There was a time when I thought I would never stop talking about my rape. Brutal and painful, I ended up in and out of every type of doctor’s office; I needed a great deal of patching up afterward, both physically and emotionally, and it required a certain degree of loquacity. But where my doctors listened with blank, clinical faces, shoving boxes of tissues toward me every time I began my story afresh, they had competent memories that meant I could shut up.
My mother, on the other hand, turned me into a myna bird.
It was like the terrible Pete/Repeat joke. As soon as the words left my mouth, she either forgot or pretended to, and then I would have to tell her again. She was every type of devil’s advocate: the one that asked me what I was wearing, the one who asked me why I was somewhere I should not have been.
More: Telling my 5-year-old about sexual consent was just as awful as it sounds
Sometimes, she competed with me for the harder life, the nastier experience; on certain days, she was a weepy, triggered victim as she begged me to be thankful I had made it out less scathed than she; on others, she was not — she was a superior, chaster person who never would have put herself in my situation.
I was 13. I was my daughter, just four short years from now. Three, really. There was a time when I thought I would never stop talking about my rape, but now that it’s time to fit in this last piece of the puzzle that is talking about sexuality with a young girl who will soon be a young woman, I have no idea how to start again.
She knows lots of words by now, all spoken frankly and out of necessity and without (too much) blushing by me. Vagina. Penis. Condom. Orgasm. Masturbation. Intercourse. Herpes. Consent. She knows their meanings, and has as much context as a young girl could have for them; while still hugely foreign to her, they are at least less mysterious than they were to me at her age.
There’s one word that she knows, but has no idea what it means — what it really means — for her, for her peers or for me. Rape.
Every definition I attempt sounds wrong before I can even say it, so I just don’t. It isn’t sex without permission, because it isn’t sex. But why skirt around the fact that it can affect sexuality deeply? That the same parts are involved? I often rely on hypotheticals and examples when I tell her about the things that require a deep breath for preamble, but that leaves me in a bind with this word. How can I ask my daughter to imagine herself in a situation like that? And while I have an example — myself — every time that I tell myself I will begin, I feel something that I have not felt about the entire topic since I was just a child myself: fear.
My mother’s goldfish memory made me unashamed of the word rape or of my own experience with it. The word lost all of its insidious power for me, and instead became a sort of armor. I have told my story now in so many ways and to so many people, I have lost count entirely.
I have told it to wannabe frat-boy comedians elbowed up to the bar I was tending with jokes about rape, forcing them to be as uncomfortable with their unfunny punchlines as I was. To the girls in my city’s rape crisis center, letting them see that they were a part of a well-populated if completely shitty club. To my foster sisters and biological brother, each with our own stories, trading them like currency. “My uncle, when I was 9, in the parking lot of church” or “my boyfriend, when I was 16 and closeted, in his mother’s bedroom.”
A stranger, when I was 13 in a hotel bathroom at a party, with the whole world outside of the door and me screaming in the way you do at the edge of sleep after a nightmare, dry and silent and impotent.
Each retelling sent words like “assault” or “taken advantage of” or “he hurt me” out of my vocabulary. Rape is a hard and ugly word, but that’s precisely why we should speak it. And anyway, why should I have felt shame?
I’m not a rapist.
I did not like the word “victim,” but neither did I like “survivor.” How can you survive something that feels like it never ends? I didn’t cower, but I did relive it every night until I became pregnant with my daughter.
I admit to being guilty of compartmentalizing. Here is my body under someone else’s control. Here it is again under my own. Here it finally is outside of the ugliness of my rape. A body removed from sex. A mother’s body. I allowed myself to quieten. I stopped refusing to remember alone. I stopped talking about my rape, because that was another woman.
Children are not our therapists. They do not need to know every blight, slight and fucked-up piece of family history we’ve got hiding in shoeboxes at the back of our closets. Me telling her about being scared and hungry at her age serves no purpose. What can she learn from that except that I need her to pity me? But rape is something different.
Rape is not going away. That one in four women is raped in her lifetime isn’t enough to shock people into fixing it. We live in a world that says it cares, but doesn’t. My daughter will not go hungry. But the closer she gets to adulthood, the less I can shy away from admitting that it could happen to her as it happened to me. Or it could be different. It could happen in a thousand ways. I have met more women who have been raped than women who have not, and as different as their stories are, they are also breathtakingly, infuriatingly identical.
Or it could never happen.
But it could, and I know that I should tell her that it does happen. I know that telling her even an abbreviated version of what I have been through will make her more likely to come to me if she needs to. That she will never have to play Echo and Narcissus with me, smashing words against someone who just won’t hear them. She will never have to wonder if I believe her.
But I can’t tell her. Not yet, I can’t.
She still runs to me when storms kick up, loud and thunderous. Even as she pulls away from me toward independence, she draws nearer when she is most afraid, and I am happy to pull her close. I can assure her that I will protect her, and I will never be a liar for it: I am there at the bottom of the monkey bars, I won’t let the wasps in the backyard sting her and it is only ever the wind. I am tough, still, to her. Tougher than the scary things.
I am afraid that when I tell her, “This can happen to anyone. This happened to me,” she will know the truth. There are no magic steps to make you brave. It’s not like the wasps, where if you leave them alone they will leave you alone, too. It’s not like the wind; a lot of noise but nothing that can really hurt you. I can’t stand beneath the monkey bars forever. I am not tougher than this.
It’s scary that the illusion will drop and she will suspect that there are some things I can’t protect her from.
But I’m mostly terrified because I know that she would be right.
If you’ve been sexually assaulted and need someone to talk to right now, call National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800.656.HOPE (4673), to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.