Rape, tra-la-la, a chorus of make-believers of them

Picture 3“Man of La Mancha,” with national touring sensation Howard Keel, was the first staged musical I remember seeing, at a ripe young age of 9 at the Valley Forge (Pa.) Music Fair’s tent-in-the-round in 1970.

Rape was not in my vernacular then, but I fell in love with the character Aldonza, a “kitchen wench” (prostitute), and somehow keenly felt her hardship, disillusionment, strength and wrung-out, twisted passion. I’d act out her part in front of the pulled drapes in my living room — including a modified take on her gang rape scene. The brutalizing effect onstage was a mesh of music, lighting and dance, but the horror and anger spoke deeply to my prepubescent self. Unwittingly, it gave me a kind of a shield, an armor to grow into, to understand that a woman’s body is not all there is to her.

They say that those things children are too young to understand go right over their heads. I have to wonder. With the advent of the Internet, which defines and exhibits our every curiosity, I cannot imagine being a child of 9 against such a backdrop today. I might have started Googling and been gobsmacked by reality and grown terrified of theater — or men. My understanding of human relations might have been skewed if drama on the Internet, uncontrolled and unfiltered, were all I’d been exposed to — overexposed, at that.

Rape is nothing new on stage and, surprisingly, is not an uncommon topic in musicals. In 1960, “The Fantasticks” made farce of the idea of a staged assault — with ringmaster El Gallo offering a menu of rapes in the thinly cloaked “It Depends On What You Pay.” Apparently, making light of sexual assault seemed ghastly to producers of the 2006 revival, who saw fit to clean up the lyrics, changing references of “rape” to “abduction” or “masquerade”:


El Gallo snatches his innocent young “victim,” who follows him willingly.

“ … An abduction that’s emphatic.

An abduction that’s polite.

An abduction done with Indians:

A truly charming sight.

An abduction done on horseback;

They’ll all say it’s distingué.

So you see the masquerade

Depends on what you pay. …”

The original repeated variations of “rape” in place of “abductions” — an assault to the ears of a rape survivor today.

What happened between the Sixties and now to alter our view of rape in our culture? Is it merely that it has come to dominate so much of it? Or somehow it’s less shocking. Which makes it even more so.

There could be an element of commercialism at work, at least where “The Fantasticks” is concerned. Those who hold copyrights for these shows want to get them produced as often as possible, so why not tame or temper the material to dodge the censors and see them produced more often in high schools and by mass-appeal, general-audience church and community theatre troupes.

The most recent production of “Man of La Mancha” I saw was last year, by the McLean Community Players. Though Aldonza sang the pants off of her role, the assault scene was reduced to what looked like a game of Farmer in the Dell — although that might have been explained more by the portlier cast as opposed to changing sensitivities or morals (generalized portliness being another sign of the times). I’m not judging — just saying. It is, after all, a fairly operatic show, and you need some support for those big voices.


The 2012 production of “Man of La Mancha,” by McLean Community Players.

A few years back, Signature Theatre in Shirlington premiered a work composed by resident artist Matt Conner, “The Hollow,” which he and book writer Hunter Foster adapted from the classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” They took liberties, certainly, with the story, inventing a climactic scene in which the object of Ichabod Crane’s affections is raped (offstage). It wasn’t until now, pondering themes of savagery in musical theatre, that it occurred to me the second half of Signature’s premiere double feature, “The Boy Detective Fails,” was also about serial kidnappings, assault and murder — albeit, our human failing to understand or confront the ultimate evil behind such acts.

To say theatre is cathartic is an understatement. Who among us has not entertained a rape fantasy?

As “The Hollow” director Matt Gardiner explained to a TBD.com reporter at the time: “As far as a female character goes, this is the worst thing that could happen. It’s so intimate. And yet it is frequently used.”

Directors are challenged to find a way to plumb the violence with care and concern, considering many in the audience, statistically, have been touched and traumatized by rape in real life.

The TBD article made the point there were a heckuva lot of rape themes in current area shows. As more rape survivors become more vocal, as well they should be encouraged to be, you wonder about the impact on our lively arts, and how we balance imagination/escapism with verisimilitude.

Signature followed up with a play by emerging talent Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Really Really,” inspired by the Duke lacrosse team assault scandal. It was supposed to be “edgy.” But, really, it was only too real.

