I shut this blog down several weeks ago in a fit of insecurity of the kind, ironically, this project is intended to prevent. Something was wrong. I just couldn’t figure out what.
Then, a friend called me out. “When it comes to your work, you have this strong, professional, empowered persona,” she said. “But you have this personal narrative of victimhood that doesn’t make sense.” That second persona is the one that began to come through on this blog. I lost my authentic voice. Instead, I became what I always dreaded: an “angry feminist,” shouting to be heard.
That doesn’t match the mission of this project or my “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy of social change. I meant to inspire, not to criticize; I meant to highlight positive stories, not negative ones. Yet as I looked at the world through a gender lens, I found it impossible to disconnect women’s professional challenges from broader social problems. And the more I looked at those social problems, the more I realized that they had impacted my own life.
For years, I have wanted desperately to talk about my own experience. In fact, the document I wrote after I was raped in 2007 was titled exactly that: “talk about it.” I just wanted somebody to listen, and to know, and to acknowledge that I had been victimized. So before I can move on, I need to get this out of the way.
I was sixteen the first time I was assaulted. It was right after lunch, just outside the high school cafeteria. Two guys from the football team said they needed to “talk to me.” One of them, whom I’ll call Dan, had recently started seeing a friend of mine from another school. Dan was considered the hottest guy in our class, and his family lived in a fancy neighborhood near the golf course. I was a nerdy, busty church girl who lived in an old, plain house on the other side of town and had briefly dated his older brother. The previous Friday, when I overheard him saying vulgar things about my friend, I had, well, tattled. I figured the conversation would not be pleasant.
I did not figure this: Dan pushed me up against the white brick wall, next to the vending machines, and put his hand on my crotch. It wasn’t sexual. It felt more like an act of dominance. He called me a bitch and a cock-blocker. He told me I was jealous because I could never get a guy like him. He told me to stay out of his life and threatened me with a vague “or else” that most likely concerned my social life rather than my body.
I was stunned like a cow on a conveyor belt. When Dan and his friend let me go, I walked straight to my AP chemistry class and sat down at my desk in the second row. The bell had already rung. I squirmed in my seat and couldn’t focus. I was deep inside my head, the teacher’s voice a distant drone. I pulled out my bright yellow, school-issued planner and opened the student handbook pages in the front, reading closely the definitions of “threat” and “assault.” My mind was such a jumble that I could not move forward until I saw in print a near-exact description of what had happened to me. Then I ran out of the room and straight to the main office.
As soon as I started telling the counselor–a severe, angry woman all of five feet tall–what happened, I started sobbing. I am sure my words were incoherent. I had the handbook with me and kept pointing to it in the hopes that she would do something. I was a 4.0 student, involved in all kinds of extracurricular activities, and I had never been in trouble for anything–ever–not once.
Instead, she shut me down. She told me that Dan was a good student and a football player. She told me that he would never do something like that unprovoked. Instead of dealing with the issue according to the handbook, she set me up for a peer mediation. “We’re trying to resolve all conflicts this way,” she said. “It’s better for everyone.”
I agreed. Resolution seemed better than retribution. But I would only go through the mediation with Dan, not his sidekick; I did not want to be outnumbered again. Later that week, we went into a small, windowless room and sat down on either end of a long, white table. The mediator, one of Dan’s buddies from the football team, sat between us with an open notebook and led us through a list of questions. Dan explained that he was angry at me because the previous spring, I had confronted some friends of his who made a habit of torturing me for my body. They made vulgar motions toward me with breadsticks while I waited in the lunch line and drew tits under my picture in the yearbook. Eventually, I had asked a trusted teacher to intervene. That I had never filed a formal complaint hardly mattered. According to him, I needed to be put in my place.
In the end, we signed a binding document. It stated that someday, in the future, if I did as I was told, he would apologize to me. For my part, I was to step aside and avert my eyes when he passed me in the hallways. I was never to speak to him or his friends again.
Two years later, Dan and I were both awarded a scholarship for community service from the Rotary Club. The ceremony took place at the golf & country club on a sunny spring day. I gave a rambling speech about how excited I was to go to college; Dan gave a confident two-minute statement of thanks. I remember wondering, as I stood next to him on stage and shook his hand, whether I was violating the terms of our resolution.
