ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
Beneath the Towering Pines
We’d had the talks: the talks good parents have with their kids about no one touching their privates besides mom, dad, and doctors. We’d elaborated and explained that even as those trusted adults we should only be touching if we were asked, or in the case of doctors, supervised.
She’d seemed off when I picked her up that Friday afternoon. It was the last day of a week-long summer science camp she and her older brother had attended at the local University in Boulder, Colorado. She was standing with her group on the lawn when I spotted her in the rainbow twirl dress she’d put on earlier that morning. A substitute teacher handed me a clip-board to sign her out. Ella didn’t look up the instructor as we turned to leave. “Thank your teacher,” I nudged. She clasped my hand tighter. “Thanks,” she said to her sparkly pink shoes. Close enough, I thought. I held her tiny hand and let her be quiet as we slowly made our way to the car.
Her brother, Jack, spoke excitedly on the long walk to the garage. His day was amazing! Fossils, Crystals, and Rocks was the best class ever. I tried to listen, to stay engaged. But I found myself throwing out occasional affirmations like mindless bread crumbs to a duck: “cool,” “really?,” “awesome.”
Perched in his booster seat, Jack paused to suck down some Gatorade.
“How do you play Harry Potter?” Ella said from the backseat. Jack was two years older than his sister and a legitimate Harry Potter fanatic. In typical big-brother, eight-year-old speak, he said simply, “I don’t know. It depends. Why?”
“I don’t like it.”
I caught her face in the rearview mirror. Curiosity stirred in my stomach. Maternally, I connected the sense of “off-ness” already noted to this reference. “Why don’t you like playing Harry Potter?” Jack asked.
“I thought it would be fun to be Hermione, but I didn’t like how when the boys said ‘Presto’ that meant I had to lie down on the ground. And I didn’t like how they poked my bits with sticks.”
Don’t crash the car. Don’t crash the car. Don’t crash the car.
I used the word “bits” as short hand for privates. Back when the kids bathed together, I’d fold laundry in the other room and holler, “Don’t forget to wash your bits,” and by that I meant the whole undercarriage. It applied to both kids for all sets of privates—a family euphemism.
“What do you mean poked your bits with sticks?” Jack pressed, disgust and confusion dripping from his tongue.
“Hey!” I interjected. “No thank you.” I’d resorted to preschool tactics of rejecting behavior. No thank you to responding to your sister in that tone young man!
Don’t crash the car. Don’t crash the car. Don’t crash the car.
“I mean, they had me on the ground and they were poking me with sticks. In my bits. I telled them to stop but they wouldn’t.”
My memory falters here. Did she tell me the boys laughed at her?
I can see her in my mind’s eye, on a bed of dried pine needles, wiggling, one boy holding her down, the other tasked with the jabbing. I imagine her disingenuously giggling while saying “Stop guys!” The needles stamping their imprints on her legs, the sticks against her cotton dress, and the boys’ faces in a part of her brain she has no words for, not yet.
“Did you tell the teacher?” He prodded. She was quiet. Her blue eyes shifted down again. “You SHOULD have told the teacher.” Jack said this as much to impress me as to inform her. But it didn’t impress me. It lit a fuse, a hissing sound to compete with the don’t crash the car refrain.
“Jack, please don’t. That’s not helpful.” I texted my husband from a stop light. My heart thumped in my chest like a dog’s leg scratching an itch.
“She should have told the teacher Mom!” He repeated more emphatically.
“No.” I snapped. And I turned around and pointed my index finger at his face, my eyes meeting his whip-smart hazel ones, “YOU. STOP.” I was seething now. Calm mom had escaped through the window like a dollar store balloon.
This eight-year-old boy was shaming his sister for not reacting the “right” way during and immediately following an incident she couldn’t make sense of several hours later. Incidents like these can take half a lifetime for women to make sense of. I didn’t feel connected to Jack at that moment.
When we got home, her dad’s reaction was similar to Jack’s. He had her explain the story, in which according to her account there was a teacher visible the whole time; my husband couldn’t reconcile this detail, and in fairness neither could I, how a teacher would have ignored this kind of incident? He, too, told Ella she should have told the teacher. He said it gently. He said it with love. But from my vantage point, it was still an act of shaming because the message was that she did something wrong—she did something wrong by not telling a teacher about a confusing, traumatic “game.”
I asked Ella if the sticks went inside her bits and she said they didn’t. I asked if her bits were sore, and her fawn-colored eyebrows stitched together in confusion because at six years old, she didn’t know bits got sore from being poked. I hate that I’ve invoked that question, that because I had to ask it, the question itself lives inside her now like a mite.
We left the topic alone for the rest of the evening.
I called my friend Sophia, a therapist and mom whose advice I’ve come to rely on in the midst of a crisis like I do Tylenol in midst of a headaches. On the phone, I heard her breathe into the vast angst of the situation—the stickiness and its giant ghostly shadow. She explained that asking Ella to tell the story again would be “re-traumatizing.” The important thing was to commend Ella for opening up and talking about what had happened and to reinforce that she did nothing wrong.
I lay by her in bed that night, not talking about the thing that had happened; the thing I worried would change all things for her the way I know sexual assault does for women. I stroked Ella’s light brown hair and I thought about how quickly innocence gets stripped away and I felt flushed all over, feverish.
I called the summer camp program. I explained that my daughter was in the camp the previous week. She’d been playing a game during recess break with two boys and they’d asked her to lie down on the ground and proceeded to poke her genitals with sticks.
Trisha, the director, was a mother of an eleven-year-old girl and she sounded like the kind of woman who kept a nail file in her desk drawer and Band-Aids in her purse. She was mortified by Ella’s experience, which I appreciated.
