“How Could He Just Stand There?”
I was a 14-year-old on the edge of rebellion when I fell for Juan. I thought it was love. But then one night two of his friends raped me, and he did nothing to stop them.
>> Pagliarini will chat live about her story on Wednesday, October 28, at 11 AM. You can submit questions in advance here.
I’m in bed replaying the dream in my mind. I hadn’t thought about Juan in years, but there he was, apologizing to me and my father.
I reached for my laptop and typed his name into Facebook. I didn’t expect to find him—he has a common last name, and I had no idea where he lived. But because we have a mutual friend, he appeared at the top of my search.
My stomach flipped as I looked at his profile picture. I could see in his eyes the 14-year-old I remembered. I’d always wondered what had happened to him. Though I didn’t know him very long, he’d had a lasting impact on my life. And I still had questions for him.
Without pausing to think about what I was doing, I clicked on “Add as Friend” to submit a request to communicate through Facebook. Hours ticked by, then days. Maybe he was a sporadic Facebook user. Perhaps he was afraid to face me. Maybe he’d forgotten me.
We had met in eighth grade, during first-period science class at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke. Juan was your typical bad boy—reckless, combative, dismissive of authority. He was good-looking, wore baggy jeans, and walked with a swagger—all of which made him irresistible to girls teetering on the edge of rebellion. Girls like me.
We began our courtship as most eighth-graders do, talking on the phone after school. Usually I wore his necklace, a symbol that I was his. But when we fought or weren’t speaking, other girls would flaunt his necklace and I would seethe with jealousy.
I found him in every song on the radio, saw the two of us in every love story in the movies. During the day, we talked about teenage things, but in whispered phone calls in the middle of the night he’d tell me how lost he felt in his chaotic home.
I had been adopted as an infant and handed a life of comfort and opportunity. I grew up in a nice house in a nice Burke neighborhood and had taken part in the standard suburban activities—dance, swim team, Girl Scouts.
I had always been told that I was full of potential. But as I entered my teenage years, that blessing began to feel like a burden. My parents, and occasionally my teachers, didn’t seem satisfied with me unless I was one of the best students, one of the best dancers. When I got a B on my report card, my father reacted as though I’d come home in the back of a police car.
Juan didn’t like to talk about his father, who had left the family when Juan was young. His mother was remarried to a man who drank and who silenced her with the back of his hand. He and Juan had a distant relationship, but you could feel Juan’s anger bubbling beneath the surface.
Each time I called his house, a different person seemed to answer, another person appeared to have moved in. Whether Juan went to school or not was of little concern to his family. When he did go, most teachers considered him unreachable.
He talked casually about drinking, smoking pot, and sneaking out in the middle of the night. I was intimidated at first, but I wanted to be part of his world.
My parents discouraged my relationship with Juan. When I defied them, our small battle grew into an all-out war.
My straight A’s became C’s and D’s. I complained about having to go to dance class. I snapped over what we were having for dinner. Irritated by my mother’s never-ending questions, I once grabbed a knife off the counter, demanding to be left alone. Looking back, it’s as if I had temporarily morphed into another person.
I lived with opposing thoughts: They want too much from me; they don’t want enough from me. I want them to be proud of me; I want them not to pay so much attention to me. “They” were my parents, teachers, dance instructors, sometimes my friends. Everyone except Juan.
My parents blocked his home phone number so he couldn’t call. Every time he called me from a pay phone, my parents had that number blocked—until the phone company told them they’d reached their limit of ten blocked numbers.
One day I decided I wasn’t going home after school. I called a cab from a friend’s house, and when it arrived I yelled out to my friends that my mom was there to pick me up.
Juan met me where the cab dropped me off. As we walked back to his house, he offered me a piece of gum. I remember feeling moved by the offer.
We played Nintendo, ate Fruity Pebbles, and cuddled under a blanket. While I delighted in playing house, my parents began a frantic search.
They knew I was with Juan but didn’t know where he lived. After some pleading phone calls to Juan from my father, my mother’s best friend called his house pretending to be someone from the gas company. Whoever answered gave her a street name but not the address. My father went door to door asking for Juan. When he finally reached the house, they looked at each other for the first and only time. Juan returned to the basement after denying he knew where I was. When the cops came and retrieved me an hour later, I was crushed.
