About a dozen community members took to the Majestic Theatre stage on Nov. 9 to share their experiences of sexual assault. Last week, three survivors who participated in the “Voices in the Crowd” event agreed to publish their stories.
Please read the passages below, and visit the Rape Crisis Center website to learn how you and your family and friends can get support or get involved.
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
— Patrick Rothfuss, “The Name of the Wind”
For 18 years the story that I told myself — the story I used to build myself — was a lie. It was a story about a girl who had never been raped. It was a story I didn’t always like, about a girl who made some spectacularly bad choices but at least she was the one making the choices. That part I liked. I told that story so well and so often that it became my truth. I made myself into a girl who made bad choices, thereby creating a very believable story. The present justifying the past.
I never talked about what happened to me. Ever. Not to my mother, or my sister, or my best friend. Not even to myself.
Fast forward. I survive being a teenager who makes bad choices. I avoid any serious consequences for my behavior thanks to the privilege I was born into plus a generous serving of dumb luck. I grow up and I make some really excellent choices. I marry a good man. We have beautiful children. I am happy. See me: Drinking coffee in the silent morning before anyone else is awake, with my phone in hand, scrolling through Facebook. That’s when I first see #metoo. Remember how you only see “#metoo” and then the “…” unless you click the status? So it rolls past my eyes once, twice, I forget how many times before I get curious enough to click. And then I know what we are all chiming in about.
I don’t hesitate before I change my status. Of course #metoo. I’m a woman in my 30s. I could tell you #metoo stories for hours. Me too I’m 13 when the old guy outside Sunshine Daydream on State Street tells me I “look like I’d be good at sucking cock.” Me too I’m 14 and the boy who sits next to me on the school bus is always masturbating. Me too I’m 19 and breaking up with my boyfriend. He says I owe it to him. Goodbye sex. I think maybe I do, but then I cry the whole time he’s inside me. Me too learning to cross the street to avoid passing too close to strange men. Me too carrying my keys between my knuckles like Wolverine’s blades. All of this is in my head while I type #metoo. But not this: I was raped. It’s buried so deep I don’t see it even when I’m looking.
But then I start to. Over the next few days every time I’m online another woman I know adds her voice and her story to this mountain and it feels like a door that’s been locked forever is creaking open. Like their voices are shining a light into this dark place inside me. I don’t like it. I can feel this buried secret wiggling its way toward my surface like something dead that won’t stay still. It’s disrupting my story and misaligning my truths. One night I think “I was raped” and it might be the first time I thought those words.
I know it’s the first time I say them out loud. The next night, lying in the dark with my husband: “I didn’t know this was going to be so hard,” I tell him. “I didn’t know I was going to cry.” I thought I could just let it out, casual-like, no big deal, it happened a long time ago… but instead I’m crumbling. My story is crumbling. I have to build myself again. With this new piece. I keep looking at it but I kept it in the dark for so long, my memories are all dirty. I can’t see anything clearly.
Things I can remember: My friend Mary’s house. A sleepover party, though not the kind my parents thought. Wine coolers. Curling up in a corner. Feeling like I couldn’t move. Thinking “I thought it would hurt more.”
Things I can’t remember: Was it a dare? I think so. But I don’t really know. Can’t remember if I ever knew his name, or whether there were really other people there in the room when it happened. How do you forget being raped?
I can’t remember but I can’t leave it alone either. Like a sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue. It’s like I dug up a corpse, a putrescent bloated rotting corpse and now it’s just left there, in my mind, and I don’t know how to get rid of it. It won’t be re-buried.
I was raped.
It feels like a chunk of vomit stuck halfway down my throat. I’m hoping that the more times I say it, the easier it will get to swallow. That’s what I’m doing here.
Visit the Rape Crisis Center website to get support or get involved.
This word, trigger, keeps spinning around me.
It grabs at my heart, squeezes it… tightly… so hard.
It feels like I can’t breathe. I gasp for some air, steady myself, move on with my day.
My brain grapples and spins with thoughts, words and questions. I’m trying to understand. My brain is so tired from trying to understand.
It’s usually an article. No, not even… it’s the title of the article.
