A #MeToo story about the abuser next door

My first attempt to put this out there publicly was a tweet:

Men: It is NOT OKAY to be friendly with a woman, to be a father-figure/mentor, then start touching her and making comments on her appearance. It’s really not okay to then profess your “love” and threaten her feeling of safety. We don’t talk about this enough. What a shit week.

The following is a stream of consciousness account of my thoughts and feelings after a man I trusted betrayed me. I am adding my story to the compendium of #MeToo to further expose the problem we have with men’s perceived entitlement to act on whatever they’re feeling. Even this man, who claims to be feminist and seems to champion women, decided he had a right to violate my safety for his feels.

****

The last couple of weeks have been rough. My mind has been all over the place, looking at things from different angles, fending off dark thoughts. What do I feel? What do I want to say? What good can come of this? I’m so tired. It’s been hard to get up in the mornings but also hard to go to sleep. I’ve been napping and I’ve barely worked. My stomach is in knots.

It started back in November. As the days grew cooler and shorter, I spent more time chatting with our neighbors who go outside several times a day to smoke on their front patio. Over the nearly six years that my partner and I have lived in this house, we’ve been treated like family by these neighbors. We’ve spent birthday dinners and lingering evenings with them and members of their family.

In the last few months, I’d been spending time with them almost daily. I usually spent more time with him than her simply because we had more to talk about. She doesn’t read the news or keep up with anything around current events. Her idea of a conversation is complaining about her day, every day.

When she would get bored and go back inside, her husband and I would smoke a bowl and shoot the shit. I started playing disc golf with him and his friends on Sundays. We were alone together during the time it took to drive to the course and back. A few times, we went out to play just the two of us. I began to worry that his wife would think there was something going on.

Sometimes when it was really cold, I would hang out inside their house. One day while he and I were watching TV in his game room, his wife barged in, threw a fit about something and I got that feeling like a cold shock. “This is it,” I thought. “She thinks I’m trying to steal her man. She thinks I’m a homewrecker.” A couple of days went by and she apologized for her behavior. She said she was in a bad mood that day and just venting. I cried and told her I was worried she hated me. She laughed and reassured me that she was not worried about my relationship with her husband.

Things started to change

Something gnawed at me. Something wasn’t right. Two red flags appeared, though it took me awhile to admit that’s what they were. First, he got handsy. He would suddenly grab me in some “playful” way like on my knee or my bare foot. It made me really uncomfortable, but I brushed it off because a lot of people are more comfortable with touching and hugging than I am.

Second, he started commenting on my appearance. It was never anything more than a passing remark like, “You look gorgeous,” but I wasn’t comfortable with it. I don’t like being touched and I don’t like remarks about how I look. I rationalized it away because here was a man who was supposed to be a father-figure to me. He knows I am not all that close with my parents, that I don’t speak with my partner’s parents. He has also heard his wife speak many times about us being like their kids. Yet, that didn’t stop him. It never stops them because they can get away with it. I don’t believe I’m the first.

About three weeks ago, he made an inappropriate joke in a text message about me being hot. I responded with “Lol” because what do you do? The next time I saw him, he asked me if the text had made me uncomfortable and I replied, “A little bit.” Not very strong, I know, but here’s a 60-year-old man asking a 40-year-old woman if what he did was a problem, so he knows it’s a problem. I shouldn’t have to say anything. None of us should have to defend ourselves from this kind of bullshit, yet here we are.

text message from my abuser. I texted 'hot' and he replied 'yes you are. oops did i send that out loud.'

I told my therapist about this. I told her how the week before, after disc golf, he sat next to me, put his arm around me and said jokingly, “Here, let me grope you.” I told her how he took a photo of me with his tablet without my permission. How he then handed me his tablet to delete the photo but not before he felt compelled to email it to me. I told her how uncomfortable that exchange made me but also how my reaction is to freeze. When you’re in the middle of abuse, it’s not always obvious that’s what’s happening. I see it now. I feel it now. I started to avoid him.

the photo my neighbor took of me in my front yard.

