Sexual Abuse in the 70’s–One Story

I could tell a few stories, but I’ve chosen the one that pains me, personally, the least. One where I am no longer in contact with anyone involved, so I am least likely to cause pain to others. At the same time, in many ways, it’s pretty horrible when you think about it.

The summer between 5th and 6th grade was typical of suburbia in 1973. I roamed the neighborhood with a small pack of other kids all day long. At lunch we’d converge at someone’s house, and whichever mom was there fed us peanut butter or bologna sandwiches and sent us back out into the sunshine. Along about dinner time, moms would step out onto porches and shout children’s names. Only vowels carry at those distances, so when a mom was heard, we all listened intently. “EEEEEEEE–ahhhhhhh,” was Lisa, “AAAAAAAAH–aaaaaaaah,” was me, and so on.

After dinner, as dusk crept over the backyards, we played games of Red-light, Green-light and Mother May I. After dark, we moved on to Truth or Dare. We were very innocent back then. Truth was questions like “Have you ever stolen anything?” or “Have you ever told a friend’s secret?” Dare usually involved ringing someone’s doorbell and running away or filching cookies for everyone from home.

The family next to me was big–five kids. The oldest was boy a year younger than me, then three girls, followed by another boy still in diapers. The older boy (I’ll call him Jack) and I were friends, and one night as we played our innocent game of Truth or Dare, his father joined us. The dad dared Jack to go to the far side of the dark yard and count planes flying overhead for five minutes. With Jack on the other side of the yard, the dad said he had a dare for me. I told him it didn’t work that way; I was supposed to choose. He said he was changing the rules. He told me I was very mature for a ten-year-old. I explained that I was almost 11, so you know, of course I was pretty mature. Eleven. His dare was for me to lie down and let him walk his fingers over my body. I was to tell him which place excited me most.

Gross! I said no. He said, “C’mon, I thought you were so mature.” I said I thought I’d better go home, and he grabbed my wrist–hard–gave me this fierce look, and said, “This is our secret. Do not tell anyone.” Well, nothing had actually happened, and he kind of scared me, so I didn’t tell.

Later that summer a bunch of us had finished lunch at Jack’s house. It must have been a weekend, because the dad was home during the day. One of the neighborhood girls, a few years younger than me, said she had to go to the bathroom and asked me to go with her. I asked why, and she said she didn’t like going to the bathroom at Jack’s house alone. I was a kid. No red flags showed up for me. Who knows why little kids do anything? I said sure and sat on the side of the tub talking to her while she peed.

Pop! went the lock of the door, and in walked Jack’s dad with the skinny little pen knife he’d used to pick the simple bathroom door lock. The other girl screamed, and I jumped off the tub to push Jack’s dad out of the bathroom. He said, “I just wondered what you two were up to.”

“Going to the bathroom!” I shouted. He was much bigger than me, of course, so I couldn’t budge him. The neighbor girl pulled her pants up without even wiping, and we ran out to where all the other kids were. We said nothing.

At the end of the summer, my mother came to me and said Jack’s dad was upset with me because I had told Jack “the facts of life.” I told her I had not, which was true. I had only told him about the baby chick unit he would get to do in 5th grade. It was a unit where the class had chicken eggs in an incubator. Periodically the teacher would carefully cut a hole in one so we could see the stages of development. Eventually, the eggs that hadn’t been sacrificed for science hatched into fluffy, peeping, yellow chicks. It was pretty cool. Anyway, I said, after the stuff Jack’s dad had done, he had no business getting mad at me. “What?” my mother asked.

So I told her about Truth or Dare and the bathroom. She told my dad. Now, my dad was maybe 5’10” and not muscular. He was also an introverted electrical engineer. Jack’s dad was huge and loud and pretty intimidating. My dad went next door and asked Jack’s dad to step outside, in part because he wasn’t entirely sure Jack’s dad wouldn’t get violent behind closed doors, and in part to keep Jack’s family from overhearing the conversation.

When my dad got home, he was visibly upset. (My dad was seldom visibly upset. He was always calm and soft-spoken.) Jack’s dad had not denied what I’d said. He’d only claimed that he didn’t recall these incidents. “If someone claimed I did these things, I would know I hadn’t done them,” Dad said. “It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not I recalled them.”

My mom spoke to all the other moms of little girls on the block, who in turn spoke to their daughters. Of course, now I know that pedophiles who prey on prepubescent children often do not have a preferred sex of child. It is only the hairless, immature body that is the object of desire. Those were more innocent times. I think the idea that Jack’s dad might also prey upon boys was inconceivable to the adults around me. Long story short, Jack’s dad had touched, peeped at, or otherwise behaved inappropriately toward every little girl on the block. Every. Single. One.

The adults conferred, and the consensus was this: No way could Jack’s mother, a stay-at-home mom in the 1970’s, ever hope to get a job that would support her and five children. Turning Jack’s dad in and having him go to jail was not an option. So little girls were forbidden to ever play at Jack’s house when his dad was home. That was it.

Jack had three little sisters.

I think the idea that a man might prey upon his own children was inconceivable. We kept using that word. I do not think it means what we thought it meant.

A year later, my parents divorced and I moved. I never saw Jack or any of his family again. If they’d stayed in the old neighborhood, we would have ended up in high school together, but we didn’t, so they must have gone somewhere. Did the little girls in their new neighborhood, or his daughters, or possibly even his sons, ever tell?

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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2 Responses to Sexual Abuse in the 70’s–One Story

  1. Barbara Gal says:

    Sad story. And way too common. So sorry you experienced this. We did not know then what we know now. Our family was faced with dealing with inappropriate (very) behavior by a priest friend. Inconceivable at the time, and certainly not reported to anyone when my parents finally figured it out. But he was no longer welcome in our house. I’m sure his name is going to show up when NY state gets their lists from their various dioceses. The church just kept moving him around, maybe hoping he would behave better with age?

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