What do you think of when you hear the words “my first time”?
I expect some people will flash back to that very first time they had consensual sex. Some may be propelled back in time to the first time they were assaulted. Perhaps others who are acquainted with my writing and my penchant for alternate meanings with my blog titles may be wondering where I’m going with this one.
I assure you I’m not going to talk about my first experience with consensual sex. However, we do need to briefly travel back in time to the end of the summer that I turned thirteen. While not my first sexual experience against my will—I’d been molested twice before I turned ten—that summer marked an escalation in my nonconsensual sexual encounters. That night is the subject of my blog post Let’s Talk About Consent, Baby, and I go into more detail in my memoir, resilient, but it was the night my then-boyfriend’s two brothers trapped me in an enclosure and ignored my protests until they were sexually satisfied.
My boyfriend didn’t believe me when I tried to tell him. My friend—the girlfriend of one of the brothers—didn’t believe me when I tried to tell her. Instead, they blamed me for what happened, calling me a slut and claiming I’d willingly participated since I didn’t have bruises from a violent struggle. I kept what happened that night to myself, convinced no one else would believe me if the two people I’d been sure would support me hadn’t. I began to believe them and blame myself, certain that somehow, deep down, it had been my fault, that I had secretly “wanted it” as they had said. And then I worked very hard for a long time to forget it had ever happened, to simply erase it from my memory. Of course, it doesn’t work that way, but I certainly tried.
A few months shy of my thirty-fourth birthday, I was visiting with my foster mom at a brewery local to my hometown on a beautiful summer’s day. My two little girls frolicked in a field of tall grass and wildflowers just off the covered deck where we sat with a beer, chasing butterflies to a backdrop of neon blue dotted with cotton-ball clouds.
“Do you remember Rudy?” my foster mom asked not long after we’d sat.
I was instantly catapulted twenty-one years back in time to the summer I’d turned thirteen, my ex-boyfriend’s face flashing before my eyes. Rudy had been my ex’s adult mentor; my ex was fourteen when I’d met him and his brothers. My stomach clenched and then roiled unpleasantly as his older brother’s face was next to come up from the shadows, the iciness of his eyes and the terror he’d instilled in me from the very first time he greeted me by biting my neck until I bled.
I remembered the way his teeth had glinted in the moonlight that spilled through the open top of the teepee in their backyard that night a few months after I’d met them. The sound of the laughter coming from my boyfriend’s younger brother as he readied himself to go first. I remembered the fear that paralyzed me as the older brother’s threats hung in the dense, humid air along with the smoke from his cigarette, and the heaviness of the realization that I didn’t stand a chance of escaping the small enclosed area and the two boys until they decided to let me leave. I remembered the sensation of my tears trekking down my temples and the rocks and earth under my back and shoulders as my body jerked back and forth unwillingly in the dirt.
I remembered the longing I had for my boyfriend to wake from his alcohol-induced slumber, inside and on the other end of their house, and my intense regret that I had snuck over to see him that night. I remembered the relief I found in the pain caused by scrubbing my thighs raw to bleeding once I’d made it home that night, and the following week of depending on that relief to keep suicidal thoughts at bay until I decided to take a chance and tell someone.
I remembered when I told my boyfriend and my best friend how they accused me of lying. I remembered swearing that it wasn’t consensual, that I hadn’t wanted it to happen, and how the pain—and later bruises—where my best friend’s blows landed as she assaulted me couldn’t compare to the hurt in my heart. And I remembered how I’d spent years believing that I’d somehow been at fault and wishing that I’d died when she pushed me down a flight of stairs the night I told her.
I remembered all these things in the span of a few breaths after my foster mom asked her question, both in my mind and in my body. I felt a sinking in my gut and the skin on my face tightened uncomfortably as the edges of my vision blackened. I began sweating profusely until it was running in little rivulets from my armpits toward my wrists and my chest felt too small for my heart to move. My eyes darted around where we sat, scanning the other people near us over and over and over, as if a person could appear out of thin air.
What if those brothers had never left the area? What if they were there and I just hadn’t seen them yet?
I was adept at hiding my discomfort and my panic after decades of practice; if my foster mom didn’t turn from her habit of people-watching to notice my eyes darting around, she would never know. So, I carried on with the conversation, even though I felt like I would suffocate if I didn’t get into my car and drive until I ran out of gas.
