The Interview Series: The Shame Game

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“When it went down originally, people wanted to push it under the rug. I lost a lot of friends,” she told me, as we began our conversation about her experience of being raped during her junior year of college. She had been describing the reaction of a recent long-term boyfriend, and how his response wasn’t unlike that of her social circle at the time of the trauma. After dating for over a year, she had finally worked up the nerve to disclose to him that she had been raped, an important step for relationships with men that appeared to have long term potential. “It’s a pretty defining moment from my life. It creates trust issues for me. If you want to know me, you need to know this.” They were on a ski trip together, and one night after they had some drinks, she ventured into her past. No sooner had she spoken the words than he became angry, visibly upset and uncomfortable. She dropped the subject for the time being, bringing it up again the next day. He became defensive, informing her in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to hear about it, or talk about it. He wasn’t the one who had raped her, so why should he have to confront her truth?

As she and I spoke we returned to the theme of silence, again and again, brought on by forces internal, social and cultural.

She’d been on three dates previously with H the night she ran into him at a houseparty during junior year. She was excited to see him there playing beer pong among his friends.. She remembers she was on her first drink of the night, a cup of beer, when she asked if he could hold it for a sec while she went to the bathroom. The next thing she knew she was waking up at home the next morning, sensing she had been sexually assaulted and discovering physical signs of an attack.

“It was the worst hangover of my life. I felt absolutely disgusting.” She asked her friends if they could fill in the details of what had happened to her during her blackout. They told her that not long after arriving at the party she talked about being tired, and that H took her to an upstairs bedroom. He had sex with her while she was passed out, coming back down to the party to brag about the rape, leaving her naked in a stranger’s bedroom. Her friends admitted not knowing what to do in the moment, and resorted to calling a guy friend for help. He arrived at the party, going directly upstairs to the room where she was still unconscious. He wrapped her up in a blanket, carrying her in his arms down past the party below, out to his truck, driving her home. He returned to the party shortly after and beat the shit out of H.

H was a Big Man On Campus, very popular and a well-respected athlete. Most of the partygoers that night were student athletes, a tight-knit community. After filling in the lapses in her memory of the night before, her friends informed her “if you report this, I’ll say I don’t know what happened.” Her girlfriends stood with her rapist, protecting him, and his social status, perhaps that of their community at large.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I spent the whole next day crying and showering repeatedly.” She described a sense of total confusion over how to handle the rape. Should she report it? Go to the hospital? Above all, she didn’t want anyone else to know. Yet Monday morning on campus, people around her were whispering, and she sensed that everyone knew. “I was the slut.” She felt that people blamed her for getting into the situation in the first place, and were letting H off the hook for his violence without question. She was the untouchable woman, the slut falling from grace, about whom everyone was talking. Without the support of friends, who had already made clear they were siding with the perpetrator, she went into a period of deep silence and isolation, telling no one, suffering alone, upset and emotional as the party went on around her. Soon she felt she couldn’t report the rape because she had no one to corroborate her story, especially the parts she didn’t remember, when the assault occurred.

She failed the next two quarters of classes, struggling to get to class, where she felt shame and judgement emanating from her peers, anyone associated with H’s sports team. She was sick with stress and felt totally exposed, wishing to “blow off life”. Her head was in a fog that wouldn’t lift. What did the fog consist of? Depression was a big part of it. Some of it was trying to reconcile how her girlfriends knew the events of the rape, were there when it happened, but choose to protect the rapist. Another part was the question, borne of shock, how did this happen to me? “This happened to me? No, this happens to other people. This happens to girls who party hard and aren’t responsible.” She too had absorbed the messages from the culture, reinforced by her social circle, that the victim is somehow responsible for the crime.

Does she identify as a rape victim? No. She doesn’t like the word victim. “Victim to me sounds weak. I don’t like thinking of myself as a weak person.” What about rape survivor? She paused for a long moment, considering. “I think of survivor as heroic in some sense. Someone who fought. I didn’t fight. I don’t remember the rape.” What does resonate for her, as she thinks about the rape as part of her identity, eight years later? “I feel violated. It comes down to the fact that I don’t remember.”

She had come from a small town to campus, excited to be in a city, starting the first chapter of her adult life. She described herself as getting caught up in college, believing the more friends she made, the better. She was friendly and open, and quickly found herself surrounded by fun new people. She stayed in touch with her close-knit family, which consisted of her mother, younger sister and brother. Her parents were divorced, and father somewhat estranged from the group.

She often made the several hour drive back home for weekends, especially after the rape, having found out her friends were anything but. She had to distance herself from her social circle, understanding these were people who couldn’t be trusted. She had been forced to see that when it came down to it, no one was there for her, which created major trust issues. She had loved college, but now campus felt like a scary place. It took her a year to tell her family about the rape, though during the drive home she would practice telling them. There was something in the way, and it wasn’t until her mother confronted her with her sense that something was wrong that she broke down and ended her silence.

