"This work is unlike any other, in its range of rich, conjuring imagery and its dexterity, its smart voice. Carroll-Hackett doesn’t spare us—but doesn’t save us—she draws a blueprint of power and class with her unflinching pivot: matter-of-fact and tender." —Jan Beatty

I can’t even read anymore about the Stanford rapist. As the mother of sons, and as a survivor, I literally felt nauseated at the father’s statement. My oldest son was nine years old when he quietly asked me, “Mom, what does ‘rape’ mean?” I was washing dishes, my back to him (as I learned, raising boys, was often the case when they wanted to ask questions that made them uncomfortable and didn’t want their over-explaining Mama to sit them down for a long-winded talk). The quiet fear in his voice as he asked still rings in my ears, even now nearly twenty years later.

He was afraid to know. But he needed to know. He knew he needed to know.

I knew it had taken him a while to come ask me, so I honored that, didn’t turn to face him, kept my hands moving slowly and methodically in the hot soapy water, asking him where he’d heard the word. “At school,” he said, his voice low. “A sixth grade girl at another school was raped, they said.”

My gut clenched, my throat ached, for the girl, for all the girls, and for my beautiful innocent boy, with his straight-as-a-stick toss of blond hair, his guileless eyes so much like my own mama’s, in their deep blue, in the way they looked on the world–all of it–with wonder and delight. My heart ached, because I knew I was getting ready to take away some of that innocence and awe, that I had to answer his question, and had to begin to expand what I’d already worked to teach him of respect for all others into an area of understanding that would reveal darkness and violence and pain and trauma as parts of the world, of this life, he loved so much.

I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to tell him.

I wanted him to know only Light and Love and Compassion. I didn’t want to be the one who revealed this darkness to my beautiful beautiful boy.

But I did. I explained it. I explained what rape was.

I explained the physical act of violence. I explained the emotional and psychological and soul scars it leaves. I explained that it was not about sex at its core (We’d already begun to talk too about the miracle and sanctity of sex as a way of expressing deep Love), but about power and violence and deliberate harm.

I explained the best I could to my child, my son, not even in middle school yet, about the respect he must show to everyone, especially to women, and elders, and children younger than himself. I explained that his sacred duty as a man, as a human being, was to protect those unable to protect themselves, and that, later, when he was a teen, a young man, a man, that that included young women who might make the bad choice of drinking too much, or find themselves vulnerable for other reasons, that then, even more, he had a sacred duty to protect, never ever to take advantage or to harm.

I spelled it out as I dried dishes, glancing back now and then to where he sat at the table behind me, the same table where he’d goofed and been, you know, nine, while we ate dinner. He nodded solemnly when I asked, “Does that answer what you wanted to know?”

He stood and slid the chair back in under the table, and said, “I’m gonna finish my homework now.”

“Okay,” I said, watching as he slipped quietly from the room. I folded the kitchen towel and hung it back into place, so small and normal a gesture in that moment that it felt surreal. I took my glass of iced tea from where it sat sweating on the table, walked out to the front porch, where my kids couldn’t hear me, and I cried, cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.

That night broke the mother’s heart in me. But I did it. Because as a parent, it was my duty, my sacred responsibility, as the mother of sons.

Years later, I would find out from my students that my sons, both of them, were, in fact, men who took that role of protector seriously, that they had both been known to step in and take care of young women who had imbibed too much, who found themselves in vulnerable positions. My sons themselves never told me. I heard it from grateful young women who told me and thanked me after. I asked my youngest son, that Manchild, once about it, and he shrugged it off, simply saying, “It’s what we’re supposed to do. Take care of people, right?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

silhouette of a mother and son who play outdoors at sunset background

silhouette of a mother and son who play outdoors at sunset background

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