And yet here I was, about to tell the world that on New Year’s Eve 1975, Kim Fowley, the manager of my former band, The Runaways, had raped me in front of a roomful of people, including most of my former bandmates. That I’d been drugged. That I had been 16 for all of a week and a half.
I had spoken to Jason Cherkis, the writer of the piece, almost every day for the five months leading up to publication. Some of our conversations were brutal. Not only did I have to deal with my own uncomfortable memories but Jason had also discovered things through his reporting that I hadn’t known about—terrible things. Apparently, Kim had violated me with a hairbrush and offered me up to the other men in the room. One witness said he’d heard people bragging that I’d been drugged with up to six Quaaludes. I’d once felt ashamed because a boyfriend had told me—without meaning to hurt me—that he wouldn’t go down on me because Kim Fowley had been there. These new disclosures were infinitely worse. My sleep, uneasy at the best of times, became a real problem. I skipped meals. At my regular Wednesday night pub trivia, I snapped at my teammates and insisted they switch seats with me so I wouldn’t have my back to the room.
I’D STEELED MYSELF FOR HATE, BUT AFTER 40 YEARS OF SEEING MYSELF AS SOILED AND UNWORTHY OF GOOD THINGS, THE OUTPOURING OF LOVE WAS ALMOST MORE DIFFICULT TO ACCEPT.
I was also concerned about how the article would affect the people in my life, my mother foremost among them. I worried that readers would hold her responsible for letting me join the band in the first place. And she, in turn, questioned whether going public was something I really wanted to do. She knew my former bandmates and worried how they would react to the piece. She had seen how they’d treated me over the years: the public insults, the nuisance lawsuit, the threat to out me as a rape victim before I was ready to talk about it. Indeed, the last email I’d received from one of them—after I’d objected to the use of my image on unauthorized T-shirts—had told me to “save the aggressive aggravation, legal mumbo jumbo GARBAGE because you have nothing better to do.”
And that was from the one who ostensibly liked me.
Still, I wanted to come forward. It was inspiring to see students speak up about sexual assault on college campuses. I felt tremendous respect for the women who came out against Bill Cosby, and for Kesha, who had accused her manager of drugging and sexually assaulting her. The country’s attitude toward survivors of rape actually seemed to be changing. And I thought that by talking about my own experiences, in all the ugly detail, I might inspire other victims in the same way.
After the vet techs took Cleo away, I went home to see if the story had posted—it hadn’t. I tried to distract myself by watching television, but just staring at people trying to survive “Naked and Afraid” on the Discovery Channel proved too challenging. After rewinding the show back to see what I’d missed for the dozenth time, I shut it off and returned to my computer to play Minesweeper—badly.
Finally, at around 6:30 west coast time, Jason called to tell me the article was live. It felt unreal to see it on the screen—almost as if I was reading about someone else. But as soon as I got to the first photograph of Kim, unwanted sense memories washed over me. I smelled Kim’s peculiar fusty odor; I heard his deep voice drip with disdain and superiority. The smirk on his Frankenstein face made me shake. The editors had included one of his quotes as a photo caption: “I’m like a shark. I’ll smell the blood.” That blood was me.
I spent the next few hours reading comments on my Facebook page and refreshing the article to see if anyone other than Runaways fans had picked up on it. I tried to imagine that I was someone who knew nothing about what had happened, maybe nothing about the band. That calmed my nerves. Jason had put a human face on rape. He’d shown compassion toward the bystanders. I remember thinking that even if only a few people read it, I’d still feel proud. At around midnight, I turned off the computer, forwarded my calls to voicemail, took a sleeping pill and went to bed.
I woke up in a parallel universe. My Wikipedia entry had become the most viral page on the Internet. The number of other outlets reporting on the story multiplied at a rate that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around —The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rockol Italy, Rolling Stone Brasil, Rolling Stone México. Television shows started calling my unlisted home number requesting interviews. Since my wardrobe consists almost exclusively of jeans and long-sleeved black T-shirts, I had to borrow clothes from my sister. We used to be the same size, but after five months of stress, her blouses swam on me. I did one interview with a paper clamp on my back to hold in the excess fabric.
I thought the furor would die down quickly, but I was wrong. Even after a week, many people I’d never met were still sharing the story on social media. At one point, a well-known author I admired tweeted it to his 2 million followers—2 million strangers who might at that very moment be learning about the hairbrush. The attention filled me with a mixture of nausea, joy and vindication. No longer could people write off Kim’s criminal behavior as merely “colorful” or “eccentric,” as they had in so many obituaries. Gone was the worry that people were going to sit in judgment of me. I’d steeled myself for hate, but after 40 years of seeing myself as soiled and unworthy of good things, the outpouring of love was almost more difficult to accept.
When the attention got too overwhelming, I sought refuge in the real world. I got gas. I drove to the grocery store. No one there knew who I was or wanted to talk about what Kim had done to me. The mundane had never felt more welcome.
