Hushed tones. Adults talking. Terrible news. Hush, the kids can’t hear. But I did hear. I heard it all. Someone I loved. Molested. What was molested? It sounded like pain, like shame, like secrets.
A dictionary, an encyclopedia. A suspicion, an idea. Asking the victim for confirmation. Weeping as the words found space in my mouth. Sobbing as she held me. The dark purple color of her silk pajamas. The color of my innocence, lost.
Adolescence was a dizzying mixture of insecurity and wariness, of the anemic self-esteem that often comes with girlhood and a newly minted distrust of the male gaze. I was desperate to feel beautiful but terrified of the attention. Tell me I’m pretty. Now stop right there. Please don’t hurt me. Wait, don’t go.
I looked for love in dangerous men whose traumas were unprocessed and grief knife-sharp. I withstood their vitriol and violence under some twisted ride-or-die romanticism. I invited the monsters in believing I could love them hard enough to soften their hate. I only pried myself away for good when the wounds got deeper and harder to stitch. I still have scars.
Things got better when I left. I breathed with more ease. I was a twenty-something doing twenty-something things with the women that would become my very best friends. We drank, we danced, we cried over boys. We were young.
It was one of those nights. Friends and frivolity. I got back to my apartment well past midnight to find a broken key stuck in the lock of my building’s gate. I was fumbling for my phone to call my landlord when a stranger in a blue hoodie appeared. He pried the broken key from the lock and held the gate open for me to step inside. He looked me up and down and stood too close to my body. I was instantly afraid.
My guard was up. My hands shook. I stalled for awhile in the mail room then walked toward an apartment that wasn’t mine. When he didn’t follow me and walked down the opposite hall, I exhaled. I made my way to the elevator, pulled the old fashioned scissor gate shut and waited for the outer door to close.
Then a hand darted in. The door opened, then the gate. The blue hoodie. Glazed eyes. Slick smile. The gate closed. The doors shut. Eyes on my chest. Hand on my thigh. “I want to have sex with you.” No. No no no no no. One minute, maybe less. Fresh hell. The kind I’d always feared.
The police said I was lucky, and I suppose I was. Lucky that I’d lugged my giant cosmetics case to my friend’s house earlier and had it with me then. Lucky that I unfroze just long enough to use it as a weapon. Lucky that adrenaline made me sprint to my apartment harder and faster than I ever thought I could. Lucky that my key slid perfectly in the door, that I could slam it shut and lock it and slide a bookcase in front of it before crumpling into a ball on my closet floor. Lucky that two of my best friends dropped everything and sped from Hawthorne to Pico Union when they heard my hysterical screams on their voicemail. Lucky for adjectives: almost, attempted.
I didn’t feel so lucky when it took almost a half hour to get a 911 operator on the phone, or when the police got there long after my attacker had gone. Not so lucky when the first thing I was asked by more than one person was “Well what were you wearing?” Not so lucky when I cried and screamed into my pillow for months, feeling crazy for experiencing such profound trauma when I’d ultimately escaped.
I’m reminded of the men and women who contributed to Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad. I almost submitted my story when Dr. Gay asked people to share their experiences with rape culture for that collection. I stopped myself because I felt like an imposter. I hated myself for feeling so broken when what happened to me in comparison to so many others felt… not that bad.
It was, of course, that bad. It was awful. I was demoralized, traumatized, humiliated. Finding my way back to myself was a long, ugly road marked by intense paranoia and futile attempts at numbing a pain that demanded to be felt. So I felt it, years later. I sat in it, stared at it and tore it wide open until I knew it’s every curve and groove and movement. Only then did I make real progress; it seems taking the time to understand my pain was the key to turning chains into armor.
But Brock Turner. But Brett Kavanaugh. But every vile and unconscionable threat lobbied at survivors who dare expose their pain. But every dismissal, every excuse, every defense of the indefensible. These are the reasons I’ve found the same old screams in different pillows this week, why the wounds feel torn open while acid is poured on their raw and angry flesh.
I’m angry all over again, furious at the sheer, pervasive malevolence of toxic masculinity. I’ve cried tears for myself, for other women, for girls learning to be afraid not just of the evils that lurk but of what they will go through should they dare to report them. In what precise 57 minutes and 26 seconds between a bad man’s future and his past is a victimized woman allowed to seek justice for his transgressions. When? When? WHEN?
So why should you care about me? I’m a pretty common person who went through a pretty common thing, so common that I debated whether to bother with it at all. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? You’ve heard it all so often that it’s become the status quo. So I’ve chosen to share my history with sexual violence along with a dire and urgent supplication to whomever needs to hear it, whether it reaches one person or one thousand:
Make it uncommon. Believe us.