It was the last home volleyball game of the season, and the stands were packed. We were playing the third-best team in the state; we were fourth. The pressure to win was severe.
We dominated the first two sets. Then the third set came down to match point, and we were ahead. Our team was one play away from winning and moving on to compete for the division title. The opposing middle hitter jumped in the air and slammed the ball out of bounds. Our victory was confirmed, except for one small fact: unseen by anyone else, I had touched the ball before it had gone out.
Although the referees had already made the call in our favor and my teammates had begun celebrating, I knew what I had to do. I walked up to the ref and told the truth. I felt the crowd staring at me as confusion swept across the gym. Then the game continued. After a few more rallies we lost that set, and we went on to lose the entire match. We just weren’t playing with the same momentum as before.
I was only a junior, but some of my teammates were seniors, and this had been their final game. Watching them cry was heart wrenching. I felt guilty, and for the next week I regretted that moment of honesty.
Then one day at the mall a group of girls approached me and said they had been at the game to cheer for the other team. They said my sportsmanship had inspired them that night, and I had gained their respect.
Webster, New York
As a child I was a chatterbox given to strong opinions. The only thing I loved better than an argument was a good story. We had several gifted storytellers in the family, people who could take an insignificant event and make it both hilarious and poignant in the retelling. Even my normally reticent father would recount mysterious tales of supernatural encounters that made us kids shiver deliciously.
Given his talent, it puzzled me that my father never talked about his years as a military pilot in World War II. He had one story about his flight crew building a hut out of scrap material but would speak of nothing else having to do with the war.
I was fifteen when my grandpa was diagnosed with lung cancer. My father began falling apart and drinking heavily. When drunk, he would alternate between venomous anger toward my younger sisters and me and maudlin weeping over his own sad fate. I hated this behavior, hated that I was losing the handsome father I had so loved and admired. And I hated most of all the times when his mawkish moods degenerated into unseemly displays of affection, and he would kiss me on the mouth and embrace me in ways that no father ought to embrace his teenage daughter.
I knew this was wrong and that my mother would have made him stop, had I told her. But the part of me that had always been so quick to debate and protest seemed to freeze up.
It stayed like that for years. When my first husband wanted to make love and I didn’t, I had difficulty saying no. When I did, it came out all wrong, and I ended up feeling terrible. We did not develop the healthy intimate rhythm that a good marriage entails.
When my father died of liver failure, I felt only relief.
Years later, when I was well into my second marriage and the frozen part of me had at last begun to thaw, my niece was doing genealogical research for a school project and looked into my father’s military service. She discovered that his plane had been shot down over occupied France, and he’d been taken prisoner. I cannot begin to imagine the horrors he endured. Ultimately he was rescued by members of the French Resistance, who smuggled him out of the country to England. In the debriefing that followed, he was forbidden to breathe a word of what had happened to him, even to his wife. It was all highly classified. For whatever reason, he obeyed this order to the end, while he drank himself to death and wreaked havoc in the lives of those who loved him. I can’t help wondering how our lives would have been different had he been able to talk about it.
Nevada City, California
I’d always believed in speaking my mind as a matter of honor and integrity. Then in the late 1990s I was employed by an international nongovernmental organization to work in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Mandatory male chaperons accompanied me everywhere, because I was a woman and therefore to be treated like a child. These men were responsible for all my actions. If I spoke up, they would be threatened with whippings and public humiliation by the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. My speaking up would also have resulted in the abrupt closure of our programs for women and children and been an embarrassment to my Afghan colleagues. At that time Westerners who voiced their opinions could be expelled from the country, but Afghans who made politically unacceptable statements lost their jobs, or got locked up, or disappeared.
Eventually I became as silent and resentful as the rest of the population. Working and living in that oppressive environment had taught me to be quiet.
When I was a shy twelve-year-old, my favorite subject at school was art, and my art teacher was German and very strict. One day she taught us how to use perspective. We were to paint the road going to our house. “The road is always narrower at the far end,” she said.
“Not at my house,” I said. (Our road widened at the end for a turnaround.)
“What?” said my teacher. “The road always decreases in the distance!”
“Not at my house,” I repeated. Before I could explain, she called me stupid and made me leave the class. Later I had to apologize for talking back.
