April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. But that isn’t why I finally decided to share my story today. I’ve been meaning to put this in writing for some time now. I kept procrastinating, because it’s not an easy subject and I am not used to making myself so vulnerable.
I was sexually assaulted by someone I considered a friend. Having gone through a horrible sexual assault/abuse situation years ago, I thought I knew how to avoid such a thing happening to me again. However, some people will try to take what they want, no matter how vigilant I am. I know I did nothing wrong for this to happen; I am not flogging myself emotionally for failing to recognize I was in a precarious situation. It happened fast. I didn’t see it coming. I’ve know him for years; we’ve hung out casually alone and with others, without cause for alarm. I am disgusted and disappointed someone I trusted breached a friendship because he’s a selfish, unaware asshole. He probably doesn’t believe he did something incredibly violating. And that’s part of the problem. I hate that I had to quickly make a Pros vs. Cons list in my head and decide whether to say anything to anyone. (I also considered calling this a Severity vs. Consequence list.) This is only one of the shitty burdens victims have to handle.
No matter how strong, brave, insightful, and intelligent we are, this can happen to anyone at any time in her life. This happens to men as well, but I only know the woman’s perspective, so that’s all I can speak to. I certainly don’t mean to leave anybody out of this conversation. Now experiencing this shit once more in my life, is reason enough to finally speak up. I may be just one tiny voice among the infinite noise of the Internet, but it is not on me to protect the criminal acts of others.
And, if the stories of some of my brave sisters are any proof, each one of us who speaks up in turn inspires another to share her story. Maybe, through our words, we can even encourage our society to break the silence and stop sexual assaults, rapes, and harassment. With their express consent, I want to thank a couple of incredibly brave women in my life who’ve shared their stories. I want them to know their words did not go unheard. And, in fact, they’ve affected change by being brave role models.
My friend Sasha not only appeared on the cover of Chicago’s RedEye newspaper to tell her story of rape and recovery, she turned her tragedy into advocacy. She has been interviewed as the Director of Chicago’s Rape Victim Advocates, been quoted in response to the Kobe Bryant rape case, and worked with then-Senator Barack Obama and Governor Blagojevich to change Illinois state laws in favor of victims. In addition to sharing her own experience publicly, here’s just one of the examples of her advocacy work: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-02-10/news/0502100401_1_evidence-kits-backlog-dna-evidence
Another amazing woman I know is the indomitable Elizabeth. I choose the word “indomitable” here with great purpose. It means: “that cannot be subdued or overcome, as persons, will, or courage; unconquerable: unyielding.” I have always known Elizabeth to be a fierce warrior woman who faces life with pluck and exuberance. She has a gift for wise yet humorous writing. I enjoy following her creative writing blog. But when she bravely wrote a two-part essay about her experience with boyfriend abuse and rape http://onebadmomma.com/2013/11/18/to-my-abuser-an-anniversary-of-sorts/, I was astounded. I was forever changed in reading her story. Not only because I concretely knew for sure I was not alone in what I had experienced, but that this sort of thing can and does happen to even the brightest and boldest of women. After reading her story, I felt a sort of “permission” to let go of my own shame, puzzlement, victim-blaming, and now my silence.
I’ve often tried to pinpoint exactly why abuse and assault happened to me. There is no family history of any such activity towards me; I did not witness it happen to any woman in my family. The fact is, there is no one or ten reasons why this happens to any of us. There’s no secret combination to be avoided. However, I have come to realize there are a few factors in my particular case that help me understand myself and how to correct things for myself moving forward. I want to reiterate, I speak only of MY experiences and these are my thoughts. Every person has her own story to tell, each equally unique and sacred. If you want statistical facts, you can search the Web’s wealth of resources for reliable, professional research and studies.
This next bit might hurt some people’s feelings if they egotistically think this story is about them. I hope all understand that my experience and my viewpoint on things is my version of events and feelings. With no intentions of malice or judgment, I make no apologies for anything I write here. I believe American females are taught to be submissive. Whether by nature or nurture, and hopefully on accident, most of us are formed into “people pleasers”. We are subtly taught not to rock the boat. In my formative years, I saw my mother treated like a doormat by men, and remember being baffled as to why she would stay with these tools. (I give kids immense credit for going with their instincts and impressions of people—more on that later).
As an adult, I noticed how she walks on eggshells in relationships and provides excuses for their assholery, and I realized I had done exactly the same in my abusive relationship. I want to make clear my mother did an outstanding job raising three happy, healthy, productive kids all on her own, the best she could with zero emotional or financial support from my dad. But it is extremely important that I mention this “doormat” detail because, despite what parents say, what they do can the be more impactful example their children pick up on. More importantly, how we allow ourselves to be treated is one of the few things we can consciously control in our lives to lessen the possibility of landing in unfair situations. It is something we all need to practice regularly and gently encourage in others.
I used to arrogantly pride myself on the fact that I’d never had a shitty boyfriend or had any horrifying experiences with men. I now know this was just a matter of statistics, not my own savvy. I’ve spent most of my life focused more on education and work than men. Thus, with fewer relationships, the odds of my encountering abuse or assault were lower. But then it happened. I found myself twenty-nine years old, with a Master’s Degree, a decent career and salary, proudly independent, with a brain full of knowledge, opinions, and adventure. And I was dating a master manipulator—a relationship wrought with ugliness.
There are countless articles and studies on Narcissism, gaslighting, the patterns and stages of abusive relationships, and writings on a wide spectrum of issues about rape that I won’t dare try to cover as well as the experts and advocates can. But I will share a few pieces of my puzzle to explain how I’ve ended up in some bad situations. Here is an insightful, somewhat related TED Talk by another strong woman, explaining her “crazy love” and why domestic violence victims don’t leave: http://www.ted.com/talks/leslie_morgan_steiner_why_domestic_violence_victims_don_t_leave
Someone who recognized my potential and sparkle lured me into a dark place. Within a week of dating, he declared I was the sole person he was dating and having sex with, and “hoped I felt as strongly about him”. Essentially, making himself look sentimental and committed, and in turn claiming ownership of me, my time, and my sexuality. He encouraged me to leave things at his house, even my cat!—which makes it harder for a submissive to just pick up and leave. As an alcoholic, he encouraged me to drink heavily along with him. This validated his habit and provided a screen for his drunken misbehavior. When I had a major surgery, he insisted I recover in his home so my family could come visit and see how sincere and caring he was towards me. One time I awoke from a nap to find him lurking over me with a mad look in his eyes and a machete in his hand. I said something like, “what the fuck, dude?”, to which he laughed and said he just wanted to make sure I wouldn’t panic should anyone ever try to attack me. (See what he did there, gauging my fear factor?) During intercourse, he would do the one thing I continually asked him not to: pull hard on my hair. It’s a pet peeve spawned from a childhood of pigtail-pulling, and it fucking hurts my sensitive head.
There was endless gaslighting. We fought. If you know me, you know yelling/angry/highly frustrated verbal communication is absolutely not how I handle any situation. I’m pretty good about remaining calm, attempting to be logical though my emotions, and recovering quickly from mishaps. But this guy would push and push until I cracked and screamed back. Then, one time, he videotaped me yelling to show me how stupid I looked. (I also had another boyfriend videotape me a few years ago, while restraining me from leaving his house after I tried to remove myself from a heated situation.) Boyfriend would tell me sad details of his childhood, painting himself as a victim and cultivating deep sympathy. I reciprocated by sharing a few sensitive details of my life. Then, whenever he was mad at me, he used the precious details of my life against me in the form of misogynist, racist, jealous hate. He attempted to blackmail me, but I just said “go for it”. I have no secrets I’m too ashamed to claim. He slowly isolated me from my friends and family, and adamantly presented an image of “the perfect couple” in public. There’s a lot more, but you get the idea of how small things could add up…
Here comes the scary part for me to share. (deep breath, exhale) He would vehemently deny all of this, which is one reason I never attempted to go into great detail about some things. I didn’t know what it was at the time; I didn’t know it was unacceptable. At no point in my life had I heard anyone talk about abuse, assault, or rape. Ever. I now know what to call the thing he did to me that ripped at my soul during our time together: rape. Anytime someone psychologically or physically coerces another into any kind of sex act, IT IS RAPE. Even if that person is a known lover or spouse. I honestly cannot even count the number of times he forced me to please him. I do remember going numb until it was over; it was easier to get it over with than deal with his berating bullshit for hours. I cannot recall one loving, beautiful sexual encounter with this man. Serious relationships and abuse foreign to me at the time, I had no idea not one of his reasons was justification for strong-arming someone into sexual situations. Nobody had ever taught me I could turn him down and walk away.
