Manitoba·Point of View

At 14, I created a dance about the emerging butterfly I was — then a boy raped me

When Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about being sexually assaulted as a teen by Brett Kavanaugh (now a Supreme Court judge), I could not watch because I, too, am a survivor of sexual assault. This is my story.

Perhaps by sharing our #MeToo secrets, we can help girls and boys with theirs, and prevent more ruined lives

Carrie Smallwood hopes by sharing her story, she will help others who are suffering similar trauma. (Photo: Carrie Smallwood, Graphic treatment: Brooke Schreiber/CBC)

When Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about being sexually assaulted as a teen by Brett Kavanaugh (now a Supreme Court judge), I could not watch because I, too, am a survivor of sexual assault.

There are so many of us who share her experience. I wondered, "How can I amplify her voice?" If I share my own story, would that help other survivors come forward to share their stories, so they can start to connect with other survivors and begin the process of healing?

I decided to identify myself as a sexual assault survivor in a post on Facebook. The feedback I received was tremendously empowering, for me and for the people with whom I connected.

Hopefully by sharing our secrets about sexual assaults, those who continue to suffer in silence will feel they can share their stories with a counsellor or someone they trust: by telling our stories, we can each begin the healing process.

As a very young woman, I would have greatly benefited from hearing a story like mine so that I could begin a journey toward healing.

In the spring of 1979, when I was 14, I was selected to perform in the year-end dance recital at my junior high school.

I conceived and choreographed an eccentric, modern dance: I was a pupa, enwrapped in a bed sheet, struggling to emerge from a chrysalis state into a butterfly. After the metamorphosis, I fluttered without inhibition around the gym floor, as if enacting my own transformation from a shy and restrained girl into a carefree and confident young woman, ready to embrace the best that being a youth in that era had to offer.

At 14, Carrie Smallwood was a carefree and confident young woman bursting out of her shell. (Al Smallwood)

Fast-forward to the summer of 1979, when my friends and I attended a summer dance for teens at a community club in another area of the city.

I wore my thrift-store 1960s neon green and pink mini-dress with vintage purple pumps and green fishnet stockings. I was buzzing with the electric energy of adolescence and looking forward to dancing.

Shortly after we arrived, a boy/man from another area of the city asked me to dance. He smelled of alcohol and I could tell he was stoned because his eyes were red.

I had never before been asked by a boy to dance, so reluctantly (since he was inebriated, and I was timid around males, most likely because I grew up with an absent father), I agreed to dance.

I could barely look at the boy because of my shyness, but I danced the way I usually danced — with delirious abandon.

Because we had not even spoken to one another, never mind looked at one another, and because he was clearly wasted, I was completely nonplussed when the boy/man asked me to dance again — this time, to a slow dance.

Romantic pablum

He pulled me closer and closer to him, and started to grind against and grope me, forcing my mouth open with his tongue to sloppily kiss me on the dance floor.

I was frightened and confused by his inappropriately intimate necking during the dance and was immensely relieved when the song finished. I swiftly returned to my friends, who were surprised at what they had witnessed on the dance floor and assumed they were observing a budding romance.

To their exclamations of excited astonishment, I expressed my dismay at the boy/man's drunk and stoned groping: I didn't even know this guy, and he was doing salacious things to me. I told my friends that perhaps I should try to get to know him — I didn't even know his name! — by going for a walk with him, or something.

Unknown to me — their minds filled with the romantic pablum of Disney movies we were spoon-fed every Sunday evening at 6 — they went to talk to the boy/man, and told him I wanted to go for a walk with him.

This was not at all what I wanted, but when he appeared in front of me and asked me to go for a walk, I was overcome with the same starry-eyed notions as my friends, and I said yes.

'Charming stroll'

We walked into the warm summer night, without talking. This was not at all the romantic stroll that I had in mind.

He was obviously familiar with the neighborhood, whereas I wasn't, and he led me to some bleachers where we sat down.

"Oh, now we will chat," I thought, but he immediately started to maul me.

When other people approached the area near the bleachers, he pulled me away and led me down a dark back lane.

I was so young and naïve; I still believed I was on a charming stroll with my first boyfriend. 

Our "charming stroll" led us to a dark backyard. He said it was his friend's house. I didn't understand why we were there.

He forced me back and finally, he had me, pinned like a dead butterfly

And then it all happened very quickly: he pushed me down onto the ground. Despite my protests of "No!" and my numerous attempts to get up off the ground, he forced me back and finally, he had me, pinned like a dead butterfly.

He pulled down my panties, ripped my stockings, splayed my legs and raped me, as I quietly wept.

When the kitchen light went on in the house behind us, he zipped up his pants and fled to the back lane while I frantically pulled up my panties and the ripped remnants of my stockings, and followed him down the lane.

