Marketing minions

I’m disgruntled over those Despicable minions propagating on every which product lately, from McDonald’s WTF unhappy meals to Twinkies and push-pops. None of this can be good, nor good for our kids. Oh, sure, the squishy yellow stumps with headlamps or goggles or whatever they are are cute and entertaining … but is that enough to mean something other than a gilded goose for the few artists, creatives or corporate conglomerates feeding off them?

Minions

It starts as a movie, innocently enough, but it rarely ends there. Actually, it’s never innocent. Movies cost too much to be innocent. No one can conceive of cuteness or cleverness worth the celluloid without considering what else they can sell to support its making, distribution and net-profit skimming. That’s why too many movies feel more like advertisements for franchises and video games than flights of fancy. All that CGI and digitation is built in to translate instantly to other platforms, until we’re awash in yellow squishies. I just can’t get my head around it as a thing that should make me happy. Admittedly, I haven’t seen any of the movies since Despicable Me, which left me perplexedly morose.

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Maybe it’s because they look so much like smiley faces, which begat emoticons and emoji, which just make me angry. Have a nice day!

While on a walk in Reston near an office park recently, of all places, the scent of water lily and, later, honeysuckle, hoisted me back to my childhood and a toy that meant something to me and might even prove to be the last thing I recall once I’m in the throes of dementia and can conjure only songs and smells of the petrified past.

My Kiddle Kolognes. Lily of the Valley, to be specific. She was always my favorite, a little genie in a bottle who served to delight and detox me.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 1.34.56 PMMy playmate Elaine Hewlett didn’t like her — she preferred Violet. That was fine with me because we would spend endless hours setting up our Kiddle village and the nine Kologne sisters: Apple Blossom, with green hair; blue-haired Bluebell; white-locked Gardenia; blonde Honeysuckle; orange-headed Orange Blossom; Rosebud the redhead; Sweet Pea — was she pink? Violet was la-la-lavender, and my queen, Lily of the Valley, had lily-white hair you couldn’t comb because of too many blossom tangles. I’ve always preferred wild-looking, unkempt hair, and maybe that’s why.

I wonder if my mom — my 84-year-old mom who handed me a Minions fruit snack to-go after I visited her this month on her birthday — was as taken with the Kiddles, and that’s how I managed to collect them all a few times over, after their scents inevitably diminished. I don’t recall ever begging her for the next one. One day I simply had a completed set.

Could be analogous to the Beanie Babies craze, when we mothers were more obsessive than our kids with each new release (aka birthdate). For me, the ones with the typos were the best. But there was that year we realized the Beanies had exceeded our home’s storage capacity and outlived anyone’s interest — or maybe it dawned on us such consumerism was making us anxious — so I wholesale donated them to my uncle, an Internet entrepreneur, for him to make money off of. (Except those three with typos, still in plastic, in my closet.)

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My Kiddle Kolognes served multiple purposes, teaching me about botany, color, alliteration, geography (I looked up Cologne, Germany, on a map thinking it must be spelled with a “K” because that sounded German and maybe they originated from some fantastic garden there). There was also the natural aromatherapy accompaniment, ensuring calm and creative play while seeding my vivid imagination.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 2.43.52 PMLooking at them now, of course, on eBay, they appear as chintzy as the minions. Probably just as evil, too, made by Chinese slave labor and lining some Mattel mogul’s gold-flecked pockets. And the marketing — although there was never a Kiddles movie or video game, that I know of, the whole K-K replacement of letters, doctoring the language, smacks of brainwashing — cleverness with an agenda. $$$$$$$$

Perhaps the concept taught me, though, how to be a decent headline writer and seeded my career in marketing ideas to the masses. $$

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One can never quite gauge the impact of toys on our future selves. Yet I ache to tone down the herd mentality of fads and flimsy must-haves and commercialized collectibles and beg parents to let children explore on their own, as I imagine in the days before Toys “R” Us and its “R” Us spinoffs — the bygone days of paper airplanes, pitched pennies and pickup sticks.

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And sucking helium.

On ‘free-range’ parenting and government outta line

Climbing-TreesA tree in the woods of Pennsylvania has my name on it. Mine and that of my childhood best friend, since we were 10. On Saturdays, with our schedules wide open, we organized our own activities, blissfully unsupervised, often ending up perched in this tree with its unusual horseback curve and naturally private setting, exchanging secrets and letting our imaginations run wild.

Its GPS coordinates are roughly 40.095735, -75.487208. Can’t be exact, because that area on Google Maps appears a dead zone, completely off the grid. I never could have imagined, as a youngster in the days of the Cold War, that I’d be able to closely pinpoint my “thinking spot” on the globe four decades later with the accuracy of a Soviet spy. Then again, so much about childhood and the world has changed since I was a kid.

I must weigh in on this flap in the news lately, about the Silver Spring, Md., parents who allowed their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to walk home together from a neighborhood park a mile away, unsupervised, except by each other. A “concerned neighbor” called police and the children were picked up halfway home; the parents are now facing an investigation of neglect, courtesy of the child-services branch of government. I’m not a Libertarian nor anti-government, but this, my friends, is ridiculous. And quite sad.

All I can say, and continue to say, given today’s amped-up digital mill, is thank goodness I’m not raising kids in this era of hyper-suspicion, hyper-vigilance, hyper-paranoia and hyper-busybodiness. When my daughters were young in the early ’90s, it was with a mix of reservations and frustration that I begged them to go outside and play, on their own, just to afford Mommy a modicum of Me Time. We Baby Boomers were on the cutting edge of helicopter parenting, no question, and I was all in with that, glued to them, ever chaperoning, always nosing into their business. On the other hand, I celebrated the way I had been raised and tried to emulate it — my parents gave us ample elbow room, room to get into scrapes and carry the scars on our knees and, sure, on our psyches. I don’t regret a single one. Today I’m still fiercely independent. And I was relieved to learn, later in life, that my girls also had a private “thinking spot” in the glade, where they would escape for unmonitored solitude.

