For One Sex-Abuse Victim, the Solution to the Nightmare Was Simple but Scary: Speak Up

UPDATED 09/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

In 1975 Beth Romaine's parents, Stanley and Eleanor, separated, and two years later her mother met Cornelius McLean, a laborer. McLean, now 57, proceeded to sexually abuse Beth—who was 11 when he first appeared—for the next five years.

Terrorized, confused and embarrassed, Beth told no one of her ordeal until, in the middle of an argument with her stepmother in 1982, she blurted out that she had been repeatedly raped. To her surprise, she found support and justice: In 1983 McLean was convicted of rape, indecent assault and battery and sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison.

A junior at the University of New Hampshire, Beth now lives with her father, a life-insurance salesman, and stepmother, an accountant, in West wood, Mass. She decided to talk about her experience to Assistant Editor Bonnie Johnson in the hope of helping other victims of sex abuse. "There's help out there," she says. "You're not all alone."

When my parents separated, my two brothers and my sister and I stayed with my mother. About two years after my father moved out, my mother met Cornelius McLean. I didn't like Neil a whole lot from the beginning. Nothing was going to change in his life, but he was always trying to change us. We weren't allowed to have our elbows on the table during dinner. We weren't allowed to eat with our fingers. We couldn't walk around the house without shoes.

Also, right from the start, whenever we were alone, Neil would French-kiss me. I didn't know what it was called at that time, but when I'd feel his tongue in my mouth, I'd feel kind of squirmy. When I told a friend of mine that he was kissing me funny, she laughed at me and said, "Beth, don't be ridiculous. He's French-kissing you." I felt so stupid that I never told my mom.

After a few months Neil moved in with us. I didn't want him to, but if it made my mother happy, then great. I don't remember the first time he raped me. There were so many times, and it's so painful to think about that I've blocked a lot of them out. Also, I didn't know that it was rape. I didn't connect what he was doing to me—kissing, fondling, oral sex—with rape.

Most of the times he came after me we were alone. He worked as a janitor at a day camp, among other jobs, and was finished by 1 in the afternoon, so there would be four or five hours before my mother, who was a bookkeeper, got home. I remember one time I was home sick. When I heard his car drive up, I tried to pretend to be asleep, but he came in anyway and started to kiss me and feel my chest through my pajamas. He told me he wanted to lick me, and I said, "It's not a good idea. My brothers will be coming home," but he said, "Don't worry, I'll take care of that." Another time he chased me around the house. I didn't want to get near him, but he dragged me to the living room and took my clothes off. When we heard my brothers' voices from up the street, Neil ran into his bedroom. I pulled my clothes on. I didn't want my brothers to see me. I was embarrassed.

I didn't know what to do. I was scared. Neil kept telling me that this was our secret. He also threatened to kill me if I told my mother. I've since heard that sex abusers often do this, but in Neil's case it was even more scary because he had actually been in prison for 14 years, until 1972, for second-degree murder. He always bragged about how tough he was.

My mother knew there were problems; she just didn't know to what extent. She would call my father and say, "You have to come over here and settle down these five kids." My father said, "Hey, I only have four kids," and she'd say, "Well, right now I have five," meaning Neil. My father and Rita, my stepmom, would come over, and Neil would tell them how spoiled we were and how hard he was trying to help our mother get us straightened out. My father said, "Now wait a minute. I think they're pretty good kids. I don't go for this disrespect you say is going on, and I think we can solve that, but I'm tired of coming over here all the time."

Finally, in 1980, my parents decided to swap homes. My dad and Rita moved in here, and my mother and Neil took their apartment. I thought, "Great, there aren't going to be any more problems," but I was wrong. We would still visit my mother and Neil on weekends, and one weekend my sister had a friend stay too, so I slept on the living-room couch. There were only two bedrooms. My mother was sick and went to bed early. Neil was watching TV in the kitchen. I tried to go to sleep, but after about an hour Neil came in and started kissing and touching me. I tried to get away from him, and he said, "Don't do that, I'm not going to hurt you." He took my shirt off and started rubbing my chest. Then he got undressed and said he wanted me to have oral sex with him. I said I didn't want to. I was 14.1 thought that was the grossest thing, but he forced me. I didn't know what was happening. I thought he was going to the bathroom in my mouth. Then he forced himself between my legs. I said, "If you don't leave me alone, I'm going to call my mother," and I started screaming. He covered my mouth and said, "Don't call your mother or I'll kill you." Then he got dressed. All I wanted to do was get in the shower. I felt so dirty that I brushed my teeth six times.

