Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court delivered a message to all women in America, a message I had received long ago from my own family—even if you tell, even if we believe you, even if we care, we will do nothing.
As the midterm elections loom before us, my biggest hope is that when we head to the polls, women across America will deliver a message of our own. We have a voice, and we will do something even if you don’t.
A year ago, as I was writing a memoir about my college years, a painful memory resurfaced. I wrote about it in passing (a few sentences) and moved on because I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to relive that moment. After reading the manuscript, in her editorial letter, my editor wrote: Please review casual mention of rape. This needs to be fully explained. What happened? It was rape. How has it affected you after you realized what happened?
I wasn’t ready to answer her questions. I wasn’t ready to “fully” explain anything. So I took the easy way out and deleted the memory from the book. I had too many traumatic moments to write about, and I didn’t have the strength or courage to write about this one. I was carrying around so many labels that had deeply affected the way I saw myself, that the last thing I wanted was to add another label: border crosser, “illegal alien,” daughter of an alcoholic, child abuse victim, disadvantaged inner-city youth, working-class Latina, first-gen student.
And also rape victim? No, I couldn’t be that, too.
After watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s courageous testimony recounting her memory of being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh, I thought about my editor’s questions from a year ago. “I am terrified,” Dr. Ford said in her opening statement. Her words echoed the same terror I had felt when I received my editor’s note asking me to fully explain.
At Kavanaugh’s confirmation, as I watched President Trump apologize, on behalf of the nation, on my behalf, to Kavanaugh for “the terrible pain” he’d had to endure, his blatant display of himpathy revived those painful experiences I hadn’t wanted to write about. I was reminded of the profound way I had been affected by my grandmother and father’s reactions, so similar to Trump and his supporters.
It began when I was a child, growing up in poverty in Mexico. My father was working in the U.S., my mother had run off with a lucha libre wrester to Acapulco, and my siblings and I were living with my grandmother and uncle.
“Un peso por un beso,” my uncle said to me one day. A coin for a kiss. I was seven years old, and I stared at that coin, thinking about the candy I could buy with it. My grandmother was too poor to buy us food, let alone treats. “What’s a little kiss compared to what you can buy with this?” He said, his breath reeked of alcohol. I looked at the coin, the way it sparkled under the light.
My older sister, Mago, arrived, and my uncle retreated back to his hammock where he slept and liked to read dime novels with pictures of women with big chichis and butt cheeks the size of watermelons. He stuck his hand down his pants and played with himself. We lived in a shack with no interior walls, but he didn’t care that we could see him.
“Pobrecito,” my grandmother said whenever my sister and I complained about our uncle. “Your poor tío doesn’t know what he’s doing. Just ignore him and have pity for him,” she advised. “He’s endured so much.”
According to family lore, when he was eighteen, a woman gave my uncle a love potion made with jimson weed and menstrual blood. He stumbled home raving mad, suffering from hallucinations. He didn’t fall in love. He lost his mind, his life was ruined. And now I was to pity him and ignore his indiscretions because of what he’d suffered.
After refusing to take the coins he had offered me in exchange for kisses, he stopped offering them to me. He would simply pull me to him and slobber all over my mouth. I stopped telling my grandmother. She believed me, and she loved me, but she was blinded by her pity for him. My grandmother was everything to me, and I never judged her behavior.
A few years later, I went to live in Los Angeles with my father, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years. An extended family member —whom I will call Paco — moved in with us. I was standing by the fridge one day, looking for a snack, when Paco walked into the kitchen and passed behind me to get a glass of water. His hand slid across my butt so lightly, I thought I had imagined it. After several of these instances, I knew I wasn’t imagining anything, especially since my sister was experiencing the same thing. Unlike Dr. Ford who didn’t tell her parents about what had happened to her, my sister and I did tell our father. He said, “Pobrecito, Paco, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. We should feel sorry for him.” Just like my grandmother, my father believed us, but he chose to do nothing.
When Paco became bolder, my sister and I were to pity him and put up with him groping and pinching our butts because when he was a little boy, he had been run over by a car. He suffered some brain damage and his vision was poor. “He’s had a tough life,” my father said. “I feel bad for him.”
One day, when I was leaving for school, Paco held the door open for me. As I was walking down the stairs, he said, “Hey, Reyna.” I turned around to see what he wanted. His penis was dangling out in the open, and he began to stroke it as I watched in horror. I turned around and ran down the street to the safety of my high school’s walls. I haven’t been able to get that image out of my head since. I didn’t tell my father. By then I had learned that there was no point in saying anything. I knew what he would say, “I believe you, but let’s pity him.” I was made to believe that it was my duty to feel sorry for Paco for the terrible misfortune that had befallen him.
Five years later, when I was a university student, I was raped, and this time, I never told anyone.
It was summer of 1998, and my gay best friend and I had sublet a small house near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk where we both worked selling hot dogs and ice cream cones to pay for our college education. One night, Frankie and I invited our good friend “Joe” to hang out with us at our house. There was beer and I drank some, even though I can’t handle alcohol. But I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be accepted, so I drank. After a few beers, Frankie and Joe had to drag me to the bathroom to vomit in the toilet.
At some point in the night, I woke up in my bed and Joe was on top of me, inside me. I didn’t say anything. By then, I had been taught to stay silent. So I closed my eyes and passed out again.
I never confronted Joe about what he had done that night. Whatever anger I felt I directed it at myself, not him. I told myself I should have known better. I also tried to make excuses for Joe. He’s had a hard life. He didn’t know what he was doing, I said to myself, echoing the words of my grandmother and my father. Joe and I continued to be friends. Later, he got in trouble with the law for theft, and I found myself feeling more pity for him.
I tried to forget that moment. As the years passed, I never told anyone because I was ashamed—not about what happened, but how I reacted. There was no indignation, no rage, no demand for justice. Only a quiet acceptance.
Trump’s apology to Kavanaugh, the compassion that he and the GOP senators, and other men in America have shown him, and now watching him sit in the Supreme Court while Dr. Ford is being punished for speaking up: something has awakened in me. The realization that for all these years, I had been doing the same thing. I have felt bad for those men in my life who had assaulted me. I had more compassion for the perpetrators than I did for the victim—me.
If my grandmother and father were here, I would finally tell them that they were wrong to ask me to be quiet, to have compassion for men who did not deserve it, to apologize to them for their life’s suffering. In doing so, I was their accomplice.
This acknowledgement is my first step in telling my younger myself —and all women who’ve suffered from sexual assault— to not listen to the message being given to us from the people who are supposed to protect us.
Do not stay silent.
Do not let your body be offered up as an apology.
Do not have compassion for those who hurt you.
Even if you live in a country whose government chooses to do nothing, you can do something.
Go and vote. Speak your truth and say it loud.
Reyna Grande is the award-winnIng author of Across a Hundred Mountains (2006), Dancing with Butterflies (2009), The Distance Between Us (2012), and A Dream Called Home (2018). She tweets from @reynagrande.