The first time he hit me was soon after we’d moved in together. He was drunk; he swore it was an accident. The neighbor heard the ruckus, and called the police. CPD arrived and saw my pink, swollen cheek and eye and asked if I wanted to press charges… While my boyfriend was in the same room. Thank you neighbor, for having the courage to get involved. Fuck you, cops who put me in an unfair situation where I didn’t feel empowered or safe to speak up. I said no. The police left. I covered my shiner with makeup and hair-dos out of embarrassment. I figured, “whatever, I’ll grant anyone one chance to fuck up.” Then one day I came home to him drunker than I’d ever seen him, holding a gun.
Let me back up… I am from Indiana. My cousin and guy friends taught me how to handle firearms as a teenager. My mom gave me a beautiful nickel-plated revolver in response to a stalker scare in college. It was permitted, I was the legal owner of this six-shooter. When I moved to Chicago, firearms ownership was banned. As a single woman, I kept it in my bedroom for personal safety regardless of Chicago law. My gun possession was on the down low. But when you move in with someone, it’s only fair and reasonable to let them know you own a gun so they don’t accidentally stumble upon it, or in case they should need to use it against intruders. Trust, right?
Okay. So, I came home to him sitting in his office gnashing his teeth, looking psychotic, my gun on his desk. He said he was going to kill himself. Less than two months of living together, I’d already had it with him. And I certainly wasn’t having any part of this drama. I said I didn’t care (I knew he was just trying to play me emotionally) and swiftly left the house for 24 hours—long enough for him to sober up and apologize. It was time for me to figure a way out of this mess. Luckily, I was financially independent and didn’t fear for my life, so getting out was easy for me. This is not the case for many women. He sensed it. One night, after much tequila on his part and admittedly a couple shots on my part, he psychologically and physically pushed me into an argument. He grabbed my throat and bashed my head against the iron radiator. I fought back by clawing at his eyes (self-defense tip I’d hear many times: go for the eyes). It was as if he set me up with this fight, hoping I would mark him (evidence). He let go, told the downstairs neighbors he feared for his life, and called the cops. He not only claimed it was I who attacked him unprovoked, but he also told CPD I had pulled my gun on him.
When the police came, I was still on the kitchen floor crying. He played up the scratches on his face, while I had nothing to prove my abuse other than a lump underneath my hair. Blunt force doesn’t always leave a mark and bruises take hours to show up. My injuries didn’t appear in the police photographs. But the next day, there were faint fingerprint bruises on my neck, a throbbing lump on my head, and at least a dozen bruises on my knees and forearms from trying to keep my head away from the radiator and whatnot.
The cops scoured our apartment and asked where my gun was. I had hidden it deep in a packed closet after the previous incident. I also had no idea I should’ve lied and said I don’t have one. But I wanted to prove to them I hadn’t pulled a gun because it took me about ten minutes to dig it out of the closet!
They took us both to the neighborhood precinct. I had already decided I was going to get out of this relationship pronto, but I didn’t want the trouble of getting the law and courts involved. I wanted to go home, shake hands, help him pack, and be done with it all. I refused to press charges. I was still the “people pleaser”. The police did not talk to me about my decision, nobody told me how it could help me nor what they knew he was up to. He pressed charges against me. I got sent to county lock-up on charges of domestic violence and a charge for the gun possession. I will say, the police did their best to come up with the least serious offense they could: Class C misdemeanor “failure to obtain a permit”—ironic since I couldn’t legally obtain a permit even if I wanted to!
Funny side note: I was on my period when they put me in the pokey, so they gave me one giant maxi-pad. No fucking way I was going to “take care of business” in a cell with about ten other women. I used the pad as a tiny pillow to rest my head against the wall. Also, never ever offer me a bologna sandwich on white bread. I will wretch in its presence. Lastly, if you give that nasty bologna sammich to someone wearing warm clothing (after you’ve been stripped of much of your apparel), they might let you snuggle close to them in a freezing jail cell.
Wrapping up this saga: A detective called me to ask questions about a supposed rape happened during the two weeks I was not allowed to live in my own home, due to a mandatory restraining order. I found out he had several abuse charges against him in other cities. I had to wait for him to threaten my life before CPD would let me file a restraining order against him, thus forcing him off my apartment lease (he had refused to move out after all this went down – WTF?!). I stubbornly refused to accept a small fine on the gun misdemeanor, and my lawyer was magically (read: golf buddies with the judge and my squeaky clean record and standing in the community) able to get it completely dropped and expunged. And as much as the devil on my shoulder kept talking in my ear, I took the high road and did not toss my ex’s belongings out the window or touch a single item before he was able to come get all of it. I even took care of his cats until he had a home for them. He spread plenty of nasty rumors about me amongst our friends. I quickly realized it was best not to say another peep, not even to defend myself against lies, and just let the dust settle.
