#MeToo #YouToo #NowWhat?

March 14, 2019

At the March Women’s Voices program, Judi Jennetten, former Women’s Voices board member, shared ​​​​her personal experience of sexual harassment as a young teen. Read a recap of the program, “#MeToo #YouToo #NowWhat? here. What follows is Judi’s story, in her own words.

Judi Jennetten

In 1960, toward the end of my eighth-grade year of Catholic grade school, I remember smelling Father Miller’s cigar smoke drifting through the classroom windows. We knew this was the day when we soon-to-be-graduating students would have “the talk” with our parish priest.  He would meet separately with us girls and then with the boys. Shortly into his lesson, he explained, “Boys can’t help themselves when they are around girls.  As a matter of fact, you are all tempting to me now!”

He warned us that we girls had a moral responsibility to dress properly and not to behave in any manner that would cause temptation to men. We discretely eyed our attire to determine if perhaps our dress had provoked him. Although we clumsily laughed later, this concept of guilt had been drilled into our young minds. It was also society’s pervasive thinking, and it still lingers today. An excuse for men to do as they please–they can’t help themselves and women are to blame.

Soon it was summer, and my grandmother and I had a special invitation…we were going to visit my favorite aunt who was residing in Ohio. Every girl should have an Aunt Glendola while they are growing up. My father’s sister was a gorgeous woman whom I adored.  She was strikingly beautiful with an infectious personality and engaging smile.    Naturally gregarious, she was the most popular member of our extended family. Every timeshe was around, I was glued to her.

My aunt’s husband was an engineer who was frequently absent while managing one of his many projects in faraway places such as Saudi Arabia. We saw him on occasion when he was home for a time, and my aunt lived for short durations at some of his work sites such as in Cuba. After her children finished high school, my aunt sold their St. Louis home to be with her husband full time.

My grandmother and I eagerly packed our bags.  We had occasionally stayed with my aunt in years past while my aunt’s husband was absent.  Shortly after we had arrived, I recall how excited my uncle was to see me as he scooted his kitchen chair next to mine while my aunt prepared dinner with her back to us. He repeated his usual line, “My, my, my, isn’t Judi growing up!” …just as he had in the past.  When I was little, he would place me on his lap. But now I was thirteen, and this time he wrapped his arm around me as he sat next to me.  As he talked, his hand began to inch slowly down the side of my developing breast.  I remember clamping my arm tightly so that he might move his hand awayI was experiencing an uncle whom I hadn’t known.

At dinner, everything seemed so normal.  I began to doubt myself.  Soon I brushed the moment off…perhaps I hadn’t felt what I thought I had felt. Had I exaggerated his intent?

A few nights later we watched the Miss America Pageant with its bathing suit clad women on TV.  Grandmother soon retired to bed, and my aunt left the room to prepare for bed and recite her rosary. Wearing peach pajamas and a matching housecoat, I sat in a recliner watching the program.  Suddenly, my inebriated uncle rose from his chair, and after approaching me, pushed the recliner further back.  I was trapped in the sunken recliner as I felt his hands probing my young breasts and body.  With all my strength, I quietly pushed and pleaded and with a loud whisper demanded, “Stop it!  Aunt Glendola is going to come out and see you!”  I was concerned about my aunt and how hurt she would be seeing her husband attacking me.  With his strength affected by alcohol, finally, he relented, “Okay, okay,” and he staggered into the kitchen for another drink. I was shaken as I escaped to my bedroom, but I had won the battle.

As I lay in bed that night listening to Grandma snore in the adjacent bed, I wondered—had I been the provocateur?  The priest had just warned us girls to dress appropriately. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn my pajamas and robe over my braless breasts in front of my uncle. Had I created a situation where he couldn’t help himself?

After toying with Catholic guilt, I decided for the moment to get practical. Fortunately, Grandmother and I were sleeping in the same room. I concluded that our bedroom was a safe zone, until, as my eyelids were closing, I wondered if my uncle would sneak in knowing that my grandmother wouldn’t hear him without her hearing aid. When I rose to use the restroom at night, I woke my grandmother and invited her to go with me. We had developed this routine during my childhood, so it didn’t seem abnormal to her. Sleep was never easy.

I had experienced my uncle’s roving hands twice, and I needed a carefully considered plan. I attempted to hide my anxious, worrisome state. But after the last incident, I was my aunt’s shadow.  On a few occasions, she wanted to go with Grandmother and leave me behind at the house, but I firmly refused to stay in the house alone. I detected that my aunt was annoyed with me and my strange behavior.  I felt a melancholic loneliness.

The assault itself wasn’t as difficult as the fear of what could happen.  I was fearful for the remainder of the visit.  Over the next two weeks, my aunt graciously entertained my grandmother and me.  She had landed tickets for us to attend a Cincinnati TV game show. Our laughter was mostly engineered by my aunt’s energy and the enthusiasm she felt for life. We were engaged members of the audience when the applause-sign blinked, clapping loudly and yaying as we watched ourselves on the TV monitors. The cameras gravitated our way and were focused on my aunt’s enchanting beauty and her big personality that penetrated everyone around us that day. I wasn’t about to deflate that joy.

