Dear Jane Doe
A letter to the Steubenville rape victim.
Dear Jane Doe,
I am the mother who wrote about teaching our boys to be kind. As I hit "publish" on that essay about the ways in which parents must take responsibility for raising sons to be brave protectors, I was thinking about you. My words about teaching kindness went viral, and the conversation turned from you, to us -- parents. What can WE do? I have been honored to be one tiny voice in a sea of outrage, all of us offering solutions, working hard to turn our grief into change.
And yet ...
When I wrote "What All Mothers Must Do For Their Sons," it was not the first story that I wanted to tell after Steubenville. It was the second.
The first? It was:
Dear Jane Doe,
Me too. But I couldn't say that. I was too afraid, too steeped in shame, too concerned about what everyone might think of me. Now don't get me wrong, what I said about raising boys I believe with every ounce of my being. Teach them to be kind, to be brave, to be helpers. Teach them to take responsibility for their sexuality, teach them to shed their uniforms of entitlement and replace them with badges of honor.
Not just because it's the right thing to do, but because then they will no longer be able to hurt girls like you ...
and girls like me.
I was 18. A freshman at a well-known, conservative university. Smart, cheerful, away from home for the first time. Armed with my fair share of life experience, a confident sense of my own sexuality and a deeply researched knowledge of feminism, sexism and other very evolved -ism's, I was hardly what one would consider a target.
The young man who raped me was my lab partner. He was rugged and handsome, boyishly charming and very well-liked. A fraternity brother, a star athlete from a very small town, who had landed a spot on our university's rugby team. I was a former cheerleader, well-versed in how "Friday Night Lights" could illuminate the shadows that followed respected young athletes. I went to Welcome Week, freshman orientation and a safety skills workshop. I knew that I needed to surround myself with trusted girlfriends, forming an insular line of protection for each other when we went out at night. I knew where the call boxes were in the darkened parking lot. I knew to carry pepper spray and a whistle, just in case a bad guy jumped out of the bushes or eased himself out of a doorway in a dark alley.
But my lab partner never jumped out of the bushes. He never cornered me in a dark alley. He invited me to study at his apartment. He said that there was a lot that he could learn from a cute girl who was getting an A+ in chemistry. (I was getting an A+ in chemistry, did I mention that?!) I didn't drink anything that night. He was handsome and polite and an upperclassman, and I wondered if he maybe probably oh my gosh what if he wanted to date me, and still I reminded him sweetly that I wasn't interested in messing around. Just to be clear, about my boundaries. Because all young women know that it's their responsibility to set the boundaries.
There were pictures of his mother on the bulletin board in his room. Pink Floyd on the CD player. To this day, when I hear the cold "clink, clink" of the change machine at the end of that album, I want to throw up. Because I can picture myself floating somewhere outside of my body, watching what unfolded on his waterbed, listening to his voice ignore mine.
When he finished, he asked me if I was OK.
As I stumbled from his room that night, he insisted that he walk me to my car. Back then, I couldn't reconcile the disturbing irony that made him act concerned for my safety as I walked to the parking lot. Now, at 35, I realize that he knew what he had done. And he was afraid of what I would do next. He was somebody's son. He loved his mother. But no one had ever taught him what consent looked like, sounded like, felt like. He really believed that I was his, to do with as he wished. He didn't respect me; he didn't feel like he needed to. I'm not saying he didn't know better, I'm saying that he did, and he didn't care. He was righteous, he was intoxicated, he was entitled.
He went back to a waterbed that was streaked with blood.
I drove out to the middle of an abandoned farm and sat there as the sun rose over the dusty fields. I sat there with my hand over my mouth, the music in my car drowning out the staccato drumbeat of my racing heart. And then I went back to my dorm and I showered. Twice.
Girls who volunteer at the Women's Center don't get raped. Girls who get A+'s in chemistry don't get raped. Girls who tell their roommates that they are "just going to study, I'll be fine, don't wait up," do not get raped. Girls who know better do not get raped. I was reading Ntozake Shange for my History of Women's Theater class for f*ck's sake! Women who read great feminist literature do NOT get raped!
And if they do, they know not to shower after, oh... my... God.
My dorm-mates were streaming in to the bathroom to brush their teeth and get ready for the day. I was standing under the hot water, praying that it would wash away the shame and fear that mixed with my blood. And there was too much blood. Months later, I would thank God for the rivers of red that ran from my body that night, and into the next morning, because it was a physical reminder of how badly I had been hurt. When my face flushed dark with embarrassment as I spoke to a police officer, I remembered the blood. When I sat in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood and waited for my name to be called, I remembered the blood. When I doubted myself, or blamed myself, or reprimanded myself for even existing on this earth as a woman that a man would want to harm, I remembered the blood.
Jane Doe, when I heard about what happened to you that night in Steubenville, I remembered the blood. I wanted to heal you, to help you, to wrap you up in the soft net of understanding that connects survivors everywhere, and tell you that you were going to be OK. But I couldn't. So I reached out to you the only way that I knew how, by promising you that I would raise my son to be kind. It was important to me to promise you that. But there were more memories that I wasn't brave enough to write.
Jane Doe, when I heard your story, I thought about me.
I thought about me, but I wrote about Max. I wrote about my sweet son, and how hard I was going to try to raise him to understand the difference between right and wrong. My Son and Steubenville was a promise to you, and a promise to the little boy who snuggles next to me in the bottom bunk every night. Because girls like you will never be hurt by boys like mine.
And then I heard from hundreds of mothers who echoed my refrain, and pledged to raise their sons to be kind. I heard from fathers, who gave gentle reminders that they needed to do their part, too. Many of them were angry that I had overlooked the enormous role that fathers have in defining the character of their sons, and I was proud of them for speaking up and reminding me that my audience is not just made up of devoted mothers, but of involved fathers as well. They were right. I heard from a reverend who was using these ideas in his weekly sermon, a kindergarten teacher who was teaching these principles to 5-year-olds sitting cross-legged on carpet squares. A former district attorney gave examples from her career about how the act of nurturing young men can outweigh the outside influences that teach them to cause pain. I spoke on a panel with change-makers, authors and athletes, all adults who are committed to righting the wrongs that happened to you. Jane Doe, more than 60,000 strangers shared my promise to you on Facebook. I talked about it on the radio. I watched the numbers climb. I was proud, and bursting at the seams with hope and compassion and the kindness of the human spirit. I wanted for you to know that the tremendous outpouring of love and empathy that erupted after my essay went viral, was FOR YOU. The numbers and the messages and the warmth were not mine to own. They belonged to you.
I didn't realize how much I needed to hear those messages until later, when I read a beautiful piece from a very brave writer. I realized that she had the courage to say what I couldn't.
She said ME TOO. I thought about that writer as I drove alone in my car one afternoon, hundreds of miles and more than a dozen years away from my "morning after." I finally understood. I wasn't alone. I was afraid to speak my own truth, but I didn't need to be, because grown women all over the Internet were standing up and saying, "Me too." Married women, single women, successful women, professional women. Mothers. Sisters. Leaders. That's when I realized that my article on kindness wasn't just for my beautiful son, but for Tracy, and for you, and ultimately, for me. It was for all of us. For all of the women who tried to do the right thing and got hurt anyway. My essay was a love letter to the 18-year-old me, and the not-quite-grown-up you and all of the other women warriors who found themselves alone and afraid on their own "morning after." If we can raise our sons to be kind, then perhaps we can save the rest of us.
Dear Jane Doe, come link your arm with mine, as we join the thousands of women across this country who will finally whisper to each other, "Me too."
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