There's no pleasant way to say this, but as I reflected on what I was grateful for this Thanksgiving, the fact that I was molested as a child by a stranger did cross my mind.
Let me explain.
Over 40 years ago, I was walking my dog on 57th St. in NYC with my friend Carol, a skinny, knock-kneed girl who lived a few awnings down. It was the first time my mother had let me take the dog for a walk without a parent, so we were feeling very independent. As our pug Petey was enjoying all the sidewalk had to offer, a man approached us.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi!" I said.
"HI!" Carol said, wiping her runny nose with the back of her hand.
"Cute," he said, looking down at the dog, who finished peeing quickly and was off to sniff something else.
"Do you girls know a place where I can change my clothes?" he asked, keeping in step with us. "I have a meeting and I really need to get changed."
Carol looked down at her chewed fingernails. As if to prove I was the more articulate of the two of us, I answered. Plus, I did know a place. "Yeah, I swim at the Sutton Place pool. It's on First Ave, a few blocks down, and they have a locker room, so I'll bet they'll let you change there!" I loved having the right answer.
"Oh," he said. "Thanks."
Petey pulled on the leash, the man followed us. "Hey," he said to me, "I don't really have time to go all the way there. What if I just go in the hallway right behind this door here and you can come in with me and make sure no one sees me. Be my lookout person." He pointed to a door with a curved top.
"Um ... okay ... I guess," I said. Two things I loved: helping an older man like my dad and being chosen for a special job. Carol started to walk with us.
"She can stay outside with the dog," he said.
"Yeah, Carol you watch Petey, I'll be right out."
"OK," she said, pausing. Carol was used to being left out. The man and I walked into the vestibule. He shut the door behind us. Instinctively, I stepped back, somehow knowing I had made a bad choice.
"Have you ever seen a penis before?" he asked me as he pulled the zipper down on his fly.
"Sure," I lied. He took out his doughy, flaccid member and held it in his hand. I'm still not exactly sure why I responded that way. Maybe I believed that giving the impression that you knew everything kept you invulnerable.
I was very wrong. He took my small hand in his and had me rub his penis.
"If you rub it, it will grow," he told me.
The year before, in third grade, we had taken a field trip to the Central Park Zoo. I saw elephants there. That's what I was thinking, how much penises reminded me of elephant trunks. Nothing happened. It didn't grow. Liar. I wasn't doing it right or maybe he heard someone coming, but he pulled himself away and put it back in his pants. Then he opened the door and sped off. Carol got up from sitting on the stoop.
"What happened?" she asked, running a tongue over her overbite.
"Nothing," I said. "But ... nothing," I repeated. "And I'm definitely not telling my mother."
"OK ..." she said quietly. We started walking back to the apartment.
"Nothing happened," I said again.
The minute my mother opened the door with her Jackie O bob, I burst into tears.
"Nothing happened," I said. I repeated this phrase for many, many years, even after I started therapy. Not only because I was trying to hide the incident, but because I fully believed not that much had.
"It's not like I was raped," I'd think. And also that it was my fault. I shouldn't have gone in that hallway with a stranger.
My father came home from work. He was so mad, I don't remember him speaking at all. The police were called and came over. I told them what happened. We all went to sleep. One night, a week later, the phone rang. It was the police: "We think we have the guy. Can you come to the precinct with your daughter and pick him out of lineup?"
My sister and I were in pajamas. My mother put coats over us and lipstick on her mouth and the four of us went to the precinct on 51st near Lexington Ave. There, behind one-way glass, were 10 or so men with varying degrees of stubble and cold eyes. I scanned the group, left to right, right to left and back again. He wasn't there. We went home and, eventually, everyone fell asleep.
The incident was never mentioned again. We moved to Connecticut a few months later, in the middle of the school year. The following winter, I went to stay with my old friends from P.S. 59 and go to school with them. It was a snowy day. After school, we stood out in front throwing snowballs at each other. A man approached.
"Hey, do you girls know a place where I can change my clothes?" he asked.
My breath caught in my throat. I grabbed my friend's book bag out of her hand and started running.
"Get away from him! Get away from him! He's crazy! He's crazy!" I screamed.
My friends followed me and I never told them exactly why.
This experience has haunted me my entire life; "the gift that keeps on giving" is how I refer to it. When something like this happens, well-intentioned people tell you to find forgiveness. I've never been able to do this.
But here's the strange Thanksgiving phenomenon I mentioned earlier: With all the horror stories of sexual harassment and rape that we've all been hearing for the last few months, in some weird, dark, twisted way, I have started to feel a glimmer of hope in my decades of disturbance. Because this exposure (if you will) happened to me so young, anytime—and I do mean anytime—there was even the whiff of dick in the room, I ran. Literally. And I did so well beyond the age of 9.
I've been a performer my entire adult life and definitely had my share of "let's meet in my hotel room and we'll discuss it" scenarios, but just the suggestion that I go into a dark, enclosed space with a man I didn't know and something in me would snap. I'd spit something sarcastic at him and run away, just like I did on that snowy day in New York City.
So, yes, I shook and cried embarrassingly the first time I was intimate with a boy, and yes, I've had eating disorders most of my life, which I have no doubt are related to my sexuality and, yes, I never dated anyone who wasn't at least five years younger than me (OK, that one's not so bad) and to this day I can't watch anything where a young girl is in sexual peril. But, hearing all the horror that so many women endured, there is a new whisper in my head now: "You're not alone and oh, my dear, it could have been worse."