Nonfiction Feature: “How to Tell Your Rape Story” by A.A. Balaskovits

 

If you decide to disclose your rape, you must give careful consideration to your words, then, what manner or tone will give you the most control. Such anxiety is necessary. You worry that your audience will shift interest, as always, to the rapist, the do-er, the one who acted, the one they are told to take an interest in from the very moment they learned how to appreciate stories. The active is always more interesting than the passive. That is what they tell you when you start to write: always avoid the passive, be it voice or man.

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Without knowing it, you had begun researching rape from a very young age. As a child, you devoured old stories without fully digesting them. Your favorite was the one about Persephone, depicted anywhere between nine and hundreds of years old, but always youthful, always skipping in a white dress amongst cardamoms and daffodils and daisies. When she was spied by shadowed Hades and stolen from her mother and all those familiar things, when she was forced to grow up with a stranger, you clutched your heart and thought, how romantic. He loved her without knowing her, and he was willing to do something heinous to prove it. It is not the first time you will encounter these stories, and it will be a very long time before you realize that the “Rape” of Persephone was not only a body-rape, but a shift in the culture played out across a womanly form. At the moment of Persephone’s judgment for having done nothing wrong, she is forced to live half the year with her rapist and half the year free of him. No wonder the world dies when she descends below ground; at least some unconscious thing acknowledges injustice. Remember the Sabine Women who were stolen in the middle of a festival, whose arms are depicted raised towards the heavens, frozen in a moment when heathen celebration ended and when the whole of Western history began its march towards conception and conceiving? Philomela, who was raped by her sister’s husband and was so beloved by him he cut off her tongue so that she might never speak of it, and only regained her voice when the Gods took pity on her and turned her into a bird, so that no man would ever understand her again? Medusa, raped by Zeus, and then made a monster, which in itself can be read as a kindness, to have that inner turmoil reflected on the outside? Too often, without using the word, we tell how rape shaped the Western world, and we Do. Not. Blink.

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It is unfortunate that you failed statistics in college. Had you paid attention, or attended class after the third week, you may have known what it really meant to be one in four women, twenty-five percent, or one in six men. You may also have known what it meant when they said the number is inaccurate, under-reported, which means twenty-five is simply the known base, and reality is much larger, greater, encompassing. But statistics are not enough for the people you share your story with. They want the human element; they want to know what you felt. Numbers are too distant from real bodies. No matter how we roll the dice, we are either on one side of the equation or the other. You’ll find it difficult, at first, trying to synthesize your own rape with the numbers and the rapes that shaped the world, because your rape was so common-place. No one turned you into a bird after you spoke of it the first time, halting and choking on the words (though, remember, there was a metal bird that night). No one is going to make your story into a charming musical about seven brothers and their pissed-off brides. You’re only going to feel a sick kind of gratitude when your first listener tells you that she believes you and, later, when his name is casually mentioned in conversation in a group of your mutual acquaintances, her hand will grasp and squeeze your own out of sight.

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Choose your first listener carefully, lest you are forced into the dual role of educator as well as victim. The first time you tell it you do not want to pull out a cheat-sheet of statistics and cite them to your audience or be forced to define the act—legally, morally, spiritually. The first few times you tell it, you say it in two different ways: numb, distanced, as you would when you are in a math class, reading off how you solved a proof, and then being told you went about solving it wrong, even if you came across the right answer. Then, you might tell it while crying, gulping hysterical sobs that send you to the bathroom, clutching the toilet while the listener sits on the other side of the door, gently tapping, asking if you’re okay, because all stories like this turn to absurd theater at some point in their telling.

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Sometimes, your audience will want to know each minuscule and sordid detail, and then they will want to know why. They are obsessed with why. As though if we can pin-point that swollen node of cruelty in the rapist’s body, we might find a way to cut it out of them as they are born, or perhaps when they are in utero, and we can end the epidemic once and for all. But there is no beginning, and no end, to rape—it is a constant, like gravity, keeping us buried on the earth.

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You will burden others with the telling. You apologize for telling them, for causing them residual pain. There are so few, if any, crimes to which you must beg forgiveness in the prologue. When your phone was stolen as you were working in a college coffee shop, you did not first say, “Forgive me for burdening you with my own pain. I am sorry for reminding you that misfortunes happen. I am sorry for surviving this tragedy, and you must now look at me not as a person only, but as a person to whom a horrible act had been perpetuated, and now when you see me you might categorize me as victim. Your friend who had her phone stolen. Your friend who is now part loss.”

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Your telling becomes a moment of once upon a time, the child who cried wolf, and perhaps that is worse than the actual thing itself. Rape can be overcome, compartmentalized, drunk and drugged away, and memory will eventually linger and then fade (we hope it lingers and we hope it then fades). What will not fade, what will linger and burrow, is that every time you tell your rape, you risk having to explain, you risk the confusion of your audience, you risk that you will not be believed. It is worse than the penetration, the sweat, the sticky smells, that someone who was not there will squint their eyes and say, “Are you sure?” That question will make you feel like you are certifiably insane. Are you sure? Yes and no. But madness is no excuse. Once, the great Norse god Odin desired a woman, Rindr, so greatly, that when she rejected him, he touched her forehead with a poisoned piece of wood to drive her mad. Her own father tied her down to the bed where Odin, disguised as a healing woman, came into her room, forced himself onto her, and forced her to carry a child who would be a tool of revenge against those who had wronged the father. This child is one of the few who will survive Ragnarok, but little else is told of his mother who, duty to the narrative done, might still be strapped to her bed, waiting and waiting, going truly mad without any person to avenge her.

