It was the summer between my junior and senior years of college, and I was stuck working at the packaging warehouse of a large textbook publisher that shall not be named. If I’d been a smarter/more well-prepared person, I would’ve had an internship or something remotely career enhancing picked out, but I didn’t, and I needed money, and I was in an area of Ohio that’s not exactly known for having a plethora of jobs, so book packaging warehouse it was.
My first day there, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to lift 50 pound boxes off of a conveyor belt and then place those boxes on top of stacks that were already taller than me. I’m only 5’5″ and mumble-mumble pounds. I asked my supervisor if she could find something else for me to do, and she moved me to Tim’s area.
Tim ran machines that shot out coarse brown paper (the consistency of the kind used as paper towels in school bathrooms) to use as packaging material. A box would come down the conveyor belt and stop under the machine, he’d pull a lever and fill the box with paper, tape it shut, then send it on its way. I could do this job, easy.
Tim was glad to have my help. He was instantly friendly and always smiling. He wasn’t much taller than me and most days he wore a red tank top, black jeans, and a bandana tied around his head. He had thick glasses, the kind nerds wore in movies set in the 1950s. He was legally blind because of his diabetes, he told me, and Unnamed Book Company let him work a short week because of his disability. He was lucky, he said, because not a lot of companies would let him do that. He touched my arm as he said this, then quickly apologized and said he didn’t want to bother me by touching me. I told him, honestly, that he hadn’t. My arm, after all, wasn’t a particularly sensitive spot.
Have you ever heard of grooming? Typically it’s a term used to sexual predators who prey on young children, but the term can be applied to anyone who takes advantage of someone else–abusers, harassers, etc. The harasser makes sure to present himself as a good person while systematically lowering the victim’s guard. He befriends the victim, establishes an emotional bond, and builds trust. He starts out with activities that are harmless, then builds up to more harmful actions.
Things with Tim escalated quickly. Soon, he was sneaking up behind me while I worked so he could grab my shoulders. I’ve always been a jumpy person, so this always got a reaction. It also involved him basically hugging my from behind. When it was time for me to go to lunch, he’d reach over and pat my stomach, saying, “You’d better go get some food in that belly!”
But he certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong, was he? He’d asked me if it was okay to touch me, hadn’t he? And hadn’t I said yes? By giving him permission to do this one thing, had I unwittingly given him permission to violate my personal space in other ways? Meanwhile, he was continuing to be very nice to me–constantly praising my work in oh-so-tough areas like “sweeping the floor” and “showing up on time.” He also reminded me, often, of his disability, but asking me to pick up things for him from the vending machine or letting me know when he had a doctor’s appointment.
By far the most uncomfortable part of my job occurred when Tim and I loaded the trucks each morning. Oh, did I not mention that part of my job was to load boxes into semi-trucks? Exactly the kind of work I really excel at, right? Well, I know it sounds weird for someone with my lack of upper body strength to be doing that, but I was. We’d pull the conveyor belt all the way to the back of the truck, then stack the boxes as they came in. This meant that Tim and I were often at the back of a darkened semi-truck, alone, out of the view of everyone else.
Near the end of my summer there, Tim started talking about how much he’d miss me. While we were in the semi, he told me he wouldn’t let me leave without getting a hug. I could already feel myself tense, even as I felt guilty. Who was I to suspect a man who’d been nothing but nice to me, who had a disability for God’s sake, of trying to harass me? It felt wrong to even accuse him in my head of doing anything wrong. He did eventually hug me, in the back of that darkened semi, but I managed to pull free quickly and claim I had something else to do.
A few days before I left, he wrote his number down for me on a piece of that thick brown packing paper. I should give him a call, he said, in case I ever wanted to “shoot the shit.” His words.
I worried a lot about what Tim would do on my last few days, if he’d try to increase the physical contact or do something that made me even more uncomfortable. At that point, I felt so bad I considered saying something to my supervisor, but I didn’t. How could I? He needed that job. How could I do that to him?
But I never got to say goodbye to Tim, because he didn’t come back to work. I don’t know what happened. Was he having medical problems? Did he get in some sort of trouble? I didn’t ask and no one told me.
This was a man who definitely, unquestionably, absolutely took advantage of the naivete of a young woman and harassed her. What he did to me was wrong. His actions were the textbook behavior of a predator. I don’t mean to sound dramatic or make this out to be worse than it was. It didn’t escalate to anything truly dangerous. It could have been much, much worse. Many people, people I know, maybe you, have been harassed in worse ways at their jobs.
But the fact is, this happened, and I didn’t say anything about it. I should’ve, but I didn’t know how. It kills me to think that he could’ve done something like this, or worse, to another woman or girl. He could be doing it now. Who knows? Some other woman could be in my position, feeling uncomfortable, but afraid to say anything. The weird thing is, even as I type this, I feel guilty. Not just for not saying anything, but for saying this now. He was nice to me. He had a disability. How could I think these things about him? But it’s true. He harassed me. The fact that I still can barely talk about this without feeling like I’m blowing it out of proportion shows how truly messed up our society is.
I wish I could go back and fix this, but I can’t. I don’t even remember his last name anymore, and I’m pretty sure he no longer works at that job. All I can do is tell you, if you’re in this situation, to remember that it’s not your fault. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Steubenville trial, it’s that most of us don’t understand this simple fact: rape, assault, and abuse is never, ever, ever your fault. If you’re uncomfortable or in danger, you should tell someone. You don’t need to protect the person who’s doing this to you, even if they make you feel like you do. If you haven’t been in a situation like this, this might sound like simple advice, but trust me, it’s anything but.
Sorry today’s post isn’t super fun (don’t worry, tomorrow will be…we’ll be talking about David Duchovny!), but I think it’s important to tell our stories. The more we talk about these things, the more we put them out in the open, the less stigma they have, and the easier it will be for girls and women to speak up for themselves. At least, I really hope so.