My mother has often told us the story of how her father forced her, at about age 12, to take her four younger brothers, the youngest around 4, onto the D.C. streetcar — just the five of them alone —and ride it to the end of the line and back. Don’t get off, he said, and he’d be there waiting for them at the end of the terror-filled (for my mom) trip. There were no cellphones then, no GPS for the common folk. It’s a defining memory for her, how she took responsibility for her brothers and kept them safe. Like pushing the baby bird from the nest to force it to fly, this is a standard parental ritual and obligation. Separation anxiety is a fact of life. Get over it.

kids-on-the-paris-subwayOne of my own most harrowing days as a parent also involved public transit, on the D.C. Metro system. It had been a long day doing museums or the zoo and we were heading home. My eldest, about 9, was still bursting with energy, gung-ho to board the last train, and she scampered down the escalator to get on. Her baby sister was poking along, so I hung back, near the bottom of the escalator, debating whether to pick the little one up or keep egging her on. Miki had just crossed the threshold of the train car when I heard “Doors closing.” I jet-fueled toward her with Cassy in my arms, but the doors, with their soul-sucking squinch, cut us off. Before the train started moving, I was literally nose-to-nose with my daughter through the thick plastic, mouthing the only thing I could think of “Go to Metro Center! WAIT FOR US THERE!” because I knew that’s where the Metro headquarters was, and I could have the staff at our station radio them to find my daughter and keep her safe. (I shoulda added: “I love you.”)

I was panic-stricken, to say the least. Losing a child in a crowd, in the city, has got to be the worst. I wondered whether any of her fellow passengers had seen what had happened and might step in and be a hero, calm my child, take the lead in helping us reunite. Cellphones weren’t common then, and we had no lifelines or even an emergency plan in place. While Cassy and I waited for the next train, off-peak and taking forever, I ran and told the man in the booth what had happened. He called over to the Metro Center folks to be on the lookout for her. In the meantime (and it was MEAN, time was, indeed), all I could do was assure my little one that her beloved sister was not gone forever, while secretly trying to convince myself.

Metro Center was two stops away, and I suddenly got a little worried Miki wouldn’t know the difference. After we boarded our slow-as-molasses train, I made sure to jump off at the station in between — while clutching my youngest in my arms — just to scan the platform, on the off-chance she was there instead. The entire platform, both ways, empty. Good. That was an unpopular stop, and I didn’t want her there. The density of population at Metro Center seemed somehow safer — it might prove more comforting to my extremely social and brave child, and she could at least find help if I couldn’t get to her first.

Once at Metro Center, there was no sign of Miki. I sprinted to the main office, breathlessly repeating our harrowing predicament. Before I could get through it, though, the woman stopped me, nodding; they had been waiting for me. But Miki was not here! She HAD gotten off at that other station, and was waiting in the booth with that guard. She knew enough not to stand on the platform but to find the guard and explain her story — and this became HER story in years to come, not mine, not a story of parental neglect or failure, but her own story of courage and independence and smart thinking.

Miki, right, with sister Cassy on the "L" in Chicago, modern-day.

Miki, right, with sister Cassy on the “L” in Chicago, modern-day.

Lucky for me, Miki was born with an internal GPS and street smarts. She always knew, even as a toddler during those hours of long commuting from home to day care to endless activities, where she was. She’s grounded with an uncanny homing device built right in. To this day, she keeps a “fix” on home, no matter how far away her travels may take her. I often wonder how much that day alone on the train shaped her sense of independence.

She’s now a big-city girl, living in Chicago. Her sister also lives there; neither one drives, both rely exclusively on public transit, with their jobs sometimes requiring that they stand on the “L” platform at 4 in the morning. Sure, I panic about that and suffer occasional parental nightmares. But I know there’s no sense in living in fear or worrying over what might happen, because we have no power over “mights.” (Or mites, for that matter.) Our worst nightmares can come true whether walking, riding in a car, on a plane, on a train or sitting in a meeting at work. We can be hit by a bus sitting in our own living rooms, as it barrels through the walls, true story.

I guess I’m lamenting the bygone days when kids roamed free and parents could relax. And I’m suggesting: Tamp down the fear, a tad, society. Give your children some space, encourage them to break free of confining screens and electronics, and explore ways to safely push them from the nest. Heck, we can even outfit our kids with GPS trackers, if they’re too young for phones, and keep tabs on them that way. Let’s use technology to our advantage — we should feel more peace of mind these days with such tools, not less — and let’s not over-schedule our children in “safe,” supervised activities or keep them trapped inside all day playing video games exercising only their eyeballs. And, please, give your neighbors some leeway on knowing how best to raise their children.

It’s OK to be concerned if you see youngsters walking alone, unsupervised. But don’t jump to conclusions or execute rash judgment. Keep your own eyes on them. Wouldn’t it have been better, rather than call police, for that worried person to have monitored them as well as possible, from a distance, and then know that the next neighbor would do the same … the whole village, down the line, on the lookout for our kids? But that, of course, might require we actually get to know our neighbors.

If those children had met the Big Bad Wolf along the way — one can only hope there would have been time and opportunity then to intervene. Tragedies do happen, and that’s the awful way of the world. But the bad news truly is the exception; that’s why it’s news. If more of us were simply looking out for each other, maybe we fellow shepherds and herdsmen could chase away the wolves and allow a mob rule of vigilance, not vigilantism, to rule the day.

Dated dating songs: A sex education playlist

Frank Loesser‘s push-pull duet Baby, It’s Cold Outside – an Oscar-winning holiday classic — has been dubbed the “Christmas Date Rape Song” by Urban Dictionary and countless bloggers and feminist sites.

While the man mixes cocktails and lies about her routes of escape (impassable weather/no cabs), the woman says “no” – clearly — a half-dozen times, and itemizes a dozen more reasons for not staying. Written in 1944, originally for a housewarming party hosted by Loesser and his first wife and regularly performed by them to entertain their friends, it eventually was used by MGM in Neptune’s Daughter (1949), starring Red Skelton and Esther Williams, launching its meteoric rise. Given “date rape” was not coined until 1987 by Ms. magazine, it seems that Baby, It’s Cold Outside (BICO) was a half-century ahead of its time in waving red flags on acquaintance rape — an act defined not only as assault but any assault attempt.

Composer Loesser also penned Standing on the Corner (1956), about idle guys’ preoccupation with ogling strange women. Not as potentially creepy as BICO, but still … what gives, Loesser?

