After 'Rolling Stone' Editor's Note on UVA, I'm Reminded That My Rape Counts, Even Though I Can Barely Remember It
I can barely remember my own sexual assault. By "barely remember," I don't mean that I don't think about it, because I do, often; and I don't mean "it doesn't affect me," because it does, often. By "barely remember," I mean that I genuinely barely remember the details of what happened on that steamy August night in 2008, after a guy I met at a bar around the corner from my house suggested we head over to his.
I remember sitting on a couch in his walk-up apartment, drinking a beer he gave me, as he went in for a kiss. The next thing I remember, I am breaking into a run on the street in front of his apartment, jeans turned inside out, underwear gone, shoeless bare feet pounding the pavement as I make a break for my own apartment a few blocks away. I know that time has passed because it was night when I went to his place, but now the sky is turning purple, and the sun is about to come up. I know that something bad happened and I am running from it, because my heart is thumping and I am running barefoot across the dog shit and broken glass of a New York City street without even noticing it. I know that something sexual that I did not want to happen happened, because as if guided by a consciousness greater than my own, the first thing I do when I get home is dip a tampon into my vagina to try to collect semen as evidence, because I saw it in an episode of CSI.
But I do not call the police, that night or the next day, or the next, because the actual moments of whatever happened to me are lost, like an old-fashioned movie missing a reel of film. That's all, folks. At the time, I thought that I was abnormal; I had read so many accounts of sexual assault survivors who had crystal clear recall of their attacks, who still got put through the wringer and called liars, that I assumed that I had somehow done something wrong by not remembering my attack, that it somehow made me culpable. I thought that real rape survivors remembered all the details of their attacks, and since I didn't, I must be something less. As I was processing my attack, I was also busy processing the fact that I had no hope of getting the police to take my spotty story seriously.
I mentally berated myself for not remembering things better, for having so many questions — this was so important, how could I have forgotten so many of the details? I lay in bed, far beyond crying, thinking that my brain had taken away my one shot at recovery by refusing to hold on to the details.
I've thought about my own hazy assault, and my life in the days, weeks, and months after it, a lot over the past few days, after reading the Rolling Stone editor's note that tried to distance the magazine from Sabrina Erdely's now-infamous article about "Jackie," a college junior who suffered a horrific gang rape as a freshman at the University of Virginia. I thought about it especially while reading the initial version of the note, the one that threw Jackie and her possibly-shaky memory under the bus to save face by claiming that the magazine had "misplaced" its trust in her, when the facts are that Erdley and Rolling Stone did not do due dilligence when reporting.
An updated version of the Rolling Stone editor's note changed the wording, putting the blame on the magazine (though the cultural damage had already been done). All of this brought me back to my own experience, to the ways that my own fear about not being a "perfect" victim not only persuaded me to not contact the police, but to even doubt my own recollections of my assault. Where do half-remembered, poorly remembered, and otherwise imperfect recollections about rape—common as they are— fit into our national conversation about it?
My assault was very different from Jackie's. But as I read Rolling Stone note about the piece — particularly the parts that touched on how Jackie misremembered the date of the frat party where she was attacked, or the fact that "Jackie herself is now unsure if the man she says lured her into the room where the rape occurred, identified in the story, as 'Drew,' was a Phi Psi brother"— I saw myself.
I can't speak for what happened to her, but after my assault, my brain was mush. I spent days in bed in the dark, both trying to remember and trying to forget what had happened, trapped in strange middle ground where I could remember enough to wish I could disappear, but also remembered so little of the actual facts that I was convinced that no one would ever believe me. I fielded the occasional text from my attacker, appalled to see his messages flash across the screen, but convinced that communicating with him was the only way to find out information that would help me understand (it wasn't: all I learned was that he wanted me to come back to his house and pick up my shoes. When I asked what he had done to me, he told me that he had not full-on put his dick in me because he "wasn't that bad :)").
I mentally berated myself for not remembering things better, for having so many questions — this was so important, how could I have forgotten so many of the details? I lay in bed, far beyond crying, thinking that my brain had taken away my one shot at recovery by refusing to hold on to the details. Without clear memories, I'll never be able to tell anyone, I thought, because I'll have no way to defend myself if someone starts calling me a liar.
By the time I left my room a few days later, I threw my CSI tampon in the trash, and decided that the only way to deal was to pretend that it had never happened. I could still only remember flashes of the night — a sculpture in his apartment, a record that was playing — and I thought, from all of the rape coverage I had read in my life, that that would barely be enough for anyone to believe me, let alone anyone in law enforcement. It seemed the safer bet to tangle with it on my own.
I know now that I wasn't abnormal, and that I'm far from the only sexual assault survivor to have a fuzzy memory of their assault. Slate's Rebecca Ruiz reported in 2013 that when it comes to sexual assault survivors and memory,
[t]he brain’s prefrontal cortex —which is key to decision-making and memory — often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information...This is why, experts say, sexual assault victims often can’t give a linear account of an attack and instead focus on visceral sensory details like the smell of cologne or the sound of voices in the hallway.
