13 years ago, I took my rapist to court.
You won’t read about it in the papers and he never served a day in jail. My court records are sealed, probably destroyed. For every Brock Turner case, there are probably thousands of cases like mine, completely erased from history.
I forget his face sometimes. The edges start to blur and I can’t make him out anymore and he simply becomes the shadow of all men. I panic, and I find his picture and I etch his face into my subconscious.
You may think this is for the best. You may think that I should let his face fade away, let the memories dull, let my mind finally have a rest. But do you see? My memory is the only record that exists. And if I forget, then it’s like it never happened.
When I went to the police station, they said, “We can smell the liquor on your breath,” and it was the very first thing they said to me. I sat in a cold plastic chair in front of a scratched wooden desk and I took a breathalyzer.
They reminded me over and over again that I would ruin his life, and was I really sure that I wanted to be responsible for sending a man to prison? No, I thought, I never asked for that responsibility.
All my clothes were taken away and I never saw them again. I was wearing my favorite jeans and a tank top and blue flip flops with rhinestones on them. I was 18 years old.
We treat trauma and tragedy like an illness or a physical injury, something to acknowledge at its worst, at its most visible, but we expect a quick recovery. We expect a person to heal, to gather up all the messy emotions and seal them up in a quiet vault. We look down on those who can’t do this — those who dare feel pain, or anger, or sadness, or those who refuse to reject victimhood for the more sanitized version of “survivor.”
We internalize this, those of us who are victims and survivors. We berate ourselves for not healing quickly enough, for having thoughts and feelings and dark flashes of memories that blind us when we least expect it. We float above the world in order to survive, but we long to touch the ground. We long to be normal.
I was escorted everywhere I went. Three police officers stood guard over my hospital room. It started to feel like it wasn’t for my protection.
They kept me awake for over 24 hours and they asked me over and over and over again to repeat the details of what had happened.
The details are now burnt into my memory.
Answering the same questions over and over again made me question my own credibility, made me lose confidence in my own story. I wondered if the police officers believed me. I wondered how I was supposed to act. Was I crying too much? Too little? Did I say “like” too many times, and did that make me sound too much like a stupid teenager, and would all those times be recorded in my statement, and would that make me sound uncredible? These are the things I started to think.
Was my shock coming across as indifference?
Would a real victim have fought harder?
In between questioning, I sat on a small cot in a small room wishing that I had clean underwear.
I spend a lot of time making sure the cracks aren’t showing. I picture a warrior, a gladiator, a marble statue of Athena. A glossy veneer where nothing can stick, slippery, hard, impenetrable.
I seek nothingness. Never a victim, never a survivor. A refusal to acknowledge the powerlessness, the sinister truth of feeling like an indistinguishable, interchangeable body, of feeling like all women across all time.
I tried to explain what it felt like. That it felt like a dream; that it felt like I was detached from my own body; that it felt like it wasn’t really happening to me; that it felt like it was happening to another blond girl in rhinestone flip flops. I screamed at the girl to wake up but she couldn’t hear me, I tried to explain.
Even now, sometimes, my body feels like the enemy.
Maybe rape is the great equalizer of women. The universal experience, designed to remove our power and our agency, a violent reminder that we are carbon copies of each other, that we are simply stacks of body parts designed for men’s taking.
We stop swimming against the tide. We become the pebbles in the ocean, and thousands of years of history roll over us, smoothing our angles, our sharp edges, the parts that make us individual, the parts that make us human.
The water rolls over us easily and we are all the same, and we eventually disintegrate into nothingness, into tiny bits of shell that have no story.
At the hospital, the nurse joked that it was much harder to do rape kits in the 2000s because young women no longer had pubic hair. In spite of it all, I laughed.
They offered to let me shower in the tiny bathroom in the corner of the police station, but the door wasn’t very solid and since they didn’t let me do anything alone, I declined. I was pretty sure I would need to sob and scream and melt into the walls and I didn’t want them to be there when I did.
I sometimes wonder if my decision not to shower was used against me.
In pop culture, rape has become almost a rite of passage for female characters. They are only allowed to become real characters once they pay the price. Their strength is fueled by their trauma. Their humanity is fueled by their pain.
But here’s the truth: we don’t have strength because of our trauma, we have strength in spite of it.
Rape is the act of taking away someone’s power. I will never give my rapist credit for my strength.
Sometimes it felt like they were just making things up as they went.
One day, they made me call him. I would not recommend making rape victims do this, for the record. They made me ask him, in excruciating detail, why he did the things he did to me. And then, in a truly perplexing move, they made me ask him for a letter of apology.