I pulled up my sleeves, exposing bruises on my arms, and pointed to more on my legs. I told the police: “My dad did this to me, and that’s why I ran away from home.” In truth, those bruises were from Juan. He didn’t beat me—it was more like playful roughhousing. He treated me like one of the boys, and I laughed through things that made me uncomfortable and sometimes even scared me.
I wrapped my arms around myself, stroking the bruises as one of the two police officers backed my father up against the car. The cop told my dad he would be filing a report of suspected child abuse. I begged the other officer to let me stay at Juan’s house, but they put me in a car with my father and sent me home.
It was a warm night in late May 1996, near the end of eighth grade, when I tiptoed down the stairs, out the back door, and through a wooded area to the next street over, where Juan and two of his older friends were waiting for me in a beat-up red Honda. Juan opened the back door, and I jumped in.
I had met the driver at Juan’s house. He was about 19 and dated a girl who was a year ahead of me at school. The first time I met him, he took his girlfriend by the arm into the laundry room in the basement. He returned with her about 20 minutes later; she was quietly crying.
I drank from the oversize beer bottle handed to me as we drove around Burke, pausing to pick up my friend Brandy and then continuing on to the house of another girl from school. We all sat in her living room and got high, passing around two blunts of marijuana.
The girl’s mother yelled from her bedroom about the smoke, and we went back to the car. Brandy hugged me goodbye and walked home. As we continued driving around, I noticed it was quieter. An odd feeling washed over me, sending a prickly flush over my body.
“Is this where I get raped or something?” I joked.
No reactions. The guys in the front seat stared straight ahead. I shot a look at Juan. He looked out the window.
We pulled into a circle at the end of a neighborhood adjacent to a small park. The two guys grabbed the open package of blunts, muttered to Juan in Spanish, and got out of the car. From the back seat, I watched them roll the remaining blunts at a picnic table.
Juan tried to calm me down: “You don’t have anything to worry about. They’re just pissed that none of the other girls worked out for them. They’ll smoke some more and forget about it.” I was relieved.
I relaxed by kissing him. I told him that I wanted to have sex with him—I’m not sure why I chose that moment, but it may have been the pot. Knowing I was a virgin, he asked me if I was sure, and I nodded. He handled me gently. The mild pain was dispelled by the satisfaction of feeling close to him. We finished our clumsy attempt and went to join his friends.
When Juan and I approached, his friends said something to him in Spanish. I was embarrassed knowing that they were probably aware of what we had just done.
“Where are you going?” I asked as the two guys started walking toward the car.
The driver turned back to me and said, “To get condoms. You think I’m going to leave evidence in a white girl?”
I was frozen as they drove off. Then I started crying, my voice trembling as I pleaded with Juan to help me. How could he just stand there? Why wasn’t he getting me out of there?
I couldn’t think straight. I was too far from home to walk. My friend Ryan lived at the end of the street. I could run to his house and ask for help. But I was too ashamed—Ryan was a good kid, and the thought of bursting into his house, stoned and in trouble in the middle of a Tuesday night, was too mortifying.
I ran in the opposite direction, toward an open field leading to a partially lit shopping center. Juan ran after me and grabbed me. I began dry-heaving. He told me to calm down—he was sorry, but the best thing for me to do was just get it over with. He said I would be safe as long as I didn’t fight them.
I sat on the ground sobbing while Juan shuffled rocks with his feet. “You know, I didn’t come,” he said.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What?” I asked.
“I didn’t come. I’m just saying, our first time—I thought I should come on our first time.”
I told him to have sex with me again. I thought maybe if he finished with me, he’d protect me. Another part of me hoped that if the guys saw me having sex with him when they returned, they wouldn’t want me anymore. I lay back in the gravel, took my shorts off, and pulled him on top of me. It was only a minute or so before he said it wasn’t working. I cried some more.
As I watched the headlights return, I pleaded—to Juan, to God. The driver told me to be quiet. He told the guy who had been in the passenger seat to go first. He pulled me by my wrist back to the car. I was reaching for Juan. He didn’t look at me.
It was over quickly. He laid all of his weight on top of me while I closed my eyes. As he lifted himself off and began putting his pants back on, he said, “I can’t believe I just did that.”
I looked at him. Did he expect me to feel bad for him? He got himself together, pulled down the rim of his hat, and got out of the car. I noticed the keys in the ignition. The guys were just far enough away for me to jump into the front seat, lock the doors, and start the car. It was a stick shift, and I had no idea how to drive a car. But I was willing to take my chances.
