By Liza Monroy
I had just broken up with a live-in boyfriend when I arrived back at our still-shared apartment one night to find he had trashed it: submerged my computers in the bathtub, shredded my clothes, smashed my guitar, and sunk of some of the only pictures I had of my parents’ wedding and of my late father in the toilet. We had been together for three years and he’d never shown any signs of doing anything so destructive, but what surprised me most was that some formerly mutual friends leapt to his defense.
What did she do to deserve it? they wanted to know. He had answers: I’d cheated on him (I hadn’t) and broke his heart; my side of the story was not to be trusted. Though I had concrete proof of what he’d done — threatening voicemails about my belongings “soon to be on fire,” destroyed possessions, police reports, and, ultimately, a restraining order — some who knew us both believed what he did was justified because I “brought it on.”
By being a woman, I guess.
In her 2014 Harper’s essay “Cassandra Among the Creeps,” Rebecca Solnit writes of Cassandra, the mythological Greek prophet cursed by Apollo to never have her (accurate) prophecies believed after she refuses his efforts to seduce her.
“Credibility is such a foundational power in [the gender] wars and because women are so often accused of being categorically lacking in that department,” Solnit writes. Look at how many women spoke up about Bill Cosby without being believed. Or how often the public sides with famous athletes facing rape allegations. Or the campus rape epidemic that, most recently, Emma Sulkowicz and Aspen Matis have drawn attention to with their respective performance piece and memoir.
And now there’s Trump.
Though “Cassandra Among The Creeps” is four years old, its relevance has just increased by tenfold, as that many women and counting came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault committed by Trump, only to have the veracity of their claims questioned by the public and even some members of the media.
I experienced a different aspect of the Cassandra phenomenon: the narrative that his actions were excusable because I must have done something to “deserve it.”
“Still, even now,” Solnit writes, “when a woman says something uncomfortable about male misconduct, she is routinely portrayed as delusional, a malicious conspirator, a pathological liar . . . ” It’s the very definition of gas-lighting; as Solnit puts it, “ . . . this old framework of feminine mendacity and murky-mindedness is still routinely trotted out, and we should learn to recognize it for what it is.”
My own Cassandra story began after months of the relationship’s unraveling, following scads of arguments about his financial irresponsibility and alcohol abuse. He promised to change, and got a part-time job to prove it; he was finally paying me back for the years I footed the bills. To top off his turnaround, he told me he’d organized and booked a long-weekend trip to the Florida Keys for my 30th birthday. I offered to help pay for it, but he declined, insisting I could simply buy him dinner while we were there.
Things were getting better. Our relationship was evolving into the partnership of equals I’d always hoped it would.
Then, the night before we were supposed to leave, as I walked toward our bedroom to pack my suitcase, I saw him searching for last-minute discount fares. He’d never booked plane tickets — or anything. I’d made enough excuses for him. I left for the long weekend alone, telling him I wanted him gone by the time I came back.
When I returned, he was not only still there, but refused to move out; he couldn’t afford the rent on his own. (I’d once thought I was so progressive for being the main “breadwinner” in the relationship.)
And then, a few weeks later, I returned home to find he’d gotten drunk and destroyed almost everything I owned.
“I don’t want the next thing he destroys to be you,” the judge said as he issued the order of protection the next day. “I don’t think he would be physically violent,” I said. “This is physical violence,” the judge said.
It got me thinking about women who come forward about having been assaulted or harassed and lack physical evidence — how hard is it to be believed then. In my case, there was plenty of proof. Still, when I tried to explain what happened to one of our formerly mutual friends when I ran into her, she cut me off. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” she said and walked away. Even women are complicit in the Cassandra phenomenon. Why would another woman want to justify my ex’s destruction of my property?
When I saw him on the street two years after the incident, I hid. He’d moved back to the area. Would I have to see him at the café where I worked? The grocery store? The bar where I met friends for happy hour? As I now know is typical in these situations, I felt fear and shame. Why should I be ashamed when, if anyone should feel ashamed, it’s him? I was ashamed of my shame. Next time, I resolved, I would confront him. I didn’t need to turn away, and I would not be ashamed.
What I also didn’t see then was how I’d “Cassandra’d” myself. I was still making excuses for my ex: He didn’t attack my body, it was “just stuff,” it wasn’t really that bad. I certainly didn’t want to get hysterical about it. It was easier to try to forget about it even when he still owed me half of a promised settlement for damages. I can only imagine experiencing, as Solnit describes, the “unpleasant consequences” for the “humiliating ordeal” that is reporting sexual harassment.
All of which is why we should pay even more attention as the allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump pile up. The credibility conversation is happening again along with them. As of this writing, 12 women have come forward. Does it become harder to discredit them? Could there be so many attention-seeking liars eager to frame a decent man, or at least a man being considered as suitable for our nation’s highest office? But the numbers-game mentality is problematic, too — Solnit points to an instance when, in sexual-harassment prevention training, an older male stated, “Why would we start an investigation based on only one woman’s report?”
The Cassandra phenomenon is deeply troubling, as it works both ways: If too many women come forward against famous men like Trump and Cosby, they’re portrayed as lying bloodsuckers, trying to get money or fame. If too few do, they’re regarded as unreliable.
Meanwhile Trump’s denials of the misconduct are packaged in language that only reiterates their likelihood, or at least reifies his character: “Believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.” And of another woman: “Look at her! I don’t think so.” I just imagine him perusing a pile of cantaloupes at a grocery store: feeling and squeezing his way through in search of the finest.
One would hope that the myth of women’s unreliability emerging into the spotlight because of this bizarre circus sideshow of a presidential candidate, a Jungian archetype of patriarchy’s shadow, would be what it takes to finally destroy it, but there is clearly more to be done. Even with so many Cassandras taking a stand against one creep on the national stage, news about Trump as a potential rapist is already falling behind yet more stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails. “So many lies,” Trump said. Sound familiar?
“To tell a story and have it and the teller recognized and respected is still one of the best methods we have of overcoming trauma,” Solnit writes. Only by telling our stories — especially stories about the discrediting and silencing of those stories — can we hope to close the gender gap between who gets heard and who is silenced.