1. October 1990, Fifth Form
One evening around eleven o’clock, a young man called a girl on the phone. This was a few decades ago, and they were students at a boarding school, so he called the pay phone in her dorm from the pay phone in his. Someone answered and pounded up three flights of stairs to knock on the girl’s door. She was not expecting the call. He was a senior—a grade ahead, but a couple of years older—and he was upset. Crying, she thought, but it was hard to tell, because she barely knew him. He said something about his mom, swallowing his words. He wanted the girl’s help. Please.
She knew the senior because she had helped his friends in math class. He’d joked in the hall to her once that maybe she could help him sometime. It had been a surprised that he’d sent his attention her way, and this phone call was a bigger surprise. Something must have happened, she reasoned. Something very bad.
She had no roommate that year and lived across campus from her friends (an unfortunate turn of the school housing lottery). Her parents were a thousand miles west. It will tell you something about her naivete, and maybe her character, that to her the strange specificity of the senior’s request—for her help, and no one else’s—is what made his summons feel important, and true.
[ Return to the review of “Notes on a Silencing.” ]
School rules forbade leaving the dorm at that hour, but she knew, as they all did, how to let the back door close without rattling the latch. She skirted pools of lamplight where campus paths crossed. His room was in shadow. He pulled her up through the window. She landed, in his hands, on a mattress, and she felt and then dismissed surprise—beds could sit beneath windows, of course, there was nothing wrong with that.
His roommate was on the bed too. She didn’t know the roommate at all.
Neither of them had shirts on. Neither of them, she saw, as her eyes adjusted, had pants on.
She said, “What’s wrong?”
They shushed her and gestured toward the wall. Each student dormitory incorporated at least one faculty apartment, where the head of the dorm lived, sometimes with a family. Mr. B’s apartment was right there, they warned. Her voice through the wall would bring him in, blazing.
He would catch her (she realized) after hours in a male dorm with two undressed seniors on a bed.
Suspension. Shame. Her parents’ shame. (College!)
There was a moment while she waited for the one who had called to tell her how she could help him. He pressed her down. When his roommate did this too, she understood that she could not lift these men and would have to purchase her release a different way.
Four hands on her, she said, “Just don’t have sex with me.”
Instead they took turns laying their hips across her face. Their cocks penetrated her throat past the pharynx and poked the soft back of her esophagus, so she had to concentrate to breathe. The repeated laryngeal spasms of her throat—the gag reflex—caused her throat to narrow and grip their dicks rhythmically.
Someone unbuttoned her jeans and stuck his fingers inside her.
When they were finished, she climbed out the window and walked back to her own dorm, keeping to campus roads this time. There were two security guards who patrolled the grounds in a white Jeep. The kids called them Murph and Sarge, and they saw everything. But they did not see her.
She found the door as she’d left it, gently ajar.
After a long shower, she slept.
This happened in the fall of my junior year in high school, when I was, as we said—using the English terms—a fifth former at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. I have told this story, or some version of it, dozens of times since then. I have told it to parents and friends and therapists and boyfriends and lawyers and strangers. I have been recorded telling it to detectives. I have gone years in new cities not telling it at all.
It’s not a remarkable story.
In fact, it’s ordinary. A sexual assault at a New England boarding school. (A boarding school! I was assaulted in privilege; I have survived in privilege.) What interests me is not what happened. I remember. I have always remembered.
What interests me is the near impossibility of telling what happened in a way that discharges its power.
I like to imagine there was a moment, maybe immediately afterward, when my sneakers hit the sandy soil beneath their window and I was free to go, when I might have grabbed the incident by the tail and whipped it around to face me so I could see exactly what was in its eyes.
I had a therapist once, in my early twenties, who suggested that I might describe the event to her and then “never tell it again,” positing a future in which I would have no use for it, which is a way of saying that the assault would have no use for me. She was talking about moving on. I was still mired in the search for remedy.
