Through the Wardrobe

Through the Wardrobe

3167803103By Melissa Knox

“I am a tomboy,” I announce.  I’m eleven, I’m wearing black high tops, like my younger brother, and Oshkosh overalls.

Mom is holding the drawings of big-boobed girls that I did with my friend Danielle. Danielle’s mom says the drawings are disgusting.

Mom’s face shrieks the same message, even though she is an artist and she has told me that what Danielle and I are doing is called “life drawing.”  I never showed Mom my drawings. She must have gone in my room.

“These proportions are all wrong.  The arms are too long for the body, the head too large . . .”

I squirm.

The drawings are girlie-girlie but I liked them until Mom saw them.

I grab them and rip them up.

“I’d rather be a boy.”

“Do you have a boy’s name?  Mom wears baggy shirts and jeans and a newspaper boy’s cap.

“It might be Bucky. Maybe Honey, but maybe Bucky.”

Lately, when I get hit in the chest with a baseball, it hurts.  I’ve tried hitting myself in the chest and that hurts, too.  Before, it didn’t.  Maybe if I slam my fists against my nipples I won’t get breasts. Mom’s face—Is she going to cry?

While I decide on Honey or Bucky, my mother calls her psychoanalyst.


Mom and I are sitting in the kitchen of a rented house on India Street in Nantucket.  I am enjoying the sunset sliding across the widow’s walks across the street, drifting off into daydreams of the beach, looking forward to biking to Cisco or Madaket, wondering whether I’ll see bayberry bushes along the way, anticipating going to Arno’s on Main Street for blueberry pancakes, and hoping that the lady who sells my favorite chocolate fudge still has her shop.

As I am finishing dinner, she explains that her therapist asked her to ask me something. “Do you want to have your vagina cut out and a penis sewn in?” The question shoots from my mother’s mouth. Her eyes widen in shock, as if someone had just cursed or farted or both.

“No, Mom,” I say, in a please-pass-the-butter voice. I don’t want to imagine someone hacking off a penis and cutting me where it really hurts in order to attach the thing, but I can’t get the image out of my head.

My fascination with Dracula and vampires has been growing before she pops her question and I am a longtime fan of Barnabas Collins, the sensitive vampire in Dark Shadows, but Mom’s question mobilizes my interest.

Early that summer, she mentions how much she enjoyed a girl’s camp in Vermont.

“When I was your age, I went swimming, I went canoeing, we sang songs—”

“How long does camp last?” I ask. But she is lost in happy reminiscence.

“We made campfires, we climbed mountains, we—”


“—roasted marshmallows, we learned archery, we even put on, let me see, which Gilbert and Sullivan? I know I sang—


“—The piney air was . . . What?”

“I want to go!  How long does the camp last?”

“Oh, well, it’s a whole eight weeks, but if you don’t want to go that long—”

“I want to go!”

When my summer camp uniform arrives, I tell myself to relax (“Don’t get a nosebleed!”), open my closet, push my way behind the racks of dresses, the school uniforms, and the coats, to the very back, where I tap the cedar wall and pretend, one last time, that it is melting away, such that I find myself crunching across a winter-white landscape on my way to the faun’s house in frosted-over Narnia. I’ve practically memorized the chapters in which the White Witch tempts Edmund with magically enhanced Turkish delight, whips out her wand to turn Santa into stone, and finally gets her hash settled by the now-rehabilitated Edmund. I’d tie her to the stone table myself and send an army of ten-foot tall ogres and rheumy-eyed hags with knives and pitchforks after her. Some of the meaner giants would sharpen the stone knife for me.

My mother sews in my nametags and then drifts into painting little green trees up the legs of the kitchen sink.  She concocts inedible dishes she calls “Chinese food” out of several breakfasts worth of leftover scrambled eggs and a few anemic scallions from the back of the crisper.  She needs to talk to my father—right now—as the ice clinks in his fourth gin-and-tonic.

I start packing, even though camp won’t start for another four weeks. At night, I try on the uniform and am delighted to find I’ll need a belt to hold up the shorts, that the green knee socks can be pulled over my knees, that the hiking boots (L.L. Bean “Ruff-Outs”) require Kleenex in the toe for me to be able to walk in them without my feet slipping around until I trip, and that I’ll have to roll the sleeves of my black watch plaid camp shirt up so they don’t flop over my wrists.

These clothes have to fit me for a long time. I’m planning to wear them for maybe a year, if I can’t afford to buy clothes on my own once I make my getaway.  I could maybe escape during summer camp or right before my mother picks me up.  I’ll need a winter coat, but somewhere down the line I’ll find one in some Salvation Army thrift shop. Maybe I can get into an orphanage. I’m sure they take fifth-graders.  Or I’ll stow away on the Nantucket steamship, pretend to be an orphan and get adopted by a family there.

Or maybe I’ll decide to stay.  Anything could happen during those eight weeks. By the end of summer camp, some mysterious transformation, fueled entirely by my wishes, might occur.  When my parents and brother come to pick me up they’ll look like extras from the set of Leave it to Beaver. If that’s too much to hope for, then at least they’ll resemble The Addams Family. I won’t recognize them. My mother will call my father “honey,” a word she has never uttered, and even though her voice will be pleasantly low, unlike anything I’ve ever heard at home, I’ll know her immediately. My father will smile and bow like Lurch, and also like Lurch, won’t talk. My brother, inconspicuous as Wednesday Addams perching demurely in a corner, will sit inertly in the car the whole time my trunk is being loaded and speak a single sotto voce “hello” when I climb in for the ride home.

