As he slinked out of the room, I gasped for air, as if I had just been held underwater for those two minutes. I vomited onto the floor.
That night I was not of this world. Teammates had to prompt me to get onto the blocks. I hadn’t heard the announcer’s voice. In the end, we won the team title, but while the team was cheering and laughing, I plunged down to the floor of the diving well. My young world had just been capsized and I was very much alone in my confusion and fear. And I screamed into the abyss of dark water: “This is not going to ruin my life!”
I might have defied ruin, but my young life changed dramatically that day. That first savage episode signaled the beginning of years of covert molestation. Throughout the rest of high school I was a loner, not a natural role for me. No longer did I hold the unofficial title of “most disciplined” on the team, the first to practice each dawn. I couldn’t chance being alone with Coach again. I sat through classes, distracted by an image of hacking my breasts off with a razor blade. Overnight, I began going through life a solitary soldier. I didn’t need anybody, for anything.
Mine is an age-old scenario. Coaches and priests and doctors and scout leaders and stepfathers and, yes, movie producers, have been preying on those they are supposedly mentoring for far too long. And this isn’t the first time I’ve told my story. I first gave voice to the details of the years of humiliation when I was 21; the sense of power it gave me was immediate.
For me, being silenced was a punishment equal to the molestation. Legal prosecution proved time and time again to be futile, but I could at least regain my own dignity each time I uttered my truth. I’ve been speaking out, loud and strong, for nearly five decades now. It has been crucial to my own health. It has energized others to speak out, too. And I will continue to tell my story until all girls and women find their own voice.
I didn’t suffer the Holocaust. I’ve never been through the horrors of war. I don’t paint my youth as tragic, yet I spent every day of my high school years terrified that it would be yet another day that he would summon me after practice, for a humiliating ride in his car or a disgusting hour in the motel down the street. I wasn’t studying with my friends. I wasn’t home with my family. I was clenching my teeth, squeezing my legs tightly together, waiting to breathe again. And I was silent. Always silent. He assured me that what we shared was something special, that my life would collapse if anybody else knew, that this was magic between us. Our special secret.
One spring day, the elite of our team had a light practice, preparing to leave the next day for the nationals in Oklahoma. We were scheduled to spend a few minutes each in private consultation with Coach in his office, to talk over strategies for our races.
When I headed in for my session, I had zero fear of a molestation episode. We were on campus. The other swimmers were chatting right outside.
No sooner had I begun expressing my worry about not having tapered enough, when he flew from behind his desk to behind my chair. He ripped my suit down and grabbed my breasts. He swiftly dragged me into a little bathroom in his office and pushed me up against a single mattress that was propped up in the shower stall. My body knew its response; I went rigid. He pleaded with me to open up, but my survival system was gripped with fear. His eyes glazed with pleasure as he called me his “little bitch.” I recoil at the word to this day. He bucked, panted, drooled and, once again, ejaculated onto my stomach. My breath was short, in my throat, as he bounced back into the office and called out for the next swimmer to come in. Mortified as I exited past that kid, I aimlessly walked out to nowhere. The self-hatred, the welling shame, was all-consuming. I wasn’t an elite athlete of my school, heading off to the United States Nationals the next day. I was inconsequential. Utterly inconsequential.
These molestations were the cornerstone of my teenage life. I studied. I had friends. I won awards. On the outside, I was a bold, overly confident, swaggering success. But the veneer was thin. On the inside, I lived the perpetual trauma of being held down, called misogynist names and ordered to be quiet. I wanted to be anywhere but here, anybody but me.
I was 21 when I told someone the whole horrid saga for the first time. I took a weekend trip to Michigan to celebrate the birthday of my best friend from high school, and every heinous detail, every recounted word, came spewing forth. The relief was palpable. I wept. My friend cried with me, hugged me, took a long pause and said, “Well, Diana, hold on to your hat because the same thing happened to me.” The same coach. The precise same words. The mattress in the office shower stall. The same covert manipulation. The same special secret. And we soon learned that it wasn’t just the two of us. It never is.
When we confronted Coach, in front of our high school principal and the school’s lawyer, he knelt at my feet and whimpered. He said he couldn’t understand why I would falsely malign him this way. The next day he was fired. The principal told me that he had had suspicions, even reports from witnesses over the years, but that he had never caught him in the act.
At the end of all the proceedings, the principal asked me and my friend point blank whether Coach’s being fired from the school would be enough punishment for us. I took a minute to think — and said it would. Little did we know that he would jump right down to the next town and quickly be installed as head coach of a major university. Had I known this man would continue to harm more girls, had I had an inkling as to how deep the imprint of this man’s actions would run through the course of my life, I would have immediately pursued a criminal case.
