I didn’t ask for it

I never meant to be an activist.

Even now, I have trouble thinking of myself in the light. The word activist has always conjured up a certain image in my mind: someone in the thick of the battle, shouting, unwavering. All I’ve done is write.

A couple weeks ago I was honored with an invitation to speak at a summit for the Restaurant Opportunities Center in Boston. They are currently campaigning not only to raise the minimum wage, but to abolish the substandard minimum wage for tipped employees. I was there to add my own testimonial to the ways in which server’s incomes are unreliable, citing my own experience with sexual harassment and the effect that had on my tips. Despite having written extensively on this subject, I had never spoken on it publicly, save a few phone calls with local reporters two years ago. This time my voice shook.

There is a difference between the carefully crafted words I can lay on a page, chosen for their power, and the words I try to speak, my voice trembling, to a room full of people including lawmakers and press. As I stood among my allies, I realized that my story no longer belonged to me. And perhaps, in some ways, the specificities of my experience aren’t even important. Instead, I have unwittingly taken on the burden of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry as a whole. The details of my account matter – but only as a corroboration and testament to the existence prevalence of such a culture. My story isn’t about me; it’s about everyone who’s faced the same hardships.

I have begun to feel this pressure immensely. I felt it especially as I recounted my history as a server, hoping to play a role in changing the laws and tradition of an entire industry. What I was doing was activism.

The issue with being an activist is that it is so much messier than anyone realizes from the outside.

When the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office announced its plan to pursue litigation against the Route 9 Diner, it initially felt like a victory. After nearly six months of late nights; tearful, exhausted skype calls; a barrage of personal attacks; and a move back to my home country, I exhaled thinking I could rest easily for the first time in months.

But within days the owners of the diner closed their business without warning. They gathered their employees in the dining room to break the news, where they insinuated that the AGO had forced them to shut down. Cruel messages on social media from the diner’s most recent servers began to pour in, attacking me and the others who had shared the abuses they endured at the diner.  Soon, it became to difficult to feel uplifted by the progress we had made since writing our initial blog posts.

From the other side of the world my ex boyfriend told me, “This may not feel like it from the frontline, but from home, we see this as a victory.”

The problem was that the diner was more than a building; the consequences were reaped by more than the owners. We were not all immune to the struggles we had caused our former coworkers; people who, despite their aggression toward us, were people for whom we still cared. Fierce debates broke out within families and many of the girls began to quietly delete the blog posts that had garnered so much attention. Though the community rallied behind us, it was impossible to ignore the fallout. As Elizabeth Adams, former coworker, wrote: justice doesn’t always feel just. The aftermath doesn’t always feel like a triumph; there is almost always collateral damage.

This became obvious even among the women who had once so bravely spoken out against the treatment of women at the Route 9 Diner. While we were once a closely knit group of endless support, our individual ideas of what justice should look like began to clash, and slowly we unraveled. I lost friends on both sides of this fight. Some hated me because they had convinced themselves I was overreacting to the trauma I had endured and blamed me for the accidental and unfortunate consequences they now faced.  Others told me I was weak when I gave in to the need for self-care after an emotionally charged fight I never truly intended to start. Was this what justice was supposed to look like?

Now, two years later, I have picked up the fight again. Whether or not I want it, I have a platform to advocate not only for victims of sexual violence in the restaurant industry, but for those who have experienced it at any point in their lives. It is my good fortune that people have been willing to listen to my words and hear my voice, small and trembling as it may be, and have continued to give me the opportunity to speak on the issues about which I am so passionate. It is both humbling and gratifying that despite the backlash and self doubt, more and more women have said, “me too,” and added their own cries to the ever-growing chorus of resistance against a culture and society that allows our experiences and our stories to be considered negligible and normal.

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of posing for Anja Schutz’s photoseries #GrabHimByTheBallot. It is a response to Donald Trump’s casual lewd remarks about sexually assaulting women without consequence. Like me, Anja stumbled into activism accidentally. I cannot speak for her, but I can identify with the overwhelming feelings of gratitude and validation that come with numerous women standing beside you, gratefully empowered by your work.

My own empowerment doesn’t always emerge in the form of the written word. My activism is not always a battle cry.

