the most with writing. The warning here should be that I’m going to talk about emotions (mine specifically—yikes!). So, refer to the Margo Channing quote above and consider yourself sufficiently warned.

I wrote much of this piece about burdens in July as part of the blog, “On Documentation.” Erin, my editor for the On Drowning Rats series, suggested that I make it a distinct post rather than try to fit it into the more pressing message of why and how to document experiences of sexual harassment. She was right. As it turned out, the message of “On Burdens” was quite prescient for me, and it will be for you, too, when you pursue a path toward justice against sexual harassers in the workplace.

In the preface to her book Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (1992), Gloria Steinem shares her friend’s reaction after she read Steinem’s manuscript: “I don’t know how to tell you this—but I think you have a self-esteem problem. You forgot to put yourself in.” Steinem agreed:

And it was true…It was as if I had been walking on a plate of glass just above the real world, able to see but not touch it. I began to understand with a terrible sureness that we teach what we need to learn and write what we need to know. I had felt drawn to the subject of self-esteem not only because other people needed it, but because I did. …I happened to open a paperback from college and discovered a note I had scribbled there: ‘Most writers write to say something about other people—and it doesn’t last. Good writers write to find out about themselves—and it lasts forever.’ It was humbling—even depressing—to discover that I knew more in college than I did so many years later.

Throughout my writings and discussions on the topic of sexual harassment, I’ve been careful to remind people that the subject matter is heavy and triggering, and I urge readers to take care of themselves. I learned, however, that I’ve been walking on my own plate of glass.

Even now, I find it easier to quote movie lines and book prefaces that illustrate how I’m feeling rather than actually saying it. So, here goes:

Basically, I feel like shit most of the time.

Not because the work Rachel and I are doing isn’t critical; it absolutely is. I truly believe that this work is more firmly connected to my purpose than most anything else I’ve pursued in several years, and I’m constantly humbled by the people who reach out to us publicly and privately to thank us and share their support and stories. So, there’s nothing about that that I would change.

The reason I feel the way I do goes back to my favorite response as to why problems remain unresolved: If this shit were easy, it would already be done. In other words, it’s less likely that this work is uncommon and more likely that it is being avoided altogether. And it’s not that prevalence of sexual harassment is infrequent. Anywhere from 25%-85% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. It gets worse. Approximately 90% of those who experience harassment in the workplace never report it. To put that into some context, individuals are more likely to honestly self-report their weight or alcohol consumption—something that is so uncommon that provisions are in place to account for inaccurate reporting. How do you make provisions when upwards of 90% of people don’t report sexual harassment?

On the other hand, I can totally understand why someone wouldn’t report. Going through the experience of sexual harassment is bad enough. Reliving it is almost worse because it’s never just that incident: it’s that incident compounded by every other incident of sexual harassment and its cousins, sexual assault and sexism. (See our blog “On Power” for more on that.) If you’re like me and have not previously worked through past traumas, finally diving in for prolonged periods of time can make your body, unaccustomed to these particular and rapidly changing pressures, react as if it were experiencing “the bends.”

I sorely underestimated the emotional and mental cost of pursuing justice and accountability for myself, Rachel, and those who have been sexually harassed in our community. The reason we continue to write the blog is to be transparent about the process, ugly as it may feel sometimes. So, from here on in this entry, I’m writing myself into the story.

The Ongoing Burdens After Sexual Harassment Occurs

Earlier this year, I listened to the audiobook, Know My Name: A Memoir (2019), by Chanel Miller. You may know her as “Emily Doe” or “the-woman-who-was-sexually-assaulted-by-that-privileged-Stanford-swimmer-who-got-off-WAY-too-easily-for-a-crime-that-actually-should-have-been-considered-rape-and-for-which-he-should-have-served-the-maximum-sentence-but-didn’t.” In her memoir, Miller discusses not only the traumatic impact of the assault, but the burdens of 1) what happens when charges are pressed against the assailant; 2) convincing a jury that the defendant was guilty; and 3) appealing to a judge that the criminal should receive the maximum sentence.

I was in my car stopped at an intersection when I heard Miller read something that caused me to immediately throw my car into park, dig around in my console for a pen and something to write on, and back up the recording so I could write down her words:

It is not reasonable to casually demand that victims put aside their lives to spend more time pursuing something they never asked for in the first place. This is not about the victim’s lack of effort; this is about society’s failure to have systems in place in which victims feel there’s a probable chance of achieving safety, justice, and restoration, rather than being re-traumatized, publicly shamed, psychologically tormented, and verbally mauled. The real question we should be asking is not, ‘Why didn’t she report?’ The question is, ‘Why would you?‘”

(Read that again, slowly. Read each and every single word as if you were learning a new language.)

