Grapes of Rape: the Legacy of Sexual Assault

This election is literally making me, and millions of others, sick. Trump and many of his supporters’ words and actions have exposed their hostility and indifference. They’ve also exposed and re-opened so many wounds. Michelle Obama’s recent speech hit a nerve for millions. She spoke about how men’s all-too-easy words and actions can be all-too-hard on the lives of untold girls and women. I’m one of them, and I refuse to remain untold.  I want to tell because my story can show just how prevalent and pervasive this crap is.

You see, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for rape. My very existence is the fruit of a sexual assault. Sexual assault is the reason I’m alive. And sexual assault is also the reason I’ve more than once tried to end that same life.

A few years ago, after decades of searching and hoping, I finally found my birth mother. I finally found my story, and more importantly, I heard her story.  She was in her 90s when I met, but back when I was born, she was a woman in her late 30s, working in Washington, DC. Like a lot of girls, she had left high school to go east and work in the capital when World War II broke out. Her boss was a Kennedy era bigshot, a mover and shaker excited about the buzzing power and potency that surrounded the White House and permeated the whole era.  He was married, with kids.  Relatively new to DC, he relied on her insider knowledge and experience. They weren’t friends or lovers; he was her boss.

She got pregnant when her boss drove her home late one night.  He “had his way” with her.  Those were the words she used. “He raped you?” I asked. “No, I knew him,” she answered, “ He was my boss.”  “That’s called acquaintance rape,” I explained. She was quiet, then answered,  “He could be very persistent.” She corrected herself,  Insistent.”  She went to work the next morning.  It’s what you did.

She was 37. She’d had intercourse only once before in her life. Still, a month later a doctor gave her the unlucky news. She was scared and didn’t know what to do. She told her boss about it, about “me”.  He gave her $300.

She’d heard horror stories about back alley abortions. She was frightened about the blood and pain there might be. And about the darkness and shame there would be.  When she began to show, she took her $300 and boarded a Greyhound bus headed for Miami Beach. She’d always wanted to see Miami Beach.

And so my birth mother’s innocent excitement about the kitschy and already crumbling Floridian hot spot meant I was born on Miami Beach, my life’s trajectory sown thanks to some brochure she’d seen on a lunch break years before.  An ob-gyn helped broker an adoption, and after abandoning me to live what she hoped would be a good life, she abandoned her good life in DC to return to her hometown in the Midwest.  I started my life while my mother  “started all over.”

All these years, she has never told anyone, no friend or family member, what had happened.  For over half a century she kept her secret, largely even from herself. 

She never asked me any questions about me or my life. When I told her I wanted to meet her, she relented, making me promise I would tell the nursing home staff that my husband and I were just “friends from New York.”

Meeting her ended up being somewhat gut-wrenching. First, just the enormity of the event — a meeting, a person, and an answer I’d yearned for my entire life. I bolted into a restroom, frozen, until my husband literally dragged me out.  When we finally entered her room, there were two women in there. Awkward, since this “friend from up north” had no idea which woman to embrace. 

Soon my overwhelming emotions curdled into disappointment.  We didn’t look at all alike, or seem to have much in common. My mother had no interest in me or who I was, and didn’t seem the least bit curious, much less sentimental, about the baby she’d given up. She said she wouldn’t have allowed us to come but couldn’t help being a little “nosy.”  I told her it isn’t “nosy” to want to know what happened to the baby you gave up, but she seemed genuinely shock I’d wondered about her all these years. For a daughter desperate for love and connection, her disinterest seemed like another blow.

But my grief at losing the lifelong dream of an older twin who’d want to share more than DNA and frizzy curls was short-lived. My mourning soon became an overwhelming sense of love and empathy.  I understood that my mother was ashamed.  If she’d had any anger or sorrow attached to what she’d been through, she’d now spent a lifetime tamping it down under a chirpy, hard-working exterior that focused on moving along.  Her heavily-hairsprayed coif and equally unwavering iron smile didn’t weigh her down; they kept her afloat.  My mother, like so many, too many women, was a survivor.

It’s rare a woman of her generation would leave home, pursue a career, never marry.  But sadly, what’s not rare is that her plans to live life on her own terms could be so easily thwarted by one night and one man’s choice to take what he wanted.

By all accounts my biological father was a good man, a successful, very smart and well-intentioned man.  But he was also a product of a Playboy-reading, ass-pinching, ring-a-ding-dinging world view that was everywhere, even in the more randy than rarefied corridors of power. He was my poor mother’s uninvited number two solely because in his world he could only concern himself with number one. My biological father didn’t think twice about inserting himself into his secretary’s body and sparse sexual experience.  I’m guessing in the years to come he didn’t think once about me, fruit of that encounter. What’s worse, I’m guessing he didn’t think about his former secretary and the shame that’s still her legacy from that long ago late night.

But I do think about her shame. I know its thorny weight all too well.

I was first sexually abused when I was 9.  My family, the one who’d adopted me, had some problems, as all families do. My dad and mom had some problems, some of her friends had some problems, and the things those friends did to me and put inside me were collateral damage.

This was a long time ago.  I’d never heard of grown-ups doing things like this to little girls. There were no news stories or TV movies or Encyclopedia Brown books about it.  As far as I knew, I was the only child in the history of the world who’d ever been in what I’d come to think of as “their game”.  I assumed it was my horrible, terrible me-ness that brought all this on.  I’d already learned my vocabulary was annoying, my curiosity exasperating, my hair in need of straightening, and that I was just deeply un-cuddly through-and-through.  If I were just different – better, prettier, more palatable– I’d have been spared.

That message about being worthless, not having enough inherent value to be kept safe and unbroken, of having what I feel and think matter – it’s been a lifetime companion. If I ever slipped or began to feel at all viably valuable, I ‘d soon be humbled by some passerby blurting out an assessment, telling me to smile, or behave as if I’m invisible.  The palpable contempt is never too far away.

In fact, as I write this at a café, just a few feet away two men are discussing Trump’s latest accusers. About how “suspicious” they are, why didn’t they report it before, and how easy it is for women to “make this shit up.”  It’s easy to hear their conversation; they’re not whispering their callous dismissals of these women.  Why should they whisper, they’re not ashamed.

I’d like to tell these men how I never reported what happened to me as a child. That I never reported any of the bosses, passersby, pedestrians, passengers, teachers, co-workers, salespeople, doctors, drivers, strangers, acquaintances, young boys, old men. I’d never reported anyone who’d groped me, grabbed me, touched me, hurt me, burned me, made me sob or throw up.  I’d like to tell these two men that my birth mother never reported her boss. That the mother who raised me never reported the dentist and family friend who’d molested her as a child. I would like to tell them about the dozens and dozens of women I’ve known who’ve never reported their rapists or molesters. But what’s the use? They won’t believe me, or more to the point, they really don’t care.

And that’s the wound I can’t heal. Not the incidents that happened years ago. Not the seemingly small everyday indignities all women bear throughout their lives. It’s the denial, dismissal, de-valuing of our reality that cuts deepest. It’s a consistent reminder of that same refrain: you don’t count, your body and feelings and lives and voices and wounds don’t count. It’s woven throughout women’s lives.  My life — a life that’s began in that cacophony and that still hobbles under its weight decades later.

That’s what Michelle Obama was talking about in her talk about what men like Donald Trump mean to women. Not just that this shit happens, for too many and too long, but that it often feels like no one cares. That’s why the woman who gave birth to me never talked about it. That’s why so few report. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what breaks my heart.

And that’s what I’d like to say to those men at the other table. I just want to ask them, “Why don’t’ you care?”

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