Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for mature content.
Note to the reader:
This is not a lighthearted work, nor one meant for entertainment. The purpose that, I hope, this fulfills, is to educate, and better yet, to inspire compassion, open-mindedness, and a will to learn by listening.
In this piece, I talk about one fictional person's experience with the world after sexual trauma, but this isn't only her story, and for that reason, she remains nameless. There may be portions of this that people with sensitive triggers may want to avoid. There is nothing graphic in this story as I believe that is dangerous in more ways than one and shows a lack of respect for trauma survivors. With that in mind, I don't recommend this story to young readers or to people with high sensitivity towards this issue. To make it easier for everyone, I've marked in brackets trigger warnings at the beginning and end of the more intense sections. The reader may use their own discretion in the decision to read these portions or not.
She remembers her life in flashes.
There are third person flashes and faded flashes and flashes she only remembers remembering at one time and now are fuzzy. The first flash, stored in the folds of her mind like a faded snapshot, is a large gazebo pushed back into the furthest corner of the city's central park, white paint peeling from its sides and moss decking the once gray roof as if the forest encroaching in close behind were trying to consume it. The impression that dark maples were leaning out and stretching their wraith-like fingers towards the gazebo's slanted peak, topped with an algae-stained white ball is left upon her memory. She doesn't recall what it means.
Tonight she is sitting at a desk hardly wider than her elbows, bent over a textbook of physics and drawing electromagnetic wave diagrams in colored pens under the harsh yellow pool of a desklamp's light in the corner of her small dorm room. Outside the door she can hear one of her roommates with her boyfriend lounged across the sunken couch and laughing at dirty jokes about a pregnant stripper told by some YouTuber pair she's never listened to. Her gut tightens, and she bends down to dig a pair of earbuds from her bookbag.
Inside her brain, there's a shoebox of two dozen snapshots with a label on the side that says "childhood" and the shoebox has been turned upside down. There's flashes of the old backyard and cardboard forts and apple blossoms on the big tree in the corner and then the blossoms littering the ground and looking brown and apples growing in their places and bees swarming the fallen fruit, which makes her think of how, still, when she comes around apple trees, she's cautious of the yellow jackets and must have been back then too. There's bike rides around the old neighborhood and an image of the view out the family's hotel room window from the time they went out east and for the first and only time since, she saw and touched the ocean, but now it's only a snapshot, half forgotten. There's one joking, two-second remark a boy in the sixth grade made to another as they were all headed in from recess up the ramp to the part-time gym, part-time cafeteria. A comment about touching cats without their consent when you pet them and that makes it molestation. There's now dead pet dogs, visits from grandparents, a moment from some bygone birthday. There's cheap bubble gum in a pink and yellow wrapper.
Yesterday she read some poems. They were short and she was through them almost before they made her heart start thudding. She read about the hot touch of a man's fingers on soft curves and about the touch of lips in ASMR detail and about a father exposing himself to his daughter on his deathbed and then she wrote a poem that mimicked the poet's rhythm even though she could have done that with any poem and it didn't have to be ones that made her heart thud and her gut tighten and a nauseous feeling climb up by her sternum as the ugliest of the polaroids were drawn up from the bottom of the disordered pile. But she wrote the poem and it was dripping with accusation, but she got all ten points. Ten points for her trauma, and a comment from the teacher applauding her dialogue with the poet for its literary merit.
There are a dozen more shoeboxes just like the one that's been tipped except that they've all been painted black on every side and stacked far back in a corner where it's too dark for her tell how many there are for sure, but she knows that inside them, each is packed from end to end in blacked out polaroids and bits of film stripped by chemicals. Pieces from her one shoebox drift into her thoughts from day to day, while she's standing in the shower, while she's washing dishes, while she's walking and has nothing she needs to focus on. For fifteen years her mind has been picking up the ugliest snapshots from the scattered mess and turning them over for her, slowly, gently, like a needle going into skin and missing all the stinging nerves and a person wonders how it's even possible with so many nerves webbing the body like a trap.
Once she found an article by accident. She was searching for scholarly articles on the causes of psychological regression and she found one on repressed memories instead, and since she was already there and had gone three paragraphs in, she read all four pages of the article, read about emotional overload and memory blocking and the mind protecting itself, whether from maddening pain or some twisted form of self-destruction she can only guess and doesn’t really want to. It made her insides feel hollow when she neared the end and read the part about repression reversing itself after time and memories returning back, in trickles or in floods or sometimes, in rare cases, never. Now she wonders if she'll end up in sex therapy with her husband some day and in marriage counselling because she can't handle what it takes to have kids.
