The first was June of 2015.
I remember washing my face before I went to bed, catching my reflection in the mirror and knowing that I was a different person than I had been two hours before. When I looked out my apartment window, I expected to see his face.
It happened again less than a year later. A different guy. I walked from his apartment to my car, and went to find my friends. My closest male friends, gentle boys I love dearly, gave me long hugs and let me sneak sips of their beers. The night kept going, I ignored his texts and let my friends distract me. The next morning I decided I would report.
On Scandal, sexual violence is used to make First Lady Mellie Grant (a tough and pretty unsympathetic character) more comprehensible and likable to viewers. She is raped by her father-in-law, a man named Big Jerry. The President of the United States doesn’t know about it. Afterwards, Mellie tries to take a shower but her husband wants her to get into bed with him, where she listens to him complain about Big Jerry. After that episode, the assault is barely mentioned again, but the viewer is supposed to “get” Mellie. The show uses her rape as a way to explain why she is a bitch. This is the representation of sexual violence we see most often on TV and in movies. Rape as the cheap backstory to explain how an otherwise pleasant woman became “like that.” Rape as not only a plot device, but relatability device.
In ninth grade, my English teacher drew a big circle on the board and labeled it with the parts of a storytelling device known as the “hero’s journey.” It went from the “call to adventure” to the “return,” where the enemy is defeated and the hero has grown from her challenges. The narrative arc is simple. Someone survives a challenge and becomes stronger and more resilient as a result.
Resilience is dramatized in an extreme way in the Netflix adaptation of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, when Jessica is forced to move in with Kilgrave, a man who has raped her many times. She must have dinner with him, she must smile for him. She is doing what it takes to make it through each moment safely, even if it means smiling and laughing when all she wants to do is run.
Before I was assaulted for the second time, I thought I wish I could just grab my purse and walk out, I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to be here. But I can’t just leave. I have to smile, I have to laugh, I have to make an excuse. After it happened, I thought, I have to smile and say “yeah” when he asks if he’ll see me again soon so that I can get through the moment safely.
But after the smiling comes the self-loathing and guilt. Why did I let myself be controlled this way? I was raising hell about the school dress code at seventeen and training to volunteer at the rape crisis center at eighteen. I had all the skills. I’d practiced intervening in sketchy situations. I taught middle schoolers how to say “no” to unwelcome touch. How could I have allowed this to happen?
In July, a police officer called while I was at work. There was news about one of the men who assaulted me.
“He is deceased,” the officer said. I did not say anything. Then the officer added: “He is no longer living.”
I wanted to say “I know what deceased means” and then I wanted to say “did you kill him?” but instead I said “thank you for letting me know.”
I walked out of the office, felt the sun and thought good.
I think I am supposed to say that though what happened to me was awful, I forgive the men who harmed me. But I don’t. I’m glad that man is dead.
The other man — the second one — he doesn’t understand what he did. I see him around campus sometimes. Sometimes I feel sort of guilty for shutting him out of my life. If he does know that he assaulted me, shouldn’t I at least give him a chance to apologize?
When I feel this guilt, this sense that I owe him something, I think of Tris Prior from the YA novel, Divergent. Three boys molest and attempt to kill her. The novel’s narrative of survivorship isn’t any more uplifting than the one in Jessica Jones but that’s what makes them feel real.
“I won’t hurt you. I never wanted to…” Al covers his face with both hands. “I just want to say that I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t…I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I…please forgive me, please….” He reaches for me like he’s going to touch my shoulder, or my hand, his face wet with tears.
Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. I swear she exists, and she hurts for the repentant boy I see in front of me.
But if I saw her, I wouldn’t recognize her.
“Stay away from me,” I say quietly. My body feels rigid and cold, and I am not angry, I am not hurt, I am nothing. I say, my voice low, “Never come near me again.” Our eyes meet. His are dark and glassy. I am nothing. “If you do, I swear to God I will kill you,” I say. “You coward.”
I don’t forgive you. Don’t come near me ever again. In Sunday school I was taught that God wanted me to be forgiving. That if Jesus could forgive those who crucified him, I should be able to forgive anything. And if I can’t bring myself to see things from their perspective, if I can’t turn the other cheek, I am selfish and sinful. There is something wrong with me.
Like Tris says, women are expected to be forgiving, empathetic and kind. So each day I remind myself that none of it was my fault. Don’t come near me again. You coward.
It’s obviously a mistake to look to any single narrative of life after sexual assault, especially when that narrative involves magically and benevolently “overcoming” it. Sexual violence isn’t character development. It’s a messy, pervasive problem and it’s not going away any time soon.
We need to stop telling each other that trauma builds character. Sometimes it does. But it also builds fear, it builds pain, it suffocates and it paralyzes. I’m 20 years old and there are days where I still feel small and powerless. Don’t show me sexual violence as a backstory. Don’t put a suspenseful soundtrack under it. Tell me how much longer sexual assault is going to feel like a question of “when” instead of “if.” Tell me how long I’ll have to go to work on campus and serve coffee to men who have assaulted my friends.
When we peddle cheap narratives of survivorhood, we can pretend that we’re talking openly about assault. But we’re not. Not even close. We’re still just talking about what assault victims can and should do differently. What they can learn from the experience. How they can teach others from their experience. And we’re still not talking about the men who perpetuate sexual violence.
A few weeks ago, I walked out of my therapist’s office and looked at my phone. The screen was filled with notifications. “Congrats!” texts from acquaintances. Awards for the North Carolina College Media Association had been announced. I’d won first place in opinion writing for a version of this essay which was published in my college newspaper. At a party that night another writer for the paper found me in the crowd and grinned.
“Congrats Alice, you must be so proud.”
Alice Wilder is a 20-year-old student at UNC-Chapel Hill.