There it is again. That word. It’s still with me as the college course calendars my daughter has asked me to look at edge out of my printer. That word, the incident I’ve allowed to critically shape my life—and my child’s—won’t go away.
She’s excited about her college of choice. I’ve become leaden. The IM button is flashing—she wants to know what I think of the courses. But I can’t talk about that. What I want to tell her is that if she goes too far away from me, if she starts living her life, horrific things could happen. They could, they happened to me. Maybe if someone had told me not to leave home, not to go to university in the city, not to go to that pub night, not to drink, not to flirt, not to stop to tie my shoe…
It’s time to tell my daughter I was raped.
She’s nearly 18, about to enter that year. She’s about to “become me.” And while I may not have told her in words, I have let her know that something happened to me by every action and every decision I have made since that September night in 1978.
In fact, I have told only a handful of people about that night. I never told my parents; they died not knowing. After all, it was the late ’70s and many people’s view of rape then was that the victim must have “asked for it.” Admittedly, I half believed that myself. If I spoke up, how would I be judged? Would my parents force me to come home? Would they love me less? Would any guy ever want me again? My reasoning was faulty and perhaps it has been ever since that night.
I feel that many people still view rape as a crime that ends when the attacker “zips up.” The few people I have told have suggested that I get over it—“It’s just sex, life goes on.” Society seems to judge rape victims differently than victims of other crimes. We sympathize with burglarized homeowners when they say they feel violated; we never say, “Well, they were asking for it, keeping valuables at their home.” And yet society often asks, if not aloud, what “caused” the man to rape her? Now I was terrified of how my own daughter would judge me. How would she react when she realized I’d allowed that night to shape her entire life?
When she was born, I leaned over her cradle and promised to protect her always. I had no conscious thought of that September night while making that promise, but I meant to keep my vow to her. She would never go through what I had. I’d do my best to ensure that.
Her first school was directly next door to our house. No accident. It was a Catholic school and I wasn’t a Catholic, but I did what I needed to do to enrol her in a school that was only steps from our door. I told family members I’d chosen the school because it was “better,” not simply because it was close. The public school was on the other side of the park. There was no way I’d ever allow her to walk through that park without me.
I bought her a bright yellow snowsuit and watched her from our laundry room window whenever she was out for recess. I was always at home to watch her, and to be there the minute she was released from school because I had created a home business for the sole purpose of being there for her. What I told others, and I what I began to believe myself, was that I wanted to keep her out of daycare and “raise her with my values.”
When she was about eight, I was finally forced to admit it was time to let her walk home alone from school. I thought that meeting her halfway on that first solo walk would please her. Instead, she yelled at me. She stomped ahead complaining that I was never going to let her grow up. She was right. If I could have, I would have prevented her from ever leaving what I perceived as the protection of childhood. Somewhere in my broken mind I equated becoming an adult with the time when pain would start. I had a promise to keep.
I didn’t try to meet her on her route home again. Instead, I watched her from an upstairs window, hoping she wouldn’t spot me.
At first glance I appeared to be the generous mother, wanting the best for my child. I bought her a horse when she turned 13. But I had an ulterior motive. Girls who hang around barns rarely hang around malls. Yes, the horse provided an opportunity for responsibility and exercise, along with a world of experience I am proud to have provided for her, but the protective instinct was the underlying intention. If she was at the barn, I knew where she was.
Now, on the border of adulthood, she has recognized my over-protectiveness and has derided me for it, joked about it, and without a doubt wondered why I just can’t let go. There’s a hard edge to her I’m partially proud of, and often ashamed about. I know I’ve created this attitude, the shell she maintains to protect herself from hurt. I want to assure her it’s fine to let her guard down and trust, and yet I don’t really believe that myself. When I listen to her snarl about my protectiveness, it’s scarcely audible over my interior cry, “But you don’t know! You don’t know!”
And so, as I hold the college course outlines in my hand, I decide it’s time to tell her.
I am not telling her to scare her away from going off to school (at least I tell myself that). I’m not telling her to make her feel sorry for me. It’s just that I have suddenly hit a wall, realizing that her whole life has been shaped by my fear and that I need to free her; to finally make her understand why, when she was a child, I always panicked when her hand slipped from mine.
Printouts in hand, I approach her room. “I think the courses are great. You’re going to have the best time in college.” There, now she can’t accuse me of telling her about that night as a means of keeping her from going away to school. “But I have decided it’s time to tell you something.”
My college at the University of Toronto was having a pub night, and although I’d spent more time drinking than studying that week, I was determined to go. I lived in a bubble of bravado — I believed nothing would ever happen to me. I was brimming with an 18-year-old’s dare-me attitude. I was invincible. Life was mine and I planned to wring out every last drop of excitement I could from my university years.
