I Survived Frozen Ground: On Reporting a Statutory Rape
Twenty Years Later
“I wonder if we’re all self-possessed marionettes, our strings on the inside.”
At a dinner party at my home on Roosevelt Island, a friend told a story about a film producer who needed a 1950s subway car. They’re gone, everyone said, dumped in the Hudson to build a reef around Manhattan. The producer went to a man who knew how to get things. He said, to save the trains a few renegade conductors stashed them in abandoned transit routes. The producer got in touch with one of the conductors, who told the producer where to look. The MTA said, there’s no tunnel there. But the producer went and found the train car he desired in the exact spot the conductor remembered leaving it decades ago. All these years he’d kept the underground map in his mind.
I hear on NPR: Our most reliable memories are the ones left untouched. Each time we remember an event we reconstruct it. The more you recall a memory, the farther and farther you get from what actually happened, like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox.
I am a painter writing a book about landscape and trauma. Last August, my sister hired me to take care of her pets and paint her bedroom the color of sea foam while she vacationed in Portugal with her husband and two kids. The day before she left we were lying by the pool at her country club. As a kid I spent my summers playing tennis on the club’s clay courts, doing cannonballs off the diving board, charging grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes to my membership number, celebrating birthdays in the dining room, where a mostly black staff waited on a WASPy clientele. Whenever I return now I’m amazed by how little has changed. My nephews are growing up in the same world I did.
My sister and I were talking about the latest campus rape story. Perfectly tanned in a string bikini, sipping a Southside—the club’s version of a mojito—she asked, “Have you thought anymore about reporting Jimi?”
Covered in sunblock, Mets cap pulled low, wearing a men’s white V and khaki cut-offs, I told her what I’d said last time she’d asked, “Too much time has passed.”
My sister disagreed and a minute later leaned over from her chaise and showed me an article on her iPhone. A former high school teacher had been arrested for sexual misconduct with his students, decades ago. He had been a respected figure in the community. He had a family. He gave to charities. He was probably going to jail.
I met Jimi in the woods on the way to a party in 1993. He was parked by the mailbox at the foot of the hill where a cab dropped my friends and me off at one in the morning. We thought we’d misread the address scribbled on the paper handed to us earlier by a kid with spiky green hair outside the movie theater. Jimi looked too old to be going to the same place. He was thirty. We were fourteen. He had a mop of black hair and a goatee. Jimi was big—a former body builder who’d fallen out of shape; like a collapsed star, he’d retained his mass.
The party was at the home of a girl whose mother worked as a night nurse and whose father lived elsewhere. Inside the house in the woods—punks, goths, freaks, and yo’s took bong hits, took Jell-O shots, took off each other’s clothes to the relentless beat of ’90s techno. I don’t remember if I hesitated—hearing in my mind the warning shouted at the female character about to be killed in ’80s horror movies—before I followed Jimi into an empty bedroom and laid down beside him.
He talked for hours about Magick and astral projection, held out his hands as if turning an invisible sphere, and I felt the energy between his palms. He put his headphones on my ears and a recorded voice spoke: Imagine your body ethereal, floating up to the ceiling, moving around the corners of the room.
As my friends and I gathered to leave predawn, Jimi took out a small knife, cut off a three-inch piece of my hair, which he kept, and gave me a tiny silver dragon with a crystal ball. I wore it on a string around my neck until I lost it later that summer playing frisbee in a field on Martha’s Vineyard. For an hour I combed the grass in search of the charm. The further I get from Jimi’s horizon the more I worry if he’s still preying on adolescent girls, maybe using Facebook to meet them. When I joined the social media site, its algorithm suggested him as a potential friend. Look: Your middle school best friend is Jimi’s friend, so is the girl whose mother worked as a night nurse. I quit Facebook after a month.
A few months after the party in the woods, Jimi appeared on the corner where my friends and I loitered, on Fridays and Saturdays, making a loop from the corner to the graveyard back to the mall or movie theater where our parents had dropped us off and security was always giving us a hard time for smoking cigarettes and looking delinquent. I remember Jimi had a carved stick he waved like a wand, pulling a cult of teenage misfits into his orbit. He lifted dark sunglasses to reveal wild staring eyes: In them, stories of PCP and coke binges, flipped cars, countless women, and men’s heads stomped against the curb.