Up until his death in 2014, Coach was celebrated by the coaching community, his town, his church. He made it into halls of fame and to the top of the coaching pyramid, the Olympic Games. And so is woven the fabric of the epidemic. These often charming individuals are lauded, presented with trophies for their leadership, from the piggish Weinsteins of Hollywood to the unscrupulous parental figures scattered throughout our suburbs. Statistics bear out the astonishing number of sexual abusers among us.
And therein lies the call for our speaking up. We need to construct an accurate archive of these abuses. And we need to prepare coming generations to speak up in the moment, rather than be coerced into years of mute helplessness.
Those who have found a platform to speak, and to be heard, within recent weeks have most likely forged unexpected connections as a result. Whenever I mention my case in front of a live audience, invariably women come up to me afterward and let me know that they too are survivors. They immediately command my full attention with a particularly steady gaze and they say, “The same thing happened to me — my stepfather.” Or “I’m a survivor, too.” Then we hug, long and hard. And we often find tears for each other. We connect. It’s our version of #MeToo.
One afternoon, after an appearance I made in Hilton Head, S.C., an elderly woman came toward me. Gingerly, she took both of my hands into hers, looked at me knowingly and, without saying a word, gave me a folded note. I slid it into my pocket, to read it later in private. Back in my hotel room, I read the note and called the number she had left me. She came to my room a couple of hours later.
This woman told me a story that I’ve heard many times before. Her father began molesting her when she was 3. Three. How can we begin to wrap our minds around that? He continued throughout her teenage years, using the familiar threat of shaming her and even hurting her if she told anybody. This was their special secret, he told her. Those words chilled me to the bone: their special secret.
Our conversation in my hotel room was the first time that she ever told anyone what had happened to her. She shed bitter tears, and I held her frail body, crying also for all these long years she had lived with the burden of these unspeakable events. There’s the irony. These events we have suffered are at once unspeakable and yet need to be spoken.
An interviewer once asked me, as many do, “Where did your confidence, your iron will come from?” That person didn’t know that just hours earlier the same day, I’d flown into an uncontrollable self-rage. Approaching my door, clutching several bags of groceries, I’d fumbled with the keys, lost hold of the bags and started a self-destructive rant as apples rolled down the driveway. The same words the coach had used while molesting me came screaming out at me, from my own mouth. “You little bitch!” “You worthless little ….” That wounded young person inside believes, on some cellular level, that these words sum up exactly who I am at the core.
These self-loathing rages aren’t frequent anymore. Each year, as the events of my youth recede further and further, my current life carries more emotional significance than that long-ago era. I bounce out of bed every day, thrilled to greet the sunrise. I live my life with great gusto. I tell people that I can look back at each stage of my life with no regrets because, win or lose, I throw my best self at everything I try. I walk down the street as though I own it. All the while, the trauma has lodged in an obscure corner of my soul. I refuse to believe it’s a lifelong imprint, yet, with age 70 in clear view, I admit to wondering whether I will ever entirely heal that young girl who was pinned down.
Tell your story. Let us never again be silenced.Continue reading the main story
Enticing the Lonely
To get to Alex’s house from the nearest town, visitors turn off at a trailer park and drive for a mile past wide, irrigated fields of wheat and alfalfa.
“My grandparents enjoy living in the middle of nowhere. I enjoy community,” Alex said. “It gets lonely here.”
She has lived with her grandparents for almost all her life: When she was 11 months old, her mother, struggling with drug addiction, lost custody of her. Her therapist says that fetal alcohol syndrome, which has left Alex with tremors in her hands, has also contributed to a persistent lack of maturity and poor judgment.
That only partly explains what happened to her online, her family says.
After dropping out of college last year, she was earning $300 a month babysitting two days a week and teaching Sunday school for children at her church on weekends. At home, she spent hours streaming movies on Netflix and updating her social media timelines.
“All the other kids spread their wings and flew,” says her 68-year-old grandmother, who has raised eight children and grandchildren in a modest but tidy home the size of a double-wide trailer. “She is like a lost child.”
Then on Aug. 19, her phone vibrated with a CNN alert.
James Foley, a journalist she had never heard of, had been beheaded by ISIS, a group she knew nothing about. The searing image of the young man kneeling as the knife was lifted to his throat stayed with her.
Riveted by the killing, and struck by a horrified curiosity, she logged on to Twitter to see if she could learn more.
“I was looking for people who agreed with what they were doing, so that I could understand why they were doing it,” she said. “It was actually really easy to find them.”
She found herself shocked again, this time by the fact that people who openly identified as belonging to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, took the time to politely answer her questions.
“Once they saw that I was sincere in my curiosity, they were very kind,” she said. “They asked questions about my family, about where I was from, about what I wanted to do in life.”
One of the first relationships she struck up was with a man who told her he was an ISIS fighter named Monzer Hamad, stationed near Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Soon they were chatting for hours every day, their interactions giddy, filled with smiley faces and exclamations of “LOL.”