A few days later, his wife called us to come out front with them and it was pretty fucking awkward. I had skipped disc golf the day before. Then I get to hear how sad he’s been. This is important, folks: The first time I see this guy after he’s totally inappropriate with me, I have to hear about how he’s the victim. She tells me how I have to be around to talk with him about things that she “can’t.” Oh, so my job is to talk to your husband because you don’t want to?

Two days later, I got an email from him with an attachment. I had an idea what it might be, so I waited a few days to read it with my therapist. He decided to hand-write me a letter professing his love for me and he made it clear that he’s felt this way for a long time. Am I supposed to be flattered? Am I supposed to care? What is this bullshit? And here we sit with the uncomfortable truth: We allow men to act this way; we encourage it with our toxically masculine ideas of love; we treat it like it’s no big deal.

the letter from my neighbor

I just want you to know there is no place in this universe you can go without my love as your baggage. …I’m sorry, but I had to let you know.

Excerpt from the letter

Why are men allowed to prey on women like this? Why are they allowed to dress up as father figures only to incestuously proclaim they love us? It’s sick and yet so normalized. We don’t talk about it enough. Not really. I haven’t found a way to, beyond typing this out. I’m trying to pick up the pieces because now I am the one who has to find my way through this.

  • I feel trapped in my own home. Most of the time, this man is within 75 feet of me. I live next door to my abuser.
  • I feel trapped in my own clothes, a dark wardrobe of long sleeves and long pants carefully designed to hide me that isn’t working.
  • His wife is trying to talk to me but I don’t know what she knows or what he’s told her. Probably nothing.
  • If she does find out, will she try to mess with me? What does she know that she can use against me?
  • He told me he knows when I’m up because he can see when I’ve raised the blind on the kitchen window.
  • When I sit on my back porch, I can still hear him outside, smell the cigarette smoke.

My first thought was to put up eight-foot pickets on the fence that divides our backyards. I hate how easy it is to see back there, how easy it is to see me. I’ll have to put pickets up along the front of the house too.

Maybe I should just extend the fence into the front yard. Because every time I go to leave the house, I worry I will see one or both of them. I worry they will try to talk to me. I worry that I will be asked to deal with this pain right in front of them.

I get in my car with the garage door closed and leave as quickly as I can. When I come home, I drive into the garage and immediately shut the door before I exit my car.

Maybe I should just move. I can afford to move. I don’t like living next door to a man I can’t trust not to assault me.

Maybe I should get a gun. A handgun is easier to carry but a shotgun is probably more effective, more practical.

Maybe I should just go away for a while, work from another state so I don’t have to be near this guy all the time. Did I mention he just retired? He’s at home all the time now. I’m working from home today because I’m tired. I worry he will come over.

They still have a key to our house because, you know, he would feed the cats when we went out of town for the weekend. Has he been in here other times? I wonder if he ever went through my things while we were gone. My mind continues to find ways in which I feel violated.

****

A few days have passed. I told my other neighbor, a girl friend of mine, about what’s been going on. She was mostly supportive, but it was distressing to witness her socialization, hear her immediately try to rationalize his behavior herself.

Maybe they’re swingers? Did he touch you in that way that old men do?

I let her know that neither his actions nor his letter supported either of those things. (Nor would that matter!) I decided to let her inside my trauma, just a little. I told her how this was dredging up the past for me, from when my stepdad sexually assaulted me as a teenager.

Sometimes I forget who I’ve told about my past abuse, or just how much I’ve told them. It’s not something I think about often or too deeply anymore. But this situation with my neighbor is triggering because it’s acting like an extension of my story from 25 years ago, when I lived with my abuser. When I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening because I didn’t have anyone to tell. In 1993, I had recently moved in with my birth mom and her new husband because my relationship with my parents (dad and stepmom) had really broken down.

