This week, journalist and author Rebecca Traister wrote a powerful piece in New York magazine about this moment in women's history: "The anger window is open." Women who have suppressed memories of their harassment or assault, who have consigned their anger to a box under some old blankets in the backs of their minds, have found the courage to peel those boxes open. And yet, as Ms. Traister also notes, "You can feel the backlash brewing."
I feel it, too. The anger window being slowly pushed closed. Haven't we heard enough already? Aren't predatory men being thoroughly punished? Haven't they lost enough movie deals/plum roles/stock options/other rewards they took as a birthright? Do we really have to look at the dark side of our liberal totems, Louis C.K. and Al Franken? Do we really have to absorb more women's pain? Can we just shut the window? It's getting cold in here.
In a just world, the conversation would only be beginning. It's been several weeks since the stories broke about Harvey Weinstein's appalling behaviour, which set off a cascade of confessions from women (and men) who had suffered abuse in a wide array of professions. But you know what? Those women had been living alone with their pain for years, and decades. They have been, until this moment, ignored, pushed out, ostracized, and left to deal with their trauma alone. As actress Daryl Hannah said in a New Yorker article about the consequences of rejecting Mr. Weinstein's advances, "We are more than not believed – we are berated and criticized and blamed."
Like Ms. Traister, I've heard from dozens of women who wanted to share their stories – not necessarily with their names attached, or their harasser's, but just because they want to be unburdened for a moment. So before we decide to close the window, and return to the comfortable temperature where lizards hide happily under rocks, I'd like to share some of the broader lessons I've learned:
- Time does not heal all wounds: Some of the women I heard from are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The pain they carried through the years is palpable. In many cases, they knew what was happening to them was wrong, even if the culture at the time was more accepting of predatory behaviour. Often they told no one. They felt shame for not speaking up or acting. Sometimes that shame has been corrosive though the years and, in other cases, women have pushed it aside. But no one has forgotten. As one woman wrote about incidents that have long passed, “Why do they still have such an impact so many years later?”
- Workplace allies are hard to find: Ideally, from this moment on, we’ll be living in a femtopia where all complaints of harassment are taken seriously and investigated. This has not been the experience of the women I’ve heard from, who talk about the repercussions of bringing a complaint of harassment: It leads to them being ignored by their managers and union representatives, cold-shouldered by colleagues, and bullied by human-resources departments. They have to hire lawyers they can’t afford. In many cases, they just leave their jobs, because it’s easier that way, even if it leaves them high and dry with no job and no reference, often while they have children to support.
Their complaints were echoed this week in the experience of Sgt. Vicky-Lynn Cox, who suffers post traumatic stress disorder and will likely be medically discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces in May, more than two years after making complaints of harassment to her superiors. As she told CBC's The Current, nothing has happened to the men she complained about, and the support that the Armed Forces pledged as part of its reform mandate is nowhere to be found. "It was promised to us in February, 2016, … and up to now I haven't seen it." Sgt. Cox told the CBC she hadn't "slept soundly" for 20 years after the harassment began.
- The pain is physical and mental: Insomnia, relationships falling apart, addiction, breakdowns – these are some of the worst after-effects for women. “I was broken, I couldn’t even lift my head,” said one woman who had been subjected to a long campaign of harassment (her complaint finally led to her boss’s removal, and she also left the organization). To cope with the abuse at work, she started drinking too much and stopped exercising. “I was angry,” she said. “I was good at my job. I loved my job. Why should I be the one who had to leave?”
Another woman told me that after she had been involved in a long-drawn-out battle with her employer, which she ultimately lost, her hair started to fall out. She lost the ability to trust men. She suffered anxiety and depression, which is a common thread in many of these women's experiences.
If you find yourself inclined to ask, "Why didn't they come out before?" or "Why do they want to remain anonymous?" please read the column again. Please feel free to Google "sexual harassment repercussions." Please ask a woman you know if she has anything she'd like to share. And, in the few minutes left before we go back to worrying about that guy in Hollywood who can't afford a new Tesla, spare a minute for these women, living alone with their wounds.
Let's keep the window open, shall we? It's cleansing.