Trisha asked if Ella knew the names of the two boys, which presented an issue. Asking Ella the names would require bringing the incident up again which would risk re-traumatizing her. Getting the boys names, I reasoned, would decrease the probability this would happen again to other little girls. In my mom-brain cost/benefit analysis, it was worth the risk to identify the boys.
And so, I took Ella out for ice cream.
After carefully considering all her option, she chose vanilla with rainbow sprinkles, like usual. We sat outside with little spoons, the hot sun warming our legs. She remembered the two boys. Of course she did.
Ella wanted to know if they would get in trouble.
“Do you think they should get in trouble?” I asked before busying my mouth with a bite of cookies and cream. Again, her brows magnetically pulled together.
“You are not supposed to poke people’s bits,” she said matter-of-factly. “Mom,” She continued, “I wasn’t supposed to be Hermione. Lucy was supposed to be Hermione, but her mom came and picked her up early that day.” This is a fact that Ella had brought up half a dozen times, this “it-wasn’t-supposed to-be-me” clause.
Fairness is a big thing to a first-grader. I looked at her feet dangling from the bench we sat on. Her hair hung in strings down her back. She swirled her spoon, turning the vanilla ice cream into muddy shade of rainbow before taking another bite.
I wished Lucy’s mom had not come for her that day. I wished she’d gotten the role of Hermione and not my daughter.
I relayed the names of the boys to Trisha, who wanted to see if they were signed up for any more camps that summer. In a subsequent conversation, the director asked me what I would like to see happen “with all this.”
“I want two things. I want the staff re-trained on recess supervision. There is no reason for kids to ever be wrestling on the ground. And, I want the boys’ parents called.” This answer, strange as it may sound, felt divinely inspired. It was succinct and logical, two traits I am not well known for. She informed me the staff had already been retrained and assured me she would call the boys’ parents.
Even if the boys denied it or explained it away, which I suspected they would, my hope was that if a similar situation presented itself six months or six years from now those parents would hearken back to the phone call they received from the University Program Director. The time they’d allegedly poked that little girl in the privates with sticks. You can’t un-know that as a mother.
I really wanted to know how the boys’ parents’ responded. I imagined their denial, their mortification. I quietly hoped the director would call to let me know how about their reaction, but she didn’t. It wasn’t part of the deal, so I understand. Still, I wonder.
If Jack had been one of the two accused boys when he was six years old, he would have written a note to the girl in the rainbow twirl dress. An incorrectly spelled, poorly scrawled apology for making her feel bad.
I would have listened to his side of the story. But after his telling this truth would have remained: somehow those sticks poked her in the privates, whether that was his intention or not. Maybe he meant to poke her all over, to tickle her, but the privates got the most reaction so that’s where he landed. Maybe he was goaded by his buddy. It doesn’t really matter. An outnumbered little girl was hurt because of him.
I have no patience for “boys being boys,” “It was just a game,” “She took it wrong,” or any of those tired clichés. My husband doesn’t think six-year-olds are capable of “sexual assault.” I understand; those boys weren’t looking for sexual gratification in the woods that day. But just as rape is about power and not sex, assault is about bullying and shaming rather than gratification.
My biggest struggle in navigating this incident was managing the proportions of it. When the university asked if I wanted to be connected with rape victims’ services, this struck me as excessive. Still, I wasn’t going to be the mom who swept it under the rug either. I didn’t intuitively know if getting Ella into counseling was a good move or if it was making “too much” out of the play game gone wrong. Sophia’s advice was that if Ella wasn’t wetting the bed or waking up with nightmares, it was best to leave it alone.
Ella did ask periodically if the boys got in trouble. I told her the truth. I told her both sets of parents had been talked to and I assumed they’d talked to the boys, but I couldn’t be sure. “But if Jack did that, you and daddy would talk to him, right mom?”
“Yes. We would.”
She nodded. Trying to make sense of it and, I imagine, wondering what we would have said to Jack. She may have even been piecing together what a very muddy shade of rainbow this life is.
Weeks later when talking with Sophia over coffee I asked her a question that had been bothering me.
“Does the fact that this happened mean Ella is the victim of sexual abuse?” I’d been carrying that anxiety. The fear that a scarlet “S A” was now embossed on her chest. Sophia nodded contemplatively.
“No. I don’t think so. Because abuse thrives in secrecy, it’s in the darkness that it gets bigger and uglier and more unruly. And this didn’t live in the dark. You didn’t let it. You brought it out in the light and you let Ella know that you were her advocate and she could trust you. And you would do your best to protect her and that’s all we can do as moms.”
I loved her for saying that.
I am not the hero of this story. There is no hero. A little girl got told “Presto” meant lay on the ground and she was made to feel helpless and violated. I don’t understand who was where when this happened. There is no video footage from campus security (I asked). I believe it’s possible that the boys don’t remember sticks hitting her privates and Ella remembering that’s all they hit. I don’t believe she misidentified the boys whose eyes she clearly met as they attacked her. I have a feeling they were laughing.
I sent Jack to the camp because as an aspiring eight-year-old paleontologist, I knew he’d love it. Then I tacked Ella on for an oceanography camp because it was convenient and I knew I could get work done during that time. “You can learn about dolphins!” I’d told her. Selfish mom.
I felt a lot of anger toward the camp’s staff for not properly overseeing the recess and for the young teacher who denied seeing anything out of the ordinary on that Friday afternoon. It was a twenty-two-year old whom I imagine had her head in her phone and not on my daughter.
We don’t get do-overs in these situations. I knew hysteria would get me nowhere with the university. I knew there was no way I was going to personally get the sit-down I wanted with the two accused boys, who yes, happened to be six years old. I didn’t meet Ella’s story with skepticism. I didn’t carry my own not wanting it to be so into the discussion. I hope it was enough that I tried to meet her where she was—on her back, beneath the towering pines.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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