A quality of great art is that you can gain different insights each time you revisit it, find new meanings over time. Possibly the hottest and also creepiest performance of BICO is the pairing of 33-year-old Norah Jones and 79-year-old Willie Nelson — he’s old enough to be her grandfather.

If you haven’t paid attention to the lyrics in a while, listen through the filter of a rape survivor — that would be an estimated 1 out of every 6 American women who have experienced rape or an attempted rape in her lifetime — and not all of them survivors.

The most menacing line: “Say, what’s in this drink?” Cosby much?

In 2007, Men Against Assault listed date-rape drugs (and their street names) along with tips on how one can avoid date rape, here.

Whether or not I agree with the malice people read into this particular song, songs certainly offer a great opportunity for parents to explore sexuality issues with daughters and sons. Rather than shirk our duty because it’s uncomfortable or we can’t find the words, music can help bridge this challenge of the ages. It’s doubly effective as a means to stay in touch with the popular music of the day and gain insight into the modern memes and messages being relayed to the next generation.

I thought about what sort of sex brainwashing I was subjected to growing up while listening to satellite radio the other day — The Bridge station, with my invented tagline: Music I Know All the Lyrics To. My first pop album ever was one of Carly Simon’s, and I have remained a fan, but when Jesse came on, I suddenly thought the lyrics seemed seriously sick, as if sung by a serial recidivist abuse victim in need of a restraining order:

Oh mother, say a prayer for me
Jesse's back in town, it won't be easy
Don't let him near me
Don't let him touch me
Don't let him please me
(chorus) Jesse, I won't cut fresh flowers for you
Jesse, I won't make the wine cold for you
Jesse, I won't change the sheets for you
I won't put on cologne 
I won't sit by the phone for you
Annie, keep reminding me
That he cut out my heart like a paper doll
Sally, tell me once again
How he set me up just to see me fall
(chorus)
Jesse, quick come here
I won't tell a soul
Not even myself. ...
My friends will all say "She's gone again'
But how can anyone know what you are to me
That I'm in heaven again because you've come back to me - Oh Jesse!
Jesse, I'll always cut fresh flowers for you
Jesse, I'll always make the wine cold for you
Jesse, I can easily change my mind about you
And put on cologne
And sit by the phone for you
Jesse, let's open the wine
And drink to the heart
Which has a will of its own
My friends, let's comfort them
They're feeling bad
They think I've sunk so low ...

OK, there’s something pseudo-innocent-sounding with the fresh flowers, cologne, even the changing of the sheets (unless she gets a lot of turnover traffic) — and something oh-so quaint about “waiting by the phone.” Remember that, and with no caller ID?

But honestly, prayers aren’t going to be enough for this girl, Mom — and it’s not her friends who need comforting, it’s the singer, who is being isolated from her support system and may need professional help.

Compare that wimpy breakup song of 1980 to Rolling Stone magazine’s No. 2 pick for the top 50 songs of 2012: Taylor Swift’s We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. At least Swift is more decisive than Simon, no doubt thanks to the music video director.

Wooing and breakup songs are de rigueur on the radio. Here is a list of just a few songs off the top of my head that could prompt good discussions on various dating/sexuality topics.

1. Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye (LOSS OF VIRGINITY) — When I first heard this groovy song at age 12, I sensed there was something nasty about it; it kinda made me tingly. In hindsight, I praise it for keeping the topic of FEELINGS at its center and promising not to force the issue:

We’re all sensitive people
With so much to give
Understand me, sugar
Since we got to be
Let’s live
I love you …
I ain’t gonna worry, I ain’t gonna push
Won’t push you, baby

2. Imaginary Lover by Atlanta Rhythm Section (MASTURBATION) — It occurred to me only recently what this 1978 song was really about. If you need to assure your children that they won’t go blind, or it’s a good way to learn to love themselves while they WAIT to meet the right person, this song has you covered, under the covers.

When ordinary lovers
Don’t feel what you feel
And real-life situations lose their thrill
Imagination’s unreal
Imaginary lover, imaginary lover
You’re mine anytime.
Imaginary lovers never disagree
They always care
They’re always there when you need
Satisfaction guaranteed.

3. Under My Thumb by The Rolling Stones (CONTROLLING BEHAVIOR) — Although I love Mick Jagger, I take big offense to the comparison of his (in)significant other to a female dog or sex kitten, so to speak.

Under my thumb
The squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day
Under my thumb
A girl who has just changed her ways

It’s down to me, yes it is
The way she does just what she’s told
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb
Ah, ah, say it’s alright

Under my thumb
A Siamese cat of a girl
Under my thumb
She’s the sweetest, hmmm, pet in the world

Under my thumb
Her eyes are just kept to herself
Under my thumb, well I
I can still look at someone else

4. On the Street Where You Live from the musical “My Fair Lady” (STALKING) — As much as I love this romantic musical, there is inherently something disturbing about Freddy Eynsford-Hill hanging outside Eliza Doolittle’s residence for two weeks just to catch a glimpse of her, after she has repeatedly rejected him.

5. Paradise By the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf (COMMITMENT, FOR BETTER OR WORSE) — Again, when I was young, this song was hot and steamy, telling the tale of a couple’s decision to go all the way, cleverly counterpointed against the color commentary of a baseball game (hitting all the bases). What I love about it is that the girl demands a vow from the boy before she’ll “put out”:

GIRL:
Stop right there!
I gotta know right now!
Before we go any further!
Do you love me?
Will you love me forever?
Do you need me?
Will you never leave me?
Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?
Will you take me away and will you make me your wife?
Do you love me!?
Will you love me forever!?
Do you need me!?
Will you never leave me!?
Will you make me happy for the rest of my life!?
Will you take me away and will you make me your wife!?
I gotta know right now
Before we go any further
Do you love me!?
Will you love me forever!?

