When I was sixteen years old, I told someone, for the first time ever, that as a child I had been inappropriately touched by a boy who was four or five years older than me. Except, I didn’t say it like that at all.
During class that day, my high school English teacher had asked each person if there was anything they would never share with anyone—a simple yes or no question—before inviting us to free-write.
When school was over, I went to the teacher’s room, as I often did. After sitting a while in silence, I told him that I thought sexual abuse was the one thing people never talked about, at leat not on a personal level, whether in conversation or in writing.
He walked over to his book shelf, pulled down two essay collections, and said, “If you looked in these, I bet you’d find a few pieces each about that.” He put the books on the desk where I sat and then went back to his desk. A minute later, he added, “However, you’ll find that people already know. Not the details, of course, and not everybody. But, they already know.”
I said, as if it weren’t obvious enough, that it seemed like he knew why I was bringing it up.
He asked, “Am I wrong?”
I said no, and he nodded and turned back around.
By the time I told this teacher the secret I’d held onto for years, I had been staying after school and getting rides home from him since the beginning of the previous year. He taught creative writing and spent a couple of hours before he went home typing on a laptop as he prodded my classmates for better descriptions, writing down the occasional golden line as it fell across his ears. For as many lines as he recorded, he added his own lines, his own twists of character and pieces of setting.
Mostly, I was thrilled to listen, eavesdropping between homework assignments. I was one of three or so students who lived close enough to walk home just a mile away (it was a charter school in Utah), but he had always offered me a ride, and it was nicer not to walk, so I continued to stay and wait for a ride. My parents, I believe, were happy about this, or at least happy that I seemed to be finding a place for myself at school. For years their relationship had been a tennis match of who wanted to get a divorce, until the summer after my sophomore year when my mom left and started the paperwork. Prior to their divorce, my three older siblings had dropped out or checked out of school, so knowing that I was spending time with bright peers and invested mentors was something of a mercy. At the time, when I was at home, my house felt empty; if someone was home, they stayed in their room with the door closed, as I did. I mostly ate meals in the kitchen alone or, if someone else was making food, in silence.
One day after school, my teacher said that I needed to write a poem about a girl who speaks like she doesn’t mean to be heard, stands like she doesn’t mean to be seen, and walks like she’s going nowhere.
In the weeks after he asked my class that question—Is there anything you would never tell anyone?—I shared so many secrets with this teacher. I shared what the abuse I had experienced looked like, telling him that a boy had touched me under my shirt and underwear as I sat on a couch in his basement. I told him about my personal middle school bully, a classmate who followed me around hallways whispering “loser” and “freak” into the back of my neck, and how three girls who didn’t like me claimed he had photoshopped my face over pornography pictures and posted them on the internet. I told him about the family friend in his twenties who often jumped with me on the trampoline in my backyard years ago and how, one day, he said that he loved me and that if I promised I would marry him when I was older, he wouldn’t move away to South America; he wasn’t satisfied with my pinky promise, and I said I’d never broken a pinky promise, and that was the last time I saw him before he was arrested for molesting children.
My teacher shared with me, too. He said that he was hitting a stage of intense depression, as his older siblings had while in their forties. He said that if it weren’t for his friends and family, he was sure he’d be in jail by now, and at the time I thought he was talking about drugs. He talked to me about the importance of platonic touch—how it was a shame that touch was so regulated in public schools, when it was such a basic human need, regardless of the relationship. He said that he wished I could stay with his family over Christmas break, so that I could have a Christmas without drama. He and his wife, whom I sometimes talked with too, said that I could come to live at their house for as long as I needed if things were tough at home, and though I never did, I appreciated the offer.
I babysat his four year old daughter and sometimes went with their family to the library or a play. I wished I was part of their family. Once, when I was in the car with them, his wife told their daughter, “Only you can call him daddy—only you get to call him that.” The context escapes me, and I hadn’t tried to call him my father, but it felt like a personal rebuke that cut against me starting to be a part of their family. Around the same time, she asked me to make sure he left the school earlier, so that he could spend some time at home. Shortly before Christmas break, he told me that he thought I would take a bullet for him. I thought, of course I would. I hoped I was the type of person who would take a bullet for most people, if a shooter was around, but you never really know that about yourself before the situation arises.