During my senior year of high-school, one of my classmates blew his head off with his father’s Vietnam rifle. The boy had a lacrosse scholarship to college. He was popular. At his funeral in our Episcopal church, I remembered him, at thirteen, getting confirmed. As he approached the altar below the plain gold cross, so many of the boy’s family and friends stood around him, the bishop had joked, “What are you dealing?”
Back at his house after the funeral, my friends and I each handed a lily to his mother. She was a psychiatric nurse. Through her tears, she told us, no one was to blame for her son’s death. There was just so much pressure on his brain it imploded. I wonder if we’re all self-possessed marionettes, our strings on the inside. Each life woven from its own fiber, with a unique theoretical limit—the amount of stress the cords can handle before the life caves in on itself.
The first two years I was with him, Jimi had a girlfriend. She was sixteen, two years older than me, and had a red car and a twelve o’clock curfew. I grew up in a big stone house at the end of a half-mile drive lined with alternating pine and deciduous trees. We had a pool and a trampoline.
Late at night, I slipped out the mudroom door, walked down the drive, past the pond, over the hill, and crouched by the concrete block on the side of the road and watched for his headlights. Jimi drove a Crown Victoria—a boat of a car—I learned to spot from my perch as he came around the bend just past the bridge, by gauging the wider-than-average distance between twin beams of white in the black. The first time Jimi picked me up it was raining, I was tripping, and the drops formed neon patterns on his windshield.
He took me to his parents’ house. His room was at the end of the hall. Incense burning, a clumsily painted inverted pentagram on the wall above his bed, and a dank baritone calling out from the cassette player he kept by the window:
Mother, gonna take your daughter out tonight
Father, gonna show her the power
My clothes were soaked. Jimi took them off. Lying naked on his bed, his head between my legs—a new pleasure tingled in every cell of my body, and the colors I was seeing magnified. That night Jimi taught me how to lick my palm, slip my hand up and down his shaft while I circled its tip with my tongue. Some nights, he’d have on a black robe, was waving a sword over his head, and after he came I spit the come back in his mouth. He thought this made him stronger.
A few days after my sister crossed the Atlantic, I finished painting her bedroom sea foam. Taking care of her golden retriever, bunnies, fish, and hermit crabs took an hour or so in the morning and at night. During the day I sat at the marble kitchen counter writing my book. Soon, my thoughts wandered back to our conversation by the pool and I googled statutory rape . In Maryland it’s a third-degree sexual offense for a person over twenty-one to have sex with a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old. A felony. A conviction can mean years in prison. There is no statute of limitations.
At my nephew’s swim meet, earlier in the summer, I talked with a woman who didn’t quite fit in with the swarm of blond moms in bold floral prints, holding towels and plastic cups of chilled Chardonnay. She was from New York—the Bronx, I think—and her edgy humor and rapid cadence set me at ease in the country-club setting in which I was reared but now seemed surreal. The woman had mentioned she worked in the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office. I pulled out my sister’s mini green binder emblazoned with the club’s fox head logo, looked up the prosecutor’s number, and called. She answered.
Embarrassed, I apologized for laying this on her. “I’m thinking about reporting a statutory rape from twenty years ago, when I was fourteen and he was thirty.”
The prosecutor said, “I’m sorry that happened to you. Are you okay?”
I tried to assure her, “I’m fine now. I worked it all out in therapy.”
The prosecutor asked a lot of questions. I gave her details about where and when Jimi entered me. I was fifteen when we started having intercourse. Jimi said he wanted to wait because the penalty would be less severe if he got caught. I told the prosecutor, “God, he was such an asshole.”
Winter: Scrunched in a ball in the frozen grass at the end of a cul-de-sac, I sob. Jimi’s racing tires screech as he shouts from the window of the brand-new black Mustang his father bought him—“Jen! If you’re pregnant have an abortion. I don’t want anything from your selfish rotten womb!”
