My high school boyfriend backhanded me on prom night. The force of the blow made my nose bleed and my head throb. I was so stunned I didn’t utter a sound. I just sat there, holding my nose shut and letting the tears stain my white dress.
I never told anyone at the time. I blamed myself. Not because I deserved it — god no — rather because I was too naive to see it coming or believe it was possible. Afterwards I simply pretended it never happened. Everything is just fine, thank you. There were reputations to protect and images to uphold. He went on being a jock. I went on being a cheerleader. We were voted “Best Couple” the same year I was to become homecoming queen. We never spoke of “the incident” again; as I referred to it, refusing to acknowledge it for what it was: abuse.
Although emotionally I would be irrevocably removed from the relationship from that point on, we stayed together until I finally found the courage to break up with him. When I told him, he threatened to commit suicide. I was ill-equipped to deal with this type of emotional manipulation; yet I held my ground and hoped I wouldn’t get a phone call that would leave me with a pile of guilt for the rest of my life, which was the point of his manipulation. He eventually moved out of state and I buried his memory together with “the incident” in a neat little box tucked in the cellar of my psyche.
It would take me many years to understand it. My mother never liked the boy and our relationship was the cause of many disagreements and standoffs between us, I’m sad to say. Years later she would tell me that she had learned his dad had beat up on his mom. All the time. Monkey see, monkey do.
When I was 22 and on vacation with my parents, I agreed to go out with a man who hung out at our beach. We went dancing. I met him there and left in my car. The next day, he sent my mother and I each a dozen roses and told my mom in his thick southern accent, “Mrs. Cup-ah, I’m in love with your daw-tah.” My mother was charmed by a man she would forever refer to as “that Southern gentleman.”
The next night he asked me out again. This time, he would like to pick me up, “just as a southern gentleman would.” I really didn’t feel good about it — I barely knew him — but with my mother’s vote of confidence — Oh Kerrie Lynn, I met his mother at a store in town and she is as lovely as her son! — I agreed. He came to the condo and spoke with my father who, in his stoic way, advised him of our rule to never leave the Island. “Doc-tah Cup-ah, I’ll take good care of your daw-tah” he said, smiling and shaking his hand.
Just down the road from our condo at the four way stop he turned right toward the causeway instead of left toward the restaurant. I started to speak but he cut me off, “I can’t believe it but I forgot my wallet. I don’t live far from here, it’ll just set us back a bit,” he looked at me and smiled and patted my hand. “Don’t you worry, you pretty little thing. I won’t take long.”
As we drove further and further away from the island my stomach knotted tighter and tighter. I replaced this unease with the false swagger of the girl living in big-city Chicago on my own; surely I could handle this small town boy from Georgia.
Once at his place, I fully expected to wait in the car while he ran in to get his wallet. Instead, he came around to my side and opened the door, “Come on up for a second. We can have a quick drink and then go back.” I said no, I’ll wait right here, but in he reached with his hand tugging on mine, “Come on, I promise, it’ll just be a minute.”
He threw his keys on the counter and sauntered to a small bar area next to his fridge, clearly in no hurry. “What do you want to drink?”
“I’m fine. I can wait until we get to the restaurant,” I replied, not wanting to take anymore time than necessary.
“Want a line?” he offered, expertly cutting and shaping six lines of coke on a mirror on the bar.
Oh, shit. I thought to myself. I am out of my league. This wasn’t my thing. Oh my god. I panicked.
“No thanks,” I replied, trying to hide the nervousness in my voice. He was too interested in lining up his cocaine to notice.
He grinned at me while he rolled up a bill and then snorted half of it up, up one line and down the other. He threw his head back, picked up a glass of whiskey from the counter, dumped some fresh ice in it and smiled.
Then he went back to the mirror and finished the rest of the cocaine. He walked over me and tried to kiss me. I turned my head away.
“Can we get going now?” I asked.
“You mean over here to the couch?” he smiled, pulling me by the hand. In one swift move he threw me on the couch and was on top of me, kissing me hard, my hands pinned down by my sides. I avoided his face, moving my head back and forth to dodge him all the while squirming with all of my might and telling him no, please. I don’t want to do this. Please stop.
Frustrated, he reached over me to the coffee table and out of nowhere came a little black pistol, which he laid down by my head. “Here. Maybe this will help,” his face was hard and his eyes had changed to the color of a dark storm. I went limp and started crying. I turned my face away from him while he forced himself inside of me, pulling my top up and unhooking my bra.
When he was done I got dressed and asked him to take me home. “What, you don’t want to go out?”
“Please. Please just take me home.”
