As a way of avoiding the news, I have been spending the past few weeks cleaning out my basement. It’s my least favorite room of the house, repository of everything that’s broken or unnecessary or depressing. Because my mother downsized and my father died, not only is the basement full of my stuff, there’s two generations’ worth of detritus down there, lurking.
The treadmill and the free weights live in the basement. The boxes of photos and receipts that filled my father’s storage unit are all there. Here’s a pair of cross-country skis, there’s a contract to option a book that never got adapted. Here’s something that looks important and electrical. What’s it for? No idea. There’s my divorce decree and a DVD player and the disassembled crib that I thought, for a few happy weeks a few years ago, that I might get to use again.
Basements are where we put the things we no longer want to look at but can’t let go of; the things we don’t need but can’t toss. I’ve been thinking about basements, real and metaphorical, as the past few weeks have unfolded in a cascade of revelations that began with Harvey Weinstein and shows no signs of stopping.
The #MeToo movement has sent pretty much every woman I know down the dusty stairs of her own interior basement to reckon with her own history. All of us have stories. Mine are pretty typical and, in the grand scheme of things, not that bad. There was that one high school teacher who kissed me and told me he loved me. Weird. The waiter at my first restaurant job, who’d back me into corners and grind against me. Also not great.
There were all of the guys, over all the years, who’ve said or yelled or whispered stuff while I was out in the world, buying groceries or waiting for a bus, but that’s just the background noise to every woman’s life, the price of being in a female body. Oh, and the writer at the weekly newspaper where I was an intern who would join me in the storage room when my hands were full of heavy bound back issues, swiping at my breasts as he reached across me. The worst part wasn’t the touching but the way he’d leer at me afterward. Now we have a secret, his look seemed to say. Now we have a pact. I’m going to keep doing this, and you’re going to keep not saying anything, because I am powerful and you are replaceable.
Those things happened. On the continuum of awful, they weren’t so bad. I haven’t spent every day of my life tormented by the memories. In fact, I’ve gone months, even years, without thinking about how that teacher’s beard felt against my face or the smell of that waiter’s breath as he panted in my ear. But those experiences, individually and collectively, sent a message. About my worth. About a woman’s place. It’s all been in the basement, there but not there. Nothing I want to look at, but like the 10-year-old tax returns and my ancient Macintosh Classic, nothing I can set out with the trash.
I’ve also known a lot of good men. In my 10 years working as a reporter and during the occasional stints in Hollywood, there have been men who hired me, supervised me and worked with me who were nothing but appropriate, kind and encouraging. So, with Thanksgiving upon us, when I started to think about that moment where we’d all sit around the table, giving thanks, and I began to wonder what I could sincerely be grateful for after this terrible, horrible, no good very bad year, my mind went to those guys. The coaches who didn’t grab or grope. The teachers who taught girls and didn’t target them. There are lots of good men, and I’m grateful.
Except now I have daughters. The older of the two is 14. That’s how old Diana Nyad, the champion swimmer, was when her coach began abusing her. Leigh Corfman was 14 when a district attorney named Roy Moore started chatting her up. I look at my daughters, my confident, cranky, infuriating, hilarious girls, and all I can think is, Has anyone tried anything? And if somebody has, has the world changed enough that they know, with absolute certainty, that they could tell me, positive that they’d be believed?
It’s infuriating. It’s absurd to feel grateful to men just for exercising basic decency. No woman, whether she’s a chief executive or cleaning hotel rooms, should have to feel thankful to the guys who didn’t grope or grab or leer. There shouldn’t be cookies and back pats for men who did not confuse inebriation with consent or assume that their personal assistants’ most cherished dream was to see them emerge, naked, from the shower. Women shouldn’t have to be grateful for any of this. We should take it for granted.
And so, this Thanksgiving, my girls and I will gather cranberries from the bog and tow my mom out when she gets stuck. I will attempt a tablescape, which my kids will mock. We’ll roast a turkey and mash sweet potatoes. And then, instead of thanking men who bravely and nobly managed to keep their hands to themselves, we will thank the women.
Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney. Leigh Corfman and Beverly Young Nelson. Diana Nyad. Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd. Lupita Nyong’o and Annabella Sciorra. Kitti Jones, the latest to make allegations against R. Kelly. And, of course, Anita Hill, who endured such scorn and shame, who cracked open the basement door and let the first beams of light shine through.
Behaving yourself in the workplace shouldn’t be difficult. Speaking truth to power? That remains hard. Instead of being grateful to the men who did the minimum, we’ll give thanks to the women who did something extraordinary: told their stories, in spite of the consequences, in spite of the cost.