Fall: Behind the Royal Farms store by the reservoir, beneath a canopy of burnt sienna leaves, Jimi pins me down on a picnic table, “Cunt! I’m going to make you hurt for what you’ve done to me.” Jimi’s in his second year of law school on Long Island. He drives home twice a month to see me, and has it in his mind that I’ve been cheating on him.
Summer: We take a drawing class together at the art college near the Inner Harbor. I compliment a male student’s pictures. That night, Jimi throws my sketch pad filled with gesture and contour-line drawings of the nude model, my feet, a conch shell, and a tonal study of a cow skull into the pine trees behind his apartment that his father pays the rent on. Then Jimi lights the charcoal portrait he drew of me on fire.
The prosecutor wanted to know what I knew about Jimi’s life now. “Ten or so years ago I’d heard he married a woman with a teenaged daughter. Recently, I saw pictures of him with his small kids online. He’s a criminal lawyer. A partner in his father’s firm in Towson, near the mall.” I told her Jimi’s first, middle, and last name. I hadn’t said it in years, and felt a chill move through my body with each syllable . She wrote it down.
I asked, “If there’s a chance speaking up now will prevent another girl from going through what I did, with him, isn’t it my responsibility to say something?” Then quickly added, “But I’m afraid if I press charges, my character will be attacked.”
The prosecutor said, “That doesn’t happen anymore. There are laws to protect victims of sex crimes.” She promised to do some research and get back to me right away.
Five days later, I left her a voice mail. “Please call me back.” I waited two more days and tried again. Her silence made me wonder if she’d talked to somebody who knew Jimi or knew his father. Baltimore is a small town.
I asked another lawyer for advice. We’re in the same Twelve-Step program. I went to her home group whenever I was in town. She always looked put together—blow-dried hair, nice makeup, stylish shoes. After the Serenity Prayer, amidst the clanging of folding chairs, and the smell of burnt coffee, I told her what happened twenty years ago and what I was thinking about doing now.
“He wooed you?” she asked. Not waiting for my response, “It was consensual?”
I flushed, ashamed of the fourteen-year-old who’d thought she was in love and of the seventeen-year-old girl who’d wanted to run away but was too scared to leave her tormentor. (Finally, at eighteen, I stopped returning Jimi’s calls.)
“Oh,” the lawyer continued, connecting data in her mind, “I guess legally you were too young to give consent.”
“That’s right,” I said, feeling her questions put a dent in hours of therapy learning to accept it wasn’t my fault. Someone should’ve protected you, my therapist’s words echoed in in my mind.
The lawyer said, “ My gut is telling me no. You don’t want to go through a case.” I was starting to think my dilemma was some kind of litmus test where each woman’s response indicated how she’d dealt with her own trauma.
“But what if he’s harming other girls?” I asked. “Or if some other woman has pressed charges and my testimony could help her?”
The lawyer told me about a website that lets you look up whether someone has a criminal record or any pending charges. Then she said, “I’m a divorce lawyer. My husband practices criminal law. If it’s okay with you, I’ll ask him what he thinks and get back to you.” I said sure and gave her my number. At my sister’s house I went to the website and typed in Jimi’s full name. A bunch of traffic violations and a closed criminal case from July 1998 popped up on my screen. The last time I saw Jimi was in March of that year. Maybe a different girl’s parents caught him in bed with their under-aged daughter? Maybe he put a man in the hospital?
The night before my parents sent me to rehab the first time, Jimi had a pool party. We fucked in the water. Then he told me, “I’m in love with three girls, one is a devil, one is an angel, and one is a ball of blue light.” Later that night, my friend and I drove Jimi and another man home with the ball of blue light. She had big lips, shot dope, and lived in her grandmother’s basement. During the four years I was Jimi’s captive, he had sex with lots of teenaged girls. Now I recall a haunting childhood cartoon in which a crimson bull chases all of the unicorns into the sea.