I don’t dare read it. Please, I beg of myself, keep scrolling. But there is another post from a sister who is also triggered by the same story.
I can tell by her anger.
I can tell by her tone.
I can tell.
I want to be there for her; holding her hand.
So, I like. I comment. I send a heart.
I’m here. I see you. I hear you. I feel you. I am you.
And then I crumble.
Even that moment of solidarity, crumbles me.
Please don’t lean on me.
I can hold your hand but don’t lean on me because I. can barely. hold. myself. up.
I’m triggered and teetering between those spaces… all those spaces.
But I need to read her words so I find a place by myself and I read her story. I sit in the dark with her and I’m no longer triggered, because I’m done.
I’m done. It’s over. I’m there.
Reliving it. Remembering it. All of it.
I see her in all the ways she NEVER wanted anyone to see her. I see me in all the ways I can’t bear to imagine anyone seeing me.
What’s her name? I don’t need to know her name. She is me. I am her.
We are one and the same.
Her strength and courage astounds me. She doesn’t want my admiration.
And I fall into a different kind of trigger.
She is braver than I am. I didn’t press charges. I didn’t even report it.
Comparisons. Guilt. Shame.
It was so long ago that I was assaulted, drugged and raped and yet here it is… here it is all over again. I want to be angry at him and him and him, and at the rape culture we live in, but I’m not… not now in this moment. Here, in my car, alone, I’m questioning why I didn’t do what the brave women do. I’m in a puddle of guilt and shame.
I want to post the statistics… all the numbers of women assaulted, raped and now forever triggered. But the numbers lie, because there are so many, like me, that aren’t accounted for. I want to post a piece about white privilege and the Brock Turners. And ways we need to parent boys differently. And the fucked up value we place on male athletes. I want to shine a light on all of it. But my brain can’t because my heart is broken.
I’m trying to avoid the triggers.
I’m trying to reach out to those that get it so I don’t feel all alone.
But I’m sitting in my car, alone, scared and weak.
I want to be strong and brave. I want to be a fighter but I’m broken. Still. So. Broken. So many years later.
It’s okay. I find the gentle, loving space and I rest there.
Take care of you, Sara. Take care of you and the rest will melt away.
There are moments to fight, to speak my truth, to stand tall in my power. There are times for me to roar with all my courage and determined desire for justice. And there are times to be gentle, tender and tearful with my precious, precious heart.
It is not either/or. I am not brave or broken.
I am both.
I am not a survivor or a victim.
I am both.
I am not suffering or thriving.
I am both.
There is space for all of it as I steady myself and keep walking through the triggers.
Visit the Rape Crisis Center website to get support or get involved.
“I will not be punished for it, or be whipped, or be threatened, or not be loved, or be sent to hell to burn with bad people, believing that I am also bad.”
Those are Marilyn Monroe’s words about sexual abuse she endured at a young age. For all the quotes that people now claim do not originate from her, this particular quote was found scrawled in a personal diary she kept. Marilyn is someone I look up to, not solely because she’s glamorous or was successful in her field, but because of what she overcame — it’s a part of her story that not as many people recognize.
My name is Maria, and I am here to share with you a part of my story.
When I was 17 years old, I found myself in a relationship with a boy. Though that in itself may sound as commonplace at that age as possessing a driver’s license or having a chemistry tutor, it was, for me, still a surprise. You see, I never believed I would be able to speak those words honestly: “I have a boyfriend.”
At the impressionable age of 12 years old, I was sexually harassed by a number of my male classmates. My physical body was, apparently, more eager than I to grow up, and this was not lost on the wandering eyes of the boys I went to school with. Being the only Latina — and the darkest kid in my entire middle school at that time, in hair, skin and eyes — only exacerbated this problem. I was surrounded by whiteness and had been raised mostly as such. On top of the fact that I had realized long ago that I would never completely fit in anywhere (ah, too Hispanic for the white kids, too white for the Latino population), the very Aryan boys I attended Catholic school with at the time believed this gave them even more of an excuse to make comments about my maturing body and their supposed right to treat me not as a girl or even a person, but as a spectacle to be observed, critiqued and laughed at.