“It’s challenging,” Gardiner told Rebecca J. Ritzel at the time. “You want the audience to feel uncomfortable — but not so uncomfortable that it takes you out of the play completely. It’s a delicate balance.”

We are all familiar with catching a show at the local high school, and, if weapons are part of the pretense, seeing a notice in the program, as required by the local governing board, vouching that the weapons used are fake. Or signs leading into the theatre that warn patrons with certain delicate conditions that strobe lights, fake fog, startling noises or cigarettes (!) will be used — much like an amusement park ride warns pregnant riders what’s at stake.

Yet I don’t recall many “trigger warnings” being applied in theatre, advisories that depictions of rape, suicide, genocide and the like lay behind the curtain. Heavens to Betsy, if staged works had to list each trigger warning ahead of every production, programs might rival the DSM. Such a practice could wring out much of the drama or shock at the core of even the shlockiest of shows, let alone master works.

Along with a suspension of disbelief, I guess, when patrons enter a theatre they must also enter into an unwritten agreement to suspend all defenses. Vulnerability, culpability, liability — all part of the communal masquerade. Theatre is therapy. Theatre is safe.

And even though it’s a “lie,” theatre is honest. More honest, at times, than real life. Its one true mission: to spur real dialogue.


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
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 want to help them 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”:

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!?

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
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
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.

Rape is no rite


Despite our highly evolved brains and planetary dominance, humans sure could learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom.

On the subject of rape, for instance. Rapists are often labeled “animals,” and yet — just for the sake of discussion, leaving aside the fact that all humans are technically animals — forcible sex doesn’t exist as much among non-humans as within our so-called civilized society.

I say “as much” because scientists have seen signs of coercive sex and even gang rape in animals from ducks to dolphins. But in general, calling rapists “animals” does a disservice to animals. (UPDATE: The anti-rape design of duck vaginas notwithstanding — perhaps they are just more highly evolved and this is where we’re all headed?)

The thing about animals. They stick to pretty predictable patterns of courtship and mating. Watch Nat Geo Wild for any length of time — I personally go to great lengths to — and you’ll get quite the peep show. What appear to be extravagant dances to us are probably blasé to members of the species depicted. There’s no novelty in it for them, not for several millennia, and they seem OK with that.

For example, we observe nothing short of regal in the clownish blue-footed booby’s routine mating rite.

He whistles at her to get her attention. She doesn’t seem impressed, spewing excrement at him. If, eventually, she gets in the mood — and male boobies know they must be very, very patient — she will make a grunting sound in response to his whistling. The male booby waits for her consent. Often, consent is denied.

Then, the male knows to move on. Not to force the issue. (They also seem not to mind an audience.)

Compare the come-on of the Temminck’s tragopan, an irresistibly eager pheasant, below:

… to your garden-variety harassment by Hoboken, N.J., construction workers. (Picture it in your mind — I’m sure you’ve had the experience once or twice — or peruse this LONG, 8-minute video; they are actors, as is the woman being harassed. An interesting social experiment conducted to see how passersby might react and whether they would intervene.)

In the animal world, the males typically display and it is left for the females to decide whether any “action” ensues. That’d be a pretty awesome world to live in.

Humans, too, have courtship rituals. Yet we often feel above such predictability, exercising instead our vague notion of “free will,” which we assume other animals don’t possess. Or, we malevolently exert our wills over one another — something most other animals are simply too dignified to do.

Humans are forever reinventing the wheel, so to speak, with vast reasoning skills, striving for a unique experience in all things, including sexual conquest. Sexual culture today seems somehow infested with callous extremes. And the gang mentality — even crueler and harder to crack.

Whether or not they receive sexual education, humans come to sex in their own time, acting on urges that fit the norms of society — or not. Human drives may fit within accepted values or may veer far afield of what seems moral or right. But where a lot of bad behavior is present, you have to wonder: Is it somehow condoned?

I am at a loss to understand why any human being would rape another. How violence and sex intermingle, without analyzing any rapist’s motives or malfunctions, is beyond my ability to reason through. It is a brutal perversion. Can’t quite call it an aberration, though, because sexual harassment and assault — crimes, both — have become horrifically prevalent in modern society. We have become inoculated to news of it.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman, during his funeral in New Delhi.

