I changed my name the day after my church confirmation. That Sunday, May 10, 1987, I stood in front of my church and vowed to reject the forces of evil and confessed Jesus Christ as my Savior. As I said, “I do” each time, I wanted to mean the words, but they rang false in my ears. I felt unworthy of God’s love and salvation. I was unclean. I said the words because it was what I was supposed to do. I felt like my entire life was living up to others’ expectations of me: my parents, my family, my teachers, my friends.
The next day was an overcast Monday, and I was in my eighth grade English class with Mrs. Ellis. The school secretary’s voice blared over the loudspeaker, “Chris Trever, bring your things to the office. Your mother is here.” I assumed someone had died, and with fear walked down the three flights of stairs to the office, mentally listing the possibilities.
My mom was sitting at the wheel of her red Escort outside two sets of glass doors. I looked uncertainly at the secretary through the sliding window into her office, and I felt a sick dread as she refused to meet my eyes. As soon as I climbed into the car, Mom began clawing at my jacket, trying to pull it from my body. I slipped out of the arms and she jerked it away. She was wild, angrier than I’d ever seen her. I loved that jacket: a Vietnam soldier’s green wool coat with short waist and arms that were just a little too long. I wore it everywhere and watching her paw through the pockets felt like a violation. Her hand returned again and again to the inside left pocket, seeking what she knew was supposed to be there.
I had spent the weekend at my grandmother’s and a sudden memory of laying my jacket over the back of her rocking chair stung me. Grandma must have seen them in my pocket and called Mom.
“Where are they?” she demanded.
“Where are what?” but I knew what she was looking for.
“Tell me the truth: are you on birth control pills?” Her eyes drilled me. I could see that she already knew the truth, but she wanted me to say it was a mistake, someone else’s, a misunderstanding. I couldn’t look at her or give her the answer she desired. I looked out of the window back at the school.
“They’re in my locker.” I said in a near whisper. She shot out of the car, and slammed open the school doors. I jumped out and ran after her. We stormed past the office without a second glance, but I knew we were being watched. Mom had no idea where my locker was, so I meekly led her up the stairs to my locker. I never locked it, so she pulled it open and began pulling everything off the top shelf: a plastic case with my pills, two more months of packets, a packet of Marlboro Reds, a cheap Bic lighter, and loose papers. The papers fell to the ground, unheeded in her anger. The rest she gathered into her hands, and we charged back out to the car.
“Where does he live?” she demanded. I gave directions to Larry’s apartment building, and she slammed her way out of the car, and I watched her stride up the sidewalk to the building. Every movement she’d made since I climbed into the car seemed to echo her mood: sharp and raw.
My head swirled with emotions. Fear. Dad would kill me. Shame. What would my grandparents think of me, would my uncles hate me, my cousins scorn? In the midst of these was a trace of hope: maybe it was finally over. Surely my parents would never let him see me again, never let him hurt me. I felt both numb and exquisitely sensitive. I wanted to rewind the past 24 hours and relive them, this time somehow avoiding this.
When she returned to the car, Mom was deadly silent. Mom ranting and wild was scary. Mom quiet was terrifying. I sat huddled in my seat and trying to disappear. I tried to become as small as I felt. My shoulders drawn in, head hung low, hands tucked between my knees. The fifteen-minute ride home was endless, but it gave me time to consider my future. I already shamed my parents by doing this; there was no way I could tell them the whole truth. And what was the truth? How could I explain what he had done to me? Our ages were a crime, but was what he did to me a crime? I couldn’t imagine my Grandma Trever in a courtroom listening to the hellish details of the last eight months of my life. It was over. I was free. With relief and resignation, I would take whatever punishment they dished out.
Pulling into the driveway, I saw that my father’s red and black IH Scout was in the driveway. He was home from work. Mom had called him home from work. My heart plummeted from my stomach to my toes. Dad rarely yelled at me, but it was his judgment I feared. Mom would rage and cry and throw in the silent treatment, but I knew its tides, its ebb and flow, and I knew it would pass. Dad looked at me with his knowing hazel eyes, and I felt skinned alive. There was nothing worse than disappointing him. Surely this was just a nightmare and I would wake up soon with my parents blissfully ignorant of my failures.
