The summer I turned 18 and lost my virginity, my mother made me disappear.

It started when she shook me awake early one morning and told me to pack up some clothes. I didn’t know where we were going, or why we were going anywhere at all. It was August and I should have been starting college at U.C. Berkeley soon, but instead, I was suddenly driving south toward Los Angeles with my mother. This was 1991. Worthless, shameful, disgusting — the words she’d been screaming at me bled into one another, a constant litany — but that day she was quiet, her eyes fixed on the road ahead.

The morning was still thick with fog when we set out from Northern California. An hour into the drive, it was blazing hot, the hills had gone from green to yellow, and she still hadn’t said a word. The air conditioner in the car was broken, so we drove with all the windows rolled down, which only filled the car with gusts of heat and dirt from the highway. My mother was a terrible driver even under normal circumstances, but that day, she kept swerving, and once she sent us careening onto the shoulder and toward a lettuce field, only to yank the wheel back at the last minute. At one point, it occurred to me that she was going to kill me, and maybe herself, too.

I only felt myself breathe when we stopped for gas. I took my time in the store, staring at the rows of chips and candy, picking up one package only to put it down and pick up another. I didn’t really want to buy anything, but being in public made me feel safe. Back in the car she peeled open a package of donuts. She was wearing raspberry-red lipstick and I watched the lipstick stain the donut each time she took a bite. Her hair was scraped back off her face and her roots were showing. As a young woman she’d often been compared to Elizabeth Taylor. She was 40 when we came to America, fleeing the revolution in Iran, and now she was 58. Until recently, she’d been managing a motel and cleaning rooms, working 15 hour shifts. "America made me old and ugly," she always said. It also made me what she told me I’d become: kesafat. Dirty, disgusting.

In all the years that came before, when I was nine and then 13 and then 16, my mother told me that if I lost my virginity, my life would be over. I never heard her say anything more true. I turned my face toward the window, where California rushed by along the freeway, where everything I knew was flickering past me, where I recognized nothing and I was nothing.

My mother told me that if I lost my virginity, my life would be over.

I was five years old when my family came to America. Mine was one of the few Iranian Muslim families in Marin County, California, and also one of the few immigrant families in Tiburon, the small town where we eventually settled. My parents owned a 20-room motel off Highway 101, where they took turns sitting at the manager's desk. We lived in an exquisitely decorated home that we couldn’t really afford and that we would soon lose. My mother drove a secondhand silver Mercedes, though she told everyone we’d bought it new. My father, an alcoholic, was gone for months at a time; this was another of our secrets. He'd been an engineer in Iran, and immigration hit him hard, knocking him into drinking and depression. It was my mother, really, who raised me.

She was devout, but she didn’t wear a veil. What was most Iranian and Islamic about us was how she raised me. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties or to have a boyfriend. I couldn’t shave my legs or pluck my eyebrows; like sex, these were things you only did when you got married. My best friend growing up was American, a Catholic girl with parents nearly as strict as my own, but the year I turned 12 I was suddenly forbidden from sleeping over at her house anymore. My mother never exactly said why, but I knew it had to do with the fact that my friend had an older brother. "Men only want one thing," she told me, and that, apparently, included my friend’s 14-year-old brother. At school, I spent a lot of time reading in the library or down by the creek behind my school. At home, I sat cross-legged on my bed and spent hours writing in my journal. I never locked the door because I wasn’t allowed to. "Daughters shouldn’t keep secrets from their mothers," my mother always said, but I did, or tried to. I wrote about everything in my journal — how much I hated her, where I’d go if ever I figured out a way to leave home, all the things I could never tell anyone.

I wasn’t allowed to have a job, but my mother encouraged me to take classes at the local community college on top of my regular high school classes. That’s where, in the spring of my senior year, I met my first boyfriend. I saw him infrequently and only in secret, so he wasn’t really my boyfriend, but that’s what I called him in my journal. He offered the kindness and attentiveness I craved. He didn’t push me to have sex; I decided it. I thought I would be transformed by sex, or at least be more like American girls. Mostly, though, I wanted to be rid of my virginity, and that’s what I eventually did: I just got rid of it.

'Daughters shouldn’t keep secrets from their mothers,' my mother always said.

