I GOT RAPED, BUT NOT IN THE “RIGHT” WAY
People always tell women that they need to talk about rape. “Speak up! Tell your stories! Don’t be ashamed to let everyone know it’s a discussion we need to have and, dammit, none of us are afraid to have it. Just get it out in the open and we can all support each other in a big group hug of sisterhood.” But that’s not really true. Maybe it is in the at-a-safe-distance hypothetical, but it’s not true in real life.
Talking about rape closes down the conversation. It drops an icy blanket of awkwardness over an evening, possibly even an entire friendship. It’s a needle scratch, nails on the chalkboard, a dog whistle.
At least that’s how it’s always been for me. Which is why I don’t talk about it much.
Another truth: It’s rare to find new friends in adulthood. You just don’t have the same opportunities to meet people let alone the time to dive into one another and dig up all the strange little things you have in common. So it was a nice surprise to connect so immediately with Kathleen a few months back. I found that we could talk about anything—even scary, fanged, capital-R things. Of course she wasn’t really new—we’d met years back—and even before we started talking regularly, I already knew we had plenty in common.
For example, the man who raped us both.
But Kathleen had the transcript from the second trial, so the details still exist in a weird vacuum.
The man who raped me, Kathleen, and some other women before us, whose trials ended in hung juries (as did our first trial), owned a hair salon and art gallery, but off to the side was a tiny, dark little room where he gave “Shiatsu massages.” They were cheap, and we were 19 (me) and 18 (Kathleen). When we went in, we were too stupid and young to know better. Here’s what happened to me, next, according to record:
The state of Massachusetts called it rape. The second jury agreed.
But I only sort of did. After years of watching SVU and Criminal Minds, it felt false. Melodramatic. Sure, it had sucked, and I wish it hadn’t happened. I’m glad that Duncan Purdy (now known as “Duke One-Blood-True-Blood,” since changing your name in prison is apparently not barred on grounds of inadvisability) could be thrown in jail for it, but I only ever used the term “rape” because it was easier for other people.
I’m sure some of you are feeling a little hurt in the feminism right about now. You know, like I know, that all rape is rape, and we have to care about every victim—even the ones that were drunk, or married to the person, or wearing clothes they felt good in, or any of the other horrible things that people use to disqualify the charge.
But I also know—I think we all do—that there’s a script for the “right” kind of rape narrative. And because it’s the story that gets told over and over, it’s the story many of us—even those of us who get regular updates about the status of a particular inmate from the Department of Corrections of Massachusetts—believe, deep down.
The other day I was watching the season premiere of Scandal, a show we all love for being soapy, but can pretend is somehow worth more because “it’s empowering women in a way that TV has never been before.” (If empowerment directly corresponds to instances of lip trembling coupled with irate monologues, then we’re all right).
A character is telling Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) the story of her rape, and she flubs a detail; previously she’d said that she had a drink at 9:15 p.m., but now she’s saying she arrived at 9:15 p.m. Olivia’s gut is now certain the woman hadn’t been raped, because “when a man lays hands on you, you never forget any single thing ever.”
This is just the most recent of the countless performances viewers like me—and probably like you—internalize. And we probably don’t realize how much damage it’s doing. Because you wouldn’t believe how closely that argument resembles the one the defense lawyer used against me when I was on the witness stand.
I first reported the incident to Harvard police at around 11 p.m. on a Saturday night in the fall of 2005. My friend was showing me an article in the school newspaper about a man who was being arrested for running a prostitution ring out of his business. A man I recognized; a man whose business I tried not to walk past anymore.
Frantic, panicking, I called university police and reported the incident—choppily, not totally coherently, but with all the major details in place (those were seared on my memory). It wasn’t until a few days later, in a tiny carpeted office at the Cambridge police station, that I was able to think through the story moment by moment—thanks, in large part, to the more careful questioning of an officer who was used to dealing with this information in a way that could eventually lead to a trial—and piece together a more complete version of the day’s events, a day that had happened 18 months prior, and which my mind had been working overtime to forget.
The minor discrepancies between accounts one and two were what the lawyer latched onto. Clearly I was lying because every single detail—including the timing of events in the weeks leading up to the incident—had not been branded into my brain forever. I’d wavered. I’d forgotten something. And so I wasn’t really raped.
As if the lack of a penis (in my case) wasn’t proof enough, the blank spaces that cropped up around the whole experience, mental “censored” bars redacting all the extraneous content from the narrative, clinched it.
Pictures or it didn’t happen. Sober or it didn’t happen. Blood or it didn’t happen. Photographic memories of every moment, locked in forever, or you’re probably just overreacting.
The guy who’d had a crush on me for ages and who I’d just started dating when it happened came back home with me that night, attempted to fool around, and was treated to a full-on shrieking freakout, after which he stood me up a couple times and then just stopped calling. (I’d been on the fence about our relationship so it was only months and months later that it occurred to me how essentially cruel his response was.)
A close female friend in college, one of a very few I told in the first place, responded in so many words that she couldn’t deal with my problems because it dredged up too much of her own shit, which, even then, struck me as more tragic than anything else.
Recently, I brought up that I was nervous about how soon Purdy would be getting out of jail to a friend that I thought knew—how, by osmosis? Magical friend brain-bonding?—but didn’t. She tried to be comforting, but mostly she was just mortified and at a loss, so eventually I changed the subject— for her, not me.
And worse, she was my fault. The very fact that she’d gone through it—months after it happened to me, her very first day of college—was because I didn’t speak up when I was supposed to.
I told my sister at the time that I couldn’t, that I didn’t know how. You can’t take a DNA swab for fondling; there wasn’t any proof of what happened to me in that awful little room.
There was just my word against his. Whose story was more believable? More true?
So I didn’t say anything, and eventually, he did the very same thing to Kathleen. I try not to think about the fact that it may not have only been Kathleen.
Rape kit or it didn’t happen.
As my memory continuously deletes the tape, my body seems to repurpose all that unused energy as panic attacks, stomach aches, even-worse-OCD (my anxiety, depression, and OCD pre-dated all of this by years), etc. etc. etc.
Burying everything so deep that I couldn’t see it—couldn’t even dredge up the details when I tried—patched things over. But it’s easy enough to rip off a patch. Even reading the transcripts again—seeing my name and his name and all the details and all the things they said to try to make it untrue—makes my hands violently shake.
Maybe talking is a better way to deal with it. Drowning myself in the details until I learn to breathe them like they’re part of my normal atmosphere.
But you can’t communicate effectively about something people don’t want to hear.
Kathleen and I talk frequently now—rarely, if ever, about this. It’s already been said. By talking about it, we’ve freed ourselves to talk about anything—everything—else.
But this kind of thing is too big to hinge upon conversations between co-plaintiffs. More of us need to start talking. Not just about the SVU-appropriate encounters, but about the halfway-ones, the I-didn’t-scream ones, the I-don’t-remember-it-entirely nights, and all the gray area in between.
But also: Please listen without judging. Or shaming. Or pitying. And then?
Of course I want to hear that it’s not my fault, but I also need to believe that talking about it hasn’t ruined everything. You can’t expect someone who is exposing herself this way not to pick up on your discomfort. And you can’t expect her not to be hurt by it—enough so that she’ll learn not to talk about it.
It’s an important story that many, many people need to tell. But it’s nobody’sonly story. Life doesn’t end after rape. So let’s stop acting like it does.
Posted on: Elle.com