Image Credit: Allison Dunavant
October 9, 2019
The first time it (I have lumped sexual molestation, sexual assault and rape into one entity, called “it.”) happened, I was 11 or 12, a would-be Lolita with a very unprepossessing Humbert Humbert. A short, lean and surprisingly strong jack-of-all-trades who worked in the family home, he was least 30 years older and much loved and trusted by everyone. Even I had a fondness for him.
He was always skulking around, too comfortable in his own skin, insinuating himself into people, situations and places. Before he actually molested me he would often slap and squeeze me hard on my behind, chuckling joyously as though he was partaking in an amusing game. Being the spring chicken I was, I mistook this creepiness for eccentricity, and convinced myself it was a game, though my intuition whispered to me that it was a sick one.
He sexually abused me least four times, possibly more, gripping my shoulder firmly as his other hand slipped under my clothes and onto my bare flesh. As it happened, the prevailing emotion in me was a heightened fury, rather than fear. His eyes were wide open, in a repugnant state of catatonic stupor, and his mouth was spread into a Cheshire Cat grin.
“No!,” I said to him, pouting heavily in disapproval.
“No!,” he replied, smirking.
It wasn’t up to me when I could escape. It was over when he said it was. There were family members outside the door, just feet away, milling about as they attended to the preparation of the next meal, oblivious to the concentrated depravity in the room.
It’s possible that he had already done something when I was even younger, and that I had either forgotten about it or repressed the memory of the event. You see, memory plays a funny role in these situations; when you try to access it, all you get is vague fragments, as though your brain is trying to protect you from going back and retrieving something so disquieting.
Soon enough, shame showed its face, and was there to stay. I felt polluted; a visceral feeling of invalidity seeped into me. I felt apologetic for my presence and ever-so self-conscious. Telling anybody what had happened was out of the question because it was a dark, dirty secret between him and me. If I leaked it, I thought to myself, I would probably get in trouble and su er embarrassment for bringing up such a forbidden subject. This event was my most marked foray into puberty. To me, it implied that womanhood didn’t seem too promising.
A couple of years later, at 14, I developed a virulent case of anorexia. It came at the heels of a heartbreak that was the culmination of a fatal, one-sided crush on an older tennis coach. What started out as an attempt to shed a few pounds to attain a soulful, model-like appearance turned into an obsessive regime, which I followed like it was a religion. Amenorrhea, bradycardia and lanugo became common parlance at home. The more weight I lost, the more clean I felt, and the more I transcended my pained existence. Hunger and neurotic attention to diet and exercise muted my feelings, good or bad. They desexualized my existence. Who would want to bother a gaunt, haggard, fat-chested teenager? Most importantly, it gave me a sense of mastery; I became damn good at weight loss, and the fate of my body was in my hands.
But this sense of control was fictive. The emotions I would experience were often unbearably intense, as though they had taken the wheel and gone rogue, and I was sitting in the back seat, helpless. At least twice, when I was 16, it was so much so that I resorted to heavy self-mutilation, all over my arms.
“What happened to your arm?,” nearly everyone asked me at school on the mornings following a self-harm episode the previous night. There was a successful motion by the administration to suspend me from school until I saw a psychiatrist. My parents, who were ill with worry by this point, found an avuncular, overweight psychiatrist to see me immediately. He had a cursory chat with me in his o ce and promptly prescribed Zoloft. I no longer remember what e ect it had on me, but I managed to stop cutting myself.
The rest of my high school experience can be summed up by monotone worsening of my anorexia and academic perfectionism, interspersed with episodes of crying ts over my unrequited love for the tennis coach. I developed obsessive compulsive disorder, to boot. The stovetop was my first tormentor. I’d meticulously prepare food, sit down to eat it, achingly anticipating the bliss of the first bite.
But right before I could allow myself a morsel, the knell of imminent doom rang. “You haven’t turned it off. Go check that you did!”