BOY:
Let me sleep on it
Baby, baby let me sleep on it
Let me sleep on it
And I’ll give you an answer in the morning …

(she holds her ground … keeps insisting)

I couldn’t take it any longer
Lord I was crazed
And when the feeling came upon me
Like a tidal wave
I started swearing to my god and on my mother’s grave
That I would love you to the end of time
I swore that I would love you to the end of time!
So now I’m praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive
‘Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
I don’t think that I can really survive
I’ll never break my promise or forget my vow
But God only knows what I can do right now
I’m praying for the end of time
It’s all that I can do …

6. Born This Way by Lady Gaga (ACCEPTANCE FOR FULL SPECTRUM OF SEXUALITY) — It is a shame that it took several decades AFTER the sexual revolution for so-called “alternative lifestyle”-positive music to hit mainstream charts, but Gaga is the queen of feel-good sex music that helps everyone, no matter your orientation, feel both unique and normal.

7. Sodomy from the musical “Hair” (VOCABULARY) — Introduce this song at the right age, then take them to the library for some supervised perusal of old-fashioned reference materials.

8. Love the One You’re With by Stephen Stills (PROMISCUITY) — This song always bothered me. Still does. I’m only hoping he wrote it as tongue-in-cheek advice.

If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking to
Concentration slips away
Cause your baby is so far away
CHORUS
Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey
Love the one you’re with
Don’t be angry – don’t be sad
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do
CHORUS
Doo doo doo doo
Turn your heartache right into joy
Cause she’s a girl and you’re a boy
Get it together come on make it nice
You ain’t gonna need any more advice

9. IT’S TOO LATE by Carole King (SELF-CARE/BEING TRUE TO ONESELF) — This is just one of the most pitch-perfect breakup songs ever written. Nobody does it better — sorry, Carly Simon.

10. I WILL SURVIVE by Gloria Gaynor (EMPOWERMENT & RECOVERY) — This song should be on everyone’s playlist, for all time.

Other topics, such as TEEN PREGNANCY (check out There Goes My Life by Kenny Chesney or What Would You Do by City High), ABSTINENCE (scour the Christian music charts, lord knows) and MISOGYNY (rap is littered with it, but I’m not down with rap, ha, or rather I’m somewhat down on it, and haven’t kept up with hip-hop) — plus all manner of cheatin’ hearts country/blues music lessons for the pickings.

I encourage all of you parents to come up with your own playlists and jog some conversation with your blossoming children, according to your tastes. It’s never too soon to expose kids to music, and the lyrics will sink in when they are ready to comprehend.

Music memory lasts a lifetime. In those uncertain moments when you can’t be there, it may be a song in their head that supplies them with support and direction. What’s key: drawing kids out to share ideas about what the songs mean and how they relate or feel at different stages of their lives.

If I could, I would start teaching similar playlists in schools as part of the regular sex-ed curriculum — making more of an effort to keep up with today’s hits first, that is.

I appreciate all suggestions. Maybe this will be my volunteering project for 2013.

Where is ‘Sandy’ on the list of most popular baby names?

Between Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook school shootings, most parents likely would show more taste than to name any child the unisex Sandy this coming year.

Still, parents have done worse things.

babyhashtagTake baby Hashtag, please. Possibly the most retweeted newborn name of the year (parents, how could you?), I’m hoping her middle name is not Sandy. The Twitterverse has seen enough Hashtag Sandys to last a lifetime.

The BabyCenter, which polls parents worldwide and tracks baby name trends, shows in its new list that Sandy doesn’t even make its top 100 list — for either girl or boy. Worldwide in 2012, it ranked at No. 2,020 for girls, and peaked in the U.S. at No. 126 in 1960. Other girl names of color — Amber, Blanche, Ebony, Ginger, Hazel, Rose and Violet — have typically out-ranked it. For boys, Sandy is more clearly a vintage name; it peaked in 1886 at No. 329 in the U.S., and ranked at No. 3,137 worldwide in 2012.

For the full list of the 100 top names of 2012, click here.

The baby-naming site Nameberry notes that “Sandy” rarely stands on its own; rather, it’s a diminutive for Sandra or Alexander/Alexandra/Alessandra. The site offers various alternative spellings: Sandee, Sandi, Sandie, Sandye, Sanndi.

(Personal note: Our youngest’s daughter’s name is Cassandra, but we never considered nicknaming her Sandy. We nearly named our older daughter Alexandra instead of Micaela, in fact — how odd it would have been if both girls could have had the nickname “Sandy.” Neither Cassandra nor Micaela made this year’s top 100, although cousin-form Makayla comes in at No. 45, and Sydney, our granddaughter born in January 2012, ranks at No. 67. “Maya” — Spanish for “May” but which was associated with a near-disaster this month — placed at No. 48.)

grease_sandy_1If you’re anything like me, you couldn’t stop singing Sandy from Grease! during coverage of the devastation from the so-called Frankenstorm. That created definite dissonance, although there was something frighteningly bipolar about that sweet-turned-siren Olivia Newton-John character.

Some people do indeed name their children after hurricanes — especially if they were hunkered down during one and gave birth roughly nine months later.

In today’s popular culture, many younger people think of Sandy as the squirrel friend of SpongeBob Squarepants — out of her element but in full protective gear to survive underwater. I knew a male Sandy as a kid. He was one of fraternal twins. He drowned in our neighborhood swimming pool when we were 10.

Avielle Richman, 6, was one of 20 children fatally shot Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This Richman family photo was provided to the Associated Press

Avielle Richman, 6, was one of 20 children fatally shot Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This Richman family photo was provided to the Associated Press.

Some baby-naming trend watchers are predicting that the names of the fallen children in the Sandy Hook massacre may rise in popularity in 2013 — such unusual names as Avielle, in tribute to 6-year-old Avielle Richman.

Ironically, “Sandy,” of Greek origin, means “protector” or “defender of men.”

Unhappy old year, everyone.

We each carry the burden of sexual abuse calamities

Cassy outside the Free Library of Philadelphia, where the eBook containing her essay — and those of other contributors — were celebrated.

When we checked our daughter Cassy into a four-story hotel next to Philadelphia’s airport last night, the petite clerk asked whether she had a floor preference. Cassy shrugged. I shuddered. Beads of separation anxiety dribbled, as I recalled the high fence outside and the sketchy terrain, as if I were placing my daughter in the path of an oncoming train.

“Well, I don’t like putting a single woman on too low a floor …” the woman petered out.