I didn’t try to draw or paint again until I was sixty-seven and a widow with grown children.
I ended up teaching others to paint, which I am still doing at the age of ninety-five.
The year was 1971, and for a week my fifth-grade class spent a part of each day watching antidrug movies shown by a counselor from the local health department. I was particularly interested in the movie about LSD, which showed hippies in colorful clothing dancing to rock music. The vivid hallucinations were beautiful. At the end of the film one of the hippies jumped off a roof to his death, believing he could fly. I thought he was an idiot. Who wouldn’t want to stay inside with the pulsing music and swirling colors? I couldn’t wait to be a teenager and buy a lava lamp.
Afterward the counselor asked if anyone had thought about using drugs. My hand shot up. I looked around the room and saw no other hands raised. “Seriously?” I asked my two best friends. “Did you guys see that movie?” There was strained laughter. The counselor took me to the office and talked to me for half an hour. After I’d assured her that my fear of needles would prevent me from ever shooting up heroin, she walked me back to class.
That night, as I worked on my math homework, the phone rang. A few minutes later I heard my father’s heavy footsteps coming up the stairs to my room. I didn’t see him much unless I was in trouble. It turned into a long night of questions, ending in a list of punishments.
I did not speak in class for the rest of the year. By the end of sixth grade I was smoking pot as often as I could, and by the end of high school I had taken almost every drug I could find in our small suburban town.
I was the oldest of four children. When I was eleven, my widowed mother got remarried to a man who had courted us all with enthusiasm and kindness, but after the wedding his true personality emerged. We weren’t allowed to begin eating a meal until he was seated at the table. He liked to make us wait, and many nights I would leave for a baby-sitting job without dinner because he’d stayed behind a closed bedroom door with my mother. When we went on an outing, we couldn’t get out of the car before my stepfather did. We would often sit in silence for fifteen minutes, listening for the click of his door handle.
After I left home, I rarely went back to visit. The summer I was thirty-three, I decided to attend a family reunion at my mother and stepfather’s house in Florida. My husband and I drove from California in our van. When we arrived, my stepfather said there was a local law against parking “trucks” overnight in a residential driveway: we would have to move the van every evening to a grocery-store parking lot a mile away. This sounded ridiculous. We left our vehicle parked where it was and never got a ticket.
Next my stepfather said it was too expensive to run the air conditioner in the Florida summer, even though he was a physician and could afford it. So I asked how much a week’s air conditioning would increase their electric bill, and I took up a collection among my siblings and their spouses to cover it. The house remained cool for our entire visit.
The last night of our reunion, we all planned to go out to dinner. When it came time to leave, my mother and stepfather were in their bedroom with the door closed while ten of us waited in the living room. I knew from experience he was capable of not coming out for hours. Finally I walked to the bedroom door and said loudly, “We’re leaving. We’ll see you there.”
Shortly after we were seated at the restaurant, my mother and stepfather quietly joined us. For the first time since I was eleven years old, I felt released from fear and helplessness in my stepfather’s presence.
In the summer of 1946 I became a prisoner on the third floor of my family’s large, gated house in Kolkata, India — known then as Calcutta. A conflict had broken out in the streets between Hindus and Muslims, and it would eventually kill five thousand people in the city. We were Christians, but the violence was so random it seemed anybody could be murdered simply on suspicion. I watched from an upstairs window as passersby were stabbed. I was seven.
My father was a soft-spoken man with scores of friends in both the Hindu and Muslim communities. Many of those friends lived in small, unprotected houses and were prime targets for roving mobs of angry men. One, a professor whose son was my friend, asked for refuge in our house, and my parents immediately agreed. The word spread, and by the next evening nine more families were staying with us. My father did not feel he could turn them away. When another four families sought our help, he emptied the library to make space for them.
Three days later, as the killing continued on the streets, word of my father’s actions reached a mob leader, who showed up at our house with two associates and demanded to see my father. My mother insisted on coming to the door with him. I stood just behind her. The mob leader said that, as Christians, we could remain in our home undisturbed, but the outsiders we had taken in must return to their own houses.
My father explained that they had come to him because they feared for their lives. How could he ask them to leave?
The mob leader was unmoved. “If you keep them in your home,” he said menacingly, “you will not be safe anymore.”
