Sometime in the first grade, Wonder Woman appeared on our television. I had never seen anyone like her; in my proper suburban Philadelphia neighborhood, women were mostly wives and moms who stayed home, wore appropriate clothing and deferred to their husbands. But there she was: Tall and strong, with piercing blue eyes and a gold eagle on her chest, bare legs in bright red boots and bracelets with the magical power to stop bullets. A lasso that forced the truth out of all the men she caught. And she never looked afraid.
After the first sighting, I watched every episode in rapt devotion. She was powerful and kind, and had a very important job. Even when she caught the bad guys, she didn’t kill them and she never laughed at them. I was entranced by the island of sisters she had come from: Where was it? None of my grown-ups knew. My little mind began to whir. She was so beautiful and strong, but she was also mortal, like me. One day Wonder Woman would be old too!
I hatched a plan: When I grew up, I would find her Amazon island, compete with her sisters, impress the Queen and earn the right to be the next superhero. I would wear her magic belt. I would save people from the bad guys.
I would never feel scared again.
I knew fear. Just as Wonder Woman began leaping off the screen and into my living room in a cascade of late afternoon sunlight, my private nightmare was beginning to fade. I still had screaming night terrors, a host of strange behaviors and unexpected weeping fits that would follow me for many years, but the truth was I was lucky, and I knew it. A friend of the family had nearly killed me several times in the course of three years of violent, terrifying sexual abuse. I knew what it was to be hunted, to feel terror, and to feel small and helpless in the face of sadistic cruelty. When kind grown-ups reassured my sisters and me that monsters weren’t real, in my heart I knew it was a lie. The world was full of horror.
There are many weird side effects to escaping childhood sexual abuse; one is that you lose the luxury of trying on different identities in your teenage years. You are forced to choose, very early in life, a particular path. In your child’s unconscious mind, the choices become narrow: You are either a predator, or its helpless prey. You can become the monster, which is terrible, but with it comes great power—and you are guaranteed to never feel helpless again. Or you can continue to be the prey: It allows you to look in the mirror with less self-loathing, avoiding adding a terrible shame—but you are also doomed to the life of a victim. Either way, the end is a terrible fate.
But on those late afternoons as the hazy sun streamed down past the television and the dust motes danced in the air, there was suddenly another option for my little heart, a ‘P’ that existed beyond predator or prey. With her shielding bracelets, invisible jet she flew herself and the golden lasso of truth, Wonder Woman was powerful and safe, but in a different way. As I watched her save women and men from terrible fates to a pulsing soundtrack of late 70s funk and booming women’s voices, I learned there was another choice: Protector.
Suddenly it was possible to be both powerful and good, to move through the world without fear—to find safety for yourself by offering it to others. I started a first grade playground gang that year, filled entirely with girls; as their leader they called me “Mommy” and it was my job to help us catch the boys before they could catch us. When we finally caught one and he was brought to me for punishment, I chose mercy and whispered to his captors to let him get away. I spent the rest of elementary school standing between bullies and their prey, taunting them to hit me, the smallest girl, first. My heart would pound and my cheeks would flush, but I refused to watch a kid who could not win stand all alone. The bully always walked away.
And when two more sexual predators orbited our family in the next few years, I saw the signs, affixed my golden headdress and managed to herd my sisters to safety, ensuring they would never know the monster I had faced.
This weekend Wonder Woman will be in theaters; I will stand in line for this telling of my favorite tale, but to be honest I don’t care if it’s a good film. My little girl heart will swell and cheer, and fill with hope as it did so long ago. She is, indeed, a wonder.