“…It was the first time I had ever really used the place I knew and the things I felt in a piece of fiction, and there was a kind of dreadful exhilaration in seeing things that had troubled me for years come out in a form over which I had imposed control.”
-Stephen King, The Body
If you have ever been touched by Stephen King’s novella The Body, it is probably in the form of the Rob Reiner film “Stand By Me,”, and if you know that movie I don’t have to say anything more, except maybe, “I don’t shut up, I grow up, and when I look at you, I throw up.”You get it. But for the uninitiated, four boys-Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and River Phoenix- take an impromptu hiking trip to see a dead body. Two of them don’t really get much impact out of the excursion, but the other two confront their future and decide to make their lives matter. One becomes a writer, and from the vantage of middle age he is the one telling the story via flashbacks. I am reading the novella for the first time. Although I didn’t get much out of Stephen King’s (in)famous, On Writing when I read it last year for a Creative Writing class, this is the most realistic sentence about writing I have ever encountered in a story where the protagonist is a writer. I had an experience like that last week.
The scene I was writing was nothing I had experienced. My protagonist was having a fight with her boyfriend, and it was veering ugly. It was hard to write, because her boyfriend is normally so sweet. He’s considerate, attentive, with the keen eye for the details of another person’s comfort that come from being an older sibling-but he also suffers doggedly from PTSD, and this quiet but palpable disappointment with life that I have seen up close on young vets from working in a military town for seven years. But, for storyline dictated reasons he was not very happy with her, and was accusing her of sleeping with her boss. I do yoga, and this was not, to put it in fitness terms, the ‘peak’. It was merely supposed to establish why my main character is upset enough for a major event later on to take place. But when it was time for my girl to defend herself, what came out surprised me. She shouted as loud as she could, “I am not a whore,” and hung up the phone. I went to bed feeling very proud of what I wrote, and woke up feeling charged with this new exhilaration that suffused everything I did. It still hasn’t gone away, and I don’t think it ever will. I pray it won’t. Because as my characters were talking to each other, I was talking to my mother, my grandmother, and the boys that sexually assaulted me when I was 12.
Every time I tell this story I feel like I have done it a million times, and am sick of it, when in reality I have only told the details of the affair to my sister, and my best friend at the time-but, spoiler alert, the latter didn’t go so well. Well, here goes. My mother worked at a series of department stores after her divorce from my stepfather. My favourite was the Hecht’s at the mall in the nearest big town. She was a manager, and every once in a while after school I would mount the escalator to her department and help she and her associates hang clothes. She didn’t pay me, and the piles of power suits and mother of the bride dresses were so heavy they hurt my arm. My reward was to hang out with one of her employee’s teenage daughter. We would walk to Coffee Beanery, not buy anything and turn around, complaining about school the whole way. It was a ritual that made me feel indescribably cool. We couldn’t afford to shop at Hecht’s though. Most of my clothes from this period came from Wal-Mart, and you can bet the popular kids didn’t let me forget it either.
Next, there was the Sear’s at mall in the suburbs of the state capital, about two hours from our little town. I barely saw her, and when I did she was bringing home ugly clothes that didn’t fit me. Sear’s was affordable, so all my clothes came from there between 7th and 9th grade, in big plastic white bags and my mother’s passive aggressive pleas to try them on. I did the best I could, but she didn’t know my size too well and some things were too tight, too short. Her solution was that I wasn’t allowed to wear the short and tight stuff, and if I did I was a slut. That was it, basically. Accusations about being a slut, about boys, dogged me through these years. If I stood on the porch or under a tree, she and my grandmother said I was trying to get men to honk their horns at me as they drove by. If my pants stealthily started to slide down my skinny butt and I pulled them up, I was accused of trying to create a camel toe v effect to, once again, attract men’s attention. If I came home crying, it wasn’t because of challenging classwork or bullies-my mother and grandmother whispered in a huddle outside of my room about how it must be a secret boyfriend.
I was the most unlikely candidate for this behavior, and they must have known it-I wasn’t allowed to join after school clubs, go to friends’ houses, or do any activity outside of the house. I listened to the radio, talked to my best friends on the phone, and played with my little brother and sister. I was no sexpot at school either-too bookish and fat, with clothes that were never quite in style-because they all came from Sear’s,-to draw anything but scorn from the boys. Even those who were my friends because we all liked rock music and manga made jokes about how they would never date me, and confided to me about their crushes on my “prettier” friends.
