The psychologist’s small, perfectly square office reminds me of the dorm rooms back at The Plex, at Connecticut College, where I go to school. The Plex: the dorm nobody wants because the windows can’t open and nothing sticks to the walls.
So they’ve put me in this group.
I've just been evaluated by the staff psychologist and now we've come up front to meet the others. She swings open a heavy door on our right, letting me pass ahead of her into a large, stale-smelling room.
"I think you'll add a unique perspective to our group,” she says propped against the wall like a folded umbrella.
I look back at this pleasant, unremarkable woman I’ve just met and she snaps into focus. I recognize her shampoo. This is someone I know how to talk to.
“Aren’t you coming?” I ask.
"Oh no,” she says, “this is what we call a peer group."
The women are drinking cans of Coke, no diet, and chain -smoking cigarettes. I’m judgmental about the Coke. One woman sits sunk in the faux leather couch, legs tucked up into her sweatshirt, kneecaps punching out the top like breasts. A woman in an oversized parka, hood up, is absent-mindedly kicking the underside of the coffee table with her boot, watching a glowing ash disappear deep into the orange pile carpet. Nobody looks up when I come in.
There are six of us. We are the Survivor's group and I’m looking around and thinking that's a fucking broad category.
This is the Tuesday night Rape or Incest survivor group of greater New London County. The fact that this is the Tuesday night group means that there is also a Thursday night group and when it turns out that every single one of these women did it or something like it or something worse with their father or their uncle Bob or their brother Seward or Gramps, spread out on some old carpet just like this one, sticky and orange and stained, in the way back of the family van, I want a transfer.
We are supposed to be supporting each other. We are supposed to be supporting each other because we have the same issues. We are supposed to be supporting each other because we have the same issues so we can heal.
My turn. “I’m Polly,” I say and it sounds like a joke. Another year and I will jettison my nursery rhyme nickname. There will be no more putting the kettle on for people. Mary, my proper name feels restricted and formal and my ribcage sheers forward and I hold my breath in like a queen. Thirty years later I learn that renaming oneself is a common reaction to sexual assault. Or perhaps it is part of the cure. It’s hard to know.
"I go to Conn. I mean Connecticut College."
I'm about to graduate and want to say I'm going to be an ex-Conn, but I realize no one will think this is funny.
These are not college students.
Susan looks at Danielle. Susan has brown curly hair and is wearing something purple that fits. With jewelry. Everyone else looks unemployed. This makes me think that Susan is the leader and is being paid but I can't tell. Danielle introduces herself and hugs Susan. Danielle is wearing brown corduroys and a big sweater and is blond. Then Susan hugs Taryn. Taryn is wearing blue jeans and a big sweater and is fat. I'm sitting next to Taryn. I don't want her to hug me. I particularly don't want her to hug me because she is fat. I'm new and I look out the window at just the right moment and she doesn't. Toneesha and Caprice sit by themselves. They're black. I think they are trying to light the carpet on fire.
Susan says she accepts being a Survivor with pride. It's who she is. Danielle and Taryn applaud.
"I come here to be with people who understand," Susan says and starts to cry. Maybe she isn't being paid.
We are what my psychology textbook refers to as a cohort. I do not like my cohort and I do not want my cohort to understand this right away. Caprice and Toneesha obviously think the whole thing is a joke. They know they aren't going to survive.
"Okay, so...I was raped," I say next but it sounds like a question. I don’t believe it. I’m having a hard time with the word. It isn’t a good word. It doesn’t convey the specificity of what occurred.
“I was asleep,” I say. “Asleep in my own bed. I live off campus. I have my own apartment. A little house.”
They don’t seem impressed.
“I was asleep. Someone jumped on top of me. It was Halloween.”
I don't say it was my first apartment. That I had made my own bed out of plywood and cinderblocks. That I’d sewn two calico sheets together to make a mattress cover so it could double as a couch in the daytime. That he said, “Give me some pussy.”
The police had taken all that down to the police station: my sheets, my flannel nightgown, my yellow stuffed dog and a document with my signature on it, saying one of my windows wasn’t locked. Maybe everything is still down at some police station in a box in a back room with my name on it.
"Did you know him?" Susan asks me and everyone perks up. They're ready to accept me.
"No," I say and breathe in and they breathe out and sit back, bored.
My night of terror feels insignificant in this room. Pulp fiction. Something unpleasant and invasive, but finite, like having your purse snatched. Something only a college student would mind.
"Well," says Susan "you've come to the right place." Her perfume, something sharp and sweet, releases from an intimate fold.
I look down at my hiking boots. Dark green suede. I wear them to feel game but I haven't been hiking since I was a kid. I'm afraid of twisting an ankle. I'm a senior dance major at Connecticut College, majoring in dance because I want to feel my body and make it say what I want it to say. Finally make it say yes.
Susan inches over. Her big knees press into mine. She sits back and crosses her arms, folding her hands familiarly up into her large breasts.
It's Danielle's turn. She slams the table hard and I jump and she screams That fucking asshole and Susan is saying Let it out and looping her cigarette in giant circles for emphasis like some guy conducting Barry Manilow on TV.
