What Lifetime Experiences of Sexual Abuse and Violence Have Taught Me

Despite the harrowing experiences that have shaped her, Mattheus writes that "anger and disappointment do not rule my life. Just the opposite, I am an optimistic activist." (Photo: Pranavian/flickr/cc))

What Lifetime Experiences of Sexual Abuse and Violence Have Taught Me

Support ourselves and others, speak up and organize for change

West Germany, 1958 -- I am three years old. My mother tells me never to take candy from a stranger. But strangers with candy have not been a problem.

1959 -- I sit under our table and play between the feet of women - friends and relatives. They talk about war and rape; name women who were raped during the war and in the chaos afterwards. I always knew the meaning of rape.

My mild-mannered mother hates her father, who I never met, and she never reconciles with him after being sent to live with her uncle's family at the age of 12, or was it 14? He abused her mother and I suspect Mutti was not untouched.

As a child I read stories, I watch movies about war and Holocaust. So much killing, so much rape. I am terrified. When will they come for me? When will I be called to help a neighbor? Will I survive? And if I do, what will be left of me?

I rehearse scenarios. What to do when I am in a concentration camp ... when the Vikings and Mongols come back? I learn to fight. I fight with boys. I take Judo classes. I train to be perfect at running, hiding, climbing, being still, swimming, diving, conniving. Hiding under water is such an important skill. A reed can be used as a straw. I am angry. (Even now, I am still angry.)

1960s -- I am scared of our neighbor whose two daughters are my friends. I avoid being near him. One time I throw up in his car. I am sorry, but I'm also gleeful because I'm getting back at him for driving too fast. Later I learn that he embezzled from the Red Cross and from "two old ladies," whoever they are. I also hear later from village gossip that his youngest daughter, a heroin addict, "ran off to the city." The eldest daughter tells me that her sister was sexually abused by their father. I am not surprised.

1968 -- I am 13 and the cat calls are coming in my direction now. My heart beats fast. I feel threatened and embarrassed. The accepted norm. No one helps. I avoid construction sites, find long alternative routes. I wish I was a boy.

1969 -- I have a doctor's appointment and am late for class. As I enter, I apologize. My male teacher asks loudly: "And what did the doctor do?" My school mates giggle. My knees wobble. We all know he's referring to sex. I want to leave my body.

1968 to 1978 -- Many of us hitchhike. How else would we get around? I try to be safe. I never accept a ride with 2 men in a car. I always know how to open the door. I do not accept rides from guys who set off flutters in my gut. "Thank you, but I am not going there," I say instead of getting in.

1970 -- Coming from school, two miles from home, the truck driver veers off onto a dirt road. With a forceful voice I tell him to stop the truck and let me out. He keeps going until the highway is far behind. I imagine what he's planning. He stops in a place near the forest and grabs for me. Fury rises. I twist and my right fist smashes into his pudgy face. My left opens the door. I jump, run into a field. Run, run, run. I never tell.

1971 -- I work at a large department store to earn money for a student trip to Ireland. The store manager frequently stops at my station in the men's sweater department. We chat and I feel special; he's a mature man in his 40s. One day he asks me to step outside. I do. I am curious. He tells me he adores me and wants to have sex. The child within me wants to giggle at the idea, but my emerging adult self is angry. Imagining him touching me makes me feel yucky. I say "no." I see fury in his face and he yells: "Those stupid Irish! How can you go to a fucking country like that?" I yell back: "You know nothing about Ireland! How can you put them down?" I go back inside. It never enters my mind that I could be fired.

1971 -- My father is dying. The pastor grabs and kisses me in his office. He smiles lovingly as he offers his hand. Let's do more, he means. A door separates us from his wife and eight children eating lunch. I am flabbergasted and shaken, beet red and angry. I open the door and another door and leave with what I hope is some dignity. I never teach Sunday school again. I never go to church again. I tell my mother and ask her to talk to the pastor. She does not. She does not speak against powerful men. He comes to our house to be with my dad, who never needed or wanted a pastor. I know he is looking for me. My mother offers him cake, as is the convention. I climb a tree and only come down after he leaves. I feel so betrayed.

1972 -- Now my dad has died. I am stoic, show few emotions. Waiting for French class to start I sit on a high window sill. My legs hang down and I dream. I hear commotion. The teacher has arrived. I am ready to jump down, but the teacher grabs my right leg, circles my ankle with his fingers and laughs: "just wanted to see if my fingers fit." I am speechless and furious at myself for not finding words and turning red. I don't bother to tell my mother.

1972 -- My mother and I move to Hamburg where we have many relatives. I go to an ice cream parlor. The sole male attendant reaches over the counter and squeezes my breast. "Don't!" I manage to gasp, swatting his hand away. "I will never come back." I leave shaken and humiliated. I tell Tante Anneliese and Mutti about the encounter. Ask them to confront the man. They do not. I ask them never to go to the parlor. They continue to go when in need of a treat. I feel betrayed and furious. Time to consolidate my armor, to be always on alert.

1972 -- My girlfriend Ulla and I are attacked by a motorcycle gang. Huge guys put us in a "squeeze" -- surround us tightly so they can feel us up and... There are many people in the area, but they don't notice or are too scared to help. I appeal to the gang leader, his power and pride. "Can you help? Are you able to get your men to back off?" I lock into his eyes while I feel hands all over my body. He orders them to let us go. Ulla and I are rattled and relieved. We escaped! I don't tell anyone.

1972 -- My half-sister and I are best friends. She's a generation older than me. She helps me to explore Hamburg, my new home. She tells me about her new relationship with a man who was in a Soviet WWII POW camp. "He was tortured, sexually tortured by the female warden. He has scars - physical and emotional." I listen whenever she talks about him, but I am too terrified to ask questions. What is sexual torture?

