Jan 20, 2020
content warning: contains mention of rape and sexual assault
On occasion I feel removed from my body.
When I was younger and in a car en route to a place I didn’t want to go to, I’d stare up at leaves– the part of Kansas I grew up in was rich with big old trees. On a sunny day, I’d see light shining through and between them as they tossed lightly in the wind, often with the same rhythm as laundry shifting about a running dryer.
This is how it feels when I escape. It feels like sunlight shining down on me, slurping me up in a daytime alien abduction. Like for a moment my being is absorbed into the fractals of light between the leaves.
I can feel it happening as I write this; my heart sinks a bit and my brain slows down, waiting in some universe between ours and the sky.
Sometimes I become so removed that I don’t have the same agency I normally do. Over time I’ve become spunkier, quicker to jump to my own defense and that of people I have empathy for. But when I escape, my consciousness erodes alongside my spunk.
Over the past several years, I’ve gotten my blood drawn a couple of times, and recently I got some vaccines, and on occasion I get a stomach ache or stub my toe. In these instances, the ability to escape has come in handy as I tried to avoid feeling pain.
Of course, I have made my escape other times as well. Most notably with men who didn’t ask for nor care about my consent, or while I was too drunk to even give it.
One of these was decidedly sexual assault, another was rape, but it’s hard to say that when you imagine rape being something that happens to someone yanked off of the sidewalk at night by a stranger. And that does happen, but more often than not the perpetrator is someone the victim knows.
And although I doubt myself, if I had friends come to me and say what happened to me happened to them, I’d tell them I loved and cared about them and that what happened to them was awful and that they have definitely been assaulted.
That’s what my friends told me, yet the escape creeps up and I do the thing where women think they are at fault for the thing that harmed them. I am also so removed from the body to which these things happened that it feels like they didn’t happen to me, but some other me (of course: they did happen to me… every version of me). I was removed at the time because I was afraid of what would happen if I made more noise or put up a fight. I was removed at the time because I was in emotional and physical pain.
I was talking on the phone with my grandmother last year about the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and I expressed how distressing it was to watch someone so credible be treated the way she was treated. My grandma thought the whole thing was a smear campaign. I was angry, and so I said “you realize that could be me”, thinking back to a date the prior summer that I tried to escape. She kind of brushed it aside, perhaps in the heat of the moment, or maybe because in her head it was too hard to reconcile that someone violated me and my body.
It’s a sort of collective dissociation, I think. One in which we all agree it’s way too painful to acknowledge the distressing adult-ness of the fact that a man would believe that the body of a young woman you love is more his than hers. It necessitates reckoning with an archaic fear of an archaic definition of impurity. It forces you to acknowledge that a young woman you love now lacks some proverbial sacredness. It also forces you to acknowledge that bad things can happen to people you love.
This is what I’m left with: two parts of the same person. Two parts of myself. One trying to fully grasp that I was raped… I was assaulted. The other hiding somewhere deep inside… the part of me that was left after most of me escaped. The smallest part of me. The part of me that curls into a ball sometimes. The part of me that is sad and afraid.
The distance between the two parts ebbs and flows. I hope that someday I’ll be able to fully sit with the fact that these things happened to me. And to know that I am spunky and strong. And for that to coexist with the reality that I have, at times, been so very small.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this feat: acknowledging that not only did this happen to me, but this happened to me. I realized that being faced with this reconciliation is perhaps quite similar to the one many rapists face.
This is purely speculative, as I have never assaulted or raped anyone, and I’m not suggesting that perpetrators are deserving of empathy when we as a society have a long way to go in acknowledging victims. I also assume there are lots of unique pathologies behind the actions of different perpetrators.
In the last few years alongside the me too movement we’ve seen countless men called out for inappropriate behavior, assault, harassment, and/or rape. They’re often ‘canceled’, even if only for a while. Their responses are so often very defensive or full of shame. It seems to fuel a Mike Pence-ian fear of women, entirely shifting the burden from falling on dangerous and harmful men to women, who are pretty unlikely to falsely accuse someone of raping them (somewhere between 2-10% of reported sexual assaults were found to be false… note that only around 35% of rapes are reported).
I’ve been thinking a lot about Brock Turner and the swaths of people who felt some deep empathy for him and the impact his actions had on his otherwise promising (in part because there was literally no reason for it not to be promising given his many privileges) future.
There was a podcast episode where Oprah and Malcolm Gladwell talked about the Brock Turner case and the need for us to do a better job of acknowledging the role alcohol plays in people (especially young men) making poor decisions. Gladwell argues that alcohol fundamentally alters who we are in a way that leads us to make decisions that are not in line with who we really are.
I think in some ways this is yet another excuse for men who are already rarely held accountable. But in other ways, it’s the crux of the issue: we’re telling perpetrators, rapists, assaulters, etc. that their character can be separated from the decisions they have made, whether in the decision to drink too much that led to them raping someone or the decision to rape someone. I don’t think it really matters where they made the wrong decision.
It’s quite often the case that, for a variety of reasons, “good people do bad things”. But I argue that Gladwell’s framing misses the point. We’ve all been taught that our choices have consequences. To tell men who have been accused of rape that being under the influence of alcohol may have fundamentally changed them allows them to distance themselves from the truth: that the person they believe they are and the person who raped someone are the same.
This, I imagine, leads many men to feel angry at something intangible instead of feeling angry at themselves. And when anger is directed towards them by their victims, I could imagine that frustration manifesting in the ways it often does. With men in denial, hating women, refusing to take responsibility.
This connection is very isothere-ic in nature; victims and perpetrators have very different experiences, but in reflecting on the ways I’ve distanced parts of myself from others to avoid facing these disturbing realities, I started to think about the men who caused me this pain and their reactions.
In one case, the person who assaulted me acted as though it was fine and normal until they were confronted as I started talking more about what had happened. I don’t know how they ultimately felt or reacted, and I don’t really care? But I do imagine them following a similar thought pattern, wanting to believe that this doesn’t make them a bad person. Wanting to think it was the alcohol, and that it wouldn’t happen again. Wanting to think some love or lust clouded their judgement.
It’s definitely more sinister to believe that there was intention to what they were doing, but whether or not they would’ve assaulted me in broad daylight doesn’t change the impact their actions had on me.
And maybe I have too much empathy– really, I shouldn’t care about the mental health of a guy who harassed me in college or feel bad after ghosting someone who date raped me.
But as I’ve reflected on what it would mean for me to find peace and to get to a place of forgiveness, I’ve realized this necessitates the men who have caused me so much harm to fully acknowledge both what they’ve done and what that says about who they are. It requires that they go to therapy, that they step outside of their dissociation from the things they’ve done and take responsibility, that they work genuinely and tirelessly to do better. That they acknowledge the pain they have caused me.
For now, I guess, here we are. Me trying desperately to reconcile the fact that the person I want to believe I am and the person who has been raped are the same. And, I imagine, the people who harmed me trying to reject the fact that the person they want to believe they are and the person who raped someone are, too, the same.
“The well-known capacity that thoughts have—as doctors have discovered—for dissolving and dispersing those hard lumps of deep, ingrowing, morbidly entangled conflict that arise out of gloomy regions of the self probably rests on nothing other than their social and worldly nature, which links the individual being with other people and things; but unfortunately what gives them their power of healing seems to be the same as what diminishes the quality of personal experience in them.”
-Musil, The Man Without Qualities