Editor’s note: This memoir includes explicit descriptions of sexual assault.
I never knew his name. When I picture him now, I see a man somewhere between 45 and 60, which is my age. I don’t think of myself as old, but I think of him as “the old man in my building,” because that’s what he looked like to my 12-year-old eyes. He was white, with dirty-blonde hair and a mustache. In my memory, he walks with a slouch, his shoulders rounded forward as if he were always tired. I also remember that he wore glasses and that he had kind eyes.
Shortly after he moved into his apartment on the second floor of our building, he said hello to me for the first time. I was standing alone in the courtyard and he stopped as he walked past, nodding and smiling. “Hi!” was all he said. The second time he did the same thing, and by the third or fourth time, a ritual of greeting had grown between us. He would smile and say hello; I would smile and say the same thing back. Then, for a long silent moment, he would fix me with his gaze, while I stood there, a kid hungry for attention, too happily embarrassed to move, wishing when he walked away that I’d done something, anything, to prolong our conversation.
My parents had separated in 1965, when I was three. The man who had been my stepfather had packed up our family station wagon and run off to North Carolina not too long before the old man had moved to our building. I was hungry for adult male attention, and he seemed willing, even eager to give it to me. Then, one day in late summer, he did not keep walking after our usual exchange; I felt a thrill of anticipation run through me. “When am I going to see you?” he asked. I stood there silent and motionless in the warmth of his smile. He nodded in response, as if he understood everything I did not have the words for. Then he walked off, still smiling.
Sometime after that, when I was heading out of our building to meet friends, he was walking down the staircase leading from his apartment to the front door. We reached it at the same time. As I went to turn the knob, he held the door shut with his left forearm, maneuvering me with his right till I stood facing the corner near the mailboxes, where the doorframe met the wall. Pulling me tight against him, he ran his hands beneath my shirt and up the legs of my shorts; he groped my chest and belly, squeezed my butt, cupped between my legs, all the while whispering hoarsely into my ear, over and over again, “When am I going to see you?”
I had no words for what he was doing, no training such as children get now in how to attract an adult’s attention, or to try to scare off an attacker. All I could do was stand there till he was finished, and when he was, I ran. I don’t remember how far or how long or in which direction, but I ran as if I could leave my skin behind, as if running would turn me into another person. When I finally stopped, in the small park across the street from the Lutheran Church, I sat a long time with the knowledge that my running had undone nothing, that my body was still the body he had touched.
I had no idea what to do with this knowledge, so I kept it to myself, continuing to say hello to the old man the same way I always did, pretending not to see the ironic twist he added to his smile each time he asked, “When will I see you?”
Frozen with fear
I don’t know how long after that first assault it was, but I was sitting with some friends in front of my building when the old man came home from food shopping and asked me to help him upstairs with the bags in his shopping cart. I wanted to say no, of course, but I didn’t know how without appearing rude in front of my friends. The last thing I wanted was to explain myself to them.
“I’ll give you a dollar,” he said, when he saw my hesitation. “No, two,” he insisted, as he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket, peeled off two singles, and nodded towards the top bag.
I took the money from his hand—I did not know what else to do—picked up the bag, and followed him upstairs, where he opened the door and motioned me in ahead of him. I stepped inside, thinking I’d leave the bag by the door and get out as quickly as I could, but he was too fast for me. He closed and locked the door behind him before I could turn around. He took the bag from me and dropped it to the floor. The cans at the bottom landed with a crash that seemed to shake the whole apartment.
With his hands on my shoulders, he gently guided me further inside. Then he snaked his arms around my waist, undid my belt and unzipped my pants, pushing them down so they fell around my ankles. All I could do was stand there, frozen to the spot where my feet had stopped moving.
Looking down at me with a wide smile—he’d come around to face me and I have the distinct memory that he was suddenly missing his two front teeth—his eyes, at what I imagine must have been the fear in mine, grew tender. “You’ve never had a blowjob before, have you? Don’t you want me to love you?”
In the silence with which I responded, he pulled down my underwear and took my penis in his hands—I remember thinking his fingers were like a cage—and he told me how beautiful and big my penis was, how good he wanted to make me feel. Then, somehow, I was sitting on the couch, my pants still around my ankles, and his own pants were down, and his penis, large and reddish purple and semi-erect, hung in front of my face.