Today, they look like this:

 

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#PussyGrabsBack

 

A Letter to Mohawk

Below is an email that I wrote to Mohawk Trail Regional High’s superintendent and co-principals. I am posting it publicly because I think that it is critical to remind the community that the latest accounts of abuse by Colin Garland are actually not unusual. Unfortunately, he is the third in a string of predators affiliated with Mohawk to have such testimonies brought against them in recent years.

Together, we must reevaluate the policies in place and hold our community accountable for the safety of our children.

Note: One former teacher’s name has been redacted, though not in an effort to protect him. Unfortunately, addressing my experience with him more explicitly than this requires more emotional labor than I able to invest right now. If you are from my small town, you can probably guess to whom I’m referring. You’re probably right.

 

Superintendent Buoniconti and Co-Principals Dole and Mendonsa,

I am writing to you in regards to the recent publicization of the abuse perpetrated by Colin Garland, owner of Raven Adventures and Global Classroom. I, like many other students at Mohawk, was introduced to Colin via Will Kiendzior, who allowed him to come into the classroom and tout his trips to remote parts of Africa and Central America. If you have not heard the accounts that recently came to light, I highly encourage you to do so, if only to understand the type of person that has been allowed not only into your school, but permitted to take your students to secluded areas of the world. I truly hope that this man is no longer affiliated with Mohawk, or if he is, that you will immediately cease allowing him contact with your students. Although I did not personally experience assault at the hands of Colin Garland, I can attest to his other manipulative and abusive behaviors. I detailed them in my personal blog here: https://lustyglutton.com/2016/09/11/shaman/   Included in that post are links to two other testimonies of young women who were groomed, manipulated, and raped by Colin Garland.
There is no question that these accounts are disturbing. However, it is not as alarming when one realizes that allowing this is not the first time Mohawk has allowed these type of predators close daily interaction with their students. As I said to [former teacher]after he confided in me that he had slept with his third former student: this is now a pattern.
I have grown increasingly concerned when considering Mohawk’s relationship with Colin Garland, especially as I took into account the past actions of [former teacher] and of the recent news regarding Ivan Grail, the former social studies teacher who is under investigation for his inappropriate conduct with his students. I am puzzled as to why the amount of predatory men allowed such close contact with your students has seemed to remain consistently high under your watch.
I was personally groomed by both [former teacher] and Colin Garland as a student at Mohawk and it has taken me years to realize the severity of these situations. Although it was common knowledge that these two men would meet with students outside of school hours or property, their actions were never questioned and certainly never put to a stop. It is disturbing to me that it was only my guardian, a lawyer and former social worker, who seemed suspicious of [former teacher]‘s actions. She believed that he was ultimately interested in developing a sexual relationship with me and the other young girls to whom he paid such special attention. Unfortunately, she was right. How can an institution charged with the welfare of so many children overlook so many warning signs?
I ask you to seriously consider the manner in which you are vetting your prospective teachers, faculty, and chaperons. It appears that whatever systems you have in place at the moment are simply not working to the extent that is necessary for the safety of your students. Furthermore, I ask that you make public a written policy regarding appropriate conduct for your staff and chaperons in terms of their interactions with students, including any revisions that may be needed. I also ask that you write and make public a list of what  constitutes these inappropriate behaviors to be distributed to students so that they may understand what is unacceptable and unethical coming from staff. Additionally, students should know their rights and resources should they ever encounter such issues.
I am hoping that you take these suggestions to heart so that we may see a change in the environment at Mohawk and change its reputation. It has been truly heartbreaking to realize that although I was initially dismayed that my little sister did not attend the same highschool I did, I believe she was ultimately safer for not doing so. Please: attend seriously to this issue.
Sincerely yours,
Marie Billiel
Class of 2007
Superintendent Buoniconti has invited me to call him with my proposals for policy revisions. I urge you to address this grievous issue as well and to make your suggestions and concerns heard. Matters like this reach much further than just a few; their effects bleed into the entire community. Let the reflection of who we are come from the steps we take to mend.

The Shaman

I recently came across an open letter to a man I once thought I knew. His name is Colin Garland, the owner of Raven Adventures/The Global Classroom.

The letter, written by a woman only two years my senior, details the multiple encounters she had with Colin, all of which were manipulative and abusive, and many of which involved rape.

It was a challenging read. However, the difficulty did not lay in struggling to believe the author’s account of her experience with Colin. Instead, I was forced to sit with the pain that came with remembering my time with this man and how all of his actions fit so neatly into the pattern of abuse described by the author. There was no relief in the realization that my gut instinct over our last few interactions had been correct.