I hope that wasn’t too dramatic. I don’t know how else to illustrate the numerous “tiny red flags” along the way I ignored or excused, and how someone set me up in such a dastardly way. I am at a place in my life where I can confidently say I am 100% not ashamed or embarrassed by what happened to me. And I do not fear any reactions or repercussions by sharing my story. In fact that shit storm has made me appreciate the wonderful, loving, kind men I’ve encountered since then all that much more! I spent years learning to let go and reminding myself not judge other men on how a few rotten apples chose to treat people.
The other reason I feel I needed to share some specific details is to emphasize what a conniving person he is and to illustrate how abusers are incredibly crafty manipulators. After this all went down, I said very little about it—partly because I was ashamed, partly because I hate gossip and didn’t know who to trust, but mostly because I felt nobody believed me. I also felt I had to choose between my career or exposing him. He would’ve done all he could to ruin what he knew was most precious to me. This guy had even worked over members of my family and close friends to the point a couple of them questioned the abuse thing. I heard things like, “Well, Brigette, you know you do have quite a sassy streak.” And “He seems like a nice guy, I just want to hear both sides of this.” Unacceptable. Again, I am not trying to throw anyone under the bus. I just want everyone to realize abusers are THAT manipulative. They spend immense energy putting everyone they know into a sort of smoke and mirrors trance, lest they be found out. Amongst those who did hear through the grapevine what supposedly happened, most ignored it or were skeptical. People don’t want to acknowledge someone they like/love could do such horrible things.
By now some of you are probably thinking, “So she got abused a couple of times and forced to have sex with someone she thought she loved. It sucks. But she’s lucky that’s all that happened. And she’s telling us she is now content, confident, and no longer traumatized. So why is she making such a big deal out of this?” Here’s why: Major acts of violence and assault are easily detectable and people are reactive to that. Most of us get that a victim flailing and screaming “NO!” while a perpetrator is trying to fuck her is rape. We can see a black eye and ask questions or offer help. But our society does not actively teach us there are hundreds of almost unnoticeable violations and indicators that can alert us to a variety of abuses and assaults before they get to the point of violence or rape. Nor are we taught there is a wide spectrum of acts that are illegal, unacceptable, violating, abusive, and assaulting when imposed upon another.
It takes more than posting the occasional article on social media that nobody has time to read. It takes more than talking to kids about “no means no” and “bad touches”. It takes more than a mandatory workshop on harassment. Giving silly names to our body parts diminished the importance of our bodies. Giggling and mocking sexual harassment workshops in the workplace discourages people from speaking up. In the fourth grade, the boys and girls in my school were separates for “the big talk” about puberty. They told us about the physical changes that would happen. But they did not tell us menstruating girls could get pregnant. They did not tell us our bodies are our own and nobody has any right to tell us or act otherwise. They did not tell us how to prevent, challenge, or report any kind of misconduct, nor discuss how to identify violations to know what to report.
I was also never taught these things in my home environment. In fact, I recall quite the opposite. Getting back to my earlier mention of honoring kids’ instincts and impressions of others… When I was about seven or so, I remember my uncle insisting I give him a kiss. This was in a room full of family, so don’t starting thinking he was trying to molest me. I remember him towering over me for what felt like an eternity, repeating his request for a smooch. My mother also prodded me, saying it was okay, just do it. I didn’t want to. End of story. He said if I didn’t give him a kiss, he wasn’t going to give me my Christmas present. I walked away. My mom jokingly dismissed my refusal with a comment about me being a “stubborn brat.”
The words people use around us as kids stick with us as adults. I still catch myself claiming the title of “stubborn brat”, when I (now) know full well I am just confident in my choices despite the reactions or opinions of others. That requires neither a label nor an apology. Also, quit telling your kids kiss and hug people!!! If they like them and want to show affection, they will approach them on their own. Or at least ASK them if they want to give someone a hug and support their decision without comment. Even as toddlers, kids have a right to own and decide for their bodies. (Maybe this explains why strangers’ kids run up to me in public places and hug me? Happens a lot! I wonder if they pick up on my “I don’t want anything from you, and I acknowledge you as a tiny sticky-faced person” vibe?)
