What was I thinking when I agreed to let these older boys, Mace and Streak, try to get me to have sex with them? Shouldn’t their names alone have tipped me off?
I couldn’t have made these names up. I was 12 years old. Dressed in baby doll shirts and black velvet wedge sandals I began to wear, I must have looked like a whore. Did I call it a rape? I’d ask myself, again and again, when I was old enough to understand what the word meant. I’d never even seen a penis before. Just the word sex was a sin.
So far, my boyfriend Joey, who I’d met only three months before, when he’d kiss me by the bleachers on the football field at school, would ask for permission. The word penis had only come up when my brother had taught me and my older sister, Janine, the birds and the bees at the top of the stairs in our house, the area that was for the kids, where I had always felt safe—where we had listened in on our parents’ conversations when I was a child before their divorce, from the top of the banister, spying on them.
Had I knowingly let these boys violate me? Of course, I didn’t think about how either way, what had happened was a violation whether I had brought it upon myself?
I was a shy girl but willful and strong. Once, I threw a brick at Richard Gentile’s head. He was my next door neighbor. I did it out of defense because he hit me first and my nose bled, but I was quick to react. I teased Caroline Conti at St. Joseph’s in grammar school because she was fat. We all did it, but I didn’t feel guilty about it until years later. Are we born with kindness? Does it grow overtime?
For years, each time I wrote about this night, I had asked myself these same questions. I asked them over and over. Sometimes, I’d even use the word, “threw.” ‘What was I thinking when I threw myself at these boys,’ I’d write. Threw. Agreed. Either way, in my mind I was always an active participant in what had happened.
I knew that these boys had never fully penetrated me, though the thing about this is that, at 12 years old, I could never be too sure. And, based on slim pockets in my memory, as I got older, I’d remembered so little I’d become an unreliable narrator to myself. When I’d try to recollect what had happened, it was as if a magnetic force would push these memories away – memories I know now I wasn’t ready to face.
In writing about it, as I’d start to write, my fingers would shake. I’d struggle to write, then pause and often end with “Maybe God was on my side,” because I wasn’t sure if I had gone all the way, as a way to live with it I was so ashamed, convincing myself that I hadn’t. This redeemed me. It kept me good in God’s eyes. I’d fool myself into thinking he had saved me. After all, premarital sex in Catholicism was one of the Ten Commandments. As a Catholic who chose to honor her faith, going all the way had big consequences. This had added an extra layer of shame.
Unlike most of my peers, who shunned God when I was a young girl—to believe in God wasn’t the cool thing to do—I had carefully picked out a name for my confirmation. It was Eve. Walking down the aisle in church the day I received it when I was in fourth grade, I was hypnotized by God’s love. I had collected prayer cards like a stack of baseball cards of my favorite saints my grandmother had given me, which I kept on the nightstand in my bedroom, along with rosary beads that were blessed by the pope. This even made the consequences of that fateful night with Mace and Streak, beyond breaking one of the Ten Commandments written in the Bible. On a person level, it was a cardinal sin.
Bobby Pistone, one of the older boys at school, had asked me to go with him to get some pot. Joey had warned me not to go. Bobby was bad news Joey told me, using drugs and running away. But I didn’t care. Like a child puts their fingers to their ears to block out something they don’t want to hear, with violence in our home (regular implosions by my brother, Matt), by then, all I wanted to do was to get away from my home.
“Turn the fucking television off. Be productive,” Matt would scream when I got home from school. Once, out of the blue, he attacked me for wearing a t-shirt he claimed was too thin as I sat on the bench to our piano, practicing “Clair de Lune,” one of my favorite songs. Even now when I play it, if I’m alone, I always get the sense that many people are around.
I could almost smell his rage when he stomped into the room. He approached me slowly, from what I could see in my peripheral view. With each step he took, echoes of “ignore him,” from my mother, churned circuitously, in my head.
“You look like a whore,” he shot, then lunged towards me, put me in a headlock and flipped me onto the floor. Matt had learned Judo and Karate for self-defense as a child. Now, he only used it to exercise his will.
