“How do you tell your children a story you never want them to hear?”

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I clocked the kilometres asking myself the question: Should I tell them? One kilometre I would think, Yes, now they are old enough. The next I would think, No, no matter how old they are, it’s too much for children to think of their mother with a knife at her throat. A few kilometres on, I would think, But I need to warn Zoë. I can’t let her go by herself to a college campus without knowing what can happen there. This was several years before campus rape became a widely discussed and reported issue, and I was not thinking of the dangers she faced by simply going on a date — dangers that, statistically, were far more prevalent than encountering strangers in empty buildings.

How do you tell your children a story you never want them to hear? How do you explain how it made you the mother you were?

This is why I hovered over you. This is why my internal alarm clanged constantly, why I treated every tumble and scrape as an emergency, and every sleepover party as a potential kidnapping situation. I wanted you to embrace the world and live boldly, but I worry that my actions taught you to fear the world and not trust anyone. I hope this will explain my thousand-yard stare, the one you hated because it meant I was not paying attention. I hope it explains all those times I vanished into myself and you waved your hands in front of my face, saying, “Mum!”

Can you forgive me?

The pendulum swung from yes to no for two weeks. When I finally stopped it on a yes, I should tell them, I decided to do it in the car. A friend once told me that that’s the best place to have difficult conversations with your kids. “They’re trapped with you,” she explained. “So they have to listen. But you aren’t facing each other, so it’s easier. Less confrontational. Let them pick the music, too.”

I wanted to tell them separately, so on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I talked Zoë into driving to Cincinnati with me to pick up Dan from school. I would tell her on the way down. I would wait and tell Dan on another car trip. We left early, driving south under a low, leaden sky. Rain hit the windshield in icy splotches that would turn into sleet, and then snow. All of Ohio seemed to be going the same direction, the holiday traffic forming a funereal procession on the slippery highway. The car felt like a cozy refuge as we drove through the open farmland and fog-shrouded valleys.

How did I put it? Not long ago, I asked Zoë what she remembered of that day.

"The car felt like a cozy refuge as we drove through the open farmland and fog-shrouded valleys." (Image: Twitter)

“You said, ‘I have something I want to tell you,’” she told me. “You kind of scared me. I thought maybe you were going to say Grammy had died, or you and Dad were getting divorced.”

After that she didn’t remember, and I didn’t either. I probably said an awkward and pause-filled version of, “I was raped when I was thirty years old, on a college campus, and it scares me that you’re going to college.” That’s what I know I felt: I had to tell her what had happened to me as a kind of magical insurance policy, so it would never happen to her.

We both remember that she started crying, almost instantly. Not the vocal kind of crying, but the kind she inherited from me, silent and stricken, our chins trembling and our eyes filling with tears until they spill over and run down our cheeks.

I told her the story I had told so often in the hours and days after the rape: I was working, I was late for an interview, the building was empty, the guy was there, he cut me on the throat. I didn’t talk about what he did to me after that.

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I remember clearly one thing she said. “Now I see why you and Dad were so overprotective. Especially Dad.” This was new to me. I thought I was the one driving them crazy with my hovering. I was so wrapped up in my fears, I hadn’t even noticed that my husband was tied up in his own knots of worry and fear over our children. “Really?” I said, looking over at her. “Sometimes it feels like you guys are stalking me,” she said.

I told Dan a few weeks later, when I picked him up for winter break at the end of 2005. This time I drove to Cincinnati alone, thinking the whole way about how and why he had
come into the world.

It occurred to me that he was a child born out of my fear.

The night I was raped, twenty-one years before, my husband took me home from the hospital to a bare house, a center-hall colonial built in 1927 in Shaker Heights. We had just moved into it, our first house after years of apartments, and we had no furniture for three of the four bedrooms, let alone the two extra bedrooms on the third floor. Our parents joked that we had to do something to fill all those rooms up. Meaning children.

By the anniversary of the rape, I was pregnant. My son was born October 7, 1985, eleven days after his due date, no more ready for this than I was. We named him Daniel, and gave him my last name as his middle name. The nurses cleaned him up before they handed him to me, wrapped like a burrito in a blanket, showing only a thick head of black hair and a face all battered and bruised from the suction-cup delivery that came after a thirty-six-hour labor—a story I would repeat probably way too often in the coming years, usually on Dan’s birthdays. Lucky boy.

When I held my bruised baby, my heart cracked into a mosaic of intense love, opiate-fueled bliss and hideous, morbid fear. I felt like the mother in “Sleeping Beauty,” cradling my child against the curse of a jealous witch.

Once home from the hospital, I started crying and could not stop. I wept as I nursed my son, filling him with milk laced with my anxieties as I watched my tears drizzle down my breast. It did not take long for him to begin crying, crying endlessly, cramped with colic and the calamitous fears I fed him. We cried together. I wept alone in bed. I wept in the shower and I wept at the dinner table while my husband, my mother, and my stepfather sat in silence, heads down, the food going cold.

“I’m fine!” I kept telling them. I tried to form a smile. “I don’t know why I’m crying!” And I really didn’t know why. I had a healthy baby who would be beautiful as soon as his birth bruises faded and he stopped crying. I had a home, a job, a husband who loved me.

One of the twenty-six baby books I was consulting at the time advised parents to keep up a steady stream of conversation with their baby. I looked at Danny on my lap, and he looked back at me. He had that look of intense, worried concentration babies sometimes get. He was ready to listen, but I didn’t have anything to say. What did the book mean by “having a conversation” with an infant?

I propped him up a little higher on my leg and gave it a try. “So here we are,” I said. “You and me.” We stared at each other in silence. I pressed on. “I want you to know that I will always be here.”

Now he looked puzzled. “I am your mother,” I explained, “and you will always have me. I will always love you. I will protect you, and I promise I will never, ever let anything bad happen to you.”

He listened carefully. Then his face crumpled, and he started crying.

Joanna Connors, I Will Find You (Fourth Estate 2016), reproduced with permission of HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Ltd. In bookstores now.

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