My Molesters

I was sexually assaulted three times before I was 20. Here’s why I never told my family or the police.

Illustration by Robert Donnelly.

It could have been much worse. None of the three people who molested me when I was young was a predatory pedophile like Jerry Sandusky. What I went through was brief and sadly common. It’s estimated, though no one knows the actual numbers, that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they reach 18. What happened shook me up at the time, but my experiences weren’t shattering. I didn’t repress the memories—I’ve just never given them much thought. But the trial of Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach, has made me think more deeply about what was done to me and what I did in response.

As Dear Prudence, I always urge people to report any sexual abuse. Removing the secrecy takes the shame from the victim and puts the blame on the perpetrator. Exposure is the way to stop repeat offenders. But I never told anyone back then. Even with the benefit of hindsight, considering the world in which these events took place—from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s—and the family in which I lived, I still understand my choice.

The first incident was when I was about 9 years old and I was sleeping over at my cousins’ house. I was particularly close to one cousin, a girl my age. She had a brother who was about 14. Somehow he and I ended up lying on the floor alone together, watching TV. He started gently tickling my feet. “Doesn’t that feel good?” he asked. It did. He slowly moved his fingers up my legs, and when he got past my knees I started to become uneasy and told him to stop. He said the “tickling game” felt much better the higher up it went. (I note that Victim 6 in the Sandusky trial testified that the coach’s first approach was to call himself “the tickle monster.”) I tried to take my cousin’s hand off me, but he kept creeping upward, telling me how good it would feel if he went all the way between my legs.

By this time I knew something bad was happening and told him no more tickling. But he became more insistent. Holding me down with one hand, he got his other between my legs and pushed my underpants aside. I broke away from his grasp and ran out of the room. I joined my female cousin in her bedroom, and normal life resumed.

The idea of putting these deeds into words and telling my parents—or his—seemed worse than what happened. I knew it would make the adults angry and possibly cause a fissure between our families. Maybe he would say I asked him to tickle me and I was lying about the rest. I saw my male cousin many more times during my childhood, but he never tried to touch me again. Eventually our two families drifted apart, and I’ve had no contact with him in years. He did end up being sentenced to three years in prison, but it was for a white-collar crime, not sexual abuse.

The next event came when I was 15, a freshman in high school. I was at the house of a friend, “Diane.” We had been doing homework together, and it was time for me to go. It was winter, cold and dark, so her father offered to give me a ride. He was a quiet man, a bit of a nebbish, and on the brief ride we talked innocuously about school. He pulled up just short of the driveway to my home, turned off the engine, then turned to face me. His voice choked with emotion, he started babbling about how men have sexual needs. If a man’s wife won’t have sex, he said, that leaves him angry and frustrated. I knew I should just open the door, but I was so shocked that I froze. Then he lunged at me, a hand on each breast, his face pressed to mine. I pushed him away, got out of the car, and ran into my house.

Again, I didn’t say anything. Diane’s dad was the kind of man my father, a former college boxer, had contempt for. I imagined that if I told my father, he wouldn’t call the police but instead would go to Diane’s house and punch her father in the face. That would make things unpleasant in school the following day. A part of me thought her father was pathetic. High school boys were more adept at making passes.

For years my memory of that episode stopped at my front door, as if the whole thing were just a brief snippet of video that then goes blank. But of course that wasn’t the end. Diane and I remained friends through high school, and we were at each other’s houses many times. Sandusky’s lawyers have tried to impugn the credibility of the victims by pointing out that their testimony is sometimes more detailed than the accounts they first gave to the grand jury. Victim 7 explained, “Talking about different events and through talking about things in my past, different things have triggered different memories.” I know exactly what he means. Thinking about it this week, I remembered for the first time in years that Diane’s father continued to offer me rides. I always refused unless she came along, as she often did.

One night her father said he’d drive me home, and Diane said she’d join us, so I said yes. Her father turned to Diane and said she needed to stay home and finish her homework. She protested that she only had a little reading left and wanted to come. He became adamant, which was out of character for him, insisting that she stay home. I had already accepted the ride, so I would have to get out of it somehow if Diane didn’t come. Diane’s mother seemed to sense something was amiss. She said firmly, to her husband’s clear frustration, that Diane was to come along with me. Did she suspect what her husband was up to? Did she know?

