When I was 12 or 13 — I still can’t quite sort out exactly — I was sexually assaulted. God, that feels pretty weird to write. It feels weird because for much of my life I'd decided that this fact about me didn’t matter. The event wasn’t violent. It wasn’t rape. And, frankly, I found it difficult to articulate exactly what had happened the very few times I’d attempted to speak about it that I just fell mute on the subject. On some level, I am now certain, I felt that if I didn’t say anything about it, I could believe it hadn’t happened. You weren't harmed, I told myself.
But I was.
And now, more than 20 years later, I feel like I'm just starting to know how to talk about it. My willingness to write about what happened absolutely has to do with the current climate around discussing sexual assault. So many people are speaking out and demanding an end to rape culture, victim-blaming, and commonly held mythologies surrounding sexual assault. Undeniably, I am also influenced by the writing I've done in support of a former classmate who came forward with allegations of rape by a teacher and coach at the school we attended together 18 years ago.
Increasingly, the world is coming to understand that sexual assaults occur with shocking frequency, but are greatly underreported, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report "The Sexual Victimization of College Women." They are often perpetrated by trusted acquaintances; the NIJ says this in the case in 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults of women in college. Dr. David Lisak's study "Repeat Rape and Multiple Offending Among Undetected Rapists" shows that a small number of (typically, but not exclusively) men are responsible for the vast majority of sexual assaults. This means that most rapists are repeat offenders of (typically, but not exclusively) women they know.
Thanks to the outspoken individuals who are fighting such battles, I've started to form the words to discuss what happened to me: When I was still a kid, a 21-year-old man, the older brother of a friend, gave me alcohol and drugs, then touched me sexually while I was not fully conscious.
I also now understand that this experience had a deep impact on my understanding of sexuality, my self-image, and my interactions with men. But, the biggest reason why I want to talk about what happened to me is perhaps a bit surprising: It has everything to do with becoming a mother.
I don't think I'm alone in saying that parenting has helped me better understand the experience of human sexuality. A number of mothers have written about how they are trying to teach sex-positive attitudes and an understanding of consent to their young children through encouraging positive body image and thoughtful play with their peers. And I am in total agreement that parents need this kind of sexual self-awareness in order to better protect their children. I, too, feel deep concern for my daughter’s body and her future sexual safety and happiness — especially considering that, as a disabled individual, she is at a disproportionate risk of being abused.
Furthermore, I suspect that the experience of having sex lead to an actual human person growing inside my body has been a serious factor in my understanding of my experience with sexual assault. Having a child greatly shifted my understanding of sexual drives, and the magical way that in sex biology and spirituality can intertwine. The changes in my body during my pregnancy and since and my status as a mother have altered the ways I envision my sexuality and the way I imagine others envision my sexuality. Motherhood and sexuality are intimately connected, and in becoming a mother, in many ways, I've felt more in tune with my sexuality than ever. However, like many women, I struggled to recognize my postpartum body and understand how I felt about it. Similarly, I felt bombarded by a feeling that motherhood didn't leave room for sexuality.
Watching my daughter fighting for her life and trying to keep my head above the waves she brought into my world has shown me so much about the limitless strength of the human spirit. Seeing her innocence has made me understand what I lost.
Certainly this has triggered some of the questions I have about the meaning of what happened to me that night. But these reasons alone don’t fully explain the compulsion I have felt growing over the last several months to write about this part of my personal history.
Here’s the thing: Like so many mothers, I think I lost myself in parenting. In some ways becoming a mother, in particular a mothering a child who is medically-fragile, broke me down. Living in the trenches of keeping my daughter healthy and safe consumed so much of my energy that I feel somewhere a long the way I lost a basic understanding of who I am.
Over the better part of the last year I've been trying to reestablish a healthy sense of myself — as an individual deeply connected to, but independent from, my daughter.
I cannot remember ever writing about what happened that night. Of course now I see the obvious: The very fact that I didn’t articulate it was a sign of the damage it had done.
It has been a lonely process in which I have had to ask difficult questions about who I think I am, what I want, and how to get the things I need as a person. I’ve asked these questions in my writing, with boxing gloves on, and while having adventures with the people I love. I don’t have many answers yet, but as I’ve searched, one thing I have had to do is to unwaveringly stare at some of my scars. One such scar, I’ve realized, is the sexual assault. I had to ask whether the nameless thing that happened affected me.
Until a couple months ago, to the best of my memory, I’d only attempted to speak about what happened three times: twice to separate trusted friends and once to the man I would later marry. Each time I started to explain, I found myself unable to complete a thought, unable to say what had been done to me, because the words were inadequate to encompass the confusion and fear and shame I felt coming to with a man’s hands on my body. And in all the years that I've obsessively put myself in writing, recording all kinds of things that I’d never want anyone to read in little unlined books, I cannot remember ever writing about what happened that night. Of course now I see the obvious: The very fact that I didn’t articulate it was a sign of the damage it had done.