I slid up to the front seat and slammed down the locks on both doors.
The driver saw me and ran to the car as I turned the key. When he reached the car, he threw his body against the door and pounded on the window. I went from fear to terror, unlocking the door and surrendering.
For the next 15 minutes, I paid for trying to get away. The difference between the first and second guy was like the difference between touching your hand on the stove and being repeatedly burned by a cigarette up and down your body. It seemed like hours before he let me go.
As they drove me home, I buried my face in Juan’s stomach, sobbing as quietly as possible. He kept whispering to me how sorry he was.
The next day, I confessed what had happened to Brandy and another friend as we sat on the grass outside school. Within minutes I was in the counselor’s office with them, nodding to questions, unable to look anyone in the eye. My friends were shuffled off to class, and I was left in a room monitored by a substitute teacher. Meanwhile, the middle-school counselors gathered and called my parents, telling them they needed to come to the school. It was their 19th wedding anniversary.
When I entered the room where my parents sat, my dad was crying. He was red-faced and looked as if he could have a heart attack. He asked me if it was true.
“No, Dad—April f—-ing Fool’s.”
My parents stared at the ground; the counselors looked at each other. They looked at me as if I were possessed, and I wondered if I was. I didn’t mean to spit venom at my parents—after what happened, I had started to realize they weren’t the enemy. I just couldn’t face them.
My parents took me to Fairfax Hospital, where a detective met us. They sat me in a room by myself, and I began to panic. I called Juan’s house from a phone on the table, wanting him to tell me what to do. He wasn’t home, and whoever answered had no idea where he was.
The detective spoke to my parents outside and then sent them home to get my clothes and underwear from the night before. I’ll probably never realize how hard it was for them to have to put their daughter’s underwear in a plastic bag and give it to a detective.
The detective asked me to recall the night, minute by minute, from the moment I walked out of the house. He wanted every detail—what people were wearing, the routes we drove, the start and end time of each scenario. Whenever I introduced someone into the story, he wanted a name, address, and phone number. I lied about everyone’s contact information, and I left out the entire part about getting raped. I accused my friends of creating an elaborate story to get Juan in trouble.
The detective didn’t buy it. For the next four hours, he challenged my story, the time frames, details that didn’t add up. He made me contradict myself, but I wouldn’t budge. I was exhausted. I wanted the events of that night to disappear. And I didn’t want Juan to be mad at me—that was the only thing that could have made me feel more empty than I already did.
I refused a pelvic exam. My parents assured the nurses that they’d make an appointment to have my pediatrician do one. The nurse told my mom that any evidence would be lost by then.
“There is no evidence,” I said, staring at the floor. They saw my comment as a continued denial, but I meant that the guys who had raped me had used condoms.
My parents had me admitted to the adolescent unit at Dominion Hospital, a psychiatric treatment facility in Falls Church. I was too exhausted to fight. When we arrived at Dominion, I was left in the waiting room while my mother and father met with an intake specialist. I stared at a fish tank—a blowfish gliding through the water almost appeared to be smiling at me. He didn’t know I had been raped, so he didn’t know to pity me.
I was called back to the intake room, where the questions began. The specialist asked my parents to leave.
“Amanda, you seem to think your parents are overreacting. Why do you think they are so concerned about you?”
“I don’t think about the consequences of the things I do before I do them,” I answered.
“Do you think there are consequences for your involvement with Juan?”
I hated that she used his name as if she knew him. I hated that my parents had sat in the room before me and talked about him as if they knew him. I hated that I no longer had an argument: All along I had claimed bigotry at those who tried to keep me away from him—I’m white, he’s Hispanic; we’re rich, he’s poor. But now their argument had merit—he had stood by and allowed me to be raped.
“Um, I don’t know,” I said.
She looked at me for a long time before she brought my parents back in. “She needs to be admitted tonight,” she said to them. “She’s completely numb.”
My mom grabbed my hand, and I could feel hers shaking.
Seconds later, a Polaroid camera was in my face. It spat out a picture that was put on a binder above my name. Years later, I would read my evaluation: “The patient was in some denial of her sadness and depression, denied suicidal ideation, but had shown very self-destructive and dangerous behaviors. The patient admitted to frequent drug use (marijuana) and running away frequently since March. Admitted to being raped but refused to press charges.”
