A guest post by Gayle Brandeis
My hair was raped when I was a sophomore at the University of Redlands.
It was finals week, and I needed a study break, so I decided to go to a movie in San Bernardino, CA, about 5 miles away. I often went to movies alone—it was a welcome break from academia, from the exciting but sometimes confusing bustle of campus life. I chose a 10pm showing of Crazy Moon, a movie in which Kiefer Sutherland falls in love with an irrepressible deaf girl. The story appeared to be all about expanding our idea of who we are and what we’re capable of. It seemed like a good choice during a time when I was feeling overwhelmed.
The theater was empty. I picked a seat right in the center, and settled in for what I thought would be a relaxing couple of hours. After the film started, someone sat down directly behind me. This seemed strange, given the fact that every seat in the place was available—why sit right behind someone who might obstruct your view of the screen? I pushed aside my concerns, though; the person was probably lonely, I told myself. He probably just wanted to feel close to another human being.
A couple of minutes later, I started to feel little tugs on my hair. The pulling was so subtle, I thought that some of my ponytail must have been caught between myself and the chair. I freed my ponytail so it could hang down along the back of the chair. Suddenly, my entire head snapped back—a sharp, violent, yank. I had no idea what had happened at first, but I could turn my neck enough to see that the man was standing behind me, his pants unzipped, his erection deep inside my ponytail. I couldn’t see his face; I could only see him from his waist down. He jerked my hair, my head, up and down over himself. I could hear his breath quicken. My own breath seemed to have stopped.
Aside from the forced movement of my head, I was frozen. Finally, I got my wits back and was able to crank myself away and rip my hair out of his hand, away from his body. I ran out of the theater, my legs wobbly. I didn’t think to say anything to the manager; I just wanted to get back to my dorm. I don’t remember the drive at all; I’m sure I fell back on muscle memory as the streetlights streamed around me. I had to climb through the window into the lobby because I had forgotten my front door key.
It was not a graceful entrance; I was so shaky, I tumbled to the ground in a limp-limbed heap. A friend who witnessed the whole thing started to laugh until she saw how upset I was. After I told her what had happened, she led me up to my room and insisted I call the police while she called the movie theater on another phone.
I sat on the floor of my dorm room, still trembling, and dialed up the San Bernardino police station. They wouldn’t take a report. “You don’t want your name attached to a masturbation crime,” the officer said. “A nice young girl like you.” I tried to convince him that yes, I did want to file a report, but he wouldn’t hear it. I eventually gave up. My friend came in the room and told me that she spoken to the manager. The guy had already left the theater, she said. The manager wouldn’t do anything to find him. I felt a swell of shame and regret. Why hadn’t I moved when the guy sat behind me? Why hadn’t I told anyone at the theater right when it had happened? Why hadn’t I pushed harder to file a report? I crouched, crying, in the shower for a long, long time and tried to shampoo every trace of the man’s body away. I considered chopping off all my hair, but didn’t want to give the creep that victory. I decided that even if I hadn’t used my voice to catch him, I would keep my hair as a sign that he hadn’t taken all of my power away.
I look back at my 19 year old self and feel proud of myself for not cutting my hair, but sad that I didn’t feel I could fully speak up for myself, sad that I blamed myself. I feel sad that a few years earlier, I hadn’t felt I could say no when my driving instructor asked me to lick his finger before he wiped something off my eye, hadn’t felt as if I could tell my parents or the driving school about it because I was too embarrassed. As traumatic as those experiences were, though, I feel lucky that I haven’t experienced a worse violation. A large portion of the women I know have. And a large portion of them never told anyone until years after the fact.
So much of my work as an adult has been to help others break their silences, to help women reclaim a sense of ownership of their bodies as well as their voices. I think that’s partially why I chose to write about a woman forced into prostitution in my novel, The Book of Dead Birds, why I work for CODEPINK, a women’s peace organization, now. I don’t want women to be afraid to tell their darkest stories. I want to make the world a safer place for women everywhere. I want any woman to be able to go to a movie alone at 10 at night (or, in places like Afghanistan, to go out on the street alone during the day). And I want any woman to feel that if something awful does happen, she can share her story and people—including officers of the law—will listen respectfully and give her the support she deserves. Of course the world doesn’t always work that way, but as more of us speak up and educate each other and demand justice, we’ll create an even safer world for our daughters and their daughters.
–Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and two novels–The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and her latest, Self Storage. Gayle was named a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine; she is a founding member of the Women Creating Peace Collective and writes the weekly national action alert for CODEPINK: Women for Peace.