Even if none of these things happen, maybe I’ll befriend some other camper whose parents have always wanted another daughter, or maybe a sister for their little Clara, yes, a companion for their lonely, sickly child who has a cleft palate. I’ll play Heidi and get her up to speed by helping her learn to speak—and to climb every mountain, too.  Then they’ll have a good excuse to lavish upon me their considerable wealth and lasting affections, and I’ll fit right in to their family. It’ll be easy. They’ll be so grateful to me for saving the child they had almost given up for lost. A whole eight weeks! Yes, anything can happen.

Near the end of our drive to camp, Mom and I stop at a roadside restaurant for dinner, and I dive into my chicken with gravy and wild rice, eating so quickly I hardly taste it. Suddenly I–who am so allergic to nuts that in my thirties a boyfriend’s kiss will turn my lips into a red welt after he eats a hazelnut—feel my throat begin to swell.  I can hardly breathe.  I wave at Mom, sitting opposite me, because I can barely talk. The skin on my hands, my arms, is bright red and itchy. Quarter-sized hives are popping out all over me. I am scratching like an ape.

“Oh my goodness, you look tired.   We should get you to bed.”

“My wild rice gravy has nuts in it.”

“Really?  Oh dearie, dearie me.  Your throat does sound a bit scratchy.  Would you like a little dessert?  Or maybe some juice?”

“Mom, I need a doctor.”

“A doctor?” she sounds fuzzy, like someone who is just waking up but would rather put her head back down on the pillow.

“I really need one now.”

“Oh,” she fumes. “Let me see.  Okay.  Wonder if I have enough gas.” We get in the car and she begins driving. The car edges forward reluctantly.

“Oh, Melissa, look at the deer!” Mom yelps, “It’s so pretty!” She slows to a crawl and points. “Oh, I’d love to paint that!  We could stop for a minute.”

“Mom, I need a hospital. Please.  Right away.  Take me to a hospital.”

“A hospital? Oh, okay. If you really think so.” She shakes her head.  If I would only calm down and notice the countryside I wouldn’t have these problems. She points out another deer frolicking through the birch trees.

I see a state trooper on the side of the road and tell her to stop and ask him.

“We don’t want to bother him, do we?  After all—“

“Pull the car over!”

My mother rolls down her window and tells the state trooper it’s so good of him to chat with us. She hopes it’s no bother. Is there a doctor around here or a hospital?

I rap on my window, say, “Help!”

He looks at my face and tells Mom to follow his car.

By the time we get to the small local hospital, I can no longer see or walk. I lose consciousness. I wake on a gurney, in my hand an envelope of red capsules with stripes that remind me of candy canes and Christmas.  My mother informs me that I have been given a large shot of adrenaline. I have been unconscious for some time, hours, apparently, and she has on her face the look of a child whose parents arrived two hours late to pick her up. Mom takes me to the B&B near the camp, where I spend three days in bed. She reads to me and provides stale sandwiches.

Meanwhile I imagine the plates of home-made blancmange decorated with fresh mint leaves I’d serve up (the way Jo waits on Laurie in Little Women) if Clara of the ruined soft palate were lying where I am, and if I were a rosy-cheeked Heidi, feeling considerably perkier than I do right now. I relish the ability to breathe, but am shaky whenever I get out of bed. I look at Mom humming a little tune under her breath and murmuring about what a lovely lake we’re on and wouldn’t I like to go swimming?

I realize that I’ll need to check all restaurant food myself very carefully from now on. Not to mention learning to cook, something I will do by watching my father, whose love of Southern fried anything dominates our cuisine at home.

A few pounds thinner, I join my tent-mates three days after camp starts.  I enjoy the piney aromas and the quiet.

The counselor, blond, plump and sweet, introduces the girls, suggesting we all tell what our Daddies do.

“My Daddy’s a bobbin manufacturer,” says a pretty redhead with wide-spaced eyes.
“My Daddy says we’ll have a fine old time,” says the other girl, shy and genteel.  “He’s a lawyer.”

My father conceals his mini-bottle of Gordon’s London Dry Gin in his shirt pocket when our family eats at the Moon Palace restaurant, where we always have chicken with snow peas.  Dad pours the gin into his water glass.  When the waiter’s back is turned, Dad pockets a few pieces of cutlery.

I don’t think either of these girls has a Dad like mine.

I like the Chinese restaurant meals, because Dad gets such a kick out of snitching the fork and knife, plus not paying for his drink, that he doesn’t yell or slap anyone.  He grabs my hand on the way home and yells, “You walk with Daddy.”

“I hate my father,” I say to the group of camp girls.

The counselor’s eyebrows go up.  The shy girl invites me to play cards, the redhead says she loves cheese fondue.

A week after I arrive, the summer camp director sends my mother a letter about your very articulate young lady.  What she means is that although I’m surrounded by peaceful Vermont lakes and pine trees, I’m obsessed with Count Dracula.  My tent mates are sick of hearing about how much blood drips from his teeth. The camp director’s letter adds that I burst with ideas and that I have so much to offer other children in the way of lively companionship.  She means that I like to pull the legs off Daddy Long Legs. I like to pour salt on a slug.  She’s noticed that I prefer hiding under my bed with a flashlight, reading, never learning anyone’s name or talking, except while gobbling meals, when I open my mouth and stories pour out. I talk non-stop at the camp dinner table, where no one ever slaps me and no one has ever been slapped.