My father, whom I had always known to avoid confrontations, suddenly turned firm. “I am sorry,” he said. “They need my help, and I cannot turn my back on them.”
In less than two hours the mob returned with a collection of scrap wood — mostly broken furniture from houses they had looted — and heaped it at the four corners of our home. My father frantically called the police, but almost total anarchy prevailed.
As we watched from the windows, the mob set fire to the piles. Puffs of smoke appeared, then flames. I threw up in terror. My mother tried to calm my brother and me as my father continued to make desperate calls.
Then we heard what sounded like firecrackers, and we saw the would-be arsonists running. The government had decided to send in the troops, who were advancing and firing on the mobs. We were saved.
More than sixty years later what remains most vivid in my memory is how my soft-spoken father, when pushed to his limit, decided to speak up.
My college boyfriend was a blond surfer named Eric. Late one night his housemate Jason and a group of other boys drunkenly defaced several school buildings with shaving-cream swastikas. Eric hadn’t been involved, but the whole household was disciplined by the university. Jason mumbled an apology to Eric, more for hampering his social life than anything else, and I assured him it was no big deal, just drunken hijinks.
Without mentioning the swastika incident, I asked my Holocaust-survivor father if Eric could visit me over spring break. He granted permission but visibly blanched when my Aryan-looking boyfriend came to the breakfast table in a tank top printed with a modern German armed-forces emblem, a variation on the iron cross that was used by the Nazis. A gracious host, Dad never said a word.
By the end of the school year, my relationship with Eric had fizzled. Meanwhile my father was becoming active in the Los Angeles Holocaust-survivors community. My younger sister and I knew that Dad had been orphaned at eight when his mother had died in a concentration camp, but not much else. When my younger sister’s ninth-grade English class read The Diary of Anne Frank, my father was invited to her classroom to speak. Gradually he began telling his story at schools all over Southern California. I guess it was easier for him to tell other people’s children about the Holocaust than it was for him to talk to us.
For my senior thesis in American studies I wrote about my Jewish identity, incorporating the oral histories of both my parents. Although I received high marks on the paper, I felt as if I had bluffed my way through it, hiding behind academic citations rather than expressing my true feelings.
Many years later, while dying of cancer, my father helped compile and publish a collection of fifty-two essays by Holocaust survivors called How We Survived. His story was one of them. Too sick to attend the publishing party, Dad watched a live Internet stream in his hospital room with my mother by his side. At the event my eleven-year-old son read from his grandfather’s chapter. Mom said it was one of the few times during Dad’s illness that she’d seen him cry.
Soon after my father’s death, my son told me one of his schoolmates had called him a “stupid Jew,” and another had said, “At least I’m not a Jew.” My son begged me not to intervene. “I have a hard-enough time making friends as it is,” he said.
That evening I drafted an e-mail to the sixth-grade teachers, the school psychologist, the academic counselor, and the principal. In it I offered to arrange for a Holocaust survivor to visit the school, or I could come in myself and share my father’s story. “Please contact me as soon as possible,” I wrote. “I want to talk.”
Los Angeles, California
After I got out of prison, I was mostly distant and aloof around my neighbors: always polite but never close. Of course, any of them could have looked me up on the sex-offender registry and discovered that I’d molested a minor, but I figured I would deal with that when it arose. Why talk to new acquaintances about my greatest shame?
My neighbor Carolina was different, however. She was so open that I just had to be open in return. One night she asked where I had been living before this apartment building, and I admitted the truth: prison. When she saw that I wasn’t joking, she asked what I’d done. And I told her. I offered no mitigating circumstances or excuses, because there were none.
I waited for Carolina’s expression to change to shock and horror, but it never did. She simply asked questions, and I didn’t hide what a terrible person I’d been. I told her that the pain of the guilt I felt was nothing compared to the pain I’d caused my victim. Carolina was understanding, and we remained friends.
A year later Carolina invited me to a Halloween party at her friend Dusty’s house. I was uncomfortable about going. Dusty and his family likely wouldn’t have been keen to have me if they’d known my story. But Carolina insisted.
It was a costume party, and everyone was in good spirits. I was just beginning to relax when one of the guests mentioned that Halloween brought the child molesters out of hiding, and she wished something could be done about them. Someone else offered to go online and look up local offenders in the registry.
