ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
A little over thirteen years ago, in my second semester of graduate school, I was in a novel-writing class with the late Margaux Fragoso. She was writing about a sexual relationship between a child and an adult that lasted into the child’s own adulthood, ending when the pedophile committed suicide. In our workshop, several of my classmates eviscerated the pages they’d been presented with.
“What a ridiculous premise,” a brassy redhead declared. “Like any child would willingly stay in a relationship with her abuser.”
“Yeah, seriously, dude,” a younger guy added, his wide-spread legs sprawling out into the room.
“I mean, like, why wouldn’t she just tell her mother?” He nodded to the woman who’d spoken.
“Sorry, but it makes zero sense. No one would do that.”
I knew the truth when I heard it, but I didn’t say a word as they talked, just watched Margaux’s shoulders slump as she scribbled in her notebook, the sweep of her dark hair hiding her cheeks. She wore a teddy bear t-shirt, with white and pale pink high-tops.
There was something vulnerable, almost childlike about Margaux’s demeanor and the sound of her voice that seemed to bring out the bully in many of my classmates; the same ones had been similarly dismissive of her work the previous semester. Their attitude sparked our friendship, and I’d written to her after one especially nasty workshop to tell her what I hadn’t dared to say aloud: that they’d been unfair to her work. She’d responded that there was no way she’d value criticism from someone who wrote “arrogant rambling garbage that he thinks is reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye.” That made me realize she was far less vulnerable than I thought, at least where her writing was concerned.
When Margaux’s book, Tiger, Tiger, was published in 2009 as what it really was, a memoir, I remembered how sure my classmates had been that she wasn’t writing truth—and how sure I’d been that she was. But coward that I was then, I said nothing. I struggled to believe I belonged in graduate school with those effortlessly cool “real” writers who’d seemingly read everything ever written. Those confident people who somehow had money to go out for drinks and dinner, despite the one-thousand-dollar-per-month stiped the university paid us to teach two classes a semester. So, I said nothing, though I knew exactly how a relationship like that could begin and knew Margaux for a kindred damaged spirit.
I am almost eight. Mom is at a PTA meeting; Joey is babysitting my brother, Kevin, and me. Joey is sixteen, and he kind of has a mustache. He’s never babysat us before, but maybe all the usual neighborhood girls were busy on this night, or maybe Mom doesn’t like girl babysitters anymore. She got mad the last time Kelly babysat us, because she let us eat up all the grapes. They were supposed to last the whole week, and later that night, Kevin and I both wet our beds. I don’t know how eating too many grapes made us wet the bed, but that’s what Mom said.
Mom always looks pretty when she goes to PTA meetings. She curls her dark hair and puts on blue eye shadow and frosty lipstick. When I get older, I’ll wear lipstick every day, because it looks so pretty. Some girls I know have lipstick and play dress up with it, but I don’t. Mom says little girls have no business with makeup.
I watch Mom put on her lipstick tonight. She holds her mouth in an “O” to put it on right, and then she pah, pahs her lips together. She looks happy. I ask if I can try on her shoes, but she says she doesn’t have time; she’s running late already, and Joey is coming in a couple of minutes. She needs to be ready when he gets here so she can show him around and tell him about our bedtime.
“I could tell him,” I say. I could say 8:30 p.m., instead of 8, so maybe I could see something good on television. Mom says she’s onto me, and she will tell him—and she does. When he comes up the stairs, his head of brown curls pops in first, then the rest of him. It feels like he takes up a lot of space as he follows Mom to the kitchen, to my room, to Kevin’s. He’s much bigger than the girl babysitters.
Most times, babysitters let us stay up later than bedtime if we ask, and we get to watch grown-up television, like Charlie’s Angels. But Joey didn’t smile or play games with us, he just sat on the couch and watched the news with his face tight. After that, he told us to go put on our pajamas. Then, we watched some game shows, until he said we had to go to bed. Joey seemed so mean we didn’t even argue; we just went to bed.
Kevin and I used to sleep in the same room, with our two beds near each other, mine with the pink-flowered blanket and his with blue. But Mom got sick and tired of us waking her up early on Saturday mornings. We’d wake up before her because we were excited for cartoons. Sometimes we’d laugh, and sometimes we’d fight, but Mom would always yell from her bedroom, “Be quiet!” We would try, but then we’d forget and she’d yell again, “Be quiet!” Then, “If I have to tell you again, I’m gonna get the stick!” Then, we’d really try.
