In the early 1970s, ’71 or ’72, I think, (see how already the narrative breaks down), I was raped by a man I did not know.
I was 13 or I was 12. I was in the 8th grade or in the 7th, both years lost, only an image left, an English teacher, who had dyed black hair, who was kindly, who asked me in the middle of class one day if I were okay, if I needed to leave the room, to go home. She touched me on the shoulder, I want to say. (What is the right narrative?) I don’t know what I was doing or what I looked like to cause her such alarm; I only remember sitting on the end of the row nearest the door and her asking me if I were okay, and my mother telling me later (so even this is wrong; where is the silence I only remember?) that this teacher had had a daughter raped too and so she was concerned for me, she understood. I don’t know if a year had passed by then or if it were in the same year; I don’t know if I left the class or if I stayed.
Most of my life I have not remembered this man’s name, this boy’s. (He was 19, and, at 52 now, I realize that I cannot think of him as anything else), and I won’t give him his name here, even though once I had the idea of looking his record up, of researching his life as if that would prove my indifference to him finally. He met me half way up the lane along the cemetery to our house; he must have watched from the graves as I stepped off the school bus. He asked me his question. I answered him. Politely. (I’ve read somewhere now that young girls are most often attacked because of this vulnerability. We are asked to be nice, to be helpful. And so we are.) He came up to me on the driveway by the cemetery. He asked me where the Smiths were. I told him. I pointed the way for him and then I turned away. Without fear. Without surprise. (Small comfort, this, when I hear of another young girl or woman raped, murdered–I think when I was lying on the ground and he was finally leaving me that he could so easily have put his hands around my throat and I would have died. Or he could have stabbed me with a knife and I would have died. Without fear. Without surprise. Everything happened so quickly; everything was simply something that happened–detached, removed from me, my every sense heightened, but not in fear, only in wonder, only in minute-by-minute half-comprehensions. What I hope for those other women.)
He put his arms were around me from the back and said not to scream. He tried to punch me in the stomach but my coat was thick and sturdy and I felt none of it. He said he wanted to go steady, for me to be his girlfriend, all the time taking me further into the woods. The only fear I remember now was when he pushed me to the ground and ripped my pants from me and the wad of gum I had been chewing jammed up against my throat and I was afraid I would choke so I turned my head to the side to spit it out. I saw the dead leave then, what I remember most. He lay on me. I felt pain. Later a lawyer would ask me in court if I thought he had used his fingers to “penetrate” me. (I didn’t know what he meant. I had never been with a boy. Why would anyone want to put their fingers there?)
I bit him. Not bravely. He put his fingers near my mouth, so I bit him. He stood above me, crying. He said I had hurt him. He backed away from me into the woods, still crying. Only then was I afraid, that he might return. I wrapped my torn pants around my waist and ran to the barbed-wire fence that ran along the roadside. A man on a tractor appeared. I waved at him, crying. (He must have been a farmer in the area, but I don’t remember who he was and no one ever said anything to me about him.) I don’t remember how we got to my neighbor’s, if I rode his tractor or if he walked me there. I sat on the couch with the girl I went to school with who lived in this house with no plumbing, no mother. My parents were out of town, in Florida. There was no one to come and get me. I don’t know if I rode in a police car or if an ambulance took me someplace. My mother would tell me later how she wept and cried at the airline ticket counter in Florida, begging the airlines to give her a ticket home so that she could be with me. (There is that other narrative. And yet I keep saying we never spoke of it.) I was examined; evidence taken. I remember little of this: nurses talking to me, the curtain they pulled around the bed, perhaps some more pain. Medical students in a residency program my father oversaw came to take me home–I think. They had been staying with me. I don’t remember how we got home. I do remember vividly passing through our gate and being greeted by the large pack of dogs that roamed our farm and how much I wished that I had made it that far, to the gate, to the dogs that would have helped me. (I have kept dogs ever since.)
My mother arrived sometime late at night. I was asleep or half sleeping. She appeared, weeping. I remember little else of that night. My father offered a large reward for information regarding this boy. He and I drove to the sheriff’s station one night, sat in the back of an unmarked car with the overhead light turned off and watched the sheriff call a possible suspect out of his home or out of a bar. I don’t know which. I didn’t recognize him. I think there was a lineup at some point, but I don’t know for sure. A young man my father and mother had befriended told them about seeing someone at a bar that night, with a band-aid on his finger. He had been bragging. He was arrested. We went to court.
My mother told me that I needed to do this, that the boy had attacked other young girls my age, that each time he had gone a little further, obviously accelerating what he was doing, that he had to be stopped in case he killed someone. That I had to be the someone to stop him. I remember little of the trial. My mother and father would take me, before or after, for ice cream. I don’t know what we talked about. I found out later, or I think my mother told me, (here again, that narrative of silence falters), that the judge for the case was the father of a young girl in my class. My mother made me a dress for the day I testified. It was red. It had blue anchors on it and a white collar. My mother said that I was so young it was really bad for this man. (I didn’t know that at the same time I was going through trial, women’s groups in the seventies were fighting to change rape laws that had forced women to prove physical resistance to the attack and personal chastity.) I don’t remember what I said in court or what was said to me except for that question about the fingers. At the end, he was convicted. I sat in the courtroom when the sentence was announced. The police led this boy past me. His mother appeared from the rows across the aisle, crying, “You told me you didn’t do it. You told me you didn’t do it.” I think I threw the red dress away, but I don’t know.
