A few months before my little brother’s funeral, I was raped by a stranger on the kitchen floor of my home. I had just cleaned the place because I was expecting a visit from my birth mother: every light switch, counter, doorknob was spic and span. My mother was boarding a Greyhound bus in Sheboygan, Wisconsin about the time the guy snuck in through an unlocked screen door to my ground-floor apartment in a seedy part of Eau Claire. He hid in the pantry, then came at me through the interior kitchen door. I was standing at the sink when he approached, planted his hands on the gleaming white porcelain rim, and trapped me from behind.
I let out a startled scream. “What do you want? What are you doing here?”
“Shut the fuck up, bitch!” The guy threw me to the ground, ripped off my underwear, tried unsuccessfully to penetrate from behind. Nothing worse than a rapist who can’t get it up. I found that out the hard way.
The cops were called. When they came, I said, “Look, I just cleaned this place from top to bottom. The guy opened the screen door. He came in. Hid in the pantry. When I was standing here at the kitchen sink, he put his hands right there.” I pointed, “Right here! He put both hands right here before he shoved me to the ground. He turned off the light. The water was running, he shut it off. His fingerprints. They have to be EVERYWHERE.”
His fingerprints. His fingerprints. His fingerprints. They haunt me to this day. But the cops didn’t even bother printing the place. They took me to the hospital for a rape kit, then to the precinct to file a criminal complaint. It was summer, and by the time I picked up my mother at the bus station, the sun was almost rising. It was the first and only time she ever visited me.
The worst part, though, is that the cops didn’t believe me. It was like being raped all over again. Technically, they said, I hadn’t “really” been raped because there was no penetration. No traces of sperm. The fact that I was mounted and brutally dry-humped from behind rendered me entirely suspect in their eyes. Thrown to the ground, punched in the face. They even thought I was covering for someone. In the months that followed, they kept calling me in for questioning, asking things they would wouldn’t even be permitted to ask today. Things like, how many sexual partners had I had? Had I ever participated in any unusual sex acts? In September, they called me in for a polygraph and I agreed, thinking it was the only way to finally convince them I wasn’t lying. But they told me I flunked.
It was likely that the bit about “unusual sex acts” tripped me up. Like the times in elementary school when I’d get called to the principal’s office, and he’d make me sit on his lap. Or later, my older brother coming in to my bedroom late at night when no one else was home. Or the psychiatrist at the “girls’ school,” grooming us as teens—gifting us clothes, jewelry, make-up, pretty, girlie stuff for our rooms, LPs: things we could not afford. Then, once we reached the age of consent, it escalated to fancy dinners, booze, hotel rooms, kinky sex. Honestly? I was scarcely twenty at the time, but I’d already been involuntarily engaged in “unusual sex acts” from the time I was 9. I didn’t know what pedophilia was. Or incest. I didn’t know that rapists often experience sexual dysfunction while committing their crimes. I only knew that these were “unusual sex acts.”
I had to move to another apartment after the rape and for decades, I couldn’t handle living anywhere on the ground floor. I expected my rapist to come out of the pantry every time I passed by the door, saw him lurking everywhere. On the street. In the closets. And by the time the call came telling me my little brother Fred had died in a car crash in Texas, I’d found another place, second-story in a slightly better neighborhood.
Fred was entering his senior year in high school when he went out drinking one night and wrapped his pickup truck around a tree. I was in the second week of my sophomore year in college, a couple months after my rape and battle with the police. My brother’s mother, Judy Stayduhar, sent me a ticket to attend the funeral, and I still remember standing beside her in the visitation line. I’d been introduced as Fred’s sister, and some unwitting parent had comforted Judy by saying “Well, at least you still have your daughter.” I cringed on her behalf because while I was his sister, she was not my mother. Not anymore.