That was the very last time I interacted with my rapist. I’ve never received an apology.
I maintain the glossy veneer. When I tell people about it, I do it in a way that protects their anxieties, their fears of human fallacy; I do it in a way that allows them to feel whole and safe and unburdened.
They don’t ask me about it. Or when they do, I feel the obligation in their eyes, the duty to ask, mingled with the regret of having to do so. I give them what they need, I let the conflict and the anger bubble below my hard shell.
If I were a TV character, my rape would have been addressed on only one episode.
The prosecutor wouldn’t let me have a box of tissues on the stand.
“How old were you on the night in question?”
“Were you drinking alcohol on the night in question?”
“Do you know that it is illegal for you to drink alcohol at age 18?”
“But you drank alcohol on the night in question?”
“Even though it was illegal to do so?”
“How much did you drink on the night in question?”
Over and over again. Alcohol came up so much during this entire process that I honestly thought I would be charged with underage drinking.
Also: Did the rapist know that I had a boyfriend? When did I tell him that I had a boyfriend? Did I flirt with him? Am I sure he knew that I had a boyfriend?
I walked out of the courtroom knowing that the prosecutor didn’t want my case to go to trial.
We tell our girls that they can be anything that they want. We tell them that yes, Bad Things happen in the world, but there’s also justice in the world, and we’ll take care of you when the Bad Things happen.
We talk a lot about women not raising their hands, not speaking up, not letting their thoughts and their voices be heard.
But maybe it’s because they did it once. Maybe they reached out for help when they were hurting, when they were most vulnerable, and maybe they were told, “Hush sweetie, go sit back down.”
The jurors decided, by one vote, not to indict on criminal charges.
I remember testifying and none of them would make eye contact with me. I thought about their daughters, their sisters, their mothers.
I wanted to tell them that I was a “good” victim — that I was a good kid, a good student, and that I always followed the rules. I wanted to tell them that I was only there because everyone always said, go to the police if it happens to you, and I always followed the rules.
I wanted to tell them that I’d rather be at the beach. That I’d rather be getting ready for my sophomore year of college and worrying about which classes to take, and did I really need to take another one on 18th century literature?
I wanted to tell them that the second worst moment of my life was having to listen to the phone call made to my parents from the police station.
I wanted to tell them that the very worst moment of my life was having to see my parents’ heartbroken faces for the first time.
I wanted to ask them why they thought anyone would ever put themselves through this if it weren’t 100% true.
I was on my way to class when they called to tell me. I felt relief. Relief that it was over, relief that I hadn’t ruined someone’s life, relief that I hadn’t sent someone to prison.
I hung up the phone and I went to class. I didn’t tell anyone.
Once it happens to you, it’s never really over. It’s something that you wake up with every single day. It’s something that you must manage every single day. For your entire life? I don’t know. For 13 years? Yes.
Sometimes the wound is gaping, gasping for breath. Sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes you walk down the street and it only takes one look, one leer, or one comment, and it feels like a punch in the gut, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, a dirty bouquet of primal fear, guilt, shame, anger.
You learn to steel yourself against unsolicited attention, and you learn to absorb it. You learn to keep walking.
You decide not to talk about what happened; you decide that you won’t be a victim or a survivor or an anything; you decide to deny your rape any more power by acknowledging its effect on you.
You decide not to rely on other people anymore.
You learn to crave the emptiness, the quietness, and then you don’t know how to survive without it. There’s comfort in the familiar, even of familiar suffocation.
Then one day you realize — and this may take 13 years — you realize that silence has turned your rape into a sacred thing, into a powerful thing. Into a shared secret between you and your rapist, a black thread that ties you together like two tin cans.
You hold it close to your heart, and it takes up too much room. It means you can’t forget his face. It means your memory — and his memory — are the only records that exist.
And once you realize this, once you realize the power of this shared secret, and the weight of it, you also know that there’s only one way to end it. You have to wrench open the cracks.
I think about the jurors and I remember that they probably had sons too.
I tell myself that maybe they went home and told their sons about me. I tell myself that maybe they taught their sons about consent, and maybe one less woman will be raped because of me. I think about my rapist, and I tell myself that maybe one less woman will be raped because of me.
I have to remind myself of these thoughts because they are the only thoughts that keep me from regretting ever showing up at that police station.
I tell myself that if my story helps even one person, then it was worth it.
[To those who have similar stories, please know that I am here if you want to talk. Find me here. Thank you so much for reading.]