A few weeks afterwards, I came home from school and found my journal splayed open on my bed. She’d hit me before, but not like she did that day. She locked the door behind her and her face was strangely calm. Her silence always frightened me more than her screams. She walked toward me until she was so close I felt her breath on my cheek. "Kesafat," she finally said in Persian. "You’re kesafat." Dirty, disgusting. "Do you understand?" I did. She slapped me so hard it stung. I drew up my hands, but even though I stood a foot taller than her, she was stronger than me. I slipped away in my head. It made her furious. She hit me again and again, and eventually the trance broke. By the time she stopped, her face was flushed from exertion.

"There are things you shouldn’t say," she said, "not even to yourself."

In Persian the word for virgin, dokhtar, is the same word for girl and also for daughter. To lose your virginity is to lose your girlhood and also your place in your family. I wasn’t my mother’s daughter anymore, but this only made her tighten her grip on me. By then, we'd lost our house and sold the motel. For the first time in years, my mother was home all the time, except that home was now a small apartment at the edge of town. I was forbidden from seeing my friends. I was forbidden from driving. I was forbidden from using the phone. It was lonely and terrifying to be cut off from everything and everyone in my life. My mother called my school and said I was sick. I wasn’t allowed to leave my room. Then, just as suddenly, I went back to school, except that now, my mother drove me there and back each day. In June, I graduated from high school. I stayed home and I read and read and read. I thought I’d be starting college soon. Berkeley was just across the bay and I’d have to live at home, but everything in me was poised to begin that life, to be just another college girl. Then one morning in August, my mother drove me away.

What I couldn’t know back then was that once, my mother herself was made to disappear. Before she was formally promised to her first husband, she was taken to a room in a part of Tehran she had never been before, and when she got there she was told to undress and lie on a table. She was 12 years old. No one had told her what to expect, and so when a woman entered the room and spread her legs open she began to cry. A hand clamped over her mouth. She was sure she was about to die. The exam took just a few minutes, and when it was over her mother — my grandmother — was told that she’d passed, that she was a virgin and could therefore be married.

On her wedding night, her husband of five hours shoved her onto the ground and raped her. Even when she became pregnant, he didn’t stop raping and beating her. She thought, many times, of killing herself, and once she nearly did.

Not every Iranian woman’s story went like this back then, but my mother’s did. What was truly unique about her story, however, was that she got out. Her father interceded on her behalf, and she was able to divorce her first husband. But there was a catch: She had to pretend she'd never been married. To many, a divorcee wasn't much better than a prostitute; having lost her virginity, she'd lost her worth. The whole family was sworn to secrecy about her marriage and divorce. Her father moved her to a new school, clear across town, where she enrolled under a made-up name. She tossed away her single, cherished tube of lipstick and she began wearing her hair in pigtails again. The plan worked in that many years later, she did what few divorcees did: She remarried.

Eventually she became a midwife, one of the few professions open to women of her generation. Mostly this involved delivering babies, but it also involved conducting virginity tests, hundreds of them. One day she would tell me that she always felt sorry for the girls who’d lost their virginity before marriage. They could lose everything if they were found out, she’d say, and they very often did. They could be disowned, beaten, even killed. These were the days before "embroideries," surgical reconstruction of the hymen that restored a girl’s virginity, or at least the virginities of girls with both means and sympathetic families. My mother told me that if she thought a girl was in trouble with her parents, she’d just sign the certificates anyway. "But what happened to them when she didn’t bleed on her wedding night?" I asked her, and she had no answer, or none that she could give.

My mother drove me south until the sunset cracked red over the horizon, and then she stopped. The motel where we stayed was in a small town outside Los Angeles called Calabasas, and it looked just like any one of the other hundred roadside motels we passed that day. Our room, which faced the highway, had a king-sized bed and an eerie, antiseptic feel.

The first night in that room I waited until my mother fell asleep, and then I hugged my knees and cried. The air conditioner hummed all night, drowned out by the roar of cars and trucks outside. I cried quietly because I didn’t want to wake her. I didn’t want to her to know how frightened I was, and how broken.

In our small community, a family's honor was bound up with its daughters’ virtue.