I think of the nineteen-year-old boys I teach in college now, the friends of my daughters, how young they are. Of the life I’ve had these past thirty-nine years–school, college, graduate school, marriage, children, work. A man, a good man, who loves me. Only last year my mother told me that “this guy,” she called him, had gotten out of prison after twenty-five years. (Could this even be right? I have been married twenty-five years and didn’t marry until thirteen years after this rape. Where is my narrative now?) I think of the Super Max prison in Florence, Colorado. And of the men I read about who are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, for years and years. I am not sure what we are trying to accomplish. I ask myself if even this boy deserved to be imprisoned for so long for such a stupid act when he was nineteen. (I remember hearing that my father, every year the boy came up for parole, submitted his statement that he shouldn’t be released. Later my mother telling that this boy’s sentence was extended over and over again, not because of me, but because of what he did in prison. “It’s not about you anymore,” she told me.) I don’t know what this boy did in prison. I don’t know how many other girls he touched before me that day. I don’t know what might have happened if he had not been stopped, had not been imprisoned. I did good, I tell myself.
Today I know this about rape–my own is insignificant. In 2008, after decades, centuries of systematic rape, the United Nations Security Council finally recognized “that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war.” As of today, 200,000 women raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo: forty women a day. 200,000 women raped during the Bangladesh Liberation War. 20,000 women raped during the Bosnian War. In Liberia, 92 percent of 1600 women interviewed reporting sexual violence. Rape as a tool of war in Darfur, Uganda, Sierra Leone. Women not just incidentals now in the course of a war, but chattels of patriarchal societies, defiled to dishonor, to harm a man, his family. Hundreds of thousands of women raped multiple times until their bodies are irreparably injured, until they bear the children of their rapists, and, through some grace, must still love these children, even as their own families ostracize, isolate, shame, humiliate, stone, kill them.
I know that there are women in refugee camps today, their men gone, dead, who are forced to gather wood or water or to take their children somewhere outside of these camps, their tents, to defecate. And they are raped. And their children raped. I think of the small inventions that can save them: the stove that does not need wood, the small community well dug for potable water. Amnesty International reports that Native American women are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women in the United States. I think of the women teachers I have worked with on the reservation for the past six years. What have they been through? What have they seen their daughters suffer? Their granddaughters? Even the statistics tell us nothing: most Native American women are reluctant to report sexual assault given the lack of assistance they are given in the process and the few times the perpetuators are even convicted. And yet it is the men who are the “holy” men, the only ones who can hear the holy voices. As in every society.
I know now that I perpetuated a crime in my silence, that every moment of my silence meant another moment of secrecy for a sect no woman wants to be a part of, that no woman should be blamed for. (No one said anything to me that I remember, except for the one English teacher whose daughter had been raped, who might have touched me in tenderness. Well, I know now I want to say that, to keep the narrative, but I know I am wrong. One day I was riding horses with a friend—round hair, round face, round cheeks in the sunlight on her horse. “You know what they are saying about you, don’t you? You should go to another school. Move away,” she said. Later my mother wanted to write the school a note for the principal to read over the intercom, to thank everyone for how good they had been to me. I had told my mother nothing of what had been said or not said.
“Where is my little sunshine?” my mother once asked me, forgivable now because I see the silence was mine, not hers.)
My daughter asks me a simple question: why should a penis have power over a woman? And I feel a physical shock. I have no answer for that. She tells me of a village where rape is unheard of simply because the society will not accept the idea of rape, that somehow the penis could be more powerful than the vagina, that a man taking a woman should mean ruin for anyone. I think of the simple physiology of that moment when I was raped–what I can’t even remember well, describe well, have not even forgotten well. I know now that my single experience, my five minutes, has cost me more than I should ever have allowed myself to pay, and that this is the real narrative.
Here I am: poet, essayist. I am supposed to transform all this into something, some metaphor about trees and rock, about a spinning wheel and a woman who keeps ripping out the shroud of her life, but I can’t. And now I won’t.
Kathryn Winograd, poet and essayist, is author of Air Into Breath (Ashland Poetry Series), winner of the Colorado Book Award in Poetry, and Stepping Sideways Into Poetry (Scholastic, Inc), a classroom resource book for K12 teachers. She recently won 1st place in the Non-rhyming Poetry category of the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition 2011, and 1st place in the Chautauqua Poetry contest. Her essay, “Bathing” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2011 and is included in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction along with “(Note to Self): The Lyric Essay.” Recent or forthcoming publications include Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Hotel Amerika, Puerto del Sol, and Literary Mama.
Read an interview with Kathryn here.