Hey, Moms—You Probably Spoke to Your Child's Predator Today: A Mother's Gift
This open letter is a real conversation I had with one of my daughters. I put it on paper because I feel it’s a message that all parents should share with their kids. It's a true story that has also inspired my newest fictional work, "Things You Can't Take". My hope is that my personal experience is shared with as many parents as possible to shed light on the nature of so many cases of sexual assault. Please share with your sons, daughters, mothers and friends.
We have to have a long talk tonight because something happened today. It was small. Tiny. Just a little blip in your day that you almost didn’t mention because it seemed insignificant. Well, I’m sorry honey. Though you thought it was a small thing, what happened was not insignificant.
Please listen up, because this is important. You’re getting old enough to learn something bigger because I can’t always be there to protect you. So here it is.
When a grown man who has no relation to you and no relation to your parents—someone who is an adult and only a friend of a friend—wants to hang out and talk with you instead of the other adults, that’s a problem. Yes, it’s just a conversation. Yes, it feels good that someone is paying attention to you. I know how beautiful, funny, smart and wonderful you are to be around. But under no circumstances is it appropriate for an adult to try to form a friendship with you, especially someone who is outside of our family’s small circle of trust. Yes, I’m sorry, but it’s small. I can see in your eyes that this doesn’t make sense to you.
We were all in the same room together. There was never a time when you were alone with this man, but there were other kids at the party you should have been playing with and there were other adults he should have been talking to. I already knew I was going to have to chat with you about it. But when you told me he asked when your birthday was, and said he was going to put it in his phone, I knew we needed to have a really big chat and we needed to have it fast.
First, let me tell you that you did nothing wrong. It seems confusing to you that I’m making such a big deal about you telling someone when your birthday is. You feel as if it’s a small, insignificant fact. I understand how you see it that way. But this is a big deal. The way I see it is different.
I’m not saying that man you talked with is or isn’t a predator. But I want you to have a bigger understanding so that if you should come across a predator and I’m not around to protect you, you are better equipped to protect yourself. Or better yet, prevent needing to protect yourself.
A sexual predator doesn’t always act impulsively. So many—too many—of them nurture their relationship with their victims slowly and steadily, over time. If you tell him when your birthday is, you won’t be surprised when he talks to you near your birthday. That won’t seem strange. Then when he says he wants to do something for you for your birthday, it will seem natural to you. Slowly, he can build your trust in a way that feels easy to you and you might not see coming.
I love how well-mannered and sweet you are. But you can be well-mannered and sweet and still state your boundaries. A lesson I wish I learned when I was your age.
I’ve wanted to keep you protected in my bubble since the day I became your mother. In many ways you still are protected in my bubble. But that won’t always be the case. So I’m having these hard conversations now. Because I can promise you one thing: I sure as hell won’t risk having these conversations after it’s too late.
I know it’s not easy being my daughter. I can be a little “helicopter-y” and overbearing at times, because to me, nothing is more important than your safety. But there is a reason why I am the way I am. See… I know all too well how a predator can be subtle at first. How they can start when you’re young, with very small things. I also know that behavior like that only escalates.
I had an aunt who married a not-so-great guy. Nobody seemed to catch onto that for a long time. He was family and I knew him as far back as I can remember. I also remember him slipping his hand down the back of my pants whenever he hugged me. The first time he did that was when I was five years old. I didn’t know anything about what was and wasn’t appropriate when I was five. He was family and his hand would touch my little tushy under my pants. Unfortunately, when it first started happening, I was too young to know it wasn’t okay.
Small intrusions like that happened for years. And I knew I wasn’t the only one. I heard him talk to other girls my age in a way that made me very uncomfortable. But I lacked the confidence to say anything about it. And I definitely didn’t want to risk being wrong if I told my parents. So he continued to get away with it. And like I said, it escalated. It grew into a relationship that felt secretive. Like he was doing me a favor by talking to me and behaving a certain way around me, and that I would be the uncool one if I told a “real” adult like his wife or my parents.
One day when I was seventeen, my parents and I went to my aunt and uncle’s house for a little family get-together. My grandparents were there too. I was in my senior year of high school and when mom asked where I was with my college applications, I told her I wanted to apply for the University of Oregon but hadn’t printed out the application yet. My uncle said, “Let’s go upstairs and print it out now.” Nobody saw anything wrong with that small idea. Including me, at the time.
