I was 15 when it happened. Now, after a career as a terrorism expert, I want to find out what took place, and why
I know that I was raped. But here is the odd thing. If my sister had not been raped, too, if she didn’t remember — if I didn’t have this police report right in front of me on my desk — I might doubt that the rape occurred. The memory feels a bit like a dream. It has hazy edges. Are there aspects of what I think I recall that I might have made up?
In the fall of 2006, I got a call from the police. Lt. Paul Macone, deputy chief of the police department in Concord, Mass., called to tell me he wanted to reopen our rape case. “I need to know if you have any objection. And I will need your help,” he said. The rape occurred in 1973.
Lt. Macone and I grew up in Concord, considered by many to be the birthplace of our nation. It is the site of the “shot heard round the world,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase for the first shot in the first battle of the American Revolution, and the town is frequently flooded with tourists, who come to see the pretty, historic village and the homes of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived and worked there. It is still a small town, with small-town crimes. The Concord Journal still reports accidents involving sheep and cows.
I had recently requested the complete file. For 20 years now, I’ve worked as a terrorism expert, studying the causes of evil and violence, and I wanted to understand what happened to me on the day that my sister and I were raped, back when I was 15 and she was 14. I had an idea that by reading the file, by seeing the crime reports in black and white on a page, I could restore a kind of order in my mind.
The file had to be redacted. Lt. Macone had to read the entire file in order to black out the names of suspects and other victims. And when he read it, he realized the rapist still might be out there.
“It was clear to us what had to be done,” Lt. Macone said. Although he added, “Not every rape victim wants to revisit the crime.”
But I was willing.
Lt. Macone saw that the detectives who worked on the case in 1973 did not take the crime seriously, in part because they did not believe my sister and me. They had trouble believing that the rapist was a stranger to us. Rapes like the one we described simply did not occur in our town, or so they believed. The detectives left notes such as: “I told Mr. Stern that I feel the girls were holding something back from us.”
In notes from February 13, 1974, four months after the crime, I see: “Personal visit. Spoke to Mr. Stern. He states nothing new to add. He feels that both girls seem to have forgotten it.” The police took my father’s statement as permission to cease investigating the crime, and the rapist was not found.
Our father was in Norway with his third wife at the time we were raped. I remember this distinctly. That is why a babysitter was staying with us. She was supposed to be ferrying us around.
Our mother had died when I was 3 years old and my sister was 2. A little over a year after our mother’s death, my father married Lisa, who was young and bright and impossibly beautiful, but it lasted only six years. The evening of the rape we had gone to Lisa’s house, as we did, once a week, after ballet. But Lisa went out to dinner that night, taking our half sisters with her. My sister and I stayed behind. We had homework.
Our father, a successful inventor, was visiting the Trondheim Institute of Technology. He was establishing what he considered to be a very important relationship for his laboratory. They would cooperate on radar technologies. But here is something I learn upon reading the file for the first time, something that, amazingly, I did not recall. When our family physician called our father to tell him his two girls had been raped at gunpoint, he did not curtail his trip. He did not come home to us right away. How is it that I keep forgetting this fact?
There are other items in the file that I find impossible to believe. For example, I told the police that someone — perhaps the rapist — called me at my father’s house a few days after the rape, calling himself “Kevin Armadillo,” identifying himself as “the one who fucked you last night.” How could the rapist know to find me at my father’s house? He did not rape us there, but at our first stepmother’s home. I am mortified. I don’t recall any such thing. Was I in a state of hysteria, making things up in order to get attention?
I do remember the fact that I was raped. I can force myself to recall certain details. The fact that we thought he was joking when he told us he had a gun. We thought he was joking until he threatened to kill us. The fact, missing, for some reason, from the written record, that he asked us to show him where the knives were kept.
The police asked my sister and me to write down what had occurred. We did this, the report states, between 11:30 pm and 1:45 am. Those words are before me now. I read the words I know I wrote, in a penmanship I barely recognize. My notes from 1973 are written in italics below.
— sitting doing homework
— man walked in
The penmanship looks alien. I don’t recognize the persona captured in these words, the writing slanting backward, the letters round, fat. Was I ever this feminine?
I try to imagine “man walked in.” I feel a kind of chemical strength. Not fear, not sadness, but a chemical agitation.
— showed us gun, don’t scream
Reading these words, I feel something quite hard and harsh forming in my veins, as if my blood has turned to shards. This is a familiar feeling. I become a soldier if I am truly threatened. If the plane goes down, you want me at the controls.
