I thought speaking about my rape was enough to help other survivors realize they weren’t alone. If I talked about what happened to me, I might be able to show how rape destroys lives and provide entry into its aftermath and healing process.
But after spending months researching survivor narratives for an upcoming book, I’m reminded that talking about rape isn’t enough to build understanding of its power—especially if no one is really listening.
My own story began in May of 2004, when I was forced into an empty bathroom at a Boston nightclub by one of the doormen. This reliving is evidence that what doesn’t kill me doesn’t kill me. What doesn’t kill me leaves me to figure out why it didn’t kill me.
What’s left are more questions than answers: Whom could I tell? Who would believe me if I spoke? Who would understand? What if they didn’t understand? What would they say if they didn’t understand?
Both my own testimony and the survivor accounts I’m gathering are reflective of the tapestry traumas like rape weaves. Its stitches are inaudible, often colored with images we cannot verbalize to any one listener. As a result of this tapestry, survivors are caught between the desire to retell their story and the fear of retelling their story to a listener who doesn’t acknowledge their horror.
This in between is familiar. I wasn’t able to talk about my own rape for ten years. Perhaps my inability to speak was directed by my rapist’s call to action early on. When he pinned me against the bathroom stall, he leaned into my ear and said, “Be quiet. Stop crying.” At that moment, he became the only person to know exactly what I went through.
For what seemed like years, I pressed my lips together letting some air hiss past. At that instant, I swam deep inside the black hole of trauma, engulfed by my present and at the same time, promising to omit it. What was left was stillness, unmoving.
But silence came at a price. I felt the crushing guilt that my silence would allow my rapist to commit the same act of devastation against someone new. By not reporting him to the police, I was responsible for the next person’s pain. Though, I wasn’t alone in my reserve. According to RAINN, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. While this statistic isn’t supposed to support why I didn’t speak, it does show how silence plays a role in hiding suffering.
Some of the reasons RAINN notes as to why some people don’t report rape are to protect the household or victim from further crimes by the offender and to stop the incident or prevent recurrence or escalation. But one of the reasons I didn’t report my rape was because I had no idea what to do. I was in my early twenties, and overawed by what happened—with no understanding of how to use my immediate resources like hotlines and hospitals.
I believed I was alone, like another gear in the silence machine, in the turn of admitting rapists, abusers and sexual assailants to continue their destruction—and so I remained quiet, both in my horror of no one understanding what I’d gone through and in my guilt of allowing a rapist to persist.
It became grotesquely clear that silence was the language linked with my survival. This language represented the hole in memory rather than the grammar and terminologies of ordinary life. There was a risk in the retelling, of reliving a trauma that some people might not believe or understand.
This struggle with retelling is so heartbreakingly told in the poem “Incomplete Examination,” by Frances Driscoll, author of the Rape Poems, where she describes her post-rape physical examination “inch by inch.” She writes, “I cannot connect bruises with what happened/and I cannot talk anymore.” This difficulty with applying a name to the injuries derives from the inability to put rape into an experience of language for fear of breaking, oneself. The very act of speaking can re-traumatize, putting the survivor at greater risk if the retelling is not grounded in trust, in empathy by the listener.
I realize now I didn’t trust any one listener. And sometimes I still don’t. Survivors require the listener to work hard to hear their silence, to listen to its mysteries and holes. The listener must act as both explorer and guide. Even in moments of confusion or uncertainty, the listener must address the experience with reverence and learn how to wait.
But waiting isn’t an option in our society. I saw how hungry the media was for stories from survivors of rape, school shootings and historical horror. And maybe that’s because we, as a country, as a society are hungry to understand. We all want to know Why and How. But in that desire to know, we must make sure we are as committed to the hearing as the survivor is to the retelling. This journey cannot be returned from or paused, but moves between the relationships of one respecting the victim’s victimization, bringing forth the notion that no one should have to go through such terror alone. The listener must help in the act of record making, which acknowledges the atrocity.
And some more recent examples of news coverage veils violence in language more suitable for the heart. For example, rather than using the word rape in the headlines, some media substituted it with assault, thereby diminishing the assailants’ offenses. The use of this language is evident in articles recognizing the Bill Cosby verdict and the Harvey Weinstein allegations. The word rape has become an interchangeable part of our language. Not naming its horror will allow men like Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Harvey Weinstein re-entry into the communities and lives they devastated. It’s likely this re-entry will come “at someone else’s expense,” as Katie J. M. Baker wrote in The New York Times.
While #MeToo has encouraged survivors to speak out against rape, assault and harassment, these acts of violence will not disappear at the hands of a movement. Unless there are listeners that share in their testimony, and acknowledge—as Dr. Dori Laub, author of Testimony, says—the “occurrence of an event that does not end,” and that, more importantly, “[the] act of telling might itself become severely traumatizing if the price of speaking is re-living; not relief.”
The danger and fear in retelling the trauma is that the survivor might not be heard, the listener may not provide the survivor with the respect and attention deserved. In retelling there is a certain amount of reliving taking place, especially when speaking requires some explanation of the experience. “[Re-experiencing] the event itself” can be re-traumatizing and humiliating if a true listener is not found,” Laub observed. Such inactive listening or passive listening like so many of us, including myself, do on social media leads rape survivors toward re-experience and therefore re-traumatizing.
At of the risk of re-traumatization, silence was a language of comfort, its semantics quiet and wordless. There was no need to make sentences, to make sense. I left behind the terror of having to look at myself in relation to rape, to declare how it consumed me. Because once the silence finds a listener who acknowledges its actuality than the real work of healing begins.
Choosing to speak would mean I’d have to be ready to use the words I and rape in the same line. Both words would have to co-exist, meet each other in their foreignness and familiarity. Instead, I encountered silence in anxiety attacks, depression and flashbacks. I replayed my rape in the privacy of my dreams, and I could feel his rough hands brush my skin to my bones.
In one repeated nightmare I wake up alone in the bathroom stall of the nightclub, and all I can see underneath the space between the stall door and the floor are my rapist’s bare feet. He doesn’t move and waits for me to come out. My mother is at home, and I call to her. My father is at home, and I call to him. My sister is at home, and I call to her. No one can hear me. I sit on the toilet seat and wait for him to go away. I don’t say anything. All I can see and hear through a crack in the door is my doctor’s face. He is yelling at me and holding a vaginal clamp.
This silence released me from the burden of having to say the unsayable. It was a familiar and comfortable paradox. By not speaking I would mark rape’s absence, thereby encouraging my rapist’s behavior, allowing him to hurt more people. And if I spoke, he remained a constant presence, a reminder of the damage done.
Poet Li-Young Lee compares this duality of presence and absence to breathing. The inhalation signals presence. Oxygen spreads to the lungs and bloodstream, nourishing the bones, cells and skin. Life is the intake of breath. The exhalation manifests an absence or a silence, but still, there is life. Upon inhalation, dialogue terminates and communication stops. And on the exhalation language is regained, but nutrients exit the body, the organs weaken, the lungs lessen in size. Lee describes this as “dying breath.” So when I speak, I’m using dying breath. My meaning grows in opposite parts to my presence and absence, to my life and death, to my silence and speech.
Thirteen years ago I was raped. It’s been 10 years since I’ve actively spoken about that night in Boston. I know now that when I break my silence, I’m shattering the boundary suffering has imposed on me.
After the break, a new language emerges—one that enables me to communicate my trauma at its most naked and afraid and allows me to remake my place in the world from the noise of my pain.