The next morning was horrible. I didn't know if I should say something to my mother. I didn't want to hurt her. She and Neil had talked about getting married, and I didn't want to disrupt their relationship. I did tell my mother that I didn't want to be alone with Neil. She said, "Okay, I can understand that. You don't like him." But she never asked why. Later my mother recalled that one time I had said that Neil was making love to me, but that he had denied it. I don't remember saying it, but my mother said she didn't understand the extent of what I was saying. She said she might have been able to see it in another family, but she never thought it could happen to her own child.

It wasn't until more than two years later that I finally told Rita what had been happening. We had been fighting all week, and she said she wanted to talk. I wasn't in the mood, but we did, and in the middle of it Rita said to me, "And another thing, why don't you like your mother's boyfriend? He tries to be nice to you, and you don't give it a thought." I had had enough of people telling me to tolerate Neil, and I blurted out, "Because the son of a bitch has been raping me."

Rita hugged me and we cried. Then she called a friend of hers who's a psychiatric nurse and asked her what to do next. She put us in touch with Lynn Alvey, a counselor in the Sexual Assault Unit of the Norfolk County district attorney's office. We saw her that night, just Rita and I. That's when I learned there were laws against everything he did to me. I also found out that I could have this man arrested.

I had a lot of mixed feelings. I was scared because I didn't want to hurt my mother. I was happy I was going to get Neil away from me, but I was scared that he was going to come back and kill one of us. And I was excited because I had people I could talk to who would understand and believe me.

I was afraid to tell the rest of my family. We decided to do it the following Thursday. It was Veterans Day, and we were out of school. Lynn came and so did our family lawyer. We also asked my father's best friend to come over. We were gathered in the living room, and my dad kept saying, "What's happening? Why are all these people here?" I don't know how long it took me to tell him, and I don't remember the words I finally used, but afterward he just stood there and hugged me. Then we went to the police.

It was decided that my mother would be told later, after Neil was arrested. My father filed for temporary custody of us kids. I remember not wanting to see my mother. I didn't know if she was going to believe me. From what my father said, she flipped out when she was told. She said, "You're all lying," and she tried to post bail for Neil. Bail hadn't been set, so she couldn't, but it was just what I was afraid of. At first she believed him over me. A couple of days later she realized that I was telling the truth. She called the house many times over the next few weeks, but I was afraid to talk to her. When we did meet, the first couple of times my father was present.

About a year passed between the time Neil was arrested and when we actually went to court. Rita found out about a group called the National Organization for Victim Assistance. They put her in touch with a woman in Colorado who was a godsend. She walked us through every step of the judicial system. She told us who we could call here in Massachusetts for support and what our legal rights were. Without her I would have gone to court completely ignorant. The district attorney never talked to me directly, even though I was his main witness. This support group told us we could demand that he prepare us for what was going to happen in court and explain the reasons for all the postponements that came up—which he finally did.

The trial lasted five days, and the jury deliberated for four hours. They found Neil guilty on one count of unnatural rape of a child, one of rape of a child and one of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14. The judge sentenced him to 10 to 15 years on each count to be served concurrently. I thought it was a light sentence, but it was still like music to me when they put the handcuffs on him—chink, chink.

After Neil was arrested, I was in therapy for a while. The thing that helped the most, though, was being able to talk about what had happened. I had a hard time accepting myself because I kept thinking, "How could I let him do that to me?" A friend kept telling me that it wasn't my fault, that I was still an okay person. I also talked to Lynn Alvey. I remember saying I didn't like her, but now I think what I didn't like was that she was getting at things that I didn't want to talk about, like questions about why my mother didn't do anything.

My mother and I get along pretty well now. We can talk about a whole bunch of things, but rape isn't one of them. She says that it's done and over with. To tell you the truth, it pisses me off. I was the one who went through it. I don't blame her for what happened, but I feel like I need to talk to her about it. It's something she'd like to forget, but it's something I'll always remember.

It gets easier as time goes on, but I still feel afraid of Neil. He's eligible for parole in another three years and nine months. He's not in a maximum security prison, and I'm afraid he could break out. Logically I know that's unlikely, but there's something in my head that believes he's going to want revenge. Every once in a while Rita makes some calls just to be sure he's still there.

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