I was 17 when I was raped. By a stranger.
I was 16 when my girlfriend confessed to me that she was raped. By a family member.
I’ve been grappling with these two events for the last decade as I wrote a novel about a 16-year-old orphan boy. I didn’t even realize that I was writing about these two events until nine years in. But I did know pretty early on that I wanted to show it’s possible for teenagers to experiment with their sexuality in a way that’s powerful, safe and enjoyable for all parties concerned.
I just finished the book, and I’m sharing part of it because I keep seeing parents asking if there’s anything they can show their teenagers about how to deal with this stuff. I’m hoping this will be an example for boys and girls (and maybe men and women) of what true consensual sex is. And maybe a guide on how to treat people who’ve suffered in ways that you don’t understand and can’t possibly imagine.
My heart goes out to everybody who has been devoured by predators.
Ask for help. Tell your story.
From The Valley of Love & Delight: A Ghost Story
A Blade of Shame
“Did somebody hurt you?” Finn asked softly in the Love Shack.
Elizabeth Winter-Rivers chewed her lip and nodded.
“When you were a freshman?”
“Was it somebody you knew?”
“Was it somebody in your family?”
She shook her head. No.
“Was it somebody at school?”
Elizabeth jerked stiff.
“Did he make you do stuff?”
“Oh my God!” He shook his head hard. “I’m so sorry.”
“He was so smart and handsome, and I see now how he groomed me and seduced me, told me how I didn’t have be who my parents were forcing me to be, how much more mature I was than all the other kids, how I was the brightest mind of my generation. And of course I believed it because I wanted to believe it, and once he had me, he made me do things … he said if I told anybody …” Elizabeth choked up. Pulled it back together. “He said he’d hurt me, and nobody would believe me. So I didn’t tell anybody.”
“That is so sick!” Finn’s jaw screwed tight.
“It was horrible, it hurt. I … I felt like it was my fault …”
“Who was it?” Finn asked soft.
“It was a teacher, my English teacher. My parents found out, they saw something on my phone, a text he sent. They went crazy. In their own Winter-Rivers way.”
“What did they do?”
“Well, since they’re on the board, they put the fear of God into him, then they fired him. But they wanted to keep the whole thing hushed up, so they had Headmaster Doggert get rid of him. Nobody ever said anything. They told me I couldn’t tell anybody. I shouldn’t be telling you. But I had to. I felt like I was going to explode or something.”
“So what happened to him? I hope he’s sharing a cell with somebody named Stiletto.”
“No, they just swept it under the rug. Doggert wrote him a recommendation and he’s at St. Paul’s now.”
“No way!” Finn was furious. “What? No! Why would your folks do that? Don’t you wanna see him punished? Plus, I’m sure he’s probably doing the same thing to some girl at St. Paul’s!”
“I see pictures in my head of him doing stuff to me and … I can’t help it … everybody keeps trying to fix me up with boys, but it’s no good, even if I like them …” Elizabeth started shivering and couldn’t stop.
He gently picked up one of her fingers. It felt like glass that would crack if you squeezed it too hard. Her shoulders shook. Eyes crunched shut. He slowly pulled her towards him. She did not resist. Body shuddering, breath catching, Elizabeth quaked.
Finn thought his heart might crack. He whispered like a lullaby:
“It’s alright … it’s okay … it’s alright … it’s okay… it’s alright … it’s okay…”
Finn’s shirt got wet. From her tears. The beat of her heart was so loud in the cage of her ribs. He would’ve been happy to hold Elizabeth pretty much indefinitely. Doing all the good he could. Being useful. Shaker-style. He’d been talking his mom down off the ledge since before he could remember, but seeing it through Elizabeth’s eyes; it dawned on him that maybe comforting sad battered females might be a special skill. And it filled him so full. To suck up all that poison festering inside her. From being broken into. Broken in two. Broken.
Elizabeth melted into Finn, and she was part of him and he was part of her, and they were part of the Love Shack, the Shakers and the Berkshires; part of the stars, the moon, the universe.
He wondered if maybe that was God.
Finn had no idea how long she’d been in his arms when she finally stopped crying, caught her breath and pulled away.
He saw a blade of shame slice into her. He heard alarms shriek in her ears. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” she said. “I have to go–”
Elizabeth charged towards the door like she was running for her life.
Life Sucks if You Can’t Breathe
“The same thing happened to my mom.” Finn said it loud enough to stop Elizabeth.
She stood in the doorway, battling her desire to bolt.
“Only it was her dad, not her teacher.”
Elizabeth turned around and looked at Finn.
“He was a sick, evil monster. When my mom told her mother, the old hag slapped her and called her a whore and a slut. So Granny was a sick evil monster, too. My mom had nightmares, flashbacks, paranoid delusions, like I said, she had a million disorders.”
“I can’t feel anything, everything just … shuts down.” She stared off with far-away eyes, like a black-and-white photograph of herself.
“I’m sorry … no one deserves that.”
“I wanna kill him,” Finn growled. “Don’t you wanna kill him?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know … I can’t …”
“I think murdering somebody’s better than messing with them when they’re a kid. It screws you up for the rest of your life. I saw it every day with my mom.”
