Part One: Shame
Some said it was brave. Others said nothing, either because they didn’t read the Facebook post in which I described the time I was raped or because talking about it out loud, off of social media, was just too uncomfortable.
Those closest to me called, texted, and messaged out of shock and concern. I’d told four people in the 12 years since it had happened before sharing publicly, and three of them were therapists, one of which specialized in domestic violence. The fourth person was my first post-divorce boyfriend. I hadn’t told my closest friends and family because I knew it would be upsetting. I also remained silent because for many years I thought what happened was normal, crazy as that sounds.
I’d long believed that what happened in the bedroom of a husband and wife was private. Whatever sexual issues or differences emerged were to be dealt with between the couple, and not opened up for comment. I also, for a very long time, didn’t think about the rape as a rape. I referred to it as “the time he forced me.” I even described it to him that way. It took ten years and the safety of a divorce before I could call it what it was.
Once I did, once I was clear that forcing sex on someone while married is marital rape and not just “meeting my husband’s needs,” I could not un-see it. The truth was deeply painful, and I was filled with incredible shame.
It’s not as if I didn’t know what rape was. Neither was I complicit. What is true is that people — all of us of all genders — can be intelligent, self-actualized, and aware and still fall victim to the manipulations and abuse of others if we’re not attuned to the many often small and subtle ways someone can and will disempower us.
If I was naive, it was in this area. I didn’t believe or want to acknowledge that someone who loved me would also harm me, so in the context of love and marriage, this behavior had to be something else. I compartmentalized and rationalized in order to avoid seeing emotional and verbal abuse, sexual coercion, and ultimately rape.
My story is not unique. The #MeToo movement has made this clear. As I’ve witnessed so many come forward, I was moved to draft my own post. I wanted to use my voice, too.
The post was long and rambling, and I never shared it. I worked it, though, as writers do. I edited and rewrote and sobbed into the keyboard. I raged and rewrote and raged some more. For months, I revisited the post that lived only in a Word document on my laptop.
I wrote poems about rape. I wrote essays. I wrote journal entries. I came back to the post. Eventually, I realized the post wasn’t meant to be shared. All of this writing had been therapeutic, cathartic. It was part of the healing process. As a writer, I’m compelled to put my experience into words whether anyone ever reads them or not.
I moved on to other topics and other writing, but I could not get away from the tension of holding this experience and also watching as person after person came forward with their stories of rape and abuse. For the better part of a year, I weighed my options.
I wanted to share, not to out anyone or to cause harm, but to illustrate that rape happens even to married women in the privacy and comfort of their own homes.
I wasn’t drunk or dressed promiscuously. Nor was I in a dangerous part of town or engaging in some sort of “risky” behavior. I was, instead, a brand-new mother with a 3-week old infant sleeping nearby, wearing maternity pajamas, in my own bed, behind the locked door of my own middle-class home in the suburbs.
My story illustrates the fact that rape isn’t caused by how a woman is dressed, her behavior, or her location. Rape is caused by men who feel entitled to take what they want from women.
Rape is difficult to talk about, as you might imagine, and I was not eager to share it publicly, but somehow not sharing felt even harder. The secret shame was more powerful and damning than the anguish of bringing the story to light.
The Brett Kavanaugh hearings were the final straw for me.
Like many survivors, watching as instances, accusations, and convictions of sexual assault and other forms of abuse are normalized and dismissed is retraumatizing.
It’s a reminder of the ways we have been diminished and disbelieved.
When I felt it was time for me to join the chorus, I did so carefully. It wasn’t an impulsive or reactive post, as I’d been weighing this decision for nearly a year and even as I wrote it, I continued to check in with myself.
As a mother, I was and still am, concerned about how this story will impact my children. Ultimately, I feel that truth is the way to healing. Keeping secrets leads to more pain and suffering, though learning the truth is often painful. I thought long and hard about the potential impact on my children and decided that I want to be an example of standing in one’s truth and speaking up about injustice even when it’s difficult.
I wrote and shared a new post that described what happened without revealing the identity of the man, though given the details it wasn’t hard for those who know me to come a conclusion.
Comments were supportive, and I initially felt good about sharing. I had several conversations with friends and family about it, which was healing. I want people close to me to really know me and keeping secrets like this is a barrier to true emotional intimacy.
I chose pretty quickly not to leave the post up for more than a few hours because I didn’t want it to live on my page. I wanted to share, and then I wanted to move on. Even with the outpouring of support and having hidden the post, by the end of that day I was filled with incredible shame that haunted me for months.
I felt ashamed of what happened. I felt ashamed of my marriage. I felt ashamed of myself as a person. I felt ashamed as a mother. I felt ashamed of having told this thing that I have been culturally condition to keep secret. This bad thing happened, and then I went and broke the rules. There was a part of me that believed it was my fault. There was a part of me who wanted to protect the one who had harmed me, and telling was counter to that.
Once the shame really set it, then came the regret. Why had I told so many people about this awful thing? Why had I burdened them? And, have I now marred myself and my children? What are people going to think?
Of course, I’d considered all of this before posting anything and made an even-headed decision, but the shame was powerful as it washed over all of my thoughtful preparations and emotional work. Time, thankfully, is healing and with it and the support of loved ones, I was able to work through the shame.
I made peace with my choice, and have even come to feel good about it again. Before I arrived at feeling good about it, I received notice from the man who had harmed me that I should cease and desist all comments or posts relating to our relationship.
