“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
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.
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.
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.
Of cows and cowering
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.
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
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?”
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.
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
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.
(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.)