Elizabeth took in a giant breath, then blew it out like exhaust. “Wow. You’re right. I thought I’d feel worse, but it’s like I can finally breathe.”
“Hey, life sucks if you can’t breathe,” Finn said softly.
“Yup.” Elizabeth’s lips slid into a lopsided grin.
“What happens to you,” Finn said, “is totally normal for somebody with PTSD. They used to call it shellshock. There’s actually a test you can take for it.”
“Really?” Elizabeth looked like she was scared to hope.
“Yup. My mom went over it with me a like billion times when I was kid.”
“That’s just … bizarre.”
“Is it?” Finn asked. Thought. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
“What kind of test is it … exactly?”
“Well, it’s a bunch of questions about how you react to different things.”
“What kind of questions? Do you remember any of them? What were they?”
“Well, like …” Finn fished back through his files. “Do you ever have recurring memories?”
“Yes. What else?”
“Ever have flashbacks?”
“Ever dream about it?”
“All the time.”
“Do you ever feel like you’re outside your body, watching yourself?”
“Do you get triggered by things that remind you of the event?”
“Is that what happened the other day when we were …?”
“Yeah,” Elizabeth whispered.
“Do you ever run away from people because you’re afraid they might like you, and you might like you back?”
Heavy dark nod: Yes.
“Ever get the feeling that it’s literally impossible for you to have a normal happy life?”
“Well, I do, but I’m Finn, Son of Junky.”
“Do you have a hard time concentrating?”
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
“Ever have a hard time concentrating?”
“Do you have a hard time–”
“Gotcha!” She cracked a little grin.
“Nice!” Finn wiggled his finger at her. Then he took a deep breath. “Yeah, you have full-blown PTSD. Good news is, just learning about it is like part of the cure. Especially for sexual trauma. Isn’t that cool?”
“Yeah.” She swallowed hard. “Sexual trauma … wow.”
“Just admitting you’re a freak helps. Lucky for you, there’s lots of us.”
“Lots of whom?”
“Freaks.” Finn shrugged like it was obvious.
Elizabeth laughed loud, harsh and barking, like it hurt coming out.
She thought for a long time. Or maybe it was a minute. Finn couldn’t tell.
Finally, a smile ran crooked across Elizabeth’s lips.
Finn cocked his head: “Whaaaaaaaaaaat?”
“I have an idea,” she said.
“I like it already,” he said.
Finn’s Telltale Heart
“Like this?” Finn was flat on his back staring at the moon and thanking his lucky stars shining through the Love Shack roof. “And I’m gonna just lay here and … not move?”
“Perfect.” Elizabeth sat on him with a liquid grin, skirt billowing out around them. “You don’t think it’s too weird?”
“I think it’s just weird enough.” Finn said. “So. I have an idea, too.”
“I like it already.”
“What if we talk about what we’re doing while we’re doing it?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, with PTSD, the part of your brain that’s in charge of emotions lights up like the Vegas strip and you freak out. But when you talk, the part of your brain where the commander of your ship hangs out can do like a manual override.”
“That’s totally contrary to the fundamental principles of the Winter-Rivers Dynasty. But it does make sense.” Elizabeth looked optimistic. Or like she wanted to be optimistic. “Continue.”
“So, theoretically, let’s say I was interested in making out with you. I might say, ‘Elizabeth, I think I’d like to make out with you.’”
“Okay.” She rolled it over in her head. “Finn, I think I’d like to make out with you.”
Finn was sure Elizabeth could hear his telltale heart banging away in his chest.
Elizabeth leaned her lips down in the Love Shack and kissed Finn so soft he shivered.
“What was that?” She sounded like an alarm going off.
“That was me … shivering,”
“Is that good, or bad?”
“Good,” he said. “Really good. Like epically good.”
Elizabeth’s face looked relieved and happy. Then it got serious. “Was that a … decent kiss?”
“Well, to be honest I never really made out with anybody except you, the other day, so I have zero data for comparison, but personally, I think you’ve got mad kissing skills.”
“Thank you.” She looked very pleased. Which made him happy. “Finn, I think I’d like to make out some more.”
That made Finn even happier. “I think I’d to make out with you some more too, Elizabeth.”
She leaned into him again. Where she touched his cheek, it got hot. Lying there not moving, completely still, waiting for her to come to him, was weirdly exciting.
Her lips touched light on his. A sigh came sliding out of Elizabeth. Which made Finn sigh.
She kissed him harder and her body was on his body and her hands were in his hair.
He had to force his body to stay still. He wanted to give her exactly what she wanted.
Elizabeth pulled back. He thought maybe she was having a flashback. But no. Her eyes were blazing blue and gold in the candlelight.
“That was a very good kiss,” he said.
“Yes, it was very good very good kiss.” Her voice was all breath. “I never thought I could feel … you know, because of my …”
“My disorder.” Elizabeth thought for a while. “Finn, I think I’d like to make out with you some more.”
“I think I’d like to make out with you some more too, Elizabeth.”