Once upon a golden summer day in Amsterdam I got caught in a wild storm… drenched and vowing never to get rained on again, this California girl rushed into a shop near the canal and bought a yellow umbrella.
Easy to carry and it fit snugly into a sturdy, plastic case.
I loved that umbrella. I took it with me everywhere. Paris. New York. Rome. Then one day, that umbrella saved my life.
I was living in Pisa, Italy and working at a US Army base as a Recreation Director at the Service Club taking care of the troops. Army and Air Force servicemen and women and civilian personnel.
I made coffee every night in a restaurant-size, aluminum coffee urn with a vivacious Italian lady who’d worked at the club forever. We played records, cooked up snacks (my chocolate chip cookies were a hit), set up game boards, puzzles, took the men on restaurant field trips (Italian food to die for!), played pool with them, and piled them onto a school bus and drove them to Pisa to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in a medieval church.
We always had something going on for the men when they needed a ‘home away from home’.
The rest of our Italian staff consisted of an artist, a photographer, and a housekeeper… I worked in the service club under our American club director along with another American girl who was like a big sister to me.
It was a real growing experience for a girl who had spent her college days living at the beach and surfing. We were una famiglia, a family.
I felt safe. Until one afternoon…
Rain was in the air when I was walking home to my apartment in Pisa after visiting the Italian lady who cleaned my apartment (I gave her husband German lessons since he was going to Switzerland for a job—teaching German while speaking Italian was a real challenge). I had my yellow umbrella with me and I was feeling good about using my proficiency in languages to help the young man find work.
I took my usual route home through the winding cobblestone streets, keeping an eye on the gathering dark clouds overhead. It was riposo, that time of day when shops closed and everybody was having lunch and few people were on the street. (I remember one afternoon when my car battery died and my local mechanic said he’d help me… after he finished his spaghetti and vino. Then he smiled and invited me to join him and his family.)
I was surprised when a tall, young Italian seemed to materialize out of nowhere and fell into step beside me, flirting with me. I smiled, then kept walking. I was in a hurry to get home before it started raining. (I was getting used to the locals flirting when a girl walked down the street with Che bella ragazza! as their battle cry).
And then everything changed in an instant.
How, why… I still don’t know what prompted him, but when we turned a corner, he moved with the swiftness of a predator and pushed me into the alley and came at me from behind. He grabbed me around the neck so tight I couldn’t breathe.
I can only imagine the expression of fear circling in my ears, the sheen of sweat glistening on my face.
I was terrified… I stopped breathing. Why is he doing this?
He kept whispering in my ear, ‘Be still…’ then slowly loosened his grip. I started choking and barely got my breath when he slammed me against a wall and pinned me there… and is that a penknife he’s waving at me? Then I realized what he was about when he unzipped his trousers and—
‘No!’ I cried out and tried to run, but he was too fast and yanked me backward. I thought I was a goner… then he made a mistake. A big mistake when he ripped open my black crepe pants with the sharp blade of his knife.
That did it. I saw red. Those were my favorite black pants.
I got so angry, I lost my fear and jammed my Dutch yellow umbrella into his ribs then bolted out of the alley and ran.
All the way back to my apartment. I never looked back.
Fighting back tears and nausea, I raced into the foyer where I ran into my concierge who was horrified at seeing me… wide eyes, flushed cheeks… and my ripped pants.
Then he pointed to my leg.
‘Signorina, guarda… look!’
I looked down. My thigh was bleeding.
Oh, my God, he cut me.
I wrapped a towel around my leg and sat in my apartment… alone… crying and rocking back and forth like a hurt child… until it got dark. I didn’t know what to do. The bleeding had stopped, but the cut was jagged… dirt, cloth pieces could contaminate the wound.
I finally got up my courage and drove to the Army base after dark. Lucky for me, a medic was the only one on duty and he cleaned the wound (I still have a scar on my left thigh). I pleaded with him not to report the assault. I was certain I’d be blamed and the Army would send me home. So I remained silent.
When I was researching my new novel about war crimes in France during World War 2, I realized sexual assault is more common than we think. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), one in four women are victims of ‘completed or attempted rape’.
Upon further scrutiny, I discovered how little about sexual assault during the war had been covered in historical fiction. I decided the time was right to talk about it, that women have been silent too long. How sexual assault affects a victim’s everyday life… the guilt, the shame, the silence.
And Sisters at War was born.
The story of the Beaufort Sisters living in Paris in 1940 when one is attacked by an SS officer and how the assault affects the lives of both sisters.
So, to every woman who was ever afraid to speak up re: sexual assault, remember, we get courage from each other. Tell your stories.
You are not alone.
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