When camp is over in late August, my mother comes by herself to pick me up. I’m glad she did not bring Dad.  There won’t be fighting in the car.  After we’re back in New York, my counselor sends my parents a long letter.  She wonders if my fetish for the bizarre may be a substitute for carrying on a relationship in which she feels uneasy, in other words that it is a shell to avoid letting other people know that she does not have as much self-confidence as she often shows on the surface.  I laugh as my mother, casting me a doleful look, reads this out loud.   If I could fool my counselor, then I could fool other people too, and I almost feel self-confident. 

“What is going on with you?” asks Mom, bursting into tears.

“Melissa talked a great deal about sex, especially at the beginning of the summer,” writes the camp director in her own report at the end of the summer.  She seems astonished. Sex is indeed one of my favorite topics and I could not seem to stop looking for it everywhere. At camp, I told the other girls about the movie version of To Sir With Love, which none of them had seen.  The film version, I told them, didn’t use the scene in the book in which a girl throws a used sanitary napkin into the fireplace in a school classroom. Sanitary napkin! Blood! Menstruation! Which has something to do with sex! And I kept harping on this moment with my bemused campmates.

At camp I felt like an anthropologist visiting an unknown tribe I might like to join, and nothing reassured me more than the sight of other campers laughing at my antics. Stories of Catherine the Great getting crushed by a horse being lowered, for erotic purposes, by crane, fascinate me. I tell them. Repeatedly. I pretend to be a vampire. “My name is Count Dracula and I come to suck your blohhh-huuh–huuhd,” I say. I think this is very funny.  I say it again and again.

Neither vampires nor sex stories blot out my most unforgettable moment, the one I keep trying to exfoliate with the energy of a dragon shedding his skin, but which follows me everywhere.  I think of it often, and when I do, I try to shift my attention to my favorite joke, which goes like this:  a young lady is just about to marry.  She asks her mother to find her a black lace negligee and fold it carefully into her suitcase.  Mom forgets and just packs a pink flannel nightgown.  On the wedding night the groom gets shy, saying he will undress in the bathroom and that the bride should not look.  She opens her suitcase, finds the pink flannel nightgown, and cries, “Oh, it’s all pink and wrinkly!“  The groom yells, “I told you not to look!”  I love this joke, finding it so amusing that I have to stop and calm myself in order to be understood when I tell it. All pink and wrinkly! Hilarious. I’m laughing so hard I can barely tell the joke.  Except that the other kids don’t get it or look shocked.

But always, I remember the most the thing I want to forget.

My brother is three, I am five, and Daddy is weaving around the room giggling and reeking of Gordon’s London Dry Gin. He dances with us. He points a finger toward my brother.  He sits in front of us and his face is all red, his eyes glassy.  He sticks that finger into my brother’s face (“No, me, Daddy, ME!” I say, jealous.)  He laughs and says, “Pull my finger!” My brother pulls his finger and Daddy emits a long, loud, belch.

“Me! Me!”

“Pull my finger, and I’ll burp,” he promises, and I pull it. He burps long and loud, and we laugh. But he has to top himself; the finger’s just peanut gallery.

“Come on, kiddies!” he cries jovially, “Watch Daddy pee!” We follow him into the bathroom.   He shuts and locks the door, because Mom is on the other side of it. We laugh. This is a game, like keep-away. The bathroom has white and black diamond-shaped tiles and the lights are very bright. He pulls out his penis the way a fireman unrolls a hose—he just hand-over-hands it and it keeps on rolling out, more and more, until I almost wonder if that thing will hit the wall. I can’t see anything else: it’s all pink and wrinkly. Then it rears its head like an angry red giant. It’s beautiful; it’s ugly; it’s the tree of the knowledge of pain and pleasure. It’s a walk with a faun in the pale moonlight. It’s the entire world, and the world is ending. The room disappears. The thing seems as thick as my head. A stream of urine loud as a cataract shoots into the toilet, enough to drown all New York. You could go over the falls in a barrel in that stuff.

My brother and I are the best audience imaginable.

“Wow, Daddy!” I say.

We clap.

“Wow!”  My brother agrees.  “Can you do that again, Daddy?  Can you do it now?

Wham! Wham! Wham! We are so agog with these previously hidden talents that only after a moment do I realize that the entire time we are in the bathroom, Mom is pounding on the door and yelling. But we don’t like her. It’s Daddy who claims all our love. When Daddy opens the door she is still yelling so loud and pounding so hard that she doesn’t realize it is open, and falls flat on the tiles. I think we step over her and run to our rooms.

Right then, I feel like I’m falling off a cliff and my stomach clutches. Within a few years, I start dreaming every night that I’m rolling down the hill at 111th street and my head will smash into the black lamppost at the bottom of the hill. I awake with a lurch, panting and sweating, every night.

When I started summer camp, I believed that because I was in a new place, surrounded by happy people, people not in my family, I would be allowed to forget everything that went before. I’d get a do-over.

The cedar wall at the back of my closet would dissolve, I’d walk out into a winter wonderland, get invited to tea with a friendly faun who would lead me back to the lamppost so that I could get home—only unlike Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I wouldn’t go back home.  I’d stay in Narnia.

When Lucy visits the faun in Narnia, he wears a red scarf over his handsome, hairy chest, in the Pauline Baynes illustrations. His furred hindquarters conceal his tumescence—for what else is Mr. Tumnus, the faun who takes Lucy  back to his cozy den, where he plies her with tea and lulls her into a trance with the honeyed tunes of his flute? The music makes Lucy feel like crying and laughing and dancing and going to sleep.  He bursts into tears.