The last incident was not child abuse, because I was no longer a minor, though I was still a teenager of 18 or 19. Several years earlier, my family had worked for the election of our congressman, Father Robert Drinan, an anti-Vietnam War, pro-choice priest. He was in town for a fundraiser or town meeting, and I went. Afterward he offered me a ride to the subway. (You’d think I would have learned.) He was in his 50s, and as he drove we chatted about college. We got to where he was letting me off, he turned off the engine, and he began jabbering incoherently about men and women. Then he lunged, shoving his tongue in my mouth while running his hands over my breasts and up and down my torso. It seems like the set-up for a joke, a Jewish woman being molested by a Jesuit. As we tussled, I had probably the most naïve thought of my life: “How could this be happening, he’s a priest!”

As I shoved him off and opened the car door to get out, I saw I had left a smear of my pink lipstick on his clerical collar. Again, I told no one. It was embarrassing, revolting, and I had no desire to make accusations against a congressman, especially one I admired.

Maybe because I grew up in a chaotic household, knowing adults were unpredictable and unreliable, none of these incidents had an innocence-destroying effect. When I spoke to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, he understood why silence was my instinctive reaction. “Kids have an intuition this might be taken as a big deal by adults, and are not sure they want it to be. It means confronting the adult who did it. For you, it involved your friend. What are you going to get out of it? You escaped, you feel it won’t happen again. You’re not thinking it will happen to someone else. From a cost-benefit analysis, it makes a lot of sense not to disclose.”

I’d like to think that we’re now in a different world as far as the reporting of child sexual abuse is concerned. But one of the most shocking things about the Sandusky case, as my colleague Emily Bazelon points out, is that the children who decided not to speak were too often right in suspecting that adults just wouldn’t believe them.

Fortunately for me, my perpetrators were neither rapists nor the kinds of hardcore predators who pick children who are too young, or too vulnerable, to escape. Finkelhor told me, “They had what they perceived to be some sexual need and thought there was an opportunity that didn’t have a lot of risks and took advantage.” Maybe my cousin just wanted to explore, though he was old enough to know what he was doing was wrong. But what did Diane’s father and Father Drinan expect would happen? That I would say I wanted to give them what they weren’t getting? I now think they each had an urge rather than a plan, and each was going to satisfy it, no matter the consequences. Not that there were any consequences.

But all of the incidents I’ve described were crimes. Because the events took place in Massachusetts, I talked to an attorney there, Carmen Durso, who has brought suits on behalf of many victims of pedophile priests. He said if these incidents happened today each would be a potential case of indecent assault and battery. (The state has harsher penalties if the victim is under age 14.) Because these would be sexual crimes, a conviction would lead to the defendant being put on the sex-offender registry.

Durso thought a prosecution of these one-time events would be a long shot, however. He cited a statement by the current district attorney of Suffolk County that, of 1,000 child sex abuse cases reported to their office each year, they only prosecute 200. “It’s likely what you described would be looked upon both then and now as relatively minor in the face of reasonable doubt a jury might have,” Durso said. He added that it’s nonetheless vital to make a complaint. “The likelihood is that the person who has done it will do it again.”

I know that speaking up can work. In my role as Dear Prudence, I fielded letters recently from two young women who had disturbing encounters with older men—one with a math tutor, the other with the father of a friend. In each case the men were getting a sexual thrill but also clearly trying to keep within the law. I said the police should be called because sometimes it’s the accumulation of evidence that makes a case. Indeed, in the follow-up letters I got, it turned out that several victims had already reported these men.

If my 16-year-old daughter had experienced what I did, of course I would want her to tell me. I would also act. A teenager who tries to molest his cousin should at the very least get intervention. A father who touches the breasts of his daughter’s friend should be reported to the police. But as much as I hate to say it, I’m not so sure I would advise her, if she were a young adult, to report a groping by a powerful man. As we’ve seen too many times, coming forward in a case like that opens a woman up to character evisceration. Father Drinan died in 2007, and I’m aware that I’ll be assailed for besmirching the memory of a distinguished man.

Because in each case I was able to push back immediately and end the abuse, these became isolated incidents. I was not traumatized. In some way I was even empowered—I was able to handle these bigger, older males. But now, all these years later, I’m left to wonder about Diane’s father: Did he ever touch anyone else?

Read a statement from the family of Father Robert Drinan about Emily Yoffe’s article “My Molesters.”