Updated: Apr 23, 2022
Was it the misogyny, or what I didn’t do that nags me decades later?
Boys will be boys. Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay
My French uncle’s comment still drives my aging brain into woulda-shoulda-coulda mode.
It was what I didn’t do to get back at my cousin, and teach my lackadaisical uncle and aunt a lesson.
I’m still kinda pissed, forty years later.
“Dat’s what you get for playing weet boys!”
I have enough to be neurotic about without adding the Fireworks Stunt to my existential angst.
I began pondering the crazy mini-traumas lodged in our brains after reading a writer’s tale of sexual harassment on the school bus.
Her debut into the sexist world for her tween-age self still bothered her twelve or thirteen years later.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how little events can mark us for life, when we often move on from the larger, more serious ones.
What’s done to us by others is what sticks far more than ‘shit happens’. Studies after Hurricane Katrina found survivors were more traumatized by the government’s half-assed heckuva-job-Brownie response than by the hurricane itself.
Hurricanes gonna hurricane, but government officials make choices.
Getting groped by a schoolboy, not knowing what to do about it, or how to make him stop, still stuck in the writer’s craw. I wondered if she’s tormenting herself with the woulda-coulda-shoulda years later, as an adult, thinking now what she should have done?
I can relate. Forty years later, it’s glaringly obvious I should have taken my cousin’s knife. Or hidden it really well.
Ona hot July night my cousin played with my brother and some of the neighborhood boys in the yard. My cousin was the oldest, about 17, and the others were a little younger — my brother was twelve, the other kids in between. I went down to the basement via the outside entrance.
The basement doors slammed shut and locked. I was enveloped in darkness. “Let me out!” I demanded, and of course they didn’t. Boys!
“Come on you guys, cut it out!” I yelled, but they laughed. Exasperated, I groped for a broom I’d seen next to the fridge. My uncle and aunt were upstairs, directly beneath me. I pounded on the basement roof to get their attention.
After a minute or so, they failed to show up. What the hell, had they fallen asleep up there? It was early evening, right after dinner.
“Hey, let’s get a firecracker!” my cousin suggested.
Was he out of his mind???
The others exploded with excitement. He wasn’t serious, was he? Were they really going to throw a firecracker down here? Don’t they understand how dangerous that is?
Boys don’t think, or if they do they don’t care.
They opened the door, tossed a lit firecracker down, and slammed it shut. I felt held hostage. I knew the most important parts of me to protect. I shut my eyes, turned away, and plugged my ears.
The firecracker exploded, as did the boys. How hilarious! They locked The Girl in the basement! Would it have been even funnier if they’d blown a hole in my leg? If I’d been rushed to the hospital with a flesh wound? What if I hadn’t had the forethought to protect my ears and eyes? How funny would it have been then?
The adults didn’t take it any more seriously than the hormone-addled morons.
I ran upstairs to my aunt and uncle, placidly reading on the couch.
“Where the hell were you?” I demanded. “Didn’t you hear me pounding on the basement roof?”
“Oh, is that what that was?” my aunt replied, regarding me over her half-moon reading glasses. “We wondered where the noise was coming from.”
I exploded. I named my cousin, their son, as the ringleader and instigator.
My French uncle’s reaction? He laughed.
“Well, dat’s what you get for playing weet boys!”
“I WASN’T PLAYING WITH THEM!” I yelled. “I went downstairs to get a soda! And even if I had been, it doesn’t matter, what they did was dangerous! Don’t you understand? I could have been blinded, my hearing could have been damaged, it could have hurt my leg!”
They laughed the whole thing off and told me to forget about it. My cousin didn’t get in trouble.
I’ll take his knife, I thought.
The Family Shuffle to accommodate our visit left me in my cousin’s bedroom, who moved upstairs to share bunk beds with my brother in the furnished attic. We’d celebrated my cousin’s birthday a few days previously, and he’d gotten some special knife he’d really wanted. I forget what was so awesome about it. Probably it was some sort of Swiss army knife.
It was on his dresser. I decided to take it home to Ohio and call him to say I’d bring it back next year.
Maybe that would teach him a lesson.
But as I thought about it, the more I considered this would backfire on me with the unsupportive adults.
When I told my parents about it, implicating my brother but still holding my cousin primarily responsible, they were sympathetic and my brother got scolded, but they wouldn’t confront my uncle and aunt about my cousin. My mother didn’t think it was her place, as the in-law. My father looked up to my aunt, who’d been a bit older and sort of a second mother to him, and he would never stand up to her.
My parents’ wimpiness didn’t help. But what really bothered me was my uncle’s comment.
“Dat’s what you get for playing weet boys!”
We didn’t talk about misogyny and male privilege back then. We accepted oh, ha ha, boys will be boys. Society didn’t yet recognize toxic masculinity starts early, accompanied by sexual harassment. No one yet realized tolerating sexist behavior in children often cements male entitlement for life.
Girls were expected to grin and bear it, get over it and move on.
