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The Last Summer at Camp

 

During my last summer at sleep away camp, at age thirteen, we had a strange outbreak of mosquitoes. We weren’t allowed to go in the lake for two weeks, and the mosquitoes were in pretty much every breath of air we breathed. I don’t know if it was an early case of West Nile Virus or something else they didn’t bother to explain, but I had to sleep in jeans and a sweatshirt, in ninety degree weather, to try to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

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“That sounds bad. I’m worried about this story.”

It was already a very, very bad summer for me. I’d begged to stay home, or better yet, go to California. I had this idea about California that wasn’t based on anything I can remember, except that it wasn’t home. I think my best friend at the time had been talking a lot about going to California for some reason, and she either went to California, or to Israel that summer, to visit family.

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“Oy. It’s getting worse.”

I was deeply depressed, irritable, anxious, and uncomfortable 24 hours a day. I’d lost weight (this was pre-anorexia, so I was normal thin, not skinny yet), and had some pretty outfits, and I’d assumed this would make me happy, but it actually made things worse.

Sex was everywhere in camp. There were a lot of rape accusations (all true as far as I could tell, but not taken seriously by the counselors, who were eighteen and nineteen years old, or the administration, who had no excuse). There was a lot of dating and flirting and coupling. I would not have been able to tell you why it was all so awful to me at the time. I couldn’t explain why I felt so thoroughly under attack. I’d had some memories of the sexual abuse by then, in vague images and awful feelings, but I didn’t know what it was, or what to do with it.

My parents came up on visiting day and I was sure they were going to take me home, but instead, my father announced that they were going to Israel in a few days and wouldn’t be back until it was time for me to come home from camp. And I couldn’t go with them. I screamed and cried and he took a picture of me, inconsolable (he framed it and put it up in the downstairs hallway in our house, where it stayed for years).

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“Told ya.”

After the mosquito drama, or before it maybe (time was confusing that summer), the counselors took my age group on an overnight campout on a hill. It was coed, with the counselors down at the bottom of the hill, out of ear shot. None of this had been made clear ahead of time. There was at least one rape that night, but I only knew about it because it happened to a friend of mine. I have no idea what else happened, but we were a group of thirteen year old boys and girls without supervision, so I can guess. Someone stepped on my hand in the middle of the night, and no one seemed to notice when I screamed.

No one listened when I ranted about the campout for the next few days, because everyone else seemed to think that a coed sleepover for thirteen-year-olds was totally fine. I was the prude and the hysteric. And the fact is, I couldn’t explain why I was so angry about it when no one else had a word to say, except for the girls who whispered in my ear about rape, on the hill, and on other days and at other times, but refused to go to the administration, or to let me go for them.

None of the rapes, or attempted rapes, happened to me. I barely even touched a boy all summer. But the lack of concern from the adults enraged me. The counselors suggested that my problem was that I was too mature for my age group, and that was why I was so uncomfortable. My opinion was that I needed to walk home from camp, even if it took the rest of the summer. But I was too afraid, and had no money, and that made me feel powerless.

 

When a twelve-year-old girl was sent home because she had accused two boys of forcing her to give them blow jobs – and no one believed her, because, How can you force someone to give a blow job, really it’s the boys who were raped – I realized I was never going back to that camp.

And it was a terrible loss. The thing is, I’d never really been safe anywhere else. I was sexually abused at home and at my childhood best friend’s house. I was bullied at school. Camp was the one place that felt normal, where I could work through the kinds of painful experiences that everyone else had to go through too. It wasn’t a great joy, but it was a place where I had learned how to make friends, and set boundaries, and argue, and swim. But once sex became an issue, for me and for my peers, camp was no longer safe for me, with my abuse history. Maybe if they’d had better policies in place for how to handle problematic behaviors, or if the counselors were better trained, or if the adults had taken on more of an oversight role, things would have been different. But maybe not.

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“I’m sorry, Mommy.”

Usually Mom drove to camp to pick me up at the end of the summer, but this time she arranged for me to go home with another Mom from our area and two of her daughters, because of her late return from Israel with my father. I felt really sick to my stomach on the drive, but I didn’t know the Mom or the girls well enough to say anything. When I finally got home I ran upstairs and barely made it to the bathroom in time, throwing up in the sink. I kept throwing up for the next two days, and by the time school started a week and a half later, I wasn’t eating much at all. My body felt like it had been filled with poison, and I didn’t want to risk adding more. Within weeks I was basically anorexic, and that seemed to help keep the poison at bay. By then I didn’t just want to be skinny anymore, I wanted to be invisible.

