The Knife Man, the Monster and the Pen Pal

Last weekend, my friend Sharon Harrigan had an essay featured on The Rumpus titled “Stain.” In it, she describes a twisted encounter with a stranger during the innocuous act of walking her dog. At twelve years old, she was old enough to sense that something was off in his manner, his casual and cruel way of wrapping an arm around her and stalking her down the road. Even after he drew a knife, she didn’t cry for help. She froze. She was lucky—he let her go. Though, as she learned, the body can remain untouched in a crime against another person’s spirit.

In the years of confusion since, Harrigan probes the random act she kept as a secret:

It’s hard to remember why I was silent. Maybe, like some of the women only now reporting they were raped by Bill Cosby decades ago, I was afraid I wouldn’t be believed. Maybe I didn’t want people to tell me the world was too dangerous for girls to navigate alone. How many steps is it from not being able to walk your dog by yourself in the middle of the day to not being able to drive or go to school? How many parents would respond to a daughter’s being attacked by keeping her home? How many already do this by preemptively not allowing their daughters the same independence they give their sons?

Today in The Guardian, Roxane Gay summed up 2014 as “the year we stopped worshipping at the altar of monsters.” Like Harrigan, she cites the Bill Cosby revelations as a catalyst into a conversation that is (at last) becoming too boisterous to silence.

As his lawyers deny the many allegations, Bill Cosby, too, seems free to live out the rest of his life in coddled luxury, enabled by the same people who stood by silently while he allegedly committed acts of serial rape over decades. But the statute of limitations on silence, too, has expired. Because 2014 was the year we stopped worshipping at the altar of monsters. It was the year when we saw predators for who they really are, even if justice eludes them.

I have been thinking about this notion not only of monsters and rape, but of guilt and doubt. This entire convergence of powerful predators, victim-shaming journalism, battery and murder reveals the rampant rate of assault in the United States. In the wake of a violent, maddening year, Gay and Harrigan and numerous other voices are testaments to a pivot. We’re not letting these stories slip away, hushed by PR case managers or rape apologists.

But this conversation also reveals something more difficult to define, which is the way that casual sexism slowly diminishes women over time. A woman does not have to be physically assaulted to be questioned, doubted, scrutinized. There are plenty of opportunities for harassment to blame us for. As Harrigan feared, even though a rape did not occur and she made it home safe, the inquiries would have been painful. She may have been asked why she was out walking her dog by herself. Her clothes may have been called into question—how did she catch the attention of a creep?

Why are we in the wrong place? Why weren’t we being good? Why can’t we just behave instead of inviting trouble? These tiny questions of our character shovel together and avalanche over our self-esteem and our confidence.

When I was about the same age as Harrigan, ten or eleven years old, I was in love with whales. Whales were my heroes. Growing up on the shores of Puget Sound, they were practically backyard companions. School field trips were spent at aquariums and science centers, with special trips to the beach to touch starfish in tide pools. Be kind to the beach, our teachers stressed. Cut up soda can rings. Pick up litter. Honor the sanctity of the salmon and its mighty run.

On one of these school trips, a local marine foundation distributed copies of their Save the Whales kids newsletter. There were dates for beach cleanups, profiles on the killer whale pods, and on the back page, a pen pal connection classified. Find a fellow whale maniac to write to! I was so stoked that there were other kids around the area who were as jazzed about the ocean as I was. I wrote my own classified ad requesting a pen pal who loved whales and who would write back. After all, what’s worse than pouring your heart into a letter and never getting one in return? I sealed up my request and sent it off with the stamps my parents kept by the phone. I walked it down to the mailbox and raised the flag, like a grown-up. My dad was a mailman, so I was a natural at this. Then a few months passed, and I forgot about the whole thing.

Until one afternoon I came home from school, and I noticed something off with my mom. She wasn’t looking me in the eye when she picked me up from school. She’d converse with my sister but was avoiding me, answering questions with a curt “yes” or “no.” My stomach coiled; I knew I’d done something wrong. When my little sister dashed upstairs to start her homework, I lingered in the kitchen. “Are you mad at me?” I asked, dreading the answer.

Mom’s eyes darted to the side as she pursed her lips, silent. At last she shattered my dread, the quiet by sweeping her hand to the top of the fridge and plucking a hidden letter from above, from beyond my grasp. “This came in the mail today,” she said. It was hand-addressed to me, a response to my pen pal request. I don’t remember what it said, aside from an uncomfortable, condescending, overly familiar tone I could recognize as wrong. The way an adult is not supposed to talk to a kid. I knew intrinsically that this wasn’t another kid writing to me. It was an adult, and my guts tightened from a knot of anxiety to shame. By the time I read the last line I’ll never forget—don’t worry pretty girl, I’ll always write you back—my mother broke her silence with a barrage of questions. Why would a man send a letter to our house? Where was I giving my address out to? What had I done?

I didn’t see the letter again. Mom must have thrown it away, maybe before my father could see it. I promised I wouldn’t send mail she didn’t know about, I wouldn’t read any more issues of the marine biology newsletter. I prayed she wouldn’t bring it up again, that I wouldn’t have to relive the humiliation of having requested such sickening correspondence. For two decades, any time I heard the term “pen pal,” that ancient knot would seize with the embarrassment of inviting a predator into my mailbox. What was wrong with me? What did I think would happen?

My mom was right to be upset. I was right to be upset. But why weren’t we upset at the sick bastard trolling kids’ biology newsletters to prey on prepubescent girls? Or maybe some indignation toward a newsletter with a really terrible method of protecting the personal information of children? Why did I question my motivations when all I wanted was to reach out to other kids and make a friend? Instead of being another person’s issue, it became mine.

And I’m tired. I’m over carrying the blame for this misstep and so many others. I’m sick of feeling like someone else’s sin must be my secret.

So fuck that guy.

Fuck Sharon’s Knife Man.

Fuck Bill Cosby.

Fuck being afraid of reaching out.

Fuck being afraid of putting myself out there.

Fuck the guilt.

Speaking up has waited eons long enough. And there is a generation of women on our heels that can’t afford our silence. No predator deserves the asylum of a timid heart.

One thought on “The Knife Man, the Monster and the Pen Pal

  1. Lovely essay, Tabitha! You beautifully show how universal this is: we’ve all had creeps like your penpal in our lives, or almost all of us, and it’s time to stop being ashamed that we were targeted.

    Like

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