Once we got upstairs to his office, he closed the door behind him. Still, I didn’t see anything wrong. Closing a door is a small, simple thing that many people do every day. Plus, my parents were downstairs! What could go wrong? Well, a lot. He closed the door and let me pull up the application on the computer. It was a 30-something page document and back then, printers took a very, very long time. I knew I would be alone in that room with him for up to a half hour. And he knew it too.
I didn’t start to feel nervous until my uncle bent down and pulled a bottle of Wild Turkey whiskey out from a cabinet with not one glass, but two. I knew the other glass was for me. It wasn’t exciting to think about an adult allowing me to taste alcohol–it was terrifying. My gut was telling me something wasn’t right, and alcohol didn’t seem glamorous or fun. I knew it was the last thing I needed in that situation. But still, I didn’t feel confident enough to leave the room.
As I suspected, he poured a glass for himself before pouring another and handing it to me. I said, “No thank you,” and waved it away. But he persisted and told me to stop being a baby. Over and over he told me it wasn’t a big deal. “Just drink it,” he’d push, seeming annoyed with my immaturity. I gathered whatever courage I had in me and took the drink and had a sip.
I hated everything about it. Especially how I felt he was in complete control, how I wasn't able to say no in a way that made a difference. And even though he was the adult, he didn’t respect no for my answer, and that was so very wrong of him.
You’re asking me if I regret taking the alcohol. My answer is “no.” I didn’t do anything wrong. I did the best I could for being a young seventeen year old who was with someone she should have been able to trust. Nothing I did was wrong. All of the responsibility lays on him. He was the adult who knew better.
I hate that I need to tell you the rest of my story. But I don’t hate it as much as I hate keeping from you the lessons it taught me.
My uncle then started asking me if I had any sexual fantasies. Immensely inappropriate. Never okay. But like I said before, this relationship had been slowly developing into one where I couldn’t differentiate the last inappropriate thing he said or did from the next. Still, I knew he was going too far. I told him I wasn’t comfortable. I told him I didn’t want to answer him. But he pressed on.
I didn’t think to call for my parents because I had been conditioned to feel confused about the lines between right and wrong where he was concerned. But most importantly, I remember being paralyzed with fear. I had no idea how far he would go. And in my mind, I didn’t know how to stop him. Because my words certainly weren’t working.
It was textbook predatory behavior.
He circled around me, continuing to remind me to drink my whiskey. I was too scared to drink the whiskey, but I was even more afraid to not do what he said. So I pretended to drink, spitting the liquid back out every time I brought it to my lips. At that age, I was doing what I thought I could. And breaking the rules by drinking alcohol was the least of my worries.
During this encounter, he never touched me in a private place. He stood behind me and said that if I couldn’t think of a sexual fantasy, he would help me think of one. Then he described to me what it would be like if two naked men approached me and began to touch my privates. I remained still and quiet, scared out of my mind and more uncomfortable than I’ve ever felt in my life.
The only time he laid a hand on me was when he was describing this fantasy for me. He touched the back of my neck in what you might consider “a safe place” to touch. But like everything else he had done, things started in a safe place and escalated – and this could have ended at a very dangerous place.
When he was in the middle of describing a sexual scene for me, the printer stopped. My senses were heightened. That printer sounded like a 200-man army marching back and forth across each paper, over and over and over. I was hyper aware of it. As soon as that sound stopped, I jumped up, grabbed the stack of papers and ran out the door. I ran downstairs, grabbed my keys (because I drove separately from my parents), yelled, “Bye!” and ran out the door. I got in my car and drove home, trying to process everything that happened.
With one small infringement into my comfort zone, starting years ago with sticking his hands down my pants when I was five, he had weaseled his way into having this power over me over a decade later. I knew it. I hated it. Even though deep down I knew exactly how bad of person he was, and how wrong his relationship with me was, I didn’t have the confidence or experience to verbalize my intuition.
I felt guilty for feeling so affected by the encounter, especially because my uncle never actually touched my privates. For the first two weeks after it happened, I didn’t say a word to my parents but I couldn’t sleep, I had a hard time eating, and I couldn’t focus on anything in school. I spiraled downward and wasn’t able to function the way I should. It got to a point where I knew I had to tell my parents because emotionally, I was dealing with something beyond my capabilities.
