I felt the foot as it thrust between my legs and rammed over and over and over again into my crotch. I was lying on my back in the dirt. Strands of my long hair pulled from their roots under the weight of my body as my torso was forced forward. My head was tethered. My neck bent back nearly to its limit.
I felt the shoe. No one had touched me there before.
There wasn’t just one. They took turns. Chuck Taylors, Hush Puppies, Wallabies. The Waffle Stompers were the worst. They hurt.
It all hurt. Did no one hear me screaming? Was that even possible? There was a parade of people walking by. There were people all around.
I cried for help. My voice was my only defense as they held my arms and penetrated my dignity. Their grubby hands were on my breasts. They squeezed, and grabbed, and pinched, and wrung the newly mounded flesh.
They tore the pink bow off the center of my first bra. A metaphoric deflowering.
It happened every day that spring. Every day after lunch they chased me down the hall to the exit door that led to an uphill path to the playground. When we got outside they grabbed my arms and pulled and groped. My resistance was no match for their single-mindedness. They jerked me to the ground for their ease and to let the hill give them cover. Eventually, they dragged me to a more concealed spot behind the building. Still, the cover was not absolute.
Every day more than 200 school children followed the same route down the hall from the cafeteria, out the door, and up the hill to the playground. At least some of them must have seen something – or heard – or told their parents.
There were adults – teachers and parents on lunch duty. There were visitors. Someone had to have seen me struggling. They had to have heard me screaming even above the cacophony of 200 children playing.
Distress makes a different sound.
It is not possible to ignore cries for help. You notice and then choose how you will react. You look up. You look in the direction of the noise. You decide.
There were dozens of witnesses to my molestation. There were dozens of people who saw or heard a gang-perpetrated serial sexual assault. They decided to look away.
I was 12. The gang were my classmates – catholic school boys. We were 7th graders. We lived in Portland, Oregon in 1972.
Like the boys who sought cover behind the school building, these acts hid in the shadows of my memory until last spring when I was invited to an event that could have brought me face-to-face with some of my former classmates, and with some of my attackers. The invitation was like a spotlight that cast its beam on the unwitting secret and called it out.
At first the memories were obscured by the glare of immediacy, but now, having sat with them – having sat with the 12-year-old me – the experiences are present, and I am communicating with them.
I don’t remember exactly how it affected me then. I know it was ubiquitous, but I don’t remember nightmares or fear. I don’t remember anger or self-pity or hatred. I recall incredulity. It was much the same as that which I feel now.
My friend and I had attempted to escape the ritual by taking an alternative route from the cafeteria. We walked up the main staircase and tried to exit the building through the front door. We were met by a nun who turned us around. I remember trying to tell her what was happening. I remember my friend trying. I know that I got out the words, “they’re attacking me,” but she wouldn’t hear. She pointed us back down the stairs, back to the long hallway, back to the torture.
Eventually we fled the madness by volunteering to wash tables in the cafeteria after lunch. It gave us a reason to stay in. Even now, I can smell the stale water we carried with us in a gallon-sized pail. I can see 16 tan-colored tables set against the concrete floor. I can feel my knee pressing into the bench and the side of the table hitting my hips as I bent to reach across it with the smelly rag.
It is forty-six years later and there is a haze around some of the details. I remember a “gang” of seven or eight or nine – about half the boys in the class. Some of them I can name. Most of them had been my classmates since the first grade. I distinctly remember two boys who never participated: Chris and James. Chris spoke up at least once and told them to leave me alone. There were others who stayed away too, who walked up the hill to the spot assigned for 7th grade boys on the playground. But even then, what was taking place was not beyond their line of sight. Why didn’t they tell?
So much about this is unknowable. Each of us has our own truth and none of us has an infallible memory. The boys have become men and soon they will grow old. Many of them have daughters. Some of their daughters have daughters. All of them will be 12.
The part that I cannot shake, the question that will not leave me alone is why no one spoke up, why no one did anything, why no one paid attention to my screams.
Why didn’t I matter more?
I’ve also asked these questions of myself. After the nun in the hallway turned us away, I don’t remember ever trying to tell anyone else. I never told my parents. I can only speculate about why.
As I look back with the sum of my life’s experience, I can reason through the questions. I can apply the filters of education, trauma training, parenthood, empathy, and spiritual knowing to give shape to the formless and to attribute meaning to the senseless. I can use my mind to reconcile the experience but, in the depths of my soul, I can only weep for the girl who grew up wondering why she didn’t matter.
She protected herself by disconnecting from the fact of her assault. When the boys had finished and moved on to kickball, her friend helped to pull her up off the ground, brush her off, and straighten her clothing. Then the two of them made their way to the assigned spot for 7th grade girls on the playground. No one ever said anything. It was as if being on the blacktop at the top of the hill wiped out what had just happened in the dirt and weeds and dead grass below. They all disconnected.
She detached so she could connect. She wanted her classmates to be her friends. She was shy and awkward and wanted to fit in. She was at the peak of puberty, but very naïve. She did not fully comprehend the indignity they were inflicting. Some of the boys were popular. She wanted them to like her.
She had to face them daily, to interact with them in class, and line up with them when they went to mass. It was the year of their Confirmation – the third sacrament they would receive together, the last one before marriage, the one in which they would stand before Christ and accept the full responsibility of membership in the Church. She disconnected so that when the noon-hour was done, she could process with them by single-file line across the playground and into the sanctuary to prepare for the sacred celebration.