In a wild paroxysm of elation and humiliation, I gladly popped every single pill out of their plastic cases and flushed them down the toilet. I cast every note he had ever written me into the fire my father stoked for just that purpose. With far less enthusiasm, I surrendered my jacket, the armor I wore through the battles of the past year, to the flames as well. I presented them with every gift, every remnant of him, and I sat down with resignation to listen to their anger and disappointment with me. Mom’s tears finally broke the dam of her anger as I tried to explain.
“You can’t understand, Mom, I tried. Every time I tried to break up with him, he did something horrible: punching a wall and breaking his hand, disappearing for a few days to shoot up heroin. He threatened you. He said he would hurt you and Dustin.” I loved Dustin, my year-old cousin for whom I babysat every weekend. Their rage flared again with each detail I exposed. Mom said later, “It was like reading the most awful book, and every time I thought it was over, I turned the page, and there was always another chapter making it worse.” I couldn’t bear their pain, so I stopped talking about mine, and they stopped asking. The emotions were just too much for any of us.
I returned to school a day or so later and began signing my papers “Christy” instead of the “Chris” I had been using for the past two years. When my name had been called down to the office that day, I feared there had been a death, but I didn’t realize that the death would be my own, and I embraced it. Chris Trever had disappointed and failed her parents by allowing herself to fail. Christy Trever would be a good girl who would never let them down again.
I didn’t see Larry again for 28 years. Even though we both lived in the small town of Gillett, WI (pop 1365), the Lord was kind in keeping us apart. I heard that he’d been arrested a few times for theft, including a cattle rustling charge. I thought I’d moved on from what he put me through. But when I talked about him, I never used his name. He was referred to as The Jerk any time he came up in conversation. I couldn’t bring myself to even speak his name.
When I was 30, I finally found my faith in God, and a few years later decided to affirm it by being re-baptized by immersion. In the months leading up to my baptism, I realized that before I could receive this sacrament, I needed to forgive everyone I was harboring anger and hatred toward. I made a list and prayed over it each night. It was a long list, and I labored over each name, especially Larry’s. As I crossed one name after another off of the list, I returned to his again and again.
The day of my baptism, I slipped into a black tshirt and shorts in a back room and then made my way to the pool at the front of the sanctuary. There was only one name left on my list, and as I slipped under the water, I let go of my anger. I emerged from the water cleansed of my hatred and sins. I tucked the memories of Larry away in my mind and didn’t think of him again for years.
At 41, I was newly single after twelve years of marriage, so my twenty-one-year-old daughter, Molly, and I went to a local bar for a drink. Ustabee’s had an unusual atmosphere. A wheelchair sat in the vestibule for those who had partaken a little too liberally and needed help getting to their car. But it was also a popular restaurant. On the way in, I ran into several people from my church, including the council president.
Molly and I lucked into two open seats at the short end of the long curved bar. Every stool was taken with small groups clustered together, sitting and standing. Small tables sat under the window across from the bar. Larger dining tables were behind our stools and spilling over into the next room. All of the tables were filled with people drinking, laughing, and talking. The lights spilled golden over the smooth wooden bar, and oldies played on the jukebox without end.
We had to shout to hear each other over the jovial cacophony. I was glad to be out of the house and spending time with my eldest daughter. She dominated the conversation, as she does, talking about work and men, each word emphatic. She teased that I was drinking too fast as I ordered my second amaretto sour. I sang along to the music while she talked. In the brief gaps in her chatter, my eyes glanced around the room, looking for faces I recognized.
On one of these sweeps, I saw him sitting at the bar less than fifteen feet from me. He’d put on a hundred pounds or more, and his face was lost in jowls, but his eyes locked on to mine for just a moment before immediately dropping down to the bar surface. Suddenly I was moving in slow motion, drowning underwater. I saw shame and regret on his face before I dragged my eyes away from him. He had a hangdog face as though shame and regret were emotions he felt often. I gasped and fought for the air that had been sucked from my lungs.
“Molly, do you remember what happened to me when I was 13?”
She didn’t even glance toward me, “Maybe?”
“’When I was raped.”
“Where?” she started looking around the room. I looked back where he’d been sitting, but he was gone, moved to one of the small tables under the window and still pointedly refusing to look my way.
“There, at the table. Heavy, blue baseball cap, tshirt.”
