cartoon cow writing at a desk

The Incident in the Tent (2.27.19)

We moved into our new house on Parma Road before my brother Doug began school in the 1st grade in September 1968. Doug was 6 years old and I had just turned 5 years old that August. Kindergarten wasn’t available in Henrico County public schools back then. Our best friends in our new neighborhood were Bobby and John who were one year younger than me. John had an older sister named Sarah who was two years older than me. Sarah and I didn’t play together a lot, because she was best friends with a girl who lived across the street from her named Vay. Vay and Sarah were the same age. They seemed untouchable and unreachable as potential friends. They didn’t want anything to do with me.

I remember playing with Sarah 2 times when we first lived in the house. Maybe there were other opportunities, however that is all that I can remember. At first, I thought this incident happened when I was 5 or 6 years old, however after much reflection, it probably happened when I was 7 years old. I was 7 years old and began Brownies in 2nd grade. My mom used to drive me, “the Brownie,” and Sarah and her older sister Tara Lee, “the Girl Scouts,” to a church for our respective Brownie and Girl Scout meetings.

One time when it was warm outside [probably summer] and all the leaves were out on the trees, Sarah and I were with our brothers, Doug and John, and our friend Bobby playing at the woods. The woods were down the street from my house. Our home was 3 houses away from these woods, but as a young child the woods felt much, much further away. This large, rectangular patch of woods was next to a heavily trafficked street called Parham Road. We lived on a street parallel to Parham Road called Parma Road, so the woods were nestled in between these two streets.

Sarah and I were creating a home in a large, deep ditch made out of dirt right next to Parma Road in our quiet little neighborhood while 4 lanes of traffic raged up and down Parham Road on the other side of the woods. Doug, Bobby, and John were running in and all around the woods while Sarah and I played in the ditch. I remember feeling happy and joyful playing with Sarah and making this little home together. We were sweeping the dirt with bunches of loblolly pine needles which made perfect little brooms. I had a friend, I was outside playing, and I was in 7th heaven.

There were three teenage boys in a tent in the middle of the woods. Doug, Bobby, and John somehow interacted with these teenagers and the teenagers kept asking our brothers to bring Sarah and me to their tent. I remember feeling pestered and annoyed at our brothers nagging us to go to this tent. I was happy playing house and didn’t want to go. I think that Sarah felt the same way. Even though she was 2 years older than me, Sarah was an attractive petite girl with blonde hair and cat-eye shaped glasses. She looked very prim and proper. Since Sarah was older than me, I followed her lead. After much badgering from our brothers, we finally, reluctantly, gave in to some baited promise and went to see these boys in the tent escorted by our brothers. We stepped into the tent and immediately 2 tall teenage boys zipped the doorway closed and acted like guards trapping us inside the tent. Our brothers were shocked. We were shocked. We had all been tricked. The 2 guards had their arms crossed in front of their bodies and disturbing grins on their faces. They felt very threatening to me and they looked very proud of themselves. The 3rd teenage boy was inside a sleeping bag acting very strange.

Apparently, the teenager in the sleeping bag was naked. I remember seeing his bare arms, shoulders, and part of his naked chest. He was acting so weird, it was frightening. I remember a rope or something being wrapped around the outside of the the sleeping bag so that it looked like he was bound in the sleeping bag and couldn’t move very well. We were reassured by “the guards” that we were safe or something bizarre like that. None of this behavior made any sense to me. I didn’t know what to do, so I watched Sarah, and followed her lead. The teenager in the sleeping bag wanted to do something to us. It seemed like he wanted us to touch something or he wanted to put something on us. I’m pretty sure he pulled his penis out to put it on our hands or wrists. Every time they asked a question, I remember Sarah acting scared with her shoulders drawn forward, her head and eyes cast downward, her hands together in her lap, saying, “No.” I copied Sarah and responded in a similar way. This back and forth exchange lasted for what felt like an eternity. Who knows how long we were in there.

Meanwhile, my brother was outside the tent trying to help us. He, Bobby, and John were challenging the guys in the tent to no avail. Eventually, I remember hearing Doug calling from a distance, “I’m going to get my daaa-ddy.” The guy inside the sleeping bag freaked out and told the other two guys to get us out. He was squirming and scrambling as fast as he could to get out of the sleeping bag. In the hustle and bustle, Sarah and I were shoved outside. By the time we got back to our ditch, I remember seeing my Dad hauling ass running down the street to the woods chasing down and catching one of the guys. Dad lost one of his slippers in the chase. Later, I remember my dad talking to one teenage boy at our driveway. The conversation felt serious and heavy. My parents never talked to me about any of this incident. They didn’t explain anything about it to me. All I knew was this experience felt awful and the teenage boy got in trouble by my father. In the end, although I didn’t understand what happened, why it happened, or anything else, I felt scared by the incident and protected by my brother and my father.

Fast forward to June 2018. I sent my parents and my brother a heavy, detailed email concerning a lot of the problems I was still addressing at age 54 from being sexually abused by my father from the ages of 8-20. A while later, I spoke to my parents over the phone following up on the email. I typically talk to both of my parents at the same time. The primary detail I remember from the phone conversation was my dad saying, “This all started because of the incident with the boys in the tent [in his mind, he was trying to educate me about “boys”]……and then you were very curious about sex and you were very interested in my Playboy and Penthouse magazines. You used to bring them to me so that I could explain them to you…” I felt totally stunned and said, “Whhaaatt?!?! No, Dad, that’s not what happened.” Forty-seven years later, my dad was blaming ME for the sexual abuse. My heart sank and I realized that my dad was in MAJOR denial or an alternate reality.

The incident in the woods happened when I was 7 years old and Dad began abusing me during Christmas at age 8 when I was in the 3rd grade. At some point in our lives my great aunt donated or dumped her husband’s collection of Playboy and Penthouse magazines into our household. These magazines were stored and stacked in the bottom of my parent’s closet on my Dad’s side. I used to sneak Playboy and Penthouse magazines out of the closet to try to understand what they were about and what my dad was doing to me. Dad must have caught me with one of the magazines at some point. I primarily remember looking at the photographs of the naked women and reading the cartoons. Yes, I remember asking my dad what one of the cartoons meant one time. Ultimately, these magazines reinforced the concept that women, females, and girls are sex objects and that females exist primarily to please men sexually. On an exponential level, at a very young age, I felt even more trapped, more doomed, and more confused.

What may have started in my dad’s mind as an altruistic teachable moment was no such thing. You don’t educate your 8 year old daughter about boys and sex by pulling her into your bed on a weekend morning, breathing weird, feeling her private parts, telling her, “This is another way that people love each other,” and threatening her to not tell her mother about this bizarre, secretive, ugly, uncomfortable activity.