Lynn Beisner describes the harrowing internal debate over whether or not to report her 14-year-old daughter’s grossly inappropriate encounter with a male friend.
At the end of my daughter’s first year of high school, she asked to throw a party. She had really struggled that year, taking advanced placement classes with kids in their senior year. The last couple of months had been especially hard on her. She had been withdrawn, moody, and sick a lot. Her relief when classes were over was obvious, and we were happy to help her celebrate with her friends.
The night before the party, she and I went to the grocery store to pick up supplies. One minute we were trying to decide which soda to buy, and the next she was gone. I turned around and saw her sprinting down the aisle toward the door. At first, I thought she had seen someone and wanted to catch the person before she or he left. But then, as she neared the door of the store, she simply let go of the soda bottles in her hand. They hit the floor, bounced slightly, and then rolled toward a shocked and disapproving cashier. I grabbed my bag, abandoning my cart, and limped after her at high speed.
By the time I got out to the parking lot, Kass had already run past our car and was headed up the hill toward our house. I got the car and drove up next to her. She climbed in, looking both ashamed and shattered. “I am really sorry, Mom. I know you’re going to have to do the shopping all over again, but I just had to get out of there. William was in there, and I just couldn’t see him.”
William had been Kass’ friend and study partner. He was a senior who had been in her AP math and English classes. He was a good looking guy, and I thought that maybe she had developed a crush on him.
When we got home we both headed to the backyard, to the spot where serious conversations always seemed to happen when my kids were that age: the trampoline. Before she would tell me anything, however, she tried to get me to promise not to tell anyone. We spent a couple of minutes negotiating, and in the end agreed that I could talk to my husband, Pete, about it so long as it was clear that we would not take any action or tell anyone else about it for at least two weeks.
She started: “Do you remember when I called you from William’s house and told you that I was sick and asked you to come get me?” I had a distant memory from a couple months before. She had seemed really sick, putting her seat back and closing her eyes the whole way home. She had gone straight to bed. She had been out sick from school for a couple of days after that.
She went on: “Something happened that night. I don’t know how…it all happened so fast. His mom had gone outside to garden, and we were sitting on his bed doing homework with the door open, like always. He had gotten up to look for something, and asked me to read the assignment instructions out loud. I was looking down, and not paying attention to what he was doing. Next thing I knew, he was standing over me and had the loop of his belt around my neck. I didn’t even see it going over my head really. It happened so fast, and he did it so smoothly. It was like he had practiced a million times. He forced me to kneel in front of him while he was pulling up on the belt making it tighter around my neck.”
Kassy told me how she had first been terrified into silence, but how she had gotten out of the situation alive and un-raped. She had said to him in a calm but stern voice: “Stop it. If you do this to me, it will make you a rapist. And that is not something you want to be.” The words struck him like a physical blow. His head actually snapped back and in that moment, he let the belt go slack. She had taken it out of his hand, off her neck, and walked out of his house.
She apologized for keeping it a secret for two months, but explained why. She assumed that I would immediately call the police. After all, she was 14 when it had happened, well below the age of consent for the state we were living in. She feared that her life would change forever if I made that call. She would face intense shame among her peers and did not even want to think about what her grandmother would say. After all, she had been in a boy’s room. But what worried her more was what would happen to William, a black teenage boy in the rural south, if a white girl accused him of even attempted sexual assault. Law enforcement in our area had such a reputation for brutality and racism, she worried that William would be dead long before he could come to trial. The best case scenario, she thought, was that the racial tension in her school would become unbearable.
So for two months, she told herself it was not big deal, and tried to act like nothing happened. She confided in only one person, her brother. He agreed with her that I would call the police, and that the ramifications from that one call would make everyone’s life unbearable.
Over the following two agonizing weeks, Pete, Kass, and I had many long and intense conversations. Kass begged us not to call the police. We had lots of discussions about possible outcomes. But what we all knew was that at the end of the two weeks, I was responsible, as Kass’ only custodial parent, to make the choice I believed as an adult was the right thing to do.
During those two weeks, I wrestled with conflicting senses of obligation and questioned everything about the situation. My instinct was to follow Kass’ wishes. She was right about the brutal prudery and racism of our area. Not only would she and her brother be ostracized, but the situation had the possibility to ignite racial tension not only in her school but also in the community. It seemed almost certain that the criminal justice system would traumatize her either by slut-shaming her or imposing a penalty so harsh on the young man that it would make her feel guilty.
The problem was, I could not get out of my mind a series of images that formed as Kass told me the story of what happened to her. Every time I closed my eyes to sleep or had an idle moment in the day, I would see a thick black line of leather pressed into the pale, baby-like skin of my daughter’s vulnerable neck, a thick black leather line that could have marked the place where her life ended. What my recurring flashes of imagery were telling me was that I was not entirely convinced that William would stop at oral rape. I worried that he would kill someone. That amplified my deep concern that he might be a danger to other young women in the community. Certainly, the ease with which he had restrained Kass seemed to indicate that he had rehearsed this, that it was something he planned to do again. Yes, my daughter’s well-being was my highest priority. But wouldn’t she be traumatized and carry feelings of guilt for the rest of her life if she found out that William had raped or killed another young woman?
On the other hand, I wondered if I was making much ado about nothing. When you came right down to it, William had not committed a crime. He had actually done the right thing and stopped when Kass made her non-consent very clear. He had not touched any private part of her body, nor had he forced her to touch any part of his. So was it really attempted rape? I wondered if it was possible that this was just his idea of a horrible joke or if this was something that guys did in music videos. I even wondered if maybe he just had kink tendencies and what he did was nothing more than a very awkward and inappropriate pass.
But then, I would think again, of the thick black line of leather around my daughter’s neck. The fear that at first made her unable to think or even speak suggested the initiation of a criminal act, and I knew in my heart that in a perfect world, this would be something that a criminal justice system should investigate if only to find an appropriate form of treatment for the young man.
In the end, I decided that I could not say, “Congratulations, you managed to survive a dangerous and traumatic situation in which you were nearly forced to do something against your will. As a reward, I will now force you to do something against your will that will be fraught with risk and trauma. That’s right, you used great judgment to get yourself out of a very bad situation. But I don’t trust your judgment about what happens next.” I decided by doing whatever it took to even survive, let alone escape rape, she had earned the right to choose what happened next.
I still wonder if I made the right choice. My daughter swears that I did. But on nights when I can’t sleep, I search the newspapers from that area for any sign that I made the wrong one.