Content Warning & Introduction: This is Part 2 of series of deeply personal reflections on my own sexual assault, rape, and how they relate to the portrayal of trauma in speculative fiction. This particular article will discuss rape, specifically involving alcohol.
There are emotional and sometimes graphic descriptions of sexual assault and rape. Please be prepared for that before reading.
Although this is, perhaps, more for me than it is for you… it’s still for you, too, as a reader. My hope is that by sharing my own experiences, I might help others contextualize their own. If I don’t succeed at that, well, then, perhaps someone out there will at least feel less alone. We all matter, we’re all valuable, and many of us have been through some very complicated experiences. I’m still untangling mine, one knot at a time.
Books and series discussed in this post: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, Deerskin by Robin McKinley
If you have not yet read part one of this ongoing series, please first read it here.
While the abuse I underwent with Ostin when I was a child was horrible, it had one thing going for it: it was linear. It was straightforward. There was no other baggage leading into it. I had been a blank slate – I was innocent, and it was all new. After that is when things became harder, tangled, messier.
I’ve started this second post so many times. I tried to decide: should I start with the man who raped me, who placed drink after drink into my hand and grabbed my arm and pulled me back when I tried to go home to get away from him? Should I start with the one who pressured me into sex acts when I was vulnerable, my self esteem at an all-time low? How about the serial abuser who “only” touched me once, when he did so much worse to other women? Or maybe the man who began to stalk me as soon as I told him I didn’t want to see him any more, who told me how attractive he found it when I was angry at him when he wouldn’t leave me alone? How about the coworker who put his hands on me, who told me how sexy he found me, told me he wanted to know “what made me tick”?
I’ve thought about this a great deal, never quite settling on a starting point. I’ve written paragraphs about it. None of it felt right. Going chronologically wouldn’t work. I had to start with what matters, and what matters is anger.
My life has been a microcosm of the systemic sexism that places all women and femme-presenting people in danger every day. I often ask myself: why me? Why did all these things happen to me, in particular? Why do they continue to happen to me, for that matter? Am I the common denominator? Perhaps I am. I’m a good little victim, really. I am young, short, and small. I’m attractive, too. And the real kicker? I’ve never once reported an abuser, for better or for worse. I tamp down on my anger and let it fester, sometimes into shame, sometimes into more deeply compressed anger, because reporting it would completely and utterly destroy the semblance of normalcy I have built in my day to day life. Better to run and start anew than try to rebuild something which has already collapsed into a heap of rubble. Predators smell it on me, my vulnerability, and they wedge their fingers into the cracks and into my body and pull me apart because they can.
And that really pisses me off.
It happened to me because I am femme-presenting. Because I am perceived as “woman,” and therefore as “target.” It happened because I was there. Abusers will always, always find a victim. If not me, then someone else.
Recently, I read The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. Alix understands anger. She, too, has that infinite rage simmering deep in her belly. It’s a book about three women, each with their own source of anger. James Juniper is mad as hell at a world designed to keep her under the thumb of others. Beatrice Belladonna was sent to a ladies’ school where they attempted to beat her burgeoning love of women out of her. Agnes Amaranth was used by a man who didn’t love her, didn’t care about her beyond being a possession of his. Much like me, she was viewed as a pretty, disposable thing.
Beyond relating to their anger and trauma, what I liked best about this book was that it was not merely good vs evil… but toxic abuse of individual power vs strength in community, a concept that feels particularly relevant now. It was the individual aggressor who relied on the status quo to get away with using and abusing everyone around him set against a whisper network of women who cooperated to undermine his goals. We see this playing out on Twitter in real time, right now. These women hid their witchy ways amid their sewing kits, in the bassinets of their children, and in all the places that men wouldn’t think to look. Today, these spaces exist in Twitter DMs, in Discord servers, and in the little groups we form in person. We pass our notes not with the washing or with the bread we’ve baked, but behind the scenes in whatever ways we can to warn one another of who the poisoned apples are.
Rape and sexual assault is inherently isolating. It is a predator who separates one of us from the safety of our community, our herd. I was drunk when I was singled out and separated from the people I trusted to keep me safe. By the time it happened, I was fully blacked out; that, to me, is perhaps the most horrific aspect of it all. I simply don’t remember what happened, and that uncertainty has gnawed away at me ever since. If I could remember it, I could walk myself through it, dissect it, understand it. All I remember is a single moment: I was on top of him. I don’t recall the way my legs must have straddled him, nor do I have any idea if we used protection. I never found a condom, and he certainly didn’t take one with him the next morning. I wasn’t on birth control. I don’t remember what he felt like inside of me, or whether he finished inside me. That fact haunts me – what if I had become pregnant? I’ll never know how much risk I was in. I do remember that he said my name. I think I said his in return. I am horrified and ashamed, even now, that my two roommates at the time might have heard anything from that night.
