(Trigger warning, in case the title doesn’t make it clear: child sexual assault.)
The SFF community is struggling right now to contend with accusations of sexual harassment, sexism, and abuse against some of its most prominent members. I’m finding I have a lot to say about it. I have a series of posts in progress. This is the second. The first was here. Watch this space in coming days and weeks for more.
I’ve been thankful for the web-boostage and words of support I received for my recent Clockwork Clarion post. But I need to be crystal clear about something: I didn’t tell my story for the sake of sympathy, and I don’t need your pity.
First of all, the incident had a limited effect on me in the greater scheme of things. It was outrageous and awful, but I had little time to ponder it afterward. My life changed radically a month later, when I left for Washington DC and began my Peace Corps training. I went on to live for two years in Kenya, where I learned how to be a grown-up, made many good friends, had many false assumptions challenged, and learned much about East Africa and its rich and diverse cultures.
Then I returned home to write and publish six SF novels and some shorter works, while managing a demanding and successful engineering career (including, if that sort of thing matters to you, five years as corporate environmental officer for a Fortune 500 firm, and co-founder of a technology start-up). I raised two remarkable daughters. I am happily married for 25+ years to a man who is incredibly supportive and loving, an equal partner and devoted father.
In other words, my life is a success. The rape skit didn’t break me. Far from it. All it did was to give me a sharp reminder that I had to guard myself around men. Even friends. Even men I trusted and loved. (Even in my beloved SFF tribe.) But that was a lesson I had been taught, as a child, by the men in my own family.
There’s no easy way to tell this, so let’s just dive in. I was sexually assaulted at the age of twelve, by an adult male family member.
Once again, I’m not going to name names. This happened 34 years ago, my abuser made amends, is long dead, and I don’t want to cause undue pain to living family members and friends.
Who I Was Then
At the age of twelve, I was in seventh grade. We had just recently moved into a big ranch-style house in the suburbs that was more than we could really afford. But I liked it. It gave us lots of elbow room—the three of us kids each had our own bedroom now. We had a bigger bathroom, and a nice living room and dining room.
My favorite room was our den, where we watched TV, did jigsaw puzzles, and had sleepovers with our friends. There was also a wall of bookshelves stuffed with paperbacks (my mother was—and is—an avid reader).
The house was in a U-shape: my parents’ bedroom and the den both had sliding doors onto a covered patio on the backyard. It was a big, grassy backyard, with a swing set and monkey bars, a fenced-in vegetable garden, a lawn, and a basset hound who liked to chase bird shadows.
My body was just starting to turn. I was developing breasts; my period had started several months before; I was excited about becoming a woman—an adult. I had flirted with a boy at my school, and we had kissed: a peck on the lips that was over too quickly, though I wasn’t ready for anything more at that point.
Truth to tell, I was still just a kid. I’d always been the quintessential tomboy: wall walker, tree climber, bug and snake catcher. I had had a pet toad, built tumbleweed and dirt forts, climbed rocks, fought play battles with the other kids. I had been the one in our old neighborhood who got all the other kids going with big plays, costumed games, beauty pageants, carnivals, chemistry experiments, and the like. I wasn’t ready to leave all that behind.
While the other girls were putting on make-up and hair spray, stuffing their bras with tissues, pulling on their first pairs of panty hose, and donning dress pumps with heels, my new friends and I were dressing up in goofy costumes, playing Pretend, hiking in the foothills, or sneaking into home construction sites to climb up into the rafters and eat peanut-butter sandwiches and drink lemonade. We spent our afternoons acting out Star Trek adventures out on the mesa.
(Of course, I did some of that girlie stuff, too… I’d gone to a couple of school dances; by then I’d started shaving my legs and underarms; and tried out some eye shadow (electric blue) and lipstick (white).)
So, yeah, I was right on the brink of adolescence, nervous about some of the changes my body was going through, comparing myself to the other girls when we changed for PE, terrified of being made fun of but starting to get curious about boys. Wondering who my first real boyfriend would be. I had just started to grow my hair out from the childhood pixie cut.
My abuser was around 40 years old. He had usually been a lot of fun to have around. He would entertain us with jokes and stories, tickle us, use his whiskers on our bellies, and so on. There had been many a giggling shriek-fest with us kids, and there had never been anything weird about it at all. The house always livened up when he was around. I’d always loved rough-housing with him.
Early one afternoon when we were both home alone, he and I got into a tickling match. It was in the den. The sliding glass door to the patio was open, with the screen door shut.
