Me at about the age my dad molested me.
Somebody put two and two together and realized that the rape scene from the movie Last Tango in Paris was non-consensual. Though the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, revealed this in a 2013 interview, it has taken three years for people to get upset about it. Nine years if you count from 2007 when actress Maria Schneider said of it, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”
It’s the scene with the butter. I know it because I watched the movie when I was 12. You showed it to me along with several of your adult friends who came over for the screening. None of them brought their children, though.
As far as I remember, it was one of many graphic sex scenes between 43-year-old Brando and 19-year-old Schneider.
One of the things I’ve always been grateful for in you as a father was that you treated me like an artist from the start. I have memories from about the age of two of saying something and having you respond, “You just wrote a poem.”
When I had an interesting dream, you would write it down, setting the stage for me remembering and being in touch with my dreams to this day. One you were particularly interested in began, “I dreamed my father was a farmer.” You reference it even today.
Well, you were a farmer of sorts. You cultivated me. You taught me that I was an artist and then you used that against me. Because I was so mature and insightful and creative, you deemed me “mature enough” for adult movies and books (it was around the same time that you introduced me to Basketball Diaries, an amazing book but very explicit with sex and drugs).
You used your own identity as a creative free spirit to walk around nude in front of me my whole life.
You must have had an inkling that something was amiss. I’ve heard you say that you used to take baths with me when I was young, until I started having nightmares about snakes and you thought better of it (yes, you interpreter of dreams, you connected a toddler’s dreams of snakes to the phallus—so insightful of you).
Speaking of dreams, there was certainly talk of Freud and Oedipus and Electra in our house as well. It didn’t include discussions of Freud’s original findings, that his patients (mostly girls and women who suffered from “hysteria”) were largely the victims of sexual abuse by older men, often their fathers and that the trend led him to create the Seduction Theory. There was no mention of the fact that, after receiving threats and criticism of the Seduction Theory from his patrons—many of them the fathers, brothers, and uncles of his patients—he came up with the Oedipal theory instead.
But perhaps you were unaware of this cover up as news of it came from feminist quarters.
Certainly, we had literary tête-à-têtes about Lolita and about how the young girl in Nabokov’s novel represented life itself. At least, I thought of those conversations as meetings of the mind between two equals. I wanted to be equal, so I nodded and probably came up with my own erudite interpretations of what was, at its heart, a glorification of pedophilia.
I’ve already written enough here for the average person to say, “Wow, that upbringing was a little twisted,” or for an “artist” or “spiritual person” to quip, “Oh, your father was so open, so real.”
I can say upon reflection that what I’ve described in-and-of-itself was harmful, especially because it came with no healthy discussion of consent and often with an air of fun naughtiness, of inclusion into the secret world of grownup intellectuals. If I could deal with this material intelligently enough, I got credit for being smart, mature, and creative.
But there is more.
Sometime between the ages of 9 and 11, we were visiting your parents in West Virginia. I shared the bed with you there. The morning we were to leave, we sat down to breakfast. As usual, a bit of canned fruit cocktail was doled out to each of us in a bowl. The sweet rolls, milk, and ample selection of cereal was there. Just as I poured the milk over my Chex, watching the tiny squares within squares fill with whiteness, Grandma said, “What were you dreaming about last night? You were screaming, ‘Stop! Stop!’”
I didn’t know what I was dreaming about. I didn’t remember anything. I do recall that I was very angry at you and petulant and I didn’t understand why.
When we sat in the car at the top of the huge hill of your childhood home, you turned to me and said, “I’m sorry about last night. I was having a dream about a blond woman.” I think I said it was okay. But I didn’t feel okay. At all. I remember pushing myself as hard as I could into the passenger door for the 10-hour drive home, wishing to put as many millimeters of space as possible between me and you.
There were incidents in between. You walking into my bedroom unannounced in the early morning, seeing me sleeping in the nude, putting a blanket on me and reporting it to me later. My sexuality seemed both intriguing and intimidating to you. The first time you hugged me and felt a bra strap, you jumped back as if something had bitten you and, of course, commented on it. I remember dancing by myself in the living room once and catching you kind of leering at me. I don’t think I’ve danced freely since (but I will–that is why I’m writing this letter).