His voice came from somewhere above me, urging me to play with it, at least to touch it. The next moments are a blur, but I can still feel his hands on either side of my head, the steady pressure of his fingers at the hinges of my jaw, and even now, nearly a half century later, I still gag a little each time the damp metallic taste of him fills my mouth.
I don’t remember getting dressed, but I can see myself unlocking his front door—he’s still standing by the couch—and walking out of his apartment. The rest of that day is a blank to me.
The next day, the old man saw me standing by myself in the courtyard. He stood a short distance away and pleaded with me to go upstairs with him again. This time, he promised, would be different. He would move more slowly, be more gentle. I stood there, staring off into space. “No!” was all I said, not looking at him. I ignored him until he walked away.
He did not speak to me again for the rest of the time he lived in my building.
Struggling to speak
I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I had told someone. Then I remember that I tried, and that it did not go well.
I was sitting in front of my building with my friend Vanessa when the old man walked by. He nodded in our direction, pausing in front of me for the space of half a breath. I glued my eyes to the ground, pretending he wasn’t there.
Vanessa, who had responded to him with her own greeting, turned to me. “Why were you so rude?” she asked. “He was just saying hello.”
I continued to stare at the ground in silence. “Oh, come on! Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me.” She pushed at my arm. “What’s wrong?” As I looked up, she fixed her eyes, hazel-green against the light, yellow-brown skin of her face, on mine. She was my friend and she was concerned.
“It’s no big deal,” I tried to brush her question aside. “But he looked right at you! Why did you act like he wasn’t even there?”
My thoughts raced and my mind went blank at the same time. I trusted Vanessa. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what I could tell her that would make any sense. Even a statement as simple as He touched me would not have meant in 1974 what it means now.
I don’t know where it came from, but a feeling of rage began to grow in me, an urge to speak that felt like it wasn’t actually a part of me, and I spit out the only thing I knew at the time that was supposed to signify without question that he was the kind of man who would do what he had done to me. “He’s a faggot!”
I tried to put as much venom into my voice as I could, hoping it would give those three words the weight of the accusation I wanted them to have, but Vanessa was unmoved. “So he’s homosexual? So what?” she asked, a slight edge in her voice, as if she were getting ready for an argument. “Why is that a problem?”
I was crestfallen. In fact, I’d known as soon as those words left my mouth that they did not convey what I wanted them to. I did not think there was anything wrong with being gay, but I did not know how to take my words back without inviting more questions than I was ready to answer. Once again, silence was the only response I had. All I have of the end of that conversation is the memory of Vanessa staring at me across a wordlessness neither of us knew how to bridge.
A feminist puzzle piece falls into place
I was reading on my bunk during my after lunch break at the summer camp where I was working the year I turned 19. It was an essay by Adrienne Rich, in her book, On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Less than a quarter of the way through I came to this passage:
“[T]aught to view our bodies as our totality, our genitals as our chief source of fascination and value, many women have become dissociated from their own bodies…viewing themselves as objects to be possessed by men rather than as subjects of an existence.”
As soon as I read those words, a young boy’s voice in my head began to speak—and I mean that literally: I heard an actual voice. “But what about me?” it asked. “What about what happened to me?”
At first, I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard it, but lying to myself made me sick to my stomach, so I invited the voice to speak to me again. It did not. Instead, two scenes played out in my mind. First, as if I were watching from above, I saw the old man in my building pulling me towards him as he assaulted me in our lobby. Then, as if I were again sitting on the couch in his apartment, I saw his semi-erect penis coming towards me at eye level. As I watched these scenes unfold, something in my body shifted, what feminists used to call a “click,” like a puzzle piece falling into place, or a dissonance I had not known I was carrying inside myself suddenly resolving. I understood for the first time what I had not understood when the old man walked by Vanessa and me: how to name what he had done to me.
I sat up straight, closed my eyes, and, barely loud enough even for me to hear it, I said the words, “I was sexually abused.” I again felt something in my body clicking into place, and I understood I had a choice to make. I could close the book, toss it in the garbage, and pretend that what I’d just experienced had never happened, or I could tell the truth about myself, even if only to myself. I chose the truth.
