I was sexually assaulted three times before I was 20. Here’s why I never told my family or the police.
Illustration by Robert Donnelly.
It could have been much worse. None of the three people who molested me when I was young was a predatory pedophile like Jerry Sandusky. What I went through was brief and sadly common. It’s estimated, though no one knows the actual numbers, that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they reach 18. What happened shook me up at the time, but my experiences weren’t shattering. I didn’t repress the memories—I’ve just never given them much thought. But the trial of Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, has made me think more deeply about what was done to me and what I did in response.
As Dear Prudence, I always urge people to report any sexual abuse. Removing the secrecy takes the shame from the victim and puts the blame on the perpetrator. Exposure is the way to stop repeat offenders. But I never told anyone back then. Even with the benefit of hindsight, considering the world in which these events took place—from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s—and the family in which I lived, I still understand my choice.
The first incident was when I was about 9 years old and I was sleeping over at my cousins’ house. I was particularly close to one cousin, a girl my age. She had a brother who was about 14. Somehow he and I ended up lying on the floor alone together, watching TV. He started gently tickling my feet. “Doesn’t that feel good?” he asked. It did. He slowly moved his fingers up my legs, and when he got past my knees I started to become uneasy and told him to stop. He said the “tickling game” felt much better the higher up it went. (I note that Victim 6 in the Sandusky trial testified that the coach’s first approach was to call himself “the tickle monster.”) I tried to take my cousin’s hand off me, but he kept creeping upward, telling me how good it would feel if he went all the way between my legs.
By this time I knew something bad was happening and told him no more tickling. But he became more insistent. Holding me down with one hand, he got his other between my legs and pushed my underpants aside. I broke away from his grasp and ran out of the room. I joined my female cousin in her bedroom, and normal life resumed.
The idea of putting these deeds into words and telling my parents—or his—seemed worse than what happened. I knew it would make the adults angry and possibly cause a fissure between our families. Maybe he would say I asked him to tickle me and I was lying about the rest. I saw my male cousin many more times during my childhood, but he never tried to touch me again. Eventually our two families drifted apart, and I’ve had no contact with him in years. He did end up being sentenced to three years in prison, but it was for a white-collar crime, not sexual abuse.
The next event came when I was 15, a freshman in high school. I was at the house of a friend, “Diane.” We had been doing homework together, and it was time for me to go. It was winter, cold and dark, so her father offered to give me a ride. He was a quiet man, a bit of a nebbish, and on the brief ride we talked innocuously about school. He pulled up just short of the driveway to my home, turned off the engine, then turned to face me. His voice choked with emotion, he started babbling about how men have sexual needs. If a man’s wife won’t have sex, he said, that leaves him angry and frustrated. I knew I should just open the door, but I was so shocked that I froze. Then he lunged at me, a hand on each breast, his face pressed to mine. I pushed him away, got out of the car, and ran into my house.
Again, I didn’t say anything. Diane’s dad was the kind of man my father, a former college boxer, had contempt for. I imagined that if I told my father, he wouldn’t call the police but instead would go to Diane’s house and punch her father in the face. That would make things unpleasant in school the following day. A part of me thought her father was pathetic. High school boys were more adept at making passes.
For years my memory of that episode stopped at my front door, as if the whole thing were just a brief snippet of video that then goes blank. But of course that wasn’t the end. Diane and I remained friends through high school, and we were at each other’s houses many times. Sandusky’s lawyers have tried to impugn the credibility of the victims by pointing out that their testimony is sometimes more detailed than the accounts they first gave to the grand jury. Victim 7 explained, “Talking about different events and through talking about things in my past, different things have triggered different memories.” I know exactly what he means. Thinking about it this week, I remembered for the first time in years that Diane’s father continued to offer me rides. I always refused unless she came along, as she often did.
One night her father said he’d drive me home, and Diane said she’d join us, so I said yes. Her father turned to Diane and said she needed to stay home and finish her homework. She protested that she only had a little reading left and wanted to come. He became adamant, which was out of character for him, insisting that she stay home. I had already accepted the ride, so I would have to get out of it somehow if Diane didn’t come. Diane’s mother seemed to sense something was amiss. She said firmly, to her husband’s clear frustration, that Diane was to come along with me. Did she suspect what her husband was up to? Did she know?
The last incident was not child abuse, because I was no longer a minor, though I was still a teenager of 18 or 19. Several years earlier, my family had worked for the election of our congressman, Father Robert Drinan, an anti-Vietnam War, pro-choice priest. He was in town for a fundraiser or town meeting, and I went. Afterward he offered me a ride to the subway. (You’d think I would have learned.) He was in his 50s, and as he drove we chatted about college. We got to where he was letting me off, he turned off the engine, and he began jabbering incoherently about men and women. Then he lunged, shoving his tongue in my mouth while running his hands over my breasts and up and down my torso. It seems like the set-up for a joke, a Jewish woman being molested by a Jesuit. As we tussled, I had probably the most naïve thought of my life: “How could this be happening, he’s a priest!”