By Dorri Olds
Growing up, my whip-smart Jewish mother looked like Jackie O. I craved her attention but had to share it with my two older sisters. Decades later, I landed Mom’s full focus for the trauma I never wanted to talk about. I finally told her I was gang-raped at 13.
The sexual assault happened ages ago in New York suburbia. The perpetrators were classmates I trusted. My friend Willie attacked me from behind, clamping his hand over my mouth. The other four teens pounced from behind a tree and pinned me. They took turns forcing hands in my vagina and penises in my mouth while they laughed. I tried to fight but they overpowered me. There was no consent. I was too young to understand it was legally rape.
During the attack, when the weight of male bodies crushed me, I’d wanted to cry out, “Mommy!” But afterwards I couldn’t go to my mother. I was too afraid she’d be angry because I’d worn the sexy low-cut silk shirt she had forbidden me to wear. But at the same time, I was enraged because mothers are supposed to shield their children. Why hadn’t she protected me? I couldn’t tell my father, a macho World War II army captain. I was scared he’d kill the boys and go to jail. I wasn’t close enough to my older sisters to tell either one. And I was scared. If I told, I was afraid the attackers would get in trouble and I’d be labeled a rat at school — vilified, friendless, and teased mercilessly.
In a strange twist, while on Facebook recently, there was a suggestion to friend one of my rapists. I had never wanted to see their faces again. I’d tried so hard to banish the memory of that horrific night. Now I was stunned seeing him on my screen. I tried to see the slender blond boy he’d been as I stared at this jowly face. Propelled by vengeance and shaking with rage, I clicked through his profile photos and saw a boy with his nose and a pretty teen girl with long hair parted in the middle. In one image, he gripped a beer while his belly drooped over his jeans. I spotted old wedding pics with a beautiful bride. Then I searched for the other boys, now middle-aged men. I found three and sent them all messages reminding them of what they did. “I was 13, naÃ¯ve, and a virgin,” I wrote. “Hope you’ve been haunted by that night. It nearly destroyed me.”
The fourth guy wasn’t on Facebook. A hometowner wrote to say he’d been brain damaged in a car crash years ago. “He was drunk,” she said. “Half his skull was ripped off.” He was the meanest of the boys so the karma felt sweet.
Through the help of a therapist, friends, and my husband, I stopped trying to suppress the memory. I wrote a piece about my assault and it was published. Right before it went to print, I had lunch with my mother. While we waited for grilled chicken I said, “There’s something I never told you. Remember that long ago fight we had over clothes?” Before she could answer, I sucked in breath for strength and the story spilled out.
First there was silence, then words caught in her throat as tears rolled down her cheeks. She said, “It breaks my heart that happened to you.” Then she reached across the table, squeezed my hand and said, “I love you and I am so proud of the woman you are.” After The New York Times published my essay I received hundreds of sympathetic comments from strangers, and what seemed like my entire Long Island town. A professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote to say, “I’m including your powerful essay, ‘Defriending My Rapist,’ as required reading for my Victimology course.” She invited me to come speak to her students. She had an M.A. in criminal justice, a Ph.D. in sociology, and had written many books. I said, “Yes.”
When the day came, my nervous energy coalesced into one inane conundrum: what to wear to the class. I walked back and forth in my Chelsea apartment, peering into closets. I wondered whether to ask my mother to come. I was surprised how much I wanted her there. This time she could be my witness, my ally.
Although now in my fifties it felt like an important chance to change the past. And I wondered, not for the first time, what might have gone differently if I had told my mother. Would I have avoided shame and self-loathing? I wanted my Mom beside me during my talk at the school when I described the assault so many years ago. I hoped it would help explain why I’d been so rebellious in my teens and twenties. Still, second thoughts reared up. I feared that if my mother listened to my story, it would stir up emotions, so it seemed selfish to ask her to come. I imagined having a conversation later where she’d say, “It’s not your job to protect me. You should have asked.” So, I thought, I will let her decide and picked up the phone. She paused on the other end to think, then said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” Later she said she’d had tickets to the theater that night.
“It was an easy choice, though,” she said. “I’d much rather be with you.”
I chose my formal black pants and a freshly ironed button-down shirt. Then I changed into jeans and a soft black cotton T-shirt so I’d feel more like me. I pulled on my hip black boots with silver spikes. I knew they were age-inappropriate but didn’t care. I added a black jacket with flashy zippers. Then realized that despite a happy marriage and thriving career I had regressed to those junior high days when I wanted so badly to look cool. I chose a sedate purse and left for the subway.
I headed uptown to meet my mother; she was always stronger than my father. If he were alive I wouldn’t have published that essay. It would have been too hard to blindside him. I couldn’t bear the thought of Dad’s face if I’d told him. He would have blamed himself for not protecting me and then would’ve been furious that I publicized something so private. He was secretive and never understood why I was so open. My confession would have humiliated him.
When my mother and I walked into the classroom, only the professor was there. Twenty-five freshmen wandered in. They plopped into chairs and slouched looking like they’d rather nap than listen to anything I had to say. A few mumbled a bored hello. None looked me in the eye. I thought back to college when I’d viewed people over fifty as relics.
The room was split down the middle, females and males in a spectrum of skin tones. The professor introduced me. Fearful I’d break down and sob, I read my essay.
At 13, I was a lonely upper-middle-class Jewish nerd living in Long Island, in search of a tougher persona. He was part of an edgy crowd that hung out in a parking lot behind the school, sprawling over the cement steps like bored cats on a sofa. It was 1973, and the boys wore black leather jackets, smoked Marlboros and stashed pints of Tango and Thunderbird in their back pockets.
When I reached the end there was only the quiet. I thought my words had been too heavy for their young minds. Then this sea of students burst into applause.
Sitting in the front row, my gray-haired Mom, with her dyed red highlights, clapped the loudest; her rainbow-colored jacket, folded neatly in her lap. Although she was smiling, there were tears.
The former slouchers were now seated upright, a few brushed fingers across their eyes. Most stared at me quizzically, as if trying to reconcile that the 53-year old successful woman they saw was the same person who had lived the frightful teen experience I’d just described.
After decades of therapy and self-help groups, I had let go of irrational rage at my mother for not being all powerful and preventing the rape. The damaged and terrified 13-year-old girl I used to be healed more each time I shared my secret publicly.
I looked around the room and wondered if my talk helped the students. I hoped so. I knew it helped me. When my mother and I said goodnight on the sidewalk, she said, “I wish you had felt you could come to me then.”
I hugged her longer than usual and said, “But I did now.”
Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and The New York Times. She is currently working on her memoir.