This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction. Once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about. It defines you whether you want it to or not.
— Kate Elizabeth Russell
Who would have thought something that happened that long ago could have such power?
— Alice Sebold
In June 1964, a few weeks before my thirteenth birthday, I was raped by a man old enough to be my father. As shocking as that sentence is, its construction is flawed. As a writer, I try to avoid using the passive voice, because, say William Strunk and E. B. White in The Elements of Style, “the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” That is the kind of writer and person I would like to be — direct and vigorous. But if I rewrite that sentence in the active voice, it becomes: “Gerry Graham raped me when I was not yet thirteen.” In effect, this becomes his story, not mine.
From time to time, I have tried to write about what happened all those years ago, first in short stories and eventually in a novel. (Fiction protects you, my agent once told me.) Yet those manuscripts remain unpublished, languishing in a file on the desktop of my computer — a file entitled “Junk.” You see, the desire to disappear and the need to be seen have been at war in me for a long time.
To this day, my memories of the rape and its aftermath fill me with shame. My reluctance to write openly about those years is a symptom of a lifelong passivity, a condition not addressed by Strunk and White. And these two things — shame and passivity — are inextricable. The shame I have carried with me for over five decades is a direct result of the passivity that so often attends the sexual assault of children. I am not talking about violent rape here, the jump-out-of-the-bushes kind. I am talking about the systematic grooming and manipulation of girls. In literature, I am talking about fifteen-year-old Pamela Andrews, about twelve-year-old Justine, about twelve-year-old Dolores Haze and fourteen-year-old Holly Golightly. In life, I am talking about the girls that Jeffrey Epstein and his cronies trafficked and abused. I am talking about myself and all the others who have remained silent. Our silence comes from the dishonour of victimhood. My shame is that I did nothing to stop the abuse. My passivity is my shame.
That shame has permeated every aspect of my life, a feeling so reflexive that I cannot intellectualize it away. In spite of everything I know about sexual assault and hebephilia, my sixty-nine-year-old fingers tremble as I force myself to type his name, a name I still cannot say aloud. Gerry Graham was the stable manager at the Caledon Riding Club, hired by the board of directors that included my father. Graham — who is surely dead by now — was forty-five and married with four children, two of them older than I was. What began as playful wrestling in the stable after lessons soon became inappropriate touching and then, in a matter of weeks, intercourse. It was a progression I was completely unprepared for. No one ever told me it was okay to say no. That summer, the summer I turned thirteen — the last summer of my childhood — my siblings were eleven, ten, seven, and two. My parents were good, kind people, but they were busy. Gerry Graham and I were left alone. A lot.
Before #MeToo exploded three years ago, and women around the world began telling their stories, it never occurred to me to call what happened, on that summer afternoon on a yellow vinyl divan in the clubhouse, a rape. But the voices of all those other women made me realize, more than half a century later, that, yes, it was in fact a rape, a traumatic and terrible event that was just the beginning of a relationship that would last two dreadful years. I was a girl looking, as are we all, for love, and I threw myself into it completely. Falling in love with my abuser may have been my naive way of claiming my story, having the illusion of agency, an antidote to passivity.
When Jeffrey Epstein was first convicted in 2008 — a conviction that resulted in a thirteen-month sentence, most of which he served at his Palm Beach office — many in the news media referred to his victims as “underage women.” But they were girls. This idea, that girls are somehow women in disguise, a disguise meant to confuse and entrap men, is pervasive in our culture, and it has been with us for a long, long time.
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded is considered by many to be the first English novel, and it sold a lot of copies when it was published in 1740. It is the story of a young housemaid, seduced and assaulted by her employer, Mr. B. The novel is epistolary. In one of her letters home, Pamela describes how Mr. B. forcibly kissed her. When she runs away, he blames her: “What a foolish hussy you are!” In Richardson’s account, it is Pamela who has power over her seducer, not the other way around; it is as though her innocence is the weapon she uses to trap Mr. B.
Innocence, too, is the power Humbert Humbert endows upon Dolores. He refers to her as his nymphet: “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic.” Drayton and Drummond used the term “nymphet” in seventeenth-century poetry, but it was Nabokov who gave it today’s meaning of “an attractive and sexually mature young girl,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. As though there is any such thing. Innocence is Holly Golightly’s power over the much-older Doc; it is seventeen-year-old Lara’s power over the politically connected Komarovsky. It was, I suppose, my unwitting power over the groom, as though I were a young horse in need of taming. The power of “underage women” is, of course, a lie. A lie perpetuated by men.
