Image Credit: Alex Nursall
I was nineteen when my boyfriend held my hand on a December night and told me that he just didn’t love me as much as I loved him. He kissed me and asked if I wanted to be friends, but I didn’t. I already had friends. Chris and Isaac were my friends. I stumbled through the snow to Chris and Isaac’s house, my throat raw, eyes itching. My footsteps were muffled and the streets were empty. I counted steps until my toes went numb. By the time I reached the rotting wood of their front porch, I knew a cavity in my chest to be hollow. Chris opened the door and pulled me into a warm hug, his bony arms digging into my back. Isaac poured me three fingers of whiskey that glittered amber in the light.
“Are you OK?” Chris asked.
I shook my head and choked back the whiskey. Snot bubbled from my nose and my shoulders undulated as I struggled to control my breath.
“Your boyfriend wore stupid cardigans, anyway,” Isaac said. Chris cuffed him on the back of the head.
The three of us sat around their rickety kitchen table. Isaac topped up my glass again and again. When our laughter became sloppy and wet Isaac pulled out his guitar. We sang an angry song.
“And I hope you die,” we sang, “I hope we all die.”
Virginia Woolf writes of the “poverty of the language” with which to describe pain. A schoolgirl in love has the poets to speak for her, but a woman with a headache does not have the words to describe her affliction. The schoolgirl can rely on the work of Shakespeare and Keats to articulate her deepest truths, but the sufferer of pain is forced to forge the words herself.
Rape is sometimes called “the unspeakable crime.” You cannot report the unspeakable.
In the 2014 horror movie, It Follows, a young woman named Jay notices her boyfriend, Hugh, acting strangely at the movies. He’s jumpy. He’s scared. He flees the theatre. Jay follows. Outside, Hugh’s gaze flicks behind his shoulder. But as far as Jay can tell no one is there. A few days later Hugh drives with Jay into the woods. They kiss. They skinny dip in the lake. They have sex for the first time in the back of Hugh’s car. Hugh kisses Jay’s neck and caresses the side of her bare waist. Then he knocks her out with chloroform.
I met Chris and Isaac when I was eighteen. We became fast friends, spending long hours in a dingy Thai restaurant that sold us cheap pitchers of beer. Chris was tall and gangly. Isaac was short and compact. Chris was clean-shaven with an easy smile and a mess of reddish-brown hair. Isaac’s dark hair was clipped close to his skull. A beard obscured the lower half of his face. Isaac was smart. He had a wicked sense of humour. Our voices reached an inhuman resonance when we yelled at each other about Lady Gaga and the failings of democracy.
“I think we should set off a bomb,” Isaac said once, “Just blow everything up and start from scratch.”
“I think you’re full of shit,” I laughed.
In the memoir One Hour in Paris, philosopher Karyn L. Freedman describes her experience of being raped as a moment “frozen in time.” During a traumatic event, Freedman explains, your natural fight-or-flight instinct is interrupted. Overwhelmed, the nervous system floods until you can neither fight nor flee; until you are “paralyzed by your own powerlessness.”
Rape is sometimes called a “crime of power.”
Jay wakes in a parking garage tied to a wheelchair. Hugh explains that an entity had been stalking him. When they had sex the entity attached itself to Jay. Unless she passes the entity on to another, it will follow her wherever she goes. If it catches up to her, she will die. Jay peers into the darkness of the garage. A pale, naked woman advances.
“Don’t let it touch you,” Hugh says in between Jay’s screams.
“It can look like people you know or it can be a stranger in a crowd, whatever helps it get close to you,” Hugh tells Jay, “Sometimes I think it looks like people you love just to hurt you, scare you, make fun of you.”
In One Hour in Paris, Karyn L. Freedman describes the cognitive dissonance of rape. Growing up, Freedman was taught that the world was a fundamentally safe place for women, provided you follow the rules. Don’t walk home alone late at night. Don’t dress provocatively. Don’t accept drinks from strangers. But it cannot be true both that the world is a fundamentally safe place for women, and that you were raped.
After Freedman was raped she had a choice. She could continue to believe the world was a safe place, at the cost of believing the rape was somehow her fault, or she could mourn the loss of the world she thought she’d known and the illusion of safety it had provided.
Sigmund Freud writes of the Unheimlich. The uncanny, in English.
“The uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and has long been familiar.”
Unheimlich literally translates to “un-homely.” But Heimlich contains a secondary meaning. Heimlich is that which is “concealed so that others do not get to know of it, or about it, and it is always hidden from them.” Unheimlich is the fear of a secret exposed and destroyed by its exposure. Unheimlich is the fear of the unmaking of the familiar and the destruction of a home.
Chris, Isaac, and I used to call our group of friends “the Family.” I can’t remember if the Manson reference was intentional. It seems like something we would have found funny, at the time.
I cannot tell you what happened on the morning after Isaac raped me, because I cannot tell you that Isaac raped me. I can tell you that I hosted a Halloween party. I can tell you that Isaac was there. I can tell you that the next morning I woke sprawled face down on my futon, wearing an unfamiliar sweater. It was too small for me. The fabric itched.