I was bullied at school. I tried to kill myself in seventh grade, swallowing the contents of every bottle in your medicine cabinet. I buttoned all of my shirts up to the very top.
At 20, I dated a college professor. He didn’t look much like you, really. But something in the angle of his jawbone, or his hair, or perhaps his age (not your age, but older than me) or position of authority? His view of me as a promising young writer? Whatever it was, I found I couldn’t kiss him without seeing your face. And so, I couldn’t kiss him at all.
I wrote you a letter about that. I asked you why it was that I saw your face when kissing this man. When we spoke on the phone, you hemmed and hawed a bit and finally said, “Well, when you were about five I used to sleepwalk and I’d wake up and find that I was fondling you.”
Oh. Okay then. That explains it.
Just as I don’t remember what happened to me that night in West Virginia, I don’t remember the fondling.
When you revealed this to me, I think I just wanted it to go away. We somehow patched things up. After all, I’d been groomed by you to see that sexuality is a part of life and it’s inevitable that there would be some sexual tension between a father and a daughter and isn’t it great that we are artists and can embrace everything about life, even the dark parts that most people ignore. Perhaps we should even discuss this all over dinner. What an interesting conversation that would be if we had the artistic courage.
But wait. This artistic courage is awfully selective.
It wasn’t present at six when I revealed that my older cousin was touching me inappropriately. The next time we visited West Virginia, I was sent to his house to spend the night, even though I gave you the best imploring look I could and said I really didn’t want to. I don’t know if you ever had the balls to talk to his mother, your sister. I do know you put me in a horrible position.
If you were sleepwalking and fondling me, where was your courage then to get me out of that situation?
But that wasn’t how I thought then, in my twenties. I kind of thought, “Ew, gross. Let’s move on.”
But then, I got married and three beautiful children were in my home.
And so were you. Every week. You brought food. You helped us with money when we needed it. You fixed things around the house. You have been a model grandfather. You’ve even taken the kids to the zoo and to tennis lessons.
At some point, I found myself in a therapist’s office to deal with my marriage. She wasn’t one of those, “Tell me about your father,” Freudians so it was a few months before you even came up in conversation. She said, “Sleepwalking? Really?” It was the first time I’d even questioned your sleepwalking story.
I told a second therapist. “Sleepwalking? Come on. That’s a good one.”
When I told my mother, she said, “Your father never sleepwalked a day in his life.”
Oh, and by the way, the therapists also said they’d have to call the police if I gave you access to my children alone.
This was a wake-up call for me. I don’t know what all happened to me because I don’t even remember the incidents of molestation I heard about from your own lips. But they are enough for me to understand that I would never want something like that to happen to my children.
You did more than violate my boundaries in those moments. You broke my compass, my understanding of which behavior is acceptable and which isn’t. That’s why I’ve struggled in abusive relationships. That is why I did the unthinkable and let my children be alone with my molester.
As I cleaned the house for our family Thanksgiving—you of course spent the day fixing most of the food in that artisanal super-dad way of yours—all I felt was rage. You were going to be eating at the table I was setting, walking on the floor I was sweeping, eating the lovely pear/pecan salad I was chopping and tossing. I was so furious that I was in this situation and I realized that I had a choice.
I am almost 42 years old and I am working damned hard to convince myself that I have a choice. Because as a child, I never did and I seem to have concluded that that’s how life is, that I have to give that beseeching look to a grownup and hope they protect me or change things, but not expect too much in that department.
But dammit, I don’t care about your pride or anybody’s pride who’s abused me. I care about myself and my children and not passing this sickness on to them.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, when this news came out about Last Tango in Paris, I got a flashback to that whole period of my life.
This kind of “art” is dangerous. It goes beyond the original, horrible violation of the actress. It is exponentially violent because its propagation into the world gives men like you permission. It gives men like you tools. It normalizes violation. It makes people like Schneider and like me think that they must allow themselves to be violated if they want to play with the real cutting-edge artists, if they want to be relevant.
