Last week I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford tell her story, and I got about ten minutes into the follow-up questioning when I had to stop because I was experiencing anxiety at a level I had not felt since the summer of 1974. The experience Dr. Ford described was much different and far worse than what happened to me that summer, just before I turned 14; still, certain details of Dr. Ford’s testimony triggered such a powerful adrenalin rush in me that I could hardly bear to contemplate the physiological struggle Dr. Ford was likely enduring at that moment. An hour later, when a violin student came to my house for a lesson, I still could not control my shaking bow.
Over the past year, as I have read one heartbreaking #MeToo story after another, I have remained silent about my experience mostly out of respect for those whose memories are infinitely more painful than mine. But today, when our country is so deeply divided and so many are deeply suffering, I present my experience because it occurs to me that my story might offer a glimmer of hope.
Like Dr. Ford’s story, mine contains two possible male predators, the fear of being raped and killed, and the humiliation of being mocked and laughed at. You will notice other parallels as well, such as my vivid memory of a few emotionally charged events and my hazy or non-existent memory of almost everything else. But my story also has a male hero—and even though I can’t remember that hero’s name, his kindness and decency profoundly affected the course of my life for many years to come. If it is necessary to share our tragic stories (and I believe it often is), it is equally important to remember and celebrate the men in our lives who treat us well. They need to know how important they are, and we need more of them.
I was much more girl than woman in my fourteenth year, but change was on the horizon. The mirror finally showed some justification for my double A-cup bra, and by the time I boarded a plane in June (or was it May?) for a summer with my family in Lahti, Finland, I had had one period. My feelings about finally growing up were conflicted. My childhood had been happy, and the hormonal changes I was experiencing were major nuisances. But it was a relief to catch up a little with my friends, and I was discovering other perks.
My protective parents, for example, surprised me by often allowing me to ride my bike to the lake with my older sister and some neighbor girls; and when my family left to visit friends in Stockholm, my parents trusted me to stay with my grandmother in Lahti so that I could attend an orchestra camp in town. Every day I rode two buses by myself to get from my grandmother’s house to the downtown building where we rehearsed for many hours. I loved playing the violin and I loved my new independence, so my life during those two weeks (or was it just one week?) felt perfect.
The orchestra was a cooperative venture between some Finnish and Hungarian music teachers, and I suspect that most of the youth participants were their students. I believe—though I’m not sure of this—that I was the only American in the pack. The rest of the group consisted mostly of young Finnish girls–some looked as young as 10 or 11—and older, Hungarian boys (or did I just notice the boys more than the girls?)—some as old as 18 or 19.
Every morning I was coached privately by a kind, good-humored, 40-ish Hungarian teacher. He didn’t speak a word of English or Finnish, and I knew zero Hungarian, but we quickly learned to communicate through the universal languages of music and body language. He would point to a passage of music, play it for me, motion for me to play it, and then either smile or point, play, and motion for me to try again. I was exhilarated by the musicianship and friendship that I was developing without any help from my parents.
After my private lesson, I would head for orchestra rehearsals with the Finnish and Hungarian kids. When I wasn’t focused on the music, the Hungarian boys consumed most of my attention. I enjoyed watching them show off both their playing ability and their masculinity. However, I watched only from a distance. I was feeling and noticing a lot of new things that summer, but from my perspective, the older Hungarian boys were way out of my league. Their laughter made me uneasy. And soon I became intensely afraid of two of them.
During our breaks, when we all hung out together without much adult supervision, two of the older Hungarian boys would often grab the young girls and start tickling them. Many of the girls laughed and seemed to enjoy and even sometimes to initiate the interaction. I wanted to believe then, and still want to believe now, that these older boys viewed the young girls as children and were treating them as perhaps they would their little sisters. Many of the girls still really were children; perhaps this was why they seemed more comfortable than I with the tickling. Looking back, however, I recognize that I don’t really know how long their comfort lasted because I never stayed in those situations long enough to find out. What I saw filled me with dread. I quickly made myself invisible to avoid being in the same situation.
Still, like every young person, I longed to fit in better. I felt self-conscious, uncomfortable in my isolation, and thus grateful and somewhat flabbergasted when our 19-year-old concert master, the best-looking young man in the group, started inviting me to play ping-pong with him during our breaks. Even though he was a friend to the two ticklers, he won my trust by never touching me in any way. He spoke to me in gentle, respectful, broken English; and feeling his gaze made me weak in the knees. I thought about him in private and watched him in rehearsals; however, the age difference between us was too overwhelming for me. I was a completely inexperienced, late-blooming girl. All my romance education had come from novels. I wasn’t ready for a real, flesh and blood man-boyfriend. So I played ping pong self-consciously with him daily and otherwise spent my free time with a sweet Finnish girl named Marja.