I looked at an empty bottle of Wild Turkey glittering on the wooden floor of my bedroom. I flinched. I looked out my window at withering October leaves. I sat up. The bruised skin of my legs was pale in the morning light. I used a green-painted fingernail to pick a scab off my knee. The skin beneath was pink and smooth. The futon creaked. I turned to face Isaac. I’d never seen a naked body like his. Head too large for his shoulders; before him, I didn’t know a body could frown.
“What happened?” I asked. The answer was caught in the back of my throat.
Isaac’s laughter was a cough ground in a blender with ice and a dash of salt.
Theorist Elaine Scarry believes the infliction of pain can unmake consciousness, language, and identity. Slam a hammer on your hand and your mind will go blank. You might see stars.
“In the presence of pain you can watch language deteriorate,” Scarry writes, “One’s ability to say sentences, and even one’s ability to say words, disappears.”
Pain shrinks the tortured’s world down to the presence of pain and its absence. The tortured becomes little more than a sufferer of pain; their body reduced to a vessel for potential injury.
“One definition of evil,” Scarry continues, “might be ‘using the language-destroying power of pain to unmake someone’s world intentionally.’”
I cannot tell you what happened a few weeks after Isaac raped me, because I cannot tell you that Isaac raped me. I can tell you that Isaac and I ended up at a mutual friend’s party in a converted warehouse on the east side of town. I sat cross-legged in the corner, nursing a bottle of cheap wine. My phone buzzed with a text.
“Hey, been meaning to ask, do you have something? My dick’s been itchy.”
I glanced across the room. Isaac had his phone in his right hand, a girl’s hand in the left. I watched them sink into a tangle of limbs on a cracked leather couch. I washed down rising bile with a vinegary Merlot. The empty cavity in my chest ached.
Karyn L. Freedman explains that traumatic memories are formed differently than ordinary memories. Our minds, eager to protect us from harm, are capable of triggering dissociation from disturbing life events. Traumatic memories, shot with a high intensity, can be accurate and vivid, but also incomplete and fragmented. Some trauma survivors are never able to process their experiences as a coherent narrative. Their memories remain too painful to be understood.
My memory is a shattered mirror at high noon. From certain angles, the reflection is blinding.
The entity is stalking Jay. It follows Jay to school. It breaks into her home. It looks like an old woman in pajamas; then a half-naked girl missing her two front teeth. It’s a long-limbed giant; then a little boy with a contorted face. It’s her friend Yara; then it’s her dead father. Jay’s world isn’t safe. Perhaps it never was.
But Jay and her friends come up with a plan. They’ll lure the entity into a trap. Her friends use rolls of extension cords to plug in irons, curlers, space heaters, and a radio around the perimeter of a public pool. Jay slips below the silken surface of the turquoise water. They wait.
Chris and Isaac were in a punk band with an ironic name. They played in dark bars that stunk of sweat with bathrooms decorated with obscene graffiti and piss stains.
“Come to our gig,” Chris pleaded. I was twenty-three. I couldn’t remember the word for “no.”
I walked into the bar later that night, my boots sticking to the grime of its patterned laminate floor. I ordered a drink from a bartender with a beard that tickled his chest. Hot stage lights flicked on. Isaac curled his fingers around the neck of a Godin Hollowbody Electric. I sipped at a tall can of bitter IPA.
“Oh,” he moaned, “Oh.”
Chris let out a mangled scream. He pushed past me to the bar. The bartender cut the power.
I smiled as Isaac contorted and shook.
Electricity isn’t a substance that travels through your body. The electrons within you move. As the current passes, your flesh resists. This creates heat. This burns. One of the most common causes of fatality is ventricular fibrillation. Currents travelling from one arm to the other often pass through the heart. These are the most dangerous types of electric shock.
I heard sirens outside.
“What the fuck? Why wasn’t that amp grounded?” Chris yelled.
The lights came back on.
“I’m OK,” Isaac barked. His voice was ragged with fear.
“Oh my God,” Jay says. She’s seen something terrible. There are tears in her eyes, her pale face a bluish moon. The entity is invisible to both the film’s viewers and to her friends. Jay points, frantic. Her friend pulls out a gun. A shot. A hit. The entity falls into the water. A splash. Blood. For a moment the film switches to Jay’s perspective, and viewers see a grey-haired man floating in the water. The entity has taken the form of Jay’s dead father. She scrambles to get out of the pool, but the entity grasps her ankle and tries to pull her beneath the surface. She kicks and she fights, gasping for air.
I cannot tell you what happened five years after Isaac raped me, because I cannot tell you that Isaac raped me. I can tell you that Isaac’s new girlfriend squinted at me through swollen eyes. I ducked my head to look out over the lake. The water was choppy and grey.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she said.
She extinguished a cigarette with a sizzle, “He told me it was a misunderstanding.” I strained to hear her over the slaps of the water on land.
She lit two cigarettes with shaking fingers and handed one to me. I accepted and sipped at my Americano. It was cold.
“Is there any way?” her voice quivered, “It was a long time ago. It could have been a misunderstanding?”