We stayed in the motel for 26 days. My memories of that time would always stay fragmented and blurry, but I clearly remember standing by the window and watching my mother smoke and pace the parking lot. Within a few days, she stopped screaming and hitting me. Instead, she cried. If we went back home, she was sure I’d eventually contrive some way of seeing my boyfriend, and that other Iranians would find out. In our small community, a family's honor was bound up with its daughters’ virtue, and years of living in America had, if anything, only hardened those binds. The prospect of exposure was so awful it kept us in Calabasas, day after day. Some nights we sat in silence through one sitcom after another, and then we fell asleep, backs to each other. Faint as my memories are, my body would always remember those nights, their deadness.

"I won’t let you throw your life away with this man," she told me one night as we lay in the dark. "I won’t let you shame us like this."

I never went back home. I applied to UCLA, praying I’d get in and that my mother would let me go. A male cousin was already at school there, and when I was accepted for the winter term, he was charged with keeping an eye on me. This meant I could only go out at night if he’d be there, too. Otherwise I had to be home by sunset, no exceptions.

By then, my mother had arranged for all our things to be packed and shipped to Southern California. She rented a house for us a few miles from campus. For a while we lived off the money from the sale of the motel, though eventually, my mother started a small business selling secondhand clothes. My father, now 65 and sober, slumped into retirement. My mother cut off all contact with her old friends and ordered me to do the same. She kept a distance from other Iranians in L.A., and her one friend was a German woman she saw only occasionally. I never heard her tell anyone the reason why we’d moved to Los Angeles, but if she did, I imagine she would have said it was because that’s where I’d been accepted to college. Relatives got the same story. If they ever suspected something else, they never said anything — silences like these are frequent and unremarkable in my family.

Nearly all the other Iranian girls at college lived at home, too. I suspected they had their own secrets, but like me, they seemed skilled at hiding them, especially from one another. We were good students, studying to be lawyers, dentists, engineers, and doctors, but most of all, we were good girls, or seemed to be. My mother never told me not to tell anyone what happened — why I didn’t go to Berkeley, why we suddenly moved to Los Angeles the summer I graduated from high school. She didn’t have to. For the next several years, until I won a fellowship to graduate school and moved clear across the country, I pretended to be the daughter my mother wanted me to be, the good daughter, the star student, the virgin. I played the part well because it was the part I was raised to play and because I knew now what it would cost not to play it.

The thing that saved me was the thing that got me in trouble in the first place: words. Before I graduated from college, I took a literature class where I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s "The Woman Warrior." When I came to the line about not knowing what part of a parent’s immigrant past is craziness and what part is culture, I felt my whole body tense with recognition, then gratitude.

I wonder how much of my silence is American, not Iranian, in its origins.

Eventually, I wrote my own book about my mother. I pushed her again and again, insisting that the only story worth telling was the whole story, but I was unable to bring the same honesty to bear on the stories I told about myself. I included the barest outline of what happened when I lost my virginity. The 26 days in Calabasas didn’t show up at all, not in that book or anything I wrote afterward. For years I worried that to tell this story would be to have Americans say, "Of course that happened. That’s how those people are." So few Muslim women’s voices are heard, and I told myself that to write about abuse in Iran and in the past was one thing, but to write about it here and now, when Muslims in America are too often pitied or demonized, was another. But I wonder how much of my silence is American, not Iranian, in its origins. My shame about sexuality springs from my Iranian background, but it merges so thoroughly with American silences about abuse that in the end, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

I tell myself now, as I could not have told myself then, that my mother did her best. She raised me with an iron will and her own hard-won sense of what it took to survive as a woman in this world. I’ve forgiven her, though even now, 25 years later, anger will sometimes flare up in me, and I’ll have to tell myself that she did what she did out of love and fear, and because she’d left her country but she hadn’t left her past and she never would.

In my story, as in her story, there is no before and after, no clear beginning or resolution. Part of me will always be the 18-year-old girl who was taken away from all she knew, just as part of my mother will always be the 12-year-old girl who was taken away from what she knew. But there’s also this: I don’t want to be silent anymore. I don’t want to pretend that what happened didn’t hurt me. I don’t want to keep secrets anymore, especially not from myself. I look back at that 18-year-old girl who spent 26 days in a motel in Calabasas, and I know it can take a long time to tell a story, if you ever tell it at all. But I tell what happened to me because, after all these years, I finally want to say it is mine to tell.

"The Summer I Disappeared"




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