I’ve been stuck. Writing this memoir has been a huge challenge. I hesitate when I start to write about deeply personal experiences. I debate about whether I want others to know what happened. Why do I sit in the shadow of shame when it comes to some of the things that I’ve experienced? I ask my students in the very first week of the semester to share their personal selves with me, and they share a lot! I realize now, more than even before, how courageous they are — to trust me… a total stranger, having authority over them, with their deeply personal selves. How come I haven’t been able to be brave like them? For weeks, I’ve been sitting still with my thoughts, my feelings, and my fears. My fingers are paralyzed, unable to manifest keyboard strokes that could narrate a collection of memories which define me, and yet haunt me at the same time. That is, until today. Something happened today that I can share with you through storytelling, but I could never fully explain the dynamics of how it unfolded in such an ethereal, and at the same time, eerie way.
I’ve followed the political tensions of the Kavanaugh nomination with keen interest for many reasons. As a woman, the framework of patriarchy, women’s rights, and the #MeToo movement are personal. As an academic, a sociologist, the same framework illustrates the ways that power gets wielded in forms of individual, institutional, and structural sexism/misogyny. Watching the live testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford this morning was supposed to be like any other privileged opportunity I’ve had during the sabbatical – time and freedom to be in the comforts of my couch, watching the full broadcast of a political account unravel. It is a distinct historical moment in America’s political machinery. As I listened and watched her, I got very emotional. I sympathized at first. Then I empathized. And that’s when it triggered me.
I was in my early 30s. Not a young girl, not an adolescent. A full, grown woman. I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, but I was in Houston a lot. Visiting family, seeing friends, spending my weekends being around the people in my hometown. I knew him from my years as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. He played basketball with guys I knew in school. We saw each other in the gym sometimes when I was there playing volleyball. Our sports circles crossed when we attended tournaments around town. We had common friends. We eventually became friends. He had a girlfriend, but I only met her once. She was very studious, so she didn’t come out to the sporting events much. When he told me he was going to ask her to marry him and that he needed my female perspective to help him pick out a ring, I thought it was adorable of him. I was enthusiastic for my friend when he invited me to go with him to the neighborhood mall to go ring shopping. I asked him questions about his girlfriend’s style, but he wasn’t able to describe it effectively. There was no mainstream social media then so I couldn’t go look at pictures on her Instagram to determine her “style”. I asked if he carried pictures of her in his wallet. He didn’t, but he said his apartment (which he shared with his soon to be fiancé) was near the mall. He suggested we go there because he has an album of pictures I could look through to determine her style. I thought nothing of it. And so we went. It was a one bedroom, kitchen on the left of the entry door, open concept living room. Bedroom to the right of the entry door, opposite the living room. He led me to the bedroom where he wanted to show me a large picture frame with several pictures of him and her. It was one of those giant pieces that had multiple frames connected to each other and stood the size of a room divider. I remember there was no bed frame, only a mattress on the floor. Her nursing school homework was strewn across the floor and school books were piled around the room. Then I looked at her pictures carefully, wanting to help him find the right ring for their special moment. But I felt an uneasiness being in their bedroom alone with him. So I asked about the photo album he mentioned when we were at the mall. I followed him to the living room. I sat down on the couch and waited for him to produce the album. Instead, he handed me a few pictures of her and some of him and her. As I studied them, he put his left arm around my shoulders and thanked me for helping him. I didn’t like it. I glanced at his left hand draped over my left shoulder blade, then I turned to him to give a disapproving look. I thought he got the message because he verbally apologized, but then he didn’t move his arms nor his hand. I turned my body away from him, and that’s when the drape of his hand turned into a full grip of my shoulder. In that moment, I was petrified.
Him: “Listen Thao. I’ve always liked you. You’re like, my dream girl. I’m wondering if there’s a chance with you. If there is, I want to give it a try.”
I couldn’t process what was happening. He has a girlfriend. We just went shopping for her engagement ring. We’re in his apartment looking at pictures of him and her. What the hell is going on?! I am speechless for a moment. He took that silence, that moment of my confusion, as an invitation to his request. He wrapped me in both arms, leveled his body into mine, and pressed his lips toward me. I turned my face to avoid a kiss, but my body couldn’t move. His lock was so strong, his body so heavy, weighing me down, pinning me, immobilizing me. Fear raced through me. I was afraid I had lost control of the situation, afraid of being forced to do something against my will. He was in charge, overpowering me, physically and mentally. His hands went forcefully down my top, grasping at my breasts. I don’t know why my initial reaction was to reason with him.
