There was this girl, whose face I can no longer see and whose name might have been Maggie but just as easily could have been any number of things. I was probably only nine. No one else was there. We climbed up to the bunk bed and she either said, “My brother showed me this,” or simply, “this is my brother’s.” Play. It started with a woman being raped, though I didn’t know that word then, nor what it meant. I watched as the woman left the suburban house, barefoot, in a ripped white dress, carrying high heels and crying. Walking and crying and her wavy hair was lit by sunlight. I wondered why she wasn’t wearing shoes, but also how that could happen during the daytime. The other girl, the maybe Maggie, was watching me watching. The condo pulsed with a strange and sickly silence. The air hung heavy with some intractable misdemeanor, like wall-to-wall carpeting, or at least the idea of it. “I have to go home,” I said and I never went over to hers again.
Here is what I wrote six months after I was raped.
I would like to forget, but I think the best chance I have is careful forgetfulness, when you lay something down warily because you’re afraid of getting it on your hands, when you are afraid the smell will cling to your hair, that the memory of it will be readable on your face. Despite everything, there is yolk on my hands and I can’t get the smell of egg pan off my clothes. I mean that it lingers and nothing is enough.
I stripped the bed when I came home from work. My sheets, my hair. Washed. I turned the water scalding, dizzyingly hot till my skin was pink, till my mind was raw. Then nothing and other things and regular things.
Would you believe me if I told you that I apologized to the boy who raped me? It was the next morning and I said sorry for kicking him out so early, which I did because I had to go to the dentist. It was confused because it was confusing, because it wasn’t clear-cut and well-defined like the rape on TV, but mostly because it happened to me and I didn’t think it would.
It was hard to call it rape because he didn’t pin me down, because I invited him in, because I said yes to some things. It was hard to call it rape because I am mostly okay and that is not what is expected. Dear Mom, dear Dad, dear Everybody, he raped me, but I’m okay. It was very hard and now it is less hard. For many days I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I was overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment, and when he would randomly contact me in the weeks and months that followed I felt it anew. “I was so stupid,” I said, and that word stood for a hundred other things.
To him what happened wasn’t rape and that’s one reason why I am writing this. Later, when I said the word he grew angry. I told him that he raped me and if he continued to contact me I would call the police. That’s when he called me a dumb bitch. That’s when he called me a fucking slut. That’s when he called me a dirty whore. Dumb bitch. Fucking slut. Dirty whore. That was the story he told himself. Here is the truth, not the story. These are the answers to the question he didn’t ask. He asked if I had a condom and I said, “I don’t want to have sex,” or “we’re not having sex,” or something. He asked three separate times and each time I said no. I think I may have even said, “I’m not having sex.” And it ended up being true, I didn’t have sex, he raped me.
Of her own rape, Charlotte Shane explains that it didn’t seem serious enough to count. “To call it rape seems too self-pitying, too histrionic.” She adds, “It automatically implies a level of emotional damage that did not take place.” I couldn’t call it rape either. I didn’t know the word as mine in the present tense. When I was being raped, which I don’t really remember too well, I was not thinking ‘this is rape.’ The next morning when I woke, I didn’t think that was rape. I didn’t say to myself ‘you were raped.’ I could imply something like it, but it wasn’t for a long while until I could say it. Say the word ‘raped’ as mine. Even months later I wasn’t sure. I wrote,
There are words for what happened and some are too big and others too small and none fit just right. I don’t know what to call it and that is even worse. If someone could give me a name for that I would feel much better. But no word is the right word and there is no word for that.
I also wrote this, but now when I reread it I realize I am talking to myself, not to him.
I said yes to things but not that. I said no. I know I said that. That is what I said. And you, you, you—you didn’t listen. I said I didn’t want to. I said I wasn’t going to. I said no to you. The next day you said we, as if I was involved, but don’t be mistaken, it was you, because me, I said no.
It makes me cringe to read it now because the writing is bad, but also because I needed to say it so many different ways. No I said. I said no. I know I said no. Rereading this is like watching myself realize I was raped, and still I didn’t take the word as mine.
Now I would tell myself, he raped you, and I would tell him, you raped me. You raped me, you raped me. I would say it again and again and again until it was the only thing that he could hear, because for days he was the only thing that I could feel.