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Don’t worry if you have to change it a little in each telling, depending on who is listening. That’s the first thing they teach you in rhetoric, isn’t it? You can manage to spin what you say in the best possible light, to make yourself the consummate victim, to bleed sympathies in each turn of phrase. Or you can be honest and tell it like it is, as much as you remember. Perhaps you change the way the story goes: one version for your parents, one for the therapist, one for your lover after the fact, one for your friends. In each, you feel only a part of yourself is really there, though you put so much into its craft.

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You wonder if someone is going to get off on it. Perhaps they are storing the details away for later, in some dark room of their own, and they’ll replay what you said over and over and drift their hands lower, cupping themselves, stroking, thrusting inward. Again, you are the grand star in someone else’s fantasy. Worse, with all plays at real empathy, they lay on their back and imagine them as you, safe and locked away, distant from the real thing, moaning. Worse is that they will not just get off on it, but they’re going to make it terribly romantic. He just wanted you so badly he could not control himself. That’s not violence, but a kind of untamed passion. They’ll use words like that: untamed, wild, uncontrollable, natural, urge. You might wonder if they are describing a human being or a horse.

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When you were seventeen, you worked at a now-closed bookstore for four years between classes off and on in the summers. An older co-worker with a wife and kids not much younger than you had a tumor growing inside his head. There were on-and-off operations. He said he had a few months, maybe a few years to live. When you went away to college, he sent you small gifts, toys meant for children much younger than you, maybe stolen from his own, and cards in the shape of mouths and tongues. They offered cunnilingus. He offered cunnilingus, no mention of his penis, but he wanted to put his mouth on your cunt and lick, maybe while humming a poem he occasionally addressed towards you, when he called you a sister in the Pleiades, his stars, the cluster he looked to at night. You ignored it. You threw out the gifts. He continued to mail but you ignored, ignored, ignored until you moved elsewhere, and he had no access to your address anymore. He sent you things at your parents’ house, a plaque saying that you were the hottest worker, which your naïve and sweet father hung on the wall of the basement, hopeful and happy that his daughter finally won an award for something, though he could not remember the ceremony. You were forced to respond, then, to tell your co-worker never to send anything to your parents’ house, too afraid and full of pity for him to tell him to stop entirely, because if he was dying, as he said he was, then what’s the difference if he writes your existence as his fantasy or not? That girl of his will die with him. And soon, the gifts stopped, and you said a small prayer that he did nothing more than write letters. You were grateful that he only used a pen. Years later, he sends you a nine page single-spaced journal, half story and half play, in which you appear to be the main character, but you can’t bring yourself to read it in full. Instead, you wonder why that tumor of his did not kill him. You wish it had. Instead, you remain silent, as you did for so long, playing the familiar part of his star: only witnessing a part of its magnificent light, faraway and fractured.

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When you tell your story to a group of women over coffee (in a quiet space, academic, making sure no one else is listening, all eyes glancing to the side) or over alcohol (with blasting music, pissed-off, making eye contact with men and daring them to tell you to be quiet) they’ll remind you that it’s ultimately about power. It makes sense, placing the act within a historical context of oppressor and oppressed. After, you wonder if it might be about sex as well, which is a terrifying and mundane prospect. It might mean you have to accept all those stories they told you about boys being boys, little monsters who can’t control themselves when they see something they want. When you tell those women it might be about sex, even just a little bit, they shut you down. For them, sex is sacred, the end-goal of a long-fought battle to enjoy an act that was subjected to our mothers and grandmothers and long-dead aunts. To remove it from the power dynamic brings us all back to square one: fearful of the opposite. Yet when he was thrusting into you that cold night, not saying a word, just those phlegmy grunts, well. It would be romantic to think it was anything more than his desire to get off in you.

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The health education classes for children do not cover trauma. Instead they will tell you, if you are lucky they tell you anything at all, consequences of human connection— the way touching another person will invariably leave something behind in your body, growing for nine months inside and then eighteen years on the outside before you are legally able to abandon it. If what is left behind does not grow, it spreads, crawling its way up your veins to your brain, worming its way inside and settling down. You do not learn about love or self-preservation or enjoyment. You make a brain mold of syphilis to show how well you understand sex, using grey, hard clay and slashing it with a knife. You turn it in for a grade and receive an A, but you have no idea what to do when you are in a room with another, bared raw, not sure if you should cover your breasts or not. Staring, waiting, wondering which one of you will chance the move.

