Note: I never wanted to put this piece in print. It was mostly an exercise in healing, and it never occurred to me that I would really want to share it. And it did do a lot of healing for me to get it on paper. But then, Brock Turner joined all of us in the news during his trial and subsequent conviction for rape on the Stanford campus. His lack of apology, his willingness to put his victim through a trial in order to attempt to save his own ass, his father’s telling misogynistic language in a letter to the judge, the judge’s cronyism with his fellow Stanford athletes and alumni that led him to give a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. These things all have my blood boiling. The victim’s letter left me in tears, especially where she chooses to represent the masses of women out there who have been through this. I’m one of the masses, and I now choose to join her in solidarity. Sharing this might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but stories need to be told. This culture cannot continue. It can’t.
The Loudest Silence
I thought I’d done everything right. I didn’t leave drunk and by myself; I didn’t stagger into a dark parking lot against friends’ animated pseudo-protests or insist on walking home alone with smeared mascara, barefoot and clutching my platform sandals to my chest. I was raised by a tough single mom who taught me to be aware; I’d been warned it’s when women get stupid, complacent, lazy, trusting that these things happen. So I was careful. Car keys peeking through knuckles, safety in numbers, look aware, stand tall, walk with confidence, carry mace, check your rearview mirror, check it again, buy your own drink at the bar then never set it down. Careful, smart, attentive, prepared, vigilant. Always.
I didn’t initially question whether I’d brought it on myself or assess what I was wearing as victims are wont to do. I didn’t have to wonder why I decided to walk alone or meet a virtual stranger from the internet for a drink or go on a date with someone I had an iffy feeling about because those things weren’t part of the equation. After all, we’re all responsible for protecting ourselves, for not asking for it, for not being too inviting, and these measures help us do that. Or maybe they don’t. But just in case, I didn’t take chances, and I thought that meant I should have been safe. Which is why I didn’t initially understand that I was a victim.
People who do not understand they are victims might not know that, more than a decade after being assaulted, they could suddenly become repulsed by human touch, including that of an unsuspecting husband. Nor might it occur to them that having a baby, using a body for something natural and important, could be a trigger for being haunted by the time the same body was touched by something dirty and angry. Those people might write it off as no big deal, for as long as they can possibly muster, and then, without warning, they can think of nothing else.
If I wanted to analyze it, really dig in and question the things that might have been my fault, I probably shouldn’t have had so many drinks or worn that dress. Though it was a Friday and my 24th birthday party, and drinking a bunch of beer with friends and wearing a cute outfit are fairly normal activities for such an occasion. The dress was red. It was dark red with lighter red tiger stripes. It hit me below the knees but had a sexy string halter neck that I loved because I liked showing off my strong shoulders. I never wore it again.
I stood with my sister Amy, her boyfriend Davis, and Davis’s best friend Glenn, waiting for the taxi to pick us up from the ancient Irish pub where my birthday-slash-going-away party had been. Admittedly, we were all pretty drunk. Fun drunk, happy drunk, sloppy karaoke drunk. The cabbie drove us to my dad’s house, where I’d been living again for the past couple of years since returning from a short-sighted and short-lived move to New Jersey. Everyone was going to stay the night, which wasn’t a big deal because my dad was used to waking up to find members of this particular cast of characters strewn about the house after nights out. We were all basically family.
We sat on and around the huge, L-shaped family room sectional to eat the tacos that we’d made the cabbie drive through for on the way home. Plastic bags of fake Mexican food, crumpled napkins, and spent hot sauce pouches were spread on the carpet interspersed with my outstretched bare, tan legs as I sat on the floor leaning against the couch’s brown microfiber. Amy was cross-legged next to me, and Davis was standing, glassy-eyed and holding a still- wrapped burrito. He had repeated several times that he was going to bed, but he kept standing there, and we started joking that he was taking the burrito to bed with him to snuggle. Glenn was sitting on the side of the couch opposite from Amy and me; he looked close to falling asleep fully clothed. The TV was on in the background, and my sister was giving me shit for flirting with Jeff at the party after breaking up with him months before. I made a sarcastic comment about wanting to get some before I left town.
Maybe that’s when I asked for it.
