A couple of weeks ago I realized that part of how I started to feel more of a personal identity while in college wasn’t as positive as I’ve thought for so many years.
I was acquiring the values and beliefs of the elite students all around me, and of the elite institution to which I’d received a number of scholarships enabling my attendance.
I hadn’t wanted to run for college council but I accepted the job because the older students I looked up to asked me to. I hadn’t been very interested in drinking and smoking, but I did because 99% of the art department smoked and 100% of everyone drank. I wanted the best boyfriend because who doesn’t?
I saw my classmates speaking out in class. Even though it just about killed me due to my shyness and history of abuse — I copied them.
By my senior year, I found myself wandering down a darkened dorm hall on a Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. having not slept for two days, a bottle of warm beer in each hand, a cigarette hanging from my mouth, and my precious Judy’s velveteen jacket open nearly to the waist.
A freshman came out of her room with damp hair, likely headed for breakfast. Her fresh scrubbed skin glowed.
She looked at me, eyes wide in horror and fear.
I started to say something like, “Don’t be afraid!” but she shrank back into her room and slammed the door as if I was going to beat her.
Is this what I want to be? I thought.
I didn’t stop drinking. I didn’t cease partying. Not a week later, I and friends stayed up all night walking my fiance John Starr around the campus for hours so he wouldn’t die from alcohol poisoning.
I ditched the boys to go out with a group of Pomona students the next Friday, just one in a series of massive drunken revels for my 21st birthday. Along with the students was an instructor, the head of the Pomona College writing program, a “named chair,” in fact. This group of Pomona kids was a little on the nerdy side for me. I’d already affiliated with the wealthier country club, future State Dept. set at Claremont McKenna College. I was the first female editor and publisher of the 5-college newspaper. I had a rep to maintain. I was well-known on all the five campuses.
This Pomona professor was in his late 20s. He was popular with these kids. Lots of girls hung around his office. They talked like he was some kind of God.
I didn’t like him, but I liked being part of a group going to crazy clubs and liked that he was so popular and I liked winning the college writing prize —
I did not like the guy. There was something “off” about him.
I had just turned 21 years old and there was this one thought I’d never had, even though I’d experienced all kinds of crazy things at parties, even though I’d spent 2 years with an ultra-controlling, verbally-abusive boyfriend who was basically replacing my ultra-controlling, globally-abusive grandmother — I was just thrilled to be with John who treated me nicely 24–7.
There was just this one thought I had forgotten. I thought my college was “safe” as compared to home. I thought that the dangers I knew from Hollywood, from middle school and high school, wouldn’t happen at this place that seemed like an isolated, walled castle just for us —
Like so many, many people thought about priests, cops, teachers, counselors, doctors, I didn’t think that professors would or could be predators. I had even slept with one voluntarily and did not realize for years later that he too, was a predator.
I had begun to absorb the “invulnerability” cloak of the young, white wealthy college student even though I was a poor scholarship student with a mentally-ill former guardian who’d estranged her from her father and half of her family. I not only paid for the books and needs my scholarships didn’t meet, I supported myself. I didn’t even have a home to go to.
A few years before he died, my fiance John Starr, who was the heir to Conoco-Phillips, commented to me how “poor” we were during our dating years. He got — if my memory serves me right — about $450 a month as an allowance. I had maybe $200 left over from paying the college and every bill. I do remember a few times we couldn’t afford to do whatever it was we wanted to do.
I recall money being very important at the time. I had a powerful thing from my grandfather: he instilled in me, “Once you give your word, don’t go back on it.”
So, these two battling systems of ethics and ways of life were the twin instigators of my rape.
I went out with this Pomona college group and the professor shortly after my 21st birthday. I ran out of money part-way through the clubbing and the professor paid my cover charge at the “Peanuts” Disco in Hollywood. The total was $11.00.
The following Sunday (10 days after my birthday), I, having gotten paid on Friday, had partied through that night and through Saturday. Awake at around 10:30 a.m., I called this guy and said I was going to pay him back. He was fine with that. I had been to his house a couple of times.
I’d like to state for the record that I remember the face and form of a third professor who hung with this group, smoking weed, drinking, and doing coke and IV drugs and pills (those I never did, do not know the content) and remember he taught at Pitzer College but that’s about it. I didn’t know him well and he didn’t say or do anything to harm me.
The other two guys I mentioned (haven’t mentioned their names but have in other contexts) are both deceased.
