Don’t Judge. There Are All Kinds Of Reasons Why Women Wait To Tell Their Stories

The summer before my mother died, I went to visit her every Tuesday. Almost every week, she told me something new.

I took along a big black notebook that reads, “WRITE” on the front, and sometimes I recorded her on my iPhone. At first, my mother was reticent to share very many memories.

But as the weeks went by, she started telling me, “Write this in your book.”

At Arbor Hospice, where she spent her final five weeks, I mentioned to a family counselor that I was writing down my mother’s stories. She said it wasn’t unusual for people to share all kinds of previously untold information when the end was near.

“People want to be remembered,” she said, “and they want to know that they mattered.”

I’ve been thinking of that in recent weeks, as the flood of stories about sexual misconduct have been told about public figures.

This past weekend, those stories centered on Roy Moore, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama.

As of Monday night, five women had come forward to say that they were sexually harassed by Moore when they were younger, some as young as 14. These were events that happened as long as 40 years ago.

And, not surprisingly, the question came up: “Why did they wait so long?”

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan says the “ugly echo chamber” is a reason why women wait. She noted that women who came forward about Moore, and others, were “smeared as liars.”

They became the victims of vicious criticism about their personal lives. And, accused of being political tools.

“Here’s a better question: Why would any other woman, seeing what’s happened in the past week, ever come forward again?” Sullivan wrote.

I wish people could understand this important point. Waiting doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that you have any agenda in telling a story now. Waiting means that you simply were not ready to talk about it.

It is not only women who were harassed who wait to tell their stories. You probably have heard about veterans who never talked about their experience in Vietnam, or Korea, or World War II

Until.

Until the end was near. Until they were among a group of trusted friends with whom they could finally let down their hair. Until they watched Ken Burns’ series on PBS, and the memories came flooding out.

Some people don’t talk because there is nobody there to listen — a subject that has come up over and over again with women who were harassed in Hollywood.

“I thought I was the only one.” “I didn’t think it would make a difference.” “I doubted anyone would believe me.”

Talking doesn’t only mean making accusations. It means reliving what happened. It means memories you pushed down come flooding back up. It means that things you never sorted through have to be dealt with.

And your own questions come pouring out. Was it my fault? Did I do something wrong? Could I have done something differently? Why me, and not someone else?

My Jewish friends have their own experience with people waiting to tell their stories.

For decades, many Holocaust victims couldn’t speak about what happened to them. Some friends tell me their parents and grandparents died without ever really telling them what happened.

Why? Because it was awful. It was something they didn’t want to go through again. It was the past. It was something to lock away and never speak about.

Until.

Until someone was there to listen. Until someone wanted to document their stories. Until someone showed them that they were not alone, and that their story was part of a much greater tragedy.

Don’t be too quick to judge why someone doesn’t speak up sooner, whether it’s about sexual assault, a wartime experience, or a family secret. As Sullivan wrote, “What’s not remarkable in the least is that it took them so long.”

People talk when they are ready to talk. And usually, that’s when they feel that what they say will matter. And that they want it be remembered.

Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on Forbes.com. NPR and NYT alum

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