This week, because of what happened with Roe, I’ve written a new short story.
Trigger Warnings: Rape and suicide.
Dedication: For all of the women (and people of other genders) this Supreme Court is going to kill. All. Of. Them.
The letter starts with the words, “To My Rapist’s Baby,” but it’s scribbled out; written next to it are the words, “To My Darling Daughter;” each introduction breaks my heart in turn as I read.
* * *
I want you to know it isn’t your fault. I don’t blame you. And I tried to love you as if I’d loved your father, as if I’d consented to share my body with him. I’m sure there have been moments when I couldn’t be the mother you deserved, when I couldn’t help but see him in your eyes as he pushed me down, or hear the way he threatened me in your voice when you were angry with me.
I was still too young to be upset when the decision came, too naïve to know what Roe v. Wade had been to know what it meant that it had been gutted, to know what I’d lost until its protections weren’t there when I needed them.
I knew your father before; 8 in 10 know their rapists, while 1 in 5 are related. Your father isn’t technically the latter; his family were friends with ours, essentially treated like family without the blood. At the time I was young, and naïve enough that at first I thought it was my fault, that I misled him, that I hurt him. I actually… I apologized, when he was done. I couldn’t stop crying, and I felt like I couldn’t pull my skirt low enough, but…
I still don’t know if I ever managed to squeak, “No,” but that’s academic. Every inch of my body was screaming it. I was shaking. I didn’t move my arms or legs. I didn’t respond when he kissed me. My body didn’t respond, period. For a virgin, I didn’t understand how thoroughly I was saying, “No.” But he did. And he ignored it anyway.
It took me a long time to process it. To realize how he maneuvered me, made me feel older than I was, made our friendship into something other people couldn’t understand or appreciate, that I had to hide away from everyone else. What I think finally made me understand was how much more aggressive he became afterward about secrecy- how certain he needed to be I wouldn’t tell anyone.
Eventually I broke down and told your grandparents. Mom… wasn’t helpful. His family were friends from hers; and maybe she just couldn’t believe she failed to protect me. Dad was better. Wanted to kick his ass, at least. Wanted to make space for me, to cry, to rage, to talk to whoever I needed to. They fought a lot, in the days that followed; eventually they decided to take me to a doctor, and let me file charges.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I’d seen already in my parents that I was going to have to fight. If even my mother was going to call me a lying little slut…
The doctor was really nice. I was scared. And she walked me through the exam. She said she’d been through one, when she was my age, and so she knew how to make it less scary. And I remember her being good all the way until the end, when my tests came back, blood and urine they took at the beginning of the exam. She couldn’t look at me, anymore, after that, but read from a paper, that I didn’t have any STDs… but that I was pregnant. She handed another paper to my parents.
I barely understood what was going on, but… by law the pregnancy had already been logged into the state database. If for any reason I hadn’t given birth within ten months, there would be an investigation, and all three of us would be held criminally liable. We could go to jail. They could lose their home.
They fought every night after I went to bed for a week. To this day I don’t know which one of them wanted to stay and which wanted to go; they were arguing whether or not we should leave our home, move someplace we could still terminate. The arguments sucked both ways; there weren’t a lot of places you could go that record wouldn’t follow, and fewer still where both of them could readily find work. And they would definitely take a bath on the house; the downturn had been so bad they’d lose some of their equity- it would be harder for them to buy another home, and they might just end up renting the rest of their lives.
Finally I told them to stop. That I wouldn’t- I couldn’t– do that to them, either of them. It wasn’t an option on the table. We weren’t becoming fugitives over this. I think it was what they both wanted to hear, because just like that, we all decided I was becoming a mother. I… have complicated feelings about that. About them. But I don’t hate them for it.
I had to change doctors; my mom had it out with her, after months of canceled appointments. I half expected her to emerge with a head tucked under her arm. But her eyes were red from tears. “She’s a coward,” mom said, “or too soft-hearted for this world.”
I was a cautionary tale all of Senior year. I don’t know if people thought I couldn’t hear what they whispered about me, or if they deliberately whispered them loud enough so I could hear. But almost none of them asked what happened. Even most of my friends stopped talking to me. Their parents would freak out if they knew they were hanging out with someone like me. Worst of all, I knew there was every chance that if I had been one of them, and one of them was me, I would have done the same.
I barely dated that year. I think, in that regard, I was also a cautionary tale; nobody wanted the reminder that our young lives could be derailed so utterly violently. And truth be told, I don’t think I wanted anyone else to touch me; it was all still too raw, too fresh, and even my dad kissing my cheek goodnight made me flash back.
I think, too, that I wanted to prove everyone wrong. Every single person who saw my belly, after seeing that I wasn’t just overweight, wrote me off. My life was over. I was going to be on food stamps and welfare forever. And I had been such a bright young woman, too. So all of that time and energy I might have put into dates and friends, I put into books. Those were the two best semesters of my academic life.
