Shaming the Shameless
As I read Kay’s O’Brien’s article: A Player Raped Me, And I’ll Be Silent No Longer (The NYTimes June 27th,) I — as I suspect too many other women — identified with her story. And while, unlike Ms. O’Brien, I was lucky enough not to have my career and life altered by the rape and its aftermath, I know how you can escape into mind-numbing nothingness during an attack, all the while wondering if you stupidly did something to bring it upon yourself.
In 1963, not wanting a lovely evening to end, I invited my date up for coffee. A kiss would have been welcomed, as that’s where I stopped on a first date in those years. But instead of a response to “Do you take milk?” he came at me, fury emitting from his every pore. He tore at my clothes and dragged me to the sofa. The combination of throat constricting fear and guilt that I could have possibly “led him on” prohibited me from calling out to my roommate in the next room. (She, a virgin at 29, already viewed me as being “loose” for not being one at 23.) He did not penetrate; he had micropenia. And because of that I rationalized his behavior. Insane, in retrospect, for if I had resisted, he would probably have beaten me to a pulp. It took a long time before I could tell anyone what had happened.
Painful as it was to read Ms. O’Brien’s story, the paragraph that struck home did not have to do with her rape and its aftermath, but what occurred when, after 18 years of agonizing silence, she finally opened up to two men with whom she was close. ““But you really couldn’t get away?” they asked, words that felt like a knife cutting through her. Words that added more pain to an already traumatizing event. The words that added to a different type of trauma came from my mother.
When I was thirteen my parents acceded to my desire for a nose job. In 1951 there was still a stigma attached to plastic surgery not to mention that I should have been deemed too young for such an operation. But as I was convinced that my large nose lay at the root of my lack of friends, lack of boyfriends, just basically “lack,” I nagged until I got my way. (We’ll skip over my father’s telling me I’d be pretty if my nose didn’t obliterate my eyes.) Anyway, a plastic surgeon who happened to be a card playing friend of the family offered his services gratis and we were off.
After multiple needles filled with Novocain, I lay fully awake fantasizing about my new life as “Uncle” Murray sawed and hammered away. When he said my nose was finished, I moved to jump off the table only to be shoved back down and watch as he pointed another needle at my face. “What are you doing?” I cried. “I’m fixing your chin,” he said. “But there’s nothing wrong with my chin,” I screamed struggling to push him. But he and his nurse strapped me down. No amount of screaming, “Please don’t!” stopped him. Admittedly, this was not a rape. But it certainly was a violation of my being. Whether he had my parents’ permission, I will never know as incredibly I never asked.
On the way home, in the backseat of the car a towel over my face, I told my mother what had occurred. “Just don’t tell anyone, dear,” she said. “No one has to know.” And for the next thirty years, I who am known for not holding back personal information, told not a soul. Not my first therapist. Not the classmate who noticed the scar under my chin. (I said I’d poked myself with a fork and she smirked.) No one! My parents gave my “uncle” two expensive handmade suits in payment and nothing more was said. Until, that is, thirty years later when I felt something growing in my chin. Convinced that the cartilage was turning cancerous, I decided to “confess” to my dentist. Too embarrassed to tell him directly, over forty-five minutes (seriously) I choked out what was in my chin to the hygienist. Incredibly she listened without judgment. Simply took an X-ray to see what if anything was going on and smiled benevolently when it turned out to be a pimple. One that obviously needed to be excoriated both psychically and physically.
Once my secret was out, the floodgates opened. I had to find out if people would accept me as I was or if in their eyes, I was spoiled goods. A sham. My looks a lie. “I had work done on my chin,” I said. ‘So?” their response until I called a couple whom I gave all the details. “Is that bastard still alive?” the husband asked and when I said he wasn’t, this wonderful man exploded. “If he were, I’d take a gun and shoot him.” I hung up and called my mother repeating my friend’s words that if he were alive, I’d kill him. Thirty years later, without missing a beat, she uttered the words I’d internalized: “As long as nobody knows, dear.”
Shame is soul-scorching. It festers even when we have nothing to be ashamed about.