Can It Be Healing For A Sexual Assault Survivor To Communicate With A Harasser?

I’m willing enough to witness his own acceptance of his void, and I’m attempting to answer the call of my own questions.

I t took me a few months to realize I hadn’t heard from Greg*.

Rain pulsed against the kitchen windows as I crawled across the floor, sweeping up onion husks and stale pretzels from the pantry, when I remembered our last conversation. It’d been over Instagram private messages after he’d seen my post about how I’d been struggling with a depressive episode. I’m glad you’re doing okay, he’d written. I’ve been going through some heavy things myself lately.

I’d never responded, partly because I could barely hold space in my brain for my writing and feeding my kids something that didn’t look like Honey Nut Cheerios, let alone adult conversations. But also because our online friendship hadn’t ever dipped very far below the surface of word counts and “way-to-go!” comments on our posts. He was a writer, a creator I’d met on Twitter years ago before we were both published, and we’d stayed in contact even after his career exploded. After five years, I assumed that the surface was exactly where we were going to stay.

I cleared out the graveyard of fruit snacks in the pantry and sat back on my haunches to do a quick cyber-check. Our private messages had vanished, his Instagram account gone. I searched for his Twitter. Gone. Facebook. Gone. A knot settled in my stomach. Why hadn’t I checked on him sooner? What had he meant when he’d said “heavy things” and why hadn’t I just responded to his message? I typed out a haphazard email:

Subject: You okay?
Hey, I haven’t heard from you in awhile. I noticed you deleted your Instagram? Just checking to see if you’re all right.

I dropped the phone onto the floor beside me and went to work on the pots and pans next. My cabinets were too small, my pots beat-up and battle-scarred. They’re more of a puzzle than cookware, and they never fit the formation I try to will them into. I hated this task, but I knew myself well enough to understand that organizing meaningless bullshit was the only way to calm the swell of anxiety and depression I’d been fighting all summer.

I shoved a pot into place. And then I googled Greg’s name.

It was splashed across headlines in careful block lettering, his pixelated face woven between other shitty men on a list in The New York Times. There were multiple women, more than the number of chocolates in those cheap heart-shaped boxes that I was now imagining Greg buying in bulk. There were harassment allegations, his swift firing, and a series of weak apologies. There were lawyers. A lot of them.

Greg’s email addressed flicked across my screen. Re: You Okay?

Hey, so, thanks for checking on me. I’m not really okay. You probably googled my name by now and read the whole story.

Sure did,” I whispered. I swept up more errant pretzels from beneath the pots — where the hell did they keep coming from? — and pushed them into the trash. I hadn’t eaten one since the stuffy train ride to Chicago to visit a friend years ago. My mouth was still salty when I’d kicked my heel into his ribs, again and again, until he rolled off of me. But the pretzels kept showing up, and I kept remembering, despite my best attempts to keep the down the swell of anxiety.

I typed back: How could you do this?

I could delete this narrative right out of my inbox and pretend this conversation never happened, but I knew from experience it would never completely disappear.

Greg emailed me back a few days later. I’m sorry it took me a few days to get back to you. I’ve been really struggling lately.

I pushed air from my mouth, long and deliberate, like the nurses told me to when I pushed my daughter out of my body. Somehow it was just as mentally demanding to read this.

Paragraph after paragraph spilled across the screen. He wrote about how he’d recognized that his relationships with women weren’t healthy well before he was fired. There had been a void somewhere in him, and he’d been using whatever he could find to fill it. He’d been in therapy and AA, and had been following dozens of women’s crackling op-eds on the #MeToo movement when the harassment allegations came in. He wrote about his shame, his confusion, how he was certain that those relationships were consensual.

I closed my eyes and, like always, he was there. Dark, cropped hair that he’d rake his hands through while we were studying at the library. His t-shirt patterned in grays and dark blues like a cold ocean as they pressed against my cheek when he’d bear hug me. The weight of him — all of him — as he crushed the air out of me. The taste of his spearmint chapstick as he bit my lip until it bled. It was all a tangle of softness and terror. I’ve never been able to figure out where he’d thought our friendship ended and something else began.

