The Story of My Rape as a Young Man
"When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better never to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me."
Czechoslovakia, 1960. Photo by Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
I read Raymond M. Douglas's gutsy, remarkable memoir On Being Raped in practically one sitting. Employing a frank yet eloquent writing style, the slim book traces a path from the author's rape as an 18-year-old in 1980s Europe to the ways our society stigmatizes victims into silence, shame, and helplessness while, at the same time, allowing perpetrators to go unpunished for many years, if ever at all. As Douglas himself notes, "Statistically, it's virtually certain that everyone who reads it already knows a man who has been raped; they're just not aware of it." Although the subject of male rape is finally entering larger awareness, thanks in part to films like Spotlight, the amount of literature remains lacking. On Being Raped throws a light on the subject with clarity and thoughtfulness. It is, in short, urgent, necessary reading. VICE is proud to present the opening chapter below.
—James Yeh, culture editor
The Story of My Rape as a Young Man
It's not evil that's banal, it's evildoers. Great crimes have a grandeur to them, a dramatic sweep that compels our attention. Even petty offenses can be interesting, like the wave of kidnappings of lawn ornaments for ransom in the northeastern United States a few years ago. But the perpetrators of even the most atrocious deeds seem to have nothing in common beyond their personal insignificance. Adolf Hitler was an awkward nonentity, his stock of knowledge drawn from the early 20th-century Viennese equivalent of the Reader's Digest, with herbicidal bad breath and an over-large nose to divert attention from which he grew a still more ridiculous mustache. Joseph Stalin was a failed priest. Bonnie and Clyde were, respectively, a part-time waitress and an unsuccessful turkey thief. Hermann Goering played with trains. Hence the frustration of biographers who peel away layer after layer of the psyches of history's greatest criminals only to discover, in Gertrude Stein's words, that there is no there there.
The man who raped me conforms all too faithfully to this pattern. I knew little about him before the attack, and have not seen any reason to find out much more since then. Undistinguished in his career, unexceptional in appearance and demeanor, there was nothing about him that would make him stand out in a crowd. It was my bad luck to learn that he was also cunning, violent, and someone who obtained gratification from causing others to suffer. But even those traits are not particularly unusual in today's world. Not the least embarrassing aspect of this entire episode is that my life should have been so deeply affected in so many ways by so entirely mundane an individual.
Through the intervention of some inexplicable chronological constant, rape is always now.
As for the rape itself, it too, as best as I can judge, was mundane. To be sure, that's largely guesswork on my part. There is only one rape that I can claim to know about with any degree of authority, and that is my own. And yet even as I write about it, I can see the words fade and lose definition before my eyes. How many billions of times have such things happened in human history? How many tens of thousands of descriptions? Everything lapses into a terrible sameness, a story that isn't worth telling because it is so infuriatingly familiar. What makes my rape different? "Well, it happened to me" hardly seems like a compelling justification for banging on about it. No bore like a rape bore.
But there's the difficulty. My rape, in all important respects like everybody else's, fits every pattern but my own. Since it happened, I've been trying to find a slot for it in my biography, with clearly marked boundaries like all the other highlights (birth, school years, first job, rape, university, grad school...). But it refuses to stay there. Even today, it's continuing to rewrite the computer code of my life, like one of those pieces of Web malware that covers the screen with pop-up windows faster than I can close them down. I've experienced other crimes, as most people have: burglary, property theft, minor assaults. There one can speak of a "before" and "after." The baddie was identified and prosecuted, or not; the goods were recovered or the insurance policy paid off; the drunken creep who started swinging wildly in all directions was thrown out by the bouncer. Only in this instance are things different. Through the intervention of some inexplicable chronological constant, rape is always now.
I suspect that this is true for others also, though since being raped, I've become much more cautious about telling anybody else what his or her experience is like. The really difficult thing is to say why I have found it so. There have been many events in my life that I, at any rate, found momentous: some good, some gruesome. Why can't this single night, out of all of them, be relegated to the place it belongs—an unpleasant experience from my past, but one that was survived and surmounted?
The answer, I think, is that rape—my rape, anyway; probably most other people's also—doesn't allow for that kind of separation between the event and the self. Rape is knowledge, but not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better never to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me.
I was 18 years of age. My second job out of school was as the lone security guard on the night shift at a teacher-training college: six days on, Fridays off. I patrolled the seven-acre campus with a flashlight and a dog that did its damnedest to bite me every time I put the leash on until I finally insisted that the canine lunatic be taken away. The hours were long and the pay abysmal, but I liked the work and the responsibility.