I didn’t have any close friends. We moved to a new state right before I started high school, and it was just a few months later in February of my freshman year when I moved to a new state again. I was 15. My stepdad was 36. I thought we were friends. We bonded over shared interests in sports and spoke on the phone often. It was fewer than four months before he took advantage of my trust in him.

I realized a few days ago that my neighbor is about the same age as my stepdad. It’s odd to be sort of re-victimized by the same profile all these years later. I haven’t had a relationship with my birth mom for the last several years, in part because she sees me as culpable in my own abuse, thinks I “wanted it.” I expect the same treatment from my neighbor’s wife when she finds out what her husband has said to me, done to me.

****

Yesterday, my partner changed the door locks and I’m feeling safer. I continue to avoid my neighbors, though. My girl friend thinks I need to respond to the emailed love letter and tell my neighbor that he’s dead to me. That what he did is disgusting. That he has no respect for me, his wife, their relationship or my own relationship with my partner. I’m not convinced that’s necessary. I don’t owe him anything.

Would it feel good to threaten to forward his email to his wife if he doesn’t leave me alone? Maybe. But I also don’t care about either of them anymore. I’ve already grieved a lot of this kind of pain because of what I endured as a teenager and I’m a lot stronger now. I’ve learned how to separate myself from people who are not good for me. It takes time and practice.

My hope is that by putting this story out there, I can help someone else feel stronger, someone who’s feeling alone and unsure in their own story. Behavior like this from men is wrong. It’s not love. It’s a damaging sense of entitlement. We can band together and expose these men for who they are and stop pretending like it’s rare or weird or our fault. Because the truth is, we all know men like this.

Grad School Statement of Intent

Hello readers! Today I came across my grad school statement of intent that I had to submit with my application to the UT iSchool in 2008. I updated it in 2012 when I added it as part of my academic portfolio.

screenshot of the home page of my academic portfolio website from grad school

In my cube at work, I have a very prominent sign with a motto by web designer Mark Wyner that reads

Visual-design integrity for people with modern devices and browsers, and information integrity for everyone else.

As a web developer, I think what lies underneath the presentation layer is the most important part of any web page. While visual design is necessary and increases usability for many users of information, it cannot and should not supersede a solid informational foundation. I am a strong proponent of Web standards, semantic markup, and accessibility for all and I believe that studying and learning at the School of Information has allowed me to better understand the ideals of data organization for which I already have a passion, ultimately making me a better web creator.

I thrive on organization, naming conventions, and process, all of which have helped me in my career as a web developer.  I have been very interested in learning about structuring data to make it optimally usable by both humans and machines, independent of the delivery method.  I want to go beyond the page level, beyond markup, and begin to classify knowledge and make it accessible to all.  I want to create information hierarchies that are easily understood so that the data can be found and used anywhere it is needed. My interests have revolved particularly around information architecture and increasing accessibility for deaf users. Whenever possible, I have chosen to pursue research assignments that have furthered my knowledge in these areas.

Until recently, I struggled to put a name to this area of study that I see as crucial for me to become the kind of professional I want to be.  When I learned that programs existed for information architecture, I felt as if I had finally found my “tribe.”  For me, specializing in information architecture is all about consolidating the wide breadth of knowledge I have around web development into a single path. I am enjoying the beginnings of my journey down that path and focusing my learning on the organization of data, usability of that data, and hope to eventually help form standards and best practices for the field. Much of my coursework has provided a solid foundation in this field and allowed me to get closer to finding my niche in user interface design and the user’s experience with information retrieval.

Through my graduate studies, I have gained an improved understanding of how users interact with information as well as the systems storing that data and the programs allowing users access to it. Another area that interests me is human factors and thus far in my career, I have had few chances to talk with users to measure their success (or frustration) with websites. Eager to learn more about the human factors aspect when designing and developing systems, I took a course on usability. It gave me a chance to design and conduct my own usability study, allowing me to observe firsthand how people approach using a website. Through these observations, I was able to make well-informed suggestions for improvement based on empirical research, not just my gut feelings about how a site should be designed.

