Bringing the Dark into the Light: A Tale of Sexual Assault and Healing.
Recently I participated in a brief exchange on Facebook on the topic of sexual assault. The person who initiated the discussion was upset by the comments following an article at Jezebel.com written by a woman who had been sexually assaulted on the street. Apparently the nature of the offending comments were of the “I would’ve kicked him in the balls!” variety.
My friend’s premise in her Facebook update was that this kind of attitude is harmful to the victims of rape and sexual assault, and only serves to perpetuate the problem.
She stated, “Okay, actually, I get it; they are trying to comfort themselves with the idea that they are invulnerable. The problem with this is, they are implicitly blaming the person telling the story for basically not being competent enough to defend themselves. This reinforces rape culture, because it reinforces the perception the onus is on people (mostly women) to not get raped.”
I completely agree, and like my friend on Facebook, I understand the “It couldn’t happen to me because I would have killed the son-of-a-bitch“ response. But I also know it is a totally unrealistic delusion, and it is one that can be extremely harmful to a victim of sexual assault or abuse. Like my friend, I believe it reinforces this kind of crime and perpetuates the cycle. Unfortunately, I learned this through my own experiences.
When I was a 19-year-old college student, I spent a semester of my junior year in Avignon, France. My best friend and I bought Eurail passes and spent some time roaming through various countries, including spending a week in Rome.
Rome was not a safe playground for a naïve but adventurous young American girl.
In a restaurant one night, feeling vulnerable and recovering from a narrow escape from a dangerous situation the night before, my friend and I were joined for dinner and wine by several young Roman men from the table next to us.
One of the men seated himself next to me, and I shared with him the sketchy happenings of the previous night. In broken English, he confirmed Rome was indeed a dangerous city, but he reassured me there was no need for me to be afraid of him, as he was “polizia.”
After eating, drinking and conversing for a short while, he invited me to go for a ride on the back of his motorbike to “see the city.” Unwittingly, I accepted, and told my friend I would return shortly. I climbed on the back of his motorbike, and he drove us straight up into a huge park on one of Rome’s famous hills, and parked the bike under a big, old tree.
There in the cold, wintery darkness, with not a soul in sight, with the lights of the city twinkling far beneath us, this man, this so-called “police officer” whom I had known for no more than two hours, grabbed me and began to smash his mouth against mine in a grotesque distortion of a kiss. He groped me and forcefully rammed his body up against mine. With my heart in my throat, and the realization of the gravity of the situation settling in, I pushed him away and politely, but in no uncertain terms, demanded he return me to the restaurant at once.
He flared into an angry outburst of words and gestures, and the more I rejected his advances, the more enraged he became. He began to yell at me in words I didn’t understand and gesture at me savagely, pacing around in circles under that foreign tree. He threatened to leave me there in the darkness of that giant, cold, ancient park, miles from my friend, in a city where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language.
Then, suddenly and mercifully, he stopped his vicious outburst and seemed to have a change of mood. He directed me to get back on the bike. I gratefully did so, and begged him politely to take me back to the restaurant.
But he did not take me back to the restaurant. Instead, after experiencing a few moments of sweet relief believing we were heading back to safety, with dawning terror I realized he was entering the on-ramp to a freeway. He then took us miles away from the city, away from the light to a giant concrete apartment building surrounded by dark nothingness. I followed him through that darkness into his apartment where he raped me. I didn’t fight back physically.
At some point on the back of that motorbike, with the unfamiliar, ancient, polluted Roman air molecules blowing hard against my face and the light disappearing rapidly behind me, I steeled myself and made a decision. I decided I would do whatever it takes to get through the rest of the experience, as safely as possible, so I could survive and get back to my friend and my life.
I didn’t know him.
I was afraid of him.
I had no idea what he might do if I further protested, and I wanted to live.
So I shut myself down.
Because I chose not to struggle, he became less aggressive with me, and began to act as if this were a romantic encounter I had chosen. Much to his displeasure, I laid there lifeless, closed my eyes and didn’t say a word. Let me just say, I endured the next few hours until the light began to come again. I had no words for him then, and no words to say to anyone about it for a long, long time, including myself.