Perhaps you know where this story goes. One Saturday in January, a few weeks after I turned seventeen, I went to the school to help him organize his classroom. That day he said, “You know I love you as a friend. Do you know the rest?” I hadn’t known or even suspected as much, but I understood that he meant he had fallen in love with me, and I said yes. I learned, on or near that day, that he was struggling with a pornography addiction and that he had been physically and verbally abused by his father. A few days later, I babysat his daughter, as I often did, and before taking me home he drove to a church parking lot and asked me to sit on his lap, which I did. I wanted to be held. I wasn’t, however, comfortable with him touching me, under my shirt and then my underwear, but I let him anyway. After I got home, I sobbed in the bathroom for two or three hours through the night, stuffing my fist in my mouth to muffle the noise.
The next day, I told him that it wouldn’t be good for him or me to have a physical relationship, and I cried as I said that I wasn’t saying that to reject him, it just wasn’t a good idea, and he pinched the snot that gathered and hung from my nose as I spoke. He was glad, he said, that I wasn’t rejecting him, and said he thought rejection was always about him. He asked if he could kiss me and I said okay, and he kissed me hard and I kissed him back, and he pulled back and said I couldn’t give mixed signals like that. He said to think about having a relationship, that he thought it was just what he and I needed, and I said alright, I’d think about it. Later that day I said, okay.
I don’t remember much chronological progression after that. We had sex over a dozen times, in semi truck parking lots and hotels and his car and once in his house. He always wore a condom. The first few times it hurt, a feeling like a stinging bruise through my vagina. Sometimes I would say that it hurt, and he would say that was just normal, that it would stop hurting soon, which was true in a sense; the sting faded. Once, early on, I thought, I’m on my period, I can get away with not having sex this time, but he said that my period wouldn’t be an issue and I said, okay.
I had said no before, to others. I said no to making out with a boyfriend I loved in ninth grade. I said no when I was twelve years old, to a different boy, a year and a half older than me—or rather, at first I let him touch me beneath my underpants, but I ended up pulling on his arm until his hand came free, and saying I didn’t want anymore. Years before, sometime after the older boy had touched me in his basement, he wanted to go on a hike with me when our families went camping together. I went to be polite, but I didn’t sit by him in the shade the way he kept on asking me to. No thanks, I kept on saying, I’m fine.
Permit me to return, if you will, to those early years in high school. I mentioned that my school was in Utah. As you might guess, I was (and am) a Latter-Day Saint, as were my teacher and most of my classmates. I cannot give a complete rendering of the role my teacher played in influencing my sense of right and wrong, but I can offer a few pieces of context and say that I considered him both a friend and a spiritual mentor, someone who seemed smarter and more moral than me or most people I knew, a kind of mystic.
I knew, for instance, that he was not rich but had given away his car to someone who needed it, and that he had offered his backyard and a room of his house to a homeless man.
He introduced me to writers that enchanted me, writers I never knew existed—Scott Russell Sanders, Joan Didion, Alan Paton, Stephen Dunn, and Galway Kinnell.
He talked about the spiritual importance of platonic touch—how often Christ needed to physically touch those he healed and comforted, as well as his own disciples.
Occasionally, in the month or two before telling me his feelings, my teacher held my hand, telling me that I was starving for touch, what with my family so full of distance. He didn’t call it “holding my hand,” though. Instead, he called it “checking my IV,” a reference to when a nurse had checked his IV and kept her hand on his for comfort when he had been in the hospital with kidney stones. I liked it when he held my hand, or when he gave me a hug, and although the possibility of romance didn’t occur to me, I felt that he was someone I wanted to stay close to long term, someone I hoped would be a part of my life when I went to college and married and had my own family. I wasn’t the only student who admired and trusted him. One classmate said he thought this teacher would be called as an apostle, a worldwide church leader. Another classmate, who had been molested by her father as a child, once told me that there were only three men she trusted: him, another teacher, and God.