My T-shirt ripped, leaving my trainer bra exposed. I was humiliated. Bad enough, each time I’d turn to my mother for help to protect me, she’d turn the other way. It was as if a part of me died when she did this. Like the cinders from a fire that slowly burn out, she’d take a piece of my dignity. Already at a loss from my father’s abandonment when I was seven, without someone with whom I could look to for support, it was as if I had lost both parents—let alone the sudden loss of Matt.
Two years older than me, Matt became violent when he was 14. Years later, therapists would agree, this was due in part to the antagonist relationship that had developed between my father and his new wife. My father had seen us sporadically after he left. As children, Matt had been my fierce protector. Each one year apart, Matt, Janine and I had done everything together. Once, he led us to safety in a raft he had made out of sticks, through a puddle of water in the marsh near our house that we had called the Great Swamps. He also had a strong heart. He took Harry “the retard,” who lived in the big, English Tudor around the corner from our house for walks once a week because the other kids had made fun of him.
I know now that my mother couldn’t help herself, but she’d take Matt’s side even when she talked to me in private without him there, justifying his implosions by expressing sympathy towards him. “When a boy loses his father,” she’d say—in reference to my parents’ divorce, each time he’d lift off into a rage—“it’s worse than it is for a girl. The divorce shouldn’t affect you so much.” Girls weren’t supposed to have feelings about their fathers? After my mother’s initial shock wore off after my father had left when I was a child, it seemed as if she always had a smile on her face. Did she think she was better off without him? Had she denied her love for my father along with the violence, too?
My father had a streak of brutality to be sure, yet I, the only person in my family who had a shy side like him, had related to him more. He’d laughed at my jokes. Looking at phots of me and my father when I was a little girl, I was always sitting on his knee, though I’d idolized Her.
I remember, when I was a child, she’d take us to Greenwich Village almost once a month in those early days after my father had left. We’d go to playhouses in these cool lofts to see plays like Peter Pan fly across the stage on a zip line, or Mary Poppins, with her umbrella, ascend into the air. As we rode in one of her Cadillacs from our house (the type of car Nana, my mother’s mother, bought her to help her out financially now that she was a single parent, every three years in one of three color combinations – red, white and blue), sitting in the back seat of the car, I’d be mesmerized watching her hands like butter suede move on the steering wheel as we rode across the Willis Avenue Bridge.
She always took shortcuts in those days to get anywhere. As a math teacher, she’d calculate the distance and figure out the fastest route. But what I remember most was the way as we rode across the bridge, how she’d put her finger on the safety lock on the door to keep us safe – driving through a bad neighborhood.
Once, not long after I’d started school in seventh grade, after coming home, I heard shouting in starts and stops. I followed the trail of voices through the swinging doors that we had used as kids to put on plays as we made our grand entrance onto the stage. Matt had pinned my mother up against the wall in our family room near our giant storm windows. Lots of sun streaming in through those giant windows that constituted the wall on the right hand side of the front of our house, had always led to lush plants my mother kept in huge decorative pots.
“You’re a whore,” Matt spat. “Leave me alone. You’re a fucking whore. I’m going to Peter’s whether you like it or not.”
On this one day, he’d been trying to go to Peter Steiner’s house, Peter who used LSD, and my mother had been trying to keep Matt at home. “Get your hands off of her now,” I demanded as she was held helpless against the wood paneling.
“Stand back,” my mother yelped. “He doesn’t mean any harm. We need to forgive him,” she said. Even when I had tried to help Her, she still sympathized with him.
It’s no wonder I grew up thinking she didn’t believe in me. All those “I love you,” I love you’s, when she’d chase me and my siblings around the house—her way of being playful, the side that had attempted to demonstrate her love, she’d taken away. “I love you,” she’d say amidst the violence in fits and bursts. Were they words I could trust?
We met at an older house. Outside the paint was chipping. Inside it was dark. It belonged to a friend of Mace’s. Streak and Mace were Bobby’s older friends who were two years older than Bobby, and Bobby was two years older than me. Mace’s friend had gone on vacation with his family and had told Mace he could stay there while he was away. But he had instructed him to keep the lights off since his parents had asked the cops to patrol the house. When Bobby and I got there, Streak answered the door. I told him I’d wait outside. I didn’t want to go in. The few times I’d met these guys, they had looked at me with a penetrating glare that spoke of one thing. They wanted to take advantage.