Once, a friend gave a boy in our class my phone number so that he could ask for the number of another girl we knew. “A boy called the house!!!!” my mother shrieked, darting her eyes around like Beatrix Kiddo looking for more Crazy 88s to kill. She demanded of my grandmother, “Stop me! Stop me from killing her!!!!!” and proceeded to chase me around the house. I ended up cornered, standing on the cushions of the couch, the wall behind me. I am alive today, so my grandmother must have gotten through to her long enough for me to explain I didn’t have a boyfriend, I barely knew this boy. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with this friend when I got to school the next day.
Looking back, I know what their goal was. My grandmother, who is my great grandmother, was a promising high school student when she had to drop out due to pregnancy. My mother’s biological mother had her when she was in middle school. My mother made it dazzlingly far for coming out of such circumstances, but still dropped out of college when she was pregnant with me. They saw how smart I was and made it their mission that I wouldn’t choose sex over books, which seemed to be the family curse. They wanted me to be terrified of boys. But I was most afraid of the two of them, and of myself. I despised my breasts, my period, I felt fat, ugly and undesirable because that’s what the boys at school called me, but convinced I must be this secret slut underneath because that’s how my mom and grandmother treated me. I felt like they could see under my skin, and under my skin I was dirty, even things I thought were normal were dirty. I never knew when the accusations were coming. I approached my mother to show her that I thought some skin lightening cream we had been using was giving me an acne break out. She curled her lip at me in disgust, and said that the bumps on my face came from thinking about sex. She shot me one last nauseated look, and said to my grandmother, “No child of mine should look like that.”
So, by the time It Happened I didn’t know what to feel. I was wearing a Rugby shirt that was all black, with a jersey bodice and sleeves and a satin collar, with a black satin skirt fringed with black lace. I had Goth leanings, so for once I felt pretty. The cafeteria was a separate outbuilding from the school, a covered walkway between them. I had ended up in this solitary bubble, a crowd behind me and in front of me, but I was alone. At least, I was until three boys cornered me and began pushing me back and forth between the three of them. I guess they groped me, and put their hands under my skirt. All I really remember is them laughing. I had seen enough soap operas, made for tv movies, and talk show interviews to know that a certain kind of predatory laughter is usually apart of these things, so it was one of those eerie moments when you are living the tv cliché and it’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s real.”
Or maybe I just focused on their voices so I wouldn’t think about their hands. I didn’t really want to know what parts of me they had touched. They were the parts of me I was already ashamed of anyway. I was a savvy, smart little cookie. I knew that this denial even as it was happening would, in the words of a tv lawyer, make me an unreliable witness. The fact that these were popular boys and I was the weird fat girl only made my case less compelling. So, I knew even as it was happening that I would have to live with this. Sit near or beside these boys in class for the rest of the year, the next five years, and just not say anything about this. It was over pretty quickly, they let me go and I actually didn’t fall. I remember being grateful that I was still on my feet. That gave me the strength I needed to walk the rest of the way back to the school building, and finish the day.
I still had a kernel of hope that my best friend would be on my side. When I told her about the incident, I mentioned one of the boys by name and she said, “Yeah right. He was just over at my house. He wouldn’t do that to you.” The implication was that I wasn’t pretty enough to warrant such attentions. I mean, who would touch the fat girl in Sear’s clothes? So I went with Plan A: keep my mouth shut, for about twelve years. I see one of the boys who did this fairly frequently, because now my mother is basically retired and I am the one who works retail in the nicer towns a few miles away from our’s, and especially in my old job I see everybody from our county doing their shopping. Irony alert, he has a daughter. I have told my sister, but I really can’t remember if I have told my mom. Memory is a problem with me. I changed after that, I now realize. I had a huge fight with my best friend, and we didn’t speak again until late into the next school year. It wasn’t about what she had said. It wasn’t about anything really, she just did something random in homeroom and I got furious at her all through first period, and I almost smacked her with a textbook in the hallway. I became even more of a Goth and started listening to the NuMetal rock that was so popular at the time-this was when parents actually got hysterical if their kids listened to Marilyn Manson. Before that I was repulsed by his religion-baiting shock rock, and had decided for moral reasons never to listen to that kind of music. I kind of said “f#@k it” after that, and felt that he had written the song “Coma Girl” just for me. I don’t know if my mom really noticed much of a change in me, because we were already fighting a lot about clothes and rock music and horror movies, and she had just eloped so we were fighting about that too.