He got me down onto the floor, and I was squirming, laughing, trying to get away. Then I noticed that he was pulling my shirt out from my jeans (It was a cotton button-up with long tails, and I had it tucked in, with a belt). That was not normal.
After he got my shirt tails out, he worked his hands up under my shirt onto my bare midriff. I tried to pull my shirt down and push his hands away. At this point he had stopped even pretending to tickle. He worked his hands up under my bra and fondled my breasts.
It was not an accident. He had to really work at it, to get hold of my bare breasts.
(For men, imagine that at that age an older male relative had pinned you down, unzipped your pants, while roughhousing, worked both hands inside your underwear, and fondled your penis and testicles. Try to remember, too, how self-conscious you were about your body and your genitalia back then.*)
I remember looking up at him, stunned. He had an expression on his face that made me panic. I managed to fight my way free, and bolted out the back door, leaped over the fence, and dashed up the block.
We both pretended later it hadn’t happened, but I never let him near me after that, nor allowed myself to be in the same room with him alone.
I don’t believe that he intended to rape me. He could have, if he’d wanted to—he was nearly twice my size. I believe he was simply curious about my newly developed breasts, and figured there had been enough times he’d accidentally touched my chest when I was younger, without it being an issue; he figured he could pretend it was an accident, or that I would just forget about it later.
But I didn’t. For all my life, he had been beloved: someone around whom I hadn’t even known I could be unsafe in that way. That he would do that—just take my body and do whatever he wanted with it, it crushed me. Just crushed me.
For many years afterward, I suffered from dissociation. I had these disjointed memories that stuck in my mind, surrounding the incident, but couldn’t them piece together in any meaningful way. If you haven’t experienced dissociation, for me it felt as if I wasn’t in my body, but instead floating above or behind it, or trapped in a corner of it. It’s like you come unmoored and you can’t get back in. Like I was a homunculus, peering out through my body’s eyes.
It can also feel like you are made of a balloon, stretching and bulging here, shrinking there, into these distorted shapes.
It’s a really horrible feeling. It’s hard for me to even describe it.
As for the disjointed memories:
I remembered the assault and my escape out the back door, but I didn’t have any feelings associated with it.
I remembered walking up the street, it must have been immediately afterward, with that feeling of dissociation growing. I didn’t connect it with the assault. It was just this memory that I connected to my first experience of dissociation. No feelings were available with this memory.
I remember my mother coming into my bedroom three days later, asking me what was wrong. Again, no connection in my mind with the assault. I was still cut off from myself. I didn’t know anything was wrong until she asked. I certainly wasn’t thinking about the assault.
I told her, “I just wish I could get back into my body again,” and was wracked with sobs. I remember her holding me for a long time. But just as with the Clarion incident, I had no idea then or later what I was crying about. She didn’t ask.
The feeling of disassociation plagued me for years afterward, and it took me till I was 30, and several years of therapy, to be able to sustain a trusting sexual relationship with a man (I could do casual sex, and I could do friendship, but I couldn’t do both at the same time, with the same man).
I was also plagued by anxiety and intermittent depression, and a deep distrust of myself and others, for all of my adolescence and well into adulthood, and had challenges with emotional intimacy in general. My young adulthood was a succession of codependent relationships that caused me and others a lot of pain.
Cath mentions in her post this slow, angry burn you get, when your trust is violated in such a fundamental way. I’ve got that, too. There are too many barriers to understanding, too many people willing to cut abusers a break, while leaving their victims to founder, alone, in putting the pieces back together.
I am very fortunate. Through therapy in my late 20s and early 30s, I was able to stitch it all back together. Even so, like Cath, for a very long time I seriously contemplated not having kids, because of that abuse, because I felt too broken. It took me eight years of intensive counseling, lots of painful work, and a very supportive spouse, before I felt I could safely bring children into the world, and be the parent they deserved.
In other words, in a very real way, I lost 18 years of my life, between the ages 12 and 30 (that’s 3/5’s of my time on Earth, up to that point in time), to that man’s sense of entitlement and idle curiosity about a pre-teen girl’s boobs felt like.
Thanks for sticking with me through these posts; I know it’s not easy reading. But it is important.
*The relative sizes of the attacker and victim also matter. If you’re an adult, for instance, at say 6’ and 190 pounds, your attacker is 7’ 4” and weighs 342 pounds. Try to visualize that how that would feel.