A Stillborn Year
TW: sexual assault
During the pandemic, I began doing my therapy sessions in my small bedroom closet. It was an unwelcome disruption from a sacred tradition: sitting in the liminal space of a therapist’s quiet lobby. But with my paper-thin walls and roommate to consider, I sat down in the 4 x 4 room and allowed my dulled senses to reanimate. We began by talking about a phone call.
The last time I called my rapist’s mother, she answered from their second home. “It’s nice of you to call, Nat … how have you been? Hopefully doing better, and feeling safe and all. He hasn’t made any attempts to contact you?” No, he had not. Not since April. But I was wondering, could they spare $50 a month for therapy, a space to talk about it all? Just for a year maybe? “Well … I’m sure you understand how hard this has been on all of us. I mean, frankly, there are two sides to every story, and all we’d heard at the time was your side. Now we’ve heard other things … and you know, COVID and isolation provoke all kinds of unexpected reactions in people … we’ve put him in therapy like you asked, and the cost of that adds up. He’s still suffering from when he tried to … hurt himself after what he did to you. You know, we’re not made of money. So, uh, I don’t think we can help you in any additional way, but I hope we can leave it in the past and move on.”
Most popular depictions of life post-rape, post-stalking, and post-blackmail are woefully unimaginative. The girl flinches as her new, well-intentioned sexual partner attempts to touch her. She chafes at hugs from friends. She’s always looking over her shoulder. She’s perpetually cisgender, straight, and 22 or younger. She doesn’t binge watch Studio Ghibli movies in her dusky apartment, feel utterly alone on an insipid Zoom date, attempt to transcend this corporeal plane to Mary Lattimore’s harpistry, order a ridiculous amount of Shake Shack, engage in the usual self-flagellation befitting a 20-something yuppie preoccupied with her peers’ success. I suppose it looks different for everyone.
My post-assault landscape was largely shaped by feelings of isolation and self-loathing, but rape’s physical residue did surface from time to time. I recall kissing my now-boyfriend in the weeks following the assault, and him noting that I kissed differently. I already knew I did. I felt like I couldn’t breathe as soon as I leaned in for one, and I broke them off swiftly. My nights were consumed by frenetic energy, and I found myself awake until 5 am for weeks. Around 1 am, when the last texts rolled in and the Twitter prattle lulled, my watch began. I began to empathize with Spirited Away’s ravenous No-Face as I foraged for all manner of sustenance: law reviews, ponderous folk ballads, harrowing COVID news and infographics, old books I’d bought and never read. Everything I absorbed drowned out the screams in the hollow.
I slowly grew to understand that there are no silver bullets for processing trauma. A new partner “taking it slow” is harm reduction, not a solution for feeling uninhabited. A compassionate network of friends can provide critical support, but can’t quell the daily interrogation of your former self. “How could you be so jejune, indiscriminate, foolish! You thought yourself wise enough to counsel friends on predatory men, but you missed the one who found you!” The corrosive effect of a rape over time — on your ability to trust yourself, your capacity for vulnerability, your will to connect with even close loved ones — doesn’t get enough air time.
The deaths of my beloved Memaw and good friend Lillian in May and October converged with the endless night of COVID, political upheaval, and personal trauma into a muddled, incoherent despair. But with time, I noticed some signs of healing. Therapy felt less like hemorrhaging and more like rebuilding. I could breathe when I passed by the place where it happened, even if I had to avert my eyes. One day a couple months ago, I asked my boyfriend if I kissed like I used to. “Yes, and you have for quite some time.”
When news of the Nashville bombing on Christmas Day emerged, I found myself poring over the emergent narratives on Twitter and in the news, looking for theories that resonated. My reflexive response was to be seized with fear, hearing that a bomb went off in a mid-sized city where close friends live.
The speculation began to flow: he was a 5G conspiracist, he didn’t trust the military, he didn’t trust Big Tech, he was a terrorist, he was evil. He was mentally ill, a depressive recluse. That particular theory was quickly dismissed and derided because, as the quote-tweet refrain goes, “I’ve been depressed and I never blew up a town!” In the spirit of defending mentally ill people, who have long been demonized as inherently violent, cunning, and cruel, people re-centered the conversation on the accused’s decidedly evil but “perfectly sane” motives. In an attempt to balance the scales, people noted that white criminals receive more sympathetic coverage than their black and brown counterparts. Mental health history, upbringing, and socioeconomic background factor into white criminals’ public adjudication, whereas the black and brown accused are already penalized and stripped of humanity through their perceived pathological criminality. These observations are all true, but the conclusion that we must “equalize” our retributive contempt towards white violent offenders, rather than interrogate our myopic perception of all who harm others, sets us up for failure.
I had a conversation with one male acquaintance in which he admitted that he “could’ve become an incel” due to his chronic depression, exposure to radicalized, misogynistic messaging, and unluckiness in love. While unnerving to hear, these words represented a beautiful moment of self-awareness and vulnerability that illustrated how the confluence of just a few factors can metastasize into a brokenness beyond our control. Furthermore, it demonstrated that if one possesses an awareness of one’s brokenness, there are no foregone conclusions. Brokenness is a dynamic and remediable condition.
I thought back to the conversation with my rapist’s mother — “you know, COVID and isolation provoke all kinds of unexpected reactions in people.” At the time, I scoffed at the transparent gaslighting and self-delusion she was engaging in. My rapist did not rape me because he was getting COVID cabin fever after a month of isolation. He raped me because he was broken by a lifetime of isolation, rejection, mockery, self-hate, and warped, toxic messaging on masculinity and power. I don’t believe our worst impulses are entirely reactionary. They’re built from years of socialization. To say people rape because they are evil falsely assumes a moral binary in human nature, and lends credence to nihilistic inevitability in acts of violence. I know my rapist is capable of goodness because I have witnessed his compassion and care for myself and others. Like many victims, I knew him prior to the assault as no back-alley bogeyman, but a flesh and blood friend. But his brokenness also broke me, and at some point, we are all responsible for preventing harm to ourselves and others.
I don’t seek to mandate mercy for abusers from their victims. I haven’t even forgiven my own abuser, and I don’t think I need to forgive him in order to perceive his brokenness. I’m still afraid. I nearly cried when a judge allowed for a continuation of my restraining order. I still keep some of my social media accounts on private. I carefully cultivate the things which bring me joy and security, including distance from the people who’ve weaponized their brokenness and proximity to those who would heal my own.
And yet, I refuse to accept a world in which my hurt is used as a cudgel against rehabilitating broken people or a shield from our collective, long-term responsibility to victims. Victims deserve more than whack-a-mole justice, wherein one assailant is placed behind bars, but a legion of broken people stand ready to take their place at the church, the club, the fraternity, the home. Victims don’t just deserve justice in the narrow, personal sense: we deserve a future with fewer victims. Unfortunately, that future is undermined by corporate and public actors who propagate and profit from brokenness. But the power of prevention is at our disposal, from the levers of public policy to the way we conduct our personal relationships. On a policy front, we can choose to prioritize public mental health resources, corporate accountability for malicious misinformation, and labor conditions that dignify and empower. On a personal level, we can choose to message friends and acquaintances tweeting their despair, and to challenge those expressing concerning views. Everyone is better served by a community in which brokenness is not treated as an immutable quality or inescapable future.
It’s a bit funny that, in the moments when I fully internalize how deeply broken I and others are, I feel a small hope. Perhaps our place in history does not doom us to an entirely inexorable path to ruin; perhaps we can pass through the crucible of these times by tending to our brokenness and that of others. As tenuously held together as I am at the end of a stillborn year, a life still emerges.