I met Colin through my highschool ecology teacher Will Kiendzior. We dedicated a class to showcase the myriad adventures Colin had been on in Costa Rica and Mexico. We were invited to embark on his annual trip with students from my highschool to Central America to explore and learn about his conservation efforts.

Yesterday, before his website was taken down, I scrolled through all the pictures of former students, all about 16 years old. Some I knew personally. I wondered how many have had similarly alarming and abusive experiences with him. I felt sick to my stomach.

Admittedly, it was not my time spent with Colin in Mexico that makes me uneasy. Though tainted now, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Still, I have a distinct memory of affection and praise with which he showered my best friend. He marveled at the symbols she drew in the sand, saying they were rich with meaning and that she was clearly in tune to something greater. After we got home, she spent weeks corresponding with Colin through email. I was envious of the attention she received. I was frustrated that he didn’t see that I too felt I had something deep, primal, and attuned to something beyond myself.

Six years later I was in Israel when I received a message from Colin, telling me that I had been on his radar. He told me that he had been thinking of me for a long time but had hesitated to reach out. We made plans to see each other the next time he was back in Massachusetts.

In the time before he made his return I began to confide in him about my history of depression and the difficult childhood that had led me there. In fact, I later posted a short series on this blog entitled “Letters to Colin” that I copied from those letters that unreservedly and unapologetically detailed my disjointed upbringing and early introduction to mental illness. It was clear that I sought to heal in some way and Colin appointed himself the one who could do it.

It wasn’t long after that that he told me I was a woman coming into my power. He told me tales of my psychic ability. He urged me to travel with him, to allow him to teach me the ways of a healer. He spoke of Native American customs, of the medicine wheel, of shapeshifting. He told me that I simply hadn’t made love until both me and my partner had shifted into the form of a dolphin. He of course, was the one to teach me.

I remember that he was hesitant that I wanted to bring my boyfriend the night I agreed to come to his house for a healing session. I remember that up to that point, and for some time after our messages on Facebook somehow made me uncomfortable. In nearly every message he told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was. I pushed my misgivings aside. After all, Colin was a Healer and wanted to help me. I was certain that the issue lay within myself; I wasn’t used to being loved so purely. I wasn’t being open. I needed him to heal me. I thought of the time I had heard that Colin had slept with a former classmate of mine, nearly 30 years his junior. I pushed the thought out of my head, convincing myself I did not understand the experience or the depth of Colin’s love and shamanic powers.

Now, when I reread our messages and see how I exposed my vulnerability to him I am uneasy. I realize now that this was not a safe place; his intentions were more sinister than I initially knew. While I thought I was seeking solace in a wizened old friend, I was playing squarely into the grooming tactics of a well-rehearsed predator.

I believe that as humans, we all have a deep-seated desire to be seen. We feel that there is something more we can offer the world, if only we had the means to let that part of us out. And I imagine this is particularly true of women, as we frequently have to prove ourselves as worthy and capable in ways that men do not. Colin Garland, pseudo spiritual leader, has found the perfect way to prey on young women and girls via this innate human condition. He fancies himself a shaman and uses his influence to create a harem of women to exercise his manipulation, abuse, and assault.

There are countless women who have had similar experiences with this wannabe cult leader. I am fortunate that my own did not escalate past this degree. Please consider the ties you have to this man and others who exhibit this behavior within your community.

 

A page has been set up as a platform for other victims and their supporters. Please share widely.

UPDATE: Another woman has written of her abuse at the hands of Colin Garland. TW – sexual assault

 

I have regrets

Don’t tell me you’re one of those goths.

I don’t know what it meant to him, but I remember what it meant to me. I was in the height of my teenage angst and experiencing, perhaps for the first time the depths to which my depression could bring me. To cope with my distress I resorted to cutting myself; I was compelled to see the blood well up in the canyons I carved deep in my thighs. I listened to dark, brooding music, and I surrounded myself with people who did and felt the same. And though it may have been for lack of better word or explanation, we identified as goth.

At 14 I still had no relationship with my father and had long since given up expecting one. But maybe in some last ditch effort to find myself in him, or perhaps simply to spite my mother, I picked up the phone and called. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those goths;” my father rejected me once more.

I think it was that visit, where we sat in silence and discussed nothing meaningful, where we shared nothing at all, that I decided the rejection was mutual.