Shaky and scared, crying heavily, she told her mother and siblings about the rape. She recalls feeling heartbroken seeing the look on her mother’s face while delivering the news. Her thirteen year-old brother became visibly angry toward the rapist, going so far as to calling their father to tell him. Her sixteen year-old sister was quiet, taking it in. Her father called her to ask if she was OK, and what he could do; a strange occurrence given their estrangement. She chose to withhold details, believing her father could very well kill H, given his career in the Army’s Special Forces. “The thing that gets me, that still really upsets me is that it took me so long to tell my family. I was so afraid they’d be disappointed.” Why would they be disappointed? “It was fear that I had fucked up. Yes, it was done to me, but there was a lot of shame and stigma. Shame and guilt over how I could have let this happen.” Being raped would be a sign she wasn’t taking college seriously, that she was failing at being an adult. As the first person in her family to go to a four year college, she put a lot of pressure on herself. Her family did not react with disappointment, instead offering comfort and kindness.

She recounted a surprising irony from the morning after the party where the assault occurred. Among the friends urging her not to report her rape, to remain silent, was the president of a different campus’ sexual assault and prevention awareness group. “She had knowledge and resources to help me handle the situation appropriately. She went against her training.” Instead, the President called H and made threats, forcing him to agree to procure Plan B pregnancy prevention medication, later meeting up with him for a hand-off. The President’s contribution to the crisis was birth control. She had bruises and vaginal soreness, and believed she had washed away evidence during the many showers she took that morning. She could have used a knowledgeable advocate. Together we expressed our disbelief that a person in such a position would condone and even prescribe silence, working back channels to solve a small part of the trauma, unrelated to emotional or physical safety.

When she understood she was beginning to fail the second quarter of her junior year, she asked to cut back her hours at work as a household manager for a busy professional family. Her boss, a shrewd and intuitive woman, sensed there was a deeper reason she was failing school, and probed, getting the story out of her. Her boss encouraged her to tell her family, and to report the rape. “At that point I knew I was a mess and had to get my shit together. I started to rally when I realized I was on the verge of losing school.” Her boss handed her the direct line of a campus police victim advocate, urging her to call and tell her story.

She talked about having to depersonalize the rape in order to cope. She needed to hold it at arm’s length and make sense of it rationally, outside herself. “If I don’t talk about it, or think about it, maybe it didn’t happen.” She had compartmentalized the trauma, feeling a need to downplay it, even when she made the anonymous call to the victim advocate. “Even though it was anonymous, I thought, what if she figures me out? I didn’t want her to know I was feeling as bad as I was.” She and the advocate went through a behavioral health questionnaire and she found herself underplaying the severity of her situation. It was scary to tell the story of the rape and admit things about her current state, what a difficult time she was having.

What’s it like now that almost a decade has passed, she’s graduated college and is nearing age thirty? “I know it wasn’t my fault.” She still feels touches of shame and guilt from time to time. “I’m learning to be OK with not being OK with it. I find comfort in knowing I’m not the only one. The situation was a wakeup call for me to make some serious changes.” What kind of changes? For one, she had to start over socially after the rape, finding herself abandoned by girlfriends who were anything but. She learned to surround herself with the right people, quality over quantity. “I’m more acquainted with myself.” She has a close circle of friends who have proven themselves trustworthy, on whom she knows she can count, among them her ex-boyfriend from high school, who was an important source of support in the terrible months after the rape.

Another major change relates to the evolution of her social position, her experience of how she believes she is being perceived by outsiders. What exactly does this mean? “I’m careful with how I cultivate relationships. I’m concerned with others’ perceptions. I live in a small town masquerading as a big city. Everyone knows everyone, and it makes me uber cautious with my image.” Is this related to the slut-shaming she experienced on campus after being raped? She had gone from intrigued to terrified as to how she was perceived by peers after the attack. It took her a long time to find peace with the idea of people talking about or remembering the rape. She described a lengthy period where she imagined big college parties where the men reminisced about how H “got” her. Sometimes these scenarios were nightmares where she was screaming out the truth at the men, but no one could hear her. She talked about trying to find peace with not being able to control others’ perceptions of her, adding that she shouldn’t even have to feel she needs control. “I’m always going to be aware and cautious, but I’m not going to stop being me.” The journey to “re-find, redefine myself is an on-going process.”

We spent some time talking about the pressure to remain silent about rape, and from what sources that pressure is applied. Her goal is to talk with abandon about her experience of being raped and how it has shaped her life. She doesn’t want people to respond the way her ex-boyfriend did, with a hostile, defensive posture. “I have confidence I’ll get there. I just don’t know when or what that looks like.”

 

 

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