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  • Writer's pictureruthannelphillips

Indelible In the Hippocampus

I was ten years old in 1974 and my father was a teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District. At that time, they allowed teachers to take sabbaticals and it was very important to my parents that we experience the world and other cultures. After scrimping and saving, they took us on a year-long trip and cultural adventure to Europe. It was a very exciting time for me and my four brothers. We ranged in age 4 through 15.

The first part of our trip we took a train to New York from Los Angeles. Happily, they were able to get a really good price for a transatlantic cruise on the Rotterdam. To be able to do this was a once in a lifetime experience and my parents were so excited and their enthusiasm was contagious.

The Rotterdam was huge but there were not a lot of activities for children other than the pool. My brothers and I took off and basically had the run of the ship. I remember that most of the crew were not Americans and my parents told us that they were from a faraway island. I would not be able to tell you which one, but they were drawn to me and two of my brothers who also had blond hair. They would touch us on the head all of the time – so much so, it was disconcerting. My parents told us that they were not used to seeing people with blond hair and that to touch it was considered good luck.

Toward the middle of the cruise I was exploring by myself. My brothers didn’t like hanging out with their sister – so that was not unusual. Parents back then were very lenient and we always ran free – even at home, when we were told to be back when the streetlights came on. On the ship, we were told to be back for dinner. One day, I got lost and I was wandering the halls looking for our cabin or someplace I could recognize. I was getting distressed when I was approached by one of the crew.

Looking back, I would say he was probably in his thirties. He asked me if he could help me and I told him I was lost. He said that he knew where my cabin was and he would take me there. Instead he took me into a small office and molested me. He groped me and put my hand on his penis. He kissed me and put his tongue in my mouth. I became a limp doll. I did not fight or scream or do anything. I was sitting on his lap while he mishandled and molested me. After he removed himself from my body, he said, “Thank you.”

It was grotesque that he thanked me after what he had done; like I had somehow given him permission. I got off his lap and went to the door, opened it and ran out. He did not try to stop me.

Remarkably, I found our cabin fairly quickly. I remember hiding under the covers of the bed and I shook uncontrollably. I was dry heaving. One of my brothers found me and told me it was dinner time. I told him I wasn’t going. My mother came in and asked me what was wrong and I tried to tell her, but it was impossible. I did not have the words to say what had happened, but I told her that I had been kissed by one of the crew members. She left and when she came back, she said that she had spoken to my father and they thought it had to do with my blond hair and the culture of the crewman. They said I had made a big deal out of something innocent. They brushed it off and made me get dressed to go to dinner.

We were served duck with grape sauce on it. Funny what you remember and what you don’t. When we got back to the room, I vomited all night. To this day, I have a visceral reaction to the smell of cooking duck.

My parents and I never spoke of it again. I never pursued it and I knew that if I did, I would have ruined everyone’s trip. I would have been responsible for destroying our grand adventure. Looking back, I think my parents were simply naïve, but sometimes when I am especially dark, depressed and brooding - I think they didn’t care and it was them who didn’t want me to ruin the grand adventure and I was sacrificed in the process.

In the 7th grade I went to get a playground ball from the equipment room at my Junior High School in Camarillo, California. Two boys came in and shut the door behind us. They were larger than me and pushed me against the wall and put their hands on me. They said they were looking for a girlfriend. One of them leaned in to kiss me when a teacher came in. She yelled at us to stay out of the equipment room. She singled me out to go to the principal, but I didn’t go. I simply ran. And ran. I ran all the way home – over ten miles. When I got home, I did not tell my parents what happened, but I told them I was not going back to school. I told them that nothing that they said or did would make me go back. I had three weeks left and I refused to go.

My parents were very angry – but I never went back to that school. I don’t know if they ever spoke to the principal or went to the school. I was a quiet student with good grades. I was never in trouble. To the best of my knowledge, the school didn’t follow up.

Eventually, in exasperation, my mother asked me if I would go to the all girl’s Catholic School in Thousand Oaks, and I agreed. She went back to work so they could afford for me to go. They sent me to a school they couldn’t afford and I felt guilty for that too. I felt guilty for everything.

Maybe it was the generation or maybe it was simply too painful for all of us to deal with, but whatever it was, we never spoke about what happened or how we ended up where we were.

I remember the first time I liked a boy. I was fifteen and I was grunion hunting. His name was Brian and I wanted him to kiss me. When he did, he put his tongue in my mouth and I remembered the man on the ship and what he had done. My kiss with Brian felt dirty and ugly and wrong. The man on the cruise ship had stolen the joy of my real first kiss. But in reality, he had stolen much more than that.

About the time I started college at UCLA, I remember reading some type of scientific report that said that rapists and attackers go after a “certain type of person.” They look for those who are weak and vulnerable. I thought back on what happened to me and I believed that because of what happened I was responsible for the attacks against me and that I was one of those weak people.

I blamed myself for not being stronger. I vowed to be stronger and I vowed I would not be attacked again.

And then I was drugged and raped in college. I did not report that either. I blamed myself. I had been drinking. I was promiscuous.

I have been told not to say that part of my story – I was promiscuous - That it makes me less sympathetic. Because, if I was promiscuous, I was deserving of the attack and rape. It cancels out what came before. Even now, at 54, I am told to couch my language and not say what really happened. If I say I was promiscuous, it is the same as saying I was the one who was wrong and I deserved it. I reject that. I will no longer be the alibi for the man who raped me.

Believe it or not, I became a paid firefighter at the age of 48. It was my dream. Everything I had worked so hard for had finally come true. But, the reality was that I was not accepted there and I was discriminated against, harassed and assaulted. I was treated as though I was worthless, weak and vulnerable.

And I was silent again.

This job was the accumulation of everything I had worked for my entire life and I didn’t want to give it up.

It took over two years, but the dam finally broke. At the age of fifty I fought back. I reported my treatment and the treatment of my minority coworkers to the EEOC. When they ignored my claim, I filed a lawsuit by myself when I couldn’t afford an attorney.

I know how hard it is to give up the job of your dreams. In that area, I have empathy with Judge Kavanagh. But when Dr. Ford spoke of a hand over her mouth and the laughter during her assault; I think of roasted duck; it is my memory that is Indelible in the Hippocampus.

When we speak up we are ridiculed and vilified. We are called liars. My soul was stolen from me as a child and my silence made it worse. I speak up now for my ten year old self, my twelve year old self, my nineteen year old self and my fifty year old self. I have been filled with hurt, anger, rage and self-loathing almost my entire life.

I eventually wrote a book about these things; the pain, the anger and the treatment of women {Rise of the Alien Queen}. That helped me. My husband helps me. I still have the tendency to hide and to be quiet. I think that if I ignore the pain, it will all go away. But the only thing silence has accomplished is more self-loathing and an attempted suicide.

As a culture, we are broken. It’s time for all of us to find the solution to change everything. Because what we are doing now, isn’t working.

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