I saw a rape, and I did noth­ing

We must teach and model boys’ re­spect of girls

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Don Palmer­ine

I was both an ob­server and a par­tic­i­pant in a teenage rape. I was 17, and it was 1969, about a year be­fore I would be drafted into the Army.

I went to a small Catholic school in Pitts­burgh called St. Justin, for the chil­dren of mostly bluecol­lar work­ers, and I had been in­vited to a party by a friend from an­other Catholic high school. Many foot­ball play­ers from that school would be there. I wasn’t very pop­u­lar with these boys at the time, so I went; I wanted to be friends with them. I knew a few of them and wanted to get to know the rest. These boys were from the sub­urbs, and their par­ents mostly had more money than mine.

I don’t re­mem­ber the month it oc­curred or the ex­act town it was in, but I re­mem­ber that the party was in an up­per-class sub­urb south of Pitts­burgh. I don’t re­mem­ber how I got home. These de­tails don’t mat­ter to me. What I re­mem­ber clearly was the rape. Watch­ing it, for me, is like re­mem­ber­ing where I was when I found out that Pres­i­dent John Kennedy had been as­sas­si­nated. There is a be­fore and an af­ter.

At one point, a boy told us to go out­side and look through a win­dow into the base­ment be­cause an­other boy, a foot­ball player, had taken a girl there. When we peered through, we saw the girl passed out on a sofa, her feet fac­ing us. As the boy ap­proached her, he waved to us, smil­ing. He pro­ceeded to re­move her jeans and then her panties. It was the first time I had seen a girl naked. He climbed on top of her and pen­e­trated her. She woke up and tried to fight him off. At this point, we all scat­tered in the yard. No one said any­thing. There was just ner­vous laugh­ter.

Even­tu­ally, we went back into the house. The next thing I re­call is stand­ing with about 10 other boys around a bed on which a dif­fer­ent girl had passed out. Ev­ery­one was touch­ing her through her cloth­ing. I placed my hand on her leg and quickly re­moved it.

One boy kept turn­ing the lights on and off. When they came on, ev­ery­one re­moved their hands from the girl’s body. In the dark, ev­ery­one put their hands back on her. Ev­ery­one would laugh. It was some kind of game, and we all seemed to un­der­stand the rules. This hap­pened four times, and then we all left the room. I’m glad it didn’t go fur­ther.

I re­call the jocks ig­nor­ing me for most of the party and, even­tu­ally, I went home. I never saw them again, and the friend who’d in­vited me has since died. I hadn’t known ei­ther girl, and I never saw them again, ei­ther. A few months ago, I at­tempted to find the boy who had com­mit­ted the rape, search­ing for old year­books and doc­u­ments at the pub­lic li­brary. But I didn’t find him.

I knew then, and I re­ally know now, that I had com­mit­ted a crime. I have felt guilty about it my whole life. I get an­gry when I think about my teenage self and those boys I wanted to im­press. Lis­ten­ing to the tes­ti­mony of Chris­tine Blasey Ford brought back these mem­o­ries. I feel com­pas­sion for her. What she says she went through was so sim­i­lar, and I know she’s telling the truth.

I worked as a news­pa­per re­porter and wrote a col­umn for 12 years, but I never wanted to write about that in­ci­dent. Guilt had turned to shame. I be­gan to dwell on it again only when women came for­ward about Bill Cosby. I told my wife and three boys around the din­ner table one night that I had once wit­nessed a rape. We talked about it and con­cluded that it could still hap­pen to­day. We dis­cussed the Stubenville, Ohio, foot­ball play­ers who abused a 16-year-old girl.

I won­der what hap­pened to all the other boys who saw what I saw through the base­ment win­dow. Do they think about it? Do they re­mem­ber like I do? This could have been a nor­mal week­end for them.

I won­der about the girls. In 1969, there was no­body to turn to. They wouldn’t have gone to the po­lice — at the time, a no­tion per­sisted that an as­sault was the girl’s fault, that she shouldn’t have got­ten her­self in that po­si­tion in the first place. They wouldn’t have told their par­ents, who would prob­a­bly have scolded them. They are about my age now, 67, and I won­der if they re­mem­ber this night. If they told their daugh­ters.

I wanted to tell this story be­cause I be­lieve it’s time for men to tell the truth about the ways they’ve abused women and what our role has been in cre­at­ing a cul­ture that tol­er­ates this. We’ve all heard other men talk. I re­mem­ber sit­ting in a bar with some ac­quain­tances about 30 years ago when one of the men, a lo­cal mag­is­trate in a poor area of West Vir­ginia, bragged about a sys­tem he had when pretty girls were charged with a DUI. He said that some­times he would take them back to his of­fice and of­fer them a deal. He would drop the DUI charges if they gave him oral sex. I squirmed in my seat. Was he just talk­ing, locker-room style? Did it re­ally hap­pen? It didn’t even oc­cur to me to re­port him to any­one.

My boys are 19, 17 and 11 years old. What I teach them about the treat­ment of girls is sim­ple: re­spect, re­spect, re­spect. If they wit­ness some­thing like I did, go to the au­thor­i­ties. This is no time to worry about be­ing a snitch. My two older boys are more aware about con­sent is­sues than I was at their ages. I re­minded them that I was the same age when I wit­nessed the rape; my very first vi­sion of sex­ual con­tact was a rape. My sons agree I was a fool­ish, im­ma­ture teenager. They know I would never do any­thing like that again. They see how I treat their mother, which might be the best les­son I can give them.

Still, I wish I could apol­o­gize to the two girls at that party. I shouldn’t have watched. I should have helped. I hope they read this and take some small com­fort from it.

I wanted to be one of the boys, those nice kids from a good Catholic school. I let that over­take my con­science. What I got in­stead was five decades of guilt.

Chirs Van Es

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