It’s my turn. 24 years later, I am ready to share: It happened to me, too.
I’m not talking about unwelcome sexual advances from a colleague or superior. Nor a stomach-turning catcall that gives you the heebie-jeebies if you are walking a New York City street alone. No. I was raped.
Deep down, I always knew I would write about this, but didn’t know when I would feel ready. Instead I questioned the point of revisiting it. I’m over it, right… right? Rehashing that night, I worried, would hurt my parents, my husband, my kids, and even — get this — the accused. Yup, I even protected him. Because I’m still Facebook friends with his brother. And he has kids of his own. Lest they should know the truth about dad.
It happened on Friday, April 1st, 1994, the spring of my freshman year at Columbia, the same night as the college campus “Take Back the Night” vigil. That’s right, I was raped while fellow classmen and women marched outside my dorm room window chanting for change in the prevention and treatment of campus sexual assault. It was the night of April Fool’s Day and the joke was on me.
It started at a “DG” (Delta Gamma) party. Fraternities and sororities were not the norm on campus, with less than 10% of students of students going Greek at the time. But my friend Carrie, a high school friend who I got closer to when we went to college together, had just pledged or been admitted. And if there was such a thing as a cool sorority at Columbia, this was it.
I can’t remember what the party was in honor of — probably something silly and gratuitous like the advent of spring or a belated Mardi Gras theme. Regardless, it was at your basic Upper East side bar with dim lighting, slick and slimy dark wood floors and lots of backward baseball caps. When you walked in and paid up, you were handed a bright red 16oz Solo cup which was refillable all night long, like a big, shiny red ticket to oblivion. Bottomless drinking was a novelty for a college first-year, just that much newer than drinking itself and doing your own laundry. It was the time in life when Long Island Iced Teas seemed sophisticated, and you ordered drinks with lame names like “Sex on the Beach” and “Alabama Slammer” to sound cool, ignorant to the fact that you weren’t impressing anyone, but rather just annoying the bartender.
I recognized a few people at the party, said “hello” to gaggles of really excited girls both in and out of the sorority. But I hung mostly with Carrie, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother John who was in town for the weekend, visiting his little bro for from his own predatory perch at Boston College. The party was dark and fast and loud, with flashes of light. I won’t discuss what I or others wore because, despite what Mayim Bialik wrote in The New York Times, it doesn’t fucking matter what I wore.
We ended the night at the West End. To be clear, ALL nights ended at the West End. I remember sitting at a large table with new friends and old. Specifically, I remember sitting on John’s lap, drunkenly jabbering away, while Carrie and Chris poked fun at our instant coupling. I remember leaving and John walking me to my freshman dorm room, which was two floors above Chris and Carries’, who were hallmates.
I remember walking in the door and then nothing else until … waking up, He was on top of me, and I realized as I reached down to check if my underwear was still on, inside of me. I remember pleading “No,” and “Stop,” but I passed out again. Then I was jolted awake by the most unbelievable pain — who knows how many minutes or hours later. I was face down on my stomach and John was on top of me, thrusting. To this day I don’t know if I was being penetrated anally or vaginally. I remember screaming that I was in pain and wanted him to stop, but what else I said specifically, I can’t remember. I think this always made me feel like I was a less-than witness to my own violation, given I couldn’t remember my exact protestations. Mostly, I was just whimpering in pain and yelling “Stop,” though I remember not being able to hear myself scream. And then I passed out again.
The next thing I know I woke up. The cold, very sober light of morning was pouring in. John was standing directly above me, buckling his belt. He looked pleased, if uncertain, with himself. I couldn’t place him at first, but I caught up quickly. He walked to the door and mumbled something about the evening being fun and then said/smirked, very clearly, so I could always remember, “I guess I’ll see you … Never?” And then he disappeared, though he’s been with me, in some form or fashion for the past 24 years. Not always, of course, but he—or rather, it — comes to mind at the strangest moments.
Some moments make perfect sense. I recently saw The Hunting Ground, CNN’s amazing campus rape documentary with Lady Gaga’s haunting, personal anthem “Til it Happens to You.” I watched it while my husband was out for dinner with friends, because, for some reason I felt I had to watch alone. And of course I cried because it was raw and real and because my perspective was two-fold: I wasn’t just a fellow survivor but I was now a mom, wanting to reach through the screen and hug and help these brave girls. And I got mad at myself for not speaking up at the time or doing anything to make sure he never got away with something like this again. Because chances are, he tried. Terms like “date rape” were just entering our lexicon when I was their age. (I didn’t call it rape at the time because I knew him, however vaguely. So I compromised with the term “date rape,” even though that felt odd, given it was far from a date. I have always been literal.)
