I was thirteen when my grandmother told me about my mom’s rape. We were sitting at the dining room table at my grandmother’s house playing double solitaire after my mom had gone to bed.
This was unusual. I loved my grandmother, but we weren’t close. She was in her eighties when I was in middle school, and had only recently retired from a fifty-year career as an antiques appraiser. She spoke with an affected accent that made her sound like New England gentry despite spending most of her life in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia. She thought the Stephen King novels I read were ruining my mind. Even if I had felt like having a heart-to-heart with her, it would have been difficult. She was so hard of hearing that when she had her aids in you still had to look her straight in the eye and practically shout to be understood.
I don’t know how the subject of my mother’s rape came up. I do remember that she started by saying, “Don’t ever tell your mother I told you this.”
My mother was in high school. She was out drinking with some friends. At some point she ended up alone with a group of boys. They raped her. They. Plural. My ancient, antiques-obsessed grandmother who never wore gold jewelry because she thought it was tacky used the phrase “gang rape.”
My grandmother didn’t cry as she told me this, but her eyes were wet behind her glasses. “She was just a child,” she said. “She hadn’t even gotten her period yet.”
I was too young, and too confused to ask any questions. The fact that my grandmother and I never had anything close to such a personal conversation made the moment feel fragile. My mother’s personality was a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a cloudless blue sky, and my grandmother had just clicked a small part of it into place. I didn’t want to ruin things or make her regret her confession by reacting the wrong way so I just said, “That’s horrible,” and promised not to tell my mom what I knew.
That year a storm was building in my mother’s life and I was only vaguely aware of the warning signs. She suffered from bipolar disorder and had always been unpredictable. That was one reason I lived with my dad most of the time and only saw her a couple days a week. What I didn’t know was that she was also an alcoholic who had been sober for most of my childhood following years of drinking that were marked by suicide attempts, her divorce from my father, and several failed stints in rehab. When we went to visit my grandmother that time she had already started slipping back into addiction.
I only knew that her behavior had become more erratic. She had forgotten to pick me up from my dad’s a few times. And sometimes when I stayed with her she would spontaneously announce that we were going to my grandmother’s house, making the three hour drive late at night without any regard for whether I had school the next day, a habit I found both unsettling and thrilling. My grandmother, however, must have sensed what was going on. If I had to guess why she confided in me when she did it would be because she knew what it meant to suffer as the loved one of a person in the throes of addiction. Maybe she thought knowing about my mother’s own trauma might help give me a way of understanding the devastation that was to come.
* * *
My mother’s life, and our relationship, fell apart a year after that visit. Her drinking took over, and she lost her job and her apartment. She moved to another state and in with a boyfriend who hit her, but eventually left him and got sober for good. I was proud of her but at that point our relationship was beyond repair. When she died unexpectedly of pneumonia when I was twenty-seven, I had not seen her in two years.
I’ve thought about my mother’s rape and what it meant in the twenty years since I first learned about it, but I never asked her what happened. I kept my grandmother’s secret. Recently though, a couple of things occurred that made me think of my mother and the way women endure trauma.
One is that Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened came out. You don’t even have to like Hillary Clinton to recognize that it’s insane to argue about the first female candidate for President having the temerity to write a book about her experience. This argument wasn’t just between the Right and the Left. In a review of her book titled “Hillary Looks Back in Anger” the editor of the New Yorker David Remnick noted that Clinton “ . . . is not the first candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election. She is the fifth.” He then went on to describe the various ways the other candidates chose to deal with their losses, none of which involved writing a book. Al Gore, for instance, “travelled the world giving lectures and making a documentary about climate change, and, in 2007, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” The implication is clear: Doesn’t she have anything better to do?
The rhetoric surrounding the release of Clinton’s book reminded me so much of the way we talk about women with regards to sexual trauma. Indeed, the story of the election is, among other things, the story of an accused rapist and admitted sexual predator using gender-based attacks, humiliation, and the threat of physical violence to defeat his female opponent. The idea that the woman at the center of this story should be condemned for daring to tell her version of events both disturbed and infuriated me. What message does it send to other women who aren’t as rich, who aren’t as powerful, who aren’t as white, when they see one of the most accomplished women in all of U.S. history being told, essentially, to shut up and go away? Being told that her experiences don’t matter. No one wants to hear about them. No matter that plenty of people do in fact want to hear about them. We live in a society that not only revels in the destruction of women, but wants them to know that if they dare to rise up from the ashes of that destruction there will be someone waiting with a blowtorch ready to set them on fire again.
