This is a post I started writing a month ago, and then didn’t finish. This is the kind of post I’ve started writing a lot of times, and have never finished. I’m prompted to do so today by the bravery and strength of my cousin, who’s told her story of abuse in support of another woman who was abused by the same man.
Courtney says a lot of very true, very scary things — about how an abuser operates, how crazy and irrational they can make you feel, how hard it can be to admit what happened even to yourself, the challenges in coming forward, and how terribly, terribly common experiences like this are.
If you think you don’t know a woman who’s been raped, assaulted, or abused, you are just straight-up wrong. Most just don’t talk about it very openly. I don’t even have to look outside my own family to find multiple stories. That number goes exponential when I start counting friends. Which is just horrifying.
A while back, I read Being a Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence. This is far from the first such testimonial I’ve read, and I know it won’t be the last. Every one feels familiar. These experiences are universal. We don’t all experience them the same way, but we all know these stories. So this essay left me with the feeling that we should all — all girls, all women, all uterus-bearers who’ve faced these things — should write essays like this. Like maybe the sheer weight of a few million voices showing that these things happen to us will make some kind of a difference.
And then I thought that we all already are, all the time, and it has not yet mattered.
But the only way to fight is to keep talking. To keep telling the stories. To keep challenging the status quo that tells us to quiet down and just deal with it.
These are the facts of our lives. They shouldn’t be.
I am four years old the first time I can remember someone telling me I couldn’t possibly know something because I’m a girl. It’s an argument about dinosaurs. Girls don’t like dinosaurs, so girls can’t possibly know anything about dinosaurs. I’m a tiny ball of tow-headed fury, because I know I’m right about how many fingers a T-Rex had.
I’m five or six and curious about something on the news. A man’s been arrested for doing something behind a school in our county. I ask my dad — a prosecutor — about it. He has to find the words to tell his kindergartner about a sexual predator. For years, I will wonder what exactly he meant by “he made girls put their mouths on his penis”.
In the fourth grade, a boy teases me and pulls my hair for weeks. I’m told this is a sign he likes me. One day, he shoves me on the blacktop during a game of volleyball. I’ve finally had enough, so I shove him back. He grabs my pigtail and slings me to the ground. My knee, elbow, and arm are badly scraped up. My knee is also jarred so much that I will limp for two days, and enough skin comes off that when it scabs over, I won’t be able to fully bend my knee without cracking it all open again, but if the principal hadn’t happened to be passing by at the time, I don’t know if he would have been held accountable at all. My mother and father are furious. The boy’s mother makes him come to my house with flowers to apologize. My classmates somehow learn of this and say he’s my boyfriend now. I have to accept the apology but never want to speak to him again. To this day, if I get a dark enough tan, you can see a scar from this scrape on my knee.
The next summer, I’m walking my dog, alone, feeling very grown-up and responsible. A car passes me. A few minutes later, it circles around the median to pass by again, now with the windows down, and boys start shouting things I don’t even understand yet. They circle by to do it again, and while I don’t understand all of their words, I understand that they mean me harm. I try to ignore them, which just makes them yell louder. They’re driving by slower each time, pacing me until another car comes up behind them. The next time they are forced to go by, I tighten up the dog’s leash and bolt through the nearest backyard. I’m terrified of them and terrified someone will ask why I’m trespassing as I cut across neat lawns and bramble-filled easements to get home. My dad asks why I’m all scratched up and muddy. I don’t tell him about the boys. I’m worried he would find them and shoot them. The boys are barely old enough to drive. I am ten.
A confident and forthright child, I walk with my shoulders back and my chin up. When I am thirteen, my male friends start telling me this makes me look stuck up. Eventually the descriptor morphs into “bitchy”. I start looking at the ground when I walk instead. It will be over a decade before I realize I’m still walking like this and try to correct the behavior.
I’m fourteen when a boy shoots up Columbine High School. As it comes out that he may have done it because he felt bullied and ostracized, I feel confused. I’ve been bullied and ostracized for years now, but it’s never made me want to kill anyone, or think I had the right to.
As a senior in high school, a freshman friend of mine disappears at a dance, held in a hotel during a theatre convention. I don’t know where she’s gone, but a guy in his twenties was leering at her earlier. I find them in a stairwell. He’s got her pinned against the wall. He tells me to mind my own business and go away. I pull her away from him, push her out the door, and tell him that if he follows us a single step I’ll scream bloody murder. We go back to the dance.
I’m a sophomore in college and hanging out with other cast members after rehearsal. I’ve been playful and flirtatious with several of them over the course of rehearsals, but never with real intent. One guy, a senior very popular in the troupe, offers to hang with me as I’m waiting for the trolley. It’s cold, so we duck into the nearest building. After a few minutes of chatting, he tells me I’m gorgeous, grabs my wrist pulls me to him, and kisses me. He asks if I want to go back to his place. I’m flattered by the attention but not interested in him, and the kiss is sloppy and aggressive, so I beg off. In the meantime, I’ve missed the last trolley to my apartment, but choose to walk home rather than accept his offer of a ride. He doesn’t try anything again, and I don’t think anything of it. Months later, I learn that he spent the rest of the semester telling everyone what a slut and cocktease I am.
I’m in my early twenties when the man I think is the love of my life emotionally abuses me through relentless gaslighting. He never says it’s because I’m a woman, but everything in the language he uses is gendered. I’m too irrational. I’m too emotional. I’m too selfish. I’ve lost control. I can’t possibly understand. I should stop expecting so much of him. I should accept what he’s willing to give me. I’m acting too much like his crazy ex-wife. I don’t appreciate how much he loves me. When he hurts me, it’s my fault. When he loses control, it’s only because I made him. For two years, it doesn’t occur to me there’s anything wrong with the relationship. For two years after it ends, I’m still not ready to call it abuse. How could a strong, smart girl let that happen to her? How could she not know?
Twice at parties, I put all five-foot-three of myself, trembling with rage, between a woman and the man who wants to hit her. Both men look startled that I have the nerve to stand up to them. I know, someday, I will probably get hurt doing this. I know I can’t stop.
I’m twenty-six and an ex-boyfriend with whom I am on with friendly terms starts getting handsy whenever we hang out together. I have no interest in renewing the relationship, and tell him so. He persists. After one group dinner when he wouldn’t stop stroking my leg beneath the table, even when I tell him three times to stop, when he tries to take me by the waist in the parking lot on our way out, I snap and scream at him. He is so offended by my outburst that we never speak again. He swears up and down to our mutual friends that he never sexually harassed me, whatever I have to say about it.
I’m twenty-nine and becoming inured to gross comments during the interactive theatre work that I do, but still, the guy who tells me, “You make my dick hard. I bet you like that. I bet you wanna tell everybody about it” manages to astonish me.
I’m thirty years old, my heart bleeding for the women I know and love who’ve suffered, and thinking that I’m lucky. I’ve only been physically assaulted infrequently. I’m not still with my abuser. I haven’t been raped. I’m not dead.