He has been bad, and he’s afraid they’ll cut off his tail and his horns.

What else would you do with men who seduce little girls?

But Lucy forgives him.

When my father came to my room at night, and he sobbed and stroked me, I pretended to be asleep.  I felt like laughing and crying and dancing and sleeping all at once, and I did not want the tune to stop. When he wept, he loved me.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Author’s note:  I found, and find, great comfort in the escape offered by the Narnia books–which offer a way of understanding my experience.

Melissa Knox is a former New Yorker living in Germany, where she teaches American literature and culture at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her recent work has appeared in Gravel, NonBinary Review, and Readings.

Illustration: Lucy and Mr Tumnus in Narnia, by Pauline Baynes

Sexuality on Campus

Sexuality on Campus

A eight years old school girl close to the schoolyards

By Mary E. Plouffe

Recent surveys indicate that between nineteen and twenty-three percent of women will experience sexual assault in college. That’s one in five of our daughters. Those assaults are rarely by criminals, or even strangers. They are by their classmates: the boyfriend they broke up with, the guy they just met at the frat party. They are our sons.

How did we get here?  So much has changed in the way we approach sex in our culture in the past few decades. We are more open and honest, more accepting and less judgmental. Yet despite our best intentions, I believe we have inadvertently made things more confusing for the young people we care about.

We have taken the shame out of sex. The average age of first marriage has risen by more than 7 years since 1950. Along with this shift, Americans now accept that most people will not postpone sex until marriage. Sex before marriage is less a “sin” and more a fact of adulthood, even to the majority of those sitting in pews every Sunday.

We have taken the ignorance out of sex as well, establishing early, accurate education about sexual function, emphasizing safe sex for disease and pregnancy prevention. Most fifth graders can tell you the biology of how sex works.

But I wonder if we have taken the emotion out of sex as well. I wonder if we’ve neglected intimacy and relationship and human emotion in the safe sex discussion. When and what are we teaching our kids about psychologically safe sex?

Too many times in the past ten years young women in high school or college have described their first sexual experience to me as “getting it over with,””losing my virginity so I could stop worrying about it” or even ” so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about being a virgin.” This implies that having sex is something you do for yourself, because your body is ready to have sex, because, like getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage.   Relationship is not an essential part of the experience, just the tool for accomplishing it. If you are lucky, they tell me, you have a boyfriend you want to have sex with, but if not, the pressure to be sexual overrides waiting for the right person, the one with whom sex is a logical step of intimacy that grows out of relationship.

Sex in college also has its own rules. The young women who educate me about this are often trying to digest the rules themselves, and struggling with their own reactions. So they try to explain to us both.

“Partying” I am told, is separate from dating. It’s more like a play group where sex is part of the party. Alcohol, and sometimes drugs, are part of the party, so that the sex is easier, and the experience heightened. Sexual contact with a boy at the party is not “cheating,” even for those with a boyfriend. To meet that boy for coffee and conversation the next day would be cheating.

But at some schools the party culture is also the entryway, the signal that you want to date.   “What if you choose not to party? I asked one.

“Then people think you don’t want a boyfriend, that you’re a nerd or not interested at all,” she answered. “I really don’t want that.”

“So, you’re hoping to meet someone special?” I asked.

” Yeah, it’s like, we get the sex part over with first, then maybe see if we like each other.” Girls who choose this entryway hoping to find relationship are often devastated if no one calls once the party is over.

“Hooking up” is slightly different. It can mean just needing sex and agreeing to satisfy that need contractually. Sort of like needing a dance partner, and taking whoever is available. Some boyfriend/ girlfriend bonds tolerate this, some do not. “It’s just sex, right?’ one asked hesitantly. “So, it shouldn’t matter.”

These young women are confused, and so am I. In the most formative period of their emotional lives, they are being asked to take the emotion out of sex. This is hard for mature adults to do. Even hard core proponents of open marriage can end up in therapists’ office wrestling with psyches that are not as “evolved” as they want them to be. Despite our logic, most of us care about the very personal act of sharing out bodies with someone else. Few of us can do it cavalierly, most of us cannot keep emotion out of the equation even when we want to.

College age women are particularly vulnerable. They are seeking relationship as much as sexuality, trying to define who they are, and who they want to bond with in friendships, in peer groups, and in loving relationships.   And the complicated rules of college sexuality do not help.

A few students are afraid to dip into the college sexual scene, but many more try to participate, and find themselves numb, or upset, or, as one student said ” not exactly guilty about it but just so uncomfortable with myself.” Most are relieved when I suggest that there is nothing wrong with them, nothing inherently superior about being able to separate sex from intimacy, sexuality from emotion.

There is probably a normal curve about this, like so many human variables. In thirty-five years of clinical practice, I have met people on the far ends. A few who saw sex as having no moral or emotional component. They felt free to be sexual with any interested partner, and were irritated and confused when others judged or felt hurt by their behavior. “Sex is like sneezing for me,” one man offered “Sometimes you want to, sometimes you need to and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those whose sense of intimacy holds sex in a unique place. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” one young woman who remained a virgin into her late twenties explained her choice, “I just think of sex as God’s wedding gift to me and my husband, and I don’t want to open it early.”