I sat in silence on the ride home. I was in shock. My face burned hot with humiliation. Tears stung my eyes and fell silently. And my mind raced nonstop: This is why you don’t go off the island. My poor dad and mom, oh my god, they could never know that this happened or that I went of the island. They would be so mad at me; no wait, they wouldn’t be mad at me, they would be mad at him, right? They would want to press charges. I would have to go to court and face him and be judged by what I wore and what I drank and the fact that I even agreed to go out with him in his car. Someone I barely knew. He had total control. No, he took control. You trusted him, but he had total control, what were you thinking? Where did the gun come from? Does he have it now? Oh my god, this is rape. Was I raped? What do they call it when you go out with someone? Date rape. Yes that is it, date-rape. Oh my god. You are a fool. A complete idiot. Oh my god.
When we crossed over the bridge to the island I’d been coming to for years, the tears flowed harder. I couldn’t control myself. I started sobbing, all snot and mucus and red in the face.
“Shut up.” he said, “Stop crying.”
Only I couldn’t. And the more I couldn’t, the angrier he became. The car was getting smaller as his temper welled up.
“SHUT UP,” he screamed, raising the back of his hand to my face but stopping short of hitting me.
I flinched and held my breath and closed my eyes waiting for the blow. Instead he pulled the car over and leaned across me to open the door, shoving me out with both arms. Then he drove off, his car spitting gravel off the back of his tires into my face.
I didn’t know where I was. It was pitch black out. There are no street lights on the island. I paused to get my bearings, hyper alert now and in survival mode. I took off my high heels and starting walking, recognizing the street right away and knowing that our condo was only a few more up the road. The driveway was long and heavily wooded with tropical brush. As I walked up the dock the sound of the ocean calmed me. I sat down by the beach to gather myself, already resolving that this, too, would be my secret and mine alone.
I wanted nothing more than to prevent my parents from feeling the horror of their role in this outcome. Just like before, I knew they would never forgive themselves. Especially my father. I was getting good at secrets. Like this one: Letter to my 12-year-old self (that took me four decades to write.)
Honestly, I never thought I would ever write about these events. There is still an enormous amount of shame attached to them. Mostly around my version of myself and how this smart and independent woman could have made such errors in judgement. But I’ve been writing my next story in my anthology on perseverance, which shares some common ground, and in doing so I unearthed a pile of emotion that I could no longer step around or pretend wasn’t there.
Then I got tangled up in the public trials on rape that have been playing out in the media with girls who are the age I was, and throw in more of the Bill Cosby drama and with zero control over it, more of my tidy suppressed feelings imploded within.
I peeled back layers of scar tissue until I came to the meaty, bloody, pulpy center of my pain, and it still had a pulse. I dug it out, cleaned it off, let it breathe through me. I took my freshly opened wound to my husband, who knew only a bit of the story, and held his hand while he read what I wrote and went through his own cycle of shock, rage and pain.
And just this past week I stumbled on this article “I was never raped, but…”, which all parents should read, but instead of seeing myself in the author’s words, I saw my ten-year-old daughter and my heart seized. Suddenly the default mom position of how do I protect her was replaced with how do I teach her to protect herself?
The entire subject puts me at a bit of a loss. But maybe it starts with the fact that hate and power and control are taught. By example and with words. It is portrayed in positive ways in our media and we call it entertainment. It is an app developed for children as a game they can play addictively. There are those who grew up seeing it and some who grew up living it. Spirits have been broken and can’t be put back together again. You can’t undo darkness in someone’s soul when it takes hold.
There is no empathy in an empty heart. There is no compassion in someone who values power. There is no tolerance in one who is taught to hate. There is no mutual respect with someone intent on control.
If there is anything my experiences have given me, it is a deeper empathy. An acute fundamental knowledge that allows me to tell the stories of others with the authenticity of an actress who lived her role at some point in her past and who can now draw on those feelings. On some level I understand that this is why it all happened in the first place.
All I can do is send the young soul who has joined me on this journey out into the world knowing the power of kindness, empathy and compassion. And hope with every fiber of my being that those who cross her path have parents who have instilled the same in their sons and daughters.
By Kerrie L. Cooper
Does someone you know need to read these words today?
In the forward to Frank Ostaskeski’s beautiful book, The Five Invitations* is this quote by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.:
Chances are until you have experienced that one great loss, this will read to you as more ominous than catalytic. Like grief itself, these types of statements can’t fully be absorbed and understood until you experience them yourself.
We can get attached to who we think we are. We can be downright stubborn about it. Our identity seamlessly and completely intertwined with what we do. What we do becomes what we are. But what if what we do is taken away from us in the blink of an eye? Who are we then?
In the words of Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu: