Loss For Words: Selective Mutism And The Complexity Of Sexual Assault
When did you know you were an ocean? A collection of things, rushing up against each other?
I am a pile of adolescence, a collection of things holding on to the movement around my skin. It is 10th grade — the year that Gza’s Liquid Swords comes out and Hannah* and I turn 15. Once the album drops, we will hear the title track on every street corner along Fordham Road and the surrounding areas. Upon year’s end, I will attend prom at nearby New Rochelle High School, unaware that it was the first NRHS prom where a same sex couple are among the attendees. This will prove to have great meaning for me, but I do not know how to know it yet. For now, it is the weekend and we are doing what we always do — look for guys.
We’ve walked the length of Fordham Road — a two-way, four-lane road in the Bronx — when we turn onto Jerome Avenue and David appears as a silhouette or a crack in a larger opening. He chats with Hannah* for a bit before settling on my eyes, as if noticing me for the first time. He is smiling as though we understand each other when he says, “my cousin will like you.” I smile back, but have the sense that I am an afterthought or that I am being swallowed by the opening. But I agree to go because the weather is nice and I do not yet have the knowledge — or the words — to protect myself from the spaces that are too wide for me; I do not know how to seal them.
Did you try to fit inside a faucet? Were you running, or did they push you? Did you slip and fall out your own skin?
We walk along Pelham Parkway until we come to a large building that looks something like a castle. In my mind, I imagine that it is a large dollhouse. The breeze hits and I am reminded that I am sensitive to temperature or openings between absolutes — the spaces in between. As we find our way inside, my body begins to feel like separate layers. I think I am falling out of my skin.
We sit alone on a small couch in a sterile room with the window wide open, much like a box with a broken flap. I pretend not to notice the music blasting from the next building or the vacancy in the room. David’s cousin does indeed like me. Alex’s skin is mostly olive and I trace hazel eyes around the top of his face. He says he is 19 and I like older guys, but I am pretty sure you are supposed to like the boy before you do the thing. He is making small talk and I do not understand why. But I know there are many things about being with boys that feel good to other girls. Most of them don’t make sense to me. I know that means there is something wrong with me.
I know I will never like boys the way I am supposed to when I become suffocated by his head and arms. He thinks he is kissing me. I know this part is supposed to feel good, but it feels very rough and I do not know why. Usually I pick the boys to do the things because I like them and they say nice things or hold my hands. But today is different. I am cold and glazed over. I am not sure but I think I have become a doll. I have stopped being a girl and I do not like being a thing.
Was the distance between you further than language could speak? Were you already rippling when they shook you? Maybe the reach to your speak is just too steep.
My head floats away from the dollhouse and I think about how cute my outfit is. It was picked out especially for this weekend, but they are dirty doll clothes now. Most dolls come with one set of clothes and a few accessories and you have to buy the rest separately. I know I will surely need a new set because mine are soiled with bad doll behavior. We are on the bed now and I am thinking, I flopped here, but dolls do not have good memories. I know I am doing the wrong thing, but I cannot move my lips. I am not the kind of doll with the string in the back.
My painted eyelashes are black against my face and my doll eyes have grown big. I close them every now and then because I know you are supposed to do that when the boys do the things. But they keep flipping open and my doll face expression doesn’t change. My yarn hair is flat to the pillow on the doll bed and he is doing the thing that I usually like. I can feel his boy parts on my doll parts, but it is very painful. I know this part is not always fun for me, but today it is worse. He does not remove my doll skirt or my painted on underwear, but he is ramming himself onto me as though his boy parts are angry with me and they are trying to break in.
Did you try to make yourself into a puddle? Did he spill you down into a heap?
In my doll head I say many times, “I have a boyfriend.” I know that is the thing to say if you don’t want a thing from a boy, but this is a different kind of thing, I think. I think that once you are on the doll bed, you have to do the thing. Now he is ramming his tongue into my doll mouth, much like his boy parts on my doll parts. My mouth is open and that means I am kissing him back. This is very bad. I know that if you don’t want to do the thing, you are not supposed to do any of the things and I am a bad doll because I keep kissing and I don’t even like it. But dolls don’t like much of anything. I don’t like it that much when I kiss my boyfriend, but he is nice to me and he cares about my doll parts. When he puts his boy parts on me, it is different. I like it.
The music is so loud and my doll parts are so sore now. All I can think about is how wide the window is open and the space between the real people in the next building. Whoever is playing the music can probably see the whole thing. This makes me a very bad doll because people are not supposed to watch the thing. I know that the boy/girl thing is supposed to happen in private and I am doing it wrong, but I am not really doing it. It is being done to me because I am bad and my eyes don’t blink.
Can you hear yourself when you cannot speak? What is it like to have waves for skin? Did he drown your words down to your knees?
I grow tired of being a doll and wish that I could go back inside a toy bin. I know that I will never be a favorite doll. In fact I could be any doll, but I am the one he is carving. Whatever it is, it is very sharp. If dolls had skin, it would feel something like teeth. He thinks he’s doing the thing that would be called hickeys on real skin, but it cannot be that because it is very painful. When my boyfriend gives them to me, they do not hurt my neck and chest. He complains to me that the ramming is doing nothing for him. “I could do this for weeks,” he says. He tells my doll face that he has been tested for everything and is “clean.” I know this is supposed to mean something, but I do not say anything because I am just a floppy doll with a pretty outfit and a glossy face.