At sixteen, Jimmy changed the spelling of his name. He was in his basement doing bong hits. His father smelled the smoke, busted in, started yelling something like, You’re fuckin’ worthless! I worked hard for you to have opportunities! Your grandparents came here from Greece with nothing! In his rage Jimmy’s dad grabbed a pool cue off the table and hit his son over and over and over. Between blows, Jimmy looked up from the floor, saw the Purple Haze poster taped to the drop ceiling, and thought, Yeah, that’s who I am. From then on he spelled his name like Hendrix.
I was standing in the Trader Joe’s parking lot when I got the call from the divorce lawyer. Her husband thought: If I report the statutory rape the police would make me give the names of everyone who’d known about Jimi’s and my relationship and the names of the other girls I knew Jimi had had sex with—my past would be scrutinized. So would my friends’. Her husband suggested if I really wanted to know whether Jimi, now in his fifties, was still fooling around with adolescent girls, I should hire a private investigator to follow him. Before hanging up, the divorce lawyer said, “I guess you have a lot to think about.”
I thanked her even though I felt offended. The message she’d delivered seemed way too one-sided, like it was intended to scare me from taking action. Plus, it contradicted what the prosecutor, who still hadn’t returned my call, had said about protection for victims of sex crimes. I wasn’t sure who to believe. But I certainly wasn’t going to use my own limited funds to have Jimi tailed.
The following day I met a high school friend for lunch at a strip mall cafe. After stage fright ended her jazz singing career, she worked in bars in Boston, before opening a successful oyster house in Baltimore. I asked my friend if she remembered Jimi. “Yeah,” she said, “I remember thinking this dude’s bad news.”
“I’m thinking of reporting him for statutory rape.”
“You should do it,” she said without missing a beat.
We were splitting two crepes, one sweet, one savory. She took a bite of the strawberry filled and added, “Every woman I know has been the recipient of a violent act by a man.”
At a Twelve-Step meeting in New York, a man talked about being beaten as a small boy by his father. “Tied to the bedpost I watched the soul wither and fade. Leave the body, the frame.”
Jimi never hit me. He grabbed, pulled, restrained, head-locked, punched a hole in the wood door beside my head. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old—curled fetal on the bathroom tiles, sobbing, while a two-hundred-fifty-pound Greek man with a black belt in Kenpo and a history of violence yells, “You fuckin’ cunt, bitch, whore!” In these moments, I think it would be better if he did. Then he’d see the bruises.
In my latest revenge fantasy, I spray paint “Rapist” in red across the white exterior of Jimi’s law office in Towson. I remember around the time I started trying to pull away from Jimi, the police found a missing fifteen-year-old boy skateboarding outside the apartment he shared with the pizza delivery man who’d kidnapped the boy at gunpoint when he was eleven. The talking heads wanted to know: If he’d had the freedom to play outside, why hadn’t the teenager run away?
Seventeen. On a youth group ski trip, I held the lodge payphone to my ear, listening to Jimi scream, “I’m going to make you pay for flirting with those Christian boys.” I’d been trying to break up with him for months, but inevitably a week or two would pass, and I’d show up wasted at his apartment’s sliding glass door having just left some preppy jock party. In the ski lodge, I cried and I prayed, “God, give me the strength to never call him again.” Jimi yelled through the receiver, “If you ever break up with me, I will come to your house and blow my head off on the front lawn.”
Many times in high school, I thought about walking into my parents’ room, opening the top drawer of my father’s antique dresser, pushing aside his gray socks, picking up his World War II pistol, and pressing its muzzle against the roof of my mouth.
In my sister’s kitchen, I googled rape crisis services, wrote down the number for RAINN then drove to a nearby farm, where I tossed an orange lacrosse ball for the dog, and dialed the number on the Post-it. I think, I’m not the kind of person who calls a rape hotline. A voice answered. Nervous, I stuttered, “I’m thinking of reporting a rape that happened twenty years ago. I’m digging this up now because . . . because . . . isn’t it my responsibility to say something?”
She said, “Honey, you survived. That’s all you have to do.”
Instantly, I felt a part of me that had hardened years ago crack open, and to my surprise I started to cry, like the assault had happened yesterday. “But aren’t you supposed to talk people into reporting rape?”