Gradually conversation faded, Davis and Amy went to bed, Glenn was asleep, and I kicked off the patent red sandals with the tiny bows that I bought specifically to match the little red dress and lay down on the couch, pulling the ever-present ratty afghan over me.
My friends who threw the party were people I’d been waiting tables and attending college with since returning from the east coast. Somehow, I was hired as a server without any experience, and I was terrible at it. I forgot everyone’s salads and refills, but my charm got me through, as well as the fact that the chain restaurant where I worked was adjacent to the south exit of the Air Force Academy. Many of the customers were military college guys on free rides with stipends to spend, confidence to spare, and hormones to burn. The female servers wore short-shorts and tight tie-dyed t-shirts as our uniforms and worked it for tips, flirting with the Cadets, male waiters, and Mexican kitchen staff alike. I was all too familiar with the phrase “nice ass” in Spanish, and it didn’t occur to me to be offended by it. Maybe we all deserved to get raped.
Amy, six years older than I, went to high school with Glenn and Davis, and as a kid I’d always tried to tag along. They’d known me since I was a third-grader and watched me grow up. Sometime after high school, my sister and Davis ventured out of the friend zone, dated for a few years, then got engaged. Alternately, Glenn went to dental school in Boston and got engaged to Heidi. I hadn’t seen Glenn in a few years, but he was visiting friends and family on a school break while Heidi stayed home. Amy and Davis came down from Denver for the party, and brought Glenn with them. When they came in, I hugged them all and bought a round of beers, feeling grown up and suddenly equal to my older sister and her friends instead of like every- one’s baby sister.
When I woke up on the couch with Glenn on top of me, my red dress was bunched at my chest, my underwear was pushed aside, several of his fingers were jammed deep into my vagina, and his mouth was over mine stealing my breath.
What has happening registered slowly: is this a dream, this isn’t a dream, this isn’t right, this is Glenn, why is he on top of me, where are his hands. Finally, I found words.
“What the fuck?”
It came out as a loud whisper, though I’d expected more volume from myself. I pushed his chest, realizing I was still sloppy and weak but at least now wide awake. I’m six feet tall and have never been scrawny, but Glenn was much bigger. He barely budged, instead responding by pushing his hand further into me. Hard. Buckling my pelvis. I cried out, but it was muffled by his face in mine, his lips wet and spitting. He said, “Fuck you, Cara”, then shoved me into the back of the couch. He stood up, and I heard him zip his jeans. It froze me. He’d been prepared for more. He laughed in the dark, and a memory formed that will probably never dissipate, a sound lodged forever in my soul.
I moved my foggy head back and forth to figure out where he was against the backdrop of moonlight through the sliding door. My eyes found him, still standing but a few feet away. I didn’t know what to do. I prepared to fight, albeit drunkenly and with a giant opponent. Instead, he lay down in a slump on the other end of the sectional, soon snoring. I listened for a few minutes to be sure then army crawled across the floor to my bedroom, scolding myself for not sleeping there in the first place. I locked the door and fell into the bed that had been mine since I could remember. I stared at the ceiling, first in the dark, then in the pink morning light, and didn’t leave my room until I heard my sister say goodbye to Glenn and the front door slam behind him.
The following Monday my car was packed. I was moving sixty miles north to live with my sister and Davis in south Denver for a few months while starting my first corporate job and finding an apartment. When I arrived, they were both at work, so I lugged all of my belongings upstairs to my new room then relaxed on the couch for the rest of the afternoon. I helped myself to a couple beers from the fridge, and my sister’s calico cat, Toonces, snoozed on my chest, purring and kneading occasionally while my mind started to wander. I thought a lot about Friday night, all the things I didn’t have time or desire to think about over the whirlwind weekend of packing and saying goodbye. I knew what had happened, though some of it was blurred around the edges, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around what it meant or why. How long had he been there before I woke up? was a particularly nagging question. I was conflicted. I wasn’t inexperienced; I had slept with what I considered to be a few too many guys and had messed around with guys I knew way less than Glenn. I was convinced that his cheating on Heidi was my big issue with the whole situation, and I attempted to soothe myself with reminders that I hadn’t initiated anything. I wasn’t the cheater; that was his problem—and Heidi’s. But I still couldn’t get right with it. I didn’t know that I shouldn’t.
