By Sung Yim
*This post discusses childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault, drug use, suicide, and eating disorders*
You asked us to call you Aladdin Sane. You asked us to call you Ziggy Stardust.
Some of us called you “the most influential musician of several eras.” Some of us called you “space man and transcendent pop star.” Some of us said “everything [you] touched became warm and beautiful and open.”
David Bowie’s face on the cover of Hunky Dory was so pale and strange, like the drowned Ophelia rendered in velvet and pastel. I once thought he must have been from outer space or the core of the Earth, someplace exquisite and made of moonlight.
I listened to that album on repeat, morning, noon, and night, when I was 20 and strung out on painkillers. The sad waltz of his fingers across piano keys in “Life on Mars” felt like the jingle of a phone call from the friend I lost that year. You killed yourself in a tiny apartment on your college campus. You left behind your beautiful blue eyes and lungs to two lucky recipients awaiting transplant, several pornographic DVDs that we hid from your parents, and an extensive goodbye note that named me among your family members and closest friends.
You slept with a fourteen-year-old girl. Maybe she was thirteen. The details are fuzzy. It was the 70s. Quaaludes were pumping through veins and your songs through speakers. She was definitely underage. Her name is Lori Maddox and in interviews, she reminisces fondly how gentle your touch, how striking your kimono, how seducing your gaze. How you beckoned her into a bathtub to wash you, then took her over a table.
People say she looks older in photos from back then. She was eager and star-struck. She was a groupie. She was a virgin. People declare the latter two mutually exclusive.
I listened to “Space Oddity” while lying on the floor of my parents’ basement, growing awkwardly into my bra and out of my braces. I didn’t know what the song meant, what any of your strange and ethereal ballads meant, but my feelings knew no other language in junior high.
Before you died, you dated L—.
You didn’t fuck her. You didn’t rape her. She lived across the country.
But she was fourteen. You were almost twenty-five. You would video-chat with her about everything under the sun, and teach her how to French-kiss in the crook of a tree when you’d visit ostensibly to see her older brother.
You told her she was a genius. You told her she was so mature for her age. You told her she was the only thing keeping you alive. You made her feel special and I’m sure you thought she was. You made her feel loved and maybe you loved her. She needed that so much.
You were her first love and now she doesn’t know what love even is.
She was a sweetheart with cats. She wore big black combat boots and bangles that hid scars on her skinny brown wrists.
She said yes to everything. She was fourteen. You were almost twenty-five. She was eating five hundred calories a day when you met and now she eats a handful of pills for breakfast.
She googles “child grooming” on nights she can’t sleep. She never understood the nagging unease she carried when you were in her life, why she can only articulate it now that you’re gone, or why it feels so wrong to do so now that she knows how. She used to brush it off and call it immaturity. You did, too.
You were her first love and now she doesn’t know what love even is. The damage seems retroactive—the more she realizes today, the more she forgets of that first love; the more she forgets of that first love, the more she confuses all love.
I swayed to “Five Years” in a suburban bathroom, dripping green hair dye on linoleum tiles. I was fifteen and I was just a baby.
I was fifteen when my eighteen-year-old boyfriend gave me my first kiss.
I was fifteen years old when he assaulted me on New Year’s Eve, ignoring me as I said no and hold on and I’m not sure because I was too drunk and young and confused to know I could fight, or that I shouldn’t have to.
You were not the only one. You are not a lone monster. Your name is not rape culture. David Bowie, you were but one participant in an open but unspoken conspiracy. Before you there was Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis.
You were one of numerous rock stars, all idolized by hoards of young girls whose bodies you used and threw away.
You participated in a culture that consumes young girls’ bodies without asking their hometown or birthday. You participated in a culture that puts the onus of statutory rape upon a minor’s capacity for judgment and honesty. You used young people’s bodies indiscriminately because their ability to consent, their stage of life, their life experience, and well-being were all irrelevant to you. No. You were not the only one. You were a star, like so many others. Most men get away with it without platinum records.
People say she’s just a groupie. People say she must have lied about her age. They say she’s fine with it, so why should we care?
Lori Maddox wasn’t just a groupie.