“Go ahead,” Dusty said. “I got a Magnum and plenty of bullets. I could make Halloween safe for kids again.”
I sipped my beer nervously, feeling as if Dusty’s gun were pointing right at me.
Then Carolina spoke up: “You can’t assume they’re all bad, especially if you don’t know them.”
Dusty hit the table with his fist and insisted that the only cure for sexual predators is death.
Carolina went on to say that some child molesters feel remorse, and the stigma makes it nearly impossible for them to be normal citizens again. The crime is terrible, but everybody deserves a second chance.
I was awed that my friend was arguing my case for me when I was too afraid to speak up myself. On the ride home that night I thanked her and said I felt a little more human than before.
St. Petersburg, Florida
One afternoon when I was ten, my father enlisted my help on a painting project. I don’t remember what we were painting or why he chose me and not one of my older siblings to be his helper. Dad and I knelt together on the floor, which was covered by a hand-braided rug his mother had made. Between us on a small dropcloth was a newly opened gallon of bright-red paint.
My father was an impatient and volatile man, and I was a nervous and emotional child. Most of the time I carefully avoided being alone with him. Yet there we were.
After cautioning me not to get paint on the rug, my father drew my attention to some brushes on the floor behind me. As I turned to look, my leg hit the can and knocked it over, spilling its contents across the rug. My father exploded, his face red and fierce. I withdrew into myself to endure the onslaught.
Twenty years later my father took me out to lunch to discuss a financial proposition. He wanted to invest a large sum of his own money in a business venture in my name. I had recently broken up with a boyfriend who was angry and volatile, like my father. Over the course of our ten years together I had allowed this boyfriend to control where I went, who my friends were, and how I spent my money. To escape the relationship, I’d had to learn to push past my fear.
As I listened to the details of the business deal, the situation felt familiar: here was my father, asking me once again to work with him on a project.
When he’d finished talking, I said I didn’t think the proposal was a good idea. Exasperated, he asked why not. I stared down at the table, sensing I was on dangerous ground. Then I looked up and said, “It’s just that I remember there being a lot of anger in our house when I was growing up.”
My father’s eyes hardened, and the corner of his mouth began to twitch, but I continued to look him in the eye. After a moment his expression shifted from anger to impatience. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about, and he motioned to the server for the bill.
In years to come I forced myself to say what I needed to say to my father on many occasions, but he never seemed able to hear me.
Bonnie Duncan Tucker
I was the on-duty social worker the day the woman came in. Her seventeen-year-old son, Josh, was in serious trouble. Their pastor had insisted that she and her husband use “tough love” with the boy, so her husband had made him leave home. Josh had been living under a bridge for months.
Without her husband’s knowledge, Josh’s mother had been bringing her son food, warm blankets, and clean clothes, but he’d gotten worse, drastically so. When she’d seen him that morning, she said, he’d been lying in a sleeping bag stained with his own waste. He hadn’t even recognized her, and his speech had been incomprehensible.
Before being forced to move out, Josh had refused to leave his room for months, spoken with people who were not there, and awakened screaming. Still, the family pastor had discouraged the parents from seeking outside help.
“He said Josh was faking,” she told me, “that we’d babied him too much, and that our son needed a good dose of reality.”
“Did that seem right to you?” I asked.
She looked down at her clenched fists. She said she’d never stood up to her husband or their pastor. For the sake of peace in the home, she’d always been obedient.
“And yet you’re asking me for advice.”
“Yes, I am,” she whispered.
I explained that because Josh was a minor, I was required to call for an ambulance to pick him up. The woman gave me directions to her son’s location and said she would meet the ambulance there and go with him to the hospital. She left my office clutching contact information for a local support group for parents of mentally ill children.
Josh was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. It would be months before he was stabilized, and even longer before he could be in charge of his own medications and function in the outside world. He has progressed to a halfway house now and manages to work a few hours a day in a controlled environment. His mother is his staunchest advocate; his father continues to insist that Josh is “too sensitive.”
My dress is covered in lace and tiny pearls, and my shoes are custom dyed to match. I am standing in the vestibule of the church, about to take my father’s arm so he can give me away.
I peek around the corner and see three hundred smiling people waiting for my appearance. I think of all the planning and money that have gone into this wedding I don’t want. Why am I realizing this only now?