I might be wrong, but I don’t think this teacher saw me for the first time as a fifteen year old student, and knew that he wanted to have sex with me. He thought himself unattractive, intelligent, and misunderstood, and he liked that I wanted to spend time with him. I have a lot of anger towards women, he once told me—anger at women for snubbing him, for never giving him a second glance. He liked that I signed up for all of his classes, liked that I liked it when he hugged me or held my hand. He was already a respected teacher, but I was a student who stayed after school to spend time in his classroom, who wrote down his advice every day, who made him feel wanted.
I don’t believe that he thought he was grooming me, at least not at first anyway. I imagine that when he gave me a book of Emily Dickinson poems, or a notebook with quotes about writing, he told himself that he was just trying to boost my confidence. I imagine that when he parked his car in my driveway and asked me how I was doing or talked to me about sexual abuse, he told himself that he was helping me heal, protecting me by letting me stay in his car, delaying the pain I would feel when I went home—a pain I think he imagined to be greater than it really was. Predators give children or teenagers gifts and talk to them about sex, often acting as replacement educators or confidantes when parents are silent. He did these things, but I do not think he was an experienced groomer. Eventually he must have realized that he wanted more than to be a mentor, a friend, a surrogate parent. As the possibility of something more grew in his mind, I imagine him asking himself how a teenager could even be considered a child.
In the month before he said he loved me, he talked to me, in the abstract, about sex: at least once he parked next to a church, the driver’s side of the car feet away from the chapel’s brick wall, and told me that despite whatever sexual experiences I’d had before, sex was a good and wonderful thing from God, that one day, I would find someone that I was meant to be with and have sex with, that I needed to let down some of my walls, go on dates, let people in.
Later, shortly after he said he loved me, he said that he had tried everything to get rid of his pornography addiction, from therapy to addiction recovery groups to meditation and scriptures and prayer, that nothing worked, that it took a strong force to prevent him from looking at pornography or having sex with other women, and that force was me. I believed, on some level, that our relationship could heal the emotional wounds that kept him returning to pornography and sex even when he didn’t want to.
This, he said, would be his last relationship outside of his marriage, the one that would teach him to feel whole instead of broken. My teacher said that we had been brought into each other’s lives to help each other heal, that God wanted to help His children above all else, and this would help us. I believed, then, that he meant all of this. Once, a month or two later, he called to say that he had given in to a pornography urge the day before and that he was ashamed of himself. I apologized for not calling him before, for not preventing him. He said it wasn’t my fault, but I felt guilty even so.
Sometimes, when I tell about someone about all this, they ask me what sex was really like—a way of asking, as far as I can tell, if I enjoyed sex. To this, I have written, here, a single easily-skipped-over paragraph. Mostly, after the first few times when it hurt, sex was neither pleasurable nor painful; it was fast, and I waited for the moment when he came. Sometimes, I felt aroused when he kissed or touched me, but having him inside me rarely felt “good.” I never orgasmed. After a few weeks from when sex started, I remember telling him that I thought I was sexually broken, and he said, I just needed time.
That said, I consider my own arousal or lack thereof at the time as irrelevant. It is possible to be aroused by or have an orgasm during sex you didn’t want in the first place, and I tire of the idea that coerced sex isn’t as bad if you experienced physiological pleasure. Victims of sexual violence or abuse can and often do experience arousal, which only adds to their torture in the aftermath.
Whatever my feelings were, he needed to feel wanted, and therefore, I acted like I wanted to be there. At one point, he said that it seemed like I was more interested in an emotional relationship than a physical one, which was true, but I heard or imagined some hurt in his voice and said that I liked being with him in all ways. Sometimes, I massaged his back or feet. Once, I said that I loved him. Another time, he said that his biggest fear was that I would hate him one day, and I said that I would never hate him.
I feel guilty and confused when I think back on this and how I kept on saying yes when I didn’t want to have sex—though by the fifth time or so I was pretty used to it, would undress myself after going in the hotel room without prompting. I kept on spending evenings with him and letting him drop me off and even pick me up. I still texted him when I was lonely, and I wanted to be alone with him. If he called or texted and said he wanted to meet up, I would walk away from my house at night and wait for him to pick me up in the dark, folding my arms for warmth as I ignored cat calls from a truck full of boys taking a ride in the night.