We could never be quiet enough, though, so one Saturday morning, she said, “That’s it!” and took apart Kevin’s bed. She moved it and all of his clothes into the playroom, even though it’s a teeny-tiny room with no door or closet. Now, his bedroom is all the way on the other side of our house. If I want to see him in the morning, I have to walk through the kitchen, Mom’s room, and the living room to get there. Mom says that’s the point. I liked having Kevin in the same room with me at night. Because when the boogeyman comes slithering out of the closet, if he has choices, he might take Kevin first.
When Mom moved Kevin out, she also moved my bed closer to the closet. I told her about the boogeyman, but she says there is no such thing. I know that; I’m not a baby, but I still don’t like my bed here. Now, I sleep right in the middle of the bed, so if the boogeyman comes, he’ll have to reach far from any angle to get me, and I’ll have time to scream for Mom. I sleep on my belly, so he can’t rip my heart out.
I don’t tell Joey about the boogeyman. He said go to sleep, and I am trying.
I am trying for a long, long time. I am almost asleep when my bedroom door creaks open and light spills into the room. Sometimes, the babysitters look in to make sure you’re sleeping. I don’t want to get in trouble, so I just keep my eyes closed until they go away. Joey comes in and his footsteps get closer. He walks right up to the bed and stands over me. His breathing is loud and a little hoarse, like he’s been running, or like he’s mad. I don’t think he’s been running, so why’s he mad? Does he think I’m not sleeping? Will he yell at me? Tell Mom I was bad? I hold very still and keep my eyes closed. I don’t know why he doesn’t go away. I take small, quiet breaths. My bed shifts like there’s something heavy on it.
I hold still for what seems like forever, and then Joey lays his hand on the back of my head. He holds it there for a minute. The heavy weight of his palm feels like it covers my whole head. He strokes my hair slowly and softly, moving gently from the crown to the back of my neck. He scoops my hair up and lets it trickle through his fingers to land gently back on my neck. No one has ever touched my hair like that. If I were a kitten, I would purr, but I’m not a kitten—and if I move, he might stop touching my hair. Maybe he isn’t mad at me, even though his breathing still sounds like he is. I don’t think I’m supposed to be awake.
He lifts the covers, and then his fingers are under my pajamas and he pets my back, up, and then down. Just his fingertips, so light that it almost tickles. I almost feel chilly, and he flattens his hand on my back. It’s warm and nice. He strokes my hair again and then the bed creaks as the hand slides lower, to my waist, and under the elastic of my underpants. Now, his warm hand is stroking my bum. His feathery touches run all up and down, and then he stops and gets up. I can feel him standing there, looking at me, and I keep my breaths slow and shallow. I hear his tiptoeing footsteps across the floor, and then my bedroom door clicks shut.
I often wondered if Margaux’s fifteen-year relationship with Peter Curran had blown up parts of her, and if some of her remained the seven-year-old child she’d been when he first sought her out, almost the same age I’d been when Joey sought me out. I wonder if that’s what happens to those of us who survive pedophiles, or don’t.
I said nothing to the bullies in my writing workshops because I couldn’t think of a way to defend Margaux’s work that wouldn’t reveal my own shame. There are things, I thought then, that you don’t expose to people like them. Why hang your guts out for their mockery?
I’d loathed my classmates’ demonstration of how little they understood about sexual assault victims, but I’d wondered how Margaux’s story might have been different if Curran had been less practiced in luring children, if he’d been less calculating, less gentle with her, earlier.
The next time Joey babysits, Mom’s moved the furniture around. “It keeps things interesting,” she said. I’m glad she’s moved my bed away from the closet. Now, it’s on the other side of the room, so when Joey pushes my bedroom door open a little bit after bedtime, I see his silhouette fill the doorway before he comes in, closes the door behind him, and I can’t see anything.
I close my eyes, but he knows I’m not asleep.
“Hi,” he says from the foot of my bed. “You’re not sleeping yet, are you?”
I wonder if I should pretend I am, so I don’t get in trouble, but then I remember last time. “No,” I say.
