Years ago, when I was a kid growing up in Appalachia, a new girl moved into the community. We'll call her "Annie." I went to school with her during the 7th and 8th grade. She was very pretty, with long dark curls that hung in ringlets down her back, and sparkling blue eyes. Unlike some of the other "pretty" girls, she wasn't a bit snotty and stuck up--she was friendly towards everyone, always cracking jokes that made even the teachers laugh. She was an instant hit with everybody.
I got to know her well when we were both picked to represent our school in the county speech competition. We were both in the storytelling category--and spent a lot of time together on the playground practicing our little skits. After that, we started meeting at the playground after school, along with a bunch of other girls, to hang out after class and on the weekends.
Summer came, and that year, my mom took us to Indiana to visit with relatives while my dad worked on a big construction job he landed in Florida. I didn't see Annie or any of my friends until I went back to school to start the 8th grade.
I was glad to be back home, and happy to see all my buddies again. Everybody had stories to tell about their summer, and I got a chance to catch up on all the gossip--who was dating who, who had broken up, who got into fights, and who had moved away. Annie revealed to us, that she, too, had gone and found a boyfriend, and the way she talked, she seemed like she was crazy over him.
Though things were starting to change a little in my area during the early '80's, people in that part of the country still held very conservative moral views. The ten commandments still hung on the wall over the blackboard in our classroom, and at Christmas, we always did the story of Jesus' birth. If you acted up in class or got into a fight, you got your ass swatted with a paddle. It was still commonly assumed that most girls would end up getting married, having kids, and living the life of a stay at home wife and mother. By 8th grade, some of the girls had already started "going steady" with boys--a few even talked about "being in love" and getting married to their boyfriends, like Annie. This was not seen as unusual by many people--though my own dad would have never allowed me to date at that age. I knew better than to try, because half the teachers at the school were kin to us, and I knew I would never get away with it. Sometimes, I wondered why he was so strict--but looking back now, I'm glad he was.
At first, I assumed that Annie's new boyfriend must have been some guy she went to school with before she moved. Then, I later learned who "David" was--he was a thirty-something year old man who lived next door to her. I couldn't understand why she would want to date somebody that old--but as the word got out about them, few people, not even the teachers, really made a big deal about it. Apparently, this was all right. It never dawned on me--or any of the other kids, that there was something wrong with a relationship like that--it just seemed a little icky.
After a few months, Annie quit coming to the playground after school as much. David didn't want her to go--he wanted her to stay home. She stopped coming to the school basketball games. Every time you saw her out in public, she was with him.
Then, everything took an awful turn. Annie was pregnant.
All of a sudden, she became a pariah. None of the kids wanted to hang out with her on the playgound during recess. Some, like me, were no doubt uncomfortable because we didn't really know what to say, or what to think. Others, however, really hated her. They called her a slut, and repeated the rumors they heard their parents tell at home--that her mom, a single mother, was a whore who had a bunch of different men in her house all the time, and that Annie had already been sleeping around with a bunch of different boys and men. At least one girl tried to pick a fight with her on the playground during recess. For weeks, hers was the name on the whole community's lips. When she turned 14--two weeks after my birthday--the teachers didn't give her a card, or have the class sing happy birthday to her, like they did with the other kids. They weren't exactly mean to her--but they stopped calling on her in class, and seemed to avoid her, like everybody else. The one person you didn't hear anybody talk about, however, was her boyfriend, David.
Then, one day at school, Annie announced that she was getting married. A few days later, she stopped coming to class.
People stopped talking about her as much, once she dropped out of sight, and out of the public eye. Some people even said she had done the right thing by marrying the baby's father. To many folks, it seemed like it was a much greater crime to for her to become an unwed mother than it was for her to be married and pregnant at age 14, to a man more than twice her age.
8th grade graduation came, and then another summer. The scandal involving Annie faded into the background. Our class went on to high school. Along the way, some of the girls I was friends with quit school for various reasons--some because they didn't like it, some because they got pregnant, a few because they got married--in some cases, like Annie, they were disappeared into marriages to much older men.
After high school, I went on to college. Like generations of Appalachian kids before me, I left the mountains in order to get a good paying job, and start a new life with the hope of a better future than I could have had back home. Childhood was far behind me--I didn't think much about the kids I went to school with anymore--I was busy trying to claw my way up the career ladder, and prove myself in the workplace. Everybody in my family was so proud of me--and to be truthful, at that age I was a little stuck on myself as well. I had worked hard and done "all the right things" and as a result, overcame my "raising" in a poor rural community, and was on my way to a great life. Or so I thought at the time.
A few years after I started my job in Michigan, I came home to visit my dad. By that time, it was getting harder for him to drive long distances, and he had been wanting to visit my uncle in the nursing home in Lexington. So I loaded him up in my shiny new car--the first new car I ever owned--and drove the hour and a half trip to the city.
While we were there, a group of musicians were visiting the facility to put on a show for the residents. My uncle and dad went down to the nursing home common area to watch. I wanted to find a spot where I could go smoke a cigarrette and get something cold to drink, and one of the nurses directed me down one of the halls to the outdoor smoking area.
I scooted down the hall, weaving my way between elderly people in their wheelchairs, glancing into the rooms as I walked along. An old man in a leg brace in one room, an elderly woman sitting on her bed, a figure lying on a bed in yet another room--
And then I stopped cold, turned and went into the room where the bedridden woman lay. A photograph hanging on the wall near her bed had caught my eye. I had one just like it. It was my 7th grade class picture.