I felt like I’d been sucker punched in the stomach
Five or six years later, I’m sitting in a supervisors’ training at a different summer camp. We are here to learn how to deal with campers who might choose to reveal to us, or one of the counselors we supervise, that they’d been sexually abused. The session leader, a white male psychologist who specialized in treating abused children, tells us how important it is that the camp leadership has chosen to address this issue, which all too many people are willing to pretend doesn’t exist.
In order to frame the session properly, he goes on, he wants to explain why he will be using she as the generic pronoun during his presentation. Boys, of course, are also sexually abused, he says, but that happens so rarely, and the strategies for dealing with boys are so different from the ones for girls, that he doesn’t want to confuse us. He does not want to risk our mishandling the moment a camper chooses to trust us because we inadvertently respond to her as if she were a boy.
I feel like I’ve been sucker punched in the stomach. With a rhetorical wave of his hand, this man has made me disappear from a conversation I know I should be part of. I am enraged. I am ashamed that I am doing absolutely nothing to challenge him. The silence he has pushed me into is one I don’t yet know how not to be complicit in perpetuating.
Coming to grips with the truth
To be fair, the man who led the training was almost certainly following the accepted therapeutic wisdom of the time (the early 1980s): that when boys revealed that they were being sexually abused—or when men revealed they’d been sexually abused as boys—their stories, as Dr. Richard Gartner wrote in the introduction to Betrayed as Boys: Psychodynamic Treatment of Sexually Abused Men, needed to be treated “cautiously because of the likelihood that they emerged from patients’ fantasy lives and wish fulfillments.” On the other hand—Gartner does not say this outright, but it is an assumption the women’s movement worked hard to put in place and it is implicit both in what he wrote and in the session leader’s framing—when girls or women reported sexual abuse, they were to be treated as if they were reporting something that actually happened. No wonder that session leader worried that talking to us about boys might confuse us.
I don’t know how different my life would have been if I’d first told the story of my own violation to a therapist trained to assume I might be talking about something that had taken place only in my head. What I do know is that I would have been much more lost than I already was without feminism’s uncompromising commitment to the idea that the only person responsible for an act of sexual violence is the person who committed it. No matter how difficult it was to say out loud what the old man in my building had done to me—or what the second man who violated me did to me a few years later (more about him later)—no matter how wrapped up I was in the shame of my own inability to stop those men, I owe feminism a debt. Specifically, the feminist analysis Adrienne Rich’s work introduced me to: that I would never once doubt that those men, and only those men, were responsible and accountable for what they’d done.
I decided I was not normal…
I don’t remember her name; so I will call her Ellen. One late high school summer night, she and I were making out in a secluded spot in my hometown. It was a couple of years before my encounter with Adrienne Rich and that voice in my head. Ellen and I were friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend. She had long black hair and dark brown eyes and I remember cupping Ellen’s breasts through her shirt after we’d been kissing for a while. A little later, she said she had to go home.
I remember being confused about what to say or how to behave with Ellen after that intimacy, and it may have been that as a result I avoided her entirely. The next thing I remember is her phone call ending our friendship. She was angry and hurt because of how cheap and dirty I’d made her feel. “I thought you’d be different from the other boys,” she said. “I guess I was wrong.”
I deserved Ellen’s anger, and I knew it. I don’t remember either of us wanting to be boyfriend and girlfriend, but I understood perfectly well the slut shaming she risked—of course that phrase hadn’t been coined back then—if word got out that she’d let a boy, especially one who wasn’t her boyfriend, “get to second base” (still the metaphor of choice when I was in high school). I understood, too, why she experienced my silence as a form of slut shaming itself, proof that I held her in the kind of contempt the boys she’d hoped I was different from reserved for girls who were “easy.”
I didn’t, however, understand my own feelings at all. The line I’d crossed by touching Ellen’s breasts simply had not felt to me like a line—not as the “achievement” getting to second base was supposed to be for a boy; not as representing the deeper level of trust it must have represented to her; not even as representing an expression of my specific desire for her. In fact, when I went back over our encounter in my head, it was as if I’d been on autopilot the whole time, as if touching Ellen’s breasts had been, simply, the thing I—as the boy—was expected to do, and that Ellen, as the girl, was correspondingly supposed to expect and accept. I did not think that kind of detachment was what I was supposed to feel, but I also could not imagine feeling any other way. I decided I was not normal and that I had no choice but to accept myself the way I was.