I remember him saying, “Where have you been all my life.” I remember him saying he wished he could pick me up and drive me to Washington, to start a new life. I remember oral sex in a hotel room, kneeling on the ground as he stood, the jabbing in my mouth that almost made me gag. I remember swallowing the semen and how he said that was funny and wondered aloud how many calories were in semen, how he gave me a towel that I kept spitting into, how he sensed the fragile quiet afterwards and said we wouldn’t do that again. I remember, the first time, the hymen break and the bleeding. I remember him going to the bank to get me a big “babysitting check” that he used to take me to a hotel. I remember the instructions to wait in the car for a certain amount of time before coming into the hotel room where he was waiting for me, lest it look like an older man and a teenager going into a hotel room together. I remember him slapping my butt, hard, how I couldn’t help but tense up, then him saying “I like to break people’s trust, then build it back up.” I remember him apologizing that he couldn’t leave his wife, and me thinking something like, of course not; I was here to be his friend, to help him recover from his past, not to break up his family. I remember him saying, “I can see God thinking, these kids could really use each other.” I remember poring over my own scriptures, confused, holding stories of adulterers and prophets with concubines in the same space between my ribs.
Sometime around February or March, I told this teacher that I had dreams of men raping me. I felt like any secret I kept from him, including my dreams, was a betrayal. Perhaps I wanted to hint, all this was troubling my psyche—I don’t know. He said something like, trauma can affect you for years. Sex could remind my body of past trauma. My body, he said, was reprocessing.
I told him, shamefully, that I had started to masturbate, once, after scratching the red, raw, wet peeling rash that covered my outer genitalia—some sort of aggravated yeast infection that sex either caused or made worse. I thought I would be rebuked, but I wasn’t. He was pleased, and took that as an opportunity to invite sex, which I didn’t want, but said okay.
When he said that I made him horny when I wore a skirt, I went to school the next day wearing pants, planning to wear pants thereafter. That day he said it was funny that I wore pants because it almost looked like I was trying to avoid making him horny, but he knew I was probably just alternating skirts and pants. After that, I alternated skirts and pants every day. Once he hugged me and held me firmly after I exhaled so that I couldn’t breathe back in. I just waited, the ten or fifteen seconds or so. It felt like longer, though I’m sure it wasn’t. He said, after letting me go, that was how anacondas killed their prey—not by squeezing, but by tightening with each exhale. A few times, he said that I controlled him. He said it as a compliment.
Once I had agreed to having sex, I felt that backing out would undo whatever good I was doing and leave him more rejected and hurt than he already was. I didn’t know whether or not my teacher was right about sex being what God wanted. I thought it was possible; how else could this mentor I trusted so deeply suggest such a thing? But even so, I often wished that I had stood my ground on the day I said that having a physical relationship was a bad idea. My church leaders had prepared me for that moment. They said, you need to know how you’re going to respond when something comes up, when someone wants to go too far, or you won’t be able to say no. You need to get out before you lose control, they said, or you’re going to get into trouble. But I hadn’t stood my ground, and I felt that I had forfeited my chance to get out. Even as I prayed, asking to know what was right, part of me knew that even if God had told me I was sinning, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would do nothing.
Then, one day in April about three months after sex started, I was arrested for lying. I was with the teacher in the backseat, parked behind a tower of hay bales on a farm. He was touching me and my tights were down when a police car pulled up. My teacher got out while I pulled my skirt over my tights, though they were still rolled above my knees. After getting out, I lied about my age. I said I was eighteen. I had four chances to answer correctly—age, birth year, repeat. I lied each time. The officer found me by my name, birthday and birth month in his online database.
I was arrested, I believe, because that was the quickest way the officer had of making sure I wouldn’t get back in the car with my teacher. I remember my surprise that the handcuffs were a matte black instead of a shining silver. It was smoky standing by the police car as it idled, my feet nearly touching the front tire, particles of tar gathering on my tan skirt, my tights still around my thighs—somehow I had worked them to be higher than just above my knees as I stood, lightly bending one knee at a time.