As dawn was breaking, we climbed back on his bike, and he returned me to the restaurant which was near the hotel where my friend was anxiously awaiting my return. Naturally, she was upset with me for abandoning her the night before. Again, I had no words or reasonable explanation for what had happened, other than the feeling: all of it was my own fault.
I was embarrassed and terribly ashamed. But mostly, I was just confused and shutdown. I couldn’t tell her the truth. The anger and sadness would not emerge until later. And even then, it would be many years before the words would come.
Seventeen years later, at the age of 35, I made my first confession, or as it is now known in the Roman Catholic Church, my “sacrament of reconciliation.” This involved an extensive “examination of conscience,” or as was the case for me, a harrowing trip through my past, examining the ways in which I had caused harm to myself or others.
It was the first time in my life I had reflected on my experience in Rome with any kind of deep acknowledgement of the serious impact it had on me. Suddenly, it was glaringly obvious. Most distressing, ultimately, was the realization I had never forgiven myself for “allowing” it to happen, and I was still deeply hurt by it. Because I had never honestly acknowledged I was raped, I did not feel like a victim. I felt like a willing participant; perhaps, even a “slut” or an impure woman.
Wouldn’t I have fought back harder physically if I truly were a victim?
Wouldn’t I have screamed or kicked him and run away?
Was this a sin?
Should I confess it?
I looked at the stations of the cross and saw the depictions of Christ’s agony as his body was crucified. I saw the resignation on his face as he carried the cross on his back toward his impending death. I saw his acceptance of his suffering at the hands of those who would crucify him.
Was Christ a victim? A willing participant? Why was his face depicted in such an undisturbed manner, and why was he helping to carry the cross? This was a dark time, and the passion story resonated with me.
I know the truth now. It has been 10 years since my last and final confession in the Roman Catholic Church. However, I will confess to you here my “sin,” or that which separated me from my healing and wholeness.
The sin I committed was punishing myself for this violation by being silent and ashamed; by holding on to even a glimmer of belief I somehow deserved what happened to me; for innocently climbing on the back of a motorbike, with a man I didn’t know, and not fighting back harder.
Somewhere inside myself I believed I deserved what happened because I didn’t do something violent enough to him to stop him from raping me, even though I begged him to stop, even though I pushed him away, and even though I asked him repeatedly to return me to the restaurant.
Looking back, with the wisdom of time and maturity, I know getting on the back of a motorbike with a stranger in a foreign land was a foolish and risky thing to do. But it was not justification for what came to pass.
Now, as I am able to reflect back on my young, innocent self, I can see I did the best I could. The decisions I made were reasonable for me, and were made out of self-preservation. I wanted to come through it alive. I knew I could get through a rape, but no one survives a murder. I had no way of knowing what this man would do to me.
I made my choice.
There are several reasons I have chosen to tell this story now, including being inspired by the Facebook post I previously mentioned. By allowing myself to be ashamed and silent about it for so many years—and still, at the age of 46—to have any shred of guilt I didn’t fight him violently, makes me feel like a participant in the culture that allows these crimes to flourish— “the culture of rape.”
I have far too much life experience now to believe it is simple. If, by being open and honest here, just one person is given some insight, spared some shame or has the opportunity to speak on her own behalf, and not let someone who doesn’t understand speak for her, then I am grateful for that.
I am also finally ready to tell this story now because I am shocked and alarmed by the utter lack of clarity and insight on the part of some politicians recently on the subject of rape. I needn’t run down the list of outrageous remarks made in recent weeks; just Google the phrases legitimate rape or what God intended if you’ve been living in a cave on a remote island.
Rape is never legitimate, nor is it ever what “God” intended.
It is an act of violence, pure and simple, and it never comes with easy options for escape.
This post is my absolution.
Christine List is a blogger at misslisted.com, a Seattle mother of three adolescents, a sister, daughter, girlfriend, yoga teacher, meditator, mediator, clinic manager, nature appreciator, star-gazer, observer, contemplator, witness, seeker, finder, laugher, crier, lover of people and blurter-outer of all sorts of nonsense.
Editor: Jennifer Spesia