When I Was 12 and He Was 24

Since #MeToo went viral in 2017, legions of women have come forth to name the men who violated them. In certain highly publicized cases (overwhelmingly, when the accusers are white) they have succeeded in holding their assailants accountable. But the vast majority of victims are left to deal with their trauma on their own—and, in next to no time, a backlash has shifted attention to the supposed persecution of influential men.

The entitlement of the #NotMe brigade is anchored by pseudoscientific arguments about the irrepressible male libido and the attendant accommodation of coercion as part and parcel of “mating” and even romance. When a child is the object of sexual predation, the justifications invoked are all the more daunting; children will tend to unquestioningly accept the stories trusted adults tell them, even when they are diametrically opposed to their emotional and physical lived experiences.

Jennifer Fox’s 2018 autobiographical film, The Tale, brings home just how insidious this type of manipulation can be. The film centers on the middle-aged Fox (Laura Dern) confronting the long-suppressed trauma of statutory rape she endured as a 13-year-old. When her mother discovers a short story she wrote about her triangular “relationship” with her female riding instructor and male running coach, both in their forties, her curiosity is piqued and she begins to investigate.

The first jolt to the deceptive memory of Fox’s “romance” is a photograph of herself at 13, whereupon she realizes that she was a prepubescent child “with the body of a nine-year-old boy,” not a woman involved in consensual sex. Studying the journal she had kept, she learns of her deliberate choice to inhabit the role of romantic hero—casting her rape as a “beautiful story” while nonetheless relating her fear, anxiety and, indeed, the convulsive vomiting which was her body’s invariable reaction to sex.  

As I took in Fox’s story, I was struck by the peculiarity of my own beliefs about a similarly painful event. Like Fox, I had subscribed to a narrative of violence framed as seduction: the idea that as a 12-year-old, I was involved in a love affair with a 24-year-old man.

The tale of our “special connection” that superseded age difference was introduced by the man who preyed upon me, a man I will call H. The favorite teacher to whom I turned for guidance appeared titillated and further normalized H’s behavior on the grounds of cultural relativism. According to my teacher, there was nothing inherently wrong with his actions; whereas the initiation of female children into sexual activity by adult men was not condoned in our culture, it was an accepted custom in certain others.

Together, the fictions of age-defying love and cultural relativism informed my experience. Over the years, I did not interrogate these rationalizations; instead, I actively suppressed the disconnect at the core of my understanding of my life trajectory. By my twenties, I had adopted the politically correct language of statutory rape, but this intellectual conceptualization had nothing to do with embodied understanding.

I did not believe that I had suffered an assault. I thought I had been privy to my very own “Lolita” story.

When H became a prominent media figure appearing on the nightly news in the 1990s, the teacher with whom I had remained in touch frequently suggested that I contact him. “It was inappropriate when you were 12, and he was 24, but now it would be okay.” Dazed by his encouragement, I remained mute. A part of me was still so ensnared by childhood psychological manipulation that I was engaged by the idea of seeking him out. At the same time, I was rationally aware that my teacher’s encouragement was cruel—that he was impervious to the damage H had done and remained motivated by his own arousal.

Watching the 13-year-old Fox in bed with a middle-aged man in the midst of all this was a revelation. I felt in my bones for the first time how heinous our sexual encounters had been. Initiating my own investigation, I soon discovered that H was not only a widely-respected journalist but also an administrator in a prominent children’s advocacy organization. Men of his ilk generally prey upon dozens if not hundreds of minors in the course of a lifetime, and H was strategically located in proximity to youth.

I was determined not only to hold H accountable for hurting me, but to prevent him from inflicting further suffering and to embolden others to come forward. 

For three months, I spent every waking moment accumulating evidence—all the while overwhelmed by the intensity of reckoning both with my rape and fears of victim-blaming and humiliation. I juggled phone calls from five reporters at top-tier news agencies, including AP and PBS, all of whom requested minute details of the abuse.

