Update: Thank you seems not enough to express that I’m deeply grateful for your kind words and for lifting us up. It’s difficult to respond because it hurts to write and read my own family’s story, but I promise I’m reading slowly.
2nd Update: we quickly permanently severed ties with that family, and their rapist offspring stills roams free. It helps to focus on her healing than the blinding rage.
3rd/Final Update: Thanks to all of you. We will be looking into EMDR. So helpful. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and to respond-I know it must be so hard for many of you. I too am a survivor. Thank you for all the light and love, right back at you.
(Trigger warning. Forgive any errors, this was hard to write. I might be preaching to the choir, but if this helps anyone)
My oldest daughter called. She was frozen in her college classroom. By frozen, I mean she can’t move from the waist down. Sometimes it’s full body, including a complete inability to speak. From the waists down usually lasts 45-75 minutes. It can happen anywhere, at anytime, without warning, triggers unknown. But it began after the rape. Her class was done, everyone had left, including her wonderful and kind professor. They’ve been here before. Her professor took one look at her and knew that it had happened again. In a country of mass shootings, at a college where there have been mass shootings, my daughter suffered from psychosomatic symptoms of being raped as a teenager.
A few years ago, my oldest daughter sent me a text message from her college and I could almost hear her whisper in it: I have something to tell you. Don’t tell anyone. Swear. He raped me.
He? He was a relative, older but close to her age, like a brother.
I must’ve stopped breathing. Everything stopped, but I was a parent. I had practiced putting on a front of confidence and reassurance since they were infants. Automatically, I said ok, like she’d just told me she’d run out of snacks, or that she was going to be late. Shock. I listened. “Do you believe me?” Of course I told her. A story this outrageous was out of character, and there was no motive to lie.
I was in my car in a parking lot, in another state, listening, and telling her we’ll figure it out. I was numb. She proceeded to fall apart, piece by piece by piece.
A few months before we had visited family in the Caribbean. I’d grown up there. We visited often enough that the whole community knew my daughters. Had watched them grow up. I wanted my daughters to know where I’d hailed from, to grow with their cousins that were around the same age, to have an appreciation for how other cultures live and thrive, but mostly for family. I wasn’t unlike anyone else that grew up there, left, started a family in the United States and returned to visit. My daughters visited enough that they were comfortable, felt safe and were able to understand a bit of the dialect after a few days, if it was spoken slowly. They could go for a walk in the small quiet community and be recognized and chatted with by the old folks, after they’d done their workbooks. Yes, we were those parents that went on vacation with books, but by then they were also those girls that loved school and loved books and grew up doing the work without being told. They traveled with their books for work, and novels to read. My family there laughed at me for this, but were also surprised that the girls did their work diligently and mostly without complaint. Their cousins of similar age poked fun that they on the island were more American than their American cousins who were too busy to engage in, and knew little of their own American pop culture. They’d had little time for television, and they’d grown up with Dinosaur Train on PBS over whatever on Nickelodeon (which we didn’t have). There was little time for television anyway, and had no social media until later in high school, and their free time was spent outdoors with our dog and farm animals.
When we visited family in the Caribbean, they mostly stayed indoors, reading or playing outside. It was a struggle to get them to even go for a walk as it was hot and the discomfort of running into strange men that glared and made comments they didn’t understand was too uncomfortable. They welcomed the break from running from activity to activity at home though, they loved seeing their cousins, it was a nice break from the busy schedule of running from school to gymnastics. Anyone who had done gymnastics, knows that the hours are long and grueling for each practice, five, six days a week, then there are weekend competitions and summer practices the hours six days a week nine to three. They were quiet girls, athletes, they were happy to go to the beach just a short walk away that was usually empty. These girls never had to deal with that thing that most Caribbean girls grew up with, the catcalling, the harassment, the low key threats, the sexualizing of my young body, the sexual innuendo, that made me feel scared and dirty that I navigated through my terror with humor and witty “back talk” as a young child, young girl and young woman, and woman growing up. It simply scared them. Little did we know, these were the harmless ones.