When my brother and I first met Judy, her name was still Judy Wall. She was a sorority sister, born Judy Bertch somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa. Drake University, Gamma Theta. Later, Northwestern. AAUW. Big- boned and bubbly as Alka Seltzer, she was an elementary school teacher who’d married up, to Dr. Wayne Wall—a blonde, blue-eyed optometrist in private practice who looked like he just walked out of a Marlboro ad. In stature and appearance, Judy was nondescript. The only thing exceptional about her—especially in later years—was her bank account. Because Judy had hit the jackpot. She was rich. Richy rich.
When we came to live in her house, she and Wayne were a solidly upper middle-class couple living in a brick colonial in a better section of town. Judy pushed Julia Childs’s recipe “Feed your man, flatter your man and fuck your man” to extravagant limits, hosting dinner parties with guest lists that included the Kohlers (the John Michael Kohlers of Kohler Company fame) and the French’s (owners of the die-casting factory where my birth mother worked the third shift). The lead-up to the day Judy hosted Ed Cox and Patricia Cox Nixon felt like a 3-week rehearsal for a community theater stage production of Julia. In the high society circles of Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, picking up inner-circle Nixonites from the airport was enough to move a notch or two up the social ladder—and, with all the campaigning Judy did for Dick, as local chair of the aptly named CREEP (the Committee to Re-Elect the President), she earned it, dammit! I worked hard for the guy, too: as a 10-year-old, I perfected my penmanship writing thank you notes to campaign donors and invitations to dinner guests.
Nixon. From the moment Fred and I set foot in the gaudy, gold-embossed, wallpaper-clad foyer of the Wall household, our lives revolved around Nixon. All the buttons, bumper stickers, banners. The rallies. Handing out flyers on main street. Belting out the theme song. “Nixon now, Nixon now, Nixon now more than ever we need Nixon now.” We—that is, Judy, my brother Fred and I. We were conscripts in Judy’s private CREEP army, transported to campaign events in a late model Ford Country Squire station wagon—Fred seated at Judy’s side up front, me sitting in back looking out the window wondering who the hell I was, how the hell I got here, where I was going. “Nobody swings like Ford!” The shrill red, white, and blue NIXON NOW car topper and “Re-elect the President” bumper stickers still loom larger than life in my mind. Now more than ever.
From the get-go, the Wall household was compartmentalized into three units: Judy and Fred; Wayne, his work, and his dogs; and me. I was the outsider looking in. Judy put me out long before she ever sent me away.
Fred and I had been in the market for a forever home as far back as 1970, when I was nine and he was six. That year, like abandoned pets suffering from neglect, we’d been rescued and put up for adoption by the Sheboygan County Social Services Department. We were top -shelf stock in the “domestic supply of infants”: white enough to pass (our American Indian history obscured, alluded to in an oblique reference to my mother’s “dark complexion”); able-bodied (10 fingers, 10 toes); cute (straight teeth, good hair, big-brown eyes); and lacking any visible deformities, notable medical issues, or behavioral concerns. As an infant, I’d been described as “slightly above average,” but by the time I hit third grade, I scored in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Basic Skills Test and registered a 10th-grade vocabulary. It was what caused my teachers to push DCFS to have me and my brother removed from the home, six years after the social worker had recommended that a case for neglect be filed against my birth mother in court. Six pivotal years that could have changed the outcome of the last 60—for me, anyway.
When I came to Judy Wall, I was a high-spirited nine-year old whose biggest problem was a high IQ. At age six, I’d suffered a nearly fatal bout of double pneumonia, rushed to the hospital in an ambulance after my grandmother found me burning up in the late-August heat of my mother’s front yard, where I’d collapsed after getting off the Head Start bus. Visitors were few as I watched the last weeks of summer through a window at Sheboygan Memorial Hospital. My grandmother dropped by as often as she could, but she didn’t drive and was dependent on friends for transportation, mostly her boyfriend, a man I called “Uncle Bill.” My mom and sister came once.
