He Witnessed A Rape In 1969. He's Finally Ready To Talk About It

Oct 21, 2018
Originally published on November 4, 2018 6:14 pm

"I was both an observer and a participant in a teenage rape."

That sobering confession is how Don Palmerine began to tell his story publicly for the first time, at age 67, in a Washington Post essay published earlier this month about the part he played in a sexual assault.

Palmerine was a 17-year-old high school student when he attended a party and, according to his account, watched through a window as a young man raped a young woman. That was in 1969. As he described the incident in The Post:

At one point, a boy told several of us to go outside and look through a window into the basement because another boy, a football player, had taken a girl there. (There were far more boys than girls at this party.) When we peered through, we saw the girl passed out on a sofa, her feet facing us. As the boy approached her, he waved to us, smiling. He proceeded to remove her jeans and then her underwear. It was the first time I had seen a girl naked. He climbed on top of her and penetrated her. She immediately woke up and tried to fight him off. At this point, we all scattered in the yard. No one said anything. There was just nervous laughter.

Eventually, we all went back into the house. I don't remember anyone drinking, other than the girls. I did not drink anything. We must have gone into a bedroom, because the next thing I recall is standing with about 10 other boys around a bed on which a different girl had passed out. Everyone was touching her through her clothing. I placed my hand on her leg and quickly removed it.

One boy kept turning the lights on and off. When they came on, everyone removed their hands from the girl's body. In the dark, everyone put their hands back on her. Everyone would laugh. It was some kind of game, and we all seemed to understand the rules. This happened four times, and then we all left the room. I'm glad it didn't go further.

Over the next 50 years, Palmerine says, he did nothing and said nothing. But the guilt stayed with him.

It wasn't until he watched Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate judiciary committee last month that he felt he needed to speak up.

His experience, he says, felt akin to the incident Ford described in which she says now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school. (Kavanaugh has vehemently denied the allegation.)

"I felt it was genuine, and I felt she was really telling the truth," Palmerine tells NPR's Michel Martin. Palmerine also writes that, Like Ford, he struggles to remember key details about the evening:

I don't remember the month it occurred or the exact town it was in, but I remember that the party was in an upper-class suburb south of Pittsburgh. I don't remember how I got home. These details don't matter to me. What I remember clearly was the rape. Recalling it, for me, is like remembering where I was when I found out that President John Kennedy had been assassinated. There is a before and an after.

But he also wanted to forget about the event, he says, which kept him from coming forward. "When you're guilty about something, you don't want to tell anyone ... I did something bad, I said in the article I committed a crime, and I did."

In the past year, the #MeToo movement has brought worldwide attention to stories about women and men who have survived sexual assault. And while some high-profile men have been convicted of their sexual assault crimes, rarely have men come forward about witnessing or playing a role in sexual abuse.

"I wanted to tell this story because I believe it's time for men to tell the truth about the ways they've abused women and what our role has been in creating a culture that tolerates this," Palmerine says.

He also writes that he wonders about how that night shaped the lives of those young women at the party — "If they remember this night. If they told their daughters."

He writes:

In 1969, there was nobody to turn to. They certainly wouldn't have gone to the police — at the time, a subtle notion persisted that an assault was always the girl's fault, that she shouldn't have gotten herself into that position in the first place. They wouldn't have told their parents, who would probably have scolded them.

As for the men, he says, he's unsure why they've been silent. "I think men should be part of the #MeToo movement. I think we should come forward and talk about what we've seen, what we've done — I think that should be part of it."

After talking to his wife and three sons (ages 11, 17 and 19) about what he had witnessed when he was 17, he decided to write about it for The Post. But he hadn't told his wife about his participation in assaulting a woman later that night. "She didn't know that until this [Washington Post] article came out," he says. "It was tough for her to take."

Palmerine says his sons showed him comments from people who responded to his story on Twitter. "It's almost as if I was the first guy to admit this," he says.

As Palmerine wonders about what happened to those women, he says, "The only thing I can say [to them] is I'm sorry. I didn't help."

"You know, a few women called me a hero, but no, I wasn't," he says. "I would've been a hero if I helped these women then."

NPR's Lilly Quiroz, Gemma Watters and Rachel Gotbaum produced and edited the audio version of this story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to return to a difficult and - for some people - a traumatic subject that's been much in the news. We're talking, here, about sexual abuse. We're finally starting to hear from women and some men who've experienced this. Far more rare, though, are stories from people who have witnessed sexual abuse and stayed silent about it. Don Palmerine was in high school when he attended a party, and he says he saw a young woman being raped through a window. That was in 1969. And, over the next 50 years, Palmerine says he didn't do anything about it. But the guilt stayed with him. And, after talking to his wife and sons about it, he decided to write about it for The Washington Post. And Don Palmerine is with us now from his home in the Pittsburgh area. Mr. Palmerine, thanks so much for talking with us.

DON PALMERINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: You wrote this piece after Christine Blasey Ford testified about what she says that now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh did to her when they were both in high school. Is that what made you want to write this piece after all these years?