The mental hospital was nothing like I’d imagined. The other girls were friendly and seemingly normal. I was angry and timid my first few days. With no connection to the outside world and no indication of how long I would stay, it seemed unjust that I was locked up while the men who had raped me were free. Still, when the detective came to offer me another chance to tell him what had happened, I refused to see him.
By the end of the first week, I was sedated and less resistant to the daily routine—breakfast, school, lunch, one-on-one meeting with my doctor, art therapy, group therapy, visiting hours, video games, bedtime.
A month later, I was released. I had an individual therapist and a family therapist, a diagnosis of depression and posttraumatic stress, and a prescription for Depakote. I made commitments to sobriety and to no communication with Juan.
I didn’t keep my promises. Part of me was embarrassed and part of me was afraid of him, but I never considered not speaking to him. I was still the same lost girl who had clung to him for the past year.
Our relationship didn’t last the summer. He had been expelled from Lake Braddock for selling pot and moved before our freshman year began. The last time I spoke to him was a late night in July after sneaking out of the house. I stole my mother’s car, and we drove the length of the new Fairfax County Parkway and back.
He didn’t ask if I was okay or tell me he was sorry. I didn’t ask why he hadn’t helped me or if he had known all along what was going to happen that night. We just drove.
In the parking lot of his family’s townhouse, I reached down to grab something that had fallen on the floor. When I looked up, the passenger’s door was open and Juan was gone. He walked into his house without saying goodbye.
A few months later, he arranged through a friend to see me, but at the last minute I changed my mind. Instead I went into my parents’ bedroom and told them I had planned to sneak out with Juan but was scared.
That was the last I’d heard from Juan until I found him on Facebook. It’s hard for me to explain why I wanted to contact him—I knew my parents and friends would be horrified. Part of it was curiosity; I couldn’t help wondering what had become of him. But even more, I’ve always struggled to understand why I fell off course as a teenager, and I thought I might find some answers by speaking with Juan.
Three days after I sent him a friend request, I received a message—he would love to catch up. He gave me his phone number.
After 13 years, with no idea what type of person he’d become, I wasn’t ready to speak to him. We exchanged messages over Facebook, learning about each other’s lives. I’d heard rumors—he moved to Nicaragua with his family, he was in jail, he moved to Texas.
I told him that I had left Lake Braddock after freshman year, graduating from Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax and then George Mason University. I was surprised to learn that we had lived near each other all along, Juan attending a nearby high school and then going to a local university. I cried when he told me he’d gone to college. When I told him about the relationship I have with my current boyfriend, he said it sounded as if I had started making better decisions.
We reminisced. “Yes, I do remember when u stole your parents ride and we just drove all around Northern Virginia,” he wrote. “We were wild but I agree I see these kids nowadays and wonder what the hell was wrong with me. I do remember your parents hating me … . Damn, i still can’t believe here we are 13 yrs later and catching up on things.”
I finished my last message to him with my phone number. At 9:30 the next morning, he called. I closed the door to my office. An hour and a half into the conversation, he still hadn’t brought it up. So I did. We had never spoken about that night. I had always wanted to hear how he saw it. And now that I was speaking to him, I needed him to acknowledge what had happened.
“Do you remember that night we snuck out and met up?”
“When you took your mom’s car?”
Seconds ticked by.
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Why didn’t you help me?” As soon as I asked, I felt I already knew the answer. Those guys were the only family he knew, and in that family your loyalty was to your boys, not some white girl. I just needed to hear him say it.
“I should have helped you, Mandi. And I’ve had to live with that every day since it happened. You were my best friend. Sometimes it felt like you were the only one who cared about me. I apologize for ever bringing you around those people.”
I had considered the possibility he would deny it or dismiss it. I never thought he would respond so directly.
I nodded silently, a few tears falling.
“You still there?” he asked.
I continued nodding until I was able to say, “Yeah.”
“You know how it was back then. We were supposed to be tough, not care about anyone. I was the punk kid in that group—I couldn’t step up to them. Even if I had, they would have just laughed at me.”
“Did you know that was going to happen?”
“Hell, no. I knew they wanted to meet some girls and try to hook up, but I never knew it would go down like that. They should have gone to jail for what they did to you. I can’t change the past, but I hope one day you can forgive me.”
“I never blamed you.” He hadn’t been prepared for what happened that night, and he was probably right—any attempt to stop them would have been met with laughter.
Now he was silent. Then he told me what I always feared, confirming my one regret for not reporting what they had done.
