TW, CW: Discussion of rape.
When I was eighteen, I fell in love with a man, or at least, I thought I did. Nearly five years my senior, and a foot and an inch taller than I, he was the epitome of sexy: a long-armed, blonde-haired drummer who had all the right words to say to a little lonely girl. Fresh out of high school with my first pink razor flip phone, I was intent on finding myself, cutting my hair short, buying my first ringtone (Grace Kelly, by Mika), and travelling by Greyhound hither and thither and yon in search of some missing part of me. He was a roadie touring with the Wailers (of Bob Marley & fame), something of a womanizer, and for one night only, in Tacoma, Washington, before going overseas.
Perhaps you can imagine how it went. I showed up on the bus, alone, wearing American Eagle jeans and a green hoodie, my hair unwashed, having spent the previous two evenings in a Seattle hostel. He picked me up and spun me around – had a man ever been so pleased to see me? – bought and poured Coke and rum into a plastic cup. We sat backstage at the show. He was in and out, attending to water bottles, towels, straightening wires and running a clean set. The band members admired my beauty. One touched my breasts, even as I fell backwards, my little 5’2 frame not used to drinking, and intoxicated. “Matt’s gonna have fun with you tonight,” the band member told me.
In what exists of my memory of that night, Matt did have fun with me. This I recall with great certainty – the look of his eyes, squinting with laughter as he smiled down at me. My confusion was total. The next day I awoke with my clothes folded neatly on a chair. I remember the exact order: jeans, sweater, little violet shirt. Panties, socks, bra, my bracelets stacked atop the pile. Did Matt do this, or did a hotel attendant take such care with my clothes? I may never know. I heard the shower faucet dripping, but I was completely alone. I never asked him if he folded my clothes. He left so entirely, with not even a text message on my pink flip-phone to say goodbye, nor $20 for a cab, or a word of advice: whether we’d had sex or hadn’t. And I couldn’t remember.
For Native American women, rape is a fact of life. It is as real as frybread or fancydancing. The bruises Matt left on my collarbone, around my throat, are veritable accessories in Indian Country, where 88% of assaults committed against Native women come from Caucasian men, who are transient, in and out of their lives. One in three Native women either have or will experience rape, more than twice the national average, but in some parts of the United States and Canada, the rate is much higher, as much as twelve times the national average. Up until very recently (signed in 2013 but in effect as of 2015), with the Violence Against Women act being passed with increased protection for Indigenous women, tribal governments could do little to nothing to prosecute men who abused their women. Even if they were able to be prosecuted, Indian Health Services’ care clinics often did not have rape kits or other resources the VAWA has now made standard and mandatory. The funding and support the VAWA will provide Indigenous women is the most important piece, in my mind, of the Obama Administration’s work. He may never be recognized widely for all he’s done for Indigenous women, but in my mind, President Obama deserves his Nobel Peace Prize.
When I think of one in three Native American women experiencing rape or attempted rape, I consider the fact that I have two sisters. From very early on, from the first memories returning of that night in Tacoma, that hotel, and that trauma, I thought of my sisters, who were nine and eight at the time. Some logical fallacy in my mind told me that it would all be worth it if I was the one in three, and they were no longer at risk. I began to believe that they would not – could not – be hurt, because I already had been. Of course, such magical thinking does no good, and I know that my past pain can serve as no guarantee of their safety. Yet if there was one thing I could protect them from, this would be it.
Now I know that not everything happens for a reason, that you don’t have to ascribe meaning to the things that devastate you. Some things happen because human beings can be complete garbage cans. But try convincing me of that when I was green out of high school.
