Friday, January 17, 2014

Explaining Anna's rape to the 9-year-old

Watching Downton Abbey is a weekly treat in our family.  The 13-year-old boys get to watch it with me on Sundays.  The 9-year-old girl is in bed before the show begins so we watch it on DVR the next day.  Being on the west side of the pond means I have worked very hard since the fall to avoid all discussion about season 4 or read any spoilers.

However, this past Sunday's episode was not like any other.  I probably should have paid attention to the warning on the screen before the dog's backside appeared but I was lulled by the sweeping piano and strings and the excitement for a weekend of parties!

Anna's story unfolded - unfortunately - very well.  Her assailant grooms her with his flattery, fun game (what was that card game all about?) and small talk.  So when he violently rapes her it comes out of no where because, well, he had been so nice.  Although Anna's husband, Mr. Bates, of course knew the guy was a good-for-nothing.

As the credits rolled, the boys and I sat stunned.  We talked about how horrible it was to watch and how unfair it was that Anna was now hiding a secret.  I also reiterated to my not-quite-men that women are not for men's (or boys') pleasure.

But how to talk about it with my 9-year-old daughter?  That Monday, after school, I didn't offer to play the recorded show and she didn't ask to watch.  On Tuesday driving to ballet class she asked about it and I told her that I was sad that Tom and that new maid were spending time together (I call her O'Brien 2.0).  Other days have passed and now we're almost at a new episode.  I believe Anna was pregnant before the violent sexual assault (dropping Lady Mary's perfume, getting all emotional about Moseley's debts, that fateful headache) but I think the writers will (cruelly) cause her to think the rape led to her pregnancy.   This means the crime will be a key part of several episodes and my daughter would not understand what was upsetting Anna and (hopefully) others when she finally shares this horrible secret.

This afternoon we had the talk.  I stressed that this was a make-believe show and everyone was actors.  Then I told her what happened and how they showed it on the screen.  But I made some key points.

1. Explain what actually happened
"Inappropriate touch" or "he hurt her" does not fully convey the horrible crime and abuse this fictional character (and sadly so many real people) suffer through.  My boys were about her age when the Sandusky scandal broke and they asked me what the former football coach did to the boys.  I told them so that it wouldn't be a mystery.  And I told my daughter today what happened to Anna.

2. Reassure that she could tell me and her dad anything
I told her, several times, that no matter what happens to her she can tell me.  No matter how bad she feels, how wrong she may believe she was, whatever the outcome she can tell me and her dad because we will love her and help her.

3. Trust her feelings
I explained that part of the assailant's plan to attack Anna was to make her feel comfortable with him.  I told her that unfortunately most rapes are done by people who know their victim.  So that means that if someone she cares about starts treating her differently, making her feel bad, or pushing her to do things she is not comfortable with she needs to trust that funny feeling in her stomach and get away.  This is harder said then done but hopefully talking about it now means she'll be brave later.

I asked her if she had any questions or anything she wanted to say.

"Mom, I think I'll skip this week's Downton Abbey.  I like it when it's happy and has parties."

Me too, darling girl.  Me too.