I look at my father and feel sick. “Daddy . . .”
At this one word, my father knows. He says I don’t have to go through with it. My mother will explain to everyone. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll get some brunch and talk it over.” My father can always find a reason to eat brunch.
Just as quickly I change my mind and tell him to walk me down the aisle. He refuses and storms out of the church. I run after him, holding my train and explaining that it’s just jitters.
“I don’t trust that guy. Never have,” my father responds. “Something about him doesn’t add up.” My father is an accountant. For him things either add up or they don’t. There is no in-between.
“Are you even listening to me?” I plead, my voice panicky.
After a moment he sighs and agrees to go back inside. I pull the veil over my face, not wanting to see too clearly the world I am about to enter.
When we get to the altar and the priest asks, “Who gives this woman away?” my father leans over and whispers in a loud voice, “Are you sure?” Everyone laughs. I smile the first of many fake smiles I will give over the course of this marriage and say yes. My fiancé takes my arm, and my father trips over my train on his way to sit next to my mother.
I am young. I am not strong enough yet to say what I feel. I pretend that everything is fine.
I copied down the 1-800 child-abuse hotline number from a flyer in the girls’ bathroom at my high school. Then I went home in the middle of the day to make the call on our kitchen wall phone with the long, curly cord. When a woman’s voice answered, the words came tumbling out of me: “I’m calling to report child abuse because I want it to stop.” I had never used the words child abuse for the things I had seen. The woman on the other end kept me calm and asked me questions, probing for specifics. It hadn’t occurred to me that the truth of what I was saying about my mother might be called into question.
When I hung up, I began shaking and pacing. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was my father.
“Peanut, what did you do?”
I started crying and apologizing. I circled the dining-room table, stretching the phone cord around chairs, as I tried to explain how my mother had been lying to him all these years, and my siblings and I had remained silent. I sat under the table, wiping my face on my sleeves. He was crying by then, too. That was the hardest part: shattering my father’s illusion of our happy family.
My sister was yanked out of school during a spelling test. They took her into child-protective services, and for six months she lived in foster care with many different families. Some were nice; others weren’t. But nobody hit her.
There were appointments and court dates and counselors. Telling the truth was more work than I’d ever imagined. The people I talked to asked for evidence: blood and bruises and weapons. But it wasn’t that kind of abuse. My mother wasn’t always violent. She’d even struggled not to hit my sister. As a result her punishments had become twisted and creative. They’d broken my sister’s spirit, which is more permanent than breaking her bones.
The more I talked about it, the guiltier I felt. For fifteen years I’d watched my little sister cower and beg while getting beaten; sleep in garbage bags in the closet; sit at the dinner table with a whole onion in her mouth, lips cracked and bleeding. She couldn’t speak up for herself because she had come to believe what our mother had always told her: that she deserved it.
During family-therapy sessions I learned that my mother had suffered similar abuse during her own childhood. I discovered that child abuse is like a disease that afflicts a family generation after generation. I spent years wishing that I had made that phone call sooner. But mostly I wished that I’d never been forced to make it at all.
For the longest time I was reluctant to have children. I was afraid I might lose control around them. I feared that a propensity for blood-boiling rage had been handed down to me by my ancestors. But the moment my daughter was born, I looked at her and knew that I would never hurt her. I’d broken the pattern when I’d made that phone call when I was fifteen years old.
In my twenties I dated mostly men but some women, too. I assumed I would eventually partner with a man and never have to tell my then-conservative Christian parents about my “adventures.” But when I was twenty-eight, I fell in love with a woman, and I could keep my secret no longer. I decided to tell my mom and dad during their next visit.
I made arrangements for my housemates to be away for the afternoon, so I could break the news to my parents in private. I remember my mother’s tight, controlled expression as she strained to hold back tears. Afterward she and my father said they had to leave. Before my mother even made it to the door, she was clutching my father and sobbing. I felt terrible for making her cry.
Nearly ten years later that girlfriend is now my spouse, and we have a three-year-old daughter. I’ve had to continue speaking up at times: coming out at work; correcting my dentist when she referred to my “husband”; telling my parents that we were going to have a commitment ceremony. (“You aren’t getting legally married, are you?” my father asked.) With my daughter watching and learning from my example, staying silent doesn’t feel like an option.