While they researched, I attempted to track down former neighbors who might have seen H and I together, but most of them were dead. It came as no surprise that the majority of friends I contacted recalled only that I had mentioned having an older “boyfriend” at a very young age. Eventually, I found three unwavering corroborators who were all interviewed by the press: a childhood friend with whom I had spoken openly about my sexual relationship with H at the time it occurred and who had witnessed us kissing; an ex-boyfriend from my twenties with whom I had also discussed being assaulted; and the psychotherapist who treated me in the years immediately following the abuse. 

In addition to identifying deponents, I visited my storage unit in the remote chance that I might dig up evidence relevant to my denunciation. Riffling through a pile of boxes of my childhood things, I was astounded to discover a hand-written letter from H, along with his ring and shirt. I also found my 1977 journal, which recounted my sexual interactions with him over the course of two months.

Reading my journal shocked me. I was confronted with a child self I barely recognized. Despite my memory of H as my first love, it told a story that was diametrically opposed, detailing what one of the reporters called “the ravaged inner life of a terrified and confused child.” On page after page, I wished that he would “stop bothering me” and drew nooses alongside statements about wanting to die and the belief that I would not survive the summer. The reporters requested that I mail them the ring and shirt and fax them the letter and my entire journal. Subsequently, they contacted me dozens of times with follow-up questions about my childhood emotional state and my feelings for H.

Finally speaking openly about the abuse with friends and reporters wielded a degree of relief. My search for corroborators elicited requests that I unpack and relate the totality of what happened. In turn, many of my friends shared their own experiences of childhood sexual violence, unburdening themselves as we came to know one another on a deeper and more authentic level than ever before.

Still, I was struck by how they frequently peppered their narratives with exculpatory remarks: “it was the seventies, after all.” I myself had normalized H’s assault on the grounds that it occurred during an era of “free love” and boundary-defying sexual exploration. The single exception to these dialogues was a childhood friend who replied with a series of vitriolic emails accusing me of lying, being mentally unstable, setting out to ruin H’s life and harboring ulterior motives. I had braced myself for the contempt and shaming to which I would be subjected were my story to go public, but never imagined that the lone source of injury would be a beloved friend from a politically progressive family. Clearly, she was one of those women who adhered to the idea that men were the true victims of #MeToo. Perhaps her hostility resulted from her own experience of sexual abuse at an early age.

But despite the progress I made processing my rape, my attempt to hold H accountable was ultimately disempowering. After months of frenetic activity, the investigation came to a crashing halt due to the absence of multiple allegations and in light of H’s denial of the charges. If, over the course of time, additional women denounced him, the reporters said they would pick up where they left off. After all, it took 13 years, two trials and sixty accusers to convict Bill Cosby of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. Though the reporters emphasized that they did not disbelieve me, one woman’s story—even with corroborating testimonies, handwritten evidence and H’s ring and shirt—was insufficient to hold a rapist accountable.

The original power dynamic was reinforced. H’s account had real-time impact, informing not only my own interpretation of the abuse but the media’s subsequent refusal to expose him. Wounded predators like John Hockenberry and Gian Ghormeshi are given thousands of words in Harper’s Magazine and the New York Review of Books to lament the suffering induced by allegations of sexual misconduct, while their victims are left to deal with their trauma on their own.

It became clear to me that the only way to get my story out was to write it myself. 

Performative language is the enunciation of words that wield tangible effects, as in, “I hereby commute your prison sentence.” The declarations of authority figures like H and my teacher had repercussions that were equally palpable. Determined by the narratives of those who wield power—adults, men, white people and the rich—the scope of normalized sexual violence is overwhelming. In the shadow of this ubiquitous ethos of domination and exploitation, and notwithstanding the indictment of a smattering of high-profile individuals, the allegations of those violated will necessarily fall upon deaf ears.

Absent extraordinary leverage, denouncing a rapist is as fool-proof as yelling “stop.”  


Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond is Associate Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Luso-Brazilian Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She has published widely on the legacies of African enslavement and critical animal studies. Her current book project, “Home Sick,” explores grief, caregiving, dying, the medical-industrial complex and the commodification of (human and nonhuman) animals.