Here is what I think now, reading what I wrote down for the police at age 15, right after I was raped. I was a good girl. Always a good girl, even when I was bad. I did my homework.
Of course I won’t scream, I didn’t scream then, I won’t scream now, certainly not out of fear or the thought of my own pain. I knew that if I were bad, if I revealed my terror, he would kill me. I already knew how to absorb fear into my body — my own and others’ — to project a state of utter calm and courage.
— said look down
Of course I looked down, not at his face. I understood the simple bargain: no looking, no flinching, no sudden movements, stay alive. Looking where he said to look.
What terror would I have seen in his face? I would have drowned in a sea of fear.
— he’d only be 5 min or 10, wouldn’t hurt us
— was anyone home? When would they be home? Be quiet.
Would kill us if we uttered a word
Well, that is easy, only five or ten. If anyone else were home, they might not have known how to handle this man. But I did. Be quiet, he said. If you say anything, he said, I will kill you.
I was quiet.
— made us go upstairs looking down, quiet dog
My sister remembers this expedition, the three of us walking single file, up the narrow flight of stairs, his gun to our backs. “I thought we were being marched to our execution,” she recalls. “I was trying to telegraph to you to be quiet. My biggest fear was that you wouldn’t comply and that you would get killed.” Why was my sister afraid that I would be the one killed?
In any case, I did comply. I floated into docility.
— close shades
The shades hiding our shame.
— take off pants. Asked if we’d still be clothed
The pants covering our shameful spots. The vulnerable spots now exposed. Would we still be clothed? We were wearing leotards. But I know the answer to that question now: I would never be clothed again.
— take off leotards.
We had ridden our bikes home from ballet class, jeans over our leotards. We were unspoiled and tough, unlike other girls, the kind whose parents might have driven them across town, the kind who might have screamed.
But now skin is revealed, legs exposed to cold air. Still, I did not scream.
— facedown on bed
I recall thinking that if I did what he said, we would stay alive. Don’t scream, don’t protest. I cannot recall the sensation of facedown on bed. Did the blanket scratch the cheeks and mouth, the mouth that would be good, that would not scream? Did the blankets comfort, did they suffocate?
— made us brush each other’s hair
— made us try on little sister’s dresses
— too small
— made us put on stepmother’s dresses
— made us take off dresses
— told us to lie facedown
— made us sit up
Now I am lost. My mind cannot focus. I am annoyed with this little girl whom I’m struggling to hold in my mind’s eye, who wants me to understand how she suffered. You will be fine, I want to tell her. I feel anger at her, even more than “man walked in.” I do not want to hear about her fear or her pain. It wasn’t that bad.
— stroke and lick penis
— said he put gun down
— said he could reach for it at any time
Now I begin to feel something new. A foggy nausea takes hold, leaving no room for thoughts or action. Why didn’t I bite hard? Would it have been worth it to hurt this man, even if he killed me? Did I have the strength in my jaw to bite? I think not. I was in a sea of nothingness.
— sit with legs spread
Who spread those legs? How vulnerable I feel, thinking of this girl, her legs spread wide, exposed to this “man walked in,” exposed to an evil cold.
— asked us what we called vaginas.
— we said crotches.
— he put his finger up me
— had we heard of cunt?
— entered me while I was sitting.
— told me it didn’t hurt
— he was sterile and clean. Two times.
— I said it hurt
— he said it didn’t.
I do remember the hurt, as if someone had inserted a gun made of granite that scraped my flesh raw, at first scratching, then tearing, then scraping the flesh off bone, leaving the bone sterilized by pain.
I am hollow and sterilized now. Not long after the rape, I lost my ability to urinate. I had to be catheterized, and later hospitalized. I began to walk with crotch held back to prevent intruders, muscles so tight I have to will myself to urinate, sometimes even now.
Now he turned his attention to my little sister.
— tried to rape my sister Sara
— I told him not to — please.
How did I find the strength to talk? I was spellbound by the potential for death contained in that gun. But my little sister’s pain pulled me out of my trance, and it was as if a new self emerged. I have trouble forcing my eye back to the page where I wrote the actions performed on me and by me during that very long hour.
— told me to stand. Picked me up. Entered me telling me to wrap my legs around him.
Was he just a broken boy, needing someone to wrap her legs around him? This thought nauseates me again. A broken boy, stabbing and piercing a broken girl, leaving her shattered, as he was shattered. Why did I perceive him as broken even then, before I knew anything about him, before I knew anything about violence?