The officer asked me several questions about what we were doing, and I said just chatting. He said he knew I was lying. I squinted as I spoke and he asked me if I wore glasses—they were somewhere in the back of the car, though the officer never found them—and I said that I wore glasses to see the whiteboard during class. I could barely see the face of the officer as he spoke to me. Another officer arrived twenty or so minutes after the first and drove me to a youth holding facility, where I would stay only a few hours, pretending to be less blind than I was.
My teacher was not arrested that Friday. Sitting in the backseat of a car with a minor is not, itself, illegal, and the officers had no proof that anything more had happened. Instead, he was told not to contact me anymore, and he resigned the next Monday, telling the school that he was leaving to take up a prestigious writing residency.
In the summer, he turned himself in. Perhaps someone knew something incriminating and gave him the chance. Perhaps he felt remorse. The police brought me a letter from him, in which he said that he had taken advantage of my trust and broken God’s commandments, that he had put himself between me and my friends and family, that he was sorry for every painful, bewildering, embarrassing moment I’d experienced. I had spent the months in between deeply troubled, worried that he couldn’t move on from that experience if he lived in silence. I knew that if I told anyone, he would be in much more trouble than if he came forward himself.
The relief I felt the day the police came to my house on a morning in June, just a few months after he resigned, was euphoric. I walked outside for much of the day, struck by the fullness of air in my lungs and the springy trees and the upright grass and the particles of dust magnifying the light around me.
I told an officer and the prosecuting attorney that the relationship was completely consensual, and they could see that I was articulate and sensible, mature even, and he went to jail for six months. No news source picked up the story, even though the prosecuting attorney insisted it would go public.
You might be wondering, what does the writer of this essay, now—a decade later, since you asked—make of all this? I can answer only in fragments, and will start with something of an elephant in the room: religion.
I worry often about the potential for abuse of power in religion, that realm of metaphysics saturated with faith, trust, and authority. However, I have never seriously considered leaving my faith. I have always believed that I am not spiritually alone in this world, and in my life, now, I feel the least spiritually alone when I engage in daily religious devotion—a prayer each night, ten minutes of scripture study during my day, an attempt to go to church on Sunday mornings. I cannot say that I have never felt lonely, at times despairingly so, but often, I have felt a minute, persistent sense that someone was waiting for me on the other side of this confusion or pain or shame.
I don’t know if I felt this way when I was actually with my teacher, but I remember feeling such, at times, when I was alone and troubled. As I prayed and asked if what I was doing was wrong, or if my teacher was right, not once did I sense any private spiritual assurance or rebuke in answer to my prayers. Yet, a promise graced the periphery of my awareness that some being would see me through to the other side of this bewilderment, that there was another side, that this was not how things would always be. I said it was euphoric, the day the police came to say that my teacher had come forward, and it was euphoric, and the world around me beautiful, and also, on top of all that, there was an unmistakable, otherly presence intent on delivering its promise to stay with me awhile.
Most days since I started college, I haven’t thought about that teacher, though I fear opening car doors and the darkness of my room at night. I often have nightmares and almost daily I imagine what I would do if someone assaulted me or tried to hurt someone I love, especially in my family. When I walk outside and there are few people around, my throat closes at the sound of footsteps behind me.
At times, however, I grow wild with fear. I become restless and struggle to eat, driven ill by my belief that I, and those I love, could be in danger. Occasionally, I can’t sleep at all through the night, wondering, what protection is a locked door and a closed window if someone really wanted to get into our apartment? I remember one night, realizing that the front door was unlocked and crossing the living room in a panic, certain the door would burst open before I could bolt it.
Sometimes, I am a skeptic of my own fears. Sometimes I think, I was only ever a victim of my own poor judgment and lack of resolve. After all, at seventeen, I was just one year shy of the legal age for consent; I have often felt that anything that happened to me was just barely illegal, and, therefore, not really. I sometimes feel culpable, if for nothing else than for being a needy, clingy student who brought trouble upon herself.