“Good,” he says. His voice comes from the right side of my bed now. “Scoot over.”
I scoot, and he lifts the covers and lays down next to me.
“How’s school?” he asks, as he smooths my bangs away from my face.
“It’s okay. I don’t think my teacher likes me much.”
“How could anyone not like you?”
He keeps petting my hair. I tell him about how Miss McIntire is mean, about my Barbie townhouse and how Kevin won’t let GI Joe sleep there.
“Boys can be brats,” he says, “but I’m not.” He tickles my belly. I laugh and roll around. He tickles me more, and I try to get away, because even though I like laughing, I don’t really like being tickled. I feel like I might pee my pants, and that happens enough already without any help.
Joey tickles me until I squeal a little and then he stops.
“Do you want to tickle me?”
“Yes,” I say, and I reach for his belly. I poke all of my fingers into his ribs like I do to Kevin, but Joey doesn’t laugh. I dig in harder, but still nothing.
“I’m not ticklish there.”
I never heard of someone whose belly wasn’t ticklish.
“Do you want to know a secret about where boys are ticklish?”
I didn’t know there was a secret. “Yes.”
He moves and something rustles a little. He takes my hand and pulls it down; I don’t know where it is now. Under my hand is what feels like hair, but not like my hair. It’s bouncy and rough. I don’t like it. I start to move my hand away.
“Don’t,” he says. “Don’t you want to see where boys are ticklish?”
I don’t, but I don’t know what to say.
“Open your hand,” he says, taking my hand in his and spreading my palm out. He tugs my hand down a little more. “Make a fist,” he says and closes my fingers around something big and roundish, like a warm pole with soft stuff on the outside.
It’s kind of hard, but not hard, too, like the hard is underneath the soft. I don’t know what it is, and I feel like I don’t know where I am. It’s so dark. What does he have that Kevin doesn’t? He’s a boy, too. I don’t want to touch him anymore. Joey puts his hand around mine and moves it up and down. The hard thing stays, but the soft moves. “Here,” he says, “this is how you tickle. Keep doing that.”
He still doesn’t laugh, though. I hear his breath coming from what seems like far above me, and he’s panting, and the springy, prickly hairs hurt my hand. His hand on my hand hurts, too. He squeezes it so hard and moves it faster and faster on the thing that gets harder under my hand, and then something happens. He clutches my hand tighter and his breath stops. Then, he lets me go.
I put my hand back on my chest where it was before he opened the door. I don’t want to play this game anymore. My belly hurts.
He kisses my forehead and closes the door.
A couple of weeks later, Kevin and I are at a neighborhood party. Joey is there. He isn’t acting like I’m special; he’s hardly looking at me at all. The grownups are in the kitchen, and Joey is playing with us kids in the living room.
Jeanie and Petey are jumping on Joey, who gives us all airplane rides. I love airplane rides. When I am big, I will give them to all the kids. When it’s my turn for a ride, I put my hands in Joey’s and stand up tall; he puts his feet on my belly and hoists me into the air. I’m flying! Kevin and Jeanie and Petey are pig-piling on each other. Jeanie is trying to tickle Petey, but Petey kicks her off the pile and sits on her.
“I know where boys are ticklish,” I say from high above them all.
Joey’s hands clutch mine. Hard, like he’s grinding my bones. “Shush.”
I look into his face as he drops my feet to the floor. His eyes are narrow slits, his cheeks red. “Our secret,” he says quick and like a hiss through his clenched teeth.
That’s when I know that thing that made me feel bad really is bad. And Joey knows it, too.
I have to tell Mom. I don’t want to play tickle again.
Later, we are doing dishes. Mom washes. I dry, but only one dish at a time, and not the pretty ones.
She is wearing her brown and white checked bell-bottoms. I don’t like those pants because once Mom got her foot tangled up in them, fell down the stairs, and sprained her ankle. Today, I like them, though. Today, I see how the tiny white and brown checks meet in the middle to make a lighter brown one.
I drop a spoon and it clatters to the floor. Mom sighs. “Give it to me.” I do and she drops it back in the soapy water.
I open my mouth. Nothing comes out.
“What?” she asks again.
“Something happened,” I tell her leg.
She turns the water off. “What happened?“
“When Joey was here.”