Speaking of impressions that stick with us, please consider not complimenting a woman on her weight loss UNSOLICITED. While your intentions are good, it assumes a right to judge and comment on our bodies without our permission. Even the most pro-feminist, sex-positive, thoughtful of people are guilty of doing this, and women are expected to graciously appreciate the gesture. This seemingly innocuous act reinforces social acceptance of our bodies as objects open to others’ analysis and judgment. The praise we receive also conditions us to place higher value on our looks, and seek more attention (I’m a victim of this behavior as well, I fully admit). While it is wonderful for each person to be proud of her body and her physical accomplishments, it is only when she invites or expressly grants permission for commentary/conversation that any person should speak on woman’s (or a man’s) physical appearance or praise her efforts.
Practice giving compliments without objectifying. Telling your wife she is beautiful, or your best friend she’s glowing with pride are ways to note someone’s loveliness without emphasizing value or judgment of her body. See the difference? This may seem like a bit of a tangent from the larger theme of assault in this writing. But it goes back to teaching and respecting ownership of our bodies by example. People sometimes think I’m being snotty when I correct them for commenting on a weight loss, but eventually my lesson sinks in when I explain I’m offended they assumed permission to analyze and discuss my body without asking me. I make sure I never compliment my niece on parts of her body (no matter how cute I think her tushy is!), but rather praise qualities of her personality and her actions. Sadly, the most “compliments” I ever got on my body was after I lost nearly twenty pounds following a major car accident. My weight loss was the result of liquid diet for two months and loss of appetite due to pain medications. I never felt more sickly in my life, being so thin. Ugh, not to mention people constantly staring at and commenting on my injured face and teeth when I didn’t ask for their opinions.
I wish someone would’ve told me a few wise things as a child—even as an adult—that maybe could’ve helped me better choose and navigate relationships. What people say and believe, and what they do are often two different things. An important tenet I constantly remind myself of as I attempt to improve how I treat others and myself is: Be conscious and purposefully sincere in my efforts. Telling someone “you can come to me to talk about anything” is a good start. But unless I also demonstration a sense of safety and non-judgment through my actions, through small conversations throughout our lives, and set forth a welcoming attitude, those words mean nothing. I wish someone had taught me about ownership of my body and sexuality (note I did not say “respect”—that implies a judgment). I wish someone would’ve had discussions with me how to identify and acknowledge symptoms of manipulation and danger. I wish someone would’ve encouraged me to build several strong networks of support. Sometimes I feel like I am just beginning to understand the value of trustworthy friendships (with both men and women), and just now learning how to communicate in considerate, meaningful ways in all my relationships.
One thing that has always bothered me in discussions of sexual assault and rape is that the onus of assault and rape prevention, reporting, and recovery seems to be on the victim (or would-be victims). I may be wrong, but to me it seems people would prefer to ignore the topic because it is extremely uncomfortable and they want to believe it could never happen to them or their loved ones. But the reality is the entire spectrum of harassment, sexual assault, and rape violations are possible, no matter what. Even if people want to skirt around such a provocative subject, we should still be actively engaged in (and teaching by example) deep respect, listening with care to others, being more cognizant of those in need, and being the boss of our own bodies and nobody else’s.
And while I’m handing out suggestions like Halloween candy, please stop using the word “rape” so flippantly. It is as bad and as triggering as the word “Nigger”. Even a racist can choose to be more cautious with his word choices when he sees he is within earshot of a Black person. But you will most likely never know when you are in the presence of an assault victim. You can look up the stats, but something like half of sexual assault victims never speak up (in private or legally), for anyone to know they were preyed upon. We don’t wear our stories on our sleeve, we don’t let it define us, there are usually no physical reminders prompting you to be more selective in your word choices. Your intent in using the word has no bearing on how it affects others. Even a casual conversation about “being raped at the gas pump with high prices” is insensitive. For victims dealing with severe trauma, the word and the topic can set them back into PTSD mode.
I have been thinking about how and why I would share my story for years. I didn’t want to just tell a tale of abuse or assault without some sort of intent or theme, because I am not seeking sympathy for what’s happened to me. The worst thing anyone could do now is coddle me. I’m good. I got this. Really. But I, like the millions of sisters before me, now understand that simply speaking up is in fact doing something. Creating awareness is an action. It is not my responsibility to disguise, excuse, or hide the abominable actions of others. I am under no obligation to please anyone but myself. Getting this off my chest and out of my head is both a scary and exhilarating act in setting myself free from the burdens and mistakes of others. I love who I am today, but there’s still plenty of room and opportunity for further peace and growth. And if this gives even one person a sense of hope, connectedness, or inspiration in some way, I will have turned my tragedy into a gift I can pass along to others.