Pieces of the Past

When I found out I was having a girl, I cried for three days. It took me a while to figure out some basic facts about this reaction, including the fact that not everyone has it. In the language of therapy, pieces of the past remained unprocessed. One of the undigested bits was my senior year of  high school. I thought, for a long time, that as I got older, that year would simply fade away. It would just get less important. For a while, it did. And then I found out I was having a daughter, and all I could do was fold my arms over the child inside me and think, I can’t protect her, I won’t be able to protect her.

The hurt we cause each other is never simple. Some of my senior year could not have been prevented or ameliorated by the adults in my life. Some of it could. This is, in most respects, a story about how the adults at my high-powered prep school failed us.

A girl in my class named Miranda hung posters around the school that read: “You say: Keep your hands off my car. We say: Keep your hands off our bodies. Signed: The women of this school.” The poster was aimed at a classmate of ours. She was effectively accusing him of sexual harassment, or worse. I use her real name only because she herself chose to publish her account of this incident.

This accusation, as Miranda admits, was based on rumor and her general dislike of this boy, whom she calls Xavier. His behavior was not something she had personal experience with. It was “widespread knowledge:” “Older girls told younger girls.” “He wasn’t a stud, he wasn’t well liked. His power came from being a brute in an Izod shirt.” As she tells it, when the administration took the posters down, she threatened the principal with a lawsuit. As a result, we had an assembly about sexual harassment. In her account, it seems the incident ended there. The last line of Miranda’s essay reads: “Right after this I graduated and became a Riot Grrrl, to the tune of: We want revolution, girlstyle, NOOOWW!”

Miranda writes: “Thinking about it now I imagine he had his share of suffering, but to understand this story it’s important that you feel no sympathy for him.” Twenty years on, I disagree intensely with this. To understand this story, it’s important that you feel sympathy for everyone involved, including, yes, Xavier. Because any teenager accused of sexual harassment deserves a fair hearing, even if — or perhaps especially if – he can be kind of an ass. It’s important, too, that you understand that this story isn’t just about Miranda and Xavier. The school administration compelled me, at seventeen, to investigate the allegations. For me, and for a number of other young women at the school, this incident did not end with a Riot Girrl cheer.

Because Miranda’s piece was published in a magazine for girls, and because I love women who are the mothers of sons, I feel the need to give my version of these events. In those posters, Miranda made serious accusations based — as she admits — on rumor and her own casual feelings about Xavier. I believe that the events surrounding those posters seriously hurt Xavier. That hurt rippled outwards. Those posters were the understandable but ill-advised actions of a young person, a girl still exploring her political beliefs, her own sexuality and anger. We were all very young, and convinced that we had all the answers. It was the school’s job to use those posters as a teachable moment, as they say; the adults in the situation held the most power and responsibility. In retrospect, I believe they acted with cowardice and poor judgment. But now — as adults ourselves — we should both hold them responsible, and be careful not to condone those posters. Those posters were not brave political speech. They were a stunt, an attack intended to humiliate another student.

Let us be clear: Xavier was not a political appointee, not a public figure. He was no one’s boss. The kind of public accusation that might be appropriate for Herman Cain or John Edwards was not appropriate. Xavier may have been a dick, at times. He was also kind and sensitive, at times. Most importantly, he was seventeen. While the administration did take the posters down, they took neither the harm done to him nor the harm he might have done truly seriously. They just tried to cover their asses against precisely the kind of lawsuit that Miranda threatened.

I got a fundraising letter last week from my high school. “What do you remember about high school?” the letter opened. “I remember a place where I felt safe and respected, encouraged and supported, where I was able to grow and learn…” I guarantee you Xavier ripped that letter up, just like I did.

Miranda admits that the trigger for her posters was an entitled, pissy comment Xavier made about his car at assembly. He was, in other words, someone she didn’t like. What she did, in return, utterly derailed his senior year. At graduation, he refused to shake the headmaster’s hand and made a pointed show of walking the wrong way down the aisle, to shake the hand of our former principal.

I remember a student body torn apart by those posters. We were intensely analytic, politicized kids. I remember my own reaction. I was sure, as were a number of my friends, that Miranda must have known something, that Xavier must have done something terrible directly to her or to one of her close friends. Surely she wouldn’t have hung those posters on rumor alone? We discussed whether this was the best way to go about dealing with whatever had happened. It wasn’t fair to accuse him anonymously, we thought. But what if there was a frightened victim, afraid to come forward? We were just learning to grapple with our own feminism. We fought with each other. What if he was innocent? What if he wasn’t? What if it wasn’t black and white? We had a complicated set of questions based on specific individuals. The posters, and Xavier, were all anyone talked about for a long time. It was incredibly polarizing.