My parents didn’t come to our wedding, but they have grown much more supportive and even voted against an anti-gay-marriage amendment in their state. They say they love my spouse, and I trust that they mean it. They embrace our daughter as their granddaughter. It wasn’t easy all those years ago to tell them what my spouse meant to me, but it was worth it.
It was a Thursday night, and I was weary from a day of work when I got the phone call. Six hundred miles away in San Diego, my mother was in the intensive-care unit after nearly dying of a heart attack.
The next morning I entered Mom’s glass-walled hospital room, and we both burst into tears. It was devastating to see this once-vital woman in bed with an oxygen mask on and tubes and wires running everywhere.
Because she’d lost her ability to speak, the doctors couldn’t be sure she understood the decisions that needed to be made. So I was put in charge. Her cardiologist told me they wanted to perform emergency surgery immediately. When I asked what the risks of the procedure were, he said, “If we do nothing, she will die soon anyway.”
My mother’s desire had always been to live her final days at home. I hardly slept that night as I decided what to do: honor her wishes or follow the doctor’s recommendation, even though the operation might leave her weakened and dependent — an outcome she would not want.
On my fourth day in San Diego I was sitting beside my mother and talking on the phone with a friend. My hand was resting, palm up, on Mom’s bed when I said to my friend, “I want to get her out of the ICU and move her downstairs, but if I do that, I might as well take her home.”
As soon as I said the word home, my mother’s hand shot out and grabbed mine with an energy she had not shown since I’d arrived. Feeling her grasp, I finally knew what to do. I told the doctor I wanted to take my mother home and put her under the care of hospice.
He said I couldn’t do that. She would die once we took her off the heart medications and life support.
Of course, that was the point: to let her die at home instead of on the operating table. Fortified by the memory of her grasp, I stood my ground.
Later that day, after the nurse had removed the tubes and wires, my mother and I rejoiced. She couldn’t speak, but she could laugh and sing. I was sad to be letting go of hope for her recovery, but happy to be bringing her home, where she died peacefully four days later.
When I was a small girl, a teenage boy who lived across the street told me he would play Candy Land with me and give me one pink and one green piece of taffy if I let him do things to me and didn’t tell. Thankfully I was a smart kid and tricked him into giving me the candy after he did some things but not everything. Then I left him standing there with his pants around his ankles.
At dinner that night I proudly set the taffies by my glass of milk. My brother asked where I’d gotten them, and, true to my word, I did not tell. I had already told my mother, though, because that didn’t count as “telling.”
When my parents approached the neighbor boy’s parents about what had happened, they were mortified and begged my mom and dad not to press charges. They’d make sure their son received counseling. My parents agreed.
When I was a few years older, the boy molested me again in my own home while I sat on his lap and read to him about a boy and a giant fish. My brother and a group of kids from the neighborhood were right downstairs. After a while I feigned thirst and went to get a glass of water, then never came back. Again I told my mom and dad, and again they went to the boy’s parents but agreed not to press charges. I wasn’t alone with that boy a third time. I later learned he was also molesting his sister and other neighborhood children.
In college I was working in a coffeehouse when in walked the neighbor boy, all grown up. My skin went cold, but I was polite to him. After a few daily visits it became clear that he knew who I was and what effect his presence was having on me. One day, when he approached the counter for his food, he said, “Why don’t you come over here and read to me?” I almost threw up on his sandwich. Later I told my mom what had happened, and she said he was married now and had a baby daughter. I felt paralyzed by this news.
In the state where this occurred, underage victims have until their twenty-first birthday to report a sexual crime committed against them. I’d just turned twenty. For almost a year I struggled with whether to report my former neighbor and risk messing up his life — if he had reformed his ways — or not report him and risk his messing up his wife’s and daughter’s lives, if he was still the same person.
On the day before I turned twenty-one, I called the courts. The woman who answered encouraged me to report the crime. If I didn’t, she said, I could still give a statement down the road and be asked to testify against him, but he couldn’t be prosecuted for what he’d done to me. I thanked her and told her I would call her back. I never did.
I’m thirty-seven and still haven’t spoken up.
As a child I was raised to be seen and not heard, so I never questioned my parents’ drinking.
