Editor’s note from Queen_George: Recently Harpy reader/commenter ImTheMarigold and I got together for a g-chat on the subject of sexual assault, and how difficult it is for survivors to communicate about their assault, even with their family and friends.
I guess what we’re hoping here is that this chat will raise some discussion about how and why making an assault even semi-public is so fraught with complications. After all, any discussion gets us closer to a solution.
*NOTE: Trigger warning for assault survivors. Although we don’t get graphic, we do each tell the general story about what happened to us.
Queen_George: When I was 22, fresh out of college, I moved from my family’s home in the DEEP South to Los Angeles. It was the first time I’d been that far away from my (fairly) protective parents. I loved it! And I took to it fairly quickly. I made great friends, and I was building a pretty solid life out there. I got my M.A. degree and was searching for jobs. And then, when I was 26, things kind of fell apart. I was date raped by a guy I knew through some of my academic connections. He was a colleague, essentially. I tried for a long time to convince myself that I was fine, that I’d get through it. And I was terrified of telling my family… but not for the reasons that you usually hear. Most of the time when girls are afraid to tell their parents, it’s because they’re worried about shaming or blaming…
ImTheMarigold: I didn’t want to tell either, but for the usual stuff…
Queen_George: And I can completely understand the usual reasons. There are still PLENTY of friends of mine who don’t know, because of the usual reasons. Even my roommate at the time said she had trouble getting over her idea that “rape” = “guy in the bushes with a knife.” In my case, though, with my family, it was because I was afraid that my extremely protective parents would blame themselves, somehow. And that’s what got me to thinking about this topic.
It was probably about two months before I told them. I was trying really hard to keep it together, but one day I was riding the bus to work and I looked down at myself and realized my whole body was shaking. People on the bus were staring at me. And when we got to my stop, I realized I couldn’t get off the bus. I just sat there and rode the whole route, all the way back to my apartment. And I realized that for weeks I’d been having this overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t safe ANYWHERE. When the phone rang at work (I was a marketing assistant, so lots of phone calls), I’d jump 50 feet in the air. I couldn’t handle it anymore. So I called my mom and told her what happened, and told her I needed to come home. Right away.
Did you eventually tell your parents?
ImTheMarigold: My mom first, after I moved home for 6 months from college – allegedly to intern but really to get away. I told my dad once I ended up in the psych ward for a week because I was going to kill myself.
Queen_George: I’m so sorry. It’s amazing how powerful that urge to keep it inside can be. And the idea that “I can handle it. I don’t need help.” Or that you HAVE to handle it without help, because you have no other choice.
ImTheMarigold: [And sometimes people's reactions make you wish you'd kept it inside.] I remember when I was in the hospital and my parents went out to dinner with my former roommate to talk to her about this, and they told her why I was there and her words were “I didn’t know that was still bothering her.” Like, WHAT? For me, when you tell, it’s like giving a piece of yourself away. And you can’t get it back. So if you make a mistake in judgment with that person, they walk away with that part of you forever.
Queen_George: That’s a great way of putting it. When it happens, it’s such a life-changing experience, no matter how you handle it. My mom immediately said, without question, “I’m coming to get you. I’ll drive the car so we can pack all your stuff. I can be there in three days.” She was VERY good about it, way better than I expected. She didn’t blame herself at all, or me, even though she’s the one that I had expected to be self-blaming – like she never should’ve “let me” go away. It turned out that my dad was the one who had trouble. At first, when they came out to California to get me, he was great. He didn’t really address it much directly, but he was a huge help with the moving, and he made me laugh the way he’s always been good at doing. One day after I was home, though, I came into the kitchen and he just started yelling at me. It was about something totally inconsequential – leaving out some dirty dishes or something. A thing that never would’ve bothered him before. My mom said he was just in a mood, but that night he came and knocked on the door to my room and told me how sorry he was. He said, “I’ve just realized… I don’t know how to handle this. I don’t know what to say to you. I can’t make this better. And I don’t know what to do.”