I sat on my cousin’s bed, still burning with righteous anger over the lack of empathy and concern for my safety. This wasn’t a silly, annoying boyish prank; my cousin should have been punished for putting me in danger. I kept thinking about my sight, my hearing, the permanent scar on my leg I might have gotten.
A lifetime of summer vacations with my misogynist cousin acting like a little dick flooded back.
Like not allowing me into his treehouse because it’s ‘no girls allowed.’ My aunt argued with him but didn’t make him come down if he was going to act like that, and she was a girl.
“Why does she let him do this?” I asked my mother. I was only five or six at the time.
“Shouldn’t she tell him to let me come up too, or he has to come down?”
That’s exactly what my mother would have done. I knew it. But she wouldn’t say anything because it wasn’t her son.
Many times he and my brother ganged up on me because I was The Girl, and times we ganged up on my brother because he was The Kid. But my brother was never the little misogynist my spoiled cousin was.
I remembered all the times my cousin treated me like crap because I was a girl, and I resolved to confiscate his precious knife for a year.
But oh Darwin, the consequences. What would my parents do when they found out I’d taken it, even as I explained I didn’t want it for myself, I wanted to punish my cousin since no adults would?
Given neither of them had the balls or the labia to stand up to my aunt and uncle, I guessed their reaction would be to mail it back, and make me pay for it out of my allowance. I wasn’t sure how much shipping cost but I didn’t get much of an allowance anyway and I didn’t fancy being money-less for the rest of the summer, which would be all my cousin’s fault and yet another reason to dislike him.
I decided not to risk it. Maybe a better option was to hide it, and call him to say I’d tell him where it was when I felt like it.
I stuck it behind his bed near the dresser. I knew he’d find it before Christmas. It wasn’t much of a punishment but as my anger lessened, so did my resolve to make him pay for what he’d done.
The next morning, I decided I was over it and I put it back on his dresser.
The memory pops from time to time, I suspect because I want to help others, particularly women, become more assertive, take back their power, fight genuine misogyny, and ‘grow some labia’.
(Hey, we can’t ‘grow some balls’ like we tell men.)
Now, of course, if I could do it over again, I’d take the knife back to Ohio, hide it from my parents, call my cousin, and tell him he’ll see it next year. I’d talk serious turkey to my parents, make it clear they abrogated their responsibility not forcing my aunt and uncle to reckon with their reckless child, and if they insisted on mailing it back, they’d pay for it, not me. And if they punished me I’d dispose of it.
But I didn’t. I was sixteen, and a Good Girl, as they raised me to be. I didn’t have the forethought to plan things out further. To realize the better-laid plans of mice and wronged women emerged after sleeping on it.
I could have announced as we were leaving that I‘d taken his knife and he wasn’t getting it back until I got an apology. I could have thrown it into the bushes after receiving it and made him work a little for it.
What good does it do me now to think about what I should have done about a past I can’t change?
Here’s the funny part: My cousin turned out fine. He grew up, stopped being a dick, has a daughter from his first marriage and is married to a wonderful woman. He runs his own liquor store and he’s an expert on wine, how to cook with it, which one to pair with your meal, and he does it in a non-snobby, utterly engaged way. He believes in what he’s doing. He’s not some upper-class asshole trying to impress everyone with his tortured oenophile jargonbabble.
The 2000 White Zinfandel from De Carro Winery combines crude crack-cocaine essences with a voluptuous rose flavor. Pusillanimous without being too obfuscating .— Random Wine Review Generator, with a little addition from me
We never talked about it, and today I’m more inclined to beat myself up over beating myself up about it rather than for my non-response to the incident itself. It didn’t end badly, although in some alternate universe I may be wandering around half-blind, half-deaf with a permanent scar.
I can’t change the past, but I can change my relationship with it.
I guess it’s desire for closure. The feeling someone got away with something.
Why is it so important?
It’s an ego thing. He should have experienced consequences for what he did. He didn’t. It’s an unfair world.
Now I wonder: What consequences have I never experienced for something I did to another I’ve long since forgotten about, that the other party hasn’t?
Whose craw might I be sticking in? I can think of several likely candidates, and I’ve just identified one.
Digitizing my life last year I ran across something I’d completely forgotten about: A couple of essays detailing my freshman year in college. I was utterly appalled at the way I treated someone with a crush on me whose feelings I didn’t return. Long story, but I Googled to find the guy. I’d send him an apology, if I could find him. I did, but with multiple email addresses and I didn’t want to email random strangers with the same name. Then I wondered if it was even a good idea. What if I re-traumatized him?
I didn’t email him, but I still think about it. Some of those emails must still be active, especially his Gmail addresses. Gmail never dies, right?
I read another Medium story about a ‘hit and run’ apology someone made for abuse she dealt the writer many years ago in a so-called drug abuse rehabilitation program called Straight Inc.
Now I wonder if I’d be better off thinking about the wrong I’ve done to another, and others, rather than the one done to me.
This originally appeared on Medium in January 2021.