“You know, he did it again. I’m pretty sure he did it several times.” He was referring to the driver. “He’ll get his in the end one day. I hope you know I never talk to that guy. Once I grew up, I knew I wanted nothing to do with him.”
He went on to tell me how much he had envied my home life, having two parents who cared about me. He envied my house, the fact that everyone sat down to dinner at night. He told me how hard it was to long for parents like mine when they hated him, adding: “But I guess I can understand why they did.”
“They didn’t hate you—they were just afraid for me,” I said, not wanting to tell him the truth.
Hearing Juan describe this longing for a family reminded me how grateful I was for my parents, despite the years it took me to feel that way. Though we fought less after I was released from the hospital, my relationship with them didn’t become really loving until I graduated from college—purely a result of my selfishness.
When I told them I had reconnected with Juan, my mom cried. My dad sat up straight, as if on alert. But as I described our conversation and how much it had surprised me, they calmed down.
Juan and I spoke a few more times. During one conversation, he told me about his attempt to reconnect with his father. After several phone calls, they agreed to meet for dinner. Juan told him what it was like to grow up without a father. They both cried. His father apologized and admitted his mistakes. Juan told him it was in the past and he just wanted to move forward. They left committed to working on their relationship.
But Juan never heard from his father.
“I finally decided to call him,” he told me, “and when I did, he didn’t even know who I was. When I told him it was his son, he said he couldn’t talk and would call me back. I’m still waiting for that call.”
My heart broke for him. I said, “For what it’s worth, Juan, I believe everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got. I really believe he loves you. He just isn’t equipped right now to show you.”
This is what I used to tell myself about Juan.
Talking with Juan wasn’t a turning point, but it gave me a feeling of completion. I had made peace with what had happened. Part of that was taking responsibility for my choices: I had walked into what I knew was a potentially dangerous situation. No one had snatched me from my house or dragged me there against my will. I had ignored the warnings of my friends and my own instincts.
Juan didn’t let me down on the night I was raped—his actions had always been consistent. He was never reliable, dependable, or trustworthy. He was the guy who introduced me to drugs, stole from me, encouraged me to ditch school and defy my parents. I shouldn’t have expected him to become gallant.
Juan was broken. I always believed he was born a kind soul, but he didn’t live in an environment that nurtured that.
I used to tell myself that if I were patient and loved Juan enough to overlook all of his shortcomings, he would eventually reward my loyalty by loving me back. The more pain he caused me, the more love he would show me in the end.
I wish I could say my relationship with Juan was the last time I told myself this lie. I felt lost all through high school and college and latched onto people who exploited my hopelessness. I threw away several years being loyal to someone else’s husband. Then I found a man of my own and moved to North Carolina to be with him. I knew deep down that he was cheating on me, but I bought a house with him anyway.
It was when I was packing boxes to move out of that house and wondering if I would ever have a happy ending that I realized I was destroying my life. I’m not sure why it took me so long to believe I could have love without paying for it with so much pain. I’ve learned to give my loyalty to the people who deserve it. My parents top that list.
A few years ago, Dateline aired a story about a woman who’d been raped while in college in the 1980s. Twenty-one years later, she received a letter from her rapist—who’d never been caught—describing his years of anguish and guilt and asking for forgiveness. She took his letter to the police and filed charges. When asked if she was at all moved by his anguish, she said no. With her rapist behind bars for 18 months, she said, she was finally able to heal. But to me it didn’t seem she had healed at all. What I saw was a woman slashing through her wounds with a knife.
She said she’d never been the same after the rape. I agree—I was forever changed in a way I can’t quite explain. “It’s like you’re being killed,” she said. “And yet you still live.”
I wanted to jump through the TV. Yes—you still live. And after recovering from rape, I’ve always felt that with the passage of time I’ve had a choice: I could live fully and freely or live anchored in resentment.
I don’t judge the woman for reporting her rape. I wish I had reported mine back when it happened—not for the sake of justice but to protect the women who were later hurt by the same man.
The state of Virginia doesn’t have a statute of limitations on felonies, which means I could still report the men who raped me and press charges against Juan as an accessory—and I can understand why some people might think I should. But I can’t see how pressing charges would bring peace to anyone involved, especially me.
I never expected to have the chance to talk to Juan again. Our conversations helped me fill in blanks about a time in my life that I’d been resigned to leave full of questions. My parents and close friends are baffled by my willingness to forgive him. Maybe they’re right—maybe I am crazy. But I’m also happy and free.