“Well nobody took your pride away
I said, that’s something people say
Back down the bully to the back of the bus
‘Cause it’s time for them to be scared of us
‘Till you’re yelling, how we living cause you got the ball
Then you rock on baby, rock on, you rock on, on and on ”
I’m going to tell you a story. My fingers are typing this as I try to shut out everything that is racing through my mind. I’m afraid that if my fingers don’t keep the beat on this keyboard, that I’ll never follow through on anything I’ve wanted- I’ll never accomplish anything. It will remain just as it is today.
I want you to imagine that you have a secret. You no doubt, probably do have a secret, (everyone does.) But, I want you to imagine that this secret encompasses everything that you are. For the utter fear of feeling too much, or rather, maybe feeling nothing at all, you are certain that the only way to expel is to speak with your mouth closed and your hands moving.
This, is my secret.
“Lost friends and loved ones much too young
So much promises and work left undone
When all that guards us is a single centerline
And the brutal crossing over when it’s time”
(Indigo Girls, All That We Let In)
We could pretend for a moment that you already know me. You already understand the curve of my face, and the slight tilt of my right eye. You know that I yawn when I’m nervous and that for no lack of trying, I am not graceful, nor svelte. Maybe you’ll notice the faded sparkle left from earlier dreams of grandeur, or my smile at a stranger when I silently wonder what they are battling internally. We sit together daily, side by side- perhaps you and even I- and we blatantly judge each other, only to desperately claim we do not.
There’s a picture on my computer of a girl with arms out-stretched, and she is running along the ocean. It’s almost as if she’s meeting it for the first time- although, she’s been to many oceans before. She’s young, with her hair half-hazardly pulled back; her hair follows her like the tail of a kite. You’ll imagine that she’s thinking what every human being thinks when seeing the ocean and waves- in their grace and power. If I put myself in that girl’s place, I wonder if I would go out to where the water meets the sand- and if I would wade. I wonder if some sort of symbolic baptismal-like event might occur, maybe everything I was could have been washed back to the beginning of it all. My sins and my shortcomings, my fears and doubts would mix with the salt and the currant and they would become- Nothing. Who would I be without the very things that plague me- without constantly wanting to fix and scrape myself of everything I cannot help, but be?
I want difference, I want revolution and I want so very much the freedom of the wind on my bare arms, and nothing to fear but not having enough time to run along shoreline. I don’t care if an entire ocean could never hold everything I have right now. I like the thought of the infinite abandon of being barefoot, at six and seeing your parent’s admiration for exactly what you were.
My parent’s admiration is incredibly and monumentally bruised twenty years later, if it’s there at all. In fact, it’s more than bruised- perhaps it’s been burned off and now all that’s left is the festering wound of a daughter that currently resides in the guest room in the basement with her beautiful spawn and lost dreams. Maybe when they look at me- really look, it’s almost like being burned all over again. I wonder it’s pain, or the fact that buying me the right clothes and pushing me to the right school prevented none of this? Their despise isn’t so secret, anymore- it’s bubbling up to the surface and screaming out in it’s own way, “You were supposed to be better.”
I have this rule- I think it’s mainly to keep my self-deprecation, (however fun it is,) in check. For every three bad things I think about myself, I force myself to think of something disgustingly positive- something genuinely truthful, and something that no doubt could change all the bad in one moment of pure, unadulterated, luck.
You are reading the very something I have been thinking about. You are changing it all, by letting my words flow through you, even affecting you- and you are my revolution. I’m not going to promise that reading this is going to change your life, but I do promise that as you sit and read this- you will change mine.
On April 8th, 2001, my life was never the same.
“You tell me “hold your head up”
Hold your head up and be strong
Cause when you fall, you gotta get up
You gotta get up and move on.”
(Lady Gaga, “Til It Happens To You”)
Author’s note: I don’t know why it took me 16 years to write every word of it down, instead of disjointed parts. It’s the final breath I imagine to finally letting it go. The below is disjointed and not my usual writing style. Frankly, it’s because I don’t remember much of the night and in trying to piece together what happened- it’s one breath after another.
I remember my exact outfit. The Limited Black Pants, work pants. There was a sleeveless tank, size medium, that came up to a crew neck and was longer- tunic style; with red and black checks. It was perfect with or without a suit coat, the clerk assured me. I wore strappy heels and I felt, gorgeous.
