Trigger Warning: discussions of rape, sexual assault, and abuse.
Her 2015 novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, explored the dark secrets of one woman's youth, but now the author has pulled back the curtain to expose the blight on her own past. In a new Lenny Letter, Jessica Knoll discusses her rape. It's unflinching, raw, and totally necessary.
Luckiest Girl Alive centers on TifAni FaNelli, a successful fashion writer who's counting down the days to her dream wedding. But the tragic events of her past — in particular, a gang rape at her illustrious prep school — haunt her, and Ani must come to grips with what happened in order to have a happy future.
Now, for the first time, Knoll has publicly declared that what happened to her protagonist wasn't entirely fictional. On the same day she pitched "What I Know" to Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter, the author admitted to a fan that her experience informed that of her protagonist. She writes:
[A] woman approached me at a book event in New Jersey. “You said you did some research for your book,” she said. “Did you interview a rape victim?”
I told her I had researched the other major event in my book.“So how did you—” she stopped. “I mean, it was just so real. What you said about not screaming until it was over? Until you knew you were safe?”I started to internally chant Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck at the same time tears sprang to her eyes. I’m also rusty with compassion. I’ve been conditioned to prefer an economy-sized bag of chocolate-covered pretzels to that. “Because that almost happened to me,” she said.Fuck it. “Something similar to what happened to Ani happened to me,” I responded for the first time ever, and she grabbed my wrist and held it tight, blinking tears, while I smiled brightly, insisting in a foreign falsetto, “I’m fine! It’s fine!”
Many victims, Knoll and Dunham included, spend years denying that what happened to them was rape. More than half of all sexual assaults are never reported. Self-blame, shame, and fear top LACASA's list of reasons sexual assault survivors don't speak out. If you're surprised, you shouldn't be.
The U.S. is a country where only 3 percent of "rapists will ever spend a single day in prison." Police officers, judges, school officials, and healthcare workers are often ill-equipped to help victims navigate their experiences.
Tens of thousands of untested rape kits sit in backlog around the country. Detroit alone has 11,000. Houston tested its 6,700 kits in 2015, and found more than 800 matches in the FBI's national database, which led to arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. Yet, when confronted with a bill that would make it mandatory for Idaho police to collect and analyze rape kits from all sexual assault victims, and process them within 90 days, at least one sheriff publicly balked at the legislation, saying: "the majority of our rapes that are called in, are actually consensual sex."
In 2013, a Montana judge commuted a former teacher's rape sentence to 30 days, saying that his 14-year-old victim was "older than her chronological age" and just "as much in control of the situation" as her attacker. The girl committed suicide before the case went to trial. The victim's mother testified that the trauma of sexual assault was a contributing factor in her daughter's decision to take her own life.
We've only just begun to address the campus rape epidemic. Huffington Post reports that, "[a]s of Dec[ember] 30, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights had 194 Title IX investigations open at 159 colleges and universities examining allegations the schools mishandled sexual assault cases. In addition, OCR is investigating 68 cases involving sexual violence at 63 K-12 schools and school districts."
Knoll shares how a healthcare worker failed to help her acknowledge what had happened. She writes:
I know I visited a clinic to get the morning-after pill. I know I was 15 years old and aching for guidance and protection, for someone to release the mute button on my voice. The doctor, a woman, listened to me describe the events of the evening, 65 hours prior — just made it! — and I know that when I asked if what had happened to me was rape she told me she wasn’t qualified to answer that question.
Her experience is not unique. Across the country, medical professionals may invoke their religious beliefs to avoid providing emergency contraception to anyone, including rape victims.
Combined with a pervasive, victim-blaming, slut-shaming rape culture, these abysmal situations create an environment in which women do not feel safe to come forward about their assaults. Their peers, and even authority figures, may know the details of their rapes, but continue to paint what happened as a consensual act, one that legitimizes publicly shaming the victim. From "What I Know":
I know my classmates called me a slut. (Plus a teacher, a cruel wisp of a woman, whom I have just described using the appositive in a nod to how she chose to explain the grammatical tool to the class: “For example, ‘Jessica, a cheap mallrat.’”) No one called it rape.
It is incredibly difficult to read and hear rape victims' stories, and that's what makes testimonies like Knoll's so important. They make us uncomfortable, because they force us to face how we — both as individuals and as a society — treat sexual assault survivors. If it makes you angry to learn how we systemically fail victims every day, put that anger to use by combating rape culture, and learning how to talk to sexual assault survivors.
If you're a rape survivor, understand that what happened to you is not your fault. Remember that you are not alone. There are people out there who understand. It's OK to not be fine, or strong, or healed. Just take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, and make it until tomorrow, every day.
Images: Aaron Burden/Unsplash