By the time they exited that same sanctuary a year later, prepared to enter high school, the fact of the gang-perpetrated serial sexual assault had been folded into the fabric of their past. For most of them it would disintegrate. For her it would remain – like a persistent scratchy tag at the back of her shirt – to let her know that she ought not to trust, or to rely on others. It reminded her that she was inappreciable, not significant enough to matter.
In the four years that followed, she would see her attackers from time to time in passing, at church, at dances or football games. They went to different high schools and there was no need for them to interact. When she did see them, she attributed to her shyness the fact that her body felt strange – that she became nervous and wanted to hide. Her mind had detached from what they had done so that she could move on, but her body remembered everything.
It was her body that reacted to the invitation which threatened to bring her back into proximity with them. It took another day or two before the images reappeared – before I could see her and acknowledge that she was me.
At first, I was shocked at how vivid it all seemed. Then it became bewildering. I could see the events in cross-section – snapshots of depth and detail in which I was present, but that were separate from me. Another part felt intensely close – like an appendage, an extension of me that had always been there, but which I had not been able to fully perceive. It was a rudder that steered me, without my consent, beyond the bounds of my natural inclination toward introversion and into the territory of self-protection and isolation.
I had internalized a horrid experience which informed me, in the quiet beneath my awareness, that those who were supposed to be friends could not be trusted and that those who should be protectors would turn away. The boys who attacked me over and over again in the spring of 1972 stole from me the essence of relationship, they took away my experience of knowing the freedom of “you and me.”
Because of what you did, I was always playing defense. Because of what you did, I stood behind a wall, alone in a crowd. Because of what you did, I questioned my worth and worthiness. Because of what you did, I always felt dirty.
I was led by a vacuous truth. Because of where we lived, because of who we were, because of how and by whom we were taught, I accepted it.
In the recall, in knowing that I was once the victim of a gang-perpetrated serial sexual assault, I am liberated.
The invitation I received last spring was to an event that was scheduled to take place at our old elementary school. The association was most likely the catalyst for my recall. When I stand beside the 12-year-old me, I am overcome by tenderness. She is raw and sensitive and vulnerable. She is resilient. I am awed by her strength and perseverance. Her tenacity carried her through. Perhaps against the odds, she grew up well. She has known personal and professional success. She has five children and a partner with whom she zigs and zags through the curves of life.
Sometimes she still fights to be seen.
How ironic that I was jolted into remembering by the very thing that she had so desperately wanted 46 years earlier: to be included.
I feel deep sorrow for a time and place which I would rather remember with fondness. I can still feel the warmth of other spring days, I can see the blue sky, I can hear the happy sounds, and feel the laughter ringing at my core. I can feel the touch of my mother’s hand as we walked together into that great big classroom on the very first day of school in 1965. I remember how, over the years, that classroom grew smaller. I grieve for the innocence.
There are so many things that happen over the course of a lifetime to influence our thoughts and actions, and which combine with our innate traits, genetics, and generations to make us who we are. The spring of 1972 has chased me across nearly five decades, but it has not defined me. I am fortunate.
I am saddened for all those 12- and 13-year-old kids. We were boys and girls, not yet suggestions of the adults we were to become. Then, our influences were few. There was no Internet, no cable TV. Phones were fixed to walls and were compatible with a solitary use.
We were products of the environment that held us. It was nurturing and punitive, easy and exacting, free and bound. Our milestones were celebrated by ceremony and our difficulties shrouded in secrecy. Each of us was the product of where, within our environment, we stood. Sometimes our positions shifted. I wonder if mine had been different, whether someone would have spoken up, or whether it would have happened at all.
The choices we made as children were motivated by that which came naturally but were informed most fully by the authorities in our lives. Our authority figures were swayed by their own histories and by the zeitgeist, which in 1972, was itself confused by rhetoric and vice. The Commandments that we were made to memorize were conveniently set aside for pertinacious views. Respect was determined by rank. Those who taught us were subjugated beneath the force of the hierarchs who were themselves beholden to the dark.
While it would be nearly two decades before we would know how deep that darkness was, our being had long been intertwined with the scourge of pedophilia among our parish priests.
I do not know what may have happened in the lives or in the homes of the boys who felt free to attack me and I am making no assertions. I accept that I will never know why some grasped unequivocally that they should not participate, while others were driven without pause. I do know that sexual assault, at any age, is outside of the bounds of typical behavior.
In 1972, there were separate rules for boys and girls, and different measures of propriety. While I don’t believe that even then it would have been thought right for a group of boys to assault a girl, it was routine to assume that the girl had encouraged it, had wanted it. Holding on to such a fallacy made it possible – permissible – to look away from the predation. In this case, to let it continue unabated, at the expense of a 12-year-old, 7th grade girl.
What happened in the spring of 1972 will remain indelibly etched in my body and my mind. As much as I may wish to, I cannot turn back the clock. I am grateful for the memory as it has solved a few mysteries and laid to rest old ghosts. I expect that it will take some time for the events to find their way properly into the past. Right now, they are front and center and stirred by current events.
The headlines of the day make me question whether we have progressed at all or if we have simply changed the way we speak to accommodate the illusion of tolerance, equity, and rightfulness. My heart aches at the prospect.
I have always approached my world with curiosity and wonder. I will remain curious and forever wonder how this could have happened and why it was allowed to go on.
When I think of my classmates, I hope that we have all advanced since 1972. I survived the assault, but I believe that in a way we were all casualties of time and circumstance. I hope that we have all done better in our adult lives and with our own children.
Just as these events did not define me, I do not believe they were defining moments for the boys who chose to take part. That does not mean they do not bear responsibility for their actions, nor does it imply that I feel culpable in any way. I am sorry for us all.