When is it powerful to lash out, and when is the radical thing, in fact, to reach across the lines that divide us? What is it that we want political action to achieve? If we take the crime seriously, doesn’t that mean we have to give the accusation equal weight? We grapple our whole lives with these questions, as members of movements and as individuals. When I think about feminism now, I want it to be a set of principles that will help my daughter navigate both her sexuality and her anger.

The special forum of platitudes about sexual harassment at my high school didn’t help, and the administration was evidently still worried about legal action waiting in the wings. They wanted someone both they and the other students could trust. So they came to me. They tasked me with the following: Talk to the women who are upset about Xavier. Tell us what really happened.

Now, it’s this memory that pains me the most. I thought I was so grown up. I thought of myself as a feminist. I thought the adults at my school had our best interests at heart. I didn’t have a relationship with any adults that I trusted enough to share my intense discomfort over this assignment. It never occurred to me that I could say no. I’m still able, all these years later, to keep myself up at night rehearsing what I should have said: “No, vice principal. I don’t have to do that. Don’t put me in that position. I don’t have to take this on.”

I talked to dozens of girls. I won’t go into what they said for a number of reasons. First, because all that intensely private business should never have been mine to safeguard. Second, because we have all suffered enough from the spotlight, and this essay is emphatically not intended to investigate Xavier’s guilt. And third, I don’t trust some of my memories from that year, because I actually repressed a lot of it for a while. It was a bad year, for many reasons. Soon after, I blocked it all out. For a while, I couldn’t remember huge chunks—big things, like an entire trip that I took, and little things, like what people said when. At one point, I had blacked out the entire set of events surrounding Xavier and those interviews. My best friend had to remind me that it had happened. There were interviews, I asked? She said, “Sweetie, you were the one who did those interviews.” Later that day, fragments of memory came flooding back to me, unbidden, while I was eating a salad.

The main thing is this: Nothing was cut and dry. I reported back to the administration. I was intensely upset. I was confused, I didn’t know how to help the women I had spoken with. At the same time I felt intense guilt. Xavier was openly furious with me for stabbing him in the back. The administrators listened to me and let me go. They didn’t reach out to the women I had spoken with. They took no further action.

What’s clear to me now is that the administration didn’t have me do those interviews because they were concerned about the girls. Consider this irony: While I was out interviewing, three male teachers were behaving in ways that got them fired from my high school that year. At least one of those teachers turned out to have a long history of seducing female students. No one went around making sure those students were alright. That teacher went on to get a job, immediately after, at a Catholic all-girls school. In other words, someone from my school gave him good references. The administration at my high school did nothing to help the girls I spoke with because they sent me out on those interviews for one reason alone: To suss out and avoid possible lawsuits. I vaguely remember that they called Xavier’s parents in.

How else could they have behaved? For one, they could have sent someone out to the girls in our school who was trained to help young women cope with sexual behavior. Someone like a social worker, or a counselor. Someone with a framework for evaluating what she was told, who could have offered guidance and support. Someone, say, who had actually had sex before. Someone who didn’t then have to sit in class with Miranda and Xavier. Someone eminently not me.

Then, once they had determined their asses were covered, the administration could have tried to help all of the incredibly pissed off, humiliated and confused students at their school. I’m not saying helping us would have been easy. It was nonetheless their responsibility. We didn’t know it, but we were all out of our league. The stuff of how to grapple with sex crimes, accusations of sex crimes, and budding sexual independence is complicated. We desperately needed some wisdom. Instead, they hung us all out to dry.

I remember standing in line with Xavier and a group of other kids at Disneyland, on a school trip our freshman year, before all this happened. We were sitting on a railing in front of a statue of R2D2 playing free association. The only rule was that you couldn’t repeat a word that had been said before. Like, “Frog!” “Tadpole!” “Flagpole!” “Sky!” I have a vivid mental image of him in one of his Izod shirts, laughing hard at some stupid word I had said. Yes, he came from a wealthy family. He could be a jackass. He once wrapped his BMW around a tree. But like the rest of us, he was very, very young. Some of the teachers at that school may have been irredeemable. Xavier was not. And the events of our senior year didn’t help him to become a better guy. I suspect, in fact, that they fucked him up pretty hard.

