A couple of weeks ago, Mylène Dressler posted an incredibly astute and poignant comment on Facebook about why women don’t talk about sexual trauma until much later (if ever). I asked for her permission to repost her comment on my blog and she graciously gave it. Thank you, Mylène. Thank you for writing this piece that prompted me to share my story without the shame that has plagued me for way too many years.
“FOR GOD’S SAKE AND FOR THE LAST TIME (I WISH), here are SOME of the reasons women often do not speak of sexual assault until years after the attack:
They are, we are, traumatized. What has happened is unspeakable. It literally cannot be spoken. For years.
They are, we are, ashamed. Having grown up in a culture that says women are at fault when sexually assaulted, they, we, imbibe the idea we, the victim, are somehow to blame–and the attacker is not.
They are, we are, afraid. Of retaliation. Of ruin. Of being disbelieved. Of mockery. Of shaming. Of harassment. Of threats. Of further physical attack. Of psychological attacks. Of the assailant. Of people who are not the attacker, yet nevertheless continue to assail. Of the trauma being enlarged and extended.
They are, we are, well aware nothing will likely happen to the attacker. In the United States of America, only 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual violence is punished. To speak is to suffer to no purpose.
They are, we are, well versed in why this is so–and in the brutal (il)logic of patriarchy. As in: if the woman was drunk, the assault was her fault. But if the man was drunk, he is excused–he didn’t know what he was doing.
They, we, simply want to get past this horror, this illogic, and go on with our lives. We want to forget (though we can’t). We want to block (though we don’t). We want to be free. We hope we will never see the attacker again. We hope he has fallen off a cliff, and died. We hope what he did is not being done to others. And then, perhaps, something happens:
They, we, you, she sees him again. He has not fallen off a cliff. He is being nominated for the highest panel of judgment in the land. There he is. Her assailant. After all these years. There he is. And what he did. There it is. All of the reasons to continue to stay silent about it, all of the paragraphs above, and more, weigh heavy as stone. Then something snaps under it. It is so obvious. This man who years ago acted as though her body did not belong to her–he still believes women’s bodies do not belong to them. This man who attacked one body with force–he will now have the power to force his idea of a woman’s body onto other women’s bodies. And make this force the law of the land.
To force not just one, but many.
And so she speaks.
But notice: when she finally does speak, it is still not even on her own behalf. She speaks, when she finally does, not to help herself–because once she speaks, there will only be harm and more harm, as all the retaliation, the threats, the mockery, the disbelief, the attacks she has always known would come are unleashed on her–yet she speaks, because now this is bigger than “just” the assault on her own, lone body.
In other words: sometimes women finally speak, and only finally speak, when they find a reason bigger than their own pain–as though what happens to them, to us, isn’t big enough.
If you have trouble remembering and understanding all of this, please copy and paste to help you the next time you want to remember and understand a victim of sexual assault.
If you already know and understand all of this, but know others who keep asking the same same same same same question, over and over again, please copy and paste, and share, so they might remember and understand a victim of sexual assault.
Because there is going to be a test on all of this.
When is the test, you ask?
Every day. In fact, it’s about once every 98 seconds, in the United States of America.
And the test will not be, as it so often is, of the victim’s humanity.
It will be of yours.”
I was shaken by Mylène’s post. She seemed to be talking to me. I, too, have been sexually assaulted. The abuse took place in a different country, in a small village, a long time ago. From the age of seven on, I rarely went back to that village. I only saw my attacker once–and he didn’t recognize me in the teenager I had become. I know now that I will never see him again. I don’t even know if he’s alive. And yet, I have carried the shame for something he did to me through the years. From the time I became aware of my body–and that happened early on–every time a man would leer at me, I thought it was somehow my fault, because that man could see that I was already tainted, that I was already damaged goods.
Therapy helped, but therapy can only take you that far when you hide your secret from the world.
Here’s my reply to Mylène’s post:
“This moves me beyond words. ❤️ When I was five years old, I was molested by a neighbor. Growing up, I tried to push the episode to the back of my mind, because thinking about it would fill me with guilt and shame. Twenty years later, when pregnant with my daughter and feeling ambivalent about the world I was bringing her into (it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11), I wrote a poem about my childhood abuse. It took me another 16 years to get the poem published. And I still struggle with a debilitating sense of shame when I imagine what the readers of that poem might think about me. I admire the brave women who speak out and make the world a kinder place for their daughters. Wrapped in my deafening silence, I’m with them.”
The poem I’m talking about was published by Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review last June. I wanted to shout my joy to the world when I received my contributor’s copy–but was afraid to do so because of the difficult subject matter. And yet, with everything that’s been going on in the world lately, I’m moved and inspired to step forward and add my voice to that of other women—my soul sisters. Cocooning myself in prudent silence is no longer sufficient. Me too, I tell my sisters belatedly. #Me Too. Forgive me for the silence. And thank you for giving me the courage to speak up.
I’m posting the poem below, with my gratitude to Borderlands for publishing it. Some of my family members will read this poem–this story–for the first time. I want to let them know that I’m OK, even better than OK, and that this coming out is part of the healing process. That I’m here if they want to talk. That I love them as I know they love me.
When he came, a blast of cold rain
tore through grandma’s trees, threw
walnuts and leaves on the ground,
stomped on them with mad feet.
Ah, that green bitterness,
its juice seeping into the white
meaty kernel of the broken shell.
My hand was swollen from bee stings.
I’d offered them grapes in exchange
for their honey. Kneeling in front
of the beehive, I slid my hand
through the slot. The grapes,
like purple eyes, rolled on my open
palm, gaped into the warm, glowing
darkness. I was sure the bees
would take them. I struggled to pull
my hand out, smearing snot,
grape juice, and tears all over my face.
He led me through dark rooms
to the back of his parents’ house.
His bedroll was carelessly thrown
on the floor. He had just returned
from the army and could only sleep
on the ground. A huge yellow cat
coiled on his pillow. It meowed,
opened its mouth in a pink yawn.
He patted my hair, wiped my face
with his sleeve. He drew out
his cock and asked me to touch it.
I touched it with my healthy hand.
The other I clutched under my chin,
afraid to look. He asked me to touch
his cock with my swollen hand,
to close my ugly fingers around it.
My fingers and his cock looked
as if they belonged together,
throbbing, both swelling with pain.
He pushed me down on the blankets,
gently, and reached under my skirt.
The yellow cat had to move.
It stretched and tiptoed away
into the dark. When he finished,
he promised to punish the bees.
They will never come near you
again, he promised, I am
your friend and they fear me.
Late that night, mother and I sat
for dinner. Grandma brought out
the beans, poured the wine.
I drank my half of a glass and asked
for more. You’ll get drunk, grandma
laughed and gave me her glass.
I listened to them talking about
my father, gone to the city to find
a job, how he would come back
with no money, as always.
My hand was swaddled in cotton
strips, torn from my mother’s
nightshirt. Under the bandage,
baked onion wedges clang to my skin.
My skin stank, but I liked
the numbness. Quietly, I slipped
into a peaceful martyrdom.
Eat more, grandma nudged.
I held my mother’s arm,
my head on her breast.
Too much wine, said mother
and scooped me up for bed.
First published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, issue 48, June 2018