Male authors don’t write novels about sex with girls the way they once did, but women do. Well before #MeToo, we had Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. In each, the young protagonist is anything but powerful. In the former, the teenaged Susie Salmon is raped and then killed by her assailant. In the latter, fourteen-year-old Celie, whose father rapes her repeatedly, writes in her first letter to God: “He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don’t never get used to it.” Unlike Pamela, who eventually marries Mr. B., most contemporary fictional victims do not live happily ever after. Except perhaps in Naomi Alderman’s The Power, where women have real power — the ability to electrocute men and take over the world.
Today, the sexual abuse of girls is often framed as one of the perks of male status. The Jeffrey Epsteins and Harvey Weinsteins of the world get away with it, because their wealth and influence protect them. But ordinary men from all walks of life also commit sexual abuse against girls with impunity. My abuser was neither wealthy nor powerful. He was a stable manager in rural Ontario, a horse trainer. Who or what was protecting him? He was past middle age when I first encountered him. Almost certainly, I was not the first girl he assaulted, but rather one in a long trail of abuse. I later learned of two, possibly three others in my community with whom he was having sex. Even his wife knew.
So how did he get away with it for so long?
On a starry, starry night in late August, my father discovered what was going on. His anguish was profound, and I have never forgiven myself for the pain I caused him. I don’t know what happened next, only that Gerry Graham and his family moved away within days. My father grounded me for three weeks, and he never again mentioned what had happened. Three years ago, my mother died, and I’m still not sure if she knew. My father did what he thought was the right thing, shielding me and our family from stigma and scandal. But what he actually did — as did the fathers and mothers of other girls compromised by men like Gerry Graham — was enable him through silence. And silence is complicity. My father’s silence and my own (except for those third-person attempts at fiction, as if I were writing about someone else) were evidence of society’s general willingness to look the other way. We were all complicit.
In the 1960s, one of the punishments for statutory rape was flogging. Gerry Graham would have known this. It did not deter him. Maybe he’d been found out by other fathers who, like mine, thought they could protect their daughters and themselves with silence. After we were discovered and my father sent him packing from our privileged little community, Gerry Graham took breathtaking chances to continue his assaults on my life. I believe he knew from experience there was little likelihood of his ever being charged. He took risks that I, a teenager in love — with shades of Juliet and Ophelia — engaged in willingly. I deceived my father for nearly two years. And though now I marvel at his failure to see what was happening, my guilt for betraying his trust is equal to my shame.
By the time the abuse ended (another story for another day), I was fifteen — bruised and battered emotionally and relieved it was over. I was also determined to forget everything that had happened to me, to consciously push it out of my mind forever. But the shame and self-loathing did not forget me. A peculiar numbness, a passivity, set in, and from then on, I simply did whatever came next. I began dating a boy in high school. I confided in him, and was grateful that he — that anyone — still wanted me, damaged as I was. After a lacklustre high school performance, I went to university and obtained a bachelor’s in English with a minimal amount of work. After graduation, I married the boy from high school. We were twenty-one. I took the first job on offer, with a bank. Three years later, I got pregnant as a way of getting out of a nine-to-five I hated. I don’t remember ever considering what I wanted or where all this was heading. Marriage and children seemed as good a place as any to hide. By the time I was thirty, I was the perfect facsimile of a perfectly content stay-at-home mother of two little girls. For a time, I thought the forgetting was working. I was wrong.
In 1979, Woody Allen’s Manhattan debuted in theatres. When I first saw it, I was blown away by its power and elegance — the Gershwin, the black and white cinematography, the romance. Praise for the movie was unequivocal, and years later the Library of Congress deemed it “culturally significant.” That the plot concerned a seventeen-year-old girl’s relationship with a forty-two-year-old man barely registered with anyone at the time, including me. A year earlier, the forty-four-year-old director Roman Polanski had fled to England and then to France to avoid prison, having been convicted of the statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old. He would later tell the novelist Martin Amis, “If I have killed somebody, it wouldn’t have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But . . . fucking, you see, and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls — everyone wants to fuck young girls!”
In the ensuing decades, Polanski enjoyed the vocal and widespread support of Hollywood and even of his victim, Samantha Geimer. Today, I wonder if, like me, she felt culpable — that she was in some way to blame. Sympathy for the director’s plight grew as the years passed, even as his legal battles and his struggle to avoid extradition continued. The point is that in the 1960s and ’70s — and into the ’80s and ’90s — there was something about older men having sex with girls that, while not exactly acceptable, was at least understandable, and in that sense, maybe even okay as long as it wasn’t your daughter who was being abused.
It’s a different story now. Today, it seems unlikely Polanski will ever return to the United States. And as great a movie as Manhattan is, for better or for worse, it has lost its sheen. #MeToo has changed the way we see these things. The lens we look through is no longer an exclusively male one. The stories have become ours. We — women and the girls we once were — are claiming agency. We are becoming the heroes, tragic or otherwise, of our own lives.