I was a virgin. Now that I look back, I think I was too precious with my virginity. I had a boyfriend named Pablo my senior year of high school, who I genuinely loved. I met him at a high school summer program at Cornell the summer before senior year and we stayed together. I broke up with him a few weeks before my senior prom, when we were supposed to “do it” — I suspect because we were supposed to do it. And the really lame love poetry he wrote this judgy 17 year-old didn’t help. (Up until I was married, whenever something went awry romantically in my life, my mother, who adored Pablo, would intimate it was karma for how I unceremoniously tossed Pablo. ) The point was that this visiting frat-boy nobody took what I, in my precious perfectionism, was too hesitant to give a year earlier. I wished in vain that I had lost my virginity to Pablo, my true first love, the year before, so John didn’t have that added notch on his crown.
Later that day, a stunned Carrie, John’s brother’s girlfriend, suggested we go to the campus health center to get me something called a morning-after pill. She sat with me in the waiting area, trying to be comforting, while also feeling protective of her boyfriend and I suppose privately concerned what this might do to their relationship (He was in fact very upset with his brother and apologetic on his behalf. I will always respect him in some way for that). And there was the AIDS test, the results of which took an excruciatingly long time to get back.
That night, a Saturday, I hung out with my best friend from my freshman year, Greta, and her friend Eric, her best friend from high school who was visiting from San Diego. We watched a movie in her room — I couldn’t bare to be in mine. (The cum-stained sheets, a stain I had just learned to identify, were downstairs drying in the laundry room). Eric had no idea what had happened the night before, only that I was puffy with dried tears and needed cheering up. I remember he was drinking a “forty” and passed me the bottle, offering a sip, but not before jokingly confirming, “You don’t have herpes. Do you?” to which I responded, “We don’t know yet.” And that’s what I did for years to come: I joked, I minimized. I buried it.
At the time, I don’t think I knew what avenues were supposedly available to me — besides calling the police, which felt overwhelming and out of scale. Calling 911 seemed overly dramatic: Was this an emergency? I decided the over-and-doneness of it made it less so. Also, as a freshman still figuring out who I was and wanted people to see, I didn’t want this to be my thing, what I was known for.
And I didn’t want to hurt my family. I was protecting them from the pain, but I had convinced myself I was also protecting them from themselves. Specifically, I didn’t want my father to know because I didn’t want his retribution to get him in trouble: Once, when my sister was in college, she alerted him (actually, her step-dad) that her boyfriend had punched her. I remember the phone call vividly. Because I remember my dad getting off the phone in a state of anger I had never witnessed in him. He muttered something about getting a crew from his factory together to accompany him to “visit” this boy, like he was some kind of gangster, instead of a local, legitimate Jewish businessman. My ever-responsible mother stopped him in his fiery, irrational tracks. And that was “just” a hit. What about a total violation of his daughter from the inside-out? I wasn’t sure what he would do.
I have been mistreated sexually since. There was the lobbyist who was a good friend of a great friend. We were seated next to one another at our mutual friend’s 40th birthday dinner. I laughed off his flirtations which turned into unwelcome advances, which became more forceful the more he drank. When we all moved to the restaurant’s lounge, he graduated to slipping a cigar between my legs Lewinsky-Clinton style to show me exactly what he was after. (The subtlety of politicians). I should have slapped the shit out of him.
I’ve been cat-called, grabbed by the arm whilst walking down the street by a man who wanted to relay his opinion of my appearance, and experienced a work harassment incident, my response to which I feel was emboldened by the “never again” attitude I acquired after my most egregious violation decades earlier. All my friends have stories like these. But what happened on April 1, 1994 feels more than a #MeToo moment: The distinction between harassment and straight-out assault does matter even if I know and appreciate that it is a movement intended to shed light on a shared, dangerous culture — the same culture that kept me quiet twenty-four years ago.
Damn, I wish I had spoken up then. Maybe I would feel like less of a hyprocrite, given I pride myself on being a strong, outspoken woman. Maybe I wouldn’t, at dark, hard moments, do Google searches on this man or look at his Facebook profile, disappointed to see from his profile pictures that he only has sons — no daughters. Because having a daughter would be the only poetic justice I can think of, in the absence of my speaking up back then. Mabye it would force this man and father to look, uncomfortably, at what he did to another father’s daughter.
I know Matt Damon got in trouble for saying his empathy for sexual assault and harassment victims was magnified by virtue of having daughters of his own. And while I think it’s a stupid thing for a man to say, especially one who most likely stayed silent himself, like a de-facto accomplice, while his friends and colleagues were harassed by their mutual boss, I do think having daughters makes men see the world a little differently, finally get an inkling what it is like to be an “other.”
Anyway, I don’t want pity. I speak up now for my daughter and son. Even though I have no way of protecting my daughter from something similar, I can share with her, when it is appropriate, what happened to her mother. And hope she listens to her mother when she warns that drinking can have dangerous consequences (though, let’s face it, she could be overpowered, drunk or sober). And my son will have a cautionary tale he will never forget — to never take what isn’t his, or allow a friend to get away with it, lest he be like John.