Updated: Dec 1, 2019
It is the fate of a woman long to be patient and silent, to wait like a ghost that is speechless, till some questioning voice dissolves the spell of its silence.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There were four ten-year-old girls playing in a field in Bosnia in the early nineties. A Serbian jeep pulled up with four soldiers in it. The soldiers got out of the jeep and called the girls to come over, in a strong soldier kind of way. Three of them stepped toward the men. Their obedience was immediate. It was a reaction to years — generations, actually — of men telling women to do something, and the women doing it without consideration. Reaction. The fourth, the one I brought into our home, turned and ran into the woods. She is the only one who survived.
Flash-forward to Harvey Weinstein. “Wait,” I hear you ask. “Are you seriously equating the raping and murdering of Bosnian women by Serbian men to Harvey Weinstein?” Yes. Yes, I am. I think the tenets of how women react to men’s directives are all part and parcel of our DNA — and something we can and must program out for future generations.
So women went up to his room for meetings. At last count, more than ninety women have now told this story, and as far as I can tell, the ending is mostly the same: they ran away, got away, pushed him off, or put him off with a delayed promise of succumbing after an Oscar win. Not one has said they did as asked. Without judging these accounts, would it have changed the way you viewed their stories if they had? If some of the women said, “I did what he asked, and I don’t know why. But I didn’t think about it, I just did it.” Is it possible the ones we’re hearing from are the ones who knew to run? Like the one young girl in Bosnia who was the only one to react against what she was told to do? Is it possible there are so many others who didn’t, and because of the ‘shame’ of their actions, aren’t speaking up? Or, are some too ashamed to tell the whole story?
Repulsive as this might sound in this particular context, is it possible that there could be something in the female DNA — the same DNA that inclines us towards nurturing — that when called upon to obey (do we have to re-visit hundreds of years of marriage vows?), we might just do it? If I’m honest with myself, and I’m truly not proud of this, but if I’d been in the shoes of these women (thank God I wasn’t), no matter how disgusting it would have been, I fear I might have done it. I hope I wouldn’t. But I’m not sure. Maybe I would have watched him take a shower. I would have then put it out of my mind and tried very hard to not “go there” and evaluate my own behavior, let alone his.
I had a high-powered job at one of the big eight accounting firms in the early eighties. I had a boss to whom I was fiercely loyal, a partner. He was being audited by the firm for his expenses (he was fired… we are talking felony avoiding fired) and he asked me to go to a hotel room and help him create the back-up for his expense accounts while they were auditing him. I did it. I never once stopped to think about it. I just did it. I did it because he told me to. He didn’t ask me; he was a mess. He told me. Forcefully. Firmly. And, I did it.
A few weeks later, he asked me to put that hotel room on my company American Express. I refused. My brain kicked in then — putting the expense on my card triggered something that made it feel different (versus my earlier complicity, where I was reacting).
Looking back, I felt no responsibility for my “accessory to a bad thing” status. I had zero ownership of that night in my own head. It belonged to him, and I was another pair of hands. I see now that it’s worth exploring, and that there are oh so many other examples in my life of the same reaction in me to things I don’t wish to own. I am just now finding what I want stand for, and what my boundaries are, and I’m sixty-six years old. Better late than never?
We women have really been dealt a psychological blow, forced into playing defense for far too long. Centuries of self-preservation, love for the male species, and/or a desire to be liked, accepted or… considered for a well-deserved role in a movie we worked our whole life to get to, make us react, without thought. Turns out, sometimes, the best offense might just be a good offense.
And just to clarify: whether we act or react, the true shame belongs to the perpetrator. Let’s not forget that.
What I’m interested in is mentoring the generations who’ve come after mine to stop, look, and listen before they act — in a way that might diminish the power of a perpetrator. When I think back to that night in the hotel, my biggest regret stems from the ground I gave in the self-esteem department — a loss multiplied by the possibly hundreds of times I didn’t use my power, or my voice, around men like Harvey Weinstein, who have been part of the fabric of my life since I was a child with a forceful father, who made full grown men quake in their boots; I was never even on the spectrum of standing up for myself. I’d like future generations to be spared those kinds of regrets.
That young ten-year-old girl who ran into the woods in Bosnia? Her shame, she told me, was that she didn’t wait for the others to follow — or go back to help them. That they didn’t get away, and she did. So even the one who acted courageously was consumed by guilt, assuming responsibility for the others’ reactions. Over the years, I saw how she punished herself. I believe she never felt that she deserved her survival, when in fact, in my opinion, she should take taken to the rooftops celebrating it. She is a hero of mine.
So, women of today, may the women speaking up in so many factions of our society serve as the inspiration to us all. Let’s vow from this day forth to obey the better angels of our own voice and power. We might just change the trajectory of those who come after us. And, Heaven knows, there’s no shame in that.
By Christine Merser