Years ago, when I was 18 and traveling in a foreign country, I was raped and left to die. I now have two daughters, one 15, one 17--almost the age I was then. I have vanquished most of the demons that have haunted me since that awful day, but recently I came face to face with a new one: how could I tell my kids?
I remember how I felt during the years leading up to the rape--invulnerable, tough, fearless. I traveled overseas because I wanted to push past the boundaries of my small New Jersey town. I left my first boyfriend at home--I remember how thrilling it was a few months before to discover love and sex. I had just finished my freshman year at college. Life was impossibly wonderful.
Then, one week into my trip, two men dragged me into a field, beat me with a club and took turns raping me.
How could I possibly make sense of that experience for my daughters? Right now they rule their world. They head out to the wilderness every summer to climb mountains and raft rivers. One daughter wants to fight for social justice, the other one wants to play in the WNBA. Yes, they'd both be able to follow those dreams even if they heard my story. But I imagined that if my daughters found out I had experienced such a terrifying moment, they'd know they could, too. They would see that the world can be a treacherous place.
Of course, all our children learned that a couple of years ago, on September 11. And my girls had already dealt with the deaths of their grandmother and their beloved aunt. But a mother's rape has to feel terribly personal, terribly close. Moms are the tough guys in a kid's life. My kids have seen me confront a mean third-grade teacher without fear, watched me face off against a bear in the Sierras, counted on me to hold them till the shaking stopped during the last earthquake. What would happen if they knew that their protector couldn't protect herself?
I want my daughters to have healthy relationships with men. I want them to love sex. I want them to be proud of their beautiful bodies. I want them to be daring and wild. Could I tell them, "This terrible thing happened to me when I was your age," and somehow enable them to tuck that information into a corner of their psyche, then go out and have a hell of a good time?
Because rape changes that good time. It took me years to be comfortable with men, sex, new experiences, foreign places. And it took years for me to love my body again. For a long time, my having been raped was part of my identity--it was the tale I told friends or lovers so they would know me better. Recently I found myself telling a dear friend, and realized that he had known me for eight years without having heard that story. It's no longer who I am. But my teenage daughters are just starting to figure out who they are.
Last year I wrote a novel about a character living a life very different from my own, but I gave her my terrible history--she had been raped, years before. Now she had to tell her 16-year-old daughter what had happened.
I wrote that scene many times. First, I tried having the daughter rage at the news, then I had her take it calmly. Finally I decided to have her speak words that seemed to ring true: "I'm sorry that happened to you," she says simply, putting her head on her mother's shoulder.
Maybe I was trying to write my own script. The characters in my novel are borne from my imagination--I shape them, then set them free. But, hey, if they say something I don't like, I can change that. I certainly couldn't exercise the same control over my kids' reactions. Their responses would run to depths I couldn't see and carry repercussions I couldn't predict. I could only hope that I had given them the strength to deal with the pain. I no longer wanted to carry the secret. It felt too much like shame, and that's never been my response to my rape.
I chose to tell my girls separately, so I could give each one my full attention. My older daughter and I sat together on the floor in her room. My younger daughter and I hiked in the hills near our house. I told them how I got through the experience, how I joined a rape crisis center and worked with other victims, how I started a rape crisis center at my university. I showed them my novel about a woman who was attacked, then went on to lead a gutsy, passionate life.
Both of my daughters were quiet, scared, sad. They didn't say much. I found myself wanting to talk, while they wanted time to think, absorb, reflect. The telling of this story will take a long time.
As my daughters grow up, they learn more about me as a woman--and this is part of my past. Perhaps by telling them about my rape and my recovery I'm empowering them to venture out into the world with their eyes wide open.