Most of us fall somewhere in between. A place where sexual need and emotional connection meet, where sex is not only about physical desire, but about psyche: the experience, sometimes unexpectedly powerful, that a relationship is special, and that adding sexuality to that connection feels safe and right.

Morality is a component of this, but that word needs to be used carefully with today’s young people. “Oh I’m not religious” is often the quick response I get when I use it. And my follow up, “But you are not amoral, right?” usually takes them by surprise.   Most are relieved to engaged in a discussion that assumes that that developing an ethical self, a personal right and wrong, is part of becoming an adult, whether guided by a church or not. So I help them discover their own intuitive reactions to questions that push their boundaries. “If it’s ok for you to have sex with your boyfriend, is it ok if two of his roommates want to join in?

Fear of being judgmental of others is sometimes paralyzing, and keeps them from embracing their own good judgment for themselves. It short circuits finding the place where temperament, personality and morality meet. They do not want to be accused of “slut-shaming” their classmates who seem to participate in the recreational sex culture without difficulty. But there is no need to judge others in order to find what works for you, to find the freedom that comes from setting boundaries because you know yourself well, and you accept what feels right and what does not.

We can teach fifth graders the biology of safe sex. They can understand how condoms work, and how conception happens. But you cannot teach fifth graders the psychology of safe sex. How do you talk about trust, and vulnerability and self-respect and shame? How do you explain intimacy and emotional connection and commitment? You cannot address these constructs with minds that do not yet have the capacity for self- reflexive thought, do not understand a world where motivation comes from multiple sources, and do not have the experience of powerful emotional urges that complicate and defy logic.

Somewhere between the” birds and bees” lesson, and the freedom of college, we need to have much deeper discussions about the truth that sexual safety is not just about avoiding pregnancy and disease. It is about ensuring that we are ready for the powerful emotional feelings that come with sexuality. It is about putting intimacy back into the equation, and validating that it belongs there.

What message do we give when we pretend that casual sex is for everyone? Young men and women both feel the expectation to comply when this is the atmosphere the rest of the culture accepts, even idealizes, as normal college experience. When we offer no guidance about sexual decision making, and turn a blind eye to a culture of promiscuity, it is easy for “permission” to become “expectation” to become “entitlement”.   From there it is a very short distance to rape.

Sex can be for recreation or for intimacy. Most of us, ultimately, choose the latter. We crave the deeper emotional closeness that real relationship offers, and we imbed sexuality into that. That is not only because we want family, or children, or security. It is because our psyches find it so much more satisfying.

That is the truth that we need to talk to our children about. That casual sex is not always casual. It is not a stage of development that everyone must go through, or feels the same about trying. And that even when it does not cause pain, it can lead to confusion and misperceptions and feelings no one expected. Delaying sex, and choosing partners carefully is not only about avoiding disease and pregnancy. It is also about valuing the intimate emotional component that comes with the experience, and understanding what that means for you.

Prep schools and colleges must take responsibility for the interpersonal learning environment as much as they do the academic one. Social clubs and fraternities that become alcohol saturated brothels on the weekends are not unlike locker rooms, where bravado and testosterone- fueled “group think” overpower sensitivity and good communication. Real solutions must go beyond teaching students to ask more “affirmative consent” questions in the heat of alcohol fueled arousal. Schools need to set standards, provide healthier social alternatives, and crack down on those that consistently cause harm.

Public policy seems focused on prosecutorial responsibility once rape has happened. Yet, at a congressional hearing in August 2015, a victim’s advocate reported that nine out of ten women who have been assaulted on campus do not want law enforcement involved. This seemed to surprise our legislators but it does not surprise me. Because, for every case in which violence or surreptitious drugging provide a clear cut division between victim and perpetrator, there are many more where the story reflects a more complicated truth. Men and women participated willingly in the college social scene. They wanted something they knew might or would become sexual. The results were terrifying, or tragic, or not at all what they expected. They are not merely looking for someone to blame. They are looking to understand how this all went so terribly, terribly wrong.

We owe our children more. Much more than a wink and a nod, an implied permission to be sexual so long as they do not get pregnant or get a disease. We owe them the truth about real human sexuality. That it is a complicated and emotionally powerful part of human experience. And that one’s values and personality must guide our choices if we are to be comfortable with them.

Exploring sexuality means more than finding out how your body works. It means accepting that humans are uniquely created: we are both animal and spiritual. Sexuality bridges those two selves, and in the best moments, unites them. When we find the person who knows and loves us emotionally, physically, and spiritually, we call them Soulmate.

If we want our young people to aspire to that, we need to show them how.

Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical  psychologist and author of I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child to be published in May 2017. She is currently writing a book of essays on the art of listening.




Telling My Mother About My Rape Healed Us

Telling My Mother About My Rape Healed Us

teenage girl in the summer field

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, naïve, 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.

Anecdotes of a Girl

Anecdotes of a Girl

By Jacqueline Maria Pierro

WO Anecdotes of a Girl ART

My Father

It is the dead of winter yet my bedroom window is wide open to a black sky devoid of stars and compassion. Frigid. I’ve removed the screen and pulled back the curtains allowing full entry should Peter Pan find my house and fly me away, enveloped in fairy dust to the Never Land. As I watched the dawn creep upon the dark, my tears fell cold upon my cheek: Peter wasn’t coming. I have only one visitor that night; another visit in which I had to stare with empty eyes at the room’s hideous skin—my posters of innocence were obnoxious now, the cotton candy paint I’d picked out in Home Depot was ugly now. I guess I was ugly. Well, not to him. But I wished I was ugly to him, or plain, or just his kid—the kid that you play softball with in the front yard and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to at night and maybe build stuff with, like clubhouses or go-carts. I wasn’t that kind of kid though; I am the one who he visits at night, who he makes keep his secrets and then they turn into my secrets.


