“How many times did you tell him to stop?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I think so. Maybe it was seven. At least six. Maybe somewhere between six and ten.”
“Did you push him away?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I think. I’m pretty sure I did.”
“But was it hard enough? Did he really know you wanted him to stop?”
“I felt like it was. But maybe it wasn’t.”
“Do you think you said it loud enough?”
“Are you sure?”
“I mean, I thought I did. But maybe he didn’t hear me.”
“Maybe you didn’t do enough to stop it. Maybe you didn’t do enough to prevent it from happening in the first place.”
“Maybe I didn’t say it loud enough. Maybe I didn’t push him away hard enough. Maybe I didn’t tell him to stop enough times. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him come home with me. Maybe I wasn’t mad enough. Maybe if I’d said it one more time, maybe if I’d yelled at him or called him a name, he would’ve listened.”
In the past four months, I have had this conversation with myself more times than I can count. In bed, late at night, when I can’t get to sleep. On the subway to work. Sitting on my therapist’s couch (she tends to respond in a very different way). In a meeting, while my phone is on mute.
It’s a conversation many survivors have had, I’m sure.
Because that’s what I am now. A survivor. I guess. I mean, I think I am. It’s really all for lack of a better word.
Four months ago, I was sexually assaulted. Constructing the language around what exactly happened to me is still difficult. Nothing feels quite right, no words quite adequate, but “sexually assaulted” is the closest thing I’ve found. Each new phrase I try is like pulling on a thick wool sweater that’s been shrunk in the dryer. Maybe in some other memory it was right. But now it feels stiff, tight, a mold I can’t quite fit myself into.
I wasn’t raped. At least, that word doesn’t feel even remotely correct. I wasn’t molested. That’s definitely not what happened. Violated, maybe. But “sexually violated” sounds so imprecise, in a way that “sexually assaulted” does not.
And I need people to know what I mean when I tell them. I need you to understand what happened to me, so that you can react accordingly.
Language is a magnificent thing in that it can describe. It can give definition to experience. Description to the indescribable. Understanding to the complex.
But when words — when languages — fail, they constrict.
In college, I studied semiotics. The way meaning is made. The way language can be used to interpret, and the way signs and symbols come to be.
I taught myself German words that are untranslatable. Single words that seamlessly describe in German concepts that are whole phrases in English, and whose translated phrases are even still imperfect. Imprecise.
I learned about Guugu Yimithirr, a remote Australian aboriginal tongue from north Queensland, in which egocentric directions (left, right, front, back) simply do not exist. “If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say ‘move a bit to the east,’” writes Guy Deutscher in the piece linked in the last sentence. “To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, ‘I left it on the southern edge of the western table.’ Or they would warn you to ‘look out for that big ant just north of your foot.’”
Years later, I learned that, until only recently in human history (at least relatively recently), the word and concept of blue did not exist. Not in the way we think of it.
“Can we see something for which we have no word?” asks Alex Bellos in a Guardian piece about the aforementioned Mr. Deutscher’s work. Of course we can see it (technically). But how do we perceive it? Until we began to distinguish blue as its own separate color, centuries of humans referred to things that today we see as blue as black or green.
“In fact, this is why in Japan green lights are actually a bluer shade of green than in the rest of the world,” Bellos continues. “The word used for the green of traffic lights is ao, which used to mean ‘green and blue’ but now means blue. Rather than change the word, they changed the colour.”
I wrote the following at 21 years old, in a paper titled “Subversion and Illumination through Constriction: Linguistic restriction in Annie Dillard’s ‘Seeing,’ ‘Living like Weasels,’ and ‘Mirages’”. It was my midterm paper in LI303, The Art of Nonfiction, taught by Richard Hoffman:
Humans are unique in our ability to not only notice, but also attribute meaning, to the world and the things that we notice within it. Meaning, and the act of creating a meaning (or meanings) from the things we encounter in our lives, is a subjective act that creates the problem of a certain blindness in our continued perception. We construct meanings from things by manipulating language — specifically, the language that we have learned to write and speak in. By utilizing language for this manipulation, we are not manipulating the world itself, but instead our perception and understanding of it, as well as the meaning(s) that we find within it. By saying and describing things in a certain way, we do not make them that way, but we do force ourselves to understand them in such a way. Also by saying and describing things in a certain way, we manage to achieve the aforementioned blindness by thereafter being unable to perceive them in any other way beyond our initial interpretation.
God, I was so college in college.
To put it simply: Language shapes the way in which we are able to think.