I was bored to tears and drove the staff nuts by ringing the buzzer to the nurses’ station every fifteen minutes. Eventually, they had to disconnect the thing, but I figured out how to “hotwire” it. Finally, they had to unplug the buzzer, then remove it from the room altogether. At the end of my two-week stay, I was sent home in a cab; school was already in session. I was looking forward to becoming a kindergartner, but no one was there to take me to school, and so I set out on my own on the two-block trek to Sheridan Elementary School. When I arrived, I told them I was Lilly Friedberg. I explained that my grandmother had registered me earlier that summer and all I knew was that I was supposed to be there.
To this day, I remain puzzled about Judy and Wayne’s reasons for adopting children on the cheap, taking my brother and me from DCFS. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t afford an adoption agency, and they were pedigree people. Fred and I came with case files, not papers; with baggage, not bloodlines. By contrast, Wayne’s Airedales and Judy’s Yorkie had best-in-show potential. Weekends, Wayne would load up the dogs in the wagon and take them out to an open field for a run. The rest of the time they were housed mostly in the basement, where they were free to pad up and down the concrete floor, howling their hearts’ discontent. They vacated at will on the concrete floor of the basement, which Judy hosed down and doused with Pine Sol every day before dinner. That was Judy’s job: Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Fred Wall didn’t even rate a mention in Wayne’s obituary, but the dogs did.
We were brought to visit the Walls a few times before we were removed from my mother’s tenement apartment and installed in Judy and Wayne’s brick colonial. I still remember the address: 414 N Geele. There were only four homes on the block, all owned by doctors, three of whom worked at the hospital a few blocks north. Wayne was the only optometrist amongst them, and he was in practice with Dr. Meyer at a prime downtown location. The houses on the block were hooked up to the hospital’s generator—I suppose so the physicians could be notified in case of emergency power outages. It was my first taste of privilege: we had power even when no one else did.
Our first visit didn’t go as Judy had hoped. She’d prepared traditional Italian spaghetti—you can’t go wrong with kids and spaghetti, someone had told her. She loaded the meal with fresh green peppers, Italian sausage, ground beef, onions, mushrooms, fresh herbs and garlic, then garnished it with freshly grated parmesan. I can’t recall exactly what I said as I pushed the plate away, refusing to eat. Something like “I ain’t seen no spaghetti like this before!” Spaghetti in our house meant boxed mac-n-cheese from AFDC slathered in ketchup and topped with commodity cheese. Who knows what Judy found more appalling: the way I shoved the plate or the grammar. Regardless, her stringent insistence on proper English would serve me well in the long term.
When the day finally came for us to leave the rest of our family—my birth mother, my sister, and two older brothers—the social worker had to forcibly drag me from the closet, and I only left on the promise that it was for an overnight stay. The only thing I took with me from my mother’s apartment above the tavern, where she worked and drank herself to death, was a frayed nightgown. That night, Freddie and I slept in separate bedrooms and he went from being my little brother to being Judy’s only son.
From the start, Freddie was the center of Judy’s universe. She had wanted a son, had needed more than Wayne Wall could give her. She enrolled Fred in the school where she worked; I was sent to another one. To his classmates, and to the faculty and staff, Freddie was special: Mrs. Wall’s new son. I, on the other hand, was on my own, just some smart-as-a-whip kid with bad grammar and an attitude problem who came from god knows where. The whole situation was set up for failure from the start.
In her exasperation, Judy took me to the library, piled the station wagon full with Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Children and Louise Untermeyer’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. I remember that first trip to the library: How I was stunned by the carpet, the overstuffed chairs, the quiet, the gleaming expanse of long library tables. The idea that you could just go in there and take home as many books as you could carry. The smell of library stacks instantly became chicken soup for my soul, and from the moment I first fondled a book, I wanted to be one. To be in one, maybe even write one. To reside on a library shelf. It was the only place I thought I could live, and to be sure, most everything I have done with my life has involved books. Today, I look behind me at the titles I have published, the books that contain my name, either on spines, or in the tables of content, indices, the footnotes: all the books that I am in. They mean nothing to me now, though. My cupboard is bare.
