My mother and then me: An exploration of sexual assault across generations

The states of California and Georgia with a plane flying between them, flying from Georgia to California.
Graphic by Anaga Srinivas

CW: sexual assault

Neither one of us knew what to expect out of this trip. When my mother was 17, she was raped by her boyfriend in California, just outside of Sacramento. This summer, we went back to where it happened.

Why bring up the memories from that night in his mother’s bedroom, where my mom’s autonomy was disregarded along with her dignity? The same thing almost happened to me on the other side of the country 30 years later. My mother telling me what happened to her when she was my age was part of the reason I didn’t experience the same helplessness and shame.

So, I asked my mom to take a break from Georgia and go to Sacramento with me so I could hear her life story — the good, the bad and the unfathomable — and so that I would understand how the trauma from that night has manifested over time. After some hesitation, she decided to go, and right after we landed in late July, I asked her how she felt about the whole project.

Understandably, she was anxious.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” she admitted during our drive to the hotel. “Us coming out here, going to the house where it happened … I just hope that other women like me don’t carry this shame.”

Our trip started with a few harmless stops to show me her upbringing. On Monday of our weeklong stay, we went to her old high school and saw the stadium where she danced for drill team. Then we drove over to the duplex where she spent most of her teenage years, and on Tuesday morning, we visited Apple Hill Farm, where her parents were regular craftsmen in addition to their day jobs.

By Tuesday afternoon, she was ready to see his house.

They were both camp counselors the summer they first met. He was your average football linebacker — tall, dark-haired and broad-shouldered — and asked my mother out before they both returned to San Juan High School for her junior and his senior year.

Like many high school relationships, it started off innocently enough. They went to the movies, ate out a few times and generally just spent time together. For months, they were both happy and got progressively closer.

After revisiting the better parts of her childhood, my mom was ready to go back to where it happened. We were just coming off a sugar high from the caramel apple we split at lunch and were cracking each other up as we always did. If you’d seen us, you wouldn’t have thought we were about to do something so serious, and it wasn’t until we were at his house that things felt more real.

We pulled up to the curb and parked next to his mailbox. My mom was still mentally somewhere else, only now instead of laughing, she was going on about how people might think we look suspicious, whether she could park there on the street and whether we should even be outside of whoever’s house this is now at all. Finally, she acknowledged where we were.

“I feel like I’m in touch with that little girl right now, and she just wants to go home,” she said impatiently. “I just want to get home. I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”

If you’d seen us, you wouldn’t have thought we were about to do something so serious, and it wasn’t until we were at his house that things felt more real.

She threw the car in gear and took off without turning on the GPS, finding her way toward the old duplex as she had so many times when they were dating.

“I’m feeling panicky; I’m feeling anxious,” she explained as she drove. “I feel sick to my stomach right now, like I’m going to throw up. How dare he take that away from me? What am I going to do? Am I going to keep bleeding?”

She began describing how it happened. His family was gone for the weekend, and the two of them were in the hot tub before moving to his mother’s bedroom. Then she explained how quickly it happened, the sounds she heard, the pain.

“I pushed and kicked him off me. A panic washed over me: ‘What have you done? What the hell did you do?’”

She started speaking faster.

“I feel angry; I feel anger. I feel like that little girl, just angry. Now what am I supposed to do?”

Because she had lived miles away from his house and was far too embarrassed to call her family, she worked up the courage to demand a ride home.

I asked her, “Did either of you acknowledge what happened?”

“No,” she replied. “I sat in the car; neither one of us said a word. Just sat there. I was feeling a hundred million emotions at one time. I felt numb.” Her voice broke.

“She — I — didn’t deserve that. It feels more comfortable to say ‘she’ and ‘her.’ I just want to go home,” she said, referring to Georgia. “I just want to crawl under my covers.”

Then she broke down crying.

“I feel broken. I was a broken piece of crap in that moment,” she said between sobs. “I was used. I didn’t feel like a person. I felt like an object.”

Her body was shaking as she gripped the wheel tighter.

“It wasn’t a choice. That’s what you do to animals; you don’t give them a choice — you just do.”

It was hard seeing my mother like this. We passed her old house and found a place to park outside some nearby apartments, where she felt more comfortable to express what was going through her head.

