I’ve spent most of my adult life trying not to think about my mother. But in in 2017, as the reality of President Trump set in and the #MeToo movement emerged, she — and our very complicated relationship — wouldn't leave my mind. I’ve never been sexually assaulted. But my mother was. It happened when she was a teenager, long before she had me. She never talked about it; my grandmother spoke to me about it when I was a teen myself, swearing me to secrecy. I mostly kept the secret, telling just a few friends and boyfriends over the years, but I never asked my mother’s family or friends for more information about how my mother coped, or whether she got help. I tried not to think about it.
Warning: This article contains information about sexual assault, which some may find triggering.
But listening to survivors come forward and tell their stories last year, I began to feel a deeply personal sense of heartbreak and rage. For the first time in 20 years, not only did I think about the assault my mother lived through — I couldn’t stop thinking about it, or about how the pain and trauma she experienced shaped her life, and eventually, mine.
My parents split up when I was a baby. I was their only child, and after they divorced, I lived with my dad and saw my mother, Katy, a couple days a week. She struggled with bipolar disorder and suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including epilepsy and crippling migraines that kept her from being able to take care of me most of the time. But despite all of this, we were close when I was growing up.
Ever since my mother’s relapse, I’d made an effort to shut out my memories of her...Even the happy ones made me sad; they just reminded me of everything I’d lost.
After having been sober for most of my childhood, my mother relapsed into alcoholism when I was in middle school. After that, I rarely saw her. We became estranged off and on once I got to college. When she died suddenly from pneumonia in 2012, I hadn’t seen her in two years. Ever since my mother’s relapse, I’d made an effort to shut out my memories of her. It was the only way I knew of coping with the pain of her not being there for me as a parent. Even the happy ones made me sad; they just reminded me of everything I’d lost. After she died, I tried even harder to forget.
But in 2017, I found certain memories rushing back. When I was 13, shortly before my mother’s drinking became obvious to me and her life started falling apart, my grandmother sat me down and told me that my mother had been sexually assaulted while she was in high school. My grandmother and I had never had anything resembling a heart to heart before. I can only guess that she wanted me to know about this because she could tell my mother’s sobriety was slipping, and she wanted to give me some insight into the trauma her daughter had struggled with in her life. I think she wanted me to know that whatever pain was coming wasn’t my fault. She didn’t give many details, and I was too young and too shocked by what she was telling me to process the ones she did offer: my mother had been out drinking with friends. By the end of the night, she had been raped by some boys from her school.
On the rare occasions when I’d thought of my mother’s rape in the past, it had been as an abstract trauma — one of several terrible things that had happened to her. But last year, I thought about it specifically, constantly, crying on the subway and while walking down the street as I thought about her suffering. And as I allowed myself to consider it more closely, I realized I wanted answers to concrete questions that would help me gain insight into what she’d experienced, like how old she was when it happened, and how many boys raped her. But more importantly, and perhaps impossibly, I wanted to know the impact being raped had on her over the course of her life. How would her life have been different if this had never happened to her? Or if she’d been able to get help in the aftermath, how would my life have been different? Maybe she wouldn’t have turned to drinking to deal with her trauma. Maybe she wouldn’t have been in so much pain. Maybe she could have been the kind of mother I always wanted her to be, the kind who didn’t leave.
As I thought about what my mother went through, I started talking to my friends about it, and I soon learned that I knew several other people who were also attempting to process and understand their mothers’ sexual assaults. Beth’s* mother was sexually abused as a child by her older sister’s husband, as were several of her other siblings. She had repressed the memory until Beth was assaulted by a friend’s father when she was 13, the same age she had been when she was abused. Beth told me that after her mother remembered the abuse, “she was trying to deal with it, and I think she did some good things. She got into really good shape, she began bicycling and swimming, and she started writing. But I also know that it just fucked her up big time because she had all these deferred dreams, these things that she had hoped she would accomplish with her life, and she never quite got there. I think the mental health toll was huge. I also remember in that same period of time that there were days when she didn’t get out of bed.’"
In some ways, I feel like the trauma inflicted on my mother became my inheritance. I wanted to know what I inherited. I wish more than anything that she could tell this story herself.
Chris* told me that his mother called him within the last year and revealed that she had been raped when she was a teenager. “She didn't tell me until then because she honestly did not realize she had been sexually assaulted,” he said. It was only after #MeToo and the increased public discourse around sexual assault that she was able to fully understand what had happened to her.
