At 22, I turned down my boyfriend’s offer of a gun. The cop, who responded to the 911 call when my stalker broke into the house and stole my leotard, panties, hairbrush, and ballet slippers, insisted a gun could make things worse. That I’d probably hesitate at an intruder’s sob story and he’d wrest the gun away from me.
I was no stranger to men wanting to get in without permission: in my home, my car, my head, my mouth, my pants. I’ve lived a life punctuated by more than my share of abuse, assault, and an endless lineup of groping, threatening men in social settings and the workplace. Even in high school, a boy set a contact explosive on my locker when I refused to date him.
In the end, I refused the offer of weaponry because I’d been convincing myself that my quick mind, snappy tongue, my balled fists and fleet feet were all the protection I needed. This grew, in part from a defining moment during my early twenties while traveling solo for a year in Europe. I was hurrying from the restroom to a beer hall at the Munich Oktoberfest, where my new travelling companions waited. Skirting other beer lovers over the cobbled road, two cute tall, blond guys walked toward me, smiling big. I smiled back. They parted and let me pass between them. I was working out how to say bread-and-butter in German when they each grabbed one of my arms and carried me into the dark behind an empty tent where they tore at my clothes. For ten seconds, I froze, terrified, until my body surged with a startling, explosive rage born of the times I’d been molested, raped, humiliated, frightened; all the times I’d been cowed, too afraid to fight back. Blood surged through my veins, pounded in my head. I became a convulsion of screaming, kicking, biting, scratching, punching. My ferocity shocked them.
Sheit! one cursed and dropped me; Misstück! (bitch) the other hissed as they fled. Unsteadily, I returned to my friends, my shock slowly giving way to a shaky triumph. I took this victory as proof that I could protect myself. I vowed to stay on guard, believing that if I never let fear best me, I could keep safe.
I come from good guys. A large family with a loving father and brothers. I love men and told myself that I just had to be smart and keep a close watch out for the bad ones. I learned to never walk at night without tracking who was ahead and behind me, my keys laced outward through my fingers. I stopped making eye contact with strangers. Years went by without another attack or rape, and for many years, I operated under an ignorant confidence in my ability to keep myself safe. A confidence intensified when I became a mother and was filled with a primal instinct to protect. When a man threatened or frightened me or someone I loved, I would freeze for few seconds, until my fear downshifted, remembering my past in a singular fury, assaulted for daring to move freely through the world as a female. My caution and fury felt like a super power, like the mother who lifts a car off her trapped child.
Decades later, when Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape sent shivers down the spine of America’s women, I began to relive terrifying memories, the ones I’d tried to forget so they could no longer hurt me, the ones I believed I’d locked up tight and put away for good. Things I never told a soul. Not my parents, my siblings, not my therapist. Not even my husband.
At a writing residency on Whidbey Island in the state of Washington, just weeks after the tape’s release, I lingered after dinner with six women around Hedgebrook’s farmhouse table, trying to make sense of a presidential candidate who bragged that he “grabs ’em by the pussy.” That night, we shared our own troubled stories of harassment, violence, abuse. All but one of us had been raped or assaulted at some point in her life. I was shocked and saddened by the universality of these experiences, and the revelation that most of us had never shared our story with anyone. Later that night, walking back to my cabin, my flashlight bouncing through the dark woods, I heard a crashing through the bushes, felt the presence of someone following. My brain reasoned that it was only a coyote, perhaps a dog, but a voice deep inside warned it was a man.
Back in my cottage, I locked the door, pulled the curtains tight, sure that someone was watching with evil intent, though my inner tough girl clicked her tongue at my paranoia. I woke at 2:00 a.m. in a sweat, screaming, with clenched and aching hands, my heart beating so hard I feared it could break my ribs. It would be the first of a year of torturous nightmares. Reliving past attacks. Several times, I woke in a semiconscious state, paralyzed with fear, certain that someone—not my husband—was in bed with me. In the following months, my sweet husband woke me out of many frightful dreams, himself jolted awake by my thrashing as I relived memories, memories I thought I’d left buried in my past, things I’d never told him. Alone, in hotels, traveling on business, my nightmares worsened. One night, I woke, standing in the middle of a DC hotel room, my pajamas sweaty and ripped to shreds. Was this a kind of PTSD?