I’d get up, faint, but enslaved by the fear that I had left the stove on and that mayhem would ensure. I’d ogle at the stove until I felt my eyes would pop out of their sockets. Unfortunately, each iteration of a staring session was never enough. Ironically, the more I checked, the more panicked I felt. And there I would get stuck in a potentially infinite loop. “You need to check again. You didn’t register the scene properly!”
This cycle of petrifying thoughts followed by rituals to allay my fears generalized to other stimuli: doors, locks, people, places. I might walk past someone on the subway platform and my heart would lurch. “I’ve knocked them onto the tracks!” I’d yank my head back to take a look, dreading that I would behold a ailing, screaming victim, about to be hit by the upcoming train. That the sight in front of me was the epitome of normalcy had no bearing on my gripping terror.
Eventually, high school got over, and I was accepted into a university that I had vied for, where I intended to pursue a subject I had fallen hopelessly in love with in my junior year. I had studied as assiduously as I had dieted, and excelled in my exams, particularly in those on the chosen subject.
During the summer between high school and my first year of college, when I was still 17, it happened again. Rape. This time and this time only it was by a stranger, likely 20 or so years older than I was. I screamed for him to stop, to get off me, but he covered my mouth and whacked my slender, bronzed, brown adolescent body down to the floor, his muscular arms meaty and robust and continued his attack. I feared for my life, so much so that I was partially distracted from how much his thrusting hurt. A kind of physical agony I had never experienced and could never have simulated beforehand. Was he going to kidnap me? Would I ever be able to steal away?
In the midst of my attempts to scream, run, push or pull, I had a eureka moment. The idea to convince him to switch positions ashed into my feverishly frightened mind, and to my utter relief, he agreed. In the split second that he let go of my torso as he moved, I ran. Semi-undressed and faster than I knew I was capable of. I reached a hotel lobby and told them my story, and the lump of terror began to melt as I realized I was in the soft cradle of safety again.
I entered college that fall. Homesickness plagued me and my eating disorder got much worse there, not that I could afford for it. I lost weight at will, and I applied all my willpower to it. My academics suffered; looking back, I don’t know how I studied at all. Getting out of bed was itself a production. An erstwhile friend once passed me on the way to class and paused to remark, “You’re like gonna die.” Her comment didn’t perturb me, let alone motivate me to eat.
By the time spring came around, word had gotten to dean of the school about my wasting away, and she wanted me to take a medical leave of absence. I ended up studying as a visiting scholar at an institute in my home town, and blossomed there for the rst time in nearly a decade. The homesickness I had felt dissipated and was replaced by a glow and warmth that familiar, safe surroundings begot. Spontaneously, in my sunnier state, I felt less of a need to resort to my austere eating routine, and I began to enjoy food. Over the course of a year, I healed myself from my anorexia. My cheeks lled out, my hair acquired a sheen, and my eyes no longer looked haunted and imploring. My clavicles, no longer so prominent and sharply defined, ceased to beg to be gawked at. I looked fresher at 19 than I had at 14. Equipped with energy and determination, I began an application to transfer out of my university to one in my home town. By a miracle, my candidacy was successful.
The next time it happened, it was sexual assault, twice in the same year (I was 23 the first time and 24 the second time around), by the same man, S. Even though it just stopped short of rape, it messed me up the most. S was prosperous and talented at everything he did: he was the picture of respectability. I revered him. He was only slightly older than me and painfully handsome. He had a broad smile and a marble complexion. His dimples, crisp sartorial habits and sordid charisma only ampli ed the magic his presence emitted. For the longest time, I believed it was my fault. After all, I had asked to meet him, and I had worn a bright orange, dress with high heels. I had accentuated my bug-eyes so that they were sultry and lit with fire. But I didn’t want anything physically with him. Besides, I had a boyfriend at the time, A: a brilliant, funny, stunningly good looking and arrogant young man. He was the heartthrob of my female contemporaries. As annoyed and unsatisfied as I was with him at the time, I never considered infidelity as an option, and our relationship was quite healthy. In any case, my adulation of S was pure and devoid of sexual considerations.