During my career, I have made huge, personal strides towards creating more usable websites. In early 2007 I read Jeffrey Zeldman’s book Designing with Web Standards and it changed my outlook on the building of websites, opening my eyes to a new way of looking at information access. It was the first tangible explanation I had seen for structuring the data of web pages separate from the presentation layer. His work introduced me to the pure CSS coding method and taught me the concept of “semantic markup” which informs my work today. His book also led me to start studying accessibility practices and striving to make information available to all visitors, regardless of browser, device, or disability. I believe earning a Master of Science in Information Studies (MSIS)  will allow me to deepen this knowledge and understanding about what makes for good design, and that will benefit many people.

Using the tools I have acquired from studying information architecture at UT Austin, I want to move beyond being a “code-monkey,” plain and simple. I want to be at the genesis of projects, helping large organizations, such as government or academic institutions, determine the best courses of action for managing their data and creating user-friendly interfaces for retrieval of that data. I want to influence how organizations structure and maintain their information as well as influence the interface through usability testing and interviews. I want to get beyond just being the one who implements designs to being someone who helps create and define those designs with the user in mind.

I view the completion of my MSIS degree as a great beginning, one that will provided the tools and foundation that will truly create a jumping off point for me and my career. I not only learned how to organize information in more intuitive ways or how to better help users interact with information; I also gained new concepts and insights as a web professional. I know I have a lot to offer and I believe this degree will open amazing doors for me, providing the knowledge to create great designs that are usable, accessible, and have a solid base in information architecture.

Caught in the Web

I recently came across this paper about the Internet that I wrote during my second semester of college. Enjoy!

collage of many computer-related pictures and terms
Caught in the Web cover collage

For many, the Internet no longer exists as a pastime. Its presence has ceased to be a venue for occasional research and frolic. Online services have succeeded in capturing the minds and attentions of a new group of computer user, driving them to the edge. Yet, this phenomenon remains to the ignorant, unknowing, computer-illiterate majority a farce. To much of society, the net junkie is just a low-life computer geek. I argue that the extend of one’s computer knowledge no longer determines who could and does fall prey to the “siren song of the browser” (Dern 93) as the net is an addiction. Addiction being a medical term, I reason for the acceptance of netaholics as suffers of a serious, potentially life-destroying disorder.

The idea of Internet addiction did begin as a joke by New York psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg who posted an electronic message with a list of mock symptoms including involuntary, typing movements of the fingers, psychomotor agitation, anxiety and withdrawal at removal from the net for an extenuated period of time (Goldberg). However, many people responded that they do in fact exhibit these symptoms. Goldberg claims many people use the net because of a lack of social skills and especially to avoid problems in their lives (Garrison 20).

And hence, the addition rears its ugly head. As with any substance abuse problems or addictions, it is used to escape the troubles of the here and now. I spend nearly 99% of my time on the next as an escape from reality as do many of the friends I have met online. For hours on end, we stare at our monitors like many dead fish, absorbed in a fantasy role-playing game (RPG), DragonRealms. With the office door closed and our fingers clicking away at the keyboard, why bother to worry about fighting with our parents, our jobs or school work? We can become who we want to be; at least for the few hours we spend together in the evenings. And truth of the matter, I think we all know more people online than we do in real life! It is so much easier to speak with people when you do not have to look them in the eye or be yourself.

