I don’t know how to talk about rape and sexual violence when it comes to my own story. It is easier to say, “things happened. They were terrible. They are in the past.”
If I must share my story, I want to do so without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice. I am not brave. I am not strong. I am not special. I am one woman who has experienced something countless women have experienced. That’s what matters here, that having this kind of story is utterly common and that perhaps, by sharing these stories, we can become appropriately horrified about how much suffering is borne of violence.
I write around what happened to me because it’s easier than going back to that day, to everything leading up to that day, to what happened after. It’s easier than facing myself and the ways, despite everything I know, in which I feel culpable. I write around what happened because I don’t want to have to defend myself. I don’t want to have to deal with the horror of such exposure. I guess that makes me a coward, afraid, human. I write around what happened because I don’t want my family to have these terrible images in their head. I don’t want someone I’m romantically involved with seeing a moment from that experience when they look at me. I want to protect the people I love. I want to protect myself. My story is mine.
But. I write essays. I share parts of my story and my stories becomes part of something bigger. I make that choice.
As a culture, we don’t seem to know how to hear stories about rape and sexual violence either. We cannot face the truth, how messy and ugly it is. Rolling Stone published a lengthy article about rape on the University of Virginia campus, and the story of Jackie’s harrowing gang rape was particularly painful to absorb. In recent days, people have questioned Jackie’s story because the writer, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not try to interview the alleged rapists. A journalistic failure has quickly become a crack in Jackie’s story because it’s so much easier to disbelieve such a horrifying story than it is to believe what people are capable of doing to one another.
Over the weekend, Janay Rice offered her own account of what transpired between her and her husband Ray Rice. Janay Rice says she isn’t a victim. She describes her relationship with Ray Rice as loving, one that has had the ups and downs familiar to most relationships. Some people immediately disbelieved Janay Rice, in her own words, because her story didn’t fit the narrative we wanted from her. We have a very clear image of what a victim looks like and how a victim should behave. When someone doesn’t meet our expectations of victimhood, there is hell to pay.
It is be difficult to hear someone’s story, to hear their truth, when that truth conflicts with what we hold to be true.
We don’t know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that these things are complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt.
I believe in the importance of sharing histories of violence. I am reticent to share my own history of violence.
There was a boy. I loved him. His name was Christopher. That is not really his name. You know that. I was raped by Christopher and several of his friends in an abandoned hunting cabin the woods where no one but the boys who were there could hear me scream.
Christopher pushed me down in front of his laughing friends, so many bodies larger than mine. I was so scared and embarrassed and confused. I was hurt because I loved him and thought he loved me and there I was, splayed out in front of his friends. I wasn’t a girl to them. I was a thing. When Christopher lay on top of me, he didn’t take off his clothes, a detail that stays with me. He just unzipped his jeans and pulled his cock out and knelt between my legs and shoved himself inside of me. Those boys stared down at me and I closed my eyes because I did not want to see them. I did not want to accept what was happening.
I fought but my fighting didn’t do much more than make them laugh, make Christopher tell one of his friends to hold me down. The friend held me down, his lips shiny, his beer breath in my face. I cannot stand beer breath. Christopher knelt on my wrists while he grabbed at my chest, squeezing breasts that weren’t there. I thought I would break.
I don’t know their names. Other than Christopher, I don’t remember distinct details about them. I remember their smells, the squareness of their faces, the weight of their bodies, the surprising strength in their limbs.
I begged Christopher to stop. I told him I would do anything he wanted if he would just stop but he didn’t stop. He didn’t look at me. He looked straight ahead and all I could see was the boy I loved fucking me and another boy holding me down, and more boys still watching and calling me a slut and a whore and laughing. Christopher took a long time or at least it felt like a long time because I did not want him inside me. It did not matter what I wanted.
After Christopher came, he switched places with the boy who was holding my arms down. I was already so sore. Christopher refused to look at me. He just held my wrists, spit on my face. He laughed. All those boys fucked me. Sometimes one fucked my mouth while another fucked me. They tried to see how far they could go. I was a toy, used recklessly. One shoved his fist into my mouth, his knuckles scraping the soft gum of the roof. One shoved his fist inside me, creating a gasping wound of pain that made my heart stop. That’s what broke me. I stopped screaming, I stopped moving, I stopped fighting. I stopped praying and believing God would save me. I did not stop hurting. The pain was constant. They took a break. I huddled into myself and shook. I could not believe what was happening. I literally had no capacity for understanding my story as it was being written. I couldn’t move.
They did things I’ve never been able to talk about, and will never be able to talk about. I don’t know how. I don’t want to find those words. Later, they told everyone at school what happened. They told a version of the story, one that made my name slut for the rest of the school year.
I wish I could tell you I never spoke to Christopher again, but I did. That may be what shames me most, that after everything he did to me, I went back, and allowed him to continue using me, because I didn’t know what else to do. The aftermath is just as common but it is also part of my story, mine. I cannot carry a pregnancy to term. I can’t handle receiving oral sex. It is only recently I’ve been able to be touched without flinching. My dating history is littered with a very specific kind of asshole. The list goes on. But. I am better. I am as healed as I am ever going to be. I know joy.
This is my story, what I can tell of it. I am sharing it because perhaps we do need to hear more and more of our stories. Perhaps we need to hear so many of these stories we finally learn what to do with them and how to take care of the people who have to carry these stories. In an even more ideal world, perhaps by sharing our stories, we will raise a generation who will have no such stories to tell.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.