30 years Today
Thank you, if you are here, for bearing witness.
"And holy is the woman who put on her suit, who stood in the courtroom and told the truth. Of the light and the dark and the world as it is…”
Abigail Bengson from the song Sovereignty Hymn
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl. I was a 13-year-old girl wearing black stretchy leggings with stirrups, a blue and black striped shirt, a white sweatshirt, black want-to-be Keds, and a purple flowered one-shoulder-strap bag. The bag didn’t have a zipper but was knotted at the top like a wizard’s pouch filled with magic and potions, though my bag instead was filled with school books—a copy of the Outsiders for 7th grade English, a hard heavy history text book that told only a fraction of the history that was there to tell. And my name, scrawled in my own handwriting on the corners of my schoolwork pages, all kept together in the shiny three-holed binder I had whose brand was called Trapper-Keeper.
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl and I was taken. While walking home from a friend’s house after school I was abducted. I was grabbed from behind by a stranger and thrown into a van with a waiting open door. It was a minimum day. The afternoon hadn’t reached its peak when I was taken. It had rained the night before, but the sky was blue.
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991 I was a 13-year-old girl and I was hurt. I was blindfolded. I was choked. I was raped. Again, again, and again.
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl and I was so alone in that darkness. Until I wasn’t. And that part, in this telling, will still remain a little more blurred. But I will tell you that there were lost children from the in-between that came and kept me company. Whispered, sang songs, formed cliques—a schoolyard’s spirit realm that soothed.
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl who met terror. Terror is not fear and should not be confused with it.
But and Also
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991 I was a 13-year-old girl who stopped fearing death. Death meant Over. No longer meant being kept. Not being tortured. Not being used. Death was the light that came in from all around and through and could not be shielded by the blindfold tied around my eyes. Death was the exit and the holding and the expanse and the peace and the love. Death, when it is time, is Great Spirit, and Great Spirit broken open is Mercy, and Mercy is able to hold all.
Evil, in Mercy, is broken down to the same particles as Love.
30 years ago today, March 18, 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl that was handed an After to my Before. I got out. I did not know where I was. Pushed from the van. I counted to 20 like instructed, took off the cloth around my eyes and though it was now dusk and the sun was setting, the world was a glaring bright. I got up and started walking. It was not my town, and it was not my familiar. There was a moment because the threats were as real as the shock that was setting in, as the blood that had stopped its flow, that I saw a hill and a fence and a pocket of ivy, and I thought of hiding and stopping and sleeping and maybe dying, because it was beckoning, but instead, I kept walking.
So 30 years ago today, March 18, 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl, Alive. Alive with fear coursing through. Every step was fear, every step was the threat of the hurt that he would bestow upon my family, he would find me, he would hurt them, if I told, if I called the police, if I talked. When you run, he said, I run. What you see, I see. His violence was not abstract but was there in my body as it was shutting down even as it also lived. But the very things he threatened were also the very things I loved. Them. My family. The reason to live. And so I walked on, down that unknown street, past the beckoning ivy and the hills into an unknown neighborhood where I saw a mother. A beacon with a baby on her hip, and I crossed the street. Though I could not guarantee our safety, I asked for help. Help Me, I cried, and then I was taken into her fold.
Some of you know my story. You know what comes after. In the directly after, at the woman’s house, the woman with the baby who I saw and crossed the street to ask for help from; you know the details. And you know the story that comes years came after that day, where once again, things turned upside down. Some of you have accompanied me through the years, witnessed first hand some of the surprises and the grief, the joys, the accomplishments, the breakdowns, the healings, and the banal every day that fills so much of the in between. But there are also many of you that don’t know my story. And even those of you that lived it with me, I don’t know if I have ever told it to you. Broken it down from my perspectives instead of the one we shared. In some ways I am as private as the story was public. And this privacy has stood in for all the reasons we all keep things from one another. From pride, to shame, to holding onto to the sacred, from the fear of comparison, to the opposite--the wish and deep belief in togetherness despite differences. Sometimes my privacy is just due to the simplicity of busyness and waiting for the perfect moment that never comes. Other times it is about consent; am I supposed to get yours before I share?
There is the micro and the macro. The social constructs breathed in about what is acceptable and what isn’t. I can be quiet for the fear of taking up too much space, or the worry that speaking out might overshadow someone else. There is the also the polarizing thought that is forever present-both selfless and also patronizing—that thought of what if it is too much? Will they be okay?