Toward the end of my three-year stint with the Walls, Wayne purchased two registered Quarter Horses with impeccable pedigrees. He bought the animals before he had a place to put them, but soon purchased a property on West Washington Road in Kiel, Wisconsin—a farmhouse, with barn, machine shed and “back forty” that we came to call the “Double W Ranch.” In those early years, Fred was too young to do much heavy lifting in the barn, so I was the one who spent time with Wayne cleaning stalls, hauling hay, grooming the horses, cleaning their hooves—and riding. To this day, I remember the smell of saddle shops. The stiff leather of Tony Lamas. The teardrop crown of a Stetson.
In the months before Judy asked the social worker to come and take me away, I would routinely pack up my belongings, pile them on a sled and “run away.” With visions of boxcar kids playing in my head, trudging to the tree line atop the hill behind the house, I’d set up camp beneath the pines. It was one of many things that caused Judy to get rid of me, like the time I led a horse into the house and its iron shoes left marks all over the linoleum. Or when I lobbed a nerf ball across the dining room, knocking a bobble off the crystal chandelier. The bobble shattered and left a deep scratch in the mahogany table. Judy and I had just refinished it together.
Later, as she and I grew further apart, I started stealing booze from the bar. I’d fill those little plastic artificial lime juice bottles with hard liquor and take them to school to drink behind the bleachers with my pals. Hardly normal behavior for a fifth grader, of course, but instead of asking “what has happened to this child?”, Judy and the social workers asked, “What is wrong with this child?” And their answer, in the end, was to send me off to what people called “reform school” at the time.
Judy Wall was also my gateway to nicotine addiction. I had never smoked before she became my mom, but by the time she sent me packing in the sixth grade, I was an occasional smoker with a developing drinking problem. Which means these bad habits came from her, not from my birth mother. Marlboros pilfered from Judy’s ample supply in the kitchen cupboard led to a lifetime of smoking and failed attempts at quitting. My mother had to scrape together pennies and nickels to purchase cigarettes by the pack from Schneider’s pharmacy at the corner of Calumet Drive and Mehrtens Ave., where she’d send us with permission slip in hand. It wasn’t just the pennies she had to count: my mother knew exactly how many cigarettes were in each pack at any given time. But Judy bought Marlboros by the carton and stored them in the kitchen cupboard. It was nothing to her if a pack or two disappeared, and the same was true of the booze, which was kept in a well-stocked pantry. Gin and tonics in summer. Bloody Marys for brunch. Dry martinis, Hennessy, Crown Royal. Or Glenfiddich, the good stuff, when the occasion called for it, plus there was always beer and wine for the lightweights. The Walls and their cohorts were straight-up drunks: Dr. Meyer’s wife was years ahead of Betty Ford, stumbling down drunk, bracing herself against the avocado appliances in her well-appointed kitchen, clinging to the walls of split-level oblivion in the suburban whiteout of Nixon’s America. The only thing that separated their alcoholism from my mother’s was that they had the money and social rank to cover it up.
The last time I spoke with Judy, about ten years ago, she chastised me for not having quit smoking. She, of course, had long since kicked the habit—under peer pressure, not inner compulsion, cigarette smoking having become a low-rent sort of thing poor people did. Personally, I have always hated smoking. I hated my birth mother’s KOOL 100’s as much as I hated the ashtrays in Judy’s car filled with half-smoked Marlboros. I never wanted to be a smoker and once I was hooked, I always tried imagining what it would be like to be free. I hated the dependency. The stench. The burn holes in skirts, sweaters, slacks. In later years, the stigma. I even hated it while living in Europe in the 1980s, where smokers weren’t so déclassé. I made many attempts at kicking the habit, with varying degrees of success, until 2017, when I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and quit cold turkey.
I don’t remember much about the day the social worker came to get me, including whether there was any specific precipitating cause. Maybe it was the incident with the horse in the basement. Or the smoking and drinking. I don’t know what Judy told Fred, either, or whether he cared. Maybe part of him was just happy to have his mom to himself. As for Wayne, I suspect he saw the kids as Judy’s business and didn’t care one way or another. I can’t remember having packed any bags. I remember watching the social worker’s car turn left off of W Washington Road into the long driveway Fred and I used to walk down to meet the bus in the morning. I remember it was summer—August maybe, just before the start of school? And then, the three-hour drive to Neillsville, where I was deposited at the Winnebago Home for Indians.