Me in calm voice: “Please stop. I’m not interested in you. You have a girlfriend. Please don’t do this.”
It worked for a moment. He stopped groping me. He took some of his weight off me.
Him: “You don’t want to give us a chance? I’ll leave her for you.”
I don’t know what happened to make me snap out of my fear. I suddenly felt rage. I felt rage for him betraying his girlfriend. That’s right. Not rage at what he was doing to me, but rage at what he was doing to her. I don’t know why I wasn’t angry, at that moment, about what he was doing to me.
If you know me well today, you know I have a fighting spirit. If you knew me when I was younger, you know I have been in many physical fights. But I never picked fights. I never looked for fights. I always defended – my sisters, my friends, my family, myself. It was time to break from my paralysis and go full fight mode.
I conjured the woman warrior in me, flexed all the muscle fibers of my frame, and used my legs and center of gravity to burst myself free from him. I sprung from the couch and faced him. I leaned toward him, not away. Lean in. I thrust my finger in his face.
My fight voice roars: “Are you sick?! Do you hear yourself?! I am not interested, and you have a girlfriend! We just went together to buy her an engagement ring! Stay away from me. Don’t ever talk to me again. If you ever come near me again, I will tell her everything.”
He was stunned. I grabbed my keys and ran for his door. He followed me, only to beg me not to say anything to her. I ran out and down the stairs, then sprinted to my car. I looked back to make sure he didn’t follow me. I was free.
I didn’t tell anyone right away. I was afraid they would think I was stupid to be alone with him, especially in his apartment. I was afraid they would think I deserved it.
Some days later, I told my sisters. They, like me, were so upset that he did this to his girlfriend. I am still trying to process and understand why we didn’t know then that this was sexual assault. Or maybe we did, but we didn’t know what to do about it. And we weren’t upset or worried about me. We were angry about his betrayal to his girlfriend – because we understood then, very clearly, that cheating on your girlfriend was a big deal. A bigger deal than sexually assaulting me. We thought that only rape was bad. We thought that because I had stood up to him and escaped him, that I won. But did I? I don’t know. I guess I’m not trying to make this a winner/loser thing. I’m trying to share and trying to understand why… – thirty something years old, college educated, athletic, strong willed, fierce, fiery, independent – all these things were me – why not once had it crossed my mind to do anything else about the incident or to call the police. I didn’t even know it was an option. When I think about it now, it makes me feel like I was so dumb. So naïve.
Weeks later, I saw him at a flag football tournament. I looked at him with disgust. I was so overwhelmed with disgust that I told a male friend, Luan, who was there at the tournament with me. He knew my assailant. They were friends. I had confided in Luan years earlier about something terrible that my then boyfriend had done to me. Luan always listened, with no judgement, and never gave advice unless I asked for it. He understood and was prepared to defend me if I ever needed him to. He believed me. It is no wonder that today, he is a successful defense attorney.
Over the years, I don’t know what happened to my assailant. He did marry his girlfriend. I heard they live somewhere in California. I never told her. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me anyway. I decided to let karma run its course and left it up to the universe to flex its consequences on to the perpetrator.
I never thought deeply about the incident much after that. It wasn’t until today, when I got so emotional watching Dr. Ford speak about her trauma, that it triggered me to feel something about what happened to me. I, personally, believe her. But I’m not writing this to confirm that she must have been telling the truth. I do understand that the cognitive processes and experiences of other people could shape them to perceive her as a liar. Confirmation bias is very powerful, both consciously and subconsciously. I write this because I have been afraid to revisit the experience and to share with a public audience what I went through. It’s the same fear that has kept me stuck in neutral with my memoir writing – the engine is on, but I’m not moving anywhere even as I step my foot on the gas. I’m afraid to shift into drive gear. My fear of what people will think has stalled me.
I saw all the #MeToo stories come out. I read all the heart wrenching #WhyIDidntReport confessions of women and men across the world. They were so brave. But I still didn’t want to share my experience. I was still dismissing my own trauma. I was repressing my rage, my anxiety, my worries – leaving me in my paralysis. When I watched Dr. Ford, my paralysis was undone through an emotional ignition. I cannot believe how courageous Dr. Ford was for sitting in that seat. I know the truth of my experience, and I did tell more than one person. But I cannot say for certainty that I would be able to be in Dr. Ford’s position in the full context of the situation and share what I just shared.