We all knew what that meant. The hoteliers couldn’t guarantee her safety from random brutalities, but they’d do their best. As Cassy nodded in relief and appreciation for an unexpected kindness, we three women joined in solidarity, a coven, skipping in a circle of hair and howls, silhouetted against the moon, standing our ground. “Thank you,” in unison.

And that’s the way it is for a parent. We cannot protect our children from the world’s random brutalities, but we do our best.

It has been three months since Cassy “came out” to us and the world as a sexual abuse survivor. Somehow it seems longer. My husband and I escorted her to the Free Library of Philadelphia. There, we would celebrate, along with more than 100 other survivors, survivor advocates, survivor support systems, the release of The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse, a 360-degree anthology of more than 50 first-person essays compiled by the editors of Philadelphia Weekly. They’re tackling the biggest, most pervasive stories of our day that no one is talking about. (Purchase a copy at amazon.com here.)

A group hug among Cassy, Joel and Nina Hoffmann — and the in-utero Hoffmann, benefiting by proxy.

Nina and Joel Hoffmann conceived of the idea shortly after Joel’s own revelation of the abuse he suffered as a child and his long-fought struggle to heal — a fight that nearly decimated their marriage. Their stories are at the heart of the book, and as much as you might imagine reading the entire work to be like slogging through the muck of jungle combat during monsoon season, this diverse and courageous chorus of voices promises to lift you up — as a languid swimmer remembers suddenly to surface for air or a newborn gasps hopefully at its first breath, in a waul declaring, “I’m here.” See me. Hear me. Keep me safe.

Cassy meets fellow contributor Ari Benjamin Bank

Listening to the essays read aloud — one in particular, by Ari Benjamin Bank, a survivor as well as that swimmer, whose story had each of us lapping up tears — strengthened the group conviction that these accounts, these truths, beg a wider audience. One in four women, one in six men, a sexual assault every two minutes … grim statistics that became flesh and blood, my own flesh and blood, when I first awoke to the full weight of my daughter’s experiences last August.

And yet, as each writer who dares to draw on firsthand experience must, she first had to weigh how breaking the silence would affect not only her personal safety, vulnerability and validity, but also the impact on those who know and love her. Would they be disappointed in her? Would they see her differently? Would she be stigmatized? Could WE survive her pain?

The fact that a survivor wrestles not only with the physical injury and emotional hollowing out but adopts the burden of managing others’ reactions to their injurious news is part of the injustice. The burden of proof gets placed on the one who has suffered the crime of sexual abuse, then a dispassionate, blinders-on society inflicts more misplaced punishment. A gag order by way of our gag reflex. We do not want to know. We don’t want to hear. We don’t listen. We don’t wanna talk. Well, maybe just the gory parts, and then we turn away.

Learning Elmo, the new Muppet monster, does not tickle my fancy.

Several of the event’s speakers invoked the Sandusky case. Sure, we were in Pennsylvania, but, as a Philly native, I realize Philadelphia is as safely removed from Penn State as it is from Pittsburgh (random sports rivalry reference). Still, that case resonated worldwide not because of its prurient interest, but because of personal, statistical investment. One in four, one in six … sexual abuse has no doubt touched your life in some personal way. (As I write this, my phone wiggled and jangled with the news that even Elmo is a pedophile. Sigh.)

My eyes were opened to what each of us can do to keep from revictimizing those who have experienced sexual abuse. It could be as simple as me, a headline writer, not buying into the label of “Victim 1” in describing the 19-year-old who brought down the monolithic Lions with his bravery. Despite how the court documents refer to him, he had protested the use of “Victim 1” — and yet the news media took the easy (or non-objective?) way out. As a copy editor, the burden is on me to do no harm with the language we choose, to eradicate bias, including the bias heaped upon so-called victims.

For better or worse, when the news broke in our family, a decision was made not to let my octogenarian father know what had happened to his beloved granddaughter at college. Possibly he couldn’t take the grief, his heart wouldn’t hold out. He is legally blind, so he doesn’t read my blog. Things must be read to him, so it’s easy to filter out the bad news. When I phone my parents, I am instantly put on speakerphone, so I, too, must filter out what is inadvisable — such as my pride over Cassy’s profound, surefooted steps toward recovery; how she has decided to commit her life to helping other survivors emerge from darkness and make the public see the light; how the inclusion of her 28,000-word essay in The Survivors Project was something even the editors felt needed to be digested wholly, not in digest form.

As a wider audience embraces her voice, my wonderful mother frets over how she’ll continue to maintain my father’s news blackout, protect him from it, if this explodes.

Cassy with her cockatiel, Baby

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past few months, though, thanks to Cassy, is that hiding the truth can prove toxic. And we ought never pre-judge another’s capacity — whether that gauge is for pain, resilience or love.

It’s what drew me to journalism: Present the facts. We know objectivity is a lie — we are humans, after all. Still, our directive is to not sugarcoat it, not demonize it, be thorough, be accurate and let the readers/listeners discover their own truths.

We certainly can’t protect those we love from random brutalities. But armed with knowledge — and a full capacitor for feeling — we can surely do our best.

Or, at least, better than we’re doing.

50 Shades of Rage and Gray: The messy aftermath of a mother’s discovery

50 Shades of Rage and Gray

Our beauty, age 2, plays with her Beast doll.

“What did you learn in school today, sweetie? Did you learn to share?”

“Sharing” when I was a kid meant something vastly different than what it means today, when a finger punch can broadcast one’s deep-dark secrets to the worldwide Web.

And that was how I learned of my baby girl’s years of brutal rape and sexual abuse at the hands of four men at college — in something she shared on Facebook.

It received over 5,000 hits the first day.

I am a mother. I am her mother. Just your average mother who had 2.3 children and did her share of communal-village nurturing for other people’s angsty kids “born into privilege.” Though college-educated, I never educated myself further with parenting manuals — they don’t come with manuals, people say — but I tried to do right by my two daughters and two stepdaughters, each a prize. I aimed to stay engaged, to answer their needs, to raise strong, secure, open-minded, self-sufficient, empowered women.

I feel I failed, miserably.

Not that my girls aren’t all of those things. To outsiders, they are the full package; no one might guess there was anything askew in our occasionally drama-filled, mostly mundane lives.

