“It was yellow. A beautiful canary yellow. Yellow was always my favorite color and when I saw that dress, I had to have it because it looked so good on my brown skin, ” she remembered with an assuredness to her voice that told me that every word she spoke was gospel. Over those two hours we spoke – and laughed…and cried…and healed…and bonded – I learned that Carol is many things. Intelligent, funny, honest…
And she is a narrator. Not the kind whose voice you’d here on a documentary. No, Carol narrates her rape as if she stood outside herself with a bird’s eye view of the horrific violation that would replay in her mind for the next 40 years. And her description of the dress, the canary yellow dress with the rouching in the waist that showed off her hips and illuminated her skin, foretells the narration of her story with the kind of intimate detail that only honesty can birth.
She had worn it to church on a warm Sunday in April 1978. Born and raised in Danville, Virginia, Carol could count on one hand how many times she’d missed church. It was what her family did. She’d grown to enjoy it and most, maybe all, of her social life was tied to church.
Sunday service, Bible study, fundraisers and choir practice consumed her time outside of the home. She even volunteered as secretary 10 hours per week. Church was Carol’s life.
On this unforgettable Sunday, she had rose before the sun, giving her time to leisurely sip fresh coffee as she completed a crossword puzzle. Her husband slept in as he always did on Sunday, because six 12-hour days every week not only afforded her the opportunity to not work outside the home, her every need and almost all of her wants happily fulfilled, but earned him the right to “sleep until Jesus shook his soul awake.” Carol would often come home from service after 1 o’clock to find that her husband was still sleeping. She never woke him.
She speaks of him with the kind of fondness only a woman who’s ever been loved by a man totally, abundantly and eagerly can. Carol loved that man, a love hard-earned and unyielding. Her first husband has been dead more than 20 years, and even though she confesses to striking lightning twice, having met and married another man she adores, Carol still calls her first husband the love of her life.
I asked, “What did he do to earn that kind of devotion?” She chuckled softly and began to unfold asking, “How old are you, baby?” “I’m 36,” I answered. “Well,” started Carol, ” If you haven’t experienced the kind of love that would survive time and death yet, I feel for you. I understand it, but I feel for you.”
“Billy was the only person I’ve ever known who loved me like I dreamed of being loved. I believe that man loved me more than my mama and daddy who I know loved me with everything they had. It didn’t matter who I was on what day, that was the Carol he loved. He was so gentle with me. Never raised his voice or showed any anger. We had — have — the kind of love that always felt good. And even now, I feel like to deny how much I still love and long for him would be a betrayal, and I ain’t never betrayed a soul.”
“I ain’t never betrayed a soul.” As I sit and listen, frantically recording the details while committing to never forgetting and not missing one word, one feeling, one detail of her story, the ease with which she recalls the day of her violation grips me. The scenes of the ultimate violation at the hands of the man she’d entrusted with her spiritual leadership spill so fluidly. She doesn’t pause. Her voice doesn’t quiver. She just tells the story as if it she were simply a bystander, a witness to and the victim of a violent rape in the backroom of a church.
After relaxing with her coffee, completing half of her puzzle and having a bowl of raisin oatmeal, Carol used the powder room to brush her teeth and wash her face. She dressed in the guest bedroom, using the mirror to admire herself, practicing the the sin of vanity she never could let go. Certain she’d succeed at her mission of making heads turn when she walked to take her usual seat in the second right row of the pews, Carol kissed her husband’s forehead, gathered her purse and headed to her car to make the short drive to church.
She arrived a few minutes before service began, just in time to greet her friends in the congregation and the pastor. Twenty years her senior, Pastor Harris, or Tac as those who knew him best, including Carol’s daddy who had grown up with the pastor, called him, had always been like an uncle to Carol He had visited her home many times when she was a girl, had performed the funerals of her father, grandparents, two aunts, and a cousin killed in a horrific accident at a construction site, and had married Carol and Billy. When Carol’s father died, the pastor’s wife, Ms. Jean, had brought food over every other night or three weeks. Tac’s daughter was one of Carol’s bridesmaids and before she moved up north, she and Carol often spent Saturdays shopping together. The Harrises were family.
After the unremarkable service, Carol was leaving and stopped to say goodbye to Uncle Tac when he asked her to get a copy of a sermon from a few months earlier. With nothing especially urgent to do that afternoon, Carol went to the office to fulfill his request. She found the speech just as Tac walked into the office.
He complimented her on her dress saying, “You look more and more like your mama everyday. Yellow was her color too.” Carol remembers smiling while feeling like that day, Tac’s observation that she looked like her mother felt different than all the times before. “It just wasn’t the innocent way he usually said it. It wasn’t like her was family. It was more like a man realizing the child he knew was a woman now.”
Carol made a joke about not seeing how she looked like her mother and stepped over to copy the speech. She felt her pastor come behind her, so close she could feel his breath on her neck. He reached out and covered her hand with his. “If I live to be 200 years old, I will never forget what he said to me. ‘Yeah, yellow is your color.'”
“I knew. I knew it was my time. I was born in 1946. It was just the way it was for girls back then. I was lucky to make it to 32 before it happened. I was blessed to have a daddy and uncles who didn’t do that to me. I just knew it was finally my time and you know what, baby? I was sorta relieved. You know how you look forward to something bad you know has to happen just so you can get it over with? It was like that.”
I didn’t press her for the detail. I wasn’t sure I wanted to relive the trauma with her, so when she paused, we both just sat on the phone. Eventually she continued, “He was like a Tac I didn’t know. He was no longer Uncle Tac. He was a familiar stranger. He sounded like my uncle, but the Uncle Tac I knew would never stand this close. He would never whisper in my ear.”
