“I told him no. I told him no over and over.”
This past week, I had to deal with something most parents—especially parents of daughters—fear. My thirteen-year-old daughter was sexually assaulted. By a boy she’d considered a friend. He used some very predatory language, including taking her into the “tree of secrets” at the park, where he told her she couldn’t tell anyone else what he said or did in there. That was step one of his grooming. The next time he hugged her, only to grab her breast and say “Oops.”
But then the next day on the bus-ride home, he grabbed her breast again. He ignored her “no”s and attempts to wiggle free. In fact, whenever she shifted, he’d grab her thigh and try to slide his hand up, up, up. Oh, and sneaky kid that he was, he made a “joke” about kidnapping her and yanked her down on his lap so he could grab her harder while keeping his hand concealed.
There were other words that I won’t type out, but they were graphic and disturbing. On top of panic, my daughter felt helplessness and sorrow, and worst of all, shame. Shame that she couldn’t stop him from touching her. Shame that he had. And then she did the thing too many women do: she wondered if it was her fault somehow.
As soon as I arrived home from my business trip, my daughter told me she needed to talk and relayed what’d happened (after encouragement from good friends who told her that she needed to tell me and, like I reiterated, that none of it was her fault and that she had nothing to feel ashamed of.) I cried because it’d happened and because she was hurting and the mom guilt hit me hard. I wasn’t there when she needed me. But I shoved that aside—this wasn’t about me.
On Monday morning, I marched into the school. The counselor pulled the vice principal and security officer into the conversation, and then my daughter told her story. Afterward, they asked if we wanted the school to handle all of the consequences or if we wanted to press charges. I looked at my daughter and she nodded, because we’d already talked about this part. I told them we did want to press charges. My daughter added she wanted this on his record so that if he ever did anything like this again to another girl, she wanted her to be believed. “I don’t want to see him running for office or something like that someday and wish I would’ve said and done something earlier,” my daughter finished.
Seriously, the girl blows me away.
A police officer came to the school later that day and my daughter had to rehash the event again.
Then came Tuesday, when the police officer called me and informed me the boy claimed my daughter said yes and followed that up with “There isn’t enough evidence to charge him. When I reviewed the bus footage, I couldn’t see much because of the high seats, but she didn’t look distressed enough.”
Could someone tell me what distress looks like? And how much is “enough?” Interview most women who’ve been in this type of situation (which is most women) and there’d be a long list of varying ways they responded. Since I know my daughter, I guarantee I’dwatch that video and see the distress.
Now here’s where some people will tell me how she should’ve reacted. (Ah, victim shaming and hindsight, my favorite!) My daughter has beat herself up enough already for not reacting differently. And yes, we’ve talked endlessly about what to do next time, because odds are, there will be a next time. But here’s the other thing someone wouldn’t know by watching five minutes of footage: on top of hatingattention, my daughter has dealt with bullying in a different school, both on and off the bus. Countless times she’s asked teachers and drivers for help, and countless times she’s learned that adults can’t keep her safe. That whenever their back is turned, she’ll be punished for telling. After too many authority figures have let her down, she’s completely lost trust in them. In fact, my daughter had been assigned a different seat, but the bus driver forgot and gave it to two other people, so she didn’t have many options. Also, she was in shock her so-called friend ignored the fact that she’d told him several times that she only wanted to be friends, along with disregarding her pleas for him to stop touching her. Add to that how embarrassing it is for most teenage girls to approach a male bus driver and talk about her breasts. Plus, that bitch, Shame—it was filling her as she fought back tears.
Even without a history of mistrust, in moments where we’re violated, sometimes our instincts fail us and we freeze. With panic, with fear, with the inability to know what to do. On top of hating confrontation, my daughter believes in kindness and second chances and thought again about how they were friends, so surely if she just told him she wanted him to stop grabbing her, he would.
But he didn’t.
“I told him no. I told him no over and over.” That sentence has echoed through my head for over a week.
And telling him no should’ve been enough. But sadly, we don’t live in that world. That night, when I told her there wasn’t enough evidence, she asked, “But didn’t the cop talk to him? Didn’t he ask him if I’d said no?” (Because the idea that he’d lie in front of a cop didn’t even cross my kind-hearted daughter’s mind.) Then I had to tell my daughter that he claimed she said yes. The tears streamed and streamed.
My 10-year-old son brought me a picture he’d drawn of the “tree of secrets.” He added “I heard him tell her to sit on his lap and that she said no, and drew this picture to show where we all were when it happened. Would this make it so there’s enough evidence?” Yeah, I thought I’d cried out all my tears, but there were more.
I told my husband that I felt so weak and helpless. To which he said, “Are you kidding me? Even I’ve been scared to get in your way. You’re like Wonder Women walking through the battlefield, sword out, ignoring the bullets.” I needed that. Unfortunately, I needed it the next day more than ever.
Wednesday the principal called to let me know my daughter had been in his office. Silly me, I thought it was to tell her how he was going to keep her safer. Instead, he informed me that he knew the police officer had instructed my daughter not to talk about the incident, but she’d told a friend and that friend had confronted the boy. Let me tell you, the principal was so not ready for my response.
“Are you serious?” I asked but didn’t wait for his answer. “The cop instructed her not to talk about it while he investigated, but after only half a day, we were told there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges. Now that that’s over, we will talk. My daughter is 100% free to tell whoever she wants. It’s not like she’s shouting it out while standing on the cafeteria table, but she worries about her friends and other girls at school and won’t hesitate to warn them. BOY made this part of her story, and I think if you’ve watched the news lately, you’ll see that we women are sick of being told to be quiet about sexual assault. So no, I won’t tell her that she can’t talk about it. In fact, I can assure you that we will talk.”
He hemmed and hawed a bit and finally told me he understood. I asked if there was anything else and after he said no, I ended with, “Okay, I’ll let my daughter know you’ve changed your mind.”
When I told her that she wasn’t in trouble, rehashed the conversation with the principal, and let her know that she could tell whoever she wanted or needed to, she waited a beat and then said, “We will talk. I love that, Mom. You should blog about this so we can help other girls, and that should be the title.”
She’s a brave one. Her trust is a little more shattered and unfortunately, this is now part of her story, like so many other women out there who’ve had to learn this hard lesson way, WAY too young. But she’s learned more about what to do in those situations. On how to look “distressed enough.” She knows that nothing she tells me will ever make me love her less, and that I’ll go to bat for her every single time. And best of all, she is determined to talk. To help others. To find her voice, push past her fears, and talk. As my sixteen-year-old daughter wisely said, “I know it only feels like a drop in the bucket, Mom. But if we keep adding drops, and other women keep adding drops, someday, that bucket will get so full it’ll overflow, and that’s how we’ll change the world.”
Yeah, I’ve made peace with the fact that my daughters are braver and smarter than I am.
*disclaimer: I get that police need evidence to charge people, just like I realize that most cases with much more evidence never end in conviction. Please don’t @ me about that.
Here are a few links to videos that helped us through this:
Chanel Miller’s animated short about the aftermath of the Brock Turner Trial: I Am With You – Chanel Miller
Taylor Swift’s blunt testimony during the sexual assault trial: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2017/12/06/taylor-swift-explains-her-blunt-testimony-during-her-sexual-assault-trial/