As my reality becomes unlivable I start to read an endless amount of books. When Peter failed to find me I decide to read about Narnia. Soon I was crying silent tears and waiting for Aslan to roar in and let me bury my small face in his glorious fur. Then I read the Bible and prayed for Jesus, God, Mary, Joseph, any one of the Apostles to appear in a sort of diaphanous manner, speak in magnificent echoes and carry me away on a song to Heaven. Then I read Sybil and tried to convince my psyche to formulate new and stronger personalities to compensate for the frailty that I felt. I was shattered inside yet my skin stayed together holding it all in; I was both the captor and captive of the particles which bound me together. Stuck and lost within endless walls and secrets.


He brought me home presents in his briefcase. I ran down my long block on my skinny legs anticipating his arrival each day. Or I peered out the window and counted cars, trying to guess how many would pass before I would see him stroll down our street in his business suit. His briefcase always held some sort of treat: a cool pencil, stickers that smelled when you scratched your nail across them, a small set of magic tricks. One evening when I was twelve he came in my room after work and opened his briefcase to give me my treat. It was some sort of lacy red panty and bra set. He said I could wear it for him if I felt comfortable enough, like maybe when my mom wasn’t around or something. I took it and crumpled it into my drawer as far back as it would go and sometimes when I caught a glimpse of it I would feel sick, like I was going to pass out or like I couldn’t really breathe too well. I think I just hated that thing. On a Tuesday when no one was home I took it out of my drawer and tried it on and looked in the mirror. And then I felt like I hated myself.


As I walked home from school that day when I was 12 I felt this overwhelming urge to just be normal. And then I saw him standing at the end of our driveway with this smile on his face saying he was happy to see me. I wasn’t happy and I told him that I wanted to be normal and that I wanted him to just stop. To just leave me alone and to love me, but in some other way that doesn’t make me feel bad. He nodded his head slowly and said that he understood and he was sorry, he would never do things to me again, but that of course our relationship would change and he couldn’t be that nice to me anymore. He said he would have to treat me like shit because I obviously didn’t love him and that I better not say anything to my mother.. So I told him that he could treat me like shit then. I walked inside and that began the next few years of him not being nice to me. I guess I was just a disappointment so it was easier to call me names or hit me when he was angry.


When it was warmer out I started to find freedom in running away. I left my house with a backpack full of books rather than clothes. I ran to fields of broken glass whereupon I could escape into tales and legends and words and pages; the words danced and sang to me—they were my elixir, soporific and hypnotic—they gave me temporary amnesia. Some days it was raining and my clothes stuck to me in the most uncomfortable way and I just couldn’t go back to that house to change and maybe open my drawer and see that ugly lacy red thing that he wanted to see me in.


Home was just an illusion that I clung to but I wasn’t going to go there because he was there. Often I watched the night silently turn to day in some random house or another; I was almost 14, the secrets that I had inside had devoured my spirit. So I wandered. I played chess with those old guys in Washington Square Park and explored Manhattan; I could feel its pulse beating under my feet and I had to write the skyline in words, ascribe letters to each smell, to the cacophony of sounds that somehow made sense, and to the faces. I walked across the George Washington Bridge to the familiarity of New Jersey and was drawn to the walkways along the Hudson River where I would sit and write what I saw from afar. But I wanted to go home. To make microwave popcorn and sit in my cozy chair and watch TV shows and see my family. I knew he would be there; I had never told so I was the bad one—the black sheep, the runaway. The difficult child.


When I was 14, I told my mother. It just came out, my mouth was moving and I heard the words but I didn’t feel like I was actually telling her everything; it was more of an uncontrollable spewing of words. Oh, her face. In my wanderings my eyes had seen the unspeakable, things that a child really shouldn’t have seen (was I ever a child?) but her face—that is an image that I can never escape. Shattering (I knew how it worked) starts on the inside and sometimes it slowly permeates the skin so one can actually see the blood drain to make way for the anguish which takes up so much space. I have crushed my family with my truth and soon the cop cars and lights and the guilt and embarrassment in his eyes made it all real. I ate Frosted Flakes as they led him out in handcuffs. They had disgusted faces.

I never saw him again.

Author’s Note: Ironically, shortly after the completion of this essay, my father tried to contact me. Throughout my life I’ve felt this strange, little desire to communicate with him; however I’ve come to realize that I was actually craving to communicate with an “alternate version” of my father. But there is no alternate versionhe is that man whom I’ve written about; he exists on these pages and not in between the lines. And so I don’t think I can pick up that phone call.  

Jacqueline Pierro is a student at Columbia University in the City of NY and single mother to three amazing children. After graduating in May she will continue work on her novel in progress.



Forgiving My Mother

Forgiving My Mother

WO Forgiving My Mother ARTBy Anne Penniston Grunsted

In a lifetime of moments, most are quickly forgotten. Only a tiny number are retained, and most of these are filed away in our mind, reminiscences that can be pulled out or put away as desired. But a few, our very most profound moments, transcend the vagaries of memory and etch themselves into our very brain. They become part of us, always present. My etchings include the moment my son emerged from my partner’s womb, the phone call telling me my father was dead, the day my mother looked away when she could have stopped me from being raped.

The day my mother didn’t protect me.