It took me a few minutes to realize who she was. I hadn't heard anything about her, or even thought of her for years.
With a shock, I realized it was Annie.
The girl she had been, full of smiles, and humor, and life was gone. Her long dark ringlets had been cut short, various tubes connected to her body. Her twisted, curled figure lay propped up with pillows. I think I may have said her name, but got no answer. She was comatose.
An older woman, probably a nurse aide, stepped into the room. "Are you a relative?" she asked. I explained to her that I had once been one of her classmates. That I never knew what happened to her, but was here with my dad visiting.
"You're the first person I know of to visit her in a long time," she said. "I've been working here about 15 years. She came in not too long after I started here. She had a stroke that caused her to be severely brain damaged."
She emptied the catheter bag hanging at the side of her bed and left the room. I stood there a little while, listening to the piano music from the front of the building float into the room, the soft clicks of the pump attached to her feeding tube. There was a picture of her mother, a sign on the wall that said, "Turn every two hours." On the nightstand near her bed was a picture of her in a white dress with David, the man she married.
I was feeling kind of numb and sick. Looking back on everything that happened back then with a woman's mind, I realized what a horrible thing had been done to that girl. I went outside, and chain-smoked a few cigarrettes before going back in to sit with my dad and uncle. I didn't mention Annie to my dad on the way back to his house--his health was starting to fail, and I didn't want him to be upset. I waited until that night, when I could talk to my cousin Mary Ellen, who was supposed to stop by and visit.
As a child, she had been one of my favorite relatives. She used to stop by and talk to my mom for hours on end, and we kids spent many nights at her house. I thought that maybe she would know more about what happened to Annie.
I told her that I had seen her in the nursing home, and the condition she was in, and asked her if she knew what happened.
"I had heard that she got real sick toward the end of her pregnancy," she said. "But her mom moved off as soon as she got married, so she was no help. That man didn't think she was very sick, and didn't take her to the hospital till he found her laying in the floor one day when he came home from work. They say she had a real bad stroke, but by the time the doctors could work on her, the baby had already died, and she had such bad brain damage they said she would likely never get better. I'm surprised she's still alive."
Then I asked her the question that had been eating away at me all that day. "Why didn't anybody try to help her? Why was a man that old even allowed near her, let alone marry her?"
And she said, "That girl didn't have a daddy, and she was too sorry to stand up for herself. That girl brought it all on herself. That man may have been too old for her, but at least he took responsibilty and married her."
I am not the kind of person who normally gets violent, but in that moment, I wanted to slap the shit out of her. She simply could not see Annie for what she was--a 13 year old child--a little girl who had been abused, a victim of a child molester. I got ahold of myself, and shut up and didn't ask any more questions--I just went back in the house. I left the next day, and headed back to my life up north.
I was fucking pissed. I was not only pissed at what had happened to her--I was more pissed at why it happened.
Nobody said a word when it became known that she was "dating" a man in his thirties. Not a fucking soul did a thing to try to save her--not her teachers, not any of her neighbors, not the county court clerk who signed the marriage license--nobody. It's doubtful that she was ever given the option of having an abortion, or giving the baby up for adoption, or even raising the child on her own. Nope--back then, girls who got pregnant got married, or else lived a life in which they were rejected as fucking worthless whores by the whole community.
It didn't matter that the piece of shit who used her and abused her no doubt manipulated her into giving him what he wanted, probably knowing full well that many young girls that age still believe they will live happily ever after if they only find their prince. The crimes committed against her were still her fault. She was the leper nobody wanted to touch. Nobody talked about putting him in jail, even after he neglected to take her to the doctor, and as a result, the baby died, and she was nearly killed. Nobody blamed him for what had happened--in fact, they patted him on the back for marrying a child.
I wonder what the judge said who granted him a divorce from her, after he dumped her in a nursing home once she was no longer worth anything to him.
Damn her "husband", and everybody who could have stepped in and put a stop to that pervert's abuse of that child, but didn't. May they all burn in hell.
I also realized that it could have been any of us other young girls living there back then that he could have chosen to prey upon. She wasn't a bad kid--she was pretty and smart and could have done nearly anything she wanted in life. I realized that luck, not just hard work, not just being smart enough to finish college, played a role in allowing me to escape the life I might have had if I had stayed home. I wondered what would have happened to me, if I had been in her shoes.
Annie's story changed my entire view of the world. No longer was I willing to simply accept the misogyny that is so tightly woven into the fabric of society--no longer was I blind.
Today, conservatives want to return this country to a time when the kinds of things that were done to little Annie are acceptable once more. To a time when abortion is completely illegal, even in cases where the life of a woman or even a little girl is in danger. They want us to live in a country where men who choose to do so are once more free to rape, molest, abuse, and exploit women and children in any way they choose, while laying the blame for their savagery and evil at the feet of their victims.
Whenever I hear a right wing conservative talk about restricting the rights of women and children, I think of Annie, and the millions of other women and girls who have suffered because of their brand of thinking.
I realize now that I am older that the fight we are in to protect women's rights--that is the right to healthcare, to abortions, to equal pay, to freedom from physical and sexual violence, are not just a clash between people who hold different moral views--it is a battle between good and evil. For the sake of our children, we cannot allow them to win.