 

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

Watching Roots

 

One day in February, the Sundance Channel advertised that it would be replaying the original miniseries version of Roots, for Black History Month, and I realized that I’d never actually seen it. I’d seen little clips here and there, but I was too young to watch it the first time around, and I’d never made a point of finding it on video or DVD later on. So I set the DVR to tape every episode, and then made sure that the episodes wouldn’t be erased until I erased them (the DVR generally saves things for two weeks and then they magically disappear), because I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get through all of it.

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“I’ll help you, Mommy!”

I knew Roots would be hard to watch, but Mom’s good friend from high school, Olivia Cole, won an Emmy for her role in Roots, and I’d watched everything else Olivia had done on TV, but not this. Mom, of course, had seen Roots when it ran the first time, but she was ready to see it again, if only as a tribute to Olivia, who died a little more than a year ago.

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Mom and Olivia

We watched an hour at a time, because I couldn’t handle any more than that, especially when Kunta Kinte was on the slave ship travelling to America. I felt like I was being beaten, and I could almost smell the crowded bowels of the ship, and feel the chains on my wrists and ankles, and chains, like a yoke, around my neck. I felt powerless and triggered and complicit, as if just by watching the horror on the screen I was making it happen. Even more awful was listening to the language of the white men as they discussed their “cargo,” as if the young men were animals. Words like “herd” and “buck” were used constantly. And of course, the “N” word. They talked about the girls as “belly warmers” for the crew to take to bed overnight. I watched one girl jump off the ship, in the middle of the ocean, rather than remain in that dehumanizing world. I wanted to jump with her.

I forced myself to keep watching, though, taking a day or two off between each hour, partly because I needed to see Olivia in her role, and that came later in the series, but also because I needed to watch all of the minutes before and after Olivia, to understand where she fit in.

The moment that shows up in all of the clips is of Levar Burton, as a young Kunta Kinte, being whipped, and refusing to call himself by his “new” name, Toby. The scene was even more powerful in context, because it was clear that the intention was to take his self away from him, not only his language, his home, or his freedom, but his sense of himself as an individual with his own thoughts and his own name.

 

It took me two weeks to make my way through the whole miniseries, because each time there was a seeming respite from pain, some damned white person had to go and screw it up. There were some elements to the story that felt too easy, too perfect: characters made out to be too noble to be human, or events working out Forest-Gump-like so that this one family experienced all of the highs and lows known at the time about slavery. But the hardest parts, for me, were the endless rapes.

Some men seem to take rape lightly, and I use the present tense advisedly, despite the #MeToo movement and the wisps of awakening that came with it. She’s not dead. You can’t even see any bruises. So why is it such a big deal? But the people who made Roots in the 1970s seemed to understand. Rape is the soul destroyer. It’s the violence that goes past your skin and invades your body so that there’s no safe place even inside of yourself.

I keep thinking back to the early episodes of the miniseries, on the slave ship, when the young black men fought to be free, risking their lives against their captors, but the one woman who escaped her chains jumped over the side of the ship, in the middle of the ocean, with no hope of survival. She wasn’t fighting to survive; she was fighting to make it stop, to make the violation stop, and to take back the only thing she had left: her life.

Olivia was wonderful, by the way. She played Mathilda, the wife of Chicken George, Kunta Kinte’s grandson. She had an oracle-like quality to her in the miniseries, and in real life too: the straight-backed wise woman who knows when to pause for dramatic effect. It’s interesting that her character was never raped, or at least it wasn’t told as part of her story, because she was able to maintain her sense of self in a way that other women through the course of the saga were not, and that rings true.

The hopeful ending to the story, when Kunta Kinte’s descendants ride their wagons to a piece of land of their own, is iconic: this is an American family, a family of pioneers discovering their own land and building their lives from scratch. All through the miniseries, the voice overs introducing each episode made it clear that this was the story of an American family, rather than a story of slavery. That message resonates at this moment in our history as a country, when we need to be reminded that being American is not about where we came from, or the color of our skin, but about the freedom to start over and make a new life, despite everything.

We tend to focus on the freedom, instead of on the “everything” that still needs to be overcome, individually and communally. There are so many more stories to be told, about the “everything” that we all need help to overcome.

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Cricket is worried about “everything.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

p.s. The Book signing event went well, and I will tell you more about it next week!

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The girls are still grumpy that they didn’t get to go.