The same week Hillary’s book came out I heard Kesha’s song “Praying.” It’s the first single off of her new album Rainbow, the first one she’s released since a New York court ruled she would have to honor a contract requiring her to continue putting out music on an imprint of Sony run by a producer named Dr. Luke who she has accused of raping and abusing her.
In its largely positive review of her album, Pitchfork describes “Praying” as “ . . . a pro forma piano ballad . . . It works more as a statement than a song.” I can’t speak to whether “Praying” is technically any good or not. Taken out of context I can see how lyrics like, “After everything you’ve done / I can thank you for how strong I have become” would seem unsophisticated. “Praying” isn’t a generic pop ballad, however. It’s not about learning to love again after a breakup or pursuing your dreams no matter what. It’s a song about abuse, and finding strength not only in its wake, but in the wake of the realization that there won’t be any consequences for your abuser. It’s about finding a way to live with the unbearable truth that even if you’re brave enough to speak out about what’s been done to you, you might still be left alone.
I listened to “Praying” over and over, not knowing at first why it affected me so much. Part of the reason was that the song felt like a further rebuttal to the kind of criticism being leveraged against Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s book and Kesha’s song are more than just examples of women finding a way to turn their pain into art. They’re acts of finding grace in the face of horrible situations, and those who would have women quietly disappear after we’ve been victims of trauma or abuse or misogyny or oppression want to deny us this grace and the power other women can derive from it.
In the midst of all this, I thought about my mother and wondered how she managed to live with what happened to her. Especially after trying, more than once, not to. There was so much I still didn’t know. What happened to the boys that raped her? Were they ever caught? Did she tell anyone when it happened or did she wait until years later? More than anything I wanted to know how being raped affected her. What was she like before and what was she like after?
There was only one person who could answer these questions. My father had died less than two years after my mother did; my grandmother over a decade before. I called my mom’s older sister Maryanne. We had been close when I was younger, but now we rarely spoke. When I asked her about my mother’s rape though she was generous and open. She didn’t ask why I wanted to know or tell me it was too upsetting to talk about.
This is what I learned: My mother was fifteen when she was raped. She’d been pretty and popular, a cheerleader, and had gone to a party with some friends. She’d had too much to drink and went upstairs to a bedroom to lie down. Some older boys from her school, seniors, followed her into the bedroom and raped her.
“It was more than one,” my aunt said. “But I don’t know how many. It could have been two, it could have been a hundred. Well,” she conceded, “it probably wasn’t a hundred.”
Her friends had taken her home. She’d made them promise not to tell anyone what happened. She didn’t tell anyone for a year, but Maryanne said it was obvious something was wrong. She stopped going to school and my grandmother was frustrated because she couldn’t make her, not knowing it was because my mother didn’t want to face her rapists in the halls every day or all of the other kids who knew what had happened. Eventually she confided in Maryanne, but she would never say who had done it. Her friends wouldn’t either. One of them was at my father’s funeral. Maryanne said she had asked her if, after all these years she would tell her who had raped my mother, and she refused.
My mother started going to a psychiatrist, but she wouldn’t talk about the rape and he didn’t encourage her to.
I asked Maryanne if she was different after it happened, if it changed her personality.
“Yes,” Maryanne said. “She was sad all the time.” Before she was raped, she had been happy and funny, full of life. After is when she started drinking all the time, ruining family functions.
“I know you and your mother didn’t have an easy relationship,” Maryanne said, “but I want you to know she was a wonderful person.”
I know how wonderful my mother was. She was emotionally volatile in a way that often made me feel like she was the child and I was the adult. She called me names when she got mad at me and would even lock herself in her room. But she also tucked notes into the lunches she packed for me with cartoons she drew of the two of us and her cat Winston. Her kitchen wall was papered with drawings I made and tests I got As on that she’d helped me study for. I was hurt so badly when she fell apart only because I adored her so much.
Maryanne told me that in the years before my mother died she started seeing a female therapist who specialized in women’s issues who she trusted enough to talk to about her rape. I’d sometimes wondered how she found the strength to get sober again when she did, after she’d lost so much. Discovering that opening up to someone about her rape played such a big part in her recovery shed light on a period of my mother’s life that had been enshrouded in darkness. It gave me an understanding of her I had not had before. It also gave me an understanding of how powerful finding a way to recount our experiences to others can be.
For women, the society we live in is not going to give us peace or justice. The people who hurt us will likely not be punished and too often we will lose even when we’re right. Things will be done to us that have the power to shatter our souls and we have to look everywhere we can for evidence that we can come through them unbroken. My mother lost a lot because of what happened to her, but she didn’t lose everything. In the end, she had her sobriety and the grace and self-respect that allowed her to attain it. And now her daughter has the example she set. Of a woman who told her story, who didn’t keep quiet, who survived.