The Double Bind

PROLOGUE

LAUREL ESTABROOK was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year of college. Quite likely she was nearly murdered that autumn. This was no date-rape disaster with a handsome, entitled UVM frat boy after the two of them had spent too much time flirting beside the bulbous steel of a beer keg; this was one of those violent, sinister attacks involving masked men—yes, men, plural, and they actually were wearing wool ski masks that shielded all but their eyes and the snarling rifts of their mouths—that one presumes only happens to other women in distant states. To victims whose faces appear on the morning news programs, and whose devastated, forever-wrecked mothers are interviewed by strikingly beautiful anchorwomen.

She was biking on a wooded dirt road twenty miles northeast of the college in a town with a name that was both ominous and oxymoronic: Underhill. In all fairness, the girl did not find the name Underhill menacing before she was assaulted. But she also did not return there for any reason in the years after the attack. It was somewhere around six-thirty on a Sunday evening, and this was the third Sunday in a row that she had packed her well-traveled mountain bike into the back of her roommate Talia’s station wagon and driven to Underhill to ride for miles and miles along the logging roads that snaked through the nearby forest. At the time, it struck her as beautiful country: a fairy-tale wood more Lewis than Grimm, the maples not yet the color of claret. It was all new growth, a third-generation tangle of maple and oak and ash, the remnants of stone walls still visible in the understory not far from the paths. It was nothing like the Long Island suburbs where she had grown up, a world of expensive homes with manicured lawns only blocks from a long neon-lit swath of fast-food restaurants, foreign car dealers, and weight-loss clinics in strip malls.

After the attack, of course, her memories of that patch of Vermont woods were transformed, just as the name of the nearby town gained a different, darker resonance. Later, when she recalled those roads and hills—some seeming too steep to bike, but bike them she did—she would think instead of the washboard ruts that had jangled her body and her overriding sense that the great canopy of leaves from the trees shielded too much of the view and made the woods too thick to be pretty. Sometimes, even many years later, when she would be trying to fight her way to sleep through the flurries of wakefulness, she would see those woods after the leaves had fallen, and visualize only the long finger grips of the skeletal birches.

By six-thirty that evening the sun had just about set and the air was growing moist and chilly. But she wasn’t worried about the dark because she had parked her friend’s wagon in a gravel pull-off beside a paved road that was no more than three miles distant. There was a house beside the pull-off with a single window above an attached garage, a Cyclops visage in shingle and glass. She would be there in ten or fifteen minutes, and as she rode she was aware of the thick-lipped whistle of the breeze in the trees. She was wearing a pair of black bike shorts and a jersey with an image of a yellow tequila bottle that looked phosphorescent printed on the front. She didn’t feel especially vulnerable. She felt, if anything, lithe and athletic and strong. She was nineteen.

Then a brown van passed her. Not a minivan, a real van. The