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.
“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.
Listen: Do we need to be more critical of the #MeToo tag? (Post continues...)
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.