I decided to wear that cute knit dress with the slit on the side, the one Mom hated. So what? It looked good. And I had those espadrille heels — from England, with laces that reached my knee. The weather was warm for September; no nylons needed. I admired myself for a moment and then blew out of the room. I headed off to the pub, wondering who I might meet.
The smell of beer hit me as soon as I entered the wood-panelled room. Students were getting tanked, revelling in being crowded together and shouting over the blaring music. I recognized some people from my residence.
I sat next to a couple of drunk engineering students who greeted me by leaning in close and draping their arms around me. I settled in and sipped at my first beer, listening to them plot more pranks. The week before, they’d duct-taped the outside of several dorm doors so that when we were called out to the hall we’d walked headfirst into a wall of tape. I got swept up in the booze-fuelled camaraderie.
The evening progressed as most student parties do: laughter, teasing, flirting. I felt warm and foggy. I sat close to a gorgeous guy who must have talked to me about something.
Eventually I decided, or someone else did, that we’d all better head back to residence. I was buzzing with sweet words and beer. Oh, how I enjoyed being away from Mom’s rules and curfews.
The cool air bit at me as I followed a group who were heading toward Spadina, past the shadow of Robarts Library. They were not far ahead. My stupid shoes were killing me. I was teetering and could barely keep from falling. I considered ditching them. The laces of my right shoe had snaked down to my ankle. I leaned my hip against a fence in front of a rundown house that was clearly a student residence. The dim yellow porch light was the only thing helping me figure out the complicated lacing. Someone was approaching. “Good,” I thought. “Maybe they’ll walk back with me.”
I tasted dirt. My face was somehow mashed into gravel and grass. How did I get here? For an instant I thought I had fallen, tripped on those dumb shoes. My mind sorted through the information, struggling to make sense of my situation. His hand clamped my mouth and his other hand tore my dress up to my waist. Mom said this dress was inappropriate. I thought of my father. Oh, Daddy, help me. I could smell cologne. He didn’t say anything. Muffled sounds against the back of my neck. Nothing else. I went somewhere then — away.
Within minutes I was no longer a naive, brave, virginal girl. I was a terrified victim. The door had closed on all things safe and happy. This moment would be the defining point on the graph of my life. Before rape. After rape. From that moment on,
I would see my life like a reverse version of the film The Wizard of Oz. The time before, my Technicolor life; afterwards, devoid of colour.
Back in my dorm room, I removed my dress and shoes. I dumped them into my metal wardrobe, ignoring the dirt that got onto my other clothing. I took a hot shower. Then made it to the hallway, where I leaned my forehead against our floor’s phone. Debating. My skin was still burning from my attempt at sanitizing my body.
I should have called campus police. I should have called my parents. I did neither. I changed into a flannel nightgown, purposely facing away from the full-length mirror, but the vanity mirror reflected what I had tried not to see. The backs of my thighs were an ugly purple. I shoved the flannel down. I refused to look. In bed I curled my body into a tight fist, pretending to sleep when my roommate returned. I wouldn’t speak about that night for many years.
I did not mention it when the school nurse announced, with disdain, that I was pregnant. I did not say a word when I sat in front of the abortion jury who would decide if I “deserved” the procedure. I did not say a word when my sister miscarried and I was sickened with shame, knowing I had destroyed a child’s life.
I began to live the life of a rape victim. I run from scenes of violence against women on television and in movies. I long to be given a pat on the back and told I did well at something.
I constantly hope to regain the good girl I was before that night. It’s not just what was done to me; it’s what was taken from me, the part of me I have consistently tried to get back.
My daughter didn’t react to my story the way I thought she would. There were no tears; there was no judgment. “It’s not your fault,” she said simply. “You did what you thought you
had to do.” I know I wanted more from her. Maybe I wanted her to hold me, to tell me that it was okay, that she loves me. Naturally, I was once again clenched by guilt when she didn’t say anything more. I worried that she was angry about how
I had let this get in the way of her life. I hadn’t talked to anyone before making the decision to tell her. I’d had no preparation for
what the emotional fallout might be after this conversation.
“I’m not going to college,” she announced one day about four months after we had spoken. We were driving somewhere, I don’t know where. All I recall is the black hole I was pulled into with her words.
What had I done? Was it because of what I told her?
“I really don’t want to go to a city,” she said, chattering on about her decision. But I was somewhere else. I was back in 1978. Had I known it could happen, I probably wouldn’t have gone away to school either.
I wanted to blurt out that she should ignore my story and realize that the chances of anything like that ever happening to her were remote, but I couldn’t. I did want her to stay near home.
“There are online equine studies through the University of Guelph,” I volunteered. I had already investigated; there was a faint hope she’d decide it was a good idea. And, surprisingly, she did. She’d love to take the courses, she said.
“Mom, it’s not about your story, it’s about mine. I know what I want: to make my life with horses. It’s not about you.”
It’s not about me, it’s about her. And with those words I suddenly realized I was ready to let go. I knew she’d make it. And she’d take her own route home.