My oldest is an extreme introvert, none expressed any overt interest in boys beyond passing friendships, they had a few close girlfriends and we were that family that we adopted the whole family with the friend. Those friendships lasted from kindergarten through high school, even after schools were changed and friends moved away. When we find our people, we hang on tight. At home there was no topic off limits, and we were a feminist home. I was not opposed to it blatantly, but I let them know the science behind why I disagreed with high school dating, that most teenage brains were not mature enough to handle with that additional stress if it comes up, that I was against casual sex when I showed them the literature and massive text book with pictures of what STD’s look like, and told them that if they couldn’t imagine themselves being naked and vulnerable, insisting on using a condom and dealing with the responsibility of birth control, disease or the possibility of being pregnant, don’t have sex as teenagers. It’s funny how sex education can quell the sexual thrill of teenage brain farts.
In elementary school they knew all their teachers in the whole school, they were surrounded by a circle of women that knew them since they were toddlers all the way to eighth grade. A school so small that the eight graders would help the kindergartners and the whole school did recess together. The children were friends with the teachers, some we had even visited their homes. In high school they were lucky to make connections there that still last into adulthood. Their after school sports were with majority women, that not only coached them, but came to their birthday and high school graduation parties. They’ve stayed in one sport for more than a decade. That’s a long time. It was all intentional, we wanted to surround our children with people who made up for what we lacked or what were believed to be important values to us in affection, kindness, wit, emotional intelligence, fairness, moral fortitude, etc. We had intentionally made our own village to surround, love and protect our daughters. We were lucky to have that, and we knew it. These are the young women I took to the Caribbean. We stayed several weeks, and years later, we’re still living that nightmare. We now “affectionately” call it the vacation from hell.
She’d just started another semester at a college she loved. She was bright, strong, academically driven, ambitious, focused on her goals. The above is not a resume to tout the accomplishments of my daughters, or our great parenting skills, but for context. There is no perfect parenting, ours are deeply flawed like most normal humans. We were lucky to get the children that we did, they made parenting easy, and despite our short comings as parents, they thrived.
There was no doubt that my daughter was telling the truth. There was never a second where I doubted her not because she was MY daughter, but because I knew her as a person. She was too kind and empathetic to the point of thinking more of others than herself, and if she was going to lie she would never hurt others with it. She was the only who wanted to bring a gift to that very cousin because he’d mentioned to her last time something he wanted from “the States.” She spoke of all her cousins with kindness. She loved her extended family there, proudly thought of them as brothers and sisters. We had stayed with an aunt, who was like a surrogate mother to me back in the day. I had a few of those. There were many cousins staying over during that time, her children and grandchildren.
First, I contacted him/the rapist by text, and he actually admitted it. Yes, he raped her, BUT only one time. Yes, feel free to laugh. Surreal. At that time I had no idea of the details and did not know that it was repeated and prolonged, each lasting 4-5 hours of terror. I telephoned the extended family and let them know this had happened. They believed my daughter. No one doubted or questioned that this had happened based on knowing him better than we did. In the days ahead, my daughter transformed into a barely living entity. She was at college, and she was sleeping 18 hours a day, would get up to take a freezing cold shower for an hour and a half, eat and go back to sleep. She was afraid to go to class, she was afraid to leave her room. I would be calling panicked, and her phone would ring and when she finally answered I was able to catch my breath for a moment. She was alive, but barely. When I finally reached her by FaceTime she looked gaunt, her eyes pupils were the size of saucers, I did not recognize my child. Her eyes were dead. The light wasn’t on and no one was home. I was afraid she would stop breathing in her sleep. I was terrified every hour, every minute until I finally brought her home, that she would walk off the roof of her dorm because she wanted the pain to stop so badly. In between, the details began to spill out. He began raping her soon after our arrival, and only stopped a day before we left. He first attacked her in her sleep, choked, strangled and bit her for hours every night. My daughter was 4 foot and some, barely a hundred pounds if she had a heavy meal and some prayers. He was over 250 pounds of sheer muscle and easily over 6 feet tall. “I didn’t do anything wrong. Why did this happen to me?” she repeated over and over. It was the details that killed my soul. I imagined her there at night, almost dying while we were all there and she was alone fighting for her life. The scramble was on to find therapists asap, and in between my shock gave way to nothing. There was no time to think. Every second felt like an eternity. Every phonically my heart raced. Was it her school, or her roommate telling me she’d died? Did she recall a new horrific detail? The family members were texting to ask how she was, but as a side note. I sensed a kind of quiet desperation from the elders, “What are you going to do?” they asked. I was too engrossed in keeping my daughter alive to think of anything else. I felt supported, yet, I was missing something. I began the process of filing a police report, and informed them of this. It was then I heard the news/gossip from the Caribbean, that my daughter, who had never had a boyfriend or showed any interest in boys or even kissed a boy was a promiscuous whore that had lured her cousin into a sex trap and she waited up for him because she wanted him so badly. That he’d tried to avoid her advances but she insisted. Remember he admitted that he raped her? That doesn’t matter. Remember that they believed that he did it before the police report? Doesn’t matter. Remember that they knew my daughters from birth? Doesn’t matter. Faced with the detail that he had admitted it, one uncle said “well, she must’ve have liked the little rape thing.”
