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Isabel Kaplan

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Growing Up with Rape

Posted: 03/29/11 01:03 PM ET

I can't remember a time when I didn't know about rape. And I can't remember how I learned. I just know it was there, always there. Being raped altered and shaped my mother's identity, and I always knew that.

When I was nine or 10, maybe 11, and I wanted to know the details about my mother's rape, all I had to do was look it up. My mother had been telling her story for 20 years.

I learned the details about my mother's rape by reading the first chapter of "Real Rape," a book she wrote about rape law in America, a book that began with a chapter called "My Story." And as I read about the trauma, the aftermath, the way the Boston police treated her and how the doctors at the hospital responded, I also realized something unsettling: it wasn't just I who knew these details; people all over the place could -- and did, in fact -- also know the painful details of my mother's rape.

My mom was 21, just a few months older than I am today. She was a senior at Wellesley. It was two days before her college graduation. He was a stranger with an ice pick. She was parking her car in the alley behind her apartment in Boston. I used to think it happened at night, but that must be a detail supplied by my imagination. I know this because a quick online search tells me that my mother was raped in the afternoon, not the evening. A Thursday afternoon. My mom was raped on a Thursday afternoon in May by a man wielding an ice pick. The police never found him.

I still feel a little odd about the fact that I can use the Internet to fact-check details about my mom's rape.

For a while, I wasn't sure if this was a story that I was allowed to tell. I remember the responses I received when I first told people that my mother had been raped. These were people who didn't know this about my mom. They expressed surprise, then admonishment: "Are you sure you should be telling people about that? That's private."

I went home feeling confused and even a little ashamed, embarrassed. I knew the story wasn't private. But maybe I wasn't supposed to tell this story. This was my mom's story, not mine. She could tell it, not I. That day, I asked her if it was okay that I had told people. "It's not private," she told me. "It's okay." Not that I should necessarily just go around sharing, but if it seemed relevant, sure. Not that I actually would have shared this story with everybody; I knew that plenty of my classmates didn't even know what rape was yet. But hearing my mother tell me this didn't quite answer my question.

Because I still thought that this was my mother's story.

It wasn't until recently that I understood that even though I wasn't there in the alley that Thursday afternoon, this was my story, too.

My mother's rape shaped my childhood. I grew up watching and listening to my mother discuss rape -- on television, in speeches, in her law school classes, with friends, with family, with me. Everywhere. I grew up with her words about rape echoing in a constant loop inside my head. And in this way, my mom's story became a part of my story. A part of me. A part of the person I have become and am still in the process of becoming.

My mother's mother -- my grandmother -- told my mother that she shouldn't tell anyone that she had been raped, that if she did, nobody would want her. She had been soiled. My mom decided to tell her story because she refused to hide, and she understood the importance of refusing to hide. To hide would be to suggest that this was something to be embarrassed about, something that was somehow her fault. Hiding would mean giving in to the injustice. Hiding would preclude her from being able to really fight back.

Last week, I directed a production of "A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer," a collection of monologues compiled by Eve Ensler about rape and violence against women. "A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer" would not and could not have been produced at Harvard 30 years ago. Close to 30 years ago, my mother was a young professor at Harvard Law School. She was teaching Criminal Law and had planned to devote one day to discussing rape law. On that day, she told her class about her rape experience. If the subject was armed robbery and had she been robbed by a man with an ice pick, she wouldn't have thought twice about mentioning it. But this was rape, and rape, my mother was told, should not be discussed in public.

In spite of her fears about possible repercussions, she told her story. The campus exploded with discussion. The Harvard Crimson wrote about it. She received much more criticism than support. One day she received a phone call from someone who said, "I'm one of your students, and before the end of the semester, I'm going to rape you, too." This led to an eventually inconclusive investigation. The police tapped her phone line and asked her to call on students who she thought might particularly hate her in class, to see if any of their voices sounded familiar.

Last week, 36 years after my mother's rape and nearly 30 years after my mother was threatened after she spoke out at Harvard, I stood on stage in a Harvard theater, sharing this story and opening a production about true stories of rape and violence.

Thirty years ago, the Harvard organization that sponsored this production, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR), was still decades away from being born.

My mother told her story even though she was afraid. She still is. But thanks to her bravery and her fight, I am not afraid. I am conscious of the dangers. I am cautious when I walk around alone at night and would never accept a drink from a stranger. I have taken multiple full-impact self-defense courses. I have known about rape for as long as I can remember.

But I am not afraid.

 

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