“Hole,” she wrote at 10:13 a.m. on Oct. 6.
A minute later, she added: “Hello* stupid autocorrect.”
He replied: “haha how are you?”
“did you think of what i said aboyt islam,” he asked, his messages sprinkled with typos.
What happened next tracks closely with the recommendations in a manual written by Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that became the Islamic State, titled “A Course in the Art of Recruiting.” A copy was recovered by United States forces in Iraq in 2009.
The pamphlet advises spending as much time as possible with prospective recruits, keeping in regular touch. The recruiter should “listen to his conversation carefully” and “share his joys and sadness” in order to draw closer.
Then the recruiter should focus on instilling the basics of Islam, making sure not to mention jihad.
“Start with the religious rituals and concentrate on them,” says the manual, which was reviewed in the archive of the Conflict Records Research Center at the National Defense University in Washington.
Hamad instructed Alex to download the Islamic Hub app on her iPhone. It sent her a daily “hadith,” or saying by the Prophet Muhammad.
She felt as if she finally had something to do.
“I was on my own a lot, and they were online all the time,” she said.
Her Twitter timeline through that period is peppered with posts from her that begin, “Sincere question,” followed by a theological query. They were answered immediately. If before she waited hours to hear back from friends, now her iPhone was vibrating all day with status updates, notifications, emoticons and Skype voice mail messages.
She occasionally pushed back, questioning how the jihadists could justify beheadings. But she had already developed deep doubts about the Islamic State’s portrayal in the media as brutal killers.
“I knew that what people were saying about them wasn’t true,” she said.
Her Skype discussions had even uncovered an unexpected bit of common ground with Hamad, who seemed to know a lot about the Bible.
Later in October, Hamad asked her to reread the Bible and report back on how Christ described himself.
He guided her to verses like John 12:44: “And Jesus Christ cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me, but in He who sent me.’ ”
He explained to her that Christ was a man who deserved to be revered as a prophet. But he was not God.
The discussion unmoored Alex, who had chosen a quote by Jesus to illustrate her high school yearbook page.
One morning, roughly two months after she first began communicating with ISIS supporters, Alex asked to see the pastor of her Presbyterian church. She wanted to know whether the idea of the Trinity that Christians believed in — God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit — meant they were polytheists.
Friendly at first, the pastor ushered her out after 15 minutes, telling her she needed to trust in the mystery of God, she said.
The arguments she was hearing online are the textbook approach to luring Christians to radical Islam, says Mubin Shaikh, a former member and recruiter for an extremist Islamist group, who testified before Congress on the mechanics of radicalization and was among those who tried to intervene online as Alex drifted toward extremism.
“I was debating Christians using these same arguments on Yahoo and AOL chat back in the 1990s, when modems made that loud, beeping sound,” said Mr. Shaikh, who traveled to Pakistan to meet the Taliban before renouncing his radical views and becoming an undercover operative for Canadian intelligence.
The next time she attended service, Alex did not stand when the pastor invited the congregation to take communion.
“What you do not know is that i am not inviting you to leave christianity,” Hamad wrote, when she relayed what she had done. “Islam is the correction of christianity.”
Two days later, Alex wrote: “I can agree that Muhammad and Jesus are prophets not God.”
He responded, “So what are you waiting for to become a muslim?”
Soon after, his Skype icon went gray.
Day after day, she looked for him, but he was gone. She wondered whether he had died in battle.
By the last week of October, Alex was communicating with more than a dozen people who openly admired the Islamic State. Her life, which had mostly seemed like a blurred series of babysitting shifts and lonely weekends roaming the mall, was now filled with encouragement and tutorials from her online friends.
One of her new Muslim “sisters” sent Alex a $200 gift certificate to IslamicBookstore.com. She and others chose books for Alex and mailed them to her home. They included an English-language Quran and a basic study guide.
Among the people who picked up where Hamad left off was a Twitter user called Voyager, whose profile picture showed white stallions galloping through crashing waves.
In November, he asked for her email address and told her his name was Faisal Mostafa and that he lived in Stockport, near Manchester, England. He asked for her Skype ID, and soon they began chatting, cameras turned off in keeping with Muslim rules on modesty.
He typically came online when it was 3 p.m. for Alex, and before long they were talking for hours each day, sometimes till 10 p.m. When she calculated the time difference, she realized Faisal was chatting with her from around 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. his time.
Although he spent all night nearly every night speaking to her, the conversation remained strictly platonic, she said. Each day he had prepared a lesson, starting with the fundamentals of praying. They included the wudu, the ritual washing of the hands, wrists, arms, face and feet before each of the five daily prayers. And he emphasized the need for Muslims to place their heads on the ground while praying, citing a Bible verse in which Jesus did so.
She knelt next to her bed, her forehead touching the fuzzy carpet.Continue reading the main story