Philadelphia 1974 -- I work for a German volunteer organization and my assignment is with the United Farm Workers Union. I'm helping with the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. My coworker at Philly's United Farm Workers office comes back from an organizing assignment. She is disheveled and cries. She was raped. I sit with her. I hold her. What to do? Our director calls the police.

1974 -- One of my regular UFW picket line participants, a white woman with an interracial child, tells me that a white police officer and she have a deal. She has sex with him in his car whenever he wants in exchange for him not beating up her black boyfriend, the father of her child. She tries to avoid the guy, but carries the burden to keep her family safe. I am appalled, furious. The picture of her being regularly raped in the back of a police car never leaves my mind. It is still there.

1975 -- On my way back from a picket line I pass a block where all houses were torn down. I see a man hit a woman. She falls. He kicks her and punches. She gets up, stumbles to get away. I stop my car, get out, wave my arms and yell. "Stop hitting her!" He punches. "STOP" I scream. Both look up. "STOP hitting her!" The man walks away. What else to do? After a while I drive on.

1975 -- I meet an 80-year-old man at a demonstration I organized for the union. I am told he is a veteran Communist and organizer. He tells me about McCarthyism and the Wobblies. I like him. I want to honor and learn from movement elders. He invites me to have dinner in his apartment. We eat. His place looks barren and poor. We sit on his one and only sofa. He tells me his parents died in a fire when he was young. Then he lunges at me, plants a kiss and tries to roll on top. I push him off, my legs and arms creating distance. I am flabbergasted. He is 80! He worked for good causes! I could hurt him but do not. I rush out the door, shaken and deeply disappointed.

1975 -- I move into a collective house in West Philly and join the Movement for a New Society. We have an arrangement that our neighbor can stay with us whenever her husband gets violent. We look out for her. At times she can barely get into the house before he catches up, yells obscenities and kicks at the door. She always goes back.

1976 -- On one of the main streets of my new neighborhood a black man stops me with a friendly "Hi." I say "hi" back. Then: "Hey girl I want to fuck you." "Not interested." I say more kindly than he deserves, but I don't want a fight. "Fuck you, its' because I am black, right? Hey you fucking racist!" I walk on, shaking. What a scam!

1976 -- A Movement for a New Society friend Amy and I hitchhike to Kansas for the national MNS gathering. Our last ride is with a long-haul trucker. Amy sleeps in the booth behind the seats. I spend the night warding him off - his hand and words - while Amy has a peaceful night. "You owe me," he says. "You owe me sex for getting a ride." We make it to Wichita OK. Bleary-eyed, I stumble into the meeting and tell a friend about the harassment. "Don't worry about it," he says. I am furious at his nonchalance.

1977 -- I take a nonviolent self-defense course, we tell stories of survival and victories. I join Women Organized Against Rape, Women Against Abuse, help organize Take Back the Night marches. I cry and rage in peer counseling sessions.

1977 -- I volunteer as a rape crisis counselor. We sit in tiny rooms in one of the only two hospitals equipped to deal with rape, often at night. We wait for survivors to arrive. I don't know what to do with the children. I have no skills or words. For them life will never be really OK again. Some nights the hotline is transferred to our house. The phone wakes me up. "Women Organized Against Rape. Can I help you?"

London, 1978 -- Scott and I run nonviolent direct action training for the Operation Namibia boat crew, in solidarity with the African struggle against imperialism. We sleep at crew members' apartments. My place comes with a drunken, crazy father who camps out in front of my bedroom. The hall is tight and he grabs for my crutch every time I go to the toilet. I push him away. He is not very strong and I know how to deal with drunks. But I can't sleep. I am afraid he might break the locked door and catch me unaware. My co-facilitator Scott is sunny and rested. The son shrugs his shoulders when I tell. "Yes, that's my old man."

Philadelphia, 1979 -- I am waiting for my trolley at the 30th Street train station. On the other side of the track stands a tall man. Something is off. He catches my eyes, opens his coat. He is nude, penis erect. Got cha! I feel invaded, furious. I gasp. When I tell a friend, he says. "I am glad nothing bad happened to you." What?

Street comments in the U.S. echo Germany's: "Hey honey, want some nookie?" "Nice breasts!" "Like a fuck?" "Slut." "Kissy, kiss." "Ooooh! Look at that ass!" "You don't know what you are missing." I am old enough, by now a mother and experienced activist, to talk back. But I keep my distance. Many guys are uncomfortable with eye contact when I say: "Stop." I don't want to be beaten up. It will take many more years for my heart to beat normally when I pass construction sites.

I have not even touched the 1980s. I have 40 more years of stories. In 2018 sexual misconduct is in the news along with the question: why did you not say something? Often, we did, and sometimes it led to change.

I tell my daughters that no matter what, I will always be there for them. When they complain about a slight or insult, I always say: "Want me to come, organize a picket line?"

Anger and disappointment do not rule my life. Just the opposite, I am an optimistic activist. The stories here are real, but only a part of my life. I have a wonderful family, loving friends and joyous communities. Being exposed to sexual abuse and violence are a window into the suffering experienced because of war, race, class, gender or sexual identity. The main lesson is support ourselves and others, speak up and organize for change. The only lingering challenge is that I have a hard time sleeping at hotels, on trains, in cars or in friends' houses. Sometimes I wake at home when the wind blows, trees moan and shutters rattle. My unconscious tells me: be alert.

Author's note: In the above, I only mention a person's race when it is pertinent to the story. The dialogue is often summarized and recalled to the best of my recollection.

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