Michelle Bowdler | Essay
When our daughter Becca was three, she asked if she could trade bedrooms with her older brother, Ben. Her room was bigger than his, tucked at the end of the hallway on the second floor. While their rooms were adjacent, Ben’s door was two feet closer to our bedroom directly across the hall.
“I am afraid of bears,” she cried, the fifth time in a row she ran into our room, jumping between us with her little blue dog clutched to her chest, her wild red hair matted from sweat and tears. “I need to sleep here,” she said, pulling my pillow out unceremoniously from under my head. “I think the bears are going to come in my room and take me.” She sobbed while we both rubbed her back, half asleep.
No one was getting much rest and Ben didn’t mind moving. In the smaller room, if you placed the headboard just so and left the door open, Becca could see us from her bed. After the swap, she slept with two night lights on and her door open, eventually coming into our room less often.
“It’s my fault.” I said to Mary. “She’s absorbed my fears through her pores. I don’t know exactly how that works in the biosphere, but really, she thinks something is going to climb through a window and hurt her. That doesn’t take a genius to interpret.”
“Lots of kids have fears.” Mary said but her reassurances fell flat on my guilty heart. I had read a book recently about how children of Holocaust survivors experienced high rates of depression even if their parents never acknowledged the War. I thought of this situation as different/not so different, but felt uncertain what to do given Becca’s tender age. There are some things you can’t really talk to a three year old about, or four year old, or five year old.
Time went on. We got busy with life. We waited.
As a decade passed in the blink of an eye, it seemed like the time had come. Becca was a teenager and I was headed in a week to D.C. to speak at the Department of Justice with other rape survivors. We were invited to share our stories about our cases years after the crimes occurred. Some of the women had learned the identity of their perpetrators when their rape kits were finally tested decades after the crimes occurred. Some, like me, had hit up against sloppy police work and were at a dead end. Cities were struggling with how to inform victims they might have to revisit old wounds and thought we might have some potential wisdom to share.
Becca was the kind of kid who could hear through walls. “Moms, Ben doesn’t want another Lego for Christmas. He wants a phone.” she would yell from her bedroom with her door shut and the two of us speaking in whispers about holiday gifts.
Friends would bring up my impending trip when the kids were around. Are you excited? Are you nervous? New acquaintances I referred to as my “rape friends” were posting stories on my Facebook page about sexual assaults in the news or ignorant things politicians said — anything and everything rape-related. They came with lead-ins like: “Can you believe this asshole? We need to organize! Can’t wait to see you again. You’re a sweetie.”
We wanted Becca to hear my story from us, not by accident, So just like that, it was time.
“Mary, I think you should tell her. Then she can have her reaction, and we can all discuss it after,” Becca was changing and needed a ride to basketball practice.
“Sounds good,” Mary said. “I’ll keep it brief. Not a lot of details, but enough for her to not be in the dark anymore. Remember the rule from when they were little, say just enough and wait to see if they are ready for more.”
“Call me when she gets out of the car. Or just hurry home.”
When Mary returned, her report was brief. “I kept it simple.” She sat next to me on the couch. “I said: Becca we want you to know something you are now old enough to understand. When mom was a few years out of college, she was raped during a break in. It was really hard but she got a lot of help and feels like it’s in the past. The trip she is about to take in DC is to help the government learn how to do a better job dealing with survivors. I’m proud of her. You should be too.”
“What did she say?” My left shoulder began to twitch.
“Oh you know how sensitive Becca is and she adores you. She felt badly and seemed a little stunned. “Mary took a long drink of water. “She was quiet at first and then yelled, ‘What, Michy was raped? That’s terrible’. A few minutes later she did wonder if that was why you turned into a lesbian.” Mary made air quotation marks with her hands.
I chuckled. “That’s interesting. Did you ask her if she wondered why you turned into a lesbian?”
“No, I think she thinks it’s more obvious with me. It’s the short hair. We were at the school by then and she got out. She’ll ask questions over time. Why don’t you pick her up?” The car keys shined up at me like a miner’s headlamp blinding my sight. I hitched them onto my pants and waited till it was time to get her.
Becca started talking as soon as she settled in the car. “Michy, I am really sorry that happened to you. Did they ever catch him?” My heart pierced and I did not correct her pronoun to “them”. That seemed like something that could wait at least another decade or two.
“No Becca, they didn’t. I didn’t think that mattered to me at the time because I was focused on trying to feel better, but now I kind of wish they did.” We seemed to hit every red light.
“Maybe it was the Boston Strangler. It sounds like him and you lived in Boston,” she said untying her basketball shoes. “I bet it was.”
“No honey. The Boston Strangler was convicted in the 1960s, and I think he died in prison.”
“I think it was him. You can’t be sure.” She paused and turned on the radio and I thought we were done. “Is that why you are gay?”