I heard the automatic garage door open and close and waited to see who was home. It was Amy, and I looked up across the open-concept living room into the kitchen where she walked in with three different bags slung over her shoulders and an armload of files, her heels clicking tile. “You look like you made yourself at home” she smirked, dumping her stuff on the table and kicking off her shoes in one motion.
“Yes, but my first rent check is right there on the table, so technically, this is my home,” I smiled at her, satisfied with my wit.
She said Davis had a softball game that night and we should go, but first she needed to change. I removed Toonces from the cushion he’d found on my stomach, and he let out a sleepy mew as he was deposited on the carpet. I followed Amy upstairs to her room and around the corner where I sat on the bed and talked to her through the open master bath door. She stripped off her pantsuit and blouse and looked around for shorts and a t-shirt.
“Hey, Aim,” I said, surprising myself with my need to bring it up, “Can I ask you about something?”
“Yeah, what’s up?” she didn’t look up from her search, but I preferred the half-listening, half- naked audience as opposed to undivided attention.
I started in on what had happened, shying from details, explaining in generics how I had woken up startled with Glenn on top of me “touching and kissing” me. I didn’t mention how I was sore the next morning, or the blood in my underwear, or that I felt violated and hadn’t slept much since.
My sister stopped what she was doing and leaned against the frame of the bathroom doorway, still in her mismatched bra and underwear. She exhaled a bitter laugh. “Yeah, you’re not the only one he’s done that to”
She didn’t say it like it was a reason to be aghast or like he was serial sexual predator who needed to be stopped. She said it like someone might have said, “Yeah, that Glenn, he is always trying to check out in the express lane with twelve items instead of ten.”
She went back to getting dressed. I let it go.
There was no mention of Glenn for the next couple of weeks. I started my job the following Monday, and each evening after work, Amy, Davis and I would hang out together. It was a new dynamic with the same family, and it felt good to be on my own again without the requirement of actually being on my own. That Friday, I came home a little later than normal after getting a happy hour beer with my new coworkers. I walked in the front door, across the house from where Amy and Davis were arguing loudly in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to get to my room without them seeing me, so I stood hiding behind the giant fireplace that divided the main room. I didn’t plan to listen, but I’d heard my name and was bracing myself for the fight to be about me living there. I was ready to defend myself before realizing the conversation was about what I’d told Amy the previous week. My sister apparently expressed some concern about Glenn, and Davis was defending the guy who had been his best friend since childhood, the guy who would be his best man in a few months while I would be the maid of honor. “There’s no way”, Davis was yelling, “He would never fucking do that!”
I waited for a few minutes then strode into the living room, acting as if I’d just walked in. They didn’t buy it. Davis was already angry, and now they both appeared pissed off at my obvious eavesdropping. I looked in their direction without eye contact, blinking back tears, then went straight upstairs to my bedroom. I stared at the bare walls feeling guilty for ruining the night, waiting for my sister to knock on my door to tell me everything was ok. She never did. The next morning over pancakes everything seemed fine. And that was fine with me.
Fifteen years is a long time, and for most of it I thought about the night of my tainted 24th birth- day as little as possible. I talked about it even less, and only my best friend and eventual husband were ever told. The version they knew was similar to what I’d told my sister so long ago, generic, vague, a brushoff story of an old scar. In retrospect, I can pinpoint some bad decisions and stupid behavior over the years that any freshman psych major could see related to that night and its effect on me—one night stands that I thought would give me control but instead made me feel dirty and sad, breaking up with nice guys only to date jerks, pretty classic. For the most part though, I pretended so hard that it was no big deal that it actually seemed true.
Today, I read venomous internet comments and watch talking heads who wonder aloud why Bill Cosby’s accusers waited so long. They ask why someone would wait for so many years after a traumatic event to come forward. They accuse of money-grubbing and fame-whoring. They assume sluttiness and groupie behavior. They say it was “just fondling, not intercourse” or “why would someone go to his hotel room if she wasn’t after sex?” But I get it. I know exactly how it can take so long. I know that I felt as comfortable sleeping on a couch in a sundress across the room from a longtime family friend as someone might being alone with America’s Favorite Dad—with Dr. Huxtable. I was fine with downplaying something that wasn’t intercourse or violent rape because I didn’t know how to process it and didn’t want to think about it and didn’t want to admit I’d been affected or damaged by something that seemed small. Until it wasn’t small, until it grew, until it took over everything and no longer responded to my efforts to conceal. I dealt with my family’s love for Glenn as a factor; I can only imagine how much I would have hidden if the whole world knew and revered him.
