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My favorite on set photo from “Wanted” shoot.

That time TV hired me to portray a sexual assault and other stuff too.

Sunah Bilsted
Oct 17, 2017 · 7 min read

I’ve been writing this for years. In my head. In my relationships. Occasionally in Microsoft Word. I never finished because I was waiting until I felt all healed and swaddled in a not traumatized parcel? I felt like it would be too indulgent? Victimy? Or worse, it would be hack? (The last reason I attribute solely to a literary agent who years ago insisted I was to never write about my experience with sexual assault because it was…too cliché).

I once got cast in a TV drama on TNT called Wanted and I was thrilled. I got to ride a horse (a skill I had brazenly lied about having), get shot in the head, and play dead in a real live morgue. And somewhere in the middle of all those fun actor dreams come true, my character Katrina Stroebel and I were also tasked with portraying the victim of a violent rape and murder scene in a barn. Aren’t all good things bookmarked with bad things or had I been in Hollywood too long?

Certain I had been successful in convincing them of my illustrious horse riding past (Oh sorry, I ride Western not English, was that not clear??) we moved into the barn to rehearse the rape scene. The year was 2005 and the network people were jostling their high end shoes across the horse shit encrusted hay floor, with papers and opinions, looking for ways to ensure this scene would not cause unseemly reactions by their audience or their legal department. A great deal of time was spent determining the allowable amount of rape ‘thrusts’ they would show the male actor performing on my character Katrina Stroebel and I. They settled on one and a half, with the understanding that the assault would happen over my underwear. Pants would be ripped down, Calvin Klein briefs would stay put. They seemed very proud of themselves for diluting their precious rape sequence into a genitally protected aggressive hug. Thank you? I didn’t know what to think. The male director seemed sensitive. Pulling me aside to tell me he knew it was tough material, that if I was uncomfortable at any point, I could speak up. I felt relieved and went off into a corner to build up those on-call tears my years of acting training didn’t teach me. Thanks to anxiety and a natural preference for comedy, I’ve never been good at crying on cue. So I frantically started to conjure up every diabolic amount of sad thoughts I could muster. Dead dogs, nah, dead babies! Dogs killing babies! Jesus. Babies killing dogs? Ugh. Famine, War, Parents Dying! Fuck. I can’t do this. Notably, I avoided thinking about my own actual sexual assault cause…too fucking real yo. They called me back to set, and as they tied up my hands above my head with rope, the aforementioned sensitive director started talking through the shots.

“Okay, I want the camera to come in through here then rape rape rape, then we move to husband crying, back to rape rape rape, gotta make sure we are lighting her face, cut to horses over here, then rape rape rape”.

To clarify: every time he casually sputtered “rape rape rape” (always in threes) his hands would flitter in my direction like a dismissive conductor, effectively turning the nerve rattling soon to start on camera sexual assault into the classic Seinfeld yadda yadda yadda bit. I never did like that episode and now I really didn’t like him. My only remaining choice at that point was to employ my well rehearsed method of detachment, and when the camera started to roll, I proceeded to turn in a very regrettable inauthentic performance. The same type of regrettable inauthentic performance I had been giving to men since my own quite authentic rape rape rape.

I was a lazy kid. I hated getting up so I developed a vivid fantasy I would play out every morning my mom came to wake me. I would lie in bed and scream into the air “Rope!” in hopes that an actual rope would appear in the air dangling over me, so I could grab hold of it and lift myself out of bed. The rope never appeared but it took years of daily requests for me to begrudgingly accept I was not the sorcerer queen I had imagined I was.

I woke up in his bed in a lot of pain. Like brown water sputtering out of a rusty faucet, it took a few seconds for it to run clear through my head. Oh. I’m not asleep anymore and this is happening to me. My loudest thought at this point was surprisingly simple: I am stronger than him. He is weak. I am strong. Because I didn’t have the physical strength to stop it, I pinpointed the only thing I felt able to control. My perceived emotional strength. The idea of fighting back was nary a thought, as I was acutely aware that not only was my body being violated, but so was my freedom of choice.

In my whirling mind ‘kid me’ showed up, calling out for my magical rope friend, to come lift me up and out of this lumpy terrifying bed somewhere on the Upper West Side of New York City, my hometown. Instead of shouting “Rope!” I muttered “No”. Stop. No.

Oh, do you want me to put on a condom, he asked. Hearing that broke my everything. It wasn’t going to stop until he decided it would stop. There would once again be no rope for me this morning. I kept moving my mouth to form the word no but I’m afraid to say that by this point, I think he had also broken my voice.

I didn’t think it could get any worse until he finally finished, sat up, and started what looked like some version of crying. “I’m sorry”. I’m sorry. For the next twenty or one hundred twenty minutes, he said I’m sorry. Head in hand. Shoulders slumped. I’m sorry, he said. Those two words became his magical rope: lift me up and far away from what I know I’ve just done to you in this bed.

And I gave it to him. I am stronger than you, I thought. So you can have the rope. I guess I don’t need it. And I told him. “It’s okay”. That morning he turned me into a statistic and a liar.

The first person I told was my good guy friend. When he asked me what I was “doing there in the first place” I quickly agreed it was my fault and changed the subject back to smoking another cigarette. He was right, why would I expect the man who I had worked with for two years at Restaurant Associates Catering, who I liked and who seemed like a decent guy, the man who I told that I just wanted to cuddle and talk and crash there because it was late and the cab back down to the East Village was too expensive. Why wouldn’t I assume at 20 years old that every man was a predator.

Soon after I found a cheapie therapist, a woman, in the hopes that $45 dollars, estrogen, and tears could buy me back the rope I had given away. Instead she spent an entire 50 minutes insisting on finding out which hole he had used to penetrate me during the assault. ”Where did he put it, exactly? Sounds like you were sodomized. Are you sure you weren’t sodomized? Tell me again. You keep saying it hurt? That doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t sodomy, why did it hurt so much?” The only hole I cared about was the one I was going to shove her into.

I stopped seeing her immediately (after three more months) and found new therapists: all my future boyfriends. I would tell them what had happened to me in that lumpy bed on the Upper West Side as a test, an emotional maturity pop quiz. They always failed. They either suffered from sudden hysterical hearing loss, muttered I’m sorry and avoided sleeping with me for a while, a few painfully silent well meaning hugs, or threats of violence against the unnamed predator. I was never mad when they didn’t say or do the thing I needed, it only made me feel unequivocally positive that I would never feel emotionally safe with a man. It was my pain, and my pain alone. This didn’t seem fair.

Years later I figured it time to try a new, more direct approach. I was getting lonely from feeling so alone in my romantic relationships. I chose a supes chill hike to gently ask my boyfriend of a year if he’d go to a sexual assault survivor group with me so “We could make it about us. Heal together”. He got so angry. He was flabbergasted. “What makes you think I want to go somewhere to listen to you talk about having sex with another man?”. There are a number of good reasons to dislike Runyon Canyon (packed, cellphone speaker conversations, selfie sticks, humans off leash, shirtless Matthew McConaughey jogging) but mine will always be cause it’s the last place I tried to effectively talk to a man I loved about the depth to which my experiences might be getting in the way of true intimacy. Also, it always smells like dog shit.

I don’t know how to end this because I still feel like a kid calling out for some stupid fucking imaginary rope. But what if? I like to believe in magic. I still think that rope friend will appear someday. I just hope it’s not on my deathbed.

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