The World Is Wicked When You Grow Up As A Girl
By Sarah Marcus-Donnelly
You think about all of those small scared hearts beating furiously together, all of the time you spent wondering if there was freedom on the other side.
Context warning: sexual assault
You are a senior at a boarding school for kids who need to “work on their character” when a classmate comes up to you and says that he is concerned, because he has been thinking about raping you. He knows that you are a rape survivor.
When you tell three different adult women, two of them say you are overreacting or you misunderstood him or that he has severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and encourage you to find some compassion. One of them is outraged. The one who is outraged is young, maybe 22 years old. She is one of the dorm mothers. She says, “This is not okay.” She looks you in the eyes.
The next morning, she marches you to the Dean’s office where you retell your story, again. You write down what he said. You ask, what will happen to him? You ask, what will happen to him? You ask again, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO HIM?
Eventually, they send him to a mental-health rehabilitation program for a few weeks, but they say that it wasn’t because of your “incident.” When he returns to school, he is cured. It’s too late for you, though. The night terrors returned immediately. Before you graduate, during your final student evaluation, one of your favorite English teachers says that you have been self-righteous. Your classmates call you a feminazi. You are one of two Jewish people at your school.
You have been taught that you are “bad at boys.” Your junior year, the boarding school decides that you have “boy issues” and they put you on “boy restriction.” The school is small and your life is small, so each difficult breakup and teenage mistake is painstakingly recorded by a disapproving public, and your latest breakup is found to be particularly distressing, because you are so tearful.
“Boy restriction” means that you are not allowed to talk to boys until a group of your peers decides that you are all better. You are supposed to learn these skills with silence. One of the girls on your restriction committee is in love with a boy who is in love with you. You are in love with another girl, or maybe you’re not. When she runs away from school, she sneaks back in through your window one night. She steals your roommate’s shoes. You think you are doing the right thing when you tell on her, and three days later she calls the dorm payphone. “How could you?” she asks, sounding far away.
You recognize her desperation and you can feel yourself breaking apart. You hate her for leaving. You wish you had gone with her. You don’t know anything anymore. You sit on the picnic bench and watch them watching you.
The school is small and your life is small.
You are at boarding school when you have sex with a boy in the stairwell who is having sex with other girls and lying about it, but you already know that. Over break, when you visited him in Boston, you were determined to see the city. But the only real memory you have is buying mushrooms from the man by the broken swing on the playground. The city was a blur. You almost missed the train. You also remember how you stood naked in front of the full-length mirror in the boy’s room. How he held you there and made you look at yourself for the longest time. He made you say, “I’m beautiful.” “Look,” he pointed, “Say it.” He made you like it.
It is your second week at boarding school. It is summer. You wake up screaming and you know this because your roommate tells you so. You cannot breathe and you cannot see and you tell her, after holding it inside of you like a rotting child for months, that he raped you in the back of his car. Your roommate, who believes she is doing the right thing, tells a teacher who calls you into her office and demands that you tell your parents. “You will do it, or I will do it,” she says. When she leaves you in the open vestibule with the payphone to call your mother, you are shaking so violently that you have to dial three times. Your mother asks, “Did you use a condom?”
Your family comes to school for a therapy weekend, but they don’t call it that, because no one there is a therapist. You are assigned to a group of equally uncomfortable families, mostly students and their guardians, who sit in a big circle in the girl’s dorm living room reading the school’s “seminar” guidelines with a teacher. A “seminar” is when you share deeply about your own character and your family secrets with a room full of strangers. You are supposed to share your feelings. You are supposed to discover yourself. The guidelines include sharing only from your own experience.
He made you say, ‘I’m beautiful.’ He made you like it.
You must vow not to complain, explain, intellectualize, nor protect. The first order of business is when that teacher announces your assault to the group of strangers. Your peers and their parents and some of their siblings look at you. “How does that make you feel, Sarah?” She asks your parents how they feel, and your father says, “There you go fucking up again.” And, your mother says, “How is this different than anything else you’ve ever done in your life?” Your chest pounds wildly and the dizziness makes you sick, but you find your way to the door. You get out of that room. They wait a while before someone tries to find you.
You relive this moment so many times that you begin to question its very existence. But, there were witnesses. And while the one boy who stood up for you after you ran out of the room crying died of a heroin overdose a few years later, the other boy who stood up for you still exists. You sometimes see him on Facebook. The two boys tell your family that their reaction is not okay. Your lungs burn, still remembering the running. You couldn’t breathe. You ran from the dorm, across the soccer field, and into the trees.
You are a success story. Thirteen years later, the boarding school wants to interview you for a book of alumni profiles celebrating the school. You read through the interview questions, which include describing your school experience and discussing your high points and takeaways. You kindly decline, because you fear that you are perhaps “not the right person” for this particular showcase. Your parents are disappointed that you said no. “Why can’t you just talk about the “good things?”
You laugh about it with your husband, because you have made peace in your heart with God, though you won’t forget the trauma. You think about all of those small scared hearts beating furiously together. All of the time you spent wondering if there was freedom on the other side, and the moment you realized that once something decays, it is enduringly gone.