My other memory of Xavier is this: On our senior retreat, we were all supposed to be sharing happy memories, to be written up on a nostalgic poster board. I asked him to talk to me. He hadn’t made eye contact with me for a month. The only language I had to describe what I felt had been done to him was legalistic. I tried to say that he hadn’t been given a chance to face his accusers. I was such a verbal kid, my whole life, and that year was dominated by things I couldn’t say and couldn’t articulate. I was upset and confused by what the other girls had confided in me. I was distressed about his situation. In any case, I tried to apologize to Xavier. We had gone behind a building, outside. In the gathering dark, he faked a lunge at me. Then he got in my face. All this I remember with crystal clarity.

“What?! What?!” he yelled when I flinched. “Are you afraid of me? You think I’m going to hurt you? Huh?”

I tried again to say something about how I didn’t think he had been treated fairly. He didn’t give a shit.

“You know what?” He was in my face, spitting, yelling, bearing down. “You know what? I’m going to go to a better school than you, I’m going to make more money than you, I’m going to have a better life than you!”And that was the last thing he ever said to me.

At the time, I thought, Ok, he’s just going to be an asshole, so there’s nothing else I can do. It made me that much more desperate to leave senior year and all of high school far behind me. Xavier looked at me and saw a friend who had betrayed him. His behavior in that moment stands as a testament to the kind of pain he was in. Standing in front of him, I remember feeling terribly alone. Now, I see Xavier as a kid driven back on his entitlement and rage because he hadn’t been given any other options.

***

Today, as I watch my bubbly, confident, assertive little three-year old girl begin to ask for princess dresses, I often think about that year. First, I think that if any teacher tries to mess with her, if any boy tries anything against her will, if any blinkered authority figure tries to sacrifice her innocence to his own needs, my solution is very simple. I will cut his heart out with a butcher knife.

But then I remember that her father and I have shaped our lives around shared values—which include feminism, empathy across lines of race gender class and creed, and nonviolence. I remember that I can’t help my daughter from jail. I remember that I believe our values can help her avoid my senior year, and that mostly, I want her to speed ahead to the part where she knows how to choose a guy like her dad.

Those posters came from a feminist impulse. I understand that impulse. I was a precocious and self-professed feminist from the time I was ten. I had a pro-choice poster on my bedroom door for most of high school, complete with a big graphic of a bloody hanger. It greeted everyone who came into our house (a fact I now find intensely embarrassing). That version of feminism didn’t protect me. My senior year, my life was seriously derailed, partly because of my own complicated feelings towards men. Feminism as an oppositional stance was not enough. It didn’t help me figure out how to relate to men for a long time. This is the crucial paradox of feminism, that it can’t be worked out in isolation from masculinity and males. Part of what I need my feminism to do is to give me both wisdom and empathy, to help me to live with men, as an equal—men I work with, men I love, men I might raise.

I don’t know why the authority figures at my school were so lacking, that year, in wisdom and empathy. Maybe it was because, from the outside, my class looked so together. We were an incredibly high-achieving group. Of seventy five graduating seniors, thirteen went to Harvard (I went to Yale). In case you don’t pay attention to Ivy League acceptance rates, that’s a bit like winning the lottery. We were extremely articulate, accomplished, confident and brazen. I think it may have been easy to forget that we were—behind the vocab words and the higher maths and the political opinions—still children finding our way. Another way to see it is that they weren’t getting sued, and our college admissions numbers were fabulous. So they left it at that.

For whatever reason, on behalf of both the young men and the young women of my school, I blame the grown-ups. I hope some of those responsible adults don’t sleep well at night. I pray for better mentors for my daughter. I hope against hope that she will turn to me in high school. I know that I can’t protect her against everything that comes her way. I can only hope that she will be strong and brave, full of self-respect and empathy for others, at all times—whether she’s in the dark with a boy at a party, thinking about putting up an angry poster, or standing in an office in front of her vice principal.

My husband and I took our daughter down to the Occupy protests this month. She called them “the tents.” We were struck with how radical the simple act of listening can be. I don’t pretend to be able to fully describe the movement, but it’s clear they’re furious. They are unafraid to stand up and express their anger—at banks, at corrupt politicians, at corporations. At the same time, no matter your race, gender, creed or class, if you were physically present at Occupy — if you sat your ass through a general assembly — your voice counted. They combined a radical act of listening, of human empathy, with militant action.

Our school had gender problems, indeed. But what we needed, I have to believe, was not more darkness but more light. I turn to the words of Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Respect and empathy, for ourselves and each other — that’s where our personal politics have to begin. It’s not easy, in this world, to learn how to navigate our anger and attraction, to learn how to be strong, sexual women and kind, gentle men. The least we can do for our kids is to take seriously the example we set for them, take seriously their evolving feelings and actions, and even if we can’t solve their problems, to engage in good faith with all that they lay at our feet.