The wild accusations continued throughout high school, mostly coming from my grandmother. When I developed migraine headaches, she called them “nature pains” and said they were from (you guessed it!) thinking about sex. I had been Coma Girl for quite a while at this point. I didn’t expect anyone to fight for me. I sure wasn’t fighting. I was sneaking sips of wine from my mom and stepfather’s room and taking any cold medicine or sleep aid with diphenhydramine in it just to stay numb and sleepy so I couldn’t get into any fights with my grandmother or stepfather, who were home more than my mother. Don’t ask me about the second season of “Heroes”, I was asleep by 8:15 every night. Then I couldn’t sleep the night, of course, so I would prowl around watching music videos and writing in my journal until I kind of dropped, woke up again at 3 when my stepfather left for work, slept a couple of hours and woke up again around six for school.
Strangely enough, I don’t regret those years. I have some fond memories of the art, music, books, and films I discovered in this period, and having only each other to hang out with on weekends has made me, my brother and sister, as close as anyone can be, not just siblings but best friends. I am a pretty nostalgic person. I’m always telling “back in the day” stories, making them wry anecdotes about how bad fashion, music, and hairstyles were in the Bush years. Even my mother laughs. Me and my sister are the only twentysomething girls in our family who don’t have babies, and I am finishing up my Bachelor’s degree, so I guess my mother and grandmother got the results they threatened, accused, belittled, and shamed me for. I appreciate that they cared so much. I certainly don’t find it an attractive prospect to be a young single mother, as my mother was, so I am glad I had two people moving heaven and earth to keep me from the fate I see my relatives, co-workers, customers, and former friends living out. There wasn’t much chance of keeping up with my school friends because those that didn’t move away became pregnant literally right after graduation. I am 25 now. They have elementary school aged children and I have never even owned a dog of my own- half the time I don’t know whether to feel like the lucky one or an old maid. When I take a long hot shower just to smell lavender scented Dr Bronner’s in the steam, or pick up a new hobby like candle-making , or have a really great conversation with my sister, I realize this is the kind of thing I wouldn’t be doing if I had been a mother since the age of 18, 19, or younger, and it definitely veers toward “lucky one”.
However, the scars of their method to keep me on the straight and narrow stayed with me a long time. I dress pretty modestly, always afraid to show too much boob or leg and be “That Kind of Girl”. I am very outgoing and talkative, and get on great with guys but my love life has been very slow. I get so wary of men, I just can’t talk to a guy I am interested in and/or who I know is interested in me because I feel like my mom and great-grandmother are over my shoulder, and I would be proving them right, I am that secret whore just waiting for my chance. They are like Macbeth’s three witches, chanting, “Hot in the seat of her pants” instead of “double, double, toil and trouble” -and there’s only two of them. It is only recently that it seems to have clicked with them that I am a 25 year -old virgin who has only had one serious boyfriend and only been to a night club once, not some vixen.
When my main character screamed those words to her boyfriend, I felt them echo and throb through my head, too. I could feel that echo until the words faded and all I was left with was the hum of reverberating sound. That hum carried me through a Kundalini yoga workout, some preliminary notes for a couple of novels I am working on, a few shifts of my day job, some great days with my family, and a fanfiction submission for the fanzine I am writing for. That echo is in the smell of nag champa I just discovered, it is in the mint and lavender I just planted in my garden. It is in the renewed confidence in my voice when I tell someone ‘no’ to something I don’t want to do or give them a compliment they didn’t expect. It allowed me to hold my peace when my mom’s depression flared up and she tried to pick a fight with me, and to enjoy seeing “Batman vs. Superman” with my brother and sister instead. I hope this echo never dies, but its waves travel to someone else through every word I write from here on out and say, “It was not your fault. I don’t care what you were wearing that day, or how many boys you have kissed, made love to, or just dreamed about. You are not a whore, no matter who says so-even your own mother.”