That Which Haunts Me
CW: sexual assault, sexual violence, abusive relationships
All right, everybody. The time has come for me to exhume some skeletons. It's Halloween, after all. It is a time when we are all a little closer to that which haunts us. I love this time of year, for it is when I feel most prepared to face my fears. I feel strongest in the autumn. And so I am going to dig up the ghost of a relationship which, through its violence, has made me who I am today. I consider myself to be a relatively open person, as anyone can tell from a quick scroll through this blog. I am not open about this, though. I can talk easily about the pain I have inflicted upon myself, the ways in which I violated my own safety, but the trespasses of others have long remained a forbidden topic. Then this week happened. This week was brutal.
Like a set of waves that knocks you down and keeps you under, the trauma poured forth relentlessly. Woman after woman came forward to detail how Harvey Weinstein had harassed, abused, and assaulted her. The news snowballed quickly and famous women, and a few famous men, started telling stories about other powerful men who attacked them. #MeToo spread like wildfire across my social media feeds. These conversations have happened before - among survivors, among my friends, among my family members - but I have never experienced them in such a breathtakingly vast scope. I wanted to join. I wanted to add my voice to the chorus. I even typed a "me, too" status on Facebook, but I had second thoughts and deleted it five minutes later. I couldn't do it. But then the confessions arrived.
I saw several well-intentioned men publish paragraphs about the rape jokes they've cracked, the boundaries they have crossed, and the women they have traumatized. My initial reaction was to encourage them; so few men are willing to admit their misogyny, past or present, and recognition of toxic masculinity is the first step to dismantling it. Like most women this week, I wondered how many seemingly "good guys" and self-proclaimed feminists have committed sexual violence, and what the Internet would look like if they came forward instead to reveal their transgressions. Then, I got angry. Profoundly angry. None of these confessions came with a content or trigger warning, meaning that I was forced to read the accounts of how men I know, men in my daily life, have destroyed women like me. Their friends fawned in the comments, calling these men brave for their public admission of violence. Every status re-traumatized me. I felt sick. Don't get me wrong; we need men like this. We need a lot of them. We need men to divulge their histories, to name their sins, to excavate the parts of themselves that hurt others, and, ultimately, hurt them, too. That vulnerability is so necessary. But men need to do that work among themselves, and among women and gender-nonconforming people who are willing to do it with them. They need to do that work in dedicated, insulated spaces, where others can freely choose to enter or exit. They do not get to conscript the rest of us into this project of unlearning and relearning what it means to be decent. And to be clear, we are owed both their work and the exemption from participating in that work. Role models though these men might be, I will not applaud a narrative of violence, even one written in the service of restoring justice.
Reading these accounts made me want to shout from the rooftops to keep listening to survivors, to center their stories, and to amplify their voices always over those of perpetrators. But I don't have a rooftop, and shouting gets me nowhere, so writing this is my alternative. Read it in a whisper. It will be the loudest whisper you've ever heard.
Before this year, I had never realized that I was sexually assaulted, and before this week, I had never told anyone. For all intents and purposes, you, dear reader, are only the second person to know. For a long time, no one knew, not even me. Sometimes, that's how it goes.
It happened almost a decade ago. The boy - my ghost - was my boyfriend at the time. I was in love, or the version of love that I was capable of feeling at such a young age. He wore a lot of black and listened to music with fucked-up lyrics and drove way too fast all the time. He introduced me to The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson and Frank Sinatra. We watched dark films together, his favorites. Sometimes, he would say things that deeply disturbed me, which I told myself was just part of his "edge." He once convinced me to try to outrun a train, and we almost had to jump twenty feet off a bridge to make it. I hated him and I loved him for that. He made me feel dangerous. The relationship was toxic from the start, but because I was young and naive, I didn't know any better. I came to see emotional abuse and manipulation as normal, came to expect cruel arguments that left me crying myself to sleep. I was isolated, a feeling only made worse by my undiagnosed anxiety and depression. My younger sister, only eleven at the time, tried to tell me that she was worried about me. My friends asked me why I had abandoned them. My parents told me I shouldn't be with the boy, which I rewarded with a rebellion. I had already grown to believe that I was not good enough. I was convinced that what I had was all I could ever have. I stayed.
The boy and I were physically intimate, but we never had sex. I wasn't ready. I told him so, and he told me that was fine. He said that we would go at my pace, and for the most part, we did. And then, one afternoon when we were home alone, he told me that he wanted to feel me. I said no. He asked again. I said no again. I tried to keep engaging with him, hoping that he would be satisfied with what we had done before, but he persisted. He begged for fifteen minutes, claiming it wasn't a big deal, saying it wouldn't be sex but just a brief moment. He implored and cajoled and demanded. He would not stop. I said yes. I stopped moving. I turned my head away from him and stared at my own face in the closet mirror. He went where he could not go. I closed my eyes. Five minutes later, it was over. I pretended to smile at him and rolled onto my side and curled into myself as much as I could without being too obvious. I was confused. I had said yes, so I didn't understand why I felt horribly empty. I didn't understand for weeks, and months, and years. I didn't understand until the hollow space that he left filled with anxiety, and rage, and fear, until it filled my bedroom and suffocated me. I told no one. I buried it.
This week, that ghost escaped its grave, and the only way forward is for me to meet it. I am appalled by the fact that the solitary way for me to understand what happened to me was to read stories like mine. We should not have to find solace in the suffering of others who are haunted, too. I wish that there were other ways, and maybe there are. I just didn't find them. So, here is my ghost story. This is my offering. Me, too. You are not alone.
24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)