In an effort to relieve the misplaced shame many sexual assault survivors carry, Betty’s Battleground is dedicating the month of November 2017 to sexual assault and rape awareness. I began the series with a post about the psychological impact of being raped and how you can help a loved one who has been raped. For the second post of the series, I bring a guest post by one of my grad school cohorts, Zoe Azrael. Part of the Healing Words series, it discusses her experiences with sexual assault as a youth, the shame she experienced as a result, and how she has intentionally reclaimed ownership of her mind and body since.
Once you’re done reading Zoe’s story–and please do read Zoe’s story, it will be your loss if you don’t–I hope you’ll come back and check out my latest on Vice. This one is also about the way women’s bodies are hijacked and controlled, but this time it takes place in prison and it’s government officials who are doing a legally sanctioned version of bodily hijacking. Read “Another Way Prisons Treat Pregnant Women Like Shit” on Tonic/VICE.
Zoe Azrael holds an MA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville and an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University. Mountains make her feel alive.
Reclamation: This Is My Body. I Live Here.
Here is my shame.
I’ll say it.
What I left out when I told the therapists what happened.
& leaving it out seemed to make any healing false, because I felt like a fraud.
What I never told anyone ever because I felt too embarrassed–too weak.
He was younger than me.
How can you be molested by someone younger than you?
….all those stories about girls being abused by older boys, men, fathers, uncles, teachers, pastors…it was always so clear to me that those girls were victims. That they had no choice & no power in the situation & that they have nothing to be ashamed of. They could be free of guilt. Free of blame. Innocent. What happened, happened to them, outside of their control.
I thought. it must be so easy to forgive yourself when you were hurt by someone older, someone stronger, someone who should have known better.
I don’t know if this is actually true or not.
It’s just one of those thoughts I have used to hurt myself through the years.
…He was named after a man in the Bible who was strong, who was close to God. Who cared about doing the right thing.
His name means ”Gift of the Lord.”
We’ll call him Matthew.
To protect him, still.
He was a year younger than me. An all-American boy. Traditionally handsome. Popular. Soccer and cross-country star. Sandy blonde hair & fierce green eyes. Other girls had crushes on him. I’m sure other girls would have let him touch them willingly.
I was so skinny, so quiet.
Already knew how to keep dark secrets–my family had taught me well.
Maybe he could see that in me.
I had internalized the rule of obedience and silence that had been taught to me from such a young age by my father, my family, the church.
I was like a living doll.
A body inhabited by a soul who would not speak.
I was very afraid of my father, & afraid of hell.
Maybe I already wore too much eyeliner.
I can’t quite remember.
I can’t quite remember when it started. Or how long it lasted. Months or years.
That might sound strange but time is strange and this isn’t the only horrible thing that was happening at the time. It wasn’t the only trauma but one in a sea of others all happening around the same time–so impossible to untangle. Once you are a victim the first time it’s as if you have been marked and all predators now flock to you. All of high school feels like a blurry bad dream when I try to recollect it now.
It always felt like winter.
I know that it couldn’t have always been winter, but that’s how I remember it.
We carpooled together to highschool, almost an hour away.
When he wormed his fingers up my skirt I turned towards the window & cried very quietly.
Should I have screamed?
I could see my father’s face in the rear-view mirror while it happened.
I think I was more afraid of my father & what he would do than I was of anything else that might happen.
I’m still not sure if I was protecting that boy from my father’s wrath & insanity by keeping so quiet, so still. Or maybe I it was my father I was trying to protect.
I had never been touched there before.
Barely been kissed.
I was what they called “a good girl.”
Never drank or smoked or took drugs of any kind ever.
I wanted to go to Heaven.
I wanted to be so pure.
My first sexual experience was that boy prying under my skirt on the way to school while my father drove us. I felt so humiliated. So ashamed.
I became haunted by the way he put his finger to his lips & smiled a Cheshire smile before running off with his backpack & hard-on.
I don’t know if he had ever touched anyone before–if I was his first too.
I don’t know if my younger sister saw, sitting beside us.
After months or years I heard my father screaming on the phone downstairs: “You are going to JAIL, young man!! Do you understand?! JAIL!!”
I don’t know how my father found out, but he did–he always found out about everything.
While my father was screaming on the phone my little sister was reading a book in her room.
I crawled into her bed, burrowed under the covers and curled up by her feet.
She kept on reading as my father burst into the room, wildly dug me from beneath the covers, kissed my forehead & cheeks frantically, repeating, “You didn’t do anything wrong. Except that you should have told me.”
The next day, my father met with the principal of the private Lutheran school we all went to together. They sent me an e-mail saying, “we have chosen to forgive this boy in the name of the Lord, as Christ has forgiven us. Allelujah! Amen.”
It was never spoken of again.