ImTheMarigold: God, is it the worst for you with dad? It is for me. Even now, as I struggle with stuff, every time he sees me he hugs me and his eyes tear up.
Queen_George: Definitely. I have a hard time keeping him in the loop, actually. Even though I know he wants to help… I just can’t handle the fact that I know he sees me as a sort of “marked” person now.
ImTheMarigold: My mom is the one that handles the business when I fall apart; my dad just sits in the background and says he loves me and wishes he knew what to do. I know how much it kills him. That is why I never wanted to tell him. I know something inside him broke when he found out. My mom is just a fortress of strength; if she hurts, I don’t know it. She keeps me as a priority and I’m guessing she just lets it out when she’s alone or at home with my dad.
Queen_George: It’s so interesting to find out that things were the same for you. Because that really reinforces for me the question that always lingers in my head: How are we ever supposed to make progress for rape survivors if the BAD guys are the rapists and the GOOD guys (like our dads) are so overcome by the actual fact of rape – by the reality of it – that they fall apart around it. That’s the thing for me: I realized that my mom, as a woman, seems to have this inherent awareness that rape is something real and tangible that happens to people. But my dad (and my brother, who is 6 years my junior) seemed to be so shocked by the fact that this was something real that happens to actual people. I don’t know what to do about that. And it makes me think we need a lot more survivors who are willing to speak out… but then again, should it really have to be our responsibility to tell Teh Menz: “Hey, are you aware that this happens? And it doesn’t just happen to women you’ve never met. It happens to your daughters, your wives, your friends, your sisters. It happens to actual, living breathing women – not just abstractions.”
ImTheMarigold: Exactly! I think some of it is the image of the stranger in the bushes, and some of it is their inability to recognize us as sexual people. Little sisters, daughters, moms – those people don’t have sex. Honestly, to this day, I have no idea if my sister knows. I never told her and I can’t remember if I gave my parents the OK to tell her. So all the ensuing problems I’ve had get more complicated by that. Do I tell her I’m just ‘sick” when my parents need to drive from NY to DC again because I lost it?
Queen_George: You know, I think in some ways that’s what’s so hard for people like my dad: What they want is for it to be just erased somehow. And you just can’t erase it. It’s always there, and I think sometimes it’s even harder for THEM to accommodate that than it is for me. Like, “I didn’t bring this thing in the house. Who dragged this dirt in?”
ImTheMarigold: And the person you were before is just gone. They can’t accept that you aren’t who they used to know although you still look exactly the same. Like a Cylon version of your old self. Has your family ever lied to other people on your behalf about what happened to you, why you moved back or anything else that might generate questions?
Queen_George: Oh definitely. Almost nobody knows why I came back. Which is sometimes hard because I think a lot of my family members read it as “Maximum FAIL”, like I just couldn’t handle being an adult or out on my own or something. And that makes me angry. But at the same time, I know I don’t have to justify myself to them… so it’s weird.
ImTheMarigold: My parents never told my grandparents. The hospital time, when I have anxiety attacks and they have to come stay with me, I’m just “sick.”
Queen_George: Yeah, I’m “sick” a lot too, or “out of town.”
ImTheMarigold: Makes you feel like a liar.
Queen_George: Right. Even though we don’t OWE anybody the truth. Communication surrounding assault is ALWAYS fraught: you’re damned if you tell, damned if you don’t.
ImTheMarigold: There are always consequences, and you get burned no matter what you do.
Queen_George: Which seems so unfair – it’s another one of those situations where survivors are punished just by virtue of being survivors; being outright honest and having that honesty accepted is so rarely an option; you either become marked or a liar by default.
So I have a question for you about communication. You mentioned a boyfriend. How much do you tell him, and how does he handle it? (I ask because I had one who basically did not handle it at all, and I’m still trying to get a grasp on how to Talk to Dudes or Ladies I’m Dating about the subject).
ImTheMarigold: He knows pretty much everything. If I remember correctly, I told him the whole story the same night we had our first kiss. We met about 1.5 years after the assault, about 6 months after I got out of the hospital. We haven’t ever really talked about what he thinks about it or how he feels about it.