Lori Maddox wasn’t just a liar and she is free to discuss your relationship however she prefers. She’s an adult and she has a right to her own story.
But back then, Lori Maddox was a fourteen-year-old girl. She didn’t just lie about her age as your apologists theorize. You didn’t bother to ask with appropriate concern.
I still miss you all the time and part of me will always be running from the full picture. The person I knew, the person L— knew. It’s difficult trying to fuse them into one whole person we can both still love.
I will never quite put it all together. How the boy who consoled me to sleep every night after failed relationships and fresh assaults, was also the man who ensnared an underage girl into complete and irreparable dependence on him. How a girl could trust her most intimate traumas, most shameful thoughts, even calorie intake with a man who said he’d love her forever, then grow up wondering just when it was she realized the consequence of yes or no or if she ever did.
Yes or no draped across the laps of men who didn’t bother to ask her or themselves with appropriate concern.
I will never quite put it all together. How I could have kept taking your calls after you told me how old she was. How I kept trying to shave the picture down to make it fit when L— would shudder as she’d recall how you asked for pictures, asked for this or that, asked if she’d get bigger breasts for you one day, all the private things she would do for you one day. Save her virginity for you, one day. How I negotiated an inappropriate relationship with a minor down to loneliness, told myself the reason you couldn’t stand life on Earth must have had something to do with why you couldn’t stick with girls your own age. As if one excuses or explains the other. As if one could soften the other.
I will never quite put it all together.
How I sat frozen at a bar as someone who bought me a drink bragged about “sucking a pair of 14-year-old tits.” How I raised my brow but said nothing as a friend in his thirties told me he snuggled up to a fifteen-year-old girl and almost had sex with her. How I stood at the edge of a roller rink as a group of male friends, all in their twenties, chased around a gaggle of teenage girls in knee socks. How I have watched these things happen, over and over, all my life, to me and others, unable to articulate my discomfort because I didn’t know it had a name.
Because I didn’t know you could save my life and destroy someone else’s in the same breath. I didn’t know how to know both those things at once.
I blasted “Lady Grinning Soul” while snorting rails of crushed Xanax in a trashed bedroom while my parents were at church. There were days, especially in the winter, when one track switching over to the next was the only marker of time I understood. Your vibrato like the tightening of a cord, the tinny whisper of your vowels, the riffs I know you’d close your eyes to play. My memory was growing holes like weeds, but there you were. Frozen in time, frozen in lasers and plastic, a button and a dial away. You were proof of a world outside my crumbling skull. Your music gave me a foothold on reality. Nobody sang my loneliness to life like you.
But I’ve never met you and we’ve never spoken.
I want the fact that you were not the only one to be reason enough to shatter our culture of silence and complicity around the exploitation of young girls. Not excuse it. I don’t want to burn your records. I don’t want to demonize you.
I want all adults to be accountable.
I don’t believe in kill all rapists. I don’t believe in either/or. I don’t believe in David Bowie, Monster as much as I don’t believe in David Bowie, Hero.
I want us to strive for honesty and precision of language when we speak about you and other idols who have taken advantage, over and over, of ample social capital to get what they want from girls too young to give permission.
I want us to strive for the whole picture. I want us to freely love what good we know of our brothers, fathers, and uncles, enough to unflinchingly tell them the truth they need to hear. The truth young girls need them to hear.
I want us to know that we all carry the potential for harm. I want an end to black-and-white thinking. I want an end to oversimplification in either direction. I want all of us to have the capacity for understanding two starkly different people as the same person. I want to look my rapists in the eye and see not only the stark differences in our actions, but the shocking similarities between our potential.
I want a world where our honesty serves a greater advancement. I want a world where we can accept and learn from the fact that what good a person does can never excuse what harm. And what harm a person does won’t eclipse the good.
You died of cancer at age 69. We’ve never met and good or bad to the core, I couldn’t say. You were no god or angel, you weren’t extraterrestrial royalty, you weren’t a spiritual experience, and you were far from perfection. You were not a concept. You were a person. You were capable of loving people. You were capable of hurting people. Just like all of us. You touched some lives, you destroyed others. Just like most of us.