It was good I wasn’t anywhere near valedictorian, because I missed graduation. You just had to come out. It’s honestly probably for the better; in my gown I looked like a pumpkin in a death shroud. And it also felt kind of perfect; my classmates were celebrating a threshold crossed, and so was I.
I don’t think, when I decided it would be less disruptive to our lives not to move, that I realized how the end of Roe upended adoption politics. I expected there was a mail chute or something I could drop you in- I’m kidding, obviously. I’m not saying I didn’t want you; really, I’m saying I hadn’t really considered that an option, at all. But when I started looking into adoption, it quickly became clear that wasn’t really an option at all.
And your grandparents were really supportive. I ended up staying home longer than any of us expected. They saved what they could for college, and instead of a state school, I did a community college, instead, and used the difference to pay a sitter. But dad got laid off, and suddenly my rainy day fund was our rainy day fund, and so I stopped taking classes and started working as a barista at the coffee stand on campus. Slow days they’d even look the other way if I kept you in a sling.
Then, one day I got served. Your father was suing me for custody. Dad got rehired, just in time for his entire salary to go to a lawyer to fight him. It didn’t matter that I didn’t press charges, she said; most DAs don’t prosecute a rape unless it’s iron clad, even when it’s statutory, and even a conviction wouldn’t have precluded him from suing me.
I slashed my wrists when I got home from meeting the lawyer; I couldn’t protect myself from him, no matter what I did, let alone protect you. Mom found me in the tub and got me to the hospital. I spent a couple of weeks in a facility, until they were convinced I wouldn’t try it again. I wasn’t anywhere near as convinced.
We talked about bringing it up in court, that your father was so dangerous and frightening that he drove me to the unthinkable. The lawyer suggested we keep the attempt out of the record; his lawyer could argue I couldn’t care for myself, let alone you. Somehow he found out, anyway, and told the judge, who told me if I made another attempt, he’d have no choice but to take you away, and either give you to my parents, or, more likely, to your father.
My lawyer was pretty great, though; she got the judge to only give him supervised visitations. That saved my life, and also my sanity, because as much as I hated the thought of him stepping foot in your life, at least this way you were safe.
In cause you hadn’t figured it by now, whatever we’d been to each other before, I was now very much invested in being your mother. I don’t know how or when it happened, other than it was definitely before your father served me, but I realized I loved you, despite your head looking mostly like a wad of clay that got stuck under couch cushions during the warm parts of summer- you’ve seen the pictures, you know what I mean. And you were still the most precious thing I’d ever seen.
Necessarily, the shape of my future changed. An advanced electrical engineering degree was out; I set my sights on trade work. I got a job working alongside dad; he was already starting to slow down- this was a few years before his heart attack. Between the three of us, we could do things in shifts, one of us always with you, one of us always working. At some point you stopped drooling and pooping (at least in the ways that required me to wipe up after you), and started walking and talking.
And I don’t think I really realized how much we were all burning the candle at both ends until dad keeled over. He was in the hospital for days, as they tried to fix his heart, and mom was with him the whole time, which meant I was trying to watch you, and get you ready for school in the fall, all while keeping his business going.
You starting school was maybe the thing that prevented us all from a collective breakdown, and possibly more heart attacks. It meant we all started getting more than 5 hours of sleep. It meant we could be people in our own rights again, have interests, and thoughts. We loved you, and we gave our time for you willingly; I only mean to say it’s hard to understand how much you’re giving until you suddenly have a lull.
And you started growing up into just the most wonderful little person. You reminded me mostly of me, but also so very much you, too. Most of the time I really only saw our odd little multi-generational family in you; you had mom’s weird, Skeksis feet, my rebellious eyebrows, and from a startlingly young age you impossibly had your grandfather’s barrel-chested laugh. But the older you got, the more I could see your father in you, too. The way your eyes crinkled at the corner when you were serious. And it hurt me, and I know, there were times, I let my hurt hurt you, too.
Things changed when your father drug me back in front of a judge. He was married, now, and a model citizen. No one had ever managed to file any kind of charges that ever stuck to him. So now he wanted unsupervised visits with you. I was terrified, because you were just the age that he started grooming me. Worse, he could afford a crueler lawyer, one who got the judge to forbid me from telling you all of this, from telling you who he is. I remember the judge yelling at me, that if I did, he’d give your father joint custody.
Mom and dad wouldn’t leave me alone for days; they could see how much I was hanging from a thread. I couldn’t let what he did to me happen to you- but the judge hadn’t given me a choice, so I kept vacillating between killing myself or your father. Neither plan got very far along; mom and dad were good at distracting me enough to keep the ideation in the early stages long enough for me to realize I needed to stay, for you, that whatever happened, I wasn’t going to fail to protect you.
