A man in my hometown stands accused of misdemeanor assault. My mother read about it in the local paper and relayed the details to me over the phone as I drove to work. The story is that an employee at the local deli— a teenage girl, fifteen years-old— hid behind a refrigerator, and when the restaurant owner— a man, in his sixties— came into the kitchen, she jumped out to scare him. This was after closing time, and he’d thought he was alone. Allegedly, he grabbed her and bit her so hard that bite marks were still visible when she went home and told her mother. Then he pushed her up against a counter and swatted her. The details are fuzzy. Neither have made public statements. What we know: there was biting. There was swatting. Their stories differ when it comes to where he touched her. She says he bit her on the neck. He says the shoulder. She says he swatted her on the butt. He says thighs.
“As if that makes it better?” I asked, already indignant. “She’s a kid”
My mother sighed into the mic and my earpiece crackled. Already, I could hear the balanced counterargument. It’s her default response to my getting worked up. I react strongly, she tries to bring my righteous indignation back from a boil by asking me to question my absolute certainty that I. Am. Right. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I boil over.
“I don’t know. If he was scared—”
There it was. The let’s look at it from another perspective.
“If he was scared, why not push her away? Grabbing her sounds like a man who felt scared, then embarrassed by that vulnerability— angry about that vulnerability—angry and vulnerable and wanted to punish someone for making him feel weak. Swatting on the butt— that’s a spanking. Why the hell would you think it’s okay to spank your employee?”
“See, to me… this guy played sports. People in sports tap each other on the butt. Picking her up, biting her. That sounds like a man who thinks he’s playing.”
“A grown man. With a child. A child who’s an employee.”
“I’m not saying what he did was right, but, Jaimie, people are picketing outside his restaurant withs signs that call him a pedophile. That’s not what he’s accused of. That doesn’t seem right, either.”
“No, that doesn’t seem right, but mom: you’re defending him.”
It was an accusation, the kind a grown child will make, sometimes, with their mother. I am more forceful with her than I might be with someone else. It’s a liberty I take, and not one that is always fair. Was she defending him? Or was she unable to reconcile this story with the man she’s known for years? Or was her defense of him a mere byproduct of trying to match the story to a man who she has always thought of as decent? As I said, I was worked up.
On the other end of the line, I could hear her thinking. I was making things too simple. There are two sides to every story. What don’t we know?
“I just hate to see a man lose his livelihood over twenty seconds of his life.” Twenty seconds— hardly any time at all. These fleeting moments carry weight. They linger. About a year ago, I finally confronted an older man in my life who, for several years, regularly drank too much at parties and touched my butt. Who sometimes put his arm around my waist and let his hand slide over the curve of my hip. Each time, it happened so quickly I was unable to speak up in the moment. It was there and gone before I’d recalibrated to my new reality. But after? The first time? The second? The liberties he took with our relationship, with my body, were a source of… I don’t know. Anxiety? Powerlessness? Resentment? Feeling completely vulnerable, because he wasn’t a bad man. He was a good man who was making me uncomfortable, and somehow I wanted to protect him as much as I wanted to protect myself. It was messed up. Before I went to him, I spent days tying myself into knots. Strategizing. Planning what I was going to say. Crying. I called my mom and told her what had been happening. This could not go on. He was violating me.
And she said, “Really? Violating?”
The question in her voice. After all, this wasn’t rape. His behavior wasn’t necessarily lascivious. This was an absentminded, drunken mistake made again and again. But yes: violating.
Now she was thinking: twenty seconds. Such a fleeting moment in what seemed to be an otherwise honorable life. Shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime?
This is a question I haven’t had the emotional bandwidth to consider, and it’s a valid one. In the wake of the Me Too movement, we’ve rooted out the Harvey Weinsteins and moved on to the lesser offenses, sometimes treating them all with the same severity. This man from my hometown is being called a pedophile when the evidence shows something different. This is easier for me to acknowledge here, in writing. In the moment, I said: You’re wrong.
I said, “He’s an adult. She’s a child. It does not matter what she did. It does not matter.”
I said, “It’s sad if he loses everything, but if he doesn’t? Then it’s no big deal that he did this? If it’s not a big deal, then what? It’s twenty seconds we know about.”
I said, “Your instinct right now is to protect a grown man’s livelihood over the safety of a child. A child.”
What I was saying: believe her. Believe me.
She was quiet for a long time, then said, “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
Her voice was practically a whisper.
My mother is a strong woman. I forget, sometimes, that this does not give me carte blanche to shout her down. I forget, sometimes, that strength means asking the question and risking being told you’re wrong. Strength means listening and learning. It means calling up the next day and saying, “I thought about it all day. I needed to hear that.” And she did.
I thought about that conversation, too. For days, really. Going on weeks. I’ve thought: what the hell could she have been thinking? Where could she have been coming from? Then: where has she been? My mother, strong feminist. Career woman. A shoulder-padded legal assistant in the ‘80s, when successful women succeeded by learning men’s rules. It meant not being too sensitive. It meant being tough enough. She said, “to me, that sounds like a man who thinks he’s playing.” What small slights did she tell herself weren’t violating? How many men were just playing?
The mile marker for what’s acceptable has moved, and that’s a good thing. What my mother has borne, I will not. She raised me not to. This is a different time. Thank God.