Wellesley, Massachusetts was my pastoral playground. Across the road from my house lay the mystical campus of Wellesley College, where Lake Waban was encircled with lonely wooded trails and dotted with wide meadows for running. The campus was also home to the duck pond where my friends and I skated every winter on the bumpy, rutted ice.
My family lived on Cottage Street, which intersected with Washington Street. At the corner of Cottage and Washington lay a thick woods. In those woods, I liked to climb pine trees and play adventure games with my neighborhood friends, or hike by myself listening to the blue jays and the wind in the trees, hoping to spot a deer.
Our house, a dreary three-story Victorian, previously had been inhabited by Miss Pomeroy, an ancient spinster who had died in the very bedroom my parents assigned to me, at the far end of the dark upstairs hall. Although my two older brothers’ assigned bedrooms were on the third floor, up a narrow staircase with a sharp turn at the landing, I knew I wasn’t safe from them, that the distance was just an illusion.
In daylight my room was a haven. Safe behind the closed door, I could read, write letters to my pen pals, and commune with the tall lilac bush just outside the second-floor window by my bed. But in the dark of night, my room was a chamber of panic.
It is no exaggeration that in all my conscious memories of childhood, I never fell asleep without terror. I knew I wasn’t safe from people in my family or from the evil presence lurking in our house that would one night snuff me out. I would lie in bed, my mind and body throbbing with spiraling panic, seemingly for hours—then the next thing I knew, I’d be opening my eyes to another morning.
That fall I was in third grade with Miss Mower, whom I liked but who scared me a little. I didn’t know anyone else like her. No one in my family, certainly, resembled Miss Mower, with her loud laugh, bright pink lipstick, frosted and teased hair, and her white Karmann Ghia.
1967 was “The Impossible Dream” season for the Boston Red Sox, and as the aspiring first girl baseball player, I had grown to love and live and breathe for our players—Jim Lonborg and Sparky “Fire Engine” Lyle, Joe Foy and George Scott, Reggie Smith and Rico Petrocelli, Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski, who won the Triple Crown that year, and “Tony C”—Tony Conigliaro, who got hit in the face with a fastball by Jack Hamilton on August 18th and lost the vision in his left eye, a sickening tragedy I could not bear to talk about.
That September, Miss Mower would wheel one of the Hunnewell School televisions into our classroom, her white stiletto heels click-clacking across the linoleum, so we could watch the Red Sox play afternoon games. Twenty-six of us pushed our desks as close as possible to the TV set, sharing the joys and sorrows of every inning, standing up to stretch at the middle of the seventh. We won the American League pennant but lost the World Series to the Cardinals. And we didn’t know if Tony C was ever coming back.
In October, we had Columbus Day off from school. One of my brothers told me to rake leaves with him. As always, I complied with what he wanted from me.
In this case, we filled the rusted wheelbarrow with autumn leaves and rolled the wheelbarrow down Cottage to the woods at the corner of Washington Street. A split-rail fence bordered the woods to keep cars and people away from the edge, where there was a drop to the forest floor. My brother and I dumped the leaves over the fence, then walked back to rake another load. Cottage Street was narrow and lacked a sidewalk, but it was a quiet national holiday, so we weren’t in danger from the few passing cars.
At some point I felt tired, and asked my brother if I could sit on the fence and wait for him while he went home and filled the next wheelbarrow. I watched him wheel away up the road and disappear up our gravel driveway.
After a long time had passed, it occurred to me that my brother wasn’t coming back—maybe he had gone in the house for a snack and started watching television, or maybe one of his friends had come over. Just at the point when I decided to stop waiting on the fence and walk home, I heard a loud car engine and heard tires squealing and I looked toward Washington Street where a big car was turning the corner and coming toward me at high speed.
The car pulled up in front of me fast and close, boxing me in where I sat on the fence with the woods behind me. My mind went blank. I had no idea what was happening, or what to do.
Then the driver, a man, said something. His passenger window was rolled all the way down. He leaned across the seat and smiled at me, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He kept talking.
I slid off the fence and stood in the small available patch of dirt and said, “What?” There were no other cars around, no other people. No blue jays cawing from the woods.
“How do I get to Grove Street?” he smiled. “Come here. I can’t hear you.”
He wore a tan hat, not like my father’s hats for the office or church, but like the hats on men I’d seen fishing at Lake Waban. I felt relieved because all he wanted was directions, and getting to Grove Street would be easy.
“Just keep following this road. It will take you to Grove Street. You’ll go over a little bridge over Fuller Brook.”
“How far is it?” he said, still smiling. “Come closer. I can’t hear you.”
I leaned in the passenger window. I thought he had one of his hairy hands in his lap and was making a fist with his thumb sticking up. Then I realized it was his penis, and I saw he wasn’t wearing any pants.
I froze. He said, “Have you ever seen one of these before?”
In fact, I had seen several against my will. “Yes,” I said.
“Whose?” he smiled, leaning closer to me. He had yellow teeth and his eyes bulged. He looked scary with the tan hat pulled down on his head.