I’ll be honest: Telling my parents was not fun. And it didn’t make me feel better either. They each handled it very differently. Your grandmother didn’t have long talks with me like the one I’m having with you now. And your grandfather blamed himself. He felt responsible for not being able to protect me and I remember when he said, “I feel like I failed you as a father.” That broke my heart. Truly, it hurt more to hear him say that than any of the emotional pain I felt from my uncle’s behavior toward me. I wanted the whole thing to go away. Hearing that made me wish I had never said anything to either of them.
So I have a promise to make you: I will carry your load.
As your mother, I will do everything I can to help prevent you from being in a situation like mine. But if you should ever find yourself being assaulted or abused by anyone, you can tell me. In fact, you can tell me if you merely feel uncomfortable around someone. I will believe you, guide you, and make sure it’s handled by a responsible adult.
Most importantly, I will tell you that it was not your fault. No matter what happened, you never did anything to deserve it. And what happened to me was not my fault either. I’m having this talk with you now because I want to make sure we do everything we can to keep you safe. But if something should happen, the only one responsible will be the one who committed the crime. It would never be your fault. And it would never be my fault.
It’s important that you understand this. My parents’ reaction when I told them about my uncle left me heartbroken. So much so that I never wanted to put them or myself through that experience again. I still needed my parents, but I didn’t feel like I could talk to them or let them help me when I had a problem. And unfortunately, I soon came across a very big problem.
Your grandma was an ice skating instructor and took me to a competition so I could see my friends. I was on winter break from college. I was as naive as could be and didn’t have the benefit of these long talks like ours.
There was a party to celebrate the end of the competition. There was also an after-party, hosted by someone I’d known for years who had always made me very nervous. Let’s call him Tim. Back when I was twelve, he was twenty-something. I never liked the way he looked at me and I had tried to keep my distance, but since I tried to stay clear, he sent a friend to tell me, “Tim wants you.” I shook my head nervously, wanting to tell this friend that I want nothing to do with Tim. But the words wouldn’t come out. All I could do was shake my head, too shy and nervous to use my words. And this small thing was something I never ended up mentioning to my parents.
So years later, after trying to keep my distance as best I could, here was Tim again, hosting an after-party in his hotel room. I came to the competition to see my friends, and since all my friends were going to the party, I wanted to go, too. I remember convincing myself that since I was eighteen, I was a woman now, and didn’t have to be afraid or nervous around him. Besides, I thought, what can go wrong in a hotel room full of friends and other people I know?
So I went to the party with my friend. Let’s call her Jane. We agreed we wouldn’t leave without each other, and our main objective was to have fun and celebrate. I felt happy and confident as we approached the room. As soon as we walked in, Tim walked straight up to me, as if he’d been waiting for me all night. He asked if I wanted a drink. I did, so I said yes and followed him to a long dresser in the room. He was the host with the alcohol, so I didn’t see anything wrong with taking a drink from him. Besides, I wasn’t driving and was surrounded by people I knew, so I couldn’t see the harm in having a drink.
He handed me a very small glass with only a little bit of liquid in it. And that was the last I remember of the party.
You see, my friend Jane left without me. When I saw her the next morning, she told me that Tim had put me in the bathroom until everyone else left. It wasn’t until she was ready to leave that she realized I was in there. She told him she wasn’t leaving without me and demanded that he show her where I was. He humored her and led the way into the bathroom where I was lying in the bathtub. He picked me up and told her that he was going to prove I wanted to stay with him. Jane later told me that when he lifted me, my head fell backward and my eyes rolled back. And then he kissed my mouth.
My friend got scared and left me alone with Tim.
I don’t remember much of the middle of the night with him, but I knew he took me to his bed. I can remember not being able to feel anything—not even my own vocal chords. I wanted to scream, but nothing would come out. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move. There were a few moments of clouded consciousness where I could hear the phone ringing from the bedside table next to us. And I could hear constant pounding on the door. Jane told me later that she regretted leaving me, so she asked another friend, David, to help her out. David was pounding on the door, and Jane was calling from the hotel phone in the hall. But Tim never answered and he never got up to see who was at the door.
When I woke up in the morning and finally had control over my own body again, I found myself covered by several sheets and comforters, even over my head. I had no idea why, and I wasn’t going to stick around to find out. I grabbed what I could and ran out the door. I left my jacket and my right sock. They were the least of my worries. What I needed was to find my mom.
