[TW/CW for discussion of sexual assault]
Fifteen years into my active recovery from more than one sexual assault, my ability to speak honestly about what I’ve experienced is conditioned by wariness, protectiveness, and fear. There are relationships to protect; there is the relative power and influence of one of my abusers with which to contend; there is societal investment in my silence. I’ve done the math, sat down with my therapist and weighed my wish to bare all with the predictable consequences that would follow. I don’t have the strength to withstand public attacks. I don’t have the wherewithal to bear having my character dissected. I know exactly the lies the men would tell about me. I have seen them writ large on the pages of newspapers and magazines for years.
My life is constantly and unpredictably shaped by the PTSD that men gave me. I was triggered two Sundays ago by the resemblance between a local religious leader and a man who abused me, and my body and brain entered into the peculiar dance of ‘coping’ that my illness demands. I dissociated, my brain closing itself down against the reminder of past pain, but did not understand it was happening in the moment. Instead I thought I was overly distracted by the whispers of children and flickering of a light, that I wasn’t bringing mindfulness to the service I was attending. It was only once I was home and the flashbacks to my childhood church began that I realized what had happened. As I tried to sleep, I closed my eyes and found myself back in the church hall where a different minister of god had touched me without my consent, and I would wake up fully, choking on fear.
I sank beneath the weight of those remembered feelings. I went to the grocery store and was so overwhelmed by light and sound and the number of people that I almost melted down from sheer panic. I did all the right things – reminded myself of the date, the place; used scent to ground myself; concentrated on what I could see and hear in the here and now. What was left was rage – rage that so many years after the fact of that abuse the consequences could disable me so completely that a trip to the grocery store was an exercise in terror.
I wonder what happened to that minister.
He was not the only man to harm me.
By Thursday I had regained some of my equilibrium, but my brain still scanned for danger at every opportunity, and refused to wholly engage in the work in front of me. My mind was a gearbox with a manual transmission, and I couldn’t engage the stick shift to move from task to task. Some part of me was still working through the trigger. I was exhausted. I was angry. I resented my own brain.
And then came Friday, September 14, and an essay in the New York Review of Books by Jian Ghomeshi, a infamous serial predator who lost his job with the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 2014 after twenty women charged him with sexual misconduct. I read his essay out of a sense of needing control – to know what he said on my terms rather than to be confronted by the incomplete sound bites that would drop on twitter hour by hour. The essay represented a half-assed mea culpa in which Ghomeshi outlined the ways in which he had coerced women, lamented the loss of his fame and related income, and implied he had learned his lesson. It was a plea for sympathy, and worse, it was a plea given column inches in a major publication by an editor who believed #metoo was serving a raw deal to men like Ghomeshi. I woke in me fury enough to write.
Ghomeshi got a national audience for his lament. The women whom he targeted did not. The women who, like me, carry the lasting burden of being harmed in their tissues and bones, in the very folds of their brains, are not as interesting to editors as men seeking redemption. And so, once again, we are told we are not safe, that men who assault others will be redeemed even as we work to make the most ordinary gear shifts in own minds and work, live, go to the store. We are silenced by the stories we cannot tell lest power and influence are wielded against us by men we know and a thousand faceless trolls who will take up their cause. We are left to define ourselves by new measures, by the steps we feel bold enough to take beyond our front doors. That we rebuild, even as trauma clings to the mortar between the bricks, an ivy of memory that others can ignore, is remarkable. Ghomeshi gets an article; we, if we’re lucky, get to craft a day in which we feel secure.
Soon after Ghomeshi’s essay, Dr. Blasey Ford was outed against her will as the woman whom Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee, attempted to rape when she was fifteen. News networks, papers, social media, and websites choked on the number of opinions people aired, disparaging Dr. Ford, belittling her, calling her a liar, threatening her life. Fox News aired an interview with Kavanaugh in which he proffered a story in which he had led a blameless, enlightened, sober life despite the classmates who came forward to talk about his misogyny and partying.
Blasey Ford went into hiding.
Republican senators dismissed Ford’s allegations before hearing her testimony, and refused to initiate an FBI investigation into her claims and those of the other women who came forward after her. In the stories those senators told, Kavanaugh became a proxy for all white, powerful men, a victim of smears, an unjustly tarnished individual, and Ford a deluded, hysterical woman who was to blame for whatever happened to her, if anything had.
These words become a daily gauntlet to endure for me and so many like me. Each word adds a physical weight to the trauma already balanced on my shoulders, causing me to slow my steps, to sit in my home, to go to bed early, to duck out of meetings and appointments and office hours. There are deadlines to meet, teaching for which to prepare, articles to write, yet the gear shifts of my brain are rusted through. I cannot make my brain grind through the detritus of men’s forcible denial any faster than it will, and its will is formidable. STOP, it tells me. HIDE. ESCAPE. I do what I can; I go to therapy; I make myself tea. I shut down, withdraw, and weather the endless wittering of talking heads and White House staff splashed noisily across the web. Sitting in a coffeeshop the morning of Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate, I thought of the cameras and the dismissive, aged white men she would face, and fumbled with my coffee cup as a friend prayed for Blasey Ford’s safe keeping. I tried to lose myself in administrative work. Eventually, I picked up my belongings and left so that I could shake and cry.
It would be nice to write a paragraph here to assure you that I will be okay, that I live my life despite my PTSD and have friends, community, and joys to discover in a fresh, fall morning. That would be true, and reassuring, and allow us all to move on without awkward feelings or too much discomfort. But I want you to know that this is my normal – that I live my life with space in it, always, for the echo of trauma that runs through each day, sometimes as a whisper, now as a roar. There is no release for me from abuse and assault. I cannot access the redemption that Ghomeshi and Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer and Brett Kavanaugh and countless others feel they are owed. Society says that men may move on. My body and brain are so altered by the imprint of men’s hands that touched me and held me down without my permission that I cannot. Collectively, we have done the math and decided this is a just deal, that men’s lives matter more than those of others, that there must be forgiveness and rehabilitation and more for those who would rob us of our autonomy, our wholeness. What is the calculus of my life against theirs? Where do the hours I spend restlessly accommodating trauma fit in?