My family went to the beach at least once a year. Whenever it rained, we stayed inside and played games. Mom would sip wine, gin, or vodka from a dainty, stemmed glass while Dad would pour five fingers of whiskey into a water glass and slug it. Within half an hour there would be a sharp exchange of words between them. Dad would go off to bed, and the rest of us would resume the game.
When I was in my late forties, the family was sitting around a card table in the living room of a beach cottage. Dad swigged the last of his whiskey and headed to the bedroom. I knew we wouldn’t see him again until morning.
Excusing myself, I knocked on the bedroom door and went in. It was dark, and he was already in bed. I leaned over and kissed him, then said, “When you drink, you go away from us, and I really miss you. I wish you wouldn’t do that.” He didn’t respond. I shut the bedroom door and went back to the game.
In the morning my mother confronted me: “What did you say to your dad? He was really upset.”
I told her what I’d said and that I wasn’t sorry I’d done it.
I didn’t expect him to change, but he did. From that day on, until he died at the age of ninety-four, he never again drank in my presence or left a family game. I only wish I had spoken up sooner.
In the late 1980s I spent my junior year of college studying abroad in France. Though determined to immerse myself in the language and culture, I was shy and found it difficult to make French friends and navigate the country’s cultural mores.
I was particularly unsure how to handle the attentions of one of my French professors, a man in his fifties. I understood his words perfectly, but it took me a while to believe that someone of his age and position would make such blatant overtures to a twenty-year-old student. He sought me out in the library, asked for my phone number, and pressured me to join him for dinner. I dodged and demurred politely, not wanting to offend him, but one time he managed to get me away from the group for a private lunch during a student outing at the coast.
After that, I decided to raise the professor’s obvious breach of ethics and decorum with the institute’s directrice, a stylish, middle-aged French woman. She listened patiently as I described what had been happening and my discomfort with it. I expected her to condemn the professor’s behavior and rally to my defense. Instead she simply asked, “If you’re not interested, why don’t you just say no?”
When my children were younger, I tried to take them to church to give them a spiritual foundation. My husband was in the military, so we moved a lot and could never stay with a congregation for long. In Hawaii I found a church that I loved — except during the 2000 presidential election, when I arrived to find George W. Bush campaign materials placed on everyone’s seat.
In California we finally settled on a church that felt right. My thirteen-year-old son, Skyler, actually liked the pastor. Then came the 2008 election season, and we arrived one Sunday to find bright-yellow Yes on 8 signs all over the lobby. Proposition 8 was a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Skyler was immediately bothered by this show of support, but we took our seats. Then the pastor started preaching about how marriage should be only between one man and one woman. When he asked the congregation to repeat after him, “Yes on 8!” Skyler raised his newly deep voice with a loud and angry “Oh, please!”
My immediate reaction was to hiss at him to be quiet, but afterward I realized he was just standing up for the values I’d taught him, and I was proud. We didn’t go back to that church.
I’m ashamed to say that I still struggled with whether to vote for Proposition 8. Though I’d always been progressive and had many gay friends, I’d also had a strong religious indoctrination growing up. Thankfully I did come to the right conclusion, and Skyler’s speaking up in church was a big part of that.
My wife is black, and I am white. When we first met in the 1990s, I would tell her about racist comments I’d heard ignorant white people make. Could she believe it?
Of course she could. As a woman of color, she’d heard all the bad jokes and insensitive remarks. She’d grown up with them and was living with them every day. Finally she interrupted one of my stories to ask if I’d called out the person on what he or she had said. Because if I hadn’t, she didn’t need to hear about it.
In 1995 Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan organized a Million Man March in Washington, D.C., to combat negative stereotypes of black men. The day of the march I took my car to my mechanic. While I was there, another customer arrived. He had on a suit and drove an expensive car. I heard him talk about how those million black men could march in Washington because, after all, they weren’t working.
When he turned to leave, I was standing nearby. He met my eye and nodded.
“A grown man shouldn’t say those things,” I told him.
He smiled as if he didn’t understand.
My voice shaking, I told him his comments about the Million Man March were ignorant.
He looked past me and into the garage, but everyone there had gone back to work.
“I just wanted you to know that,” I said.
It was hard to speak up that first time. Over the years it’s gotten easier.