“No Becca, I was gay before this happened. They aren’t related,” I said feeling inexplicably and deeply sad. “Besides, there would be a lot more gay people out there if something like this could make someone gay, unfortunately. It doesn’t work like that.”
“I don’t know, it could.” she said and the conversation ended.
Weeks later, Becca asked me while I was clearing dishes, “Mom, if you were raped, how come you can’t swim?”
Mary’s head tilted and I heard her take a quick intake of breath about to ask for clarification. I understood immediately and jumped in.
“Becca, are you saying if I could go through something like that, how could I ever be afraid of anything ever again, especially something like a big bunch of water?” In that instant, I saw her tiny frame squeezing between us in bed, spooning me and holding on for dear life lest the bears come and take her away from us.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. You don’t need to be scared. Please take lessons with me.” I tried to think of every possible way to say no.
“I’ll teach you how to swim. It’s easy. Ben and I learned when we were two. You’re over forty. Try not to be a baby. I know you can do it.” She took my hand. “It will just be something we do together.”
“Okay,” I sighed, startled by her touch. “But you have to go easy on me. I am brave about some things, but I am still really scared of swimming. Being raped doesn’t really prepare you for the rest of your life.”
She smiled and closed her math book with a loud whack! “We’ll see about that. You won’t be afraid of swimming when I’m done with you.”
We were members of a local health club that had a beautiful swimming pool where the kids had taken their lessons years prior. It was February, but the pool was open year round. When the weather started to turn, the club would close the pool for two days, and place a giant bubble over it. It was warm and humid in the bubble and it created a sense of being in a separate world.
We went the next day, and the day after, and the day after that.
“Try putting your head in. Bob up and down like I’m doing and each time go a little further,” Becca and I stood face to face in the shallow end of the pool.
The water was cold, and Becca took my hand and led me out to where it was just below my chest and her neck. “That’s far enough Becca,” I said trying to modulate the fear in my voice. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“Okay, Mom, look at those little kids over there,” she pointed at some campers jumping off the low diving board into their instructor’s arms. I focused on their tiny neon blue, green, and yellow suits and the tufts of hair peeking out of their bathing caps.
“Yes, Becca, I see them but let’s be clear that I am about one hundred years away from going anywhere near that diving board. I’m pretty pleased I made it as far as getting in the water, so I am going to give myself big marks for that. How about we agree that’s enough for the first time?” I took a deep breath. “Are you ready to go?”
She shrugged and her bluish lips became a straight line. “Don’t be so negative. You’ve told me a million times I shouldn’t decide ahead of time I can’t do something.”
Damn she’s good, I thought, using my own parenting line against me.
“Let’s start with trying to get your head under water.” The lesson had started in earnest. “If you can get your head under, it will make swimming easier. You are less likely to sink like a stone.” We bobbed up and down facing one another, and I got as far as my chin touching the water. Since Becca’s head was completely under at each bob, she didn’t notice my face wasn’t even wet. Her eyes burst with expectation every time she rose from her deep submersion.
“See, it wasn’t that bad. Try holding your nose and you might go a little deeper.”
After our interminable bobbing, Becca lifted me up in her arms and carried me like a baby, the water having made me weightless. I relished the delicious feeling of being in her arms until I saw we were heading to deeper waters.
“Stop Becca,” I thrashed, trying to escape her grasp and land on my own two feet before the water was above my head. “You have to give me some time to do this.” She relented and I calmed down once my feet touched the bottom of the pool. As far as I was concerned, the lesson was over.
Telling my daughter what happened to me wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Families shouldn’t have secrets. Being raped did not successfully inculcate me from ever feeling fear again as Becca imagined it might. Most times it felt more like the opposite was true. I can’t say truthfully that I jumped in to with both feet, but I did go all in for making the effort.
I would have done anything to give my daughter that love letter of a successful swim – to show her that fears can be conquered if you just try your hardest, but that would have been the wrong moral to this complicated fable. Fears are not always conquered; some can’t be. Maybe the best we can hope for is to stand side by side with them instead of letting them crush you. I hope that’s what I taught her, both then and now. In the end, we both claimed a hard fought victory.
Gradually, the swim lessons moved to once a week, and then monthly. To this day, I can feel the smell of the chlorine under my nose as I make a weak attempt to dip my head under the tepid water. While I never did learn to swim, I made the effort in spite of my terror. Becca told me to call her “Coach.” We both managed to stay afloat somehow, her with her solid muscles and swimming skills and me with about a dozen different floaties and my hand gripping tightly to the side of the pool.
Michelle Bowdler is a recipient of a 2017 Barbara Deming Memorial Award for non-fiction and will be a Fellow at Ragdale this winter. She has been published in the New York Times and has two essays in an upcoming book tentatively entitled: In Her Own Words: Voices from the 2017 Women’s Resistance Movement (McFarland 2018) . She is a recent alum of the Grub Street Memoir Incubator in Boston.