I started Catholic school when I was a freshman in high school. It was a bit of a shock to my system, as, up til then, I had gone to public schools.
Here’s what was a particular shock: the way a 14-year old girl in a school uniform on public transportation is apparently a target for every pervert in the area. Those years on the subway and busses gave me all sorts of new insights into the depravity of many men.
How sad, I think now, that my classmates and I learned at such a young age that catcalling and harassment and assault were the price we had to pay for simply leaving the house.
Sometimes it was ridiculous: I remember once riding on the Q76 bus with a bunch of other Catholic school girls, when we noticed a man who had pulled up next to the bus in a convertible. He must have really planned the whole thing out, because we next noticed that, from where we sat and stood on the bus, we could see right into his lap. He had pants down, of course, and he was jerking off.
We crowded against bus window, pointing and screaming with laughter. I don’t think that was the reaction the guy was looking for, because he pulled away shortly after. We were able to laugh then, because we didn’t feel unsafe. There were lots of us and we were all in it together.
That wasn’t the case though, when I was alone on the subway and some guy exposed himself. I was surrounded by people, but they weren’t with me. They either didn’t notice or they pretended not to notice. They didn’t want to get involved.
There were many, many other times, sometimes on crowded platforms and sometimes in empty subway cars, when men followed me, tried to pick me up, said nasty things. And there were several months during my senior year when a guy was raping women in the area around our school. He did actually attack a classmate of mine and, amazingly, she just happened to be a black belt and she was able to fight back and get away. True story.
But we’re not all black belts. And honestly, we shouldn’t have to be.
The 90s was a complicated time to come of age. On the one hand, we were told at school–and in some areas of popular culture–that girls were valuable, that we could do and be anything, that we should be strong and empowered. On the other hand, in our daily lives in the world and, for some of us, in our own homes, we witnessed something very different. We saw women as degraded and often devalued, we saw ourselves in danger and we saw that, often, no one would stick up for us or stand by us.
My novel, Iphigenia Murphy, is a work of fiction. It’s not an autobiography. But I have drawn on my experiences and observations and, most crucially, I have drawn on those feelings of helplessness and shame and, most importantly, of rage, that I often experienced as a teenager in New York in the 90s. That is, I think like many girls and young women, I often was so angry at the way I was treated and I saw others being treated, but at the same time, I had nowhere to put my rage, nothing I felt I could do with it.
In Iphigenia Murphy, part of Iffy’s coming of age is learning how to harness her rage, how to cope with her trauma, how to heal, and how to advocate for herself and for the people and animals she comes to love. There are a few moments–and one scene in particular–in which I wanted to dramatize what it would look like for a young woman to fight back, to name abuse and exploitation, and to insist on her own safety and dignity.
Iphigenia Murphy is ON SALE NOW!