We have these lists of forgotten histories that pop up once in a while. Typically during February, there will be a list of African-American inventors, people whose names you did not know, who created things you use daily. There is another list that focuses on Jewish-American achievements in the same light. Lazlo Biro invented the ball-point pen – those who are truly committed to their anti-semitism might want to use pencils instead.
It is the most obvious and painful thing to understand; you live in a world full of rapists. Your classmates, your co-workers, your friends and neighbors. Some of us can also include boyfriends, husbands, brothers, and fathers. If anyone in the world is surprised, I am happy for them. If there are women who have had absolutely no experience of being raped, molested, assaulted, harassed, or catcalled, I am pleased for them. They have somehow managed to live in a world where all of the men in their lives have respected them, or at the very least been respectful enough to keep themselves to themselves.
I was balancing a plate of appetizers and a glass of wine at the Centennial Gala when Karim Sahli said that he had read my column about surviving rape. He said it must take courage to be so honest about it. I thanked him for the compliment and said yes, it does. I gestured to the crowd around us, and said “Probably every woman in this room she a story she can tell; if not every one, I’ll say at least half.” Karim, ever the gentleman, demurred, “I doubt it’s that many.” I said “Admitting it is hard, because women are told that it’s always our fault. Many never talk about. But it happens. It happens a lot.”
Recalling that conversation, I realize that my use of the passive voice “it happens” was the linguistic need to stay in agreement. What I could have said is “Men do this. Men do this a lot.”
Violent trauma is the seed of post traumatic stress disorder. In a world where rape is denied, defended and dismissed, there are a lot of people with post traumatic stress disorder who are not even aware that that is what they are suffering from. With PTSD, time is very fluid. This is where the legal challenge of getting all the details down is difficult; the details change, because your mind does not want you to have that information. Your mind is keeping it in storage, waiting for the day (the month, the year) when you have enough stability and safety and support to start to remember these details. When the past is far enough away, you can see it more clearly. This is how the mind processes trauma.
In my life long struggle to get the language of war out of my mouth, I don’t like the word “triggering.” Maybe a more accurate term would be ‘sparking.’ Because when every news broadcast, every newspaper inch, every radio sound bite is about rape, it’s like a spark that sets me smoldering, and sometimes I burst into flames. Sometimes it generates more light than heat. When another women has the guts to tell her story, I get a little more clarity, a little more vision. When other women rush to cast doubt or judgement, I burn.
When men deny it? I’m numb. Of course they don’t want to believe it. It would mean they need to look at their own behavior, and that someone might call them to account.
Whatever happens tomorrow, it will give us all a chance to notice how we accept this. Either we accept that women are raped with impunity, or we accept that there must be consequences for rapists.
It’s not even my own story, it’s the stories that I have heard from so many other women. Stories of jobs lost, classes dropped, friendships ended. Stories of careers ended, of creative projects ended, of lives ended by suicide. There is no list that can ever tell us what our culture has lost because of all these women who have had to shut down, or retreat, or stay small in order to try and stay safe. There is no list of the medical breakthroughs, the inventions, the works of art, the social movements that have never come to fruition.
If the Kavanaugh nomination is defeated, this will not be the end of rape. But it will be a moment to turn the tide.
The loss is incalculable. But what we can gain by accepting and understanding the truth is priceless.
Editor’s Note – For those who want to read the original column that began the conversation at the Gala, go to https://culvercitycrossroads.com/2016/06/15/just-a-thought-dear-ari-noonan/.