“No. We’re here to help you heal. It’s whatever settles right with you. If you decide you want to report it, I can give you a number for a legal aid organization.”
It hit me that I’d been searching for a one-size-fits-all answer, thinking if I just had all the facts about what to expect from a trial, or if an authority told me I had an ethical obligation to report the rape, then I’d know what to do. But the RAINN woman directed me inward. I picked up the orange ball at my feet and threw it again. The golden retriever raced through the tall grass. The sun rose. I decided: I want to do this for me. She gave me the number.
An anxious white woman, in her early twenties, or so I imagined, maybe an intern, answered. We scheduled a call for later in the day when I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted or overheard. That afternoon walking around the empty playing fields at the all-girls school beside my sister’s house, my cell phone rang. The intern. I started to tell her what happened twenty years ago. Before I got far, she asked, “Do you have any reason to be scared for your safety if you report him?”
“I don’t know. He never hit me directly. He was an extremely violent man. It was a long time ago. I don’t live here anymore. I live with my boyfriend, in a doorman building, on Roosevelt Island, in New York City—”
The intern interjected: “Don’t walk alone at night . . . Let your partner, the doormen, and your neighbors know if they see this man to call the police . . . Have an overnight bag packed. If he gets into your apartment stay out of the kitchen where the knives are… Don’t hide in small spaces like the closet.” I wondered how women still in the same geographic and social spheres as their assailants have the courage to report them.
We continued with the interview. The intern wrote it all down: the Black Magic rituals. The other girls. The other men—his friends. The verbal and psychological abuse. What lines were crossed when. She said one of the lawyers would review my information, and let me know next week if they’d take my case.
My sister returned from her two-week vacation. I told her about the prosecutor from the club, who still hadn’t called me back, and the divorce lawyer whose husband recommended I hire a private investigator. Leaning out her minivan window, my small nephews buckled in back, my sister shout-whispered, “That’s bullshit. He fucked you up. He should go to jail.” In her expression and her pitch I sensed the anger I’d turned inward in my teens when I’d marked my body with razors and lit cigarettes. I promised my sister I’d let her know as soon as I heard back from the legal aid organization.
In our apartment on Roosevelt Island, I told my boyfriend I’d decided to pursue pressing charges against Jimi. He knew I’d been thinking about it. His initial response had been, “I don’t think you want to put yourself through that.” But when he saw that I’d made up mind, he said, “I love you and I’ll do whatever I can to support you.”
The next day, sitting on the couch alone, looking out the window, I answered the legal aid lawyer’s call. She’d reviewed my case and researched the law—which had changed. In 1993, in the state of Maryland, it was only a misdemeanor for an adult to have sex with a fourteen-year-old. The statute of limitations expired one year after I turned eighteen. Her terse professionalism softened as she said, “I’m sorry. You don’t have a case.”
Before my friend told the story about the sunken train car, my boyfriend and I and our dinner guests walked down to the FDR Four Freedoms Park. Two converging rows of trees lead to an open-air room formed by sparkling granite blocks. The architect Louis Kahn left just enough space between the rock segments that if you look close you see vertical strips of Manhattan and Queens to the west and the east. Facing south down the river, you feel as though you’re at the bow of a ship sailing out to meet the ocean. A stone’s throw from this vantage point, a cropping of rocks juts out of the water. Every time I take in the view, I’m reminded of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer .
In the Romantic painting, a solitary silhouette, perched above a crashing surf, gazes out at distant mountains covered in heavy sea fog. The figure dominates the foreground. And it’s unclear whether the artist meant to imply the Wanderer’s control over the terrain or his insignificance within nature’s systems.
At dusk, the dinner party left the park and headed back to our apartment to eat pasta with mussels and clams. On the walk, my friend stopped to take pictures of the crumbling smallpox hospital preserved by the island’s historical society. I told her, “At night spotlights shine on the ruin, and you can see raccoons through the holes in the stone walls.”
She told me, “At night, outside my bedroom in Brooklyn, raccoons rattle the fire escape trying to get in.”