Much like alcohol or drugs, once one gets hooked, one needs more and more to find satisfaction. When most people first start using the Internet, also deemed one’s “newbie days,” initially they spend a long time trying to see everything at once. For most, this fascination wears off when they discover the net is either not for them or they become frustrated. For others, like myself, our time on the next increases because a three-hour hit is no longer enough for us to get a fix. Over the months, I’ve found myself drifting from signing on maybe an hour at a time every couple of days to spending an average of six or more hours daily at my terminal. The web is no longer a toy to us, but a place. As the founder of the Internet Addiction Association (IAA) states, “To the average non-internet user, ‘Cyberspace’ is nothing more than a mass of unorganized data, but to Netaholics, like myself, Cyberspace is viewed as a second home” (IAA). We can’t live without it because we live in it.

But all of this is not enough to deem excessive Internet use an addiction. I mean, plenty of people spend extensive time reading, bowling and watching soap operas. According to Viktor Brenner, a doctoral candidate of psychology at SUNYBuffalo, “Time spent in and of itself is not an indicator. It’s when spending that time becomes so engrossing that other things are ignored—then there’s a problem” (Pappas 28). Corporations face the problem every day of employees who spend more time surfing the net for their own enjoyment than working. Students spend study time hopping from web page to web page. Families become neglected and responsibilities ignored. This is when it all truly becomes an addiction, when the net controls your time and not you. The advent of personal Internet accounts that are unrelated to employment or school further enable those with enough stamina to spend hours and even days online, sometimes disconnecting barely enough to eat or sleep (Dern 94). I’ve lost nearly eight pounds as I have switched my sustenance from food to feeding off the net, and my parents believe the keyboard to be a prosthetic limb. (What do they look like again?)

photo of a guy in front of a computer monitor showing a graph of what employees are spending their time doing on the web. Number one is pornography.
What are employees doing on the web?

All in all, anyone can fall victim to the seductive time sinks of the net. Many people just get distracted and do not know when to stop. I believe it has almost nothing to do with whether one is a webmaster or a newbie because the net controls you psychologically. Brenner recently conducted a study based on a questionnaire he posted on the web. Out of 200 usable responses he reports, “The skewed distribution of scores supports the existence of a subgroup…whose Internet usage caused them more deficits in role functioning than the norm” (Dern 96). In other words, we do exist! I have heard so many sob stories from my cyberpals from those who cannot pay the rent this month because they have missed too much work due to extended net time to others who will simply not work or go to school because they cannot pull themselves away. Many of the people with whom I speak over the net are at work and not working. Statistical evidence from Brenner’s study includes that 30 percent of respondents have tried to cut down on their usage but have sorely failed (been there, done that), while 12 percent said virtually all the people they consider friends are online (“Whatever” 25).

I have yet to end up at the stage where I am running from phone booth to phone booth, searching for a place to plug in my laptop and sign-on because I have been evicted and lost my job. But please, they are out there, and they need help. Instead of discarding people with Internet Addiction Disorder, recognize that they need something to pull them away. When my parents or friends nag me about being on the net for hours and hours, that they never see me anymore, do you think that makes me want to come out and sign-off?! No. This is my escape, and frankly, I do not want to get off. WE need support groups for netaholics, not harsh words. We stay in our little electronic world of silicon, pixelated faces and flashing text voices because this is our safety zone. The world is cold and harsh, especially when all we get is hell because most people just don’t understand. Hug a netaholic; do not push one away because the Internet and the thought of the whole world going to computers scares you out of your wits. We’re scared too, but we’re ready.

Works Cited

Dern, Daniel P. “Just one more Click…” Computer World 8 Jul. 1996: 30(28) :93-96.

Garrison, Jayne, Patricia Long. “Getting off the Superhighway.” Health Oct. 1995: 9(6) :20-22.

Goldberg, Ivan. Internet Addiction Disorder. Online. Dialog.

Internet Addiction Association. Online. Dialog. 3 Mar. 1996.

Pappas, Charles. “Hooked on the Net.” Home Office Computing Jun. 1996: 14(6): 28.

“Whatever Happened to Face-to-Face Interface?” Men’s Fitness Sep. 1996: 25.