A Girl, Alone
If he’s still alive, he’s old and probably fat by now. That guy I try never to think about. His face has faded, but I remember him as a little doughy. That guy who did to me what I could not bring myself to call rape at the time.
I was traveling alone. I’d missed the overnight train from Geneva to Paris. He offered me a spare bedroom; swore I’d be perfectly safe. To my 19-year-old eyes, he looked trustworthy, this 30-something pilot in an expensive trenchcoat. So surely it was my fault, right? When I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and he was on top of me?
Judge me if you will. Call me stupid and naïve; that much is fair. But who ever judged him? No one. Yet I knew I didn’t have a story to tell a Swiss police officer. So I got on the train and went back to my study-abroad dorm room in England, feeling a little wiser and a lot older.
When I got back to the States, I wrote a short story about it in which I tried to be very Hemingway-esque, starkly describing what happened but leaving out all details about how I felt. Because of course I didn’t know I felt. Or rather, I felt so many different feelings I didn’t know which was the real one: shame? Anger? Sadness? Outrage?
They were all real and they have all been flooding back to me this month, which has not been a good one for the one out of four American women who harbor memories of sexual assault. First, there was arrest of the head of the Air Force sexual assault prevention program—on charges of sexual battery. Then, just two days later, the Pentagon released survey data revealing in 2012, an estimated 26 thousand active service women and men were sexually assaulted, up from 19 thousand in 2010.
And now we have Amanda Knox out on her book tour, being interviewed by piranhas like CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who so relished interrogating her about the rumors of her “deviant” sex life. Never mind she’s been convicted of murder in Italy, jailed for four years, acquitted and now may be tried again.
No wonder I found myself fuming recently when I saw a TV commercial in which two dads exchange those “boys will be boys!” looks when they catch their sons spying on a female neighbor from their treehouse. What if the ad showed little girls watching a man undress? Would we think that was adorable?
In his eagerness to pry salacious details out of Knox, Cuomo reminded me of the boys in the commercial. But Knox’s long legal nightmare has taught her how to remain calm in the face of the ugliest accusations.
“I was sexually active. I was not sexually deviant,” she said, clearly and without elaboration. In that instant, she became the grownup in the room and Cuomo the prurient child, still stuck in his adolescent treehouse.
Collective outrage over military rape may be what takes us to the tipping point where we can no longer tolerate the double standard inherent in an interview like Cuomo’s. I hope so. Because this is about more than raising boys to treat women with respect. This is about raising girls to understand: shame and guilt need not be their default emotional settings. So when a soldier is groped, she doesn’t immediately think it must be her fault. Or when a naïve girl from Seattle is interviewed by Italian police, she can’t be bullied and intimidated.
Or when another naïve Seattle girl sets out to see the world, she won’t spend the rest of her life thinking what happened one night in Geneva was ALL her fault.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.