For our big New York City weekend in the late ’80s, my boyfriend Peter, a Washington D.C. stockbroker, took me to a fancy hotel on Central Park West and bought tickets for Cats. After the show, we met his friends for a late dinner at Elaine’s. Like Peter, these friends were 30-something Wall Street guys who tossed their ties over their shoulders before tucking in; the gesture, which I had never seen on the Virginia farms where I grew up, struck me as tribal.
Over dinner, someone’s wife turned to me and asked, “Emma, what do you do?” I answered as I always did, just like Woody Allen’s 17-year-old girlfriend Tracy in his movie Manhattan: “I go to high school.”
For a beat, everyone was quiet, and then the chatter resumed.
Elaine’s was Woody Allen’s clubhouse then, and that’s why we were there — it was a pilgrimage, of sorts, for Peter. On our first official date, in 1987, he had taken me to his local video store and rented the VHS of Manhattan. I was 16. Peter was 30.
But it had started way before that, when I was ten or 11 and Peter was in his mid-20s. A farm-and-family friend, he used to come to Loudoun County to prune peaches for the orchard next door. One summer, I had a tummy ache at a farm potluck and Peter rubbed my feet, explaining that these were “stomach points” in Chinese medicine.
I don’t know what happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow. But I do know how predators work.
I was around 12 when he got me on my parents’ plywood and peach-crate bed. “Do you ever get wet down there?” he asked. I looked confused, and he seemed annoyed, but soon enough he had his head between my legs, his awful stubble scratching my thighs. I might have leapt up, but my leg was broken in two places from tripping over a log, and my crutches were on the floor, six feet away. It was early spring, planting season. My mother might have been in the greenhouse, my father and big brother disking a faraway field.
In May 1985, when I was 14, Peter came by the Arlington Farmers’ Market, where I worked the family stand, to take me on a day trip. I don’t know how or why this was arranged, but I went willingly. My parents had raised us on raw milk, heirloom vegetables, hard work, books, and smart table conversation, and I loved it all, but I was tempted by things cosmopolitan and craved adventures off the farm. After the market, I changed into new Guess jeans.
At Smith’s of Georgetown, the bartender did not ID suave Peter’s teen date, so I washed down my hamburger with a strawberry daiquiri, which was like a smoothie: slushy and sweet. I was soon drunk. I was enjoying myself, too. Peter was intelligent, charming, and flattering. At his suggestion I called home, telling my brother I would stay the night at his aunt’s house, where he lived.
He raped me that night. There was searing pain and blood, but that proved bearable. What I found intolerable was my part in it—I had cheated on my boyfriend (a local boy my age I adored), misled my brother, maybe even (hateful thought) asked for it. In the attic of that big house in tony Northwest Washington, I had an out-of-body experience: From a vantage point in the corner of the ceiling, I watched his large pink sweaty back, me pinned beneath it.
We went to Elaine’s restaurant because it was Woody Allen’s clubhouse then; it was a pilgrimage, of sorts, for him.
On Sunday morning Peter went for a run, returned flushed and upbeat, and asked to do it again. I shook my head no. He drove me to the Takoma Park Farmers’ Market, where my family was selling strawberries and spinach. “You must not tell anyone, even with your body language,” he warned.
Physically, I healed. Otherwise, I ignored the whole sorry outing—or so I thought. I went to school, worked on the farm, saw my boyfriend again (and told him nothing); and, in time, had other boyfriends. Two years later, I was a scrawny junior stressed out by a load of AP classes who wanted to die.
On Halloween night in 1987, I sat at the kitchen table, all ennui, complaining to my mother. “Why don’t you call Peter?” she asked, unaware of anything inappropriate. Like an automaton, I dialed the phone. Soon I was driving our silver Ford van on Route 66 to Peter’s apartment near Woodley Park.
This time it didn’t hurt. I felt nothing. And from that moment, I considered myself married.
The Blind Spot
We went out on the town like an ordinary couple. But first, he took me shopping. At Nordstrom, a saleslady in “personal” shopping turned me from a Lula Mae Barnes country girl to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In cashmere pleated trousers and a skinny belt, a fuzzy sweater embroidered with beaded flowers, a silk scarf decorated with bridles and horseshoes, and a rabbit fur coat, I passed for mid-20s.
An aspiring anorexic, never skinny enough, I survived on juice during the week so I could eat in restaurants on weekends with Peter’s glad-handing, alpha-teasing crowd. We went to services at Washington National Cathedral, drank cocktails aboard boats, went skiing with the stockbrokers in Vermont, flew to St. Maarten for a week. My high school economics teacher invited Peter to give a lecture to my class. He wore a chalk pinstripe suit and made quite the impression.
Did anyone in my community have a second thought? What did my teachers think? Did local mothers give my parents a funny look? Did the Loudoun County sheriffs, who knew all us kids from field parties and speeding tickets, ponder the statutory rape laws in Old Dominion?
That night at Elaine’s, I did not know that back in 1976, a fan came to Woody Allen’s table for his autograph. She was Christina Engelhardt, a New Jersey model living with her parents. He was 41 and she was 16. After she turned 17, they had sex for years.
I also did not know, of course, that one day the famous director would take pornographic pictures of his girlfriend’s teen daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and have sex with her (according to Allen’s housekeeper) during her high school lunch breaks. I did not know that Allen would be accused of sexually molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, then a child of seven—accusations he denies, and which are revived in the HBO documentary Allen vs. Farrow.
What I did know that night at Elaine’s was this: I would marry Peter, like he wanted. It would make the unacceptable things we did acceptable. It would erase the stain of being selected, groomed, raped. When I was six years old, I had written on a scrap of paper: “I can, I do, I will.” I would do this terrible, sensible thing called marriage, all by myself. I would grow up. In the absence of grownups in my life, I would be the grownup.
In the 18 months I then spent with Peter, I was physically numb, a locust post from the neck down. I found it helpful to defy or deny any tender emotion. Today, I am more open to the feelings of the girl I was, and certain memories sting. As Lucinda Williams sings, “There are other things I remember as well / But to tell them would just be too hard.”
Peter considered Manhattan “our” movie. It’s a story that makes a predator look harmless, even glamorous. The self-deprecation and neurosis of Woody Allen’s character are presented as amusing and endearing, but he couldn’t be clearer about what sex with a 17-year-old means. He grins like an idiot when he says, “As long as the cops don’t burst in, I think we’re gonna break a couple of records.”
In the absence of grownups in my life, I would be the grownup.
After I turned 18, something shifted. No one had spoken up for me, but it dawned on me that I could speak for myself. When I told Peter it was over, he said, “We’ve grown all these nerves. You’re cutting them off with a meat cleaver.” I smiled into the phone. The metaphor was perfect. We did have ties, just as a tumor has its own blood supply. It was good to sever them.
My girlhood was torn and twisted, like bailer twine shredded on barbed wire. I couldn’t smooth it out again. But by ending seven years of secrets and lies, I sensed that freedom would follow. I unarranged my marriage and rearranged my life.
I don’t know what happened between Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow. But I do know how predators work, because I’ve seen one up close. I know that my mother’s regret runs deep about her blind spot, and my father’s, too. I know that witnesses are precious allies. I wish I’d had one.
For ten years after I left Peter I had the same nightmare: attacked by poles, sticks, shovels, and spears. For the next ten I had another: cornered by a creepy, sweaty man, unable to make a sound. But those nightmares receded. Since the day I left Peter, I speak up for myself. Recovery is not instant, but it is glorious.
*The author’s byline is a pseudonym to protect the privacy of her children.