If I stay here, I'm going to have to start smoking, I think.
Nobody’s talking now and the smoke clears and I’m thinking about my mother. The one listed in the Boston Social Register, polite society’s list of old families with old money. It’s something you are born into.
I called her the next morning. The morning after. The morning after spending all night in the over-lit emergency room at the Lawrence and Memorial hospital being poked, prodded, combed and flushed. I told her I needed to tell her something but couldn’t do it over the phone. She was wary, afraid of being manipulated. She agreed to me meet halfway. Dunkin Donuts: a place she’d never been; halfway to Providence:
"Mom," I start. And the word sits small and round on my tongue; inert, like a lozenge, from my life before.
"Mom ...someone broke into my apartment last night."
Some bitterly familiar part of me hopes she'll feel guilty for not driving the whole
" I was raped."
And my voice loses its footing there among the donuts.
"Oh, Pols," she says and steps back. She is pressed up against the soda case. Her ten year old, over-stuffed, LL Bean parka, good to 45 degrees below zero, is backlit with tiny plastic bottles of OJ.
"That's the worst thing that can happen to a woman."
"May I help you?" the donut girl says.
My mother looks up, startled to find herself at a counter. She’s disoriented for a
moment. Then her smile flashes and her big eyes widen. She loves an audience.
“And what would you recommend?” she says brightly, as if ordering a specialty
roast from our neighborhood market.
“What a perfectly aw-ful smell" my mother says a few minutes later as I follow
her outside. Her Boston Brahmin accent is broad and dramatic. I can't help myself. I love listening to her.
"But that glazed thing was positively scr-rumptious!"
She stops suddenly sucking in the cold, sweet air. I bump into her.
“Thank God, it wasn't your sister.”
"I don't think I belong here,” I say thirty-five minutes later to Taryn and Susan and Toneesha and now there’s Lauren. She’s about my age and has two kids at home. She’s getting a restraining order against her husband.
I’m thinking about private school and how there were only thirteen kids in my eighth grade class and if you were in the A group, you were smart and you got to read ee cummings and study Bob Dylan as if he were a real poet. Maybe it wasn’t a person, I’m
thinking. Maybe it was a goat. Maybe some rabid goat broke lose from some reject farm down on Route 32.
"We are here to support you," Susan says sympathetically. “We think perhaps you are in denial. We think perhaps something like this happened to you before.”
...Maybe from the kind of place you’re from, where people have sex with animals when their kids aren’t available and that goat fucking had to have me.
Then I remembered his hands around my throat. I was screaming and then I couldn't scream. My muscles let go. Part of my mind slides over to let something else through. Slipping down off the side of the bed. Lower, I think, get lower so there is nothing more to get. My voice smooths itself like a skirt. I plead. Demurely. I have stopped breathing and a minute goes by and I still haven't said anything. Susan is still looking at me. I decide I need another approach.
"Okay, maybe I'm angry," I say.
I'll say anything never to see this carpet again. There is smoke rising from between Toneesha's knees.
His arm looked dark against the fluorescent white of his T-shirt, the way everything looks dark when you can't see anything. The way everything looks black when you can't see anything.
Was he black? I don't know but I think so. It was how he spoke. Can I say that? That he sounded black? Some of these women are black. He was inside me but I couldn't feel anything. Sometimes I still can't feel anything.
I went back to the house, only once, before Thanksgiving, with my parents, to pick up my books. As if Proust could help me figure this out. That afternoon, my mother, trying in her own way to be helpful, uses her prodigious head, the one that went to Bennington.
" Oh Polls," she says with feeling, putting To the Lighthouse on the top of the pile, “ Blacks have been subjected to such violence and degradation in our society. Do you think rape could be their way of striking back?" and she waits expectantly for my answer as if she were the host of an NPR talk show and I am the expert guest.
"You really should have gone to Bennington,” she says later that night, over dinner at Chuck's Steakhouse in New London where I’ve been allowed to order the filet mignon. "This would never have happened in Vermont."
I’m staring at the clock over Toneesha’s head. Waiting for the moment when the minute hand jerks. Susan is still looking at me. Her eyes look all wet. Oh god, she wants to hug me.
Lower, I think, sinking deeper into my chair. Sink lower. So there is nothing more to get. Like that time when my brothers wouldn’t stop tickling me and their fingers raced between my legs and I couldn’t breathe and finally I slid down onto the floor so they’d lose interest.
“Pipe down,” my mother yelled up the stairs. My parents were watching Nova and it was a really good one about laterality and brain development.
And my voice smoothed itself like a skirt.
At dinner, my brothers sat smug and silent.
“You egg them on,” my mother said. “ You know you do. When you scream, you
egg them on.”
“Say Uncle,” my brothers said. “Say uncle and we’ll stop!”
Susan is telling me what I need to do in order to be healed.
“Say it,” my brother said.
Very slowly I am standing. Very slowly, I am standing up and walking towards
“I think I need individual treatment,” I say, as if I’ve made an informed decision
and a follow up appointment is already penciled in. Uncle, fucking uncle, I think.