After months of nights like this, as I slowly began to share the incidents inspiring my nightmares, my husband urged me to go back to the therapist I’d seen years before. And there, for the first time, I spoke of all the things I’d once hastily brushed aside, things she’d previously urged me were important to talk about, but I’d insisted would be a waste of time because they no longer held power over me. In truth, I don’t think I could allow those traumas to take up any more of my life or my mental real estate. It was my misguided way of refusing these men and their assaults, in a way I hadn’t been able to as a child, a teenager, a young woman, nor in my professional life.
As I allowed myself to remember, I came to understand that spending my childhood and adulthood on alert, prepared for attack, had forced me to live on edge. By refusing to accept the power these abuses held over me, my body poised for fight, I’d internalized the trauma.
I tried to understand my reticence to admit the things that happened. There is, of course, the relentless, inescapable shame. And, growing up in a large family, one learns to be tough, self-reliant. Deal with it. My mother and I had polio when she was pregnant with me. The doctors didn’t think we’d live. Perhaps the polio is why I’m smaller than my sibs, why I was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other. A disparity my mother noticed when I began to walk. She took me to doctors who had her undress me, who watched me walk. “Don’t worry,” they told her with great amusement. “She’ll have a cute wiggle when she grows up.” Even as a toddler, my body was regarded only in terms of how it would appeal to men rather than how it would serve me through my life.
I rarely have nightmares now. Therapy, my husband’s loving support, bodywork, and sisters have helped me change. I am healing in surprising new ways and move with more ease now. My shoulders sit lower on my frame, my neck is no longer plagued with tension and pain. But this change comes at a cost. I no longer believe myself invincible and for the first time, feel vulnerable in ways I’ve never allowed myself to feel.
Perhaps I would never have understood the full impact of my past, its physical and emotional costs, if it weren’t for Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, and the subsequent #MeToo Movement. You might even say Trump’s words inspired a deeper understanding of myself, which has led to an unexpected and welcome healing.
So I’m going to surprise myself and say, Thank you, Donald Trump.
2 Replies to “Donald Trump, Thank You?”
Teresa Gunther’s courageous essay serves as both a beacon for women seeking recovery and as a wake-up call for men. From the callousness of Trump to the insensitivity of Biden, there is no excuse for such behavior. All men should continue to reevaluate how the subtlest or well-intended of actions or words can be interpreted as intimidation or exacerbation of the pain caused by a previous trauma. Thank you, Teresa, for shining light on such a dark topic.
What a piece, and what a journey. Thanks for having the honesty and courage to share it. I was talking with my son on a drive back to his college today about how the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings affected me and many other women who have suffered through abuse. Of course, Trump’s pussy remark came first. I was also explaining that many progressive people have said over the years that it would need to get a lot worse before it could get better politically/socially, and that we are living that “a lot worse” right now. He and my daughter have both said recently that they see no reason to have kids given the state of the earth, and that they don’t expect the earth to be inhabitable when they are my age.I am trying to show them how powerful they can be in working to change that, but it is a process. Your story reminded me of the dream I just had on Mother’s Day morning about Trump. I was in an elevator with about 6 other people. Trump was in front, buck naked, facing the door and playing with himself. I questioned what he was doing and he was instantly in full dress and questioned my/our claim that he was naked. The emperor has no clothes, he is playing with himself, and he is insisting that you are making it up — It has definitely reached “a lot worse.” Again, thank you, and I am very glad you are healing. It is a life long process.
It takes incredible courage to write about your own life, and then give the world a window into your personal experience, where you are vulnerable to interpretation and judgement by people who did not live your life, and look at the world through their own lens of experience. But those of us who read, and who do so for insight to a broader understanding of our fellow humans, benefit from that courage. And having done so I have even more admiration for the strength with which you have navigated through life, strength I hope our daughters will never need to express against the obstacles of misogyny, but which still seem present today. Thank you.
This is an amazing essay: stunning, heart wrenching, home-hitting (watching Trump loom over Hillary in that second debate, my back seized up and I sunk to the floor with spasms that lasted two weeks)… and absolutely beautifully written. Congratulations. Thank you.
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