Unidentified women console the wife of Subhash Tomar, a policeman who had been trying to control the protests over last week’s gang rape, during his funeral in New Delhi.

The sorrowful story in India this week has now ended in death for the 23-year-old medical student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, with her boyfriend present, also a victim of the barbarous attack. In a way, I feel it’s a relief she died — spared from having to relive the hell that would have become the rest of her life. The news galvanized that nation, with both women and men blaming the government and police for doing too little to protect women from vile and violent acts. But the protesters were also beaten back by powers that be — and even a police constable was killed in the melee. Violence heaped upon violence, making any one of us feel utterly powerless.


The grim statistics, from CNN.com:

“Reported rape cases in India — where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime — have increased drastically over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone had 572 rapes reported last year and more than 600 in 2012.”

India is no island. There are merely a lot more people. Things are just as bad in our hemisphere. I was groped twice by strangers in public — once in Montreal at the Expo 67 World’s Fair when I was 6, and once in Puerto Rico, by a mere child, a boy younger than my 12 years, who was encouraged to do it by his father, and was praised afterward for it. I’m not sure how scarred I was — but I was scared and will never forget either experience, nor my shock, my indignation and suppressed rage.

india-rape-protest-afp-670As feminist Andrea Dworkin said, in a 1975 speech: “Rape is no excess, no aberration, no accident, no mistake — it embodies sexuality as the culture defines it. As long as these definitions remain intact — that is, as long as men are defined as sexual aggressors and women are defined as passive receptors lacking integrity — men who are exemplars of the norm will rape women.”

I have learned far too much about rape this year — from my daughter, who is a rape survivor and now a shining advocate for women’s rights. I am unsure how any one of us might change the ferocity of this world, but I know if anyone could, she can.

Still, I pine for a quiet, peaceful life, perhaps on an actual island, like the Galapagos, where I might watch majestic giant tortoises — once driven nearly to extinction by humans’ uncontrolled desire for their meat — do a slow, predictable, respectful mating dance, kinda like old people. And there I’d contemplate where we as humans fit in, in the grand scheme of things.

There will always be sex. And there likely will always be violence.

And perhaps always, not animals, but beasts — monsters — who would co-mangle the two.

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

A ‘salute’ to women’s power over men?

The secret’s out, ladies.

A barrage of “Betrayus” news has blown our cover. Now everyone will know that if you want to bring even a good, powerful man down, just show him a little whoopee-ass.

It’s an age-old ploy. You see it in every spy movie. Only a sexy Russian agent can get the goods on the hunky, slippery, non-communicative leading man.

Women know deep-down that every man has his weakness, deep down. And the armor always comes off by wielding that same weapon: sex.

Indeed, it is a sad state of affairs.

I was an “other woman.” Never intended to be, but I was. I was raised better, but I did that, overstepped boundaries of decency. It was a time in my life when I felt powerless, rejected by a man I loved, so I transformed into a cha-chink-whirrrr-beep-beep-hacha-mama with one secret mission (secret even to myself): to exact revenge upon the male race.

It seems there are basically two seriously damaging sexual scenarios. The first, which I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about, is rape — in which one twisted, sadistic monster abuses someone perceived as less powerful. A survivor of rape can spend a lifetime recovering, reclaiming lost power.

A goliath goddess slew the mighty David Petraeus.

But here’s this other scenario, the flip side of toxic sex, in which someone perceived as an underling sidles up to a powerful figure and, with one glimpse of her underthings, ratchets him down a notch, adding notches in her headboard. The victims are usually the target’s spouse, family … in Gen. Petraeus’ case, generally anyone who trusted him to serve in a classified-level, clear-headed capacity. Sometimes, even the perp becomes a victim — it’s a slow boil, though.

I liked David Petraeus. Considered him basically a good man, also handsome. Good men are hard to come by; some women on the prowl justify taking “someone else’s” man based on that theory. OR on the premise that the liberties they take (on another’s premises) are actually gifts to the warrior with a sad chink in his armor.

Why is it we find being defenseless so sexy?

It’s complicated. And a damned shame.

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 from 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. My journalist friends who were mothers would commiserate with me 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 for most of 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 at the folks in 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 experienced 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 instinctively known.

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.


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.)