During that same last phone conversation I had with Judy, I asked about the decision to send me away.
“We just didn’t know what to do with you,” she said, “you were always jumping out of your seat in class. Always running to the front of the line. You were so smart. I could ask you what two plus two was and you knew. Freddie needed me, he needed my help. You didn’t. You just knew.”
There was a phone line between us, so Judy couldn’t see the tears screaming in need down my face—still, forty years after the fact. And so, I was able to pretend I was keeping it together when I asked: “Why didn’t you consider putting me ahead a grade? Or two?”
“We thought about it, but we were afraid you would blame us if it didn’t work out.”
It was all I could do to resist asking “So, how’s that working out for you now?”
It could have made all the difference. I remember those days. The problem was that for every assignment we were given, I was the first in class to finish. And I had to sit there waiting for the rest to catch up. Five minutes is a long time for a fidgety third grader, fourth grader, fifth grader. If I jumped out of my seat, it was most often to help another student. In later years, my notebooks were filled with creative doodles—all curlicued and calligraphic, revolutionary and “give-peace-a-chance”-like. I was learning the power of the pen.
If I’d had my wits about me in that call with Judy, I’d have told her, in response to her remark about me “not needing her,” that I didn’t need a teacher, I needed a mother. I had come from the same neglect and poverty as my brother, whom she took under her wing, whom she coddled and held in her lap. Looking back at the succession of aborted adoptions that would follow, the series of missing mothers, I can clearly see the way each failure made it more difficult for the next to succeed. Judy made it harder for Cathy. Cathy made it impossible for Pam. And after that, I just didn’t give a fuck, whether about moms or dads; I had turned feral from the jostling. I talk about this further in the stories “The Human Remains” and “I Remember Roger.”
The other thing I wish I’d shared with Judy was the reason I’d been lobbing a nerf ball around the dining room by myself. It was because Fred was upstairs in Judy’s bedroom with Danny, one of our regular babysitters. Danny was the blond, blue-eyed, all-American teenage son of Judy’s good friend. He was also a pedophile who liked boys, and he had sent me downstairs to play by myself while he molested my little brother. The day with the broken chandelier wasn’t the first time he did it, and it wasn’t the last. I have no idea whether Danny had any other victims, or what became of him. I only know that when he came to babysit, I was to occupy myself downstairs while he fondled Fred upstairs in Judy’s bedroom. Not until we moved to the farm was Freddie free from all that. I doubt he ever told Judy, or anyone else, for that matter. What I doubt less is that those experiences contributed to the fact that he, too, developed a drinking problem long before he crashed his pickup and died without finishing high school.
After divorcing Wayne, Judy went on to make herself into a millionaire and turn my brother into a self-described “redneck.” She used the money from the handsome settlement to establish a gourmet cooking store at the Galleria in Dallas, later in Plano, and eventually settling on the Monterey coast. What really made her rich, though, was selling multi-million-dollar mansions to multi-millionaire people.
Judy considers herself “self-made” and no doubt, she worked hard for the money. But she also had help, starting with family support payments from Wayne in the amount of $1,167.67 per month (today’s value: $6,080.01). Sometime around 1987, she successfully brought a claim against Wayne for $15,000 (today’s value: $39,000+) in arrearages under a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) provision of their divorce judgment. My brother Fred’s labor as a pro bono ranch hand—as Judy has herself boasted—was also instrumental to her success.
And if Judy has since convinced herself that I didn’t need her, she did still need me. A little while after I left her house, I started hearing talk among the adults that my birth mother had not yet relinquished parental rights to me and Freddie. And so it was decided that only one person could coax her into skipping a long court battle and signing us over—namely, me.
It was not an easy sell. My mother could be stubborn as a mule, and she clung to us kids. We were “all she had.” I didn’t have to argue for both myself and Fred, of course, but he was my brother and I believed he was happy with Judy.