One rainy February evening on my off night, a priest of my acquaintance telephoned my home and left a message with my mother asking me to come down to the parochial house, where he was having a gathering. I knew him to talk to, though this was the first such invitation I'd received, and I hadn't laid eyes on him in months. He'd been a kind of unofficial chaplain at my school, much involved in conducting spiritual retreats, and a lot of the older students used to go across the street and hang out in his upstairs living room during my last year there. His music collection was locally famous, and would have been sufficient to meet the needs of a small radio station. He was in his early 40s, mordant, cynical, and quick-witted. We all thought he drank a bit too much. He made clear that we were welcome to share the stock of his impressive home bar to our hearts' content, though surprisingly few of us used to take him up on the offer.
The party, when I arrived a little after nine, was something of a downer. Another priest and half a dozen or so of my erstwhile school friends were already there, three of them sitting by the fireside in the living room with grimly polite expressions on their faces. I found the remainder skulking in the adjacent kitchen, where they evidently intended to remain as long as they decently could. Our clerical host's mood, we knew, tended to ebb and flow with his alcohol consumption. When I arrived, he was visibly hammered, standing at the fireside and waving a tumbler of neat whiskey around while delivering his favorite harangue of a conventionally anti-Vatican variety. We'd heard it all before, many times. As the evening dragged on, his gestures became wilder, his eyes glassier, and his rate of intake more rapid. One of my more astute friends, recognizing the danger signs, volunteered to mix the drinks. By midnight, the priest seemed not to realize, or to care, that the glasses we were handing him contained little more than amber-tinged water.
Rape is knowledge, but not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better never to know.
Around two in the morning, the other cleric having long since fled and with no end in sight, most of us ducked into the kitchen for a quick council of war. We agreed that our man was in no condition to be left on his own; apart from anything else, his car stood outside the house, as it always did in readiness for a late call-out to some dying parishioner's bedside, and none of us knew where he kept the keys. Clearly he had no intention of winding down operations as long as the party was under way. Straws were drawn, and it fell to me to stay with him after the others departed; ensure that he did not go on any midnight drives by himself; and pour him into bed whenever the impact of the booze he had already consumed finally knocked him over. More than an hour later, the fire having gone out and a chill having descended on the room, the priest finally agreed to my diplomatic suggestions that it was time for us both to grab 40 winks. His bedroom lay directly off the living room, via a pair of sliding wooden doors. He rummaged around the wardrobe, pulling out a couple of blankets and a pillow and coming back to toss them on the sofa for me while I raked out the last embers from the grate. I was a little surprised when he crossed over and locked from the inside the door of the apartment leading to the hallway. "Oh, I always do that," he said, "we've had several break-ins over the years." I didn't think much of it at the time.
Manual dexterity problems delayed the process of retiring for the night. After watching my host sitting on the side of his bed, fumbling ineffectually at his laces for several minutes, I knelt at his feet, removed his shoes, and helped him laboriously undress and struggle into his pajamas and his bed. This done, I turned to leave. "No, wait a minute," he called in alarm. "I can't get to sleep on my own in the dark. Stay with me until I drop off. I've had a skinful. It won't take long. Please?"
Anything for a quiet life. I drew up a chair. "No, don't be ridiculous," he said crossly. "You can lie down on the bed. There's any amount of room. I'll be out like a light in ten minutes. Just kick your shoes off. I don't want you messing up my quilt." Without waiting for a reply, he reached across and flicked out the bedside light.
At this point, you're doubtless drawing the conclusion that if I fell for that one, I deserved anything I got. And now we have the first invariable component of the rape script: the list of charges. Prisoner at the bar, how could you have been so stupid? What did you think he was going to do? Don't you realize that you were asking for it? Do you really expect the members of the jury to believe that you didn't know what was coming next?
In fact, I didn't. The thought never so much as crossed my mind. He was a priest. I was a parishioner, and a former pupil. I was also a virgin, although that was hardly relevant because the notion that anything sexual might occur in my current surroundings was as remote to me as the idea of an asteroid's materializing that night to demolish the Earth.
The long curtains were very effective. Not a chink of light reached the bedroom from the dim illuminations outside the window. In the pitch-blackness, I groped my way to the edge of the bed and stretched out gingerly on the left-hand side. He was right; there was plenty of room. Lying on my back, I listened for the sound of his breathing, hoping that it would soon become slow and regular enough to allow me to crawl away quietly to the sofa that awaited me. It had been a very long day, and I too badly wanted my sleep. If I wasn't careful, it would be all too easy to doze off where I was.
Perhaps ten minutes passed. Then a hand emerged from the darkness and attached itself to my waistband. The other followed, working at my belt buckle. Startled, I began to sit up. The first hand disengaged, placed itself on my breastbone and pressed me firmly down again. A voice spoke in low but emphatic tones from what seemed to be a range of inches into my right ear—an authoritative voice, brooking no argument.