But misery visited me several nights ago, as I digested a 2.5-hour masterful, powerful exposé of a rape survivor, and threw up because she also happened to be my beloved daughter. Nearly all of it was news to me, soul-flaying news. It obliterated, for a time, my will to live.

Until I realized that hers was a story that needed to be shared.

When we think of it, most of us think of rape — cliché alert — as a perv jumping from the shadows who often defies description when it’s time, after the ER visit, to deal with the cops. In truth, the rapist is known to its victim in 70%-80% of cases, and is more likely a family member than a stranger.

And “date rape”? There must be a component of consent there, you’d think. As a society, we compartmentalize date rape as a somehow less-damaging form, certainly nothing compared with pernicious repercussions of a gang bang on the pool table at the local tavern, or in the war zone of Afghanistan where the heavily armed perps are supposedly fighting for your side. Surely, those scars of rape dig deeper than any “crossing-the-line” coercion by someone you were initially attracted to, trusted or at some point willingly attempted intimacy with?

Wrong on all counts. Read her story. A blindsided attack that comes not from a stranger — whom you’ll confront again perhaps only in court, if you’re lucky — but from someone whom you love or who is integral to your life is arguably worse.

Or at minimum: Just as bad.

The confusing spiral of shame and blame and self-loathing that accompanies an assault by a known entity; that shattered trust; a caged-up feeling, the inability to escape from a person living with you or welcomed into your sphere — these have the potential to ravage one’s psyche over time, a time that can feel like an eternity. I can only imagine this because it has never happened to me.

It happened to my daughter. Repeatedly. For years. Four men.

Part of me – correction, most of me – wants to fillet and ravage the hides of those beasts, not men, who did this to my Cassy. My flesh and blood. Flesh and blood.

The rest of me remains in awe of a woman less than half my age who has learned life’s rawest lessons not because of me but in spite of me … and the horrific, egregious harm done to her 700 miles away from home as we invested a quarter of a million dollars for a first-class college education at the premier Northwestern University she was so proud to gain acceptance to.

What she said: “I got in! I have to go.”

What I said: “Then I suppose you must. It’s gonna cost us, tho.”

What I should have said: “While it’s flattering to have been accepted — and we always knew you were smart enough — we shouldn’t let vanity decide for us. An education is what you make it, and you will excel wherever you go.”

A shattered sorority

The day we dropped Cassy off for her fall semester, freshman year at Northwestern University. Not long afterward, she was raped. We didn’t learn of it until more than three years later.

Pain and abuse punctuated my daughter’s entire college career, years that were supposed to define the best days of her life. Still, she managed to make dean’s list again and again and again.

She was something of a celebrity on campus for co-founding and leading a secular humanist organization. We were so proud. She was an engaging, articulate, dazzling young woman.

With your children, out of sight is never out of mind. How I wish I could tinker with time, perhaps phone and catch her on one of those nights she was being hurt or hurting so badly, to interrupt her horrors and despair, just to tell her how dear she is and how deeply I adore her. To detect in her voice the pain I might have recognized. Instead, we mostly texted, e-mailed, Facebooked. Tweets, quips, fyis. We lost that direct line of communication.

And I never considered myself repressed when it came to sex. I was at the tail end of the Baby Boom, after all, a flower child who bloomed amid a sexual revolution and one whose sexual vernacular was fluent. Across the arc of civilization, it seems, our society has vacillated from Puritanical repression to full-blown, let-it-all-hang-out free love. My own “Girl, Interrupted” sex-crazed adventures were interrupted only by the advent of AIDS.

It was during our lifetimes that we discovered sex could kill.

Desmond Morris’ “The Naked Ape” was my first handbook; I read it at age 9 or 10, after stealing it from my oldest brother’s bookshelf. In it I learned that one thing that separates humans from the other primates was this concept of sexuality, and that our most vital sexual organ was our brain. These big, honking brains are also the reason our childhood extends so far beyond other animals’ — there’s so much to learn about survival.

But do we as parents maximize this time, every opportunity? It seems no matter what our dispositions — repressed, liberated, religious, reckless — talking about sex with our children is a hefty challenge. And not simply Sex the Mechanics or Sex the Precautions, but the acknowledgment of yearnings, libido, needs, thrills, fear, shame, respect, consent … that complex stew of sexuality and how it’s distinguished from sexual identity. We don’t even talk enough between spouses and life partners, let alone parent-child. Talking about sex takes planning and energy. It may even take higher learning, because things have changed so much since we were young. In our high-minded ways, we raise our kids to be civilized by someone else’s definition, yet we have trouble broaching the animal aspects.

I used to say: It is far easier mentoring other people’s kids than your own.

‘On Demand’ as a way of life

I knew what a minefield the teen years were. I had seen it with my stepdaughters and other kids in my sphere. With my journalist friends who were mothers, I’d commiserate that no publication was giving useful advice or a relevant forum to the needs of mothers of teenagers (and beyond) in this short-attention-span society, where our youth are potentially glued to screens; the screens are attached to their very person.

I’m no Tipper Gore, but I see boys gravitating to video screens where the lines of sex, violence, power and fantasy are blurred. For girls, enter endless Harlequin-romance chick flicks — with PG-13 ratings, maybe, but we all know that PG-13 means for 10-year-olds; R is for teens, and every home has a video collection to rival Blockbuster — which, of course, went bankrupt because “On Demand,” coupled with an endless supply, has displaced it. And Disney, with or without its princesses, has long taken over as a mega-corporate monolithic entertainment beast, invading stage and screen.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t even get me started on our insuppressible appetite for autoerotic distractions. Fifty shades of black and blue. Fifty shades of sorrow.

When my daughters were 8 and 10, I knew they needed me more than ever, more than they had when they were in diapers. I was hyperaware to the pitfalls of adolescence. Our household had already taken some direct hits, which behooved me to repair. I jumped off the career-management track to work part time, fashioning a job share, then free-lancing. To make up for a 35% loss of income, I had to be a go-getter, but it was worth it to manage life’s demands and be my own boss. In this scenario, I would never miss a concert or play; I could get to know my daughters’ friends; I could chaperone, car-pool; we would have that special, in-transit talking time, after-school chilling time.

I was envied for the close relationship observed between me and my beautiful girls.

We shared everything, I thought. They told me everything.

