A week after I became engaged to Win Mothershed on my 19th birthday in June of 1961, he left to begin active duty as an ensign in the Navy aboard the U.S. S. Yorktown, home ported in Long Beach, California. So I continued taking classes at Georgia State College, which became Georgia State University in 1971. I got a part-time job as secretary of the maintenance department at St. Joseph’s Infirmary located on Courtland Street in downtown Atlanta. As soon as I finished my last class each day, I walked down the street and worked 4 – 5 hours in the office located in the basement of the hospital. The job allowed me to make some extra money for my upcoming wedding the following March and helped the time to pass more quickly.
The job was perfect for me. I got to talk to lots of people as I received and scheduled the requests for things that needed to be repaired around the hospital. We had 12 workers – carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and general maintenance guys who were some of the nicest men I’ve ever known. They were not highly educated, but cared for people and wanted the hospital to be the best it could be.
As people called to report a problem, I filled out a work order and then gave it to the appropriate person. When he completed the job, he filled out a job report which I typed and put into our files. In addition to our local guys we had a few outside companies that serviced some of our large equipment like the elevators and heating systems.
Mr. Pennington was my boss and the stoic head of the maintenance department. He looked forward to my arrival each day so he could leave the office and make inspections throughout the hospital. He was tied to the office until I arrived since someone had to be available to answer the phone and respond to emergencies or problems like lights out throughout the hospital, equipment breakdowns in the kitchen and laundry, bedside tables that broke, or a toilet that stopped up.
When all my files and work orders were current, I could study my schoolwork and I had one 15-minute break each day. Sometimes I visited a few of the Sisters of Mercy I had gotten to know or just walked outside for a breath of fresh air. I frequently wandered back to the maintenance workroom and talked with some of the guys. They liked to ask me questions about what I was studying and where I was headed after my wedding, and I was interested in all of their lives too.
One of the companies that did its own inspections was the Otis Elevator Company. Several times a month, one of their representatives would show up, check out the elevators, and give me a report for our records. The nice young guy always sat down to chat with me when he entered the office. And according to my mother, I never met a stranger, so I enjoyed talking with him. We laughed and joked and talked about all sorts of things. One day I was going on my break just as he came in, and he suggested we go up to the snack bar for a coke, which we did.
The next time he stopped in, Mr. Pennington had just returned to the office and asked me to take a report up to Sister Mary Margaret, the administrator of the hospital. I gathered the papers and the Otis Elevator man followed me out and said he needed to go upstairs too. We walked towards the elevator laughing at some joke and he opened the elevator door. We stepped inside and I pressed the button for the main floor. As soon as the doors closed and we moved several feet, he stopped the elevator between the floors. I laughed, thinking he was just being funny. But he didn’t start it back and he looked at me with a strange look on his face. Then he put his tool bag down and lunged toward me and began to grope me as he grabbed me with his other arm. Before I knew what was happening he was kissing me and making weird noises deep in his throat. I struggled to get away, but he was much too strong and there’s no place to escape to in an elevator. I dropped the report and started beating on his chest and shouted, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” When I began to cry and gasp for breath, he finally restarted the elevator. I picked up my papers as soon as the doors opened and ran out, headed straight to the restroom where I ducked inside a stall. I stood there a long time, crying and trying to figure out what had just happened and what I should do about it. I felt such anger toward him and couldn’t understand why someone I trusted had done such a vicious thing. How could I ever trust him or any male again, especially since most of them are physically stronger than I’ll ever be?
I knew I needed to deliver the report, so finally pulled myself together and managed to walk to the administrator’s office. I handed the papers to her secretary and left immediately. Thank goodness she was on the phone and didn’t try to talk to me because I could not have spoken. I was still shaking and not even thinking straight. Fortunately the Otis Elevator man was nowhere in sight, but I didn’t take any chances as I walked down the steps to the basement. I decided I’d never get on an elevator again.
Mr. Pennington asked me if I was okay when I sat down at my desk and I told him I wasn’t feeling well. He suggested that I finish up any important outstanding items and then go on home for the day. I thanked him for allowing me to do that and left as soon as possible.
All the way home on the bus, I kept wondering if I should tell somebody what happened. But I didn’t want anyone to think less of me because of it. What would I say and what would they do and what would happen the next time I saw the Otis Elevator man? Would I lose my job? I asked myself a lot of questions, but in the end I didn’t do or say anything.
