Last December, at the peak of the #MeToo movement, an essay of mine that was accepted by the New Yorker, for their website, could not be published because the New Yorker’s fact checkers couldn’t get the man who raped me on the phone. They let it ring and ring – on multiple occasions, they told me – but he did not pick up.
I say could not but I also mean would not – the decision came down to the New Yorker’s lawyer saying no to publishing my essay, a memoir piece, without reaching the man concerned, even though neither his name nor physical characteristics appeared in it. The editor assured me that this wasn’t because they didn’t believe my story, as a background check proved the man in question had impregnated a fourteen-year-old when he was in his mid-twenties, and I had offered to share confirmation letters from therapists (to whom I’d first began speaking of the situation in 2011, when I sought insight into an adult incident of sexual assault). The issue was journalistic rigor. The man could recognize himself in it, fact checkers explained, (even in a version the brilliant and supportive editor had pared down to the extent that, in my personal assessment, the only way he would’ve recognized himself was by the rape description) and be upset that he hadn’t been notified or given a chance to respond. Probably if I’d insisted they would have kept calling him; but after this went on for a few days the agony I felt over him being called, over wondering what he might do and what it would feel like to be connected to him in this way, to be put in his head and to have to ask him for anything, even if just enough attention to satisfy a publication policy, so struck me as an act against myself, as a repetition of an aspect of the original situation, that it was more than I could tolerate, and when Granta accepted the piece, being satisfied enough with him not being named or described, I with the encouraging understanding of the New Yorker editor (who had with her excellent suggestions helped me take the piece to another level) published it here.
I understood that a lot of big publications were going through lawsuits brought about by contributing to the downfall of powerful men, men such as Harvey Weinstein – my heart is full of gratitude for what the New Yorker and Ronan Farrow accomplished in helping to set in motion the #MeToo movement – and that as a major news source in the US they experience a kind of pressure not experienced by literary magazines, and I don’t fault them for following their legal department’s advice; but for a long time afterwards I was fixated on phrasing like might upset him or he might not like it, which repeated over and over again in my head. I couldn’t believe that to publish this short piece with the New Yorker – many a writer’s dream – the man who’d raped me, even when I didn’t use his name, even when I didn’t write the piece to get him in trouble but simply to share a type of experience that I know more people than we’d like to be aware of have also had, had to be contacted. So much had been taken from me by the rape, by him satisfying his sexual itch one night with a child who didn’t even yet understand what sex was, and now I was losing publishing opportunity because he had no personalized voice mail (meaning that they could not satisfy their policy by leaving him a message). Apparently the man, for some reason (one’s imagination strives), did not want to be found. His email addresses too, discovered through background checks by both myself and the magazine, had been deactivated. I completely understood the magazine’s position. And yet again, in effect, the man and his rights and needs became more important than mine.
The thing is – the more it seems like it’s too much trouble for women or sometimes men to speak out about sexual abuse, the more I feel like I can’t shut up about it, the more I want to shout when I have never been a shouter, when for a large part of my life I was someone with a voice so quiet that for years people had to constantly ask me to speak up because they couldn’t make out what I was saying.
Lately I have been reading and hearing about all the trouble victims have faced for getting sexually abused and the additional trouble they encounter just for telling other people about it. (As an aside here – yes I am using the word victim, which has been frowned upon by some, usually, I suspect, by people who’ve not been sexually assaulted and don’t know what they’re talking about or by people who fear the psychological stress of admitting to themselves that they actually have been. I’d like to know what else you’d call yourself after being stabbed or robbed or having some other crime committed against you; and if, say, robbed – are you demeaning yourself by acknowledging the fact that you aren’t invincible, that the person who did it was, in this situation, a thief?) And I have been thinking about my own experiences, the rape I am speaking of here and an incident of sexual assault as an adult that each involved much loss and upheaval, though neither are as difficult as other cases I’ve heard of.
