An apology is not a stain remover

‘He’s just a human being’ I say to myself as I read Justin Timberlake’s Instagram post apologising for “when he spoke out of turn or did not speak up for what was right’.

I remind myself he’s human not because I feel sorry for him and not because I don’t think he should apologise for the way he behaved to anyone he hurt in that past. But I remind myself he is human because I see the comments and the vitriol and I don’t want to add to it. I don’t want to be the person who spews vitriol on the internet or dehumanises people just because they are famous.

I can’t speak for Britney Spears or Janet Jackson. I can’t know how they feel or how his actions affected them. I can only read the multitude of think-pieces pointing fingers and demanding he apologise, telling the world how his ‘victims’ felt and how he should make amends.

Because apparently people believing apologising for something that happened years ago makes everything alright. It erases the pain. An apology makes all the suffering that happened as a result of the actions disappear. It vanishes.

But an apology is not a stain remover.

Unfortunately my view on it is nihilistic. I wish it was different.

A few years ago I wrote about my high school experience. In part I wrote

“…I went to an elite school where the boys had been brought up to believe they owned the world, they could take what they wanted and leave behind the remains without thought or care. These were straight, white, entitled and privileged boys and in the mid 1980’s they ruled the school.

The air of advantage and prerogative that suffocated the school, bred behaviour that rewarded the boys who acted with the most brazen acts of testosterone. Those who snapped the girls bra straps were awarded with laughter, those who made the girls feel unsafe with their advances were awarded with respect from the rest of their cohort. The boys who “went all the way” were the heroes.

It was 35 years ago and I can’t help wondering what these boys (who would now be men close to their fifties) remember of those years. When they hear the stories of sexual abuse and harassment flooding our news feeds do they feel shame? Do they think of their partners or their daughters? Do they think about how they behaved all those years ago?

Recently I heard someone say what happens when you are young and female follows you; it stays with you for the rest of your life. Sometimes it fills me with anger that my life has been sullied at the hands of others who earned respect and adulation. Other times I feel angry with myself that I couldn’t just let it go.

But it does stay with you, the shame stays with you in the same way the entitlement stays with the boys as they grow up to be men. Sometimes sexual harassment starts way before the big salaries and the prestige of a high paying job.

Every time I see the words “me too” I think of those boys. I wonder if they think of me.”

The post gained some traction. Thousands of people read it, lots of people shared it and before long it was in front of the eyes of one of the ‘offenders’. I know this because he contacted me.

It’s never pleasant when unwelcome memories knock on your head loud enough to wake you, hard enough to hurt you. But here he was, after all these years, sitting innocently in my messenger app wanting to chat. Just casually. After over three decades. Wanting to say hi and circuitously apologise if he was one of the people who hurt me.

But when you have been traumatised by something that happened to you at 15 and you get a message from someone who was part of that trauma, it’s hard not to act like anyone but that 15-year-old girl stuck in the shame of her past. I didn’t want to upset him, I was still scared of him. I couldn’t even bring my 52-year-old self to the message.

I’m sure he felt better after the apology. He lessened the burden he had been carrying and he probably felt like he had done the right thing, after all he didn’t need to apologise, he didn’t have the world tagging him in comments online. He probably thought he was being a really good guy. A woke man. A man kind of/sort of apologising for what he did while at the same time telling me why it wasn’t really his fault.

I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Just a little. It was so long ago. He had so much going on. How could I not accept his kind of/sort of apology.

But it didn’t take away my pain. It didn’t take away the fallout of his behaviour. And when a couple of months later he unfriended me on Facebook, his apology made and his conscience salved, it just hurt me all over again.

But I guess he’s just a human, and he needed to get on with his life. An apology made it easier for him to do that.

I remain the same. Very human, raw and vulnerable human. But at least I got a kind of/sort of apology.

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