In fact, I never told anyone until many years later. In those days when an incident like mine occurred, everyone assumed that the female had done something to encourage the situation. But nothing could have been further from the truth. I was engaged to someone I loved with all my heart and had absolutely no interest in having any sort of romantic adventure with anyone other than my future husband.
Days passed and the trauma from the incident gradually diminished, although I certainly couldn’t forget it. Another man came to inspect the elevators the next time and I spoke very business-like when the original guy returned several weeks later. I felt such disgust when I saw him and had difficulty even talking with him.
The weeks moved along and finally my last day in the maintenance office arrived. The sisters thanked me for my work at the hospital and gave me a silver St. Christopher’s medal on a chain and told me he was the patron saint and protector of the traveler. The guys in the maintenance department threw a party for me… complete with cake and going away gifts. I was so surprised and touched by all of it and could not help crying. Some of them even shed a few tears as they wished me well in my new life and told me how much joy I had brought into their work and their lives. I think we all realized we would never see each other again. Even Mr. Pennington’s lip quivered as he told me goodbye for the last time.
Except for that day in the elevator, the whole experience was extremely positive. I learned so much about a work environment and was determined not to let that one day overshadow all the blessings I had received. But I never completely got over it and was determined never to let something like that happen again.
Several years later, after I married and had small children, I heard about a four week self-defense course at the library and signed up immediately. I still vividly remembered the panic I felt years ago in the elevator, and I did not want to be defenseless and vulnerable in any future situation. A lot of what the expert talked about was using common sense and not putting ourselves in harm’s way in the first place. I learned some very important techniques about defending myself against a potential attacker. We practiced ways to force someone to release his grip on us using our fists, fingers, elbows, knees and purses. We also discovered the most vulnerable spots to disable an attacker like the Adam’s apple, solar plexus, eyes, nose, and groin. We broke tiles with the edge of our hand, jabbed the practice dummy with body parts, and learned karate moves. I knew I was gaining skills that gave me confidence that would enable me to act in any kind of attack in the future, and I felt relief.
I was so pumped up after my first lesson. When I arrived home my husband wanted to know what I had learned, so I told him to grab me around the neck. When he did that, I clasped my hands together and drove the wedge up between his arms with great force, causing him to release his grip. The next thing we had learned to do was to knee the man in the groin, so my plan was to lift my knee slightly and just show him how that was done. But because I still had so much adrenaline in my system from the class, my knee went too far and the next thing I knew, my husband was lying on the floor writhing in pain. When he recovered, he said he was glad I was taking the course, but he never again asked me what I learned when I got home. I was glad I took the course too because I knew I would never submit to being a victim again. I had the skills to act and knew I’d do something to protect myself.
When my youngest child Wendy entered first grade, I returned to school at GSU to complete my degree. I took a class called ‘The Psychology of Women’ taught by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, an incredible teacher and author of The Impostor Phenomenon. That class helped me to understand so many things that had never made sense in my life. Dr. Clance asked the head of the Rape Crisis Center from Grady Hospital to talk to us one day. The discussions that followed allowed me to work through the event that happened 15 years earlier. Several of the women in the class had been victims in similar and far worse situations in their earlier years. When I told my story, it seemed to give permission to the others who had experienced trauma to tell their stories. And some terrible things came out.
I’ll never forget the story a young African American woman told. She described being raped by a neighbor when she was twelve years old and she also had never told anyone. When asked why, she said she figured that despite anything she said, everyone would have assumed that she encouraged the man – at twelve years old! She added that she knew her two older brothers would have killed the man and then they would have ended up in prison. She just couldn’t risk doing that to her family. And she had never mentioned it until that day. She had married later and had a daughter, but then divorced her husband. She was still so bitter and filled with hate and said that all men were cruel perverts. She was raising her daughter never to trust or even be involved with a male. Hearing her words made all of us examine our own lives and relationships. We all agreed that some men are deviates, but there are also wonderful, caring men who honor and treasure the women in their lives. In a gentle way, we encouraged her to help her daughter find a safe and healthy approach to the men in her life.
That day opened my eyes to a lot of things. Even after all those years, it felt so healing to talk about my experience in a safe place with people who understood. I knew I was not alone or weird, and was finally able to release the grip it still had on me. I discovered how healing it can be to have someone listen without judgement. I learned how important it is to be able to tell your story, figure out what you learned from it, and decide what you’ll do with what you learned. Even writing this story feels useful since someone else just might be empowered to share a story they’ve never been able to tell.
I’m glad I still remember all those self-defense moves and would use them in a heartbeat, but to this day I never enter an elevator if taking the stairs is possible.