A few years ago, I gave birth to my son around the same time the controversial high school rape news out of Steubenville, Ohio was splashed across the national stage. The Steubenville case had a lot of parallels with what happened to me, and the postpartum hormones didn’t help me in my efforts to ignore it. They kept saying rape over and over again, when the actual physical details of what happened were: digital penetration of an underage, drunk female (though the advent of cell phone cameras and viral video, and the role of adults in covering it up to protect football players, made her case so much worse). I couldn’t admit that what happened to me was rape—I still don’t think of it like that—but hearing the word and the girl’s story triggered something in me. I thought about it constantly. I didn’t sleep. I didn’t want to be touched. At all. By anyone except for my tiny baby. I could not be touched. I shuddered at the thought of sex, and it became a non-existent part of my marriage. I talked with my husband, and while he said he understood, how could he really? And how honest was I really being with him? I ended up in a deep depression, haunted by visions of that night, wanting to be alone at all times, but scared when I was. I drank aggressively. Finally, because I did not want to be a mom and a wife who was depressed and drank aggressively, I talked myself into therapy.
My first two therapy sessions, I sat in the chair and cried for the whole hour. Two times, my insurance company paid a counselor $150 to watch me do nothing but cry. The third session, I talked, and I made myself tell the real story. Between what had happened with Glenn, my mother’s sudden, traumatic death in 2006, and my reluctance over the years for dealing with either, there was some damage. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, ADD, and PTSD and was medicated with a mild anti-depressant (which I still cling to like a security blanket, afraid of what will happen if I stop). I balked when she said PTSD because I reserve that in my mind for brave survivors of something important and not for silly girls who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. For so many years, that’s what I told myself I was.
I can talk about it now, but I know I’m not healed. I have a new list of things that might be my fault. For instance, I’m ruining my marriage with my constant dread of being touched, and I’ve somehow gained thirty pounds to make my attractiveness to my husband less of a threat. It’s my fault that I read the articles that tell women having sex with their husbands even when they don’t feel like it will save their marriages, and I think: maybe it would be easier to get divorced. It’s my fault that I can’t make it go away, no matter how hard I try, no matter how hard I wish to want to be touched. These things that are probably my fault might be the result of the night of my 24th birthday, or they could possibly be because I’ve turned into a terrible person. I’ve started to realize that the two things are the same.
The women who have accused Bill Cosby are brave and strong to come forward, and they’ve given many other women a voice. For me, my voice will be limited to writing and talking to my therapist and husband and girlfriends, among them many strong, confident, educated women who have eerily similar stories and scars. I got up some nerve to mention it to Amy a couple of years ago. I asked her via email why she let a sexual assault of her little sister go, why she forced me to walk down the aisle with Glenn at their wedding, so as to not make a scene, knowing it was demeaning, knowing I had begged not to, why they chose him over me. That is the last communication I’ve had with her; we have not spoken in over two years. Now, like then, she won’t talk about it, and now, like always, confrontation makes her run away. So I choose not to make more waves in my family, not to stir a cold pot, not to upset anyone else. The statutes of limitations, that of the state of Colorado and the one created in my own mind, have passed, and I’m finding some peace, even on my birthday.
Because my dad is friends with him online, and because he got remarried to a high school classmate of mine, images of Glenn pop up in my Facebook feed on occasion. He and his wife have two small daughters, little blonde things with bright blue eyes. I find some irony in that, some hope that being a dad (though it didn’t work for America’s favorite) can fix someone, and some disappointment in myself for imagining how he would feel if someone assaulted his daughters the way he assaulted me. Then I scold myself for thinking about him at all, and I move on as quickly as I can, suppressing memories, but hoping he teaches those little girls to be aware like my mom taught me. Careful, smart, attentive, prepared, vigilant. Always.