The #MeToo Movement
Content warning: sexual assault
This piece is about me coming to terms with being molested by a doctor whom I trusted, my naiveté about what really happened and how both these things relate to the #MeToo movement. It was inspired by all of the women who have been harassed and assaulted and is my attempt to understand why our culture has allowed and accepted this abuse of power for so long.
I hope this piece will, in turn, inspire women to think about their own experiences and, instead of blaming themselves or feeling ashamed about being taken advantage of, feel empowered to speak up. We need to realize that in order to heal, we all have to tell our stories, and hopefully prevent others from suffering in the future.
I used to be so naïve that I genuinely thought I was ‘one of the guys’ in high school because I loved sports and muscle cars as much as they did. And while that was likely the reason I had many male friends, it never occurred to me that any of them might be interested in my athletic tennis player body, especially when clad in my favorite pink and black bikini as they hung out in the pool while I was on lifeguard duty. I was raised to use my brains, not my looks, to get what I wanted in life. I went to college and on to my career as an accountant (and later as an attorney) believing that women and men could be friends; it never crossed my mind that my male colleagues would have ever thought about what it would be like to have sex with me as we worked long hours together or enjoyed the occasional office happy hour. While there have been moments when a few male friends have shown interest in romantic or sexual relationships, I’ve always politely declined and never felt any further pressure from them.
However, as the #MeToo movement became one of the top news stories over the past year, it has forced me to reflect upon how my experiences fit into a world where many powerful men have shown despicable behavior toward women because they felt they were owed attention or affections they had no right to expect or even to ask for. I realized I’ve been fortunate to have met so many great men throughout my life and career. Through my positive experiences, I have seen that good men can respect everything about you and also find you sexy and attractive. In fact, I have spent the past twenty-two years married to a man who was raised by, and has tremendous admiration for, strong, smart women.
As for the few bad ones, I have managed to tactfully avoid them or get away from them entirely, most notably in the case of my own misogynistic father who was verbally abusive to me and physically abusive to my mother. The #MeToo movement forced me to continue confronting the bad experiences I’ve had, like the college acquaintance who I had trusted to walk me home one night, but shoved me into my dorm room and tried to kiss me before I was saved by the arrival of my roommate. Or the hot Marine I met during Spring Break of my college senior year who started to get rough on the beach until a very conscientious hotel guard broke that up. I had tucked those experiences away because I felt like they were isolated incidents that had somehow been my fault. I felt like I had been stupid to be alone with men I didn’t know that well and I chalked it up to being lucky that nothing terrible happened, promising myself that I would never get into situations like that again.
Reflecting on the multitude of #MeToo stories and seeing the horrors that many women have suffered in silence – because we women tend to blame ourselves for unintentionally leading a man on or leaving ourselves in vulnerable situations – has made me realize I had done the same thing.
When I was twenty-one, I threw out my back and had to crawl into a chiropractor’s office. It was on the second floor of a converted brick school building. There was a sign above the door that said: ‘Dr. R. K., Chiropractor’. His office was neat, with a small waiting area, some medical magazines on the coffee table, a few chairs, and a chiropractic school degree hanging on the wall. The receptionist always let the doctor know as soon as I arrived, so I never had to wait long. My mom sat in the waiting room during my first exam and with her infinite patience and loving concern, she would have sat there for hours if that’s what it took to get me out of pain.
Dr. K. was a big man: 6 ft. 3 and at least 280 pounds. He was in his mid-thirties with curly brown hair, a mustache, and pasty skin. He had an air of confidence about him like most of the professional men I knew in New York. He spoke with authority about what my problem was based on the X-rays and his initial examination. He said the bottom few vertebrae of my spine were slightly twisted so they were pushing on a muscle that spasmed on a nerve. That is what caused the extreme pain which had left me crawling on all fours because it hurt too much to move any other way.
Dr. K. got me standing upright by using electric stimulation and ultrasound to loosen the muscles, and then he manually adjusted my spine. I wore a hospital gown with my underwear on, but no bra, because he said a bra got in the way of the adjustment. I have always been very comfortable with my body, so I wasn’t bothered by having a doctor see me almost naked, though it did seem a little odd when he would have me stand in front of the mirror and open the gown. I still had a thin toned body like in high school, but during the past three years of college I had filled out so I finally had hips and a 36DD chest to go with the same long blonde hair and blue eyes I had since I was a kid. While we both looked at the reflection of my breasts, he would adjust my ribs with a weird metal tool that looked like a mini pogo stick. He pushed against each rib one-by-one with the rubber end. Then he would show me how one breast was higher than the other due to the curve in my spine, placing his hand knuckle-side up under each breast, just brushing my skin, to show this difference in height.
