My Fears, My Daughters, and #MeToo

The movement has unfolded in public. What about the conversations closer to home?

An illustration of sitting women obscured by brushstrokes
Ping Zhu
Editor’s Note: This article is part of Parenting in an Uncertain Age, a series about the experience of raising children in a time of great change.

For a long time, my younger daughter and her friends didn’t go to the movies or the mall. They are all post-9/11 babies, and they’ve grown up in the shadow of a violence they don’t really understand. These girls somehow intuited that public spaces could be combustible, and steered clear of them to avoid outbursts of violence. In the past four years—with about five school shootings a month, according to one count—the violence has come to them.

My daughter and her friends were also aware of another kind of vulnerability. A celebrated, charismatic English teacher at their school was found guilty of molesting two girls, one of whom claimed to have gotten pregnant by him. The teacher was charged with 14 sex-abuse counts and faced up to 11 years in prison. A plea deal meant he spent only six months behind bars. But the head of school, who subsequently resigned, never spoke to the student body about the mistakes that were made or the ethics breached. Once again, my daughter and her friends, who were 9th graders at the time of the trial, were shadowed by something dark and coercive and frightening, something no one wanted to talk about.

For my own daughters—who are now 16 and 22—these issues are much more personal, although it pains me to say so. They were haunted by my phobias, the result of a PTSD that went undiagnosed for decades. I, too, was molested as a teenager by a much older man, who also battered me, and the abuse went on for almost a year. The memoir I wrote, The Future Tense of Joy, is about many things—marriage, motherhood, the consolations of belonging—but at its heart it’s about abuse and its aftermath. I wrote it for my daughters, when they were on the brink of adolescence. That was the moment I had gotten lost.

My children and I laugh now at the absurdity of many of my fears: I wouldn’t let them drink from a public water fountain or push an elevator button. I warned them of pit bulls and public handrails and restaurant utensils that didn’t seem clean. My writing about these fears was liberating for them, too, but my book tour introduced another kind of agony: There I was, speaking “intimate” words like nipple aloud to a group of strangers at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. Inevitably, at every book signing, someone would linger at the back of the bookstore, coming forward only when the room had cleared. She would press my hand, eyes lowered, and tell me in a conspiratorial whisper that my story was her story, too.

Then, almost a year to the day after my book’s publication, the first accusations against Harvey Weinstein emerged. I never expected to see the cascade of abuse scandals that followed, nor to be part of the revelations about Hollywood misconduct, by disclosing that the actor Richard Dreyfuss harassed me for months when I worked for him in my mid-20s. (I’d mentioned this on my private Facebook page, after Dreyfuss publicly praised his son for revealing his alleged harassment by Kevin Spacey.) My story got picked up and, again, my daughters were embarrassed. Even for me, seeing my name and the word penis in the same sentence was a bit of a shock. Although Dreyfuss publicly denied exposing himself to me, he did acknowledge in a statement to New York magazine that he had engaged in what he "thought was a consensual seduction ritual that went on and on for many years.” The public nature of the experience was harrowing, but as I told the reporter at New York magazine, I didn’t want my kids “to grow up in a world where people can’t tell the truth about these things.”

Now “these things” are being talked about in the world at large, but what about closer to home? Like many other parents, I’ve learned not to approach momentous conversations head-on, but rather incidentally, when emptying the dishwasher or driving to school. I broached the subject of #MeToo with trepidation, but my thoughtful, watchful older daughter was anything but circumspect. “I think it should be called the #IWantToPunchYouInTheFace movement,” she said, which astonished me, since she is the least physically aggressive person I know.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised me: She was deeply affected by a self-defense course that was mandatory at her all-girls high school. (I think it should be mandatory for girls everywhere.) The class, founded by a rape survivor, taught the girls how to use their natural strengths to foil attackers in a host of terrifying scenarios. Skeptics may wonder if the girls could actually deploy these fist jabs and leg thrusts in a moment of crisis, but one schoolmate did: Harassed by a concertgoer at Coachella, she busted his jaw with the heel of her palm, and then waited patiently until an ambulance arrived.

Before she left for college, my older daughter and I talked at length about frat parties and date-rape drugs. She knew about the campus ride-sharing service and the nail polish that helps determine if a drink was spiked. (It’s no wonder some psychologists say parents have done such a good job of scaring their daughters that girls think the minute they land on campus, they’ll be raped.) I was moved by the sight of my daughter and her classmates at graduation, solemn in their flowing white dresses, carrying flowers—vestal virgins in espadrilles. And I was shocked when the school gave each new graduate a rape whistle with the high school’s name on it, as if to herald the unsafety of the world they were headed toward.

My younger daughter was not as keen on talking about the #MeToo movement. Maybe it seemed irrelevant? Or maybe it reminded her of one of her life’s most painful events: My mother and brothers stopped speaking to me on the eve of my book’s publication, and my children have lost all contact with their cousins as a result. Frequently my younger daughter would ask me to reach out to my mother. I can’t, I said; I’ve tried, and she won’t respond. Besides, did she realize the role my parents played in what happened to me, by never acknowledging the abuse? Again, she didn’t want to talk.

Then one day she came home and handed me the latest issue of her school’s newspaper. Page upon page was devoted to #MeToo stories, with a timeline showing how the movement developed, and interviews with students and the wonderful new head of school. In fact, it was my daughter, a features editor, who spoke at length with faculty members and staff about their experiences of harassment and abuse, and relayed their stories with fidelity and tact. The most upsetting story was the first one featured, about a young woman whose mother blamed her for the violence she endured. How could she do that?, my daughter wondered, and I could hear the heartbreak in her voice. We proceeded to have one of those moving and protracted conversations parents can never plan for, about the need to honor someone else’s pain. Several weeks later, she and her friends, who once feared going to public places, put on pussy hats and joined the women’s march in downtown L.A.

As one of my daughters begins her adult life and the other approaches college, I hope they feel they can tell me anything. That was the pledge I made to them before they were born. I am similarly open with them, although I know teens, like toddlers, have an automatic shut-off valve, and take in only as much information as they can metabolize. Perhaps they’ll come to see connections between #MeToo and other social movements, like the newly reignited push for gun control. (Many of the killers in mass shootings—including in San Bernardino and Orlando—have a history of domestic abuse.) It’s a link many lawmakers fail to acknowledge.

Revelations of abuse may be intimate, but their reach is expansive. The conversations they inspire should be equally wide-ranging, encompassing everything from sex education to restorative justice. I wish the words #MeToo had more space between them, just as I wish the culture had more space—to reflect, to feel, to inquire, to explore. That’s the breathing room I’m trying to create for my daughters. I think that’s the surest way to keep them safe.