Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
– Frederick Buechner
Note: Trigger warnings, dear friends. Read with care.
I’ve written you three times now, and never posted it here. I can’t. The words are there, and after all these years, I think they’d like to be free, but I’m too afraid for anyone to know them. Mom reads these too. I don’t want her to know. So, I never post them.
But time’s passing now and I think I’ve realized why I won’t post any of them, and why none of them feel quite right. If you’ll allow me to, Dad, I need to use this space to write another letter. A letter to someone else, to a secret I’ve never told anyone about. A letter to my past.
When I’m 20 years old, you write me an email. It’s been two years since we’ve spoken, since graduating high school and going separate ways. I’d never felt more relief than in that moment. Everyone tossing their caps upwards, the air filled with the swelling chorus of jubilant teenagers free of the torment of high school. We all entered adulthood in what felt like a sudden, aching half of a second. Everything awful that had transpired was in the past. We were adults. We could move on. Or at least, that’s how it felt.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to you. I only remember feeling free. What had happened between us was in the past. I could forget it, and I could forget you. That’s how one heals, isn’t it? Forget, I thought. And that’s what I tried to do.
But two years later, you emailed me.
I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?
I met you after my family moved to Columbia in the middle of freshman year. You were bookish and nerdy, quiet and reserved. You seemed to listen when people spoke, and I liked that. I liked that you and I could stand outside before the first bell and debate a topic we disagreed on and come back the next morning to chat about anime and novels because disagreement didn’t have to break our friendship. I liked that you were smart, in all honors classes, and you went to church twice a week and sang in the choir and went on mission trips. You were a Good Boy.
We didn’t start dating until junior year. We’d been friends for a while and I knew you well by then. We got Bo-Berry biscuits at Bojangles and went to the movies. You took me to church with you twice a week. I’d never been to church before. My family was religious, but because we traveled to art shows every weekend, we didn’t attend church. God doesn’t need a floor plan, the saying goes, and I suppose, because of the way we made a living, this applied to us.
So, you took me to church and we did our homework together and you treated me respectfully and kindly and I was happy. I was young and naïve and I’d been kissed, but not really anything else.
To this day it confuses me. How very, very wrong I was about you.
The first time it happened, I wasn’t expecting it. It was a very pretty day, with a beautiful blue sky. Why do I remember such a thing? I don’t know, but I do. I remember it was very pretty and clear and normal, and we were on our way to school. Only, we didn’t go to school.
You picked me up from home and we went to a parking lot. I was confused, but I trusted you, and you were a Good Boy, and maybe we just needed to talk about something important before we were surrounded by other students.
But we didn’t talk. In fact, this is what I remember most. More than the sky or the clouds or the emptiness of the parking lot around us. I remember the silence.
I struggled, but it didn’t matter.
I didn’t make a single sound.
Afterward, we drove to school and I walked through the halls with my pain etched on my skin. It connected my freckles like lines drawn between points on a map. Here was the first second, and the next, and the third. My dad once told me my freckles were constellations, and I had never been so proud. To walk the earth with the universe dancing on my skin. Now all I saw was a map of pain. How could no one see it as they passed me in the halls?
Where was my voice? I needed to scream.
I blamed myself. I excused you from your deeds, and I buried my voice so deeply inside that my howling pain devoured it.
It happened again.
I was afraid. How could I speak, with your temper the way it was—and where was your temper hiding all these years? How had I never noticed it before?
I couldn’t tell anyone. How could I look at my parents and speak this shame? How could I find the strength to hold the pain they’d feel next to mine when mine was already so overwhelming? How could I live with the disappointment I had brought to them?
I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear their pain and mine. I could only bear mine, and only just.
The sacrifice for holding this secret inside me was my voice.
It happened again. I shook my head back and forth—nononononononono—unable to speak the word aloud. But you only held your finger to your lips and whispered softly, gently, “Shhhhhhhh.”
I closed my eyes. I don’t remember any more.
It happened so many times I lost count. Never counted. Never wanted to know. It felt endless and endless and when you took me to church and we sat beside each other in the pew I wondered what God thought when your prayers appeared on his doorstep. I wondered how I was supposed to forgive you for this, and what God would think of me if I couldn’t.
When it finally ended a few months later and we broke up, I remember the relief, but it was nothing compared to how it felt to graduate high school and get away from you. I needed distance and space to feel safe.
Two years passed. And then, you emailed me.
I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?
You were a Good Boy. You were soft-spoken and polite and smart and angry and cruel and controlling and abusive and a thief.
You stole my innocence. My pride in myself. My confidence. My childhood. My body. My voice. You stole my life from me, and it’s taken me until now to realize everything you broke inside me.
Over the years, I thought about telling someone this. The only person I ever managed to tell was B, and he’s probably the only reason I’ve survived it. Every time I considered telling someone else, I thought about how society silences victims of assault.
