My job is to write and speak about the complexity and impact of violence against women. This means I talk, almost every day, about stories people would rather avoid. The Bill Cosby rape allegations were naturally something I recently wrote about, and discussed in radio and TV interviews.
Often when tackling tricky subjects in public, I give my three kids a heads up. Just in case they see me online, or a friend or teacher at school mentions my opinions to them. I know, because they’ve told me rather…um…directly…that they don’t like being ambushed by my job. Additionally, I do want them to know what I’m working on, as part of my larger “mom is a person too” consciousness-raising project.
So the day my CNN article ran and a few TV interviews aired, I sent text messages to my 17-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, and talked to my 12-year-old about the disagreeable, distinctly non-kid-friendly subject of rape.
I share this backstory to demonstrate that it is possible to talk to our kids about exigent but messy subjects. I want my kids to ponder the same issues I tried to raise among CNN readers and listeners, although in more age-appropriate terms. Such as:
Even if a victim is drunk, drugged, or otherwise vulnerable, it is not her or his fault if they are raped.
It is NORMAL to deny – even to yourself — that you were raped, sometimes for days, weeks or years. And yet denial is the worst thing you can do to yourself, or to someone else who has been raped. Evidence shows that one of the most important factors in a victim overcoming the trauma of assault is that the first person he or she tells believes the story.
I want my kids to know, in case they or a friend are assaulted, how understandably challenging it is to tell anyone that you were raped. It is hard to tell such excruciating details to strangers – a police officer or a doctor. It is even harder, for some, to tell their mother or father. Some victims simply cannot talk about what happened at all.
Rape is an ugly crime, and it’s naturally no one’s first choice to make it even more real by reporting it. Even 32 years later, Janice Dickinson’s voice is stilted as she describes her alleged rape by Bill Cosby to Entertainment Tonight. Dickinson has trouble breathing, finding it a challenge just to get the words out. This too is typical.
I also want my children to understand that it is, unfortunately, many people’s instinctive reaction to disbelieve a report of rape. In many ways, this is natural as well. It is excruciating to hear about a crime as violent and damaging as rape, especially when committed by someone you like or respect. But again, it is critical to not damage a victim with a kneejerk denial response.
I want everyone, including my children, to know that it is especially hard to tell the world about being a victim, knowing that you may not be believed, or that you will in all likelihood be grilled about painful, demeaning events that you’d give anything to forget. This is why we, as a society, need to shift our focus from questioning the veracity of victims to sympathizing with the traumatic aftermath of sexual assault.
So how did my children respond?
My 16-year-old daughter immediately replied “Wow!!!!!” (She loves my makeup when I go on CNN.) A few minutes later, after she’d checked the CNN website, she texted me to ask how many of the 7,000 comments following my article I wrote myself. Hahaha, honey. Even I am not that crazy.
My son, who has mastered the art of clueless-boy deadpan, took several hours to respond. Then he texted: “WHAT Cosby rape allegations?” He had missed a subject that most of America was discussing in detail. In his defense, his focus is basketball Fantasy Football. In his world, if it doesn’t involve sports, it can’t really be news that matters much to anyone.
As important as it is to educate our kids about subjects as difficult as rape, it’s also true that there comes a time when it is important to shield them from the same subjects.
Case in point: when the moment came to talk to my 12-year-old daughter about the Cosby assault allegations, I approached the subject far more delicately than with my jaded, battle-weary older children. My 12-year-old is more innocent. A text message about rape might shock or confuse her; plus she doesn’t check her phone often. So for her communication, I chose the old-fashioned face-to-face verbal route, telling her in the car when I picked her up after school.
She was incredulous.
“The Dad-is-Great-Feeds-Us-Chocolate-Cake guy?” she asked. Our family are big fans of Bill Cosby: Himself, his 1983 standup shtick that I still think is one of the most accurate, hilarious portrayals of fatherhood ever. “Him? Really?”
As she was absorbing the ugly news, my cell phone rang. The number was a producer I needed to talk to about the latest victim coming forward. I told my daughter I wanted to take the call, and her face contorted.
“Mom, please – no more rape stuff right now.”
So I didn’t return the call until we got home, so she wouldn’t be forced to listen to details she didn’t want to hear. I’ve seen this limit-drawing in my others kids, too. None of them have read my memoir of abuse, Crazy Love, although several friends and teachers and family members have. That’s fine. They get to draw their own boundaries, and it is up to me as their mom to respect and protect these limits.
I want my kids to understand that sometimes, the only way to heal psychologically from something as invasive and destructive as intimate assault is to talk about the betrayal and its aftermath. Whether or not other people want to listen. And sometimes I teach that same kind of sensitivity – by backing off and not talking about the very same topics.