One day, toward the end of the camp, we all went to another building for a reason I don’t remember. Then we were all walking back to the building where we had our normal practices. I was starting to walk with the others up a hill when the two ticklers approached me from behind. With smirks on their faces, they each grabbed one of my arms and steered me away from the others, down the side of the hill, and onto another path.
Looking ahead, I could see that our new path would eventually go under a bridge and into the forest that wove throughout the city. I believe—though I’m not certain of this—that the path also forked left, immediately before the bridge. I could not see anyone walking on the path beyond the bridge, but there were still a few people walking toward us in front of the bridge, so perhaps my mind has added another path veering left to explain where those people had come from.
I had resisted the grip of my captors enough to know that they weren’t going to let go of me voluntarily, but I hadn’t given the attempt my “all” (dragging my feet, screaming, kicking), and I hadn’t said a single word to my captors. My legs were moving, but otherwise I was paralyzed by the conflicting thoughts racing through my head. Were these boys just flirting with me, or did they have sinister intentions toward me? Were we in this situation because they knew I was afraid of them? If I displayed my fear, would they be even more inclined to do me harm? Was their intent just to scare me? Did they plan to take me into the forest and just have a little “fun” with me, or were they capable of raping and even murdering me?
As we approached the bridge, I noted that the path beyond it was lined on both sides by forest, rather than buildings, and there were still no people there. The risk of remaining silent any longer was too great. I focused my gaze on a middle-aged woman coming my way and said “help” in Finnish as loudly as I could. What actually came out of my mouth sounded to my ears like only a whimper; however, I was certain the woman had still heard. She looked startled. Then she looked away, pretending she had not heard. And just then, we were all startled by another female voice loudly and frantically yelling something above us in a language I didn’t understand.
My captors, the middle-aged woman, probably a few other people on the path, and I all looked up and saw the orchestra group (or at least some of them) standing above us on the bridge. Immediately I understood that they had been watching us. They had seen my terror, and an older, very sarcastic Hungarian girl had recognized my cry for help. I knew she had yelled “help” in Hungarian. I knew she was mocking me. And then, when the orchestra members all burst out laughing, I knew the laughter was at my expense.
When I had said “help” in Finnish, I don’t think my captors had understood. Then when the Hungarian girl screamed “help” in Hungarian, they were as stunned as I and for a moment looked guilty and exposed. However, when everyone started laughing, they quickly recovered their composure, released their grip on me, and started walking back up the hill toward their friends, probably devising a wise crack that would put them in control of all the joking. Their friends seemed to view my fear as unfounded and amusing. It was in my captors’ best interests to reinforce that view.
Meanwhile, I was dealing with more conflicting emotions than I could bear. I was overcome with relief. I was still shaking at the thought of what might have happened. I was simultaneously grateful and embarrassed that the Hungarian girl had heard my cry for help. I wanted to believe the kids who thought I was being silly, and I wanted to tell them they were all fools. I wanted to return to the safety of the group and in fact headed in their direction, but I felt loathe to face their mocking. I wanted to cry, and I was hell bent on not crying.
Where was my concertmaster friend? I want to believe that as soon as he stood on the bridge and saw the scene playing out on the path below him, he headed toward me to rescue me. But I don’t know that he was quite that noble. Perhaps he hesitated for a moment, weighing the costs of helping and not helping me. If so, however, he didn’t hesitate long. Only moments after my captors released me, he was by my side. I heard him say something reproachful to his friends in Hungarian. Then his attention was all on me. The concern and sympathy in his gaze surprised me and brought my tears dangerously close to the surface. He instinctively put his arm around me to comfort me, to help me hide my tears, and, I think, to silence those who might still want to taunt me. He tried to assure me that his tickler friends just didn’t know when to stop with their joking, but even as he spoke, he seemed to be questioning the truth of his own words. When he heard me stifle a sob, he held me still more tightly and did not try to engage me in any more conversation. That was the only time during our one or two weeks together, that he touched me.
I have no memory of my bus ride home to my grandmother’s house that day. However, I vividly remember hiding under my friend’s protective arm until we reached our rehearsal building and then racing for the bathroom and sobbing behind a locked door for what felt like hours. I don’t remember considering whether I should report the incident to any adults. I do remember thinking that if any of them found out, they, like the other kids, would probably think I was silly. I know I did not leave the bathroom that day until the coast was clear of any camp participants.