We quit carpooling, & the boy & I avoided each other at school, cross-country trips, & Youth Group.
For the months or years it happened, it didn’t happen every day.
I tried to avoid him–stopped wearing skirts and always tried to choose seats between other bodies or another body and the window.
But he was very clever and it did happen often–perhaps most days.
Sometimes it happened other places besides the car.
Once with another boy, at a Youth Group night in the church basement. They sat on either side of me in the dark while a movie played. Teachers & pastors & other kids all around us. They held my legs down firmly, one hand on each thigh. I could have screamed but it seems I had lost my voice, as if I were in a very bad dream. How did they know I would be too afraid to tell on them?
After it was over I locked myself in the cafeteria, crying violently on the floor, & cut myself up with a sharpened meat cleaver.
The other boy ended up apologizing to me later that night, outside in the dark.
His eyes looked scared. & troubled. & really sorry.
Matt never did apologize to me.
Once he sent me a Friend Request on Facebook.
“But we aren’t friends,” I thought. We never were.
I blocked his account.
Wondered what he thought about what had happened.
“She liked it. She wanted it.” He told my father, & the principal. Maybe the police.
Sometimes I would torture myself with guilt wondering if I did want it. If I had made it happen. Had I flirted with him? Led him on?
It is true that he was traditionally handsome.
But I wasn’t ready.
Not for him or for anyone.
I hardly knew him.
It wasn’t how I wanted it to happen–being touched.
I wondered if I was bad.
A sinner. Was he God’s punishment to me for my dirty heart?
For over 10 years I have been haunted by the feeling that it wasn’t enough.
Enough for what?
Enough to admit it was abuse?
Enough to accept compassion or empathy from others?
To forgive myself?
It was clearly unconsensual. It was painful & traumatic & it affected my mind & heart deeply. It affected my worldview about men in a negative way & caused me to feel suspicious & mistrustful of nearly ever male person in my life, especially the ones I loved the most. It is sad to me the way I drove gentle and good male lovers into madness, broke their hearts & drove them away with my ideas about what I thought they wanted, what I thought they would do to any girl they thought they could get away with taking advantage of.
It has an impact, to be touched for the first time as an object, with no care for your feelings what-so-ever, to be touched as selfishly & thoughtlessly as one touches a piece of furniture.
My gateway into sexuality was one wholly without intimacy or connection. I quickly associated lust with loneliness and that has had a profound effect on me.
Yes, it affected me.
…. I felt the feeling of not-enoughness every time I picked up the razor, slicing through my skin, watching the blood with eyes as cold & without mercy as his had been.
I was trying to atone for my sins–not for doing bad things but for being a bad person. “An abomination”–my father’s words.
No matter how deep the cuts were, they were not deep enough.
No matter how much blood spilled onto the floor, it was never enough for me to feel whole, to feel forgiven.
It took me years to realize that it was pretty fucked up that the boy apologized to my father, instead of to me.
I thought of the Bible verse that says that if a man rapes a young woman he must pay her father in silver, and marry her since he has defiled her. (Deuteronomy 22:39).
I feel it is important for us to say when we disagree with something we were taught our whole lives to be right, lest we unconsciously internalize it & get it confused with our own real selves.
I disagree with the idea that a woman is less than man, that she is a kind of property, that a woman is not her own.
I am my own.
My body belongs to me, not to this boy and not to my father.
It was my body that this happened to.
I’m the one who deserved an apology.
As I learned to love myself, tattoos replaced my cutting habit. Tattoos are one way I have found to reclaim my body as my own. To mark my skin as a new self inhabited, to decorate my body because it is my home.
My first tattoo was the word “innocent,” on the inside of my lip. Hidden. A secret. A reminder to myself, that only I would know was there. I still believe it.
We are all innocent. All of us.
I really do believe this.
I believe that beneath our rage there is always pain & beneath the pain there is always innocence.
What pain did Matthew have beneath his rage?
Why did he do what he did to me?
I have wondered this often.
Sometimes it was easier to have empathy for my perpetrator than for my own self.
But there is nothing left for me to forgive now.
I don’t believe in heaven or hell anymore, except in the ways we create heaven and hell in our own hearts or in the hearts of others.
It’s sort of ironic to me that my being afraid of a supernatural hell after death put me in a real tangible hell on this earth, in this life. It was indeed a hell that I went through, and though I would never recommend seeking out suffering to anyone, it is a bittersweet truth that if suffering does not destroy us, it can give us depth. I now find myself deepened by the darkness I have been through–and also having a deeper connection to the light because of the darkness I have known.
No matter what happens, I am my own friend now.
No matter what happens, I will be here for myself.
I speak up for myself the way I would speak up for a friend.
I have learned to trust myself again because I have finally earned that trust.
I have found my voice; which is to say I have finally found my power.