By David Holthouse
For a dozen years, I’ve waited for someone to ask me this question: was I really going to kill him? Was I really going to shoot down in cold blood the man who raped me when I was seven years old? I know the answer, but no one has ever asked. This is my story. It isn’t easy to tell.
In the fall of 1978, when I was a little boy, growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, the teenage son of family friends raped me in a basement during a dinner party. In my bad dreams, I still hear the sound of his unsheathing the samurai sword he terrorised me with. I feel my face being crushed into the black plastic of his waterbed mattress by the pillow he clamped over my head to muffle the cries of pain.
Right after he was finished, the rapist threatened to gut me with a fishing knife if I ever told anyone. I kept the rape a secret for the next 25 years. First I did so from shock and denial, then fear that he’d carry out his threat. As years passed, I kept it secret out of shame, because I didn’t want my family to know, and because I didn’t want to be stigmatised or pitied.
My parents continued to socialise with the mother and father of the rapist almost every weekend throughout my childhood. I saw him at least 100 times after the night of the rape. For years he made obscene gestures at me when no one was looking, and tried to get me alone. He stopped when I reached adolescence. I saw him less and less often, then not at all.
At no time did I repress the memory of the rape. For most of my life, it’s been a part of me, and the space it occupies is rarely friendly. But as I entered adulthood in the 1990s, I felt I had that space under control, after years of practice in walling it off and keeping it under constant guard. The bogeyman roamed that space, rattling his chains from time to time, but for the most part he did not intrude upon my daily life. I seldom thought of him and only from a safe distance throughout university in California and the early years of my career in journalism. All together he was quiet for more than a decade.
Then in 2003, while employed as a reporter in Denver, Colorado, I discovered that the man who’d raped me when I was seven lived in a nearby suburb.
With that news, the bogeyman got loose in my head. The nightmares began, along with flashbacks of the rape. You know that adrenaline spike you feel when you almost fall but catch yourself? My body and mind felt like that all the time.
My thought processes became irrational yet precise. I calculated. The close proximity of the rapist felt to me like a mortal threat. So I decided to neutralise the threat. I decided to kill him.
I’ve read that people who are suicidal experience a sense of calm once they begin the actual planning of the act. It was the same for me with murder. I felt much better once I was taking action to protect myself in a way I’d been unable to when I was a child. That’s how I thought of it anyway. Off and on for months I followed the bogeyman, clocking his routines, learning his ways. I bought a 9mm semi-automatic pistol with a fitted silencer. I set a date.
Whenever I doubted my course of action I justified it to myself by imagining his other victims, past, present and future, because very few rapists of children have just one. And I told myself that he deserved it for what he had done to me. That it was my right.
God or fate intervened. My parents found a childhood diary I’d kept in which I recounted the rape and named the rapist. My mother called his parents in a rage. After a quarter of a century, my secret was out.
Two realisations were immediate. The first was that getting away with the murder I’d plotted for most of a year was no longer a good bet. The second was that I wanted to write my story instead, to place my faith in the pen over the sword. I sent my rapist a letter demanding a meeting. To my surprise he agreed. We met on a crowded street in downtown Denver. In my backpack were a hidden recording device and a loaded pistol. I left the silencer at home. Both of us were so nervous we trembled. He apologised with every other breath, and swore that he’d never hurt another child before or since hurting me. The recording device captured his words. The pistol stayed in the pack. Our long overdue conversation became the ending of the essay I’d already started to write.
That essay, Stalking the Bogeyman, was first published in Westword, the Denver alternative weekly where I was a staff writer, in May 2004. Later the same month it was republished by the largest daily and weekly newspapers in Alaska, my home turf.
I began having “it happened to me, too” conversations. There have been hundreds since. Friends and strangers disclose to me their own childhood sexual trauma suffered at the hands of coaches, priests, teachers, team-mates, fathers, brothers, men, always men. I summon empathy. I bear witness. I answer questions. Often they ask, have I found closure? Often I lie and say yes.