With S, both times, I was so intoxicated that defending myself was impossible. I could barely see, and was too dizzy to be able to stand up. What a strange feeling it was to try to resist the slobbery kisses he forced upon me as he angrily squeezed my face, but to relish them at the same time. To try to cry out to him to “please stop”—but to go up against the fact that I was still infatuated with him.
There might have been hope for me had I not needed to use the bathroom. “I really need to go,” I managed to tell him. He let go of me so I could take a stab at the short but treacherous journey to the toilet of the bar we were in, knowing very well I would fail. “You can use the bathroom at my place,” he readily offered.
Even in my drunken state I was filled with trepidation, but I knew I had no choice. My fate that evening was in his hands. We reached his place, and I emerged from his toilet. He was waiting for me right outside. “Oh no,” I thought, as I fell into his predatory arms and he led me to his bedroom.
Instead of directing my indignation and disgust at S, I moved towards it A. Against my lack of control, I reviled A to the extent that I couldn’t mask it. At my best, I was moody and unstable. At my worst, I was withdrawn, callous, and petulant. His loving words and gestures that I used to yearn for disgusted me, and I couldn’t stand for him to touch me. The more he cherished me, the more repugnant he became to me. It was as though I had stepped out of my body and was watching myself turn into the demon that S was.
Once, while he was in the shower and I by the window, a thundercloud of malaise formed over me and culminated in a loud and long stream of tears. He emerged from the bathroom, his dark, coffee-coloured hair dripping wet and a moldy turquoise towel wrapped around him. His earnest green eyes were enlarged with consternation as he asked me what was wrong. I kept sobbing.
“You can tell me anything, sweetheart.”
“Anything?” I asked, rhetorically. He hadn’t a clue a of what kind of secret I was bottling up.
“Anything,” he said, firmly and warmly, his gaze never leaving my eyes.
I wanted to tell him so badly. I almost caved in and confessed, but I hauled myself up from that fleeting accessible and defenseless stance, and told him I would tell him when I was ready. I never did.
My feelings towards S deepened. I thought I loved him, but I mistook a twisted version of euphoria for real affection. Only years later did I begin to understand how I reacted to him post-assault, that I might’ve experienced Stockholm Syndrome. When something so disconcerting happens, one way of dealing with the ensuing distress is to convince yourself that you wanted it. Even better, that you love it. That way, you give yourself the illusion of control. It’s OK, even acceptable. You chose it.
For about a year, I tried to mend my relationship with A, but S had torn us apart irreversibly. Following my lost and cold heart, I did the unthinkable and broke up with A, who I had been with for nearly five years. I could no longer bear for him to see through me, or even worse, to love me. And love me, he did. I had to get away. “What did I do?,” he asked, nearly in tears. Telling him what had happened was out of the question. As convinced as ever that it was my fault, I was haunted by guilt. I simulated contentious conversations where he interrogated me about why I was alone with S, why I wore that orange dress with him. He had a knack for jealousy and possessiveness, (though he reveled in copious amounts of female attention himself, being taller and even more dashing than S himself), so my fears weren’t unfounded.
S’s legacy was my steady downfall. Trauma divorces you from your old self and sends you into a tailspin. My drives changed from survival and success to those of self-destruction and making a farce out of my life. I had a edgling career that I loved, but that was demanding. There were giant pockets of time where my brain got hijacked by breakdown, and I would do nothing but writhe in agony, making frenetic attempts at being operational. Give someone with a modicum of talent and ambition all the time I wasted in limbo, and they would’ve earned titles, won awards, garnered prestige. Once in a while, I’d make up for the inadequacy with a frenetic urry of activity.
During these inestimable times, I was clear, perceptive, creative, and pas-sionate, and there was light in my life.