Somewhere, there is a picture of me in the exact same outfit going out to the bars years later, and not even realizing the deadly combination I had put back on my body. He raped me in that outfit. To this day, my memory fails to explain to me what happened. I remember the floor, the scream and the tears. I remember my face, as I looked in the mirror, pulling my pants back on, wiping my mascara, and I climbed down stairs, and out doors and the campus security officer that came to take me to safety. (GMG, 2010.)
We started as we usually did. It was a Saturday. Everyone congregated in the bathrooms to listen to Napster mixes of Nelly, the Dixie Chicks and Ludacris. Tank tops were mandatory and we were happily frozen walking to the bar or house party of choice.
I wasn’t a big drinker when I was in my early college years. I was hesitant to have more than 1 drink for a number of reasons, the taste of warm, college beer being the first and a debilitating fear of actually getting drunk, being second. We were at a known party house. I can see the basement in my mind- the stone walls and the small, cramped space that mixed the smells of Tommy Hilfiger cologne and the damp, metal of the keg to create a very vivid, complex memory.
I put my drink down, but asked my girlfriend to watch it. I went upstairs to find a few other friends. I came back and grabbed my beer. I was offered a shot of what I assumed was vodka. I took the shot. Then, I told my friends, I needed to go. My friend, Mike offered to walk me home. I see Mike now, in the most aggressive of males. As an eighteen year old girl, I didn’t understand how it all worked. I was flattered that he paid attention to me. I appreciated his witty candor and love for Boondock Saints and Goodfellas. We often watched movies until 1am to 2am. I’d crash on the couch, or in Mike’s dorm, never doing anything more than sleeping. I was trusting, because he seemed trustworthy.
We were once in a room at Lourdes, (a farther off-campus housing building) that we were told was haunted by the ghost of a nun who threw her newly-born baby down the elevator shaft. College students would run down the halls pretending to cry and scare their peers. We were absolute demons to one another as most college students are. This particular evening, we were sitting in a room when a young woman walked by, bumping into the walls and singing. I remember our giggles as we wondered at probably just around 9pm, how someone could be that toasted. She somehow ended back up at my friend’s door and asked if we had tampons. It was such an utterly-bizarre request. I remember looking down and desperately trying not to laugh. She said, “I was dry, so I bled.” None of us understood what she meant and eventually, she stumbled out into the hallway and I never saw her again.
“I was dry, so I bled,” became I joke among the group. “Don’t be dry!” “Don’t bleed!” “Don’t die!” Sometimes it was, “don’t get raped!” as we walked home together and shouted at one another outside the doors of our dorms. Everything is funny at eighteen years old. Our humor colored each moment with immature banter. Nothing was off limits to us, because we never believed anything was going to happen to anyone we knew. Drug overdoses and assaults, underage tickets and failing out of school happened to other people we knew– never us. We weren’t a girl drunkenly and desperately searching for tampons for what we assumed was a very personal issue. Years later, through a group that was talking we pieced it together as someone knew her. She was raped.
I remember how he so gingerly opened the door for me. I remember rolling my eyes at the “campus safety officer” that sat just inside the doors after dark in our dorms. I might have waved- I may have just stumbled into the elevator- but he was with me and he helped me get upstairs. What time was it? 9:30pm? 10pm? My roommate, Jessica, was upstairs studying. I came into the room and she left. It was as transitional as that. He saw Mike and assumed, (I’m not quite sure what she assumed,) but she went next-door and he locked the door.
There were Christmas lights on the bottom of the bunk, which illuminated my bedding with stitched stars and moons. My boyfriend’s photo was secured to the bottom of the bunk so he was the last thing I saw before I went to sleep. I remember Mike started kissing me. I remember that he slid my pants down- and I remember the pain when I screamed and he cut me, with his fingernail from fingering me. I remember telling him to stop- and he never stopped. I was dry, so I bled. I remember trying to dodge him from getting on top of me. He never came. He just left.
The memory of the feeling and the smell of blood and my stained underwear and pants is something I have to this day. I put on some sort of shorts and walked downstairs to the 6th floor. Val and Annalissa were in the bathroom together and I tried to explain what happened. I said, I was going to go over to campus security- and somehow, I got downstairs. I remember being stopped at the door and a campus officer, (probably the same one I mocked earlier in the evening,) tried to get me in touch with someone. I refused and decided (god knows why) to go over across campus to my best friend’s. Their security stopped me at the door and asked me to get in touch with the Winona County crisis team. I refused. I sat in my friend’s room with other friends and remember not saying a word. Then, I moved into Suz’s for a few days, on the same floor. She encouraged me to call my parents. They came immediately.