She turns toward me. “What happened, honey?” she says. She doesn’t sound mad, so I know I can say it.
“He touched me here,” I say, and point.
She scooches down in front of me.
I swallow. “And he made me tickle him, in a tickle spot I didn’t know boys had.”
I’m crying now. Mom gathers me and picks me up, even though I am way too big for that. “It’s okay, honey, it’s okay,” she says.
“I’m not in trouble? I didn’t mean to be bad,” I say to her neck.
“No, honey, you’re not bad.” It sounds like she’s crying, too, but that can’t be. Moms don’t cry.
I don’t know what will happen now, but it’ll be okay. Mom said so.
These days, Mom doesn’t remember much from the past, including many details of my childhood. I don’t know what, if anything, she did with what I told her about Joey. She didn’t call the police. Did she tell his parents? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I imagine her wrestling with what to do, picking up the phone and putting it back in its cradle.
She’d been a long time finding the one-bedroom apartment we rented, and Joey’s family owned the building. I didn’t know it then, but Mom was, for many, an undesirable tenant: a single mother with two children. The working-class world we lived in had little tolerance for women like her. She’d gone on welfare after having to quit her job because she couldn’t keep a steady babysitter. She told me, years later, that the women who babysat us were usually married women with kids of their own.
Sometimes, I wonder if Joey chose me because he knew it would be harder for Mom to tell.
Joey never babysat for us again, and that was the end of that. Except it wasn’t, of course. It wasn’t the end in the dark places where shame gets shut away inside of us.
A year or so later, my mother got married and we moved away.
I don’t know if she ever knew or was able to explain to my new father why I refused to be naked around him. Perhaps no one thought about it.
I’ve googled Joey’s name several times over the years, with no results. I want to think he’s stopped preying on children. Maybe I was the only one. But the truth is I don’t know his last name for certain, so I don’t know if I’m searching for the right person. Almost everything I’ve learned about pedophiles suggests he probably had other victims. I think of the airplane rides he’d give to us kids, and of his cousin Jeanie, who was my age.
Years later, watching Christine Blasey Ford testify during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I was reminded of the way my graduate-school classmates had acted toward Margaux. Blasey Ford’s voice reminded me of Margaux’s: high-pitched like a child’s. She was mocked for that voice. At a campaign rally, our president mimicked her responses to the Senate Judiciary committee questions and implied she was lying.
I knew she was telling the truth the same way I’d known Margaux was. I was raped when I was fourteen, and again at fifteen. I didn’t tell my parents, didn’t report what happened. What was there to report? The now-common term “date rape” wasn’t frequently used until sometime in the mid-to-late-’90s, long after Blasey Ford’s assault and mine. Like Blasey Ford, I couldn’t tell you what the dates of my rapes were, or even what day of the week they’d happened on. My memories are fragmented, which my therapist tells me is usual in trauma survivors.
Watching the Kavanaugh hearings made me tremble with rage because it seemed likely he’d be confirmed despite the testimony. Christine Blasey Ford knew that, too. As she said in an interview with the Washington Post, “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” Yet, she testified. She hung her guts out for mockery, and in doing so, kept the conversation in public view.
When I heard Margaux died of ovarian cancer in 2017, I was shocked and saddened, as one would be when a thirty-eight-year-old dies, leaving behind a grieving husband and teenaged daughter. She’d moved to New Orleans after she finished her degree, and we’d lost touch, both immersed in our own lives. I’d emailed her in 2009 to offer congratulations on publishing Tiger, Tiger. I said I admired her bravery in publishing the book as memoir, for telling the truth. “Write your memoir,” she responded, “Some stories insist on being told.”
I did, and it became my dissertation. But I’ve kept it locked up for five years, afraid of what’s there. Watching the Kavanaugh hearings changed me, though. It made me mad—finally, more mad than afraid. I finally understood what, maybe, Margaux and Blasey Ford already knew: the boogeyman wins when he gets to stay in the dark.
Which is not to suggest that telling means there will be punishment, or any kind of justice. I’m not naïve.
Even if there’s no justice, there’s power in throwing the closet door open, in exposing what’s really inside, and in refusing to be ashamed of it. I won’t shut this boogeyman back in the closet. I’m not the one who did something wrong.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary 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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