“So what exactly happened to you?”
My mom has asked me a number of times. I finally told her, less than a year ago, why I left film school. I told her I had been with a boy. I told her he’d been abusive. I left it at that.
Because I wasn’t sure what part of it was abuse. I still felt, despite every kind-hearted girlfriend who assured me otherwise, that it was partly my fault.
Plus, I would reason to myself,
he never actually hit me.
We met at freshman orientation. I was fresh out of an all-girls high school where I had put very little interest in academic pursuits that didn’t include theater or reading 19th-century British lit. I had just seen 500 Days of Summer and bought a high-waisted skirt. I’d read Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament for the first time. I shaped myself into what I thought was some type of art-school, beauty-queen archetype that alt-pop bands write shitty songs about.
He approached me after a presentation on sexual assault where he had answered all the questions correctly.
“You’re from facebook, right?” He’d asked, remembering my now-changed username. I’d used my first and middle name to keep myself separate from family friend-requests.
“Yeah, hi.” We shook hands.
It was safe to say I had no experience with men before that point. I had one date and one kiss. It hadn’t felt right and we had agreed to be friends. We still are to this day and I credit him very much with keeping me sane during this time.
We made plans to get Chipotle after the first day of classes.
I spent the day beforehand flitting between classes, nervously texting my friend Sarah who’d gotten into the same University as me. I texted my mother about classes, about how I’d seen a nun across campus and quickly shoved my phone into my purse- an old habit from high school. I called my grandmother, a woman who’d left school at thirteen to work in a fish and chip shop and was exceedingly proud of her first grandchild making it all the way to college.
In the line for Chipotle he studied my face for a second before declaring, “Your eyes are super green. Like Harry Potter’s.”
I was smitten. He looked like a young Mr. Incredible and said nerdy things and, most importantly, liked me. I’d never had any luck with boys before but was somehow managing to knock it out of the park my first week of college.
It ended up lasting about a month. I was on the receiving end of many speeches designed to make me feel as though I was coming on to strong or that my behavior was somehow inappropriate and he, a guy who’d been to a public school, was the only one who knew why or how.
“Everyone knows you’re a virgin. Everyone knows you want a boyfriend. Everyone knows and everyone judges. You are bad, you are immature, you are wrong.”
He seemed to say to me.
There is a very insidious way to control a girl without ever really having to do anything:
You convince her that no man like you, a man who is “her type” would want her. You find the one thing she hates about herself yet can’t control. You play on her insecurities and, worst of all, you let everyone know what you are doing.
My abuse never happened in secret. My abuse happened in front of my shocked roommates and friends. It happened in front of his cheering friends who egged him on, astounded by the fact that he had a girl who did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.
Our dorms were segregated by major, an attempt by the University to make a pretty daunting campus feel like a smaller community. And it worked- probably a little too well. That entire building and its inhabitants were my world. I had no one else. I was terrified. Not of physical harm but of public humiliation, of rumors that would follow me for the next four years.
I policed myself constantly. What I was wearing, how I spoke, how I acted. It was important to be “cool”. Always, cool. Cool meant bending myself into an unrecognizable fuckboy dream-girl. It meant wearing unreasonably small dresses and freezing my ass off at outdoor beerpong tournaments that I had to arrive separately to- you know, incase he wanted to talk to someone else. Cool meant embracing relationship rules I had never heard of before but assumed were universal.
1. Thou shalt not text first
2. Thou shalt not speak to him at parties, lest it cockblock him or throw off his beerpong game
3. Thou shalt not pose for photos together
4. Thou shalt shave every conceivable inch of thine person, anything less is gross and shall be shared with the rest of the guys
5. Thou shalt not speak to other men, but dutifully leave the dorm when another pretty, blonde co-ed shows up to your kickback
6. Thou shalt always be sexually available
I never did anything, sexually, against my will. But that does not mean that I wanted to do it.
He never raped me. I was never assaulted. But I deserved to experience sex for the first time with a respectful and gentle partner who, at the very least, saw me as a person and not an extension of their fantasies. Every woman does but to an astounding number of us it is not always the case. Such an idea felt like a luxury to me.
Every single one of my earliest sexual experiences is stained with terror. Not because I was being forced but because I knew that if I did anything wrong, acted the wrong way, said a wrong thing that everyone would know. He made himself to be the gatekeeper to the world of men and if he decided I was ridiculous then that was it, I was done for.
