Sexual assault is not a singular moment. The trauma lingers long after the crime ends.
We see this in the cases of E. Jean Carroll and Summer Zervos—both suing President Trump for defamation in response to his labeling them liars after they accused him of sexual predation. And actress Rose McGowan who, among dozens of other women, is currently suing film producer Harvey Weinstein for similar offenses.
We know about Carroll, Zervos and McGowan because their crises are splashed across headlines. But thousands of women struggle in private with symptoms such as addiction, depression, self-harm and many others. My own rape and subsequent anxieties are so closely entwined, they can’t be separated.
The night it happened, I was seventeen. The breeze blended with the scent of the Jersey shore: saltwater taffy and summer restlessness. I sat on a bench on the boardwalk, music drifting from the carousel. I don’t know why I left that safe harbor of nighttime crowds to stroll the beach. Danger was what I found—or it found me—as I walked the shoreline and a knife-thin man emerged from the shadows beneath the boardwalk. He grabbed me, ripped my pedal pushers, raped me. He left me alive, at least. Alive and alone.
But not alone. Later I discovered he’d left me pregnant.
That night, no one even knew I’d borrowed one of my parents’ cars and driven, for the fun of it, from our suburban home in Glen Rock to our beach cottage. My parents were vacationing; my older sister away at college.
A few weeks later, back home, while my parents slept, I stumbled, in pain, to the bathroom. A rush of clotted blood curdled into the toilet.
Disgraced and confused, I told no one. I believed if I confided in someone I’d be shunned. Wrapped in secrecy, I felt responsible: I hadn’t fought off the man, hadn’t screamed. I’d felt paralyzed. Surely I was also responsible for shedding what wasn’t quite a baby. Not that I wanted it. But in my solitude and youthful incomprehension, I was terrified by a body—my body—which destroyed it.
That autumn I left for college. In my new life, I thought I’d forget what happened. I didn’t. Shameful memories lingered even after I married and divorced, twice. I told neither husband. I was sure they’d be repulsed by the true “me.” I couldn’t reveal my real reason for never wanting children. I couldn’t fathom that my womb had held both incipient life and premature death.
But the longer my silence lasted, the louder it became.
Finally, more than three decades after that night, I found a therapist in whom to confide. In the safety of his office, the pain flooded out of me. “None of this was your fault,” the therapist said. He assured me that the man under the boardwalk was evil. “Sadly,” he said, “evil is not uncommon.”
Rape, miscarriage, as well as the aftereffects, plague many women. Every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Approximately half of all fertilized eggs spontaneously die. And a December 2019 study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology finds that a significant proportion of “women experience high levels of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and depression after early pregnancy loss.”
While my embryonic mass of cells never had a heartbeat, I, after the attack, thankfully still had one—but I was too emotionally lost to feel it.
After months of therapy, I finally accepted that women lose fetuses under many circumstances. Maybe I was too young. Maybe that minuscule dot of contemplated life was merely unviable. All that matters, in the end, is what I decide about my narrative, slowly gaining wisdom to accept the reality of what happened. Had I known this then, I would have called the police, gone to the emergency room. That pale man under the boardwalk, though not infamously in the headlines, might have been caught.
But maybe I was smart not to speak out. A December 2018 New York Times op-ed states, “Women who have miscarriages or stillbirths have been detained and jailed for a variety of crimes, including murder.” Take the case of Bei Bei, a documentary about a Chinese immigrant named Bei Bei Shuai who in 2011 was charged with murder and attempted feticide in Indiana after a suicide attempt in which she survived, but the fetus died. Instead of receiving medical attention and psychiatric care, Shuai served 178 days in jail.
But now, because of the #MeToo movement, I’m compelled to speak against misogynistic legislation being introduced around the country. In Pennsylvania, a proposed bill would “require burials and … death certificates for ‘fetal remains,’ which includes fertilized eggs that never implanted in a person’s uterus.”
And during the 2016 elections, Congressman Todd Akin, running for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, infamously said that in the case of “legitimate rape the female body has ways to shut that thing down” so pregnancy won’t occur.
It does occur. Its devastation reverberates. After the miscarriage that night in the bathroom, I opened a bottle. I swallowed pills to numb pain and fear. I don’t remember how long I slept. When I awoke, I felt hollow. Even though I didn’t want a baby under such circumstances, I was confused by its loss.
But at least I didn’t lose myself. I thank women like Carroll, Zervos and McGowan, like Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford, who trust their power enough to confront powerful men. I, along with many others, vow not to be silent again—whether the man harming me wields a knife or a gavel. My life is too precious; I’ve fought too hard to save it.