“But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”
I was 14. He was 19. I didn’t know him before that weekend. The boys who took me to the party at his house went somewhere and left me with him. He had a reputation, I later learned, for getting girls drunk and raping them. He added pure grain alcohol, I later learned, to whatever he was serving me.
He told me he was someone else. He locked me in his room. He took off everything but my shirt. He raped me. It was my first sexual encounter. I didn’t report because I was scared my dad would be mad at me for drinking at a party. That’s the kind of worry a 14-year-old brain can understand. I couldn’t yet grasp the enduring shame of staying quiet when I could have helped stop him from hurting other girls.
This happened in Bethesda, Maryland in July, 1988. Everyone at the party knew what he did, including the boys who brought me and the one I had to beg to take me home. I wonder how they might they tell their #WhyIDidntReport stories about that night?
This is not the first telling of the story. As a first-year undergraduate student, its raw material burrowed under the surface of an autobiography penned during a summer writing workshop. In the intervening decades, at least a dozen people have heard it, probably more. Friends, counselors, intimate partners. The story itself usually comes up as part of a larger narrative about how I became radicalized — or woke, as we’re calling it now. That Saturday night in July turned into a Sunday morning at a church in Georgetown, an afternoon polo match at a country club, and a night of serving meals out of a mobile soup kitchen on the streets of Washington, DC. All of these were firsts as well. The weekend hurtled me out to the extremes. Want and plenty. Danger and sanctuary. Cruelty and kindness. Greed and love.
The rape left a mark, but the reclamation laid the songlines.
Returning to the story of that night, though, never comes easily. The experience still roils this spirit and body. Recalling it returns me to a sensation that’s best described as utter confusion. It’s not terror or pain or rage so much as it is a feeling of being lost and terribly alone even while in intimate proximity to others. To remember what happened in that house, and what happened right after, is to lose trust in my ability to decide anything. It becomes impossible to decipher what’s happening to me with any coherence.
I’ve told the story anyway. Telling diminishes the damage the rapist has done to my body even though the restoration comes at a cost.
When the #MeToo movement started gaining traction, my story wasn’t ready to resurface. I was too disgusted and outraged to share publicly. Why the hell do survivors have to rip ourselves open and expose our hurts to a hateful and disbelieving world? Will even this bring sexual harassers to heel? We reveal some of the worst moments of our lives, only to have those stories dismissed all over again. At best, the stories find themselves all tangled together as one massive, shared tragedy that even in the aggregate doesn’t spur tangible change.
So I didn’t tell.
This time, though, I can’t keep it in.
I grew into a teenager Bethesda in the 1980s. The quiet, not-at-all funny joke was that while the Gonzaga boys could be cocky blowhards, the Georgetown Prep boys were downright dangerous. Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t my specific attacker, although he could have been.
All of the boys and young men at that party in July 1988 knew what was going on in the bedroom. They laughed at me when I finally stumbled out. The ones who had left me alone with him returned with a fresh supply of beer while the rape was underway. They didn’t come looking for me. Sobbing and disoriented, I finally found them in the basement. I asked if someone could take me home. They didn’t feel like leaving again. I then begged several college boys I hardly knew to give my girlfriend and me lift. One agreed only because he figured he could take his shot at me once he had me alone in the car. After dropping off my girlfriend, he spent the rest of the ride to my house groping me everywhere he could reach. I’d long since stopped caring.
This kind of entitlement, this complete dismissal of the autonomy and sanctity of another human being, should terrify all of us. It’s a deeply pathological way of engaging with the world. In this framing, girls and women take the form of what Kay Hymowitz calls “disposable estrogen toys.” But the danger extends far beyond considerations of gender and sexual assault. It exposes an understanding of the human family as predator and prey, as consumer and good. A judge who could well sit on the country’s most powerful court should view us as citizens, each worthy of making a creative contribution to the shape of our shared life. Instead, he belongs to that island of privilege and power where people who are not of his circle are simply a means to an end.
When our leaders cannot see us all as full people, the trust required for functional community rots. We polarize. We start to crumble.
This is why I have to tell the story now. It may not do one bit of good in keeping a monster off the Supreme Court, but it’s what I’ve got in the arsenal today.
Making this story public was a straightforward choice this time. I was ready. Nothing suggested otherwise.
A few days ago, when I first typed the words into social media, the expected outrage and sorrow bubbled up. The former because why should any of us have to do this at all? The latter because the girl residing in these bones still trembles. Not just every now and then, but a little bit all the time.
It turns out I wasn’t ready. It turns out that sharing publicly for a few hundred friends on Facebook is not the same as telling a friend over tea in a cozy coffee shop. Not the same as quietly burying the narrative on page 12 of a draft that no one in the writing workshop will read. Honestly, putting my story out the same week that Christine Blasey Ford has to sit in front of a Senate panel and share hers makes me feel like utter garbage.
The past three days have roiled the ground under me. I’m just doing my regular 44-year-old working mom stuff. Hanging with the kiddo, leaning into a church leadership training, grading student papers. Groceries, dog, laundry, life.
Meanwhile, a scared and shattered 14-year-old girl is stumbling around that strange house, listing into the walls and seeking some kind of balance. She’s trying to figure out what happened. How she screwed up. What she missed, where she’s supposed to go next, how in the world she will determine who is friend or foe.
Every choice available comes at a cost she doesn’t have the capacity to calculate yet. Just a few hours too late comes the blinding awareness of just how much is at stake.
And this is where I am today, thirty years later.
Because even now, trust can’t find its footing.
In case it isn’t crystal clear yet, this is what sexual violence does.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, penname of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.
Image: “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party,” illustration by John Tenniel
Quote: Chapter 1, Down the Rabbit-Hole