My mother and father picked me up and we drove home as I tried to hide my face in the backseat. A week went by as I stayed home from school and my mother decided I needed to go back and finish the year. I received an unbelievably-kind letter from friends, (which I still have.) Pasted pictures of all my favorite things from magazines were sent to try and cheer me up. When I returned to school, I reached out to Mike to talk.
I asked for a note of apology, which he wrote. He cried in the 10th floor common room at Sheehan Hall as he explained he wasn’t sure why it happened or really, what happened at all. In June, since the lease was already signed, he lived with my group of friends. They all knew what happened. Sometimes, I came over to see everyone and pretended it never happened. Once, he cooked me a steak dinner and we tried to be friends.
Before freshman year ended, his girlfriend called me. She had heard what happened and wanted to talk about it. Then, another girl on campus shared the same thing happened to her. I keynoted the “Take Back the Night” presentation that freshman were required to attend my sophomore year. In one year, the jokes were gone- and I was the girl they so didn’t want to believe existed. Without the women’s studies department at WSU (and Tamara, the department chair,) I’d have not made it through my freshman or sophomore years. I left WSU when I realized I couldn’t see him on campus anymore. He was in a class with me about the violent behavior of animals. (“Primates and Violence?” I forget the course name.) He sat next to me and asked whether or not animals truly had a conscious. I walked out of the room and explained to the professor later, that I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I tried finding Jesus- and majoring in Theology. I started a non-profit. I dove deeply into the Indigo Girls and joined every feeling with a lyrics. I drank more, and with abandon. You see, it didn’t matter anymore. I moved off campus and left college all-together because I couldn’t seem to get the grades I once did. Everyone was happy and carefree while I was miserable. I never graduated.
I worked with rainn.org for a while and the same crisis line that I ended up getting in touch with. I ended my non-profit, A.P.P.E.A.R., (Actively Participating, Protecting and Educating about Assault and Rape,) which ended shortly after 2 successful years on-campus promoting events and safety seminars. I left what happened to me behind because 4 years later, I was expecting a baby. And then, I was battling cancer. It seemed minimal compared to bigger life things. But it never really went away.
Mike is in Chicago now. He practices in Finance and occasionally, I google him, always expecting to find something new. I talk to my daughter as much as I can about true consent. Since my statute of limitations ran out in the 2000′s, I never followed through. The school nurse reported the assault and I did get in touch with campus security and the police. I spoke to the chief of police and asked why my assault never made any headlines. If you look at WSU’s campus security report, they claim since 2012, no one has been sexually assaulted anywhere on campus. I never made my report in 2001, either. It was reported, though not to the police. It was just flatly- ignored by the school.
Someone once told me that if we didn’t stand for what we had gone through, we would slowly fall amongst the masses that decided to crumple after the weight of what had happened. The anniversary comes and goes every year. In true form, until about 2 months later, I forget and realize and slowly come to my senses. In the college days, (and after,) I spoke out often about what happened. I keynoted at several “Take Back The Night” protests. I protested, rebelled and eventually joined a rape and abuse crisis network. I folded to the belief that rape would always happen, so I could be a part of the clean-up process. Tell me, that’s not WRONG. (GMG, 2010)
Occasionally, it’s April 8th, 2001 for me. I sometimes think of how I treated everything with casual disdain before it happened and my secret is: I regret not being involved sooner because sometimes, I’m desperate to be carefree again. The weight of the care is too much. I am deeply concerned for Ava’s well-being in college because I remember just how invincible I felt at eighteen. I never stopped telling my story after 2001. One of my favorite keynotes, involved the story of a Lydiamosa tree (written by Henry Close), given to me my high school counselor I spoke to after my assault. The story of the Lydiamosa tree has helped me power through the past 16 years. It’s been the one, common denominator in a life of tumultuous change, regret and joy.
What do I credit my assault with? Nothing. However, through my experience of grief after, I learned resilience, which was one of my most important traits in getting through cancer. It does not matter what happens to us- what matters most is how we learn from each experience to better our future.
Visit http://www.rainn.org/ for more information on how you can stop sexual predators, assaults and abuse from happening to those you know and those you haven’t yet met.