There is the more fear based and selfish thought of what will they do with this information? What axis of difference and Other will I feel afterwards?
And always, always there is the question of is it safe? If I tell my story and attach it to my name then what? Then I am no longer a Jane Doe, and I am me, Susan, and every nerve in my body still wants there to be a large unrecognizable canyon between him and me.
So why now? Why today am I suddenly opening up and taking the risk? So publicly and on social media? Why this way? Why today, why this particular anniversary? To be honest, I don’t know yet. I’m writing this in real time and hoping that the discovery is there by the end.
So back to 30 years ago, March 18th, 1991. To the directly after--that woman’s house. The woman with the baby who I saw and crossed the street to ask for help from. She led me into her house and an older daughter with soft straight hair was there, maybe pre-school aged, watching a movie. The woman set the baby down and had me sit on a patterned couch. But when she would reach for the phone, I would get frantic and go to leave, his threats to not call the police and the details of what he would do, were still so near. The minutes gone between him and me weren’t far enough apart for the proximity that could give this woman, her baby and young daughter, and me the safety that we needed. Finally I allowed her to call my home (she left a message on the answering machine, as no one was home. My step father gone looking for me, my mother not yet home from work, my older sister doing all the things teenagers do before curfew on a weeknight). I gave her my friend’s number, and finally someone was reached. A familiar was there--my friend and her mother—their voices on the phone coming through the line both recognizable and not, my fear catching so all of us were tilted.
And yet, despite the fear that was clawing at me, the wavering voice of my friend’s mother’s coming through that line was also its own cacophony of wonder and miraculous. My friend’s mother knew me. She broke for me, her pain so instantaneous, was also evident of her love and that love, it stood as the first real clue to me that maybe I was out and no longer in the monster’s den.
Over the phone, my friend’s mother convinced me to let the police be called. I was still so scared but I was also weakening and my body was giving out. I needed help that was beyond what kind strangers and loved ones could offer. And so it all began—the After. An ambulance arrived. I was reunited with my family at the hospital. And there it was again. The breaking and the love--this new pairing, and for me the glorious and the fear: the collision course that would become my new normal.
There was surgery to repair the internal damage my kidnapper had caused, and a subsequent hospital stay while I recovered from the surgery. There were detectives and police sketches. Though I was blindfolded during my entire abduction, I’d glimpsed him as he’d passed me to overtake me and grab me from behind. But this was also 1991. It was before social media, before Amber Alerts, DNA itself was just beginning to utilize. At some point in the hospital, the doctor collected DNA and handed it over to the police, but there was no larger collective database to run it through.
1991 was also at the height of the rash of kidnappings in the Bay Area. Amber Schwartz, Michaela Garecht, Ilene Misheloff, all kidnapped in the light of the day. All of them were still missing. I collected their names in secret, confounded that I was released and they were not. And while I knew I was a rape victim, and didn’t for one moment expect that that wasn’t part of their experiences as well, the rapes were not the part of my ordeal that I identified with. You had to be alive to be raped, and so in the van, literally lifted away from the whole world, with so many missing girls already gone and swallowed before me, the rapes I endured became a moment of order. They became the purpose of why I was there, the explanation of why I might be kept, and the holy answer to why he might want to keep me alive. As long as I was raped, there was also still a chance I could get returned.
I don’t hold that lightly, saying that now, that the rapes were not the centerfold to my child self, but they weren’t. As an adult, the rapes and their violation are layered in my bones. They have been the holding points at times in my healing, the crux where the body and the spirit’s infringement get so knotted that the past and the present and the way through is as clear as the old time maps that simply stated, Dragons Be Here, in the territories the colonizers hadn’t yet explored.
But to the child me, the 13-year-old girl of 1991, the rapes were the watery undertone. To the child-me, instead it was the vivid feel of the girls and that playground circle that descended. It was the sweet but just out of reach touches and whispered songs that appeared in that in-between realm in the van that stood out to me—it was in those moments that I wasn’t so alone. And while there was no detail of clarity or identification of who or even what those whispered girls were, when I got out of the van I memorized the names of the still missing girls who had gone before me. And I memorized each name that came after. They became my sacred tribe. I was almost one of them, I had felt their solidarity, and while I didn’t know what to do with the fact that I got out, and they remained missing, one thing was clear to me--I was alive and I was free, and somehow I would not let my freedom get overshadowed by the details of what was done to me in the van. I owed them that much.