Lauren looks up at me then. Her pale nostrils are flaring. Rhythmically. Reminding me of something. Irregular yellow smoke rings, hover at her nostrils and float up into her hair.
It’s going to take practice.
But I want to learn how to do that.
On the beach in Virgin Gorda where my parents take my sister and I on a rape recovery vacation, I kiss a Jamaican man named Rocky. He has been pursuing me for days. My parents seem relieved. God forbid I turn into a racist. His lips are unnaturally
warm and enveloping like a woman's vulva, I think. Vulva is a new word I've learned to say in therapy.
"Pussy, pussy, pussy," I hiss on the inside.
"Has it occurred to you," Dr. Gottieb says eventually, "that it is indeed the fertile soil this trauma has landed on that has made it persist for so long?"
This is the single longest sentence I've ever heard him speak. And I can't stand the word fertile especially spoken by a man with no socks. So I stand up and hit him over the head with my purse. This takes us both by surprise.
The next week he asks me to go back to sitting in a chair. "I don't think you can handle the couch,” he says mildly.
Dr. Gottlieb is tall and quiet and wears no socks and I'm like what's with the socks and he sits there and says nothing and I'm angry at him for the first ten sessions and then it's ten years and I'm not all that angry anymore and then I'm dating some guy who calls his penis the toy canon and then I'm not anymore and I cry all the time and then I’m just angry at all the money I've spent in therapy and that I've wasted my youth. That I've wasted my youth just talking about it.
"And then what happened," he says.
"I called my mother, you know, the one listed in the Boston Social Register."
"Is there another one?" he says.
"No, just that one," I say.
And eventually I don’t need to talk about her anymore.
We talked together weekly: Mondays 11, Tuesday 10:10, Wednesday 3: 25, Friday at 4 for 33 years.
We met for twenty years in one room and twelve years in another room. There was a glitch in my insurance and it paid for most of it. It didn’t pay for my pregnancies or childbirth but it paid for therapy. At some point he marries a happy woman in a red sundress. We keep talking. I marry a sour-faced guy with a sweet heart and we keep talking. He is 69 and I am 57 and we keep talking. I met him when I was 23.
He calls on the phone at our appointed time. He calls on the phone because he has been away for a few weeks. He has been away for a few weeks every six months or so but other than that and six weeks every summer and one year when he tried living with his family on a boat, I go there or he calls, so we talk. He is rather thin. He is getting thinner. He is made of paper. I hear beeps in the background. He has no voice left, just a sort of guttural-sounding croak from being intubated for so long and I keep talking. I tell him about my kids and being annoyed at my husband and how I’ve been controlling my anger better and am struggling with a paper and I continue to try to find ways to tell him that I have I loved him, that I love him, that I will continue to love him even though I don’t use those words in that way. We have this very prescribed relationship. It lasts for fifty minutes four times a week and now it’s thirty-four years and his dying means I don’t have to stay in that room anymore. I don’t have to stay. Thank God I don’t have to. Thank God.
And I don’t want to just talk about me. I’d like to have a conversation for Pete’s sake. And then it was Tuesday and he called and I just talked about me.
There wasn’t any other language to speak. It was all I had. I tried to make it mean other things. “Hi. How are you? You sound horrible. I can’t understand a word you are saying. What is the matter with you? Is this cancer? I know it’s cancer. I know the look and...”
“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” he said once. But then he stopped saying that.
Those were the rules. He said there weren’t any rules; that I projected them and held on to them because I wanted control; yet every week we talked in the same room for 10 years and then another room for 23 years or maybe it was 17 years at the first house with the room at the top of the stairs and the weird defunct brown stove in the waiting room and the 47 New Yorker Magazines and 13 years in the long room by the sea with the white carpet and the same old chairs and a painting I didn’t much like of some city in the rain. Sometimes he would stand up and pick up a piece of lint from the carpet and then sit back down and he started to wear these knit gloves because his hands had become so thin and so cold. And I talked and I talked and I talked. I knew it was bad the time he didn’t stand up when it was time for me to leave because he was so very courtly. When my eyes met his on the way out or maybe they didn’t, maybe I just wished they did, I sort of bowed. After awhile it didn’t matter what I said so much as that we kept at it.
I’d get all worked up every few years and say what is this, why are we still doing this, nobody does this anymore and he would say we are just talking and I believed him.
The last time we talked was a week before he died and I was desperate. I couldn’t thank him enough because when I thanked him he would just keep listening to me. I wrote something down to stop the flow. “Your listening has allowed me to believe I live inside a bigger listening,” I said between beeps.”
His wife called four days later and I went to the funeral. I sat at a table with his swimming buddies from high school.
In the final analysis what I am left with is the sense of his intention. He believed in what we were doing together. It absolutely mattered and it was able to matter 100% because it was prescribed and because it was prescribed it was limitless. We never talked about that.
It occurs to me that that room with the uncomfortable furniture was just a waiting room. He waited with me and then it turned out I was waiting with him. A month or so before he died, he pushed himself out of the brown leather chair with the duct tape wrapped around its arms. He looked out of the low window that looked out on Long Island Sound where he said there were seals feeding which I could never see. “We are so lucky,” he said.