I am six years old, lying across my mother’s lap on the sofa watching the soaps. We love our soap operas. Tonight it’s Knot’s Landing and I’ve just learned a new word.
“Mommy, what’s rape?”
“Mommy, you hear me? They just said Paige was raped. What’s that mean?”
She blinks, takes a breath, but doesn’t move. Not her hands, not her mouth. She’s completely still. I think it must be a complicated word because she’s thinking so hard about its definition. I sit up so I can see her better. I’m starting to suspect that she doesn’t know what it means when she says, “It’s when someone is forced to have sex.”
I feel uneasy. Like I’ve been tricked. I’ve never met a word that could suck all the air out of the room before. All my words are nice and friendly. Not that one. Nope, that one is hard and just hearing it aloud hurt my mommy’s feelings. I don’t like this word, rape.
“Come here baby girl, let me show you something.”
I’m eight years old now and my father turns off the television. He pushes the sofa back to make room for what he’s about to show me. He asks me if I want to learn some karate.
Of course I do! I am his daughter after all. The daughter of a Air Force veteran who has a black belt in karate, browses gun magazines on his down time, and makes his own bullets. Of course I want to learn karate.
The lesson begins with how to deliver the proper punch then moves on to round-house kicks. Teaching really isn’t his skill and he finally resorts to something short and sweet.
“If anybody messes with you knee them in the balls.”
I’m tempted to ask him what are balls just to see him blush but I nod instead.
“And if they come up behind you, just shove your elbow in their side.”
It’s 1993 and I’m in third grade. Swinging back and forth, higher and higher on the playground swings. A girl from my class in school comes over. We are not friends. She’s something of a bully. I jump off the swings and a boy who is lingering nearby makes a comment about me. It’s mean and I have no intention of letting him get away with it.
Now he’s really riled up because other kids are now watching our little exchange. His pride is on the line. The verbal sparring escalates. He wants to fight me. I’ve never had a fight before in my life. He pulls back his fist and hits me right in the eye. The pain comes second to the shock but that doesn’t matter because their big sister mad shows up and takes over. She hauls off and socks him dead in his eye. He’s backing away now. Saying all sorts of things but they’re just for show. He’s gone now.
The girl who was not my friend and a bit of a bully comes over. She puts her hand on my shoulder and says, “Don’t cry. You did good. Don’t cry.”
I’m a young lady now. A preteen. I don’t go to church every Sunday like some people but this Sunday I’m visiting a friend and she goes to church absolutely every single Sunday. It’s a small church, the kind where everybody knows everybody’s name. They sing songs. None of them sound familiar. The preacher rattles on about something but I’m bored and not paying attention.
The service is over. I thank God for that. Now we can leave.
My friend’s mother is chatting with some members of the congregation but I convince myself that if I just step outside it’ll magically make her conversation shorter. The sun blinds my eyes so I don’t take the first steps down. I’m standing on the stoop looking out at the parking lot. My friend looks up at me. She smiles and walks across the parking lot towards me. Maybe she came outside for the same reason I did.
No. The boy she likes is there. He’s teasing her. Chasing her around the gravel lot. I think they’re crazy. Not so much him, since he’s a boy. Boys don’t worry about falling and getting dirty.
I glance back into the church and her mom is still busy talking. A man comes out to stand with me on the stoop. It’s the boy’s father. I’m impressed with myself that I remember this fact since I haven’t officially met the man.
I glance at my friend who is desperately trying to stop giggling as she attempts to outrun this boy that she has a crush on. She’s not fast enough. He catches her, grabs her by the collar of her dress, and pulls her backwards. I gasp, thinking she’s going to fall but she regains her balance. But he doesn’t want to let her go. He’s got a grip on her dress with one hand and pounding his fist into her back with the other hand.
I can’t speak for what seems like an hour. The mad girl in my head has already run down the steps screaming and put some kung fu on his religious behind. But I’m not her. I can’t move.
“STOP!” I scream from my perch. My heart is pounding. I’m sweating bullets. “STOP HITTING HER!”
She flinched, thrusting her chest out so her shoulders are almost touching, as the beating becomes more intense. She says nothing.
I remember the man. The man standing next to me watching as his son attacks my friend.
“MAKE HIM STOP!”
But he says nothing. Does nothing.
Sixth grade class field trip. The school bus rocks from side to side, lurching to sudden stops. We’re trapped in the midst of downtown traffic but we don’t care. We’re shooting the breeze and having a good time. One of my classmates shares with us some advice her mother gave her.
“If a man ever tries to rape you, don’t fight it. He gets off on the struggle so when you don’t, he’ll get bored and leave you alone. There was a story in the newspaper about a girl who survived an attack this way. My mom says this way you won’t get raped and killed,” she said.
I want to reply, “Or…how about option C? I kick his ass and it’s over before it starts.” But I didn’t.
It’s not pretty so I understand folks’ reluctance to talk openly about domestic violence. Part of it comes from a helplessness that we all feel about the issue. Whether we’re in the situation ourselves or we’re watching someone we love go through it, it’s hard to believe that we can make a difference. That we can change it for the better. But we can. We must. For my sake, for yours. For our daughters and granddaughters. Have the conversations. Be honest. Tell your story and inspire someone else to tell theirs. Silence never solves anything.