On Cowardice

There is a sexual predator in my community. This is not conjecture; it has been proven. I have been pretty outspoken about this person, and I have also paid the price. Still, I would speak out again. I am doing it right now. See what I just did there?

Last night, I was at the grocery store buying groceries for my friend’s birthday dinner that I was cooking. I had more groceries than usual–a huge haul–and, as I was pulling out my Kroger card and smiling at the cashier, I felt someone lean into me, get my attention. It was that predator.

He stood so close to me that the hair rose on my entire body. The cashier was quick, but I felt like we stood there side-by-side for an hour. My PTSD was on high alert. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I wonder if he was trying to intimidate me.

Maybe he was just trying to show me that he wasn’t afraid of me, that he didn’t think he had anything to be ashamed of.

I am not entirely convinced that he realizes his behavior was predatory. I am not entirely convinced that he doesn’t believe his own rationalizations.

All I know for sure is this: he picked my line. There were a dozen lanes open, and he chose to stand closely behind me with a bouquet of flowers in his hand.

What I also know for sure is this: I panicked.

I smiled at him and said, Hello.

I was polite to a predator. I like to think of myself as an activist, but at heart, I am still that woman who wants to be polite. How many women in the world have suffered because of their politeness?

Who suffers more? The polite women? Or the women who fight back?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I only know that I am both women, and I suffer.

When I left the grocery store, I got into my car. I was rattled. I had seen that man before and never had that kind of reaction, but he had also never stood so close to me.

As I drove home, I stared into the darkness in front of me. I was confronted with the reality that I am not nearly as tough as I like to think I am.

I was ashamed.

What I also know for sure is this: I once hugged my friend’s rapist.

I have never told her this story. Maybe she’ll read it here. Somehow, it feels easier to write it here than it would have felt to tell it to her face.

My writing offers me a veil of bravery, but I am a coward in person.

It was a few years ago. The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence had flown me into Boise to read from my essay. I had stayed with a friend, and that night, we went to a downtown restaurant for dinner, which is where I saw my friend’s rapist.

He wasn’t only my friend’s rapist. He was also a friend of Caleb’s, and I had once taken a fiction workshop from him. When I was dating Caleb, I had run into him at a bar where he had drunkenly told me that I had “something special” as a writer. He paused, then said, “Tell your boyfriend that he needs some of what you have in your writing.”

At the time, the Boise community of writers was all men. I thought that only the men got to be real writers.

I was flattered by his comments. I told a friend who was in the MFA program with Caleb, and she said, “He just wants to get in your pants.”

She was probably right.

Not long after that night in the bar, he raped a woman who wasn’t my friend at the time, but who would become my friend later. My friend who was raped wrote about it here.

She became my friend because I messaged her and asked her if it was difficult for her to see people remain friends with her rapist. My abuser was friends with her rapist, you see? And we were all a part of this circle together. She wrote back that it was very frustrating. She was further along in her healing than I was, but she understood me.

She made space for my anger, and that is something that I can’t say about others in that circle, which is why I’m no longer a part of it. Still, my friendship with her sustains me. I cannot say enough good about the people who make space for a woman’s anger in the wake of assault.

Last year, I saw her in L.A. at a conference. We went to a fancy VIP party together, and her agent asked how we had become friends. My friend said, “Well, Kelly’s abusive ex-husband is friends with my rapist,” and then, we both laughed. We talked about co-writing an essay about our friendship that had grown from our connections to abusive men, but we’re busy. She is now the film critic for the LA Weekly, and I am writing my memoir. We never got around to writing that essay.

Still, I think that it will happen someday.

We went to this VIP party that had a guest list. We drank all of the free drinks they offered us. We went to another party that had a mountain of champagne glasses. We took photos in a photo booth where we pretended to have received bad news. We laughed at the results. We talked about titling the essay that we were going to write, “Good News.”


Even then, I didn’t tell her about hugging her rapist.

My friends and I were walking into the restaurant. One of my friends saw him first. She said, “Uh-oh. Do we need to go somewhere else?” I didn’t know what to say.

“I’m okay,” I said.

We walked inside. He saw me, stood up, and then, he hugged me. And I hugged him back. It wasn’t a good hug. I just simply did not know what to do. He asked me what I was doing in town, and I told him that I had been reading at a conference of domestic violence and sexual assault advocates. He looked like he wanted to vomit.

And then, my friends and I had dinner. I moved on. Still, I felt ashamed. I had let my friend’s rapist–my own abuser’s enabler–touch me.

More than that, I didn’t defend her, and I didn’t defend myself

A friend wrote to me the other night. She wrote, “I feel like you’re unstoppable and I need that kind of presence!”

But here’s what I know for sure: I am not always tough. Sometimes, I am a coward.

Sometimes, I am stoppable.