She stood too afraid to turn around and face the man her father called his best friend. She would never be ready to look at him. “Quit playing, Tac,” Carol said nervously laughing hoping it would snap Tac back to the safe familial man she’d always known.
“I ain’t playing, girl. You a grown woman now. And a mighty fine one,” Carol says imitating her pastor’s voice. He grabbed her breast and gently squeezed it. Carol felt her nipples perk up and felt ashamed as she grabbed Tac’s arm and shoved it away. “I said stop,” she blurted out finally pushing him away and turning around to face him. “Don’t you know you mind your, Uncle, little girl, ” Tac said, smiling slyly as if this were all just a game.
Carol attempted to walk past him to the door. Tac grabbed her arm with a firmness that signaled exactly what he wanted. Carol tried to free herself from his grasp asking what was wrong with him. He used his free hand to reach under her dress while telling her, “You know you wore this pretty yellow thing for Uncle Tac, baby.” Now Carol was punching and scratching. The horror and disbelief had given way to rage.
“STOP! STOP!” she remembers screaming. Tac let go of her arm, took his hand from her dress, used his hand to cover her mouth, and instructed Carol to “stop all that god damned noise.” He reminded her that Uncle Tac had a reputation for keeping his pistol with him. Fear saturated her body. She had never thought of Tac in this way and now, she wasn’t sure he would not kill her in the office of the very church where he stood on Sundays preaching about love and forgiveness.
“Good girl,” Tac said as Carol’s body went limp. “Now we can have a little bit of fun.” Tac loosed Carol from his grip and undid the zipper on his pants. He lifted Carol’s slip and dress, and ripped her underwear. He took four fingers and firmly wiped Carol’s vagina, pulled out his fingers, smelled them and whispered, “Oh, it’s ready.”
Tac then pushed the woman he considered a niece to a desk, bent her over, her face lying cold and expressionless on the desk, and forced himself inside her. Carol doesn’t remember how long she was in that position. She counted the first thrusts hoping to catch his rhythm and estimate how long it would be before he climaxed and it was over. She heard his grunts, felt his naked penis pulsating inside her and just waited for it to end.
It finally did with the man who’d stood before she and Billy speaking blessings over their union filled her with his semen. He stood and said, “If I’d have known it was that good, I wouldn’t have waited so long.” Carol stood from the position she’d be forced into and immediately vomited all over the office of the church. Tac asked if she needed water and a rag to “clean up.” Carol walked from that office in a haze, fluid dripping down her leg as her panties had been torn off and ruined moments earlier.
She drove back to her house, sure to fix her hair and clothes before entering in case Billy was up. He wasn’t. Carol undressed, crumpling her slip and dress on the floor, knowing she’d hide them in the bottom of the trash when she was done cleaning the stench of her humiliation from her body. She went to the shower and stood under the hot water for what seemed like twenty minutes, just replaying the events of an hour earlier as tears ran down her face. “At least it’s over with,” she said.
Carol moved through the rest of that day like any other Sunday, making Billy a hearty dinner, and listening to her favorite albums on the record player as Billy rocked in his favorite chair singing along. Not breaking routine aided her well in covering up her shame. Billy was none the wiser.
And the healthy sex life Carol and her husband enjoyed took no hits, at least not that Billy noticed. A gentle lover, Carol still welcomed his affection and caress during love-making. Somehow, that night, after she’d been penetrated by betrayal and a rogue man of the cloth, she wanted even more than usual to feel her husband inside her. She craved him inside her, reclaiming her body.
And the next week, Carol went back to that church and sat in that same pew. And when Tac walked by and winked at her, she felt foul and afraid. But she sat there. Not because she loved that church or even the lord who’d ignored her cries for help a week before. But because if her routine broke, so would she.
And for the next 11 years, Carol went back to that church and sat in that same pew and volunteered in that same church. And Tac never bothered her again. And she just lived with her shame. And when Tac died from a heart attack in 1989, she attended the funeral and pretended to mourn, but used the safety of that grieving to weep for herself. She weeped and mourned the loss of hope that she would ever be redeemed by her rapist’s acknowledgement and atonement for his sin.
Asked why now, four decades later, she felt it appropriate to pull this skeleton from the closet and sit it in front of me, a stranger, and whoever else will read her story, Carol tells me that she and her now husband were watching coverage of Cosby’s case when told her, “Ain’t no way he raped all them women and they ain’t said nothing in 50 years.”
So Carol replied, “I didn’t,” and watched her husband crumble before her. She ran down her story and watched her husband sit and stare off until eventually he came to her and they cried together. She realized that maybe Tac too had had dozens of victims and that needed affirmation. And if not other survivors of Tac’s, then somebody at another church who’d been desecrated, or some little girl whose uncle had taken her innocence, or some woman who’d been forced on her knees by some man she trusted needed to read her story.
“How could I tell my husband that another man did that to me? That man would have flayed Tac without a second thought. How could I take away all we’d built up and have my husband disgraced as a murderer because nobody would believe a woman who’d wear such a ‘world’ dress to the house of the Lord wasn’t asking for the pastor to give in to his urges? Who could I have confided in? The church was filled with people who worshipped that mothefucker!”
Carol stops abruptly. “Hello?” I ask. “I’m here, baby. I just realized that was the first time I’ve ever called him a vulgar name. And it felt good. FUCK THAT MOTHERFUCKER!” she screamed with the passion of redemption. “FUCK YOU, TAC! FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKER!”
Then I cried and we cried together. And later I sat down and wrote this hoping that by the end, more of you who’ve stayed silence in the interest of loved ones or saving yourself humiliation or not knowing who would believe you or just trying to get over it would be screaming “FUCK YOU!” too.