In ‘Trauma And Recovery,’ a landmark text by one of the foremost living experts on trauma and abuse, Dr Judith Herman, there’s the case of a teenaged girl who was shunned by her peers and their parents after telling she was raped and by whom; and another case of a young woman whose family wanted to have her committed for accusing her wealthy father of sexual abuse – who to recover from the effects of that abuse had to take a leave of absence from college to get a job and an apartment, so that she could completely break off financial dependence on her family. Someone I know, when she this year reported recent sexual abuse by a community leader already known to have sexually abused other women, was disparaged for it, her sexual history attacked as if even being sexually assaulted was dependent on being able to prove she was worthy of the possibility of violation–prove herself to be an object of puritanical female ideal rather than a person. And a close friend of mine, when she finally got up the courage to tell her family about her uncle molesting her, had to go through feeling that she (rather than the uncle) had ripped the family apart; and had to stop trying to work through it altogether with certain people because they’d insist she’d made it up. Note that my friend wasn’t seeking legal action, but just attempting to confront this abuse within the family. Another woman I know, to prevent the early jail release of a man who broke into a number of women’s houses with a weapon, including her own, and raped them, had to go through re-traumatization to testify (for the second time) about what he’d done to her. And another for a long time felt she could not tell her parents about a brutal gang rape experience she endured (while drugged by the perpetrators) because she worried they would blame her. In circumstances of rape this is not unusual – to go through something as horrific and traumatic as gang rape and worry that people are going to blame you – not just because trauma itself causes a reaction of shame and humiliation but because we live in a society that, however progressive things may sometimes seem, still gives the underlying message that when men behave badly sexually, the women must have somehow brought it on themselves. This perpetuates different sets of low expectations for both women and men.
The truth is that men can control themselves sexually much more than they are given credit for. I know this not only from my conversations with male friends but from nights when, while still recovering from what happened to me, more than one aroused man lay next to me all night, refusing, despite my saying it was okay, to do anything but hold and talk to me because they knew I was still stuck in a mindset of putting men’s pleasure before my wellbeing, of seeing them as near animals it was my duty to satisfy. Because in the past the men who’ve been viewed as most animalistic and dangerous once aroused were non-white, and because I am from the deep south, where much racial prejudice still exists, I will add that two of the three men most careful and patient with me have happened to be not white and that the rape and assault I experienced happened with white men, both born of college-educated professionals, one of the men of prep-school and ivy-league stock, at the time of the assault in a high status position in his field – making clear to me rape is more of a disease of entitlement and privilege and miseducation than uncontrolled passion (as many times in history it has been believed to be).
Once a young man very innocently and unknowingly said to me, I know that being raped is bad but once it happens, it’s over right? And then listened as an incensed yet self-controlled young woman nearby in a measured voice informed him that women who got raped got PTSD. I was glad the young man had said what he had – bless his honesty and frankness in his posing the question and her authority in answering – because I knew him to be intelligent and compassionate and if he could think such a thing, if he could not yet understand the after-effects of sexual abuse, then how many others had no idea what being sexually violated means, in the context of the rest of the victim’s being – the rest of her week, of her year, of her next decade of existence? The abuse I suffered as a child made me more susceptible to having a second incident of sexual assault as an adult, so it is rather fresh in my mind, has been something of a distraction for years, and I am here to tell you some things about women who get rape trauma because I believe there are still plenty of good people who don’t know about it.
I am here to tell you that for months or even years the victim may not sleep much and when she does has terrible dreams and wakes up feeling not rested but as if she was shocked out of the midst of some sort of battle. I am here to tell you the food she eats may lose its taste. That she may begin to feel alarmed, terrified, or furious about things that before would’ve caused only mild concern, because her brain circuitry has been altered by her being trapped in a dangerous situation in which resistance is considered impossible. That she may never want to be alone now, or may develop so much anxiety over encounters with other people that even, say, going to a coffee shop, which would require her to have a conversation with the barista, becomes more than she can some days stand. That she may stop having sex altogether or end up feeling driven to have it with men she barely knows – opening herself to further traumatization – for reasons she can’t comprehend. That never before having had suicidal ideations, she may now experience them frequently, may see in her mind, for example – while doing some practical task – an image of herself climbing into her car’s trunk and pulling down the lid, or when driving over a high bridge alone feel a tug as if from outside herself at her hand on the wheel, suggesting she jerk sharply to the right. That to be able to have wine alone in the evening and not get drunk, she may have to learn to pour one glass and then immediately dump the rest down the sink. That strange men just unexpectedly entering her space may cause inside her a violent reaction– she in less than a second may strategize how she will use her elbow or foot as a weapon, what she will do to his eyes, his groin, if he should make an advance, even as her rational side deems, But this is probably not at all what he is about to try. That abusive men, once they know she has been assaulted, will use this against her when she criticizes their mistreatment of women, saying it is all in her head because of her history of abuse. I am here to tell you that when the woman who has been raped is (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you see it) a professional writer who wants to share her story, it may not get published by a major American magazine if they cannot get hold of the man who abused her as a child to notify him that the crime he committed years ago still affects the girl he used as an object, (that she is writing about it now, actually, because it has threaded into other aspects of her whole life), that the stupid banal moment of him getting himself off with a child, probably just because that was who was around, in the textbook way increased the woman’s vulnerability to depression, anxiety and disassociation, to addiction and to suicide and to becoming a target for a second assault as an adult. I am here to tell you that the examples I’ve given are light compared to what some women go through. That my own full recovery took half a decade but that it can take longer. That a woman who is raped may be, to put it briefly, not the same.
