Big Think: I’m Going to Use the R-Word (and it’s ok if you do, too)

Editor’s Note(s):
1. You may be wondering why Erika is writing another Big Think in October. Andrew and Mary have been stepping back from the Big Think this month because of other duties, and Erika has been especially prolific lately, so we decided to just make the switch.
2. The “writing mentor” mentioned in this piece is, in fact, me. I thought a ‘full disclosure was in order, given that I was editing my own story and that’s an obvious conflict of interest.

By Erika Grumet

On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was attacked.
On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was victimized.
On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was sexually assaulted.
On an October night, twenty seven years ago, I was raped. 

It’s all the same night. It’s all the same thing, isn’t it? Even those last two sentences, they mean the same thing, don’t they?

Except they don’t, really. 

I’ve told my story a lot in the last nearly-thirty years. It’s not an uncommon one. I was in college, hanging out with a friend and my roommate–he’d invited us over to hang out and watch a movie and play some video games–Mortal Kombat 2, actually. We ate pizza, we drank a little bit of beer (I had two beers over the course of 8 hours), my roommate left, and he and I were still playing video games. 

The exact details aren’t important to this part. I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I had on jeans, a mock turtleneck, and an oversized, baggy men’s sweater that I’d bought at Structure (if you remember the Limited brands, it was their men’s store in the 90s, and was eventually rebranded as Express Men before it closed.) It was one of my favorite sweaters, a sort of variegated or marled combination of navy, hunter green, maroon and beige with navy trim at the neck, hem and cuffs. 

I hadn’t been drinking excessively–two beers, eight hours. I followed the rules–and I shouldn’t have to explain any of this when telling my story. I do have to explain it… because when I don’t, things become mired in the victim blaming narrative. People play the keep-this-at-a-safe-distance-because-it-can’t-happen-to-me game. It did happen to me… even though I followed rules and made right choices. 

I get it… the desire to shield oneself from the idea that this terrible thing is a possibility in your orbit, let alone in your own life. We don’t want to imagine the possibility of bad things happening to us or to the people we love. It’s why my mother had so many questions about the blue light system on campus when I was looking at colleges. Seeing those blue lights on every campus meant someone might need them. It meant that I might need them. It wasn’t the scenario I imagined for myself, either, when I thought about what college would be like.

It didn’t matter. What I imagined didn’t matter. Because it did happen to me. And after it happened, I had to learn to talk about it. From another survivor, I heard: “Victims are dead. You’re alive. You survived. You’re a survivor, not a victim.” I know that that line of thinking may not work for everyone; but when I claimed that language, it gave me power that had been taken away from me and helped me keep going. 

I was fine with using language that way for a long time. I was empowered, I was a survivor. My life was moving on. It was fine.

I thought it was fine anyway. I was going on with life, with all the things that I had planned. School, work, relationships, kids, friends. It was all the way I thought it should be. Expectations. I was living up to expectations.

I even got used to having The Conversation. The one where I tell someone what happened. It takes different forms with different people, navigating a delicate space, deciding how much detail to share, at least at first. I want to appear responsible and self reliant, while avoiding the opportunity for someone to have even the slightest chance of victim blaming. I’m reluctant, for example, to share the fact that I drank beer the night I was raped. Two beers over about eight hours shouldn’t raise any eyebrows, but when you talk about beer and sexual assault in the same story, the eyebrow-raising seems to just happen. Being honest about the beer automatically leads some people to think that either I was drinking too much and out of control (no) and therefore being irresponsible (no), or that someone had to drug me and I was only half as irresponsible (also no). 

Having The Conversation affects different people differently, and I find there’s a different The Conversation for different circumstances.There’s a certain solidarity sometimes with other survivors. When talking with friends, particularly if those friends are, or present as, women, there’s palpable relief when they naively try to reason that if it happened to me, it’s statistically less likely to happen to them–they can count off five women they know, including themselves, and check the box next to my name as the one that’s been raped. There’s the clinical part, talking to doctors about it, just the barest of details, dates, medical procedures.Talking to a mental health professional means a slightly different conversation. And there’s the experience of telling the people I have dated. Fear, grief, pity, some combination of things. It’s the pity that hurts. But it’s The Conversation. And it has to happen. I never know when things might come up.

What happens when friends want to watch a movie? I enjoy movies, and there are lots of options. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. A good romantic comedy? No problem. What happens though, when friends want to see something like Boys Don’t Cry? If I decline too many invitations without explanation, things get awkward. But if I explain what happened when I went to see that in the theater in 1999? Things also get awkward. I was a graduate student, doing research on the campus community response to sexual assault. I had a full on, PTSD flashback in the theater. Racing breath, flailing, crying. The whole thing. I ran out of the theater and hid in some corner. Being with other social work grad students, they were prepared (sort of) to deal with my breakdown. I was embarrassed, scared, angry and frustrated. What would have happened if I’d been with people who weren’t prepared for the situation? Would I have been left a shaking heap on the theater floor? Would I have ended up on a psych hold in an emergency room? The possibilities are mostly terrible. And people I date, that should be obvious. That can be the most awkward to navigate of all sometimes. Are they afraid they’re going to hurt me? That they might say or do the wrong thing and set something off?

