For victims of sexual assault there is a difference between behaving in a way that doesn’t make sense to other people and doing something wrong.
Mel, a woman who I grew up and used to be close with, contacted me because she heard I’d written a memoir about the consequences of being repeatedly groped in high school. She wanted to talk and emailed, “I do not understand what happened to you and what you are trying to do.”
Conversations with Mel tend to be ranty monologues that, while entertaining in a way Mel doesn’t intend, are exhausting and I usually feel worse after talking to her. So, I told her I was busy and couldn’t talk that day knowing if I gave it twenty-four hours, she would most likely move on to something or someone else. But she continued to email me because she just had to understand what happened to me and what I was trying to do.
And to be honest, I was curious about what she meant by both of those statements. Because I thought it was pretty clear that I had been repeatedly groped in high school and that I was writing a book about it. It didn’t seem complicated.
But I also thought maybe she had had a similar experience in high school and this was her way of connecting to talk about it.So, not heeding the old adage about the adverse effects of curiosity on felines, I called her.
The conversation started out better than expected. Instead of launching into her usual circle-talking about how everyone in the world doesn’t do things like she would and how that is so hard for her, being the only sane person in the world who knows how to do things right, she gave me the floor and listened as I told her how, on one of the first days of school in ninth grade a classmate grabbed me from behind and groped my breasts, genitals and buttocks. She listened as I explained how I fought but couldn’t get away. How it happened in front of everyone in the class, including the teacher. How no one seemed to think it mattered. How the teacher ignored it. Didn’t address it. And didn’t help me that day or on all the days it happened after. Even when I begged him to make the boy stop.
I told her how, for over thirty years, I suppressed the memory of what happened and minimized its importance. How during those decades, my mind and body paid the price from the unresolved trauma it created. How I finally blurted the story out to a therapist who took what happened to me seriously and helped me to heal.
To Mel’s credit, she waited until I finished my story before saying anything. She even paused before speaking. A pause that suggested she understood what had happened to me and why I wrote a book about it. A pause I obviously misread.
“I don’t understand.” Mel said.
“Why you went back to class after it happened the first time.”
Now it was my turn to pause. Because no one had ever asked me that question before. I wasn’t expecting it.
I took a breath and a beat.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was just a kid and I didn’t know what to do. Because no one else in the class including the teacher didn’t think it was a big deal, maybe I thought, even though I didn’t like it, I shouldn’t make a big deal about it. Maybe it was because I didn’t think not going to class was an option. It was my first year in high school. I didn’t even know what to do to drop out of class even if it had occurred to me. And I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me. But when it all comes down to it, I don’t know. I don’t understand either.”
I knew my answer wasn’t very satisfactory. That there wasn’t any big a-ha! moment that parted the clouds and let enlightenment shine through. But after four years of thinking about it, it was the only answer I had. But it wasn’t good enough for Mel.
“Yeah, but you see, I’m trying to put myself in your shoes,” she said in a way that suggested her feet were still firmly in her own glitter pink jelly shoes she squeaked around in all of year nine. “And I think if I was in a class and that happened to me, and no one helped me, I would be too traumatized to go back. So, I don’t understand why you went back.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you. I really don’t have any better answer,” I shrugged my response.
But me not having a better answer was apparently not an option.
“But how could you?” she fairly gasped. “How could you go back there every day? I know if that happened to me, I wouldn’t have.”
Her voice rose. Suggesting frustration. Even anger that fourteen-year-old me had the nerve to not act the way fifty-year old Mel thought she would have acted when she was fourteen.
“Well, that’s easy to say but you don’t really know what you would have done,” I poked back. Believing it was a fair statement, but suspecting it might set her off.
“Oh yes, I do!” she full on yelled. “There is no way I would have gone back there everyday. And it was the eighties. Back then you could physically fight someone and not get into trouble.”
I considered telling her that I did try to fight off the boy. Explain the disparity between our heights, weights and strength. But it seemed like such an absurd thing to have to do. Defend why I didn’t fight harder and win.
It was there in the conversation I had my a-ha! moment. When I realized she wasn’t just asking questions, she was questioning me. Criticizing. Another word came to mind.
Blame. Mel was blaming me for being repeatedly sexually assaulted.
I had a brief thought of how this was a first for me. Being the subject of victim blaming. How I could now join the ranks of millions of other victims who have been blamed. It was something I never thought I’d encounter, but now that I had, I wanted something to show for it. A badge. Like in girl scouts. That I could stitch on to my absurd life-experience sash. Next to my badges for being told how to properly stand in line by strangers and having someone slowly explain to me how if I just turn my books in on time at the library, I won't have to pay a fine. I imagined what the badge might look like. Me sewing it onto the sash. Parading around town in it. And then I had another thought. I’d already earned this badge. This wasn’t my first time being blamed. Because I’d already blamed myself.