I am here to tell you that the person who gets sexually abused is not just being sexually abused, but burdened with a knowledge that is highly likely to become a problem for other people if she dares to tell. I am here to tell you that she may be regarded with scorn or reduced to a hysteric by those who do not want to hear the abuser is an abuser. That if the person who sexually abused her is much later proven to be an abuser, she may then be feared or resented by those who feel guilty about not having taken her seriously when she first revealed it. That our society is still so affected by puritanical ideals it thinks it has moved beyond that it wants the violated woman to prove herself ‘pure’ before believing her, because too many people still believe a woman’s quality and goodness is defined by whose penis has or hasn’t gone inside her, as well as how many penises have gone inside her, by if a penis has gone inside her and even by whether or not penises want to go inside her. That even other women, so-called feminists (often enough affluent and successful ones, backing a status quo they believe must be good because it has elevated them) will, once a victim of sexual abuse admits she has been harmed by a culture that in matters of sex privileges male pleasure over the well-being of women, call her frail, and encourage her to toughen up and become jaded (not unlike a shell-shocked solider, the type of person who, along with survivors of sexual assault, are mostly likely to develop PTSD). That those other women will, despite expert opinions from doctors and scientists who’ve spent their entire working lives studying the effects of such trauma, and – in the words of Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk – found that it ‘produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant,’ and in effect ‘compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive,’ attribute their sisters’ upset about sexual assault and misconduct to weak character.
I am here to tell you that just to share the fact of her rape publicly will cause a woman all sorts of fear and worry and anxiety and inconvenience and loss of time – both hers and others – as they for example wait for someone who will never be fully held accountable for what he did to pick up the phone so that he, unnamed, upon reading about a crime he received no punishment for, doesn’t feel blindsided. That in the same way her body becomes not just hers in an assault, the story of that assault – at least in the publishing of it – may become not just hers as well. That she is in a way forced into sharing the responsibility for the rape long after the rape itself. That in the published version of the rape story you finally see, many things may have been omitted that the victim of the crime would have liked to say, but didn’t or couldn’t to protect other people involved in the overall situation. That actually the person who was raped in some cases gets protected least of all – that she either for legal, social, or familial reasons, becomes the protector of others. That certain people, usually powerful people, will despite multiple credible accounts of abuse, cry Due Process with the ring of justice in their tone, as if Due Process, while sound in itself, was not a system run mostly by privileged men. I am here to tell you that at one point in time rape was considered an act against a woman’s husband or father rather than an act against the woman, and that when a black woman sold into slavery was raped the act was committed against the man who bought her – though if raped by him then it could not even seriously be considered a rape because she was considered his property. That at one point in time society forced men who forced themselves into women to marry their victims (seemingly as penalization for the man and salvation for the now ‘tainted’ female, spoiled for marriage to other men as if she were a piece of bitten fruit). That though this sounds like crazy stuff from the past, the United States until very recently allowed girls to be married to their rapists to save their so-called purity. That someone in administration at an Ivy League university just this year over the phone informed a woman I know to not use the word rape but call it unwanted touching that includes penetration. That as I write this, a woman and her children have had to leave their home and be protected by private security because she accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault. That I am not the only one who’s noticed that a society’s response to rape and sexual assault is a barometer for the clarity of its vision of equality among its people.
Really, it is all so much trouble to tell that one can hardly fathom why anyone would go through all of this. Why would a woman go through this? What is this pressure, this compulsion, this need to shout out that something really has happened, which despite all costs propels her towards the painful and flinch-inducing (though ultimately healing) glare of the truth?
Rape. Because she was raped.
Image © Ian McKellar