Relationships became a lost case; emotional intimacy was horrifying, as were the salient aspects of physical intimacy. The only men I accepted were risky and disrespectful. Con-men, sociopaths, psychopaths, pathological liars. Men who didn’t understand or value consent. Men who said cruel things about my appearance, just to hurt and confuse me. I swatted away kind, functional men who were good for me, as nothing terrified me more than being exposed to someone who liked me for who I was.
Anxiety insinuated itself into the roots of my existence and my danger signal was constantly on overdrive. There was a permanent feeling of impending peril, as though I was perpetually in the fight-or-flight mode that being in front of a fast-moving truck would induce. Anything could become fodder for crazy, and sometimes, getting through a day would be like walking through a minefield. I developed a fixation on putting myself in dangerous, grievous situations and escaping by a hair’s breadth. Grazing the surface of rape, but evading it just in the nick of time. Going to seedy neighbourhoods at night without inadequate recourse in the case of a mishap. Again and again. Like being in a periodic orbit, hitting disaster at xed intervals. The tug-of-war in my head between lightness and darkness never stopped, and it took just an epsilon of malaise to tip me towards the latter. Eons of work could be deleted by one setback, because chaos had a magnetic pull for me.
At some point, saturated with affliction, I developed an uncanny way of going under, of numbly going through the motions but not really being there. I’d send a zombie-like substitute version of myself who just skimmed the surface, and barely registered or remembered anything at all. I became a dissociation virtuoso, because being present was that uncomfortable. What I was running from, I don’t know, but I always felt the need to ee. Until something calamitous happened, and then I’d wake up and feel as though my heart would explode at the tragedy of my having let yet another good thing pass me by.
There was another rape when I was 18 that I have declined to discuss (I am already winded from having written what I have here, and I am not ready to revisit it at the moment). It suffices to say that I was as, if not more, inebriated with him as I had been with S, and, yes, he wasn’t a stranger.
I wish I could find that carefree, jolly girl I once was, but I’ve met too many monsters along the way. Despite all that has happened, I haven’t become a man-hater. This I attribute to having had male mentors and family members who respected, believed in and believed me. They harboured healthy views about women, holding them high in their esteem and treating them as equals. They accepted me for who I was, and saw potential through the cracks, my inchoate nature notwithstanding. Their strength, compassion and wholesomeness infused in me an instinctual trust and love of men. If it weren’t for them, I might well have become a bone de misandrist. (Not that this doesn’t happen to boys and men, or that perpetrators cannot be female.)
There is much left to be desired in the discourse regarding sexual assault. To begin, it would be a wonder to have solidarity regarding this subject, which might start with people trying to understand it. Each case involves a villain engaged in an act of fury, consumed by a bestial desire to quash and dominate, with emotional manipulation being one of their most handy tools. Lust is only the medium by which this is achieved, and no change in comportment or dressing style can prevent it. It infuriates me that there are swaths of people who deny its gravity by, for example, dismissing pleas for compassion from victims.
The sad truth is that perhaps we cannot fully blame such people, because they’re incapable of simulating the deep upheaval that it causes to the psy-che, not having experienced it themselves. What they don’t realize is that kindness paramount importance to the victim. Nothing burns more than telling your story to an unsympathetic or even apathetic ear; to have your vulnerability trampled upon and yourself ripped open and exposed to scorn. I hope what I wrote demonstrates that sexual assault causes longstanding invidious e ects. If just one victim can be convinced that they are not crazy, at fault, or awed in any way because they are suffering from such effects; if I alleviated their sense of existential solitude and isolation, I will be touched.
From my heart will perpetually flow a fountain of tenderness and goodwill towards fellow survivors.
I will always be one with the others who have suffered from sexual assault; we have an instant, magnetic kinship, more mighty and compelling than any other bond one can share with another. We’re birds of a feather, whether we want it that way.
The author has chosen to remain anonymous.