I wondered what she thought as she looked at him. Her minimal response helped me to catch my breath. I stilled my shaking hands and tried to finish my drink. I didn’t turn my head toward him again, but I always knew exactly where he was, like an incoming bomb registering on radar.
Molly drove me home, and while she continued talking, my brain replayed seeing him on again and again. After she dropped me off, I called my best friend and told him what had happened. I tried to convince myself that it was a non-event, really, but I couldn’t stop seeing him in my mind.
In the days that followed, I began having flashbacks. I remembered incidents I had long repressed. The things he said. The feel of his breath on my skin. The pain. The humiliation. My emotions were as raw as if it had happened yesterday. Sometimes I began shaking and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, he was there. He had raped me over sixty times in those eight months. For some reason, my thirteen-year-old self had felt compelled to count them. My forty-year-old self couldn’t stop reliving them. I had to do something to seize back control of my life.
In the first few years after I finally got away from Larry, I never used the word rape. I didn’t tell my parents that he had forced me to have sex. It was easy to tell them about the threats and the violence he did to himself, but how could I talk to them about something so intimate? Sex wasn’t something we ever discussed or even alluded to. When I was eight, my mom gave me “the talk” which took less than five minutes, only vaguely covered the basics, and didn’t answer a single one of my many questions. When I got my first period, I thought I was dying, because I had no idea what was happening to me. I couldn’t find the words to tell my parents about the terrible acts done to me, because I didn’t know where to begin.
It wasn’t until 1991 that the United States began having a conversation about date rape. After Katie Koestner was raped by her date in 1990, she was outraged by her college’s lack of response. She wrote a letter to the local paper that was quickly picked up by the Associated Press and became a cover story in TIME Magazine. As Katie says, “In 1990, rape was still stranger rape. It was not about people you liked or were dating” (Koestner). My relationship to Larry ended in 1987, and I had never heard of date rape. There was no way to explain what had happened to me to others. The vocabulary to share my experience didn’t even exist yet.
When I finally began talking about it to close friends, I lied. I made Larry into a violent abuser. Larry raped me. He humiliated me. He belittled me. But he was never violent toward me, despite his threats. However, making him into a violent monster made it easier for me to explain why I didn’t tell anyone what I was living through. I didn’t understand it myself, how could anyone else? Later, as date rape became part of the popular vernacular, I was honest about all that I lived through, including the miscarriage.
Two weeks after the first time Larry raped me, I missed my period. A few weeks after that, I went to a choir concert at my church. The holidays were coming, so the sanctuary was filled with Christmas songs about the coming birth of a child. In the middle of the concert, I had that sudden wet feeling that all women recognize. I excused myself from the pew and quickly walked to the bathroom.
In the stall, I found that I was bleeding far more heavily than normal. The water in the toilet was pink, and there were small pieces of tissue in the bowl. I lost track of time as I stood looking at it. I didn’t know what a miscarriage looked like, but something deep within me knew that this was it. I felt a strange mix of relief and sadness as I pushed down the handle and watched the water spiral away. I didn’t want a baby. I was only 13. I started babysitting at 10, I knew I didn’t want that responsibility. But this was a part of me. My faith told me that this had been a life, a life that was now dead.
I took two generic Kotex pads from under the bathroom sink and layered them in my underwear, washed my hands, and dried my eyes. My knees shook as I walked back to my place in the crowded pew next to my friend Jenny. She was more worldly wise than I, so I leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“What does a miscarriage look like?”
She looked briefly at me and whispered back, “Lots of blood I think. I think it really hurts too.” She turned her attention back to the choir, and so did I. Everyone stood and joined the choir in the final song of the evening, The Lord’s Prayer. I’d never heard it sung before. I tried to sing along, but my voice strayed from high to low without ever finding the right note. Lost, I let it drift away into the night.
When I couldn’t bear the nightmares and flashbacks any longer, I called my mom. I was finally able to use the word “rape” with her, and without going into detail, for the first time in over two decades, I was able to share with her how I felt in the days and weeks after they found out. Mom opened up too, and for the first time, I heard the story of what happened with Larry’s father.
