Growing Up With Rape

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about rape. And I can’t remember how I learned. I just know it was there, always there. Being raped altered and shaped my mother’s identity, and I always knew that.

When I was nine or ten, maybe 11, and I wanted to know the details about my mother’s rape, all I had to do was look it up. My mother had been telling her story for 20 years.

I learned the details about my mother’s rape by reading the first chapter of Real Rape, a book she wrote about rape law in America. A book that began with a chapter called “My Story.” And as I read about the trauma, the aftermath, the way the Boston police treated her, and how the doctors at the hospital responded, I also realized that it wasn’t just me who knew these details. People all over the place could—and did, in fact—also know the painful details of my mother’s rape. It was unnerving.

My mom was 21. Just a few months older than I am today. She was a senior at Wellesley. It was two days before her college graduation. He was a stranger with an ice pick. She was parking her car in the alley behind her apartment in Boston. I used to think it happened at night, but that must be a detail supplied by my imagination. I know this because a quick online search tells me that my mother was raped in the afternoon, not the evening. A Thursday afternoon. My mom was raped on a Thursday afternoon in May by a man wielding an ice pick. The police never found him.

For a while, I wasn’t sure if this was a story that I was allowed to tell. The first time I told friends that my mom had been raped, they admonished me. “That’s private,” they said. I knew the story wasn’t private. But maybe I wasn’t allowed to tell it. It was my mother’s story.


It wasn’t until recently that I understood that even though I wasn’t there in the alley that Thursday afternoon, this was my story, too.

My mother’s rape and her subsequent decision to devote much of her professional life to studying, teaching, and fighting to change rape law shaped my childhood. I grew up with my mother’s fight and also her fears of rape echoing in a constant loop inside my head. And in this way, my her story became a part of my story.

My mother’s mother told my mother she shouldn’t tell anyone that she had been raped. That if she did, nobody would want her. She had been soiled. My mom refused to hide. To hide would be to suggest that this was something to be embarrassed about—something that was somehow her fault. Hiding would preclude her from being able to really fight back.

Two weeks ago, I directed a production of “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant and a Prayer,” a collection of monologues compiled by Eve Ensler about rape and violence against women. This production would not and could not have happened 30 years ago at Harvard. Close to 30 years ago, my mother was a young professor at Harvard Law School. She was teaching Criminal Law and had planned to devote one day to discussing rape law. On that day, she told her class about her rape experience. If the subject was armed robbery and had she been robbed by a man with an ice pick, she wouldn’t have thought twice about mentioning it. Nobody would bat an eye. But this was rape. And rape, my mother was told, should not be discussed in public.

Even though she was scared of the repercussions, she told her story. The campus exploded with discussion. The Crimson wrote about it. She received much more criticism than support. One day she received a phone call from someone who said, “I’m one of your students, and before the end of the semester, I’m going to rape you, too.” The police tapped her phone line and asked her to call on students who she thought might particularly hate her in class, to see if any of their voices sounded familiar. The investigation was inconclusive.

Two weeks ago, 36 years after my mother’s rape and nearly 30 years after my mother was threatened when she spoke out at Harvard, I stood on stage in the Adams Pool Theater, sharing this story and opening a production about true stories of rape and violence.

My mother told her story even though she was afraid. She still is. But thanks to her bravery and her fight, I am not afraid. I am conscious of the dangers. I am cautious when I walk around alone at night and would never accept a drink from a stranger. I have taken multiple full-impact self-defense courses. I have known about rape for as long as I can remember.

But thanks to my mother’s bravery, I am not afraid.

Isabel E. Kaplan ’12 is an English concentrator living in Currier House. A version of this article was cross-published in The Huffington Post.


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