We must trust our own thinking. Trust where we’re going. And get the job done. -Wilma Mankiller
After The Harasser resigned, there was no returning to the regularly-scheduled programming of life, our families, and our work. Something had shifted—we could both feel it. “I think we are supposed to write a book,” Rachel said, and, like the idea we had to write the blog, her simple suggestion manifested into a new action plan.
We planned a retreat for the beginning of 2022 at a hermitage, two little log cabins next to each other surrounded by acres of towering pines, retired nuns, and non-skittish wildlife. Our schedule included writing, of course, and walks in the morning and afternoon. Having mistakenly turned off the heat in my cabin in an American-centric fog of confusion about how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, I overslept for the first-morning walk. Over our homemade lunches, Rachel shared the details of her solo trek. The points of interest for me were the hunched-over decoy coyote in a frozen state of defecation and a labyrinth. The latter made me giddy.
“Ooh, a labyrinth like in The Shining?” I asked.
“Yes? Maybe? I don’t know; I’ve only seen that movie once.” I forgave her for that, silently glad I wasn’t wearing my “Overlook Hotel” sweatshirt. My reference to the movie, The Labyrinth with David Bowie, didn’t track either. After learning that my musician friend also hadn’t ever really listened to Bowie, we both concluded that it was time to go back to our respective cabins to write.
During our afternoon walk, Rachel took me to the retreat’s labyrinth: a smallish, meditative circle of bricks outlining a winding path. There were seemingly no wrong turns. You simply trusted that the course would take you to the destination, the heart of the circle. After she showed me the rest of the grounds, I hung back to walk the labyrinth alone.
The labyrinth looked mildly intimidating from the outside, given the temperature outside and my tendency to get dizzy quickly. I could see that it had a beginning and an end, even if my eyes couldn’t follow it clearly from where I stood. What moved me to take the first step was seeing the boundaries and knowing that I couldn’t really go the wrong way if I kept walking forward in the direction it led me.
The beginning of the path was aimed straight toward the center, a trompe-l’œil appearing to lead to an immediate shortcut to the end. But then, the course jutted sharply to the left, and for the first few rounds, I still thought the path would lead to a shortcut. A quarter of the way in, I was convinced there was no way the course I was on would magically connect with the lanes on the opposite end of the circle. It was bitterly cold, to the point that my eyes were watering. A throbbing began in my exposed cheekbones, the frigid temperature triggering the sinus infection I’d been trying to overcome for the past week. At this point, I thought petulantly to myself, “I am an adult. I can quit. No one cares if I finish this thing. If anyone is watching me, they’re probably wondering why in the hell I’m even doing out here walking back and forth while it’s, like, four degrees outside. Also, wild turkeys! What if that flock of turkeys finds me?!”
The last worry was significant. The sisters running the hermitage advised people trekking the property to carry an umbrella in the event a male wild turkey got fired up at the presence of a human on its territory and charged. Should this occur, the innocent person contemplatively walking the labyrinth must sprint into action and open the umbrella like another turkey fanning its feathers, a peacock showcasing its train, a betta fish flaring its gills. Umbrellas could transform a female human into an even taller territorial male animal. Rachel and I had seen not one but six wild turkeys lurking near one of the buildings not too far from the labyrinth. Having opted to leave my umbrella in the cabin then, I felt ill-equipped to project an air of “superior turkey man” if the flock approached the labyrinth.
Alas, I am a Virgo. I started on the path, and I was going to finish it, dammit. I also just wanted to see if the labyrinth really would take me along each curve on the interior of the circle or if I was going to have to say, “Fuck it,” step over the bricks lining the path, and skulk back to my cabin.
Eventually, I could see all the ground I had covered, which was most of the circle. When I got to what I thought was the last stretch, I buried my mouth into my scarf and smiled to myself. “This is exactly what Rachel and I went through with The Harasser situation,” I thought, “every bit of it.” Labyrinths are spiritual tools designed to inspire such enlightened navel-gazing. I sighed smarmily, the way a Virgo does when she looks at her lengthy to-do list and sees that she’s just about to cross off the final task. The last turn was the one leading to the heart of the circle.