Over the next few years I visited him sporadically at his rundown apartment on the bad side of town.Once I knocked on his door and asked him for percocets. He raised his eyebrows, but invited me in and let his buddies offer me hash. He reprised old stories of snorting cocaine and staring out the windows, paranoid the cops would find him.

I refused to kiss him goodbye. I scoffed when he requested my phone number. I gave it to him anyway, though I was certain he would not call; I was right.

I brought a boyfriend or two to meet him. I referred to these rare introductions as “showing them my dad.” His absence still made me bitter and the sight of his worn face did not soften me.

I joked that I was  stopping by to make sure he was still alive. But I said it curtly. I thought that my  flippancy and steeliness were a sign of my strength; that my unaffectedness was warranted and just.

But now, two years after his sudden death, I am afraid that I hurt him.

The last time I saw him I flew 5,000 miles across an ocean to tell them to pull the plug. I am no closer to understanding him now than I was the day I signed his body away.

I do not know the last time I told him I loved him.

I do not know if I even did love him.

I do not know where his ashes are.

I have regrets.

 

 

Note to self.

When he posts those kind of pictures –yes those ones— the kind you asked him not to, he is the person you were afraid he could be.

When he tells you to forget him and find someone new, only to punish you for weeks and weeks and months and months when you try to follow his advice, to relieve yourself of the heartache and ashes and rubble he has left behind, he is the person you hoped he was not.

When you are suffering and cannot leave your bed, researching lethal dosages of household medication, and he will not come — when you put down your best friend’s dog and are choking on your tears and you beg for him, but he refuses, he is not the person you loved.

When you plead for him to call you for some reason – any reason- except to feel your lips wrapped around his dick, and he resents you, gaslights you, he is poison.

He is not who you believe he might be.

He is not who you’re sure he could be.

There is nothing to read between the lines of,  “Are we ever going to get another guy?” and days of silence.

He is not your fantasy.

He is only what he does.

 

 

An Open Letter to Johnny’s Roadside Diner

To the Yee family:

My name is Marie Billiel. You have perhaps seen my name sprinkled in the local media throughout the last couple of years in correlation with the criticism and closing of the Route 9 Diner. I posted the original blog post Tales from the Diner that led to many other women sharing their own grisly experiences with the former staff and management during their employment. As I’m sure you know, the details we shared were so appalling that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office took notice. Because of the negative publicity,  the owners made the decision to close, thus allowing your family the opportunity to broaden your horizon within the Pioneer Valley’s restaurant scene.

I know well that the Route 9 Diner’s closing was a loss to the community. During my tenure there I grew to know and love many familiar faces: the many late-night fraternities and sororities who would stumble in at 4am and never seemed to know the size of their parties; the early morning regulars who listened with rapt attention to the goings on of my personal life; the elderly people who enjoyed the ease and comfort in the routine of eating lunch at the Route 9 Diner and taking their leftovers home for dinner.

Because of this, I have routinely championed the opening of Johnny’s Roadside Diner. I was grateful that the building would no longer stand vacant in the Stop n Shop Plaza as a reminder of its quick and sour ending. I was confident that your family would breathe new life into the tired old space.

It is because of this that I am concerned with a piece of information I was given recently. About a week ago the Attorney General’s case against the former owners and management of the Route 9 Diner once again made headlines. As with every bout of media attention, I received hateful messages from former coworkers. At this point  they have become less painful and I recognize that although they are sent my way from a place of anger and hurt I do not have to engage with them. However, one of these messages revealed something to me that makes me feel as though I would be neglecting my due diligence were I to ignore it: I learned that you have chosen to hire some of the former cooks of the Route 9 Diner.

As I’m sure you know, there are many public recitals of the atrocities we were subjected to by the Route 9’s cooks. Some of us were forced to show our tongue before being given our tables’ orders; were regularly accosted in the walk-in coolerand were pressured for dates and sexual favors. Of course, that’s hardly the tip of the iceberg.  It is because of this that I am admittedly uneasy about your decision to hire anyone in their former Back of House.

Allow me to make clear that I in no way attend this to be an attack on your business or your integrity. I do not claim to know who it is you opted to hire nor what your terms were. I was downright ecstatic when I learned that you hired some of the diner’s former waitresses. They were undeserving of the fallout caused in the aftermath of the Route 9 Diner’s closing and I was grateful they were able to once again find a place in that chrome community staple.

