I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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We’ve been hearing the rumors for days — in snatches and fragments at the grocery store, the cross-country meet, on the sidelines at the soccer game, in whispers, in e-mails, in texts. So, when we gather for book group, all we want to do is piece together the story — the girl’s version, the boy’s — measure the tragedy, assess blame.
We’ve all heard there was drinking, that the parents weren’t home, that the house was huge, full of places for disappearing. And when the girl pressed charges a week later, the boy was incredulous, and his parents were ready to put up a fight.
We don’t want to blame her — she’s only a freshman — but we wonder if she’d been using her beauty, tempting fate. Maybe she should have known better; maybe she shouldn’t have to know better.
We can’t believe the boy would force himself on her, that he didn’t listen when she said no. We know him, know his family, his reputation, his achievements — college football coaches started watching him play when he was only a sophomore. On top of that, he’s an A student. We wouldn’t have expected this from him. Then again, you can’t always trust appearances. And some of us have had a feeling about that kid. So maybe it’s true.
One of us says, But whose fault would it be if you got onto the subway in New York and your purse was wide open so everyone could see your wallet? Of course someone’s going to take it. I mean, you have to be smart, protect what you’ve got.
We agree. You have to be responsible. You can’t play the victim if you haven’t been careful.
But is it that simple?
We wonder if our daughters were at that party. If so, should they have looked out for her? Were they drinking, too? We know they have to be more careful. We talk about how to keep them safe; about lectures organized by the PTA on the dangers of hooking up, sexting, binge-drinking; about kids today. We do Google searches, listen to podcasts and the radio, but when we try to talk to our daughters about what we’re afraid of, they roll their eyes, shrug, recoil.
We discuss how girls dress today: how revealing, how distracting, how empowering, how degrading. Wouldn’t uniforms be better? The girls have to cover up or face the consequences. That’s how biology works.
Yes, but doesn’t that put the burden on the girl? Is her body to blame?
We only want to protect these girls. But what are the boys supposed to do? We have to be fair to them, too. Girls can’t just do whatever they want and expect to be safe.
Some of us, whose sons play on the football team with the accused, say we can’t be sure until we get all the information. We say there’s really no way to prove it, is there? His future is so bright; it would be such a shame if this shadow follows him. Maybe she’s just trying to get back at him for something. You know how aggressive girls can be these days. We tell our sons, You have to be careful. Girls may try to trap you and then change their story.
But why would a girl expose herself to all the talk? The shame?
Maybe she didn’t say no. Maybe she just wishes she did?
We tell our boys to watch out for trouble: you never know what might happen. But they’re young. They make mistakes. You know, sometimes boys will be boys.
But some of us are so tired of that old story, tired of forgiving them in advance.
Either way, we’re sure our sons would do the right thing.
We want to agree. But we picture the party, the boy.
We imagine ourselves as the girl.
We remember fraternity parties in college, the way alcohol slowed everything — purple Kool-Aid punch with who knows what in it, Jell-O shots that went down so easily. The foggy numbness we couldn’t shake the next day, the distress about what we couldn’t remember, the shame about what we wanted to forget. Had we been so different from her? Had we been smart or just lucky?
One of us remembers a first date with a handsome medical student who talked only about himself, the onslaught of his hands, the speed with which she found herself pressed against his mattress, his tongue in her mouth. She wanted him to stop, but she was afraid he’d be angry, that he’d change his mind about her. Still, she had escaped unscathed. Mostly.
We all remember guys saying to us, But you have to now. You’ve got me this far. And worse. The names they called us. Prude. Tease. Cock tease. Slut. Whore. We were shocked, but we weren’t surprised. We tried to act as if we didn’t mind. But a few of us had wondered if they were right, if we’d been making promises we were supposed to keep.
Some of us were the beautiful ones, and when we entered a room, it rearranged around us. We couldn’t help holding our heads a little haughtily and believing this was our due. We remember the first time we noticed a boy openly studying our body without looking into our eyes — the disorienting clarity of his desire. We came to anticipate that admiration, to watch boys watching us.
We wonder if the room changed when she arrived. We wonder if she noticed. If she wanted to be the one everyone looked at, would she be to blame?
We would have blamed her for that once, when we were the ones standing on the edges of the room, the ones no one was watching. We knew we were inadequate when we stood next to the girl who had breasts first. We saw the way the boys snapped her bra strap, the way one or the other would grab her breast when we were dissecting frogs and the teacher’s back was turned. She complained to us in the locker room after gym class. We thought she was bragging, but now we know she was looking to us for solace. At the time, we hated her. We had to. Next to her we were invisible.
When the high-school boys lined the hallway outside the cafeteria after lunch, we had no choice but to walk by them as they held up numbers, ranking each of us on a scale of one to ten. We were mortified, we were angry, we were desperate to know how we rated, but the teachers broke it up before most of us could find out.
We were used to yells and whistles when we passed a construction site or the football team’s table in the cafeteria. We felt more alive in the spotlight of that desire, even though it also made us feel uneasy, as if we should respond, as if our availability — or the promise of it, anyway — had been expected of us.
We wonder if the girl felt that same turmoil, the same unsettling demands. Should she have known better?
One story leads to another — stories that sound familiar even though we’ve never heard them before.
