Illustration by Nick Lu
When I was a teenager, nothing frightened me more than being ordinary. I shouldn’t have been so worried, since I was already crazier than most of my friends — bright but narcissistic, sexually precocious, and emotionally high-strung. I was too loosely supervised by my well-intentioned but distracted parents, who gave me too much freedom after I came out unusually early, at age 11; I think they confused being overly permissive with allowing me to be myself, or maybe they just didn’t know how to control me. I had emotionally fraught relationships with boys who were still in the closet, smoked a lot of clove cigarettes, and wrote maudlin poetry with titles like “Your Bulimic Girlfriend” and “Semi-Meaningless Physical Manifestation of Loneliness” and, during a brief and ill-fated period of experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, “I Am Writing This on Acid.”
Like a lot of millennials who grew up in the first chapter of the Internet era, I spent a lot of time — certainly too much time — online, in chat rooms and on sites like LiveJournal, where I documented my life in exhaustive detail. I was already practicing for the memoir I wanted to write someday; I loved pulpy personal narratives, stories of trauma and dysfunction, and I was captivated by the idea of writing about my own experience. But I was certain that the quotidian drama of being a high school student in crunchy Portland, Ore., wasn’t compelling enough, and I craved the source material for stories that would make my story debauched enough to document.
The relationship I had when I was 14 with an older man named Jim certainly qualifies. For a while I said that I was “predated upon,” because that felt softer than the word “rape.” Mostly, I think that’s because saying that I was raped divorces me from a sense of my adolescent precocity that I am frightened to relinquish, and I would rather be someone who was inexplicably damaged than identify as a dumb kid who thought he was smart and got in over his head. In the writing I did during that period, I told the story of myself as a self-conscious boy Lolita who seduced an older man as a conquest. Those entries are maddeningly self-aggrandizing, full of references to brand names that I thought would make me sound adult and sophisticated and big words that I thought would make me sound smart; they’re also sometimes heartbreakingly self-aware.
I first corresponded with Jim the summer I was 13, in a chat room where I whittled away hours talking to gay strangers, looking for attention. My profile probably said that I was 18; I probably told him that I was really 15. He was a graduate student at a local university, 24 or 25, and although our conversations were flirtatious, they also felt fraternal. I had the sense that he wanted to mentor me or something, which frustrated me because I thought he was handsome — his pictures showed a man with sparkly eyes and stubble — and I grew obsessed with the fantasy of being with him sexually, how very “adult” the experience would feel.
I met him at a coffee shop in downtown Portland, and we sat on a bench and talked while I drank a chai latte. He was shorter than I expected, and more handsome, with a penetrating stare that made my palms sweat. Nothing sexual happened, but we talked about my experience coming out, how my parents were supportive but gave me too much independence as I was sorting through my sexual identity, how I felt isolated and lonely.
“I was wearing my red-and-white striped rugby polo that made me look like a candy cane,” I wrote in my diary. “The first thing I noticed about him was the 5 o’clock shadow creeping up his face.”
We met again, perhaps a month later, and went to a sex shop together. It was probably my suggestion. He should have known better.
“We made a quick trip to Spartacus and examined porn before I got carded,” I wrote. “It was pleasant, and amusing, and less jarring than the last time.”
The thrill of sneaking into this very grown-up space with this attractive older man was exhilarating, drug-like, and I remember going home with that warm secret humming in my chest, of this new friend that I had made who was guiding me into adulthood.
If I flirted with him — and I feel certain that I did — he didn’t seem interested in me that way as we continued talking through the spring. But by the summer something had changed, although I didn’t understand it at the time. I wrote about the encounter in a post dated from July. My writing is laboriously linear — I think because I was savoring the experience of recounting it, imagining that the people who read my work would be riveted and maybe a little horrified.
“He is pale but not pasty,” I wrote, “and there is a dark V-neck tan at the top of his chest. He grins at me, his shorts are up. I sit down on the futon and put on music. He sits next to me.”
It’s stomach-turning to think about the music that I would have thought was appropriate to play — probably something a little bit twee, like Belle and Sebastian, or maybe Rilo Kiley. When no one was around, I listened to Dashboard Confessional, but I would never advertise that.