In my Facebook feed right now are grown women saying that watching it (as consenting adults) made them uncomfortable or sick. Some are glad they never saw it and never will.
Yet at 12 I sat in a roomful of adults watching this movie and nobody said, “This movie is misogynistic, sexually explicit, and violent,” let alone, “Hey, should you really be showing this to your daughter?” If they were uncomfortable, they said nothing. And that nothing made it normal, for them and for me.
Just before the butter scene, Brando told his costar, “Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.”
But it’s never just a movie or just a joke or just a psychological theory. It’s always a magnet, pulling our compass off-center, giving us a violent version of reality.
The good news is that I really am an artist. I really do listen to my dreams. You may be a farmer, but my nature is wild and will not be contained in the rows built generations before you, rows that were worked by you and will no doubt be ploughed into dust before men give them up.
But they will turn to dust.
This goes against nature and it cannot stand.
My dreams and my writing have returned my compass to me. I’m growing as I was meant to and I’ve made a different movie. In this one, I don’t have to hug you, swallowing my disgust and working hard to make myself smaller so my breasts don’t touch you. In this movie, I take up space and that is as it should be. I don’t have to listen to you prattle on about my food choices or my weight. I don’t have to nod and smile when you invite my children to your house for sleepovers or ask about taking them out to play tennis, knowing I will later find an excuse either to come along or to cancel the plans.
Once when I invited myself on one of these outings, you said, “You know I’d never do anything to your kids, right?” I gave a noncommittal answer and changed the subject.
But guess what. I DO know you will NEVER do anything to my children because you won’t get the chance. You will NEVER be alone with them. Further, you will not be the source of lies and cover-ups, the very energy of which could land them in the same situations I’ve found myself in because of your actions and decisions.
Equally important, they will have a mother who is truly, imperfectly honest. I have already taught them about consent, that their bodies and their emotions are theirs. If I have anything to do about it, they will not find themselves preparing to host a meal with people who have abused them and not made amends. I am learning how to have integrity—my thoughts, words, and actions in alignment—and I will teach them to have integrity just by having it myself.
Whether it’s a sexist car commercial or the laws of some states that force the rape victim to co-parent with the rapist or the woman who endures harassment from her boss, what you have done to me is done to all women in one way or another.
Instead of strengthening me against this world, you indoctrinated me into it.
I’ve thought about “confronting” you for a long time. I’ve researched it. It seems most molesters minimize or deny what they did. I have no reason to believe you wouldn’t, given your complete minimizing and lack of remorse when we spoke about this 20 years ago. I thought it would be easier for me to tell my story, which is the important on here, in a letter without being interrupted.
I am your daughter, and I will do what I can for you in what I see as a moral light. I will perhaps see you once in a while, support you as I can when you are ill, etc. But I can no longer just ignore what happened.
Just this week, US veterans made a thorough apology to the people of Standing Rock and asked for forgiveness. If you seek my forgiveness, you might want to look that up or perhaps the truth and reconciliation process of South Africa so that you have some idea of what would be needed.
As for your wife, as far as I know she has had nothing to do with any of your choices. At the time she married you, also when I was 12, I think she was often looking out for my best interests more than you were. She is welcome in my home anytime as often as she likes and if she still wants a relationship after this letter, she will have one that is just the same and probably better as I won’t be hindered by the distance necessarily caused by me pretending that you didn’t molest me. I am sorry for her as I know she is a private person. But I also know she believes in justice, so I hope she will understand my need to do this.
As you can see from the statistics below, many people go through this. Almost every girlfriend I’ve shared my story with has her own story of molestation or rape. If I did a survey of my friends, the numbers would come out higher, I’m sure. That’s why I’ve decided to publish this as an open letter, in solidarity with my sisters.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau report Child Maltreatment 2010 found that 9.2% of victimized children were sexually assaulted (page 24).
Studies by David Finkelhor, Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, show that:
- 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse;
- Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident;
- During a one-year period in the U.S., 16% of youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Over the course of their lifetime, 28% of U.S. youth ages 14 to 17 had been sexually victimized;
- Children are most vulnerable to CSA between the ages of 7 and 13.