The judge in the Stanford rape case said that society shouldn’t punish Mr. Turner too harshly. After all, he’s young, with his whole life ahead of him. Yes, the jury found him guilty, but think of how awful it would be to ruin this poor boy’s life with a tough sentence.
I wondered if, by protecting your life with my silence, I had ruined mine instead.
But mainly I worried when people looked at me it’s all they would see. A girl, now a woman, with a map of pain on her skin she couldn’t seem to wash clean. When I thought about telling my family, I thought of a saying I was raised with: Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If my endometriosis ever lets me have a child, I’ll tell them every night, Speak up, child. Your voice is meant to be heard. And if they’re afraid, I’ll say, Do you need to scream? Here, stand beside me. We’ll do it together. Ready? One, two, three—
I’m sorry. Can we be friends again? Can I take you to lunch?
I emailed you back.
Thank you, but no.
It’s not until recently that I realized I’d kept this pain so buried I’d never worked through it. It’s not until I felt the utter shock of an election cycle that talked about sexual assault day in and day out so casually, as if it was nothing—Let’s play that recording again, shall we? The one where he talks about grabbing anything he wants, just grab them! Play it again. It’s not causing someone to stand in the bathroom at work and hyperventilate—that I realized I had never gotten over what you did to me. What’s worse, I’ve never forgiven myself and, at the rate I’m going, it might take me the rest of my life to do so.
Do I forgive you? I think about that sometimes. I hear you have a daughter now. I think about her more than you. I wonder how she makes you feel about your past. I wonder if you take her to church and sit her beside you on the pew. I wonder if you pray for boys to be kind to her, for her to be brave enough to tell them “no” if she’s not ready for something. I wonder if you treat your wife well.
I wonder if I’ll run into you in the grocery store when I’m in Columbia visiting family and how I’ll react. If I’ll drop the gallon of milk in the middle of the aisle and sprint for the door as everyone looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. If I’ll race to the car with my heart pounding in my ears and huddle in the seat with my head on the steering wheel and slip back to a different parking lot in my mind and lose my voice all over again.
I wonder how someone can break someone’s soul the way you broke mine and still be the one society wants to protect. No one will ever convince me we don’t prize our boys more than our girls.
Last weekend I went to my local Women’s March. There was a lot of talk about why some women didn’t attend a March, and I respect their reasons. I’d never marched for anything in my life, and I was a little scared to go. But I believed in much of what the March was about, and I needed to go for reasons entirely my own.
I was overwhelmed by the number of people there, and by the incredible feeling that permeated the grassy park: joy. How happy everyone was, smiling and laughing and singing. I expected angry screams, hoarse voices cutting through the air. I never expected the soft sound of a folk song to float around me. I didn’t know the words, so all I could do was listen.
Keep on singing proudly. Keep on moving proudly. Keep on moving forward. Never turning back.
As I walked around, reading signs and shirts, I noticed a man sitting quietly by himself, watching everything unfold. His arms rested on a sign that read, “Touching without consent is rape.”
I stopped in my tracks.
In hindsight, I think he might know what happened to me, based on what transpired next. I don’t know how long it was—one second, two, three—but I read his sign and I looked at him, and there was an understanding there. Maybe something happened to him years ago, and he, too, couldn’t find the strength to scream.
I wanted to hug him, this stranger I’d never seen before. Instead, I asked him if it would be okay for me to take his picture. He said yes, and I did. I walked away knowing I was meant to be there that day, and so was he.
When we marched, the sun abnormally warm atop our heads, I thought about you, about how what happened between us has shaped my feelings on certain things. About how I have known what it feels like to have someone else control my body, and how, no matter what my personal beliefs are, I’ll never take away another woman’s autonomy.
After a while, I tilted my chin to the sunlight, and lent my voice to the crowd.
It’s hard to put into words how often I think of you now. I used to go months without remembering. Months and months. Since the election, it’s daily, as if the place I’d once hidden you has broken and I can’t fit you back inside it. Sometimes I hear jokes alluding to grabbing things without permission—innocuous, playful, not meaning any harm. People don’t realize they’re normalizing assault with their jests, that hearing it makes me think of standing in the shower as a teenager, letting the steaming water pool around my feet, never feeling clean. People don’t realize how words cut open the past and sear it onto the present. I wish you would leave me alone. I wish you would stop tormenting me. I wish I could forget again.
I don’t forgive you, and I feel very guilty about that. I’d like to be able to end this by saying those words and meaning them, but I hold truth to be sacred, and I won’t lie to you.
I don’t forgive you. But this year, I’d like to try to forgive myself, and for the first time, that feels far more important.
Thank you, whoever you are. – Women’s March sister march in Birmingham, AL, 2017