I touched my lip as I stared at Greg’s words. I could stop here. I could delete this narrative right out of my inbox and pretend this conversation never happened, but I knew from experience it would never completely disappear. As hard as I’d tried to erase my ex-friend from my life, it was his girlfriend that still clung to the edges of my memories. I’d met her that night, shortly before she’d fallen asleep on the couch in the next room over. I was too terrified to tell her what he’d done. I’m sure he never did.

I typed.

I understand what you’re saying, but you’re missing something really important here. You said that you had a void that you needed to fill. You realized that you engaged in these relationships to fill it. But have you ever considered that it’s a pure act of privilege to use anything you want to satiate your own needs? Look, I’d argue that most people have some sort of hole that needs to be filled; the hole itself isn’t necessarily the problem. The problem is that you used your power to engage other women — even if they thought it was consensual, too — instead of taking a good, hard look at why you have that hole in the first place. That’s privilege. That’s power.

My daughter skidded into the room before I could send it. She jumped into my lap and pressed her tiny ear to my chest. She’d been like this lately, dropping into my arms and spreading across my body like ink in water. It’d been a week since we’d worked out the issue of a boy pulling down her underwear at preschool, but still she searched for me.

I hit send. I wondered how many more times I could do this.

How many more times could I scratch open old scars whenever I found myself in a shame-spiral or earth-swallowing depression? How many more times could I allow myself to explain decency to this man — any man — whether he was my friend or not? What was even the point?

My phone buzzed. The first lines of Greg’s email read: I can’t believe I never thought of it like that before. Oh god.

My daughter sighed in my lap. She reached up for an errant strand of my hair and twisted it through her fingers until her breaths grew shallow. She was safe, her preschool-sized problems solved. For now.

For how long?

The same questions still bubbled up in my chest, always tucked just beneath my ribs but never fully dissolved: What if I’d talked to Greg sooner? Would he have hurt those women then? What if I would have never agreed to meet my ex-friend for a drink in the city? Would he have hurt me then?

Had his girlfriend ever found out what kind of man he was?

Had he done it to her, too?

These were not productive questions, I knew. Any decent therapist would tell me that. But these questions had burrowed so deeply into my bloodstream that they’re a part of me now. Maybe they’re even part of women’s collective DNA, punctuated with trauma and wondering and fury. Instead of trying to smother them, I want to use them.

The first lines of Greg’s email read: ‘I can’t believe I never thought of it like that before. Oh god.’

The #MeToo movement has illuminated what it takes to truly heal: connection, sisterhood, and the willingness to look at pain head-on. I know that I alone can’t heal the kind of soul-sucking void Greg has written about, and I reject the individual responsibility of even trying. But because of the courage of so many survivors bringing their pain to light, I’m strong enough to have these conversations with him. I’m willing enough to witness his own acceptance of his void, and I’m attempting to answer the call of my own questions: What can I do about this to change the course of the future? How can I be brave enough to speak up, especially when I fear for the safety of other women? How can I make sure my daughter and others never have to scream #MeToo?

Here is the reality: Greg is a white, talented man of privilege. I don’t know when, but he will get another shot, because these are the types of people who get second chances. There’s an opportunity here to paint his worldview with a more nuanced set of colors, and good reason to believe those more self-aware hues will spill into his work. The same work that his children, my children, my abuser’s children will absorb. I have to accept that I will never know for sure how these conversations with Greg will alter his perspective — if they will change it at all — and yet I’m still trying. For now. For as long as the conversation moves forward, for as long as our tentative friendship withstands the heat of my nonnegotiable advocacy for the women he hurt, and his own self-reckoning.

I set my daughter on the couch and went back to the cabinets. There are so many pieces I didn’t expect, so many utensils and oversized pots I was given even though I never wanted them. Nothing fit in the places I expect. I always find the errant pretzels in there, though. Those never seem to go away. I sweep up the pretzels I can find, shove things into wobbly stacks, and shut the doors before it all comes tumbling out.

*Pseudonym

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