You never notice yourself growing. It’s so gradual, so smooth a process that the daily or even monthly changes are simply undetectable. Mirrors don’t help – it’s only in comparing photographs, in seeing yourself at different stages, that one can notice the differences.
My relationship online with Mac grew just that slowly. When we were first introduced online, he was courteous and interested and subtle. None of those childish IMs which are so common, among young teens, flaunting their new-found sexuality like so many new toys. He didn’t try to have cyber sex with me, didn’t make crude comments or ask me to go on the webcam. It doesn’t work like that. He was thoughtful and gentle and nice, and, of course, entirely deceptive, and so we became friends. Just friends. And it was all very innocent - for a time.
It was in the slowest, least noticeable way that he eased me into a more intimate relationship online. He was an expert, but, of course, I didn’t know that at the time. The way the conversation moved into more personal territory never felt threatening because it moved so slowly. We would talk for a few minutes more each day, about something a little more personal each day, and some days we could talk about nothing personal at all. He never pushed, never insisted and so convinced me that I wanted to tell him personal things, or ‘parrot’ those things that he so wanted to hear from me. And I did.
So we talked about everything – not just the sexual stuff. He was interested in me, as a person – my thoughts, my goals, my relationships with friends and family members. He gave me adult advice and always took my side. He was my advocate, unconditionally, at a time in my early teenage life where that was just what I needed. School was: well it was school, mean girls and nasty boys and everyone trying to be all that they’re not- And my family and I, were very close, but we didn’t always see eye-to eye about everything, sometimes they just seemed to think that I was still a child. But there was always Mac, and I could count on him to see things my way Always online. Always ready to talk. Always on my side. It was the most comforting thing imaginable.
Soon enough, he wasn’t just someone that I could trust, he became the someone I needed – I began to believe that he was the only one I could depend on to understand the real me, which is exactly what he wanted, of course. Somehow, in this process, this grooming of me, he had changed me, had destroyed my ability to reason. Imagine,, I walked out the door, right out of my own front door into the darkest iciest winter night, with no money and no coat, to meet a madman who I thought was my best friend.
Was I crazy? No. Was I duped? Entirely. When I review it all, comparing my mental photographs of our relationship at different times, I think, how could it have happened? How could my sanity, my reason, my mental state have decayed like that – how did he make me shrink away to nothing? How could I have gone from being a smart, sane girl having casual conversations with an online friend to doing something I would have sworn I could never do –who.. shy timid little me?—never!!!!- meeting a total stranger in the dark, cold night – leaving home in the middle of a happy, loving, family holiday meal? My only answer is that I wasn’t crazy – I was just under the spell of an incredibly skillful manipulator who knew that slow and steady wins the race – or at least the hearts of young girls. He took me apart and put me back together and bit by bit, day by day, byte by byte, he became the focus of my life and the one who understood me best. Why wouldn’t I want to meet someone like that IRL? It felt right.
And yet it was so wrong. The moment he persuaded me into the car, I immediately knew that I was in trouble. I knew. I had this terrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as we drove down my street, out of my neighborhood, and then, onto the turnpike. Trapped “Quiet” he said. “Let’s keep the trunk empty.”
I kept my eyes cast down, stealing quick furtive glances up at him from the corners of my eyes. Somehow, I instinctively knew that he was like a savage beast, and that I had only to make full eye contact to engage his anger, to force him to attack. I stared down at his shoes as we drove. At his pants, his socks, I studied them, eyes cast down. I could describe it all to you today – that image, that feeling, trapped …it will haunt me forever. Those hours sitting there, the waiting….
What terrible fate awaited me when we arrived at his home? I never envisioned anything as terrible as the reality. When we arrived at his home it was – worse than even I had imagined it could be. It was way worse than a bad after-school movie. It was Friday the 13th and Texas- Chainsaw-Massacre! And he had it planned – days before, maybe months before, maybe the first time we ever spoke. I was stripped, tortured, beaten. …. Raped.
Those words still stick to the roof of my mouth and are glued thickly to my tongue. I listened through the windows to cars passing by, to the voices of neighboring families going out for lunch and to the mall and coming home again at night, yet there I remained, collar around my neck, chained to a post, naked. This was me at age 13. Waiting for death.
How would he do it? Would he stab me, would I bleed to death, my blood adding yet another stain to the filthy carpet” Would he beat me to death with whips and fists, chained helpless, unable to defend myself?
Into this morbid fantasy, unbidden, a fairy tale that my mother had read to me while tucked warm and safe into my silken little ‘blankie’ kept flashing into my mind. The one of an Arabian slave girl held captive by her master. The tale unfolds that at the moment her stories ceased to entertain him, to amuse him - then he would kill her, with this in mind, the helpless slave fought for her life with the only weapon she had - her mind... And she became my inspiration. I would persevere, I would not die. My captor would not win this battle. I knew that my family loved me, that they would move heaven and earth to find me.
But I had to stay alive until they did. So I struggled, silently, determined to win back the life I had left behind. My life that somehow had seemed to become so empty, so sad… why? I understood now, in those cold hours alone, waiting for the monster’s return, it all began to come clear. I wanted my life back! I wanted to feel my mom’s gentle kisses good-night and my dad’s crushing hugs, I wanted to run outside into the sun, to add my voice to the other happy children’s, far, far away from the dark coldness of his dungeon. I wanted to experience anything – anything - except what was happening to me. I desperately wanted to live!
So I waited it out. I prayed. It might not seem, to you, like the most courageous thing to do – I didn’t fight him, didn’t engage his anger. But, somehow, I knew that he would kill me, throw me away like trash in some cold shallow grave if I resisted anymore. He enjoyed my pain. So, I just wasn’t there I left – mentally anyway. This wasn’t happening to me. I escaped into my head and tried desperately to hang on to my sanity. It took my whole being to merely breathe. One breath at a time I waited for my death. I knew that one wrong move would cost me my life and so I simply waited, telling myself “today, yeah today they’ll find me… rescue me,” convincing myself that this would not be how it all ends, that my parents would not find their only daughter’s dead and battered body in this evil man’s filthy house. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, let it end that way. So I resolved to live. Breath by breath. Moment by moment.
And I did. I made it through, a miracle of survival, when so many other girls have been less fortunate. And I can’t say if it was faith, or luck, or personal resolve that saved me. And it doesn’t really matter. I truly feel that something greater than myself has directed me. I am alive. I was given the second chance that so many others had been denied.
I promised myself in those dark and painful days and endless nights that if I were spared, if I were given a second chance at life, I would share my horror, to teach others - maybe you - how to avoid becoming his next victim. I would help them understand that the mentor you thought you found online might become the tormenter who steals your heart, your innocence and your faith in mankind. And ultimately, your life…..
While the emotional and physical scars may last a lifetime, he didn’t shake my faith in myself or in mankind. He may have stolen days, weeks, months, he may have taken my childhood, but the rest of my life is mine. And I have reclaimed it. I will not allow him to torment me anymore. Only I have the power to control my future. I refuse to be defined by his betrayal of my trust, by his cruel sadistic acts or by those dark days, however devastating they may have been. I have a mission and an important role to play. I want to inspire others to move on, past their exploitation, to find their own life mission. I was spared and given a second chance. And I don’t intend to waste it. I will continue to speak to young people and dedicate my life to helping catch criminals, like Mac. I am also helping as a volunteer with WiredSafety.org and others.
So, please don’t remember me as the girl who was torn, twisted, confused, lured, abducted and abused. Remember me for what I will accomplish. Please don’t let this tragedy define me. I am so much more than that. And so are you.