That single, relatively minor experience changed my life forever. Maybe I was being a little shit when I told my friend I’d overheard him referring to her as a “ho.” Maybe my older-sister mindset did make me something of a “cock-blocker.” But even in my darkest, most self-hating moments, I could never fully let it go. I was angry. No matter how hard I tried to be a good citizen, I knew I would never be treated like an equal. Not even under the law.
Seven years later, I graduated from Georgetown University with my master’s degree in international affairs. I was ridiculously proud of myself. Arrogant, maybe. I never thought I would feel like I belonged at a place like Georgetown, yet there I was, graduating with every available accolade.
My parents flew into town from Seattle. I got my hair done, squeezed into my favorite little black dress, put the finishing touches on the last issue of the journal where I was editor-in-chief, and joined my classmates in Gaston Hall. I felt worthy for the first time. Finally, I was just as valuable to society as a football player–maybe even more.
That night, I went out dancing with my friends. I invited a guy I had just met. Why not? Everything else was going so perfectly. We got drunk and made out on the dance floor. He got drunker and demanded that I walk him back to his hotel. When I left, I told my friends, “I’ll be right back.”
I should never have gone to his hotel room, no matter how much he insisted. I know that. But I did. When we got there, he ripped off my dress, breaking a strap, and pushed me onto the bed. I told him unequivocally to stop. He didn’t. I tried pushing him away with my foot, but he only seemed to find that arousing. My words were as powerless as my body. He seemed to think “no” meant “I want you.” He said, “I don’t have a condom,” as if it were a half-apology. Finally, I gave up.
When it was over, he went to the bathroom and vomited. I turned onto my side, cradled myself, and stared out the window. The hotel room walls were pink; the sky outside was pitch black. It would be hard to find a cab. I watched the night in silence until I heard the toilet flush.
“You have to pack for me,” he said as he walked back into the room. “I can’t do it.” I slipped what was left of my dress back on and modestly, quietly, wandered the room in search of his things. He curled up on the bed, watching me. “In there, too,” he said, pointing toward the closet. I put his clothes in the garment bag.
“I’m so fucked for tomorrow. You really fucked me up.” You? I thought. I went to the bathroom to fill him a glass of water, set it down on the nightstand, and walked to the door.
“I’m a good girl,” I said, inexplicably, and walked out into the night.
I wandered the streets until the sun came up, considering my options. I thought about going to the hospital, but what proof did I have that this was rape and not just ill-advised drunken sex? His semen, which presumably would be scraped out of me by a strange man after three hours of waiting in some emergency room, could have got there either way. My torn dress could be evidence of violence or passion, and I wasn’t sure where others demarcated the two. My friends, who’d heard me promise to come back, had also never seen me kiss someone in public like that. Who knows what perfect strangers would think?
I called a friend, just to see how she reacted. I did not use the “r” word. I walked him home, and then he had sex with me, and I didn’t want him to, and he didn’t even use a condom. Rape was something else, something violent, right? This was some milder form of violation, a man just taking whatever he wanted. What’s that called? Maybe when I pushed him away and said no, he thought I was just being playful. How can a drunk guy know the difference? She did not know what word to use, either.
I made the choice to soldier on as if nothing had happened. My parents and I spent the day at Mount Vernon, exploring George Washington’s home and the museum. We learned about Washington’s network of Revolutionary spies and examined his false teeth. My father, a history buff, loved every moment of it. I felt smashed to the ground. My pain was a gravitational force, devouring the delight of our time together like a black hole. Several times, I ran to the bathroom to cry, splashing my face with cold water as if it could wash away the evidence.
I could not muster the courage to tell my parents. I assumed that their first question, to gauge the severity of the offense, would be to ask whether I was a virgin. I would have to confess that I was not. Then, in my imagination, whatever pride in me they had for graduating would be erased. I was afraid. They asked me what was wrong, and I could not answer. I let them fly home confused.
For weeks, I broke down at the most unpredictable intervals. I tried to fix my feelings any way I could–blasting happy-go-lucky Garth Brooks songs, going to church, even seducing someone else in the hope that it would restore the power of my consent. By the time I consulted the great adult student handbook that is the Internet and figured out that what he did really was rape, it was too late.