Teenagers can be maddeningly tight-lipped and private, though. That’s normal, people have assured me this week. Yet I’m thinking: Maybe we need a new normal.

But this is not my story.

She came home on break from college somewhat more sullen, withdrawn and snappish than she had ever been as a teenager. And she didn’t feel well, so we took her to the doctor, only to discover she had mono. She told me vaguely about the guy who gave her “the kissing disease.”

I said: “How unlucky, you get mono your first time out.”

She smiled, meekly, saying nothing.

What I should have said: “Tell me all about this boy. Is he treating you right?”

She wanted to sleep all day. I let her. She didn’t want to see her friends. I figured she needed time to decompress after a rigorous semester.

I never dreamed of the nightmare that she was coming apart behind her closed bedroom door, reliving the torment of a serial rapist.

When she announced she needed The Pill, I almost celebrated inside. Unlike her sisters, whom I made sure were on birth control by 17 — the age I lost my virginity — Cassy wasn’t someone I felt I had to worry about so much. She was born with a special armor and defiance of conventions. She seemed never to cave to peer pressure. She was a leader, the kind of child who invented trends. And she had never had as much as a boyfriend, despite being a social magnet. She was cautious, seemed overly so, and I had no doubt I would hear about it when the time came. Or maybe I’d just know.

The time had come. I had no idea.

Later came abnormal PAPs, a biopsy, an STD. But I didn’t pry. I respected her privacy. She was a woman now.

It defies imagination that she was defiled.

My baby girl. She will always be the pink-marshmallow, unblemished, perfect, flaming-flamingo-haired infant they excavated from me at the hospital 22 years ago. A joy to behold, born with an honest-to-good twinkle in her eye, a giggle from the gods, our bright constellation Moon child with a precocious sense of humor and superhuman baby strength that could rip out clumps of hair and lift her head right out of the starting gate.

I always said: “You are so beautiful.”

She, ever skeptical, said: “You’re supposed to say that; you’re my mom. You’re biased.”

Up until now, my biggest regret in raising her had been removing, without her consent, a montage of hot-boy photos she’d spent her life creating, cutting, pasting and gluing to the outside of her bedroom door.

I don’t have a photo of her door, but this was around the age she started it. Here, she gets ready for her first *NSYNC concert at age 9.

Readily viewed from our living room downstairs, it was an eyesore when I prepped our empty nest for sale and converted her old bedroom into my husband’s new office.

She had a cow when she heard.

A picture she took of her and her Boy Door.

 

Of cows and cowering

Cassy moos and mugs for the camera.

Cassy had a thing for cows. In her blog, she calls herself fat, but a wide circle of admirers never saw things her way. She is what, in yesteryear, would have been described as a full-figured woman. Think Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) of “Mad Men.”

Cassy was and is no cow. At times, though, I admit I thought of her as a tortoise. She took things slowly, had a hard time transitioning between tasks and trod on like a soldier.

Most observers would tell me how strong she was, yet I knew it was more like a protective shell — that she was soft and spongy, so delicate, inside. Though she wanted to be compact and dainty, she often rough-housed like one of the boys and would make them cower.

A combination of sturdy Irish and expressively curvy Hispanic genes gave my daughter a large build and steely resolve. In her teenage years, among a close circle of friends, she chose the cow as her avatar; another girl, also with a little meat on her bones but equally beautiful, was the whale. This bothered me, but I didn’t butt in. They were high-schoolers, after all.

My daughter, a rape survivor, plays princess at age 4.

The same gang took turns hosting “Disney princess” parties, in which each attendee, guys and gals, would assume a princess persona. Cassy was always Princess Jasmine, with dark skin, willowy limbs. (Given her red hair, you’d think “Ariel,” but with Cassy, one’s assumptions were most often wrong.) My daughter had the hots for Aladdin.

In Cassy’s magnum opus that erupted onto the Internet this week, there is no mother present, just as in all those classic Disney princess tales our daughters were weaned on, or never weaned from.

She named her abusers after the Seven Dwarfs, and she was Snow White.

As a mother, I have felt dwarfed by all of this, helpless. Dwarfed, too, by her strength. Yet so thankful that she managed to turn those terrorists into dwarfs, to reduce them to the teeny maggots they are, gnats, germs, infestations that could destroy us all, but won’t, because love is truly more powerful.

The abuser she calls “Dopey,” I’ll call “Aladdin.” A rascal of the worst degree. The fact he was an undocumented immigrant, poor and suffering, who had almost immediately moved in with her didn’t automatically make him a scoundrel when she told us about him in January 2011 — the only guy she gave us any information about. But we had our guards up.

We had a roughed-out monthly budget for her while she was on work-study, then later working and promoted to house manager of the on-campus concert hall — another amazing achievement, given her living hell. Yet we unwittingly were subsidizing Aladdin’s abuse of her, as her bank account continually drained during the Aladdin chapter. I kept adding money — money I took from our savings, digging ourselves deeper, because I surely didn’t want her to starve.

I asked about certain purchases that seemed strange, such as a debit from a surf shop. Did she get a skateboard, too?

She said: “No, that’s stuff for Aladdin, and he’s paying me back in cash because he has no bank account.” And no job.

I said: “I sure hope he isn’t taking advantage of you.”

She reassured me he wasn’t.

Little did I know that, even in the days before her apartment, when she had had the luxury of a meal ticket in the dorm, she had been starving herself.

Back when she’d angled to move off-campus, she’d said: “I don’t need the dorm meal plan. I don’t use it anyway.”

I said: “What have you been eating, then?! You need to eat!”

She said: “There’s no joy in food. It’s just to subsist. I eat to subsist.”

I said: “???????”

In this case, it’s more what I should have done than said. I should have created fabulously nutritious, tasty meals, as my mother did, with the main ingredient: love.

A pie with a heart in the middle

After we saw “Waitress” together, Cassy went on a spree of baking pies — inventions sprung from her lively heart and imagination.

Cooking was never my thing. We ate out a lot. Scratch “a lot”; sub “most of the time.” When I cooked, my kids protested. I took it personally. I never had my mother’s cooking skills. What I attempted never turned out, not to my standards. Even I couldn’t stand my own cooking. Besides, it took me all day to plan, shop for and assemble a meal. I didn’t have that kind of time to spend, to waste. Time stolen from my family, I told myself. I opted for convenience. Hence, my daughters never learned to cook.