I was young, then, though it was only eight years ago, and I didn’t know how anything worked. When the memories began to surface, three months after the assault, I was blighted with the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I became very neutorotic and unwell. I listened to the same song over and over, repeating the words and hugging myself. I could sleep only in the early hours of the morning, after the sun had come up. I began to see Matt’s face in everyone else’s, even as he was ten-thousand miles away. Oh, and I was sad: overwhelmingly, agonizingly sad. It was a knife that cut so deep, I was scarred with hot white blindness. I walked, in the rain, in the night, in the traffic, listening to Regina Spektor – oh, they build buildings so tall, these days. I took no care to oncoming traffic. It’s a wonder I was not struck by a car.
The pain was made all the more total and absolute by the fact that I missed Matt, missed him with my whole being. I wanted to be near him, to be with him, to speak to him, to be loved by him.
How do you hate someone you are still so in love with?
One of the turning points for me came when I heard the song Chicago by Sufjan Stevens.
I was in love with a place/In my mind/In my mind
I made a lot of mistakes/In my mind/In my mind
The constant but beautiful refrain, “I made a lot of mistakes” provided me with the necessary comfort to begin getting on with life. But I didn’t fully get on, not really, not for years. I was plagued by the pain of those memories for half a decade. I would remember with sharp, bitter stabs. Formerly boy-crazy, when on dates, even with really good men, I would be overwhelmed by feelings of shame and discomfort, a heaviness in the car around me, a fear, and a longing for home. I was unable to obtain the intimacy and even friendship I desired because of the shame I felt.
But how could I be ashamed, when I wasn’t the one who did anything?
I continued to try to understand. I stalked Matt’s Myspace, watched his top 8 friends, viewed his pictures and photo comments. I wanted to ask him, Is it because I’m beautiful? Did you do this to me because I’m beautiful?
I did not know then what I know now: that rape is not about sex, that rape is not about my beauty or my body. It was not about my partner loving or even desiring me. Rape is about power. Rape is about a person choosing to remove their partner’s bodily autonomy. Rape is saying, my current desire to have power over your body is more important than obtaining freely given, ongoing, enthusiastic consent.
When I was young, I didn’t know that. I grew up religious, and I don’t remember being talked to about consent. Sex was something sacred, to be reserved for marriage. My body was meant to be “the greatest gift I would give my husband.” Sex outside of marriage wasn’t something anyone considered an option in the circles I ran in. Since childhood, I’d learned about purity, but I never learned about consent. Why wouldn’t I want to be with my husband?
Now I know that there was nothing I could have done to prevent my rape from happening. It was as inevitable as the moon following the sun, because Matt made the decision to rape me and methodically navigaged a path to making it happen. As soon as he had made the choice, it was set in stone, because that’s what he took from me: the ability to have a choice.
I was so sad and so afraid for so long that I’d lost something intrinsic, something I’d been “saving” for a husband. But in truth, I never lost anything, because I never gave him anything. He did not take my dignity. He did not take my honor. He did not take my kindness, my passion, or my purity. He did not take my truth.
What he took from me was my consent.
Although Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” provided me with comfort, I didn’t make “a lot of mistakes.” I didn’t make a single mistake. Even my sadness, my trauma, and my shame were not mistakes. They were simply my feelings that I had to experience before I could feel whole again.
The path to being well was, and has been long. What I can tell any survivor living out their truth, in all its pain, is this: It was not your fault. It was not your fault. It was not your fault. It was not your fault. There’s nothing wrong with you; there’s nothing you did wrong. You are good enough. You are precious. You are important and you matter. You deserve to be loved. Most of all, you deserve the right to consent.
At the end of the day, the choice to forgive or not to forgive is yours, and no one can make it but you. It is your right to decide. In the end, I decided to forgive Matt. Not because I remembered that he used to call me Sweet Pea. Not because he picked me up and spun me around when he first saw me that day. Not even because of the exhausted, lonely way his eyes went when he thought you didn’t see. I chose to forgive him for me. Because this was my act of taking back autonomy. I made a choice only I could make because I was the only one who could make it.
I may not yet be entirely well. I may not be the person I was before I was raped, and perhaps I never will be. I can never know who that person would have been. I know who I am now. I know that I can consider my soul, and I know that it is well.