I was never molested as a child. Never grabbed or fondled in the wrong place by the wrong hands, adult hands. There was Buddy, though, a strapping 12-year-old from down the block, who talked me into playing doctor when I was four. Even at that age, I perceived his bedside manner as fishy and I rushed through my kitchen door to report his medical practices to my grandmother.
She put down her knife and the chicken she was cutting, looked me straight in my eyes and listened to everything I could tell her.
Nana asked me questions. What exactly had Buddy done? Where had he touched me? She listened quietly while I answered.
When my mother returned from work, she was informed of the incident. Something in the way her heels clicked fiercely as she turned and marched out of the back door and down the block to Buddy's house, let me know that playing doctor was a very serious game. I have no idea what my mother said or did when she got to Buddy's. All I know is that the 12-year-old doctor never tried to examine me again.
So I escaped. I'm 34 and have never been abused. But it appears that a number of children have fallen prey to grown-up impulses that couldn't be talked or threatened away. In the light of recent revelations -- child pornography rings in day-care centers, adults coming forward to confess that they were victims of incest and sexual abuse as children -- extensive media attention has been focused on this previously hidden disgrace.
The media hype has disturbed memories, and old wounds have begun festering anew. I was shocked when in the midst of so much publicity about child molestation a friend confessed that her aunt's boyfriend had sexually abused her when she was 10. Later, another friend admitted that she was an incest victim of her uncle. Another, her father.
I have a 7-year-old daughter I've assiduously trained to avoid strangers, never to enter their homes or take rides with them. But this last year of media probes and expose's, of personal confessions, has underscored the fact that the strangers we fear can be friends, or even family.
A few months ago, the teen-age daughter of my good friend put her head on my shoulder and cried as she confessed that she'd been molested by her grandfather, a man I know well. "It's not your fault," I managed to tell her when she asked me if wearing miniskirts was responsible for her victimization. As I held her, my mind clicked back to times my own child had visited her grandparents' home. I felt dizzy with fear.
It is amazing how easy it is to mistrust neighbors, friends, even relatives. Perhaps because it suddenly seemed that every woman I knew had been abused, I began to wonder if my own child had ever been a victim and was harboring this guilty secret alone and unsupported. I asked questions around the issue, preferring childish clues to concrete answers that might prove my worst fears.
I backtracked to every babysitter and childcare center I'd ever entrusted with Maia's care. "Remember when so and so used to take care of you?" I'd ask my child, who would nod innocently. "Were you ever touched in a strange way?"
Maia didn't understand my concern over who had ever touched her, and where. Perhaps if I had explained my fears to her in simple language that she understood, I could have saved both of us some unwarranted anxiety. After all, I had always told Maia that her private parts were private. Yet fear made me forget about openness and common sense, ordinarily my maternal touchstones.
In my mind the witch hunt began. I made up a mental list of safe and questionable people. It was a ridiculous list. I was going on a look, a chance remark. I consulted my list mentally when I questioned whether these fathers, uncles, brothers, friends and neighbors could be trusted.
Underlying my anxiety was the nagging thought that if something happened to my child, if she were molested, God forbid, it would be my fault. After all, as a single, working mother, who regularly left my child with babysitters, everything that happened to her was my fault.
My paranoia was shortlived. My daughter and I went to the park one day and ran into the grandparents of some of Maia's friends with their grandchildren in tow. I was relieved when the grandfather offered to take charge of all of the children, my own included. Watching from the park bench, I saw my daughter boosted up the sliding board by the force of the grandfather's large, open hand, firmly spread over her narrow little rump. Maia was clearly delighted with the extra hoist.
*In that instant, I remembered the California elementary school principal, dismissed when the parents of a kindergarten girl brought charges of child molestation against him. The charges were dropped when it was discovered that the principal had merely cleaned the little girl's soiled panties. I recalled the times in my life when a man's touch was friendly and comforting. I tore up the list in my head.
I have, with considerable effort, made the transition from passive fearfulness to a protective stance. Guessing who might molest my child is a dangerous, foolish game; arming her with information that will help her deter a would-be molester makes more sense.
So I have told Maia that there are some sick people in a world where most people are not and that she must be wary of these dangerous few. I have reinforced the notion that her body is hers alone to touch. I have told her that a stranger is anyone who makes her feel creepy, even if it is someone she knows. I have informed her that there are some "secrets" that shouldn't be kept.
And I have done something I never thought I'd do. Several weeks after my second husband proposed to me, I asked him if he felt that he could ever molest my daughter. Naturally, he said no. I did not then -- and do not now -- think that he is capable of such a crime, but I wanted to get some things out in the open. I know that there are women who passively allow their daughters to be molested by their fathers and stepfathers, fearful of speaking out. I informed my intended that I was not such a woman.
I don't know if my way is the right way, but I'm less worried and Maia seems more at ease and independent. Only last week, she told me that a man approached her in a store she went to accompanied by her teen-age stepbrother. The man asked Maia her name. If she lived in the neighborhood. If she was alone. My daughter talked around his questions and moved closer to her stepbrother.
Maia, like other children, will have to work her way through, avoiding the pitfalls as best she can. She has her own growing wisdom and astute discerning eye, the support of a loving family.
Maybe that's all any of us can give our children. And because our vigilance can never stretch far enough, we must all become guardians of all of our children.