I thought about that paragraph all day after I heard it. I felt equally gutted and pissed off. Why is this the victim’s burden? Merriam-Webster’s definition of “burden” reads: 1a: something that is carried: load; b: duty, responsibility. 2: something oppressive or worrisome. 3a: the bearing of a load —usually used in the phrase beast of burden; b: capacity for carrying cargo

We, as victims, are burdened by the offenses committed against us. But we’re also responsible for the burden of the consequences, such as bringing forth proof (that is, the “burden of proof” if it goes to court). If our stories are made public in any way, even just in a family or relationship, we are also burdened by having to armor-up emotionally to retell a nauseating story, potentially to naysayers who question our perspective (“Did you just misinterpret what he said?“Are you sure it was that bad, or is he just an asshole?”). We are further burdened by the court of public opinion who automatically blame us. (“What did she expect was going to happen?” “She just wants attention—she asked for it.” “Well, she shouldn’t have worn that.” “People should stop being such pussies.” [The latter is an actual statement said to me by a middle-aged woman, BTW.]) Even if there are workplace policies in place to prevent retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, the fear of being perceived as a prude, a liar, or a slut (or, worse, that the victim should just be grateful for getting any attention at all) often burdens us.

The cost of the sexual harassment offense—emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially, socially, spiritually—is paid for by us, the victims, first and forever, even if there is justice or accountability in some capacity. The load, the duty, the responsibility, the oppression, the worry—the entire damn burden—of the incident and its aftermath always rests squarely on us. We often have a hard time deciphering which burden is greater that we will have to bear: the incident itself or the subsequent re-traumatization of the incident? [Spoiler: The answer is yes, and.]

I am all of this. The plate of glass has broken.

“The Bends”

The discomfort I’ve had to hide out of fear and survival—but mostly the comfort of others—has started to leak out through this process and mutate into worse versions of discomfort that only I can see and feel. For me, it looks like confidence but feels like alarming self-doubt for voluntarily shedding my privacy. It looks like gratitude for the people who’ve heard, validated, and supported me but feels like a moral failure for not getting the past-due attention of the many family members who choose not to reach out or check in. [Hi, fam! I see you, but do you see me? (Since I have to ask, my guess is no. {And because I had to ask, I wouldn’t believe any attention from them at this stage would be genuine anyway. <Which further makes me feel like shit.>})] It looks like sporadic insomnia but feels like fog that lasts for days. It looks like empowerment and ‘taking back the night’ but feels like the worst vulnerability hangover on the beach at noon in August after having left my sunscreen, sunglasses, water bottle, and umbrella at home. It looks like indifference but feels like a ceaseless debate between the part of me that wants to heal by just trying to forget and another part that wants to heal by going into the gap… Not to mention that that debate is moderated by yet another part of me that challenges both sides to bring their quantitative and qualitative data to the table, so, like, I’m calling on both sides to organize and double-check those facts.

I think about all of the pirouetting around my own comfort I’ve done for decades, and I realize my ballet slippers are worn through and I’m now grinding into my toes.

This mission to take down a sexual harasser is exhausting. BUT. Like bell hooks, I will not have my life narrowed anymore. I will not bow down to a system that continues to not only uplift a man who flagrantly sexually harasses people, but turns a blind eye out of ignorance and greed. The emotional sewage that comes up for me is a cost I’ll continue to pay because I can’t not do this work.

Though the decision tree of my life these days feels like a forest with my compass just barely out of reach, I remind myself that at least I’m still on a trail. And, mercifully, the trail markers pop up when I’m just about to turn around. One day when the anxiety was particularly pronounced, my own ‘Gloria’ moment happened: a note I had written to myself reappeared. It read, “Trust the process.”

The nights (and days) are bumpy sometimes, and the burden can get quite heavy. But I’m aware of who and what are on the other side of this trail: us, and the prospect of accountability. It’s worth trusting the process Rachel and I are building.

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Thank you for reading!

Cami Roth Szirotnyak is a writer and intersectional feminist, and is the owner of MillenniAlign, a life-coaching business for millennials. She publishes postmodern fiction under the name candy broth. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @millennialign and @candybroth.