But then, inevitably, I’d get pulled back in. I’d bounce between the live webcam in Cleo’s “condo” at the radiation facility, Facebook, Jason’s article, articles about Jason’s article, and other sites that were talking about the story. Messages and comments poured in from places as far-flung as Israel and Trinidad and Tobago. They included hundreds from people sharing their own experiences of rape or abuse, many of which mirrored my own. One woman wrote: “the exact thing happened to me when I was 15 … I remember the shame and horror like it was yesterday.” I responded to every person who contacted me directly—to thank them for their courage, to let them know I had listened, to tell them they weren’t alone. Their messages convinced me that I really had done the right thing by coming forward.
Yet I can’t pretend that some of the uglier comments didn’t get to me. It’s no secret that people on the Internet can be nasty, but you’re never as prepared as you think you are when the insults are being hurled at you. One woman referred to me as “Miss Hairbrush.” Another called me “a bitter has-been.” Someone went to the trouble of doctoring an image of me in my wedding dress next to Bill Cosby.
There was the Facebook group dedicated to proclaiming Kim’s innocence, which was actually much funnier than it should’ve been. “She need psycho tropic medications if I were her doctor I would start by prescribing her injectable truth serum, Depakote lithium, daily Haldol injections, and help her wardrobe out with a straitjacket Jackie get it straight you have committed sins repent!” read one representative posting.
But most of the hateful comments were more coherent, and I had to remind myself of the hard-earned wisdom of other people who’d found themselves getting flamed online: Don’t respond. Don’t feed the trolls. For the most part, I followed that advice, though I did Google the names and check the social media pages of the most virulent haters. And what I discovered surprised me. The truly vicious stuff was coming from just four women, whom I nicknamed Friends of Kim, or FOKers, for short. The FOKers’ Facebook pages were full of loving pictures of their families and compassionate posts against animal cruelty, which were hard to reconcile with the venom they were spewing everywhere they could—my Facebook inbox, YouTube, the comments sections of various articles.
I tried to understand their need not just to defend Kim, but to vilify me. Maybe they felt I’d accused them of guilt by association. Maybe they’d only ever experienced the funny, intelligent side of Kim. Perhaps they’d bought into his explanation that he was just testing people to see if they were tough enough to make it in the entertainment industry.
But Kim’s predations had been an open secret. For months before publication, Jason had told me that he believed there were more Kim victims out there and that others would be emboldened to speak out after they read my story. He was right.
Maureen Herman of the all-female band Babes in Toyland—whose early support did so much to keep my spirits up—wrote a long article about my rape for BoingBoing. It included the recollection of a male friend who’d once discovered Kim alone with a 17-year-old female musician he knew: “I open a door and my friend is in there with Fowley. I start to back out, thinking I’m interrupting. She screams, ‘Steve, help me! Get him off me!’… My friend is in tears, I am walking her out to the car, Fowley is standing in the street, by a bus stop, starts screaming, ‘Fuck you, you cunt! I will make sure you never get a record deal!’”
Another musician told me Kim had brought her to LA to audition to replace me in The Runaways, but told her if she wanted to be in the band she had to sleep with him. Others told me similar stories.
I was especially surprised by a voicemail I got from someone who had not had just known Kim, but who had been very close to him for decades. “I feel sorry for what happened to you,” he said. “I’m on your side.”
When I returned his call a few days later, we spoke for 45 minutes, reminiscing about how crazy the ’70s had been, how young we all were, how much fun we’d had. Finally, as we prepared to say our goodbyes, his voice dropped to a whisper. “Can I ask you a question about the story?”
“Of course,” I replied.
There was a brief hesitation.
“Was I there that night?”
Then there are my bandmates’ responses to the piece. I don’t particularly want to address them, but they, too, are a part of my story now. Sometimes I find myself overcome with anger at the girls who used to call me “sister”—not for what they didn’t do 40 years ago, but for what they aren’t doing now. Maybe someday one of them will say, “I’m sorry for what you went through.” But I’m not holding my breath. The damage Kim inflicted on all of us is too severe.
Last week, I took a break from writing this essay to catch up on some reading. I curled up on the couch with Cleo on my lap (she’s fine, by the way) and opened Anthony Doerr’s novel, All The Light We Cannot See. But only a few pages in, I started to cry. Doerr was describing one of the protagonists—a blind girl in France in the 1940s—but he might just as well have been describing a teenaged me: “Across the room is a miniature girl, skinny, quick-witted, an open book in her lap; inside her chest pulses something huge, something full of longing, something unafraid.”
Forty years ago, almost to the day, I had just celebrated my 16th birthday. I was excited about getting my driver’s license. I loved books and math and languages and animals. I was thrilled beyond belief that in a little more than a week I would be playing my first show as a professional musician. I had no idea that I was only days away from my worst nightmare—a conscious act of abuse that would fundamentally change my life.
When Kim died this January, after more than a year of refusing to meet with me, I was angry. I wanted to bring him back to life and tell him how I felt about what he’d done to me. Not having that conversation makes it that much more difficult to achieve some kind of closure. But I didn’t go public after his death because I was worried about retribution while he was alive or because I wanted some sort of post-mortem payback.
I did it because the world is full of girls (and boys) who are full of longing and unafraid. And I really want them to stay that way.