Feelings of red-cheeked embarrassment and shame ensued, feelings that prevented me from telling my family or any sort of authority figure. Compound that with the fact that many of these remarks were made over differing screen names via AOL Instant Messenger (rendering it near impossible to discern the exact number of boys taking part, and whom was saying what) and being of lower middle-class background in a school full of two-income households with two-car garages, two stories on their house, no more than two kids, and bank accounts filled with money that had been set aside, probably, since conception for college tuition, I did not believe that anyone would believe me, the outcast. None of our teachers talked much about (sexual) harassment, or for that matter about sex or many of the issues surrounding it; I graduated eighth grade not being fully sure what really went on during intercourse (“But what do they actually do?,” I was too intimidated too ask aloud). Aside from our religious-themed textbook describing the act as “a sacred union between a man and a woman, to be enjoyed during the confines of marriage,” the teachers saw fit to drill into our heads one main, definitive suggestion about sex, and it was just the opposite of the Nike slogan prevalent on the clothing of the sports-obsessed youths that surrounded me: DON’T do it.
This — the not fitting in, the sexual harassment, the feelings of anxiety and self-hatred that followed me like a pervert — was the perfect storm of events to render me vulnerable and in need of validation at 17, though I do not blame the Catholic school for what I will soon confess. I don’t even blame God, or organized religion. I do, however, hold this institution responsible for its often blatant favoritism of my whiter classmates, for teachers (particularly at the middle-school level) being unprepared to handle the situations that too often arise at the pubescent life stage, and for not preaching (much less practicing) acceptance of those less pale, blue-eyed and fortunate than oneself. I also place some amount of blame on the parents of these students, who proudly donated money to the school, whose mothers believed that their sons were “good Catholic boys,” whose fathers taught them that “boys will be boys,” not realizing that they were raising entitled, ignorant children incapable of seeing the collective harm they were causing, not just to this one Latina student but to society at large.
By 17, I’d already been battling years of an eating disorder and my own personalized techniques of self-harm; this was what all that shame and repressed self-hatred had amounted to. My starving and obsessive calorie-counting kicked into full-swing at 12. Cue anger for not losing weight during this particular period when my body was not yet finished developing. Cue me still not being able to tell anyone, cue getting angrier still, cue me taking said anger out on the only person I felt I could — myself — with manicure scissors, my own long fingernails, and various sharp edges. Then, there was 14, when I (after years of being the girl most guys would rather not dance with at school mixers) was informed that a boy I had no particular interest in, or physical attraction to, liked me. Then there was 15, when I finally felt desperate (and sufficiently peer-pressured) enough to “give the poor guy a chance” and discovered verbal, emotional and psychological abuse firsthand, which haunts me even to this day as he lies cold and still under a gravestone in Milwaukee, having ended his own life on the penultimate day of March in 2015. Cue 16, when I get asked out, for one of only two times in my life, by a boy I was actually mostly attracted to. This is the boy I give my virginity to over Memorial Day weekend in 2009, who turns out to be a compulsive liar, having me believe he was adopted, claiming he made money doing animation for the website Newgrounds, inventing friends from a previous school whom he claimed to still see (who did not, in fact, exist outside his imagination) and, in a final act that led me to walk away for the last time, proclaiming that he was an undead, blood-sucking creature, which led to him eventually being institutionalized; I never found out if he made this up to draw attention to himself, or if he truly believed that he was one. (Unrelated epilogue: He later beat up the mother he had previously claimed he had no relation to, which landed him in a juvenile detention center for a meager, measly month.)
And now, alas, we’ve arrived at 17. In this post-breakup haze, after about three months of being single, I agree to meet up with another boy from my and “K” (the liar who took my virginity)’s circle of friends. This newish boy, “R,” had attended my first high school (James Madison Memorial) prior to me transferring to my second (Madison West). I transferred because my grades were suffering (as a partial result of my latent disordered-eating and self-harming ways, not that anyone figured it out), my first abusive ex, “C,” still haunting the hallways, my difficulty making real and dependable friends, and the fact that the only class I’d been pulling an A in — Japanese — was taught at West. After a year (sophomore) of leaving fifth-period 10 minutes early and being driven to West at the end of the school day for this particular language lesson, it was decided that I might as well transfer to West full-time. It was believed that being in a new environment, which offered the one class I actually liked, would inspire me to bring my entire grade point average up and in turn help the rest of my high school (and eventually, they hoped, college) career.
R, however, was not presented with this opportunity. Rather than transferring to another public-but-still-passable high school, he was put in the Operation Fresh Start program for troubled young men (a.k.a. very bad boys, though my own background taught me not to judge most anyone). Not being educated in the same fashion, R and I only had occasion to see each other during school hours if he came to meet me on my lunch period, which he agreed to try to do once a week. We had been dating for about two of these weeks when R arrived one October afternoon in the company of boys from said social circle, in various stages of disheveled THC absorption (the fact that I didn’t smoke weed or experiment with various illegal hallucinogens had already started to bother him). They waved at me, calling my name. R was here! What other way did I have to see him?
The Boys wanted something to eat, but R was quick to hint that he’d prefer to be alone with me. There were a few chuckles and elbows to ribs; literal ribbing at the thought of what he and I could do if given this opportunity — or, as I look back on it, thoughts of what I could do for him. The Boys agreed, getting his male meaning, and went on their merry way. R and I ended up alone at Hoyt Park, the unimpressive stretch of grass, graffiti’d shelters and approximately eight trees not far from West High School. This was my first time at the park, and I was silently unimpressed, though my standards were hardly high. We weren’t really here to bask in the glory of nature, I reckoned. We were here, I thought, to talk privately, to hold hands and maybe make out a little. But nothing beyond that, I assumed; this wasn’t the time or the place.
There was an almost radioactive silence that permeated the park that afternoon. Having not been back since, I am unsure if it is this quiet all the time or if it was just that isolated autumn day.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked, thinking of the shelter area; they had picnic tables reminiscent of Westmorland Park, where we had our first unofficial date at the end of September.
“Let’s go to the woods,” he decreed.
“Why not the shelters? It’s warmer. And we can sit…”
“I want to see nature,” he joked, so I obliged.
Within the aforementioned eight or so trees he’d deemed “the woods,” he pulled my body against his suddenly and started to kiss me. I pulled away for a minute.
“Hey. Can’t we just talk, for a second? This is a little sudden. I mean, I haven’t seen you in like a week…” I admit.
“But I’ve been thinking about you,” he said quietly, pulling me back in. “I’ve been thinking about how much I love you, and—“
“Love?” I ask. “Did you just say… you love me?”
He cast his eyes down; he would not look directly at me for this confession.
“I hadn’t meant to tell you that. But the thing is, I really do.”
My inevitable question slips out, a question I have asked every boy who claims to even like me, or call me pretty, because ever since I was asked out as a joke in seventh grade, I am paranoid that every interaction I have with the male species is one big fat joke:
“Are you just saying that?”
“No. I do love you, Maria.”
“Oh… I just, I wasn’t expecting that,” I hear myself stammer, thinking, It’s been two weeks. This can’t really be possible, can it? Even my 17-year-old self was skeptical at this point, not just because of my tendency to think men could never possibly care for or be attracted to me (though that was, admittedly, part of it) but because, to quote an old Mariah Carey song, love takes time.
His mouth is on me again. For a few minutes, I do my best to kiss, not think, which my now-25-year-old self would not advise any teenager to do. Soon he ends up with his back against a tree, and pauses to whisper a request in my ear.
He repeats it, and even though I can’t see my own face, I know I don’t look any more enthusiastic than I did the first time he brought it up. “Please?” he tries to tease.
“I just… I’m not really… I don’t want to do that here. I mean, we’re outside.”
“Anybody could just walk by and see,” I reason.
“Who cares?” he laughs, and puts his hand around my waist. “We’ll let them see.”
I wonder if he thinks that’s romantic, but I don’t. Not with what he asked.
I hear my voice take on a more pleading tone. “I don’t really… I mean, I’m not into that idea. It’s just not me.”
He says something lame like, “Come on. It can be quick. I really want this,” and puts his hands on me in a more invasive way.
“Forceful” is the word that I’ll always remember him by.
I remember that I ended up on the ground, in the dirt, among the leaves, and one small part of me prayed: Please don’t let my nice dress get ruined. I was wearing an old-new Little Red Dress — the victim-blamers out there are probably yelling, “Why’d you dress like that? No mini-dresses! No red! What was he supposed to think?” but it wouldn’t have mattered to him what I wore, which I’d later discover when he’d ask me to dress more “normal” — that I’d picked up at the Westmorland neighborhood garage sale, which I knew by its label came from a fancy boutique in L.A, the only one of its kind. I’d read about the boutique in my various collection of Rich Girl YA novels (such as The A-List, a personal favorite) and didn’t want dirt embedded forever into the dress. As it turns out, what stained my pretty new dress that day would be easier to treat than what was happening to me: my body, my being, my heart.
I tried to move, to make myself more comfortable, but R didn’t care about my comfort. He positioned me in a way so that I could not move properly; I had to be on the ground, and I had to perform the way he wanted me to.
That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the specifics of the physicality of it all. I could say more — it has certainly never faded from my mind — but as candid as I can be, at this time in my life, I don’t want to say more. Frankly I still feel shame, though I am less self-loathing than I used to be. I don’t want people to have this image of me in their heads, doing exactly what I was doing; I don’t think they need to imagine it exactly either. Let me also take this moment to say that I would never wish to detract from the method any other survivor may use to tell their own story; as survivors, we have experienced situations where we didn’t have bodily autonomy, so I feel that the decision to tell our stories in as much detail as we see fit should remain our own. I, however, choose to reveal this certain amount. I think you get the picture, because all of these are facts: He wanted me to do something sexual. I did not care to oblige. I informed him of this. He did not care. He held me down so I could not move. He had at least 50 pounds on me. That is what happened.
While this was going on, my mind tried desperately to do what my body could not: escape. I knew that if I truly thought about what I was being made to do, I could shatter; I felt broken enough as it was. Simply put: I didn’t want to hurt more.
I wasn’t thinking about desire, because I wasn’t feeling desire.
My mind grasped around for a distraction, and so it settled for the first random thought I could muster: my favorite pop star at that time.
Stefani Joanne Germanotta — known professionally by her stage name, Lady Gaga — was just acquiring international fame in the fall of 2009. One hit single led to another, and then came my most favorite she’d penned yet: “Paparazzi.” I’d seen the music video on YouTube during its pre-Vevo distribution and was awestruck. In eight minutes, Gaga gets pushed out a window by her boyfriend during an argument, is presumed dead on the scene the second she lands on the ground, gets photographed mercilessly in a dehumanizing position, shocks the pundits by learning to walk again in a bedazzled outfit with a team of dancers assisting her, rebounds with a trio of rock stars, dons a fabulous Minnie Mouse costume that includes an oversized cocktail ring, opens up the ring to put poison in her violent ex-boyfriend’s drink, and turns herself in via confessional 911 phone call. After she is carted off to prison, she turns her mug shot into a femme fatale photo shoot, her star restored, the celebrity rags proclaiming, “She’s innocent!”
The video, having recently gained popularity and views, was fresh in my mind. No, not because she killed her boyfriend; I didn’t want to hurt R, even if he was hurting me. I just wanted in those moments to be away from him. Moreover, I wanted this whole incident to disappear, never to have happened in the first place.
And while I was still on the ground, my legs aching in their uncomfortable position, my breathing labored, I chose to think about how much I wanted to be like Gaga. Yes, she had eye-popping costumes and imagery. Yes, she was famed and acclaimed. Yes, she had a good singing voice (something I’ve always envied) and wrote catchy pop tunes with hidden meanings. But in those minutes I spent dominated in the dirt, I realized the root of why I admired her so much: It was because of her freedom. Yes, she was a pop star, bound to a contract with a well-known record label. Yes, she’d dyed her hair blonde. But to me, she was still in control. The impression she gave was that she did whatever the fuck she wanted. At the end of the day, she was in charge of her own image. Even if she was mistreated — abused, even — by a man in her video, she ended the video by rising to the top.
I could not fight off the feeling that I had let myself down. Would my new favorite pop star have tolerated this? What was she doing right now? Fighting for the album cover she wanted in a meeting with execs? Filming her next viral video? Resting at the Ritz? I wanted her power. What I wanted more than anything — more even than to be loved by a man — was to grow up and be somebody that people looked up to. I had no idea how I would do it (and I wasn’t especially interested in doing it the Kardashian way) because I couldn’t sing or play music, but I wanted to be someone who moved people with something I put out artistically. I wanted people all across the nation (maybe someday, the world) to look up at and to me and say, “She’s doing things that no one else is doing right now” or be excited about what my next project would be. I wanted, actually, to model and act, but I was a fully-grown 5-foot-4 female who was neither stick thin — in spite of my middle school wishes — nor plus-sized (the latter of which is a term agencies and fashion houses may employ just one token model of, so they can pat themselves on the back and be labeled “inclusive” rather than actually catering to the needs of real plus-sized women, neglecting the fact that there are many more plus-sized women in the population than the sole model they hired) and I knew the odds. These odds did not lessen my desire for that level of influence through creative means.
When R felt sufficiently satisfied for the day, he let go of me, awkwardly zipping up his pants. After a few half-assed attempts at trying to cheer me up (having pretended not to notice how distraught I was until after the fact), he looked right at me this time and said the three little words that I have never heard from a man in my adult life, and, I learned too late, meant less than nothing coming from his filthy mouth:
“I love you.”
I was shaken now. What had he done? What had I done? This was all new, and look what had already happened. There was no taking it back. Was this supposed to be normal? After a beat of stiff silence, I respond in a mechanical voice the only words I can think of to say. What does it matter now if I mean or feel them? He got what he wanted, right?
“Uh, oh. I, I love you too.”
The last question in my mind was: Who could love me now?
And after all of this, I walk back to school — just business as usual, right? — to attend afternoon classes I will be unable to focus on and, in the future, completely unable to recall one single memory of, which is saying something coming from someone with self-diagnosed hyperthymesia.
Days later, I open up to a mutual friend of mine and R’s a makeshift attempted therapy session that ends abruptly when I am interrupted by this particular male so that he can say, “Well I mean, as a guy, in his defense, it had probably been a while…” his voice trails off. Since he got any, were the words I know he intended to complete the sentence. I tune him out after that and decide not to tell anyone for at least a year, until I tell a different friend whose first word in their response is “Gross!” Then I decide to not tell anyone else for a few more years.
Most of the world, including myself as a fan, was unaware back in that fall of 2009 that Stefani Germanotta, known, loved and hated as Lady Gaga, was sexually assaulted herself. Nobody knew that she would go on to record a song called “Til It Happens to You” — for the documentary film The Hunting Ground, which is about campus rape and the universities that would prefer to keep up appearances and do little to combat this problem, ignoring and neglecting their victims safety, health and general well-being. My mother did not know as she watched the 2016 Oscars with me, where Gaga performed this song live and was joined by a chorus of survivors, nor did she know what happened at Hoyt Park in 2009. I did my best to not let her see the hot tears that streamed involuntarily down my face as I watched that performance. I wonder now if I would have been less ashamed that day in 2009 if I knew that Gaga, the person I chose to think about in those moments I was being violated outdoors in a public setting, had once faced something similar. Madonna, too. Marilyn, my current favorite picture of glamour and mystique, was abused as a child. How countless women I know, more coming forward each day — and countless women I don’t, and let’s not forget the men too — have been forced or coerced or taken against their will. Would it have lessened my shame?
I am here to tell you that I am one more. I may not have a man in my life who loves me, and honestly, after what I have been put through at the hands and mouths of men, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that I ever will, though the majority of my exes have done a bang-up job of showing me everything that love is not. I have much to do in my life, but perhaps that’s the reason I chose not to do what my first abusive ex, C, did to himself that ended with his current residence in a cemetery. Even on the days and nights I most wanted to end it all, I resisted. I still am not a great vocalist, and I never did pick up the electric guitar I set down in 2007. In a social scene full of musicians, I am not one. I haven’t finished everything I need to do, but I am telling my true stories, and have been for the last year-and-a-half.
Perhaps that is why I’m still here.
Visit the Rape Crisis Center website to get support or get involved.