It is in this same vein that I must acknowledge that the cooks and dishwashers also experienced their own hardships with the sudden loss of their jobs. I am putting my faith, albeit hesitantly, in the idea that these men, though previously consistently inappropriate and sometimes predatory, have learned that this behavior is unacceptable. I trust that the change in management and corresponding shift in culture sees that the work environment is no longer a toxic and hostile one, but one of growth, opportunity, and safety.

I am leaving behind my dismay and anxiety in favor of hope.

Respectfully yours,

Marie Billiel.

Hold the Dam.

A few weeks ago, I posted Anne Theriault’s Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence on my facebook page. This type of post is not uncommon; anyone on my friends list can expect a consistent stream of feminist articles. I do not shy away from these topics, especially in my own writing.

Typically, these posts are met with comments of solidarity and a resounding, “yes all women!” Still, I am not naive enough to think that in posting this type of content I will not receive backlash from time to time. And I do: I frequently encounter justifications of violence against women, the differing standards to which women are held, etc. I am reminded of how deeply embedded the acceptance of victim-blaming is in our culture and–yes,– the existence of rape culture. This is standard fodder with which I am faced. But for me, what is somehow a bit more upsetting, is not so much this everyday misogynistic defense of a patriarchal system. Instead, what upsets me is the very denial of these experiences: “Barf. Not all women.”

Often, it feels like I, and others like me, have our backs to a dam. Together we can brace against the onslaught of sexual assaults, dehumanization, and harassment. We patch up the tiny holes where these occurrences seep out, but we always know that behind that dam, my god, there is a fearsome flood.

Sometimes I do feel secure; together we will hold back the water and still the flow. But I am also terrified, even more so than I am angry; so many whom I feel should be standing in solidarity against the dam are instead looking on at a distance, shrugging and saying, “What’s the big deal? Water’s good for you.” Or worse: “There is no flood.”

And it is when I see and hear this response that I think of my friends and my sister and myself and I imagine us being swept up in this tide of misogyny. In these moments, I am certain we will drown.

Since reading Anne Theriault’s piece, I couldn’t help but compile my own list of encounters with the violence she describes:

  1. When I am in 3rd grade one of my classmates takes a liking to me. In class he announces that he wishes that all the girls were desperate for him. As he gets on the bus he beckons to me and says, “just have a little sex with me.”
  2. When I am 14 I find a pair of knee high boots in a charity bin at a local church. The first time I wear them I am out with my friend at dusk – about 6pm. Two boys in their late teens scream from their car, “Are you girls hoes?” before taking off into the night, tires squealing.
  3. When I am 17 my ex boyfriend calls me a cunt and stabs the veins on his wrists with a sharpened pencil. He tells my new boyfriend that he fantasizes about choking and punching me.
  4. When I am 18 I am at a party and a boy continuously sits next to me and caresses my thigh through my jeans, despite my pleas and refusals. He follows me into the cab of a truck and continues his assault as I pass out.
  5. When I am 19 I am sitting at the counter of the diner where my boyfriend is working. A 50+ year old man pays at the register and admires my ass. He turns to my boyfriend as he pays, sighing longingly and saying, “you never get sick of looking at a fine piece of art, you know? That is some fine art.”
  6. When I am 20 a regular customer eyes me and talks about the corsets he buys his wife. He tells me he thinks I would look good in a corset. When I don’t respond the way he’s hoping he tells me, “I like more meat on my women anyway.”
  7. When I am 24 I am cleaning out my car when I turn to find a man taking pictures of me up my dress. He defends his actions and drives away angrily when I tell him to get away from me.
  8. When I am 25 I come out about the assault and harassment I experienced at an old job. I am called a slut. I am told to die slow.
  9. When I am 26 I realize that I was not an exception, but one in a pattern of former students seduced by a highschool teacher. I am sick when I think of the vehemence with which I defended him.
  10. When I am 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, I am called to on the street with pet names and unwelcome reviews on my appearance. When I do not respond I am called a bitch, asshole, cunt.
  11. When I am a woman I receive unsolicited sexually explicit messages on dating websites. When I respond with displeasure, a polite “no thank you,” or do not respond, I am told I am fat, disgusting, that I am a cunt and unfuckable.

When I am a woman, it takes me less than 20 minutes to think of these examples.

There are more. There are always more.

Yes, all women.