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I didn’t realize I was raped until years after it happened. I, like many young women, entered the dating world with the idea that rape was something that happened to Spandex-clad joggers early in the morning and partygoers in short skirts late at night. The idea that one could be violated by a trusted dating partner struck me as absurd, because I thought I was smart enough to choose my partners wisely.
There is an art to manipulation, as I would eventually learn. Someone you think you can trust may tell you that your “no” wasn’t loud enough; he thought you were kidding; he thought you were playing hard to get.
I heard all of these and more, and the blame turned inward: maybe I shouldn’t have given him ideas by wearing that tight shirt. Maybe I should have pushed him to show that I was serious.
The justifications, the would-have-could-have-should-haves tumbled in my brain on spin cycle, triggering anxiety and PTSD, until I shared them in a therapist’s office and was gently informed, “Honey, you were raped.”
I don’t know what angered me more: not realizing what was happening to me at the time, or that by the time I did, the statute of limitations had passed. My ex boyfriend, the first man I fell in love with, was cunning and smart, and knew exactly what he was doing.
Not only that, he moved across the country shortly after we broke up, and that was the last I heard about him. He would never be held accountable for what he did.
There are many threads we hold to that provide hope in the midst of tragic circumstances. For some people, it is the idea that everything happens for a reason. For others, it is the promise of divine justice, should a perpetrator never face it during his time on earth.
I was encouraged to trust God – that vengeance is his alone. Well, that wasn’t good enough for me. Even if I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God would handle things eventually, I likely would not be there to see it. My ex’s judgment would take place without me there to witness as a fly on the wall, and that grieved me.
My therapist suggested writing my ex a letter, calling him every bitter name in the book and cursing him to my heart’s content, and then tearing it up when I finished. But I put so much pent-up fury and passion into my letter that the thought of tearing it up seemed wasteful. I didn’t tell my therapist at the time (probably a mistake), but I took her advice a giant step further and actually sent it to him via Facebook – after drinking a bottle of Pinot for “courage,” and with the hope that perhaps I wouldn’t remember doing it.
Unfortunately, once the buzz wore off, I did remember, so I swore off Facebook for a week because I was terrified of what angry response might be in my inbox.
At the same time, the possibility of a response excited me in a strange way. I wanted to rattle him; I wanted to throw his world off-kilter like he did mine. Really, my expectations of justice were quite low: I actually wasn’t out to ruin his life or make him suffer in any way. All I wanted was to hold him accountable. Reasonable, right?
At the end of the week, I found my resolve and logged back into Facebook, my heart stampeding and sweat soaking my palms. I expected to see red notifications out the wazoo, and who knows what else.
What I found was…nothing.
There were notifications, of course: an invitation to Candy Crush from a classmate I never talk to, a few ‘likes’ on the last picture I posted from other virtual acquaintances. Facebook’s message algorithm allows you to see if a sent message has been read with a time stamp at the bottom (the best and worst thing ever to happen in social media, as it lets you know if you’re being ignored).
Well, my message was time-stamped as “read” – an hour after I sent it. A full week had passed, the accusing message was read, and not a single response was sent back to me.
There are several reasons for this: he could be protecting himself from further trouble, perhaps on the advice of a friend, family member, or hell, even a lawyer. He felt deeply convicted of his crime and was too ashamed to face me again, even behind a screen (unlikely). Or, the most likely and most-feared possibility: He just doesn’t give a shit.
From what I knew of him during the five years we were together, all signs pointed to that last reason, and that was the one I could handle the least. Even an embittered “You’re a liar, you know you wanted it” response would have been preferred (so I thought), because at least my words – particular the smear of “rapist” – would have made it into his head.
I’m ashamed to say that I dwelled on these possibilities for months afterward, during which I still never got a response.
A mutual friend posted a picture of the two of them at a bar, which was immensely triggering, and I drunkenly wrote to him, too: Did you know that you were having drinks with a rapist? Surprise, surprise: That message was time-stamped “read” and went unanswered as well.
At this point, my mind was racing with conspiracy theories that all our mutual friends signed this pact to ignore me when I spoke up, perhaps to drive me insane and effectively destroy my credibility.
After all, what sense did it make to receive a message like that, and just ignore it? Rape is serious! It’s a crime, dammit! If someone sent me a message accusing one of my good friends of doing such a thing, you bet I’d say something – if not to the responder, then I’d surely confront the accused and let them know what’s up (and then demand the truth). Wouldn’t I?
It’s funny; my therapist suggested writing that letter as a coping mechanism, but it ended up nearly destroying me instead. I allowed this man to dwell in my head full-time, to taunt me from a distance, and it was taking over my life. I was angry, extremely depressed, and started turning to alcohol more and more to suppress the memories of what he did.
During this time, I got married, and my fear and repulsion of sex were starting to cause problems. I shut my new husband out, convinced that he wouldn’t understand. It didn’t matter to me how amazing this new man was; without justice, the hurt that resided in me would always be there.
I learned a valuable lesson from those dark months of obsessing over justice, however. At some point – perhaps after my husband staged an intervention and lovingly insisted I get help for my drinking – I realized the senselessness of hinging my healing on the choices that other people make, of which I have no control.
And even if my rapist were brought to trial and convicted, it wouldn’t undo what he did. Neither would all the sincerest apologies in the world. There would still be damage left, and it would be up to decide how to handle it.
But allowing it to take over my life was no longer an option. Moving on is a choice; it doesn’t mean forgetting what happened, but learning to manage the pain in a productive way. For me, the best thing I did with my pain was let it inspire a novel: one that I hope comforts other hurting survivors.
Make no mistake; pain changes you. But it doesn’t have to define you.