The uncle who slipped us the tongue at Thanksgiving; the houseguest who fondled us on the stairs; the boss who bear-hugged us, pressed his body up against ours, ran his hands all over us, and paid us two hundred dollars to be quiet; the boyfriend who took our virginity without even asking.
One of us remembers that teacher she loved in ninth grade, whose eyes roamed all over her body, who whispered, “Looking good,” to her as she walked by. Once, he pressed up against her back in an empty classroom, his hands reaching around to cup her breasts, his warm lips on her neck, his groan in her ear. When he released her, she could hardly breathe. What was she supposed to do? She didn’t want to make trouble for the teacher. She couldn’t imagine telling her parents.
And then at the graduation picnic her senior year, there was the unwelcome/welcome distinction of the boys chasing her down, holding her, grabbing her thighs, her waist, her hip bones, brushing her breasts, her shirt riding up, as they carried her to the lake, held her out above the water, her skin alive with so many hands on her. She watched herself through the eyes of the other girls, felt their jealousy, their longing. The boys swung her out over the stagnant lake, let go. Her shirt was too revealing as she got out of the water. She pulled weeds from her hair. Rinsed the mud off her legs. Worried that mascara had smudged under her eyes. The boys were chasing someone else.
We know. We were there.
A few of us say, These things happen. You shouldn’t be so sensitive. You can’t be outraged about everything. And, anyway, it could be much worse. At least we aren’t vulnerable like women in third-world countries. We’re lucky, you know.
One of us says, Yes, we are lucky, but can’t we be unlucky, too?
We never questioned their right to touch us. Would it have made a difference if we had?
What stories do they tell about us? Do they even remember?
We think of the girl, all the rules she’d been taught: be pretty, be liked, be good, be careful. We walk into the room with her, feel her confidence, her thrill at the attention. We want to tell her, It’s not what you think — the boys’ adulation is not a promise they will keep. We believed we were special, too, that because they wanted us we had power we could wield. We didn’t know that because they gave that power to us, they could take it away. But we go with her into the dark room with the boy. We flush at his touch, our fear quickening as we’re overpowered. Before it’s even over we realize we’ve been tricked. How stupid we’ve been.
We want to tell her she is not to blame.
We want to tell her a new story, one she should have been told already.
We keep talking. We have so much more to say.
Are the characters’ experiences in Jennifer Swift’s “Stories We Tell Now” supposed to represent those of most women, or just a particular group of women in a specific decade and region?
I didn’t witness the type of situations Swift describes when I was young, and I have seldom encountered them later in life. Over the years my friends and I talked about which boys and men we “had the hots for”; we weren’t focused on how they rated us. And we knew they had no right to touch us if we weren’t interested in touching them.
Swift’s last lines are: “We want to tell her a new story. . . . We have so much more to say.” I wonder if the “new story” would describe girls’ and women’s sexual desires (for males or females) in a positive way. I hope the women in that story would talk to each other about their physical needs and emotions — and that they would experience camaraderie instead of the rivalry and resentment that Swift describes. I hope those women would admire, inspire, and take care of one another.
In Jennifer Swift’s “Stories We Tell Now,” a book club discusses a rape at a high-school party, and Swift attempts to evenly present both sides of the argument about who is at fault. The two sides are very much not equal, however. One person did perhaps do some stupid things; the other committed a serious crime that will scar a young woman for life.
As someone who has never been the victim of such a crime, I find it shocking if this is where the conversation stands in the twenty-first century.
The dialogue in “Stories We Tell Now” is intended to expose the “boys will be boys” excuse by juxtaposing it with women’s stories, rather than balancing both sides equally. I understand, though, that once a story goes out into the world, it has to stand on its own merits. I’m grateful for these thoughtful responses and for any discussion of this important issue.
The conversations Paula Marston had with her group, and the questions asked and wishes shared by Margaret Bockting, express exactly my hope for “Stories We Tell Now”: that women’s experiences will continue to be talked about — and heard.
Thank you for publishing Jennifer Swift’s short story “Stories We Tell Now” [September 2019], about a group of women discussing an alleged rape. The #MeToo movement has raised awareness about how frequently sexual misconduct and assault occur. Women have always known this; the men I talk with often seem surprised to find out. I hope men are beginning to acknowledge that women’s lived experiences are quite different from their own.
Jennifer Swift’s “Stories We Tell Now” [September 2019], in which a group of women discuss an alleged rape, prompted a similarly lively talk at my Sun discussion group.
The characters in that story repeating the sexist names men called them — “Prude. Tease. Cock tease. Slut. Whore.” — brought to mind many similar episodes with boys and men during my own teen years. But I also remember the way girls treated each other with jealousy, often shunning one another or spreading lies.
I’m seventy-one, and a woman of sixty-three in our group was shocked by my recollections. She remembered her friends being supportive and was adamant that they wouldn’t have allowed boys or men to treat them so badly. I’ve noticed the same attitude among my relatives in their twenties, and I applaud it. But I wonder if those in their twenties realize how women of previous generations — often without an education, a job, or money of their own, and with children to raise — worked for changes like women’s liberation, women in the workplace, and birth control. These all contributed to the situation the younger generation now sees as the norm.
Bless you for printing Jennifer Swift’s “Stories We Tell Now.” And thanks to Swift for writing about an enormously complex human experience that’s become so deeply rooted in our culture.