When Stalking the Bogeyman was first published, I expected to enjoy a lightning bolt of catharsis. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? You tell your dark secret and feel better, like taking a pill? Not so much, it turns out. The process, for me, is far more gradual. I’ve lost faith in closure. But I still believe in the pen and the power of story. On that I have never wavered.
Six years ago, which was also six years after I first told my story in public, I agreed to read Stalking the Bogeyman for millions of listeners of the radio programmeThis American Life. One of them was the artistic director of a New York City theatre company, which led to the story becoming a play. It premiered in North Carolina in 2014. The following year it had a critically acclaimed run Off-Broadway. A touring production just finished in Alaska. Its London premiere is on 13 July.
I agreed to put my story on stage because doing so challenges the silence, the sickening silence, that has been the norm for so long around childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault. It’s a pervasive evil whose perpetrators thrive in silence. They feed upon innocence, shame and fear, but they rely upon silence to keep doing what they do, and not just the silence of their individual victims, but also the silence of collective denial, the uneasiness of even discussing the topic.
In the United States there has been a slow-motion catastrophe of children being sexually assaulted at epidemic levels. This has emerged from the shadows at last after a spate of high- profile scandals forced acknowledgement and the rise of social media gave survivors a megaphone. It seems to me from afar that a similar raising of awareness is under way in the United Kingdom.
I am gratified that my story is being used in both nations to help provoke difficult but necessary dialogues about childhood sexual assault and its psychological aftermath, which cascades through decades in different ways for every survivor.
For me it meant plotting a murder. I used to think my impulse to kill the man who’d raped me was strange, or at least uncommon, in the same way that when I was a child, I thought my being raped was a freak occurrence. I no longer believe either is true. There are more than 5,000 unsolved murders in the United States every year.
Handguns are ubiquitous in my country, along with the myth of the vigilante folk hero, settling righteous scores beneath a cloud of gun smoke. It’s not much of a stretch for me to imagine that what I was planning, others have done. Homicide investigators look for motive, and many survivors of childhood sexual assault never tell a soul.
During the first three years after Stalking the Bogeyman was published in Colorado and Alaska I received five emails from different, encrypted addresses in which the writers claimed to have tracked down and killed the rapist who’d violated him or her long ago, when he or she was a child. One email included a photo of a gravesite puddled with fresh urine.
The emails were sent in such a way that I could not reply. That was fine with me. But I was not displeased to receive them. I was heartened. I was glad. I was grateful. I liked thinking of these killers out there, justified and free. I liked thinking of them getting away with it.
At the time, a decade ago, a strong part of me still regretted not carrying out the murder. People kept telling me how lucky I was that my parents found that diary, how I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, how the guilt would have been too much to bear. Maybe. I’ll never know. But I’m certain that raping a child is no less a crime than murdering a child rapist. Because I still feel the mattress and hear the sword.
I wonder a lot of late whether I’ve hurt or helped myself in the long run by putting the worst experience of my life on public display. I’m confident I’ve done right by the greater good, but I’m starting to fear the personal cost of ripping the scab off, over and over again. I plan to disengage from advocacy work and future productions of Stalking the Bogeyman after London this summer. I intend for this piece to be the last I ever write on the subject of childhood sexual assault, or my story in particular.
Two versions of myself are frozen in amber in Stalking the Bogeyman. One is a traumatised little boy. The other is a rootless young man, steeping himself in malice. I have a lifetime of practice with emotional detachment where the boy is concerned. Long ago I made him a place, much like I did the bogeyman, except I made it with gauze instead of barbed wire, more comfortable, but separate all the same. The little boy occupies the stage only at the beginning of the play. Most times I’m in the audience, I have no trouble with him.
The young man is different. The bulk of my story is told from his point of view. A 31-year-old version of me, drunk on vengeance, defined and guided by his darkest experiences. There is no barbed wire or gauze between me and him. He rattles me, because he feels too close. I remember too well what it felt like to plot the murder of the man who raped me when I was seven.
It was cold and black. It was calm like space is calm. Was I really going to kill him? Yes, I was. I like to believe it’s better I didn’t.
This essay was originally published by TheGuardian.com on July 10, 2016