In 1981, my father died. He was the age that I am now. Hardly a day goes by that I do not miss him, but I also know that his death opened a gap in the thicket of my inertia, a gap that became a portal to change, to another kind of life.
Once both my children started school, I returned to university. After fourteen years away, the study of literature was a revelation, a kind of rebirth. It was then that I first read Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, and its impact was seismic. Del Jordan’s interior world so paralleled my own as a teenager and young woman that I could hardly breathe as I turned the pages. Over and over again, I felt that jolt of recognition you get reading something you’ve known all along but didn’t know you knew. It was the joy of having a thing previously only intuited fully articulated for the first time. Going back to school was like waking up from a long, long sleep. But change can be painful, and as much as I thought I was figuring things out, I wasn’t.
Soon after my father’s death, my marriage to my high school sweetheart ended. Children, of course, are the collateral damage that comes with divorce. We did our best, their father and I, but it can never be enough. By leaving, I added another layer of pain to all our lives. Still, out of endings come beginnings. I took a job with a daily newspaper in our small town, and that job led to one at a bigger paper in a bigger place, and then to national magazines and newspapers. I was ambitious, determined to make it in the world of journalism despite my late start. The girl whose life had been so brutally interrupted was someone else now. In her place stood a woman of purpose and ability — passive no more. These were difficult years, and I failed as often as I succeeded. But I wanted to be a role model for my daughters, and I hoped that when they grew up, they would understand that the sacrifices I made, I made for them. I was reading Marilyn French and Carol Gilligan and Doris Lessing and Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. I thought I could have it all. If this had been a fairy tale, I would have been well on my way to living happily ever after. But no. Because the story of abuse is never-ending: shame and self-loathing are trolls hiding under a bridge, waiting for the chance to pounce.
In any fairy tale, there has to be a prince, but the problem with princes is they don’t always come to the rescue. Mine was a man I met in the pre-internet days through a companions-wanted ad in the Globe and Mail. Superficial, handsome, charming, and on the prowl, he wasn’t a monster, but I managed to turn him into one. On and off for the next decade, as I struggled, a single mother trying to build a career, I found myself inexplicably ensnared in a relationship with a man I did not love or even respect, a man who did not love me. As much as I wanted out, I could not leave. Something beyond my control, something frightening and obsessive, was keeping me there. I now understand that I was, perversely, re-enacting the events of my childhood. I was like a horse fleeing back into the burning stable, refusing to leave my groom.
Earlier this year, Lili Loofbourow reviewed Miriam Toews’s Women Talking for The New York Review of Books. In describing “post-traumatic futurity,” she wrote what I now know to be true: “We don’t have much of a vocabulary for what happens in a victim’s life after the painful past has been excavated.” Even for the abused, Loofbourow posits, life goes on, and all their future relationships will be haunted by their trauma.
Eventually, like the affair that foreshadowed it, my relationship with the dark prince petered out. Those ten lost years made me understand what a quicksand passivity can be. Miraculously — and I do mean that it has seemed like a miracle — I met and married the true prince I am still with twenty-three years later. But the grip of the past is stubborn, and even he has not been able to save me. I know I will never be truly free of this.
So why have I finally put my ambivalence aside? Why do I feel such an urgency to tell my story now?
In February, just as the world was beginning to shut down because of the pandemic, I travelled to New York to spend a few days with my daughter, Leah, who lives in London and who, like me, is a writer. We had hardly spoken in several months, because of a disagreement over a book that she wanted to write — a book about my adolescent encounter with Gerry Graham.
My daughters know what happened, and Leah has read my unpublished novel. She saw my experience as great material, even as a chance for us to connect. I saw it as the appropriation of my story, a story that, if it is to be told at all, should be told by me. After much negotiation, I asked her to drop the idea, and I assumed she had. But over martinis at the hotel bar, she told me she had signed a major book deal. It took me the rest of our few days together to process the news that my daughter would be publishing a tell‑all about my experience and the impact it has had on hers.
On our last night together, we went to see a one-woman show based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, starring Laura Linney. It is the story of a mother and daughter who have been estranged for years. It is never clear exactly what has come between Lucy and her mother, but the wounds are deep and intractable. Near the end, there are clues: Lucy is a writer who has left her marriage and her two daughters because she has realized she can’t otherwise write the kind of books she wants to, that she “had to be ruthless to be a writer.”
Does Lucy regret the path she has chosen? I think, like many of us, she does:
Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.
I have not led a blameless life. I own every mistake I have made — every one. I feel my daughters’ pain as though it is my own. And I understand the ruthlessness it takes to be a writer. Leah has every right to tell her story. But I will say this as directly and vigorously as I can: this story, this one, is mine.