The Forest and The Match

Notes on the aftermath of rape

CW: Rape

So much of my life has been about power: it’s lack, it’s theft, it’s struggle for a surface, the alternate desire and refusal to speak. I have long pondered the question of my identity as one or the other: subject or object. Which one am I? And, if I narrow it down, what are the rules of engagement as either subject or object in my society.

So far, some of my most defining moments as a human have been about the loss of power, of my own personal power, about the theft of my sex, or rather, probably more precisely, about the theft of my power through forced sex.

Lori Petty can say all she wants that predators can’t take your power, not really. Can’t take what you won’t give. But that’s a strange light to throw on the lot with which you’ve found yourself: raped, beaten, longing and unable to forget.

When I look at the backlash which has grown around the #metoo movement, of those claiming #notallmen, and that what started as a legitimate social moment has spun out into a platform for liars and hysterics, I think about worldviews. What is the worldview that one has when dismissing thousands upon thousands, millions of voices? How is it more comforting to believe that all of these wounded women are liars? That all of these men are being erroneously accused? That the world is all business as usual?

As I type, it makes some sense. It’s easier to cling to the familiar paradigm than to see it seismically shift. It’s easier to believe that those who’ve long held power have, by and large, wielded it wisely. Perhaps it also has to do with voice, with being heard. For some, their own pain festers deep, unacknowledged, and unspoken. When so many people are struggling, why do some people get to have their pain publicly acknowledged, their experiences mourned for, regretted?

It’s more complicated than a few paragraphs can indicate. It’s wound up with belief, doubt, morality, denial, self-loathing, our early animal roots. Roots that we can’t quite shake despite all our efforts to civilize ourselves. Because if the creatures we’ve evolved from were capable, aren’t we all?

Isn’t it easier to isolate and banish the malignant symptom — the occasional bad actor — than to realize its roots connect through each of us, a rhizome of latent violent potential? Look at how we deal with crime, with criminals. As errant individuals to punish or pity, rather than symptoms of a systemic societal rot ignored by those who have the privilege and the prerogative to avert their gaze.

It’s easier to think of the source as being an individual and anomalous darkness than to think of it as one to which we all belong. An inherited history of trauma and violence, of nature that, despite our best efforts can transcend nurture, conditioning, social contracts.

Today, social media offers us a performative path to near constant virtuousness, we can construct our virtual selves as altars to our best traits, our highest morals. We can even begin to believe this self, this edited self, is our truest one. The self we construct, the persona we don for others, as opposed to the self we are when no one is watching. I tend to believe that those unseen selves are truer. I, like so many others, have seen those dark selves meant for the quiet up close; witnessed, experienced the damage they can do.

I would compare my experiences of sexual violence to that of a forest, drying in too many waterless summers, infested by beetles who thrive in the dry heat, left to burn when the people with matches come to casually tear down a living system. It’s uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Only time can right it, but the same forest will never return. The one you started with is gone. And no matter how much you kick and scream, and struggle, no matter how many times the word “no” leaves your lips, all you can do is watch them light the match and cast it in. All you can do is watch your world burn.

You’re left with the devastation, they’re left with the knowledge that they took what you didn’t want to give, like gods that walk among the mortals — vampires seeking the vulnerable to court and consume.

Every time I revisit these things I shake. Even approaching the box I’ve tucked them tightly into sees me anxious. I become hot, my face fills with fire, my temperature rises. My hands begin to tremble and my whole body shortly follows suit. In those moments I live as a spasm, a shock, a charge held at its limits by a boundary made of skin. And you see, I haven’t even lifted the lid. In order to function, I’ve become the queen of my own partition. If I just keep things separated enough, keep the darkness locked up alone, away, far away from my daily, conscious mind, then maybe, maybe I can live a normal life. Maybe I too can be loved by people. Maybe if they don’t have to see it, they won’t turn me away.

But that’s no solution. 15 years and counting and I’m still no closer, really to the exorcism of my monsters: men with names, men who could bottle the violence long enough to close the gap, long enough to leave no room for escape once they removed their masks and revealed their appetites. For they didn’t really want to eat you, no. They wanted to leave you alive. Hollow, yes, but alive. Their voices forever echoing in your ears, their figures forever present, a flock of shadows taking up residence. They may have preyed on you only for a moment, a night, for eight measly hours. A blink, in a human life.

But it’s an unforgettable blink. Life turns pale. You turn inward. You shake when you watch violent films but you can’t hide from life. You keep your keys in your hand when you walk to your car, from your car to your door, even in your safe little American town. You go numb, you act like yourself in order to convince everyone that you are the same as you were yesterday, but you don’t know where you’ve gone or when you will genuinely resurface. Violence has found you once, it will find you again. It does find you again. And again. And again. And again. The trusting of the monsters when they looked like mere men. The way it destroyed you then. The way it’s destroying you still. From the inside out. It’s a cancer you felt every moment of when it entered you. It eats you. It’s how you disappear. Until all that’s left is unrecognizable, just a girl who looks like you.