— faces down on bed
— told us it would make us angry
I remember what happened next: the click of his gun. I thought he was cocking it, preparing to kill. I was calm again, entranced into complying with his murderous plans.
Here is what shames me to the core: I thought he was going to kill me, but I did not fight him. Why did I not overpower the puny little man, smack that gun out of his paltry, worm-white fingers? I was strong then, probably stronger than he, certainly very strong now. But I was hypnotized into passivity. I had no strength to run, and anyway I did not like the idea of being shot from behind. It seemed easier just to wait until the murder was done with.
And then he explained to us that the gun was not real, it was a cap gun.
— it was a cap gun.
I wrote dutifully, always dutiful. After complying with the rapist I complied with the police. Was this the most embarrassing part — that I had been hypnotized by a person wielding a child’s toy?
— he said don’t call police. I promised I wouldn’t.
— it would make us in more trouble.
— he left. We heard car.
I remember this part, too. I told Sara he was right; we shouldn’t call the police. Somehow, even then, I felt him as a victim. I told her that they would put him in prison, that prison would not reform him: It would make him worse. Was this a kind of Stockholm syndrome? Does it happen that fast, in the space of an hour?
Sara was more afraid than I, but also more alive. She picked up the phone. No dial tone. He had cut the wires. How would a rapist have time to cut the phone wires or know where to find them in the dark, dank basement? How long had he been in the house? How long had he been plotting this crime?
“He kept saying he wouldn’t hurt us. He kept saying to listen, to be quiet.”
I was quiet. I listened.
I’m still listening now. I hear a rush, in my mind’s inner ear, of insistence. A kind of aural premonition, but a kind of premonition that goes both backward and forward, the soundless protest of all the raped, shamed and silenced women from the beginning to the end of time. “He hurt you, he altered you forever,” the chorus soundlessly insists, grating on my inner ear — the ear that wishes not to be reminded of feeling. I respond to that chorus: “Hurt” is not the right word for what that man did to me. I feel a void. Something got cut out of me in that hour — my capacity for pain and fear were removed. There is no more tender flesh. It’s quite liberating to have feeling removed, the fear and pain of life now dulled.
Nabokov once said, “Life is pain.” Buddhists, too, believe that to live is to crave and to crave is to feel pain. Had I not been catapulted, in that one hour, halfway to death, and therefore closer to enlightenment?
Later, of course, I would come to reject this understanding of what happened to me that day. Yes, I was partly released from the pain of being alive. But my spirit had traveled, not toward the infinite divinity of enlightenment, but toward the infinite nothingness of indifference. Instead of fear, I felt numb. Instead of sadness, I experienced a complete absence of hope.
Indifference is a dangerous disease.
“He kept saying to listen, to be quiet.”
I have listened, and I have been quiet all my life.
But now I will speak.
At the very bottom of the page, in a penmanship slanting ever more backward, I finally focused on what the police really wanted to know, the appearance of the apparition that had visited itself upon me.
— he smelled
— brown wool over face
— shorts, white socks
And then more detail.
— bobby socks, sneakers
— he was skinny
— light brown hair on legs
— strong cologne
— concord accent
Eventually, more than three decades after the crime took place, a long investigation would lead the police to discover something that denial and disbelief had not allowed them to see back then: This man attacked 44 girls from 1970 and 1973.
But on that particular Monday night, October 1, 1973, we knew very little. Sara walked out of the house into the cool night to use a pay phone on the street. That phone, too, was broken. We seemed to have entered a new, separate world where there was no way to communicate with the people we once knew.
Once again, Sara came up with a plan. We went to Friendly’s. There, finally, we found a phone that worked. We called the babysitter who was in charge of us while our father was away in Norway.
Yes, we explained, we had been visiting our first stepmother, Lisa, our father’s ex-wife. We visited Lisa, and our half sisters, every Monday night after ballet. We had stayed behind to do our homework in an unlocked house in a safe neighborhood in a safe town, a town filled with good girls, though we were especially good. I was a good girl — I always did my homework, even when I was bad.
Jessica Stern lectures on terrorism at Harvard University, where she holds a doctorate in public policy. She served as a staff member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. She is the author of “Terror in the Name of God” and “Denial: A Memoir of Terror,” from which this is excerpted.
Jessica Stern is the author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill," a former staff member of the National Security Council, and a lecturer on terrorism at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. More Jessica Stern.
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