Prior to that snippet, my last memories of the night were trying to go home from the college party we were at. “I think it’s time for me to go home,” I said, beginning to walk away before he grabbed my arm and pulled me back to his side. I remember a deep sense of discomfort. I didn’t want him to touch me, but his grip on my arm held me in place. I leaned against him because I was drunk, and I didn’t feel like I had any other options. I remember him handing me another drink. Later, I was told by a friend that he’d been kissing my neck on the couch while I sat there frozen – “You looked so uncomfortable, and we weren’t sure.” I don’t remember that happening. No one stopped him.
A different friend told me that the reason he’d targeted me was because a different person had managed to fend him off that night; she’d rejected him, but I was an easier victim. I was stung when I heard that. Although I’d hated what had happened, there was a piece of me that couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t good enough to be his first choice. Obviously, this is not rational – he was opportunistic, and “who” didn’t really matter when all the women at that party were sex objects to him. We weren’t people to him. This is what objectification means – it’s not appreciating someone’s body, it’s about failing to acknowledge the person within it. Despite having this understanding, it hurt to hear that I’d been the back-up option.
I woke up the next morning with his body pressed against my back, his hand resting on my hip. I had nearly no memory of the night before, and I had no idea who I was next to – I was terrified. It could have been anyone. I tried to piece things together; I ran through my scant memories of the night before over and over in a loop. I hadn’t yet recalled him saying my name, myself saying his – that memory returned days later. It may not even be real. I’ll never know. Instead, I remembered the way he’d grabbed me the evening before. There had been another man at the party who I’d been flirting with recently, too, who I actually liked. Maybe I had gone home with him instead of Eric. I prayed to every god in the heavens that it wasn’t Eric. Those hopes were soon dashed – it was him, and I had no idea what to do.
So, I pretended it was okay. I “let” him touch me again that morning, his hands on my skin, his lips on my shoulders and back. I pretended it was fine, that I enjoyed it. I didn’t. I was in shock, denial. I can still hear the rattle of his keys in his pocket as he put his pants back on. He left soon after, leaning in for a kiss goodbye at the doorway. I let him. What else was I meant to do? I’d still not recovered from the horror of waking up to an unknown body next to mine.
When he left, I took a shower and sat beneath the water just like they do in the movies. I didn’t cry, but I wanted to wash the feel of him off me. It didn’t help, not really.
I was terrified. Afraid. Ashamed, too. I hadn’t wanted to have sex with him. I hadn’t even wanted him to touch me. When I got a chance to look at my phone later, I saw a friend had messaged me asking if I was okay (Jack, if you ever read this, thank you for that. You have no idea how much it means to me that you checked on me, that you were worried). I replied to him, lying, terrified, and unable to admit just yet that what happened had been rape. I told him I was okay. I said everything was fine.
I’d already become so very good at lying about being okay. I’m still very good at it, even now. I had been home, but I hadn’t been safe that night. I tried to pretend it hadn’t happened, or at least pretend that it had been consensual. I wanted to erase it and return to normalcy. I wanted my life to stabilize again.
This sort of self-deception is one I have rarely seen depicted in SFF. Robin McKinley, however, addressed it beautifully in her novel Deerskin. Lissar was a princess, living a charmed life with doting parents. When she was very young, her mother tragically died. As Lissar grows older, she begins to look more and more like her mother… and her father begins to develop an unhealthy obsession with her. He begins slowly and uses textbook grooming tactics. He begins with comments designed to push her boundaries, then “innocent” touches. Ultimately, he breaks into her room and rapes her.
Lissar flees, then. She has been changed forever by his actions, and she will never return to her home. This is not a story of a princess who reclaims her kingdom, but of a woman who will reclaim her agency and her choice. She’s visited by a goddess who takes pity on her; she erases her memories, for a time, until she’s grown and is prepared to confront them. It was cathartic to see denial and self-deception reflected in her character; it resonated with me.
Just like Lissar, I pretended that things were fine. I, too, continued moving forward and away from my abuser. Nevertheless, both myself and Lissar had to confront the facts of our abuse eventually. It was well over a year after I was raped that I felt comfortable calling it “rape.” Prior to that, I framed it in terms of having been drunk. I downplayed it. When I admitted to myself that it had been wrong, I thought in terms of assault. Lissar chose not to think of it at all.
Her journey is one of acceptance. She begins alone, but she does not end that way. In her isolation, she finds power. She does not have a perfectly happy ending, and she will forever have scars from what her father did to her. What she does find, though, is a support network who love and care for her. She may have been shattered, but she’s found people who will help her stay glued back together. The cracks will never disappear, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t whole once more. When she finds her prince charming, he, too, is flawed. Neither of them have been magically transformed back into perfectly functioning human beings. Instead, they’ve found a path together that will allow them to slowly heal and find happiness once more.
“I am hurt… in ways you cannot see, and that I cannot explain, even to myself, but only know that they are there, and a part of me, as much as my hands and eyes and breath are a part of me.” ― Robin McKinley, Deerskin
That is the path that we are on now, together, as more and more stories come out. We are the witches of New Salem who face the evil together. We will never be the same as we were, but this trauma is ours. So, so many of us have stories; although they may not have the same predators, they’re all part of the same narrative. Where before we were isolated, shattered, we are now finding and supporting one another. We will never be the same, but we will be whole once more.