It’s happened in medical settings, it’s happened with friends, with lovers, and it’s even happened in classroom and learning environments. It seems like there’s nothing in common among the different times and places. No, there is one thing. Each time, I feel unprepared. No one ever taught me how to have The Conversation. No one ever prepared me for sharing such a terrifying and vulnerable piece of me with other people.

Different people, different environments, while the details of my story are the same, the specific details I share each time might vary. Until recently, I almost always talked about being “sexually assaulted.” The R word, that’s something I’ve really started saying in the last year.

Some people talk about writing or other kinds of art as part of healing their trauma. I didn’t do that. For me, for a long time, the writing was trauma, and I couldn’t do it. So why the shift? How did I start writing again? How did I start writing about my trauma? And why did I start reclaiming the word ‘rape’?

With all the changes and the chaos in the last year and a half, something drew me back into writing. Perhaps, like so many people, I needed a safe space to work some things out. Once I started, I found, although it was difficult, I enjoyed it. An opportunity for mentoring fell into my lap, and I grabbed a hold of it, and energetically dove into weekly sessions of writing exercises, as well as analyzing and workshopping things I had written in between classes. It was all bearing fruit. I was writing again, relearning the joy of putting the words on the page, finding a voice for the things I was thinking about, doing something challenging and creative. It felt like long-atrophied parts of my brain were coming alive again. I felt cracks in the old armor appearing; as if my brain was coming out of its cocoon. It felt like my thoughts had value again. In spite of a world of chaos and gloom, as we all stayed far apart, I felt light and warmth again. Then, one night, when nothing unusual was going on, it all collapsed. Something completely unexpected, something I never would have guessed or predicted set off a flashback, and suddenly, there I am, on a Zoom meeting with someone I don’t know well, someone I’ve never had The Conversation with, and I’m totally losing control. My heart is racing, I can’t see clearly, there are pictures flashing in my head. It’s terrifying for me, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be on the other side, especially when you can’t do anything but watch.

And then after it was finished, I was angry at myself, and upset, and ashamed. I was sad. I was scared. I was also absolutely certain I had ruined everything about this very fragile, new, mentoring relationship that was just beginning.

I was wrong about that. I hadn’t ruined everything. Someone was intent on showing me a new picture of the compassion, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness that could be shared between two people who were still nearly strangers. The teacher/student dynamic that we had was altered–how could it not be? Good teachers, great teachers, they meet students where they’re at, and that’s exactly what mine did. Two days after I broke down, I picked up the phone (something I’m reluctant to do under the best of circumstances) to make sure that things would be okay. I apologized for my breakdown, and for what having to witness it might have done to the relationship and to him. I apologized for his having to be on the receiving end of such a violent episode. I apologized. The Conversation has gone badly before, but I went in thinking that this was one of the worst.

And yet, fundamentally,I thought It was another variation on the same conversation I’d had more times than I could count. This time, there was something different. Not on my end; the difference was how it was received. This time I was told to take up space and to make it about me, and about what I was feeling. I’m terrible at taking up space under the best of circumstances. Being told to do it takes it into the realm of nearly impossible.

Being invited to take up space in that moment meant that I started thinking about what it means to take up space. I started thinking about taking up space in conversation as a function of taking up space in my own head. And both are difficult for me to do. My difficulty taking up space in my own head must mean that other things are in that space. In order to survive, I had to squish the conscious part of dealing with this thing down to the tiniest pebble I could, but I wasn’t seeing the shadows it still cast on so many other things. After someone else told me not to apologize for having feelings about it, the space it took up began to grow and change shape. Like erosion in reverse, I started thinking about it more. I began to write about it for the first time… and I thought about the space it took up. How much space does this one night in my life, this thing that happened to me, this one person I haven’t seen nor talked to in a quarter of a century, get to take up? I realized that in my need to not make it the overwhelming focus on things, I’d gone too far the other way. When I crushed it into a pebble, and tried to make it take up no space, I also stopped actually dealing with it. And the less space I was allowing it to take up in my conscious mind, the more it was taking up in my unconscious mind.