…until porn made me feel like I belonged
This may seem like an odd moment to start talking about pornography, but understanding the role porn played in my life back then—beyond the pleasure you would expect a young heterosexual man to take in it—helped me understand the aftermath of my experience with Ellen more fully. In the world mapped out for me in the pages of magazines with self-consciously ironic titles like Puritan and Prude, everything and everyone was sexualized. It was what men and women expected from each other and wanted for themselves. The world of porn, in other words, was a world of implicit and perpetual consent. More than that, though, it was, for the men certainly, also a world of unambiguous and unquestioned emotional detachment, as if what they did with their bodies when they gave or received sexual pleasure had nothing to do with who they were or with whatever relationship might have existed between them and the women they were with.
In pornography, to state this more plainly, the kind of detachment I experienced with Ellen was portrayed as normal. As a result, porn became for me a kind of prooftext for my belief that she and I—that probably most women and I—lived in two very different sexual worlds. The only one I truly belonged in, where I knew the rules and didn’t have to worry about hurting someone the way I’d hurt Ellen, was the world porn held out to me—if only I could figure out how to get there. To that end, I studied the pornography I had access to assiduously, and, at least at first, I believed was gleaning the truth from it, not so much about the women, but about the men, about myself and my own sexuality. Rather quickly, however, I grew bored with how monolithic and homogenized the depiction of men in porn actually was. Frankly, they looked to me more like automatons having sex than flesh and blood human beings.
There were exceptions, of course. One remains in my imagination even now: A naked white man is leaning back in a comfortable chair. He’s angled his hips to make it easier for the bare-breasted white woman he is with, her dress hiked up high around her waist, to lower herself onto his erection. His hands are on her hips and his head is tilted backwards so his neck fits the curve at the top of the chair’s back. His eyes are closed and his lips are parted. He is, you can see, lost in the pleasure the woman is giving him, and it is clear, in the tender kiss the camera has caught her placing on his forehead, that she is taking pleasure in that giving.
I remember cutting that picture out and hiding it in my desk so I could return to it whenever I wanted, and I returned to it a lot. Over time, though, I noticed that my eyes were drawn more and more not to the point where the couples’ genitals connected, but to the look of surrender on the man’s face and the woman’s kiss on his forehead. He trusted her, I suddenly realized. He trusted her and she knew it; and the kiss the camera had captured was her promise not to betray his trust. From this realization came another: the automaton-like emotionless men I described above were a refusal of that trust; the detachment I’d felt with Ellen was my version of that refusal.
I wanted to know what it felt like not to refuse.
The kind of sex I wanted to have
I can still recall the thrill of discovery that ran through me when I read the first three lines of the last poem in e. e. cummings’ book, & [And]: “i like my body when it is with your/body. it is so quite new a thing./Muscles better and nerves more.” Cummings, I understood immediately, had put to words a kind of sexual experience for which I then had no point of reference. I’d never really thought of myself as having a body when it came to sex. Sex was something I did; the pleasure something I felt; but I’d never really thought about the fact that the pleasure I experienced was inseparable from my body, that since my body was me, the pleasure was in some sense me as well, and that my body, therefore, might be worth liking for its own sake and on its own terms.
Working my way through what the speaker in cummings’ poem had to say about this experience proved to be a revelation. In the rest of the poem, the speaker tells his lover what he likes about her body and how he intends to give her pleasure:
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bone, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again kiss…
These lines, of course, can be read as not much more than an artful, if entirely conventional expression of heterosexual male desire. However, because this desire is rooted not in the speaker’s need to possess his lover, but rather in how good being with her body makes him feel about his own, the poem also frames his desire as an openness to wherever else liking his body in this way might take him.
