In 1969, during my summer break from college, I worked in Manhattan for a temp agency. As a Kelly Girl, I went on short-term gigs, but by July, I had a steady job as a receptionist at a prestigious Madison Avenue law firm. I sat behind a massive mahogany desk, greeted employees and clients with my best 100-watt smile and answered the firm’s telephones with a cheerful voice.
I wasn’t as happy as I seemed. In fact, I was bored out of my mind. So when one of the partners, whom I’ll call Paul, asked whether I might like to join him for dinner at the 21 Club, I didn’t skip a beat. Paul was a powerful enough figure in New York’s political scene to socialize with Governor Nelson Rockefeller. And Paul had his own limo and driver.
“Sure,” I said, flashing my best receptionist’s smile. Born and raised in working-class Queens, I’d heard about the midtown restaurant where celebrities and power brokers dined, but I never thought I’d walk through the door, escorted by a power broker who seemed to see something in me.
It’s not as if Paul’s invitation had come out of the blue. I considered this guy — with his big belly and bald pate — to be a fatherly figure, maybe even a mentor. Sometimes he lingered by my desk showing off wallet pictures of his kids, including a daughter who, like me, was 19, or talking (without naming names) about a legal case. I was flattered to be treated as a confidante. After all, I was only the receptionist.
“When?” I asked him.
“How about tonight?” he said. “I’ll pick you up downstairs in front of the building.”
I made a quick call to my boyfriend. “Order something really pricey,” I remember he suggested. We had a good laugh. My mind drifted to a juicy steak.
At the end of the day, Paul met me in front of the building and ushered me into his limousine. In those days, there was no plexiglass divider between driver and passenger, and I can still recall the banter. He introduced me to his chauffeur, Joe. “This is one terrific gal,” he said. “Really on the ball.”
We pulled up in front of the 21 Club and I eyed the iconic iron jockeys standing sentry. I felt lucky to be there. But that’s all I remember about the restaurant. I have no recollection of its interior, what we talked about or the food we ate. I don’t even remember whether I ordered a drink, but if I did, it would have been one glass of wine. But there’s one memory that has haunted me for nearly five decades.
As soon as we were back in the limo, my companion leaned forward and whispered something in his chauffeur’s ear. Suddenly, the car swerved around and instead of driving uptown to where I lived, we were now speeding down FDR Drive. Panic set in as I looked out the window at the pitch sky. “It’s the wrong way!” I shouted, my heart pounding.
A few minutes later, we were parked underneath a deserted overpass. I had the strong sense that this was a well-visited destination for the driver and Paul. Frantically, I tried to open my door but instead heard the click of the locks. Paul didn’t hesitate. He strong-armed me so that I was supine, he pinned down my flailing fists with one of his fleshy hands and, with the other, he unzipped and reached into his pants. I remember screaming, “No! Stop!” again and again, and pleading to Joe for help. “Shut up, whore,” Paul growled, and he shoved himself inside me with a violence that I will never forget. Two minutes later, an eternity as his prisoner, it was over. We were both sitting up. I couldn’t stop sobbing. “I wouldn’t say anything if I were you,” he warned.
That night at home, I showered and dragged myself into bed. The next day, I was back behind the mahogany desk. When Paul walked in, he offered his usual “Good morning,” as if nothing had happened. And that’s how I continued my life from that day forward — as if nothing had happened.
How could I have remained silent? First, there was the skin-crawling shame of being so naive, foolishly believing Paul had really wanted to spend time with me. And I was terrified. My rapist had power. His warning to keep quiet was clearly a threat. Anyway, if it ever came to “He said, she said,” who would side with me? Certainly not his driver.
I also knew that women who spoke up about rape were routinely blamed for bringing it on themselves, because of what they wore, said or drank, or because of their sexual history. The victims were further victimized. For all these reasons, I buried what had happened.
But when the #MeToo movement roared into our lives last year, with its tsunami of outrage, the memory of my own rape rushed to the forefront of my consciousness. I finally felt the visceral fury that I hadn’t allowed myself to experience for nearly 50 years. Fury at my attacker, mostly, but also disappointment in myself for letting him get away with it. Even more surprising to me, I began talking about the attack. First I told my best friend, then the man I was seeing, and before long I was chiming in when others shared their stories of abuse.
About a month ago, while changing from leggings back to jeans at my yoga studio, I overheard several younger women discussing the latest sexual harassment revelation. I felt compelled to share my story, and when I was through speaking, the young women offered their shock and sympathy. But a woman my own age became angry — and her anger was directed at me.
“What did you expect would happen?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
I heard the younger women gasp.
“Well, not to be raped!” I shot back and walked out.
After the sting of this encounter wore off during my long walk home, I was able to admit to myself that I understood her reaction. For women of my generation, the sexual topography was littered with land mines. When we were in our late teens and early 20s, both the feminist movement and the sexual revolution exploded around us. It was taken for granted that men could, and would, exercise their will over women, while we women were expected to use our newly unleashed sexuality to maneuver in the world. Sexuality was our power, our ammunition for liberation.
At work we overlooked the unwanted pat on the rear, the sexualized comments, even the more aggressive physical contact. Some women felt emboldened to flirt with their bosses or initiate affairs. Sometimes it was to gain control; other times it was just to prove you weren’t “uptight.”
We talked a good game about sisterhood back then. Yet many of us treated our “sisters” as competitors, not allies. Or we stood in judgment of how other women expressed their sexuality. I’ll cop to it. In those days, I was capable of making snide remarks if a woman came to work wearing a revealing outfit, or of taking bets that a coworker “slept her way to the top.”
The reaction in January to a young woman who went on a date with comedian Aziz Ansari and then participated in a tell-all for the website Babe illustrates the generational divide. Younger people tended to think the woman had every right to call Ansari out for repeatedly trying to change her mind about having sex, whereas women over 50 tended to take the attitude, “Honey, if you weren’t interested, you should have just left his apartment!”
When fashion designer Donna Karan — who ironically helped to popularize plunging necklines — was asked on a red carpet about the sexual-misconduct accusations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, she said that women who dress provocatively are “asking for trouble.” (She has apologized profusely for this comment.)
I certainly don’t agree with Karan’s comment, but I understand our generation’s complicated response to the #MeToo movement. To be honest, I might still roll my eyes if someone makes a big deal over a sexist joke, but I’m clear that it’s never OK to blame the victim of a sexual assault, no matter what she was wearing. I’m impressed that the younger generation calls out harassment and doesn’t fault women for male misconduct. Today’s young women are proving sisterhood really is powerful, and I respectfully join them, in solidarity and gratitude.
With their revelations and accusations, they’ve blasted open the space and given me a forum to work through my buried anger. The rawness of my almost 50-year-old rage diminishes each time I give voice to my story. No, I’ll probably never forgive my attacker. But now I can look back at that young woman sitting behind the big desk and love her innocence and her desire to be in the world without having to feel responsibility or shame over what happened. I can finally understand her — and forgive her.