“He said you always had all the boys spun up over you,” she said. “Instigating trouble between the brothers. He wished you would just leave that family alone.”
I froze as time came to a standstill. My heart didn’t beat; my lungs didn’t expand with air. Suddenly, I felt like I was spinning out of control and my vision narrowed to a pinpoint. All the research I’d done during the early drafting of my first novel, Finding Annie, flashed through my mind: research on the best and worst ways to support a survivor of rape in order to make sure I was getting an accurate blend of support from the characters supporting Annie. It was during that research that I first discovered the freeze response. In short, it is a third physiological response to danger in which the body freezes and the mind dissociates on some level.
The moment I first read about this response was the moment I started to—slowly—release the self-blame I carried for what had happened to me. The moment I began to understand that as much as I had blamed it for not magically helping me to escape the situation, my body was trying to protect me that night. The moment I began to shift the terminology I used when I thought about what happened.
“He wished I would leave them alone?” I bit out in response to my foster mom as anger began bubbling into every atom in my body. “I got them spun up?”
My voice was fading, and I tried to swallow to alleviate the sudden dryness that was at fault, but I couldn’t because my tongue was in the way, having suddenly become too large and thick for my mouth. I looked to my right at the mountains surrounding my hometown as the bright day seemed to darken and fade into grey before me, trying to breathe against the tightness in my chest and ignore the burning in my eyes. My jaw trembled slightly, and I gritted my teeth to steady it.
And then it happened.
“His brothers raped me,” I whispered.
The depth of exhaustion that took over after my confession was incomprehensible. The gut-wrenching fear of her reaction almost kept the words I’d never spoken aloud inside my mouth—would she disbelieve me as my father had about my cousin? As my ex and my former best friend had about my ex’s brothers?
But I was too tired to stop the words from coming out. Tired of keeping secrets, tired of hiding parts of myself. Tired of pretending things that had happened… hadn’t. Each thing I hid, each secret I kept, each event I pretended hadn’t occurred carried with it an unimaginable weight—I simply couldn’t stand and continue any longer if I didn’t start shedding some of it.
My foster mom turned from her people-watching to study me, and I was intensely uncomfortable under her scrutiny, the waiting and the unknowing smothering me. Finally, she spoke.
“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly. “I… I had no idea.”
I don’t remember much from the rest of that day aside from my dizzying relief that she believed me, everything cloaked in a dark haze as if I’d been blackout-drunk, though I’d only had a single beer.
I do remember that after I went home, I compulsively checked my phone, sure I’d see a text from her with some sort of comment or question betraying latent disbelief. I remember that the next time she called, I stared at her name on the screen of my phone as it rang and couldn’t answer it—I was SURE she was going to ask me if I’d fought, tell me it was my fault for having been around those boys she’d told me were bad news and forbidden me to talk to back then. I’d convinced myself that her quiet compassion after I’d told her wouldn’t last, and I was paralyzed when I saw that she was calling.
I also remember my fear never came to pass. She never expressed disbelief. She never blamed me for what they did. She never brought it up or commented about how I could have avoided the situation if I hadn’t been around them in the first place. And slowly, over the years since that day at the brewery, my fear that her reaction would change began to fade and in its place was a kind of trust I’d never had for a parental figure before: trust that my vulnerability would be met with love and compassion.
My foster mother maybe hasn’t noticed the subtle change in our interactions, but I have. I’ve become more forthcoming, more willing to be vulnerable, to open up about those painful, ugly things I’ve kept hidden for so long. I’ve become less anxious when I talk to her about anything of emotional significance and less prone to panic attacks when I travel to my hometown to see her, the same town where many of those things occurred.
I may not remember part of an entire day, but I’m forever grateful for the deepening of my relationship with the woman who mothered me for most of my life. And I’ll never forget what came before that black hole in my memory, never forget everything leading up to me finally using the “r” word almost twenty-one years after it had happened when I’d just turned thirteen.
No, I’ll never forget my first time.
- My memoir resilient
- Freeze response
- My novel Finding Annie
- Let’s Talk about Consent, Baby
- Trauma resources
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.