You can see this openness, this trust, most clearly in the couplet that closes the poem. After telling his lover all the ways he likes to touch and kiss her, the speaker says, “and possibly i like the thrill/of under me you so quite new” (emphasis added). Through their lovemaking, in other words, the speaker’s lover becomes new to him, but even as he tells her this newness thrills him, he introduces—“and possibly i like the thrill”—the possibility that he might not like it. Indeed, even if you give the word possibly an ironic inflection, so that it reads as the speaker reassuring his lover that of course he will like her newness, that uncertainty is still there, though in this latter case the uncertainty would be both the speaker’s and his lover’s.
This element of uncertainty turns what seems at first to be a straightforward erotic love poem into a poem about the love and trust informing the sex these two people have, turning their lovemaking into a journey of discovery. That, I realized, was the kind of sex I wanted to have, but learning to distinguish what it felt like to choose to be sexually vulnerable with someone—to allow another person’s touch to touch who I was within my body—from what it felt like to have that vulnerability forced upon me took years of hard work that I have of necessity compressed here into the space of these few pages. The first step in that process, however, which is where the title of this essay comes from, was to tell someone what the men who violated me did to me, but before I can tell you about that, I need to tell you about Bill.
Do you like to dance?
Bill was the headwaiter at the catering hall where I worked as a busboy, starting when I was 14. He was short and round and walked with a graceful authority I wanted very much to make my own. Sometimes, he asked me to stay after a party to help him fold the tables and stack the chairs behind the curtains that lined the wall in the main ballroom. He always cracked jokes while we worked, about the people who’d been at the party we were cleaning up after, about other members of the staff, about himself, about me, and that made me feel special, like we were conspirators of a sort, members of a private club for two.
What I loved most, though, what made me light up inside, was when Bill asked me questions about myself. I don’t remember what question I was answering when I told him I’d started lifting weights, but when I said that, he offered to teach me exercises, using only my body and the wall, that he said would increase the effectiveness of the training.
“Most guys your age who lift,” he said, drying his hands as he guided me out of the kitchen, “neglect the lower body. You need to work your legs and lower back as much as your chest and your arms.”
He led me to an opening in the curtains at the far end of the ballroom and instructed me to touch the wall with my fingertips. “Now,” he instructed, “keep your arms straight in front of you and stand on your toes.” When I did, he quickly and lightly touched my calves, thighs, and butt with the tip of his finger. “Do you feel it?” he asked. “The tightness? Here, here, and here? Do as many of these as you can every night before you go to bed.”
The next time we worked together, Bill told me he wanted to check my form before showing me a new exercise. This time, as I stood on my toes, he put his knee between my upper thighs and spread them slightly. “Your feet,” he said, “should be exactly shoulder-width apart.” Then, he touched again the same three spots, calves, thighs, butt. “Do you feel it?” I nodded. “Good,” he said, “but don’t forget to keep your feet the right width apart,” and he put his knee between my thighs again.
On New Year’s Eve the year I turned 16, we had two jobs in a row, one that wouldn’t finish until three or four in the morning, and a New Year’s Day wedding for which we had to report just a few hours later. When the first party was over, Bill drove me home so I could shower and nap for an hour or two while he went home to do the same. When he picked me up, he handed me an aluminum foil packet. Inside were two small white pills. “These’ll help you stay awake for the wedding,” he said. “Take one now, but only take the second one if you really need it.” When I asked Bill what he was giving me, he told me not to worry about it.
It’s strange now to think how naïve and inexperienced I was then, but it would have never dawned on me not to trust Bill. I did as I was told, and, sure enough, by the time we were ready to start setting up the banquet room, I was filled with so much energy that I still had plenty to spare when Bill dropped me off at home that evening. I don’t remember what I did with all that energy, though I do recall being grateful that I was off from school the next day because I did not fall asleep until three or four in the morning.
Two weeks later, as we set up for another job, Bill pulled me aside. “You know,” he said, his hand resting heavy and warm on my waist, “those Black Beauties were expensive. Don’t you think you ought to give me something for them?”
“Black Beauties?” I asked.
“Yes, speed,” he said.
I did not know what to say, so I said nothing.
Bill looked me up and down, as if he were sizing me up for something. When he spoke, his voice had a bite to it, a cold, hard edge I’d never heard before. “A blow job every once in a while is just what you need.”
