The early spring breeze rustled the edges of my skirt as I stood high above the street waiting for the train. It was the first warmth Chicago had seen that year. I felt free, finally leaving home the layers the winter frost had required.
I was heading downtown for dinner with my teacher colleagues. Our students’ state exams were over and we were eager to celebrate.
The platform’s elevation brought a fresher air and welcome quiet from the street noise. I gazed up at the night sky with its scatter of stars.
I barely noticed the man about a few dozen feet away, eyeing me steadily. Nonchalantly, he began to walk toward me. I soon realized his uncomfortable closeness.
He stood just inches from me. Quickly his arm jerked forward. He shoved his hand between my legs, violently reaching his fingers up, twisting and grabbing hard.
My heart jumped. A growl sprang up from deep within me. My roar erupted into his smirking face. Startled, he released his hand and scuttered down the metal stairs.
Rattled and primally angry, I sprinted after him. I reached the turnstiles, my heart pounding and eyes wide. He had already melted into the bustle of the station.
I never learned who he was or who he may have violated before me.
I gathered myself and arrived at the restaurant, still raw and numb, disgust and shame damping my usual cheer. A stiff drink and the warmth of friends helped. The women around the table shared their stories of leers, taunts and grabs by men known and unknown.
In the fifteen years since, as a teacher and then a pediatrician, I have listened as hundreds of students and patients told me of their assaults.
The third grade girl, relentlessly called a slut by classmates, cutting herself with dull scissors and expressing her thoughts of suicide.
The 12 year-old, throwing up before school, pregnant after an uncle raped her months before.
The gaggle of 8th grade girls anxiously laughing, not sure how to react as the most popular boy in their class slaps their behinds as he walks by.
The high school sophomore, sexually trafficked by the 20 year-old man she thought was her first boyfriend, brought to the emergency department, surly and sad with bruises and Chlamydia.
The gay 17 year-old, recently out of the closet, now living on the street after his father beat his face into an unrecognizable mush.
The quiet college freshman, lying on the exam table swollen and bloody, blaming herself for going to the party where she was drugged and passed around by the boys.
The 21 year-old transgender girl, coming to the urgent care for a panic attack, anxious after a counselor at the LGBTQ drop-in center groped her.
The young mother asking for her toddler to be checked “down there”, fearing the child was touched like she was decades before.
The grandmother nervously joking, “Oh, every girl just has to learn to brush it off” as I counsel her granddaughter about good touch and bad touch.
While often the perpetrators escape consequences, the victims do not. They carry an insidious burden, often only told behind closed doors. As doctors, we become the witnesses of our patients’ shame, their trauma, their residual fear and lasting anxiety. We see every day how one grab can alter a lifetime.
So in the chill of this inauguration day, I was brought back to that Chicago train platform. I returned to those moments with my patients, remembering their doubts, their pain, their anger, their despair.
A man who has grabbed and groped women has now been elevated to the top of our nation’s government. A man whose talk has been demeaning and vulgar. A man whose behavior has been excused, rationalized, ignored. A man whose victims have been ridiculed and hushed.
We will no longer stay silent or hidden.
Today we come out of the train platform, the alley, the college dorm room, the counselor’s office, the emergency department, the clinic.
And tomorrow we will continue the struggle against those who marginalize or objectify us, who attempt to control our bodies.
We will fight the normalization of assault.
We will advocate for our patients, many still too young to vote or speak loudly.
We will resist the grabs.
Ways to act: