Last week, in response to current events too complex and heartbreaking to recount here, I added to the chain of grief and sisterhood flooding social media with stories of why we did not report our rapes to the police. Mine was four simple sentences: “Because my rapist was famous, well-respected, well-connected. Because I didn’t realize until days later that I’d been drugged. Because my own boyfriend didn’t believe me, so who else would? Because I was alone in it, and scared, and traumatized. #WhyIDidntReport”
The number and variety of accounts that poured out on various platforms was sadly no surprise to many of us. But what did surprise me was the flood of private emails I received, some I know and some who know me only through my poetry, who for various reasons felt uncomfortable sharing their stories on public platforms but now felt comfortable sharing them with me. I was honored, but I was also overwhelmed. Feeling increasingly inadequate, I answered every one.
Though the individual stories I received varied in many, heartbreaking ways, there were two overriding themes that recurred. My new correspondents often concluded by asking me if I had ever written a poem about my experience. They also frequently said that they felt comfortable writing to me because I seemed, from all external evidence, to be happy, productive, healed. So I thought this blog might be away to address those two topics.
First, yes, I did write a poem about it, and writing that poem was definitely part of my healing process. For various reasons, I decided not to publish it for many years; when the second edition of my first book, Difficult Weather, came out a few years ago, I did include it then. I had enough distance from it, and knew I could face questions from curious readers about it.
As for the second topic? Well, this is what I know. Yes, I am on the whole a happy living being, going about my writing and publishing life, maintaining a precious and deeply romantic relationship with my husband. I rarely think about my rape, which happened more than 20 years ago, unless public events force me to. But the rage and pain and sickness I felt in the wake of last week’s events awakened some sore places inside me. I am not “over” what happened to me, but it is a part of my life story now, and if that story gives others hope, then perhaps that is enough. That trauma does not define me, for we are all much, much more than the sum of our injuries and pain. If I am not completely healed, I am still healing. And that is what I wish for all of us.
Here is the poem I wrote:
You remember waiting in your friend’s boyfriend’s house
where she was supposed to meet you both for lunch
and she was late – which wasn’t unusual – so you
drank a glass of wine and then another. No more
than two. The rest comes back in bits and flashes
as though there were layers of white net thrown up
between you and what was done to you for the rest
of the afternoon. Later you realized you’d been drugged.
What you have are memories of yourself, your back
on a tree stump in some park – and still you don’t know
how you got there – and him on top of you and the bark
pressing into your spine, or a thin recollection
of standing naked in water that rose to the bones
of your ankles. Maybe there was a creek. Maybe
you screamed and no one heard you. At home
that night you know you argued with your lover, though not
about what. He said your bizarre behavior frightened him.
You slept. The next day, you threw up all morning, you found
small, unaccountable bruises dotting your thighs
and a fist-sized purple blotch at the base
of your spine. Over the next few days, more pictures
accumulated in your mind, you began to reconstruct
the events that occurred on Friday, when you went
to your friend’s boyfriend’s house to meet them
for lunch. On Monday you told your closest female friend
that you’d been raped. She believed you right away,
which helped you find the courage to tell your lover,
who didn’t at first, but thought you’d gotten drunk,
fucked someone else, and concocted this sad story
out of guilt and a need to confess. You were glad
to have bruises, then; they’re what convinced him.
But telling the story twice exhausted you
and you knew you hadn’t the strength to go through it
once more for strangers in uniform. After a month
you knew you weren’t pregnant. Then there were other things
on your mind – you got a new job, you and your lover
broke up, your mother went into the hospital – and you
were proud of yourself, getting over it all on your own.
But one morning you woke from a dream
of your friend’s boyfriend’s face in your bath,
in your closet, hovering over your body and laughing,
and this dream repeated itself, with different details,
almost every night for a week. You felt you were losing
control of your mind. So you called a number you heard
on the radio for a clinic that dealt with counseling
victims of rape. A woman’s voice asked for your story.
You said you’d rather go through this in person.
She said that to select the proper counselor for your needs
she had to know the specifics first. And so
you told her. It took twenty minutes and when
you finished you were sobbing and sweat ran
from the hand on the phone down over your wrist.
She asked for your name and address and when
you recited them, she said she was very sorry but
you lived in the wrong county for their clinic
and they couldn’t help you. She began to list
the numbers of places that could but you hung up.
You hadn’t had a chance to say what hurt you most,
which wasn’t the bruises or how sick the drug made you
or even that you knew him, called him a friend,
but that sex itself had become devalued currency
in your hands, and that of all the various ways
in which your innocence had gradually been destroyed –
family dramas, drink, betrayals, experiments with drugs –
this was the worst because you’d taken no part in it,
yet you were changed. You decided to keep quiet.
Six months went by. One night you were sitting
on your living room floor, a young man on your left,
beers in your hands. You hadn’t known him long
but you liked him. He was able to make you laugh.
You talked and listened to record after record
until the deep blue-black of the sky was touched
with pink. He got up to leave and, reaching down,
pulled you to your feet for a good-bye hug that rocked you
against him. Something about the size of his hands
or the gentle scrape of his beard against your face
made you stiffen. You cried and surprised him
by not being able to stop. He asked what was wrong.
You felt as if you were reaching very far back
for the words, for the pictures, as if he’d asked you
to tell the plot of a movie you’d seen when you were a kid.
You thought that it would be safer to make something up.
Instead you held onto his hands and began with the day
that you’d gone to your friend’s boyfriend’s house
intending to meet them both for lunch.