When, thirty-four years after ninth grade, I finally made the connection between what happened to me in school and the mental and physical health issues that plagued me my teenage years and adult life, I asked myself two questions.
Why did I and why didn’t I?
Why did I take that class? Why did I keep going back? Why didn’t I tell someone else? Another teacher, the principal, my friends, my parents? Why didn’t I quit the class? Why didn’t I fight harder? Why didn’t I keep pressuring the teacher to do something?
I took a cross country tour on the why did I/why didn’t I train. Asking myself those questions over and over in the hypnotic rhythm of train wheels riding on the rails. It was a maddening ride. Because if I’d done or didn’t do one or all of those things, maybe the boy wouldn’t have done it again. Maybe the one time wouldn’t have been enough to cause so much damage. Maybe I wouldn’t have had decades of re-occurring nightmares, panic attacks at the idea of being in a group of people or leaving the house, persistent thoughts of suicide. A suicide attempt. Maybe my life would have been different. Better. Less plagued by the symptoms of unresolved trauma.
I rode that train for a long time. Until a part of my brain finally had enough. Finally slowed it down. Brought it to a halt with the simple realization that I, like Mel, was asking the wrong questions.
Because the question isn’t why did or didn’t I?
The question is why did they?
Why did the boy do it? Why did he keep doing it? Why did the teacher let him do it? Why didn’t the teacher stop him?
And the answer to those questions?
They don’t have anything to do with me. They don’t have anything to do with what I did or didn’t do.
Because there is a difference between behaving in a way that doesn’t make sense to other people, reacting in a way they wouldn’t, and doing something wrong. Because this is what I did. I got up every day. I got dressed and went to school. I attended my classes. I did what I was supposed to do.
And I, just like millions of other sexual assault victims. Victims who:
Got into the front seat of the cab. Got into the back seat. Stood in line. Sat on a plane. Went to work. Went to the bathroom. Went to sleep. Went for a swim. Went for a jog at night. Walked through the park in the morning. Went on a date. Went to a party. Accepted a drink. Got drunk and passed out. Opened the door. Accepted a ride. Stopped to help. Arranged for a hook up. Went home with a stranger. Went to the doctor, the therapist, the dentist, the chiropractor, the masseuse. Had a meeting with a boss, a teacher, spiritual leader, a colleague. Bought drugs. Served their time in a correctional facility. Went to their job as a sex worker or sex entertainer. Went on another date. Stayed in a relationship. Believed them when they said they wouldn’t do it again.
Fill in the blank.
Just like them, I did nothing wrong.
Just like them, I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t make anyone sexually assault me.
Just like their situations, the blame falls squarely and only on the person or persons who did something wrong.
But I couldn’t tell any of that to Mel. Because, when talking, I’m not that quick with my thoughts and my words. And even if I were there was no longer room in the conversation which had turned into a lecture about how I should have told her what happened and how she would have made sure the boy stopped. Made sure the teacher did something. How by telling my story I am blaming her and everyone else for what happened to me. How my memoir, even though she hasn’t even read it, is going to devastate people. She demanded I explain myself, why I kept going back to class. That she needed to know. That she needed to understand.
But she didn’t. She doesn’t.
Because understanding why a victim did or didn’t do something isn’t a prerequisite to understanding what happened was wrong. Being supportive. Telling them you are sorry it happened and it wasn’t their fault. Which, in my opinion, are the two most helpful and healing phrases to offer sexual assault victims. The two phrases I was lucky enough to hear from my therapist, my co-workers, my friends, my family. The two phrases that took me years to internalize so that, while l listened to Mel regale me with a shower of why dids and didn’ts, shoulds and shouldn’t haves, I didn’t get soaked in shame.
Because even though I wanted Mel to understand. I knew I couldn’t make her understand. I don’t have a magic bag of words that can get through to Mel or anyone else if they’re not open to hearing them. Accepting them at face value. And after years of therapy and self-reflection, I knew I didn’t have to. Because having other people understand isn’t a prerequisite to giving myself permission to say that what happened to me was wrong and it wasn’t my fault.
Mel continued to spiral into a frenzied circle talk of frustration and anger at me going back to class. I ended the phone call by cutting her off and hanging up. I stared at my phone not knowing whether to be mad at her for being so unkind or irritated at myself for calling her. And for the next few minutes I stomped around the house berating myself with the question:
Why did I call her?
Why did I call her when I knew what she is like. When I knew this is how I usually feel after talking to her.
And then I had another a-ha moment. And then I laughed.
Because I was asking the wrong question.
Because the right question is, why was she criticizing me? Why was she blaming me? Why was she so angry?
I’m sure there are reasons. I’m sure a psychologist could break it down for me in way that makes sense. I will probably never know why Mel reacted the way she did. And I don’t need to. Because I know it doesn’t have anything to do with me or what I did or didn’t do.