After a month, when the physical healing was over, I returned to school. In the immediate days after the abduction, the story was in the news and a bulletin had to go out to all the schools in my city that the event had occurred, but the details about the victim (me) were kept purposely vague. The police warned me to not let my name get out, the school principal and one teacher was allowed to know it was me in case there was an emergency, but otherwise, I was supposed to let the rumors swirl. I was told to never confirm or deny anything; lest he hear wind of my identity and then come back and retaliate. In essence, the police confirmed my abductor’s power, and cemented his threats as real.
My Junior High School was large, and the students numbered in the hundreds. During the time I was absent, one girl lost her grandmother, another was traveling on an extended spring break, and another was hurt in a car accident. Kids were curious and gossip reigned. Along with my own name, each of these other girls’ names was also brought up as a possibility that it could also have been them. But oddly, or maybe not given how quick the burning path that the pace of gossip seems to follow, with no one to actually pin the story on, the heat of the abduction story quickly died out. While I was still plagued by a select few students inquiring if it was me, for the most part, I was able to blend in and step out of any focus with a surprising amount of ease. Even today, I still remember each of those classmates and their stories—as their circumstances provided me with a cloak of safety, a net wide enough that my 13-year-old self prayed was big enough to catch us all, so no one would be singled out.
In the few months that followed the abduction, I would occasionally be called in by the detectives and be asked to look at long rectangular photo books with pale blue covers. These books would be stacked, sometimes three deep. The extra long pages could fit as many as 20 faces to a page. Could it be him, they would ask, or him or him?
I tried to explain that my one quick glance of my abductor was not enough for me to feel solid in any identification. At the time, I was never given any concrete explanation of who the men in those photo books were. I just knew there were so many of them. The secrecy that I was asked to keep for my own safety, coupled with the intense commitment that I took to the deception for the sake of those I loved, made me look at my peers anew. There were so many faces in those books. Which meant there was an equal amount of us that had been harmed. How many of us were busy staying silent so that the monsters didn’t return?
I did go to counseling directly following the abduction, for 6 months, the prescribed amount at the time, and was eager to be done with it. I was stubborn and simplistic in my view. I didn’t want to break anything down. I was alive. I had a second chance at life. I owed those missing girls a vow to look forward and not back. And I was being asked by the police to keep my anonymity, so it didn’t make sense to me that one hour a week, I should be encouraged to break open if only to have to figure out how to stay closed the rest of the time.
I guess this post is making it obvious that something has shifted along the way. Whatever I am doing here, it is not in alignment with that determined kid of 30 years ago that was so formalized about her compartmentalization of looking forward and not back. Those parts of me keep trying to stop my typing—what ARE you doing? Is there a clean point? Are you going to make this worth it? Are you going to honor us? Are you going to honor them—the missing girls? Are you being careful? Thoughtful?
There was a question I mentioned earlier about consent. If I am supposed to get it from you before I share? I didn’t. I didn’t get it from you and yet I charged forward. I don’t exactly know why. This isn’t feeling like a Facebook post at all. I am starting to lose the thread, to you my audience, to the telling itself. I’m used to this in a way—how the trauma vortex pulls me in and time and intent get lost. But also, I want to rush forward to say something about consent and the way we are so careful with one another. How and when to put a trigger warnings and when not to, when to tell our story and when to ask for permission to speak in the first place. I didn’t only charge ahead because the trauma vortex called me in. I charged ahead, also I think because I have parts that want to stop being careful, that have different ideas now of what makes up safety and consideration. And I guess these parts want to make sure there is other work that is also getting done.
If my trauma is too much, I want you to have your own boundaries and to have stopped reading. I VALUE and ADMIRE you SOOOOOO much for having your own boundaries to have stopped reading. And if you are still here and reading, I can feel the pieces of me that want to go back and edit, or rush forward and figure out if this is all going to be worth your time. But if it is my job is to continue to silence myself or even prepare myself and have to figure out the whens and hows to filter myself so to not trigger you, then I am putting your needs before my own. And if it is my job to tie things into a bow and know exactly where I am heading so that it is worth it, then I am stealing from myself some moment of discovery. I am setting up a dynamic that your being uncomfortable is mine to fix, or even more that my being uncomfortable is mine to fix. I am not the first to feel this. People have always, and especially in our current climate struggled with the burden of telling a hard truth. There is a heaviness of how to manage the listener and their need to be heard, seen, or soothed, or instructed of how to proceed forward, and how to make it right.
