Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Surprise Conversation with My Son

Recently, a thing happened. A thing I'd spent a little time worrying about over the years. My son googled me. I'd hoped he'd google me as Erika Bright; the name I use in social media, “Bright” being his dad's last name. I never changed my last name to Bright because when we got married, my own father was terminally ill, and I couldn't bring myself to let go of the name “Eisenberg.” So my name stayed, officially, Erika Eisenberg, on my clinical license to practice social work too. My son was looking up my business when he happened upon old news articles about me. He yelled, “Mom, I'm looking you up!” cheerfully, as I sat on the couch with my husband. We were in between episodes, binge watching “New Girl”. Jeff and I looked at each other, nervously..waiting. I shrugged. It was bound to happen eventually. I might have liked for him to be older but..oh well.

My almost eleven year old turned to me, in alarm, “Mom, were you raped?” He asked. 

“Umm, yep.” I said casually. “A long time ago..(1996).”
And there it was. The conversation I'd been wondering about how to handle for years. We talked about how it was a host father on an abroad program who'd been sexually harassing me and had harassed other exchange students too. We talked a little about why it was national news at the time. I had asked in a private letter to my college that my college institute a sexual harassment policy on abroad programs.  The college declined. And then I went public, suing them for a sexual harassment policy on abroad programs and yes, for money too. The college went the route of circling the wagons, character assassination, and victim blaming. Some people told me I deserved it because I was drunk when it happened. Some called me a liar. Some focused on what I was wearing. All the same old shit that any woman or child who goes public experiences.

I told my son that there are articles that suggest that I received millions in a settlement. Nope. Not ten million. Not 3 Million. Not 1 Million. Far less. But enough that I could invest a little, and move to a woodsy, mountainous area after graduating from college, and work, surrounded by woods and sunshine, and hike with my two dogs and my boyfriend (now husband). Nature therapy. The woods and the mountains were vast, peaceful, healing.

And as part of the settlement,  the college DID institute that sexual harassment policy on abroad programs so that when a student comes to them with concerns about a host family member, the program facilitators have a clear plan of action to follow. Other colleges across the US took notice and created policies too. My lawsuit was one of the first of it's kind and it set a precedent. And even though that was a very painful,  traumatic time in my life, it has deepened me as a person. I wouldn't wish that pathway on anyone. But here I am. I am a therapist, a trauma and EMDR specialist, and a social worker doing what I can to advocate, empower, educate, and make positive change. And I'm a parent, trying to raise a boy who understands consent, and respects women.

My son asked if I know other people who've been sexually assaulted.

"I do", I said. "It happens to lots of people but most people don't talk about it. They keep it secret. When I was 21 yrs old, 'Me Too' wasn't a thing. More people are talking about this stuff openly now. But only if they want to. It's hard. There's still a lot of shaming and victim blaming that happens."

My son asked, "Did you blame yourself?"

I said, "Sometimes, I did. I grew up believing bad things that happened were my fault. That thinking started at a very young age for me.  It took some time as a grown up, to learn how to be assertive, how to set boundaries. It took time, and therapy to undo some really crappy early life conditioning. It took time, therapy, healthy relationships. Learning to grow into who I am now. I'm OK with that. I love my life. I feel good.  I'm strong, I'm capable, I'm a kick-ass friend, mom, spouse, and therapist."

My son smiled big, and said, “Mom, I'm really proud of you.”

And that was that.