I knew him, barely, before he raped me, and it didn’t occur at gunpoint in a bad neighborhood. I was raped in my room, in my bed, late one summer night, and I wasn’t the only one home. But it doesn’t make it any less rape. It took me a while to realize that. When there is only one type of story about rape that we’re told over and over again, it comes to seem possible that any deviation from that plotline isn’t really rape. We are conditioned to fear empty parking lots and late nights, but not the boys we call friends, the room that is our own.
I am scared to write this because it feels like as soon as I say anything about when I was raped, the words become scrubbed of their origin and suddenly I am talking about Rape, period. Who gets to talk about that, I’m not sure. This is a serious piece and the editors treat me with careful respect, they defer to me. None of the editors say “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you were raped,” and I am glad they don’t. I am glad that they will look at me as writer and not as raped. I am glad that they will see me and not just what happened.
What do I want to be true? That this word isn’t mine. But it’s true that it is and I need it. Words are not enough and yet they’re everything we have. Rape is a word I am scared to use, but I think that’s a problem. If I can’t have the word, how can I talk about it? On a reluctance to use the word, Elissa Bassist wrote, “When I explained to a friend what happened with my first boyfriend, I added the caveat: ‘I mean, it wasn’t like back-alley rape.’ Her response: ‘Yeah, I was not-back-alley raped too.’” It’s easy to get caught up on what it isn’t, rather than what it is. Without the word we are stuck in a purgatory of quiet confusion. I called it When I Got Too Drunk. I called it When I Was Really Stupid.
The indirect violence of it all is hard to name. Jenny Diski writes of her own rape, “He wasn’t violent. I mean that he didn’t hit me.” I know exactly what she means. To that I could add: He wasn’t violent. I mean that he was nice to me. He wasn’t violent. I mean that he invited me to the movies. He wasn’t violent. I mean that he paid for the cab. Do you see what I mean? The way this act of violence can be caged in something that looks like kindness. And still it is rape.
By taking the word rape it seems that I must also take everything that comes with being a girl who has been raped. It means that I am a scarred survivor, deserving of your pity. It means that you should be careful with how you touch me. It means that I am porcelain and on the tippy edge of a shelf called flashback or breakdown or crying jag. According to Shane, women who’ve been raped find themselves bound by a strict code of appropriate action, in which “you can only ‘learn’ to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives.”
For centuries, rape destroyed a woman’s value, and now it just destroys her. Today this destruction is cast as a mental undoing, rather than a monetary one. It’s what Vanessa Veselka calls the “absolute ruination of rape,” a narrative perpetuating the notion that rape causes inescapable, permanent trauma, and those who don’t experience it are simply “in denial” or “not yet ready to deal with it.” This is why I’m uncomfortable with the words ‘rape victim’ and ‘rape survivor.’ Mostly I write, woman who has been raped. I like to leave a bit more space between the words because you can still be yourself and have been raped. The way the word ‘survivor’ is used, so laden with sympathy, makes it seem unexpected, this surviving. For years and months I found nothing that would suggest that those who are raped can go on living rather than merely surviving.
The song is no one’s, it is just sung.
Don’t touch me there
This is my private square
Get your hands away from me.
It is a chant. It is a game. We pushed each other, in the ease of girlhood, before our bodies became different and weighted and full. We shrieked the word at each other, playing and laughing. “Rape! Rape! Get off of me.” We were young and we didn’t know, and the word meant only something, but also nothing.
Now rape is a word that travels, that echoes, that pushes people from you, in flight, or in fear that touching you will do things wrong. It has been hard to tell anyone about it, to introduce the word into the space between us. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Whenever I bring it up I cage it by saying, “I’m okay, everything is okay, but...” and now I want to say “I was raped” and leave it plain like that, bare. Saying “I am okay” the way I did became an apology, a way to say, I am sorry that you have to have this around you, I am sorry to make you think of this, I am sorry that you have to see this in front of you. Now I want to say I was raped, period. I am okay, period. I was raped and it hurt, not physically, but yes, physically. And other places too. And I am mostly okay and that is good but linking them together so close doesn’t seem right anymore. They are connected, but being okay is not an apology I need to make to the people around me who might feel uncomfortable.
It has been a year, more. But there is no way to undo it, time passes and it is still done. I was a girl, but newly twenty-one, when it happened. Woman is a word I don’t yet own. Rape is one I do. Now there are bells ringing outside my window and yesterday I forgot his name. It surprised me that I couldn’t call it to mind instantly. This is the slow forgetting I guess. The bells aren’t ringing anymore. Salvation isn’t your saccharine sympathy. Salvation is the nights I told myself it’ll be okay, the days that becomes more and more true.