I could have insisted that I wait outside when Streak urged me to go in, but I didn’t. I hadn’t learned yet to speak up for myself.
I stood inside for what seemed like a long time. When Bobby came back, he told me that he got the pot, but Streak only had half of a Quaalude. I remember feeling disappointed. I didn’t like pot. Pot dulled me. It only exacerbated my loss and the chaos in my home. When Streak walked into the room and picked up a needle on the floor, I remember thinking that I was scared of him. I wanted to tear out of there. I looked behind me at the front door to see if there was a clear path if I needed to run. But, at the same time, while I’d just started using drugs, by then, all I wanted to do was to get high.
When I try to recollect what happened next, it’s here where my mind goes blank. It jumps to the memory of me lying on a coach. A warm feeling, weightless like water filling up in a bottle, as the background noises in the room come together with the vibrations inside my head.
I’m not happy, disappointedly, nor am I sad. Oddly, I’m so tired that I don’t feel much of anything. Streak appears out of the blue. He’s hovering over me with that grin I know from the few times I had met him could only mean one thing.
“Can I put my thing in you?” he asks.
His thing! Once, Joey had humped me in the basement of his house with his pants on. He was so polite about it, I didn’t think much of it. This was as close as I had gotten to a thing. The thought of a thing in me, would ordinarily render me more than scum. Only afterwards, this is what I’d become. Then, the idea that I was crossing into a forbidden zone didn’t mean much of anything. All that really mattered was the moment. The thought of sex, or at least my minimal knowledge of it, is miniscule. Like in a dream, it doesn’t have the same significance as it would have in this state I am in.
I sense Mace in the background smirking. I can’t see him, but from his laugh I can tell he’s in cahoots with Streak.
Streak was tall. He had long hair. It was greasy. He had large blemishes on his forehead and cheeks, and wore a black leather jacket that had a chain attached to one of the pockets, which clinked when he walked. In the way someone jerks their head from a nervous twitch, every few seconds, he had flicked his hair back with his neck to keep it from falling in his face.
That night, I imagine his eyes were lit up.
“You go first,” he says to Mace.
I say no. Then I say yes. I thought I said yes? Did it matter? Mace gets on top. He tries to unzip my pants. It gets stuck. Streak jumps on top. With his knees straddling me, he yanks my pants down with zipper intact and pulls my underwear to the side.
I squeeze my muscles as tight as I can to keep his thing from getting in. He begins to pummel me. In the gloaming he belches, “She’s too tight. I can’t get in.” Then he collapsed.
Had I done it? Gone all the way? How I was going to have to live with not knowing whether or not I had lost my virginity at 12 years old.
My mother put me into a hospital not long after that night for using drugs and running away. When the doctors examined me they found puncture marks on the soles of my feet. “We’re you mainlining?” they asked.
“Mainlining?” What was that?
All that I remember was agreeing to allow Mace and Streak to try and have sex with me, Mace trying to yank my zipper, Streak on top moving his hips with that primitive thrust—the only way I could remember what happened for a girl who had learned that boys come first. I didn’t remember using heroin.
A Senate committee opens hearings on the Watergate Affair.
“Billy Don’t Be a Hero” becomes number 1 on the Top Pop Hits Chart in 1974.
For the first time, at 17 years old, I engage in what I know to be consensual sex.
Doctors diagnose the first case of AIDS.
I get my first career job at Charles Scribner’s Sons. I’m 23.
Paul Newman in the The Color of Money wins the Academy Award.
Six weeks after 9/11, the Terrorist Attack on the World Trade Center, I become a mother of a daughter myself.
One morning I wake up covered in sweat. The sound of sirens and the letters J.D. J.D. swarm in my head. I call the Yonkers Police Station. “Can a minor get a record after one offense? Or, I think . . . 1972?” I say to the clerk who answers the phone.
“What do you mean?”