I am most afraid that he will ram his boy parts inside my doll parts, because I have never done that. That is the thing that real girls are supposed to do with boys they really like. Since I am not real, I think I may have to do it anyway. I know this is bad and I know that I am very bad if I cannot make him stop. I tell him I have to go to the bathroom, even though dolls do not do such things. Once there, I remove my painted-on underwear and it burns like bad doll behavior when I try to pee. I think he has broken my girl parts and I know it is my fault. I try to find myself in the mirror but all I see is dark purple and maroon colored patchwork from my neck down to my chest. There is barely any brown skin and it hurts when I turn. I know this is bad and I need to leave. When I return to the room, I look startled like a real girl. I am stiff and cannot make it to the doll bed. I do not know what he says next because dolls have bad memories, especially after they’ve been bad. But it is time to go. I get my stuff and go to the living room, where David smiles at me as though we both have a secret or he really likes bad dolls.
Did they try to tell you it was your fault? Turn your waves to black and blue? Do ripples hurt like bruises, when they hit the collection of you?
When Hannah* and I reach the building lobby, I burst into tears. I tell her that a thing happened that wasn’t supposed to, but my eyes are blinking now. I am not sure if I made the whole thing up or I am just a very bad doll. On the way back to the train, I start to feel more like a real girl and it is very painful. I tell myself that since he did not ram his boy parts into the inside of my girl parts, it’s ok. It does not count if it’s on the outside. The real people stare at my purple because they think I’m a girl that likes to do the things with boys and that is a thing to smirk at. I start crying again when we reach the Metro North station and I realize my money is gone. I know the train will be lit up well and I am broken blood vessel collage without a train ticket. I do not know how I will get home or how I will explain this to my boyfriend.
The next day at school, I gather my friends and they debate about whether I am bad or real. My best friend says that you have to say no or it doesn’t count. She says if you keep kissing the boy, it is a yes. I wonder how dead the look in your eyes has to be, for a person to know that is your no. I make sure not to tell my mom, but I tell my boyfriend because I have to explain my red and purple memories. Even with cover-up on, I look like bad things happened. I look like I was attacked. I make sure to leave out the part where David says that Alex will like me, because that proves I knew what would happen. That proves it is my fault.
What turns blue into red? Is it just the space of you? Do you blame yourself for the splashes, when the cuts bleed dark and new?
It is nearly 15 years before I understand that my tendency to go silent when I don’t want to do a sexual act with a man is a result of my history of Selective Mutism, my Non-Verbal Learning Disability — and the fact that my orientation does not fit into a clean box. I am excellent at engaging in deep conversation and I read most non-verbal cues well, but certain kinds of small talk and other preliminary social norms feel odd, disingenuous or flat-out dishonest to me.
When I am anxious or afraid, certain non-verbal understandings are lost on me. So the experience of being intruded upon — coupled with the understanding that I was supposed to like things I didn’t — would cause me to freeze. In those moments, I am caught in the location where my trauma history and my disability meet. I am disoriented and I do not understand how one thing became another or how to say I don’t want it. I cannot process what’s happening. I am all flight and no fight.
I am nearly 30 when I recognize that I need a certain level of chemistry with any person, in order to really enjoy sex with them — a level I may never reach with cis men. This is partly why my child self did not know if I was being attacked or if being attacked was the same as having sex or hooking up. Sometimes I liked parts of it. Sometimes it would feel like a chore. Other times, it would feel like nothing. I learned early on that men could enjoy having sex with my body, without having the rest of me.
These sensations were so strange and disorienting that I started to wonder if I just didn’t like sex or didn’t like men. It was many years before I knew what it was like to have sex with a guy and feel like it was my decision; and many years more than that before I knew how it felt to have sex with a guy and like it. I am twice the age I was on the doll bed — when I begin to articulate that my attraction to men and masculinity is queer in some way. Before I started having sex with queer* people, I often felt like the sex had nothing to do with me. I felt like it was being done to me. My brain would appear to have temporarily switched off, as a way to protect myself. I felt like there was a script people were following and I never got a copy. The connection and chemistry just wasn’t there the way I needed them to be. And I was pretty sure that being different was bad and being bad was my fault. So the already complicated space of consent would prove to be a lot more complicated for me.
You are neither a droplet or a small spill. You are dark, dark blue. Layers of movement in deep rhythm; blue beauty down to the underside of you.
Hannah* and I would learn all the words to Liquid Swords and like the metaphor at the song’s end, I would come to understand that I am a whole different sound; a wide entrance and a small exit. She never said anything, but I think she knew something in me had opened. I think she knew about the width. I breathed into the rest of my teen years quietly, vowing never to speak of the dollhouse again. But when I listened to the album, I would cry face forward into my hands.
Eventually I came to understand that the widest part of me is the most loving part or the part that grows over — the width of me is the most healing part. Time allows my memories to lose their sharp edge and I am finally thankful to have a clear-cut recall of purple flesh and the space on the doll bed. I am thankful to be old enough and wise enough to remember it well enough to know that I couldn’t have possibly consented that day.
And while it is painful to remember my frozen doll face going blank, I count that day as part of the long list of days that cut through my glass eyes, but never severed me. That is the space in between. I am the goosebumps after the breeze. I have much to learn about like and don’t like and warm space or weak knees. But I am not a doll face. I do not belong inside out on a doll bed with my eyes stunned open. I am neither a fairy tale or a receptacle. I do not deserve to be cloaked in bruises or covered in pain. I am a real person, able to feel real things. I deserve to be held and kissed and fucked up against the wall, if I want to be. I deserve all the love and sex and good pain, if I want it. But most of all, I deserve to be asked.