Great Barrington, MA
From the age of nine until I left for college at eighteen, I lived in a town in Western Massachusetts called Great Barrington. In 2012 Smithsonian Magazine named Great Barrington the No. 1 small town in America, praising its “cozy mountains,” “farm fields thick with corn,” and “golden oaks and crimson maples.” Great Barrington is home to 6,933 people and boasts, in addition to a branch of a community college, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a magnet institution for advanced students wishing to begin their undergraduate educations as early as sixteen. It is in many ways a town of and for young people, with ice cream parlors and cheap movies and a skate park bearing the grime of decades of put-on tough-and-cool, an attitude worn awkwardly by gangly white teenagers whose parents drove Subaru Foresters with ample lawn chairs stashed in the trunk for summer nights at James Taylor concerts.
Shortly after my family moved to Great Barrington, an abandoned mill caught fire about a quarter of a mile from our house. Firefighters came to our door and told us there was a chance that the chemicals in the smoke could be dangerous, that they were offering a voluntary evacuation. We just got here, we said. We stayed and were safe. Less than a year later, my father woke me one morning to tell me that there had been an attack on New York City. He reassured me over and over that we were safe and that nothing like that would happen to us in Great Barrington.
How does a ten-year-old fathom threat? It’s defined most simply as “a person or thing likely to cause damage or danger.” Well, that could be anything to a reckless child — we used to ride our bikes down steep driveways with our legs up over the handlebars. Was the driveway the threat, or the bicycles, or were we? We never meant to do ourselves harm, but is intention an integral part of threat? Were we threats to ourselves? We didn’t fear ourselves. I don’t think we feared anything.
In August 2015, I was twenty-four years old. I was staying with my mother for a week during my first choreography residency; she lives now in a small village just next to Great Barrington. I’d spent the previous three weeks at a dance festival in Colorado, working long hours at high altitude. On the last night of my residency, before I went home to Brooklyn, I met up with three high school buddies. We had drinks, roamed around town, ran into faces from the past; we soaked up the feeling of being relaxed in our mid-twenties in the town where we had worked so hard to be tough, to have our first kisses, to kick our childhoods to the curb.
I said good night to my high school buddies and went into a bar where a friend worked. He wasn’t on, which I knew — he’d been in a motorcycle accident the day prior, when we’d had tentative plans, and I was relieved that said plans had disintegrated and that I hadn’t been holding on for dear life on the back of his bike when the road flew out from under him in a spray of loose gravel. I felt guilty at my relief. I went into the bar to see if anyone knew how he was doing. As I chatted with the bartender and sipped a beer, two men ordered a round of shots. Exhilarated that I hadn’t crashed on a motorcycle, that I had finished my first residency, that I was going home the next morning, I told them to buy me one too. They did. Then they raped me.
The fear that comes when you realize that your life has been irrevocably altered, that something awful is happening to you and might continue to happen if you don’t do something, is blinding like steel wool in your eyes. It is hot and steely and woolly and makes you sick. I don’t know how long I was out of consciousness but when I came to and realized what was happening, I vomited. I was in a strange house with two strange men and a strange car was parked outside, and my head was strange and my body was strange and everything was strange tastes and smells. The colors were strange: mostly red and black, the black being my clothes, which I found and put on. One of the strange men drove me back to my mother’s car. I got in my mother’s car. I drove to my mother’s house.
If a girl goes to a bar alone, what is the threat? Is it the bar? Is it the girl? Is it how exhausted she is after pushing herself for years to become professionally and artistically successful, fiscally stable, and aesthetically appealing? Is it the drinks, or the drugs that might be added to the drinks? Who or what is responsible for the damage to or danger of the girl, when she regains consciousness in an unknown location with men whose names she doesn’t know? Is it the men? Is it an economy in which women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar, reinforcing a value and power dynamic that tells men that they are superior to women? Is it the moment that the other people at the bar look away and shrug, reassure themselves that nothing could be going wrong, the girl seems fine, and besides we’re in the number one small town in America for chrissakes!
For the rest of my life, I will remember the sensation of awaking to a trauma — like anesthetic wearing off, like a shroud being peeled from my body. I will remember sitting at the wheel of my mother’s car promising myself that the worst was behind me and that I would not die. I will remember sitting across the table from my best friend at a restaurant in Chinatown and telling her that I had been raped, speaking those words aloud for the first time after running them through my head over and over and over for months. I will remember what it felt like to be silent and confused and guilty. Unspoken shame is a complex and devastating wound.
(Four sexual assaults were reported in Great Barrington in 2015. Mine was not one of them.)