Humiliated, I hang up the phone. I wasn’t sure myself what I was asking, but I was starting to connect the dots! It was all coming back—those haunting memories of that dark period in my life: the sirens, the letters, they were from the night my mother had hospitalized me. I was at a party at an apartment on Palmer Road with Bobby and planning on running away to California where he had an uncle. I was planning on going all out—getting high, running away. And this time I was never coming home. Bobby had just walked into the apartment with those pills called Quaaludes he had wanted me to try when suddenly we saw lights flashing and the sound of sirens. One of the neighbors had called the cops. Bobby got away. The cops brought me to the police station. When my mother got there they told her that, apprehended for drugs, I could get a record as a Juvenile Delinquent, a J.D.
She had a friend, the guidance counselor at her school whose son was a drug addict, and he had put him into a hospital for drug rehabilitation, and saved his life, she told the cops. “If I show good faith and put Corinne into one of those hospitals, you know, one of those places like retreat homes, will you keep this offense off the record?”
When my mother hospitalized me, she had signed me into a mental hospital. By then, she had to do something. She had no choice. I’d embarked on a trajectory in which I was no longer safe. In 1972, when she had me committed, for parents whose teenagers were rebellious or drug users, with few resources at that time, the concept of a mental hospital for rehabilitation wasn’t unheard of. But because my mother had made me out to be the one in the family with the problems, by refusing to face the violence, whether something was wrong with me, and that was the reason why she had me committed, I could never be sure. I think what I was asking the clerk at the police station was, ‘is that why my mother had hospitalized me?’
I called the hospital after that. New York Hospital. My mother had me committed to the psychiatric division of New York Hospital in White Plains, also known as Bloomingdales, based on the Bloomingdale Asylum, its original name.
“I’m looking for a copy of my records,” I said.
“What year were you here?” She asked.
“1972,” she exclaimed. “This was the year we put the records on micro-film. I’ll see what I can do.”
When I first called the hospital, there was a falseness to it. I felt led more by the drama, like I was doing it as a temporary distraction from the mundane things in my life, like when my father died, when I was in my late thirties, and a huge lawsuit broke out between us (the first family), and his second family over his will. I’d been the least forgiving of my father of all his kids. After he’d left home forever, abruptly that one day when I was a child, slammed the front door of our home shut, drove around the bend and never came back, though he’d get back in touch, because I was the least forgiving, I didn’t feel entitled to receiving anything. Who was I kidding I thought now when I had called the hospital to get a copy of my records. I’d been like a bad seed when I was a teenager, inherently flawed, and maybe something was, in fact, wrong with me, and that was the reason why my mother had hospitalized me. After all, she told me that I was crazy after I’d rebelled against her for refusing to face the violence, and had made an appointment for me to see a psychiatrist.
“I’ve made an appointment for you to see a psychiatrist,” she told me one day. “You can’t control yourself.” We were in her car. When she stopped at a red light, I opened the door on my side and jumped out.
“Get back into the car,” she said.
“Can’t you see, it’s not me who has the problems in our family. It’s Matt.”
“You—r—r—r crazy,” she said. You really are.”
That day had forever haunted me. It sat above my head like a bulbous mass, haunting me in the way a nightmare can for the longest time. Maybe she was right. I couldn’t control myself. Maybe I had a nervous breakdown that day. With nervous breakdowns, can you lose your mind and then come back in the same day?
I’d never imagined that in getting a copy of these records, I’d find that something wasn’t wrong with me. There was a chart with a diagram of my body the doctors had drawn with arrow marks pointing to puncture marks on the soles of my feet. The word, heroin was written next to it. Mainlining, the notes read, but I still didn’t remember.
The Human Genome Project is completed in 2003. Scientists from around the world successfully finish sequencing about 99% of the human genome!
CBS uncovers systemic torture of Iraq Prisoners at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Spain.
George W. Bush starts his second term as 43rdPresident of the United States.
In 2005, Memoirs of a Geisha Girl is nominated for numerous awards, drawing attention to the concept of a Geisha in Eastern society, in an entertainable form.
Critics of the “rape crisis feminists” argue that a girl who goes alone into a frat house and drinks is cruising for a gang bang, and if she doesn’t know that, then she’s an “idiot”—playing the same game.
If a boy even puts his hands on a girl’s pelvis, teenage girls are calling it a rape. Had I exaggerated what had happened in my mind?
As I struggled to make sense out of that haunting night, with owl like innocence, unconsciously, my eyes began to zero in on all points of view. But memory is fickle. It plays tricks with your mind. It seemed the harder I searched for the truth, the more it alluded me.
