I wrote the following memoir for a group of senior students I taught several years ago. During our English class, I challenged them to write their story - their truth. I also recognized that unless I was willing to do the same, I had no right to ask it of them. If I wanted them to find it meaningful, it had to be as authentic as possible. The second part of the assignment was to share the story aloud (and of course, there was a safety mechanism built into the assignment in order to make it safe to share - or not to). So, I stood up in front of my students and read the following story. I shook and I cried, but it was catharsis. If I can offer any beauty in a story which is so difficult, my hope would be to tell you: Write your truth.
The Wrong Questions
I remember, even though I’d like to forget. The event is a black mark on my memory; a giant X which marks the spot on my life map, but it doesn’t identify a treasure. Instead, it delineates a turning point. I’d said “no.” It’s what I’d been taught. My parents, my teachers, my pastors, the policemen who’d visited the classroom. They had all said, “Just say no.” For some reason, my ‘no’ wasn’t good enough.
I’d been eighteen, my freshman year in college. I’d been invited to a small get together at a new friend’s house. It was someone from class I was getting to know. When I arrived, it became clear it wasn’t a small get together at all. The apartment was quiet but for the TV which spat spittle of sound and Morse code lights into the room. It was just us. I don’t remember what I said. I like to think I hesitated, like my inner Beyoncé leaned in and said in my ear, “hold up.” Maybe there was a voice in my head which tried to guide me, but if so, I’d ignored it. I walked into the living room. I wish I could have seen the future through wise eyes, maybe I would have made a different choice.
He offered me a drink. He was drinking.
“No thanks,” I’d said. “I’m driving.” If only I’d noticed the road signs. They were there: A proceed with caution, a yield, a stop sign. I just didn’t recognize them. At eighteen, a small-town girl who’d never faced the darkness of ill-intention, who knew very little beyond small-town drama, who trusted everyone because she believed everyone was kind-hearted. I couldn’t see them.
He wanted to show me something and invited me to his room.
I think that now in the shadows of an aftermath. A twenty-year shadow is long and cold. I spent a lot of time considering the question: Why did I follow? The shame covers my skin and makes me itch.
I don’t recall the how (a selective memory to be sure), but he kissed me. I was surprised, taken aback. How did one respond to an unexpected kiss and keep another’s feelings in tact? How naïve of me to think that all kisses were created equal: I assumed they all connected to the heart and weren’t wrapped up in other kinds of packaging. Because I didn’t know how to respond, I allowed the kiss, politely kissed him back. He was handsome and we seemed to enjoy talking earlier. It was just a kiss, right? And then it wasn’t. Somehow, I found my quiet voice – the one that insisted that it was okay to be honest - I gently extricated myself from the moment, pulled back and said, “I’m not comfortable with this. I should go.”
He wouldn’t let me leave the room. I remember cajoling. He joked. Laughed. Put hand on my arm. Another kiss. He became more insistent, the pressure of his mouth, his hands, his body. I pushed at him now. “I don’t want this. We shouldn’t do this,” I’d said. “No.” My voice was even, though, small and uncomfortable. I was trying to be nice. Polite. Everything I’d been taught. Don’t be rude. Be a good girl.
He didn’t stop.
He was strong.
I went still. It seems macabre to think: If I play dead, maybe he’ll leave me alone. He didn’t. And then he was done, and I was crying.
He seemed surprised. He said, “I’m sorry.”
I think that now in the shadows of an aftermath. A twenty-year shadow is long and cold. I asked the question: Why did he say he was sorry? He knew. He knew what he’d done. Why didn’t I hold my head up and scream! “You raped me!”
I gathered the only remnants of myself left, and I escaped into the night, into the safety of my car. Somehow I made it home – drove myself and stole into the house like a thief. I didn’t want my mom or dad to see me. I didn’t want them to know what had happened. I climbed into the shower to wash away the dirt – him – but it didn’t matter how hot the water was – I couldn’t wash away the memory. I couldn’t wash away the fear. I couldn’t wash away the feeling of shame. I couldn’t wash away myself.