Mom said that she stormed into the building and quickly became confused by the layout. She couldn’t find the stairs, and her frustration ratcheted up to an unbearable level. A woman who normally cried at Kleenex and coffee commercials, her anger was so hot, it burned away the tears. When she finally found his door, Larry wasn’t home, but his father was. Woody was an elderly man- Larry had been born when he was in his sixties. His hands were freckled with age with papery skin. As Mom laid out the litany of his son’s crimes, he apologized again and again, but she would have none of it. An 18-year-old man had no business dating a 13-year-old girl. Before leaving, she looked the old man in the eyes and informed him coldly that she was going to kill his son; she would find a gun and kill him. He didn’t try to dissuade her, and as she shut the door, he shook his head in shame.
The news was stunning. My mom wasn’t just a good mom, she was Good. Mom never missed church on Sunday. She taught Sunday School. She didn’t smoke or drink or swear. She read the bible regularly and once stunned me as a child in saying that she loved God more than me. To hear this woman talk about murder was shattering. Something within me began to crack open.
Curious, I emailed my dad and asked him to tell me more. As I did so I was aware that I was avoiding talking to my parents face to face about this. Talking over the phone or via email was still easier than seeing their faces. I was still afraid of seeing that disappointment.
I was talking to Mom about what happened with me and Larry. I saw him last week, and it brought up a lot of stuff. Mom said that you were never angry or disappointed with me. I never knew. I always thought that it was my fault. Can you tell me more?
His response shocked me.
We were never disappointed with you. Your mom wasn't the only one who wanted to kill him. Didn't I ever tell you about the time I tried to run him down in the street? Howard and Leon were going to find him and give him a beating, but someone talked them out of it. We even had an offer to take him out. A guy from Chicago said that all he needed was $500, a picture, and an address. I was tempted.
In that moment, it felt like every moment in my life since that day in May 1987 was based on a lie. I had interpreted their anger to be at me, not toward Larry. I felt that I had shamed and disappointed them; I had failed them. Twenty-seven years later, I learned that I had done none of those things, and I was free of the identity I’d been wearing for 27 years. I wasn’t a failure or disappointment. Because I felt I deserved so little, I’d settled for a life of less. A mother of two at 19. Two failed marriages at 40. All the dreams I’d surrendered because I thought I was doomed to failure. It all slipped away.
Mom and I had many conversations over that summer as I processed this understanding. During one of these conversations, she said, “The way you talk, you sound like a domestic abuse victim. That’s really what you were.”
My head rocked back at this. Date rape was one thing, but domestic abuse? Everything I knew about domestic abuse flooded my brain, paired with images of Larry. Humiliation and rape, followed by gifts and tenderness. Belittling my body until I became bulimic to lose weight from my 120 lb frame. Isolating me from my friends and family. Threating those I love with harm if I didn’t comply. It was true.
My fear of failure deeply impacted my relationships. I locked myself away. I didn’t make friends easily and wasn’t a friendly person. I judged myself so harshly that I tended to apply those standards to everyone else around me. I expected the perfection in others that I couldn’t find in myself, making me a difficult person to like or love.
The discovery that my parents and family were never disappointed in me changed me profoundly. The shell I built around myself shattered leaving me with a joy in life and living that I’ve never experienced before. I went from a very private introvert to an enthusiastic extrovert unafraid of new situations or people. If I fail, I know that I at least tried, and there is no shame in that.
Recently I had a dream in which I was back in my childhood living room. The room was unchanged from thirty years ago. The furniture unmoved, the ugly wooden paneling still in place. But when I looked out of the window, everything had changed. Frankie Schuettpelz’s home, which should be a mile away, was right next door. Arnold’s house, directly across the road, was instead down the road to the east. Nothing was where I expected it to be. I realized upon waking that this perfectly described how I feel about my past. While none of the events have changed, my understanding of them has. What I thought was true was based on a child’s misinterpretation. The truth is that I was deeply loved and valued.
Larry changed my life in irrevocable ways. I lost a child. I am a survivor of domestic abuse and date rape. I internalized the shame by trying to live up to a new standard that I could never meet, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. On October 6th, I got a beautiful Celtic knot tattoo on my forearm to remind me of what I must never forget again. I am not afraid. I am not ashamed. I am not a disappointment. I am not a failure.
Koestner, Katie. "How I convinced the world you can be raped by your date." BBC News 2 June 2016. 17 July 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-36434191>.