I never sought treatment nor therapy nor law enforcement. I confided in my sisters and one friend. The last time I saw my friend was four summers ago. He, his wife, and daughter visited. After that, I hadn’t spoken with him since. Not because of any falling out. We have just been busy with our lives. And we are the type of friends that go so far back that we can pick up right where we left off no matter how many years had passed. I thought of him this morning as I was rehashing what happened to me.
There was a moment this morning when I doubted myself. I was afraid I might be wrong. I vividly remember certain things, but if I was being interrogated under oath about certain details that the law would require me to remember to make a case, I don’t know if I could recall them. What was the exact date? I don’t remember. What time of the year was it? I don’t remember. What was he wearing? I don’t remember. What were you wearing? I only remember it was a red tank top with a V shape neckline. I remember because I was mad at myself for wearing something that revealed my cleavage and made it easy for him to access my breasts. Yes, I blamed myself for what I was wearing. So now at least I could say it wasn’t winter. But it’s Houston. So it could have been spring, summer, or fall. Do you think I’m not telling the truth because I can’t recall those details? It saddens me that some people really believe that victims of assault should be able to remember everything in detail or else they are not telling the truth.
So I text my sisters asking them if they remember me telling them about what happened. They instantly replied yes. What a relief. They remember it as I remember it.
I thought about asking my friend, but I was afraid it would be too weird – an out of the blue call when we hadn’t been in touch in over 4 years to ask if he remembers me telling him about the assault. So I didn’t. My sisters’ validations were enough.
At 12:30 pm, PST, my friend’s name is flashing on my phone. He is calling me. I feel a chill come over me as I answer.
Me: Oh my goodness, hi!
Him: Thao! It’s me, Luan!
Me: What the hell, man?! How are you?! To what do I owe this pleasure of hearing from you? (I am purposely trying to not make it awkward even though my mind is racing and nerves are firing rapidly).
Him: Do you want the truth or you want me to lie to you? Hahaha
Me: Oh come on man, you better tell me the truth!
Him: I was clearing out contacts on my phone, so I wanted to call you to make sure you were still at this number. So you’re still at this number. That’s great!
Me: Ahhh ok! Well yes, I still have this number. But I HAVE TO TELL YOU SOMETHING, PLEASE. Do you have time for a chat?
Him: Yeah, what’s up?
I proceed to tell him about everything I experienced this morning and that I thought of him but didn’t call for the reasons I stated earlier. He was stunned. He confessed that he was listening to the hearings earlier in the day, and for a moment, he thought of me and what I told him and how he felt bad for what I had been through. He didn’t think to call me, but when he cleaned out his contacts on his phone and came across my entry, he was going to call to make sure it was still my number. He said he was not going to mention that he thought of me when he was listening to the Senate hearing. He didn’t want to make it awkward for me.
So here we are, thinking of each other while Dr. Ford is telling her story. But neither of us had planned to mention to the other, “Hey, I thought about you because of this hearing and because sexual assault is at the center of it all.” We had planned to stay silent. But the connection of our thoughts brought us together in this moment. He asked if I was ok. He didn’t want the experience now to conjure up the past and damage me or bring me down. I told him I’m ok. I thanked him for being my friend, for listening to me, and for believing me 15 years ago. I told him I wanted to write about what happened then and what happened today, but I wasn’t sure. He encouraged me to write about it all. He wanted me to use his name and not keep him anonymous. I am so grateful for his friendship.
And now, I am not as afraid anymore. I still feel reserved about sharing this. But I am telling this with less anxiety about what someone may think of me, or if someone will judge me. I didn’t tell then because I am not the same person that I am now. I was not in the same situation as I am in now. Our society was different then than it is now… or is it? I was 17 years old when Anita Hill had her experience televised. I read that it was very similar to Ford’s. Some of the politicians that were part of Hill’s testimony are part of Ford’s – 27 years apart! I realize that if Kavanaugh is confirmed, then not much has changed. As a survivor, of numerous instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault, it is extremely painful to reflect on what these other women have endured. I can never thank them enough for their courage. Their experiences helped me confront, process, and come to terms with my own experiences of sexual violence. I still have a ways to go in dealing with other traumatic experiences, but I am now armed with more courage than I had before the events that transpired today. These courageous women are directly helping me to shift into Drive gear, put my foot down, and gas this writing project forward.