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[Editor's note: This is a new approach for me, the first time I can recall asking another blogger from Daily Kos if it would be possible for me to republish their work here. The author writes and comments there under the name peregrine kate; she's just a couple of years older than me and Vern. She was willing to let me publish her e-mail address here for people who might want to contact her, but I've suggested that she let me screen such e-mails first. (We live in a boisterous and pugnacious county, after all.) So just ask me if you want to contact her and in most cases I'll send that to-be-kept-confidential information to the e-mail address associated with your post.
She wrote, in the wake of Rep. Akin's comments about "legitimate" (by which he apparently meant "forcible") rape, the story of her own non-forcible rape. With abortion and rape now in the news and the Republican convention about to tee off, I thought that this was worth sharing here -- and beyond.
The story included something new to me: a warning against "triggers." That is, if one has gone through a traumatic experience such as a rape, one reading the story may find it especially disturbing and affecting, as it may offer reminders of past trauma. I hadn't seen someone include such a warning before, but it strikes me as a good idea and I hope that readers who are vulnerable to such triggers will take heed.
I want to offer ample opportunity for people to express their reactions in comments, but I will warn you that when it comes to dealing with jokes and jeers I may be a bit more heavy-handed than normal. Her story is below.] — DIAMOND.
It wasn’t violent, and it wasn’t by a stranger, but it was still rape.
Forty years ago today, I met the man who would be my first serious boyfriend, and eventually also my rapist. We met on his 18th birthday. He was on his way to college in a month—while I was 14 and had just finished my freshman year in high school.
It was exciting for me to have an older boyfriend, a catch. I appreciated his sense of humor, his intelligence, and his willingness to take me seriously. I cheerfully embarked on a kind of long-distance relationship with him; he wasn’t far away and often came home on weekends.
But sexual pressure from my much-older boyfriend was soon a chronic issue between us. Almost immediately after his arrival at college, he had a quickie with another freshman student, and made sure to tell me about it. I was miserable and forlorn, and for some reason (as far as I knew, anyway), he broke off that other nascent relationship. He wrote me engaging, pleading letters, and flattered as I was, I took him back.
I cannot speak for anyone else’s experience but my own, but when I was fourteen, my own sexual interests were very mild. I’ve grown up since, and I’ve learned the difference. A certain degree of physical affection was lovely: kissing and hugging and hand-holding were great. But I wasn’t terribly interested in anything else. I didn’t get aroused by the other activities we engaged in, though they were definitely important to my boyfriend. I went along with the program because it mattered to him, and to me it seemed like an acceptable exchange.
However, I drew the line at intercourse. It felt like a big deal to me, risky and demanding. Demanding of what, I wasn’t quite sure, but it was farther than I wanted to go.
[WARNING: Many triggers, alas, in what follows.]
I do not actually remember why things turned out as they did the day that I was raped. I didn’t expect it to go terribly wrong, from my point of view. On the day I was raped, I was 15, and my boyfriend-rapist was just shy of 19. We had been going out together for almost a year. It was summer, I wasn’t working, and he worked nights. Both my parents worked days. My brother and sister-in-law were also living in our small house with my parents and me at that time, but the two of them were also working during the day. For good or ill, my purported boyfriend and I had my house to ourselves just about every day.
Yes, in retrospect of course I know that I was “playing with fire” as the saying goes. Believe me, I blamed myself for years. Also in retrospect, now that I am the parent of daughters, I realize that for the situation to have been possible—no supervision from either set of parents, primarily, and no emotional safeguards in place for me—was not conducive to a healthy and supportive relationship. But that, as they also say, is water under the bridge. A larger discussion about all of that would perhaps be possible another time.
For now, let me just state for the record—which you will have to accept without corroborating evidence—that at some point I said NO, I don’t want to do this. My word didn’t matter, and he did it anyway.
It was painful. Very painful. Thirty-nine years later, after two natural childbirths and a hysterectomy for cancer, I still remember that particular pain. He eventually stopped. And then the rest of my nightmare began.
I don’t recall whether he ejaculated, though I knew enough to be worried about the risk of pregnancy from his secretions. That was for some time the least of my concerns. What I had to deal with immediately was severe bleeding. Intense spurts of blood poured out of my vagina, far too fast and heavy for the puny little menstrual pads of the day to handle. I put a bath towel between my legs and waited for the bleeding to stop.
Only, it didn’t. Not for at least two days. Some years later I came across a description of a similar hemorrhage, written by Sylvia Plath in her novel The Bell Jar. (It’s in the penultimate chapter if you’re interested in looking it up.) But Sylvia/Esther did, apparently, embark on her sexual activity willingly, and she did get medical help.
I don’t know how I got through the next couple of days, since I was expected to be happy and interactive in connection with my brother and sister-in-law’s 2nd wedding anniversary. I also don’t know why no one, not my mother or anyone else, ever said anything to me about my rapid use of rags and towels during those few days, which before washing I would wring out and leave to dry in the basement washtub.
Clearly I didn’t die, since I’m writing this now. But for every minute that I bled so heavily and uncontrollably, I thought I would die. And there was no way I could figure out to get help, I thought, without getting myself in worse trouble. Because I thought it was my fault that I had been hurt like this, and that I would be blamed if I sought aid, instead of comforted.