Chelsea* knew that her mother was assaulted by a family friend when she was a teenager. “She told her parents, and they didn't believe her — they thought she was a slut, and had tried to ‘seduce’ this guy,” Chelsea told me. Her mother never sat her down and recounted the incident to her; Chelsea learned of the assault in bits and pieces over the years. “I didn't finally realize what all these allusions and randomly strewn facts added up to until I was probably in my late 20s,” said Chelsea. “So the picture of my mother came a bit more into focus — she has a personality disorder and engages in a lot of numbing activities like binge-eating, and it connected for me that a lot of her life is probably about scrambling to deal with a trauma that her parents told her didn't even happen.”
The more people I talked to, the more I started to grasp just how common these stories were, and how many of us have spent our lives living with the effects of our mother’s sexual assaults, whether we knew about them or not. Not everyone had difficult relationships with their moms; just as many had close, supportive bonds with mothers who they felt had done an outstanding job of parenting them. Chris said that after he learned of his mother’s assault, “I told her that her greatest fear—that somehow the way she lived her life after that assault had affected me adversely as her child—was unfounded. If anything, the unnamed thing she carried with her made me more compassionate. I operate under the assumption that everyone's carrying something around with them.” But everyone I spoke to was aware of the pain their mothers lived with, a suffering that they could not allay.
As a culture, we’re finally beginning to recognize the toll that rape and assault can take on a person, and even on whole communities, but we rarely discuss the way it can travel forward through generations. Women are already expected to bear so much. As mothers, they’re expected to take on the needs of their children, and often, their partners, all while receiving minimal emotional and financial support from a society that paradoxically tells them their job is the most important one in the world, and that if they screw it up they are a uniquely unforgivable kind of monster. And many of them must do all of this, it turns out, while also saddled with the impossibly heavy weight of sexual trauma that they’ve been encouraged to keep hidden.
We also rarely discuss the fact that our mothers might be dealing with trauma that predates our own existences. It can be difficult to conceive of our mothers beyond their role as a parent, but according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), American women live with a one in six chance of being the victim of a sexual assault or attempted assault in their lifetime — a figure that includes every kind of woman, including those who are or who become mothers. It is both staggering and heartbreaking to consider how far reaching the effects of this are.
By the time I became preoccupied with learning more about my mother's assault, I could no longer ask my grandmother, as she’d died when I was in high school. So I reached out to my mother’s older sister Maryanne*, who I spoke to sporadically. I also spoke with two of my mother’s friends from high school who I found through Facebook: Lisa*, who was there the night my mother was raped, and Amy*, who saw my mother the morning after it happened.
Talking to them, I began to get a clearer picture. Before I tell my mother's story, I want to say that I know that, ultimately, it is hers alone. No matter how much information I gather, I will never fully comprehend what happened to her or the impact it had on her life and subsequently mine. That said, it was important to me to try to understand her trauma more deeply. So much of our troubled relationship involved me struggling, and failing, to understand who my mother was and why she made the choices she did; to understand how someone who loved me so much could also cause me so much pain. In some ways, I feel like the trauma inflicted on her became my inheritance. I wanted to know what I inherited. I wish more than anything that she could tell this story herself. In her absence, I have relied on the recollections of people who were close to her, who loved her, and who tried their best to have insight into how she felt.
Being raped taught her that she would not be protected from people who wanted to do terrible things to her, possibly because she was not worth protecting.
It was the summer after 10th grade, and my mother, then 15, was drinking at a party at a friend’s house while their parents were out of town. My mother got drunk and went upstairs to a bedroom to lie down. She was followed by three older guys who had recently graduated from her high school and were now in college. They were “golden boys,” Lisa and Amy told me — popular, good students who had been stars on the basketball team that my mother cheered for. My mother had a crush on one of them. All three of them raped her.
Afterwards, Lisa went upstairs and found my mother lying on the bed, “completely out of it.” Lisa says when she asked the other three girls at the party what happened, they told her, “‘She was drunk, it’s her fault.’ Immediately, the ranks started closing among these other girls, and I was like, oh my god, I’ve got to get her out of here.”
Lisa drove my mother home. Amy says, “Katy did tell her parents about the rape immediately after it happened, but the general consensus expressed by them at the time was to ‘leave well enough alone,’ and not tell anyone about it for fear of ‘tarnished’ reputations.”