It should be noted that, while his abuse was mental, it left me with physical ailments that took upwards of a year to be free of. I was so nervous, so uptight and terrified that I developed a mild form of vaginismus. I couldn’t have intercourse without experiencing a burning, tearing pain that I would grit my teeth and suffer through because I thought it was what I had to do. It didn’t end until my next relationship, when I met a man who patiently and frequently insisted that his love for me was not tied to any services I could provide but rather to who I was as a person.
I began to drink heavily. If all I was destined to be in life was a “good-time” girl then I would be the good-est of all good times. I would host parties and beerpong tournaments and kickbacks and drink until I couldn’t remember why I hated myself so much. I was some sad collegiate Gatsby blowing all her food money on cheap beer and Taco Bell.
He ridiculed most of my friends and my close relationship with my family. I stopped calling home as much. I stopped hanging out with the friends that, coincidentally, happened to be his biggest detractors.
I stopped eating. I was constipated for days and I had near-constant acid stomach from the days of hangovers and vomiting. I had migraines for weeks at a time and dark circles under my eyes. Surely someone had to have known how sick I was- but my teachers, faculty and advisors said nothing. Not even when campus police were called to our dorms because he’d raged out and punched a hole in the wall and slammed the door in an officer’s face.
My depression manifested in a deep well of fury. I self-harmed, scratching my inner thighs enough to draw blood but not enough to leave me with “undesirable” scars. I turned my rage inwards, blaming myself for not being good enough to be loved but also not being strong enough to leave.
My friends that stuck it all out, to their unending credit, tried their absolute hardest to help me. They tried banning him from our room, refusing to buy liquor- one even beat the shit out of him one night at a party.
But I was sick, obsessed and broken. I was determined to make this work because he had convinced me no one else would want me. I had been too virginal before and now I was too used and everyone knew. He made sure everyone knew.
At best all my friends could do was wrap me in my duvet cover and feed me pieces of bread like a drunk baby duck so that I wouldn’t get alcohol poisoning.
My savior came through comedy.
My parents, despite my best and most fervent lies, pulled me home. Once I was there I refused to go back. I enrolled in community college. I took acting and theater classes and found a much bigger world existed than I had been lead to believe.
I made friends with students from all over the world and the city and they taught me that I was more than what I could do for other people. I learned to find meaning and self-worth in my writing and my comedy instead of my relationships with men. I learned that no one knew any more than I did and they certainly didn’t know any more than what I told them. I learned upon meeting my first boyfriend, a virgin at the time, that there was no physical sign, no bright red letters proclaiming to everyone else how much sex you’d ever had and how good you were at it. I learned that I was just as deserving of love as anyone else.
I learned not to see myself as a victim but a survivor and to not let it define me, even though it’s effects are still seen in my life to this day. I police myself often, even within loving and legitimate relationships. I live in fear of somehow seeming “silly”, it makes it hard for me to verbalize my needs to my partners- often swinging between quiet resentment and loud aggression. Finding sexuality’s place within a healthy relationship was a long and trying experience.
I’ve turned that year over and over again in my memory- trying to see how it happened, what triggered it or how it could it have been avoided. But no matter how I look at it, I come up with the same thing every time.
It was inevitable. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been another girl. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and entirely too susceptible to Harry Potter pick-up lines. I don’t think my abuser, to this day, knows that he is an abuser.
He apologized, once, two years later in a Culver City cafe. He’d said he was young and angry and lonely. I had just been there to mop up his rage. I think that’s more indicative of a learned hatred of women than anything else that happened between us.
My abuser, and the majority of his friends, had all been raised in suburban middle-class bubbles. Nothing that he had ever done or said to me especially shocked them and they certainly didn’t lick it off the walls. This neat classification of women as mothers, whores, girlfriends and non-sexual friends (each with their own personalized service to provide) was deeply ingrained- so was their drive to consume and abuse these women, to belittle their femininity to prop up their own tenuous identity as adult men. It was a cycle, and a vicious and insidious one at that.
I don’t blame him for falling prey to it but I do blame him for neglecting to break it. I accepted his apology but I couldn’t forgive him- and I certainly couldn’t forget.
In the same breath that he apologized he asked me to please never write about him. But I learned a thing or two from him about breaking promises and I’m afraid that’s one I definitely cannot keep.
The author of this piece has asked to remain anonymous. “So What Exactly Happened” is the third installment in Absurdists series on Sexual Assault & Violence. We follow each piece with an anonymous form for cis, straight, queer, trans women victims seeking redress for assault — Absurdist will publish a followup paired with safe responses from peers.