When I finally caught up with him, still weeping, I managed to utter, "I was a virgin," to which he nonchalantly replied, "Oh. I didn't know that."

I returned to the waiting van that had driven the group of us to the dance and climbed in, in a state of shock. Afterward, when I was home, I stared, bewildered, at the blood in my panties, mixed with blades of grass and grass stains, and at my mangled fishnet stockings.

I had no word(s) for what happened to me. Out of shame, I did not tell an adult who could have helped me, and my friends were similarly bereft of the concept of rape and consent: we were not taught such things by our parents, nor by the minimal sex education classes in junior high.

I was silent

I felt I could not tell my mother because she was, at that time, dealing with her childhood trauma of incest and of being raped a few years before my own rape, and she was recovering from an addiction as a consequence of her post-traumatic stress disorder. I did not want her to relapse, so I was silent. Only one friend could articulate what happened to me, but I didn't understand what she meant by "date rape" — I hadn't been on a date and even the word rape baffled me.

The boy/man tracked me down and asked me out on two subsequent occasions, during which all he wanted was to maul me. He was my boyfriend now, my young, traumatized mind thought, so how could he have raped me? 

When he stopped contacting me, I was devastated and full of shame.

In the months that followed my rape, I experienced the classic symptoms of rape trauma syndrome (RTS, which is related to PTSD).

In my case, many boy/men suddenly became aware of my existence, and I could not say "no" to their subtle and not-so-subtle advances. I became sexually reckless because I felt like I was nothing; I had orifices to be used for the pleasure of boy/men, and many boy/men capitalized on my vulnerability.

I imagined that everyone thought I was a slut

Along with my then-best friend, I turned to alcohol for a few months to numb the pain. When my best friend and I ceased to be friends, I withdrew completely into my own private hell.

I was now 15 and walked down the high school hallways with my head down, because I imagined that everyone thought I was a slut. 

Rape irrevocably changed my relationships with men. I suffer from PTSD, clinical depression, panic disorder, and more.

For years afterward, I lived in fear of seeing my rapist. On one or two occasions, when I thought I saw him, I recall feeling a sense of terror.

And then one night in 1988, I saw him. Or rather, he saw me.

I was with my sister and her friend, dancing at a local bar. The band Junior Gone Wild was playing, and my sister's friend was showing me how to two-step. We were the only two people on the dance floor and we were having a fabulous time — until the song ended.

Carrie Smallwood hopes sharing her story will help other survivors of sexual assault begin their healing. (D. Kay)

It was dark in the bar, and when I came off the dance floor, a man approached me and said, "Carrie: can I talk to you please?"

It was him—my rapist. This was the moment I had dreaded for years, but I did not turn and flee; I did not lash out at him. Instead, I looked at him and saw an anguished human being, so I agreed to talk with him.

We went to a less crowded area of the bar, and he proceeded to sincerely apologize for raping me. When he was 15, he knew what he did was very wrong, and he had quickly realized it was rape.

Badly damaged

He told me that the atrocity of what he had done to me had affected every single relationship he had with women and that he could not stop reliving that night.

At that moment, l realized we were both badly damaged human beings because of that night in 1979. In front of me was a grieving, repentant young man, asking for my forgiveness. I had a choice: to give it or withhold it. 

I examined him and knew there was a righteous thing that I could do.

I forgave him, but I told him that I would never forget what happened to me -- the rape had altered the course of my life and the person I could have been.

He listened carefully and genuinely thanked me for forgiving him. He then disappeared into the night.

I thought I had given him back his life, so that he could move forward, and so could I. Alas, that was not to be.

Truly the survivor

Years later, as I was scanning the obituaries in the local newspaper, I saw an in memoriam for him, and many more years later, I learned he had committed suicide.

He had gone to university, gotten married, had a child. But obviously, he had lived in torment similar to mine since that night in 1979, despite my forgiveness. Who knows what other agonies afflicted him.

And so I truly am the survivor, but I write that with profound sadness and without twisted, vengeful glee. Somewhere out there, a wife mourns and a child grew up without her father.

Boys will not be boys by sexually assaulting girls and women

We — as a society — need to teach our children well: teach them about consent; teach them the importance of telling if they are abused or assaulted; teach them how to be righteous human beings; cease raising children to inhabit traditional and patriarchal sex and gender roles that merely perpetuate a culture of violence wherein sexual assault is normalized.

No! — boys will not be boys by sexually assaulting girls and women. 

I hope my story will help some of you out there realize how important it is to tell your story so that you may begin to heal. Secrets are insidious; secrets can be lethal.

We are not victims; we are resilient survivors.

This Point of View is part of the CBC Manitoba Opinion Section.