So much of “surviving” is really learning to live with what’s different. but learning to live with what’s different means keeping up with how things change when I tell someone that I’ve been raped. I’d spent years focusing on how those conversations changed for everyone else and not for me. This time someone wasn’t just telling me to turn the lens on myself, but insisting that I do. I’d never done that, I didn’t know how to do it, and I was afraid to do it. The only way I knew how to start was to write about it, and so I did. I started writing and revising and writing and revising an even-now-unfinished poem, the first piece of art I’ve ever created about being raped. That first draft became a sort of permission slip where I told myself it was okay to take up space. So much of the energy I’d given to surviving had been about the barriers I could create to hold back the fear and the feelings (and about holding on to a sense of control). When I gave myself permission to focus on the art I was creating, I was able to take back a piece of myself that I’d never been able to hold onto before. I let go of worrying about how people judged my worthiness as a victim and found a voice I hadn’t heard before, which let me talk about what happened that night with authenticity. Instead of being worried about being raped, I’d worried about the reactions from other people when I told them about it. That [new] voice let me talk about things like the knife, or about my experience right after the rape, standing in the bright light of the bathroom, trying to clean up. I could do this now because I was focused on art and not about the practical part of surviving where you learn things like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique for anxiety. I talked, probably for the first time, about how he walked me home after. When that disclosure was met with the idea that walking someone home is something you do to keep them safe, specifically from things like sexual assault, I felt anger that I’d never felt before. I took that anger and I put it into words on pages.

Words are powerful. They were powerful when I first started speaking up and claiming the label “survivor” for myself. Words are still powerful now. In the last year, though, as I’ve allowed creative writing to become a piece of the trauma and healing, I’ve also learned a lot more about words. Some of that is just a function of talking about choices I make as an artist, about the process of learning to write the kinds of powerful poetry I want to write. A little piece of it is that so much of this work has taken place over Zoom, where I seem to focus much more on the person I’m speaking to than in other settings, where there may be so many other things to draw my attention away even the slightest bit. And some of it is me, unmasking things.

So I’ve started unmasking the real meanings behind these words I’ve used, and heard people use, nearly interchangeably, for 27 years.

“Attacked” isn’t strong enough. Attacks can be verbal, they can be physical, they can be financial. There’s just not enough to it.

“Victimized” feels a little too passive to me. I wasn’t passive… I was overpowered by someone bigger, taller and stronger than I am, who had some martial arts training, who was in a setting he was familiar with and who had access to a weapon. Even if he didn’t use it, I knew where it was and could see it. But I wasn’t passive. The blood that was shed that night wasn’t only mine.

“Sexual assault.” We’re closer now. Closer, but not quite there. “Sexual assault” is kind of a big, giant umbrella-term. And there are times when I definitely stand under it, especially when I want to stand in solidarity with all survivors. But that big giant umbrella also means that I could be talking about everything from someone exposing themself to me or touching me without consent, or it could include what happened to me, or even more violence than that. When I say to you that I was sexually assaulted, you don’t get a clear or full picture of what happened. You can take some of the violence out, and sort of view it through a cloudy lens.

And you can also put distance between you and the idea that it really could happen to anyone. If it happened to me and I’m telling you about it, it might even be uncomfortably close to you… perhaps you might even think about it happening to you, not in the vague sort of way that means that you keep your keys in your hand walking to the car, or unconsciously remember a certain detail about the person who didn’t really seem to be menacing but was just a little too close when you went into the store. It gives people a protective little bubble, where no one has to actually say the words, and where we can keep the illusion that it only happens to other people, to bad people, to people who make easily preventable mistakes, to the wrong kind of people.

I’ve started saying the word rape. Because that’s what it was. It doesn’t matter that it was a friend, someone I trusted. It doesn’t matter that the knife was on the table, where I could see it, and not in his hand, or that he walked me home after it happened. It was still rape. When I call it by that name, I feel all the power–the power he took that night and the power I have in claiming back all that I lost for so long. I feel all the anger that I hid when I tried to show the image of a “good victim.” It gives me a spark that I can pour into creative work and into healing work. Claiming the word gives me the fuel to fight another day. I’m embracing the power that I sacrificed for so long… because not only was I disempowered and helpless when it happened, but for a long time, I gave up power that is rightfully mine in order to conform to the image of “the right kind of victim.” But there is no “right” kind of victim, and although I had claimed the title of “survivor” for myself, I came through that night alive but changed. Some of me survived, but a great deal of me walked out my front door that night and never returned home. I lived through it–my physical form survived, and the rest of me underwent metamorphosis.

It’s like I’ve woken up after hibernating. The world in front of me looks different, but I can’t tell you whether I’ve changed or the world has. Certainly it’s scary because it’s different, it also feels wonderful. I feel renewed. I’ve shed a shell that’s been just a little too small, but not really small enough for me to notice, and now that I’ve released it, I have space to stretch out and do so much more. I claimed that four letter word, and in doing so, I have become stronger and braver and discovered that I can breathe fire.

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