I think any trauma survivor can also feel this burden of how to take space without having to attend to the feelings that their trauma elicits in others. And more, I think there is something we do about the messy. I think, especially as trauma survivors, there is something to be said about how we hold the messy and the uncomfortable. For me, in the beginning, I didn’t want it. I wanted Over, Behind Me, and Better. To me, the messy represented flashbacks, or intrusions, and the feeling of failing when I couldn’t push through. Uncomfortable meant I wasn’t fine that somehow this second chance of life I’d been given was being eaten up by some of the dark.
When I keep looking back to this 13-year-old girl of 30 years ago, she is brave in her vow to live life as a second chance for the girls that didn’t get to. But she is also rigid in this belief. I know her. I am her. She wasn’t lying in her commitment to hold sacred to living life as a second chance, but she wasn’t honest in her wish to have the trauma be something that was behind her either. It was never behind her. It thrummed in her very choices to stay quiet, to blend in, to be careful.
If I’m honest now, 30 years later, I can see more ways that the abduction and rape(s) marked me then I would care to say. By society’s standards I stand out. I am currently unpartnered, I don’t have children of my own, and I can be plagued by a pretty nasty case of imposter syndrome a lot of the time. My child-self has a hard time looking at current me and not feeling like I blew through some of my second chance at life. She also gets nervous about the ways I can be picked out as different now. What will they think? she whispers. And I can't quite decipher the ‘they’ she’s referring to. The missing girls? My peers? My friends and family? Or is that her fear? That if by standing out, she’s worried it creates a straight arrow, a lit path for him to follow?
She’s not exactly wrong to judge or worry if her standards are still about blending in and pushing ahead. But I couldn’t really blend in and I couldn’t push ahead, because the dark was always there, it was as much a part of my second chance of life as the first, because this what is life is: in the Before and the After—it is always the light and the dark. It was only her thwarted need for safety and belonging that put the standards on being “Fine” after such a trauma, and for that matter, before it as well. I do talk to that child-self. I remind her that I am happy a lot. I love my friends and family dearly and feel loved by them. I, despite the debt that can feel sometimes like its own failure, am in a job that makes me curious and engaged, and honored every day. I love a dorky pun and laugh easily. I love art, books, performances, and songs. Look at it all, I tell her, look at it, this is also a life well lived. And in the sake of the honesty, sometimes she hears it and sometimes she doesn’t. She is still sad about what was promised and what was missed. And she is still afraid. And because she and I are one. I am also sometimes sad and sometimes also afraid.
So I’m not sure if this rambling is going to have a neat conclusion. I guess it won’t. And I just checked and Facebook has a limit—63, 206 characters to the length of its posts. I actually still have the room for about 40,000 more characters before Facebook cuts me off, but for all of us, I’m going to end this soon.
So, again, 30 years ago today, on March 18th 1991, I was a 13-year-old girl who was taken.
30 years later on March 18th 2021, I am a 43-year-old woman who is free and not free, in the ways that none of us are ever fully free, nor get to leave behind all of that which makes up our full selves.
I believe in healing. But healing is not clean, and it is never over, and it is a combination of risk taking and regret, and moving forward and backwards. And to be honest, I think we get healing wrong a lot. And I think we get it right a lot too. And this year. This Covid-filled trauma year, it is not lost on me that this early spring marks another anniversary of when our world, our collective world, turned into a Before and After. It is not lost on me because we are ALL fresh trauma survivors now and it’s not over and yet there is hope. The voices are breaking through the phone lines and the love is being reflected in the long awaited reunions. But for some, some are missing and never returning. And the dark was already there in our Before, as much as it will be in our After. And so was the light.
So it’s hard to tell what free life will look like, if there is a free, or an over, and so maybe that’s what I’m writing this for. Maybe it’s plea to myself and to you, and to one another, don’t try to stick this year in a box, to come to quick conclusions. To lose yourself in the care of others, or in the glory of hope, but nor to get too fixed in the story of the trauma, to hold it so tight that the trauma itself takes such hold that you can’t come out. I guess there is something to this after all, a bit of my attempt of the bow, which is to leave it untied. To remember that it is always in a state of unraveling.
May we all hold onto the light and the dark and the world as it is …