Queen_George: But he lets you talk about it if you need to?
ImTheMarigold: He does, though I really don’t do it very often. It’s weird, but he is almost the last person I’d want to talk about it with.
Queen_George: It’s definitely awkward talking to the person you’re in a relationship with about it. I had that experience too, although it sounds like your guy has been much better about it than my ex.
But yeah, I always felt weird talking to him about it – as though I was putting extra burden on him or asking too much
ImTheMarigold: That, and exposing something really raw and personal. Especially since it could totally change how they see you.
Queen_George: Right. Because you know it’s already kind of changed how you see yourself.
ImTheMarigold: Even though it might help them understand more about the ways you act and communicate in your relationship. Another risk.
Queen_George: That was sort of the problem I had – the way it changed my behavior. My ex and I started dating about 5 months after my assault (probably too soon, I now tell myself). The first night we kissed I told him – much like you did. And he was very understanding, listened to my story and told me he would always be willing to listen if I needed to talk. I was so overcome with the fact that he didn’t shame me or change his view of me. But as we started dating, he had a LOT of trouble understanding that certain actions were just going to be triggers for me. It’s sort of hard to explain. But basically, ironically, he decided to treat me as though nothing had ever happened – which might’ve been what I thought I wanted, but which turned out to be a very bad thing. Because if I wasn’t in the mood or something one night, he’d push a bit. And that was very triggering. It made me sad and angry and frustrated, and I didn’t understand why HE didn’t understand… I don’t know…
ImTheMarigold: Either not wanting to acknowledge your experience or feeling like they are being forced to change who they are…
Queen_George: Right. I mean, he’s probably not a very good example in that he turned out to be not a very sensitive dude in general.
So what I guess we’ve realized here is that it’s hard to talk to ANYONE about this, except others with the same experience.
You know how there’s a lot of conversation in feminism about how a marginalised person IS NOT RESPONSIBLE for teaching or educating the privileged about their experiences? I wish I could get myself to remember that the same could be true for assault victims/survivors. I shouldn’t have to explain myself to people. If I find certain things triggering, or if there are times when I have a panic attack or I just need to cry, I shouldn’t be required to explain or excuse myself. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like it’s up to us to educate the whole damn world.
ImTheMarigold: And each person’s experience isn’t representative of survivors as a whole.
Queen_George: Definitely. Like once I was talking to this other girl about her experience, and she kept reminding me over and over that “I said no. I said no.” And we ended up arguing about how even if someone doesn’t outright SAY “no,” that doesn’t mean their experience was any less valid. So we ended up arguing with each other rather than offering the support we so desperately needed.
ImTheMarigold: “Saying no” gets us wrapped up in the legal mumbo jumbo, when at the end of the day all that matters is what we feel happened. And if we feel it was rape, it was. Law be damned.
The law is the last place anyone should look to for vaildation.
Queen_George: Right. So we only have the option of validating each other – which means we really need to listen to one another’s voices.
ImTheMarigold: Which can be hard, only because we’ve struggled to be heard so long that we can shout at each other, without meaning to. And that is something feminism knows something about.
Queen_George: And because patriarchy sort of pits us against each other. It tells us that some of our experiences are more valid than others. If it weren’t for all the shamers out there, I doubt that girl and I ever would have argued, so I think a lot of this really does come back to communication. It’s hard to carve out a space for yourself to tell a story like this.
ImTheMarigold: At the end of the day, it isn’t a story that wants to be heard. It isn’t being told for the benefit of the audience, rather the storyteller. And what is the point of hearing a story if you aren’t getting something out of it yourself?
Queen_George: Oh! That’s a perfect way to put it – that it “isn’t a story that wants to be heard.” I think that brings us around full circle to where we started – with the idea that the story is basically an impossible one to tell. I think we’re made to believe very often that our personal experiences are not valid unless they provide someone else with entertainment or, like you said, some kind of lesson or something.
ImTheMarigold: I just want to be heard.
Queen_George: Me too. I want to be given my chance to tell it, and I often feel like I don’t even get that.