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This is how her story starts: “This is what I remember. My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: ‘I’ll kill you if you scream.’ I remained motionless. ‘Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.’ I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth covered with his left. He released his hand from my mouth. I screamed. Quickly. Abruptly. The struggle began.”
My story doesn’t begin in a tunnel with a stranger. It doesn’t begin one night when I’m walking home late from a friend’s house. It begins in first grade in my grandparents living room, downstairs watching cartoons with my cousin. He was thirteen. I was six.
“Unbutton your pants,” he said.
In hindsight, I realize now my mom was trying to teach me the roots of rape culture at a young age:
“If someone slows down their car and asks you about a missing dog, don’t talk to them.”
“If a stranger tries to walk you off the bus and says he knows your family, don’t go anywhere with him.”
“If you’re in a dangerous situation and someone tells you not to scream because they’ll kill your family, scream anyway.”
I didn’t know what this meant at the time. I know now.
Skeptical and slightly suspicious, I unbuttoned my jeans. I don’t remember how, but I ended up with underneath him on the couch. He rubbed the butterflies on my underwear over and over and over again. I clearly remember him looking into my eyes and asking me, “Does this feel okay?” I wasn’t even sure what was going on. I just remember being so afraid, I nodded my head “yes,” not knowing what would happen if I said “no,” and too scared to try and find out. I then averted eye contact, examining the white ceiling as I pretended not to exist.
I only have fragments of that day. I remember at one point I ran away from him, looking at him from the down the stairs, and him yelling, “Come back here!” I remember I went upstairs anyway, knowing I didn’t like what had just happened, and I didn’t want it to happen again.
If anything, my life and Alice Sebold’s Lucky: A Memoir have taught me that it only really takes one day to ruin you. I think it’s so awful to use that word, but emotionally when something so traumatizing happens it affects your interactions and behaviors in the future. That’s how sexual abuse can feel: as if it ruined you.
In a way I can never repay her—Alice Sebold saved me. I like to think I lived vicariously through her after her rape took place.
If anyone has ever been sexually abused, I think they know what it means when I say it takes so much away from you. Like Sebold, my first sexual experience was one I had unwillingly. I had no choice, and at that time, no knowledge about what was going on. When you’re a child, you’re taught to trust your family, and my mom couldn’t protect me from the unimaginable.
I did tell her right afterwards, though. But he was my uncle’s first child, and before my sister and I were born, my mother loved him unconditionally like her own child. It’s my personal belief that my mom used the love she had for my cousin as a way to protect him, and I understand that. But it didn’t protect the other girls who I know he violated, or at least tried. I know filing a legal case against him would divide the family. Still, if I understood what happened at that time, I would have pursued the case. I would never want to see him again.
Unfortunately, as I learned, after a certain amount of years you can’t pursue a case. Before I fully understood what happened, I couldn’t pursue legal action either. He took that from me too. The closest I’ve ever had to a legal victory was Alice Sebold’s court case.
On October 5th, 1981, Alice Sebold saw her rapist again. Entitled, and unaware of her strength, he said smugly to her passing on the street, “Hey, girl, don’t I know you from somewhere?” I totally understood how violating that comment was. At my grandmother’s funeral two years ago, as my family was leaving the church, I started crying when my cousin who had molested me put his hand around my shoulder from behind, squeezed it, and told me that “everything was going to be okay.” The audacity for someone who has violated you to think they can talk to you is unexplainable. As if their actions weren’t damaging enough. I, unfortunately, had to tolerate this—there was nothing within my power I could do after so much time had passed. Unlike me, Sebold was able to take action right away. After seeing her rapist, she filed a report to the police.
A court case immediately took place. I sat with Alice as she was cross-examined. I wanted to reach out my hands to her as her prosecutor wanted to confuse her and make her seem as an unreliable young girl. I wanted to be the reassuring smile during the court case telling her I know she could concretely get every fact of that day right. I wanted her to win for herself, and for every girl who has ever been sexually abused.
I rejoiced for Alice when her rapist was declared guilty. And I rejoiced for myself too. I wish I could say it ended there, and everything after that was happy, but we all know that couldn’t be true. Like most rape victims, afterwards Alice Sebold suffered from post-traumatic stress. Although I’m not classified as having post-traumatic stress, I do have intense symptoms of it. When I first began dating, I struggled with intimacy. Although I never had sex in my first relationship, I was terrified that I was pregnant. I put myself through awful cycles of anxiety; I constantly tortured myself believing I had ruined my life after just kissing someone I loved. In other words, my anxiety led me to believe all sexual actions would somehow ruin my life. Society stigmatizes teen pregnancy and STDs and presents them as bad and wrong and thus, I believed I would get an STD or become pregnant. I believed that whatever sexual actions I engaged in were bad and wrong. Although I wasn’t consciously aware of it, the aftermath of my molestation led me to feel ashamed of my sexuality. For me, my own sexuality was something I was trying to reclaim, but the more and more I tried to take it back, the more and more terrified and anxious I grew.
I think the hardest thing about that relationship was the way it was perceived from the outside. I heard people claim I didn’t care as much about my ex-boyfriend as he cared about me. I’ll be the first admit I wasn’t the girlfriend I wish I could be, but I was limited because of my experience. I had a hard time coping with my intimacy and sexuality in private, so there was no way for me to able to express public displays of affection. For someone with anxiety, PDA was like my worst nightmare. Because of my own experiences and the judgments placed on me, I will never make assumptions about other peoples relationships. Other relationships are not my business, and no one ever knows what really occurs behind closed doors.
In Alice Sebold’s words, to read her book was like “…suddenly being in the presence of someone who ‘got it.’ Not just knew the facts, but – as near as she could – understand what I felt” (67). I have always found that the beauty of literature lies within its capacity to make people feel less alone in this world. I think that’s why I’ve been able to get through so many hardships in my life, because books have been there to support me. In fact, when I told one of my friends in middle school that I had been molested, she told me “it didn’t count because it was family.” However, after reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in Ms. McMane’s English class sophomore year, my friend apologized to me. I think it’s so incredible that books can not only support people, but also inform and make people more empathetic, too.
In Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou explains, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced to it.” This is exactly how I feel surrounding my sexual abuse. I don’t share my story because I want pity, or because I feel like I am a “sexual abuse victim.” I share because I want to break the glass ceiling surrounding the discussions around sexual abuse. I want to be a resource for people who have felt violated. I want people to be proud of themselves and their sexualities, even after traumatic events occur. I feel claiming myself as a feminist and discussing rape culture adds to positive healing for other survivors and productive conversations for those who have not experienced these struggles personally. The disturbing reality of rape culture is everyone knows someone who has experienced something non-consensual, and maybe they haven’t responded with compassion. I want to change that.
Would you ever ask a six-year-old what she was wearing to make her thirteen-year-old cousin molest her?