By coincidence, Jane was on her way up to find me as I ran down the hall toward the elevator. I asked her why she left me and she explained her side of the story. Jane detailed the way Tim kissed me in the bathroom, how she regretted leaving me, how she and David tried calling and pounding on the door. Listening to her, I was confused but full of adrenaline because what she said made me feel safe to state, “I think Tim raped me.” To tell you the truth, I have no idea why I said, think. I knew. I think I was afraid to admit that something so heinous had happened to me. I didn’t want it to be true, so I left that door open. But NOTHING could have prepared me for her reaction. She said, “You can’t accuse someone of something like that. You could ruin his life.”
Instead, it ruined my life. At least for a while. As an adult I find it beyond comprehension that any human being would have had that response. Those wrong words were said to me at the wrong time. It changed everything in that moment and forced me to bottle my exploding feelings inside, when I should have felt secure in telling a trusted friend a terrible thing had happened to me. I was so scared about the possibility of having caught an incurable sexually transmitted disease, or being pregnant. But I said nothing and kept it all to myself. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. What was worse is that, given what happened with my uncle, I felt like I couldn’t tell my parents. I just wanted to pretend the whole thing never happened.
So I did pretend. Sure, over time, the impact lessened, but the memories and the suppressed pain never started to feel better until years later, when I started to share my story with my friends. As I grew older and wiser, my confidence grew with me. But here’s the thing: the real healing didn’t start until I admitted to myself what happened to me that night.
I never saw my friend Jane again, and I hope you never have a friend like her. Of all of the awful things that happened at that hotel, Jane’s reaction affected me the most. I know that I’m often critical of the people you surround yourself with, my sweet girl. And that’s because I know how precious you are to me. Your friends are precious to someone else too. I want you to have the self confidence to surround yourself with real people who can help you in crisis instead of hurt. And I want you to be that same kind of friend to them. I have high standards for both you and the people you allow in your life.
You want to know if there is anything I would have done differently. That’s a complicated question because the answer is yes and no. I can’t change what happened. Nor can I change or control either of the predators who were in my life.
But what I wish was that I knew the “rules.” These are rules that I make sure you understand very clearly. You know that you’re never allowed to be in a room with an adult with the door closed, because there is no circumstance when that is appropriate. You can go ahead and blame it on me. Tell them, “My mom doesn’t let me close doors.” You can even tell them how lame I am. I don’t care, as long as the rules are being followed.
I want you to know that there is a difference between right and wrong. I also want you to know that there is a way to hold those boundaries, even while being well-mannered and sweet. Anyone who respects you will respect your rules. And a big lesson I want you to learn is that if you state the rules and someone doesn’t respect it, they are likely wanting to cause you harm. If you say, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to tell you when my birthday is,” or “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to give personal information out,” his reaction would have told you if his intentions were true or not. And if someone doesn’t respect your rules, most definitely, tell me about it.
As you get older, there will be other rules. New rules. I’m not dumb enough to expect you to wait until you are 21 to have your first taste of alcohol. If that’s what you choose, I’m all for it. But my main concern will be your safety with alcohol. Never, ever, under any circumstances should you ever let someone make you a drink. I don’t care how well you know someone—I want you to be responsible for what you are putting in your body.
I wish I knew those rules when I was your age, and I wish I followed them. But to answer your question in a different way, no. I don’t regret anything that has ever happened to me. In fact, now that I’m an adult and have dealt with my past, I embrace my experiences. I wouldn’t change a damn thing. Do you know why? Because I will gladly keep those experiences that made me wiser, smarter, and experienced enough to be as protective of you as I am. I want my experiences to be my gift to you, so you never have to experience them yourself.
Please do not waste this gift. Use it to the best of your ability, and let it make you stronger and wiser so that this world can be a better place for you. And pass your wisdom on to your children, so the world can be an even better place for them too.
I love you with all my heart and so much more. So please understand that the reason you think I overreact sometimes is because I love you too much to let a little thing pass by. You’re worth the little things.
Now get to bed. We’ll talk more tomorrow, and the next day, and for the rest of our lives.
Thank you for reading my letter. I hope you feel compelled to share my message with others. Thank you, Phil, for making me feel so safe and strong. If you have your own story, know there are so many people out there who will support you! Please visit Amazon to find my psychological fiction novel about sexual assault, Things You Can't Take.