But it was also the beginning of the end, because I realized I wasn’t living for me any longer; your father finally managed to choke the life out of me, and the only thing keeping me on my feet was trying to minimize the harm he could do to you.
I’m sure you noticed it, too. I’d tried dating, a few times, when you were growing up. Not anymore, not after that. And I know I became that mother, the one always asking about your bathing suit area, always talking about enthusiastic consent. Always insisting on meeting your friends, and staring into their eyes in the vain hope I’d be able to see that thing in your father I’d missed. You called me a prude; you said just because no one was seeing me naked I didn’t want anyone to be able to see you. That hurt little girl inside me agreed with you, but adult me was too scared of everything to stop, or at least be better at drawing those lines.
Around then mom got sick; the cancer took her quick. Dad didn’t last two months; she was the only thing keeping him going, after his heart attack. They left me the house, and their life insurance meant maybe there’d be money for your college after all.
I told myself I could wait until you graduated high school; it wasn’t that long until you’d be 18 and move out. It was every other day you spent telling me about a plan to move in with this friend or that, to go to San Diego, or Houston, or some other thriving metropolis. Then one day you walked in, beaming, holding a letter. I didn’t even know you’d applied, but you’d decided to go to the community college, to get your transfer degree, stretch out the money longer. I was proud of you, and thought that I could last a few more years, to support you.
Visitation ended, but by then you had enough of a relationship with your father you kept seeing him regularly, anyway. Worse, you stopped talking to me about it. I found little gifts around the house from him, and had to wonder if they were signs of a doting father, or a man grooming his own daughter. There were nights that I slept in the tub with a razor blade pressed against my wrist; I needed to know I could escape if I had to, that staying to protect you was a choice, and one I could revoke.
You took longer to graduate, because you got a part time job to help out with the bills, and stretch out the money from mom and dad. I tried to tell you you were getting the house, that so long as you downsized, you could buy something smaller and have as much money as you needed for school. But you wouldn’t hear it- you insisted I’d bury you, and you’d never take my home from me.
Eventually you got your transfer degree. But you didn’t go to the state campus, you went to the satellite campus in town, so you could stay home, and save money on food and rent. I didn’t mind… and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t treasure having two more years with you.
I want to stress that the problem was never you. It was always your father. Having to see him every other weekend. Having to smell his goddamned cologne on you when you came home, and having to remember the smell coming from me. Having to wonder if he’d done any of what he did to me to you. And I think, more than anything else, that is what breaks my heart. I let him make me a worse mother. I couldn’t tell you to stay away from him; even when you turned eighteen and he couldn’t threaten me anymore, you couldn’t hear me, and I know that put distance between us.
And I’ve read your latest email for the fifth time. It’s everything a mother could want. You’ve found an apartment. You’re getting on well at your job. And you’ve met someone. I hate that I won’t get to see the person you become, but I am so weary from this lifelong vigilance. I hope my loss won’t hurt your stride; I’ve spent my entire life eager for you to run.
But before I go, I want you to know that you are not the worst thing your father’s ever done; no matter what that judge said, you were always mine, always the best part of my life. The role your father played in our life was a stolen one, taken from someone more deserving, someone who could have loved us as we deserved. But that never made you any less my daughter, or any less at all.
Don’t be sad. Some parts of our story have been tragedy, but I promise you, this ending is a happy one. I raised a woman I could be proud of, one I’m happy survives me.
I’ll always love you,
* * *
“So should we send this to the daughter?” my junior partner asks me. He’s still new, though not as new as the asinine questions he asks imply.
“What have I told you? You take the stupid out of your mouth every morning before you come to work or I’ll slap it out of you.” He stares blankly at me, and I know he’s going to need the simplified version. “We failed this poor woman in life; we are not going to compound it by failing her in death, too.”
“So what do we tell the family?”
“Society failed to protect her twenty-five years ago. And it’s been failing to protect her every day since. This one’s on all of us.” I can see it in his puppy dog eyes that his heart’s about to break, and I sigh to let some of the anger off as steam. “And we tell her that her mom fought like hell to hold on for her, fought depression through years of suffering to get her where she needed to be, make sure she could handle herself before she let go.”
“You want me to write it up?” he asks, and he’s bounced back enough like a puppy I feel a twinge for kicking him.
“And, uh, I’m sorry. I know this shit’s gendered, and sensitive, and I can be thick-”
“Christ, I don’t want you to apologize for your gender. I want you to do better than your peers. I want you to raise your boys to be better than their peers. I want you to be a part of the solution- including fixing reproductive rights into law- so twenty-five more years from now we aren’t standing over another woman we failed.”
“I, uh, hadn’t had the chance to tell you, we got some of the prenatal testing back. Apparently the sonographer was wrong. The twins are going to be girls- not a trace of y chromosome.”
On instinct, I grab him and pull him close. “Shit,” I tell him, feeling a little bit worse for the kicking now. “My condolences. You’re in the shit with the rest of us, now.”