It happened when I was five or six. One of my older siblings had recently run away from home, an act of defiance that left my mother reeling. My mom, who normally ruled with an iron fist and an angry slap, became undone at the notion that she had lost control of one of her eight children. Anxiety consumed her. She literally became sick with it; for months she could not leave the house without experiencing a severe case of diarrhea. Overwhelmed, she disconnected. And we children who hadn’t yet grown up and achieved separateness from her, were stuck in the house, stagnating, afraid to disturb her.

My father was a warm and hard-working man, but completely out of his depth with respect to my mother’s issues. He kept a careful distance from the drama in the household, so careful that I never considered asking for his help in any matter concerning my mother. I knew she would fiercely retaliate against me if I dared circumvent her authority, and he would never be vigilant enough to protect me from her.

My mother had long assigned many of the tasks related to my care to my older siblings, and during this time of turmoil, she assigned my brother the job of turning on the water for my nightly shower. It was a ridiculous chore, one I was more than capable of doing. But that’s what anxiety can do; she was irrationally worried I would burn myself and so overlooked the very real problem of having an eleven-year-old boy supervise a small girl’s bath time.

Every evening he forced me to undress in front of him.

When I argued that he should turn on the water and leave before I undressed, he said that if I didn’t do what he said, he would tell our mother. And in those days, the angry attention of my mother was still the worst scenario my mind could conjure.

So I did what I was told, to keep the peace.

But it’s the things that your mind can’t imagine that become the basis for the most difficult kinds of anxiety. As I sought to avoid my mother’s negative attention, fear of my brother was exerting ever-increasing pressure inside of me, demanding release. I lived in constant dread and with the growing certainty that something terrible awaited me beyond the undressing in front of him. I was too young to understand what that something was, but my fear of it and him soon eclipsed my desire to escape my mother’s attention.

And so, after a few weeks of the undressing, I turned to her.

And thus begins the moment that changed my life forever, an instance of immeasurable harm.

I approached my mother, trying to be casual, trying not to upset her. “Can I take my shower by myself?” I asked.

“No. You’ll burn yourself.”

“But I don’t like him helping me.” And then I paused, taking a giant leap into the unknown, telling her as much as I had the words for. “He makes me undress in front of him.” My casualness gave way to uncontrollable sobbing.

My mother’s jaw clenched and her eyes hardened at my revelation. She did not misunderstand what I was telling her, but if the truth had penetrated her conscience for a moment,it was quickly, and by sheer force of will, expelled from her mind.

As if to emphasize her rejection of my plight, she physically turned away from me, denying me comfort. She said nothing to me, then or ever.

And she chose not to save me.

Instead she called to my brother who was listening from the next room and told him to “knock it off.” That was the final word, the only discussion.

Now, “knock it off” is an appropriate rebuke when your child has thrown a tennis ball against the side of the house for the hundredth time, or is laughing uncontrollably because someone has passed gas in church. It is not how you stop a pedophile. That requires engagement, and my mother had none of that for me.

She did not stop the shower ritual. She never listened outside the bathroom door to see if I was safe. I don’t know if she ever gave the moment a second thought. And because of her inaction, my abuse continued, and then worsened.

When, a few months later, the terror moved from the bathroom to my bedroom, I chose not to risk another rejection from her and instead learned to disassociate while my brother stuck his hands between my legs and fondled me. I recited the rosary obsessively, dozens of times a day, the repetition numbing my mind and the prayers acting as my penance.

A couple of years later, after my brother lay on top of me and penetrated me, I spent months pounding my stomach at night, praying that I wasn’t pregnant. And, again, I told no one. Because I had no one to tell.

It ended, finally, because after several years of abuse I made it end. One day when my brother grabbed me, I was so scared that I accidentally peed on him. He recoiled. After that, I purposely peed on him any time he touched me.

That was nearly forty years ago. My mother has been dead for seventeen of them. I never confronted her. I knew she was not resilient enough to accept responsibility; I had no desire to crush her. So I am left with the question of forgiveness for a crime that was never acknowledged.

My feelings towards my brother are easy. I barely consider him human, so nonexistent is his remorse for what he did. My mind recalls him as the smell of dirt and sweat and semen, a noxious odor, but one that dissipates soon enough. I have severed all contact with him and have no issue holding him fully culpable for his actions. If forgiveness means I need or want nothing further from him, than he is forgiven. If it means that I have understanding or compassion for him, then he is damned.

But it’s not so simple with my mother. I inherited her propensity for anxiety. I too have wilted in the face of burdens both real and imagined. And while she failed me so monumentally in this crucial moment, she was in other ways often very present in my times of need, especially in my adulthood when she no longer was burdened with the day-to-day responsibility of raising children.

She did good things. And she did terrible things. So if forgiveness means I have compassion for her, then she is forgiven. But forgiven is not forgotten. In many ways, my mother’s failure to protect me was much worse than my brother raping me. His presence in my life is an unfortunate cosmic coincidence, but he and I are not part of one another in any soul-entwining way. Damage caused by my mother, the person I loved and needed the most in my childhood, permeates my every fiber.

How has this etching impacted me? On a physical level, my abhorrence of showers and baths has at times created a physical distance from others. Emotionally, I have protected myself by (figuratively) pissing on people the moment they fail to meet my expectations. The anxiety I inherited from my mother has found full flower in the knowledge of the horrible and dark things people do to one another. I don’t believe people are inherently evil, but I do not trust them to be good to me.