The message is clear and chilling to other victims: don’t you dare say anything if this happens to you. We will destroy you. Message to rapists: There are no rapists, but if it happened, we got your back.
The police officers and prosecutor were considerate and thoughtful.
Actual questions weaponized by some people. What was she wearing (while she was asleep?). Why didn’t she scream? In between being choked by shoving his fingers down her throat or when he was suffocating her with a pillow? Why didn’t she say anything during the day? I’m thinking if I get the experience that someone is trying to murder me in my sleep, and he lives in the same house, I might be traumatized and scared for my life. It feels like an understatement to call it a rape, it’s attempted murder with rape as a side dish. The elders and their children had an actual meeting to decide what to say for the smearing of a teenage girl in order to save face and protect a violent sexual predator. They said she was unable to “find a man in America,” so she wanted her cousin. Is there a man shortage in the United States? Is there any college man in the United States who would pass on having sex with a willing college woman? These are seemingly God-fearing people, who tout daily prayers and Sunday mass. I remembered now the reason I kept my daughters away from the “bride of Christ” teachings of a church. I was afraid that they would internalize the subtle shaming of women as so called teachings of Jesus. These elders and relatives who are saying these things are not uneducated people. We’re talking about university-educated folks in careers related to children even, that are coming up with excuses to cover for an evil man that premeditated the repeated rape and torture of a younger cousin just because. And herein lies the reason that I proceeded this story with all those seemingly unnecessary details. It doesn’t matter how “perfect” a girl/woman is, people who want to blame women for their own rape and murder will always do it anyway. It didn’t matter what she wore, they will blame her, it didn’t matter that she doesn’t drink alcohol, it didn’t matter that she wasn’t at a party, it didn’t matter that she was an accomplished student, athlete, daughter. It doesn’t matter what a good girl she is, it doesn’t matter how great her grades were, it didn’t matter that she never had a boyfriend, it didn’t matter that she was promiscuous or “innocent,” it didn’t matter. The playbook is the same. They blamed her anyway. Wear whatever the fuck you want! It’s not your fault! That is the culture. It’s a rot. Nothing justifies rape. If he were lying asleep in bed and she did that … sounds crazy right?! There was no instance to say that she was flaunting herself on the streets, talking and laughing with boys, so they said she waited up for him in the dark. Please note, you’re allowed to flaunt, laugh and talk with boys without expecting to be raped for it. It’s ok to flaunt, talk and laugh with boys. Just the way they’re allowed to flaunt, laugh and talk with girls and women without expecting to be raped because they did so. A woman should not have to fear for her life because she talked and laughed with boys or men. And so, they’re saying our teenage daughter had some kind of secret salaciousness that was waiting to explode like the Incredible Hulk, and every night she transformed? By day she stayed on the couch and read books all day, but at night, she fell asleep in jeans, obviously waiting for him to come home. The truth is, all the things that made her who she was, in the eyes of this misogynistic man, made her more of a target. He hated her. He hated her more because she was a kind, decent person. It didn’t matter that he admitted it, to them, it’s her fault for letting it happen. He called her “stupid,” and so did they, for not screaming, not speaking up, not fighting back. It’s not his fault that she was stupid to let it happen. “She shouldn’t have allowed herself to be tricked by a man who’d struggled to graduate from even elementary school.” “What did she expect him to do when she let it happen?” Speak up when? After the first rape? The first rape is still rape, it’s already happened. After this happened I learned that this preying on the children of relatives visiting from the United States is not a unique experience. What’s unique is filing a police report, and wanting accountability and trying to prevent it from happening to some other young woman there. The family did warn me about what would happen if we went to the police, “what people would say about her,” they forgot to say that they would be the ones leading the smear campaign of lies. It was hard to be distracted by the smear campaign when we were dealing with sleepless nights from her nightmares. She spent hours crying and begging me to make the pain stop, repeatedly asking questions I couldn’t answer, “ I didn’t do anything wrong. Why did he do that to me,” psychosomatic pain all over her body, a plethora of mystery illnesses that manifested every year around the month it happened, learning how to read again to accommodate a learning disability she never had before she was raped, learning how to write a paper again, learning vocabulary to write those papers again, dealing with the rage of the police requesting us to return to Caribbean to have them do a vaginal exam with a police officer in the room to prove that she was not a virgin. Good times.