After we returned from a short trip to Tennessee, my aunt discovered that there had been a visitor at her home.  On the coffee table, she spotted lipstick-stained cigarette butts and two martini glasses, one with lipstick glaring from its clear crystal surface. My aunt was wounded and furious. Seeing her react to the telltale party provided a window into her life that I had not understood. I didn’t need to add to her pain.

On my return home, I quietly watched the miles pass while experiencing a transformation: I was secretly moving from a fearsomely dangerous area to one of safety without the need of guarded lookout.

I never shared the story with anyone…I didn’t want to embarrass my aunt, but more importantly, I had no one to tell. The traumatic experience remained in my conscious like a deep wound.

After I returned home that summer, I developed a case of the shingles.  The doctor explained to my mother that it was very rare for children of my age to develop the break-out, and that it was usually caused by stress.  My encounter with my uncle would account for that theory.

A devoted Catholic who had promised, “Until death do us part,” my aunt resolved to maintain her marital relationship.  Finally, while drinking, her husband retrieved a loaded handgun and shot a bullet close to her body while she was lying on the bed.  Fearing for her life and pressured by her children, she left him and returned to St. Louis, but they never divorced. 

Sadly, my aunt died much too soon (fifty-eight years old) from a brain tumor.  While she was bedridden at her daughter’s, I was conversing with her when my uncle called…and she was thrilled to talk to him. I heard her calling him “Sweetie.” She still loved that man. 

I encountered my uncle two times after the assault.  One of them was in 1974 at my aunt’s funeral where my husband John and I carefully kept a good distance from him. About twenty years later, in 1993, I almost met up with him again. I had unfolded the assault story to my husband, and later to my two sons. John knew it had been traumatic, but he never really understood its depth until the day we learned that my father had invited my uncle for lunch.  We had driven down from Chicago to see my parents. My father announced his surprise as my uncle drove into the driveway. Dad innocently thought I would enjoy seeing him.

Freud talked about the return of the repressed memory.  What followed is my example. I immediately started crying and panicking. While stumbling with words and sobbing uncontrollably, I quickly explained to my parents that my uncle had terrorized me. 

My mother and father looked dumbfounded. I was expecting shock…indignation…perhaps lots of anger.  It must have been a lot for my parents to absorb during that short two-minute drama, and I understand that. But, when my mother suggested that perhaps she and I could eat in the basement while the men ate upstairs, I felt a rush of disappointment that consumed my body and soul. I wanted my always sweet mother to be angry, outraged, and sheltering. I had become a forty-seven-year-old child, and I needed my parents to protect me from bad things. Certainly, I expected my father to rush out to the yard and greet the man with some angry, unnerving remarks.

Always acting as my insulation, my husband quickly moved outside, and Dad followed.  They shared the picnic table while small-talking for a time.  Then John transitioned the topic.  He explained to my uncle that Judi had some very uncomfortable memories of him and that he should leave.  My stunned uncle responded that he was sorry I felt like that but continued that he had no recollection or understanding of why I would feel that way. He left deflated.

We had a quiet lunch.  Neither parent inquired about my uncle’s past behavior or ever said another word about that day. To their credit, they were probably afraid to open any wounds, and conversation was not easy about this topic.  But didn’t they want to know what my uncle had done? Wasn’t there a natural drive to want to learn more? Is this how parents of that time-period reacted, and perhaps why offenders get by with so much? And why didn’t I give a better explanation?  I had turned into a needy child. Perhaps my father did see him later and alone… I wonder, but I have doubt. Was my husband’s confrontation with him one of the reasons my uncle soon moved?

About a year later in 1994, struggling after a disagreement with his daughter, my uncle shot himself on the day of his daughter’s birthday.  Each year, my cousin celebrates her birthday with an open house filled with people who bring joy to help her erase the tarnish her father had left on that date.  I suspect that I was part of the cause of his death.

During this past year, at a small dinner party, while the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were unfolding, I surprised myself when I told my “Me Too” story to the group. One guest, a doctor, pointed out that my story was like the ones several of his patients had shared with him.  He explained that women are protectors–they are concerned about whom they will hurt if they tell their stories.  They guard relationships. But I know now that we need to worry about the men and women who will likely be hurt if we don’ttell our stories. It should feel natural to speak out.  But it doesn’t.  After explaining that I was planning to share this story tonight, there were those who seemed somewhat surprised that I would give this talk… and that reaction makes victims feel hesitant.

The memory of assault lingers, and at unexpected times, erupts and leaves the victim helplessly emotional. The Kavanaugh hearings turned many victims, including myself, into weak, emotional beings.  After fifty-eight years, I was still a victim, humiliated and angry. After witnessing Anita Hill’s and Dr. Ford’s bravery, I decided to share my story.