My mother’s sister and her friends differ slightly in describing the effect the assault had on my mother. While Maryanne says my mother was happy and well-adjusted before she was assaulted and did not start drinking heavily until after, her friends told me she was struggling with social anxiety and bulimia before the assault, as well as sneaking alcohol on a regular basis. They all agree, though, that the assault took a tremendous toll on her. Lisa says, “The impact was immediate. It was incredible shame. It was all of the ‘What if’s. ‘What if I hadn’t gone to the party? What if I hadn’t drunk so much? What if I hadn’t gone to lie down? What if I had resisted?’ Basically, ‘what if I was a better version of myself?’” She says it took all of the issues my mother was already dealing with “into a different realm.” She had been a star cheerleader, one of only two sophomores to make varsity, but she quit the team in 11th grade. She started drinking during the day and missing school to stay in her room. By 12th grade, she had, according to her friends, become “borderline agoraphobic,” and dropped out of school before the year was out. At some point during this time, my grandmother sent her to a psychiatrist, but my aunt says they did not discuss the rape; Lisa says my mother mentioned needing to drink just to talk to the doctor. The assault, says Lisa, “certainly made whatever struggles she was going to face more acute. They came harder, they came sooner. There was no support. If I put it in 2018 eyes, I think it could have turned out really differently.”
In the wake of this loss, my mother tried to kill herself, not for the first time.
This isn’t to say that being assaulted was the only significant trauma my mother experienced in the first few decades of her life. Her father died shortly after she left high school. The first child she had with my father, a daughter also named Katherine, died just a few hours after being born. In the wake of this loss, my mother tried to kill herself, not for the first time. While it’s safe to say that being assaulted certainly did not help my mother’s mental health, there is also no way to know the exact relationship this specific trauma had to the other issues she struggled with, including bipolar disorder, bulimia, and alcoholism.
But there’s reason to think it made them more difficult to deal with. Meghan Breen, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders and addiction, told Bustle that many people seeking treatment for those conditions have survived a sexual assault as well, explaining “When people have mental health disorders, sexual assault and other traumas complicate treatment and can definitely make their lived experience more difficult.” She also notes, “Addiction and trauma almost always overlap, specifically when we consider the pervasive impact of shame and the ways trauma can be invalidated post disclosure, often making the experience so much more shameful and thus complicated.”
There is something about this not knowing that makes me angry. Maybe everything would have been the same for my mother if she’d never been assaulted. Maybe she still would have dropped out of high school. Maybe she would have had the same struggles with alcoholism, and maybe she would have had the same terrible relationships with abusive men after her divorce from my father. Maybe we still would have been estranged when she died.
But maybe not. The boys who did this, and the culture that privileged their golden reputations over my mother’s mental health, physical safety, and basic human dignity robbed both her and me of knowing who she could have been had this horrific assault never taken place. Going through pictures of my mother in her high school yearbook, she looks like a child. She was a child. Her understanding of the world and of her place in it was just being formed. Being raped taught her that she would not be protected from people who wanted to do terrible things to her, possibly because she was not worth protecting.
I will never get to talk to her about any of this. I will never get to tell her how sorry I am that this happened to her and how, while nothing can erase the hurt she caused, learning about her past has given me a greater understanding of who she was and made me feel closer to her.
What can we do, for our mothers and for ourselves? Beth told me, “I have all these fantasies about being able to go back in time and fix things. But that that’s just a childish kind thing to want…I can’t fix it.” All we can do is continue adding to the chorus of voices saying that this kind of abuse and assault will not be accepted, until it is louder than the silence that has for so long drowned them out — and to make it clear, to our mothers (and everyone else who is a survivor of sexual assault), that we will listen to and support them if they want to talk to us about their experience. Breen notes that the best way to help any survivor is to listen to them and validate their emotions. “Connection is the key to shame reduction," said Breen. "Connection is what we crave when in the grips of addiction. Connection is what is ruptured when we experience relational or sexual trauma.” As Chris told me about talking to his mother about her rape, “The fact that she couldn’t talk about her assault – that she didn’t know it was an assault – is disheartening, but there’s also the fact that she got to the point where she could talk, and that we’ve at least come to a place where the generation after her can say, This is everywhere, it’s not just you, it happens all the time, you’re not alone and you never were.”
Learning the details of my mother’s rape has added a new dimension to my missing her. As a teenager, I had to grieve the person she was before she relapsed. After her death, I had to grieve the loss of someone I loved and would never see again. Now I’m grieving for the person she could have become and the things she could have accomplished if this had never happened to her or if, at the very least, she’d had the support she needed in the aftermath. I will never get to talk to her about any of this. I will never get to tell her how sorry I am that this happened to her and how, while nothing can erase the hurt she caused, learning about her past has given me a greater understanding of who she was and made me feel closer to her.
My mother managed to get sober in her final years. My aunt attributes this to the fact that she started going to a therapist who focused on women’s issues and got her to open up about her assault. Though she had spent decades bearing this trauma in silence, she was able to finally get help. And, I hope, begin to realize that it wasn’t her fault.
*Names of survivors and their families have been changed to protect their privacy.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.