The following passage is an excerpt from Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen by Alix Kates Shulman, first published in 1972 and reissued by Picador on September 24 2019.
It was always the same story, in subways or suburbs. From my beginnings in Baybury Heights, a nice neighborhood where we moved because it was “safe,” it was always the girl who was kept in the house after school if a boy molested her, never the boy. Ostensibly she was kept in for protection, but how was it different from punishment if she couldn’t even play on the street? Since boys would be boys, they might be scolded, but no one ever kept them indoors; they could take care of themselves. No one ever said “girls will be girls”; for girls were expected to be ladies. Every Baybury girl was early taught her place through the ritual rape called ‘‘pantsing.” My own occurred one muddy March day in the third grade.
My best friend Jackie was staying after school to practice on the bars that day, so I stayed too. We were practicing a new trick: over-and-over-two-legged. It was a hard trick, but I mastered it. On the bars practicing was what counted; lithe and limber, I practiced and was good. Over and over we went, skirts and hair flying down and then up, the skin behind our knees smarting from the friction with the steel, until the pain finally forced us to stop. We gathered up our trading cards and were just heading through the Victory Gardens for the road when Jackie remembered she wasn’t going home after all, she was going to wait for her mother at her cousin’s house down the street from school.
My stomach flopped over as though I were still on the bars. Without Jackie, I would have to walk unprotected past all the vacant lots on Auburn Hill. I looked back anxiously for someone else to walk with, but there wasn’t a soul in the playground.
Jackie and I started walking slowly down Cranberry Road. It was still wet enough from the previous night’s rain for a few worms to remain on the sidewalk, and we walked slowly to avoid them. I hated the sidewalk worms. Besides, the skin behind our knees smarted if we went quickly. But no matter how slowly we walked, I knew the moment was coming when we would have to separate.
Finally we reached Jackie’s cousin’s house. With no visible regrets, Jackie turned into the drive, kicked at the gravel, and said goodbye.
“See you tomorrow,” I managed to answer, as though it were any other day. And then, proceeding by myself to the end of the block where I turned reluctantly into Auburn, I began my lone descent of the hill.
Dawdling as I walked, I pretended nothing could happen. What was there to be afraid of? Didn’t I know all the boys in my class? Not even they, I told myself, would want to hide in the weeds among worms. When I saw the grasses moving on the flat of the hill just before the descent, I began to think the whole walk home was a dream, that the sidewalk worms were really snakes moving the grasses. Please get me home, I begged of nobody I knew under my breath. Tensely I gripped my trading cards. I quickened my step as I neared the spot where the grasses moved, then marched past, eyes ahead, heart pounding, fingers crossed, not daring to look around.
Just as I was ready to break into a gallop for the final stretch home, a red bandanna descended over my eyes, and I was dragged backwards off the sidewalk into the wet field.
“Get her down!”‘
“Get her ankles!’’
“Quick! Sit on her!”
It was happening, then. I was going to be pantsed.
“Somebody sit on her,” I heard again.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” I cried, thinking I would suffocate under the blindfold.
Someone pulled my arms over my head and pinned them down at the wrists, others took my legs, squeezing at the ankles, holding them from kicking until someone else sat on them.
“Let me go!” I kept crying until my words melted into tears. I felt humiliated by my tears (cry baby! cry baby!), though I cried as much from rage as from fear.
When I was finally able to catch my breath I began to fight, kicking and biting, as though there were some possibility of fighting free. But of course there was none.
They gripped my legs at last and, raising me from the buttocks, ripped off my underpants. Then they forced my legs apart at the knees and held them open for one endless moment, staring deep into my secret. No one touched, no one spoke; they saw, their eyes burning me like dry ice.
It wasn’t shame I felt then, only hot, inexpressible fury. You, Melvyn Weeks! You, Bobby Barr! You, Richie Englehart! You, Nazi Richard Conroy! But in the end I was stripped even of my wrath. For the project of my pantsing, once completed, seemed to lose all its appeal to its perpetrators. Stripping me had been only a gesture, an afternoon diversion for a lazy day. Maybe the third-grade boys of Baybury Heights Elementary School already felt seen one, seen them all, or maybe they were only interested in power. For, a moment later, they pulled me shaking to my feet and pushed me back on the sidewalk as though they were my friends. They threw my pants and my trading cards after me, and ordered me on pain of “getting it” never to tell anyone what had happened. Then they ripped off the blindfold, gave me a shove, and diving quickly back to their hiding places in the wet field, finally set me free.