“It’s a very stuck feeling. When you’re only supposed to have sex with the person you’re going to marry, the person that takes it from you, you feel like you’re stuck with them for the rest of your life. You feel the shame of ‘What if somebody finds out this happened, and you’re not married?’”

She then explained the different pressures she felt to stay celibate, from her Christian upbringing to the social stigmas of the time.

“Back then, it was so important to me. So, it just made me feel I was not important. And it’s probably what I’ve carried forever and a day. Like my decisions don’t matter, actually. Because they’ve been taken from me anyway.”

She finally paused, then took a deep breath.

“I didn’t have to let him go that far. I could’ve gotten out of that room; I could’ve run home,” she said. “I feel almost like I blame myself for it happening. Why didn’t I stop it if it was so important to me? Girls have a choice. You don’t have to go that far.”

Then she explained that it felt like her 17-year-old self was still trapped inside her and that she wished she hadn’t felt so alone after it happened.

“I had nobody, I had nobody I could talk to … That’s probably one of the worst feelings to feel, is you have nobody to turn to. The only person I could talk to was the stupid guy who did it. That loneliness is just terrible.”

“That must be an awful feeling,” I said while rubbing her arm, trying to comfort her in some way.

“I mean you can say I made a choice not to tell anyone,” she said. “Or, you know, I’m sure I could’ve talked to somebody. I’m sure I could have. But I didn’t. I didn’t! Because it wasn’t supposed to happen. Period. It wasn’t supposed to happen. PERIOD.” Her voice rose once more.

“It just wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Looking back on that day a few weeks later, I still can’t believe how open my mother was with me about being raped. When I was in high school, she told me a little about her first boyfriend and how she didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late, but I never realized just how deeply impacted she was by it. Back then, she said she didn’t want me to end up in the same situation, so for a long time, I was careful.

But then a few years later, I was there, too.

My boyfriend at the time and I had been dating for a few months. Since it was hard to see each other during the school year, we decided to get together for a week during the summer. Already the question of sex had come up a few times, but I still wasn’t ready. For a while, he respected my decision without question, but as the trip got closer, I felt the need to reconsider; I was caught between what all our friends were doing, and what I, for some reason I couldn’t explain, just didn’t feel mature enough to do. The day before my departure, I decided I still wasn’t ready and told him the first day we were together.

He was visibly disappointed but said he understood. I felt relieved, and things seemed normal again.

I wasn’t sure what he was doing, but it didn’t feel right. Then I knew. Anger surged through my entire body as I pushed him off, running to the bathroom just as my mother had three decades before.

My boyfriend wasn’t a bad person. He was respectable, adored by everyone he met and had a demeanor that screamed incapable of hurting a fly. That’s why I was in for such a shock on that third day.

We were both quiet. I remember feeling confused, then going completely still. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, but it didn’t feel right. Then I knew. Anger surged through my entire body as I pushed him off, running to the bathroom just as my mother had three decades before. This time, however, the boyfriend hadn’t got that far.

Thirty minutes later, I went back to our shared bed but pushed myself as far from him as I could, infuriated but trying to get some sleep. In the morning we packed our things without a word, and it wasn’t until two hours into our preplanned hike that we spoke.

“How could you?” I asked him furiously. “I thought I could trust you. Were you really so stupid and inconsiderate that you would try without talking to me? Without asking if I was okay with it?”

He didn’t plead with me. He didn’t exactly apologize either. He too was angry, and sort of acknowledged his mistake while explaining that he felt unwanted. The general expectation at that point in our relationship, according to what his friends had told him, was sex. He expressed his hurt pride while I explained my violated trust.

Once we both cooled off a few hours later, he genuinely expressed how sorry he was. I never felt scared or worried that he would physically hurt me or try again. We both knew it was a dumb mistake coupled with poor communication that could have gone farther, but didn’t.

I have my mom’s openness and honesty with me all those years ago to thank for that.

If you are having any reactions to what you have read here or are experiencing any form of domestic or sexual violence, please reach out to an organization such as RAINN or The Hotline. You are not alone.

Emily Pugh CM ’21 is an international relations and Spanish major, and currently studying abroad in Cuzco, Peru. This article was originally published on her personal blog Oct. 3.

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