In The Wake Of Destruction: Chronicling The Aftermath Of Sexual Trauma.
Recently, a stranger violated my most sacred space with his hands and fingers.
The visceral memory is enough to make me physically ill — my throat burns the way it does when I know I’m about to get a cold, and I can’t help but squeeze my eyes shut and hug my arms against my ribs, an expression of disgust and contraction that takes over for the few moments before I remember deep breath.
But as too many know too well, the incident of intrusion alone is a mere fraction of the entire experience. The repercussions spread wide, and two of the major players are shame and isolation. My work is to do battle against those forces, and it is with this aim that I share my story.
The morning after it happened, I woke up nauseated and awash in guilt. I ran over the experience again and again: had I done something wrong? Was I complicit in some way? Why had this happened? Was I to blame? If I wasn’t, why did I feel so ashamed?
In this state of disorientation and raw, unprocessed experience, it became my all-consuming concern that no one find out. I was camping with a large group at the time, and in their presence I became clumsy, trying to maneuver unnoticed around the truth of what had happened and around my own confused shame.
The only person who knew was my roommate — she’d been there when it happened. I skirted around her, and I knew she wouldn’t dream of speaking up. The person responsible was someone she’d just started sleeping with, and she was latched to his side like a pup.
The man who had violated me was still hanging around our group, and the one time I made eye contact with him was like a scald. I avoided him, lock-jawed and sick.
Even as I did, a part of me marveled at my own behavior: what nonsense was this? I’ve spent much of my life energy and devoted much of my written work to clear and unapologetic feminism, a conviction that has earned me consistent criticism, dismissal, and/or mockery over the years.
All of that had given me the opportunity to decide many times over to hold strong, use my voice, and fight.
Yet here I was, paralyzed and voiceless in the presence of my own offender.
By the time I finally returned home, I was feeling a little soothed. I’d never see that guy again, I figured, and I could begin doing the work of untangling the experience with a trusted psychotherapy professional.
I was wrong, though. My roommate — a female, the one who had listened to me when I told her I didn’t want this guy around, and who rubbed my shoulder and told me we’d talk later — dared to bring this man into my home. When I discovered that he was there, only a wall separating the two of us, adrenaline washed through my body like acid.
For a part of a second, I considered my options — what if I ignored it? What if I sat in my room, quivering with anger, disgust, and fear, hoping he’d be gone soon?
The physical response to that momentary thought was so clear it was like a door had slammed inside my body. No, that would be impossible. I needed to confront him and I needed to get him out of my home. This was truly the only course of action available to me, and not just for the sake of standing up for my own sacred sexuality.
It needed to be done symbolically, a way to breathe life into everything I stand for, everything I believe in the core of me, and as my own rebellion against all the acts of sexual desecration across all of time.
So I did. I went into my roommate’s bedroom where he was and spoke to him plainly and directly. He denied everything.
It’s funny how the body works. Earlier that day, I was speaking about the incident with my therapist and she asked if I was in touch with my anger. I searched around inside for a moment, then answered her.
“No,” I said, “no, I think he’s a very wounded person and in need of much healing. I don’t feel a lot of anger about it.”
But when he looked at me and denied the harm he’d done, told me I was about to be found out, and refused to get out of my house, all my internal forces were unleashed.
I screamed louder and harder than I ever have in my life. I screamed until I was sure I could feel thousands of tiny tears in the lining of my throat. I screamed until I was doubled over, screamed until my fingers were numb, then my hands, then all my limbs, as every ounce of energy collected to express my disgusted rage and my undeniable, immovable No.
I screamed at him to shut the fuck up and to get the fuck out of my home. He got up in my face, refusing to leave, and threatened me, telling me to say it one more time so he could take care of the situation himself.
Truly unbelievably, my roommate rushed to his side, spitting nonsensical bile and standing up for him. I watched, stunned, the two of them on one side of the room, me on the other.
This man who had physically entered my inner sanctum unwelcome continued even now to try to force himself on me and deaden my power, and this woman who had known and lived with me for over two years planted herself opposite me to defend a man she had known for four days.
It was the abandonment by the person who knew me — and who also had the power to get the invader out of our home — that stopped me short, and for seconds, the scenario shifted and blurred and their individual forms were simply archetypes.
How frequently and how tragically does the wounded feminine whore herself for the wounded masculine, giving over entirely to the illusion of acceptance, comfort, and consistency from the patriarchy.
Still — and this seems like a strange word to use in this scenario, but I’ll say it — I was fortunate. I am a grown woman, with resources and support, and the forces opposite me were only a roommate and a stranger.
My fear, anger, and sense of powerless were great, but I cannot even begin to imagine the devastation that is felt when the being on my side of the room is a child and the figures on the other side of the room are the weak and deluded mother and the lying and perverted father.
The sheer force of that betrayal seems great enough to suffocate, and yet it happens. Often. Homes and hearts remain open to predators all across the globe in the name of a fleeting, hollow approximation of love, or at the very least, attention. Truly the wounds of human life are festering and putrid when left unattended.
At long last — over four hours later — the two of them finally left. I learned a lot about anger in the wake of their leaving.
I doubt there are many among us who would say we feel well-versed and competent in the art of appropriate expression of anger; more often than not, we do our best to tamp it down and disconnect from it, believing it to be bad or wrong or simply too powerful and out-of-control.
But the truth of our existence is that there are many things worth being angry about. There is a sharp clarity that can be felt when anger that is absolutely necessary and warranted is actually expressed instead of repressed. There is an undeniable rightness to the fight, when lying down is the the more harmful behavior.
My sense of calm and energized certainty were all the indicators I needed.
The worst part of all of this, though, is that my experience is not even nearly as bad as it can get. Sexual trauma can be and is so much more depraved or sustained in so many scenarios. All I can do is offer up my fight in dedication to healing the collective wound, and reiterate this truth I had to find for myself:
It is not your fault.
Say it over and over again until it starts to edge its way in, until that voice becomes louder than the voice of your perpetrator. Remember that the offenders are only acting like nothing is wrong because they’re afraid of being caught.
In the fragile time of healing, get as far as possible from those who try to diminish or downplay, or who wish to make you feel like you’re overreacting. Only you are sovereign over the truth of your experience.
Speak to a professional (more than one or two times). Find a tree, rest your back against it, put your hands to the earth, and breathe deep.
And know that you are not alone.