Stronger Than You Know – The Feminist Wire

Stronger Than You Know

By J.B.

My rapist didn’t look like a monster.

He was a six-foot, brown-haired, 25-year-old working at a startup, with dark eyes, a trace of stubble, and a slight French accent. He caught my eye from across the bar, and we started talking. Then somehow we were dancing, then kissing. When the bar closed, he walked me home, got my number and kissed me goodnight on my doorstep.

We dated for four months. He was handsome, smart, mysterious, charming; he swept me off my feet. But the night before Rosh Hashana, he raped me.

I sat through services the next day in shock. I had trusted him. I thought I knew him. And I listened as the congregation recited, “I now forgive everyone who has done me harm, whether intentionally or by mistake. Let no one suffer on my account.”

And I thought, no chance in hell.

I couldn’t yet name what he had done. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say the R-word, to wear that victim banner forever. I didn’t even know what I was crying for, as I sat beside my parents and friends with tears spilling silently down my face.

But what I knew was this: It would be a very long time before I forgave him, if I ever did. I needed to forgive myself first.

I felt so stupid for having trusted him. I racked my brain for warning signs I had missed. How could he have done this to me?

I was a virgin before the rape. I had told him that, that very night. He nodded and said, “That makes sense. In that case, yeah, maybe you should wait for someone special.” An hour later, he raped me.

He asked to apologize to me in person. So I sat across from him at a neighborhood cafe and confronted him. Tea in hand, surrounded by college students working on laptops, I asked him why he had raped me. He said he just hadn’t been thinking.

I told him I was disgusted by his selfishness. I said, “Every day since then, I have been walking around crying. I will live with what you did for the rest of my life.” I added, “I feel broken inside. I hope you never do this to anyone else ever again.”

He looked wretched, saying this was the worst thing he had ever done and that he felt like he had killed somebody. He cried and thanked me for having the courage to see him in person. But I hadn’t gone for his sake. I went for me, and for the girls in his future.

He later wrote to me, “What I did was inexcusable. I am truly sorry for what I did and all the pain I’ve caused.” I believed him. But it felt like he sliced my chest wide open and then felt guilty so put a bandaid on it.

Part of me still misses him. I wondered, what do I do with all the good memories now? Am I supposed to suddenly hate this restaurant, these clothes, this apartment, this body because I was in them with him?

I wondered, will he rape again?

My heart raced every time I saw a tall man with stubble and dark hair. My stomach clenched whenever I heard a French accent. When my best friend slept over, I woke up crying in the middle of the night, panicking at the sound of someone in my bed.

I told my therapist that I did not trust my judgment anymore. She pointed out that sometimes there are no warning signs, that I do have good judgment. I knew what he did was very wrong. I knew to break up with him, to tell friends who would be supportive, to seek out resources.

She told me words that became my mantra: You are stronger than you know.

I have truly wonderful friends, and their love sustains me through it all. A few are survivors, and they assured me that the pain lessens with time.

I began taking baby steps to reclaim my space. I bought a new bed frame so my bed would feel different. I went back to the places we went on our dates and created new memories there. I scheduled plans on the 23rd of every month to distract myself from the anniversary. My therapist reminded me, “It is never selfish to take care of yourself.”

Half a year later, “I got raped” was still my first thought when I woke up every morning. So next to my bed, I taped the words, “I am in control. I have already survived.”

I participated in a fundraiser walk for my local rape crisis center. As I looked around at the hundreds of survivors and supporters walking beside me, I realized that every one of them was rooting for me and wanted me to be okay.

At times I am tempted to date again. After feeling so unsafe, maybe a new relationship would rebuild my trust. But not yet. I want strong arms to hold me and a confident voice to whisper in my ear that everything will be all right. But I realize that those arms, that voice, need to be my own.

I run my fingers over my face, torso, body. I wish there was some part of me that he had never touched. I whisper, “This is mine. Mine.”

I burned the underwear from that night. I watched the pink fabric go up in flames, watched it curl and shrivel into ashes.

I sent him one final letter. I wrote:

What you did was cruel and traumatizing and illegal. You effectively decided that a few minutes of your pleasure were worth me becoming a rape victim, and you becoming a rapist.

This was not just a mistake you made. It was a crime. You decided you were entitled to my body. You didn’t respect me enough to respect my decision.

You made me feel more hopeless than I ever have before. Bad things have happened to me before. People I care about have gotten very sick, and people I care about have died. But until you, no one I cared about had ever raped me. No one had ever made me feel so unsafe and powerless.

There have been so many nights when I couldn’t fall asleep because I couldn’t stop crying. There have been so many mornings when I could barely pull myself out of bed because I felt so hopeless about the world. There have been moments when I felt isolated from everyone. There have been times when I wanted desperately to crawl out of my skin and not be in this body that you violated.

I added:

You told me afterward, ‘Now your whole life is ruined.’ But you were wrong. I’m still alive. You will never hurt me again.

I will still go to med school one day and become a doctor. I still have a job that I care about. I still have incredible friends and family who love me.

I am learning to feel safe with men again. I will have boyfriends and, someday, a husband who will care about me and will never hurt me. My body still is and has always been mine.

I am not defined by what you did to me, because your decision had nothing to do with me. It was not my fault. I deserved so much better.

You have shaken me to my core, but you haven’t destroyed me. And that makes me realize I can survive any loss.

I will continue to love. I will continue to travel, write, laugh, learn. I will relish every bit of beauty in this world that I can. I will remember every day just how strong and courageous, how loved, I am.

And you? I saw the terrible guilt in your eyes. You can never outrun what you did to me. For the rest of your life, you will always be a rapist. And I feel sorry for you.

I sent it to him over Facebook messaging on the nine-month anniversary. Then I finally unfriended him. He read the letter, but he didn’t reply. And I realized I didn’t need him to.

What I needed was to be heard. I needed to tell him that it was rape, and that the rape had pervaded every area of my life and changed the way I looked at the world. But I also needed to tell him that I am taking back my life.

I think often of Maya Angelou’s words: “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”

He took so much from me that wasn’t his to take. Not just my virginity, but my sense of safety, my autonomy over my body, my faith in humanity. But ever so slowly, I am beginning to rebuild a fragile new kind of trust. And I’m still alive. And I’m still me.


rapeJ.B. lives in New England.