So I drove to the local grocery store and cashed a check for $11.00 because the ATM only gave $20s, and I was counting every penny. I drove to the professor’s house. This was a house the college paid for and this man had a very prestigious job and was constantly praised even though all he did so far as I could see was party and socialize with young students in preference to “teaching” or “working.”
Part of me did know these actions of his were wrong. I did not think it was ‘cool’ to be one of those kids. Part of me absolutely knew there was something ‘off’ about this man.
So there was this moment of my life that I really never understood — maybe I still don’t understand it.
I walked into this guy’s house — the living room was in the front by the foyer. To the left was the couch and a glass coffee table. On the table were the remains of a party. To the right was a short passage leading to the kitchen.
He said, “Would you like some iced tea?”
I had the money in my hand.
I walked forward toward the kitchen. He turned the other way. I saw him reach out and lift something but that is the last thing I saw until I woke with my wrists bound by yellow rubber tubing and my ankles similarly restrained and a cigarette grinding into my right forearm.
His face loomed over mine. His eyes were like a doll’s: chips of blind gray glass. He wasn’t a person. He was a thing.
I was a strong girl. I thrashed like hell but I didn’t scream. Something told me if I opened my mouth —
When I saw those eyes I thought, “He’s going to kill me.”
I looked over my shoulder to the back yard of this house and saw a fig tree. So very like the fig tree in my own back yard growing up. There were two fig trees — there was one in the orange grove where I lived first, and another one out in the country in Mentone.
I took it as a kind of message. I silently said the Lord’s Prayer and prayed to the Lord to accept my soul.
Maybe not reacting saved me. Years later, Harlan Ellison took my silence at his barrage of insults as some form of “guts” when in fact it was simple terror and “when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”
I heard him breathing heavily, then he got off the bed. I barely had the will to move my eyes back from the tree and toward him. He stood with his back to me, hunched over a table about three feet away. My mind says it was just a card table but I don’t think so. It was probably regular furniture. On it were more party remains. A needle. Bottles. Pills. He moved around for a few moments. And when he turned back, his eyes weren’t dead doll eyes any longer. He was angry and tired.
He ripped the tubing off my arms and legs and tried to push me off the bed.
“Get out!” he said. “You can go.”
Me now would have jumped on him and beaten on him.
Me then was shaking and trembling arms and legs and body as I pulled my jeans over my torn thighs. He threw my shirt at me. Such a fashionable 80s big shirt, blue and white striped, I think. It was torn front, shoulders, and back.
I ran to my car and in frozen shock, blinking and trembling, and drove to my dorm, a place I barely darkened being out partying so much, being such a very important person around campus, such a popular person —
I took off my clothes, piled them on my chaste little single bed, and went to our shower.
I scrubbed my skin raw. Lots of patches were already raw. I started crying and sank down the tile wall and sat on the tile floor until the water ran icy.
Then my suitemate Darcell came in and found me, took my hands, got me to stand, and took me to the emergency room.
Darcell saved my life. Not just that day, other days. Darcell was one of the only African-American students at our rich, privileged elite school.
So I wrote this because I read about Dajourn Anuku.
Darcell saved my life. I loved Darcell. Her Christian faith helped me survive.
The first thought I had after this happened was “Why would someone want to hurt me?”
And since then? So many other thoughts. I just know that if I hadn’t started to think the way of my elite classmates, if I had just stayed “myself,” I would — I don’t think a lot of it would have happened. I think I would have been better friends with Darcell, and better friends with a lot of people who could be actual friends. People I could have enjoyed real friendship with. People I could have been a real friend to.
I barely made it out of that school alive. Before this, I had been competing for a Rhodes Scholarship, a Watson Fellowship, and, as noted, had been the first female editor and publisher of the five-college newspaper, and had been admitted to Claremont Graduate University for art, the University of Irvine Writers Program, and the Iowa Writers program.
I’m not sure I still understand everything but I do understand one thing: thinking you’re better than others or more important, worthwhile or valuable, thinking you are invulnerable: isn’t a good thing.
I’m not sure any of us really knows what the answers are. But I know these ways of being and thinking, so closely intertwined: privilege, financial privilege, thoughtlessness, carelessness, heedless abuse of others — escalating up to and including what happened to me: it’s no way to live.
Such lies we tell. Lying lies and the liars who make them. The biggest lies, I think, are those we tell ourselves.
Darcell had a serious kidney illness and it took her life not long after graduation. I have looked for her name on our alumnae lists but never see it.