I mean, how could it not? If thinking in English is like putting a work onto a canvas, our language is the paint we spread across it. And there are only so many kinds of paint that work well on canvas.
But if we’re thinking in another language — if we’re painting a house, a wall, or a floor, for instance, and if that’s the only thing we know how to paint — we’d likely use a different kind of varnish.
And it’s a whole other ballgame if we’re sculpting something with clay or building something with wood. Especially if that’s the only thing we know how to do — the only way in which we are able to understand and perceive the world — but are then presented with the paint and canvas. A liquid? Used as a thing to create something out of nothing? It wouldn’t even compute.
In “Seeing,” Dillard writes about a book called Space and Sight by Marius von Senden. It holds a series of accounts of European and American patients who had been blinded by cataracts since birth, but who, upon the advent of advanced medical procedures, eventually obtained sight.
It is a miraculous narrative, and one that has stuck with me for so many years. “One patient called lemonade ‘square’ because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands,” Dillard writes. “To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is ‘something bright and then holes,’” she includes a few paragraphs later.
(The irony of the fact that I am retelling something that is already retelling something else is not lost on me.)
But this is the one that really got me.
In the last paragraph, Dillard writes: “When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.’”
It may seem subtle, but to me what is happening here is that this girl — who is seeing for the first time in her life, but who learned her language, and thus the way in which she contextualizes the world, before she could do so — is reversing the negative space for the positive space. To her, the light between branches is what she sees in the tree. The branches themselves are the parts that are absent, that lack presence.
Her language plus the combination of her lack of sight literally shaped the way in which she was able to perceive the world — once she could see. A sighted person would never consider these opposites as fact.
All of this is to say that I don’t feel like there is a word that accurately describes what happened to me. I don’t think that my language has come up with one.
Like those German terms, in a way, I feel as though the words and sentences held on this page are a more accurate representation of it all than “sexually assaulted” could ever be.
Or perhaps the word to describe what happened to me doesn’t exist. Yet.
I am lying to you.
I am not lying to you.
Even as I write this I think that I am lying to you. But can I trust what I think?
I feel as though I am lying to you because I omitted part of what happened in my first piece about what happened. Because I didn’t tell you about how I let him lay in my bed for another hour after it happened, attempting to comfort him, pretending to be sick so that he would leave, while he begged me to let him stay so that he could take care of me. How he tried to kiss me again. How I might have let him. (I honestly don’t remember.)
I didn’t tell you about how I really did tell him it was okay. Multiple times. Because he looked so sad. Even after he hurt me.
I didn’t tell you about how sweet my voice was to him. How I thought that that was what would get him to leave. How, yes, I did tell him to stop when it was happening. Yes, I did try to push him off of me. But that I might not have done it as many times or as aggressively as I led you to believe.
How I never yelled at him. How I never let him know I was upset. How I acted perfectly normal the whole time he was there. Until he finally left and I broke down.
All of this because I wanted your sympathy. Because I wrote those words to be read. Because somehow the actual truth of what happened didn’t feel “good” enough. Or is it “bad” enough?
Because this whole time I’ve been thinking that I’m overreacting. Because no matter how many people tell me I’m not, no matter how many times I thank them and tell them I hear them, I don’t believe a single one.
I let him come home with me. I let him inside of me. Willingly, at first. And when he hurt me, I didn’t fight him off hard enough. How could I ever have? What, in that situation, could ever have been enough?
The answer is nothing. Even if I’d punched him, kicked him, thrown him on the street, screamed in his face. Even if I’d killed him. Nothing will ever be enough to make me feel like I didn’t deserve it.
I know all of this is wrong. I know, logically, that I should not blame myself. And for the most part, I don’t. But these are the thoughts that creep into one’s mind in those lowest of moments. This is what happens when you are forced to endure something so vile. So violating. For lack of a better word.
In the absence of understanding how it could ever even conceivably happen, you blame yourself. What else can you do?
There’s no such thing as a “good” survivor, because there’s no such thing as a “bad” one.
There could never be a “bad” survivor. Anyone forced to live through such trauma is granted the singular dignity of processing it however the fuck they want. And no matter what happened, no matter if we think we could have stopped it, could have done better, we didn’t deserve it.
I am trying so hard to believe this.
After all, “good” and “bad” are relative words. Maybe they can both be true at the same time. Maybe neither is accurate. Maybe both are irrelevant, imprecise.
Maybe “survivor” is wrong, and there is an alternative hiding somewhere out there. Or maybe our language hasn’t gotten quite where it needs to be to do our strength justice.