Eventually, days after, I did tell my mom and dad. Mom cried with me – what else is a Momma to do when her baby has been violated? Dad went numb – what else does a Daddy do when he couldn’t save his baby-girl? He retreated. Mom held me, but we couldn’t turn the clock back to when I was six, and it was only a skinned knee. There were no number of hugs, no Band-Aids that could fix this hurt. Everything about me was skinned, raw, exposed, and ashamed. Self-blame began, and the shadow of self-hate began to stretch. I asked myself: How could I have been so dumb?
Somehow I mustered up the courage to call the police, to report it. That’s what we’d been taught after all: Report the bad guys. I didn’t want this to happen to someone else. An officer answered, I rushed through my story – crying as I re-lived it in order to tell it.
“Did you say ‘no’,” the police officer asked over the phone.
“Yes,” I said again. “I said, ‘no’.”
And then he said, “Well, did you fight him off?”
I pictured the officer on the other end of the line: I pictured him bored. It was the sound of his voice. The tone which suggested to my already weak heart maybe he was cleaning his desk, or doodling on his paper, or maybe scraping shit he stepped in earlier from his boot. I supposed that assumption is unfair, I don’t know what he was doing, but I wanted something different from him. Kindness. Compassion. My heart, fractured but racing with fear at telling the story, now sputtered with shame and doubt. “I didn’t,” I answered.
His silence was so loud, it screamed at me. “Why not?”
I don’t know if it was his voice aloud or if it was my own thoughts interrogating me. I remember saying, “I was afraid.”
“Did you go to the hospital?” He asked. That tone, again.
“No,” I said.
He dismissed me. And I dismissed myself. No officer came to my rescue. I guess my story was easy to disregard. I was easy to disregard. I disregarded myself and disappeared into the Void.
It’s dark there in that place. Nothing. No light. No hope. No feeling. I see a red balloon, floating in the space, buoyant, but distant. I don’t know why it is red, but I think it is something I have lost.
Eventually, I emerged from the darkness. It was a gradual reawakening, but I was different. The anger turned into self-hate, self-doubt, and self-blame. I was no longer myself, and in my place was a shell of someone. This girl didn’t like herself very much. This girl didn’t have any confidence. This girl retreated into a world of “I’m sorry.”
In the shadow of the aftermath, the questions and doubt are the worst part. It’s like being stuck on a Ferris wheel. I went around for many years:
Why didn’t I fucking scream?
Why didn’t I kick and scratch and maim?
Why did I become prey, a frightened rabbit in the jaws of a predator?
Why was I so weak?
How could I have been so stupid?
The cycle repeats and repeats. It never ends, just like the questions never get answered. Twenty years is a long time to ride the wheel. Twenty-some odd years later, I finally try to write this story – it isn’t the first time I have tried, but it is the closest I’ve come to it. I usually write around it. The first effort was in a creative writing class in college. It was a story about The Void. That’s where I was. The second go around was ten years ago. That’s where the story Sharks came from. Sharks was the aftermath when I found a light in my now husband. The third attempt was during a storytelling class. I’ve lost that story, and to this day, I can’t tell you what I wrote. I’ve blocked it for some reason, and maybe it is because I actually wrote it. I can’t remember the words, and I can’t find the story anywhere; I surmise I subconsciously put it back in The Void. So this is it.
I recently read a book called, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein. By choosing the book, I was trying to be informed as the parent, but it led me on a path to confront the shadow I’d been dragging around. I discovered that I wasn’t alone, even if logically I knew it. Though the statistics are best guesses, it is believed one in four women is sexually assaulted at some point in her life and it is a terrible problem on our college campuses. One thing she said which really stuck with me was that despite all of the education we’ve done for girls, it isn’t only the girls we need to empower, it is also our sons for the cultural expectations placed on them about their sexual prowess is equally damaging. I have a daughter. I have a son.
It has taken me twenty-plus years to realize my questions – the ones that have had me on the Ferris wheel and often echo from the recesses of self-doubt I so often feel – weren’t the right questions to ask. The right questions were: why did I have to fight? Why wasn’t my “no” good enough? Why did he choose to steal from me? Why have I believed it was my fault?
So, I write this story now, as difficult as it is, to tell our daughters, to tell our sons: It’s time to start asking the right questions.