I do not believe that these thoughts belong to me alone. The parents on the PTA board at my school talked to each other about how I had a crush on this teacher and a previous teacher whom I would talk to during my lunch hour, and one parent warned her daughter to be cautious about being my friend for that reason. Part of me wonders why they explained whatever they saw by saying I had a crush, rather than wondering why I didn’t want to go home after school or wondering about my teacher’s behavior. In any case, though, I’m not sure how cutting me off from friends was likely to help the situation.
Later, when I told a therapist, a few years ago, that I had an abusive relationship with a high school teacher, she said that it didn’t seem to be affecting me very much; there was no emotion in my voice. When I told a college acting professor that I was worried about a man I’d seen playing with my sixteen year old sister’s neck with his fingers, he said, “We treat teenagers like they are children, but she’s old enough to decide what she wants for herself.” When I visited my bishop’s office the week after my teacher confessed, myself eager and filled with so much hope that I could find my spiritual bearings, my bishop gave me a paper called “The 17 Rules of Celestial Dating” and asked me to study it. He suggested I write an apology letter to my teacher’s wife, which I did. He said that I had been caught red handed—a euphemism for the blood that stains a murderer—and that I had committed the most serious sin next to murder. Weeks later, when I spoke with the attorney prosecuting the case against my teacher, she said of him, “Let me know if you need anything—besides, that is, riding off into the sunset with your prince.”
I hope you’ll forgive me, for saying too much and not enough, for being too cold or vivid or vague. I’ve always tried to avoid a sob story when I have written or talked about this in the past. I’ve considered the details irrelevant at best, gratuitous at worst. I only started writing them because I’m seeing a new therapist, and I didn’t want to downplay the story this time. I’m still writing because turning out an essay is an easier way of working through an obsession that’s keeping me up at night anyway.
I’m still writing, and as I do, I recognize that there is irony in this essay being a creative work. I’m glad that I didn’t set aside creative writing just because I’m afraid of my first creative writing teacher (afraid of him ever turning up at my front door, afraid of becoming like him). However, it remains true that I first learned to write from this teacher. I have wondered whether or not I would be a writer if he didn’t help me with two poems, a short story and two short plays. I would rather I never met him regardless, but I am grateful, even so, to be a writer. I am grateful that I have writing to rely on throughout the struggles and joys of daily life, as well as when a painful past comes calling.
Even more ironic is that the essay, most fundamentally, is an act of confiding. I am writing the details that I think people haven’t wanted to hear, the hurts I’ve kept to myself. It isn’t lost on me that much of my attachment to my teacher came from how much I confided in him.
Writing this essay, though, does not feel at all like confessing the dark secrets this teacher had already guessed about me. An essay is not a bargain in which you pay someone loyalty fees in exchange for the security of having a place to be. It is not even an admission of loyalty to the reader, and the writer of an essay is not left in debt, owes no gratitude to a reader for hearing the writer speak. The writer is often grateful, but such gratitude is not offered with lowered head like presenting gifts before a magnanimous king. The writer is not a dependent in the reader’s custody.
I have readers in my life now, and they are kind and smart and always respectful. I share my life with others carefully and cautiously, at times imposing on myself a stronger sense of privacy than I naturally have just to remind myself of my borders and boundaries. But I do share, and I have many friends and family and colleagues and classmates who have listened to this particular story, either conveyed in person or in writing. They have said, in one form or another, we love you, and we’re so sorry that happened. We’re here for you, and thank you for sharing.
If such sentiments seem tired or worn out, they cease to be so, to me, in that moment after sharing when I half expect the person I have told to say nothing and walk away. Which has happened, a few times; I have lost friends in sharing this story. They do not walk away when I am speaking, but they slip out of my life, quietly and conclusively, soon after. In a way, this comforts me. In a way, it means I am able to do the same.
Alizabeth Worley has an MFA in nonfiction from BYU and was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals Project. Her poetry, essays, and illustrated works have been published in Tar River Poetry, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Hobart, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alizabethworley.com.