Except it didn’t.
The path jutted deeper into the circle one last time, leading me halfway back to the other side like a cruel joke. Another trick of the eye to make walkers believe they would start over forever. I had crossed off the last item on the proverbial checklist, only to turn the page and see that Sisyphus and I had an eternity of boulders to roll along the labyrinth.
I laughed, the clipped chirp of a woman half-frozen, one-quarter incredulous, and probably one-quarter on the verge of peeing my discount prAna pants from all the hot tea I’d been drinking on the retreat. A hysterical voice in my head threatened, “If this thing doesn’t fucking end soon…,” and then I turned the last corner, the one leading to the center. Finally.
I stood in the center, closed my eyes for a moment, and breathed. There was a beginning and an end, just as I knew from the start. I had trusted, and it worked.
After dinner, I walked to the retreat center for a massage I had scheduled. The massage therapist and I took an elevator to the basement and entered her makeshift studio; a room partitioned with tulle and twinkle lights. She set the bed’s warmth as high as possible and allowed me to settle in while she prepared.
“What brings you to the retreat center?” she asked as she placed her fingers on the middle of my forehead, my third eye, and smoothed my skin toward my temples.
“A friend and I are on a retreat. We’re writing a book on how to take down a sexual harasser after having done it ourselves last year.” She offered an encouraging remark and continued to massage my head, working her fingers into my hair. I felt my sinus headache begin to lift. The following 59 minutes comprised one of the best massages I’d ever had.
I finished dressing and opened the door for her to return. As I was retrieving my wallet, she said, “You know, you were saying how you and your friend are writing that book? And it reminded me of when I was in massage school….” She shared her story of having been sexually harassed and sexually assaulted repeatedly by a male student in the presence of other students; how she told him more than once what her boundaries were; how others tried to invalidate her story by asking if she just misinterpreted his touch; how she knew that at least two other women had experienced the same by that guy; how the school didn’t take her story seriously; how the perpetrator counter-accused her of an offense that was not only untrue but even worse than what she experienced. “But I was not going to let him win,” she said. Despite their self-doubt and the perpetrator’s retaliation, she and one of the other victims worked together to remove him from the program. “It could have threatened our ability to graduate by speaking up about what he did to us,” she said, “but in the business, we’re in, people trust us. We put our hands on them, and they trust us. He can’t be taking advantage of people like that.”
I thanked her for her act of courage, for doing the hard shit that the people in power should have already done. Our stories of being victimized were so different, yet the negative externalities of coming forward and seeking accountability from the perpetrator and leadership were practically formulaic in their similarity. In our country’s patriarchal structure, power desperately doesn’t want to let go of power.
I stopped into the gift shop and saw that an artist was selling miniature replicas of the retreat’s labyrinth, a bird’s eye view of the same path I had taken a few hours before. I purchased one for myself, a representation of the journey Rachel and I and other women had walked together to take down The Harasser. I brought the replica back to my cabin and traced my finger over its course. It made much more sense seeing the path from this perspective than seeing it head-on.
The same is true for our story and why we sought to have The Harasser ousted publicly. Like my uncomfortable walk around the labyrinth, we could have quit at any time, any one of us. We could have justified quitting; no one would have blamed us. Not all of us brought our umbrellas, or had umbrellas to bring, with us on the journey; we had just to trust that, if it rained or if a flock of wild turkeys came chasing after us, we were able to withstand it. We were not “superior male turkeys,” and the person we were calling on to resign was not a rat, but a supremely manipulative man, protected in power, who was both the bait and the trap.
We could have just not started, frankly.
But we did start, and we didn’t stop until we were finished. Rachel’s and my entire journey makes sense now. We trusted the process. We saw it through. And our community will be a safer place for it.
I drove away from our retreat slowly, “Birthday Baby” by Tori Amos in the background. I watched the labyrinth disappear from my rearview mirror. I noted the height of the many pines, how it was the ministry of the sisters onsite to tend to their growth. So it had been for generations, and so it would continue for the next batch of sisters and folks.
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Cami Roth Szirotnyak is a writer, intersectional feminist, and policy entrepreneur. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @candybroth.