On Halloween nights, she'd go out with her sisters and their mother and tramp the damp, leaf covered sidewalks in the dark and knock on doors and hold out a plastic bucket over and over again for three or four hours straight until finally they all climbed into the car with traces of mud on their shoes and fairy stockings, so that back at home she and her sisters could spread their candies across the floor and lie on their stomachs comparing collections and swapping a few favorites for a big pile of the ones no one liked. Every year there was a pile of cheap bubblegum in pink and yellow wrappers. Her sisters would chew pieces in hopes of them being better than they had been all the other times, but after five minutes they'd spit them out again and the rest of the pieces would go stale sitting in the bottoms of their buckets, but she never tried the pieces of bubblegum and didn't seem to pay them any more mind than it took to pick them out and set them aside where they were forgotten. She wonders why anyone still gives away so much cheap bubblegum that no one wants.
[Trigger warning: mention of r*pe, gr*ping]
Her experience of memory isn't like other people's and she knows that. What is it like, she wonders sometimes, to be normal and think back to when you were a kid? How much is she missing? Maybe she only has a poor memory and maybe she's being dramatic, overreacting. Afterall, how bad was it really? They talk about worse things on the nightly news, like grown women being groped at work and made to strip for their bosses, little boys raped by priests and scout leaders thirty years ago and covered up, and Hollywood women made to have sex by their coworkers. And everyone knows and no one says anything.
[End of trigger warning]
She has a bit of film that's faded, but not been lost yet, only it's broken down into bits that are turning into snapshots like all the rest. She's looking down at a few pieces of cheap bubblegum in her hand and a dime, a few pennies. Don't tell he says. It's only a game. And he gives her pieces of bubblegum and some spare change for her trauma. She remembers remembering not too long ago a snapshot of his expression, the look of fear, after she threw the bribing pieces in his face and maybe she had tears in her eyes as she scowled, but in the end it didn't matter because something bigger than bubblegum and dimes paid for her silence and that thing was shame.
It's been thirteen years, and now she's hidden in her room with her computer on her lap and she types into the search engine suppressed memories. Twice before she's tried it and everything Google had was too vague to be helpful, but now she sees an article from a psychology organization, and when she reads it, she reads the words dissociative amnesia. It's not forgetting. Now she has a name for it, and she reads what it says underneath about localized dissociative amnesia, that a trauma survivor cannot remember all or parts of the trauma event or events surrounding it.
She's textbook and a weight lifts tangibly from her chest as she stares at the screen.
[Trigger warning: mentions of r*pe in the following sections, non-graphic, non-specific]
There's a man up for election and now there's a hearing because some woman says he raped her at a party in college. They air the whole circus on all the news stations and you can tell what judges are in the man's party and which are not because all the ones in his party start their questions with sympathy for how he's being mistreated and ask things like isn't it true they've been vocally against your nomination? to which he nods and his lower lip quivers. And if they're in the other party, they address the accuser first, you poor woman, I'm so deeply sorry then ask the man about his college sex life as if it really matters. And when the whole thing's over and she hears the mindless garble of news correspondents bickering over the politics, she doesn't know why she should be angry. Do they let rapists into office, or do they use rape to try to win elections?
Watching. It’s a silent thing. A passive thing, a thing without motion, that causes no disruption. A thing that doesn’t get in the way.
She watches reports on the news grow more frequent. Watches clips from women’s marches and hears bits of speeches, and she sees Halsey one day deliver a speech that’s a poem and she breaks down and cries, and when she looks at the video she finds the comments section bloody and chained and choking. There are fighters in there and there are critics and haters and bashers with clubs and how many of them, she wonders, are molesters and rapists, have manipulated their girlfriends, forced them with violence, silenced them with shame and scarred them inside, outside?
How many of them have done none of that?
And from which of them is it worse…
[End of trigger warning]
There are comments on social media during the nomination hearing. Politics runs through them like a poison. Liar! they scream, from both sides, and she knows none of them really know because no one really wanted to find out. She wants to stay out, to hide in the silence between the cracks of the “discussion.” But they say things… things that are just… crazy…
If the slut didn’t want to have sex she shouldn’t have gotten drunk. What did you think was going to happen at a party?
So ridiculous how far the other side will go to try to stop us. That woman’s sick for ever coming out and saying that. Totally disrespectful to anyone who’s truly been through such a heartbreaking experience.
Funny how she only says something now that the nomination is happening. Suspicious maybe??
If anything like that had ever happened to me I’d be running to everyone I knew to tell them right away!
She’s a [redacted] liar, what the [redacted] does she mean she can’t remember! If that really happened she’d have every minute of it seared into her memory! Throw that [redated] in prison!
Seared into her memory you remember every moment what a liar sick [redacted] prison coming out telling everyone seared into memor--
No! That isn’t true!
You don’t have to remember all of it for it to be real, I can’t remember, it happened a lot when I was a kid and I can’t remember, that doesn’t make me a liar, you can’t just assume she’s lying because you expect one thing and she--
I can’t remember [redacted] from when I was a kid! People get older and forget stuff, or did you not know that?
They just… But she said…
She types back quickly through hot, welling tears, That isn’t how it works for everybody. It didn’t just slip my mind you know! and throws her phone at the wall. That isn’t how it works, why won’t you listen… You just don’t understand… I should have shut up…
Some of them become lesbians, they say. Others turn into sluts. If she’s not a lesbian or a slut, they assume nothing’s wrong, that it wasn’t a big deal. If she has a moral opinion, she’s a puritan because it’s made her sensitive. If she speaks out, it’s made her emotional, blindly zealous, a feminist. If she’s silent, that’s easiest for everyone. If they don’t know about it, they listen to her better.
Three years from now, her memories will start returning. The blacked out boxes stored away in the far back reaches of her mind will begin to tumble from their stacks and spill their dark contents. She’ll pay for a therapist to try to stave the nightmares, the seizings of panic, the weekly triggers catching her like a spider’s trap, try to work out what the flashes mean by running into each other and forming a steady stream of memory that she didn’t know existed and will make her vomit when she knows.
That was years ago, they’ll say. Why has she suddenly got a problem about it now? Probably just wants money from a lawsuit. If only there could be a law suit. Statute of limitations will have barred her from prosecuting three months beforehand.
[Trigger warning: mentions of r*pe, non-graphic, non-specific.]
Last semester she took a class and they read a book and in that book a woman was raped. The professor stands up at the head of the class and lectures on the racism of the law, but as he lectures, day after day, he finds euphemisms. The-- uh, uh-- attack, he says. The crime. The incident in the back room. Sometimes he tiptoes a little closer and calls it the assault.
Just say it, she thinks as she sits at her desk and stares hard at him so long as he isn’t looking. She can’t help it. She’s afraid that if he looks, she won’t be able to break her gaze. Just say it. Why are you censoring it, like a dirty word, a taboo thought? Why are you censoring us?
The girl that sits two rows in front of her says it. She speaks frequently in class, and she says with no catch of shame in her voice, She was raped.
One in five some say. Others, one in four. There’s statistics on the frequency of rape-- one in six women, one in seventy-one men; on the frequency of childhood molestation-- one in four girls, one in six boys. Statistics on how often the assault is by someone they know, on the ages of incidents, the frequency of repeated violence, statistics on locations, situations, races. On resulting PTSD, depression, suicidal tendencies, self harm, drug abuse, relationship fallout, college dropout, pregnancy, abortion. On the estimated majority of mass underreporting. There are statistics on assault in the military, in prisons, against old people in nursing homes. There are myriads of definitions for terms like penetration, abuse, rape, molestation, assault, sexual misconduct, other sexual conduct and none of any of them agree. There are statutes of limitations and stipulations and classifications that it takes a lawyer to understand, and maybe if you go through questioning and physical examination and go through court and the prosecution ends, maybe the bastard gets three years, maybe he gets eight. Eight years for the trauma you’ll deal with for a lifetime.
[End of trigger warning]
She’s sitting at her desk in the corner of her dorm room, and she looks up from her textbook and note page full of colored waves, a song beating away from the little bits of plastic and foam stuck into her ears and she looks out the window at the stars. The city lights glare up into the night so she sees a few dull, white dots here, there. She could count them, maybe a dozen in total. She knows the rest are muted. Invisible. The millions of them though if she could quiet the city lights, then, how beautiful, the stars. Thousands and thousands of stars. How much more glorious together…. How beautiful, together, when they’re seen…