There were other bad outcomes associated with the event itself. I’ll share this example. A couple of weeks after the event, still shaken by it, I told one of my high school teachers what had happened. I don’t think I used the word rape, but he did know of my boyfriend and the age/experience gap. Unfortunately, my high school teacher responded this way: he was sorry that this had happened to me, but if I were interested in having a better introduction to sexual activity, he (the teacher) would be happy to oblige.
The worst outcomes were yet to be known, however. I must write carefully here, so let me say before describing some of the rest of the fallout that I am in many ways today very fortunate. I have two wonderful daughters whose very presence is an unexpected boon, and in my third husband I have a good and loving partner at last. I have some solid friends, I have learned some important skills, I have had some truly excellent adventures. Most of the time, notwithstanding my recent major health crisis, my life is meaningful and gratifying.
At the same time, the course of my life was irrevocably changed, and limited, because of having been raped. Particularly so young, and particularly by someone I trusted (rightly or wrongly). I wandered in an emotional wilderness for about twenty years, suffering from depression and PTSD, and continuing to blame myself for all that had befallen me.
Like many young rape survivors, I overcompensated in some areas. I was already a “brain,” but I became even more narrowly focused. I was a National Merit Scholar at 16, and graduated from high school at that same age, skipping my junior year. Unfortunately, my parents were clueless as to how to support my intellectual development, and instead of encouraging me to be adventurous and expansive, they agreed to permit me to leave home for college if I chose only one option. Yes, you guessed it: the same school my boyfriend attended.
But in a way, that was the only option for me, too. Through having been raped, I felt owned by my rapist. I think one of the very best descriptions of this phenomenon was written by Thomas Hardy about his doomed heroine, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I cannot do this complex and brilliant novel justice here, but without irony and only a little bit of grandiosity I will admit to identifying with Tess for a long, long time. It wasn’t the rape on its own that ruined her life, it was her belief (and her later would-be husband’s as well) that she was damaged goods.
I’ve been through many, many, many years of therapy at this point, in an effort to come to terms with the psychological sequelae that being raped produced in me. I know now that I am an independent person, capable of setting my own course, responsible for my own choices (to the extent that any of us are!), and fully entitled to pursue interesting and challenging work and to establish supportive and nurturing relationships.
But I did not think this way for several years, certainly not until I was long out of college. During that key formative time, I had no idea how to connect with my true self and take steps to fulfill my goals. I had no real goals of my own; I hadn’t a clue how to formulate them. On some level, I believed it didn’t matter. I didn’t matter. I was good enough only to be raped.
I did manage to break away, one difficult step at a time. By the time I was a junior in college, my boyfriend was in a master’s program at the same institution, and we were living together off-campus. I was starting to be involved with feminist groups on campus, enough to think about the possibility of taking some self-defense classes though I didn’t actually do it for several more years. That summer, the big buzz among feminists surrounded the publication of Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Let me observe for the record now that while this was an imperfect work, it was life-saving for me.
As I read her book, I realized that her definition of rape applied to me. It’s possible that there is a more succinct version than this one, but this will suffice:
A sexual invasion of the body by force, an incursion into the private, personal inner space without consent…constitutes a deliberate violation of emotional, physical and rational integrity and is a hostile, degrading act of violence that deserves the name of rape. (Brownmiller, Against Our Will, Random House, 1975; Ballantine Books, 1993, p. 376.)
This was something I never really understood before, had no concept about. Feeling empowered by the book, I shared some relevant passages with my boyfriend. Somewhat to my surprise, he acknowledged that under that definition, he had indeed raped me. And he apologized for it.
It may well be that his apology was sincere, but the damage had been done long before. My absolutist thinking at that time probably served me well, since it helped get me out of that relationship at last, four long years after the rape. The dynamic that had been established during that time would have taken far more effort and far more psychological acuity to remedy than either one of us could have mustered. I was much better off out of it.
Yet the truth is, unfortunately, that I wasn’t really out of it for at least another decade or more. I wandered in an emotional wilderness for about twenty years, suffering from depression and PTSD, and continuing to blame myself for all that had befallen me.
The deepest, most bitter truth is that I’m not really out of it even now.
I embarked upon serious psychotherapy in my early thirties, after having been married and divorced once, after having a daughter in very convoluted circumstances, and after struggling to find a professional path ever since my graduation from college (Phi Beta Kappa, with high honors) at the age of 20. There I began to learn that my hypersensitivity, my defensiveness, my profound mistrust of the world—and more poignantly, of myself—had to do with how badly my sense of agency had been compromised by being raped. To me, that’s the most important component of PTSD. Not only the sense that the world is an unsafe place, but that I was not able to cope successfully in the face of danger and protect myself adequately. And that therefore I was not capable of acting in my own best interest, let alone able to recognize what my own best interest might be.
I am still learning to forgive myself as I was then, to forgive that lovely, vulnerable, needy, trusting young girl of 14 and 15. She didn’t deserve to be raped. And yet this realization, this compassion, is still something I have to work on. To direct lovingkindness to myself, especially considering all that has followed, remains an enormous challenge for me.
No, there was no overt violence involved. He did not use a weapon or a threat. He was definitely not a stranger. But he still raped me. I still suffered major, life-long consequences. I am still scarred. I am still healing. I am still a survivor.