I was stunned. I just stood there, staring. Why would Bill say something like that? I continued to say nothing. When the party was over, after the rest of the crew had left, Bill asked me to get something from the top shelf of a storage closet. I needed to go up on my toes to reach it. When I did, Bill cupped his hands over my butt, one on each cheek, and started squeezing, gently at first, then more forcefully. I froze. “You know,” he said, “you have a dancer’s cheeks, small and firm.” Then he brought his mouth close to my ear. “Someday, someone’s going to teach you how to use them.”
He clamped his fingers onto my perineum, pulled up and back to keep me on my toes, and began guiding me across the empty ballroom floor in a series of awkward turns till we reached the wooden dance floor in the center. “Do you like to dance?” he asked, his voice angry and accusatory. “Then dance for me!”
I have a vague recollection of losing my balance and ending up face down on the floor with Bill standing over me. I think I remember him saying something about how I should find my own way home, that he had better things to do than play chauffeur to someone like me, and then walking away. I never saw Bill again.
The World Did Not Fall Apart
I hadn’t thought about Bill for a long time when Pat put her hand on my hip and we started moving in a not very graceful imitation of swing dancing as the Lionel Hampton Band played its first number at Vassar College’s spring semiformal. I was 21; she was 20. After about 30 seconds, I stopped dancing.
“What’s wrong?” Pat asked.
I bent down and whispered in hear ear, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Neither do I,” she smiled. “That’s what makes this so much fun!” She started moving again, and so did I.
The dance floor had thinned to those couples drawing close for the evening’s first slow dance. Pat leaned into me, put a hand on my neck, and playfully grabbed with her other hand at my butt, pulling my ear down to her mouth. “I like the way you move,” she whispered.
I don’t know if Pat saw the moment’s hesitation I felt before I smiled, but her words and the way she touched me had triggered an unwanted return to the ballroom with Bill. I no longer felt like dancing. I told Pat I was thirsty and headed to the bar to get us drinks. I needed to clear my head.
I liked Pat, a lot. The thought that what Bill had done to me might ruin the good time she and I were having, made me angry. I flashed back to the moment two years earlier when that voice in my head spoke to me, but the question it asked me back then took on a new resonance while I waited for the bartender to make our drinks. What about me? Didn’t I deserve to dance with my girlfriend, to enjoy the way she was enjoying me, without shame? I knew I had done nothing wrong; I understood, intellectually at least, that I had nothing to be ashamed of; but I also knew—and this, too, I think of as a gift feminism gave me—that shame flourished in the silence both Bill and the old man in my building had counted on my keeping. With a drink in each hand, I made my way back to Pat. I decided I had to tell her.
I handed Pat her drink, sat down facing her, and took a deep breath. “I have to tell you something,” I said.
“What?” She hadn’t heard me. The music was too loud. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Okay,” she nodded her head, but her eyes were on the dance floor and she was tapping her feet to the music.
“No, really, there’s something about me that you need to know.”
This got her attention. She turned to face me, leaned her elbow against the back of my chair, rested her chin in her hand, and waited.
“When I was a kid, I was mol—” At that moment, the entire horn section began to play, drowning out the rest of my sentence. “When you were a kid, what?” She had to raise her voice to make sure that I heard her and I could see the question on her face. Couldn’t this wait till later? “I was molested when I was a kid,” I nearly shouted back, hoping none of the people around us were paying attention.
“You were what?!”
“Molested! By a guy I worked with at the catering hall I told you about.”
“Uh-huh?” Her voice was noncommittal, except for the rising, tell-me-more tone at the end. When I did not answer her—just saying it once had left me drained—she took my hand and led me to the dance floor, holding me close and tight as we moved.
I did not know then that she would ask me the next day to tell her my story, all of it, about Bill and the old man in my building, or that she would respond not just with warmth and understanding, but with a fierce and tender protectiveness for which I will never stop being grateful. What I knew was that the world had not fallen apart. I’d said the words I was molested and not only had my girlfriend not walked out in disgust; she still wanted to dance with me. In that moment it was more than enough.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is professor of English at SUNY’s Nassau Community College in New York. He is the author of The Silence of Men, Words For What Those Men Have Done, and T’shuvah, forthcoming in 2023 from Fernwood Press. This is a slightly edited version of an essay originally published online in Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.