I’ve almost always been outspoken. I’ve always been honest about what I think and how I feel. I’ve always had little understanding of silence. And yet when it came to my sexual assault, I've been silent.
Frankly, in a lot of ways I do not understand the world outside of language. I approach the world in words, in writing. I write publicly about my daughter’s medical and developmental challenges as a way to understand her story — and my feelings about it. But also, my life is animated by the unsent letters I write to people who make me feel big things, short-story sketches to help me untangle the quiet secrets that people carry around with them, and half-finished essays about the things that I see around me.
This is how I understand what I think about the world, the people with whom I interact, and the events of my life. I’ve almost always been outspoken. I’ve always been honest about what I think and how I feel. I’ve always had little understanding of silence.
And yet when it came to my sexual assault, I've been silent.
Writing about my daughter all these years, and more recently, using my writing as a scaffolding to reclaim myself in the wake of a challenging entrance into motherhood, has made me increasingly aware of this secret part of myself that I’d never discussed. And I began to understand that not saying anything about what was done to me was a way of continuing to hand over power to that man. As long as I was silent, he owned a part of me. Somewhere deep down, that man held my words hostage.
I decided I had to find my words, somehow. So, I told a friend. And then another friend. I told my editor I wanted to write about it. And then I told my mother.
A few weeks ago I finally got up the guts to do the thing we can do thanks to Facebook. I traced photos back through mutual acquaintances to see what I could find out. At the time I couldn’t totally picture his face in my head because my memory had left only a kind of a rough outline of him. It wasn’t long before I tracked two steps deep to his mother’s page and, right there in her public photos, I saw that man’s face looking back at me. He was twice as old as he had been, but it was most certainly him. I knew it logically, but also? My body knew. My hands started to sweat and I found it difficult to swallow.
I hated that this person had that kind of control over me. And it became pretty clear to me that I knew only one way to take it back: with my words. I decided I had to find my words, somehow. So, I told a friend. And then another friend. I told my editor I wanted to write about it. And then I told my mother.
Then, finally, I told my father.
The more I've spoken and written about it, the more I've realized that I lost a part of my innocence that night. There was a battle waged on my body, and it is one that has, in some ways, quietly continued every since.
I tell her that I'd never ask something of her that wasn't for her safety. I tell her that if I'm there, she'll be OK. And I try to show her ownership of her body in other ways, by warning her before I pick her up, by asking her to help in limited ways as I dress her, by giving her choices when I can, by responding to her non-verbal cues.
Becoming a mother helped me stake claim to my body again. It has made me aware of the power and magic of my body and my sexuality. Watching my daughter fighting for her life and trying to keep my head above the waves she brought into my world has shown me so much about the limitless strength of the human spirit. Seeing her innocence has made me understand what I lost. As I write these words, I feel as if I am reclaiming some of my own innocence. In a way I am doing that just for me. And that is good.
In other ways, however, I am doing it to show my daughter that I believe in truth and honesty. I want to show her that I won't hide from who I am. I want her to know that I refuse to let someone else's actions define me. Given her particular challenges, I don't know whether this is something my daughter will grow up to understand explicitly, but I do know that this change is one that she'll feel — maybe already feels — in me.
Even though at 5 years old she cannot speak back to me yet, and I don't know how much she understands, I've found myself speaking to her more and more about her body in an attempt establish an open communication about ownership. As an individual who is medically complex, her body is often at the mercy of invasive and unpleasant testing, procedures, and manipulations in the name of her health and safety. So, for now, I tell her that I'd never ask something of her that wasn't for her safety. I tell her that if I'm there, she'll be OK. And I try to show her ownership of her body in other ways, by warning her before I pick her up, by asking her to help in limited ways as I dress her, by giving her choices when I can, by responding to her non-verbal cues. This is part of establishing a kind of emotional communication and confidence I hope will protect her as she grows and as she continues to make gains in her physical capacity to speak or communicate more clearly.
Because while not having a speaking voice, as well as her other challenges, puts her at a higher risk of being assaulted, having the capacity to speak, as I well know, does not guarantee her safety or her emotional ability to speak out. That is built on something else. It's built on her knowing that her body is her own and that anyone who attempts to show her otherwise is wrong. It's built on her knowing that she can trust me to listen to her, even when she doesn't have the words. It is built on insisting the shame of sexual assault be laid squarely on those who perpetrate it, and those people and institutions permitting it — not quietly carried in the bodies of those who live it.