Like a lot of people, I hadn't heard of Brock Turner until the woman he is convicted of sexually assaulting released a letter to him, which she read at his hearing this past Thursday, and then published on Buzzfeed. Like a lot of people, I read with horror as she detailed how she had been assaulted by Brock on the ground near a dumpster while unconscious; how she woke up in a hospital and didn't remember that she'd been assaulted, that she'd had to use information from witnesses, police, and medical staff later to piece together why there were pine needles in her hair, why her underpants were missing. She claims that during Turner's trial, his lawyer treated her blank memory of the night like an opportunity to paint a vile sexual assault as some kind of consensual hook-up muddled by poor, booze-fueled communication.
Like a lot of people, I tweeted a link to the Buzzfeed story with some generic "So powerful, read this" kind of commentary — because I wasn't ready to have the discussions that went along with what I actually wanted to tweet: "This is why I was way too scared to go to the police when this happened to me."
Almost a decade ago, I was raped. I remember the moments before it — I was profoundly drunk, stumbling around the apartment of a stranger I had just met at the bar down the street. He put on a record, leaned in to kiss me, but the memory blacks out before he ever gets there, like the final scene of an old movie. My memory picks up a little while later, when I am clothed and crawling out of his front door on all fours, shoeless, the loose tiles in his stairwell slicing up my palms, because I was still too drunk to walk correctly but knew I had to leave right that second. I somehow straightened up in the building's vestibule, and, still shoeless, walked the handful of blocks to my apartment. I couldn't tell you much about how I got there or what I did when I went home; even after I clicked back into consciousness, my memories go in and out, like a telescope trying to focus on a moving object.
But when I woke up the next day, in a state of disarray that almost made me feel like a TV crime show cliche — no underwear, pants inside out, feet stained with New York City asphalt — I knew what had happened. I knew my body felt different, that it had been touched wrong. But I also knew, to paraphrase the saying, that the sense you've been violated and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. In the first moments after I woke up the next day, I knew two things for certain: that I had been raped, and that because I remembered nothing of the actual assault, I was on my own on this one. It could have been worse, I thought to myself. I could have been killed, I could have been permanently injured, I could have gotten pregnant or had to deal with an incurable disease. In some moments, I have even felt thankful that if it had to happen, at least I didn't have to be conscious for it. Of course, it didn't "have" to happen. Still, sometimes, I felt lucky.
"I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted." My greatest fear, all those years when I struggled to talk about it, were those words — if I couldn't remember it, how could I prove that I hadn't wanted it?
Reading the survivor's letter to Brock Turner, parts of it felt so familiar — when she remembers how she "tried to push it out of my mind, but it was so heavy I didn’t talk, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep, I didn’t interact with anyone," or when she noted that "the only symbol that proved that it hadn’t just been a bad dream, was the sweatshirt from the hospital in my drawer." I had kept the top I wore the night I was raped for years, for the exact same reasons.
But then, I came across a sentence that stopped me dead: "But I don’t remember, so how do I prove I didn’t like it." She goes on: "I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted." My greatest fear, all those years when I struggled to talk about it, were those words — if I couldn't remember it, how could I prove that I hadn't wanted it? I'm sure that, had he had the chance, my rapist could have constructed a much better defensive narrative than Turner — could have found people to attest that we had been chatting in the bar, that I appeared to leave with him, that I appeared to be able to walk on my own. I thought he could make people believe that I was just a slut with a vague vendetta — the way people who are dedicated to defending people who commit sexual assault often paint it. I mean, if I couldn't remember it, how could I be sure, right?
The thing about trauma is that not remembering it isn't the same thing as not having lived through it. The actual moments of someone physically touching you in a way you did not give consent for are horrible, but they are not the only damaging part of sexual assault. Not remembering your rape is not the same as not having been raped.
First off, there's living with the knowledge that someone thought this was an OK thing to do to you — an experience I waded through when my rapist texted me the next day and playfully asked me to come and pick up my shoes. When I replied coolly, telling him to keep the shoes and asking what had happened, he told me that I should relax, because he "wasn't that much of a scumbag." I still experienced feelings of helplessness — like when I tried to dip a tampon into my vagina that morning to collect "evidence" because it was something I saw a character do on CSI. Even though I'm not totally sure what I was looking for, when the tampon came out clean, I knew that all legal avenues were closed off to me. Any experienced defense lawyer could easily fill a court room with people who could testify that I slept around, drank too much, was deeply troubled — you know, all the character flaws that make people believe a woman can't be raped.