Sometimes, when something horrible is happening to you, your brain checks out. Your brain isn't interested in how you're going to report this to police, or deal with the strangers on Twitter who believe that rape survivors are liars who get their kicks from pretending to have been raped in broken glass. Your brain shuts off because it is trying to protect you.
Ruiz's research also found that, since very few law enforcement officers have background or training in the neurobiology of sexual assault survivors, this phenomenon"can lead a detective to press victims in a way that yields misleading or false information, as they prematurely try to piece together fragmented memories." This would explain why nearly every sexual assault victim you have ever heard of who did not have perfect recall of their attack was run through the wringer, and tarred as a liar.
The obsession with naming names, and getting the names right at all costs (including the victim's safety and sanity), often becomes considered more important than helping the victim heal, or creating a safer campus culture, and that is a shame and a waste — and a surefire way to make sure that other survivors who can't perfectly recall their attacks will never come forward.
I don't have statistics on how many sexual assault survivors come out of the experience with muddled memories that are of no real use for traditional law enforcement prosecution tactics — quite possibly because, like me, a lot of the those people look at the holes in the their memory, look at the lack of public understanding about the ways that trauma can effect a survivor's memory, and decide that it's better to keep it to themselves. But I know there are a lot of us who can't, for whatever reason, fit into the current model of healing that's structured around identifying and charging our attackers. How do we help those survivors?
For starters, law enforcement, college officials, and others in power can start understanding that there is no singular kind of sexual assault, and no singular kind of sexual assault victim. My choice to not go to the police didn't even feel like an actual choice — it felt like a self-protective instinct, like flinching before a punch. No survivor should have to feel like that, like avoiding reporting their assault is a form of self-care. Anyone working in any official capacity with assault survivors should be educated on the ways that survivors' memories can become fragmented, so that they know that a confusing story is the sign of someone who might need more support, not a sign of lying.
We can also get the word out in general that sexual assaults can take a toll on the memory, so that that information is part of the public consciousness. At the time of my assault, I had never even heard of a sexual assault survivor with a fragmented memory of their attack, let alone heard that there were techniques out there to turn those fragmented memories into a clearer whole. Everything I knew about rape, I knew from Law & Order, where the survivors seem to always have perfect recall of the who, what, where, when, and how of their assault. I thought by not remembering, I had somehow screwed up. We can help each other by telling each other — and our parents, our little brothers and sisters, our students, and everyone else — that people with perfect memories of their assaults aren't the only ones worth believing.
We can also keep in mind that what worked to help one person move on or find closure won't necessarily help the next. We can recognize that, and recognize that the name-your-attacker-then-seek-retribution model is not workable for every single survivor. We can also recognize that just because that model is not workable for that survivor, that does not mean they are lying.
And we can practice saying that just because there's no attacker's name, that doesn't mean that there was no rape. I agree with Buzzfeed's Wagatwe Wanjuki, who wrote that "[i]t isn’t just unnecessary, but it’s outright dangerous to demand that survivors must tell media who their attackers are to make their stories worth hearing..it’s been years since I’ve seen my assailant and I refuse to utter his name. Does that make me not worth believing?"
Sometimes, when talking to others about your assault, the culture's obsession with naming names can feel alienating. The first thing that everyone wants to know is who did this to you. It can feel like the entire narrative of your assault is about the assaulter, rather than the survivor — with the implied promise that if you can name a name, provide all the details you can remember, and get them punished, you'll get your "dignity" back. It's a harmful lie, one that hurts survivors further.
We have to make sure that people who can't or don't want to take "naming your attacker" road know that this is not the only option, the only way to heal. When I finally began talking a little bit about my assault, months later, the most common responses —besides "Did you tell the police?"—were "I'm so sorry," "I want to kill this guy" and "Do you want me to kill this guy?" They were all very kind, supportive responses, from people who loved me and were wracking their brains trying to figure out how to make me feel better. But all I ever wanted to hear anybody say was, "Me, too." I wanted somebody to tell me that this had happened to them, too, and that it wasn't the end of the world; that my life wasn't ruined; that the voices that sometimes crept into my brain and told me that I deserved this were hostile interlopers, not the truth.
That was the detail that boggled my mind the most about the UVA article. Not the horrific details of the rape itself, but that her cold, cruel classmates refused to extend any modicum of support or kindness to her. That it took so long for her to cross paths with someone who had the guts to say, "Me, too." It's not enough to have all the school sexual assault councils and policies in the world in place if we don't also create a culture that supports people before they go after their attackers, after they go through it, or if they don't go through it at all. The obsession with naming names, and getting the names right at all costs (including the victim's safety and sanity), often becomes considered more important than helping the victim heal, or creating a safer campus culture, and that is a shame and a waste — and a surefire way to make sure that other survivors who can't perfectly recall their attacks will never come forward.
Before any of this controversy started, the thing that struck me the most about the piece was the claim that Jackie remembered "every moment of the next three hours of agony." That's the price of admission to be believed in this culture — a crystal-clear recall of the most horrific moments of your life, of moments that your brain is often actively struggling against remembering. That can't be the only way. We need to make space in our discussion for people who can only partially remember. We need to give them space to say: I can't tell you who did this, but I can tell you who it happened to. I can tell you that I survived.