Our daughter defended herself from her attacker in her mind, that was the most power she could muster, and she imagined that she was anywhere but there. Every night until she escaped that island, she escaped in her mind to save herself. To preserve herself from losing her mind. She had to drop out that semester. Before she graduated, her classmates from that time disclosed how terrified they were for her life during that semester despite not knowing what had happened to her. It was all over her face, that she looked like a zombie. My daughter has few memories of that time. She does not remember going to class. The symptoms of her diagnosed PTSD are numerous, but she persists in chipping away at them with wonderful teachers, doctors, healers, therapists and medication. And patience. Lots of patience. Sometimes, she paused and said, “I can’t believe I survived that. I can’t believe I’m here.” Neither can I. We are beyond proud of her. We’re bursting with sadness, but mostly gratefulness and pride. There’s a whole healing team around her now. Her village that began when she was a toddler has coalesced around her, and has grown. We feel blessed and lucky to have them. I found out later that I had my own secondary PTSD from the details. Thank you science for medication and therapy for my whole family. School assignments that previously took 20 minutes now take 3 hours. But before they took more than 3 weeks, sometimes months. And before that, she couldn’t do it. Progress. Her academic accomplishments were her pride, now more so because every assignment is a struggle, every grade hard earned.
She was frozen and I was frozen too as I stayed on the phone with her. I would remain frozen for a long time. One time, I was driving her somewhere, stopped so could exit the car, and looked over to find her sitting there, staring, a panicked look on her face, tears running down her cheeks. She could not move. She couldn’t speak. Forty-five minutes later and cancelled appointment because the sound and feel of the car’s air conditioner had triggered her paralysis because it was so similar to the fan sounds in that hot bedroom in the Caribbean where it happened. What if she was driving? Now there’s a whole ritual before she drives a car, including the right music or sounds to cover up the sound of the air conditioner that is only on as a last resort. How to explain to someone who doesn’t know or understand that she can’t drive with them unless certain conditions are met? She doesn’t. She stays home.
I tried not to wonder what might happen if she was on a bus at night going home after a night class. What might happen if there is a mass shooting on campus. Freezing in class happened several times a semester. That time it began with a full body paralysis, including speech. Her inability to speak lasted about 10 minutes, and she called as soon as it was over. When her arms “returned,” she took out a notepad and doodled, and we waited patiently for her legs to return. She had another class in an hour. She hoped to be able to walk again so she could grab something to eat before class. We talked about what was interesting about the lesson that day, she fantasized about what she’ll eat. Fifty minutes later, she said excitedly: I can feel my legs! Thanks for staying on the phone with me Mommy. I love you.
She hung up. I cried.
I firmly believe that my daughter was protected by forces beyond our understanding during those days down there. I firmly believe that my daughter’s training as an athlete helped her to save her own life and to come back from the brink of death itself. I now see why some men who hate women don’t want girls in sports. There are so many times she had to draw on living moment to moment, to stay present, like when she was on that 4” gymnastics beam or on bars, so may times she had to forget pain and move on to the next thing in order to make it through the day, so many times she had to fall and get up and do it again as if she’d never fallen to begin with. Keep going. Stop. Rest. Keep going.