Society says that a woman who has been raped has two options: seek legal recourse, or try to forget about it. I entertained a third option — vigilante justice — but I knew I didn't really have the stomach for it. So I decided to try to forget. It should be easy, I thought. After all, I barely remembered it.
I thought not telling my friends would help me forget — hell, I had bought so much cultural press about how women who dare to get drunk in public have no rights, I wasn't even 100 percent sure I should be "allowed" to say I was raped, at first. But keeping it to myself didn't make it go away; and even though I couldn't remember the worst parts, that didn't stop me from feeling shame or fear every time I walked by his apartment (which stood right smack between my house and the area's major shopping and transportation hub).
When I felt bad, jumpy, and scared in the weeks and months that followed, I wondered if I was "allowed" to feel that way — I thought those symptoms were reserved for "real" victims, people who had to live with the memories. I just had to live with the memory of no memory — that shouldn't be so hard, right? A heavy drinker at the time, I became obsessed with the idea that I had possibly been raped in the past and just hadn't woken up in time to register anything. I became nervous and paranoid, and even more afraid of telling anyone — I simply couldn't put the words together and make them come out of my mouth. Because I knew as soon as I did, I would be admitting that this had all happened, and that it had affected me, even if I couldn't remember every second of it.
I got unlucky enough to exist on a planet where many people think that the difference between rape and healthy sexual expression is so tiny that women who say they were raped must have gotten confused by the nuances, like they were talking about French adverbs and not being touched against their will.
Over all these years, lots of things have changed — I no longer think it was "my fault" for drinking so much, for one. But I haven't forgotten it. Those missing minutes, like the 18 missing minutes from the Watergate tapes, have shaped my entire mental conversation about my assault: what happened in those moments, when my brain was separate from my body? What things were done to my body that left no mark? What does it mean to have things done to you that you can't remember? How were those things, those things I didn't remember, still somehow be a part of me, infecting my brain or influencing my actions? I knew that, during my heavy drinking years, I had had entire nights of saying and doing things that I couldn't remember while blacked out — what had happened during those missing moments? Had I mumbled for him to stop? Had I screamed "no"? Had I vomited? Had I just fallen asleep and been thrown around like a big, limp rag doll? I would never, ever know.
I know that, in court, the fact that I had done a lot of partying and hooked up with a lot of dudes during my heavy drinking years, yet never before or after my assault had felt motivated to run out of another guy's home half-dressed and shoeless, would not count for much. Yet it's how I know — beyond the lost clothes and the stinging in my vagina — that something horrible had happened that night. I wouldn't have done that if I wasn't terrified. But what if they said I liked it? What if I went to the police, and the lawyers, and a jury of my peers, and they decided that I ran out into the night because I wanted to, because it was fun, because I wasn't thinking straight but hey, that wasn't his fault, right? Keeping my story to myself became a protective measure; if people tried to tell me that I wanted it because there was not enough evidence that I didn't want it, I was not sure what I would do.
I think most of the ways we throw words like "hero" and "courage" around at sexual assault survivors are idiotic; a lot of the time, it seems like an easy way to admit that something horrible happened without having to delve into all the cultural mechanisms that basically allowed it to happen. So I'm not going to use those words to describe the woman who brought Brock Turner to court right now. But I wish I could tell her that her letter changed things for me. It changed my view of myself, as someone who "got lucky."
I didn't get lucky. I got unlucky enough to cross paths with a man who thought I was a plaything with no spirit or soul or self. I got unlucky enough to live in a world that treats rape as the price for ever letting your guard down in a dark alley, or a bar, or a party, or a house with someone you thought you knew really well. I got unlucky to live in a culture that treats women who are not virginal nuns as such diseased, shitty garbage that not a single person I told asked me if I was going to go to the police, just because we all knew there was no point. I got unlucky enough to exist on a planet where many people think that the difference between rape and healthy sexual expression is so tiny that women who say they were raped must have gotten confused by the nuances, like they were talking about French adverbs and not being touched against their will.
But sexual assault is not college dorm assignments or lottery numbers, the army draft or jury duty; there is no luck in it. The woman who took Brock Turner to court said something in her letter that I wish I could get up on billboards in every city in America: "You should have never done this to me." That's it. I don't have to remember my rape for it or my rapist to be evil, to be a crime. The onus is not on me to prove that I didn't want this.