Very few people are able to hold onto their childhood. Some of us struggle out of it as if we are pecking our way out of a shell while for others, its just part of a journey. Some of us have it stolen from us before we’re ready to deal with the complexities of adulthood. Some people remember only happiness, trust, and confidence; others only pain, fear, and shame. Most of us live with more balanced memories.
I remember in infinite detail the moment I think of as the death of my own childhood. It was summer time and the dampness of the midnight air clung to my skin and left me chilled. It wasn’t a starry night and the moon had long since left the sky to an early setting. I was seventeen and full of the confidence felt only by seventeen year olds. I delighted in speed and pushed my car to the limits, I spoke to strangers, I sneaked out with boys on motorcycles, I smoked cigarettes, and I’d once had a beer at a party. I was invulnerable to danger.
Then, one night, a man I knew in acquaintance asked for a favor. Since I knew more of trust that I did of fear, I never thought that I should be afraid or that I should say no. He owned a little diner where I stopped every night on my way home from work. He drank beer behind the counter and wore a once white apron with assorted stains of his trade. I never saw his face shaved clean as my father’s always was but he was kind and I was in need of friendship. As the months passed, I thought he was a friend. He asked me about my work and about my boyfriends and told me about the baby his wife was expecting any day and about his four other young children. He offered advise when I confided my problems with my parents and he told me how hard it was for him to work long hours to try to keep his little restaurant going with no help.
This summer night he was anxious to close-up because his wife had given birth that morning and his children were at home with a sitter but he was concerned about leaving them sleeping alone in the house while he drove her home. What if there was a fire or one of them awoke to the emptiness. I knew I could help him, as I was sure he would have helped me if I needed it. So, in my little car, I followed him to his house to stay with his children for the few minutes they needed tending. It was a short drive, about 15 minutes, and I followed closely because the night was very dark.
I’ve looked back on that night so many times as the years have passed and I’ve come to know that it was the last fifteen minutes when I felt fully trusting and with no hint of fear.
His house was more of a cottage than the kind of house I knew and it had a messy yard with un-mowed grass. Still, I wasn’t afraid. As we walked up the dirt path that led to the front door, he told me one last time how much he appreciated my help. Still, I trusted him.
Of course, there was no sitter. The children, if here were any, were sleeping alone in the pitch-black house with only a bulb shinning at the front door. He closed the door behind us and turned the lock, which I though was curious but not alarming.
I remember the next few minutes in a strange combination of fast-forward and slow motion. His movements were quick and strong as he grabbed me and pulled me against him in what he might have thought was a kiss. He told me I didn’t have to pretend anymore and that his children were asleep and no one could hear us. He pushed me down onto the floor and moved his hands roughly over my body. I remember saying that I would scream if he didn’t’ stop and he told me if I woke his kids up it would be the last thing I ever said.
My mind screamed anyway and I must have really done it because he jammed his fist over my mouth and pushed my lips into my teeth. He ripped my blouse out of my skirt and put his hand on my skin. I pushed and kicked and mumbled through his fist. I don’t know if the tears were on the outside or just on the inside. He raged at my skirt and pulled it toward my chest but not far enough to cover me. With his one free hand, pulled my underwear down as best he could as he tried to push his dirty hand into me.
Something happened in my head at that instant and I stopped fighting him. My body went slack and maybe the terror left my eyes because he took his hand away from my mouth. His beery breath filled my senses but still I did not fight. In a voice ever so calm and uncaring, I told him to do whatever he wanted but I had to warn him that I was being treated for syphilis and the doctor said sex wasn’t safe for another month. He pulled his hand away from me but I grabbed it and brought it back down again between my legs and made him touch what I said was a lesion. He seemed nervous and for the next five or ten minutes, he wavered back and forth between belief and disbelief. He started to get up off the floor and I scrambled to my feet and tried to run for the door but he grabbed me by the hair and put a knife to my throat, telling me I was lying so I told him about the early symptoms, the shots I got three times a week, about having to give a sex history to public health. I told him every damn think I had ever read about the disease and in the end, he wasn’t sure enough to continue and let me go. He just let me walk out the door without another word.
I drove home slowly that night with my doors locked, windows up and the heat on full blast because I couldn’t get warm. When I drove into my driveway, I was afraid to get out of the car and sat there with the heater blasting for ever so long. I pulled my cloths together and ran into the house, locking the door quickly as if my childhood bogeyman were after me. I slipped into the bathroom and took a steaming shower and washed my hair, then lathered again and got a fresh washcloth and scrubbed. I wrapped a towel around my head and ran upstairs to bed, the bogeyman still in hot pursuit of me.
I lay awake all night but never cried. I was ashamed about what I thought I had done. I was afraid someone would find out or that he would tell someone I had a venereal disease. I had been a virgin until that night and even though he had not penetrated me, I felt as though I no longer was. In the sixties, only bad girls “did it” so I was now one of the bad girls.
For 17 years, I never told a soul about that night because I felt so much responsibility and shame. The quality of the fear changed in time, but it never left. In my heart, I knew that it was my fault and that I had been asking for it. Every cliché about rape became my self-definition.
When I was in my mid-thirties, having been married and divorced, I learned that a rape crisis center was looking for counselors and since social work was an early goal in college, I signed up to join their next counselor training. I went through a six-month training and began working with clients but I still hadn’t told anyone about my experience.
Months later, I was facilitating a group session for survivors and it was obvious that one woman was in a great deal of emotional pain as the result of an assault. We went outside together on break, sharing a cigarette, and when the group resumed, I did what a good facilitator never does, I began to tell about that summer night. It has taken me 17 years to tell someone that I was guilty of the unforgivable sin of trust. Once I had told my secret, everything started to flood out of me and I was faced with every fear and shame renewed in the telling. In the months to follow, as I was counseling clients, I too was seeing a counselor.
It has been many years since I first exposed the assault and it is still difficult to talk about but I do talk about it. I talk to young women, to older women, to groups, to individuals, to everyone who needs to know that there is no shame in trusting or making a bad decision. I want them to know how important it is for them to try to avoid being vulnerable but if they are attacked, no matter what the circumstances nor what they have to do to survive it, they are not diminished by it.
All these years later, I still grapple with issues of trust. There have only been a few people in my life for whom I have felt absolute trust. I try not to be vulnerable. I won’t get in an elevator with a stranger. I won’t climb and empty staircase. I have my keys in hand before I leave a building and always park directly under lights. I take walks with my dogs but never alone. I try to repair everything I can to avoid having workers come into my home. I leave men’s clothing hanging in the basement so the oil burner man doesn’t know I’m alone. I refer to “we” when I speak to strangers. I am cautious in my relationships as I learn to trust people. It’s easier for me to offer affection than receive it, which sends mixed messages sometimes. At times, I panic and push people away even when I care for them. I don’t live in fear, but I respect it.
That one moment made my life neither worse nor better, merely different than it might have been. It has made me stronger and less vulnerable, more faithful to people I have learned to trust, less cavalier about the value of honest affection. It inspired me to become a counselor, which, in turn, allowed me to feel useful.
I have had people ask me how I can publicly reveal such an intimate experience and I always explain that it was not an intimate experience – it was an assault and it was a crime. I wasted too many years allowing myself to feel shame and now I have none. If relating this event either helps one person avoid an assault or helps them recover from one, why would I try to keep the secret.
The experience doesn’t define me. It is but one thread, along with many others. in the texture of my life.