This entry was posted in 300 words a day and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Pieces of the Past

  1. Felena says:

    Amen.

  2. Tsilli says:

    I second this. As someone who was also there during that strange year, it’s a relief to read an adult account of what happened. It articulates a lot of thoughts that have lingered in the back of my mind about that formative time, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.

  3. Miranda July says:

    Even though I come off pretty badly in this, I was gratified to read it. I don’t know anyone from high school and as I wrote the piece (originally for a Japanese magazine) I had the feeling that I was making the whole thing up. After 20 years that story has become just that – a story. Almost a fiction – with no one to check the facts with. You really broke that open – not only the retelling of it from another perspective, with details I didn’t know – but also your very astute, thoughtful take on it as an adult and mother. I don’t disagree with anything you wrote. There are a lot of other things I could write here – things I left out of the piece, apologies, questions – but this feels rather public and maybe is not the place. In any case, thank you for writing this. (And very timely too, as I am about to be a woman who is the mother of a son.)
    my best,
    Miranda

  4. thisblue says:

    It’s been very gratifying to hear from people in high school, and to get all this down. I didn’t know that having a kid would trigger so much reinvestigation of the past, on my part. But I’m kind of glad for it, now.
    Thank you for this gracious and generous response, Miranda. And congratulations on your good news… It’s the best thing in the world.

  5. Patrick says:

    Wow. So. Who else needs a drink?

    Thank you for writing this. It’s a little surreal to read about this now (an “adult account of what happened” as Tsilli aptly put it) . This feels so far away but I find myself overwhelmed by memories and some regrets, over not knowing, thinking, speaking, or acting differently. There are some details I didn’t know, and I’m kind of astonished by that year, at a variety of levels, including the bizarre, effing bush league official response, my own breathtaking naivete and about a million other things. There was a point in my life where I thought no one really grew up after high school. I’m quite glad I was thoroughly wrong.

    Anyway, it’s very difficult to write with power and empathy, and the flood of memories and feelings I’m experiencing is a tribute to your evocative and compassionate voice. Well done.

  6. thisblue says:

    Oh, Patrick. How I wish I could buy you that oh-so-grownup drink. Thank you, immensely, for this.

  7. A tough read, but such a good one. And for once, the comments section just made me think more of the people involved. I hope the “adults” who were supposed to be running the show at your school see this. I hope adults currently in positions of power will keep it in mind.

  8. Sarah says:

    Although clearly there’s a very particular story here, and a series of real relationships to be revisited and (ideally) reworked–stories I’m not a part of–I just wanted to mention that I’ve been thinking about both these essays since I read them yesterday, and I think that they, singularly and together, raise so many important issues about the relation between sympathy, activism, remembering, parenting. And the way all of those are so intimately gendered. I’m glad to have read them both.

    Among my many responses, I’ll say that both of these essay speak to me as someone who is preparing to teach an intro to gender studies course. The tension between sympathy and activism is what’s always at play in those courses, which are typically full of young women trying to find a language to describe a hovering anger they have about their lives. Partly what they need is permission to stop being sympathetic, to stop taking care, particularly of men. But I love the way, Michelle, you try to think through the opposition between sympathy and anger as political strategies. It’s a good way to describe what I consider to be the role of the critic in political debates: For me, the heart of criticism–which is to say, of learning about the world–is to imagine that people do have complex motives, and most people do not think about themselves as bad people, so must have a perspective that should be understood. If we want the world to be different, we have to understand it first, I think.

  9. Keith says:

    This is a thoughtful piece, Michelle. I agree with all of it. I graduated a year before this all broke loose, and heard about it only through friends, but I understand it much better from your careful and sympathetic telling.

    I especially agree with your take on the school’s administration. I know this is sort of a secondary part of the story, but I think it’s an important one. It’s one thing for high school administrators to look out for their own interests before their students’; it’s another for them to do so in a school that professes to value community above all. My experience – like yours – was the opposite of the story that school always liked to tell about itself. Time and again I saw administrators act in a way that prioritized, first, the school’s reputation, and second, the school’s finances. What was best for students was far down the list, somewhere below paving the parking lot and keeping the vending machines stocked.

  10. thisblue says:

    Those craptastic vending machines, in that smelly windowless room, with crumbs in the holes of the black rubber mats…

    Thanks, Keith.
    I think I know some of what you’re referring to, from your senior year, but only some. Has anyone ever written about all that?

    I don’t think that the disjoint between the school’s rhetoric about community and its practice is secondary, by the way. I think it’s near the crux of the issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>