“There’s Jim,” I wrote, “naked, resplendent in pseudo-intellectual grad-school glory, standing expectantly in front of me… He walks up to me, so close that I can see every pore on his face, the 5 o’clock shadow and the Cheshire Cat eyes, and I am suddenly shocked by his audacity, his nudity, his very existence here in the kitchen of my home when he should be, I dunno, writing a thesis or doing whatever 25-year-olds are supposed to do. He grabs my hand and pulls me into him and I can feel his weight.”
I continued in this entry, writing in surprisingly explicit detail about the sex itself, which is squirm-inducing to read now, since it’s a performance of affected toughness. (“I have to admit, the man is ridiculously sexy. The muscles are tense in his abdomen.”) But the final thing I wrote, which I’m sure I thought was very funny and subversive at the time, now just makes me sad.
“Jim opens the door to the shower and joins me,” I wrote. “He is not welcome, but I have some sense of etiquette, so he stays… He shakes up a bottle of shaving cream and starts to lather. I wonder where it came from; I don’t have to shave yet.”
If I was looking for approval from my anonymous online fans, I found it. “Is this fiction — er, friction?” one commenter asked. I didn’t respond; I didn’t want Jim to get in trouble.
The following year, my parents separated, and my father took a job in New York; I went with him and finished out my adolescence in the city, at a Manhattan prep school that was a better fit for an image-obsessed, self-involved kid with delusions of grandeur like me. Partly I left, though, to escape the wreckage of what had happened with Jim, which I thought about constantly.
Looking back on my diary now, I can see how I was trying to change how I felt at the time, empowering me to tell the story in a way that allowed me to wrest back the control I realized I’d lost after he raped me. Even if I’d pursued him, I wasn’t of the age to consent, and I must have known then that there was something wrong with him, something dark and predatory that, naïvely, I found exciting rather than repugnant. But it wasn’t until I reached Jim’s age that I realized just how transgressive it was; now, the idea of being with a 14-year-old myself, even an unusually precocious one, is sickening. And even as I return to it, my teenage diary doesn’t grant me any real insight, because I was never a trustworthy narrator. The record that I left behind only tells me how I wanted the world to see me, and nothing about who I actually was.
That’s frustrating to find when looking for answers about how complicit I should feel. In a post-Steubenville rape culture, lines regarding consent feel blurrier than ever, even if it’s a subject that’s primarily associated with the abuse of women by men. If I identify as a rape survivor, does that require that my experience be framed through a lens of assault, violence, and fear? What if I was quite literally asking for it? Would it be different if I had been a 14-year-old girl? Do I still have the right to feel traumatized, or to have the experience shape my future romantic and sexual encounters, largely for the worse? In rape, the victim is never at fault — but what about me?
Back in Portland not long ago, I returned to the scene of the crime: Our family home, long since sold to parents with kids who I hoped, sincerely, were happier and healthier than I had been. I parked my car at the mouth of the cul-de-sac and walked down the long driveway, then up the trail that led through a sparsely forested woods and into Washington Park, where there was a light rail station. That was where I’d arranged to meet Jim, I remembered, and we had walked up to my parents’ house together.
Standing at the apex of the trail, details crystallized in my memory that I hadn’t bothered to include in my diary, ones that were more interesting, and more human, than anything I’d chosen to document as a 14-year-old. I remembered how I’d borrowed one of my father’s button-down shirts to wear, something expensive and impractical, even though I was just walking 10 minutes through the woods. I remembered how sallow Jim looked when I met him at the station, and thinner than he’d been months before, and when I said something about that he said that he had been taking pills, but he didn’t tell me what kind.
I remembered how in the elevator he had said something, very casually, about how his father had killed himself a few weeks earlier, and how uncomfortable that admission made me. I remembered that, walking up the trail to my parents’ house, we had passed a girl I knew from school who was jogging with her mother, and I’d stopped to say “hi” to them but didn’t know how to explain who Jim was, so he’d hung back a few paces, and they’d looked at both of us funny. I remembered that, instinctively, I’d saluted a tree marked “Sargent Cherry” as I walked past it, as I always did, and when I explained the joke to him he didn’t think it was funny, and I felt small and infantilized.
And I remembered that I had walked him back to the train station after he had raped me, or I’d seduced him, whichever it was, and after he was gone, I’d sat on a bench along that trail in the summer sunshine and cried for a while before I went home to write about it.