• • •
Grown men didn’t do things like that to us — not in broad daylight, not without an excuse. They kept us in place with veiled threats and insinuations; and they only undressed us mentally, an indignity it was hard to prove. But walking alone was still a problem. In Spain, where no one had felt qualified to interpret my motives, my celebrity had kept me immune from judgment. In Munich I had been justified by having a husband. But here, as a single woman assumed to be in the running, I was subject to all the abuse the Romans could dish out. It is not always, as Mae West says, “better to be looked over than overlooked.” All those dashing Italians I had fallen for in my first enchantment with Rome — Giuliano, the guard at the Colosseum; Angelo, the guide; Mario and the other cowboys on the Piazza di Spagna who followed American women to the cafés of the Via Veneto and whispered extravagant phrases in their ears between sips of Cinzano-soda — those romancing Italians were so full of mocking adulation that they could barely conceal their contempt. I gave them up when I realized that for them I was interchangeable with every other presentable American of a certain age, even the poor starlets who hung around the Via Veneto. Romans collected Americans as Americans collected Romans: parasites all. I felt better now, knowing I could refuse them, but I still had to face them in the restaurants and cafés, at parties and on the street.
I walked into my hotel, too weary for midmorning. I was way off schedule. I would have to face the world twice today.
“Any messages?’’ I asked at the desk. “No messages, signora.”
I walked up the three flights to my room.
Stockings and underwear were strung across the room on a portable clothesline. They stretched from bedpost to light fixture to doorknob, cutting off access to the chair. So much dirty laundry. I made for the bed. Why shouldn’t I take siesta like the Italians? So what if I took mine before midday? I knew I ought to be giving myself a pep talk, studying the guidebook to regain my enthusiasm, picking out my afternoon excursion. But little puddles were forming under each piece of laundry dripping onto the discolored marble floor of my room, and I wasn’t up to tourism.
So much had changed since I had first arrived in the Eternal City full of energy and resolve. On my husbandless high, I had slid into my new life with wide eyes and a loose schedule, taking Rome slowly like old wine. One sight a day preceded by plenty of homework. Like James’s lady, Isabelle Archer herself, I had gone about Rome in a “repressed ecstasy” over the “rugged ruins” and “mossy marbles,” wandering among ruins that had once been emperors’ palaces. I had sat in cafés behind dark glasses watching the crowds, o tiptoeing through naves and apses, been dazzled by medieval mosaics and Renaissance paintings. To be taken for more than a superficial tourist while I wrote my play was all I’d wanted. “I’ll be living in Rome for a while,” I had written everyone at home, giving a genuine street address, not merely American Express.
Now, after only a few months, I had apparently succeeded. Even when I conspicuously carried a guidebook, no one took me for a tourist any more. I was becoming a fixture at the café and that tabac. But far from being fulfilled by n permanent status, I had become exposed. The only purpose I could produce had vanished. If I wasn’t a tourist, then what was I doing here?
People had various justifications for being in Rome. Frank’s old friends the Ericksons up at the American Academy were here on a prestigious grant — that is, Paul Erickson was. There were painters here, businessmen, and plenty of genuine tourists too, distinguishable by having departure dates. Some had eccentric purposes, like the twenty-one-year-old Oklahoman I met at the Vatican who, passing for a tourist, briefly attached himself to me, even courting me by the guidebooks. After a week of Alfredo’s for fettuccini Alfredo, Sistine Chapel for Michelangelo, Via Condotti for neckties, he finally confessed what he was up to. (Too bad; I had enjoyed being with such a seeming innocent in that sly old city, a tourist again myself.) We were exploring a recess of the catacombs together one Sunday, searching out ancient Christian bones with flashlights, when suddenly he touched my arm gingerly and threw himself on my mercy. His father, he said, had sent him abroad to get laid.
No shit! I tried to imagine my father sending me to Europe to get laid. There was a smell of old martyrs in· the tomb. I felt old and jaded.
Now, he said, it was almost time for him to return to the States and he still hadn’t made it. Wouldn’t I help him out? I, married, with nothing to lose, an older woman, a Jewess, worldly, understanding —
“You’re a sweet boy, George, but I’m off sex.” He probably didn’t even find me pretty.
“I didn’t think you would. I just thought — I mean, I hoped — ’’
“I’m really sorry, George.”
“Oh well. It’s been very nice knowing you anyway, Sasha. I liked you.”
Alix Kates Shulman is a political activist, feminist, teacher, and award-winning writer. You can read more about her work on her website.
Copyright © 1969, 1971, 1972, 1997 by Alix Kates Shulman. Preface copyright © 2019 by Alix Kates Shulman. Originally published in 1972 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Twenty-fifth anniversary paperback edition published in 1997 by Penguin Putnam, Inc., and in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. First Picador paperback edition, 2019. All rights reserved.