“Um,” I said, “Grove Street is that way,” and he grabbed one of my arms and jerked it hard and pulled and kept pulling and it hurt my arm and I could feel his fingers twisting my arm through my jacket and he was trying to pull me into his car through the passenger window and I was thrashing and kicking and trying to get away. Somehow I thought of my brother and the wheelbarrow and I twisted my head around, looking for him—and up the road, too far away to save me, I could see my mother standing at the end of the driveway, just standing there, looking in my direction.
I cried, “My mother doesn’t like me talking to strangers!” and the man pushed me away so hard that I fell backwards into the fence, and a cloud of dirt and pebbles hit me as his car raced away from me and past my mother in the direction of Grove Street.
My mother did not run to me, and I did not run to her. She stood in place waiting as I trudged up Cottage Street toward our driveway. I got closer and saw she looked very angry.
“What did that man want?” she shouted. “What were you doing with him?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“He wanted directions to Grove Street.”
“Is that all he wanted? Directions to Grove Street?”
“Yes,” I said, toeing the gravel. I went inside and upstairs to my room, the room I shared with dead Miss Pomeroy. I didn’t want to tell my mother what had happened, because I believed it was all my fault, like so many other things were my fault.
I had accepted that people in my own family liked to hurt me, but the child molester was a stranger. I couldn’t understand why he would do what he did. But I did understand that he would have killed me. And I worried he might find me again.
I didn’t expect comfort from my mother, and she didn’t provide any, nor did she mention the incident that night or the next day. I figured she had forgotten about it. And I told no one else what had happened to me; it was too terrifying, and somehow my fault, and I was afraid my friends wouldn’t want to be my friends if they knew.
Walking to school—formerly among my happiest activities—became hellish when I was alone. The deserted back way was quiet but loomed with deadly horrors, and I was sure murderers were hiding everywhere. The town way was busy but not at all safe—streaming as it was with moving cars, any one of which could contain the child molester or someone else like him. If I couldn’t find a friend to walk with, I ran the whole mile to school or home, my sides cramping and blood pounding in my ears.
One afternoon soon after Columbus Day, I ran panting up our gravel driveway after school and was surprised to see my mother standing outside wearing her navy blue church coat and carrying her purse.
“Come with me,” she said. I followed her into our station wagon, still catching my breath.
My mother turned the car onto Washington Street in the direction of town. “We’re going to the police station,” she announced. “They caught the man who tried to get you. I wrote down his license number that day and called the police. You’re going to identify him.”
I felt like the world was going dark, like I was going to vomit, like I was sinking into the darkness and never coming back. “No,” I said, “I don’t want to,” but I didn’t cry because I knew that wouldn’t change her mind.
My mother drove on, past the Wellesley Supermarket and the Wellesley Inn and the jeweler’s and other shops, heading for the police station.
Inside, the Wellesley police station wasn’t bright and friendly like the Mayberry sheriff’s office on Andy Griffith; it was dim and cold. My mother and I were greeted by an officer so enormous he appeared to me to be a giant. He wore a dark blue hat twice as big as his head. A gun in a black holster and a wooden club hung from his belt. He took my mother and me to a window and brought me a stepstool.
“It’s a one-way mirror,” the policeman said. “You can see him, but he can’t see you. Is that the man?”
It was the man, this time without his hat. He had a crew cut like the sergeant on Gomer Pyle. It was him but I was eight and could not believe he couldn’t see me through that window. He was looking right at me with his bulging eyes. Even worse, he was sitting at a big table with a few other policemen and they were all smoking cigarettes and laughing together. The man kept looking up at me through the window.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“You need to tell us if it’s him,” said the giant policeman. “If it’s him and you don’t tell us, we’ll have to let him go, and he’ll do the same thing to another little girl—maybe worse. Maybe she won’t be able to get away.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the window, the man and the other policemen laughed and smoked and leaned back in their chairs, and the man looked up at me again.
“I’m not sure,” I repeated. “I’m not sure.”
The policeman and my mother got very upset with me for not being sure. My mother cried, which I had never seen her do in public; I was embarrassed for her and felt sick to my stomach; I wished the darkness in my head would swallow me.
The officer kept asking me if I wanted the man to do this to another little girl. He looked furious when we left, his face very red and very high above mine. I turned back and saw him standing on the steps outside the police station, his gigantic hat in his hands. My mother’s crying switched to anger when we got in the car. “After everything I did to catch him!” she yelled.
That night I lay in bed, in my room with dead Miss Pomeroy, cold and nervous under the covers, my thoughts spinning in a terrifying loop:
If I had told the police that yes, it was the man, he would have gone to jail right away, but when he got out of jail, he would have found me and killed me.
But since I told them I wasn’t sure, they had already let the man go, and he was going to find me and kill me as soon as he could.
He knows where I live because he saw my mother. He will climb in my window and hurt me and kill me. Maybe tonight.
As usual, I didn’t call out for my parents to help me; I knew my mother wouldn’t come at all, my father would come too willingly, and my brothers would know I was scared, wait till the house was silent again, and make their moves. Instead I did the smart thing, the self-preserving thing: I lay in the dark like a corpse and panicked till I fell asleep.