Besides, I did not think it was entirely his fault. Somehow he believed he was entitled to my body and had no need to seek my consent. I was dealing not with an individual criminal, but with a criminal social attitude. I tried many times to articulate my frustration, but I could never find the words.
Fortunately, someone else could. And he did.
In September 2010, Jonathan Franzen came to DC to promote his latest book, Freedom. My roommate convinced me to accompany her to the reading. About half of the nearly 1500 seats at George Washington University’s Lisner auditorium were full. We sat near the front, in the thick of the crowd.
Franzen read the excerpt in which his main female character, Patty, is raped at a party. Later, she discusses the incident with her lawyer father, who explains all the reasons why she should not report it. She’ll feel even more violated by the legal process, he tells her. Her attacker has more resources, both financial and social. A trial would ruin her father’s legal practice, her life in that town, and her own future. Here is how Patty responds:
It did seem absurd to imagine Ethan wearing an orange jumpsuit and sitting in a jail cell for inflicting a harm that was mostly in her head anyway. She’d done wind sprints that hurt as bad as being raped. […] And yet: the feeling of injustice turned out to be strangely physical. Even realer, in a way, than her hurting, smelling, sweating body.
[…] “Look,” her dad said. “Honey. I know it’s tremendously unfair. I feel terrible for you. But sometimes the best thing is to just learn your lesson and make sure you never get in the same position again. To say to yourself, ‘I made a mistake, and I had some bad luck,’ and then let it. Let it, ah. Let it drop.”
He turned the ignition halfway, so that the panel lights came on. He kept his hand on the key.
“But he committed a crime,” Patty said.
“Yes, but better to, uh. Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes.”
When Franzen spoke those words out loud, I felt for the first time that someone understood my situation. On the surface, Patty’s story was different than mine, but underneath, it was exactly the same. I leaned forward in my chair and let my hair hang over my eyes, and I wept. I wept, and I wept, and I wept.
The line for the book signing was long, and I was too overwhelmed to stay, but I wanted, badly, to thank him. I suppose I am thanking him now. In writing Patty’s story, Franzen validated mine.
I know dozens of women who have been through what I went through or worse and never spoke up. Often they didn’t know how. Many times they were told not to. Usually they were afraid, with good reason, of suffering further injustice from society. No professional woman wants the words “sexual assault” to appear next to her name in Google’s search bar, especially when she’s looking for her next job. We don’t want to be defined forever as victims or, equally possible and exponentially worse, false accusers.
But if we don’t ever talk about it, we risk letting it define us anyway. In my case, the anger simply worked its way deep inside me, where it lay hidden for a long time, breaching at inconvenient times. It deepened an already dysfunctional relationship with my body and distorted my understanding of sex. Afraid that men only wanted to take advantage of me, I sabotaged a few relationships before they could even start.
Then, when I started this blog, my anger came right up to the surface. I started following all the major voices in the modern feminist space, including critically important projects like Women Under Siege that track sexual assault around the world. Unintentionally, I started to mimic the kind of vulgar, snarky, no-excuses feminist voice that is popular on sites like Jezebel (only I was never as funny). I let every conversation in my life become about gender, and I let every man become my enemy. It’s time to change that for good.
The experience of this project over the last ten months has raised several critical questions for me as an advocate for women’s rights: How can we call attention to the scale of global injustice without falling into the victimhood trap? How can we speak honestly about the past without becoming hostage to it? How can we re-shape the narrative so that advocacy is not synonymous with anger?
I don’t know, but I believe that it is possible. This resuscitation of the In My Binder blog is a start. I want to create space for other women to speak up without compromising their professional image. I want to start a chorus of voices that even the most ambitious women feel comfortable joining. I want women who are prone to think of themselves as victims instead to feel empowered to press on. I want every woman to know that whoever she is and whatever she has been through, there is someone out there who knows exactly how she feels.
I don’t expect my story to change the world, but maybe it will help one other person. Maybe it will allow me to truly hear the other side. And isn’t that, after all, exactly how the world gets changed?