And we dieted together, in this land of pervasive obesity. We did Weight Watchers (she was still in elementary school), South Beach (middle school). I thought it was a good thing, a positive step that would provide my daughters with life-long skills and knowledge about healthful eating.

It sent SO the wrong message.

After she started suffering, in silence, from anorexia …

I said (we all said): “You’re looking so good!

I should have said: “You are wasting away. Is there anything wrong?”

One of many rave reviews my daughter received in high school for her brave onstage roles. (This ran in The Washington Post’s “Guide to the Lively Arts” section.) She also received her high school’s Performing Arts award upon graduation.

Later, after she started therapy (what she told me was for “anger issues,” and that syndrome where you don’t like being touched), we sat on our L-shaped home-therapy couch and tried to get down to brass tacks. It was then that my “brassy” Cassy, never an easy crier, broke down while speaking of her weight. I accepted a large sum of the blame. The girls had watched me yo-yo dieting all their lives. The tools and self-esteem I’d wanted to provide for them remained elusive.

I opened up to a friend about that discussion, and she, who had been blogging about her mission to shed 100 pounds in a year, blogged about me. I was ashamed that my story was out there, public, even though she graciously hid my identity.

But Cassy’s bravery makes me willing, today, to own my story, for the sake of all women displeased with the shape they’re in. Many of us find ourselves in the same bloated boat.

Red flags ignored

As a copy editor for a national publication, I am trained to spot red flags and challenge so-called facts in stories.

All my instincts were on fire while editing a story on the Penn State sex-abuse scandal in which the reporter cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic: “It is estimated that one in six males are sexually abused before the age of 15; for females, the rate is one in four.”

I couldn’t believe that. That would mean, looking around me at the folks who shared my workgroup, it would be one of us.

I said to the reporter: Just making sure it’s not something like “of those who have been sexually abused in their lifetimes, one in six were under 15” … as opposed to the rate of abuse across the whole population.

Turns out, the reporter did have it wrong, but not by much. The estimate — and it’s only an estimate, because such crimes are vastly underreported — applies to those under 18.

Which meant that at the Disney princess parties, one of them would a victim.

I never believed it could be my daughter.

Fallen towers

Not since 9/11 have I known such a personal awakening. I am achingly trying to move forward, as Cassy has asked and shown by example. A friend told me: Sometimes, life is unfair. Give yourself time for anger, sadness, then move on. Moving on isn’t always easy, but it’s always better.

Good motherly advice. Something I should have said.

Cassy doesn’t blame me, which is charitable. She says she did everything possible to hide it. Her face paintings, which others saw exclusively as art, I often worried were an effort to erase herself, something I have heard that redheads do, a stage they go through, an anarchy against their unique features. Cassy was always great at making faces, but here were amped-up expressions of her internal strife — in retrospect.

In hindsight, clues emerge. Clues that were misconstrued. But who needs clues, really? We know our children, we can read them from the start. We know what they need, although we don’t always have the wherewithal to give it.

The thing I know is, we cannot beat ourselves up. The world will do that for us. The thing I know is, we as mothers want to protect all the innocent things from evil, but we cannot. The thing I know is, we as daughters try to hide our humiliation from those we love, but we cannot. They see, we see, even with blinders. Love is blind? Love is blinders.

I knew all that and now so much more. Above all, I know I mustn’t slide into despair, because an easy antidote is at hand. It’s bumper-sticker wisdom: Love is the cure. And also communicable.

I used to judge the parents who trained their kids to tell them “I love you” by rote, at the end of every phone call, as they were dropping them off at school. There’s no meaning in it, I scoffed. They’re parrots. Until I considered that those drilled-in words, echoing in my daughter’s head, might have made a difference.

Tamping down the hate

The one she called “Doc” I’ll call “Beast.” A tale of Beauty and the Beast, except no prince was nestled inside.

Initially, when I read my daughter’s narrative, I couldn’t help but indict Islam for enabling Beast’s cruelty. I figured his culture and socialization had something to do with the way this monster minimized women, reduced them to dogs, his bitches.

On my way to work the day after reading, I spewed hatred toward all men in turbans, all men on bikes, all men bullying their way through traffic with no regard for those around them. All men.

Then I arrived at my local coffee shop, where my only close Muslim gal pal worked. She and I had been through trying times before. When she went to fulfill my “regular” order without my having to ask, I breached the barrier between customer and barista, busted through the encroaching barriers of prejudice, to give her a long, warm hug. Tears erupted. She led me to the backroom, where we continued hugging.

“It’s OK,” she said, and hugged me tighter.

“My daughter –” I offered in explanation.

“Is she all right?”

I heaved, “She will be OK.” She is alive. A survivor.

“It is her friend?” she wild-guessed in a halting English.

“Not a friend,” I said.

We hugged awhile longer, until I managed to say, “I just needed, you know, the sisterhood. I needed to show you some love today.”

I couldn’t allow this episode in my daughter’s life to be the reason I started hating anybody. Including myself.

With the publishing of her story, Cassy the tortoise has become a kind of Mack character in “Yertle the Turtle,” the one who cries out about injustice at the bottom of the heap. She’s a tough cookie underneath the stack, a pearl under pressure — certainly not down-trodden, rather, she is capable of holding others up, and holding up our truth-telling fairy-princess mirrors. I am prouder of her than words can say.

The most life-affirming part: In just this first week of our family’s recovery, five adult women have opened up to me — some for the first time ever, to anyone — about their long-buried rapes as teens. All different yet similar stories. All brutal injustices to body and soul. One in four.

A chunk of my daughter’s precious youth appears to have been sacrificed for the greater good, to remind us of our human sensibilities and sensitivities. She is a centerpiece, a starburst of light, a ray of hope.

Her painful story is for everyone. It should be required reading for every mother. Every parent. Every college freshman. Every daughter. Every son.

I may have failed my child. Please. Don’t fail yours.

Share.

MY DAUGHTER’S BLOG: All My Stubborn Ounces

(The above video was something Cassy created as she prepared to shove off to college — that’s her singing the vocals — full of courage and enduring hope for the best.)