I accepted that this was a defect in my back that he could fix. Each visit he would repeat this routine and show me how I was improving. While it was slightly awkward standing there with him looking in the mirror at my breasts, I figured it was just something chiropractors did. I never questioned that his motives were anything but medical. The adjustments always made me feel great, especially after sitting for eight hours a day at my summer accounting job. I saw him twice a week for an entire summer, believing that everything he did was for my mild scoliosis which caused a slight curve in my spine.
“How’s your daughter doing, Doc?” I asked during one of my usual visits as I got face down onto the adjustment table.
“Oh, she’s great. Keeps my wife busy now that she’s watching her while still working part- time.” He then pushed down on each section of my spine until it made a small crunching sound which he told me was releasing the gases that built up in between the vertebrae.
“Guess it’ll be a big change for her to not be an only child anymore.” I said as I turned onto my back on the table.
He smiled and said, “Yes, it will be a big change for all of us.” And then he turned my head to the right to adjust my neck, one side and then the other.
One Friday, I went to his office after work at my usual appointment time, but the office was closed and the sign above the door was gone. When I called on Monday, the number was disconnected. Because the office was always empty when I arrived for my appointments, I figured he must not have had enough patients to keep his practice going. I felt bad for him and I worried about what would happen to him and his growing family. Because his work had improved my back, I figured he would join another practice and would eventually reconnect with his patients. I thought maybe he was embarrassed by the financial troubles brought on by a new child on the way and that was why he didn’t say goodbye, but I never saw or heard from him again.
Since leaving New York, I’ve found other chiropractors, though none have ever made me take off my bra or gown or done anything involving my ribs or breasts. I recently got up the nerve to ask Brad, my chiropractor of the last fourteen years, if looking at my chest the way Dr. K. did was something they taught in chiropractic school.
His eyes got wide as I explained Dr. K.’s procedure, to which he said, “No, Liz, that’s not something any chiropractor would do. I’m afraid he was just getting aroused by looking at your breasts.”
As I lay face down on the chiropractic table while Brad adjusted me, my eyes filled with tears. How did I ever think it was okay to have Dr. K. staring at my boobs twice a week for a whole summer? I felt like an idiot. It had sounded so stupid and naïve when I’d said it out loud. Maybe I hadn’t talked about Dr. K. in more than twenty-eight years because, as I saw other chiropractors, I didn’t want to admit that he had, in fact, violated my trust and my body. But now I’ve realized that I have to take this step and examine this disturbing incident in my life in order to find my own peace and move on.
Several weeks later, as my embarrassment turned to anger, I did some online research and discovered that Dr. K. had stopped being a chiropractor to teach Anatomy and Physiology at a local community college near my hometown. I dug further and found a comment on a website where students can rate their professors that said: ‘he definitely plays favorites, especially towards females’, and then another comment which said: ‘this guy is a breeze if you’re a HOT girl.’ When I read that, my heart started racing and I felt dizzy. That fucking predator has been working around college women for the past twenty-eight years!
I went from being mad at him for taking advantage of my trust and naiveté when I was a twenty-one-year-old virgin, to feeling alarmed that he was out there ruining other young women’s lives. I had read so many stories about women who were molested or raped by medical professionals and other ‘respected’ members of society. These men were never confronted due to their exalted status, a situation that left many women hurt and frustrated, and started them on a downward cycle of depression or addiction. Their lives had been ruined because they couldn’t come to terms with a society that did not protect them from these violations of their trust and bodies. I panicked. I imagined he was out there harming vulnerable young women who trusted their professor and I felt that he had to be stopped. I felt a crushing sense of maternal responsibility toward these women.
Once I regained my composure, I did some more research and found that Dr. K. had passed away last January at the age of sixty. The college had held a memorial service for him a month later. I’ve never felt good receiving the news that someone has died, but in this case, I felt relieved because he couldn’t ever violate anybody again. Part of me felt guilty because this relief also came from knowing that now I would not have to engage in a battle to expose this predator. A battle against people who wouldn’t have believed that this tenured professor was guilty of such abhorrent behavior; a battle that could potentially lead me to finding out how much damage he had really done over the past twenty-eight years.
But the fear of fighting a well-respected doctor, or any powerful figure, is exactly how this abusive culture has been able to survive for so long. I hope I’m never put in that situation again, but if I am, I will have no choice but to speak up. Girls and women everywhere deserve that, and I don’t have the luxury of being naïve anymore.
Liz Marquardt is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by Lis Mesa, Head of NVW, and Christa Marie, Head of Prose.