"It's not bad," Lola insists quietly.
"I don't even think it's true," her friend and classmate pipes up. "I think that she probably just made it up."
Eve's eyebrows raise in a combination of skepticism and discomfort. As the eldest, she doesn't want to betray her interest too much by adding her opinion, but she clearly has one.
"What's up, guys?" I ask, not wanting to overstep my bounds, but curious as to what has them acting like international spies.
Caught, they whirl to face me, on the other side of the kitchen and blurt, "Nothing!" Giggles erupt from behind their sweet, soft hands and their heads come even closer together as if pulled by an invisible drawstring. Just as I'm about to shrug it off, they decide to tell me.
Haltingly and from a distance of at least six feet away, Lola begins talking without meeting my eyes. It seems that there is a book on the shelf in her classroom that has prompted the girls to discuss and wonder and whisper. It is a book of stories authored by teenage girls that is meant to inform and inspire other girls, but at least one of the stories has them disturbed. Not necessarily unhappy, but certainly upset in the sense of the word that calls to mind a stick stirring up sediment in a clear pool of water.
Lola speaks slowly, starting from the beginning of the story and it soon becomes clear to me that the essay depicts one girl's experience of being sexually molested by her babysitter over a period of several years. Lola is too embarrassed to tell me in the same terms used in the book, so she tries to write it down. Before she can finish, I turn to Eve and ask her if what she knows about it. Standing next to me, she talks with a flat tone, looking into my eyes.
I am aghast. The phrase, "it's not bad" continues to run through my brain. How can she think that isn't bad? How did this book get into a classroom for first, second, and third graders? How many of these girls have read this book and how long have they been discussing it without any adult mediation?
We stand in the kitchen and talk about what each of these girls, seven, eight and ten years old, would have done in this situation. Lola and Eve are confident that they would physically fight back, kicking and hitting and the look of disgust on their faces convinces me they would. Lola's friend maintains that the story is probably not true.
They are all three shocked to hear me say that such things happen a lot more often than they know. Lola asks me whether I know anyone who was treated that way and I assure her I do, but that I won't name names because I don't think that is fair. She accepts this explanation, but wants to know more. I don't want to rattle off the statistics, that at least one of every four females in the world experiences sexual abuse of some sort in her life, and those are only the ones who are reporting it. Others like this young girl who were too frightened or confused go unaccounted for. I simply say that it is important for us to find ways to talk about these issues without embarrassment and share our experiences with adults we trust so that the people who are attacking women and girls can be held responsible for it.
I am so happy that these three girls were courageous enough to share this with me. While I am not thrilled about the way it was brought up to them, I know that the book will be removed from their classroom and the teachers will handle it thoughtfully. It turns out that the book was donated by a parent this summer and was not thoroughly vetted before it was put out on the shelf. (Upon doing some research, it seems that there are many such books, aimed at girls, kids, grieving families, pet owners, retirees, etc. and I discovered that they are full of difficult stories. Unfortunately, without reading the entire book, it would be hard to know whether or not it is age-appropriate.) I appreciate the intention of the book, but I can't imagine letting my seven or eight year-old (or even nine or ten-year old for that matter) read such stories without an adult present who could help them interpret and fully understand many of the concepts.
The fact that a mainstream, American publication like this contains multiple essays about sexual abuse (it does, I found the book and read it) makes me wonder how much we as a society have accepted the fact that our girls will be raped and molested. So much so that we can talk about it years after the fact and encourage girls to "tell" on their abusers. I think that doing so is important, but maybe it means that we need to have a much more aggressive campaign to prevent sexual abuse in the first place. Perhaps we need to teach girls and women to be open about the fact that their bodies belong to them and send the message that this kind of act will not be tolerated. We will not be objectified, groped, talked about lewdly or disrespectfully, or put in situations that are dangerous. Our civic leaders need to be completely upfront about the fact that the rules have changed and women will not be victimized any longer, and if they are, we will not waste time hiding or feeling ashamed. We will not, in any circumstance, decide that "she deserved it" or "she wanted it."