I inhaled and tasted sulfur and smoke. Ash speckled the boardwalk with white and grey. A seagull hopped towards us, pecked at our feet, and launched into disgruntled flight.
“I wanted to believe that too,” I replied.
Behind us, the seagull screamed.
In Powers of Horror, philosopher Julia Kristeva defines abjection as the fear of the loss of distinction between subject and object or between self and other.
Imagine I stumble upon a corpse. I am afraid. My pulse accelerates. I avert my eyes. I cannot speak. I vomit. The corpse, once a living, breathing subject like myself, has become an inanimate object. One day, I too will become a corpse. My fear comes out of this perceived dissonance. How can something at once be a subject and an object? How can I be both a living being and a corpse? How can I be both Isaac’s friend and his victim?
My reaction to the corpse—my fear, my aversion, my silence, and my vomit—is abjection. The corpse has become the abject.
I cannot tell you I told a new acquaintance that Isaac raped me, because I cannot tell you that Isaac raped me.
I can tell you that she said:
“He seems like a good guy. I think I need to hear both sides.”
The next time she saw me she crossed to the other side of the street.
In the 1929 lecture, “What Is Metaphysics?” philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of Dasein, which roughly translates to “the human experience of being.” According to Heidegger, there exist an array of Stimmung, or moods, that affect Dasein. This is, perhaps, common-sense: our moods affect our experience of being human, and being in a certain mood can reveal aspects of the world not otherwise apparent. In anxiety, the world reveals itself to me as something uncanny. In fear, the horror of the human condition is revealed.
Heidegger argued that existing in a Stimmung is an integral part of the distinct experience of being human. Stimmung allows us to belong to a world. In fact, one connects to a world through Stimmung in a process Heidegger calls Befindlichkeit.
On a grey October morning I woke up in a new world. I am still here. I am not at all sure I want to belong.
I cannot tell you what happened three years after Isaac raped me, because I cannot tell you that Isaac raped me. I can tell you that on an evening in early fall I sat cross-legged on an Ikea POÄNG in my friend Sandra’s high-rise apartment. I looked out the window. A pretty red-headed model grinned at me from a bright billboard for H&M.
I cannot tell you I told Sandra that Isaac raped me. I cannot tell you she told me he had raped her too. I can tell you that Sandra brought me a glass of Chardonnay and set down a platter of cheese.
“And Eleanor?” I asked.
“That birthday thing. He stayed late,” she replied.
I cut into the baked Brie and watched it ooze onto the cutting board. I scooped it up and smeared it on a piece of baguette. The bread was buttery and the cheese was smooth. It formed a lump in the back of my throat.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“What can we do?”
“Has anybody told Chris?”
I have a dream the night before I talk to Chris.
A man stands in the corner of my bedroom, his face shrouded by a yellow hood. He approaches. I can’t move. He gets closer. I feel a pressure on my chest. He gets closer. My bones begin to rattle. I think my rib cage will explode.
“But . . . are you sure?” Chris asked.
Isaac sent me an email a few weeks after I talked to Chris.
“I know there’s been a lot of hurt floating around lately from harm I have caused over the years, and I know you’re on the list of the affected. I am very, very sorry to you and everyone for everything that’s happened and I would like to do anything I can to mend it. I’ve been ignorant to my effect on others, and I guess going forward I’d like to find some semblance of understanding.”
I didn’t reply. He started calling me, drunk, at strange hours.
I texted him:
“My life is easier without you in it. Thank you for respecting that.”
“I dO respect tat,” he responded at 1:37 a.m.”
I cannot tell you what happened five years after Isaac raped me, because I cannot tell you that Isaac raped me. I can tell you I agreed to meet Chris at a busy park on a sunny summer’s day. He looked older around the eyes, but when he ran his fingers through his mess of reddish brown hair, he was the same boy I used to know.
He offered to buy me an iced coffee. I declined.
“I didn’t believe you then,” Chris said. “I do now. I’m sorry. I was stupid. I was scared.”
“Is Isaac still your roommate? Your friend?”
Chris hesitated, then nodded.
“Then I can’t forgive you. How am I supposed to forgive you?”
“I just . . . miss you, Em.” Chris started to cry.
“That’s not enough.”
In the last scene of It Follows Jay holds hands with a boy named Paul. She got away from the entity. She survived. She can move on. She can forget. Birds sing and leaves crunch as Jay and Paul stroll down a suburban street.
Behind them, a teenager in a black coat and a white t-shirt advances at a slow pace.
“Whether to go public with her story is one of the toughest decisions a rape survivor faces.” Karyn L. Freedman writes, “Rape intersects with multiple taboos—sex, violence, and trauma—and its savage intrusion on our sexuality crosses the boundary into that which is most personal and private.”
I cannot tell you that my friend Isaac raped me when I was twenty-one, but I can tell you that I have a recurring dream. Something terrible has happened. I scream. No sound comes out. I scream again. No sound comes out. My lungs fill with water and I drown.
Emily Kellogg is a writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her work has appeared in publications such as FLARE, Room Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Puritan. She was recently named one of three finalists for the carte blanche/Creative Nonfiction Collective Society prize. Find a curated selection of her work at https://www.emilykellogg.