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For Halloween you dressed up as Sleeping Beauty, because you saw her on the big screen and she was so beautiful and didn’t have to do anything at all, except bleed a little, to find true love. Never mind that in some stories the prince tries to awaken her with a kiss. and when she stays in her magic coma, he slips under the covers and tries to awaken her with his body. Never mind that she sleeps through that as well and sleeps through the birthing of his twins. She might have slept through knowing her own story, which would have been a kindness, except that her little son, screeching like a hungry bird, wakes her up, finally. Anyway, you looked really cute in that little plastic crown.

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Friends will pass you helpful lists of ten behaviors you can adopt to avoid rape. Check under your car before you load your groceries. Cut off your hair so no one can grab it. Do not use the elevator, but the stairs are not necessarily safe either, so keep all your activities relegated to the first floor. Place your keys between your fingers if you walk anywhere, but make sure you never walk anywhere alone. Do not trust strangers asking for help. Do not wear skirts or dresses. Stay in well-lit areas. Attach a weapon to your keychain, even if it jams and you try to show people this later and accidentally end up pepper-spraying your pregnant sister. Do not drink. If you must drink, do not drink that much. If you must drink, do not leave your drink unattended. If you must drink, get a pinky-promise from a friend to take you home later that night. If you must drink, purchase a nail polish that will tell you if someone put something in your drink, even if it only picks up a few of the known toxins, even if you look like a complete idiot who keeps sticking her fingers in cups. Soon, you might think it is safer just to stay inside your room and fashion a small slot on the door—not large enough for anyone to crawl through, but just large enough for your mother to pass you food.

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Once you tell your story, you lose all control over it. It belongs to your audience, for them to twist and spew out as their own in any shape they desire. You become the same problem Galatea faced: it is not that she was a homunculus of Aphrodite that bothered her, but that when she became human and self-aware, she saw herself through the lens of a creator she was forced to interact with, and there was no narrative for her to claim that had not been crafted in each curve of her body by his hands. He was all over her. Like a disease.

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Occasionally, when you tell your rape story, your listener will nod and say it happened to them as well. Instead of a connection, as victims of illness might feel when they find one another, you feel even more alienated; you are forced to remember it is not a one-off thing that happened to you. There are dangers everywhere. There are monsters whom you never met but, as you move forward, you might stumble across, you might love, you may even invite them into your home.

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If you choose not to tell them, they will not blame you for your rape. Instead, they will blame every other woman for it, in some manner. The way she dressed, or looked, or spoke, or the way she did not dress, or did not look, or did not speak. They will rail at them for not going to the police, for allowing, as silence allows, all the unspeakable horrors to fall on other women. Then they will turn the other cheek and say she was lying, too. A forever Janus head, spouting two sides of the same story, but you swallow it, and you know what it is to be afraid.

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When you take a low-paying job teaching almost-twenty something’s how to analyze audiences and make arguments that they do not care to write, a young woman writes about how her friend was shot in the face by a boyfriend whom she rejected, and you are reminded again how lucky you are. When a male student writes about a job he hates, he ends his essay by commenting on your appearance, telling you how much he likes to look at you. You’re reminded of a woman you read about in the news who rejected a man at a funeral while her fiancé was at her side and was still shot and killed for saying no. You wonder when your life became one moment of fear after another. You take it to your boss, who asks you to fill out a form, and makes you meet with the Dean. They remove the student from your class and assign a campus officer to follow you around for a week, and you get to know a lot about his son who did not cry when he was getting his vaccinations, and you are happy for this man’s brave son, and you are happy for that gun strapped to the side of his hip. When you sit down with the Dean, he tells you that he asked the student-in-question if he was, indeed, attracted to you, and the student said yes. Which is annoying, because not only does he want to fuck you, but he did not listen when you explained audience awareness. The Dean said your student did not quite get that he couldn’t write those things to you and had to explain it in these terms: How would her husband feel if he had read it? How would her children feel if they read something like that? Then, the bulb of recognition must have sparked, because he understood, then and only then, why it was wrong. You realize whatever happens to you does not really matter, and the only opinions of value are your husband and what can hurt him, and those children that you cannot remember giving birth to. At the very least, they forced him to write an apology to you, but you refused to read that apology, because you suspect he addressed it to the men in your life.

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You must always consider, when you tell your own stories, how everyone else will feel.

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You must keep your eyes shut when you hear trains from now on, because you remember that one train that awakened you into your own story, how it sounded like a screeching bird in the night, how it startled you into pushing him out and wheedling your way into the outside winter where, below you, some other woman with a crown on her head was being stolen by her husband again. Wait for the moment to pass. Say nothing at all. It will pass, and you will continue on.

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Gionni Ponce (Nonfiction Editor): “How to Tell Your Rape Story” tracks the singular experience of one narrator as she uncovers both the subtle and explicit social codes with which all survivors are forced to reckon after sexual assault. Recently, A.A. Balaskovits wrote us to say, “At the time of [the essay’s] publication, I signed a form denying my consent for it to be online. However, as I am watching the Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh hearing, I would like to change that and give my consent… I am reminded of what I wrote lately.”

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This piece appeared in Indiana Review 38.2 in Winter 2016.

A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP). Her fiction and essays appear in Booth, The Southeast Review, The Madison Review, Apex Magazine, Shimmer and many others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief of Cartridge Lit. On twitter @aabalaskovits.

 

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