A note on terms: it took a very long time to find the right name for what happened to me. I was too stunned to think rape when I pleaded with them not to have sex with me, though rape, in the traditional sense, was precisely what I meant to avoid. I had been raised to believe that by every metric, the most serious thing a girl could do was have a penis in her vagina. Not even Mary the mother of Jesus had done that. Certainly I had not. It had not occurred to me what else these two boys might do.
[ Return to the review of “Notes on a Silencing.” ]
Rape was serious, and I thought—and wanted to think—that what happened to me didn’t really count. I did not understand how the boys’ violation was of me, rather than only a part of me; I did not understand that self-esteem and safety weren’t held like treasure between a girl’s legs, but could be plundered in other ways. This conclusion was neatly congruent with my sense of my body and in particular with a wordless marrow urgency that pulsed, in those first days, with forgetting all about it. I had no purchase even on a name.
For years thereafter, I envied the monosyllabic force of the word rape. Say rape, and people get it. People know the telos of the encounter (intercourse) and the nature of the exchange (nonconsensual). Whereas I had no label. I did not think rape applied, and in any case I refused it, as my private way of caring for other girls; I considered it important to reserve the word for those who would use it to describe their own assaults. I meant this as a form of respect.
Twenty-five years after I’d left St. Paul’s, a detective with the Concord Police Department sent me the 1990 New Hampshire criminal statutes. The terms for the penetrative events of that night were felonious sexual assault (because I was under sixteen) and aggravated felonious sexual assault (because I was held down). I found some satisfaction in this clarity, but only some. I read the statutes over and over. Nowhere in them does the word rape appear. Legally, in New Hampshire as in many other jurisdictions, there are only degrees of assault—descending circles of violation. This is a marker of evolving jurisprudence, because the legal term rape originated to describe a violation of property, not person, which is why it applied only to intercourse, and only to women.
I was looking for it, though. I was looking for the word for the worst thing. For the thing that had not quite happened to me, but which would, when it happened to a girl, trigger rescue, awaken the world, summon the cavalry. As an adult I knew better than to think rape would do it, but still I must have believed it was out there. Still.
Assault conjures violence, not violation. Hence the necessary modifier, sexual. But sexual assault puts sex right in the front window, even though the encounter isn’t, to the victim at least, about sex at all, but about cruelty exacted in domination and shame. And this leaves the listener to wonder: if it wasn’t rape, then what exactly went on? Which means a person, however kind and concerned for you, hears the term sexual assault and is left either guessing or trying not to guess which part of you was violated and in what ways or what you did or how far it (you) went.
So, assault. There are also encounter, incident, event, attack, happening, situation, night in question, time in that room. Little-known fact about victims: they can tell whether you believe them by which term you use when you ask what happened to them.
Victim is a whole other kettle of fish.
When I woke up the morning after the assault, my throat hurt. This often happened. We were five hundred teenagers in a New England boarding school dominated by architectural grandeur and mediocre plumbing. The buildings were either icy or boiling. In the cavernous bathrooms, we learned to yell “Flushing!” before the surge of cold water into the john caused every running shower on three floors to scald. Our windows breathed frost. We woke to glazed lawns and ran across them, athletes, with hair that was always wet. We ate like rats at the back of a bakery, arriving in Chapel with buttered bagels in our pockets. We were wealthy (except for the few, obvious, who were not), well-turned, and in the process of refinement, and our homesickness was a small candle beside the hard-banked fires of our own becoming. Our headmaster, the rector, told us from the pulpit that ours was a “goodly heritage.” Senators, bishops, authors, barons, moguls, ambassadors, peerless curators of life of all kinds had preceded us—schoolboys then! We dragged our fingers along the letters of their names, carved in paneled halls.
We were blessed with excellence, and excellently blessed, and our schoolwork and sports teams and choirs and clubs and shoulders thrummed with the Calvinist confidence that is actually a threat: if you do not become spectacular, it means you are not us.
