I remember sitting on a split-rail fence with my friend Lesley when we were 6 years old. It was a West Virginia early summer. The air was soft and warm. Shrubs bloomed behind us in the neighbor’s yard, while the hot blacktop where three roads met spread out before us.
Lesley had curly red hair and blue eyes. My hair was long, blonde and straight. When I remember the events of that day, I always see the two of us perched, trying to balance on the fence, not quite stable because we were so young and small. But we wanted to sit up high. We wanted to watch our world come and go from sideline safety. Cars came to the three way stop. Sometimes the right of way was obvious. Sometimes they would wave each other through the intersection if there was confusion about what should happen. Bicycles, joggers, but mostly cars.
Most of my childhood memories are internal. I don’t zoom to some observation of myself as if I’m an object. But this memory has always been from the middle of the intersection. I see two little girls sitting on a fence. I see expressions that go from happy, to confused, to frightened, to conspiratorial.
A jeep started to drive though the intersection and stopped dead in the middle. Two young men stared at me and Lesley. The driver started to wave furiously. Lesley and I stared back, tilting our heads like owlings. Who were these men? We didn’t recognize them, but they seemed to think they knew us. We didn’t wave back. We wanted them to leave the intersection and keep going, but they didn’t do that. One of them started calling out to us. “Hi! Hi, there! Hi-i-i-i-i-i, girls!” The driver was the one waving like crazy. The other man was laughing now, an ugly laugh, not the kind that makes you feel good or happy or safe. The more aggressive and insistent the driver became that we acknowledge him, the more committed I became to silence.
Who did he think he was? I didn’t know him. This was our space, mine and Lesley’s. We lived here with our families. With people we knew. I didn’t want to engage him. Even as a child I had an instinct that waving back would be the beginning of legitimizing this man. Something about these people was not right. They were adults. We were children. We were minding our own business. They were dangling out in a space where other people had the right to come and go safely. Did they think they owned the entire neighborhood? Did they think Lesley and I owed them anything just because they wanted something from us?
They wouldn’t go away.
After what seemed like an eternity, the driver slammed his hands on the steering wheel, and screamed, “Say HELLO, goddamned it!” His friend laughed more. The jeep lurched forward with a squeal and a roar, and then they were gone. We never said hello, and I’ve never regretted that. Lesley and I were free to speak now. We looked at each other, relieved, and giggled and shrugged and tried to go back to our view of the world before the men stopped, stared, insisted, got angry, and did something threatening. Except we couldn’t go back to that view. I saw something that day when I was six years old that I would never forget and never really get over. There are men I don’t know, whom I have no interest in knowing, who have a sense of entitlement about gaining my attention. They will insist and push and cajole, and then when they don’t get what they believe they are entitled to, they will get angry. They will shift into a mode of violence to regain some sense of power over me if I don’t respond to them as they wish. They are entitled. They are dangerous. And they will force women and girls to learn that they are not be ignored.
And when I say “my” attention, “me” and “I,” I speak for every human female on the planet, whether you are 6 or 86, black or white, Muslim or Christian or atheist.
Lesley and I were, in the end, conspiratorial, and by that I mean that we were drafted into one of society’s longest-standing back rooms of agreed-upon silence. I never told my parents about the men, and she and I never spoke of it again. There was an inexplicable shame in attracting their attention in the first place. I remember we were wearing shorts and flip flops. We were just sitting on the fence, clearly open to engaging our world. Had we brought this on ourselves? Maybe they were just nice people. But I knew that wasn’t true. I knew they were not nice people, and yet they had noticed me and tried to interact with me, and if bad people were trying to talk to me, what did that say about what kind of person I might be? Best to just never mention it.
When I think about this man from Santa Barbara, the way he talked about women, the way he rationalized his violent impulses, the way he terrorized people because life and the people in it weren’t giving him exactly what he wanted and believed he was entitled to have, it makes me sick. I am sick that that I find nothing “chilling” about his writings or his videos. I find them familiar and common. Because we don’t talk about it, little girls will continue to be subject to grown men’s harassment and blame themselves. Grown women will endure leers and catcalls and slink home to change into baggy pants and a stiff drink. And the band will probably play on. I’ve been marching to this drum for forty years.