by Elise Hempel
Sometime during college, back home in the Chicago area for the summer, I found a job as a secretary for a successful real estate agent who kept two offices in his condo – his own out of sight in a bedroom, and the other, for his secretary, right there as you walked in, the large, dark wrap-around desk commanding a good portion of the living room. I don't recall my exact secretarial duties, except for answering the phone, but I remember my boss's name and his face, as well as my overall discomfort with having no fellow employees, with being in an office that was also someone's home – just the two of us there together all day long.
And I remember what he asked me to do for him on my last day of work before I returned to school for the fall semester: Would I let him take my picture? Would I get down on the shag carpet on all fours and stick my butt up in the air while he sat on the sofa with his camera and snapped a permanent image of his favorite part of me?…
What did I say at that moment, and how long did I pause before I complied? Why didn't I shout no or spit in his face? Why didn't I grab my purse and my final paycheck and storm out of that condo, resolutely slamming the door behind me? How many more suggestive comments had there been before then, inappropriate remarks I'd tried to ignore, laughed off because I had no idea what to say?
Over the decades, every now and then, I've asked myself these questions. And I see myself in a different, parallel life, with the strength and self-confidence and judgement I have now; I see myself shouting no and slamming that door. But I was 20 years old then. And he, in that last hour or so, was still my boss, at least 25 years older than me, a man with money, slick clothes, and a deep voice. He had shyly smiled, had made his request seem like some funny little joke, like just a silly little last favor before I left. And – his nickname for me, a grown woman, was “Kid.”
For some strange reason – because he simply saw the photos as a normal event, as “our little secret”? – he wanted to send me a few of them when I was back in college, so I must have also complied in giving him my address. And sure enough, after I was back in classes, my summer in Chicago already fading, a thick envelope arrived in my mailbox. As I sat on my dorm-room bed and tore open the envelope, reading the note still affectionately calling me “Kid,” staring down at the two or three photos of myself in that ludicrous position, I should have been outraged. But my main thought was how terrible I looked, how unflattering the photos were, how physically unattractive I was. And I had a vague, sick feeling in my stomach for having allowed those photos to be taken, for having gotten down on that carpet without protest. I should have hated that man, but instead I hated my body and my character; I hated myself.
You could say that this brief event in my life wasn't much of anything. After all, it wasn't rape. I wasn't called the b-word or the c-word. I was fully clothed, and I wasn't even touched. And, I cooperated with my own “photo session.” Why, then, haven't I told anyone until this very moment? Why, after more than 35 years, does it still feel so … yucky?
Donald Trump's language of sexual assault when he spoke to Billy Bush on a live mic in 2005 during a filming of “Access Hollywood” is now famous, and it makes me happy to know that the activist/artist group HALT has created and distributed a poster with those very words, “signed by” The President of the United States of America. But I can't help but wonder, as I wondered back in October when Trump's disgusting monologue was first released, why the media ever let go of it. Why, why, why did they let it fade at all? Why didn't they keep repeating it, keep hammering it into our heads, keep plastering those words everywhere? Why has it happened that we now have a president like Donald Trump?
The most I can do, perhaps, though it's difficult and uncomfortable, is share one small story from my past – a way of keeping outrage alive, of maintaining disgust at the abnormal. The man in my story is quite possibly dead today, but he has resurfaced in the image of Donald Trump. And even though it's by pure coincidence, it's fitting that he was also an over-tanned real estate man, with a one-syllable last name and a floating wedge of hair.