Forty years later, I said “no” to the man who abused me.
He wasn’t in the room.
I’m not even sure he’s still alive.
I’m just grateful that I am.
And grateful that I’m finally getting a chance to tell the story of what happened to me all those years ago. When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused and battered by an older man—we were dancers with the same ballet company—and the brutality lasted for almost a year. I managed to get away, but I never told anyone: not my parents, not my high school teachers, not any of the other dancers, some of whom, I later learned, he had also abused.
Eventually I landed in Los Angeles, where I worked as a midwife to plays, and married, and had children: two daughters with their father’s long lashes and love of puns. Still, what happened when I was a child was holding me hostage, as surely as if I’d been stolen away. I had everything I’d ever wanted: love and companionship and the warmth of friends—above all, two healthy children— and a garden and plenty to read. But I felt trapped behind a scrim, like the smoked glass of an antique mirror, with life on the other side, tantalizing and remote.
I tried to write about the abuse for decades, longer than my younger daughter has been alive. That’s been hard on my family, but not harder than the way my fears swarmed around me like furies; haunting me; haunting them. For years, my husband took dozens of photographs of our daughters in front of those bright yellow caution signs: warnings about feral pigs or falling ice or electrical shock. He did it because he wanted me to believe the world was safe.
Needless to say, I was unconvinced.
Like many survivors of trauma, I was afraid of everything: pit bulls and electrical outlets and computer screens. When I had children, the level of danger exploded like an oil-rig, and peril lurked everywhere. For many years, I thought my abuser might be lurking too; that he might hurt me again or, much worse, hurt my kids. I feared he would shatter the placid, peaceful world I was lucky enough to land in, reaching across decades to destroy this, too.
But I know part of the survival of any hurt is the telling of it. Knowing you will survive the telling of it. So when a friend asked me to read aloud from my new book—the one I’d been working on for ages— I agreed. She was hosting a fundraiser for her charity, Saved by a Story, which uses storytelling to support people in need. Since it was her first fundraiser, the theme of the evening would be “firsts.” First loves, first losses, first jobs. For me, it was doubly a first: reading about the first time Joe hurt me, and reading those words aloud for the first time.
I always thought writing about what happened might liberate my family. Reading those words aloud was the next step. If I couldn’t read them in my friend’s living room, how would I travel to bookstores and community centers and help people who were struggling as I had?
But I was trembling even before I reached the podium. “I’ve never read these pages out loud before,” I said. “I think it’ll be okay. And after me there’s another speaker. A singer, actually. And dessert.” The event had an open bar, live music and macaroons. How could it be anything but great?
In preparation, I’d chosen not to wear my contact lens —yes, I just have one— so I couldn’t see anyone’s reactions. I thought that would make the first time easier. It didn’t. It just created a different kind of barrier, a blur. Wasn’t this about seeking clarity?
What was I even doing here????
Michael, my husband, smiled encouragingly, or at least I think he did. (I really couldn’t see.) I remembered twenty-five years before, when he came to watch me host a post-play discussion. Michael was a scuba diver, and he loved the deep intimacies of the ocean, and I could feel him reaching across the vast blue volume of the auditorium, buoying me. We had been through so much together—his cancer, the death of both our fathers—and he never faltered when I said I wanted to write this book. He never wavered when I wrote about him, about us, about the ravages of the abuse; the way anxiety gave our days a beetling texture. He trusted me to have his back, to hold his heart.
But the real question was: did I trust myself? Why didn’t I ever tell anyone, forty years ago, when Joe was beating me? When I came home with a bruise, I blamed a mishap in rehearsal. I smiled at the lunchroom monitors when Joe took me out of school, driving me across the street to a meadow to molest me. Yet I was outspoken, even as a small child, the voluble girl often rebuked for talking in class; the relay runner chatting with competitors on the track, fumbling when the baton was shoved into my hand.
But this was a different passing of the baton. A way of saying, “I was scared, I was silent, I was ashamed, but you don’t have to be.” That sounds too simple—like a bumper sticker or a public service announcement—but subtlety isn’t the point here. What’s important is to say these things plainly, in the open air of a communal setting, to strangers. All these years later, I realize that it was the “plainness” of things— the simplicity of care and nurture and trust— that was so sorely lacking in my family’s life. That’s what made me vulnerable to a predator like Joe.
So I began:
The summer I was sixteen, Joe started to notice me, tease me, making fun of my name, since his dog’s name was Jenny and his favorite song was Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper.” “Jennifer Jessica,” he would croon, and he invited me to watch him work in the studio, Jenny the dog looking on nervously from the wings. Maybe, he said, he would make a dance for me sometime. Maybe he would make a dance for us.
Of course, all the girls wanted that, not just to dance with him, but to feel the smell and stickiness of someone else’s body very close. That’s what we all wanted most, to be partnered by a boy in a pas de deux. There was a sweetness to it, or so it seemed.
Then I reached the part about following him up to his attic bedroom, the floor littered with dirty dance tights and stubs of cigarettes.
“I want you to fuck me,” Joe would say, his voice husky with longing.
“No,” I wanted to say. But my body was saying something else. My body was moving with his body, even as I was protesting, trying to get away, even as Jenny the dog circled on the rug, never settling down.
Then I read about the moment I pushed him away, and he hit me for the first time. Those were the hardest sentences to read aloud. I needed to use MY voice to create HIS voice; his strange voice; alternately merry and menacing.
Then I began to weep.
I raced through the last two lines and hurried back to the corner of the room, where my husband was seated. We left just after the singer finished, before the macaroons. I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, not even my hostess, who was kind enough to give my address to others in the audience, who were kind enough to send emails saying things like “Everyone was deeply touched by your brave story and we all wanted to wrap you in our arms afterwards to shower you with love and support.”
I hadn’t thought about the aftermath of the evening. I hadn’t been able to look that far. Wasn’t that what this was about, trying to be present? Trying to see without the veil, the scrim, that cleaved me from life.
But in retrospect, it wasn’t what I saw— or didn’t see— that made the evening meaningful. It was what I heard.
For I heard myself say “No,” in that living room, all these years later. Years I never thought I’d have. Because so many victims are killed by their abusers, or descend into decades of depression or drug abuse. Many float in a liminal space, never fully situated; feeling too much, feeling they are not enough. So many survivors have trouble trusting that the world is safer than it seems. So many of us have trouble trusting ourselves.
I was the first person saved by Saved by a Story. The writing had freed me. The reading surely helped.
For I said “No,” and Joe didn’t hear me, but he didn’t need to.
I said “No,” and— finally— I heard myself.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.