For the next 13 years I lived by silently screaming at my memories.
By Dorri Olds
The first time I talked about the rape I was 26 and in a therapist’s office. “I can help you,” the counselor, Mary, said, “but it won’t be a quick fix.” My neck tensed up. I started bouncing my knee. Mary didn’t react. Her eyes were looking into mine: It was time to let go and get better.
At 13 I was a lonely Jewish nerd and straight A student living on Long Island, envious of popular girls who attracted boys. It was 1973 and guys who wore black leather jackets and smoked Marlboros looked hot so when Lisa asked me to join her friends in the cemetery that night I agreed.
At home I looked for my new clingy shirt that Lisa told me to wear without a bra. But it wasn’t there.
I called Mom, “Where’s my new shirt?” She called back: “I hid it. It makes you look…well, slutty.”
When Mom left I found the shirt, put it on and looked in the mirror, staring at my cleavage. I was a woman now. I also wore hip hugger jeans so a sliver of my belly showed. That’s what Lisa did and I figured if I dressed right I would get a boyfriend.
When I met Lisa and her friends the September sun had set. I thought it was weird to meet in a cemetery, but I was excited to be included. One boy, Willy, was 15, and sometimes we joked around at lunch. As we hung out listening to a big radio, smoking cigarettes and drinking Heinekens and no-name vodka, the girls and their boyfriends wandered off, leaving me alone and feeling like a loser. So when Willy smiled and motioned “c’mere” I practically skipped over.
He grabbed me, clamped his hand over my mouth and threw me on the ground. Then three other boys surrounded me and I realized this was planned. Two boys pulled my pants down while a third pushed his hand up my shirt and grabbed a breast. He pushed on it hard. A different hand mauled my other breast. My pants were now down by my ankles; two boys pulled off my sneaker to get my pant leg off. They needed to widen my legs. Fingers shoved up me. I felt a penis in my mouth. I tried to scream, but it came out muffled. They laughed. I gagged. They took turns. “You better watch out,” one yelled. “She might bite it off!” They laughed some more and then ran off. It was over.
I pulled my clothes on and ran in a circle screaming. Lisa and Bobby ran over and carried me to Lisa’s house, where I spent a sleepless night. In the morning I looked in her Mom’s medicine cabinet and stole pills. I swallowed a few and put the rest in my pocket. My plan was to forget that night ever happened. I was too ashamed to tell my parents or my two older sisters.
For the next 13 years I lived by silently screaming at my memories. If I hadn’t worn the low-cut shirt, maybe the rape wouldn’t have happened. Telling my parents would’ve meant admitting to my stupidity and I was too proud for that. One day I tried to tell a teacher after class. I stood by her desk shifting my weight from one foot to the other. But I was afraid of being shunned at school if I reported it, so all I said was “See you tomorrow.”
I began drinking Bacardi rum and diet Coke and swallowing speed capsules hoping to forget. I forged Mom and Dad’s handwriting to sign myself out of school early. Then I’d go out on the big field, lie down on my back, and let my mind roam, while I tripped on acid.
I embraced tight sexy shirts and skin hugging pants and by the time I was 15, I was sneaking off to clubs in the city where it was easy to get drugs and find guys who dazzled me like shiny disco globes.
I fancied myself a feminist — if I seduced boys first it gave me the upper hand and they couldn’t hurt me. At home I stared at the poster of my best friend Jimi Hendrix who was dead. But I talked to him because he understood. And I thought of suicide all the time. One day I went to the train station and jumped onto the tracks with a speeding train aimed at me, but I thought about being maimed and not killed. Life would be worse without legs. I sucked my breath and made myself as thin as I could so the train didn’t touch me.
I was obviously troubled so my parents sent me to one therapist after another. But I fooled all of them and was proud of that. I chased euphoria. I swallowed more pills, snorted coke and drank. By 17, I was shooting cocaine. Sometimes I looked at my eyes in the mirror and it scared me how far away I looked. I couldn’t forget how helpless I had felt that night in the cemetery.
Nine years later, I graduated from college, found an apartment in Greenwich Village and landed a job as a graphic artist. But I was still haunted by memories. Alone in my room, I snorted cocaine out of paper packets and drank. One day at six a.m. I came out of a blackout sitting cross-legged on my bed surrounded by ripped photos of my artwork with suicidal song lyrics gouged into them with a ballpoint pen. It was my handwriting, but I had no memory of my actions.
I saw bugs scampering across the bed. No matter how often I blinked they were still there. I would’ve welcomed death at that point, but the fear I was losing my mind hit me so hard I reached over the empty bottles and picked up the phone to call my cousin Ang. She took me to Hazelden rehab in Florida.
That 31-day stay took out my brains, washed them and wrung out the toxins. I talked to my counselor Mary in the quiet room and told her what the boys did and how I had tried so hard to forget. She was the first person to say I had post-traumatic-stress disorder.
Clean and sober and terrified that I couldn’t stay that way, I went back to my life in the Village. I met Maddy who was kind and gentle. We began to hang out and go to parties. I still dressed for men to look at me and watched their eyes scan my cleavage, my thighs, my face, my legs. At one party Maddy put her black cardigan around me. “Cover up,” she said. The miracle is that when I buttoned it up, I didn’t feel ashamed. I felt loved. I told her about that horrible night.
“You were raped and it wasn’t your fault,” she said. I cried and she hugged me tight.
The longer I fought to stay sober, the more I learned that talking about the pain was the first thing that would heal me. But I couldn’t open up to my mother until I was 37. Her dark olive skin turned white and she cried. I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and begged her not to tell my father.
By age 46 I was sick of the men I’d been choosing. Then I met Steve Geng in a neighborhood movie theater. We got to chatting and I wanted to touch his wispy blond-gray hair. His eyes seemed soft as they looked right into mine. His angular cheekbones looked strong, like I’d be safe with him. He was a writer and invited me to his Barnes & Noble book reading. It was standing room only. Afterwards I bought his book Thick as Thieves and Steve grinned when he wrote, “To the prettiest girl.” When I read the memoir I learned about his dark history that mirrored mine and felt an immediate kinship. Our first date was brunch and a movie and we’ve been together ever since. That December he gave me a thermal shirt with a card that said, “I want to keep you warm.”
Now, I’m 52 and Steve and I have been married for two years. Like my friendship with Maddy, our bond fills me with courage. Every time we share dark pieces of the past we grow closer. It smells so sweet when I bury my face in his hair.
*** It’s afternoon and I’m rushing to get to a film premiere for press only. I now interview celebrities and review movies and love my work and my hectic life. I reach in my closet, pick a light blue button-down, and check my camera battery. Just before I leave, Steve comes over and hugs me. He says, “Good luck.” I start to walk towards the door, but he says, “Hey,” and I turn to look at him. He smiles wide and says, “You look like a pro in that shirt.”
I know he’s right and I smile back.
Dorri Olds is a freelance journalist and social media coach.