A few years ago, after my mother was gone, I told my siblings what had happened, hoping they would embrace me, make me feel loved and protected thirty-five years after the fact. Hoping they would heal me. But with a couple of exceptions, they also turned away. They didn’t so much disbelieve me as want me to be quiet, to protect their lives from the crime against me.

But why should I keep quiet? Telling my story gives me back the power over my darkest moments. We expel our physical human waste, so why let horrible memories rot inside us, spreading their poison through our lives? Having compassion for my mother does not preclude me from stating her accountability as a mother who did not protect her child.

My healing comes in telling my story. It’s in laying bare the reality that the most pivotal moment of my life was too big for my mother. It’s in being the voice for that little girl who had no one to turn to. And it’s in showing other mothers the power they hold in their children’s lives—the power to protect or the power to crush a soul. To tell them to be vigilant and wholly and soulfully engaged when the etching needle is poised to leave its mark.

Author’s Note: Maybe not so coincidentally, I am married to a former child abuse investigator. We work hard at being vigilant with our own son without turning attentiveness into smothering. I am largely out of contact with my family of origin. I miss them, but I need to keep enough distance from my past to allow for a happily ever after with my partner and son.

Anne Penniston Grunsted is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on the topics of disability and parenting. Her work has been published in Role Reboot, Chicago Parent, and she won the 2014 Nonfiction Prize from Beecher’s Magazine.

What I Will Teach My Boys

What I Will Teach My Boys

By Shannon Brugh

whatiwilltellmyboysI will teach my boys that they are not entitled, that they are not owed, that they have the power to wait. To stop. To save.


I remember. I remember all the times I felt like I should. Like I had to so he would still talk to me. So he would still like me. So he wouldn’t be angry. Even the times I wanted to… until it was happening, and I didn’t want to anymore. I remember the times I spoke up, and the times I didn’t. I remember all of it. And I see all of it so differently now. All of it is different now.

I am a mother. I am a mother of boys.

So now, I see it all through the eyes of a mother, too. What my mother would have felt like, had she known. What my mother will feel like now, when she reads this. What the mothers of those boys would have felt like, if they had known. What I would feel like if my wonderful, sweet boys did something like that.

My boys. They would never. They won’t. They can’t.

But how do I know? How does anyone know?

I think about what must’ve been missing. What the boys I knew or the Steubenville boys or the millions of other boys who intentionally—or unintentionally—rape or push or pressure people into sex, were missing. What was it?

I think, or hope anyway, that it was because no one ever talked to them about it. No one ever came right out and said, “Hey. You cannot have sex with another person unless you are sure—100% sure—that they want to have sex with you. If there is any hesitation, if you have to “convince,” then it’s not okay and you have to stop.” No one ever said that to them; I’m sure of it. Because really, how often to parents really say that to their boys?

It’s becoming more common, I think. Things are changing and people are becoming more comfortable talking to their kids about the uncomfortable things: sex, drugs, mental/emotional/social health. But I think it’s still new, and I doubt it’s part of the plan for most parents of boys.

Parents of girls, on the other hand, they know they have to talk about it. To talk about pressure and making sure their daughters wait until they are ready. Birth control and being careful. Some parents even go so far as to warn girls not to dress too suggestively or “give the wrong impression.”  Because as all women know, we—the victims of this kind of aggression—are blamed.

But who says to their sons, “It does not matter what she’s wearing. It does not matter if your friends say she’s a sure thing. It does not matter that you want to. Do not pressure. Do not push.  Her body is her body. His body is his body.”

I will. I will say those things to my sons. I will tell them—explicitly—not to rape. Not to pressure. Not to push. Because if I don’t, who will? I will not wait until it’s too late. I will not assume that they know. I will not allow my sons to fall victim to the idea that men are entitled to anyone’s body.

And if I have to, I will tell my boys that once, boys who could have been just like them felt entitled to my body. That one boy tried to take my body. That after I made it clear that I didn’t want what he wanted, he held my body down and tried to take it. That he knelt on my arms so I couldn’t fight. That he sat on my legs so I couldn’t kick. That he touched me and took off clothes and that I fought him as hard as I could. That he only stopped when my friend screamed from the other room. That my friend, who couldn’t fight the other boy off of her, saved me. That I fought my way out from under him and tried to fight my way to her, but it was too late. That then, because we were too young and too stupid to consider alternatives, we let those same boys drive us home. And that then, when he tried to touch me again in the truck, I elbowed him in the ribs as hard as I could, and that he opened the door of the truck on the freeway and tried to throw me out. I remember. All of it.

I can’t change it now. I can’t change anything that has happened to me or to anyone else. But I can try to stop it from happening again. I can teach my sons that they are not owed anything. That their feelings and hormones and urges are not any more important than anyone else’s. I can teach them that they have the power to stop, and that they must if there is so much as a shadow of doubt.

I can teach my boys be safe. Safe with themselves, safe with their bodies, save with others and their bodies. I will teach my boys that they are not entitled, that they are not owed, that they have the power to wait. To stop. To save.

And I will teach my boys to listen. To pay attention to the words of those around them and in front of them. To speak up if they hear something questionable. To step in if they see someone being pressured or pushed around. To help.

I remember, and I will do what I can to stop this, beginning with my boys.

Shannon Brugh received her B.A. in English Lit from University of Washington and her Masters in Teaching from Seattle University. In addition to her contributions at Rattle & Pen, she can be found on her personal blog Becoming Squishy. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two young sons.