"I want you to suck me."
Ours was an unsophisticated culture at the time. Americanisms like "blowjob" had not yet entered the vernacular. For a comical second or two—had anybody had a pair of infrared goggles, my expression must have been priceless—I tried to fathom what this cryptic request might mean. Renewed vigorous jerks at my trousers, though, caused the penny to drop fairly quickly. Again the voice, this time louder and more menacing. "Suck me."
Not good. Time to be elsewhere. I rolled toward the edge of the bed, a sensible idea that occurred to me a second too late. The weight of a body landed squarely on top of me, not gently. For the first time, I had reason to notice that the priest was much heavier than I was and seemed a good deal more powerful into the bargain. I lunged upward. A heavy forearm came down like a bar across my throat, pinning me to the surface of the bed by my neck. It hurt like blazes, and I would have produced a yell of pain and surprise if it had not also cut off my breathing. With his other hand, the priest reached across and turned on the bedside light. Now he leaned back, releasing my neck and straddling my hips, with his knees near my shoulders, staring down at me as if awaiting my next move.
There is a conviction that all males over the age of 12, or nearly all, share: When the chips are truly down, if you are fighting for your life, you will find within you the strength to prevail over anyone who isn't fighting for his.
I don't believe that either of us said anything for several moments after that. I know I didn't. The situation seemed quite clear, with further discussion unnecessary. What was less obvious was what I should do next. Ludicrously, resorting to a tactic that seemed more appropriate to the school playground than the situation in which I found myself, I tried to heave him off me. When you are lying on your back with someone sitting on top of you, the only movement of which you are capable is a series of rapid upward pelvic thrusts, a grotesque parody of the motions of sexual intercourse. The irony was lost upon me at the time. Anyway it didn't work. My captor held his position with ease while I thrashed and flailed beneath him, waiting for me to stop. He didn't seem nearly as alcoholically impaired as he had been 20 minutes previously. My arms were still free, so I fought. It wasn't any kind of conscious decision, no weighing of tactics or options. Had I had time to consider my position, I might have concluded that in this situation, compliance was the better part of valor. But the impulse to ball my fists and start doing some real damage seemed to me as natural as breathing. Nor was I expecting to fail.
There is a conviction that all males over the age of 12, or nearly all, share: When the chips are truly down, if you are fighting for your life, you will find within you the strength to prevail over anyone who isn't fighting for his. I don't think that this is the result of the influence of Hollywood films, or at any rate not of those alone. It's the nearest thing I know of to a core constituent of maleness, our psychic ace in the hole. It allows us to go through dangerous parts of town without worrying, or even thinking, too much about it. It makes us believe that if we have to fight in wars we may perhaps die, but we certainly won't be the first ones to be killed. The reason films like Die Hard resonate among men may in fact be that they appeal to this sense already preprogrammed within us, that those reserves are there to be called upon when we need them, and that they will not then fail us.
So I lashed out, as violently as I could, with every ounce of adrenaline-fueled desperation that I possessed. I was trying to hurt, putting all the strength I could muster into my blows from my less-than-favorable prone position, looking for vulnerable spots, throwing elbows as well as fists. I would probably have sunk my teeth into him if I had been able to reach him that way. I had never behaved in a more primitive manner in my life, leaving nothing I could think of untried, grunting with effort like a Wimbledon tennis player with each punch, scrabbling for sensitive places where I might gouge, squeeze, or twist.
It wasn't nearly enough, not by the longest shot. And I can truthfully say that the making of that discovery produced greater consternation in me than anything that had occurred in my life to that point. I had connected with a few punches, to be sure, but the priest absorbed them with relative ease and deflected the rest. Now he responded. The first riposte (fist? elbow? implement? I still have no idea) came out of nowhere, catching me on the right side of the skull, above the ear, with unimaginable force, jerking my head to the edge of the bed and causing me to bite my tongue, it seemed, almost in two. A second was not necessary. My peripheral vision disappeared, so that I could see only a narrow field filled almost entirely by his face directly above me. A wave of nausea, accompanied by electric shocks of pain that were synchronized with my pulse, monopolized my consciousness. To my shame, that single devastating blow was all it took to subdue me. I could not absorb another. The fight drained out of me like a discharged electrical battery, and I lay completely still. This, it seemed, was what the priest had been waiting for. He raised himself up from across my thighs; slammed a sharp knee into the pit of my stomach, driving what little breath I still had out of me; wriggled out of his pajama bottoms; and started.
An excerpt from On Being Raped by Raymond M. Douglas, arranged by permission from Beacon Press.
Raymond M. Douglas is the Russell B. Colgate Distinguished University Professor of History at Colgate University. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.