Then, one day, like staring at a statue, while meditating or in prayer, the minute you take your eyes off of it, the answer comes, I’m in the doctor’s office with my daughter. By now she’s six. It’s 2007 and ready for her vaccination for chicken pox. As the doctor lifts her arm with a needle to give her a shot, Streak walks into the room and picks up the needle from the floor. “Come on. Try. It’s not like anything you’ve ever done,” with a grin.
I looked at him. Heroin? While all I wanted to do was to get high, heroin was for people who didn’t have a future.
Streak persisted. “Come on try. Just a little.”
I could have said no, but I didn’t. I’d gotten good at sabotaging myself. He picked up a rag that was on the floor and made a knot above the crease of my elbow on one of my arms. Blood began to seep from my skin as he tried so insert the needle into my vein. Trembling, I said “Stop.”
Streak eyed me. “I’ll do it in one of your feet. You won’t feel a thing.”
It didn’t hurt when he punctured me there. At the same time, I didn’t feel different. He did it again. But still, would I have allowed these guys to try and have sex with me if I’d never used the heroin? Of course not! Stepping foot into that house, should I Have expected to get raped? No!
It’s curious to me why I never remembered using the heroin—the only part of that night that held the missing link, the clue that would redeem me, that would clear up what had happened for once and for all. It’s no surprise that I didn’t remember— that for all those years, all that I remembered was that I’d been an “active participant” in what had happened. For a girl who had learned not to believe in herself, this was the only story I could tell myself, that I could be convinced of. I had never questioned those boys’ integrity as older boys taking advantage of me. In this regard, you could say my mother denying the violence was a form of a rape. That’s where it started. Or maybe generations before that.
“Yes, mother dear. No, mother dear.” That was how my mother had always told me she was taught to address Nana, her mother. She had often told me that she’d never been allowed to speak.
I was in my twenties and lost my rolodex once. I had brought it home with me on the train, and from the cab to my house, my overstuffed briefcase turned over accidentally as I got into the cab. As the driver waited impatiently for me to get in, while I put everything back, I didn’t realize that I’d accidentally left it behind. I panicked in realizing I didn’t have it when I got home and called a friend of mine to ask for advice. “You’d be surprised what you can remember,” he told me. “I once had a friend who wrote a book and his house burned down. He remembered everything and was able to rewrite the book.” My friend was a spiritual guru and had learned to run marathons, do the impossible, shuck anything that was material. Not with trauma. Only slowly did the memories come back. Piece by piece, dot by dot. Shame doesn’t work like that. At first, you deny the very thing that has caused you the shame. Then, you act like nothing has happened because you have no choice. You can’t turn back. Yet it remains simmering, squirming beneath the surface deep down in your soul. You can only focus on surviving in this compromised state.
While for the most part I had kept the hospital a secret. This I told to no one.
We all come from the past. I’ll want my daughter to know as she gets older what it was that went into my making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud.
I’ll want her to know that in order to move forward in life, as a girl, above all, you need to love yourself. I hope to impart this valuable message. Without this love, deep down inside I lived my life believing that I deserved to be violated somehow.
Patrice de Palma writes freelance for a wide range of USA Today media outlets, and advocates for cause-related organizations through a public relations firm she founded, as an offshoot of her publishing career. Patrice grew up in New York, around the corner from Sarah Lawrence College, where she obtained her M.F.A. in Creative Writing (non-fiction). While there, she studied with Pulitzer prize winner, Vijay Seshadri. She has also studied with Joyce Maynard, author of the New York Times best-seller, At Home in the World, which is based on Maynard’s relationship with J.D. Salinger.
“Shame” is about a rape Patrice endured at 12 years old, and the debilitating effect of keeping it a secret until she became a mother. It’s based on a memoir in the works, called In Full Bloom, of growing up believing she was like a bad seed, inherently flawed, because of what had happened, and after giving birth, discovering she is the good person she had aspired to being after all.
Patrice is a competitive equestrian rider, which admittedly, brings out the fighting instincts in her she feels is necessary in life. She is a mom, an animal lover, and a strong advocate for women’s and children’s rights.