PALMERINE: Yes, that's what motivated me. I watched her testimony, and I felt it was genuine, you know? I felt she was really telling the truth. Plus, the things that she forgot were the same things I forgot, you know? So I said, well, I'm going to just write something that - about my experience, which was very similar. I did something bad. I said in the article I committed a crime, and I did.

MARTIN: You know, what you wrote is hard to read. And, you know, for some people, it's going to be hard to hear about this. So this is where, again, I'm going to say that, for some people, if this is too much to listen to, then, you know, take a minute and...

PALMERINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Step away for a minute. But I'm going to ask you to recount for me what it is that you said that you saw. And you were at a party, right?

PALMERINE: Yeah. Let me start by saying this was an unusual event for me because I never went to parties, never. And so I don't even know why I went. I didn't know anybody. And, all of a sudden, a kid came upstairs and said, hey, go outside and look through the basement window. So about 10 of us went out there, and I happened to be right in front of the window. And I'm watching. And as soon as I looked through the window, I see a girl just lying on a sofa. She looked like she was passed out. And so the kid went down. And he looks up to us, and he waves to us. And he starts smiling. And then, he starts to take her jeans off. Then, he took her panties off. Then, he pulled down his pants, and he went on top of her. And, as soon as he did that, he was starting to have sex with her, she kind of came to and started hitting him on the shoulders. He jumped up right away, and all of us at that window - it was outside. We all just started to run.

MARTIN: You also write that you and other boys at the party started touching another young woman who was also passed out on the - on a bed. But then, you left.

PALMERINE: Yeah. This was later, maybe 20 minutes to 30 minutes later. She was laying on the bed. And what one kid was doing was - when the lights were out, everybody was touching her. He would turn the lights on, and everybody would pretend like they weren't touching her. And they probably did this four or five times. I touched her leg at one point. And that was all I did, but it was enough.

MARTIN: You - you know, you wrote about why you think the girls would never have said anything about this. They would have been blamed and shamed. They would've been told, it's your fault. But you never said anything either. Why do you think that is?

PALMERINE: You know, I think I wanted to forget about it. And, plus, later on, it was just plain guilt. When you're guilty about something - and I was guilty, and I admit it in the article - you don't want to tell anyone.

MARTIN: One of the things about your piece that I think struck a lot of us is that you said, I wanted to tell this story because I believe it's time for men to tell the truth about the ways they've abused women and what our role has been in creating a culture that tolerates this. We've all seen things. We've all heard other men talk. And you wrote about a couple of examples, where you just heard people say these crazy things, and, you know, nobody did anything. And do you have a sense - like, why do you think that is? That - why do you think this has been tolerated so long?

PALMERINE: I don't know. I don't know why we've kept quiet. I had a quote from somebody, some man who said that it would be easier to admit that you committed a murder instead of admitting you committed a sexual assault. And I can't answer that. I don't know. I really don't know why men have been silent on this issue. But I think men should be part of the #MeToo movement. I think we should come forward and talk about what we've seen, what we've done. I think that should be part of it.

MARTIN: How did your family take it when you told them?

PALMERINE: Well, let me tell you. When I originally told my wife, I told her just the rape part that I witnessed. I did not tell her my participation. She didn't know that till this article came out. Let me just say it's - it was tough for her to take, let me tell you. But everything's OK now. Everything's good.

MARTIN: And how did you explain it to your boys?

PALMERINE: Well, just - I was truthful with them, and they were very receptive, you know? I'm their dad, you know? Dads can - you know, we kind of can't do too much wrong in the eyes of our kids. They both told me, though, my two older boys - they don't think it would happen now. They said everybody at that window would've had their phones out videotaping it. That's what they told me.

MARTIN: But that doesn't mean it wouldn't have - what are they saying? They - yeah...

PALMERINE: I mean, but in that sense, that kid wouldn't have done it because he wouldn't have wanted it to be on film, you see?

MARTIN: Yeah.

PALMERINE: We film everything - you know? - is what they were kind of alluding to.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel now that you got it off your chest?

PALMERINE: You know, I kind of have mixed feelings. I'll be honest. There are days when I regret it. And then, there are days that I'm glad I did, you know? My kids showed me some comments on Twitter from people. Some women have said it's about time someone - it's almost as if I was the first guy to admit this. A lot of women said they were glad I did it. They felt better about themselves. A few women who have been actually assaulted who wrote notes to me said that they - it made them feel better. And so that made me feel kind of good, you know?

MARTIN: Your piece was very moving. And I - one of the things I think there's - like, every paragraph of it, I could quote. But the fact that you think about these women, I mean, now and you wonder what happened to them, like, how this affected their lives - I mean, if you could say anything to them, if, by some miracle, they were listening, what would you say?

PALMERINE: The only thing I could say is I'm sorry I didn't help, you know? A few women had called me a hero, but, no, I wasn't. I would've been a hero if I had helped these women then, but I didn't do it.

MARTIN: Don Palmerine, thank you so much for talking with us.

PALMERINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.