A couple of weeks ago I got an email from the current General Manager of the Blue Hill Food Co-op where I worked 14 years ago. He wanted to inform me that “Co-op John” was fired. Finally.
I wasn’t emotionally ready for that email. For one thing, I posted that story on my blog over a year ago and for another thing, we are 2.5 years into a pandemic and I have a medically fragile child. It’s been a lot. On top of the chronic and pandemic stress, one of my children had a traumatic health emergency a few months ago that we are all still processing and healing from. But as I know well, life does not always let you choose when you have to face your demons.
I know that John being “permanently terminated” from his position is a good thing on some level but the truth is my reaction was ice cold fear. I knew that there was nothing scarier on this earth than male anger before I knew how to say my own name. Even a male stranger on the highway flipping me the bird can send chills down my spine and make my heart race. I hate it. I never experienced Co-op John to be a physically violent man, except for in that it is violence to touch someone’s body without their consent. Still, I instantly started plotting my escape. If he came to my house, what would I do? Do I have a plan in place? Would he be able to find out where I live by my online presence? I was on facebook within minutes of getting that email and checking and double checking my security settings. I even changed my password which doesn’t even make any sense. How would John have my password?
My partner, Jamie was home when I got the email. Thank goodness, because I needed to process. For me that involves lots of talking with tears and uncontrollable shaking. Jamie was patient and supportive through this phase but when he sensed that I was ready to move on, he let me see his own reaction. “It’s about damn time.” He was pissed, which was helpful, because under my fear was my own anger. John sexually harassed countless women. Some were teenagers when it was happening. Some were grandmothers. I had a few reach out to me directly after I wrote my post and a few more confide in close friends of mine who then connected us. I forget how many women came forward, but it was enough to forget the number. John was doing this for a long time. More than 2 decades. It ties my stomach in knots.
The fear and anger are quickly met with guilt. I should have done more to stop him. I shouldn’t have just hung my head in shame all those years ago when I first reported it. I had known even then that it wasn’t just me. I had known he was doing the same things to some of my co-workers. Still, I gave up. It had taken all of my courage to report him and when my boss refused to do anything to protect us, I just gave up. It took me a whole 13 years to write that blog post and even then, I was careful to not give the real name of the co-op. Why? To protect him? To protect myself? What about the current women dealing with his abuse? Honestly, it makes my stomach hurt to think about.
And here’s the other thing. I am a believer in restorative justice. I didn’t actually want an old man to get fired from working a job he’s held for two decades. I wanted there to be another way. I want to live in a world where we acknowledge that rape culture is all around us. It’s not just John. I want us to create a world where we don’t tolerate the sexual micro-aggressions women have to deal with on a daily basis. I want us to make this type of behavior unacceptable. I want men like John, not to be punished, but to be helped and changed. and I don’t know how that happens.
Still, I am glad that he is no longer in that position. He was far too comfortable abusing women in that role at that job for far too long. Even after I reported him. Even after I wrote that blog post. He just kept doing it because no one had ever made him stop. So, he needed to be removed from that position. I know that is a good thing.
The current general manager told me that it was only after a current employee and a long time customer reported the same forms of sexual harassment that I wrote about in my blog that an internal investigation was deemed necessary. I am left feeling grateful but with a bad aftertaste. My abuse wasn’t enough to spark a review. My co-workers enduring abuse wasn’t enough. I get that this is a new manager, but still, reading my post should have been enough to initiate some attempt to check on and protect current employees. Instead at least 2 other women had to be violated and come forward before anything could be done. I might sound bitter, but seriously. This is the same dynamic that happened when I reported my college professor for sexual harassment. I was told that they would write down the complaint so that if more women came forward, they would have it on file. Again. One woman being violated wasn’t enough to warrant action. How many women need to experience abuse before it is too much?
In the face of the current political situation in the US regarding women’s (and anyone who can get pregnant!) rights, I am compelled to share this win. Because it is a win. One man was finally held accountable for harming women. It took too long and he hurt too many of us, but still this matters. One by one until we have enough momentum to shift our whole culture.
I promise to take all of this pain, and fear and guilt and use it to continue to speak the truth and to constantly push myself and those around me to be better.