We got sick a lot.
For the most part we ignored it. The ladies at the infirmary, sweet and ineffective, distributed aspirin in pleated cups. I didn’t bother, and anyway, what would I have said? “I was impaled by two dicks, ma’am—may I please have a lozenge?”
My throat got better. I did not tell my friends what had happened. I did not intimate or tease, or do the things people do when they claim to want to keep a secret but really just want to seduce with the lovely shape of their almost-telling. I did not catch the boys’ eyes in Chapel. I did not let myself look for them.
The boys, however, talked.
By supper (which four nights a week we attended in formal attire—suit and tie, dresses or skirts) there were eyes on me that the previous day had been unseeing. It had been a steady source of frustration for me that I was unnoticeable, in spite of the assurances of my parents and friends that I was lovely and so on. I was particularly invisible to the boys whose attentions appealed to me: athletes, mostly, but also the occasional shaggy-haired poetic genius. Now several broad-shouldered seniors were looking at me. This was from across a room crowded with students, and as people passed unknowingly between them and me, I caught shadows of respite from the heat of their eyes.
The tradition after Seated Meal was to gather with coffee or tea in the common room outside the dining halls, a sort of proto-cocktail party training. The boys who had assaulted me were not looking at me, but their teammates stared. These boys’ eyes, when I dared to meet them, were incredulous, afire. It seemed to me the best approach was to map the threat; to determine, with quick surveying glances, which boys knew and which did not. Then I’d simply avoid the ones who knew. In case I was uncertain what they knew, one of them called a word in my direction:
The term hadn’t occurred to me. No term had occurred to me. The event had hardened into wordless granite, silent and immobile, and I intended to go around it.
My friends had not heard. But already I was being asked to admit or deny, so that standing there, saying nothing, willing my aching face to be still, I felt complicit in a lie. A space opened between my friends and me. I could all but hear the crack of ground giving way.
In the days that followed, I watched the news pass from student to student, like that horror movie where the villain hops from stranger to stranger on a city street, awakening in each civil soul a demon.
I understand. School days were long and exhausting, but the claustrophobic nature of boarding school, hothouse that it is, tends toward ennui: every morning, at breakfast, These people again? The nation was at war in the Persian Gulf. The Berlin Wall was coming down. But we at school knew little of anything, since there was only one television in each dorm’s common room, and it was often broken. In any case we had little time for television. No internet. The only cell phone was a satellite phone the size of a woman’s handbag, owned by the son of a scion, and you had to go to his room during visiting hours to check it out. Nothing much was happening. And even if there had been something of interest to discuss on that night or any other at Seated Meal, how often did you have a prudish junior girl, a strawberry-blond chorister who had never had sex or much of a love life at all, just up and cruise to a senior boy’s room around midnight to suck two cocks in one go? It was good stuff. I’d have been talking about it, too.
Another note on terms: the two males might be called boys or men, and I use the words largely interchangeably. They were both eighteen years of age, so legally they were adults. Men. But they were high school students, and in high school we were not men and women but boys and girls. They lived in boys’ dorms and they played on boys’ teams. They were members and, in several cases, between the two of them, captains of the varsity boys’ soccer, football, ice hockey, basketball, and lacrosse teams.
I can’t call them guys because there is a friendly familiarity in the word that evokes a certain forbearance of behavior, as with lads, and I won’t give them that.
Perpetrators does nothing for me. Assaulter is not a word. Attackers is useless because they were not Gauls, and so is accused, because I am not here accusing them, nor have I ever accused them. I eventually talked about what happened in that room, but so did they—long before I did, and in much more salacious terms. Nobody has ever disputed what happened between us, what body part went where. By the time I broke my silence, everybody knew, and everybody believed it was my fault. I thought that a good girl—the one they were accusing me of not being—would agree. My assumption of guilt was my defense against guilt.
Girl works for me. I was fifteen.
[ Return to the review of “Notes on a Silencing.” ]