Photo: Sexual assault survivor Leanne Grabel will be coming to Stockton on Sept. 28 for a reading of “Brontosaurus illustrated” at The Write Place in Stockton. (COURTESY PHOTO)
This article includes content that might be considered sensitive
She was on spring break from Stanford, lounging with two friends on an empty Baja beach, when two men in black ski masks snaked out of a nearby hedge.
One had a knife, the other a rifle.
“Fear bored into me like an industrial clamp,” writes Leanne Grabel, one of many memorable lines in “Brontosaurus illustrated,” a graphic novel about her 1972 rape and life after.
Grabel, 71, a Stockton native and Stagg High graduate, now resident of Portland, is coming to Stockton Sept. 28 for a reading of “Brontosaurus.”
“Just about everything shiny was sucked out of me then, when I saw those weapons,” Grabel writes. “I was instantly a member of a horrible new club — Those Who Are Probably Going to Die in A Brutal Way or At Least Think They Are Club.”
In her fear she lost control of her legs. They twitched spasmodically.
The masked men prodded them into the back of their van. They tied them, blindfolded them, and drove them off in their van, prisoners. The men stopped for weed, drove somewhere else, and pulled them out of the van.
The gunman led their male friend, Daniel, away. Grabel thought she heard a shot. She experienced mortal terror. “My arms were now slapping together like my legs.”
Bringing the two women out, the knife man raided the van’s fridge and offered them sodas and cookies — their sodas and cookies. The masked men passed tequila and a joint.
The gunman led her girlfriend, Jill, away.
The knife man raped Grabel. “I saw the gash of his mouth. I smelled the garlic.” He ground his mouth against hers and stole her virginity and then the gunman took his place.
“I felt as if I were a pile of dirt,” Grabel writes.
This is, to put it mildly, an unusual subject for a graphic novel — a comic book.
“I love the combination of serious topic with comic illustrations — the dramatic, absurd pairing,” Grabel writes in her preface.
Grabel was enjoying a reunion with friends on the Oregon coast when we spoke. She said she was inspired by “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo and Me,” created by cartoonist Ellen Forney after she was diagnosed bipolar.
“All of a sudden, I just thought, ‘That’s it. That’s going to be the final expression of this thing, is to do the drawings.”
“Final expression” alludes to other ways Grabel has told this story: a newspaper article, spoken-word performance with musicians and a memoir preceding “Brontosaurus.”
“Intuitively I knew instantly that I had to get it out of me, and not hold it inside,” Grabel said. “That’s why I immediately started talking about it and writing about it. That was the most effective therapy ever.”
Talking about it, let alone managing a compassionate response, no one seemed able to do when deeply traumatized Grabel — along with Jill, and Daniel, who was unharmed, if shaken — returned from their Mexican nightmare.
American border guards barked at them to get out of the van, frisked them and tore apart the van in a drug search.
At Jill’s house, “No use crying over spilt milk, missy,” Jill’s mother said coldly. Grabel: “I could feel accusation like a flu shot. I wanted to slap her.”
Daniel seemed more concerned with his parents. “My parents won’t be able to handle it if they knew what really happened,” he pleaded. “Don’t say anything.”
Next, the Stanford Health Center, where a stony doctor asked, “What were you doing down there, anyway?”
On to her family: “First my father blamed the Mexicans. Then Stanford. Then hippies. Then the music of the hippies … then he finally landed his blame on my mother … He blamed my mother.”
Her boyfriend Phil, “jumped off the bed and stared at me as if I were a plumbing leak.”
“Jesus Christ!” Phil spat. “What’s wrong with you? Stop shaking!”
No one would talk to her about it. No one would dispatch the ambulance of compassion and communication. Not even her family. “They just ignored it.”
Therapists listened but botched it. “…At the end of the first session, he told me my red turtleneck gave a suggestive message. He said it attracted attention in a socially inappropriate way. … I called his office at 3:12 the next morning and left a message that I had accepted a teaching position in Zimbabwe.”
But she had to talk about it. “Not talking about it made me feel like I was wearing a chin strap. That gag.”
So she made art out of it.
The rest of “Brontosaurus” covers decades of Grabel’s life in which she veers through a succession of “the most ridiculous, disharmonious, unavailable, incompatible men” and ill-fitting jobs. Ultimately she finds poetry and a loving husband.
Perhaps poetry enhanced Grabel’s gift for vivid writing. Some of it leaps off the page more than the illustrations do.
- “His eyes were the blue of airport lights. Stunning.”
- Her hands were creamy like swans …” Grabel writes of a female boss, feeling frumpy by comparison. “It was like comparing a round rustic loaf with a French baguette.”
- About a large woman: “Her feet poured out of her shoes like milkshakes.”
Grabel is haunted by the person she might have become if she had never been preyed upon.
“Many nights I awaken at three in the morning, when even the crows are snuggling … I start worrying that I am seriously warped.”
Would she be happier? Better adjusted? Or the same? What vastly different path might her life have taken?
“I’m always wondering, ‘How did this impact my life?’ ” Grabel said from Oregon. “The other thing for me is there’s no way to know.”
But she knew the brontosaurus of those unable or unwilling to talk about rape.
“Then my mother, near the end of her life, she asked me if I thought it affected my life. I said, “I don’t know.” Then she said, “I offered to help you,” and I said, “I don’t remember that.”
One of the friends with whom Grabel was reuniting in Oregon was Jill, her fellow victim from 50 years ago. Jill never wanted to talk about it. They never have.
- Tuleburg Press will host a reading and signing of Leanne Grabel’s “Brontosaurus” with poetry read by Deborah Shaw Hickerson on September 28, 6:30-8pm at The Write Place, 343 E. Main Street in Stockton (The Write Place is owned by Stocktonia Board of Trustee member Paula Sheil). Admission is free.
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.