But because of my concertmaster friend, I had the courage to go back the next day and complete the camp. I have no memory of the ticklers after that day, and I believe I have my friend to thank for that.
My memories of the rest of the camp are few but vivid. I remember how proud I was of our final concert and how happy I was that my parents were back from Sweden and able to attend. My parents and I had a good relationship, but it was many years before I told them about my incident with the ticklers. I wanted to keep going to more music camps. I wanted to keep having independence. And I didn’t want them to worry more about me than they already did. Telling them would have changed all that.
I believe our orchestra also performed at another venue, or at least visited another venue together, either shortly before or after the concert for our parents because I remember sitting on a bus feeling simultaneously giddy and overwhelmed by the continuing sweet attention of my concertmaster friend, who stood in the aisle next to me, asking me about my life in America. The dawning recognition that he might have as much a crush on me as I did on him, still felt unbelievable—especially after I had just been so recently humiliated by all his friends. During our conversation, I noted that the stubble on his face made him look more like 30 than 19, and I wondered what about my acne-infested face could possibly motivate him to to stand there, in all his manliness, focusing all his attention on me. It occurs to me now that perhaps he was the one with a little sister he loved.
After our last concert, my friend presented me with a rose. It was a sweet, tender gesture destined to be recorded in my journal, but I was so nervous that I accidentally dropped the rose and then stepped on it. If this boy truly had a crush on me, I’m sure that at that moment he came to his senses and decided to look for a girlfriend closer to his age. But even then, he remained kind, gentle, and self-controlled, recognizing that I just was not ready for the physical affection he might have liked to show me.
That was the last time I saw my concert master friend. 44 years later, at the age of 58, I think of him with a mother’s gratitude. I hope he still plays the violin, and I especially hope he found a beautiful partner who loves him as much as he deserves. I doubt he remembers me, and that’s totally okay. I also doubt he understands what a gift he gave me and probably other girls throughout his life—and that’s totally NOT okay.
My interpretation of those events that happened 44 years ago is and has always been ambivalent. I still don’t really know what kind of kids the ticklers were. Were they capable of the worst that I feared? Should I have reported them to an adult? Might I have saved some other young girls from having their own #MeToo experience?
The fact that I never had to find out the answer to this question might be my friend’s greatest gift to me. It might be because of him (and, strangely enough, the mocking Hungarian girl) that I didn’t have to deal with all the difficulties so many of my sisters (and many brothers) across the globe are struggling with—though, if that is the case, I definitely worry how the other girls at the camp fared.
On the other hand, if the truth is that the ticklers were harmless and I was just a silly, hyper-sensitive, overly-sheltered girl, I appreciate my friend even more for trying to make me feel safe and comfortable and for standing up for me. Because of his friendship and protection, I was able to finish the camp mostly un-scarred, with mostly good (and even some wonderful) memories. Because of him, I was able to keep trusting and giving men in my life the benefit of the doubt. Because of him, I had the courage to keep venturing out into the world and having new experiences. Because of him, I was able to stay focused on music and school, and I did not have to think about sex until I was ready to think about it. Because of him, as well as my teacher, I went home at the end of the summer and told my friends in Utah that Hungarians were awesome, kind, and beautiful people.
Even if I was never really in danger, my friend influenced my future in important ways. He helped me to believe that I was lovable and that a boy who loved me should care about my feelings and wishes. He helped me understand that physical attraction should never have to be accompanied by fear or violence. I was not ready to be loved by him, but I knew that some day I wanted to be loved by someone like him. When I met my husband, I recognized him as a good man because of past interactions with this friend and other good men in my life.
My married life has been consumed by boys. I raised three of my own and had many others in my home. I was a cub scout leader for 6 years. The boys in my care have been just as fragile as girls, and I know most of them have wanted to be good. But I’ve also seen that unsupervised “good” boys can sometimes do really stupid things, given a very prevalent kind of peer “culture” and in the absence of anyone modeling wiser behavior. When fueled by feelings of superiority and entitlement, not to mention testosterone and/or alcohol, this culture can be especially toxic. It exists to one degree or another in every land across the globe, and it is time for good male role models to help change it.
My concertmaster friend was such a model for his friends. He showed them a different kind of behavior than the antics they were engaging in. I believe it’s very possible that he prevented two “good” boys from going down a path they would have regretted for the rest of their lives.
I wish I could tell this friend what he meant to me, but perhaps the most important thing now is for me to tell others what he meant to me. Many people are in pain right now. Many feel broken. Some are extremely angry. Some of their stories simply have to come out. And these are precisely the reasons good men are needed now more than ever.
To those of you who have the courage to step up to that challenge, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.