This man is not a Facebook friend and my page is private, so it was clear that one of my friends had told him about the post. I had also written an Instagram post that referred to my relationship with him as abusive. That post is public. First was his email, then came a letter from an attorney accusing me of libel and defamation, a situation that I will share in the next part of this article.
As I write this, many months after my posting, my life is irrevocably changed by my choice to share. The change can’t be characterized as good or bad, because it’s a mix of both. Sometimes the truth is a balm. Other times the truth is a bomb. It’s hard to fathom how something can be both healing and destructive, but my truth telling was exactly that. The effects of both extremes continue to unfold and reverberate.
Part 2: Defamation
You may think of libel and defamation law as written to only protect those who have public reputations, like celebrities, politicians, and business leaders and entities. In my beautiful home state of Florida, however, defamation law is also written to protect individuals from being harmed by lies and slander.
Inherent in a defamation accusation, is an accusation that the person being charged is lying and that the lie or lies have or will cause harm to the accuser’s reputation, professional life, or income. Defamation law is a good thing meant to protect innocent people and companies from being publicly harmed by the words of others, and I’m glad that we have one on the books in the sunshine state.
The ultimate defense against defamation is the truth. It’s beautifully simple yet, as we all know, the truth can be hard to prove. In the case of rape or abuse where there’s no witness or material evidence, the truth can’t be proved, exactly, but something else can.
I had several email communications and two phone calls about my posts and his defamation accusation before I received the letter from his attorney. In one of the phone calls, he stated that I had no proof of abuse in our marriage, and I said he was right. I don’t have any hard evidence.
Emotional and verbal abuse doesn’t send victims to the emergency room with broken bones. There are often no calls to police, as it’s not necessarily loud and angry. In fact, what is so damaging about this kind of abuse is that it can be covert, passive, everyday comments and treatment that add up to larger manipulations and harm.
Abuse can build up slowly over time rather than being clear from the beginning of a relationship. We’ve all heard the frog in boiling water fable in which one frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water and immediately jumps out, while the other is in a pot that slowly comes to a boil. The slow rise in temperature isn’t enough to alert the frog and he’s cooked. The latter is how I would characterize the abuse in my relationship.
And it’s how I’ve described it numerous times to different people since my divorce. If I were committing the crime of defamation, then I would have invented rape and abuse and would not have spent thousands of dollars on therapists trying to figure out what went wrong.
I also would not have related the same experience and feelings to several therapists at different times. Instead, I would have acted with some intent to harm and invented accusations for that purpose.
Additionally, for there to be defamation, the accuser must be able to prove quantifiable damages, of which there are none. And, like all of you, I have a constitutionally protected right to free speech, which includes my right to share my experiences. I haven’t committed defamation or libel because I’ve not invented lies for the purpose of harming someone and what I did write and share has caused no material damage.
I feel that the libel and defamation accusation was an attempt to bully me into silence and ultimately exert control. Yet, here I am. Still writing. Thing is, my sharing isn’t a verdict or even meant to be an accusation. It is simply my story as I choose to tell it. My intent is to further illuminate the issue of violence against women and to move the conversation forward so that we can heal ourselves, each other, and our culture.
Part 3: Triumph
This doesn’t end with me saying I’m healed and whole and stronger than ever. In fact, it’s not over. This third part isn’t the end. This is a to-be-continued. This is a still-in-process and finding my way forward. The post that broke my silence about being raped and the fallout that followed are now nearly a year in the past. That doesn’t mean the saga is over, especially since I’m writing about it again, but it does mean that I’ve had time to reflect.
The shame that flooded me after I publicly shared my story didn’t just go away. It ebbed and flowed over many months. That, plus the fear of retribution, kept me from finishing this article. What helped me get out of that stuck place was this: the rape was never my secret to keep.
It was his secret and he can keep it as long as he likes, but I choose to speak up.
It’s my right to speak about my experience. Also, telling my story may help other survivors who are struggling with the realities of sharing, or who have faced bullying, retribution, and attacks after breaking their silence.
After everything, I’ve come back to my initial resolve. The one that gave me the courage to speak up in the first place and that’s this: the only way we can heal our culture — the one that encourages and tolerates toxic masculinity and the abuse and rape of women — is to get louder and louder and louder and louder.
We must keep speaking up. We must keep sharing.
We can’t stop until the culture is changed. From woman to woman and generation to generation, we must raise our voices and tell our stories.
Over the last year, I’ve reflected deeply on why I shared. What was my true motivation? The answer to the question came slow, but eventually, it rose above the noise of rumination. I shared not for acknowledgment, release, healing, or revenge.
I shared to break the power of silence.
When we’re silent about injustice, we’re held captive by it. When we speak up, we free ourselves and in doing so we help to free others. In the work to change our culture and to heal the collective wound, triumph isn’t a singular event. Triumph is ongoing. It’s in every action we take to move the narrative forward, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to create space for survivors to safely speak their truth.
We’re doing all of those things. Step-by-step and bit-by-bit, we’re making progress. I’m making progress, too. For me, it comes in the form of making peace with my past and owning my choices for better or worse. We triumph when we learn from and rise above all wrongdoing and are prepared to move forward and do better. We triumph when we don’t stop working towards the greater good.
In that spirit, I leave you with these lines from the Rumi poem “The Great Wagon.”
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.