This is about what I looked like the day I talked my mother into giving Judy (Wall) Stayduhar her last born:
I was a child. A seventh-grader. I sat at the table on the phone for what seemed like hours, trying to convince my mother that the best thing for everyone concerned was that she relinquish her rights so that I could be adopted by the Ruhs and Freddie could go with the Walls. The conversation was exhausting, and the only way I was able to get through it, and to ultimately succeed, was that my father at the time, Richard Ruh, was seated at my side. Encouraging me, coaching and comforting. Making eye contact. Nodding. “It’s OK. You’re doing a good job, Cherub. Keep it up.”
Judy and Wayne adopted Fred Wall in short order. As for me, I had already become “Lilly M. Ruh,” but the adoption blew up before the papers were signed.
By the time Freddie died driving drunk in September of 1982, there was little left for me to grieve. I’d already lost him twice. Judy sent me a plane ticket for the funeral. Then, months later, came the obligatory thank-you note: “This letter is so long overdue, it’s hard to know where to begin.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express how thankful I am that you were able to be here with me,” Judy wrote. “You were such a source of strength.” She gushed praise for Fred, how he was a source of such pride. “I only wish you could have known him better,” she wrote, as if he wasn’t also my brother and I might’ve felt the same way!
The letter contained not a word about what it meant for me to have lost my brother now for a third time. “You must feel good about him,” Judy imagined, “after hearing so many good things about him when you were down here. You must feel so proud and content within. I hope you do, Lilly.” But how good could I really feel about what my brother’s life became, or how it ended? About the only thing I’m glad for now is that I don’t have to see him as a racist, fist thumping redneck in a MAGA hat.
I don’t recall whether I told Judy about the rape. I may have held back, out of respect for her grief and her grieving. Or because I figured she’d find a way to make it my fault. We spent a long time talking in the days after the funeral: she took me to the Galleria, showed me her store. I mainly listened, playing pallbearer to her grief. I told her how we all have burdens to bear and how important it is that we share the truths about our lives and listen to each others’ stories. She took me shopping, bought me a classic Liz Claiborne suit I’d never in a million years have been able to afford at full price. A couple years ago, I finally donated the thing to a thrift store. I imagine some young hipster stumbling upon the gray-and-black tweed blazer with a shriek: “OMG, look Megan, look at what I just found! For $5.50!”
I also never asked Judy whether she’d ever been raped. Almost every woman I know has been, in one form or another. My mother said she was raped by my father, and that’s how she got pregnant with me. I sometimes wonder whether Judy kicked me out of her house before I reached puberty because she knew the risks of having a daughter? Of being born to bleed. It’s hard to imagine that frat boys in the early sixties were any less inclined to rape their sorority sisters than they are today. Or maybe Judy knew about the principal and his lap, the seedy sides of the sorts of places where she and Wayne lived. Maybe she knew more than I gave her credit for.
Toward the end of my trip to the funeral, I found myself alone in my brother’s bedroom, in Judy’s spacious split-level ranch in a sprawling Texas suburb. She had been kind enough to leave me alone with Fred’s stuff, saying I could take whatever mementos I wanted. I left the antique milk stool I remembered from our time on the farm (too bulky for the overhead on the plane). What spoke to me more was a T-shirt that said “REDNECK” in glittery red-white-and-blue letters and a leather-elbowed corduroy jacket. The jacket I had tailored to fit me; I wore it and the shirt to death.
After the flight back, I returned to the police precinct to collect my belongings, the clothes I was wearing when I was raped. They’d been stored in a brown paper bag on a shelf—as evidence, supposedly, but it was clear no one had touched them. Leaving the evidence room, I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d have been there at all had I not been forced to live on the seedy side of town. And what my story would’ve been.
**This story is dedicated to my dear friend Tammy, who pleaded with Judy not to send me away (to no avail), and who comforted my little brother for many years after I was gone. Thank you dear friend. May you live long and prosper.